The Gracekeeper

Short fiction by Kirsty Logan
 

The graces are restless today. They pweet and muss, shuddering their wings so that the feathers stick out at defensive angles. I feel their disquiet. When the sea is fractious like this – when it chutters and schwaks against the moorings, when it won't talk but only mumbles – it's difficult to think.

I spend a little time, an hour or two perhaps, sitting by the house and watching the clouds. Many boats passed yesterday so the sky is cluttered. I watch a shiny red tug pass, coofing smokeballs up to join the others.

There's a Resting due this afternoon and I must go inside to prepare. The grace is ready; when I enter the house he's huddled in the corner of his cage, head under his wing, feathers puffling around the wrought-iron prayers of the bars. He knows that this is the closest he'll ever get to the sky again. I know the feeling, I tell him, and drop five sunflower seeds into the cage.

Before the Resting party arrives I take the raft out and feed a few of the graces. I'm not supposed to, but some people deserve a longer remembrance. I've seen their families – the quickness in their smiles, their relief when it's a small grace. Real grief, and I don't feed the grace: I know those people don't need the grace's death to tell them when mourning is over.

I eat bread and honey, drink a bone cup of milk about to turn. Supplies will arrive with the Resting group. A large box of body, a small box of socks and soap: this is all the world sends across to me.

I should go and visit mother, I know. But the last time I visited she barely knew me, and I fear that the next time she will not know me at all. It will not matter to her whether I come today or tomorrow. It will not matter to her whether I come at all. I must prepare for the Resting now, and there is so much to do.

The Resting was brief. I whispered the words and brought out the caged grace, moored it to the wooden box as the family watched from their craft. The children clutched their pockets and the widow gazed at the grace as if willing it to live forever. I will not feed this grace; they will not sail back to check if it still breathes. When the grace dies, they will be allowed to forget.

The widow thanked me afterwards with her damp swollen hands too tight on my wrists, speaking in fummels and haffs as if she could not get enough breath. Her wedding ring dug into her finger, making the flesh bulge out at either side, and I wondered whether she would wear it until it was engulfed: her own secret totem, like shined black tefillin lashed tight to arm and thigh. I watched from my window as they sailed back to shore.

Sometimes when the boats sail ashore, I feel that one end of a fine thread is tied to the boat's bow and the other to my ribs. With every beat of the oars I feel something over my heart stretch, and stretch, until it might break. A string like the one between the wooden box and the grace. At those times I take care to turn away, to busy myself with moving supplies onto the shelf, to hum so loud my throat burns, to remind myself that I am here. That I still breathe.

I will visit mother tomorrow.

Every night I lie awake from the pale blue of dusk to the pinkening of dawn, and my eyes will not close. Finally, in the darkest part of the night I get out of bed and lie with my feet in the water, feeling the waves lick up my calves. Somewhere between sleeping and waking, between floating and sinking, I slip into the water. I float among the graces, watching the toenail-clip of moon reflect off the cage bars. Lying back I let the sea hum into my ears, stroking at my hair, telling me stories in a series of takas and whooms.

I imagine my mother in her tower room, landlocked, swaddled in blankets. Her skin crinkled soft as paper folded, unfolded, refolded a thousand times. I wonder if she even knows me any more, or if I have become just another confusing memory. Perhaps the thought of me is a spiderweb: too thin to be gripped, just shreds clinging to her hair.

I imagine my mother imagining me, and just for a moment I feel the nudge of her fingers against my knuckles. Opening my hand, I feel her take it. We float there in the hush of night.

When I was a child I talked of chunks of land floating on a globe of sea, held by road-thick ropes fastened to anchors the size of castles. I asked my mother what would happen if the ropes were to wear away, if the countries were to bump and jostle one another – if one might attach to another, if bridges might be built where only sea had been before – ­or if the edge of one would tip under another, upending it like a toy tug carrying too many pebbles at one end. Your brain is upside-down, my mother said. Land does not float on sea; the earth is a solid mass like a rubber ball, and oceans sit in cups carved out of land. Land decides water, not the other way around.

Lying on my back among the graces, limbs spread wide as a paper doll's, I feel I will fall up into the clouds. I reach out for something to hold on to, but there is no other hand there: nothing solid in this gap between earth and sky.

Weeks have slipped by on my chunk of land and today is the Resting I have been sickening over for months, for always. I choose the biggest grace I can find and rub at its cage until it gleams like fresh pennies, but tears are salted and I must repolish three times before it is ready. I did not visit and now I cannot look at what is in the box, to see her eyes misted over and her jaw sunken back. Instead I say the words over and over in my head until they lose all meaning.

I wonder now why other Resting parties let me say the words. They let me recite them like poems learned at school, knowing that I do not apply them to the scrap of person in the wooden box or to the burning star of their loved one's memory.

So I look down at the box, and I say the words, and for the first time I understand them. My last link to the world has gone. I know what it means to be a stranger.

In the pinkening dawn, I swim out to mother's grace. I open the door of the cage and watch the grace spread its wings, watch it sputter out until it is nothing more than a comma among the clouds. I duck my head under the water and swim for shore.

This story first appeared in Kirsty's debut collection, The Rental Heart & Other Fairytales. It also provided the basis for her first novel, The Gracekeepers, to be published in May 2015. 


Kirsty Logan lives in Glasgow with her fiancee, Annie, and their rescue puppy, Rosie. She works as a writer, book reviewer and mentor. Her website is kirstylogan.com.

Header image by Sander van der Wel.