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"Regret, Return, Reignite" © 2019 by Vlada Monakhova

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Lyra’s judges were not Anubis or Michael but three stern figures whose faces shifted from those of the fates, to the muses, to the musical judges on reality television. Their chambers rose high and dark and empty from the endless sand.

She stood before the judges in the dim light, Justine just to her left. Lyra pulled a sheaf of paper from her pockets. Their marriage certificate. Proof of cohabitation. Sheet music for the nocturne.

“I’ve come to ask safe passage for myself and my wife to the realm of the living,” Lyra said. Her voice was loud in the chamber and she did not let it shake.

The judges’ heads bent together as if they were conferring but there was no sound. At last, the judge in the middle, now appearing as a person-shaped hole in reality, spoke.

“What will you offer as proof of your devotion?” The judge asked, snapping their fingers. The papers vaporized.

“I can sing you the composition I wrote for her,” Lyra said. “I will let you examine my heart.”

“Sing,” the judge said.

Perhaps they also inspected her heart. They did not take it out of her, did not dissect it, but for the length of the composition, Lyra felt entirely transparent. Halfway through, Justine’s hand found her own, their fingers lacing together.

Later, Lyra didn’t remember a moment of the song. She only remembered when the judge leaned forward and said, “You may have safe passage. But it is only possible to bring back from the realm of the dead that which is known. You will leave her unknowable aspects behind.”

“I understand,” Lyra said. “There is nothing that is unknowable between us.”

“Then close your eyes,” the judge said.

Of necessity, every reunion between the living and the dead was imperfect. There is only one way to reunite fully with someone who has passed. Still, she closed her eyes, trusting completely that she would wake up to Justine, whole and once more at her side.

The realm of the dead does not do returns. No living being may visit twice. Lyra had not thought she would wish to return until she saw the fractured planes of her wife’s face staring back at her from across their living room. Justine stood with her back to Lyra, eyeing the plants which Lyra had let die during her long hospital stay. Lyra had expected her to be translucent, so that she could see the spines of the brown cacti through her back, but she had not expected Justine to be incomplete.

Her right elbow was missing and a chunk out of her side, so that Lyra could see the curls of her intestines, the clear insides of her organs, and the churning remains of ghostly food. She had four fingers on her left hand and one of her legs vanished before the knee, though it did not appear to affect her balance.

Lyra, tired, bruised, feet stained with the droplets from the Lake of Sorrow, which had left purple splotches on her calves and ankles that would remain with her for the rest of her days, hands scratched from battling the three angry heads of Cerberus, heart sore from resisting the pleas of the newly dead, said, “I’ve been meaning to water those.”

Justine turned. Her face was a Picasso. Her nose was missing entirely. Patches of her ears had vanished. Her hair fell straight down from her center part into the hole in her head.

She looked not as Lyra had seen her in the realm of the dead, wrapped in her earthly misdeeds, or as she had appeared when they first met, hair in a hasty bun, scowling at her cup of coffee as she sat down for their first all-faculty meeting, but instead like a modernist sculpture, something titled Liminal Woman or simply Omit.

Then, she opened her mouth. Instead of Justine’s voice, the sounds that came out were an orchestra. Not a solo but a symphony. Strains of violin warred with the high, sure tones of the flute.

She shut her mouth, looking at least as startled as Lyra did. She opened her mouth. Again, the orchestra. Fortississimo, then altissimo, and then abafando, as if she were shouting, screaming, whispering in succession. Lyra had failed to bring back her voice.

In the hospital before her death, Justine’s IV became tangled with the bouquet so inextricably that she couldn’t throw it. She handed it to a nurse when the officiant pronounced them married.

“I’m giving this back as soon as I’m done,” the nurse warned, quick fingers working to untangle the stems from the tubes. “I don’t want to get married.”

“I didn’t either,” Lyra said, taking Justine’s hand. Flesh clung to bone so dearly that it was like holding a handful of hay.

“Marriage will help our case in the realm of the dead,” Justine explained. Her eyes had grown so big as the rest of her shrunk that it looked like she was peering out of somebody else’s body.

The officiant thinned his lips and cut his eyes to Lyra. “If you’d like counseling before you pass⁠—“

She shook her head and gave him a genial smile. He’d try to pull her aside later to talk her out of it, as Justine’s mother had, not realizing that she and Justine were co-conspirators in this effort.

In graduate school, Justine’s thesis had been about morality in the realm of the dead. Lyra’s had been on Orpheus; she’d written a composition in his name, one so beautiful that the stone lions guarding the entrance of the university had cried tears of marble.

The nurse feigned clumsiness, fumbling with the cords until the officiant departed, then leaned in to whisper, “My dad tried it. Only returned with her left foot but then, they did fight all the time. I always wished I’d been older when she passed so I could have gone.”

Justine frowned. “Do you still have the foot?”

The nurse shrugged. “It disappeared eventually. It couldn’t say goodbye, being a foot.” It was easy for the dead to return to their realm, as easy as unclenching a fist, once they’d decided to go.

Later, she’d tell Lyra, “Everyone says they’re going, during the illness. It’s okay if you decide not to go afterward. I’ve heard the dead understand.”

The nurse left the bouquet on the dinner tray. It was the only personal thing in the room, other than the sheaf of papers tucked under Justine’s pillow that were her wedding present to Lyra. The papers contained months of carefully assembled research on how to record the music of the dead, arrangements said to unfold over a millennium, so complex and beautiful as to be completely opaque.

Justine’s mother left the room whenever they spoke of it. She’d cornered Lyra by the vending machines to whisper fiercely, “Whatever you bring back, I don’t want to see it.”

When Lyra woke, Justine stood on their balcony, crouched at eye level with the railing, her face so close to the beak of a watching crow that they nearly touched. Through the panes of glass, Lyra could hear the faint strains of the symphony.

The crow raised its wings like a shrug, as if it were drying them, as if Justine’s music was saturating it with warmth. Before she died, Justine had always been too self-conscious to sing around her but Lyra supposed this wasn’t song, exactly. Lyra pulled a notebook off the nightstand and began jotting down parts of the melody.

As soon as Lyra moved, the crow flew away. In a few quick steps, Justine passed through the balcony door and into their bedroom. Lyra sat up, papers crumpling under her. They’d fallen asleep in bed with all of Lyra’s notes on Justine’s symphonies, notes on the music in the realm of the dead, and a video introduction to American Sign Language playing. It would be a bit tricky, with the missing finger, but Lyra felt sure that they could create a system.

Good morning, Justine signed. Then, Breakfast? Those two signs comprised a significant percentage of her knowledge.

“Do you get hungry?” Lyra asked.

Justine shook her head.

They’d moved to the kitchen when the front door opened. Lyra was frying an egg while Justine ran her hands through the steam coming off a cup of tea, trying to wrap it around her fingers.

“Hello?” A voice called, in the manner of a man certain he will soon be encountering a dead body.

“In here,” Lyra answered.

Justine raised an eyebrow.

“I gave Martin a key,” Lyra explained to her. “And my parent’s number. Just in case.” She leaned in to say in a low voice, “He was going to throw the dildos out before our parents went through our things.”

Justine let out a snort, a low honking of tuba and French horn.

Martin froze in the doorway to the kitchen and Lyra saw through his eyes, once more, Justine’s appearance, the way the bones of her skull were evident through the hole where her nose had been, the way you could see the tug of sinew every time she bent her left pinkie finger.

He took a deep breath, then looked at Lyra and pasted a smile on his face. “You’re not dead!”

“I’m not that easy to kill,” Lyra said. It was only bravura; she had not been sure. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Justine set a hand on her shoulder. She could feel nothing⁠—it was a trick of placement, only.

Martin turned to Justine. He let out his breath in a huff. “Oh, Jus. And you always went to such care to keep your insides hidden.”

She opened her mouth, drowning them both in a flood of music. Lyra scrambled to write down some of the notes.

Martin looked at Lyra, horrified. “How will she be able to teach?”

“She’s the first person to return from the realm of the dead in this city in years. They’ll learn sign language just to hear her describe it,” Lyra said.

Martin ran a hand through his hair, looking between them. “Is there anything I can do?”

Lyra shrugged. She’d gotten her affairs in order, just in case. She’d said her goodbyes and given away a large number of her possessions, reasoning that she’d been meaning to clean anyway. “We still need to talk about it,” Lyra said. “When she can talk.”

Justine made a face at them both and threw herself in a chair. Or attempted to. She stopped about an inch below the seat, so that it stuck straight through her lap.

“We’d love to have you both back next semester,” Martin said, switching to the tone he used as faculty advisor, and Lyra could tell what he wasn’t saying. That he had told them so. That it never ended well. That Justine would be some sort of curiosity.

Justine let out a long string of music, apparently entirely for her own satisfaction, then turned to Lyra and raised an eyebrow.

“Can you prepare for us both to come back?” Lyra guessed and Justine nodded.

Martin said, all business, “We’ll probably have to get the death certificate revoked before we can pay her.”

While she was in the hospital, Justine would quiz her. She would frantically recite stories of her life. When she’d snuck into her neighbor’s yard to steal lemons from his tree as a girl. Her five favorite nail polishes. The forks in the road on the path to the judges in the realm of the dead.

Lyra wrote her a nocturne. “This is how I will call you back,” she said. “Listen for the melody so you’ll know I’ve arrived.”

They spent days curled together in the hospital bed, maps and old traveler’s tales spread all over the crumpled blankets. Martin sat with them sometimes. He’d called Lyra into his office early in the process to ask if she was sure but after that, he indulged them. He brought grant applications for Lyra, funding to analyze and teach otherworldly strains of music.

On one of her last days, Justine woke up, eyes feverish bright. “There’s so much still to learn,” she whispered.

“Imagine what we’ll bring back,” Lyra told her, smoothing the hair off her face.

Months later, Lyra slipped into the back of the 300-person lecture hall. Martin had saved a seat for her. He looked concerned, almost grim, tapping a pen against the surface of the desk. The hall was packed, with tardy students standing in the back. Lyra spotted a few of their fellow lecturers packed in as well. Some of them, Lyra had heard, thought this was all a rather dramatic ploy to get tenure.

Next to Justine, a sign language interpreter leaned against the wall, trying desperately to look blasé. Justine seemed to flicker like a candle, her edges shimmering against the setting’s ordinariness. She held up her hands and the interpreter put on her glasses.

Welcome, Justine signed, to Morality of the Underworld 203. We will be going over the syllabus and class expectations first.

There was a pause and Lyra waited, breath held. They’d argued last night, Lyra snapping, “You can’t just show up transparent and not address it.”

Justine pointed at the screen and the interpreter clicked on the first slide, a copy of the syllabus.

Lyra exchanged half a smile with Martin, remembering Justine’s stubbornness, glittering like pearls. She doodled snatches of song throughout the rest of the introduction, only looking back up for the beginning of the lecture. The students, as always, seemed a bit stunned⁠—Justine was known for the density of her classes.

Our understanding of the realm of the dead comes from several classic and contemporary verified cases of underworldly exploration. The earliest historical case is that of Orpheus, Justine said.

“I’ll see you after class,” Lyra whispered to Martin. “But I think this has gone well.”

He was still nodding absently as she slid out of the chair. Beneath one of the large dark splotches from the Lake of Sorrow, Lyra had a tattoo of Orpheus, now overlaid in blue. She knew too much to think his story was a love story. Lyra gathered her things and slipped out the door, trying not to listen.

Behind her, Justine said, An interesting aspect of the tale is that the gods did not desire his success. They believed he was a coward⁠—that if he truly loved her, he would have died for her. He did not deserve to succeed because his love wasn’t genuine.

In the realm of the dead, souls wore their sins like ornaments. Justine’s hair was pinned in her messy bun and she wore her arrogance as a necklace, sharp and hard and jeweled. She was cloaked in impatience, threaded through with the smallest hint of cruelty, bracelets of jealousy adorning her wrists, stubbornness gilding her hair. She stood just outside the swirling crowd around Lyra, eyes unfocused, and Lyra remembered the song she had written for her.

The memory traveled between them like a spark, waking Justine, who beckoned. Lyra stammered and started again, the first few notes coming slowly, then faster, as she began to gain the knack of picking out pieces of the dead to use for her voice, her breath, her arrangement. She plucked their memories, unable to distinguish between theirs and her own, unsure if she was singing notes or thoughts.

Justine looked her up and down and Lyra wondered if she could see the sins Lyra would wear. If Lyra looked monstrous.

“I don’t think they want you to keep me,” Justine said. “We’ll have to make a detour.”

The fight that had been brewing for months didn’t come until halfway through the semester, sparked by Justine startling Lyra. Her habit of walking through walls had resulted in more than one broken glass and when she passed up through the floor and into a flaming burner on the stove, Lyra dropped a pot and ruined dinner.

The fight, quicker to spark into life than Justine herself, rapidly spiraled from the importance of common courtesy to a defense of ghostly behavioral mores to the benefits and drawbacks of normalcy to how much Justine missed food to all the things Justine couldn’t do to Justine’s voice and finally broached the long-avoided topic of why, exactly, Justine hadn’t come back whole.

I keep trying to get used to it, to map all the pieces which are missing, Justine said.

“You could quantify it,” Lyra snapped. “You have maybe sixty five percent of your body? Did I sixty five percent know you?”

Better than being just a foot, Justine signed.

“Everyone’s looking at you and thinking, she didn’t love her enough,” Lyra said.

I’m pretty sure they’re thinking, I can see her intestines.

Lyra stepped back, then made as if to storm out of the kitchen. Justine could not put two fingers under her chin and tilt it up to stare her in the eyes, half affection, half aggression, the way she had when she was alive. Instead, she swept by Lydia and blocked her way, daring her to walk through her.

I wasn’t accusing you, Justine said. I thought I could ignore it. I thought I could adjust. I didn’t want to make the judges angry. But Lyra, the game was rigged. And⁠—

Lyra took a slow breath, then another. Justine had taken this as her motto when talking about tenure, about the pay gap. Now, she was standing in front of her, waiting for Lyra to finish the thought.

“When the game is rigged, we play a different game,” Lyra said.

Justine smiled. Not Orpheus. Prometheus.

A few days after Justine had come back from the realm of the dead, Lyra took the refrigerator magnets, words meant to make silly sentences, and scattered them on Justine’s side of the bed, on top of Lyra’s notes on sign language and scribbled melodies from the music Justine now spoke.

Justine poked at the word ‘harmony’, which did not move. She rolled her eyes but nevertheless seemed amenable to participate. She moved her hands quickly, speaking using a mix of sign language and pointing. I miss touching things, Justine said. Everything is too tenuous.

“You can’t feel anything?” Lyra asked. The day before, she had caught Justine pulling her hair out of the hole in her head. Once removed, it fell straight back in every time. When she noticed Lyra, Justine had walked through the wall and out of the house without a word.

I can feel the missing places, Justine said. I can feel what is happening to them in the realm of the dead.

“What is happening to them?”

They’re floating, Justine said. I can feel flashes of the memories of people who brush against them.  

“Is it just your body that’s missing pieces,” Lyra asked, as she had wanted to for days, “or your memories?”

Memories, Justine said. I can feel the spaces where they used to be. Then, hesitating, I’m not sure if I’m the same person as the woman who possessed those memories. Then, slowly, Do you think it’s possible for a person to fully know another?

Lyra twisted her ring on her finger. She had dismissed so quickly the possibility of widowhood; she was meant to be dead or married once more.

Lyra didn’t know if Justine would still be wearing her ring if she had a choice. Justine’s own ring had been on one of her missing fingers. That was one of the questions she still had not gathered the courage to ask.

Instead, she just said, “I don’t know.”

After their fight, they plotted.

Lyra smoothed out her notes. “It’s going to take some work. And it might be dangerous. We might bring the Lake with us.”

If you combine it with my nocturne⁠— Justine said.

“How did you even think of this?” Lyra asked.

Remember when we were first dating, Justine signed. You told me about it. How when you play at note at the exact right frequency, you can shake an object apart.

“Resonant frequency,” Lyra said.

You said my voice had the same frequency as your heart, Justine said.

Lyra put her face in her hands. “I didn’t! Did I tell you that?” Lyra peeked through her fingers to find Justine sitting much closer.

I thought it was sweet, Justine said, eyes crinkling just enough to let Lyra know she was still being made fun of. Then Justine leaned forward, fingers trailing over and through the side of Lyra’s face, and whispered in her ear, the drift of her melody unmistakable.

“Oh?” Lyra asked, letting Justine pretend to push her back on the bed.

Yes, Justine said.

They were both excessively verbal in bed⁠—Lyra had delighted in writing Justine incendiary love letters during the time she was abroad. Justine’s hands flashed in front of her face and Lyra didn’t dare close her eyes, whispering every thought that had come to her in the last months; you’re beautiful and you’re falling apart, and I want to put my hands inside all of your empty spaces.

Justine trembled, crescendoed, and came with the sound of trumpets. After, staring at the ceiling, she signed, I want my fingers back.

Lydia nodded. “Let’s get them.”

The Lake of Sorrow filled the horizon with an azure the color of grief. It was so large that it contained currents, little rivulets of misery and depression braiding through the placid surface. Justine took a step forward and a small wave washed through her toes.

“This seems like a bad idea,” Lyra said.

Justine took another step, the water washing through her knees, churning with flecks of despair. “You’ll need to call me back if I go too far.”

“What if the sadness never leaves you?” Lyra asked.

“We’re all stained by sadness,” Justine said. With that, she dropped to her knees, ducking her head under the surface. Lyra waited, counting in her head. The instant before she was to reach in, Justine surfaced, her lovely ornaments of sin dripping pain.

Lyra held out a hand and Justine grasped it, leaving five blue fingerprints on Lyra’s wrist. Later, Lyra would realize that it was the last time they had touched.

Martin had agreed to let them use the university orchestra as long as they waited until the end of the semester; it would serve as a final for the students involved. Justine agreed that other faculty members could watch the process. Martin provided the waivers and Lyra provided the score and Justine waited backstage, watching as Lyra paced.

“You’ll be able to feel it when it starts to work,” Lyra said. “When the pieces of you marked by Sorrow begin to respond⁠—or not respond⁠—to my nocturne.”

Justine nodded. Don’t get distracted. That’s why I’m standing behind you. She paused, then added, You must not look back.

“What if only a few pieces return from the realm of the dead?” Lyra asked.

Every marriage is a marriage of many different people, Justine said. We all change over time.

“If it doesn’t work at all⁠— “ Lyra began.

Justine smiled and Lyra realized she just might be forgiven. Here was a gift she would have dedicated her life to stealing from the gods. Justine’s smile was made crooked by the holes in her face but she was breathtaking nonetheless.

We’re good research partners, Justine signed. I think we’d enjoy solving this.

Lyra nodded. She straightened her shoulders and gave Justine a kiss where her cheek would have been. Then, Lyra walked onstage.

She lifted her arms and the world was frozen in that one moment, an indrawn breath, just before the sound.

Audrey R. Hollis, 2018 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, is a Los Angeles-based writer. Her fiction has appeared/is upcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Los Angeles Review, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, among other places. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, or visit her website
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