Lillian stays up late nights, rocking the dead back to sleep. Their clammy and ephemeral bodies clutched loosely to her chest, the ectoplasm of them seeping cold through her shirtwaist, she wonders if it’s worth it, any of it.
But it is true, she knows, what her aunt always says, that those you wake you must put back to sleep again.
“That’s what they mean when they talk about ‘the natural order’, dear,” Aunt Marion says, stirring thick yellow cream into her coffee in the mornings. “What comes up, must come down.”
“What rises, falls,” Lillie says, and Marion shrugs.
“At least when discussing empires and souffles.”
The young man is unwilling to be dead. He sobs gently into her chest, his tears as invisible as his sighs.
“I want a beer,” he says, and Lillie nods.
“I want a girl,” he says.
“I want to live,” he says.
Lillie looks up at her aunt, knitting by the dim gaslight. Marion adjusts the issue of The Delinator on her lap, peers closely at her pattern, shakes her head imperceptibly.
“Sleep now,” Lillie whispers in the young man’s translucent ear.
“‘Perchance to dream,'” he says, and she is startled. He does not look like the sort of young man who would quote Shakespeare.
She shushes him, rocks him in her arms. The carpet digs into her knees uncomfortably. The dead are not heavy, but a raising is a long time to be still.
He fades as he falls asleep, as they all do. There is nothing left of the boy but a lingering dampness on her blouse and on the rug beneath her, a slight saltiness to the air. Perhaps he died at sea. He didn’t say.
“That’s enough, I think,” Marion says, and tucks a dried clover into the magazine to hold her place.
She is not talking about the knitting.
Lillian raises the boy again, later, in her room, alone. How scandalized Marion would be if she knew there was a man in her niece’s room, dead or alive.
Lillie does not ask him questions; to ask a question is to lose her gift, to forget forever how to raise the dead, how to send them to sleep. But the young man speaks anyway, about the rigging, the sails, the engines, sometimes about the books he’d like to read. He always had a fondness for poetry: Byron, Keats, Shelley. Romantic young men, all. Always he wants a beer, wants a girl, wants to live, the refrain in the song of his death.
Marion finds out. It is difficult to keep things from her.
“You know what happened to your mother. All on account of love, all for the sake of some stupid notion. She squandered her gift, wasted it. On a romantic young man, just like this.” She puts her hands on Lillie’s shoulders. They are soft hands, but strong. Callouses where she carries the yarn in her fingers; callouses where she draws the drops of blood that raise the dead.
“All romantic young men are the same,” Marion says. “I’ve seen dozens, scores of them. They’re all the same. Give it time. Let yourself forget about him. There’s so much more to know than just one pathetic dead boy.”
Lillian raises an elderly scholar. He speaks German, and with a strange accent. They converse in Latin. Marion is interested in this one. She puts the knitting down and leans forward, keen to hear what he has to say, the way he died, tried for heresy, the books he read. Lillie knows her aunt has questions, but her self control is ironclad. She will not ask. The scholar’s mind wanders; he becomes incoherent, sleepy. The long dead are the hardest to awaken. Lillie sends him back to sleep. When he fades he leaves the scent of damp vellum.
Marion takes notes on what he said, wants to discuss it. All Lillie remembers is that he had eyes the same blue as her dead sailor.
Lillian waits months for an evening alone. Her aunt has helped her raise milkmaids, lords, thieves, an archbishop. She is weary, worn out, tired of the wet pleading of the dead on her lap, tired of singing their last lullabies, tired of watching them fade into nothingness.
When her aunt goes out she raises her mother.
Her mother’s eyes are hazel, even in death. Lillie cannot ask the thing she wants, but her mother knows. She reaches up and caresses Lillie’s cheek. The peach down hairs stand on end.
“It was worth it,” she says, softly.
Lillie’s mother helps her sing the lullaby. She sinks quietly back into death, a gentle smile on her face. She knew death better when she was alive.
Lillie raises her sailor boy, holds his watery milk hand in hers.
“Would you like to live?” she asks.
The spell is broken. He coughs on the carpet, solid, flesh, seawater spit on the floor and gasping.
Lillie embraces him. She does not know how she has done this, how she has summoned him from beyond the grave, how she has found him out of all the dead men there are. They warm themselves by the fire. He wears her father’s clothes, pulled from the chest in the attic, smelling like cedar, nothing like the ocean.
Marion finds them there, asleep, two solid, breathing humans. She sits in her chair and weeps, quietly, watching them sleep the unaffected sleep of young love that thinks nothing of death.
Lillie does not remember how to raise the dead, how to form the ectoplasm of their souls, how to sing them to sleep. She knows that once she could, and she knows that it was worth it.
Raven Jakubowski lives in New York City with her spouse and their enormous cat. Her writing has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Latchkey Tales. When she isn’t writing, she works as a wardrobe person and tailor for Broadway shows. She tweets about sewing and writing at @Quoth_a_Raven.
<– Things Beneath Our Feet, by H.L. Fullerton