Solace of the Keeper
by Woody Dismukes
If you watch the wind for long enough, you may find yourself a wisp. And though we call ourselves the Keepers, not even we can keep what is not there.
We tell the living that we keep the dead, but only because that is what they want to tell themselves. Some of us believe it too, perhaps even many. Yet the most disciplined of us know this is not the case. It is the living that are kept from the dead.
I first arrived at the monastery under these same delusions, and in no hurry to upturn my faiths. I came to find solace, though not from what you think, for there are far worse punishments than exile among the dead. I took solace from my peers — I never liked them much — and solace from my future. I was destined to be damned, either as an urchin of the streets or an urchin of the graves. And so, by my life of petty crime, it was chosen for me that I should perish as the latter.
I was not angry when my sentence was imposed, at least not at the sentence. I was angry at life itself: that which had conjured us into being without leave or explanation. We are told that life is a gift, but I never saw it as such. I saw life as a curse, and I wanted it to burn.
There was little to do about the desert plateaus. If one could not find some joy in hunting or the menial games played around the dinner table after supper, there were few other options than to read. That or drinking oneself into a state where you could forget the place you were.
My favorite place to read was among the graves. The cliffside catacombs were more intriguing and offered shelter from the wind and sand, but they offered little torchlight during the night. When the moon was large and bold enough I could read by moonlight alone, and even when it wasn’t, I could still set a lantern atop the stones and sit peacefully outside the fervor of the drunken home.
It began there, in silence, on a night when the air had grown thin with nowhere for the warmth to hide save the towering Kákkaro cactuses and the shrubs of brackenbush blossom. I didn’t mind the cold so much, as I had wrapped myself in a blanket of thick hide and preferred the chill of night over the searing sun of day.
I had already been sitting with my back against an unassuming stone, on which the name and dates had been whisked away by the desert sand to the point where the engravings were nearly indistinguishable. Had the Matron or any of the Elder Keepers been around this would have been taken as a considerable grievance but, seeing as many Keepers before me had let the stone be carved away by the wind for years, I assumed that if I should be found out my disciplining wouldn’t be very severe.
The hours of the night had already lifted the moon almost to its precipice and my lantern was beginning to dull. Although I had nearly finished my reading of Mariana de Valéctro’s A Case Study in the Behaviors of the Southern Sand Wolf, I could see that I didn’t quite have enough fuel left in my lantern to both finish the book and make my way back to the monastery dorms. Still, I was not ready to return yet, so at the end of the penultimate chapter I marked my page and dulled the fire to let the light of the stars take its place. I knew little of constellations or any sort of astronomy, but even so, I found there were fewer scenes more splendid than the shattered radiance of distant suns splattered across the uneven dark.
The beetlebugs and crickets screeched proudly to each other as a passive breeze lapped at the edges of my skin. I watched the sky slip slowly toward the pitch-black horizon where I could just barely make out the cactus silhouettes grasping their thick fingers at the air. Before this moment, my time at the monastery had felt utterly unremarkable. I neither dreaded nor anticipated the days any more than I had in the city. Life here was still just a life, though of a different sort than I had before, but in that moment I realized that for the first time I felt more than just complacent; I felt serene.
That is when I saw it. At first, I thought it was perhaps a passing cloud or maybe, as the haze coalesced, a comet bursting through the atmosphere. Yet, neither of these or anything else felt quite right. I did not have the vocabulary to describe the way the air moved or how the seeing of it made me feel.
I narrowed my eyes and sat up further, but as soon as I did the vision had passed. The night was just as it had been before. The wisp had vanished, and nothing had changed.
For most, the work we did was dull, boring work, but I didn’t mind it. It was neither hard nor easy, rote nor varied. It was suitable enough to keep one’s mind present, but not so exhausting that it drained the life from one’s body either. I was no stranger to work before my sentencing, though this work was as honest a living as I had ever made and, unlike my years in the city, life as a Keeper gave me three meals a day and a safe place to rest my head, luxuries I wouldn’t have dared imagine before.
The Matron of the House was who doled out our tasks. She was a shrewd woman, though she could hardly be called old for an Elder. She had been elected by the Committee as Elder Supreme at an unusually young age as she was well esteemed for her keen intellect and commanding presence. Many Keepers feared her. The Matron’s tongue was sharp and her judgment harsh, but I was mostly in awe of her. Never before had I met someone who appeared to have such certainty about the nature of our existence.
My favorite assignments were those within the catacombs. I was awed by the cliffside architecture and often caught myself in wonder at how the first Keepers had managed to carve such a monumental system of intricate passages whose ends surely had no bounds. If you were to climb through the plateau’s halls to the highest lookout, you could see the entire expanse of the miles of headstones planted at the plateau’s foot and even beyond. On a day when the winds were calm and the sand had all but settled, you could even see the tips of the city steeples out across the desert plains.
What lay within the cliffs was even more majestic than what lay without. The outer wall of the cliffside showed a rough history of sediment piled atop layers of millennia and scarred by innumerable catastrophes of sandstorms and prehistoric ocean tides. The tunnels, however, though they bore the same evidence of planetary evolution, were polished smooth as marble. The entire structure was a memorial of sorts. While the tombstones that lined the graves of paupers and peasants down below were crudely segregated based on whatever arbitrary distinction each separate family made of them, the ossuaries and sepulchers hidden from the daylight blended so seamlessly one could not pay homage to any individual without displaying reverence for the majesty of Death itself.
This is what I enjoyed most about it. Our work within the catacombs never felt invasive or preferential to any one grave due to wealth or former social status. The care we took of the place had nothing to do with any particular individual at all. We cared for the tombs because — unlike those from the city who rarely made the trip out into the desert to mourn or pay respects to loved ones long past — more than anything else, we respected the supremacy of mortality. Living in the city I never had respect for anything, least of all my own life, but out within the desert plateaus, one could not escape the power the dead held over us all.
Once, when I was assigned to clear the lesser-known halls of their cobwebs and pests, I was paired with a fellow Keeper who made his lack of veneration no secret. It was a dangerous job, we all knew, but it also proved as one of the more engaging. We weren’t allowed guns, lest we miss and damage a visage. Our only defences against the creatures of the dark were our bows and arrows, aside from the long staffs we carried to knock away the webs.
There were innumerous types of pests that took the darkest crypts for their dwellings, but the ones that worried us most were web-weaving solifugae that we called the Widow Weepers. Neither scorpion nor truly spider, they were large arachnids with rigid exoskeletons and poisonous hairs. They bit hard and deep, and few survived a close encounter.
However, Weepers tended to stray from the light and so it was rare we would actually see one, even when their web appeared freshly woven. Though because of this, it was easy to let one’s guard down and forget the danger one was stepping into.
Perhaps I should never have let my fellow Keeper venture into the crypt alone. Had I been with him, maybe at least one of us would have been more vigilant. Of course, these questions ultimately hold no purpose. I have long since learned hindsight to be as poisonous as a Weeper’s venom.
When I heard his cry, I leapt from my own post and ran down the darkened hall toward the sound.
“Weeper! Weeper!” His shrill shrieks echoed from chamber to chamber.
I pulled my bow from around my torso and knocked an arrow from my quiver. I tried to be quick, but not careless. If I were bitten too, there would be no help for either of us.
As I approached him his cries became more indistinct as his throat began to close. I scanned his shivering body but saw no Weeper nearby. “Brother Keeper, where did it bite you?” I asked as I dropped to my knees.
His teeth were chattering too intensely for him to speak, but he pointed at his right forearm. I could see no bite marks or swelling but also knew I wouldn’t be safe until I knew the Weeper to be dead.
I readied my bow once more and looked about the crypt. It was bright enough for me to get a fair look of the place but not enough to be certain a Weeper would remain in the shadows.
I spun around back towards the entrance, but nothing was there. Slowly, I began to scan the circuitous room floor to ceiling, my ears peeled for any disturbance behind me. I couldn’t then say exactly why, but something made my gaze stop at a kind of altar against the wall with several skulls lining the top. I lingered there for several seemingly eternal seconds before I saw the first of the Weeper’s eight long legs arc over the tops of the skulls.
The Weeper was paler than most, but as large as I’d seen. Its long wolfish hair covered its entire body as deadly strands wafted into the air when it shook. Its eyes stayed locked on me as it scraped its fat belly over the altar and dropped to the floor with a crack that sounded like splintering bones.
Keeping my breath steady, I tightened the string in my grip, easing it back to my ear. Its eyes may have been on me, but my eyes never left it either. Its crawl was slow, though I knew it could break into a sprint at any moment, and I was determined not to give it the chance.
I released the arrow and my aim was true, but the thing did not go down. Without thinking, I knocked another arrow and shot again. Once more, I managed a direct hit, and yet the Weeper appeared not even to feel the wood pierce through its body.
I began to knock a third arrow when I noticed the first two laid limply on the ground behind it. The Weeper continued to crawl forward slowly and as it did, I saw the creature was not whole. Its paleness did not come from the shade of its skin but rather its translucence. The arrows had gone right through the Weeper, just as my gaze looked directly through as well.
Raising itself on its hind four legs, the creature revealed its true size. I knew that death stood before me and I accepted it. Yet, as I did, a swift breeze filled the room and the Weeper dissipated into smoke.
It took me some time before I could regain my composure. By the time I did, my fellow Keeper was dead, foam still bubbling at his lips.
I looked around me for something to make sense of what had just happened. This crypt was not a place where I had been before, nor did it resemble any other mausoleum within the catacombs. At one end I stood dumbfounded, with my dead compatriot still and getting colder at my feet, yet I had not realized until then that another doorway stood at the other end.
I glanced down once more at my Brother Keeper. His eyes had gone yellow, the veins within now bulging blue, starved of air. Iris and pupil had melded into a cavern, devoid of light entirely. His flesh was now whiter than that of the spectral Weeper, though I could see no further through it than I could if he were carved from marble.
The time had long passed when I could do anything for him, and so I turned away and approached the opposite doorway. At first, I thought the door made of wood darker than the core of Sagjué trees of the north, but as I got closer, I realized there was no door at all, only a deep, black pit. The entryway — or exit; how was I to know? — was framed in thick blocks of quartz and at the height of the arc rested a blue crystal keystone that glowed dully.
Nothing beyond could be determined; the doorway was a hungry abyss that swallowed all that entered. On the ground, I picked up a pebble and tossed it in, stumbling back cautiously as it left my hand. Yet the rock disappeared as soon as it fell into the darkness. I heard not even a sound.
With this, a recklessness took over that I had not succumbed to since my sentencing. Deliberately, but with little care, I stepped slowly toward the black with my arm outstretched. I let only my forearm go through, nothing else. When I did, I felt nothing. No different than before. Still, my arm could no longer be seen. It was as if it too, did not exist.
I pulled my arm back and knew.
This room was no tomb; it was a gateway into something else entirely.
To be honest, I did not mourn for my fellow Keeper. Despite the urgency his final moments instilled in me, I found the body reacts quite differently when allowed time to let the blood flow through the mind. I was hardly close to him, as I rarely spent time outside of work hours with him, though I doubt I would have reacted much differently if I had known him better.
Maybe the nature of our jobs as Keepers had desensitized me to the occurrence of death. It was not the first time I had seen someone die, nor the most vicious, but something had felt different ever since I had arrived at the monastery. Death had a different air here, less immediate, more reverent. Though in this instance, I seemed to be the minority in my cold distancing.
My fellow Keeper was well liked among our peers and amongst the Elders and so the monastery was noticeably quieter following his passing. My mind however, was elsewhere, filled with images of the black doorway.
Someone had been lying to us. The Elders surely knew of what hid within the catacombs. If even a few of the tales were to be believed, then the secret gate would be the least of the demons hiding within the tunnels’ farthest reaches. And yet, knowing this only puzzled me further.
I spent much time in the monastery library attempting to gather whatever information I could on the first Keepers. From what I found, it has never been entirely clear when the first excavations of the plateaus began, whether the first Keepers expanded upon a structure of preexisting natural caverns or if they created the tombs by their hands alone. Though Vítor Sálaabôr’s A Contemporary Chronicle of the Keepers’ Histories touches briefly on what little is known of the founders of our order, whomever else I asked said that the texts of the first Keepers withered away and were lost years ago.
Because of this, I had not told anyone of the nature of the Widow Weeper after I had carried my fellow Keeper back to the monastery. I felt I would not have been believed by my peers and the time was not yet ripe for the Elders to hear of what I now knew.
For several weeks after the incident I let my thoughts lie low and within my own head. I had been reassigned to the lesser graveyards, so as to give me time to cope. But it was not time that I needed, and soon I grew restless. When my thoughts had gotten the best of me, I felt it was time to speak what I knew, and so late one night I found the Matron of the House sitting in her office.
The door was half open, though I knocked to announce myself anyway. To enter without permission would not have been the best start to our discussions. The Matron was scribbling something down on a long piece of parchment and did not pick her head up to acknowledge me. Instead, she simply said in her crisp, baritone voice, “Come, take your seat.”
I did as she said and took a seat in one of the two hard mahogany chairs in front of her desk.
“What brings you to see me, then?” she asked once I had settled.
I cleared my throat and nervously crossed my legs. “I’ve come to discuss with you the recent death of our Brother Keeper.” The Matron grunted as if she already knew this was not the whole truth. Still, she did not look up from her scribbling. For a few moments I waited for her response but, upon realizing she had no intentions of doing so, I continued. “Forgive me, Matron, but I have not been entirely forthcoming about our Brother Keeper’s death.”
The Matron raised an eyebrow. “Is that so?” she asked. “What further did you have to offer on the subject?”
My palms suddenly felt hot and wet, so I wiped them on my robes as I spoke. “As the medical examiner herself has confirmed, our Brother Keeper died from the venom of a solifuge, but there was something about this Widow Weeper that was… well, uncanny is the only word that comes to mind.”
“Oh? And why did you say nothing of this before?”
“If I am to be honest, I wasn’t quite sure I would be believed.”
None of my words seemed to surprise or even in the least bit interest the Matron. Her lips remained taut and her eyes focused on her task. “What was so strange about this solifuge that killed our Brother Keeper?”
I swallowed hard and did my best to explain, even if the words that came out didn’t quite feel right. “Well, it was there but it wasn’t. In appearance, it was just like any other Weeper, save that its skin was paler than normal, but its actions were the most unusual. It was like the Weeper knew me, or at least knew of me. It didn’t see me as a predator, it treated me more like a curiosity. And when finally I did release my last arrow, the thing disappeared into thin air.”
At this the Matron quit her writing and set down her quill. She picked her head up and looked at me sternly as I finished my account. When I was done, she seemed to deliberate for a moment, then asked, “Where was this?”
With this change in demeanor, my nerves vanished. The Matron now looked at me as she would any of the other Elders. There was respect in her eyes, if not a bit of admiration. Adjusting my posture against the chair’s rigid back, I said, “Excuse me for saying so, Matron, but I think you know where.”
The Matron leaned back in her own chair and chewed at her lip. It looked almost as if a fleeting memory were passing in front of her eyes. “I see,” she said. “Let me offer you the advice of an old crone. Any Keeper must know that what is buried is done so for a purpose. The reason may differ, of course, but it is always there. Some we bury to pay our respects. Others to contain their pestilence. Some we bury simply because we don’t know what else to do with them. But if you know your job well, my child, you will know that you have been sent here to bury what is dead, not to dig it up.”
I opened my mouth to say more but stopped myself. The Matron of the House had already returned to whatever it was she was doing before. She had said all that was to be said. “Is there anything else?” she asked.
I bowed my head and rose to my feet. “No, Matron. That is all.”
I spent many of the following days in meditation, both within the monastery and without. In time, I even let my reading pass to the wayside. Everything that I set my eyes to had become suddenly dull and worthless. Most assumed I was in mourning — some of the Elders even attempted to console me under such assumption — but when the Matron’s gaze caught my eye, it was evident that she knew different. It was our secret. One that neither of us intended to break.
Yet that did not quell my yearning to return to the catacombs. In all my musings I had, of course, considered that the Matron was trying to protect me. Though as appreciative as I was, I had not asked for her protection, nor did I feel that our interests were necessarily aligned.
I went to meditate on this as well. After supper, I went down to the graveyards and sat where I had always sat, watching the sun dip from the sky until the dust smothered it. I let my back rest against the headstone as my thoughts meandered around me and the stars began to awake from their slumber, just as all the other Keepers began to settle into theirs.
The moon was high and bold, but a steady breeze kicked up the sand around me into a haze. Perhaps that is why I did not see it at first.
I felt the heat of the air vanish and a feeling of lightness overtook me. It was a familiar sensation, one I had only felt once before. And when my eyes became as alert as my skin, I saw that the wisp had returned. Only this time, it was not alone.
All around me translucent spheres bobbed like darkened fireflies, twisting in and out of form. Occasionally, one would go out completely and another, strange but similar, would take its place. Some may have seen the sight as terrible and wicked, but to me the wavering wisps played like a ballet as they dipped and jumped around each other.
The largest of them all struck me as the most familiar. It hovered in front of me, some distance away. Again, I got the feeling I was being watched, though it was not an uncomfortable sensation. I stared at the thing unblinking, not wanting to miss a moment of its movements.
And I did not. The wisp jumped into the air and dove forward, transforming itself into an image that would have made Mariana de Valéctro come to tears: a towering sand wolf, elegant and proud in its swift stride.
The beast had at least a foot on me as I sat down and would have been able to rest its chin atop my head if I stood by it while it were on its hind legs. Its fur was a light sepia, as if it had leapt from a photograph, and though its features were large, they appeared rather indistinct.
The sand wolf stalked toward me, but I was not afraid. Nothing in its demeanor said that it would hurt me, though I was certain that it had every ability to do so.
Before I could fully comprehend what was happening, the sand wolf leapt to its feet and began prancing toward the hill of the plateau. I followed it up the incline as quickly as I could manage in my heavy robes. The sand wolf darted forward, sometimes following the trodden path, other times skirting through the brakenbushes to either side. Each time I thought I had lost it, the beast would reappear ahead of me with its jowls slyly ajar.
The wisps followed as well. The graveyard seemed to have no dearth of them. A few sped forward leaving tails of bright smolder, while others drifted along at about my pace. I held out my hand as if to let one land, but the wisps passed through me, each time leaving my skin a little lighter.
At the mouth of the catacombs’ central entrance, the wolf had disappeared. Its howls that echoed from within the caves were the beast’s only evidence of existence. I followed the noise, though I knew the path too well. A hefty gust had blown out all the torchlight, yet the wisps’ dull glow illuminated the tunnels before me.
I knew I had reached the gateway even before I rounded the corner. The hair upon the back of my neck called itself to attention as my muscles tightened. I was not quite afraid, but the thought of the Widow Weeper still haunted the recesses of my mind.
Guardedly, I entered. The room was enveloped in a soft blue hue, like light refracting through the tides of a clear sea. The wisps gathered at the domed pinnacle of the vaulted ceiling, with only a few scattered about the floor. The crystal keystone atop the doorway now glowed radiantly.
In the center of the room sat the sand wolf. I began to circle around it slowly, but as I took my first few steps the wolf sprang forward. Caught off guard, my hands leapt to my face, as if that would have done anything, yet the wolf did not reach me. As its feet left the ground, the beast swirled into a haze, collecting itself in front of me into the image of a man.
He looked vaguely familiar though I could not at first see why. Soon, I realized his robes were the same as mine. His posture was rigid but proud, and he kept his hands clasped together firmly as if to direct his body’s energy to his core. Yet surprisingly, the most familiar aspect of the man was his expression. His face was serious but calm, and his eyes were raised in a knowing way that impressed upon me true understanding over the insinuation of it. It was the same look the Matron had given me days before when I sat in her office.
I gazed at the wonder all around, though I could not find anything to say as I stepped around the room. The apparition in front of me waited patiently for my mind to calm, and even then, he only spoke to prove that words did linger about us, if I could find them.
“What is it, my child?” the man asked in a hushed utterance.
I tried to peel my eyes away from the floating wisps, but I found I could not. Without looking ahead, I returned his question. “That is my question exactly. What is this place? Who are you?”
The translucent shape remained as still as a statue. Only its lips parted, though there was no air forced through them. “It has been long since I’ve owned a name and I no longer care for one,” the man said. “But there was a time I was not unlike you. I spent many years as a Keeper, far more than you. Enough to become Elder Supreme, Master of the House. Though I have spent far more years amidst this darkness than I ever did out on the desert plains.
“As for this place, it serves as a mausoleum of memories never again to be remembered. Stories naught to be told. It is a tomb we built for ourselves and only ourselves.”
I waited for the former Master to continue, but he did not. “And yet, I am here and still alive,” I said.
“Are you?” the man asked. “You breathe, yes. And blood pumps through your veins, but you were not sent here by accident. We have watched you in the graveyards. You have taken solace in us when there are so many living you could have chosen. To whom have you told your story? It is as lost to the world as those that line these walls.”
My instinct was to become defensive, but the Master’s tone was not provocative or accusatory. It was simply an observation. I wanted to say something in response, but I knew that I had been led here to listen.
“Some time ago, we led your Matron here too. She did not tell you this, for she knew it would not change your decision. She only offered you the world as she sees it. Do not dig up the dead. For her this was truth, but is it for you?”
Now I could not help but meet the Master’s gaze. His eyes were steely and without pupils. I could not escape his stare from any angle. I felt disarmed but not quite unnerved. “What decision? What choice have you brought me here to make?”
“Your Matron made the choice she did because she felt she had a duty. She’s brilliant and a talented leader because she understands how other people feel, even if she keeps her own emotions locked within her. Perhaps even because she keeps those emotions where she most feels safe.
“But she could have made another choice. One of solitude and endless contemplation. She did not need to stay with her shovel in her hands. Her essence will stay out there, with those she has chosen to live with, even after her body ripens unto its expiration. Regardless of the life she has made for herself, in death she will pass on as little more than a wisp, wandering aimlessly amidst the rest.”
I tried to discern what the Master wanted me to do but he still stood motionless. He did all he could to keep from directing my response one way or another. He was not here to offer guidance, he was here for an answer.
“But why would you want me to bury my story here, with no one to remember me by?” I asked.
“Does one only tell a story to be heard?”
The Master spoke with a finality I had never before heard. As he did so, the wisps all around the room began to spin into a terrible cyclone of mist, which siphoned itself through the black gateway. I gazed up at the azure keystone, so bright it could nearly blind, and felt as though it were staring back.
I thought back to my life in the city. What light was there? Even in my time among the graves I had lived in a life under the cover of darkness. I knew no other way.
And yet there were many who might have called this cowardly. They may deem this way of life a refusal to overcome the pillars that have shaded me from the sun. Perhaps they would be right. But then again, does it not take courage to do more than endure? To find satisfaction in the way of things, rather than battle all of one’s days in the name of change?
Even now, I do not have the answers. Neither do the Matron of the House nor any Master of the Dead. We have only our choices, and the resonance of their outcomes.
Saying no more, the Master began to walk toward the gateway of darkness. Too bewildered to move, I let his form pass right through me, along with those of the many wisps that began to filter out of the room. I looked down at my skin which grew paler as each light whirled by.
I knew I could not stay there. And so, slowly, I walked into the darkness.
About the Author
Woody Dismukes is a Brazilian-American poet, author, and social advocate. He is a Clarion West graduate and was awarded an inaugural Ignyte Award. He is the author of The Way the Cowries Fall, a poetry chapbook from the American Poetry Journal, and has work featured or forthcoming in Lightspeed, FIYAH, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, Apex, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @WoodyDismukes or on his website woodydismukes.com.