When they sprout, their flesh is the colour of bruises. The sun beats down and they cook and seep and split open.
The heads take shape.
Not bruises. The ghost of mother’s words, an image of her mouth pressed tight as she knelt to sew up gashed skin, pliers on the soil beside her. They are more than that.
The sprouts, as they emerge from flat ground, smell of the butcher’s block. When the Reaper was small, she squatted before each head to track the turning of skin. She traced the violence of blues smudging green. Yellows curdling into ochre. She watched flesh deepening, like things browning and decaying, into russet and mahogany. But it was the opposite of death. The bruised skin smoothed, their cheeks plumped. The heads bloomed fresh and new. At dawn, the Reaper crouched close to watch their pores dew. When mother wasn’t looking, she dug her thumbs into their eyes, her tongue into tender flesh.
There are no more bruised ones left. The newest head sprouted the day mother left, and in the months since, it has mellowed to a birch brown. It hasn’t spoken once, mouth slack, eyes leeched. Its hair is the shade of cut papaya, but the Reaper can’t bring herself to touch it. Mother used to sit in front of each sprout, sinking oil-slick fingers into their hair, kneading their aches, soothing sunburns with dabs of aloe and milk. The Reaper begged to help, carefully held lengths of hair as they were braided and piled up snug. For the ones who asked, mother sharpened scissors, snipped and trimmed and sometimes sheared bald. The weight, they said, reminded them of crowns. They spoke like wealthy women with nothing to do. The Reaper imagined them stopping by air-conditioned salons, servants waiting at the door, ready to whisk them off to galas and banquets thrown in their honour.
That was when the Reaper wasn’t the Reaper yet, when she was too young to understand what it means when a woman’s head sprouts from the ground.
She wakes with the heft of mother’s pliers in her hand. The metal surface feels waxen in the mornings, like her thumb could dent it without much force. The Reaper suspects this is what the pliers do, mould touch by touch to the grip of each new owner.
The ache in her lower jaw is sharp today. She scrubs her face and goes to the kitchen, its counters still cluttered with mother’s things. She tips a spoonful of tea into a pot of water and watches the shrivelled leaves loosen. The blend is almost finished. She needs to send off a sample to identify its ingredients, figure out how mother might have prepared the batch. She has researched tea masters, how much the packaging will cost, the number of weeks the whole process might take, but she doesn’t do anything.
When the tea has steeped, she pours. It steams around her face and the lining of her nostrils smart from the peppery notes. She takes her mug to the table. The first sip is too hot, but it calms the soreness of her gums, pools warm in her stomach. She takes another sip. There is a stillness to the moment. She wants to sit here in cool shadow with the drink. There is some malpua leftover, a book she has set aside to read.
She sets down the mug and the pliers brush her knuckles.
The Reaper looks at them, then gets up to gather soft cloths and a bowl of water. She crumbles in some soap. The water fizzes, settles. She fastens her apron. Tucked in its pockets, a bunch of needles and thread, rolls of gauze, tubes of ointment.
When the Reaper took over – after the fog in her head had lifted – she couldn’t tell when it was harvest time. Mother knew by instinct which were reaping days, when to turn the soil, when to lime it or seed it with worms. It isn’t so easy for the Reaper. She has to pry open the mouth of each sprout to check. Her hands still shake when she nears them. She sees how they wince and snarl – the memory of her hands, what they did the first time she picked up these pliers, unfaded in their minds.
The Reaper is learning. Every day, she makes meticulous records. It cleans her thoughts, the repetition. She charts the kilograms of feed, millimetres of growth, hours of sunshine. She measures humidity, temperature, the mineral content of flowerbeds. She inputs data sets and bulk orders organic manures. But the last batch she purchased came from an ethical manufacturer concerned only with accolades. The sprouts had sagged, a squirming from their pores, the soil soaked with pus.
The Reaper is learning but too slowly. The sprouts’ skin remains chapped, unsoftened by butters or creams. Their hair brittles. There were months after mother left when the mud shrunk and their gums stoppered up completely.
Why hadn’t mother prepared her better?
It is unkind, this question, a demand of godly omniscience from a human mother. And yet it is one of the kinder ones she’s asked since mother disappeared. Those other questions teem even now, barely out of reach. She glances down. Her finger is inside the pliers’ bite. She is pressing gentle gentle then hard. Blood rushes to the tip. If she focuses on this and only this, she can ignore that dark place with the tangled thoughts that threaten to swallow her whole.
Through the window comes the murmur of familiar voices.
Her grip loosens. She wishes the pliers would slip from her, clatter to the floor.
Instead, the metal emits a faint thrum that trembles up her right arm to the joints of her shoulder, the base of her skull. The Reaper has learned this message the hard way. She turns towards the garden.
It is time to un-tooth.
Light floods in as she pushes open the kitchen door. A breeze greets her, rich with loam. Memories of days like these layer one over another: mother dipping cloths in water to wipe at crusted eyes, to sponge dirt off cheeks and chins. The sprouts humming under mother’s touch. The air strung with fat bees. Someone singing. They were always singing back then. That mournful ache from their throats the day mother left, the Reaper hears it every night at the cusp of sleep.
The sprouts see her now and fall silent. Mouths pursing. Something rustles on the ground and the Reaper wants to look down, pretend she is searching for what is scuttling there, but she keeps still. Makes herself step forward.
‘Did you sleep well?’ The words from the young sprout are soft. The Reaper turns to Sareu and the gratitude is a solid thing knocking into her chest.
‘Yes, thank you.’
‘Rupee was complaining about your snoring.’ Sareu’s dimples are deep when she smiles. Her voice drops, ‘Did you send out the tea leaves?’
Sareu sighs. ‘It’s the only thing that managed your mother’s pain. It will do us no good to have you incapacitated, and it will do you no good to keep punishing yourself.’
‘Or perhaps,’ another voice drawls from beside the young sprout, ‘It will do her a world of good. Pain sharpens the mind, you know.’
Sareu rolls her eyes. A bit of hair, the shade of blushing dawn, flops onto her forehead. Sareu is the youngest here, not the newest, but only 14 when she was crowned, not yet menstruating. In a different life, the Reaper and Sareu could have been ordinary girls, meeting at a mela, lighting sparklers and sucking on sugar lollies.
Mother’s voice floats from the past: No girl can be ordinary in this land.
The Reaper sees Sareu’s lips flaking, the skin under her eyes thin and blue. She moves towards her.
‘Don’t worry, I’m ok,’ Sareu says, then gestures to her left, ‘But Kalcha, she won’t admit it, that tooth has been keeping her up all night. We hear her whimpering.’
The Reaper glances over. Kalcha sits at the centre of the plot, iridescent in a wash of light.
Mother saw Kalcha once, at her coronation, before she bud in their patch of earth. It wasn’t out of choice – mother avoided seeing the sprouts as they once were – but the shops had been shut for a week, deliveries cancelled, a national holiday called for the crowning of a new queen. Mother had desperately needed feed for the soil, so she ventured out into the thick crowds. The Reaper had been young, begging for a report on what Kalcha looked like when mother returned sweat-soaked with a burlap sack slung over one shoulder.
Kalcha sprouted in the garden only a few weeks after that. The Reaper squatted beside her, watched as her features sharpened. The first thing Kalcha had said, with a crystal voice used to command: Comb my hair, child. Count a hundred strokes. The Reaper had to repeat each stroke if the hair didn’t lustre or fall right. Kalcha is something out of a story: moon-pale, midnight-hair, a crimson slash for a mouth. To find yourself a lopped head though. What did that do to a story?
‘Well,’ Kalcha snaps now. Her voice is hoarse. Sunspots smatter her face, her skin grown looser and duller since her time in the palace.
The Reaper approaches slowly and holds out her hand. The pliers glint. When Kalcha glances up, the Reaper finds herself back in the moment she first held these pliers. That fog. The glob of spit striking her left cheek, the force of Kalcha’s mouth. Her own hands shooting out like she had no control, snagging Kalcha’s hair. The open maw of metal. Kalcha’s scream—
You are just like him, Kalcha’s words like the skim of a blade.
The Reaper sinks to her knees.
Kalcha arches her brows but doesn’t say anything. The Reaper puts down the pliers, the bowl, and lets the strips of cloths soak in soapy water. The sprout’s eyes track each move. The Reaper doesn’t touch the pliers again, instead taking out a wide toothed comb from her apron. Kalcha’s eyelids flicker, a trace of surprise.
The Reaper reaches in her pocket for a tub and unscrews the lid. Inside, a balm that looks and smells like coconut flesh. She digs some out, rubs it between her palms, and parts a section of Kalcha’s hair. Much of it lies neglected in matted coils. It is slow work, but she coats every inch of the coarseness. When the section is covered, she picks up the comb and pulls it through. It catches immediately. Kalcha hisses.
The Reaper tucks the comb back into the apron and scoops out more of the balm, using her fingers to untangle as she goes. She shifts so she is sitting cross legged. She takes another section. She will order a big box of the balm this evening. When she gets to a knotted bundle, she is careful, picking at it strand by strand. She scoops, smooths, untangles. Everything else fades.
Kalcha is quiet throughout.
I’m sorry, the Reaper wants to say. But the shame is too large.
When she is almost finished, her clothes stick to her and the back of her neck is crisp. The sun is high above their heads, and Kalcha’s hair is gummy. The Reaper knows the sprout won’t like it smearing against her skin so she takes the wet clump and braids it away from Kalcha’s face. There is sweat and dirt muddying the inky blue of her hair. But the balm needs time to soften. Tomorrow, she will bring out a bucket of water and scour dusty shelves for the shampoo Kalcha favours. The Reaper realises she is looking forward to the task, the lathering and rinsing.
She picks out the dirt jammed under her nails and wipes her hands on a cloth. This time when she kneels, she asks, ‘Are you ready?’
Kalcha opens her mouth. There is the tell-tale seep of flesh sickening, and the Reaper sees the single tooth in the mess of swollen gums. Her fingers slide on the metal when she picks up the pliers, but her grip is steady. She reaches towards the mouth.
Kalcha snaps it shut.
The Reaper ignores the spark of anger and lowers her hand. Kalcha’s lips are moving. She brings her ear close to catch the shiver of words.
‘I don’t want you to take it.’
A split second in which the Reaper sees herself peeling back the sprout’s lips, yanking the jaw open, inserting the pliers and extracting the tooth she has waited to harvest for weeks. There are echoes contained in the image: the jerking of heads, the twist and pull. Her own hands.
The moment passes.
The Reaper sits back, breath coming out in a long exhale. ‘I won’t, not until you are ready.’
Kalcha’s lashes are clumped with wetness. ‘And if I’m never ready?’
The Reaper wishes for the calm of her mother soothing these strange creatures. Mother would perhaps say to Kalcha: It’s ok, you are more than that tooth. You are more than a thing to harvest.
But it is not such an easy thing, to soothe.
The Reaper lets her palm rest on Kalcha’s cheek, a brief touch before she lets it drop.
In the cool of the kitchen, a small pile of goat meat is thawing on the counter. The Reaper found it when she was looking for something to ice her jaw. Mother used to make things in large batches, no doubt she’d put this aside because she thought the portion not enough. The pouch of meat, purchased by mother, tucked into a corner of the freezer is a time capsule. A reminder of all the times mother cooked, kneading dough into marbles, flattening and fluffing it on the skillet, all the stories she told as she stood by the stove.
The meat has been chopped into neat chunks by a butcher. Mother refused to use the cleaver in here – each strike would carry into the garden and she didn’t want the sprouts to hear that sound.
The Reaper eats boiled egg with rice most days. It is easy, the crack and peel of stringy shell, the moment an unbroken half cup comes away clean in your palms. She hadn’t planned on making stew. But her fingers reached in and pulled out the frozen lump. Now, she is crushing garlic with a pestle. Pinching out salt into the bowl of meat. Her fingers numb as she mixes.
The kasaudi, its heavy curved body, is on the hob, a spill of oil heating inside.
There was the story about a girl who made herself so small she lived inside a kasaudi, the sloping walls of brass her home. As the Reaper got older, the story shifted, became the skeletal curl of a child’s spine found in a long-forgotten pot. Became the knowledge of girl babies placed inside kasaudis, hidden from national censuses, from the roving eye of monarchs.
The Reaper slices ginger a quarter of an inch thick. Chops red onion, swiping at her eyes, and blackens tomatoes on the fire till their coats ooze.
From mother’s shelves, she gathers methi, sticks of dalchini, jeera, dried chillies and a stack of tej patta. She needs to replenish the stores, but the thought of going out into the crowded markets makes her put it off. A while back, mother got a heap of spices ground together, came home with a bursting polythene bag, transferring the contents into a huge jar with satisfaction. It will last for months! But the Reaper can’t find that jar anywhere.
When the spices are fragrant, and the garlic and salt sunk into the meat, she puts everything in. Adjusts the gas to medium heat and places a plate on the lip of the kasaudi. The goat meat will stew over a few hours, ready for dusk. There is some readymade paratha in the freezer, the kind she warmed up for mother when she returned from the garden, grimed and weary.
Her lower jaw is throbbing.
She looks at the teapot. There are only a few rounds remaining and the rest of the day left. She boils water and empties in a sachet of soup instead. The heat helps a little. She tears off bits of malpua, chewing slowly. It is greasy and sweet. Her jaw twinges with each swallow. She tears off more. She realises she is very hungry.
There was the story about a queen who wakes one day with such a craving for goat, she pulls up her sleeves and wades into the kitchen herself. That night, the palace feasts, parcels of rice and meat packed in leaves are handed out on streets. This story also changed. The craving became a child budding in the queen’s stomach. In the middle of the banquet, her body cramping, clots soaking her clothes red. Every goat in the city slaughtered and heaped outside her window. Then, the image of a woman punished, forced to put raw flesh to her mouth.
From outside, the Reaper hears Maina’s voice spike in surprise. The aroma must have wafted into the garden.
The Reaper grew up on Maina’s recipe for goat stew. The older sprout, with a brush of rosacea across her plump cheeks, braid lopsided on her head, used to correct mother’s method, suggesting a nip of this spice or that seed instead. The Reaper remembers Maina’s bossy voice announcing when the stew should be stirred, in what direction, how many times. Under her supervision, the meat became impossibly tender. Only when Maina was satisfied was mother allowed to haul the kasaudi back inside, away from the open wood fire that made all the sprouts cough and complain.
The Reaper grew up on Maina’s recipe, yet the entire time she cooked, she hadn’t thought of her once. Nor any of the other sprouts. She hasn’t even given them their daily solution. This whole day under that sun, how parched they must be.
It is a small task, and yet.
Sometimes, this capacity for mindless cruelty jolts her. Other times, she lets the realisation sink in – it has been inside her all along.
In the garden, Sareu is licking the bark of her lips as the Reaper squeezes out drops of solution. The peeling on Sareu’s scalp is rough. Bits of it fleck the ground. There has been hardly any moisture this year. The forecast changes yet again, promised inches of rain vanishing. A blight out in the farmlands, things creeping starved into ditches. A string of bodies seen hanging on trees. Like a land under a curse, poisoned by the actions of its king. The palace has released a decree for those with green fingers to report for duty, to resurrect its precious gardens, then silence. The palace cares nothing for its people, only what use it can drain from them.
The Reaper is finishing up her round with the pipette when something flashes on the ground. She has left the pliers by Kalcha. The Reaper bends to pick them up, quiet so not to disturb the resting sprout, but the moment her fingers make contact, she recoils.
The metal is scalding.
She hears tutting and whispers from the sprouts who have been watching her closely, wary even after months, but she doesn’t turn to them, instead wrapping her hand in cloth and reaching for the pliers again.
She balances them on her padded palm, ready to take them inside and drop them into a bucket of water, but the pliers slide onto her bare forearm, hiss, and fall, missing Kalcha’s head by centimetres. The Reaper swallows the grunt of pain. She shuts her eyes and breathes slowly through her mouth.
‘Here,’ Sugani calls from behind her, ‘Take mine today.’
A flood of relief, her whole body unclenching at these words.
She swipes the blurring of her eyes. The Reaper doesn’t need to ask what Sugani means. They all know intimately the language of pliers, how they burn if the Reaper does not take what she must. How they punish.
‘Are you certain?’ she asks.
Sugani, with her ripe guava hair coiled at the nape of her neck, is nodding.
The Reaper hesitates. Heat is rippling from the pliers. Inside her jaw, the hollow where her wisdom tooth should be is scraped raw. When she tongues it, pain shoots to the backs of her eyes.
The pliers, this gap in her mouth, they hunger for what Sugani is offering.
But Sugani was also the most recent harvest. The sprouts must have rest, light, water, food after each reaping. They heal at halting speeds. The key, mother used to say, is learning what each one needs, how much time. The Reaper can’t rely on old records. The drought has misaligned their routines. But she knows Sugani has a faster cycle than most. There are a few among the sprouts who can bud tooth after tooth when the conditions are right. A need to purge perhaps.
What would mother do?
The Reaper doesn’t know.
‘It will only pester me through the night,’ Sugani says. The sprout’s words sound breezy. But the last time she asked to be harvested and the Reaper stalled, Sugani’s right cheek swelled so tight it shut her eye. The Reaper had to pierce the flesh below her chin to let the pus.
The Reaper glances at Sareu, but the younger sprout has drifted off to sleep.
It is important we listen. Mother’s words from a distant past. Listen to what they ask, what they say, even with silence.
The bowl of cloths is near her foot. The Reaper picks it up and takes it to Sugani. Kneeling, she begins wiping the sweat on her face. She moves the green frizz of the sprout’s hair and sweeps the closed lids. Sugani murmurs. The Reaper gives her more solution, a few sips of water from her bottle, still cold from the fridge. Sugani swirls some in her mouth and spits. The Reaper gets out the gauze, needle, and spool of thread. Antiseptic. A small bottle of alcohol.
When she goes to retrieve the pliers, the metal is quiet. Only as hot as an ordinary tool left out in the sun.
Sugani is ready for her, mouth agape. The Reaper leans close to look inside, and the sourness hits her. It is hard to spot anything amidst the festering.
‘May I?’ she asks.
Sugani nods and she reaches in. The pads of her fingers probe, the gentlest pressure. Sugani breathes through the nose, saliva gathers at the corner of her mouth. Her gums are littered with small juts of bone unable to puncture through. She squeezes her eyes when the Reaper glances a tender spot.
Each second strains. Finally, the Reaper nudges against the tooth. Sugani’s gums are so inflamed it is almost buried. It will be hard to grip. She will have to make incisions, split the gums open to get the tooth out. There will be a swim of blood.
A tick of anticipation. For the pliers grasping the tooth, for what comes after the harvest.
What comes after?
Mother doubled over, clothes damp, hands blue and stiff. Her body folding, sleeping.
Why does it hurt you so much? The Reaper asked as a child.
Because, darling, pain demands a vessel.
It took mother out for hours. The Reaper tiptoed around, left jugs of water, almonds and dates by her bedside, waited.
The first time the Reaper used the pliers on the sprouts, she lay not hours but seven nights dead to the world. Then days drifting, a lump of nerve endings on a soiled bed.
That blank slate of mind. The receding of life itself. The Reaper remembers it and yearns. But to get to that nothingness, she must bear such pain that her body is forced to shut down. She must commit the same acts, harvest the same number of teeth in one swoop, and she has sworn never to let the fog take over again.
She wipes Sugani’s chin, gives her a swallow of water. Then she picks up her tools.
In the cool of the kitchen, the tooth clatters onto a shallow dish.
It has been scrubbed, roots picked clean, boiled then steeped in alcohol. The Reaper stares at the innocuous thing. Her mouth flushes copper, though nothing has penetrated it yet.
Years watching mother arrive at this precise moment, her movements tidy and brisk, stripped of hesitation. When the Reaper was young, mother sent her into the garden. The Reaper never thought about what mother did inside. She collected husks of insects, ribbons of snakeskin caught in the fence. She lay her belly on the hot ground and listened. When the sprouts dozed, she pointed the hose at the soil packed around their necks, swaddled them in blankets and counted till they wheezed. If she happened to pass the door and glance in, she would see mother sat at the table, eyes milked over, body vibrating softly.
When a thing is absorbed into the everyday, its meaning erodes, its violence dulls.
The Reaper watched mother take a tooth and insert it into the cut out hollow inside her own jaw. The first time she saw it: a visceral recoil. Every time after, it became a ritual, just something mother did.
Now it is the Reaper at the table.
From the garden, she hears a rise of voices, some disturbance. She looks towards the window, moves to stand. Sunlight is streaking through, a rectangle on the stone floor. As if they sense her intent to delay, the sprouts quiet, leaving only the sounds of afternoon, the simmering of the stew.
She sinks into her chair and stares at the tooth. Its waiting bears down on her, the whole room heavy with it.
How had mother done this, again and again?
The Reaper’s first act of reaping was neither conscious nor deliberate. When she tries to recall it, her mind sticks.
How did it start? A knock on the door. The dreaded summons from the palace. Mother’s abrupt departure. The palace which demanded all horticulturists drop everything and flock to its service. The palace which demanded women and girls, the service of their bodies to the crown. Which summon was it? She saw it flashing in mother’s eyes, the uncertainty. No woman can be ordinary here. Before mother left, the shock of her pure-white hair swishing through the door, she turned back and held the pliers out. Please, mother said, her voice cracking on the word. The Reaper felt that break inside her. Panic leaked into her mouth. A thought spiralled in her mind: she must save mother. But what could she do? What could she do? All she could see were the pliers glinting by the door. The Reaper’s body moved of its own accord, reaching out for the unwanted legacy.
Every morning till that moment, the Reaper had watched mother slosh tea with hands that grew weaker and weaker. The Reaper felt small against the magnitude of pain mother bore and lashed out in spite. Why do you keep doing this? Do you really believe you will discover some great secret? That a mere memory can topple a tyrant?
That moment the Reaper first picked up the pliers, everything receded. There was only the scald of metal against her palm. The smother of all thought as her body staggered into the garden, propelled by a single impulse. Save mother. Everything around her leeched of colour. The fog snuffing her senses. Later, she would recall the whimpers of the sprouts, the trail of blood, the gashes of mouths she left behind. But all she heard then was the rattle of teeth against the sides of a bowl, the whisper that there must be a secret to find, mother believed, there must be something, anything that could stop this litany of severed heads.
How many teeth had she taken? The Reaper doesn’t know. She remembers only her hand scooping them up and into her gums. That first tooth: a sudden coming to. Confronted by the immense void between understanding what something is and having to endure it. Too late then. The shock of roots wriggling and latching into the hollow in her mouth. Then, all at once, an engulfing. A scorch of colour, sound slitting eardrums, the ache of a known face, the scraping of another’s memory against her mind.
You are just like him.
Kalcha’s words float in the gap between then and now.
How many teeth had she taken?
The question haunts. But she mustn’t fall into that now, the Reaper thinks as she braces against the table. She must focus on the task ahead. Here is Sugani’s fresh tooth. A harvest willingly given. Unlike their first encounter, this is a gift. She should pick it up. Have it done with.
A swift reaping.
But the Reaper knows even if she is quick and steady now, tonight she will turn out the lights, lay her head on a pillow, and every memory she has borne witness to will leap to life.
She will relive.
Her chest contracts at the thought of it.
Sugani’s last reaping lingers in the Reaper’s body still. Yesterday, the swing of a door made her legs tremble. The unexpected bulk of a tree before her. The shatter of a plate in the sink. The day before, it was the sudden rub of bedsheets in the dark. A snatch of a song. The day before that, the words come here struck such fear in her gut she couldn’t breathe.
This fitful tightening of her body: is it her own or Sugani’s?
Sugani, with her skin smooth and dark, the pitch of her voice bursting free. Always goading Maina for scandalous tales. Always complaining about the raucous sisters she left behind. Her eyes snapping to catch the flit of a bird in the sky. In those rare moments, the Reaper saw her as the hunter she had once been, her skill rumoured to outstrip even the king.
After mother failed to reappear, for days, then weeks, Sugani was the first to beckon her close, to trust the Reaper near her mouth again. How does the sprout hold such generosity? How do any of them?
The Reaper has never been able to ask, but perhaps with every culled tooth, the memories of the palace, of the violations they once endured also dull.
It was never meant for this, reaping.
Years back, when the Reaper’s adult teeth came in and the fleshy tip of her tongue found the strange hollow in her gums, she wondered, did everyone have one? No, not everyone, mother said, holding her close. She told her the story of a people who plucked the teeth of their elders as their bodies lay on pyres. In each extracted tooth, memories of days and the days before, of mothers and foremothers. Each harvested tooth, safekept in the mouth of reapers. Each body that carried, a walking archive. Their whole story passed down this way from generation to generation.
But the past, darling, mother had said, a damp sadness in her words, is also a story that changes.
Something jerks the Reaper’s attention to the front door. A sound outside like boots or a heavy object dropped on the ground. She stiffens. Waits for a beat. Ten, twenty, thirty. A hundred. Nothing happens. Perhaps only the thud of compost being delivered. She loosens her grip on the pliers.
This fitful tightening: her or Sugani?
The Reaper doesn’t know.
She shoves the dish away – the tooth bounces up and nestles back into its groove – and forces her chair back. The screech of its legs sounds so much like a person, her eyes are wild as they land on the tooth again.
It is half in shadow, a slice of light on the pointed curve.
The Reaper knows it will contain more than a screech. Memories that will echo into time far longer than any screech.
When will it be enough?
She turns away from the table and takes a long breath.
She will do it tomorrow.
She moves towards the teapot. Her hands tremble as she prepares the blend and gulps it down just boiled. The burst of heat stills her shaking. She pours another mugful. This second round, she blows on and sips slow, letting the wave of shame settle around her, gentle, familiar.
There was the story about a string of queens who kept losing something vital. To keep it safe, they hid it on a low shelf or slid it under the bed. They locked it inside a chest and sent it into the ground. But it kept disappearing. When they mustered enough courage to ask after it, to claim that it was missing, that it was taken from them, they were told they were confused. It never existed.
That isn’t true, they thought.
It happened to us.
So they began putting the truth inside themselves, into the stalks of their ribcages and the stems of their teeth.
The body will remember, they thought.
When the Reaper goes out into the doused light of the garden, she knows something is wrong. It’s not tangible, not a bird swooping at easy flesh, a jackal starving in the shadows. But the sprouts are silent, watchful.
Sareu is the nearest one. As the Reaper steps into the plot, a crunch of bark underfoot, the sprout looks up. Her streaked face, the snot sliming her lips are in shadow. Sareu shakes her head, unwilling or unable to speak.
The Reaper’s eyes dart to each of the sprouts. She hears it before she sees it, the laboured breathing. A low gurgle.
Sugani’s head is lolling. A viscous substance drips from a corner of her mouth. It pools dark and is slurped up by the thirsty soil.
Did the Reaper not secure Sugani’s stitches properly? Her fingers had been slipping, the thread appearing and disappearing in that slicked wetness. Where is the gauze? But there, that bulge in the sprout’s cheek. It must be saturated, useless.
The Reaper had known it was too soon to harvest Sugani.
She is rooted, struck still with the thought of her own hands twisting and pulling.
With the thought of what is to come. Sugani’s veins splitting. Her frizz tufting away in clumps. Weeks later, a vivid bit of green caught on the hinge of a door or the spike of a fence. Her skin loosening in flaps, turning to mulch. Until one day, all that will remain: a fistful of ash. A choke of wind.
This is the final going. Only so long the course of the body, the laws of this earth, can be defied.
Sugani’s head lifts with great effort. ‘It’s alright,’ she says, voice wet. ‘My time to rest.’
The words pry the Reaper out of her stupor. The next moment, she is in front of Sugani. Her mouth set hard, quelling any pitiful sound that might escape, as she uses her clothes to mop up Sugani’s neck and chin.
There is not a lot she can do.
Mother used to sit vigil, bring out a blanket to spread over the soil, sometimes a book to read from. The Reaper curled up by the door, falling asleep to soft voices, to the faint impression of stars. She always woke in her own bed, carried in during a lull in those long nights.
The Reaper smooths Sugani’s hair. She wants to say something to the sprout, but she doesn’t know what.
This language. As heat escapes from the centre of Sugani’s head, the Reaper feels acutely its failure, its cruelty. It is a language of men. It does not carry their truths. It does not let them name the things that happened to them. It forces them to become heads in the ground, sprouting tooth after tooth.
She moves slowly inside to retrieve items for cleaning and sewing and wadding. She returns to tend to Sugani, this other language she learned from mother. The trickle from Sugani’s mouth has petered out, so she crushes medicine, gentle, smears a lick of ointment for clotting, though they both know it is past that point. When the Reaper is finished, Sugani is at least able to hold her head up.
That is enough for now.
Perhaps that is all there is.
Why do you keep doing this? Do you really believe you will discover some great secret? That a mere memory can topple a tyrant?
She had thrown these questions at mother again and again. But looking at Sugani now, the soft close of her lids, the slight curve of her mouth, the immeasurable calm of her face, the Reaper feels another thought blooming. Perhaps it has never been about the secret. Or the tyrant. They are more than bruises, mother always said. More than just a thing to harvest.
Maybe it’s enough to do as mother did, to cradle the sprouts, to turn the soil and water their flesh. To listen to their testimonies the only way she can.
Maybe this has been mother’s answer all along.
An ache spreads inside her.
Sugani stirs under her palms. Later, the Reaper will bring out a bowl of stew for her. The other sprouts are unsettled by the touch of meat, but she has seen Sugani watching the kasaudi with naked longing. She will spoon a little into Sugani’s mouth so the flavours can soak in, and the sprout may, if she wishes, go to another time, another place.
For now, the Reaper sits beside Sugani, so the sprout can rest her head a while. The garden is flushed with the deepening sun. Mother’s favourite time of day.
The fragment of a scene appears in the Reaper’s mind.
She sees a grand room draped in silks, dotted with pillows and cushions. A round bed with rumpled sheets. Under thick perfume, a tang of sweat. Reclining on the bed is a solid figure, the indent of a crown on waving hair, the bulk of a king in shadow. Before him, a woman kneels on the floor, holding court, words rolling off her lips with ease, taking the shape of a story, becoming another one as the night passes, then another and another.
Is this one of mother’s? The Reaper thinks she recognises the tale – the trail of dead queens and the young girl at its close telling stories to survive another night – but her grasp on it falters.
It deepens the ache inside her, so she tucks the image away. Instead, she looks around, at the scrubbed patches in the garden, the faces years familiar. The sprouts glow like embers, a low humming at the base of their throats.
Her jaw twinges. There is the tooth in the kitchen waiting for her. She feels the tide of pain creeping close.
But for these last moments, the Reaper lets herself sink into the sound of the sprouts. Listens to the ground thrumming in answer.
A fleeting second, and the Reaper is seized with another possibility, of something erupting through the soil, a head with a shock of white hair, morphing into a beloved face. Her breath sticks. Only the solidity of Sugani, the warmth of her cheek leaning against the Reaper’s arm loosens the knots of her body, quiets the unease. Darkness bleeds into their garden. The Reaper closes her eyes, hopes nothing more will sprout from this cursed land.