speculative prose

Original Order, by Natalie Ritter

Original Order

i. context; or, the information needed to understand the significance of a record

The dead were in mourning, which made it a wretched time for the living to ask for anything. The outpost at the border of the two worlds was emptied for the bereavement with the exception of two lonely figures. They sat outside, and kept their own counsel.

Beside the outpost, the veil that hid the dead from the living shivered, and a breeze opened the way. Two paper birds were carried through.

Grammel held out his hand, and one of the messengers settled on the metal plates of his gauntlet.

When he had read the message written inside the bird, he carefully refolded it so that the bird could rise again.

Beside him, Andreen crushed her summons in her fist, and let the crumpled paper fall.

“Does he think we are dogs?” she said, the first words to pass between them in days.

But they stood. Though not in a charitable mood, neither of them relished the thought of continuing their vigil, holding private remembrances for the handful of souls who had left them behind.

It was night when they emerged from the veil into the world of the living: two shadowy figures, black smoke roiling off them, unholy light burning in their eyes. Andreen’s eyes were molten red under her helmet, lava running down her cheeks and dropping with a hiss onto her breastplate. Grammel’s eyes were orange, flames licking out and smoke rising into a cloud around his head. When they wore their armour, there was no other distinguishing feature between them.

The summons drew them through the night, into day, and into the great city of the living. The city had borne many names over the years, and Grammel remembered it by the name it held when he lived there: Sunder.

His feet remembered the old streets, the buildings that were now ghosts of the past—revealed in hints in the smoke that he left behind. Andreen’s lava fell to the new brick streets, and for a brief moment, the brick melted away and revealed the cobblestones that had long ago paved the way. But the lava melted into the earth, gone without a trace, and the present reasserted itself.

The city people looked at them, and then looked away. Living creatures were like wisps to Grammel—pale, flickering creatures who wouldn’t really exist until their bodies collapsed. He would learn their names when their souls stepped out of their bodies at death, and crossed the veil. Any sooner was a waste of time, since so many of them would fall, soul and body together, into the earth at the end of their body’s life.

The summons brought them to a building that was old compared to its neighbours, but new to Grammel. The building had been constructed with strict lines and severe geometry, a building from an era with little joy.

Inside, they waited for the man who summoned them. Grammel let the minutes pass without counting them. There was an exhibit in the entrance hall, about a riot and protest movement that happened after Grammel died. Andreen examined every item with intense focus.

Grammel had died in a battle that the living never learned about, hundreds of years ago. A battle that was never remembered by exhibit, memorial, or history lesson.

But in all that time, Grammel had met many men like the king’s spymaster, who was suddenly beside him, slouching as he read one of the exhibit labels.

The spymaster was lean and wiry, a tall man hunched over like he was trying to take up less space. His black hair curled wildly around his face, and was the only part of him that was unrestrained.

They had done unsavoury errands for him in the past. A dead man was often the spymaster’s first choice for unsavoury work. Though the man’s livelihood depended on understanding the nuance of the world around him, he had a notable lack of curiosity about Andreen and Grammel.

“We are come, as we were asked.” The words were respectful, Andreen’s tone was not. “What is your purpose for us?”

The spymaster’s face was never expressive, his tone always neutral. “Welcome to the city archives. I need you to find and remove something for me in the collections.”

Grammel and Andreen were strong of arm, and their reach was long. They were untiring in pursuit, and could smite as well as arbitrate. They held the border between life and death, represented death in disputes between the dead and the living, and answered the call of those who needed assistance beyond what a living body could accomplish.

It was just that the living did not realize that, although the dead did not ask for payment, it did not mean there was no cost.


ii. control; or, knowing what is in a collection of records, and where to find it

“Welcome,” said one of the archivists. He introduced himself, but it did not matter to Grammel.

The archivist waved them into the reading room, the spymaster trailing languidly after. The room was large, tables running up and down its centre. Three of the walls were inset with large glass panes, making the room as public as if there were no walls at all.

The archivist brought them to the back of the room, where a long line of carts, two rows deep, stood waiting for researchers who had requested them from the cavern storage.

Out of respect, the lava that poured from Andreen’s eyes slowed, hardened on her cheeks, and did not reach the floor. Grammel banked his fire, calling in the smoke so it did not choke the living, or leave an eternal scar on every paper in the form of clinging smoke-smell.

“There is,” the spymaster said, grimly, “somewhere in these sixty-odd boxes, critical state secrets that have been placed there by a traitor. The plans need to be found and replaced with this.” He held up a folded piece of paper. “And it needs to be replaced quickly.”

An archivist’s labour was already invisible. No one around her noticed or questioned which boxes she pulled, or why. Strict oversight fell only on researchers, their every action tracked to make sure they did not harm or steal the materials.

If a foreign agent, working as an archivist, inserted a few extra sheets of paper into a box of materials, no one would notice. If a spy posing as a researcher requested that box, no one would think it remarkable that a researcher copied out a few notes while reviewing the materials.

The spymaster explained this, but Grammel did not care to know how the traitor was caught, how she got her information, where she was now, or whether she was dead. All that mattered was that, because of her, he and Andreen were here now.

Andreen cocked her head. “It is a menial task.”

Truly, it was. One that tried the heart of anyone who opened the lid of a box and saw how many folders, how much paper was crammed inside. Thousands of sheets of paper in one box, and each to be individually examined.

It was a task that required only one thing: an individual who could work without needing rest or sleep or food. Who could work relentlessly through the night and find the secrets before the reading room reopened after its weekly closure.

The spymaster smiled faintly. “Think of it another way: the fate of a country hinges on one very menial task. If those secrets get out, I imagine that the afterlife may soon face overcrowding issues.”

With that, he slouched out of the room, towards whatever else awaited him at his own office.

The archivist spoke to them of rights and wrongs of handling the material, and above all: do not rearrange. Put everything back exactly as it was.

He left them, so that they could take their gauntlets off, and touch the paper, parchment, and words with their dead hands. They left ghost traces of themselves across the slivers of history that living hands had chosen to keep.

Andreen’s hands were cracked, the lines of her palms eternally open, revealing her molten core.

The lava fell in occasional drips in the boxes, and they would see the ghostly siblings of the papers that had not made it into history, until the lava evaporated harmlessly under the weight of the living world.

When Grammel breathed out the smoke from his lungs over a piece of correspondence, he saw the impression of the hands that had written it, in the swirling smoke.


iii. arrangement; or, imposing order on records that exist in chaos

There was no end to the search in sight, and he could barely see the beginning. There was only the next folder to retrieve, to gently lay on a flat surface, carefully flipping fragile onionskin paper, or shifting through thick, creamy paper. Looking for something he could only pray he recognized. Something obviously written on new paper, in a modern hand.

The boxes came from across varied collections. Field notes and journals from an agricultural researcher. Committee reports on obscure topics from decades earlier. Manuscripts of novels never published. Some of the smaller collections were represented in their entirety. Some were just a few boxes from collections that spanned across hundreds of boxes.

Lost in concentration, his smoke emerged again, slid softly over the boxes, revealing their truths. Spell-work had constructed most of the boxes, transforming ordinary paper into a thicker shell to protect other paper against the decay of time.

He kept falling into the small slivers of life represented in the collections, the papers reviving memories that had fallen away long ago.

There were requests written on crumpled paper, old and brittle now from so much passing time, that spoke of things that had not yet happened when Grammel died. There were letters about the war he died in. There were reports from municipal committees. There were answers to questions he didn’t know he had.

As the night wore on, the smoke was everywhere, showing them what was lost. The ghosts of missing records gained shape, remaining longer and longer.

Do not rearrange anything. The archivist’s order hung over him. Keep everything where you found it. Perform no action. Make no decisions.

Eventually small adjustments had to be made: letters out of chronological order, or items not alphabetized correctly within a folder. Small things. Work that people wouldn’t notice, because they would not recognize that something was right, only the things that were wrong.

When he drifted too far into the collections, Andreen would reach over, and gently rest her hand on his. The lava would drip and burn lines across the back of his hand, and he would be returned to his purpose.

They had gone through half of the boxes, when Andreen voiced the fear that had been forming in Grammel.

“What if we’ve missed the paper, or it’s not here at all? All this time will only be well spent if these state secrets are actually here.”

Grammel flipped over another piece of paper, immediately forgetting whatever had been written on it. The words blended together, nothing stood out anymore. Eventually, he asked, “So, if it produces nothing, all this effort would be wasted?”

“Yes,” Andreen said.

Grammel could not quite agree. The letters he’d read during the night were now his in memory, turned to slow churning thoughts that connected themselves while his body moved through rote actions.

Even if the spymaster was wrong, and the paper wasn’t here, he could not find any part of him that resented this work. He did not think that it was a waste of effort to prove that nothing was there.

“But think further, Gram,” Andreen said. “About if we don’t find these secrets. They’ll wonder if we missed it—there are too many boxes to definitively prove that it wasn’t there. There will always be a reasonable doubt that maybe we passed over it by mistake, one piece of paper among thousands. How many times will they ask us to look again? The living think our time is worth less because they believe we have so much of it.”

The words sunk into Grammel, distracting him. His hands slowed, the smoke grew, marking everything. The dead were in mourning, because even a soul could pass on, after enough time had passed. Any loss was felt deeply, when the dead were not so numerous as the living.

He finally stilled, a folder containing letters of condolences in his hands.

“It doesn’t belong here,” he said, and Andreen looked at him, and understood. She removed the lid of another box and—

respect original order. Everything as its creator arranged it

—he inserted the folder.

Of the collections here, they had seen every item in them, and the small rearrangements within folders became something larger, collecting material across folders. Moving and removing folders. Items that didn’t belong in the right collection—items that should be located next to each other in a new collection. If someone was going to request the committee reports from a war, then Grammel wanted the mortality reports in the next folder. What did Grammel care that the collections were organized by the original creator or owner, in however narrow a sense that was defined? It did not matter to him that a state department’s records should remain separate from the personal papers of a state official, when they all touched on the same event.

What was an archival principle worth when so much of this might be forever invisible to the researcher who should see it?

History was only written to the extent that someone saved the records of it and made them available. History was only written to the extent that it went through the gate of the archives, through the hand of an archivist who decided what to keep and what to toss.

The smoke from Grammel and the heat from Andreen’s hands showed them the silences in the collections. The gaps. Even with only a fraction of the archives’ collections in front of them, he could feel the history shifting around them, being refocused.

The researchers, when they came for their collections, would find new stories here.

And so, it didn’t feel real, the moment he actually saw the spy’s paper. He noticed how thick and new the paper was, the strength of the ink, the handwriting that did not match with the other papers in the folder. The letter was nothing but empty sentiment, but clearly written in a code that would need to be decrypted.

The smoke inside him wrapped around the paper, and showed him that it had no history. Not like the other records.

Grammel took it, and replaced it with the false letter.

And what was left, except to hand the original back to the spymaster, and fade away, their part played? A footnote to whatever tasks were left for the spymaster to complete. When he reported back to his king, what would he say, other than, The letter was found, and replaced? Who would care about the long hours of this night?

They put their gauntlets back on, and left to find the spymaster. They left behind them archival collections rearranged beyond hope.

There was a cost to their labour, even if no payment was ever asked for.


vi. silence; or, the voices denied entry into the historical record

The summons came on a cold breeze. Grammel held his hand out for the paper bird.

Andreen’s gauntlets were off, and her summons immolated as soon as it touched her palm.

Back across the veil they went, two figures emerging in the night. Shadows roiled around them, black smoke billowing from their feet as they strode from night into daylight, and into the great city that Grammel had known once as Sunder.

Back through city streets, smoke and fire licking over the brick as they strode over it.

Back into the building that was an old construct but new to Grammel. Back to the spymaster, hunched over among the exhibit of riots and protests.

“It defeats the purpose of discretion,” the spymaster told them, “when it is obvious that all of the boxes have been tampered with. How am I supposed to feed bad information to this spy now?”

Andreen and Grammel said nothing. The spymaster said nothing, as well. The silence stretched.

“I have heard,” the spymaster continued, finally, “that the dead work because it brings them satisfaction to work, and not because they need to earn a living. And so they ask for nothing in return.”

In the silence between them, the lava fell from Andreen, and the smoke rose from Grammel. For a moment, they could see the faint outlines of all the people who had once passed through that space.

“That is what we have done,” Andreen said, as a ghostly image passed through her. “We provided an opportunity for voices of the lives hidden inside the collection to be recognized. If the archivist cares, then it is up to him to speak to us. We cannot make the living confront the past.”

They left him there, and retraced their steps.

Back through the city, the veil, past the outpost. Deep into the land of the dead, where mourning still lay thick and heavy. Past the pyres where the dead crowded round to remember the souls who had left them to pass back into the earth.

To a building, enormously vast. They went inside, and sat silently among the records that were destroyed in the world of the living, and then came to the dead archives.

There was so much. A burden without end. For a moment, Grammel envied the living, and how much less of the past they had to carry.


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Issue 16 (Fall 2017)

Story copyright © 2017 by Natalie Ritter

Artwork copyright © 2017 by Carrion House

Natalie Ritter grew up in the far north, but now she lives in Minnesota.

Carrion House a.k.a. Luke Spooner currently lives and works in the south of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first- class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.



This entry was posted on April 30, 2018 by in Stories.
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