Dead girls were not supposed to sit up, open their eyes, or take a breath so suddenly that it sounded like their own gasp of surprise. Supposed to seemed like a silly sort of phrase though, watching her glance around the room they had laid her out in, dressed in her white burial shift. It almost seemed more apt to tell her that young women were not supposed to sit atop tables like that, but no one said anything at all.
She put a hand to her stomach, feeling where Avdi had stitched her closed from belly button to ribs. It had seemed like the thing to do, the best way to fit her cleanly into the burial shift. They’d been big, black ugly stitches though, just enough to put her back into the right shape. Avdi looked at the others. It seemed wrong now.
“Thank you,” the girl said though. Her voice was rough with disuse, dry and cracked in the first word. She just took a deep breath and swallowed to smooth it down.
“You’re welcome?” Kendre said. Of the elders, she was standing closest. And no one had really wanted her dead. They’d only found her beside the Wide Road, dirty, cut and twisted wrong, and brought her home to bury. Even strangers deserved something more than turning to forgotten pieces in the sun.
The girl smiled at the question in Kendre’s voice. “I don’t suppose you have water to spare?” Her voice cracked in the question again.
Kendre nodded, but it was Nolan who pushed his way out of the wooden hall and came back through the crowd with a bucket of water, ladel and cup. He filled the cup while every one else stood silent, listening to the girl breathe.
“You were dead,” he murmured when she accepted the cup from his hand.
The girl nodded. “Sorry about that. I’m sure it was a real mess for you to clean up.” She gulped at the water greedily. A second cup disappeared as easily as the first, but she paused in the middle of the third. “I hope I didn’t give anyone a scare.”
Still stunned, most of the crowd shook their heads. They had all taken a step back, hugged the walls and the shadows, but none of them had felt the need to scream yet. Maybe they should have… but the girl was only sitting, smiling, drinking.
“Do you know what day it is?” she asked. Her voice was a little stronger, a little clearer.
“Eighth day,” Kendre said. “Of third week of Summerend.”
The girl nodded to herself, then ticked some things off her fingers. “Sorry,” she said, when she realized they were watching her. “Just wanted to know how long I had been gone.”
“How long?” Loo asked, hiding behind her mother’s skirt.
The girl smiled at her, kindly. “Eleven days,” she said. “It’s not bad for me. You tend to get turned ’round in the lands of the dead. Once, I got back out in five, but… once I got back out in two years.”
“You don’t look like a body dead eleven days,” Kendre said.
“Well… I’m not dead,” she returned. She shrugged and finished her cup.
“Are you alive?” Nolan asked.
She looked at him for a moment. “My heart beats. My lungs breathe. My stomach eats. All the other bits do what they should do. I’m alive.”
“How?” he asked.
She looked at him again, thinking, considering, but answered in the same slow tone she had said everything so far. “They say my great-great-grandmother gave Death a gift once, something Death wanted more than anything in all of existence. In return she gave my great-great-grandmother a gift, told her that her life would never be cut, it could only fade. Her life, her children’s lives, her children’s children’s lives would only end in old age.”
Nolan seemed unsure how to breathe, listening to her, holding her eye.
“And,” she said, after a silence that had seemed like an ending. “They say my great-great-grandmother stole something from Death, tricked her cruelly and took what couldn’t belong to her. Death cursed her, told her that her life could never be cut, could only fade. She would linger on into old age, along with her children and her children’s children.”
The crowd blinked, stared at her, glanced at each other. Nolan tilted his head without meaning to, silently questioning.
“I’m not sure which one I believe,” the girl murmured.
Sliding off the table, she balanced herself over her feet, took a short step before she remembered how to stand without her hands spread to either side.
“Thank you,” she told the crowd again. “Is it all right if I leave you now? I had business on the road.”