Shave your head every third sunset, and the eyebrows, as is proper; sharpen your beak every sixth; if its straps bite into your skin, well, remember it is an honor to keep the silence; your lobes will need piercing; the black robes are to be worn always; on ceremony days—the leather cloak; drape your back in the patchwork ancestor skins, in this way we honor our dead; as I am, so shall you be; the library is off-limits, as is the conservatory, the vaults, the aviary; yes, I suppose you may use the study for an hour a day, and the spare room to store your things; the door does not lock, do not ask this again; do not for a moment think I do not recognize you for the usurper you are so bent on becoming; you may take notes; leave them nightly for my review; no, you may not have correspondence, no, you may not entertain guests; I do not plan to be replaced with ease; being a god-killer will not make you a god; ask me how I know; scavenger; slut; spy; thief; ordained, my ass; you earned this placement on your back; ask me how I know; this is how to deglove a traitor; this is how to fully flay two traitors at once; this is how to fully flay two traitors at once while keeping them alive; the seat of your power resides behind the eyes; when you come for me, go for the soft places first; no, you haven’t the strength yet and yes, yes, you were thinking it; I’d be insulted if you weren’t; yes, I will prepare you, only because this is how things are done; I will break you first; this is how death-workers are made; always begin with the sweet offal; strike that; always begin with an gesture of peace; touch your beak to the forehead, the chest, the palm; to go sweetly into this dark place and find life everlasting/in consumption all will be remade; each strip torn from the hide becomes hallowed as it slides down our gullet; our work is important; we keep the order; the populace will hate you for it; death is an indiscriminate lover; we are indiscriminate in our work; a skull is a skull is a skull is a skull; “carrion-eater” is a slur; no, you may not reclaim it; these are the tomes you must memorize; this is how you recite them; fill your throat with sound; death is your bedmate, act like it; chant these anointed words to remind them that you are divine; this is how to twist the knife so it looks like an accident; this is how to twist the knife so they know it was you; this how to twist the knife before they turn the blade on you; neither your youth or your cunning will save you should the populace come to think of you as the enemy; neither your legacy nor your wisdom will save you when the pantheon decides to supplant you; there is a hierarchy to be maintained, yes, among gods, too; best learn this before you fledge into the usurper you are so bent on becoming; godhood is a burden; I earned this burden; I earned this burden through holy transformation; death work is our metamorphosis; metamorphosis makes you a god; your body is a vessel; your body is a tool; your body is a mausoleum; your body is a womb; heavy is the head that wears the crown; no, this is not a metaphor; this crown is made of mandibles, of canines, of patellas, of phalanges; in this way we honor our predecessors, the ones displaced by our ambition; no, greed is not a sin, but always leave the corpse before you’ve had your fill; gift soft flesh to the sweet earth once the departed has been interred, glory be to our first mother, from the dark damp soil it was she that gave us wings; I cannot hate you, I was you; I want you rendered undone by my own beak, my talons, my fingers hooked into claws; that honor will belong to your successor, such is the proper order of things; take your respite in short stretches, never long spans; never turn your back on an enemy, yes, I am the enemy; a teacher and an enemy; both titles are appropriate; they exalt “Vulture Father,” “Condor Queen,” both titles are appropriate; without the moon, there is no tide; that is to say, through our remaking we are remade; that is to say, we do not dine on our own dead; that is to say, what you have not understood is this: no one will consume you once you fall, assassin; kinslayer; god-killer; carrion-eater; usurper you are so bent on becoming.
Author’s Note: This story was inspired by two others that lit me on fire in different, yet equally powerful ways. Though “Death Work” stands on its own, it wouldn’t be here without “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and “Robot” by Helena Bell. I hope you’ll enjoy it on its own and also in conversation with these others.
K.S.Walker writes speculative fiction. You can often find them outside with their family or starting a craft project but not finishing it. K.S. Walker has been published or is forthcoming at FIYAH, Uncanny, and various anthologies. You can find them online at www.kswalker.net or on Twitter @kswalkerwrites and Instagram @kswalker_writes.