Threnody in Dark Wood, by Avra Margariti


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This is not the first wake where she’s been called to tear her hair, clothes, and voice to shreds, but it is by far the strangest. Closed casket, empty funeral home. The anonymous letter she received instructed her to slip through the back door like a phantasma herself, and not exchange words with a single soul, nor peek into the dark wood coffin as she sang its dead through the threshold of her being.

The moirologistra stands before the sealed-shut coffin and begins to keen the threnodies passed down from grandma to granddaughter. Inarticulate laments the dead know by instinct to transmute into guiding song.

As a professional moirologistra, she needs no instrument other than her voice. The living may witness the proof of her mourning mania: throat shrieked raw, hair uprooted by clawed fingernails, and regalia ripped at the seams. But the dead each hear their own unique song laced with a compulsion leading them into the afterlife. She is both conductor and tuning fork of the dead—the Doorways none other than the orifices of her face, the liminal recesses of her skull.

Abrupt as a closed fist, a feeling of wrongness seizes her throat, strangling her song. Her mouth is partiture-dry. Her tongue dances curlicues across her oral cavity, yet it finds no phantasma hiding in the ridges of her palate. She walks closer to the twin rows of carnations that sentinel the coffin, her steps echoing like a skull devoid of ghosts.

The dead withhold their response to her call.

Yesterday, she warbled the phantasma of a wrongdoer to its doom. The dead man had once stuffed a live hummingbird inside his thrashing lover’s throat, the pulse of bird and woman wingtip-quick, then hibernation-heavy. The moirologistra divined this through the filaments of soul surging to twine with her vocal cords. The man’s phantasma had been greeted by the cacophonous madrigal of wings belonging to a million Erinyes lurking beyond the Doorway. The moirologistra could taste the chthonic dust caught in filthy feathers until bedtime.

The day before that, it had been a toddler. The screams that scratched her throat metamorphosed into a favorite lullaby. The echolocation led the diminutive phantasma to the Doorway awaiting it: a nebular nursery cradling in hydrogen and helium the children destined to be reborn. Stardust had coated her tear ducts and mucus membranes for hours afterward.

Most people leave a citrusy aftertaste clinging to the back of her throat. The moirologistra has baptized the Doorway where most souls are drawn the Orange Grove.

And now, for the first time in the long years since she found her calling, the moirologistra’s screams fail to transmogrify. No tenebrous tendrils of mist seep through her orifices. Her own hoarse voice resounds off the white-washed walls and the dark wood of the looming coffin, cryptic as a closed-lipped leer.

Surely there must be someone who mourns the unknown body enfolded in dark wood and formaldehyde. Perhaps the same person whose letter summoned her here after the priest had chanted his incense-drenched eulogies. A lover unable to face their dead, or perhaps an estranged relative wanting to spare their phantasma the forty days of songless, aimless wandering without a moirologistra’s guidance.

The sugary remains of koliva—the food of funerals—linger in the air, but no citrus smell latches to her openings. Shivering, she straightens the long, black garb she wears on her mourning sessions. The same dress her grandma wore before her passing. When grandma—a moirologistra herself—sought ingress through her granddaughter’s eye sockets, it had not been a violent act, but a parting caress.

Remember, grandma used to say, this is a ritual of old. Oh, how our people gathered round their dead, the body washed and anointed, Charon cursed with fists beating chests and braids whipping faces, dresses torn in the throes of grief. Everyone joined in polyphonic threnody, a synergy opening a Doorway from within.

These days, being a moirologistra is a solitary endeavor. She closes her eyes, inhaling astringent embalming fluids and sweet incense smoke. In the funerary darkness, she lets her chest expand in concert with her conscience like old wood dilating during summertime. She sings, and there is no dead, there is no death. Only the convulsions of her throat, the tears traversing her cheeks—a reminiscent of Grandma’s final serenade. For a gossamer-fragile moment, the afterlife Doorways blink out of existence. No Erinya Rookery, Nebular Nursery, or Orange Grove await. Just the moirologistra and the blessed emptiness inside her head.

At last, she approaches the coffin, knocking against its wood as if to ward off bad luck. “What are you?” the moirologistra whispers, her voice nearly extinguished from overuse. “Why can I not ferry you inside me? Why can’t I lead you home?”

She knocks again, standing at the threshold of herself. And when neither shadow tendril nor phantasmal tune answer, she wrenches the heavy coffin lid. The hinges open smooth and silent. When she leans inside, she expels a little, “Oh.”

The rich purple satin lining the coffin is as empty as it is inviting. Suddenly, she is tired. She has relinquished so many threnodies, welcomed so many souls through her being. And now—like the time her child-self told grandma she was a moirologistra like her—she knows it was herself she has been singing into mourning.

When she unfolds the letter from her pocket, no writing greets her, nothing but a vacant page. No one has hired her to serenade the dead inside her head. No transmutation, but premonition.

For the first time since stepping inside this empty room, the moirologistra is not afraid. She has been waiting to hear back from some medical tests and this, at last, is her answer. The roughness of her throat is soothed, as if by grandma’s chamomile tea. Tears still burn and her voice still rages as she climbs inside the coffin, but her hands don’t claw or pound against the wooden lid. The hinges slink shut, encasing her in a cradleland of dark wood and purple satin. The moirologistra’s song ricochets off the coffin lid and against her face—a breath exhaled into a steaming teacup.

Citrus-mouthed, she serenades herself.


Avra Margariti is a queer author, Greek sea monster, and Rhysling-nominated poet with a fondness for the dark and the darling. Avra’s work haunts publications such as Strange HorizonsVastarienAsimov’s, Reckoning, and F&SFThe Saint of Witches, Avra’s debut collection of horror poetry, is available from Weasel Press. You can find Avra on twitter (@avramargariti).

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