The Skein of a Life
by Dan Sexton-Riley
The hunter has just brought in a new patient, and I’m busy strapping the patient to the table while Dr Levitt pays the hunter in powders and tinctures. The hunter’s clothes are form-fitted and black. Her mouth is covered; only her hard eyes can be seen. She looks like a living shadow. She doesn’t like to be seen in her line of work.
“This one wasn’t much trouble,” the hunter says. She gestures to the limp form on the table. The patient is perhaps in his late twenties, gaunt, with eyes sunken in his face. No matter how a patient looked in life, by the time they reach our table, they are but a whispered memory of who they were.
Dr Levitt nods and hands her a small pouch. There isn’t much conversation to be had between hunters and doctors. Hunters find patients and bring them to us; we help the patients move on. That’s the extent of the familiarity. The hunter inclines her head slightly and leaves, closing the door behind her.
Dr Levitt turns to me. “You know what you’re doing, Eve. Don’t doubt yourself,” he says, reading my face.
It’s my first real day on the job and, unless I succeed, my last. After ten years of apprenticeship with Dr. Levitt, I’m finally performing my first surgery unassisted. This will be the test of whether I’m to graduate as an independent practitioner. I tap my fingers on the table, an old nervous habit. I know I’m capable. I tell myself that it’s only the weight of the moment amplifying my anxiety.
“Just take your time. You know what to do. Follow the threads, pare them carefully. Whenever you’re ready.” His voice is stable, reassuring. He’s a good teacher.
I close my eyes and slow my breathing until I feel my hands become steady and my thoughts calm, then I focus on the task before me. I open the patient’s mouth. At the base of the patient’s tongue is a complex knot of red threads. I recognize the oldest easily. It is worn but well-knit.
There are frayed ends poking out of the knot here and there, but the fiber is still supple, like well-made yarn. This is a relief, it tells me that this one should be routine. I can start at the beginning.
The most common problems with the procedure arise from wounds left by things unspoken. They leave a tangled mess of jagged emotions snarled throughout a person. A messy knot is hard to untangle. This person seems to have spoken freely in life, and that much is a blessing.
It’s vital I choose the first thread wisely. If I begin with the wrong one, or sever another too soon, the damage might be irreparable. Timing is key. If I’m too fast or too slow, the patient will lose control completely and, in all likelihood, go on a rampage. This happens occasionally. Dealing with the fallout of those failures is the other aspect of a hunter’s job. Both professions have a long apprenticeship for a reason.
I isolate the thread carefully, holding it with silver forceps, and gently begin to work it free. When I touch the thread, it fills me with a familiar vertigo. My skin tingles as if I’m standing close to a lightning strike; the tiny hairs on my arms stand to attention. My vision swims.
This is how it works.
Each thread shows me a memory, and I must trust my hands to follow along in the procedure room while my mind finds the meaning in each scene. I will see each moment that anchors this soul to earth, the thoughts that root them in grief, rage, jealousy, or whatever else ails them so badly that they end up on the table.
If all goes well, they will leave here unburdened and ready for whatever is next in their journey. I leave behind the last of my nerves as the physical world melts away.
* * *
When the memory comes into focus, I find myself in a garden. As scenery goes in these procedures, this is rather pleasant. It appears to be late summer. Grass grows thick and healthy, and bees loop lazily through the blooms of asters and hyacinths. The memory is strong enough that I can make out the scent of the flowers, their perfume gentle and redolent of my mother’s garden when I was a child.
At the bottom of the garden, near an old shed, I can see a little boy playing in the flowerbeds. This child doesn’t look much like the man on my table. A bright little creature with full cheeks, fair hair and curious eyes, he is lifting pebbles and lawn ornaments to see if anything new has taken up residence beneath them since he last checked. I know this because he has a little plastic container beside him with various bugs in it. He giggles in delight after turning over a rosy-cheeked gnome. I cross the garden to crouch beside him.
“Hi there. What’s your name?” I ask.
His head turns quickly, and he looks at me with uncertainty.
“I’m Benny, miss.”
“I’m Eve. Nice to meet you,” I offer him a smile, but he is reluctant to return it.
“How old are you, Benny?”
I nod. Reinforcing minor details can help to make the memory more specific.
“What did you find under the gnome?” I crane my neck to get a look.
“Big worm, and lots of beetles!” he says through a wide grin. He holds them up to wriggle between us as proof.
“That’s a record-breaker, that is,” I say. He beams in pride. “Hey, Benny, what are you going to do today?”
“After searching for crawlers?” He asks.
My smile is genuine. He’s a sweet kid. “Yes, after that.”
He scratches his head, leaving traces of mud behind in his hair.
“I think my nana wants to take me to church soon,” he says.
“That’s nice. Do you like church, Benny?”
“Yeah, I suppose,” he mumbles.
The mention of church dims the joy that was so full and present in his face a moment ago. The bright light of the summer day flickers like an old fluorescent bulb, then becomes stable again.
The church is the first step towards loosening this stretch of thread. Benny picks at the grass, now listless at the prospect of leaving the garden.
“Hey, how about I come to church with you?” I say. “I haven’t been to church for a long time.”
“Nobody makes you go to church?” Benny says, aghast.
“Not when you’re an adult. No, not at all. I’ll put up with it if I can hang out with you for a little while longer though.” I flash him a conspiratorial smile, and he returns it this time.
“Okay, Eve. But... what about my nan?”
“She won’t see me unless I want her to.”
In memories, the patient is the only person there. People they remember don’t see the surgeon, who is only as real as a video recording. Ben here has no idea that this is a memory, and to draw attention to it too soon could cause trouble for me on the operating table.
Benny is a child. Children rarely question magic, let alone the supernatural.
“Oh, good! Let’s go then!” he says.
As if on cue, I hear an elderly woman call him from the kitchen door, which materializes as it becomes pertinent to the memory. I follow as they make their way to church. Ben sneaks furtive glances at me every few steps, but his grandmother fails to notice, just as I promised.
The sermon is a dry, somber affair that eats up a decent chunk of the morning. The subject of the day is forgiveness. The priest intones that there is nothing that God will not forgive, provided that the sinner is truly repentant. I suppress a growl as I recall my own experiences with the clergy, many years ago now. I look to Benny, who has noted my distaste and is looking at me with a frown on his little face.
Afterwards, when we’ve returned to his grandmother’s garden, he offers me a sandwich. I take it and wait for him to speak.
“You don’t like church, huh?” he asks.
“Not so much, Benny. How about you?”
“Will God be upset with me if I say no?” he asks quietly.
“Not one bit. What do you not like?”
“I just don’t want to be hurt when I die, for being me.”
He sniffles as if he might cry. It gets to me, even now, after many years of this work, how so many people have unfinished business rooted here. I pat him on the shoulder, he looks up at me, wide wet eyes the color of new leaves. I think he’s going to say more, but then the memory shimmers and dissolves.
For a moment I’m back in the operating room, and I place a modest length of pristine crimson thread on the tray next to me. Dr. Levitt smiles and nods his approval. I return the smile then select the next thread. Once again the world shimmers and snaps back in a new memory.
* * *
The playground is cheap pebbledash. The kind of surface that skins knees and sends children home with stones in the treads of their shoes. Rain descends in a fine mist, the sky not quite committed yet to a downpour. I can see children in schoolrooms lit by fluorescent tube lights, eating lunch from paper bags and Tupperware.
I hear a sob somewhere nearby. I shudder against a cold that is only as real as Benny thinks it is. I turn the corner of a building to find a black gate pushed open, small hand prints smeared across the bars. I recognize it by smell as anti-vandalism paint.
Beyond the gate is a small courtyard that contains what I assume is the transformer that relays power to the school. A small shape is crouched by it. It’s Benny, albeit a few inches taller. He must be at least three years older here than when I last saw him, perhaps nine, at most. He is covered with streaks of the black paint, and tears stream quietly over his cheeks from eyes that are red from the paint fumes.
“Oh, Benny,” I say.
He looks at me, squinting at me through stinging eyes.
“Miss?” he asks, followed by a hiccup.
“What happened, sweetheart?” I hold out my hand. He looks at it, but doesn’t take it. He’s less trusting than when we last met. After a moment, however, he speaks.
“He’s my friend, really. He didn’t mean it.” He looks down at the paint on his clothes. “My mum is going to be so angry.” His tears flow anew at the thought, and I crouch beside him to let him lean on me.
“Your mum won’t blame you if you explain, right?”
He looks up at me with doubtful eyes. I wonder what his life has been like between the two memories to engender such mistrust. He lets his gaze drop again in a hurry when our eyes meet.
“Maybe. I don’t know,” he mumbles. “I can’t tell anyone though.”
“You’re telling me, aren’t you?”
He looks down.
“Benny?” I reach out to brush some loose strands of hair from his forehead, but he jerks away. Something happened on this day that fixed this part of the knot in place. If I can get him to elaborate, even a little, we can move forward. After a long pause, he says something I barely catch.
“He hurt me.”
I hear a cruel chuckle that has no source. The voice of the boy in question. Just as in dreams, the logic of memories isn’t like the physical world. Colors can be wrong, names can be mixed up, voices can come from nowhere.
“Hurt you? It’s okay. Nobody’s going to hurt you.”
He looks up, and I catch the resentment in his eyes.
“He made me do things.”
I shudder, professionalism slipping slightly with my anger. It clicks into place within the memory, and I understand why he is so guarded, so wounded, at such a tender age.
The image shifts again, and once more I’m placing a small pile of thread on the tray. I note with alarm that this portion appears to have frayed during the procedure. I nearly screwed up there. I chide myself for pushing too soon. I became too involved.
I don’t look at Dr. Levitt this time. I simply pick up the tools and continue.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Dan Sexton-Riley