by Dana Trick
In the early days of humanity’s pure belief in the Beings, there were no nations or kingdoms yet in Below-Earth—just groups of people living together in villages and cities doing all they can to survive and thrive. Nonetheless, these times weren’t peaceful, as people would form militias to attack other settlements for supplies and pride as well as defend against invaders for safety and defiance.
This, consequently, caused an abundance of human corpses all over the lands. But while humans were stranger to Death herself, the fact that she left the bodies in various states of horror and decay behind her as she gathered souls caused the living to conjure a superstition where the mere presence of a corpse would bring great misfortune for those who foolishly lingered too long with the dead. Instead of burying them in the ground with a marker or burning them with their belongings, humans would simply drag the dead far away from the living, fated to be scavenged and eroded alone. In times of war, villages and cities would often build a wall of their dead to ward off invaders, hoping that this desperate line of defense would make militias hesitant to attack and destroy their lives.
It was during these times that a young maiden named Flora lived. Though she had a heart full of curiosity and kindness, Flora was infamous in her small farming village, for she didn’t seem to fear corpses. When her family, her neighbors, and family friends needed corpses to protect their small crops from the raiders and soldiers, Flora was always the first to volunteer. When she needed moments of peace from the stares and whispers of judging villagers, Flora would often stroll and linger around the mounds of corpses that protected the village. She knew that if it weren’t for her knowledge of healing herbs and roots taught to her by her late grandmother or her willingness to gather corpses when the strongest and boldest villagers couldn’t, the villagers would’ve banished her to distant lands long ago.
One day after a vicious and bloody huge battle that occurred uncomfortably close to the village, Flora was ordered to gather corpses for the crumpling barricade. She went alone as she didn’t mind the loneliness; nonetheless, when she arrived at the abandoned battlefield in the early morning, the sight of green grass drenched in scarlet red and the faint groans of the dying were enough to make her sick. She had always carried a knife in her skirt pocket in case one of the corpses wasn’t a corpse, but the thought of what she had to do always caused her stomach to painfully squirm. Once she calmed down her heart and stomach, Flora dragged the large cart and her basket of snacks towards the piles of forsaken flesh. With care and strength, Flora gently placed the corpses in the cart until it was full enough that she had to return to the village to empty the load, then rush back to collect another pile of dead.
Flora took a break after completing her fourth load and sat under a large tree near the battlefield to let her tired and smelly limbs rest. But before her eyes could flicker closed for a nap, Flora heard faint footsteps. Snatching her large knife from her dress pocket, she strained to fade in the tree’s dark shadow, trying to not let the terror and guilt overtake her. The seconds passing excruciatingly, Flora’s eyes frantically scanned the field for the footsteps and when she finally found the offender, she couldn’t believe her eyes.
There, wandering amongst the remaining corpses, was a woman with beautiful dark skin and wavy black hair, clad in a well-worn and plain dress dyed in the colors of sunset. Though Flora was safely out of the woman’s sight, she could see that the woman seemed to be picking something from the corpses that wasn’t weapons or armor. The woman didn’t appear to be a threat, but Flora couldn’t risk her making herself heard or seen, so she cautiously and carefully crawled away from the tree’s shadow.
Flora had just reached the cart and was about to drag it and herself back home when a piercing shriek erupted behind her. Foolishly she turned her head towards the sound and saw that the strange woman had fallen over something in the field. Flora instinctively ran towards the woman, barely hearing the reasonable part of her mind’s screams of “STOP” over the snapping of broken arrows and limbs.
When she reached the strange woman, Flora frantically asked, “Are you alright? Do you need any help?” and offered her hand. The strange woman looked up at her with eyes of dark blue, her face full of pure confusion and surprise. Then she stared at Flora’s hand as if dismayed that it existed, letting the time flow away lethargically before deciding to grab the hand. Flora pulled her up, while the strange woman simply looked around as if searching for something.
“Are you hurt anywhere?” Flora asked, but the strange woman simply stared at her for some time before asking in a sweet voice, “What are you doing here?”
Dumbfounded, Flora frantically struggled to come up with a sane answer but still ended up saying, “I-I’m gathering corpses’ for my village’s wall.”
To Flora’s surprise, the strange woman started laughing until she needed her breath again. Her voice made Flora’s heart beat louder and harder.
“W-well,” Flora added, feeling that she had to defend herself for some reason, “It’s necessity, when there’s armies and bandits fighting everywhere and ruining good farmland and stealing! It’s a job that needs to be done!”
“Oh,” said the strange woman, “I didn’t mean to make fun of you. It’s just that your face when you spoke was quite funny.”
Flora felt herself blushing, and she continued, “I’m the only one in my village who ain’t afraid of being around corpses. Ma and Pa say that I’m tempting fate, but so far there hasn’t been bad done to me yet!”
“Oh, that would explain why you weren’t trembling earlier while you were dragging them onto the cart,” said the strange woman, “Most of the corpse-gatherers I’ve seen before usually break down crying and screaming or recite spells and prayers to the charms and talismans they desperately clutch, but you don’t have any on you.”
“You were watching me?” Flora shrieked.
“Since you didn’t bother me, I didn’t want to bother you,” the strange woman responded quickly, a little blush beginning to glow upon her cheeks.
“Why are you here? If you’re a looter, then take the stuff and go and leave me alone!” screamed Flora.
The strange woman furiously huffed at her, her face a scowl of an offended royal, before she took a long breath and announced, “I’m not a looter. Like you, I’m a gatherer.”
“But what do you gather from the dead if not their clothes and tools?” Flora felt that she shouldn’t have said those words the moment they’d escaped her mouth.
“Oh,” nonchalantly answered the strange woman, “I don’t take those. I take what I need and leave the rest to the world . . . Though I don’t like humans that either abandon the dead or pile them together as pathetic walls.”
“Yeah, I understand,” Flora told her.
Instantly, the strange woman’s face swelled into a smirk that casually yet aggressively asked, “Oh, how so?”
Flora didn’t want to answer, but her heart burned with thoughts. After some minutes of quiet contemplation, Flora finally came up with an honest conclusion.
“I guess,” she began, “It’s because I still see them . . . as people, I guess. Ma, Pa, and everyone else look at the dead with their smelly bad luck charms, but whenever I see them when I’m walking around the corpse-walls and gathering them for the walls, I can’t help but wonder what lives they had. Their interests, their jobs, their families, their friends, their lovers, their dreams . . . I mean, everyone has those but once they die, everyone else is so eager to stay away from them as if they’re nothing to begin with. It hurts me to see people treated like that. And whenever I build the corpse walls and whenever I walk around them, I always try to make them look . . . presentable and nice, and I would’ve put them with their favorite things if the village didn’t hate me so much to ask for their favorite things.”
A moment of silence passed, then the strange woman giggled.
“YOU ASKED!” roared Flora.
“Oh no no no!” uncontrollably squeaked the strange woman, “I wasn’t laughing at you! I-I was laughing out of relief—I never thought any living human would have sympathy for the dead!” Then she smiled a gentle smile and Flora’s heartbeats started to pulse something warm.
“Well, it seems we’ve bothered each other longer than necessary,” said the strange woman, “But I enjoyed it very much. Thank you.”
“W-where are you going?” Flora hurriedly asked.
“Oh, I’m going back to gathering. There’s a lot of people here and I need to get them all.”
“Do you have a bag for . . . whatever you’re gathering?”
“No, I haven’t had a reason to.”
“Wha—why? Don’t you have a lot to carry?”
“I’m fine as I am.”
“Did you fall earlier because you had so much of what you gathered?”
“Well, sort of, I tripped, but—”
“Wait here.” With that stern command, Flora rushed back to the tree, found and grabbed her snack basket, rushed back to the strange woman, and thrusted it into her arms.
“Oh, I don’t need a ba—”
“Just take it.”
“O-oh . . .okay . . . Thank you.”
With that, the two women resumed their gathering but when Flora reached the cart, she’d remembered the basket was still full with snacks. She ran back to the strange woman and yelled, “Wait, the basket is full of food!”
The strange woman stopped and immediately rummaged through the basket but by the time Flora reached her, the basket was empty, and the woman sorrowfully said, “Oh, they had already eaten everything inside. I’m sorry. If it makes you feel better any better, they said it was yummy.”
A great chill went through Flora, but she laughed, somehow. The strange woman smiled back. Then Flora blinked and the strange woman vanished without a sound. Flora decided she had enough excitement and mystery for today and resumed her corpse-gathering until it was dusk.
For weeks, Flora couldn’t get the strange woman out of her head, the memories of her laughter and her smile making the maiden believe the sky to be more colorful than before and the forests to be more alive. To her family and the nosey neighbors, they only saw Flora as becoming even stranger, her whimsical smiles appearing to them as arrogant ignorance to their worries of the sounds of battles and soldiers coming closer and closer with each day.
The village’s fears came true when a huge fire unleashed by one militia viciously burned the forests, the crops, and the corpse-walls. Flora, her family, and other villagers managed to escape the blaze, but once the last flame flickered into ash, they were quickly ambushed by the militia. After killing the old and the defiant, the soldiers took the remaining villagers as slaves, and they dragged them through every battlefield for months. Pride, power, and violence made these soldiers, and they often demonstrated their evil to the villagers with glee and pride—brutally beating them despite having done no error, humiliating them in the most dehumanizing ways, and violating every part and piece of their bodies.
Some died due to the soldiers’ beatings, some committed suicide to escape the torture. Flora watched them all die, her heart wailing out of grief and guilt. There was no comfort for her, except for her grandmother’s soft blanket she’d managed to save from the flames and the glimpses of the strange woman who always appeared after a death. Flora was cautious enough to not smile during these moments. Flora used her medical knowledge to do whatever she could to help the remaining villagers, and managed to save many of them from their injuries but struggled to offer them hope. When the militia’s only doctor was killed in an ambush, Flora was snatched by the soldiers and dragged from her family to their commander’s tent. They flung her hard at the feet of their cruel leader, and Flora could only scowl at his black stare.
“These warriors have seen you treat and heal the other slaves,” the general spoke emotionlessly, “We lost our only doctor in this field and we’ve suffered major causalities from that battle. You will replace our doctor from now on. You’ll only treat our forces; the slaves we can replace with each new village we occupy.”
“I’ll never give you or your monsters any medicine!” Flora growled “I’ll never tie bandages on their wounds! I’ll never give them medicines for their fevers! I’ll never help you, you monster!”
The general gave a silent nod to the soldiers near the entrance who quietly left, only to return with some of the villagers’ youngest children.
The general ordered “Execute them in front of—”
“NONONONONONO!” screamed Flora, “I’ll be your nurse! I’ll be your nurse! Don’t touch them! I’ll do anything—don’t touch them!”
The general stared at her with cold eyes, a smirk slowly growing on his face. “You will only treat our warriors. The slaves we will replace. You don’t need to interact with them. The medical bay is where you reside from now on.”
For a year, she obediently tended wounded soldiers without protest or resistance, making no contact with her family and the remaining villagers. After she treated and healed many soldiers from impossible wounds, she begged the general to visit her family. She had bags under her eyes, her skin flaky and thin, everything about her was barely holding on to life. The general couldn’t risk her death, so he allowed her to visit one day for one hour every three weeks. She happily accepted the slim visitation, making sure every second was spent giving her crucial healing knowledge to her family so they could treat the villagers in her place.
To those malevolent soldiers and their cold general, Flora was a submissive nurse to their every wound and illness. So full of vice they were that their vile arrogance couldn’t see Flora’s heart burning, Flora’s mind scheming, Flora’s eyes observing every move they made.
Flora made sure her actions were discreet; she gently placed bad medicine on some heavily wounded soldiers’ critical wounds; she quietly placed small portions of toxic herbs in the soups she’d served to her soldier-patients. When her patients started dying, Flora acted as if she had done everything she could to save them, but all her efforts were too often in vain. The effects were slow, and the constant battles provided good excuses for the dwindling numbers in the militia.
The militia became weak enough to be quickly slaughtered by another but much stronger militia. The conquering militia quickly took the remaining villagers; however, the adrenaline and bloodlust that shone viciously in the soldiers’ hungry eyes told them that they wouldn’t live long. But before those atrocious acts could be committed, Flora jumped in front of her people and cried in the voice of a happy girl, “Oh, noble warriors of power and strength, let us celebrate your victory with a grand feast made by me, the best cook you ever found. I need these people as my helpers to cook your grand meal, so please hold off your desires for them until after I serve the meal!”
Her tired heart was pounding, her seductive smile flickered, her hands started to shake and sweat as she waited for soldiers’ answers.
The militia commander earnestly bellowed, “Well, lads, how long since we had a pretty lady serve us! Let us enjoy every bite she provides before we have our fun with her and the rest!”
Flora already had enough of being a slave, and she knew her fellow villagers felt the same. She told them to gather specific ingredients for her dishes, how to measure the ingredients for the most effective paralyzing results, how to make the tonic to not get as sick as the soldiers. Once the dishes were finished and served to all the soldiers, Flora and the villagers silently ran away to the hills. They heard the soldiers’ cries and screams from the shadows; it was hard to feel any sorrow for them.
They waited until daybreak to return to the camp, to gather the militia’s remaining supplies of food, weapons, clothing, and maps. A lot of soldiers had died already by the time Flora and her villagers returned; there were few who were alive, but they were weakened by the poisons and they offered no resistance when some of the villagers made their deaths a little faster.
Flora was rummaging through the commander’s tent and the commander himself when she heard, “Oh, I didn’t see you there!”
Startled, she grabbed a nearby sword before turning towards the voice, improperly holding it at the very surprised strange woman.
“Oh, s-sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you so badly!” she hurriedly said to the very dumbfounded Flora, “If it makes you feel any better, you startled me first!”
“Wha . . . wha . . . why are you . . . how are you . . . here?” groaned Flora before falling to her knees from exhaustion and shock. The strange woman dropped her basket and rushed to Flora’s side.
“Are you okay?” she urgently asked, concern pouring from her eyes.
“I’m . . . just tired,” said Flora, “Just really tired . . . of killing. I don’t like killing even when it’s . . .”
“Yes, taking a life is horrible, even if it’s needed. Just think of the lives you’ve saved, of the lives you’re gonna save!”
“How do you know?”
“Since you first talked to me. I know because you are kind. You want to help. You can’t just stop being kind.”
Tears gathering upon her eyes, Flora struggled to accept the strange woman’s comforting words. She didn’t find comfort in them, because regret hurts more than truth. The strange woman simply waited for Flora to calm down, but Flora asked in a pained voice, “Did you know what was gonna happen back then?”
“No, I am not Fate,” she answered in a quiet voice full of regret, “I can only go when I am called and there were always so many people to gather that it’s hard to see everything around me.”
“Sometimes, while I was trying to save someone, when I’m trying to stop them from dying . . . I think I see you.”
The strange woman looked away. “I go anywhere and everywhere, to anyone and everyone, at all times. I didn’t know if I could . . . protect . . . anyone from such cruelty. I am not like you, I can’t save people the way you do.”
A freezing winter wind blew into the tent, only mildly chilling Flora for she had her grandmother’s blanket, but the strange woman’s shoulders shook.
“Oh, here,” Flora said as she draped her grandmother’s blanket upon the strange woman’s shoulders, “You’ll catch a cold in this weather.”
“I don’t need—”
“No, no, no, no, no, no, you need it more than I do. You’re just wearing a pretty dress, while I have coats upon coats!”
“But this is your grandmother’s blanket—this is the one she died in on her deathbed!”
“I’m sure she won’t mind if I gave to someone who needs it in this weather!”
“Just take it please!”
“FLORA!” the voice of Flora’s mother rang out desperately, “WHERE ARE YOU?!”
“I’M IN THE LEADER’S TENT! I’M ALMOST DONE!” Flora called back, and when she turned back, only dust and emptiness was there. The fact that the strange woman had taken the blanket gave Flora some snug comfort, and her heart’s yearning grew more warm.
Once they had gathered all the supplies and weapons they could scavenge, Flora and her fellow villagers began their wanderings through the land searching for a place to build a new home or a town to take them in. Taking great precautions to avoid militias and bandits, the refugees traversed within the shadows of dense forests, giant mountains, and dark nights. They only stopped during the daylight and only where they found caves and abandoned villages to hide in. For things nature couldn’t provide, some refugees had to supply themselves by scavenging abandoned towns of ashes and decay as well as battlefields of corpses and death. Though they carried fearsome weapons, the group only used the bows and the spears to hunt small animals; they hoped that the unused weapons were enough to scare off any passing bandits. While the new terrain and the changing weather gave the group much trouble, their determination to live was a stronger and sharper blade than the weapons they carried.
For Flora, these wanderings allowed her to discover new plants of various types, some edible, some medicinal. Of course, she had to test them first and that was the dangerous part. With each new plant she spotted during the group’s resting periods, she would simply observe how the animals and bugs interacted with the plants before she took samples of their leaves, roots, and stems to dissect. Some of her fellow refugees joined her on these excursions and experiments out of curiosity as well as the need to learn her healing wisdom in case Flora died. Knowing this sad possibility, Flora took up the role of teaching them, but often left the quick learners among her students to teach the others, as she was more invested in her plant discoveries and experiments than teaching.
The only test subject she had was herself, and she refused to let her fellow refugees be test subjects, even when some of them volunteered for the dangerous role. Flora ingested the new plants in different forms—raw, dried, boiled, powder or paste—either by themselves or combined with other plants, then she would observe the effects they inflected on her body. If the plants in their various forms gave her no harm, she declared them to be safe and edible. If they had given much relief to her wounds, she would declare them safe and gather bunches of them for medicine. But when they did cause harm in the form of fevers and hallucinations, she ingested other plants to combat those effects. These procedures took a great toil on her body, so that she often had to be taken care of by her parents and her students. During these torturous experiments, Flora would sometimes hear the strange woman’s voice or see her blurry face over her head. Somewhat foolishly, she did try to focus on the strange woman with all her weakened mental might, but she always succumbed to unconsciousness. Fortunately for herself and her villagers, Flora would always get out of these moments of sickness with the help and care of her students and parents, even becoming much better than before.
The group had been traveling for over two years when they reached a mountain-carved city that was surrounded by a great stone wall and deep moat. The city appeared protected—and the group of refugees rushed towards the shut gate, but instead of entering the place, a frail guard greeted them from her watchtower with, “A deadly plague has infested our fair city—flee before it is too late!”
With these words, the refugees despaired, but Flora refused to give in.
“Please, dear brave guard, let us in!” she called to the guard, “We were taken from our home by militias and we need a place to call home after so much traveling!”
“Then travel away from here!” responded the guard, “The plague is swift and deadly. Our home has barely any doctors or healers left here to combat it. If your weary souls truly want a haven from your wanderings, then you must leave this forsaken place, for we cannot risk spreading it with other towns and armies! Leave!”
“We appreciate your selfless concern,” answered Flora, “But our group won’t be another burden to your grand city for we have many healers with us, including myself! We will help your city get better, for our wanderings gave us an opportunity to discover new plants that would bring needed medicine for your citizens! We will take the place of the doctors and healers who have died in their valiant fight. We demand neither glory nor gold—we simply ask for a home! For the good of your home, please let us in! Please let us in!”
A long silence was all Flora and her refugees received, but they refused to leave, so they decided to camp in front of the wall for the night and resume calling for the wall-guards to let them in the next day. When Flora lost her voice from all her yelling, the other members took her place instead, each one taking turns whenever one lost their voice and needed to rest.
It took a week for the guards to finally be convinced of the group’s determination and promise. They sent messages to the city’s leaders and doctors about them. The responses were quick and unanimous: Let them in.
Once inside the city, Flora and her fellow healers immediately went to work alongside the city’s doctors and healers, sharing notes on the disease and experimenting with different types and combinations of medicines to relieve the symptoms. As promised, the knowledge and assistance of Flora and her healers greatly aided the city’s efforts to combat the plague, yet the plague proved to be stubbornly persistent.
It wasn’t long for the plague to take some of Flora’s fellow healers as well as her fellow refugees. Their deaths only made Flora work even harder with her medicine. When it was time to gather new plants for the medicine, Flora would join in any groups that would allow her. When some places needed a healer for whatever medical problems they had, Flora would often be the one rushing towards each door. When someone had to carry the corpses out of the hospitals and homes to the deep ravine at the southwest wall, Flora would be the first to volunteer.
She rarely had time to visit and spend time with her family, but when the workload forced her to take some time off, her family’s home was the first place she would go. Each time she failed to save someone, her desperation and agony only grew. She put more of herself into her work to the point that sleep and food would sometimes be strangers to her, but the fleeting and frequent glimpses of the strange woman wandering through streets and among plague beds provided her with heavenly solace.
It was on the night of the two-year anniversary of Flora and her refugees’ arrival in the city that she visited her parents for a much-needed break, though she arrived very late into the night. Eager to see her family after such a long time, Flora excitedly knocked on the house’s door but no one came. She knocked once more, twice more, thrice more until she finally accepted the fact that everyone was asleep and shouldn’t be woken up so late, and as the inns were either stuffed with the infected and the healers, she resorted to entering her house through the never-locked kitchen window.
With weary excitement, Flora clumsily banged the nearby cabinets and knocked down the hanging pots and pans, but once she was inside and returned the fallen kitchenware to their original places, a terrible eerie feeling consumed Flora’s body. By the moonlight and her own small lantern, the kitchen and adjacent living room looked nearly the same as she remembered, the sight of the rooms looked empty as if the physical objects Flora had physically touched and carried were simply illusions.
To calm herself, Flora quietly said to herself, “I’m just tired, I just need sleep.” But when she went to her room, the feeling grew invisible chains around her heart. She stopped in the space between her parents’ room and her room. She tried lifting each of her feet but couldn’t. She looked at her parents’ bedroom door and it looked empty and strange. She had to touch it to confirm it to be real and then the door opened painfully at her trembling touch.
The lantern-light filled the room, ripping away the shadows from the two figures in the bed. A smell hit her. Flora absentmindedly walked towards the bed, saw her parents looking empty, saw the signs of plague upon what she hoped were their sleeping faces. Gently placing the lantern on the floor behind her, Flora grabbed the hands of her father and mother, felt their plague, felt their coldness, felt their hands. She numbly fell to the floor.
It was morning when she woke. It took a lot for her to stand up and not look at the bed, to walk away from the bed to her room, to look through the curtains of her own window to see that thing that was sunlight and civilization and society. She noticed that people were avoiding the house, an action people only take when a house is full of death. It hurt, but Flora couldn’t summon any tears or wail for herself to let out this hurt.
Her logical, professional healer mind told her that she had to carry the dead away from the house and dump the corpses in the ravine, but Flora couldn’t hear the words; her emotional, daughter mind could only scream that she couldn’t carelessly dump her Ma and Pa into the dark and cold ravine. Her miserable mental argument between her logic and her emotion was broken by the hungry growls of her stomach. She moved to the kitchen and began eating stale bread. It took a while for her nose to pick up the wild chaos of scents from a cabinet. She remembered her mother saying that she and her father had recently spent their free time wandering through the tree grove nearby and that the two of them have been gathering some pleasant-smelling herbs along their paths and have been cooking them in their food and how those meals tasted much better than without them and…
Flora walked out of the kitchen for the lavatory and dragged the metal bathtub to the kitchen fireplace. She gathered spare bed sheets and threw them into the bathtub before going to the water pump outside. She returned four times with buckets of water which she poured into the tub, and then dumped all the herbs from the cabinet. After mixing them all together, Flora lit the fireplace underneath. Once the water was boiling, she continuously stirred the strange ingredients all day until she was sure the sheets and the herbs were one and the same. She took the wet sheets out to dry outside before she took two buckets of the pleasant-smelling water to her parents’ room where she washed them with it. Then she dressed them in their favorite outfits and covered their bodies with the damp but mostly dry sheets.
This whole strange procedure took her all day and it was the darkest of night when she finally left the house with her parents in a cart that’s always in every neighborhood, the sparse light of the wanning moonlight and the flimsy candle she carried guiding her to the forest grove. She was silent, numb, because she didn’t know what to think.
When Flora arrived at the grove, she decided to take a break for the sake of her shaking legs. She had just sat under one of the grove’s trees when the strange woman walked out of the shadows behind her, still carrying that basket in her hands and wearing that blanket around her shoulders. Her face was sorrow. She didn’t say anything to Flora, just sat by her under the tree and gently draped half of the blanket around Flora’s shoulders.
For the first time, Flora didn’t want the strange woman near her. She didn’t want to look at her. She didn’t want to speak to her, but a dry and monotone “What are you doing here?” flowed from her mouth before she could stop it.
“I’m everywhere and anywhere,” the strange woman replied in a beautiful gentle voice. “I really tried to prolong their fate, but they were suffering so much that I had to . . . I asked my sister Thought to allow them to have a sweet dream before I took them in their sleep. I’m so sorry.”
“When did they go?” Flora asked in a strained voice.
“A few hours before you came,” the strange woman answered.
“Oh,” was all Flora said before falling into silence. She wanted to say a million things, to scream a million things, but she couldn’t speak. Then the strange woman gently draped the blanket on Flora’s shoulders and the tears flowed uncontrollably. The strange woman simply held Flora’s trembling body as everything that made up Flora exploded from her. It took a long time for her to calm down and when she finally felt some semblance of control, her stomach growled. The strange woman hurriedly rummaged through her basket and shoved some weird fruits and still-warm cookies to Flora’s face.
“Oh, thank you,” Flora said, “But I don’t nee—”
“You need to eat if you want to continue your journey and your plan,” the strange woman sternly told her, “Please, eat. I’ve tried these before—they’re really good.”
The strange woman smiled warmly at her, and that made Flora smile for the first time after so long. She ate while the strange woman watched, concern and regret all over her beautiful face. Once Flora finished all the food, she hurried towards the cart with the strange woman quietly following in her shadow.
“Oh, I need to do this alone, please,” Flora told the strange woman.
“It’s the middle of the night and the only light you have is some candles and a wanning moon! I have better light and know the terrain better than you, who have barely visited,” the strange woman snapped at her.
“I have to do this al—”
“Your cart is heavy as well and I know the smoothest path in this grove! I know the perfect spot to place them!”
“It’s the least I could do! You have always helped me every time we talk and all I have brought you is misery and pain!”
“You already done e—”
“No, let me help you with this! That pain is still fresh in you and though I am the worst suited for this, I must be there for you! Please let me do this, I have to do this for you.”
The strange woman gave Flora her begging eyes, and Flora was too weary to continue an argument with her, so she murmured, “Fine.”
The strange woman sweetly smiled and took out three small floating balls of light that twinkled like the stars above from her basket. The lights gave off enough to see the path and the two women started the journey. As they dragged the cart through the grove, the strange woman asked Flora odd questions about her family, mainly about her parents and grandmother, about what they were like when they were living and what good memories she had of them.
At first, Flora simply gave out simple and short answers, but within mere minutes she was recounting all the memories she had with her parents and all the stories and jokes they used to tell her. Then she expanded into memories she shared with grandmother before she passed and tears started to flow from her eyes again, but the strange woman immediately held Flora’s hand and that gave her enough strength to push through. Recounting the memories first tasted bitter to Flora’s heart but gradually became sweeter with each tale she told.
The long hours of walking seemed like minutes to Flora, and it was quite a shock to her when the strange woman suddenly announced, “Here is a good place for them to rest,” as they entered a clearing. Flora grabbed the shovel she brought in the cart and began digging into the ground below. The strange woman tried to help her, but Flora determinedly refused to let her, only saying in the firmest voice she could muster, “This part must be done by me and me only.”
She dug until she couldn’t risk her strength anymore. The strange woman helped her carry her parents to the holes but stood by with her floating balls of light while Flora covered her parents and the open holes with dirt. Once the holes were filled, Flora collapsed on the ground and more tears escaped from her. She struggled to pull herself up, but the strange woman placed a hand on her shoulder and said, “No, you need rest now. Take a nap first before you go home.”
Then the strange woman kissed her forehead and Flora fell into a deep sleep. It was the morning sunlight that woke her, and her first emotion of the day was pure awe, for the sight of the two filled holes before her didn’t remotely look like it did in the dark night. The colors of the sunrise floated amongst the branches and leaves of the trees, and drifting birdsongs danced and floated upon the air. It truly was a good place to rest.
Flora thought the strange woman and her spheres of light had left long ago but when she heard the strange woman’s voice cheerfully saying, “Good morning,” next to her, she was shocked.
“I wanted to see if you were going to be okay when you woke up,” the strange woman said with a smile, “I’ll carry you home.”
“You already have done enough,” responded Flora as she tried to stand up, but her sore muscles just trembled before falling onto the earth.
“I still haven’t done enough for you,” the strange woman solemnly said. She lifted Flora gracefully off the ground and carried her to the cart. “Rest for a while, and you can better map the way here in the cart as I move. Let’s go, my beloved.”
Flora nodded and let the strange woman drive the cart as she surveyed and mentally mapped the path. Along the way home, she realized that the light orbs from last night were floating around the cart despite the bright daylight. They felt oddly yet comfortably familiar to her, and their comfort was much needed. It was as they were approaching the end of the grove when Flora concluded that she must repay the strange woman for her help, but she had only packed candles and matches—such simple things that couldn’t match the strange woman’s kindness and beauty. Nevertheless, when the cart left the shadows of the grove, plain candles were the only things good enough.
“Oh, before you go,” Flora called to the strange woman before she could make a single step away from the cart, “I have a gift to give you.”
“Oh, you shouldn’t!” yelped the strange woman, “For you have already given me enough and I haven’t yet done enough to relieve the harm I did to you.”
“But if I don’t give you this,” Flora shoved the candles into the strange woman’s hands, “I’ll be tortured by regret! Please just take these!”
“First off, you pushed these into my hands and I’ve already taken your basket, your blanket, and—oh, don’t, d-don’t you dare make that face!”
Flora sternly pouted at the strange woman, using all her well-rested strength to make her expression more begging and desperate.
The strange woman groaned, “Alright, I’ll take your gift, but my actions last night are not worth these so I must give you much needed wisdom. In a few weeks after today, come back to where your parents are buried at sunset. I wish you the best of health and happiness, my beloved.”
The strange woman began to leave, but Flora called, “Wait, what is your name?”
“My beloved,” said the strange woman with a melancholy smile, “You already know my most cursed name.”
And within Flora’s blink, she was gone. The lights were fading but before they vanished, they gave Flora a reassuring warm embrace.
Flora quietly returned to her home, where her neighbors swarmed around her and warned her to not entire her house for the plague had taken her parents. She calmly told them that she already knew, for she had arrived the night before and had deposed of their corpses in the ravine before the sun had risen. Before they could ask any questions, Flora rushed into her house and began cleaning herself then the house, the silence and the memories of last night giving her enough solace and strength to return to the hospital a few days later.
Flora dedicated all her time and energy to helping, never allowing her heart to give in to the overwhelming despair and apathy that devoured the city, never allowing her body to stop moving from patient to patient and corpse to corpse. Then one day, harrowing coughs and burning heat woke Flora in her bed. At first, she thought it was a cold, but when she tried to get ready to go her patients, more coughs and symptoms began to appear everywhere. The logical part of her mind reminded her of the necessary treatments and procedures she had to do. The emotional part of her mind kept wandering through her life, trying to remember, to relive such simple things, simple moments to distract her heart from hoping against fate, from preparing to see the strange woman for the final time.
For two weeks, she holed up inside her empty house, making and ingesting every herbal remedy she knew, but those only dispelled some symptoms, not the disease. It hurt when she finally had her meltdown. Passing bystanders on the street fled from Flora’s house, believing it to be the domain of ghosts from the plague. As her flowing tears led her to another doomed slumber, Flora heard “Remember what I told you about the grove.”
In the early morning next day, Flora trudged towards the grove with curiosity and desperation, moving her pale and shaking limbs over the rocks and pits and stumps that tripped and twisted everything. She didn’t expect strange plants blooming where her parents rested. The plants grew in various sizes, widths, and shades of grey, appearing to be simultaneously dry and moist to the touch. They had no smell but the air around them was cool enough to chill the fever festering in Flora. Knowing this could be her last hope, Flora grabbed a couple of these strange plants and before she left her parents, Flora whispered a wish to the air above—if it was too late for her, she wanted to be buried with her parents instead of being dumped and abandoned in the ravine.
The following days were a chaotic mess of hope and stubbornness, her tired body continuously subjected to various potions and powders made from the strange plants, but it was enough to drive the disease away from every part of her body. While overwhelmingly grateful for the strange plant, Flora was skeptical of it. After all, she had been ingesting various experimental remedies before testing the plant that could’ve cured her. Nevertheless, if the plant did cure her, it was necessary to experiment on other human subjects.
When she returned to the hospital, her fellow healers warmly welcomed her back before intensely interrogating her on what happened to her. Flora answered her colleagues’ questions with honesty but kept the location of where she got the strange plant from them, for she needed to be sure of the plant’s capabilities and the healers’ acceptance. Flora gave her remaining bundle to them for their help and guidance as well as a test to prove their worth. After a few trials and tests that took days to complete, it was soon discovered that the plant in potion form was most effective in curing the plague. While the rest were celebrating the cure, Flora knew that there would be a high demand for the plant, within days, from all walks of life in this grand city. Flora went back to her parents’ mound to gather the remaining plants a few days later, her mind a whirl of worry and theories.
When it was her turn to gather corpses and dump them into the ravine, she brought some matches, some candles, a lantern, and the longest rope she had in the many bags she’d hidden under her cloak. At the edge of the ravine, Flora made sure that she was completely alone before tying her rope in an overly complicated knot to some sturdy boulders and beginning her descent into the dark ravine with only lantern light as her guiding hope.
Flora’s stomach panged in pain when her feet touched the fresh corpses as she climbed down. She thought she saw the strange woman hover above her but had to focus her eyes and her heart to the destination and goal. Her feet finally felt ground and she cautiously explored through the mounds of broken bodies and shattered skeletons. She didn’t know how long she wandered, but whenever she found the strange plant, she wasted no time in gathering all she could fit in her bags until they were overflowing. Once Flora couldn’t carry anymore, she returned to the surface of the living, the bags’ weight making it much more difficult and long, but she carried on without ever losing her balance or footing.
Flora immediately gave her fellow healers the plant the next day, and immediately they demanded to know how she got the plant, their patience well worn out. Though she knew her colleagues had handled corpses in varying degrees of decay, she wasn’t so sure of their sincerity and intentions if she told them the truth. She knew that if she lied to them that it would only prolong the pandemic, and even more dangerously, sow toxic paranoia amongst the people who had knowledge to stop the disease. She had no choice but to be honest and hope for the best in her colleagues’ humanity.
“These plants can only be grown in the soil where corpses are buried underneath,” Flora said.
The faces before her were a mosaic of emotions: some were confused, some were shocked, and some uttered some sour chuckles of denial and horror. When Flora repeated the words again, some faces showed acceptance, but the rest stayed rooted in their horror and denial. Graciously and humbly, Flora gave each of the healers an equal amount of the plants for treatments, but she sternly told them, “This is the truth of this plant, its birth and its miracle. Go ahead and attempt to grow it in soil untainted by the dead. Go ahead and forsake this plant for the sake of finding another plant and treatment just as effective as this. Those choices will be proven fruitless and a waste of precious time that we do not have. I only beg you to be kind and wise in your decisions.”
Hands clutching a bundle of salvation, the healers went their separate ways. Some immediately used the plant on their patients and politely asked Flora to get some more for them when needed; some attempted to grow the plant in soils untainted by the human dead in which failure was the only productive result; some simply did not use the plant and left the city in search of finding a new plant with the same properties, but that only expanded the plague’s reach as the healers infected other towns and villages during their wanderings.
It took a while for some of the healers who had accepted Flora’s truth to venture down to the ravine of dumped corpses to gather. Though Flora and her fellow healers were able to ward off the plague long enough for the city to happily—and recklessly—open its gates to eager traveling merchants and minstrels, it wasn’t long for the supply to be halfway gone within a year and the plague to quickly regain its terrible reign over the city. Mounds of corpses started to slowly fill the ravine once again, but Flora and her fellow healers had realized too late that the miracle plant needed time that they didn’t have to grow and mature.
When the city governor herself got infected with the plague, Flora persuaded the governor’s personal doctor and went to the governor with the cure’s truth.
“It comes from corpses!” moaned the feeble governor in her large bed.
“It grows from the dirt from where corpses are buried,” calmly repeated Flora for the umpteenth time as she struggled to not let her tiredness show too much, “Our previous supply of potions was large only because the ravine was deep and full of corpses and dirt. We saved a lot of people with that cure, but that also meant there were not enough nutrients for the plant to grow in the amounts we need for the potion. The only way to remedy this dilemma is to make a decree that all corpses should be buried underground in a specific area in the city.”
The governor could only stare at the healer, and it was hard for them to decipher which one was more tired than the other.
It was the governor’s desperation to live that caused her to say, “I’ll do it, I promise on my life,” and for Flora to give her the last of the cure. Immediately the governor created and enforced a strict law that mandated the burial of all corpses underground within a few days of death and the burial plots to be strictly maintained. Though it bought Flora and her fellow healers time for plants to grow enough to make more potions, the citizens greeted the law with suspicion and dread. It wasn’t long for the healers who knew of the cure’s origin to confess the truth to their patients when they mentioned the strange law and their opinions. There were some shocked faces, but years of plague and death had ironically lessened the stigma of corpses.
When travelers trapped in the plagued city were finally able to return home with the cure, they quickly told their plague-stricken hometowns of how the cure is grown and developed. These towns and cities quickly adopted the process of corpse-burial and harvesting the miracle plant to combat the plague. While these little gardens of the dead gave the living a weapon and shield against the plague, they also offered a strange comfort for the grieving. Some days, some people would often and impulsively go to the spot where they hoped their deceased beloved were buried and spend some time there. This happened so much that some individuals who had to bury their family, their friends, and their lovers placed a stone engraved with the dead one’s name right above the spot where they rested. The adoption of his strange ritual was gradual but greatly widespread across the lands through the tales of passing travelers.
As for that dreadful plague that took so many, it took another two years for it to be banished from the world of the living. During those two years, Flora worked tirelessly to help people, suffering too many nights and days with a nearly empty stomach and exhausted limbs, either working on the production of the cure, traveling to other towns and cities to help with their plague, and caring for a countless stream of patients. When she finally spent a week with no new patients to care for, she decided to take a break from her work. Sometime before noon, she told her fellow healers that she would be spending the rest of the day in the city’s garden of the dead and must not be sought after until the following day.
Flora stopped at her house first to put on her favorite dress and bracelets, then wandered through the marketplace where she bought a ton of treats and drinks before walking to her parents’ grave. She spent some time with them before leaving them with a plate of food and a liquor bottle. Most of the grove’s trees and plants were gone when the city started digging these gardens, but there was a single tree surrounded by some bushes, some grass, and some more plants in the corner that Flora headed towards.
She sat under the lone tree and waited, sometimes taking a little nibble of the remaining snacks and drinks, her uneasy tiredness only growing as the sun rolled across the sky. It was afternoon when Flora spotted the figure of the strange woman slowly approaching. Flora happily waved at her, but that only made the strange woman walk slower. Eventually she stopped a few feet away from the tree, her head bowed down and her wavy hair blocking her face. Flora, with an unsteady smile, said, “Come over here, I can’t eat all of this alone,” and patted the empty space next to her, “I want to share it with you.”
Flora’s words unfroze the strange woman and she reluctantly sat next to Flora, who opened her basket of snacks and drinks between them. They casually ate the tasty food and drank the sweet liquor; they talked about random things like the sky and plants and the stories and jokes they heard so long ago. Flora’s smiles and laughter lingered while the strange woman’s laughter and smiles too often vanished, her black bangs meeting Flora’s eyes instead of her own.
When the sun turned the afternoon into sunset, Flora told the strange woman, her tired limbs beginning to slightly tremble, her smile struggling to stay upon her face, “Now is a beautiful time for me to leave, Death. I’m glad you spent it with me.”
Death’s figure recoiled, her overflowing eyes finally looking up at Flora’s peaceful face.
“No, no, no,” Death painfully whimpered, and she couldn’t stop shaking, “Not you, I don’t want to. I want to continue seeing you, I want to talk more with you. I don’t want to gather you. I can’t.”
“Didn’t you say that you’ll come whenever wherever to anyone anywhere?” Flora asked, “Last time I checked, I am pretty sure I’m part of anyone that—oh, um, I don’t know how to phrase this—I’m one of the everyone that you are going to gather or have already gathered.”
“I don’t want to, I don’t want to, I don’t want to—”
“It’s okay, my beloved. To be honest, I was not feeling okay yesterday and today and that eternal rest sounds really good right now.”
“I don’t want to steal more from you!” Death wailed.
“Oh, beloved . . .” Flora cradled Death’s shaking hands with her own, “You didn’t rob me. It’s true that your work has often brought me misery, but the sight of you has always brought me such joy.”
“I-I want you to stay.”
“I spent enough time here and I’m fine with my life as it happened. When I enter the Underworld, I promise I won’t ever forget you and I won’t ever stop loving you. I love you.”
“I love you . . . so, so, so much.”
Death embraced Flora and gave her a loving kiss upon her lips.
The world erupted in bright lights and colors that Flora didn’t recognize or imagine. The colorful lights separated into tiny balls that chaotically flew across the air. Some flew into the horizon, some landed in the garden of the dead, some landed upon the plants next to Flora and Death.
When Flora and Death let go of each other, Flora turned back to see her corpse, but she only found her shadow under the tree. She grabbed an empty bottle of wine, looked at her refection, and saw that she was still in her body, but her body felt and looked different. Her skin was a beautiful greenish brown and her hair was a mesmerizing mess of leaves, vines, and bundles of colorful leaves that looked like beautiful little stars. Curious, Flora touched one of the colorful bundles and it felt so fragile yet soft under her fingers.
She turned to look at Death, who only stared at her with confusion and relief. Flora felt horrible for asking Death, “What happened?” but the words slipped before she could stop.
A few seconds passed before Death answered, “I . . . don’t know.”
“Oh . . . okay.”
“AH—um, my elder sibling, Unknown, might know what happened, but siblings give vague answers to everything . . .”
“Oh . . . Um, where is your sibling?”
“Oh, with the rest of my siblings in the Beyond. I . . . can take you there . . . I think?”
“So I’m going to meet your family . . .”
“Most of them are nice . . . Do you . . . want to go now?”
“Um, yes, but can we take a little stroll around . . . somewhere first?”
“Um, yes. Where to and why?”
“I need time to . . . adjust to whatever happened just now.”
“Got a good place in mind? Because I don’t think the people here will, well, uh, not, not notice us as we are . . .”
“We’ll do it across the night sky. It’s the prettiest path I take whenever I go home.”
“That sounds wonderful.”
“I still love you.”
“I still love you.”
Flora hugged Death and kissed her upon her lips.
Together, hand in hand, hearts beating in love and joy, they went to the Beyond.
So quickly they left that they didn’t notice what changed in Below-Earth. Those colorful lights landed on random plants around the world and became those strange soft colorful leaves. And nearby those plants were human-shaped figures; some were variations of Flora’s new form, some had looked and smelled like corpses.
Humans, at first, were afraid of these strange colorful leaves as well as the strange creatures; some attempted to destroy them all, some decided to experiment with them, some tried to be friendly with them. It took some years for humans to accept as well as name these new plants and new creatures. The word “Flower” was given to the strange plants, and humans discovered numerous things about them and used them for a variety of things in life. Flowers were used as medicine, perfume, paint, dye, jewelry, and decoration, with the latter most favored to be put in the hair of humans as well as upon graves.
Meanwhile, the creatures that looked like Flora were called “Nymphs” and were much loved by humans for they brought life and beauty to their lands, and the creatures that smelled like corpses were referred to as “Decays” and were despised by humans for they brought rot to their lands.
And ever since then, the Beings of Flora and Death were inseparable, spending their eternities happily together traveling across the Beyond above and the world of humans and creatures below, giving their kindness and beauties to all that are living and to all that have passed on into the night sky as stars.
© 2022 Dana Trick All rights reserved.