The Many Deaths of Iph

by M. Lazarus

 

 

 

 

Lark Publishing 2016

 

For more stories, visit http://subsidingsun.co.uk/lark/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




 

The many deaths of Iph
by M. Lazarus


Iph lay there, sweating, her eyes screwed shut and her nails digging into her palms. When she breathed there was a snotty rattle in her chest that could have been because of what she knew was coming, or it could have been because she was prone to phlegminess at the best of times. Her sister said it was because Iph had no idea about hygiene and called her The Grubby Little Thing, drawing the words out slowly and sneering at Iph in the voice that tried to sound like a sophisticated grownup, doing a feeble impression of their mother. Iph was aware that she herself wasn't much good at imitating Mother's regalness. She just couldn't do it. Iph's hair never stayed neat, and sometimes she couldn't explain how her clothes had become torn or caked with mud. Everybody in the family muttered that they thought Iph should have grown out of it by now, except of course she couldn't do that just at this precise moment, because she was about to die again.

 

This time, they had put her in a box so she wouldn't struggle. About half the time they had to restrain her in some way. Sometimes they tied her with thick ropes, bound with the swift automation of sailors whose hands made silent and intricate knots without the need for supervision or instruction. The knots were not always the same, she could feel that for sure. Because she wasn't very big yet, still not grown anywhere near to the willowy grace of her mother, Iph was easy for them to pick up and place wherever they wanted her and it was a simple matter to restrain her. They usually restrain her, partly she suspects because they don't trust her to fulfil her end of the whole act, and partly because it makes them feel better to arrange her just so - like a lamb due for roasting later in the day. That way they are free to focus on doing what they think they need to do and not think about Iph actually being there.

 

Some of the time she goes with quiet grace. At least, that's what she imagines it looks like to the ones who sharpen the knives or light the fires. In reality, her mind is usually just a simpleton's fog. That gives her the beatific appearance of one going willingly, a noble individual giving themselves up for the needs of the many. But nothing much is really going on in her head, if Iph is honest with herself. She was not really choosing to be brave or holy. She wondered if it counts in those times. Does it matter that they can't tell that she has taken this duty on herself with the stout heart and firm brow she always thinks of when she pictures her father?

 

She was squirming in the box, and they were doing all the speeches. There are usually speeches, and sometimes mournful songs and chants. Iph started to panic. It looked like she wasn't going to be calm and serene this time. She was breathing sharply. It was hard to get air in and the box was dark. She normally didn't object to darkness in and of itself, but being cooped up in a tiny space and being left without light is a bad combination. Suddenly overcome with anxiety, she scratched lightly at the wood, then beat her hands on the inside of the box, her rhythm getting more and more terrified. She had nothing in her head except the overpowering need to break through, to get out, but there wasn't enough room for her to swing her tiny fists to make much more than a muffled thud. She heard herself pleading to be let out, even though she knows they never let her out, and never let her go.

 

Iph felt the box lifted into the air. There was an awkward jerk at the left corner near her foot as someone fumbled with their portion of the lifting. That will not be her father. He would never stumble. The box was moving, bumping and rocking somewhere, but Iph has no sense of direction at the best of times.

The unseen procession paused for a moment, and it sounded like someone was singing - a young man's voice that had not yet achieved the gruff muttering characteristic (or at least affected) by many of her father's subordinates. Iph couldn't hear the words, but expected that she probably wasn't missing much. Those bloody lyrics never made a damn bit of sense anyway.

 

The song finished and the box tilted and Iph felt it rushing up at her feet. She was falling and there was a dull wet thud as she sunk, clawing at the box as it plummeted into the sea. Her hands were wet now because the box was filling up with water and Iph was breathing in the choking salt ocean even though she did not want to.

 

Back when she used to tell Mother about her dying, Iph supposed that her mother had looked concerned, but it was very hard to tell what her parent was ever really thinking. Mother's face always looked like a mask to Iph, and when she composed it into a smile, Iph couldn't tell if her mother really loved her deeply and was concerned, or whether she thought that to look like that was simply the proper thing. Sometimes Iph practised smiling and frowning in reflective surfaces to see if she could detect any inauthenticities in her own expressions and to see whether her facial movements matched up with any of her mother's.

 

Although Iph was now much more careful about what she says to anyone, her mother still sends her to talk to the priests and the doctors on a regular schedule. The priests and doctors all tell her that these things are not real, that they are just stories in her head. Sometimes they give her things to drink, or swallow, or recite to herself. None of this helps. Iph still dies in many different ways, and the doctors and priests stroke their chins and nod wisely, but Iph can tell they are hardly listening to her at all and are waiting until they see the next person, and then the next, until they can go home and have a glass of wine and a lie down. She may be young and relatively inexperienced, but Iph can still tell what these priests and doctors do for a living. It is their job to sit there and not listen.

 

Iph's sister was no help either. She scoffs at Iph's deaths and tells her that she is a stupid baby who makes up childish stories just to get Mother and Father to pay attention. Iph's sister also snorts with disgust like a little pig and says that she shouldn't tell such unpleasant lies, and one badly behaved, brattish Iph is quite enough for any world. Iph always tries to throw something at her sister when she says this, or perhaps tries to pull her hair, as it usually gives Iph sadistic satisfaction when her sister cries and moans about how long she worked to get her hair just right. When her sister has run off, Iph sometimes sits and thinks, staring out the window, wondering why there has to be only one of her. She feels that her deaths are real enough, even if nobody else thinks so. Perhaps there are lots of her, and every Iph is real, and each of them dies every time, in all the different ways.

 

The fire was creeping up around her. In this one, they have tied Iph to a stake. The stake is high on top of a pyre of logs, all stacked in a neat structure. like you would if you were really serious about starting a barbecue. Someone thoughtfully provided a large log to put beneath Iph's feet, so she would have something stable to stand on as they burned her alive. She couldn't see because her eyes simmered with hot tears and the smoke was everywhere, but she could hear them chant in a circle around her, over the sound of the fire cracking and exploding the wood at irregular intervals, throwing sparks out that burnt her skin. She couldn't breathe, but it was different from the drowning in the box. Her throat was raw from coughing and she felt like she was turning inside out. Iph could smells whiffs of overcooked flesh among the smoke that pushed and invaded her nostrils. At some point, the smoke became so thick inside her and the heat so close that not only could she no longer see, but she no longer existed.

 

Because she cannot tell what, if anything, her mother is thinking, Iph has taken to reassuring Mother that the priests and doctors are making slow regular process. It is clearly not true, but saying these things means that her mother is no longer responsible, which Iph thinks is what she wants to hear and is probably easiest. To her sister, on the other hand, Iph still tells her deaths. Her sister was interested at first. She has always hungered to have something from everyone around her. Iph has concluded that her sister is hungry for everybody else's stories and attention because she doesn't have any for herself. Her sister may be willowy like their mother, but where their mother's mask makes her mysterious and unreadable, Iph's sister just looks like she has smelled something unpleasant. Iph's sister also has the sort of presence where she is often just forgotten in a crowd, or stuck in a corner, or left outside. When she falls into a sobbing fit of self-pity, their mother assures Iph's sister that she will almost certainly grow out of it and find her place, but Iph happily tells her that she doesn't really believe this will ever happen. Sometimes her sister hits Iph when she says this sort of thing, which Iph supposes is the right of sisters, although she doesn't like it much and won't speak to her sister for a good while after that.

 

Iph had for a long time planned to grow up into something tall and graceful like her mother, but Iph also intended to inherit the brooding presence of her father. She would be distinguished, but people could tell, as with her father, from a single look that she was important and powerful. They wouldn't be able to ignore her for a moment. People would bow their heads before her and ask for her permission and insight for all matters of importance, and her sister would fade away even more, even as Iph stood next to her. Iph would grow up to be like that, at least, she would, if she would have the chance to grow up.

 

Her father stood on the balcony looking out over the bay. Their house was the biggest in the city, and her father was the biggest and most important man in the city, and maybe, Iph thought, in the whole world. Iph's father travelled a lot. He used to always bring gifts back for herself and her sister and mother. Fine silks for her mother, and robes, and jewellery. Mirrors and dyes and tinctures and dresses for her sister. He used to bring toys for Iph when she was very little. Her favourite had been a little hedgehog made from leather and stuffed with wool. The toy hedgehog had a very serious, but slightly concerned, little face and for that reason Iph had decided he must be named Mr. Ech. Father had stopped bringing her toys now, but did not yet seem to have decided what sort of gifts would be appropriate for Iph. Maybe he had just decided not to bring Iph any gifts any more from his travels over the lands and seas. Her sister does her ugly pig snorts and calls her a stupid baby, but Iph still liked to hold her toy hedgehog Mr. Ech and imagine him talking to her and going about his serious and slow hedgehog business.

 

In this one Iph was placed on a cold stone table. She idly wondered where they got such a large piece of stone and how difficult it must have been to transport it here on to the top of the cliff by the sea. She shivered and felt the back of herself stretched flat on the big stone. The people around her have finished with the cutting of the live animals and all the bleating has stopped. Iph could smell that they have started to put the animals on the fire. One of the people kept trying to close Iph's eyes while all the chanting was going on, but she can't bear to keep them shut. Iph was too restless. One of them held up a dagger. It was a very pretty thing, with rubies on the golden handle, and it looked so bright in the sunlight that was so clean here by the cliff and the sea. Iph thought to herself that Mother would have liked a knife like that. The person holding the knife was wearing finery to match the pretty knife, which is as it should be. The person with the knife sang the chants with everyone else, but very out of tune. The person holding the knife moved without hesitation, like someone in a shop who does this sort of thing every day and knows how to do it right and without fanfare. With the same bored expertise, they brought the knife straight down into Iph.

 

Whenever Father was home, and it was rarer now, he was even more grave. His meetings with his colleagues seemed not to be going well, whispered Iph's sister. Her sister insisted that Iph can't understand what it's like to have to deal with the multitude of voices clamouring for father's attention, constantly making demands of him. Of course, her sister is implying that she herself naturally comprehends what their father is going through, and it's just Iph who can't understand because she lacks the sensitivity of her sibling. Iph's sister was always saying in a low voice that father was suffering from the stress, like this is some sort of chronic ailment, an indigestion in his guts that explained why he doesn't sleep and couldn't eat, looking with disgust at whatever Mother arranged to have on the table when he was home. When Iph runs up to hug her stern father, she knows that stress is an inadequate word. When Iph stretched her arms around Father, he felt like he was being crushed constantly from all sides by an invisible force. That was why he holds his jaw so tight, just one part of him resisting that unseen pressure on every part of his surface.

 

He and Mother fight whenever he is home too, quietly and urgently hissing away in other rooms. Iph can always hear them. There was now always the mutter and rustle of people talking in angry whispers in the house, and it was a big house too, so that the smallest thought, the tiniest rumour, the most insignificant argument echoed about the place until Iph could hear its outline when she lay in her room with Mr. Ech under her arm, the pair of them listening attentively.

 

She protested that she didn't need her hands tied behind her back, but they did it anyway, because while they appreciated her declarations of self-sacrifice, they all still think she's just a little girl, and that she was not to be relied upon when it comes to the crunch. So they tied up her hands behind her and gently led her to the black stone block. There she was helped to her knees and then she lowered her chin to just over the edge. She couldn't see much from that position, except some sort of container just below her, a kind of large-lipped bowl as big as a grown head. That bowl holding a patient blackness was presumably where she would end up. She could smell the lovely flowers in the garland they had made and placed on her head, although she thought it was a bit of a waste to make such a splendid bit of headwear that was only going to be shown off for such a short time. The only other thing she could see from here were feet shuffling past nervously in her peripheral vision. Tilting her head slightly, Iph thought she now heard the padding sound of someone running and maybe she saw some smaller feet flash just off to one side, bare feet, dirty and scratched, running towards her. Before she could twist her head to get a better look the curved sword came down through her neck and down the top of Iph plopped into the mouth of the patient bowl.

 

When she was younger, her family had travelled more together. Iph vaguely remembered a holiday at the beach, inspecting the rock pools to see what life could be found when you swirled the water and made small whirling tornadoes of floating sand particles. Her sister had lain on the sand like a lump, like a dead fish, never moving too far from their mother. Mother had been perched gracefully under the deep shade of a parasol, wrapped and veiled against the sun. Mother was on the beach with them, but doing her best to not be there at the same time. Iph couldn't remember where her father had been on that trip. Did she have a memory of him directing her in the construction of buildings in the sand or is that something Iph had made up? She wasn't sure.

 

There was also sun in their big gardens, of course, but it wasn't quite the same as the stuff you got on holiday. Everything in the garden was too neat and orderly, and that included the military sunbeams all lined up on the parade fields of the grass and regiments of trees standing at attention. When they used to go places Iph had the chance to sneak away from her mother's face to explore, clambering over rocks and hills to search for caves or the nests of exotic wild animals. Once she had even seen a giant snake, big enough to swallow her in a few gulps. Iph had stared that snake down, keeping a safe distance between them, neither going backwards nor forwards until the snake slithered away into the bushes. That snake would have eaten her, Iph felt, but it respected her too, and Iph had a tingle of thrill in the corners of her cheeks for the rest of the week. In contrast, these gardens were safe and boring.

 

Iph tried to talk to her mother about going places, but she ignored Iph with the same automatic phrases, talking like a sleepwalker. Iph had considered shouting at her mother as an experiment, but knew from experience that it would probably make no difference. Mother was far too well armoured, hidden away behind that elegant mask. Iph didn't have the patience to lay siege to Mother when she was so well fortified.

 

This time they had dug a very big hole for her. They had even already set up a statue and a tomb marker, and Iph reflected that the sculpture, all done in marble, wasn't that good a likeness. Iph wished they had made her look a bit taller. She was sure she wasn't really that short. The marble version of her was dressed in robes, just like Iph herself. She also wished they'd done her hair a bit better. Her hair didn't look like that, all neat and polite. It never behaved like that and took an incredible amount of effort to subdue. She resented that they'd given her statue such effortless hair. They could at least memorialise her properly.

 

They lowered her into the deep hole with her tomb statue staring meekly down on her. She shivered, partly from fear, but also because the soil down here was damp and cold. It was also dark and moist and reminded her of cake. She lay down on the dirt and folded her arms. A crowd clustered around the frame of the opening in the ground, squeezing the sunlight out of her sight. Among the silhouetted crowds at her grave's edge, she thought she saw the black outline of a young boy running, trying to push between the crowd that fringed the opening. Iph squinted at the boy. He had wild hair, poking out at sharp angles and points that reminded Iph of the spines of her toy, Mr. Ech. The boy was trying to do something, but he couldn't get through the taller sombre figures looking down on Iph. They started to shovel dirt on to her. She closed her eyes when a spray of soil slapped into her face. It stung and some flew up her nostrils, making her cough and sneeze more or less at the same time. They threw another few shovelfuls on and at first it felt like a dirt blanket, like being buried in the sand on holiday, but with barely any light. Then they added more dirt on top of Iph and the weight began to squeeze at her and it slid to cover her face, and they added more there so they wouldn't have to look at her. The earth pressed at her and she couldn't see anything at all now, and could only hear the dumps of dirt above her, each one getting further and further away. It was harder and more painful to breathe and she felt panicked at the thought of her lungs being clogged up with the damp soil. She was being crushed inside and out, being turned into another layer of the earth.

 

Iph had been staring out the window at nothing in particular again when she was supposed to be studying and she was thinking about the boy she had seen with his wild hair and dirty feet. Her tutor was a tired old fat woman who had done some service or other for Iph's mother that had landed her the job. As far as the Tutor was concerned, she had made sure Iph knew the basics of what was required and tried to prevent her from doing anything too excessive that might upset the family, so the Tutor felt like her job was pretty much done. This meant that the Tutor mostly dozed in her chair when Iph was supposed to be reading over a passage or memorising something, and that meant Iph could stare out the window, looking towards the sea and thinking whatever she liked, so it was a good arrangement for both of them. Watching a swirl of birds out where the rocks gritted their teeth against the crashes of the waves, Iph decided that the wild-haired boy was looking for her and was trying to reach her. After some more thought, Iph decided that this probably meant that the boy must be related to her. He might well be her brother, and that was why he was running to get to her. Iph wasn't sure what he was trying to do, being so young and not even having anything to wear on his feet, but she very much liked the idea of having a little brother.

 

Her Tutor infected Iph with her sleepiness, in the way that if someone across the room yawns, you yawn too. For the rest of the day Iph was drowsy and perhaps not as guarded in what she said as Mother would have liked. When Iph was tucking into a juicy snack of some fruit, her sister came into the kitchen. Iph's sister often wandered into the kitchen because she was always hungry, but never let herself have anything. Her sister wanted to deny herself, to tease her stomach by looking at all the things on the shelves and in the stores, taking nothing but a tragic moan of heroic and starving self-sacrifice. Her sister glared at Iph for eating so noisily and with such gusto. Iph offered her some of the juicy fruit because she knew it would irritate her sister. Her sister put on a disgusted face and that made Iph grin, her teeth showing off little bits of fruit stuck in the cracks. Iph's sister started skipping paces about the stone floor and reciting a list of positive qualities in a musical fashion, a stupid new habit she had developed. The positive qualities were for her hypothetical husband, a self-contradicting creature of myth that Iph's sister liked to build up with each little implausible adjective.

 

Perhaps because she had caught drowsiness from her tutor, or perhaps because her sister's litany of her future-tense man was needling at her, Iph foolishly mentioned how much she'd like to have a little brother. Thankfully, she hadn't said anything about how she had already seen him, because then she would have been rushed straight into Mother's imperial presence and before she knew it Iph would have had a double-time parade of quiet, nodding doctors and priests staring at her and she wouldn't have a single moment to herself. Iph silently congratulated herself on not blurting out a description of the little brother. Meanwhile, Iph's sister gave a pair of piggy snorts and screwed her face clockwise, assuring Iph with full confidence that Mother had said she never wanted a son, because the idea of a small version of their father filled her with the dire bane of anxiety. This made Iph immediately furious, and she clenched her nails into the palms of her hands. Iph said that nobody said things like 'dire bane', not even Mother, and said that her sister was a liar, and had made up that thing just to feel important and she didn't want a little brother just because then there'd be no need for Iph's sister at all, which served her right, because she was a stinking, boring, drama princess. Iph's sister threw a piece of bread at Iph's head in response to that, which was probably vaguely satisfying as a deferred use of food for her sister. Then Iph's sister stormed off, calling Iph a disgusting, brainless, slovenly little beast.

 

This time they stoned her to death. She was tied to a column with rope and ivy wrapped all about her so that she couldn't move. She could barely flinch. One of the worst things was that they were such unpredictable shots. She would tense herself up and screw her eyes shut waiting for the sudden thud of pain, trying to estimate exactly where it would bruise and break, and she would have to open her eyes when she heard an apologetic thud as a stone sailed past her and fell into the grass. A lot of the projectiles bounced off the column she was bound to, either glancing off the spots at Iph's side or careening back from the stone stretching above her head. Eventually they appeared to get sick of each waiting for their turn and impatiently, like they wanted it all to be over so that they could go and have their dinners, they stood in a crescent around Iph and pelted her with whole handfuls of rocks without any concern for dignity or protocol. A big one caught her in the lip and cut it open, letting the blood drip out. Another hit her on the left side of her head and closed her eye. She whimpered as the rocks hailed in arcs at her and she cried a bit, at least out of her unswollen right eye. Pretty soon, they’d got good coverage of Iph with their stone hits. The third or fourth substantial one to clip her in the head made her feel nauseous and dizzy, and Iph felt like she was collapsing even though she knew she was tied securely to the column. Just when she was feeling the sick rise in her gullet, someone hit her right in the throat, so that when she was gasping in agony the bile sort of halted there halfway towards her mouth. Iph had been hit too many times to sense what was going on beyond her column, and her whole world was there and the broken, bleeding craters all along her. She suddenly felt completely alone. Iph wondered what had happened to the little boy. Almost every part of her was smashed by the time she died.

 

Mother and Father were fighting even more than usual now. Iph snuck to her little hideyholes with Mr. Ech tucked under her arm, her ear pressed against the wall to find out what the problem was. The way Father and Mother hated each other was almost like another language, like two different sorts of song. Mother's song was brittle and resentful, her voice made from winter-ice bells ringing, Father's was bass grinding and growling like the crack and grating of the slowly angry volcanic earth. Despite her best surveillance efforts, Iph couldn't produce a solid working theory about what they were arguing about. She allowed herself the possibility that reasons didn't matter that much any more, and the whole barely-suppressed screaming at each other had become a ritual of loathing performed for its own sake.

Iph's sister wasn't talking to her at the moment, which was less worrisome than it might have been, because Iph didn't think her sister would be much use as a confidant or co-analyst for the study of Mother and Father. Mr. Ech was a far better collaborative partner for Iph to discuss her thoughts with, and he was just an inanimate toy made of leather and wool.

 

The knife was just tracing a pattern across Iph's throat. They were having a few practice goes, lightly grazing a line across her neck, concentrating with their tongue poking out slightly from their mouth, keen to get it right the first time when they worked themselves to the cut. They planned to slice delicately across there, and if everything went to plan, her blood would leak out in a neat, maidenly fashion, just like with the animals they had practised their sacrifices on before. There were blood stains all over the stone altar, because many of these practice animals had not bled out neatly at all, but had thrashed and squirted while they were held down. That was a worrying indication that they hadn't done enough practice to get this quite right.

 

This time not only was Iph garlanded with flowers in her inexpertly tied-up hair, but they'd given her a similar scarf of flowers around her neck, presumably to catch and brighten up the blood when it was let out of her veins. The one with the knife sniffled nervously and made a grunting noise, then wiped their sweaty forehead with the back of the hand holding the knife. They nodded, they were ready to cut, or at least to have their best try. Some of the others muttered muted words of encouragement.

Iph had kept her eyes closed for the last few minutes, figuring that she didn't want to see it coming this time, figuring that'd at least make her look noble and unfearful.

Then she heard the running patter of bare feet again.

Iph opened her eyes. She had changed her mind. To hell with being noble. She wasn't going to do this any more. The wild-haired boy was slinking between the crowd, and with artful ducking and diving and a last-minute sprint beyond grabbing hands, he reached out to Iph. She took his hand, small as her own, his hands all new and rough with mud and scratches. Iph nodded at her little brother and whispered to him that they were going to leave now and go somewhere remote and unexplored, away from these crowds with their rituals and chants and knives, away from cold rooms filled with echoing rumours and the slow leak of hissing resentment. She leaned over and ruffled his hair, hair like the wild thorns of the undergrowth growing into twists and horns, pointing the way up and away. They were going to find a place where Iph herself would be the big sister, the important one, the one everyone listened to and looked up to, and he would be her particular favourite and would never be left alone for as long as he lived and wanted her company. Her brother gave a cheeky little grin at this. His teeth were small and sharp, and when he grinned and chuckled with his jaw at a jaunty angle, his lower left canine, a particularly sharp little number, poked out above the lip like a dog's snaggletooth. Iph was pleased to see that the idea of founding their own place appealed to her brother, as she could tell by how his entirely dark eyes danced about energetically.

The pair of them ignored the tutting and ordering voices that were growing louder. Iph got up from the altar, and holding her brother's hand, they made a dash for it. The crowd tried to follow them of course, because they had plans and schedules to complete and they couldn't finish up without Iph, but she was sick of all that. None of them could catch Iph and her brother. They were faster than the beasts that ran for fear and delight of running, faster than the dancing spring winds that winged themselves from coast to coast, faster than the forked flash of light that leapt and shattered ahead of the storm. Nobody could ever catch them. They ran and ran, down to the beach and across the sands, splashing through the frothy edge of the sea to clean and purify their heels. Nobody would ever catch them. Iph's hair had fallen untied and writhed behind her, growing into the same sorts of forest knots and twists as her brother had on his spiked head. Iph sang loudly and shouted. Pulling her little brother by the hand, they jumped into the air and danced on and on towards the welcoming moonlight.