Universally enthusiastic chaos-artist & storyteller

Chapter 34: The funeral

I’m in Zjeliah’s salon.
It’s odd being here. So much has happened between Stegarius and me wanting to come here and now.
I no longer need the wig.
I no longer have Stegarius by my side.
I look at myself in the mirror. I’m not even sure whether I recognise myself. Sure it’s me, but when did my hair get this long?
When did my eyes start looking this dull?
Did I always look this dead inside? Or is that just the all-white suit that feels like it’s constricting me with its harshness?
The man himself pops up next to me “Now I think you look great. But you do need to smile a bit if you want to sell the costume.” Zjeliah flutters around me like a hyperactive butterfly tucking and pinning down folds and making the suit feel even tighter.
“We’re going to a funeral, I don’t want to sell the costume.” I huff.
“Well yes…I guess that’s true.” There’s a moment of awkward silence followed by the sensation of a cold wooden hand slipping over my scalp making my body tingle unpleasantly “Have you decided what you want to do with your hair yet?”
“Well, you do know I’m also a hairdresser, right?”
“I thought you just style wigs?”
The doll gasps indignantly “I’ll have you know I’ve cut a human’s hair before and I’m very good at it.”
“Oh, I see well…” I turn my head from side to side “What do you recommend?”
“That you follow me to the barber’s chair and let me take off at least three inches.”
“Oh uh, all right then.”
The barber’s chair looks like it’s over a century old, it has that all-metal construction that gives it that ‘torture chamber quality’. It looks odd placed across a smooth wooden vanity table with light bulbs around the edges of the mirror.
As the wooden hands slide past my skull snipping and snapping other dolls walk into the shop and start dressing in all white as well.
Big dresses, smart suits, dress suits.
They just peel off their clothes in the middle of the shop and walk around the pale collection Zjeliah already set out for them.
I try to keep my eyes to myself. Even if it’s normal for them and there’s absolutely nothing strange to see it feels a bit awkward to me.
Then the door opens and Tungsten walks in, already dressed in white.
He takes one look at the goings on in the shop and then hightails it to me “Looking smart.”
“Thanks. You already had a white suit?”
“Yes…but it’s been a while since I wore it so it’s a tad tight…”
“I’ll say, you’re leaving nothing to the imagination.” Zjeliah chuckles looking the other up and down. “If you want you can borrow something off the rack.”
Tungsten turns to the doll, then quickly takes a step back before crossing his arms “Thanks for the offer but I’m good.”
Zjeliah sighs taking a step toward the guy “Well then can I at least move the buttons in your jacket? I think I can give you at least an inch and it won’t take a second.”
He pulls up an eyebrow “You’re a tailor?”
“Darling, I’m a little bit of everything, the name’s Zjeliah and this is my domain.”
I don’t know what did it. But Tungsten’s face seems to relax, a smile appearing on his face, “Yeah sure, knock yourself out.”
“Just take it off and put it over the chair.” He waves his chin to the chair next to mine. “I’m almost done with Inquiry here.” He pulls a little jar from the vanity table and opens it to the scent of a thousand flower fields.
He wipes his hand through the clear goop inside and gently rubs it into my hair. It smells nice and the application of it feels oddly relaxing.
“So what do you think?” he asks as he closes the jar again.
“I must admit I expected something a lot more doll-like,” I say as I look at myself and compare it to the vast network of braids on Zjeliah’s head or the tight curls of Jaxogeras. I just look neat.
It’s nice.
Just unexpected.
“Oh well no offence darling but you couldn’t pull off a true doll hairstyle. But you still get to smell like one for a few days.”
“Thank you, how much do I owe you?”
“I think your help these last days has been adequate payment don’t you think?”
“I insist, I have money you know-”
“Nuh uh, I won’t have it.” He puts the jar down on the vanity table and wipes his hands on a towel before picking up Tungsten’s jacket and walking off.
Behind us, the dolls are fussing over accessories. Hats and shawls exchanging hands and gloves.
It’s nice.
But I’m also glad I came in before rush hour.
The door opens again and my blood freezes over for a moment.
It’s Prishtoli.
She wears a white with red roses dotted around the hemline reminding me of blood splatters.
Her wig is white.
Her gloves are white.,
Her eyes focus on me.
I get up from the chair, unsure whether to approach or run so I just stand there as she steps towards me.
“Hey.” She says carefully.
“You cut your hair?” She tries.
“Zjeliah did it for me.” I point.
“Really? It looks nice.”
“Thank you…”
“Are you done here?” she asks gesturing to the parlour at large.
“Uhm, I guess?”
“Can we walk for a bit? I’ll make sure we’re at the church on time.”
I look at Tungsten, he shrugs ever helpfully.
“Yeah, okay.”

She leads the way through the streets and we walk in silence for quite some time. I wonder why she’s asked me to join her if she’s not going to speak but then she drags me onto the grass of the field in front of the theatre.
I’m surprised to see a blanket already laid out to protect our white clothes against the grass.
“Please, have a seat.”
I slowly sit down, she sits down next to me. Her eyes trained on her hands. “I…don’t know where to start.”
“I’m sorry Prishtoli, I said some horrible things to you. I was so convinced Stegarius did the right thing because if it wasn’t then I killed him for nothing and I just couldn’t live with that. I’m just a murderer plain and simple and-”
“You’re not.” She puts a hand on my shoulder “I don’t blame you for killing Stegarius, not anymore at least. You’re human, being short-sighted is baked into your being but Stegarius should have known better and…” She huffs then sighs “I don’t feel bad for killing that monster Mercury, but I do feel bad for putting him in a situation where he felt he needed to rescue me. I was so angry I just snapped and it felt good for a bit. But then you came in with the heart and I realised I failed my duties as a sister.” She pulls her legs up, wraps her arms around them, and makes herself small “I shouldn’t have left, I knew something was wrong, I could feel it in my chest yet I trusted him to have things under control.”
I sigh and put my hand on her shoulder “Yeah, so did I.”
“I know you’re a good kid, hell, I think Stegarius would be incapable of raising a bad one. But as much as he influenced you, you changed him as well. From the moment he walked into that house to the moment he died his whole world was you. Caring for you, looking for you for weeks on end while you were learning alchemy. And as he worried for you I worried for him.”
“I should have come to him sooner-”
“Yes, you should have, he was in a terrible state back then. But then he perked right up again when you came back.” She sighed “And then the both of you disappeared off the face of the planet for over a year. And that had never happened before in all of my days. And then when I did meet him he had these strange new ideas he’d picked up from you and I didn’t know how to reconcile this Stegarius with the one I’d known for centuries. And well…he died before I could figure that out.”
“I’m sorry. I…I wish I’d known about the harm I caused before now.”
“Don’t we all?” She lays down and points at the sky “Stegarius and I would stargaze here sometimes. It was here he told me about what the two of you were up to actually. I wish I’d talked him out of it back then. Got him to come home. Stay with us. But what’s past is past I guess. The only way is forward.”
“Are you going to stay the night?”
“Are you sure-?”
“Yes. I’m sure I think it might help me process what happened to me. I also don’t want them to lie to you about what they’ve done to me.”
“Are you sure?”
“All I’m sure about is I’ll regret not being there.”
“Then I guess you should be.
“Great.” She gets up again, I follow suit not quite sure what else to do.
Then she hugs me.
I wrack my brain for something meaningful to say.”
“We should go now.”
“Will you help me fold the blanket?”
“Yeah, no problem.”

On our way to the church, we’re joined by more and more dolls and a surprising amount of people as well.
We’re becoming a procession, a larger organism, a white mass spilling through the streets on the way to the church. People step aside for us.
Look at us with varying expressions from sympathy to disgust.
I wonder how many of them read the newspaper article.
Perhaps all of them.
“Glad you could make it” Tungsten pops up next to me “I’ve never been to a doll funeral before.” He chuckles awkwardly.
I put a hand on his shoulder “I think that makes all of us.”

The church is vast.
Yet not as vast as I remember.
I guess that’s because I was a kid the last time I visited.
A lot of the dolls wander around, looking at the butterfly decor and raven woodcuts.
The old religion still lives in this building, even if the clergy don’t like to admit it.
I spot Tiborah by the stained glass windows marvelling at the colours and I like to go to him, I still feel a bit awkward about the way I left that time. I step towards him and-
A bell rings I search for the source and find a black-snouted wolfkin with pastoral garb entering the room “Will you all sit down please?” the pastor calls out and some of the dolls make their way to the carved wooden benches.
I guess talking will have to wait.
“Mind if I sit here?” Tungsten asks and I shake my head “Go ahead.”
He sits down next to me, eyes fixed on the floor. I can’t put my finger on it, but I have the suspicion he’s nervous. Is this his first time attending a funeral?
I try to smile at him, I’m not sure if he sees it.
A piece of music starts to play, both happy and sad, melancholy yet comforting. Three dolls are sitting next to the altar operating a violin, a cello and a drum respectively.
The door leading further into the church opens and Jaxogeras walks in. Holding the heart in their hands. The last talkers and jokers quickly stop talking upon seeing it.
I glance around me, Tiborah who sat down on the windowsill looks at the heart with big eyes, filled with sadness. Prishtoli frowns at it. I can only assume it’s because she knows it’s a fake. Jaxogeras’ face is blank, regal and calm as they make their way through the long central room. Then get down on their knees holding the heart up to the pastor.
He takes it reverently, says “Thank you.” in an official tone and then calmly bids the dolls who sat down on the altar to find a spot elsewhere.
“Oh, sorry.” one of them apologises.
“It’s okay, please make your way to the benches. There are still some spots available.”
He then places the heart into a gold gilded basket that I believe is normally used for birth ceremonies.
But I guess we’re all making due in some way.
It looks pretty at least.
“We’ve come together here to celebrate the life of the doll Stegarius. I think this is a first for many of us. Myself included so I beg you do not judge me too harshly should I make a mistake.”
“You’re doing great honey!” Someone yells behind me, I look back to find two dolls in the back talking softly to one another.
“Uh, thank you Desi.” the pastor responds and carefully pulls his hair in front of his ears before continuing. “I like to start the ceremony by pondering a question. It’s in the nature of a funeral to glance back at a person’s life. honour their achievements, their losses and the things that made them them. But in order to do that I need to know exactly where Stegarius’ life began. Was it back in the woods of Loptuny where all dolls find life, or was that the birth of Katinka? Someone different. As all of you can see I’m not a doll. To me, the act of changing my name is not a part of life. But as I talked to many of you I have been made to believe that changing a name is a way for a doll to create a new identity, a new life for themselves. That’s not to say that is the only reason one might change a name or that any changing of a name should be treated with such severity. But Stegarius only changed his name two times. And he lived completed lives in between them. Henceforth we will assume Stegarius’ life began with a thank you and goodbye as he informed his dear sibling he was a man called Stegarius now. And that he was ready to take on the world again. He had been staying there for a while now recovering from a broken heart he’d suffered in the life before. Jaxogeras was happy for him, gave him a small music box to give him company, and wished him the best of luck.
It’s difficult to unearth his actions in the years that follow. We reached out to the dolls that are close to him but the list of jobs is long and he didn’t talk in detail about many of them.
He went to work at his brother’s shop for a very short while before leaving for a ‘place with less memories attached’. He worked as a librarian and even a bartender for a while.
And then he found a job as a tutor for Mister Inquiry Winton, who was only six years old at the time. This time would mark an important era in his life. And it would both give him the purpose in life he so desperately craved and the means for his life to end altogether.”
I didn’t expect this much to be about me. I thought we’d spend more time on the time before me.
Or just skip to the end.
Just to cement the story we gave to the press but the man just keeps droning on about how I was like a son to Stegarius, a friend and confidant who wanted to help me desperately to achieve my goals.
‘He had found his purpose in life.’
The wolf man’s wrong.
His purpose wasn’t the dolls, the alchemy, that was just the set dressing.
He wanted to help me.
Because that’s just who he was.
Tungsten hands me a handkerchief. I look at it for a moment, then I accept it gratefully as the tears jump from my eyes.
“Thanks.” I wipe my eyes and fold it neatly in my hands “It must be weird, listening to all this when you hardly knew him?”
He averts his eyes and fidgets with his nails as he speaks “I’m not here for him, I’m here for what comes after.” He then folds his hands together “Not that I mind hearing all this or being here. I mean if the others don’t mind me being here-”
I smile for him “They don’t. And the ones who know why you’re here are grateful.”
The story concludes in the scripted way. The pastor manages to be quite tasteful about it. Have Stegarius be overcome with anger over what happened to Prishtoli, then grief over what he’d done.
Prishtoli will go into history as the one who killed him. Not me. I’m the one who got sent away. Spared all this nastiness.
Somehow it all turns out for me again.
It feels selfish.
I don’t like it.
I don’t think I deserve this much luck in my life.
But it’s what we decided on, together.
I can’t ruin things now.
“The heart will remain here for seven days. Feel free to visit the heart at your leisure during the open hours of the church. I thank you all for coming and Jaxogeras would like to invite you all to follow them to Bar-B for music, games and a chance to exchange stories.”
And then it’s over. It’s time to exit the church.
I rush up to Jaxogeras to thank them for their help.
“Don’t worry about it. I just hope it’ll be enough.”
Then look around for Melody.
The lady is stumbling at the end somewhere “Will you be going to Bar-B?” I ask her.
“Sadly no. I have guests tonight. Need to get the rooms ready.”
“All right.”
“Be sure to come by when this is all over…and bring that brother of you as well. He sounds nice.”
“He’s not really my brother.”
“He sounds nice.”
“Will do. Thank you for everything.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“Ah, there you are.” Two wooden hands grab my arm and I’m dragged along by Zjeliah “Tungsten’s looking for you. You suddenly vanished.”
“Right, I’m sorry.” I wave at Melody one last time.
And follow the others.
The plan is simple. Wait until everyone has left and then wait some more for the alchemists to come and try to steal the heart.
The only problem being that we didn’t tell the people of the church that the ceremony is a trap or that the heart isn’t genuine.
The less people know the better.
But then the question is how to get in after the ceremony, luckily Tungsten said he had this covered.
I’m not entirely sure how.
But the answer comes sure enough as we walk around the church for a bit.
The thing is massive, with loads of different doors and hatches sticking out.
He stops at a heavy-looking wooden hatch with cast ironwork all over it.
I notice the lock and feel a sense of dread coming up.
“Uh, Tungsten?”
“Don’t worry I have the key. He explains.” as he stoops down and pulls out that keyring again and grabs the biggest key of them all.
“What? Why?”
“Well…it used to be mine for a bit.” He opens the lock and pulls the hatch up. “We need to go all the way down before we can make our way back up and we need to wait until the last clergymen have left.”
“Will the heart be safe until then?”
“I hope the alchemists aren’t stupid enough to try and steal something while there are still people around…however, I can’t guarantee it.”
“What Tungsten means is that it makes more sense for them to wait.” I clarify.
“Oh, that’s good then.”
“Now let’s go before people start wondering why a couple of dozen dolls are heading down the catacombs.”
I swallow “The catacombs?”

About me || Get in touch || On copyright and GenAI