phase 1: what grows in the seedbed of sorrow
Nothing that makes us human is physical. Everyone knows that, but it’s very little comfort to my soul in its crumbling shell.
A glass elevator carries us to the top floor of the New Claris Regional Hospital. Its view as it rises looks out at the city’s western limits, where a field of wildflowers blooms between us and the untouched forests. From this height and distance, their shapes and hues blur together into a carpet of colorful foam on a green sea, faintly shifting in the wind.
I don’t really like flowers. Oh, they’re quite the sight right now, but in no time at all they’ll wilt, die, and linger as rotten brown husks. Flowers are beautiful because they fade. People who want to sound wise say things like that sometimes, but it’s all garbage. They’re beautiful right now. They’d be beautiful if they stayed like this forever.
If those people were wilting, they’d agree with me.
Before long, the elevator comes to a stop with a soft ping, and its doors slide open into a wide hallway. Dad steps out, two bags of my luggage in tow, and I follow.
I’ve never been to the seventh floor before. To their credit, they’ve done a good job of making it look like a real place. The hall is bright with soft ambient light, and it opens into a large space that feels more like an upscale living room than a hospital, with earth-tone walls, a high wood-panel ceiling, round tables surrounded by plush seats. Planters line the tall, wide windows, and the air smells strongly of mint. The only immediate sign of where we are is the square desk in one corner serving as a nurse’s station.
Some of the people seated around the room, a rough split of residents and nurses, look up to watch as we enter.
At her age? What a shame…
None of them say that, not with words, but I can feel it in their eyes. I’ve felt it quite enough to know it by now.
“Ah, is that Liadain? We just heard you’d be here soon.” One of the nurses approaches to greet us. “And you must be…?”
“Her father, yes,” Dad confirms. “Alban Shiel. Nice to meet you.” The nurse briefly glances up at him and down at me as he reaches out to shake her hand. We look nothing alike. Apparently I take after my mother’s side.
After a moment’s uncomfortable small talk, she ushers us down the hall to my new room.
“Well! This is a nice place, eh, Lia?” Dad says, his tone artificially light and casual.
Like the lounge outside, its decor is quiet and cozy, with just one thing out of place. The bed is covered with a soft blue quilt in a simple diamond pattern rather than sterile white sheets, but laid over the same thin wheeled frame as those on the lower floors, with a tray table, steel IV pole, and remote control attached to one side. At least it’s the only bed here. Every room on this floor houses a single patient, a small relief compared to some of my last stays.
“Do you need any help getting things in order?” Dad asks.
“No, that’s fine. Just put everything here in the corner. I’ll bother one of the nurses if anything comes up.”
“Ah. I’ll let you get to it, then.” He nods, expressionless, drops his share of bags, and steps back to stand in the doorway. He silently looks over the room again as I start to root through my things. Atop a tightly folded pile of my dresses, the round pink face of Pearl, my stuffed axolotl, smiles up at me. At least one friend is still standing by me through all this.
“I’ll come by after work tomorrow to see how you’re settling in,” Dad lies. “You take care, alright?”
I have nothing to say to that. He’s been doing his best to act like I was going on a fun trip somewhere, and I can’t be bothered asking him to quit it. He’ll be gone again before too long.
“Right. I’ll show myself out.” His brisk footsteps quickly fade from earshot.
“Just buzz if you need anything, okay? We’ll show you around later, whenever you’re feeling up to it.” The nurse slips out after him, gently closing the door behind her.
I’ve waited to cry, swallowed my pain for as long as I could, and I lose my hold on it as soon as I’m alone again. I set Pearl down beside the bag, out of the way of my tears.
Eight months since I last left this place. Modern medicine’s best efforts granted me eight months to live in the world, for all the good it did. Just enough time to have my thirteenth birthday forgotten by my once-friends. Maybe they didn’t forget. Maybe they all just decided to imagine that they lived in a world where things like this, things like me, simply didn’t happen. I guess it doesn’t matter anymore, really. They’ll live their lives. They’ll find other and better friends until I’m nothing but a sad little memory.
I, on the other hand? I’m not sure if I’ve had a life at all. I spent most of those years in and out of this hospital, pushing through the pain while doctors worked to keep my blood from eating me for just a little bit longer. Now, at last, they’ve given up. Two failed transplants was already more than my body could handle.
Now the only thing left for me to do is die.
The first thing the doctors here asked, when my old treatment team handed me off to palliative care, was where I stood on serving as a test subject for any experimental medicine they came up with. They didn’t say it in those words, but that’s what they said. There’s only one cure for what I have, and that one just failed me for the second time. All that remained were the salvage drugs, the last resorts. They might make what’s left of my life more livable, they might kill me sooner, they might even work. Miracles happen, just not to me.
The seventh floor is only for the dying, but nothing says I have to promise to die to stay here. Most residents choose the lightest medical plan possible, whatever will keep them moving and getting the most out of their last days. I have nothing to lose and nothing I want to do but live, so I told them to try what they could.
I very often regret it. The best they came up with was something to slow my symptoms down and keep me from suddenly getting worse. Three days a week, for the first two hours of the morning, I wait while a clear solution with a name I can’t pronounce drips into my veins. By the time it finishes, I’m dizzy and shaking and sick to my stomach, as I will be for most of the day.
I wonder why I bother on these mornings. Why put myself through this for the sake of a body that’s hindered and hurt me every day of my life, when it doesn’t seem to help at all? When in the moment it actually feels like it’s making me worse?
It’s one of those mornings now. I sit by the windows opposite the sun in the central lounge and idly shuffle one of my tarot decks with shivering hands. Mostly, though, I just watch life on the seventh floor go by. Pearl sits to my right on the table, looking out over the room with quiet interest.
When I first heard of the seventh floor, I imagined it as a tomb. A cold white place even more bleak than the rest of the hospital, where people laid down and withered away when they lost their last shreds of hope. I’ve just spent a week here, and I’m still not sure what it’s supposed to be.
It’s not just the decor, the bright windows with their nice views of the city, the fragrant plants in every room hiding the faint but distinct smell of death. If you ignore all the nurses and helpers, the wheelchair-bound residents with their oxygen tanks and IV bags, it seems like they’re doing their best to make this place anything but a hospital. Aside from the nurse’s station and a small examining room, most of the floor is set up for social gatherings, hobby groups, even occasional exercise classes for the ones who can still stand.
More than that, visiting hours here never end. The ward is hardly bustling, but the comings and goings of faces I don’t recognize are common enough that it’s almost never just patients and their helpers gathered here. There are technically lists of approved visitors somewhere, but they only ever question guests about whether they have anything communicable.
It all reminds me that I’m the only person here younger than forty. The others have lives to leave behind, people who will weep when they die and remember them well. Even if I could find someone who cared, would I want them at this point? We’d have a few months together, maybe a year, and then what? What could I do in that time that would make any of it worth the grief?
My old friends were probably right to cut their ties early.
A man boards the elevator, helped along by his family. I’m not even allowed to leave. In my current state, catching anything contagious would be very bad for me, and I’m not ready to write myself off and let whatever happens happen.
I turn away, pull a card from my deck, and flip it over on the table. The Six of Pentacles. Gifts, sharing, generosity and gratitude. In my case, the promise that I can care for myself and get better if I just ask for help with it. I sort through implications, alternate readings, other ideas I might reflect on through this card’s lens, and they all bring me back to one point:
Thanks. I don’t need you lying to me, too.
I banish the Six of Pentacles to its deck box and set to shuffling the rest. Some of my books contain strongly-worded warnings about how you obviously can’t remove anything. You would “unbalance the deck” and nothing would work the way it should anymore. Well, cards, life has never been balanced, and if you don’t want me to cheat you should stop mocking me.
“Do you read often?”
“Eh?” Someone is standing by my table. A woman in comfy clothes you might still call stylish, old but not quite elderly. Her grey hair is kept in a neat tapered bob, and her attention is still on the cards splayed across the table rather than me, the lines around her eyes creasing as she narrows them in focus. I’m not sure when she’d appeared there, but then I wasn’t paying the closest attention. I’ve seen her around at a distance, I think she leads the pottery classes in one of the art rooms, but she’s the first patient to actually start a conversation with me. “Not really… well, yes, it’s just been a while since I did for anyone but myself.”
“I see. My son used to love all this old folk magic, but he hasn’t touched it since he aged out of Promise range. May I impose?”
Not “if you’ve got it in you, if you’re feeling up to doing anything at all today.” She just asks.
“Fine, but I can’t promise anything exciting.” I straighten my personal deck, tuck it away, and fish out the one I use for other people, scattering it into a messy pile. “Finish shuffling these, if you would.” I nod to the seat across the table, and she’s quick to join me.
“I’ve never caught your name, have I? Only that you’re one of us who still bothers to wear clothes in here. I don’t know how some of them manage, shuffling around in pajamas and gowns all day.” She groans theatrically. “No reason you should have to act sick. I do love that dress, by the way.”
“Oh, I… thank you.” I hadn’t thought of it like that. I just like that I can still have a say in at least one part of my mornings. The dress is one of my standards, black and white and just a bit frilly, with big roomy pockets on either side. “I’m Liadain.”
“Noirin Hearne. Just Noirin is fine.” She finishes stacking the deck and pushes it across the table, a spotty patch of rash peeking out from her knit sleeve as she does. “All set?”
“No, keep it. It’s better if you draw your own cards.”
Noirin shrugs. “If you say so. Everyone’s got their own routine with these things, don’t they? Where do we start?”
“For now, the same way I do when I don’t want to get too fancy. Three cards: what was, what is, what will be. Is there any one thing you’re asking yourself about, or did you only want to keep me busy?”
She shakes her head. “Oh, just an old woman getting a bit nostalgic, mostly. Let’s start from scratch and see where we end up.”
“Suit yourself. Pull your first card from anywhere that feels right to you, then. The deck order doesn’t really mean anything.”
Noirin flips the top card and sets it in the center of the table, displaying a picture in muted oil-paint colors of two riders in a canoe, paddling from a dark sea into a sunlit horizon. Six blades carve through the ripples left in its wake, each thrust from beyond the bottom edge of the picture and meeting at a point just under the boat, forming a triangle.
“The Six of Swords,” I announce. “The storm and the calm that follows. Loss, maybe, and change, but change leading into something gentler than what you’ve left. Is this calling anything to mind?”
“Hm, hm.” Noirin’s foot taps steadily under the table. She’s quiet for what feels like a long time, her eyes lingering on the boat in the center of the image. “Well, when I think of it like… would you mind if I prattled about my problems for a bit?”
“Go ahead. That kind of comes with the territory.”
“Thank you.” Noirin looks up from the card, out through the window with its cityscape view. “I’ve been living here for about three months. My family all took it rather hard when I checked in, and it hasn’t been any easier for them since. I know, I’m sure that’s nothing out of the ordinary, but there’s a little more to it. They don’t… no, nevermind about that.” She sighs, shaking her head. “The short of it is that we’re having trouble agreeing on how to spend this time.”
“That’s where you’re coming from. Your context. From what it sounds like… for now, I’ll just note that this card can also mean learning from things you can’t erase.” I gesture to the deck. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Out comes the second card, a man scaling a mountain on bars of light jutting out from it like the footholds of a ladder, adding the top rungs by hand even as he climbs. This picture faces me rather than Noirin. She frowns, reaching out to turn it over.
“Wait, that’s supposed to happen!” I set two fingers to the card, holding it down. “The Nine of Wands inverted. See?”
“Hm, is that right? My son never used to turn them over like that.” She cranes forward, trying to get a better look at the upside-down image.
“Everyone’s got their own routine, like you said.” Her son’s probably made him one of those love-and-light types who thought reversals were “too gloomy,” but no need to stress that point. “An inverted card is usually something out of place somehow, missing or incomplete or overpowering everything else. Right now, this one is a line where persistence turns into stubbornness, or where it falls just short of what it needs to be. This disagreement. It’s something you can’t compromise on, or don’t think you can afford to give up?”
“Well, yes, actually. That’s about the shape of it. I’m sure I know what we need, but I expect they feel just as strongly, and as it happens there’s no way to do both or take turns.”
I nod, indicating the deck. “To where it’s leading, then.” Noirin picks up the top card. Before she flips it though, she pauses, considering something, and puts it back, cutting the deck and taking a new one from the middle.
The one she sets down is a misty expanse around a small circle, like a little eyehole in the fog, through which a girl can be seen handing a gold bowl filled with flowers to a boy. Five more empty bowls are arranged beneath them. “The Six of Cups. Nostalgia. Memories of simpler, happier times. Before I say anything, what are you thinking?”
“That it’s odd to see something like that here. This one is meant to be the future?”
“Hm.” A pause, then “I’m still not really sure. Fill me in?”
“What I think is that there’s a journey here. Across the boundless sea, up a mountain that can’t quite be climbed, back to how things were before this entire misadventure started. Maybe not exactly how they were, but the past is never really past, and it sounds like what was important about it is still there for you. Maybe there’s a wall that can’t be crossed around one thing, but you’ve still got everything else. If your argument can’t be won on either side, and it’s not doing anybody any good, maybe you should talk to them about just… accepting that, putting it aside, and doing as much as you can of whatever’s always made you happy together.”
I can’t be certain about that without knowing the exact nature of the problem, it might be something so huge or awful that there’s just no way to work around it, but it’s the best I can do. It sounds good enough.
Noirin purses her lips and cups her chin as she studies the now-complete row of images. She’s quiet for a long time. Finally, she looks up at me, grinning warm and wide. “I just might do that. Thank you, Liadain. You’ve helped clear at least a few things up.”
“Oh, I haven’t done anything. People see what they need to see, that’s all.” I’m not going to give the entire show away, but that much is true.
“Well, if it works, it works.” She waves the point off, still smiling. “You should do this more often. We old bats appreciate candor, and sometimes we can use a hand being frank with ourselves.”
So I do.
Tarot is only a game I play with decks full of pretty pictures, of course. No energy or will moves these cards. They don’t know a thing about you, and certainly not about things to come. As far as I know, prophecies don’t exist. Even Keepers have never been able to tell the future, not really.
So the only force working through the cards is simple psychology, but I still think they’re an interesting reflective tool. I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in hospital beds with nothing better to do than read or browse the Coral Sea, and I learned a lot from sorting through the roughly even mix of genuine insight and weird faux-mystic nonsense in my tarot books. The ideas you pull from a bunch of vaguely symbolic art say something about what you’re thinking, sometimes before you’ve found the words to think it properly. Their value is in what those thoughts teach you rather than glimpses of a future nobody really knows anything about.
Plus once I started regularly setting up shop in my corner, the nurses let up a bit on trying to drag me to activities. I guess telling pretend fortunes is social enough to count.
Mr. Enfield owned a seaside restaurant, which he’d managed for most of his life and stayed involved in until he was too sick to possibly work. It looked very likely that the business would leave the family after him. The new generation had all found different callings, and the head chef, his protege, was offering to buy the place. I’ve never seen the man visibly worried about anything, bizarre as that is in a place like this, but he’d come to ask about whether his life’s work was in good hands.
The smiling old man sets his final card on the table with an unsteady hand. The Page of Pentacles. My first reading today has been so straightforward that I almost wonder if the cards really are taking a hand in this one. Almost.
“This is a stable, successful future in the hands of a rising star. You’ve built your foundations as well as you can, and they’re set to hold strong.”
“Ah… that’s a relief. I’m very proud of what we had, but I really ought to have taken my hands off it by now. I want my family to remember me as well as my customers, and nobody looks back over their life and wishes they’d clocked more hours at work, do they?” Mr. Enfield lets out a soft, wheezing chuckle. “You know, miss… sometimes I wonder if this all wasn’t for the best.”
If what comes next is any variant on “everything happens for a reason,” I’ll vomit.
He keeps on. He wears oxygen tubes, and the words are clearly an effort to push out. “I’m sure I’ve leaned on my kids more than I meant to. About the business, probably plenty of other things too. Goddess knows what I’d give for more time with them, but… they’ve gone their own ways, and that’s alright. I have to be alright with that to get the most out of what we’ve got left. We’re together now, we’ll be happy for however long I’ve got, and I don’t need to worry about any of that. Things, they find a way to work themselves out in the end. That’s what I think, anyway.”
“Sure. Happy to help.” I gather the cards, pick up Pearl, and leave without another word.
Her eyes open to a dream of children frolicking in their sanctuary.
Though her thoughts are as grains of sand passing through a sieve, trickling piecemeal into the vessel apportioned to her, she knows her purpose perfectly well. She looks up to the vast quilt of stars swaddling this world, glimmering wisps twined together by threads of emptiness. Their neverending dances are of no concern to the her who has awoken here. She thinks only of her goal. Her reason for being.
She turns her gaze to the city, a teeming garden of life. Spires in all shapes and sizes are spread out before her in clusters at once chaotic and calculated, sprouting from the earth like flowers of glass and stone. She looks, and she listens. Deeply, subtly, gently beyond comparison. Thousands of hearts beat to the selfsame rhythm no matter how viciously their spirits conflict. A few of these heartbeats rise above the refrain, guiding its melody, and two in particular resound in her above all others. It is beautiful, in its way, but not what she is here for.
No, what she seeks is the one new heart beating in dissonance with its own murmur.
The song of a soul crying out for release.
Mr. Enfield died a few hours later. I don’t know exactly what happened except that Dr. Hines, the director of palliative care, was pale and grimacing on his way out.
It’s just past midnight. I can’t sleep, so I’ve gone wandering for a bit. The lights in the lounge are dimmed nearly to the point of being off, but there’s no actual curfew, and at least a few residents always end up falling asleep on the couches after they turn off the TV for the night. The nurses still seem a bit tense, and they don’t even give me the usual disapproving looks I get on my late night walks.
For the moment, I sit in my usual corner, looking out at the city. Pearl perches on my shoulder, where she can see over the plants on the windowsill.
I wonder if Mr. Enfield still felt the same way when it happened, or if he felt anything at all. Plenty of people his age take naps and never wake up.
I wonder about his legacy, too. I’d obviously never met his successor and never plan to. Who knows if anything I told him was true?
What will happen to Pearl when I die?
Somehow, of all the thoughts and fears swirling around in my mind, that’s among the most persistent. Dad won’t want to keep any of my things around. I have no friends left, no family I’m close with, no little cousins I could will her to. Maybe Noirin has grandchildren who would like her, but then I’d have to spill my guts about something this stupid to a woman I’ve known for a few weeks, and she must have her own things to sort out. Plus, how would I trust some kid I’d never met to take good care of her?
This isn’t helping. I start back toward my room.
A puzzling noise echoes from just beyond the door to Mr. Enfield’s room, like the sudden plunk of a rock being dropped into a lake. Bizarre… these walls are soundproofed well enough. More than that, there shouldn’t be anyone in there at all, and what would make a noise like that even if there were? Something in the pipes?
Plunk. There it is again, pattering numbingly along in intervals with no pattern I can place. For a moment, I figure it’s just the steady dripping of water from a faucet somebody failed to turn completely off, but then it goes silent without the faintest trace of movement otherwise. If I could hear liquid trickling from beyond that door, shouldn’t I have heard the faucet’s handle being turned to shut it off? Or the steps of whoever turned that handle?
Then it starts again. A surge of rapid little taps like heavy rain against a window. My knees tense and my spine stiffens. This doesn’t feel right at all.
I rap my knuckles meekly against the door and wait a moment. Nothing. Then, after a longer gap than the last, it starts again, and this time, rather than fade, it… stretches out, becoming the sound of swishing your hand around in a bathtub, or maybe dragging something through a swamp.
I try the handle beneath the electric card reader and find it unlocked.
Wait wait wait! Just before I crack the door open, my hand shoots back almost on its own, like I’d touched a burning stove. Stop. This is wrong, this is dangerous, these are all the kinds of warning signs they talk about when…
It happens. A nauseating riot of color surges out from underneath the door, like a second skin festering over it, crawling up its length and spilling out across the floor. It spreads just slowly enough for me to jump back as blotchy ooze swallows the tile I’d been standing on an instant ago. It’s hard to focus my eyes on — its presence makes it hard to see anything at all, hard to endure my own senses. The brown of dried blood swirls with living, twisting shades of grey, and parts of the growth bubble like a pool of hot mud.
The rainshower in my ears becomes a howling torrent. Like a drum pounding loud and fast enough to split my head open, mingled with the rhythmic slamming of my heart against my chest. I can smell sour air and I want to puke. Just seeing it makes my eyes burn, but I can’t look away. Even as the muck rises out of itself, slowly pulling itself upwards, rising above my height, I can’t look away. It won’t let me.
The thing looms over me, a thin shrouded figure sculpted out of wet, oozing clay. It has no face, no features at all. Its body splits down the middle, opening like a mouth into nothing. A dozen thin black limbs like insect legs reach up through the tear, dig into the shredded clay, and start to push. A dark shape crawls up and out of the muck, like something inside is molting—
“Liadain! Get away from there!”
A girl’s low, even words call out to me, tinged with faint urgency. There’s no clear source of the sound. I actually don’t think I even heard it at all, just… thought it in someone else’s inner voice? Whatever it was, it’s enough to briefly cut through the haze of panic choking the air. I turn and bolt down the hallway, clutching Pearl as I run. The pounding water rapidly dims, and if the thing is following me, I can’t tell.
A moment later I stumble through my door, slamming it behind me. I squeeze the doorknob so hard it hurts and lean back, pushing my entire weight into the door. This lasts a few seconds before my legs give out and my socks slide forward, leaving me in a crumpled heap on the ground. It’s all I can do to turn my head and press my ear to the door, shivering and choking all the while. This isn’t the slightest bit safer, it’s still here, still right outside, still coming to…
But that doesn’t happen. Nothing does. The soft, wet sounds are completely gone.
“Good. Stay in here and I should be able to protect you. For the moment.”
…I’m still not alone. At those voiceless words, I turn around and look up at another strange visitor. She stands beside my bed, studying my tarot cards where I’d left them on the nightstand. A child? The rough shape is of a little girl in a heavy blue-grey cloak, the color of the sea on a cloudy day.
When I see her face, I realize that the girl is very clearly something else. Her skin is marble white, but slick and shining like a dolphin’s, with the tips of the thin tendrils that trail down from her head like hair tinged a faint blue. In place of a nose, she just has two nostrils set directly into her skin. She watches me with sapphire eyes that have no pupils, only the thinnest rims of white around solid colored circles.
What is she? Not a Keeper — maybe one very deep into Emergence could end up like this, but she looks too young for the Promise range, and more than that, there’s something deeply inhuman about how she carries herself. When her gaze lowers to meet mine, she moves in an eerily fluid, precise way — her head takes the clearest possible path to exactly where it needs to be, and there it stays, never shifting or blinking. Harbingers aren’t supposed to speak, at least not in ways that make any sense, and a Harbinger would have eaten me or worse by now.
That only leaves…
She starts to speak again, and her mouth doesn’t move at all. The words come from that same strange place somewhere inside me.
“There’s nothing you can do about what you just saw, not as you are.
“But you can be more, if you wish.”