Gerbera ate the eyes. Fingernails too. The oval-shaped were her favorite, though she turned her nose to painted ones because they did unspeakable things to her intestines. Gerbera had never eaten an eye she didn’t like, although there was a Yaksha once who’s left orb arrived a bit twitchy. It had taken nearly a whole day to chew. The Yaksha always were a rigid Fair Folk. But she’d deserved her fate. Just like the rest of Them.
Bodies were brought to Gerbera for burning every day at four o’clock. Since its creation in 1871, the All Souls Chapel and Crematory hosted all manner of folk and Folk: from the crystal addicts down in Maumell, to the lost souls at Henniker Hospital, to the gnarled, graceful Elves of the Shelroke forest, to the Changeling children who’d died in their human parent’s arms and their stolen counterparts, who were skinned alive and eaten, to the blue-skinned, cheeky Nymphs of Mymar lake and to the clever, spiked Aziza who stuck close to the ground.
Humans were welcome too, of course. This place wasn’t called All Souls for nothing. The town of Salding ran around All Souls like a human horseshoe, humming with mortality and flesh. Gerbera had been there when the first of Salding’s dead had arrived to be cremated. That was in 1875, when she was about 127 years younger. Her skin was just beginning to lose the color of fresh ginger, taking on a galling grey instead. Her turbid hair, flowered and braided away from her face, had long since lost its bounty. It had become a murky nest of thick tendrils that grew like a slug moved. Gerbera’s eyes remained the same. They always did.
The first to be carried in - at this time by a woman named Edith - was a child, of course. Human children were born with the speed of a lustful rabbit and dropped just a quick, like plague flies. The life and death of humans was still new to Gerbera. Her lifeblood had existed far away from All Souls and Salding, where the Folk roamed more freely and humans were the dying myth. She was fascinated.
The child had barely grown. A year old but the size of a Salamander’s egg, which wasn’t very large at all. Pale skin the color of rotten cream. Hands with contorted fingers reaching out for the very idea of warmth. Skin cracked with the thickness of a mint leaf.
It gave to the flames in a matter of seconds.
Edith had left the child on Gerbera’s table. No one stayed to watch something like that. They could see a body but not its final demise. Their prudence left Gerbera plenty of privacy to harvest the eyes before the burning, eyes that hadn’t had the chance to see much of anything. With a blade as thin as the poor creature’s skin, she extracted the organs without struggle. The roots hadn’t quite taken to the body yet, skinny and dilapidated they trailed behind the orbs. It was all so small.
She left the nails. They weren’t of any good to her so new like that. Nails with experience had substance, they tasted of more. The older the better.
Gerbera rolled the eyes between her thumb and forefinger. Smooth as pearls, they were of a color similar to her own, which surprised her. She wondered if the child had been the product of a lecherous Tusser and some unwitting human girl. Or perhaps a wicked Hulder union. It wasn’t uncommon. It would explain why it was dead.
Gerbera could not take her eyes away. The quiet roar of the incinerator dominated the room in a way that Gerbera could not. She, like the child, would never be able to take up much space. Her dusky, beryl irises, light-filled the moment she was born on that stormy night in 1748, were now soot-stained with regret and the ones she could not save. Her Edema Ruh. Her family. Her dead.
The human child was not Gerbera’s first body. That was painfully clear.
There had been old Yucca and his oak skin, blood made of amber honey so beautiful it could dazzle the stubbornest of Sprites. He had been the one to find Gerbera in that swampy grove, her tiny frame mimicking the look of a feral cat that someone had half-heartedly tried to drown. He was kind to her, gentle. A forget me not behind each ear, he told Gerbera what Edema Ruh meant. That it was hers now. She’d never be alone again. He’d died first, the night that it happened.
There was Poplar, blind in both eyes but as sharp as artemisia leaves, who told jokes that made Dwarves guffaw and slap their thighs in vigor. She had gruffly brushed Gerbera’s hair back, even when Gerbera grew old enough to do it herself. Away from the face, sìthiche. Your eyes belong to the world. She’d died when the moon had begun to wane, that fateful night.
Flax, one half of the twins, had their clusters of yule berries dangling from both bony elbows. They ate black trumpet mushrooms for every meal. They taught Gerbera how to weave the stars into melody, grinning all the while. Azore, Flax’s other half, the sun in each eye, always gleaming. Her body could move with the wind in a way that made the stream weep, her salmon skin soft to the touch as she showed Gerbera how to paint the tail of quetzal beneath her eye. The twins died at the same time, hands a breath away from each other, reaching, that solitary night.
And Hollyhock, strong Hollyhock. Their protector, his arms corded with climbing leather flowers that stretched over his shoulders to his single horn. He’d trusted Gerbera the least of all of them, but couldn’t help but love her when she helped him gather stones for a fire, skipping ahead with Flax’s song on her lips. He never spoke a word until that night, locked in the fatal embrace of that dreadful Sluagh. The one who killed them all.
Gerbera crushed the child’s eyes in her hands. They were ruined so easily it destroyed any satisfaction the action could have given her. What little aqueous the eyes held dripped from her fingers to the beat of the incinerator's heat. In that small room of the crematory she stood, as she would for 127 years and another 127 after that. The more eyes and nails she ate the more lives she lived. The less looked upon Gerbera became.
The Sluagh drove her to this. But it was her Edema Ruh that kept Gerbera here. Their faces trapped in the faces of the bodies she burned. Their hands grasped hers in the dark, which was why she never slept. In those hours she walked behind the Chapel, into the All Souls modest graveyard.
There was an angel wherever she turned, and in their serene faces she could see only the Sluagh and all its horrible wings.
She sat in what would be the graveyard’s crossroad. Pulling her knees up to her chest, she begged, as she had every day for 127 years, to die.
As a Monadh, Gerbera could not kill herself. She spent 5 years trying, one for each of her family. Nothing succeeded. A rope around her neck would turn to ash. A knife to her forearm wouldn’t touch the skin. Guns refused to fire. The sea would bring her up to breathe again. Poison tasted like spun sugar.
Gerbera would age as Edith did in 1875, as her replacement Hutch did in 2002, and as the rest of Salding’s humans aged and died throughout the years. She would age with the rest of the Fair Folk, but watch them wither and die also. That was the rule.
Her eyes did indeed belong to the world.
A tear leaked from beneath those eyes. It startled her, dropping onto the damp, hard ground below. Gerbera wondered suddenly how many of the bodies she’d touched were scattered beneath her.
Too many. She thought it must be too many. The angels shifted their gaze closer, wings lifted in false security. Were they dead too? Or had they always been that way?
The child’s ashes would be taken elsewhere, Edith had mentioned.
Did they have an Edema Ruh? A family tortured by their death? Had there been a grandfather, twinkle in his eye, rocking them back and forth? Was there a mother, tough and immovable, staring at a lock of hair caught in a hairbrush? Were there a pair of siblings, sweet and inseparable, tripping over each other to look at the child’s face? Where was the father, a rock to climb on in a storm, the one who loved them the most?
Gone. They all would be soon enough. The Sluagh would come for them. Steal them, murder them, break them. It was only a matter of time. Gerbera shivered, her mane falling into her face. The tendrils snaked around her legs as she let the whole curtain of her hair sink down to obscure her vision.
There was no pretty way to cry. Water leaped from her like it never had, stirring some of the graveyard’s newly laid ashes and sticking them to her bare feet. An olive-feathered owl screamed at Gerbera in her head, staring as a black-eyed wolf ripped her hair from her head. Twin roe deer stamped their hooves in circles around her legs while a great bear stood by and said nothing.
The angels moved closer, beaming.