Fiction: Rae Whitehill
There is a man who lives in a lone cottage by the river’s edge who, unlike most of the guests in his home, knows his own name. He’ll tell you if you ask him. If you know how to navigate the river through the city, and past the suburban sprawl, to where it takes you far into what locals might call backcountry; if you can manage your way around the worn routes and dirt paths to the small unmarked mailbox tangled in honeysuckle; if you knock on the hand carved door that stands beside an ever churning water wheel. Then he’ll tell you.
He’s very welcoming to visitors, and you could go inside if you’d like. You may be
surprised by the shadowy figures crowded into his home, the ones that will speak in murmurs and whispers. Most of what you’ll hear is nonsense. You won’t need to worry about bumping into them, but he’ll probably tell you it’s rude to go walking through them—even if they can’t tell. You can ask as many questions as you like, and he’ll patiently answer every one of them.
He’ll have had a lot more visitors, lately.
Maybe if you ask him the right questions he’ll even tell you the entire story. He’ll hand off whatever it is he’s doing to his wife, and he’ll start at the beginning. He might even sit down. Well, he’ll start in that practiced way a person can have when they’ve told a story too many times. His voice might sound weary. You can tell he’s getting older. It was an accident, the first time. He’ll say this with far too much modesty. You might be able to hear, as you listen, some hint of the same awe he felt back when he swept his fishing net a little too high, skimmed the water, but found he’d caught something. It’ll be clear how much he cares when he describes
that first time, when he cradled one of the weakly pulsing things. I didn’t know what it was, he’ll admit, but it felt alive. This will seem odd to you, someone who knows that a soul cannot be without its body unless that body is dead. You’ll know he caught a soul. That’ll be why you’re there, after all.
Brought it to my wife. Didn’t bring any fish. She might look over at this point. She knew what a soul looked like. She knows much more about the world than her husband ever has. She’d heard that lost souls were past saving. You’ve heard that too: that souls lost to curses, black magic, and any other such soul traps, were unrecoverable. It’s why you’ve always stayed clear of those things. You won’t have ever seen a lost soul though, before now. You won’t know that they can be caught, accidentally or otherwise.
I couldn’t just leave the thing… it was alive. It was… breathing, pulsing. I’d always felt bad for those lost souls. Always wondered where they went to. And there I was holdin’ one! I had to try something. It must have been frustrating, you’ll think, to try and make nothing remember it was once something. These souls have no memories, no self. They don’t even know their own sex, their own names, the most basic of thoughts. He must have had a lot of faith in the dim little thing because there was never any evidence that they could come back at all.
I feel like I tried everything. Musta had the little guy tucked up for a year before he
started showin’ any signs of life. Life? He’ll keep saying that, and it will keep feeling odd. Even when he’ll describe the process of a lost soul finding itself: getting brighter, pulsing more frequently, slowly taking a human shape, you’ll remain unconvinced alive is the right world.
You wouldn’t believe the whole process, anyways, if you weren’t seeing it unfold around you. I was pretty amazed when he started talking—mostly incoherent noises. They’ve pretty much forgotten how to speak. When they do remember things, well, things are easier. He’ll tell you it can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year to get them speaking. Once they figure out language again they’ll ask endless questions. By that point they’ll do most of the work. You’ll be able to tell how deeply this affects him, probably every time, to see a lost soul become a soul.
He told me his name was Terry, when we got that far. It was clear what that meant to him. It was that moment I knew, or at least I had to stop lying to myself. His wife might chime in here. She’ll add that this wasn’t her first choice; she’ll say it fondly, but she’s always been a sucker for her husband’s humanitarian tastes. He takes care of the souls, he finds them. She took over all the research. She found other sources, tested new methods of recovery, mapped the locations of every lost soul found, and recorded everything. They’re really the first to ever try and get this process down to a science.
Once we figured out a pretty reliable method I thought we could spread the word. Ya know, guide as many lost souls back as possible. I dunno, maybe even get ‘em all. This is how you’ll have heard of him. He went out trying to sell his cure and gained few converts. He’s not the only one anyone, still the first, but there aren’t many. He’s still enthusiastic to change people’s hearts, you’ll see that in his eyes. If you offered to help he wouldn’t refuse you.
I brought this to world leaders. Kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers, and all the like. I thought with their powers, their great magic, maybe they’d be more effective than me.
He’ll pause then, before telling you how he was received. At this point he’ll rub his hands together, and you’ll notice that his hair is going grey around the temples.
They all had their reasons. You’ll recognize a great many of those reasons. The prime minister who insisted that the lost souls were already dead, and that he was only concerned with living souls, is yours. The queen who scoffed and told him that lost souls would always be with us, no matter his menial efforts, well, she sounds like your parents when you said this topic struck your fancy. The priest who said that lost souls took far too much time when there were souls who need more immediate attention seems to think like you had, initially. This will confirm something you’ll have suspected when you decided to visit: that there is a consensus about lost souls. They, and many would argue by their own volition, had become lost. To recover one was a small miracle, and miracles are not to be sought on every corner.
Mostly I do this by myself, well, with my wife. But it’s just us. We house as many as we can. I like to keep in contact with the others, help ‘em out sometimes. And he’ll get up and smile a kind of worn down smile. You’ll stand as well, and you’ll think he’s done with his story. Maybe his wife will offer some refreshments. You’ll thank them both before you go to leave. And when he opens the door for you, he’ll sigh.
In all the fairy tales and stories I read the hero never sees the end all the way through, ya know? Maybe I started something. Maybe it’s bigger than me. I think every soul is worth it, anyways.
You’ll take a moment then. He might squeeze your shoulder and you may or may not welcome the touch. You’ll move though this place, through his life. His story will affect you. You’ll think about what he’s doing every day at first, and then less as time passes. You’ll shake your head when those around you disparage the man or his cause. You’ll be happy to share the story, but you’ll never do anything more. And you’ll pray that you never become lost.
Rae Whitehill is a queer author currently completing their masters degree at Emerson College in Boston.