In the spring after the war’s end, the soldiers’ spirits began to wander home, and Lady Magdalena bound their lips with cardamom so that they could not speak.
“These souls walked for months, their only thought to return home. You must remember, little of their personality remains at this point. They are solid enough to nudge furniture and not sink through the floor, but they’re not fully here.”
I watched as she mixed a pinch of fragrant cardamom with pale butter and a dribble of honey. Ground cardamom spice, strong as it was, could bridge the lands of the living and dead; butter acted as a binding agent; and honey recalled the sweetness of life.
“How long will it take him to completely fade?” I asked. I was eleven summers old. I had seen many spirits over the years, certainly, but never in such numbers. Like all of the tenements throughout the city, our building thunked and thudded with its burgeoning population of the partially-present, and the flow from the battlefields hadn’t ceased.
“Usually about four months, depending on the stubbornness of the spirit. This one has mere weeks left. Here, Vera. You do the deed as I showed you all morning. Focus on your emotion.”
I dipped my pointer and middle fingers into the butter mixture and reached to the face of the apparition before me. My uncle. He looked much as he did in life, though strangely gaunt from a winter in the trenches. He swayed in place, his body transparent, his eyes blank white.
“Saints, please let the bombs miss us, please. Oh no, that one fell close.” He unceasingly repeated his last words from life, as all ghosts do. His voice still trembled with terror. I wanted to sink to the floor and sob, but even more, I wanted to silence him. Mama and I had lived with Uncle Ivan’s mantra and his stumbling presence for days, and it had nearly driven us mad.
“Ivan,” I whispered. Names had power; love had power, too. I pushed months of worry and love and mourning into the word. My fingers met his lips, and encountered bitter cold like I’d touched an icicle. I smeared the butter across his lips as if to prevent them from chapping. His swaying slowed.
I felt the magic then. The tie. His soul was tethered to mine by blessed spice and a solitary word.
“Now guide him aside,” said Magdalena.
Upholding my cardamom-freckled fingers, I led Ivan’s ghost the way I might tease a carthorse with a carrot. I positioned him in the corner of the room where we would not pass through him and be shocked anew by cold and grief. I willed him to remain standing there, quiet. He stayed motionless. Breathless.
At Magdalena’s approving nod, I stuck my fingers in my mouth and sucked away the spicy sweetness. The tie between us snapped as my fingers warmed.
I knew what Mama wanted done next. I grabbed our lone book shelf and with Magdalena’s help, positioned it to hide Ivan. His shoulders and head still showed over the top, but that was fine. We could talk to him, if we wished, and otherwise go about our days.
“Good work,” said Magdalena. She pondered the shelves, her hands on the slight nub of her hips. “Do you know how to read?”
I shrugged. “A bit.”
She looked as if she tasted something foul. “By the Gray Saints. We won the war, and look at us, all our young men gone and numerous women as well. Too many of us who remain are vulnerable and illiterate.”
Her fingers whisked me toward the door. She hoisted up her basket of implements as if it weighed as much as a feather pillow. I’d heard rumors that in her younger years, she’d been in one of the first all-women battalions. She still had that toughness about her—as if she’d created ghosts, not just sealed them away.
Mama leaned in the tenement hallway, her body curved and tight as a wire coat hanger. “My brother’s hidden?” She didn’t remove her cigarette from her lips. Smoke wreathed her head.
“Mostly,” Lady Magdalena said. “He won’t mumble anymore, either. His lips are sealed until he fades away.”
Mama exhaled in gray and curtly nodded toward me. “She help you enough to pay for Ivan’s spirit to be sealed?”
“Surprisingly, yes.” Magdalena regarded me with pursed lips. “Most children are curious about spirits but have no stomach for this job.”
“I can continue to help you,” I blurted. I had been curious about Lady Magdalena for years and Mama had repeatedly reminded me that the Lady’s sort of magic, though necessary, was unclean. “I’m a fast learner and—”
One of Mama’s looks caused my mouth to slam shut like a book.
“She has a knack for magic,” Mama said rather apologetically. “She’s always meddling with animals.”
I gawked at Mama. She wasn’t arguing against me?
“Ah, she speaks to beasts, too? She does have promise.” Magdalena studied me, and I studied her in equal measure. She was old, but not old-old—perhaps in her thirties, a widow with no children. Wrinkles already creased her brown skin like softening leather. “You realize that my business and income are good for now, because of the war, but soon enough I’ll only be sealing the lips of old folks and children run down by cars, and the families’ grief will be fresh and terrible. It’s nothing like what we saw today, Vera. Your family has had months to brace for your uncle’s return.”
“Her pay?” asked Mama.
“You know I am paid through barter. She’ll get what she earns, you can trust me on that.”
“Is your husband’s spirit expected to come home, too, Lady Magdalena?” I asked. Mama scowled and breathed out smoke, and Magdalena looked away. My heart lurched in panic—had I ruined my chances to learn her magic?
My face must have screamed my dismay for all to see; Lady Magdalena shook her head toward Mama. “She’s just a child. She doesn’t know of these things.” She looked at me. “We women must look out for each other with our men gone, eh? Be at my flat again tomorrow morning, same time as today.”
At that, she walked away. The heady scent of cardamom lingered in her wake, even stronger than the constant foul cloud of tobacco smoke.
Mama twisted my ear and yanked me inside. “You don’t know when you have it good, do you, girl? When you have an opportunity like that, don’t ruin it by talking!”
“For ages you didn’t even want me to speak to Lady Magdalena,” I whined as I rubbed my ear.
“Well, she’ll be rich for a while more yet, and Saints know Ivan’s pension will end this month.” She started to glance toward his corner then stopped herself and smashed her cigarette into a chipped saucer. “We lived on old bread and prayers after your papa’s death, and now this again. We’re poor, Vera. This whole city is poor. We take what we can get.”
I thought of what Lady Magdalena said about women looking out for each other, and nodded.
Mama lit another cigarette. I waited until she inhaled to speak again. “What happened with Lady Magdalena’s husband?”
“Vasily deserted like a lot of men after the offensive on the Rhenn.” That was when Ivan and so many of these fresh ghosts met their death. “He came home on leave, never went back. He’s probably living it up in some sea coast resort villa. Bastard.”
“Poor Magdalena.” That meant she’d had no pension for months now.
“Don’t pity her. Vasily was a mean drunk and a lecher. Before he enlisted, he was cavalry police. The bad sort of police.”
“I thought—I heard—Magdalena was a soldier, years ago—”
“And that means what? She won’t hesitate to stab someone fool enough to break into her flat, true, but when you love someone, when you need a roof and a belly full of food…” Mama exhaled, her eyes like flint. “It’s a shame Magdalena’s damn near starved these past months, but I won’t mourn for her husband. Not for an instant. You’re a pretty girl, getting prettier yet. You’re safer with Vasily gone.”
I hated to think of Lady Magdalena with such a wretched man. She deserved a better life.
Right then and there, I vowed to be the best apprentice I could possibly be. We would seal spirits together and bring prosperity to both of our families.
Lady Magdalena was slow to answer her door the next morning.
“Hold on, hold on.” She undid various bolts and gave the knob a hard yank to scrape the door open. The whole thing was badly warped. “I’m moving like an old carthorse this morning. Come in.”
I hadn’t been invited inside the day before. I entered, a happy smile on my face. Awful hot-cold tingles started on my feet and zoomed up to my head and my scalp prickled as if it had fallen asleep. I yelped. Magdalena burst out laughing, her grin broad and gap-toothed.
“My flat’s warded. I know if anyone comes inside. I’m almost always in the building, and I can move fast to protect what’s mine.” Iron edged her words.
“You can trust me, Lady Magdalena.” I stood a little straighter.
“Can I? We’ll see soon enough. It’s not as though I have much of value beyond cardamom, even with business as it is now.” She looked around, expression wistful.
The room contained mere scraps of furniture and a shelf laden with spice jars. The smell of cardamom almost masked the foul scent of the mold that streaked the walls in black and green.
Mama and I possessed few things, but we certainly had more than this. Magdalena’s flat was scarcely better than sleeping in a lean-to off an alley. It hurt to think of the great comfort she brought to people by tending their ghosts, and yet she had to live in such a place.
Magdalena grabbed a marble mortar and pestle and set it on the table. The crescents of her fingernails were stained deep gray by cardamom, with her thumb, pointer finger, and middle finger the darkest in coloration. “Here. I need to get dressed.” She wore a threadbare night shift that outlined the low crescent sways of her breasts. “You smash open these cardamom pods. The cardamom must stay pure, so don’t you dare drop so much as a pod. If you take even a pinch, I’ll know.” Her gaze sliced into me and I hastily nodded that I understood.
She dropped a handful of green cardamom pods into the mortar and stalked off. Her bedroom door closed with a squawk.
I crushed pods with zeal. I would prove my worth to Lady Magdalena! I was going to bring home pay for Mama! I got to work with ghosts! It took me no time to bust open the shells to free the dark seeds inside. The cardamom smelled divine. Lady Magdalena’s feet still pattered back and forth in her bedroom, so I gravitated toward the bookshelf and mischief.
A leather-bound book was on the top of the shelf. It wore no dust. I opened it up and gasped as I realized it was Magdalena’s own journal of cantrips. Right there on the first page, it described how to seal ghosts until they fully faded to heaven. I was pleased to see I’d followed her written instructions to the letter.
It also said how to unseal a ghost by using freshly ground pepper with butter and salt. I hadn’t even known such a thing was possible. Why would a person want to hear those horrible death mumblings again?
I flipped ahead. The book described rituals for when a ghost had no known name to be sealed by, or what to do if they were especially malevolent, or if the ghost had no way to make it home before they faded. How fascinating. The floor creaked and I hurriedly shut the book and scooted back into my chair just as Magdalena emerged. Her frizzy black hair was bound in a big knot and she wore a loose cotton smock with a stained muslin apron, its pockets already burdened with supplies.
“You’ll work with that cardamom more when we get back. Come along. We’re running late. We have ghosts to seal.”
Even when I dealt with families whose grief was still fresh as a bleeding wound, there was something indescribably satisfying about the work. Lady Magdalena muttered at me more than once that I should take care not to smile so much.
Magdalena had me measure the ingredients and blend them while she handled the talking and the sealing duties. Some people had us tuck ghosts into closets or pantries. Some left their fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers in the center of a room, with candles around them like a shrine. Other didn’t care where we took the ghosts. Magdalena had a place for those spirits—an empty flat on the top floor where the mold was too bad for it to be rented out. About ten ghosts were there, a few faded to mere wisps. The foulness of the room left me nauseous, but Magdalena said the spirits were close enough to home to be at peace.
When the day was done, I took home my pay: a loaf of coarse bread, six eggs, and five yards of muslin. I’d never been so proud. Mama was at work, so I left my things there and began my next mission: to find where Magdalena’s husband had gone.
If he really was at a villa on the sea, the army needed to know. Deserters worked in labor camps or were executed outright. Vasily needed to suffer for leaving his wife so poor, even if her situation had improved for now.
Mama said Vasily had been cavalry police, so I knew I needed to get word straight from the horses’ mouths. It had been autumn when I was last banned from the police precinct’s barn; I was quite overdue for a visit.
It was still easy to slip in through a back door. A few young boys shoveled manure but no officers were about.
“Ah! It’s been too long, Vera,” said an old gelding with a penchant for gossip. “Did you hear a truck ran down poor Sammy? And Taran had a broken leg and had to be—”
Most people would have heard only wickers and neighs, but I heard his words loud and clear.
“I actually can’t stay long.” I stroked along his blaze. “I wanted to see if one of the horses remembered a cavalry officer named Vasily Mordga.”
His ears flared back. “Mordga. He rode Cloudcatcher.”
“Oh.” With that, I knew what Mama had said was true. Vasily was a horrible, horrible man and Lady Magdalena was certainly better off without him, even if she went hungry.
I had rarely visited Cloudcatcher in the past because she was so flighty that she was likely to give away my presence. The slightest thing made her startle and lunge. I knew she’d had a bad rider, but I hadn’t known who.
I approached her with caution and was surprised to see her head over the stall door. Her ears still flicked nervously, but she didn’t shy away.
“Yes, I have a new rider, a woman officer. She has a good hand and gentle heels.”
“I wanted to ask about your old rider.” I kept my voice even. “I heard he’s gone.”
“Blessed be, yes.”
“Have you heard where he went?” Animals gossiped more than people.
“He’s dead.” Her head bobbed with joy.
“But he didn’t—he didn’t go to war again.”
“No. He never left the city. Dogs howled the good news that they dined on Mordga’s bones.”
My jaw dropped. “Good news?”
Cloudcatcher’s ears flicked. “Certainly! I wasn’t the only one who suffered because of Vasily Mordga. Those dogs had often been kicked by him, and many other animals knew to be wary of his presence.”
Vasily had been fed to dogs. I reeled at this. Had he been killed in a bar fight? Attacked by a jealous husband? Killed himself through drunken stupidity?
If it could be proven he was actually murdered, maybe Lady Magdalena could get some of his pension! Or at the very least, more honor from his name. No policeman would accept the hearsay of animals, though. I needed proof. A body, preferably. Or whatever bones or bits remained.
This new goal excited me. I already had the nerve to touch ghosts, after all. Seeking out a corpse seemed proper within the scope of my apprenticeship.
The shifting of nearby horses gave me scant warning of an officer’s approach. “Peace and sweet hay to you,” I whispered to Cloudcatcher, and scampered away.
“Hey. Hey!” An old man shouted after me, but I skedaddled from the stable and straight on home.
I was nervous and giddy around Lady Magdalena the next day. I so desperately wanted to tell her what I had learned, but I knew the mature, responsible thing was to wait until I had proper evidence.
We made the rounds to seal five ghosts in our building and two in the tenement next door, then returned to her flat so I could practice grinding cardamom.
My mind galloped here, there, and everywhere, and that is why my elbow smacked into an almost-full jar of cardamom and knocked it to the floor. The glass shattered, and brown powder sprayed across the crackled tile, the fragrance of a fall from heaven.
Lady Magdalena calmly set down the pen in her hand and stood over the mess.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I can clean it up, I can pick the glass out—”
“No, you can’t.” Her voice was as dull as that of a ghost. “The cardamom must be pure to touch the spirits’ lips. There’s no way to be sure the spice isn’t contaminated.”
“I didn’t mean…” Words dammed in my throat as I caught the enraged expression on her face. No, not mere rage. Terror.
I frantically looked to her shelf. She had more jars of cardamom, but I couldn’t even guess the value of the grains at my feet. More than several months’ rent, surely, more than Lady Magdalena could ever spare.
“I can work, I can make it up to you—”
“Get out!” she roared at me, spittle spraying from her lips. She lunged toward me and I fled, heart shuddering, tears flying.
I couldn’t go home. Mama would still be there. I couldn’t bear to face her, for her to know that after a mere day of work I’d done something so dreadful that Lady Magdalena might not ever wish to see me again, much less allow me to be her apprentice.
I ended up on the back stoop near the crowded tenement garden. My hands still reeked of cardamom as I buried my head in my palms and quivered as though it were winter. Lady Magdalena, the look in her eyes—she could have killed me. I couldn’t blame her for the reaction, truly.
The barking and snapping of the big dogs next door finally roused me from my self-pity. I walked to the haphazard plank fence.
“Hey,” I called. If I could help Lady Magdalena, maybe I could make up for the loss of the cardamom. Maybe I could eventually get back in her good graces, too.
“People, people, people bad smelling awful they’ll try to get in our yard hey hey I smell meat do you smell it?” The voices of the pack melded as they playfully bounded.
I grimaced. I didn’t mind speaking with solitary dogs, but in a pack, dogs’ voices became almost incomprehensible, especially when they were all ecstatic to see me.
“I heard that dogs ate a man a few months ago,” I said. Vasily could have died anywhere, but these dogs were right next door. I knew folks kicked at them through gaps in the fence, too.
“Man man meat meat is so good we don’t get enough hey do you have some nice girl meat sounds really good!”
“You may as well talk to the brick building.” Sasha, my tenement’s elder rat-catcher, strolled through the growing lettuces. The dogs went into a new frenzy, which the cat ignored with a flick of her tail.
Encountering Sasha was brilliant good luck. I could go weeks without seeing her. I crouched to rub the sweet spot between her ears.
“Do you know anything about a man being eaten by dogs? I’m hoping to find bones.”
“I know many things,” purred Sasha. “I know my building.”
“Then you know my mama brought home a whole chicken last night,” I said. The cat inclined her head. “I can save some pieces for you.”
The purr grew louder. “I know the man you seek. His boots met my ribs all too often. Nothing is left of his body, but his spirit lingers yet. He is what you people call ‘sealed.’ Follow me.”
I felt a sudden chill, and not because of contact with a spirit. Vasily’s ghost was in my building. Only one other person in our neighborhood could have sealed him.
“I need to grab a few things from my flat,” I said to Sasha. “Where can I meet you?”
The basement stank of decay. I could see little beyond the halo of my ancient oil lamp. Sasha’s crooked tail guided me to a niche tucked behind the furnaces. Things skittered in the shadows.
“Leave the chicken pieces where I showed you,” the cat said. She trotted away.
I set down my lamp and my box of implements. Rotting boards and old wallpaper formed a crude false wall. It took little force to wrench them away, and, as I did, I felt the distinct hot-cold of a breached ward.
Lady Magdalena now knew someone was here. I resisted the urge to run away.
The ghost of Vasily Mordga stared at me with sightless eyes.
I stared back. It seemed strangely foolhardy of Lady Magdalena to let him fade away in the place where people knew him best.
I mixed fresh pepper with salt and butter, and poured my intent into the motion. I wished his lips to unseal, for his feet to remain frozen.
Vasily was icy to touch. His lips parted as my fingers pulled back.
“I’ll kill you this time, woman. You can’t threaten me. I own you.” Hatred dripped in his words. I knew he didn’t speak to me, but terror quaked through me all the same.
“I killed him first.” Lady Magdalena emerged from the darkness, panting heavily. She must have run through half the tenement. She held a lantern high in one hand. “Why are you here, Vera?”
That is when I noticed the knife in her other hand.
I breathed through my panic. “I wanted to prove he hadn’t deserted so that you might still get some of your widow’s pension. I wanted… I wanted to help.”
I was pinned in. If she wanted to kill me and seal away my ghost, she could. The neighborhood dogs certainly weren’t picky about the meat that came their way.
“Help,” she echoed.
“Why didn’t you hide him better than this?” The words slipped out before I could stop them. “This is our building. Most folks wouldn’t come down here, but it could still happen. The police would connect you to his murder.”
Magdalena looked past me to Vasily, then away. “You’re right,” she said, her voice small. Vasily repeated his vile words. “It’s something I have considered every day since. I could still guide him into the river in the thick of night, but I don’t. This… This is…” She motioned around us. “I loved him once, and I think he loved me.”
I understood. In a way. This building was Vasily’s home. She wanted him to fade away here.
She stared at the knife in her hand as if suddenly realizing it was there, and tucked it into the sheath at her waist. “I didn’t think you’d be the one who triggered the ward.”
“You would have killed someone else here?”
I wondered why I was the exception, but I couldn’t give voice to the question. Quiet drew out between us, even as Vasily droned onward. Rats scuttled and muttered nearby.
“In another month, his ghost will fade away,” I whispered. “I won’t tell anyone he’s here. I know this is justice, that no one mourns him. Even his old police horse delights in his death.”
“You actually spoke with Cloudcatcher? Is she…well?”
“She’s in wonderful care. Like a new horse, really.”
Lady Magdalena’s face softened despite the hard shadows. “I’m glad I’m not the only one to survive him.”
“I’ll kill you this time, woman…” Vasily rasped yet again. I grimaced.
“If you have cardamom and honey, I’ll silence him again.” It was only right for me to do the deed. “I promise I’ll be careful.”
She considered me and reached for the thick sway of her apron pocket. “I know the cardamom spill was an accident. I’ve done the same myself more than once. It’s just, to lose that much…” Terror flickered across her face again, and I ducked my head in shame.
“I know.” I accepted her ingredients and faced the ghost. I hated binding myself to Vasily, but even more, I relished the power of silencing him forever.
I could do more than that, too. I could steal an extra pinch of cardamom, and I could guide his spirit to the river myself. Lady Magdalena didn’t have to risk his ghost being found here in the basement.
My fingers hovered over the jar, and then I stoppered it with cork again.
I couldn’t steal any extra, and not simply because of her threat that she’d know if I thieved any. She wanted Vasily to fade here, at home. I had to respect that. I had to respect her memory of what had once existed between them.
I sealed Vasily’s lips and wedged some of the broken boards back into place to cover his niche. At my back, Magdalena was quiet. Drip-drops of water plunked somewhere beyond our lamps.
With slow care, I handed the ingredients back to Magdalena. “About the cardamom spill. I’m sorry for my clumsiness, but please, give me another chance. I’ll work as much as necessary to make up for the loss.”
Her head cocked to one side as she set down her lantern. “If I said no, I have a feeling you’d haunt me, sure as a ghost.”
“I wouldn’t be that annoying!”
A smile softened her face, and at that moment, I realized that for all her earlier rage at me, I might not have been fired at all. “I think, perhaps, we can come to an arrangement. First things first. We need to build a new ward with salt. I’ll start, and you’ll finish it, yes?”
“Yes.” I bowed above the lantern’s glow to study her every move and repeated each undulating motion in turn. In the dim light, I noticed that cardamom had already stained my fingernails gray. I repressed a smile at the realization it would never truly wash away.
(Editors’ Note: “With Cardamom I’ll Bind Their Lips” is read by Erika Ensign and Beth Cato is interviewed by Julia Rios on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 15A.)
© 2017 by Beth Cato
2 Responses to “With Cardamom I’ll Bind Their Lips”
“I knew I needed to get word straight from the horses’ mouths” – Brilliant!
The more I’ve thought about this story, the more I’ve loved it. The protagonist is so fully realized I can see parts of my daughter there when she was that age.