Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




The Lachrymist

It is not the dust that brings her tears.

The Lachrymist’s house is dusty, fragments of time and memory fallen everywhere, a living blanket that drapes itself over tables and chairs and things even stranger. But time and memory are to be expected anywhere the dead gather, and even in this abundance, they do not drive her to weeping.

Neither is her weeping caused by the voices, calling to each other from shadowy ceiling corners, memories still embodied, repeating phrases into the cold air. She likes the voices, has grown used to the syllables echoing about. The voices feel almost like old friends.

Nor does she weep over the lack of doors that open into the outside world, although it is true that the Lachrymist cannot leave her home. She knew the bounds of her role when she accepted it, and tears do not change facts no matter what quantity they fall in.

No, the tears fall because the Lachrymist is a creature made for weeping.

• • • •

The Lachrymist is not the only one who weeps, of course. It would be impossible to for anyone to live without mourning. But she is the only one whose tears fall with such focused attention. She is the only one whose tears fall with such weight.

Things die every day: people, languages, worlds. Trying to mark those losses, even simply the ones that touch directly on their own lives, would render most people unable to function. Yet the refusal to acknowledge so many disappearances on such a scale is not possible, either. Such a refusal would turn the losses into gaping maws, toothed and insatiable, consuming everything around them. And so that what is lost may be given its due, and the world still continue about its turning, the Lachrymist weeps.

She crafts each tear deliberately: water, salt, and memory, in perfect proportions to honor what is gone. She saves each tear that falls.

The Lachrymist has shelves upon shelves of bottles, her tears held in them. Colored glass and plain, faceted and smooth, sun-darkened and ice-clear.

She stores them to preserve the memories. She stores them against need.

• • • •

These are truths the Lachrymist has always known: The dead will arrive at her house so that she can mourn them. Her mourning preserves their memories. Those outside of her house who wish to remember those losses may travel to her at any time and ask for those memories.

All of these things are true, and yet no one living has ever come to the Lachrymist’s house. Hers is the only hand that has touched all of her jars of tears, so carefully collected, so diligently stored.

• • • •

The Lachrymist’s house haunts her. It generates new rooms at its own need, and subtracts others whose use has fallen away. She is constantly moving though strange hallways like some inverse of a ghost. Hers, the only heartbeat among what were once so many.

Yet such a strange and ever-shifting existence is necessary, for it is a condition of her mourning that the Lachrymist maintain proximity with what is lost. There must be a connection of some sort. There must be a reason for the Lachrymist to mourn. And so they come here, all of them, the lost and the dead and the disappeared, the shades and memories and fading voices. They come here, and they stay.

The Lachrymist doesn’t mind these presences. They allow her to pretend that she is not alone.

And most of the residents of the Lachrymist’s house adjust quite well to their change in circumstances. Things are not ideal, it is true, but they are mourned, and in the mourning, they are remembered. For most, this is enough.

• • • •

The dead are still almost fully formed when they arrive at the Lachrymist’s house. Dead languages whisper poetry in long hallways where dead poets stop to linger. Viewed slantwise, the scene is near lifelike.

But even in the Lachrymist’s house, nothing lasts forever. The dead fade, more and more, the longer they stay. Not into nothing—what is remembered is never gone—but they lose bits and pieces of themselves. A poem becomes a verse becomes a broken line, a poet becomes a shadow with no heart left to beat in iambs.

They dissolve into fragments, into dust, and into the memories held in a bottle of tears.

• • • •

The poet comes to her one day when the Lachrymist is collecting her tears. “I would rather,” he says, “be forgot.”

The Lachrymist places a stopper in an amber glass apothecary jar. These particular tears were shed for a delicate loss, a fragile memory, and she takes care that harsh lights will not fade them. She sets the jar on a shelf, near other, similar tears. “That is not up to me.”

A shadow separates itself from a wall and moves closer. “Isn’t it? You are the one who causes us to be remembered.”

“I am only who I am,” the Lachrymist says. “I cannot be other than my nature.” She turns away from the distraction to continue walking her house.

“I wonder,” the poet says. He does not follow.

• • • •

Days pass and the Lachrymist still thinks of that shadowed voice. She finds it strange, to be so haunted by a memory. She carries so many that she usually lives them as a blur, not as specifics. The Lachrymist wishes that this particular memory was not so uncomfortable for her, that it would quiet itself.

She considers what it would mean, to forget one of the residents of her house. She does not bring them here: they arrive. She weeps, yes, and she gathers her tears, but those are merely the tangible symbols of her purpose. The memory is there, as is the mourning. She can undo neither.

She would not even know how.

• • • •

Dust falls softly, coating everything but the jars of the Lachrymist’s tears. They remain pristine, as if she has just now sealed them and placed them on the shelf. Time is not allowed to touch them as it is the other things in the Lachrymist’s house. They are meant to be separate, unblurred by the passing hours. The Lachrymist’s memories are meant to remain as they were at the moment her tears were shed.

The Lachrymist’s footsteps leave marks in the dust, brief ones that begin filling and smoothing over as soon as her feet leave the ground. She does not always weep. Now, in this cool, grey hour, she walks, and she watches.

There are worlds gathered in her house, and words that are spoken nowhere else. She has wept for all those who lived in those worlds and spoke those words. But she can no longer find those people in her hallways and corridors. They fade, smoothed over by the dust of time, until their shapes are unrecognizable, until they no longer remember themselves.

But they are here. They do not leave.

She remembers them.

• • • •

The Lachrymist’s hands flutter over jars of tears like pale birds. The poet’s memory is here, stored. Perhaps if she finds it, she will understand. The entire purpose of this place—of her—is memorial. What can it mean to wish to undo that?

She finds the bottle. The glass is thick, frosted. A pleasing weight in her hand. She unstoppers the jar, and breaths in the memory.

No tears fall from the Lachrymist’s eyes.

His is a loss that is striking only in its ordinariness. There is nothing so terrible about it as to make clear why he would wish to be forgotten. She weeps over worse every day.

“But it is mine.” His voice more faded this time, a whisper now louder than the rustle of dust falling. “Memory holds us here, keeps us prisoner. I would go.”

The Lachrymist considers. “You know this cannot be undone.”

“But I already have been.”

His shadow is no longer substantial enough to bear even the weight of tears, and so the Lachrymist pours the bottle out herself. By the time it empties, he is gone.

• • • •

One day the Lachrymist will weep for herself. She will gather her tears in a jar, close the lid, and set it on a shelf where the dust of time will never touch it. One day, that jar of tears will be all of her that remains.

She does not know whether it will be enough.

But she will weep anyway.

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Kat Howard

Kat Howard. A red-haired white woman wearing blue jeans and a black sweater is sitting on a burgundy loveseat. She's leaning forward so that her elbows are on her knees and her chin is on her hands. There are windows in a concrete wall behind her.

Kat Howard is a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and horror who lives and writes in Minnesota. Her novella, The End of the Sentence, co-written with Maria Dahvana Headley, was one of NPR’s best books of 2014, and her debut novel, Roses and Rot, was a finalist for the Locus Award for Best First Novel. An Unkindness of Magicians was named a best book of 2017 by NPR, and won a 2018 Alex Award. Her short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, collects work that has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, performed as part of Selected Shorts, and anthologized in Year’s Best and Best of volumes. She was the writer for the first 18 issues of The Books of Magic, part of DC Comics’ Sandman Universe. Her next novel, A Sleight of Shadows, the sequel to An Unkindness of Magicians, is coming April 25, 2023. You can find her @KatwithSword on Twitter and on Instagram. She talks about books at Epigraph to Epilogue.