“But until he is dead, you had best refrain from calling him happy, and just call him fortunate.”
Peter is seven years old, and at his first funeral. He doesn’t like it.
This morning he had planned to check on the blackbirds’ nest in the elm tree near the front gate. He likes to climb up and look at the eggs, blue-green and speckled, while the birds swoop and call around his head. They nested there last year too, and he saw the chicks when they first emerged, naked and pink, peeping for their mother who was hovering frantically, too afraid to come nearer while Peter was there. He’d hoped this year’s clutch might be hatched today.
Instead, he’s been stuffed into a scratchy, stiff black suit, and told that on his mother’s orders he’s not to sneak off, because this is a family tradition. If he does, he’s been warned, he’ll be punished. Normally his mother doesn’t know or care what he does, so for her to make such a threat - even via the staff - mean it’s serious.
Now he’s stuck in a room with a bunch of strangers who he’s been told are his family, all wearing dark clothes and dour expressions, and who knows how long it’ll be before he gets to leave. All because some relative he never heard of went and died. It hardly seems fair.
The only lucky thing is that nobody seems inclined to talk to him.
He wanders around, slipping between the adults who barely notice his presence, until he finds himself near the coffin. It’s standing on a big metal table, sort of like a hospital stretcher, and the lid is open. Peter cranes his neck to look inside.
The man lying in the coffin is very old, his skin wrinkled and waxy, and obviously dead. Peter isn’t bothered by that. He’s seen dead things before: rabbits and mice and birds, and once a fox, its sharp teeth bared in a frightened snarl.
They’ve put the dead man in a black suit as well, and he’s wearing a frown; if he were to suddenly stand up and join the crowd of relatives, Peter thinks, nobody would notice.
“That’s your great uncle Benjamin,” his mother’s voice says from behind him. Peter turns to look at her, though she isn’t looking at him, her gaze fixed somewhere in the middle distance.
“Why did he die?” Peter asks. Sometimes, when he finds dead animals, it’s obvious what killed them: torn apart by some predator, fur and feathers scattered. But a lot of the time they’re just dead, with no sign of how it happened. Like they just picked a quiet spot to lie down alone and die.
“He was old,” says his mother vaguely. “Congenital heart problems.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means it runs in the family.”
His mother walks away, and Peter looks at the body again. He wonders if his great uncle Benjamin picked a quiet spot to lie down alone and die. He wonders if that runs in the family.
After the funeral is over and the coffin has been put in the family mausoleum, Peter tears off his jacket and tie and runs across the grounds to the elm tree. When he climbs up, the nest is ruined and empty. Rats, probably, Peter thinks, or the marten he saw last week. Only a few fragments of blue-green eggshell are left, smeared with yolk. The blackbirds cry plaintively nearby.
The waves lap gently against the hull of the lifeboat. It’s quiet. The fog blankets everything, dulls all the noise. The only sounds are the gentle wash of waves and the harsh breathing of the crew, occasional bitten off whimpers of distress.
This isn’t the first time through for any of these men; they know that there’s just one lonely soul being sacrificed tonight. But that doesn’t abate their fear, the knowledge that it could have been any of them, and that their crewmates wouldn’t have raised a finger to save them, anymore than they did for Asim Ibrahim. The fact that even together, each of them is entirely alone.
None of these men are afraid of death anymore; after seasons aboard the Tundra, their fears are far more refined.
Peter sits in the midst of his crew and breathes in their fear, slow and deep. He savors Asim’s terror, back on the Tundra, as the man walks the echoing, fog shrouded deck, realizing with a sinking heart that he is forsaken. He feels the thing in the fog, vast and cold, at once mournful and so desperately hungry.
He does not know what the thing is, in the fog, some pure manifestation of his god or a monstrous outgrowth, but feeding it feeds him. Fills him with a profound, aching satisfaction. He knows, beyond knowing, that what happens here is right.
He is distinctly aware of the precise moment when Asim is taken. If the man is lucky, it won’t take him too long to die. He might even get a funeral, when he washes ashore in months or years.
By the time the whistle sounds again, Peter feels whole. Alive and singularly present, as he only does after a sacrifice. Back in his cabin on the Tundra, he pours a glass of single malt and raises a toast to Asim Ibrahim, lifting his glass towards the dark ocean beyond the porthole.
“Call no man happy until he is dead,” he declares. It’s a quote from something, he thinks, though he couldn’t say what. He’s never been much for books.
Peter’s father is dead.
He isn’t particularly upset about it. Put out might be a better description, because he had intended to set sail for Quanzhou two days ago, but instead his father had to go and die of heart failure, dragging Peter back to the gloomy halls of Moorland House and making him feel all of seven years old again.
The usual relatives are here, older and more wrinkled and no less humorless than ever. Peter thinks he even sees his mother at one point, lingering near the door, though he can’t be sure. He wouldn’t be surprised if she skipped the whole affair, despite her insistence on family traditions. She’s never been shy about her disregard for her husband.
The coffin stands at the back of the room, open. Peter strolls across and looks down into it. The man lying inside has deep lines on his face, anxious furrows between his eyebrows. He looks smaller than Peter recalls his father being. He might be wrong, though; the man was always forgettable, easy to overlook.
“Finally the center of attention, eh?” Peter jokes. His father doesn’t reply, but then he rarely did when he was alive either.
“Good talk,” says Peter, and walks away.
Before they take the coffin to the mausoleum he slips outside for a cigarette. From the porch he watches a sleek, black car pull up in front of the house. The back door opens and his uncle Nathaniel climbs out. Another man gets out as well, middle aged and neat looking, and he is definitely not a member of the family. For one thing, Peter has never seen him before. For another, he’s talking rather animatedly, and looking at Nathaniel as he does. Nathaniel is giving curt, irritated nods and doing his best to avoid eye contact, as if this conversation is an unpleasant necessity.
Peter watches with some interest, until the man holds out his hand for Nathaniel to shake. Nathaniel does so with a look of distaste, and then turns and heads towards the front door.
“He inside?” he grunts to Peter as he passes.
“Yeah,” Peter answers, still watching the other man. As Nathaniel walks inside, the neat looking man turns his gaze to Peter. His eyes are gray and piercing, and the cruel smirk that curves his lips looks wrong on his soft face.
“It’s not very polite to stare, you know.”
“I’m not very polite,” says Peter, and the man laughs. “Who are you?”
“I’m a business associate of Nathaniel’s. There are some strategic managerial changes happening in my organization soon, and I needed him to be aware. I thought the least I could do was offer him a lift, since I kept him so long in London. Sorry to interrupt your…” he looks Peter up and down. “Uncle’s funeral?”
“Oh, well then, sorry about that.” He doesn’t sound very sorry, and Peter appreciates that. He shrugs.
“No need,” he says. “I’m not, particularly.”
“A true Lukas,” the man says, and there’s a note in his voice that might be admiring or mocking. He gives a sharp nod, then gets back into the sleek black car and pulls away. Peter watches him go.
Later, that cruel smirk will look far more fitting on Elias Bouchard’s haughty, aristocratic face, and those gray eyes will pin Peter with even less mercy than James Wright’s did. Elias will often tell Peter that he’s sorry, but he’ll never sound it.
Martin Blackwood is desperately lonely, and also simply desperate. He’s perfect.
Peter chose him some time ago, of course, but it’s the funeral that convinces him he’s made the right choice. He watches Martin from the back of the church, hunched in the pew amidst his mother’s relatives and acquaintances, looking entirely alone. He’d fit in well at a Lukas family funeral, Peter thinks.
After the service, Peter claps a friendly hand on his shoulder from behind, and smiles when Martin jumps.
“M-mister Lukas,” he says. “What are you doing here?” He sounds nervous, which Peter finds quite gratifying.
“You’re a valued employee, Martin,” Peter tells him. “As your manager, it’s my responsibility to check on your well being. I’ve heard that a death in the family can be traumatic.”
“You’ve heard that - of course you have,” Martin gives a tired, humorless laugh. “Well, consider me checked on. You can leave now.”
“Have you thought any more about my offer?” Peter asks. Martin’s expression goes flat.
“I have, and the answer is still no. Thank you, but I’m happy in the Archives.”
“Happy is a strong term, Martin,” says Peter, as he steps away. “Think about it some more.”
Of course in the end Martin comes to him, and it’s almost too easy. Peter is going to win this bet, and while the thought of its conclusion gives him a moment’s pause, well, Elias did propose the wager. Peter’s simply the one who’s going to win it.
“Honestly, Peter, another funeral? Your family seem to drop like flies.”
“It’s congenital,” he says, as if that explains everything. Perhaps it does. In any case, it’s not as if he has a choice.
“That’s how I can expect you to die, then?” Elias asks waspishly. “Drop dead of heart failure in the middle of my living room?”
“Nah,” Peter tells him. “I’ll find somewhere out of the way so I can die with some peace and quiet.”
Elias snorts; he’s charming when he’s peevish.
“What about you?” Peter asks. “How do you intend to kick the bucket?”
“Come, Peter, you know I don’t like to talk about such vulgar things.” He waves a dismissive hand, his nose wrinkling, as if he hadn’t been the one to bring up the topic. Peter chuckles.
“Getting the next body lined up already, eh?”
“Not precisely,” Elias says, a delicate line drawn between his brows. “My plans are rather more substantial than that.”
“Well, when I die, don’t let them give me a Lukas family funeral, will you? Bury me at sea.”
“Hmm,” Elias says absently. “We’ll see.”
Peter opens his eyes.
He can feel wet sand under his palms, cold water soaking into his clothes; he can hear the sound of waves licking against the shore, flirting with the breeze.
Overhead, the clouds are pulled into striated patterns, like the iris of a vast eye. Peter recognizes their particular shade of gray; recognizes the cool weight of observation pressing down on him, heavy and invasive.
You did it, then, he thinks, and huffs a sharp laugh. It fogs in front of his face, hot and alive.
Alive. There’s a turn up for the books, when the last thing he recalls is the Archivist’s voice ringing through his head like church bells, his jaw clenched to shattering around the answers he would not give, as the agony swelled and grew to fill the whole world, the whole universe, and then -
And then this beach. Lonely, though not Lonely.
There’s a flutter of wings to one side, and Peter turns his head. A big, black-backed gull is standing there. It fixes him with a sharp gray eye and snaps its beak.
“That’s very off-putting,” Peter tells it, and sits up. His hand finds a smooth stone and he lobs it at the bird. It hops easily out of the way and squawks at him, indignant. Peter gives it the finger.
“Fuck off, Elias,” he suggests. First the Archivist killed him, and now he’s been dragged back to life beneath the pitiless gaze of the Eye; Peter thinks he’s entitled to be a little annoyed, all things considered. The bird snaps its beak again, dull hostility in its yellow eyes, and takes off into the wind. Peter sighs.
This beach would be a nice place to die. Just lie down alone in the wet sand and let the water cover you, nothing but the sounds of waves and wind and the mournful cries of the gulls. Except there’s nowhere to die alone now, is there? Not under the cold, voyeuristic gaze of the sky overhead.
No way to be alone at all, in Jonah Magnus’ new world.
“Nothing for it, then,” he tells himself. He doesn’t know where he is, but he’ll figure it out as he goes. Elias will be in London, he’s sure, basking in self-satisfaction. Peter isn’t sure what he’ll do once he gets there, but he’ll figure that out too.
He gets to his feet, and begins walking up the beach.