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The Embalmer

Henry didn’t think of himself as an embalmer, not really, embalming was a sort of hobby for him, nothing serious, nothing more than a pastime. If someone asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up he would not have said an embalmer. He would have said an astronaut on most days because most days what he wanted to be was an astronaut.

He sometimes wondered if anyone ever got embalmed in space. He read once that if you went into space without a space suit then you would asphyxiate and suffer from ebullism, which he had to look up and it turns out it meant a “boiling away” of water vapor from the body. If you stayed in space long enough you would freeze into a giant chunk of ice. The embalmer thought that sounded an awful lot like embalming. Space was the biggest embalmer of them all.

The embalmer knew all about different kinds of embalming. He learned about them in a big book about Egypt that his mother had brought him after they went to the museum to see the mummies. The book said that Egyptians were made into mummies because they wanted to live forever. That made sense to the embalmer. The embalmer wanted to live forever too. The book said that it wasn’t just people who were mummified. Sometimes it was people’s pets. It was cats, dogs, mongooses, monkeys, gazelles and birds. People didn’t want to leave them behind. The embalmer thought this made good sense too. Those people were good people. They were responsible pet owners.

Sometimes the embalmer would dream that he had died. He dreamed that he was in Heaven and he got to take all the cats and dogs that he mummified with him. He wanted a legion of cats and dogs, he wanted in the next life to look like one of those dog-walkers, those college girls with a thousand leashes roped around their wrists. They looked like horizontal balloon artists holding all those strings. That was what he wanted for himself when he died. Lots of cats and dogs. Hoards of them. He wasn’t so sure about the mongooses, monkeys, gazelles and birds. They sounded pretty unruly. Maybe that would just be overkill.

The embalmer was struck by love suddenly; love seized him up, it entered through his nostrils as he breathed in Dahlia’s smell, it liquefied his insides and hardened his skin. She was fourteen years old, two years older than the embalmer was, and that was the perfect age gap. Her skin was light and lustrous, it positively glowed with warmth. Her teeth were straight. She had a little mole above her lip but the mole didn’t have any hairs sticking out of it. It was a perfect mole. She had perfect skin. Her smell was luscious and sweet. It wasn’t just all that though, the smell and the skin and the mole, it was the sadness she wore like a second skin, a second smell, a second perfect beauty spot right above her lip.

Dahlia’s little brother had been hit by a car two months ago. The embalmer saw it on the news even though his mother didn’t want him to. He set the DVR to record it. The news had traffic camera footage. The little brother had gone sailing through the air. He was wearing Superman pajamas but he didn’t look much like Superman.

By this point the embalmer knew something about flying. He knew you had to hold your arms straight. You had to be an alien. Also you had to be invincible and maybe not need to breathe. Aliens didn’t have to deal with asphyxiation or ebullism and the embalmer figured that must help when it came to flying.

Dahlia’s brother wasn’t an alien. If he had been in space his face would have turned bright blue. His eyeballs would have frozen into solid snowballs. But he wasn’t in space. He was hit by a car and when the car hit him he flew only a short distance in his Superman pajamas.

So, the sadness. There was something he could do about that.

The embalmer chose one of his favorites—a black Labrador mixed with something else, something tall, a Great Dane maybe. The Labra-Dane’s name had been Diesel. He had lived next door at the Smiths’ house. The embalmer used to watch Diesel running the yard. Diesel was a champion Frisbee catcher. He loved to catch Frisbees. Boy could that dog fly! One leap and he was in the air, long ears streaming like bunting. In the winter, the Smiths wouldn’t bother with the Frisbee. It was too cold. After the sun had gone down, they’d stand on the porch and run a flashlight over the fresh snow. Diesel was mad for those little sparks of light, like they were animals, like they were squirrels. It didn’t matter that there was nothing but snow to fill his mouth. He’d bound in circles chasing the light and the Smiths would be careful to shine it only on the new snow, the snow unturned by Diesel’s snowplow body.

One day Diesel was out in the backyard. Now it was summer—oh, maybe, three months ago? The Smiths were building a new fence. Earlier they had thrown a Frisbee badly and Diesel had leapt so high he cleared the old fence and ended up in the embalmer’s yard. So they were building a new fence, a taller fence, a fence so high Diesel couldn’t possibly make it over.

And he didn’t.

The Smiths were cutting planks with a circular saw in the backyard and Diesel was running around loose, barking at squirrels, having a grand old time. Then he saw a flash, the saw-blade throwing off reflected triangles of sunlight. Well. You can guess what happened. That was it for Diesel.

The embalmer dug him up the day after he was buried. He had got pretty good with coat hangers and a pair of wire cutters. He didn’t have natron like the Egyptians, so he dried him out with silica gel packages from his mother’s closet. She always kept them from the hundreds of purses and shoes she was always buying.

Now Diesel was the embalmer’s favorite. He was a flier. He was the one the embalmer wanted to see most tugging at the end of his leash in Heaven. He had already chosen Diesel to be the leader of the pack.

But by then the embalmer had fallen in love, he was too young to know for sure if it was true love or just a love-mirage, but he suspected it was probably the first one. He watched Dahlia at school. He heard she didn’t bother to hand in her homework anymore. She never answered questions. She had been popular for a while but that was starting to slip too. No one talked to her. It was like there was a terrible stink of death around her. But the embalmer knew death pretty well by that point and so to him it just made her more beautiful. Here was someone who had also seen the Before and the After. Everyone else in the class was just stuck in Beforeland. When After came their parents rushed them out of the room so that they could go on pretending that After was really Never.

So the embalmer left Diesel on Dahlia’s porch. Diesel was swaddled up very tightly. The embalmer had done a gorgeous checkered pattern with the bandages and then he had colored them black with a magic marker so that they matched the color of his coat. It was his finest work.

What the embalmer didn’t know was that Dahlia was already an expert at mummification. When her little brother died she decided that time ought to have stopped. It had stopped briefly inside of her, and she had felt quiet and calm and safe in a sort of hazy forever—but then time had start up again with that sickening thud. She had been trying unsuccessfully to stop time ever since. She would sit for hours with her face pressed against the window and she would stare at the traffic passing by. When a car was going too fast she would begin to shake. “Stop!” she would whisper, “please stop!” Sometimes the cars would stop. This gave her a sense of control. But sometime they didn’t. This made her crazy. She started chewing on her hair but when she did that she got afraid that there was going to be a giant lump of hair inside of her and when she died some doctor would find it and know for sure that she was a hair chewer.

She was learning that the external world was too big, too hard. It could not be forced. On the other hand her body was something she did have control over. She had put on weight over the last two months. People kept leaving pies at the door. She never told her parents when she found the pies. She simply took the pies up to her room and ate them one by one, ate every slice of cold grief pie all on her own.

So, the weight. She wanted it off. She wanted to return to the exact size and shape she had been when her little brother had died. She started a cleanse, ordered the cold-pressed bottles of liquid online from All Juiced Up Cleansing Routines. She followed the routine for twenty days and at the end she had lost twenty pounds exactly as promised but not one inch of her had changed. She was still spilling out over the tops of her jeans. Her thighs were ungraceful as turkey drumsticks. She called up the number on the box to complain.

“That’s perfectly normal,” said the lady on the phone, her voice so cheerful that Dahlia for a moment saw a phantom floating smile in front of her eyes. “All the pounds, none of the inches. A miracle, huh? That way you don’t need to buy a new wardrobe! You can feel better about yourself but nothing needs to change!”

“But I want to change,” Dahlia said even though this wasn’t quite true. What she wanted was not to change but to get to that point she had to change back first. It was very complicated.

“Huh,” said the lady. “No one ever wants to change. Not really. Take it from me, missy, illusion is enough. But what you’ve got works so what’s the big deal?”

Dahlia hung up the phone. She checked the ingredients on the bottle and discovered she’d been drinking turpentine. But the lady one the phone had been right. Dahlia felt clear all the way through, like it had tunneled a hollow space right through her own hollow space.


Two days later she called up again to demand a refund. She told the entire dead brother sob story while the lady clucked sympathetically at all the right points.

“Sorry,” the lady said at the end of it. “No can do. Death is a pre-existing condition. It voids the money back guarantee.”

Dahlia said something unpleasant and slightly racist.

“Geez,” said the woman, “don’t get snippy. Tell you what, I’ll send you a free sample of our new product. It’s super secret right now but I swear it’ll do the job, okay? Okay.”

Dahlia slammed down the phone for a second time. The anger made her feel better. It hollowed her out as well. It turns out that anger and turpentine have a lot in common. But when she went to check on the mail later that day she found on her doorstep the swaddled corpse of the Labra-Dane, perfectly preserved.

“This is more like it,” she said, absently stroking the linen bandages. They stained her fingers black.

The embalmer felt Diesel’s absence immediately. When he slept, he slept fitfully. There was a hole in the middle of his dreams. The other dogs and cats had come to rely upon Diesel. They needed his sense of direction, his manic energy. He always knew which direction to pull and he never stopped wanting to be somewhere else. Now the others sat there. Some of the dead cats licked at their paws. Others fought, big screeching cat battles where they stood up on their hind legs and threw their front paws in front of them like puppeteers. It got so that the embalmer could hardly stand the racket anymore.

And then the next morning, Dahlia brought Diesel to school. He was awkward to carry. He wouldn’t fit in her backpack but she wouldn’t have wanted to carry him that way even if he had. She set him up just underneath her desk so that his bandaged nose poked against her knees while she worked at her fractions.

The embalmer didn’t see this but he heard about it at lunch. In math class he volunteered to deliver a note from Miss Persimmons, his teacher, to Miss Kitagawa, her teacher. The note was folded carefully in two but he read it anyway. The note said, “What do you want for dinner tonight, Kitty?”

Dahlia was in the classroom. She didn’t look up when he knocked on the door. She didn’t look up when Miss Kitagawa passed her to answer it. And when Miss Kitagawa was carefully writing the words “roast beef and mashed potatoes” underneath Miss Persimmons’ tidier handwriting, the embalmer pretended to knock an eraser off Miss Kitagawa’s desk. From down below all he could see was knees mostly. Miss Kitagawa’s knees which were dead white underneath her pantyhose. And more knees and sneakers. Dahlia’s knees. Diesel’s nose. Dahlia’s hand stroking the magic-markered bandages. He thought if she ever ruffled his hair like that he would probably just die he would be so happy.

After class the embalmer decided to risk it all on an approach. He feigned nonchalance. He carried a leash in his left hand.

“S’cuse me,” he mumbled. His throat was dry as hot tarmac.

Dahlia said nothing but she turned at least, she looked at him. Her eyes were the same color as the lockers. Time was not his friend right now. She would have to leave to catch her bus.

“I thought he might make a run for it.” He handed her the leash. Her eyes grazed him carefully, confused, skeptical, irritated, angry—but then she laughed all at once like a hiccough and she clipped it onto the Labra-Dane’s collar and then maybe it was okay even if she had been all of those things before

“I almost lost him in first period,” she confided. “He saw a squirrel. He’s absolutely bananas for squirrels.”

“He looks like he could drag you ten feet.”

“I’m stronger than I look.”

This is good, thought the embalmer, I’m really doing this. I think she might be in love with me.

But then there was the bus and even though Dahlia didn’t have any friends to remind her about it, there is some power that buses always have. They let you know they are leaving. They let you know you’re supposed to be going someplace else.

“Bye,” Dahlia said. She ruffled the top of his head very gently. He was barely taller than her shoulders. He thought about stilts. He thought he might need a ladder if he was going to ever kiss her. He wondered if maybe she’d be willing to stop growing so he could catch up a little bit.

But then the back of her skirt was swishing as she ran for the bus. He watched the inside of her knees which were lovely like little china cups and her calves which were perfect and her socks which were plain white and her sneakers which were older than they should be if she wanted to be popular but all the while he could still feel her fingers touching the hairs of his head and each of them like a raw nerve, each of them standing up like he’d been zapped by lightning.

He missed his own bus. He walked all the way home, but he didn’t mind.

That night the embalmer’s mother answered the door to find a policeman standing there, awkward, he looked like he wanted to clean his nails or his teeth but he didn’t have anything useful with which to get the job done. The embalmer peeked at him from the top of the stairway

“Sorry, ma’am,” he said, his voice a dry cough with extra vowels, “but some of the neighbors have complained about missing animals.”

“Missing animals?” she asked.

“You’ve read the stories? Seen them on the news? Missing animals can mean all sorts of things. But sometimes it means. Well. A killer, you know? A psychopath. Very young. An infant psychopath.” He ran his hands through his hair like he was searching for something. “They like to cut things up, yeah? They like to hang them from trees. Or keep them in sheds.”

His mother was easily shocked. Her voice echoed with a slow quaver. “Has someone found an animal like that? Goodness gracious me!”

“Not as such,” answered the officer. “But we think. Maybe. The animals are missing, you see? So we think maybe that’s what’s happening.”

“But you’re not sure?” Relief edging in. “Maybe it’s something else? Maybe, coyotes?”

“That’s the thing, ma’am. Something already got them.” Cough cough. “Something already got them. The animals. Feline leukemia. Or a Buick. One of them drank weed killer, we think. It’s hard to tell. There’s no body to autopsy.”

His mother stared blankly.

“It’s only after they were dead we found out they were missing. So. Pretty strange, isn’t it? Someone digging up and taking dead pets? Pretty criminal, wouldn’t you say?” A rapid blink then the eyes swung to the stairs like searchlights. The embalmer almost gave himself up then and there. “When we find them we’ll know. That’s what I’m saying. So. Tell us if you see anything.”

That was the end of the conversation.

The embalmer ran to his bedroom and flopped down. His heart beat desperately, it shuddered in his ribcage like a fist pounding a door.

“I’d like to report a crime,” Dahlia said into the telephone. She wished there was one of those old springy cords she could twirl around her fingers while she was talking. She wanted her fingers to be more active. They twirled her hair but then she started licking her lips and that made her stop immediately. The craving was still strong, but she was stronger. She was stronger than she looked.

“Someone out there is killing people,” she said, “and dogs. Dogs too. The dogs are also important. It’s easy to overlook the dogs but we shouldn’t because they are the first sign, aren’t they?” She patted the Labra-Dane’s head. She wondered what his tongue looked like. She could see the nose, it glimmered from between the bandages like a third eye.

“Did you ever think it was cruel that God gave animals such a short lifespan? I mean, not for the animals. But have you ever thought about Adam and Eve? One day he’s playing with his cocker spaniel, throwing sticks or whatever, and the next day the poor thing just keels over. He doesn’t know what’s wrong with it. But then an angel says to him, “That’ll be you one day, kid. One day you’re just going to keel over. That’s what God did for you.” And Adam knows he’s right. Adam starts watching everything drop around him. Bunnies. Grasshoppers. He swats a fly and then the fly stops moving. So he gets extra careful for a while but that doesn’t help because there’s a wolf that brings down a deer and if it didn’t bring down that deer then its wolfpups would starve and there’s a cat with feline leukemia and if it didn’t have feline leukemia eventually it’d go blind and mangy and brittle. All of these things are just happening anyway so it doesn’t matter what he does, it’s going to get him too. And he thinks, Jesus, why did you make me name all these fuckers?”

“I’m sorry, miss,” said the receptionist, “but you said there was a crime? Is someone hurt? Please stay where you are, miss.”

“I can’t help it,” she said, “I’m the victim of a crime.”

But then she wondered if that was true and she started replaying what she said. It made her sound like a serial killer. She wondered if they could trace the call.

“Sorry,” she said. “I think I must have dialed the wrong number. Is this All Juiced Up? There’s a problem with your product.”

She hung up the phone.

In the middle of the night the embalmer had the strange sense that something was trying to wake him up. He thought it was Diesel or he thought, rather, that it would have been Diesel yapping for his attention but Diesel wasn’t there anymore.

He opened his eyes.

There was Dahlia. Her face was an inch away from the glass of the bedroom window. He could see her but he couldn’t smell her. She was on the other side of the window. Her mouth had clouded the glass. There were two lip prints in the mist. It was like a giant mouth coming out of the darkness and into his room and there was Dahlia behind it.

He went to the window. He blew on it very gently. It did not cloud up. It was too warm inside the room. But he pressed his lips against it anyway. The window tasted of glass. It didn’t taste of Dahlia. But he kissed it again. She had leaned down for him. He didn’t need a stepladder at all.

The next day in class it was clear to the embalmer that Miss Persimmons was frightened. She had a nervous disposition to begin with. She jumped when the boys dropped their textbooks and of course this made the boys drop their textbooks a lot, on some days it sounded like London in the Blitz there were so many textbooks slamming the linoleum.

“Excuse me,” she said, “excuse me, boys and girls, everyone listen!”

A math book hit the ground. It was only an exercise book, it barely made a noise at all, but she still shuddered and all the boys sniggered under their hands.

It was her kitty. Her kitty had gone missing. Last week she was a person with a kitty but the embalmer knew that look, that she had already begun to accept being a person without a kitty. She looked devastated.

Another book fell. A hardcover this time, the air whoofed out, scattering dust in a perfect circle around it.

Then there was silence.

After class, everyone in the hallways was whispering and pointing and pulling and snarling, yapping, yammering. They were an angry crowd, there were sharpened pencils, there were scissors, they were cutting at her hair, they were slicing up her skirt. They knew it was her, of course they did, they knew it was Dahlia. They knew it was her because they’d all seen the black dog she carried around with her, and even when they couldn’t see the black dog, it was still like there a black dog following her day by day by day so they knew and it made them happy and it made them angry and it made them dangerous.

There was a bit the embalmer had read in one of his books, about a crocodile god, or maybe only part crocodile, because there other parts too, part hippopotamus, part lion, all of those animals which were known to be man-eaters. And it was this god who would eat the hearts of the dead if they weren’t good enough, if they weren’t skinny enough, if they weren’t cool enough, if they carried black dogs with them, if their brothers died, if they were good with a wire cutters, if they needed stepladders to kiss—and the people in the hallway were like that now, they had become the Great Devourer.

The embalmer wanted to stop it all but he didn’t know how. He didn’t know what to do when things went a little bit wrong, only when things went very wrong like if your pet rabbit accidentally drank weed killer or you forgot to feed it for a while. Death was fixable. Hurt was much harder.

But Dahlia bore it all patiently. She reminded the embalmer of pictures he had seen, pictures of St. Thecla and all the little virgin martyrs his mother prayed to every night. Even when the yammerers cut her hair into a jagged line she had this look in her eyes that was peaceful and serene. She looked like she could reach out and touch them and then they would all be blessed, their zits would clear, their periods would dry up, their unwanted erections would wither, their wanted erections would swell to the size of cucumbers. They were making her powerful and they didn’t even know it.

I think you know where this story is going now. I think if you knew what happened to Diesel in the yard with the circular saw then you think you know where this story is going, you think you know what’s going to happen to Dahlia because maybe she’ll drink the weed killer, maybe that’s what she got in the mail the next day from All Juiced Up, maybe she’ll die and then the embalmer will come for her the way he came for Diesel, the way he came for all the other animals.

But that’s not this story.

The kitty was found. Miss Kitigawa organized an urgent postering campaign and pretty soon the street was covered with pictures of the missing cat. It was the Smiths who finally found her. She was scratching at their backdoor, demanding to be let in. The littlest Smith wanted to keep her so they kept her for a while even though she had a collar, even though there were all those signs taped to poles and tacked to bulletin boards. But the Smiths had to keep her in the basement. They were worried about someone spotting her in the window. She was a celebrity now, the kitty was, sure to be recognized. But then the littlest Smith had a change of heart when she saw Miss Persimmons crying in the girls’ bathroom, all of her adult self curled up on one of those tiny toilets that barely reached her knees.

But by then Dahlia had been pulled out of school. Her parents were moving to Florida, some place where it was warm and sunny and where they wouldn’t have to see that awful stretch of road outside their house. Dahlia buried the Labra-Dane in the backyard garden. She planted an acorn over top. Maybe in a thousand years, she thought, there’ll be squirrels. God that dog was bananas for squirrels.

In Florida Dahlia was mysteriously cool. Maybe it was the jagged punk hair she wore. Maybe it was the mole above her lip. Maybe it was the fact that the new cleanse was working, she’d lost twenty-four inches even if she never dropped a pound. All of her felt heavier after that and her sandals always made deeper footprints in the sand than anyone else’s did.

When the other kids whispered that something had happened where she came from and that she used to have a brother this all had a kind of magic to them. Like they didn’t have Death in Florida. Which maybe, Dahlia thought, they didn’t. Everyone she saw had brownish-orange skin, everyone’s face had withered, everyone looked like they’d been around since the pyramids.

But she felt better. It wasn’t the weight thing though that’s what her parents thought. It wasn’t the kids either. They didn’t matter to her so much now. They were just kids. Maybe it was just the move, being somewhere new. The ocean. The sunlight. Maybe they were good for her. Maybe that was enough for her to let go a little and be happy.

It was soon after Dahlia moved that Henry’s mother discovered the wire cutters in his bedroom. She couldn’t understand why he was sad all the time and her magazines said it was probably drugs and that they’d probably be in his closet or in his mattress. She checked all those places but she didn’t find the drugs, she found the wire cutters instead. And because she was a mother and she had a mother’s instinct and she remembered the way the police officer had been looking up the stairs it all came together in one awful, glorious moment of realization.

So they left too. They weren’t hiding out exactly, it was never anything as obvious as that. Henry hadn’t broken any laws. He probably wasn’t an infant psychopath. But they loaded up in the car and they drove away. Just in case.

Wherever they ended up they didn’t stay very long. She never let him into pet shops and she was suspicious when he went out by himself or he didn’t come home on time. But he was getting older and she didn’t want to suffocate him. He had a girlfriend, the girlfriend did drugs but she was pretty and his mother figured they’d both grow out of it eventually, what was she supposed to do, just ground him forever? Of course not. He had a life to live. She couldn’t stop freeze him in place, she couldn’t stop bad things from happening. All she could do was watch and wait and pray that he was okay, pray that her love was enough to keep him safe forever.

Originally published in The Mammoth Book of the Mummy, edited by Paula Guran.

About the Author

Helen Marshall is a Senior Lecturer of Creative Writing and Publishing at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England. Her first collection of fiction Hair Side, Flesh Side won the Sydney J Bounds Award in 2013, and Gifts for the One Who Comes After, her second collection, won the World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award in 2015. She is currently editing The Year’s Best Weird Fiction to be released in 2017, and her debut novel will be published by Random House Canada in 2019.