The family business

Striga was absolutely filthy. It had been an oddly long work day, three families come for viewing and the rest for the grave- and they could feel the fatigue tugging at their limbs as they heaved the narrow copper tub out of storage and into the yard. Their mother- bless her- bustled over from the pump with two massive buckets, the maid following with two more.
“Just toss your things on the steps there, my duck. Birdie’s doing the laundry tomorrow. And I’ve promised your pa I won’t let you in the house until you’ve had a wash.”
“Birdie shouldn’t have to touch that.”
Striga rasped, stripping down and clambering into the tub- for their family, the human body held no mysteries, living or dead. Zora passed them a bar of soap that smelled strongly of thyme.
“Birdie knows what the work entails, dear- make sure you get under your nails.”
“At least it’s not freezing out, you harridan.”
They shuddered, recalling a particularly gruesome work day that had led to a speedy wash with a bucket of water with the ice still in it. The family always bathed after work- wouldn’t do to track mud and gore into the house, stinking of who knows what and embalming fluid. It was the proper, polite thing to do. Even if it was miserable at times. Birdie collected their disgusting clothes, apron and all, and disappeared into an outbuilding.
“Shall I get your back and hair?”
“Please. I think if I tried to lift my arms, they’d just fall off.”
“You were at it all day, we’ll have to make you some tea to help with the ache. How on earth did you get dirt in your hair, I never-”
They let their mother grumble on, drawing their bony knees up so they could just…rest while she worked oil into their hair. The news from town, Striga’s general scruffiness, their brothers’ marital woes, the familiar litany washed over them as the sky gradually darkened overhead.
“And he said-”
“Wait. What was the magister on about earlier?”
“I…well. We have some news. Your brothers are settled now, and we’ve…ducky we’ve been called to the warfront in Runeheim. And we need you to come with us. There’s so much work, and we don’t want to leave you alone, and-”
“We leave at the end of next month. You’d need to go on ahead to set up, the shop travels slow. I know we’re asking a lot of you, dear. We wouldn’t if it wasn’t important.”
Striga looked up. Zora was usually insufferably cheery, almost jolly, the mama hen at the center of the family business. The note of uncertainty in her voice was almost wildly out of character.
“Of course I’ll go. I just need a day to drop off invoices and pack my things.”
Their mother kissed their forehead.
“Thank you, dear. You do so much for us.”
She sat back as Striga rinsed and stood up- the bath water was an unpleasant shade of red-brown but they were squeaky clean. There was nothing to be done for their hands, permanently stained black from the crematorium. And the scarring on their neck…like long, thin fingers gouging out the flesh, it had been a livid, foul purple at first, now it was a dull, dark rose against the corpse-pale skin around it. Their mother paused.
“Does it still hurt?”
“…Would you consider seeing a priest? Please?”
“I don’t need a priest to scowl and tut and say something’s wrong with me.”
“Ducky, I worry. You were sleepwalking again.”
“Think about it? While you’re on the road?”
Zora passed them a clean shift, kissed them on the cheek.
“I need to help your pa with supper. I won’t push you but…we- I love you, my little witchling.”
“I know, mum. I love you too.”

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