They cleared off the dogs while I still had feeling in my feet. I was beginning to feel for the safety of the changelings. Some of them had been brought down from the country above where the dogwatch house was set up first as a tent, then as a cement shell against the air that was thicker in the summer than in kitchens. It was thicker than the parlor used for funerals.
The air I pumped fresh from the ventilator could not kill the faintness of the bottled parts, could not stop the breeze that popped out the hollow of the bodies when I stuck the tube through to the lungs or stomach, or how I emptied the bowels. The leavings, not got out before they died, I took out with what must be called a shovel, and carried them over to the orchard where we had the flowering trees. I could put these matters at the base of the tree if I pushed the dirt with the toe of my shoe and then again covered it over so that nothing would be visible in the morning to turn colors under the sun. I carried out the droppings in fabric of the kind as given in expensive restaurants, and can go back home with them for the help and for the animals out back.
The dogwatch tower was set up not against anyone from where the changelings had come. It was set against anyone of us going over there and not coming back, and so it had always to be manned by those who had no reason to leave this country for another they knew only to be hotter and wetter of weather.
As the changelings grew older before my eyes, I watched what had befallen their baby hair. I watched it falling out of its curling at their ears. I watched how it got thicker one year in the dents of their heads, and that the changelings had hands always on their eyebrows so as if pulling them could stop the growing in.
I watched them sharpen their nails on rocks and on the bottoms of their sandals. We could see them standing there with one sandal in the air, and the other shaking for the matter of balance. We could see one hand on the lower row of scissor teeth, and was rubbing in the crease that had already been hollowed out, for all the nails on children grow along with hair. And the other was coming up cross-eyed from the pulling away after those last buried hairs not yet come up from under the rug of the skin.
They looked always forward to the hour we would ring the bell. I was not who was struck with the duty, up in the tower on top of the house. It was one of the neighbors first, who I had given dinner to for the working of pulling and standing at sad attention when I pulled the body slowly before the mourning.
But from the day they appeared, it was the changelings with the goodness to daggers within them. For there were those among the village for whom no amount of meals would lend the limpest hand to what must soon be done once breathing ceased. It was the children which would braid the dead one’s hair.
It was not easy to pull out, even with big girl’s hands, the lice and snarls of badly matted hair. Their little fingers, though, were as if sent to school for the business of picking and trimming. It was with little use of scissors they were unable to mistake the places to be taken back to the scalp, from those to leave alone till most the water had run out. It was me who was astonished at how none of us had instructed them to use these fluids to hold the hair in place for suitable days, to use these greases to place the braids in shape for the eternities.
And it was most the way they had their nails that had me thinking how they must be something of unteachable, because such was the custom that we didn’t need that much to shave our faces. And as for at our ears and at the boning over our eyes, these were not such caretakings as we needed.
More for us it was to protect ourselves from the sun and to be sure to eat the water birds without the tails, the water snakes without the rattles, the watermelons without drinking milk. For us it was not the problems on the outside of the body.
Never once did I need to scrape the paper from the tiniest changeling’s anus. From the time I first signed papers that said I could bring them up Southernish, they were able to go into the bushes alone and come back sanitary. They were able to come even smelling of the sweet leather that was their sandals. There was something in the changelings that would always be unpunishable.
They were used to every rule of grooming. And they were good, too, with the putting straight of animals’ hair, cutting out the burdocks and the knots about the haunches. They were already awake when some night it was now that I had to manage after a body—someone pulled up from where the bridge let out suddenly on the water, and you could fall into the river if you had been drinking. Or someone had been left alone with a bone struck in under his chin to kill him.
Always there were the vicious ones to work with, for the length I had to stand at if I was to get near them even for a minute. The holes, I admit, were never so accurate, and some once or twice demanded to be restabbed, for the gas pocketed in oddly, for the lungs filled up with silt.
Nor were these forms I was happy to look at, though mostly it was a thing I was proud of. I had handled now so many bodies as to do it simply by feel. But the mixing of the smell of the river, and the bowels carelessly trailing away from their dignity, like it was the dogs’ intention to snake a final shame from out of the victim, made me not so ready to beg anyone come look at this my work. Not once—for the small of the village—was a body come up where there was no one to sit a minute with the loved one under the sound of the ringing from the ceiling. There was never a once that no one made lonely would suddenly come clean as kin to see the decompleted and deceased.
But though I was obliged to care the worse it looked for my weakness and need of spirits to go before this difficult work, still always it was the changelings that did not mind the oddness of braiding hair where there no more was any face. Their fingers, even with these gray tangled remains, were less visibly quicker. Their nails more visibly bitten into tools used for grooming.
Notches and tiny hooks they could use to hold braids of several strands without losing count of what next was to be wrapped, what next was to be tucked. And other fingers had on them so that it was quicker to get at insects, so that it was safer to pick them away without breaking off the legs.
The changelings lived this way for the years they lived in the room beside my house.
They did not complain.
I did not complain about the singing.
It was then they that got to ring the bell.
It was not till a summer when the one changeling was beginning to appear a girl that I heard what is lately taken for such a song as heralds a long mourning. They made at night a sound that met pitch with the insects and the animals after sundown. It was more of a pinching than we of the village are used to in our singing, more of a squeezing of a song beneath the ears.
I was not quick to mind its moving from their room out over the trees where I did my burying, and into the dark air where it hung as if to be mistaken for mist. This singing in a way told me they were safe. They sometimes would stay awake through to where I had emptied out most of the torso, and had the bowels stretched out and ready to be emptied. The air would lighten while the leaves would, tone by tone, appear on the dark bodies of the flowering trees. By light, it would be me just was whistling, and the last of the singers gone off to sleep. I would fit cotton, and draw cloth over the holes I had sewn close in the deceased. I would thumb the stops back on the bottles, and then make my way to the trees with the package I’d had waiting in sawdust under a can.
Once the rings were drawn with my heel around the trees and I had stopped to smear my shoe clean on the bottom with a leaf or with a tatter, then I would breath in at the pinched end of a cigarette rolled over dinner, and left where I would find it at this time. I would take the rake I made with my fingers over my hair, over my meager scalp. I would breath smoke out my smoker’s nose, and then breath in the morning of the flowers in the trees, which I still believe is even sweeter than their evening.
Once the sun was no longer just lightening up, but also pouring warmth into the heavens, I already would be beneath a linen sheet. And not to be of anything announced until the table was laid, and the women had come in from the river with my shirts smacked back into crispness, the wrappings ready to be shelved again.
These three were the things I needed: the fragrances that balanced one another in competing sweetness, the way my chamber remained cool for where it lay behind the highest trees, the way the changelings could be trusted with the braiding of the hair. It occurred to me from the beginning that I didn’t need their singing. It was just a luxury to me in the way double cuff were a pleasure to bend back and pin a golden cufflink into. But I did not find their singing particularly missing when one of the changelings was sickly wheezing, or maybe there was a sneeze I could barely hear, looking up from my work.
So it was more that one time I needed to lay a body out in the yard and not in the house, for the power of how it would not dry out. And it was the mourners that at first imagined this was some compensation in the service which I had added without charging, seeing how with this playing in the air, it was making the candles frightening. It was placing them in danger of going cold.
The mourners the next day, I am certain, must have taken little interest in the memory of the dead, and spent most of the morning recalling how the singing was what seemed streaming for a better world. It had a cold slow to it and a filling of the cheeks. It had a spilling of liquid.
Two work days after that first sad meeting of the changelings’ singing with the spirit of the deceased, I was told would I bring the changelings before the minister. He planned himself to be deceased within three weeks, and wanted all possible done for his assurance of the other world. I was to bring myself—with even the littlest of my equipment—for the proceedings, to be examined by the minister immediately. I was to show him the instruments I used for trimming open the skin. I was to show how the jars could not be made to leak, or even pass air once I had sealed them with bands and grease. I was to show what hands would lift the instruments and which would take up his hair.
We came into the minister’s without caring he was a man of position, and for that we were sent back into the street. We were told, no need to prepare for his burial, and that no more would there be singing in the village. We did not listen. Night arrived and not for the storm could I stop hearing the song.
More bodies washed ashore in the morning. The changelings went to their braiding. They went to their picking at their teeth. They went to their picking at their hair, grown where there now was grown a heavy bone.
I noticed how they were older now and that for all that was said by the minister, they seemed to belong no longer to me, but were an only thing in this or any village. They sometimes were taken away if it was a dignitary that had asked while dying, could they make the trip in the three days it should take them?
They would come home always looking older, always far darker than they had back at the tower at the time I had signed for them. They had hair that matched with no one but possibly for the dogs of the countryside, that would be beaten back sometimes once a month. But they would forget again that we were the ones could pick up sticks, could fill bamboo shoots with mud from the river so as to bring them sharply on a snout.
The changelings learned on one of these journeys to say grace at the table, and after that they made it a part of their singing. I could hear it was the thing we said before meals floating over the orchard, while I had my hands drowned in the ribs about them.
I told them it was far too late an hour they should be thinking of meals, and that if it was hunger was the trouble, then wasn’t it enough they had been given linen while in the city. Next, would not they want to use my tools?
At once, they looked up at me.
I realized I had never seen them in the evening. In the evening, had I never been out to see, at one or four in the morning, how they were pissen—and the stench was tremendously foul in the house. When had been the beginning of this filth was unclear to me, seeing never had any been dirty.
I closed the door.
I noticed how when eventually the minister died that in one detail he failed to make compromise. He allowed the changelings to sing not just in the house while I myself pulled the bell, but he would not allow me to use any tools. He had given in written form for me to wait within the orchard while the changelings did his bidding, which was they should braid his hair in the middle of the village square and that, while they were braiding, the women of the village were to cook for them the dearest quality of meats. This feast they were to receive by way of payment.
Once their braiding was done, I was allowed to go out of the garden. I went to where they were praying over their plates. I watched how the women lifted sausages on the golden forks. I witnessed the changelings lick their greasen fingers.