Holly Cust + Kirsty Smillie


‘Do you get to pick and choose who you take?’ The girl asked me, holding her hand up to the dim sunlight and watching its rays pierce her skin. ‘Or are there rules? Do you work by rules?’

I wanted to know why she was asking. Why was it important?

‘Because it is strange to think I am dead. Strange to think you saw my name and saw my fate and that was that. I didn’t mean it to happen.’

I told her she needn’t think about it. Soon she would not remember ever having been alive at all. She shrugged and pulled a worm from her top, dangling it over her head.

‘I thought it would be different. That’s all.’

I sat down next to her and drew my knees up to my chest. I told her everyone does.

‘I never really meant to do it. Kill myself, I mean. I think I just wanted someone to notice me.’

I decided it would be inconsiderate to point out the irony in that. She wanted to be noticed, and yet her body had been laying there, white and cold, encrusted in her own vomit for one week now, and still no one had tried to find her.

‘Will I look like you, eventually? If I’m left there long enough, will I look like you? So that when eventually someone finds me I’ll be this bloated mass of rot and worms?’

I didn’t answer. She knew the answer.

I held my arm up and pulled back my heavy, black sleeve, revealing exactly what she had described. I no longer recoiled at the sight, but many people still did. My arm was a mess of putrid flesh encased in clumps of earth and dried blood with hundreds of worms of all sizes twisting themselves lithely in and around the disarray of broken tendons and veins. Nothing is as the stories tell it. Death is not a shadow or an old man or a skeleton. It won’t play chess with you and gamble with your life. Death is putrefaction, it’s waste, it’s wet mud and worms. It’s real, tangible, and foul. When you die, you don’t just become a shadow, you don’t become this ethereal nothing that can appear from and melt into darkness at will, you become Death.

Which was another thing that often annoyed me. The phrase: to look like Death. If anyone could really look like Death and still be alive it would be nothing short of a rather disgusting miracle. I moved my jaw around in its rotted frame of skin and felt the worms in my mouth and behind my eye sockets wriggle their way to life again and creep out of the hole in my cheek, out of the gap in my left eye socket where an eye had once been, out of the gap where gristle had once made up a nose. No. No, you could not tell someone they looked like Death. Unless they were dead.

The girl was starting to get the look, though. It would not be long.

‘Don’t you have other people to see?’ She asked, now winding the worm around her fingers with one hand, and pulling more and more from her top and out of her hair with the other.

I was already leaving before she spoke, telling her again that I would pay another visit the next time I had a lull. She did not say anything in reply, I do not think she even heard me, she just continued pulling the worms from her hair and clothing and dropping them on the ground around her. They were beginning to crawl out of her mouth and from the corners of her eyes. I watched her wipe her hands once over her face irritably and then give in to them. Curling up and lay down on the floor, she let them swarm over her.

Her body was starting to rot. The worms existed only on the rot.

Orpheus and Eurydice

Da capo, she told herself. Start again.



She raised one hand, spreading her fingertips lightly across the varnished wood in order to balance the bow over the strings, and with her left hand, she arched her fingers to create D.

The cello was sturdy and supportive as she held it between her legs and hugged it to her chest, feeling it move against her as she breathed in and out evenly, deeply. It was like a person. Like a man. A man she had spent too long missing, too long lamenting, too long anxiously waiting to return to her. It was a lonely existence but she would not – could not – let herself let go.

Closing her eyes, she pulled the bow across the string and felt the deep note resonate against her chest. She breathed in with it. Swinging her arm back to the left, she drew out another D and exhaled.

It was no use.

Da capo, she told herself. Start again.

She opened her eyes and looked at the music another time. Overture: Les malheurs d’Orphée. The title stared blankly back at her, giving her nothing.

She blinked back the sudden surge of loss.

Her fingers gripped the bow they held in place, and she prayed. She prayed to have the music back, for everything to be set right again, for the respect that was her due.

And with the flowing of tears came music.

She had not even realised she was playing, but the room was suddenly filled with melody. For the first time in months, a glimmer of hope was sparked alight; she could feel it pulsing through her veins as she played on and tore the music off the page with each new stroke.

At first, she did not hear the knock at the door.

Happy in her oblivion, swept up in her memories, contented that she had been given hope, she continued unawares. A moment later, it came again: a perfunctory tapping at the door.

She had been given music. And with music comes the man.

He had returned to her.


She set her instrument aside and went to the door, holding her breath.


Her fingers gripped the handle as she tried to keep a hold of her emotions.


Another quick knock, right against her ear. She jumped back.


Her heart beat faster, her skin tingled with anticipation. And fear. Anticipation of feeling arms around her and a heart pounding in answer to her own. Fear that he was not really there.

But if she believed enough, then he would be there. She had been given music. She had been promised. And he would be there.

She opened her mouth to speak.


She closed it again.

What if she had been lied to? She had to know. She threw herself at the door and pulled it open.

But she had looked too soon.

She had given up faith in the promise that he would return. And now, while she should have been greeting the man she loved, she greeted only a stranger. A stranger with eyes full of apology and dog tags in his hand.

Her man was gone. He would not come back.



It took her a moment to realise that the stranger had left. She watched him walk away, his posture straight, his step purposeful and somewhat mechanical.

Her grief affects nothing, and she cannot cheat it.

Da capo, she told herself. Start again.