The Tear Collector
by R. S. Pyne
That morning, three suns rose. The old woman watched the imposters, bright spots that followed the real one like hounds after the hunter and spat to ward off bad luck.
Once Drusilla had another name, a senator’s daughter – last survivor of an ancient bloodline that defied an emperor and paid the price. Other people’s relatives kept them company now, mixing with a wider spectrum of society than they ever had in life. She kept her murdered relatives close; their essence trapped in perfume bottles that kept memories of the departed alive. For a few sesterces or whatever they could afford, she would call on the bereaved to catch their tears in a bottle and make the pain easier to bear.
The secret shared long ago by a Thracian freedwoman brought healing to those who lost parents, husbands, wives, children, siblings, friends, or lovers. It also allowed her limited second-sight even if nobody ever listened to a word. People were too busy with their own lives to heed the warnings, everyday intrigues of the marketplace more important than the ramblings of a mad woman. When the water in all the public fountains turned black, she told them of the approaching wrath of the gods, begged them to change before it was too late. Too late now. She took a bottle from the shelf, holding translucent blue glass to the lamp light. It now held salt tears instead of scent.
“Mother,” she said, “Why will nobody listen?”
Last night, the spirits in the tear bottles woke her with terrible portents of impending disaster. Doom would soon come to a town given so many chances to evacuate, cracks that ran down many of the buildings repaired so often that the head of the plasterers guild now had a villa in Ostia. The damage had been recorded in bas relief at the house of one of its leading citizens. Lucius Caecilius Lucundus instructed his masons to show the skewed walls of the Temple of Jupiter and Vesuvius Gate, ignoring rumors that his mother-in-law’s death in the last quake had not been an accident.
Drusilla put the perfume bottle back on its shelf and drew a smoke gray mantle over her face. Once she had been a beauty, her name on a death warrant with the emperor’s paid informers everywhere. She returned from the provinces when age made her unrecognizable, marked by the Lady of Secrets. Tattoos spiraled around her body – put there by a chieftain from the mist wreathed shores of Britannia – so lost in drink that he could barely hold the needle. It had been a hard challenge – an ordeal that granted second sight in return for pain. The Goddess kept her side of the bargain and nobody looked for her now. Anonymous, she stepped outside into the busy street, glancing up to see the mock suns flanked by ominous clouds. The sky was bleeding, an acrid smell: overheated metal and rotten eggs. One of the fruit sellers held out three peaches, smiling now with eyes that had wept tears into one of her bottles a few days earlier. A wife lost in childbirth was a common tragedy, but the infant son had been …different. She had heard the gossips talking about what the midwife saw, their stories growing more monstrous every time they told it: a baby born eyeless, its twisted body covered in scales, webbed hands that ended in claws. Juno Lucina, the merciful goddess of the birthing room, turned her face away after the child’s first breath and ensured it did not take another.
“How are you?”
Drusilla saw pain in the man’s eyes, less than it would have been without her help but still raw edged. His wife’s bottle had a raised design, a bunch of grapes as a reminder of their trade. He had not cried for the child, too young for formal funeral rites but he would mourn his wife for the rest of his life.
“Better today,” he said and refused to take a single coin. “This filthy stink puts customers off. Business has been slow all day.” He pointed at the mock suns as crows passed over the market, so many of them that they darkened the sky. The floor shook and then subsided, as if it had changed its mind.
“Are you still leaving?” She saw new resolve brighten on his face.
He nodded. “Just for a while. My brother promised to mind the stall. He has no interest in fruit so it will end badly.”
“Take him with you.” She touched his hand, as she had held it once before. Shared intimacy made it important for him to understand, even though she could not explain.
“Go inland for seven days. Seven days, mind, and no sooner. Tell anyone who will listen to get out while they still can.” She paused, thinking of the only other living thing she cared about “My cat spends more time at your house– might as well take her as well.”
He left his fruit for people to help themselves. In this town, anything free drew crowds like flies to a latrine sponge. Passers-by stared when she said this would be their last day alive if they did not flee. A few went home to pack; most just told her to mind her business. She stopped at a back street shop for what she needed and broke her usual rule about giving money to undeserving beggars. Not as if the man had much time left but he did not need to know that. In the early hours before dawn, no birdsong would take their place. Mind made up, she uncorked the phial and mixed the contents into strong wine. Drusilla had seen the future. She drained the cup to the dregs, preferring not to wait for such an ending
About the author
R. S. Pyne is a freelance speculative fiction writer/ Micropalaeontologist/ Mental Health First Aider from the depths of West Wales, the land of the Red Dragon (Y Ddraig Goch). Fuelled by black coffee, vegan baking experiments, and sheer bloody mindedness – short stories have appeared in Bête Noire, Aurora Wolf, Albedo One, Curating Alexandria, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Phantaxis, Mad Scientist Journal and others; poetry credits include Voice of Eve, Grand Little Things and In Layman’s Terms. She participated in Playpen 2018-19, a theatre script development project run by Scriptography Productions, with a subsequent staged reading at the National Library of Wales in October 2018. Currently in the second year of an undergraduate degree (BA English Literature & Creative Writing), she lives with a dyspraxic black tortoiseshell cat.