When the souls of the suicides come tumbling out of the low, gray clouds, it’s given to us to collect them, catalog them, contain them, and load them onto the train. None of us know where the train goes—it’s the general consensus, to the extent that there is one, that it would serve no purpose for us to know, and anyway it’s not our job. Our job is to collect the souls of the suicides and do everything that comes after.
The soul of a suicide is a delicate thing, a floating wisp of silver gauze, shimmering and nearly transparent. They fall slowly, almost dancing, and sometimes I step outside the dormitories onto the dead grass and I tilt my head back, and I seem to remember something like this once before, catching solid cold on the tip of my tongue.
The soul of a suicide is not cold but gently warm, like the space in a chest where a heart used to nestle. It makes you want to cradle them, gather them close, and sing them songs to which you only know half the words. But we don’t hold the suicides like that, because it would show an inappropriate amount of favoritism. We catch them in our huge cloth nets and pull them into the separating trays, where we scoop them up in our hands and wash them in the cloudy water that jets out from the spigots before the trays, and we slide them, softly pulsing, into the collection jars.
When they pulse like that I think of shivering, but I and my fellows never speak about this.
Someone has always been here, doing what we do, because there have always been people who, for one reason or another, decide that life is just not for them. Someone—but it has not always been me. I don’t think. Sometimes I lie in my narrow cot in the cavernous dormitory and, like those soft, subtle clouds, I get my fingers around what remains of before, but then it slips away and burrows itself into the mud and I don’t see it again.
Not until the next time.
This one had eyes.
In my hands, it blinked up at me. Its eyes were blue and pale, like little fragments of what I remember of a very different sky. There was nothing else of a face on it, but there was all the feeling in the world in those eyes, though there were no tears. I don’t know how it blinked, for its eyes were lidless, but there was a flicker in them like a veil passing over and gone again. A veil or part of itself.
I stood there, cradling it in my hands. No one around me seemed to notice, but I was barely aware of that, anyway. The soul of a suicide is not supposed to have eyes. A suicide is done with eyes. As they’re done with ears, nose, a mouth. Those were some of the things they relinquished when they gave up everything else. But here it was, looking back at me.
The water was waiting. So was the jar, and then the train. But I didn’t move, staring down, and at last I pulled my hands in like the nets, curling them up and over my chest. I held the soul of the suicide close to my unbeating heart, and I slipped it into the folds of my shirt. No one saw me, I don’t think. At any rate, no one did anything.
The soul of the suicide pulsed its slow heartbeat pulse. It didn’t feel as if it was shivering now.
I know you haven’t seen the train of the souls of the suicides. Allow me to describe.
The train is infinite, and none of its cars are ever empty. They contain racks upon racks of our jars, loaded with special mobile arms as it roars past our loading dock in a never-ending rush. It glows in the dimness, and that glow may be individual lights on the outsides of the cars, but with its great speed it appears only as a bright smudged line.
When I’m not collecting or cataloging or loading, I often sit at the dock and watch it, and there are always a few of us off-duty who do the same. There’s something fascinating about the train, and also something forbidden, because—again—we don’t know and are probably not meant to know where it goes. It races away over the flat, dry land and vanishes over the horizon.
I have had dreams of chasing the train forever, or of loading myself onto it and riding with the suicides. It feels as if it were a thing I was meant to do, and there are times when, watching it go by, the urge to throw myself at it is almost unbearable. Irresistible. I wonder if the others watching with me ever feel the same, but again, this is something about which we don’t speak.
But the train of the souls of the suicides is beautiful. I think they might see it as they fall, even without eyes, like a ribbon of silver light in the relative dark.
“Why are you here?”
It was a foolish question. There is only ever one reason why the soul of a suicide is here, and the reason also defines what they are. That final act locking them into one being, forever, or at least until they arrive at whatever destination toward which the train is carrying them. But I sat on my cot and looked down at the soul in my hands, and it looked back up at me. It didn’t speak—reasonable, for it had no mouth, but I couldn’t help asking anyway.
It was different. It didn’t belong.
I heard footsteps and looked up guiltily, but two of my fellows passed me without a glance in my direction. The truth is that we don’t often take notice of each other unless something compels us to do so. The place in which we work does not encourage camaraderie.
I’m not sure why I was guilty, why I felt that this was something I should hide, because there is nothing explicitly in the rules about taking a soul from the nets and the separating tables. But perhaps that was why—such a basic rule that it didn’t even need to be written down. I did feel as if I was betraying something.
A fine tremble ran through the soul’s soft body. I held it close again and closed my eyes.
We don’t catalog names, but reasons and methods.
Common: Long-term depression. Depression that lifts just enough to allow the energy to die. Financial problems. Ruined love. The cruelty of peers. Unemployment. Stress in one’s job, education, or other chosen occupation. Loneliness. Shame. The pain of disease. The terror of the future.
All of these things sound so clean when written down and stored in the library, along with catalog numbers and cross-referencing. They sound so simple, so basic. When the truth is that these things are never basic, and the names for what they are disguise the confusion and despair and strange relief of those final moments. What a suicide is, most fundamentally—the act, not just the person who commits it—is the inability to see beyond a moment, a kind of lethal temporal failure of the imagination. One looks at the future and does not see oneself there, so that ultimate removal is the next logical step.
Suicide is profoundly rational, and we say commit because it does indeed require determined intention.
Then of course there are the methods. Common: Cutting of the wrists. Guns. Pills. An overdose of some other drug. Hanging by the neck. Gas. Leaping from a great height—though, as a wise person once observed, it’s not the fall that kills you.
Less common is the forcing of the hands of armed law enforcement. Those cases are more complex, and the souls of those suicides don’t enter this place alone, though their companions are not our responsibility and so we never see them.
I can recite these things by rote, by memory. I can look at the soul of a suicide and know in an instant what I’m dealing with.
But I didn’t know about this one.
I lay curled beneath my covers and I looked at the soul looking back at me with those strange, relentless eyes. I thought of little children reading comic books under the blankets, the image entirely new and coming to me all at once. I leaned my head close so that I could feel its warmth on my cheeks and nose, and I asked, “What happened to you?”
And of course there was no answer, and I didn’t get the sense that the soul particularly wanted to tell me. But when I closed my eyes next I felt a sensation of falling, so deep and vivid that it made me gasp. I jerked under the covers, but what I felt wasn’t fear but a memory of exhilaration.
A kind of joy.
Suicide by leaping from a great height is my favorite method, if it’s appropriate to favor one of these things. It’s my favorite because I think of falling as so close to flying, and I wonder if there is no moment at which that soul, trapped in its flesh, hits the ground, but instead breaks free at the instant before impact and continues its descent in a more leisurely fashion, coming into this place and drifting silently toward the ground and our nets. It’s a pleasant thought, because it means that some cruelty is left behind before it can be felt, and just because I live in aggregate pain like air doesn’t mean that I’ve lost the ability to feel for what I do.
I have many dreams of flying. It feels like coming home.
I carried the soul of the suicide outside to look up at the sky. It did so, and the quality of its silence changed. I can’t say how it was, only that I felt it deeply, with its form in my hands and both of our sets of eyes trained on the falling white of the dead.
It was becoming more solid. If it had been in a jar it could have been contained, but the idea of doing that now was too painful to contemplate. For some reason I couldn’t bear the thought of the soul removed from me—since I had last slept I hadn’t stopped touching it, hadn’t stopped holding it, and setting it down to begin my work was beyond anything I could imagine. I could feel possibilities foreclosing themselves on me. I could feel the future narrowing.
I hadn’t ever really thought about the future.
“You came from there,” I said, as if speaking to a child, and then, to underscore both the point and the attitude, I gestured to the drifting souls. “Do you remember? Do you remember how it happened, can you tell me why you’re here?”
No answer. But again it trembled, and now I was sure that it wanted to tell me something, and the fact that it couldn’t was a strange, choked kind of agony. I held my breath and looked anywhere but at it, because all at once its gaze felt like something that could tear me open and reveal something I wasn’t ready to see.
Sometimes one of us disappears. Our terms here are finite, we all know that. We don’t remember how we came to be here, and we don’t know where we’re going when our work here is complete, but none of us are afraid. There’s nothing to fear in this place. Your heart might hurt, but your body is invincible.
I don’t know if I want to go. I can’t imagine anything other than this. Even the possibility of the train is a blank, and extends no further than as far as you can travel before you lose sight of the loading dock, the nets, the library, and the dormitories.
It isn’t real.
I wandered the places where I used to work. No one called to me or ordered me to take my place or demanded an explanation, so I had long since lost my guilt at my inability to perform my duties. No one even looked up at me as I passed them, and I began to feel unreal myself, as gauzy and indistinct as the soul I carried against my chest. But the soul was still solidifying, its surface becoming smooth and supple like flesh and skin, its pulsing like a beating heart rather than just the memory of one. I held it close to me and I felt something in my chest, long still, wanting to move in response.
What becomes of the body of a suicide? Of course there’s undressing, washing, cutting, the draining of the blood and other fluids, and perhaps a dusting of makeup, maybe the tears of loved ones left behind, and then the ground or the fire. I know that once some people interred their dead in silent towers, offerings to the birds of the air. There’s something deeply romantic about that idea, and though I don’t suppose it’s common anymore, I do wish it remained as a practice, the bodies of the suicides divided fairly among winged things and carried into the sky to fly in their warm bellies, cradled beneath their fluttering hearts.
But what becomes of the body of a suicide, after all of this is done? Are they also set aside, like their souls? Is the manner of the dissolution particular, or in that are they like all the other dead? I have heard it said that death is a great equalizer, but every passing moment I see evidence to the contrary. Does this rule extend to the flesh?
I feel like it should. I look for evidence of that as well, and though I see none, it’s a belief of which I can’t rid myself. The bodies of the suicides go somewhere specific, fallen to pieces but still bound together. Perhaps they lie in silent tombs, holding their rage and their grief in each cell until those cells finally break down into atoms and rejoin the stars. But are those stars particular as well? Do they become the dying stars? Do they become lonely dwarf stars, pulsars beating like hearts? Do they enjoy the drama of the supernova? Or do they drift, ordinary, to join suns like the one I almost remember?
Do they go somewhere else? Do they still have work to do?
I carried the soul of the suicide through the library. I felt its eyes scanning the massive wooden shelves of records, taking stock of each part of the stacks. I told it stories of the things I’ve cataloged, the things I’ve seen. As I did this I felt its trembling intensifying, its eyes wanting to turn away, and at last I stopped, holding it up before my face. The library is lit by great red paper lanterns, their sides decorated with script I have never known how to read. In that light, I saw the flesh of the soul knitting itself together, and I saw blood moving sluggishly through its network of veins.
I pulled in a long breath. I have no heartbeat but I can feel my lungs expand and contract, because I have that much life left in me. I held the soul of the suicide up to the lights like an offering, and I felt my throat closing up, leaving only a narrow passage for the air to travel through.
“Tell me,” I whispered. “I want to help you.” But the soul of the suicide simply looked at me, its eyes huge and sad, and in that look was all the longing for what it couldn’t say.
I tightened my hands around it, this thing that had pulled me from my work, that had opened and closed these doors to me. I wanted to crush it, tear at it, throw it onto the floor and stomp it into paste. But instead I embraced it again and clenched my teeth, and tears were something else that was new to me, and unwelcome, burning on my cold cheeks.
I should never have lifted the soul out of the net.
But I could never have done anything else.
I never wanted to remember. Like the train, it’s always been easier to know only a little. I never wanted to plumb the logic of things, to search and to seek and to find. I never wanted to be given answers. I was content with ignorance, with only enough information to perform my work to the best of my ability.
But then, when I lay awake in my bed with the dormitory all silent and dark around me, the soul burrowed into my chest.
I could feel it breaking me open. There was no pain, but I could feel the parting of my skin, the cracking of my breastbone. I stiffened, but I didn’t pull away. I felt warm flesh nosing into me, nuzzling like a loving thing. I felt those fine trembles against my lungs. I felt it nudging my silent heart carefully aside. I felt it settling there, softly insistent, and I felt how perfectly it fit. I turned my head, arcing upward, and I felt myself falling, falling, falling forever, turning in something like a soul’s dance as I tore open and leaped free.
I and not I.
And then I understood.
The why doesn’t matter. Sit in this stillness, let the pain settle around you like a blanket. This moment, this penultimate moment, and the sky is calling. There is so much comfort in a decision, a final grab for power. You can still make choices, and this feels like the most meaningful one you have ever made. You don’t even remember what brought you to this point anymore. Everything around you is stripping itself away. You can feel yourself pulling apart. You can feel yourself aching for something through the air that gathers itself around your heart. You can imagine nothing beyond this, except the moment your heart stops beating, and it feels like love. The ground will embrace you. Throw your head back. Cherish these breaths. Feel so incredibly alive. Listen to the singing birds, the rough cries of the crows. They might even catch you; you don’t really understand how this works anyway, except you know it’s easy.
And we are always in pieces. We are born in pieces and we can’t do anything but die that way.
So go to the door in the world. Your escape hatch. Shed everything else like an old skin. Put your faith in gravity, which will certainly not let you down.
So now I wait on the loading dock. I am in one piece, and in pieces. I have been waiting for this moment for so long, but I don’t really know how long, and it might only be a moment or two. It was very easy to wait, but very hard to let it happen, harder than it should have been, but I think maybe it’s always this hard for us. I know that no one around me even sees me anymore. I am contained, in my own little invisible jar that is also flesh and bones that is the culmination of a choice that is everything I am.
I look at the infinite rush of the train, the roaring of a monster of light, but now it sounds like birdsong. A massive bird, claws open to catch me.
And I can’t see beyond this moment.
This is something I never understood: It’s not even that you can’t see beyond the moment. It’s the leap that takes you through that inability to see, the leap that is all the faith you can muster. A desperate attempt at escape. And it breaks you apart, but in the end you come together again.
I might be a star. I might. But right now my heart is hot and beating in time with the rhythm of the train of the souls of the suicides, and I will know my own destination. I will make this choice. I will take a leap of faith.
My eyes are open when I jump.
They always were.