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For the Choirmaster

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The physician arrives twenty minutes afterwards in a low black town-brougham car with varnished wooden panels on its doors. He comes halfway up the footpath, high-stepping his way around the purple cow thistles grown between its flagstones, before he turns back to retrieve a medical bag and a gray derby hat off the car’s passenger seat. Riza is waiting for him at the front door. 

“Miss Hawkeye.” He lifts the hat in greeting. “Where have you laid him?”

Riza stands aside.

“Come and see, sir.”

There is a scribble of blood on a braided hallway rug that runs between the study and the back bedroom; Riza had once spent six months making this rug herself, twisting together scrapped sheets and the ragged remnants of blouses she had outgrown when she was thirteen — the blouses themselves had been made from flour sacks, the brand that came in floral prints — but had worn for another year nonetheless to avoid acknowledging that her breasts had grown yet again. There should be a great deal more blood than what is on the rug now, of course, but most of it has ended up on Mr. Mustang’s long blue coat because he had not removed it before lifting Father to carry him. Riza has a vague, superstitious comprehension of military dress code and hopes this will not get Mr. Mustang in trouble. 

A kerosene lamp in the bedroom is lit. Her father has been placed atop the bed’s quilted counterpane and his lank, unwashed blonde hair lays so flat it shows the contours of his skull; there are splotches of purple-gray on his fingertips and earlobes where the motionless blood has begun to pool. Against the wall is Mr. Mustang, his hands clasped behind his back in that rigid, obeisant posture that marks the soldier ordered to stand at ease. 

The physician removes a stethoscope from his bag. He hooks it into his ears, skewing his spectacles as he does, and with a dutiful if somewhat performative care he sets its bell against Berthold Hawkeye’s chest. 

He listens. He moves the bell several times. He consults a key-stem watch in his waistcoat pocket. He prints the time on a note-card, which the county coroner will later consult while preparing the death certificate, and then Mr. Mustang walks with him to the car outside. Riza stays behind.

There is a straight-back chair by the window. This window affords a view across the estate’s far meadow and into the narrow spinney of woods where Riza traps rabbits with her snare in the summer and hunts deer with her rifle in winter; it is far down in the evening but there is still a sharp blue twilight on the runaway hyacinth bushes, on the crabbed pear orchard, on the black hedges and the sagging stone walls, and Riza stares at it. 

I will remember this, she thinks. It will be tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and I will still remember how the doctor wore a gray derby hat, how there was a spot of blood on the braided rug, that there was light from a kerosene lamp and that it was far down in the evening.

She picks up the chair. She brings it about an arm’s length from the bed before sitting and noting that her father has died with his eyes open.

She does not reach forward to shut them.

The tattoo had not been done in this room. It had not been done in the study, either, but in the kitchen, with its wood-burning stove stoked to a roar so that Riza could lie stripped to her waist atop the table and would not spoil the intricate pictures by her shivering. Father spent nearly eight hours bent above her, holding a bone needle dipped in red carbon ink — those inconvenient new breasts had been sore after about the fourth hour, from lying flat without moving, not that Riza said anything on the matter — and he had spoken only once. It was the most time he had spent with her in the six years since her mother’s death. 

“Open your arms,” Father had said, and because Riza’s cheek had been turned the other way she could not see his demonstration; he had therefore opened her arms for her, stretched as if to receive an embrace. “The lines will be crooked otherwise.”

And then there had come a bright sting, between the bottoms of her shoulder blades, again and again above her central thoracic nerve, and when the pain remained in this one place for so long that she could feel it in her toenails Riza had finally opened her mouth. 

“Which picture is that? Which part?”

“The salamander.” Father dipped his needle in the ink again. “They’d often crawl out of burning logs and people would believe they were being born from the fire itself.”

“That’s silly,” she had said. “How much longer?”

“You’re being a very brave girl, Riza. Keep still that way until I tell you.”

Riza does not recall with any clear distinction much of what followed, besides wiggling her hands to keep out the numbness, but recalls distinctly what happened when it was finished; she had gone stiffly to her attic bedroom, tilted down a catalog of paper sewing patterns from her bookshelf, had turned to the very end where there were several marked pages of pictures showing grown-up women in wedding gowns made from lace at the backs and evening gowns with no backs at all, and she had torn these pages crisply out so she could feed them to the nanny-goat she kept for making butter. The fresh butter spoiled each time she left it on the breakfast tray outside Father’s study. 

The last of the day’s blue twilight leaves the room. Riza grips her hands into two interlocked fists. She hears steps in the hall and Mr. Mustang appears again, his head slightly bowed. He waits.

“Is there anyone else I can call?” he asks. “Your neighbor told me I could use his telephone again if you needed anything.”

Riza shakes her head.

“Are you sure?”

“Mr. Kelley has a party wire,” Riza says. “All the houses from here to the railroad station share the same local circuit — Mrs. Ripley’s always picking up her phone to listen. If she knows, so does everybody.”

“Shouldn’t some of them be here already, then?”

Riza looks at him more closely. He carries a black army greatcoat doubled over his right elbow and is in the midst of putting a checkbook away into its side pocket; it will be several days before it occurs to Riza that he has paid the physician’s fee for her.

My father has been dead a long time already, is her first distinguishable thought. I'll bet people will be mostly surprised to learn he was still alive, up until just now. In a manner of speaking.

“Thank you, Mr. Mustang." She smooths a long brown gabardine skirt over her stockinged knees. "There’s a reason you were the only apprentice my father ever had.”

Mr. Mustang keeps his head bowed. He has trimmed his bangs at the military academy so they no longer ruffle his eyes. She used to play checkers against him in the drafty front parlor — he had tried several times to teach her chess; Riza still finds it pompously complicated — and would watch him flick these bangs aside, over and over, an agitated habit while he pondered his next move. He is four years her senior, closer to five than four, and often conducted himself towards her with such a grandiloquent deference that it occasionally became something more teasing, more wryly chivalric, the mannerisms of either a street magician or a prince. Mostly Riza had regarded him as a phenomenon indifferentiable from the squeaking steps and the leaking roof, a mechanical nuisance more cheaply worked around than dealt with directly; he had gobbled up two helpings of every meal Riza served for supper, filled the house with uncanny smells from his alchemical meddling, carried tunes badly as he worked and as he walked — oh Bess o’my heart, since I heard your lilting laughter it’s your own true love I’m after, Bess o’ my heart — and was apparently possessed of crack-brained notion that he and she ought to be pals.

“I don’t understand it,” Riza had said, at first. “You’ve been running people off for years whenever they’ve come around asking for lessons. Why him?”

“Why not?” Father had asked.

“But he’s an idiot, Papa. He cuts the crusts off his sandwiches.”

“Roy will certainly play the idiot when he’s being a layabout,” Father answered, wearing his usual longanimous expression, “but he has the brains of a fox and the heart of a draft horse. It’s a more effective pairing than one might think.”

Riza could not make any useful sense of this comment, naturally, although at the time she had recalled a stupid, cruel man whose land abutted theirs at the southwest corner and who had worked his huge wonderful horse so hard it laid down in the fields one day and died still hitched to its plow. 

“Are you going to stay here?” Mr. Mustang asks. “Tonight, I mean. Do you want to stay here?”

Riza looks back at her father’s body on the bed and his complexion reminds her of tallow wax. She has no contemporary photographs of him. 

“It’s what you’re supposed to do, I think,” she says. “Sitting up with the person all night. It’s tradition.”

“Yes,” he says. “I’ve heard that.”

“I don’t know why that would be, though. I was six when my mother died. I can’t remember what we did for her— but she died at the hospital. It would’ve been different.” She pauses. “The Ishvalans believe a soul always stays behind with its body for three days, so someone has to keep it company until it’s buried or else the soul wanders and loses its way. At least that’s what I’ve read.” Riza’s vast education has been victualed partially from her father’s library. It contains a single slim book on that unsearchable faith proclaiming the existence of an almighty ever-living god who made the heavens and the earth, O Great Ishvala who perceived my unformed being and ordained all my days; if there really is such a god, Riza has decided, he must be a political separatist, letting mankind get itself into such sundry evil troubles and never once showing his face. “Do you think it’s true?”

Mr. Mustang tilts his head as though doing mental arithmetic. “About the soul?”

“About sitting with the body. Do you think they really do it?”

“Maybe,” he says. “The desert out there’s solid rock under all that sand. It’d take three days just to dig a deep enough grave — that’s probably why the people are so hardheaded.”

He aligns the seams on his white officer’s gloves while he speaks. He has removed his soiled blue coat and the collar of his shirt is opened just enough that lamplight glints off the chain holding his dog-tags, stamped with his name and regiment and blood type. He was sixteen when Riza first met him, when she would peer through the keyhole to watch his lessons with Father; now he is twenty, with the waist and arms of a man — and the fearfully, wonderfully made hands of something else, something greater and worse — but Riza has always thought there was a strange tender defenselessness about his face, behind which he remains a boy. Perhaps it is those clean-shaven cheeks that are such a mismatch to those restive, blazing-black eyes. 

“Riza,” he says.

“Sir.”

“Did your—” his face twinges. “Did Master Hawkeye have any money saved away, do you know?”

She does not, in fact, know. There are many things Riza does not know. She does not know how she might best inform her father’s various creditors that he is dead; she does not know where her father kept the deed to their house; she does not know what price she ought to pay in fair exchange for a good coffin or how one correctly submits an obituary to print in the local newspaper; she does not know who signed her father’s will as a witness or what the will says or if Berthold Hawkeye made a will at all, whether Riza’s sole inheritance from him is an arcane transmutation array hidden in a place on her body she cannot see — not without a mirror, at least, and then it would be backwards — and written in a tongue she cannot speak. 

“I can manage for myself, Mr. Mustang,” she says. “Please don’t worry.”

He purses his lips. 

“I’ve got my first two paychecks from the military already. If you need, I can — ” he blushes, a blotchy red right up to his ears, and then he seems sixteen again and sporting a bruise from the incident wherein Riza had nailed him with her slingshot from a distance of ten yards; stupid dough-faced prinked-up citified bastard, she had thought, he’s not so special “— I can help you put things in order for Master Hawkeye, if you’d like.”

“Oh.” Her head feels light and empty. “There’s no need for you to go through that trouble.” 

“It wouldn’t be any trouble. I’d consider it an honor.”

He has not stopped looking at her in that quizzical, cautious way, and it occurs to Riza here that she has not cried yet. She would like to cry; she would like to scream, wail and sob and go to her knees, which is the sort of filial piety she imagines would be owed under the circumstances, except she is too tired for any of this at the moment. There has always been a solitary place within her like a shaded clearing between the pine trees, the child who made no schoolroom friends due to the seldomness of her smiles and the scholarly obscurity of her attempted conversations, and perhaps she does not have the capacity for such extravagant sorrow or such dearly-priced love anyway. That must be why Father never really liked her. 

“I’ll have to think about it, sir.”

Mr. Mustang nods. He turns, as if to go, but it is instead to lift a cane-bottomed chair that stands beside the bedroom door. He hesitates. 

“Will you mind it if I’m here?” he asks; he meets her eyes again. “Just until the morning — then I’ll go speak with the undertaker. Is that all right?”

Riza stares at him for what must, to him, be a very long time. 

He is asking to stay with me, she thinks. I should clean the blood off Father’s mouth, she thinks, and anoint his head with oil like they do for the dead in Ishval. I should strop a straight-razor and shave his dirty beard so it looks more tidy. I should bury Father in the black suit he is wearing for his wedding picture, even if it is a little shabby about the cuffs, because maybe that was the last time he was ever happy. I should scrub Mr. Mustang’s fancy blue coat with some baking soda before those bloodstains can set. He is offering to sit through the night with me so that I will not be alone inside this vast, divided house, and through the skin on her back Riza can momentarily feel the traced body of the salamander, the creature people once thought was born from out of the very same fire that threatened to consume it. 

“Yes,” Riza says. “It’s all right.”

Mr. Mustang carries his chair around the bed to thump it down on the other side. He lays the black greatcoat across his lap and rests his white-gloved hands atop that — there are faint speckles of blood on these, too — and then from his eyes he gives her something like the gentle, parenthetical suggestion of a smile. 

Riza expects him to talk, but he keeps quiet. After about an hour she leaves and returns, bearing a chipped porcelain bowl filled with water. She has drawn this water from the kitchen’s rusted pump; it is as cold as a spring freshet and Mr. Mustang removes his gloves before reaching out for it. 

“Let me see that a minute. I’ll give it right back.” 

Riza lets him take it. He turns aside secretively to set in on the floor, atop a circle he sketches with chalk — Riza has scrubbed many such chalk circles from around her father’s empty coffee cups on the desk, from beneath his mugs and the kettles drained of everything except their sodden tea-leaves — then there is a falling-star flash of light and the porcelain bowl suddenly has a soft white bloom of steam on its surface. 

Mr. Mustang holds it higher for her to see. Riza fans her chilled fingers above it. 

“My father taught you that trick,” she says. 

“The balancing of atmospheric and vapor pressures through the exchange of energy.” Mr. Mustang’s mouth hitches sideways in another near-smile. “It was one of his first lessons.”

“What was his last lesson?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

Riza comes to stand at Father’s bedside. She carries a linen cloth and holds it bunched against her chest as she leans over him, that gray long-suffering face with its eyes sunk deep under the brows as though to withdraw from their vision of the world.

And did my father tell you anything, she almost asks, did he say anything to you before he died, you should’ve sent a telegram to tell us you were coming for a visit and then I might’ve been there in the room with you when it happened, but in the midst of her spacious, cirrus composure Riza cannot find a place for anger, either. It is in some ways fitting, how Roy Mustang the Flame Alchemist who has for so long possessed the better share of her father’s esteem — who is her father’s real heir, Riza supposes, in a higher sense — should be the one to hear his final words, whatever those final words might have been. 

One day, perhaps, she will ask. One day she will want to know. 

She dampens her cloth in the warmed water as she washes the blood from her father’s face; a pair of hands keep the filled bowl raised and steady for her until it is finished. 

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