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art by Shot Hot Design

Distilled Spirits

Andrew Kaye hails from Northern Virginia, where he writes, draws cartoons, and edits the humor magazine Defenestration. This is his third appearance in Daily Science Fiction. Feel free to bother him at andrewkaye.livejournal.com or www.twitter.com/andrewkaye.

I drank my first soul when I was fifteen, at my Great Aunt Abigail's funeral.
Grandpa had the honor of tapping her casket. It was an oblong, copper thing, all smooth edges and rivets, with a glass window on the top that let you look in at Abigail's face. It reminded me of a spaceship, or a cryogenic chamber, or something similarly futuristic. Grandpa sat by the casket for an hour, eying the pressure gauge, checking on the window. Eventually, he waved me over. "Just about ready, Kate," he said, and he tapped the window with his knuckle. Abigail's face was no longer visible, the window gray with condensation.
Grandpa whispered something under his breath--a few last words to his sister, a prayer perhaps--then he popped the tap into the rubber-rimmed valve at the casket's side. "This is your first soul," he said to me. "Tradition says that you get to have the first glass."
He whispered an apology before the glass was even full. I had never met Abigail, and with good reason. "Your aunt... she was a good person, but a troubled one. She lost her only son in a car accident back when your dad was about your age. She didn't handle it well. Cut herself off from friends and family, even me. This is the first time I've seen her in years. I didn't even know she was sick." He looked at the casket, took a deep breath. "Just keep that in mind when you drink."
Abigail's distilled soul was transparent, but dark--an odd blue-gray color with oily swirls suspended within. My glass held only a few mouthfuls worth, but the color terrified me. And the smell: stale, like the back of an old pantry.
I took that first, tentative sip and felt as though soggy blankets had been dropped onto my shoulders. It was horrible. Cold melancholy beaded on the back of my neck, rolled slowly down my spine. All of Abigail's memories, emotions, sensations--a whole lifetime's worth--had been distilled into something I could taste. I shuddered, looked blearily at the glass, staggered backward. Grandpa put his hand on my shoulder to steady me. I had taken only one, tiny sip. I didn't want to finish the rest. I looked into Grandpa's face pleadingly.
"This is how we remember family," he whispered kindly. "It doesn't matter what kind of person they were in life--in death, we keep a little bit of them alive inside of us. It's not easy. Abby's life wasn't easy. But this is what families do." He gave my shoulder a squeeze. "Drink up. Probably best if you down it all in one go."
I drank the rest. Every dark, oily drop. I was so overwhelmed that I excused myself and wobbled out back to the patio. My head felt musty, cluttered. I needed the fresh air.
As Abigail's soul dripped slowly into my gut, I started thinking about the rest of my family. What they did, how they lived. Everyone always teased Grandpa about how his soul would taste. He was such a good person that his soul would have tasted like pure heaven. I thought about Mom and Dad. I thought about me. What sort of life would I live? What kind of soul would I leave behind for my family?
I drifted in and out of a sleepy, almost dreamlike state. I don't know how much time had passed before I was joined on the patio by my Uncle Reed, who through the blur of my vision looked to be dealing with Abigail's soul the same way he dealt with everything else: a bottle of cheap beer. He muttered to himself. Chuckled into his bottle. I was rapidly losing control of my senses, and the only thing I heard him say to me was this: "Awful, isn't she? I don't think I'll ever get that old bitch's taste out of my mouth."
I woke up an hour later. I was inside my grandparents' bedroom, a warm, wet washcloth wrapped around my hand. My fingers stung. Mom was there, smiling at me. Dad sat in the rocker, red-faced and brooding.
Uncle Reed had gotten drunk out back while I sat incoherent nearby. One beer, then two, then three. He started breaking the bottles on the patio steps, then told me to clean up the mess. I, still muddled, dumbly complied. I had no dexterity or depth perception, fumbled with the bits of broken glass. Grandpa found me out there, speckling the patio with blood as Uncle Reed looked on.
It wasn't the first boneheaded thing my uncle ever did, and it certainly wasn't the last. Grandpa had a word with him in private, just as he had dozens of times before and dozens of times since. Dad tried reassuring me that afternoon even though he looked fit to explode. "Grandpa will straighten Reed out," he said quietly. "At least for now. He won't say much. He doesn't have to. He'll just stare at Reed, and that stare will say a lot." He took a deep breath. "It'll say, 'Don't make me do something I'll regret.' Because when Grandpa dies, he wants to leave behind a pure soul. The purest he can. And Reed knows it. He doesn't want to taint Grandpa's soul. Doesn't want to ruin it for everyone."
Grandpa came back ten minutes later, announced Reed was too drunk to drive and that he was taking him home. "And he says he's sorry, Kate. I just hope he means it."
We returned to the rest of the family. They were eating lunch, and welcomed me back with a plateful of food. Everyone watched Grandpa leave the house. Everyone watched Uncle Reed trail sullenly behind. When Uncle Reed slammed the door, the entire family raised their glasses. "To Reed's health," Dad said, his face grim. There was no sarcasm in his voice. "May he outlive us all."
The End
This story was first published on Monday, August 29th, 2011

Author Comments

This was originally intended to be a lighthearted story about keeping Grandpa's soul delicious for his eventual funeral. The tone turned dark as soon as I started writing. Part of me thinks people would act better if they knew, once they were dead, that their family would get a literal taste of what their life had been like. But another part of me realizes there are a lot of Uncle Reeds out there.

- Andrew Kaye
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