The sack of souls on her back felt heavier than usual. Barra winced and heaved it from her shoulders onto the ground, ignoring the disgruntled sounds from within. She untied her flask from the rope around her waist and sat at the side of the road to drink. Not long and she would be home, her duty finished until the next calling. For twelve years she had made the journey over and over, collecting the souls of the dead from the villages and towns in the valley and bringing them back up the mountain to be blessed and released into heaven. The many miles of road were as familiar and weary as the lines she once traced on her mother’s face. Her feet were a sum of blisters and sores, her back was hunched from the load, and her face scorched in equal parts from summer sun and bitter winter winds. She was becoming old before she had enjoyed any youth; how long would it be until she was released from this burden, that they dared call a privilege?
Barra was barely old enough to own shoes when she was chosen; her mother wrapped her feet in rags and she spent her days chasing her friends through the narrow lanes and around the ankles of women in the village square. The choosing came without warning, one Sunday morning at church. As the sun leaked rays through the windows where she sat, the light grazed her face and she shifted to stop from squinting. As she moved, a nearby Elderman cried out.
‘Look, look at the shadow she casts!’
The priest stopped his sermon and the congregation turned as one to face her. Barra shrank in her seat but the light followed, pulled by some other force she could not understand.
‘Look how the light moves with her, how the shadows fall upon her face. She is a chosen one!’ The Elderman moved closer and took her face in his hands, muttering and swaying, whilst behind him the others gathered. Barra sat, imprisoned by his hands like a rat in a trap. Her mother cried; her brothers pleaded with the Eldermen to send someone else. They said it was the work of a true martyr, a single soul chosen by God to rescue all others, but the truth was an uglier version.
‘Please, please, don’t send my daughter away.’ Her mother was on her knees, begging the Eldermen and grabbing their gowns as they circled Barra like wasps in July. But they insisted the sign was true, and at the very next calling sent her a map drawn on parchment and instructions to collect the souls, but never open the sack once it was sealed: for in that moment she would court the attention of Death himself. Not once in a dozen years had she questioned the importance of the task, not once had she tried to escape her fate; and yet how easy it would be, to rip open the sack, release the wretched souls to face their eternal damnation, and run. But where would she run to, where even Death couldn’t find her?
That first time, the whole village gathered at the arched stone gate to watch her go. Some thought she would not last the journey there, never mind bear the weight of the load. She cut an odd figure: a tiny scrap wrapped in a cloak so large that it flowed in bridal waves behind her, her wild black hair escaping from the deep-set hood like insect tentacles feeling the air. After a final farewell, she started off, the thin path stretching away across the valley like an umbilical chord, the road ahead masked by drizzle and fog. Underneath the cloak, she stumbled and slopped in her brother’s boots and cried for hours as she walked, in mourning and in fear, until hunger and boredom overcame her and she sat as she sat now, to rest and eat. Her mother had packed food for the journey, and the Eldermen had passed her some coins for wine. She drank from streams and rivers instead, preferring to keep the money stitched tightly into the sleeve of her dress.
The souls were kind to her at first. They spoke quietly, admitting the mildest of sins to her as she carried them, although being so young they tainted her despite their careful confessions. Still, the sack was not heavy and she made good time, returning a full week earlier than expected. The Eldermen welcomed her and declared the journey a triumph, as if the change that had overcome her was to be celebrated. But the villagers could see the whispered secrets of strangers in her eyes. Her old friends shied away, persuaded by their mothers to play with more innocent faces, and even her brothers avoided her gaze, for fear of what they may find there. Barra waited for another calling with almost glad anticipation, and in between times sat lonely in her room, wishing the light would soon shine on someone else.
As time passed, she became used to her solitude. Her mother went into heaven; her brothers took the house and gave her an old olive presser’s cave as her own, dug deep into the mountainside, with specific instructions to stay away from them. She didn’t mind; they had little to offer her in the way of entertainment or education. Barra had begun to look forward to her journeys, and the company of the souls she carried. They were her teachers and advisors, the ones she could depend on. As she grew taller, the souls grew bolder, and Barra listened rapt as she walked about the countryside.
‘I struck a blind man for a bet.’
‘I slept with my brother.’
‘I killed a man for his sheep.’
She walked on; and each mile, each journey, each year turned her soul darker until it was as black as bible ink.
‘I killed my son so I could covet his wife.’
‘I sired my own grandchild.’
‘I buried my husband alive for money.’
Every time she returned, she would hand the sack to the Eldermen and the souls’ muttering would cease. Their confessions made, they received the Blessing from the priest, and after they would rise upward and fly into their next life, free of the burdens their mortal life had brought them.
Barra grew rich; the coins from the Eldermen gathered in the box beneath her bed, and still no one replaced her. She took a house on the far side of the village, and when she was called, found shelter for a small fee in the barns and stables of the merchants she met. If the mood took her, she slept in their beds instead, and the debt was quickly forgotten. She had her own boots now too, hand stitched leather with string laces, taken from a market stall. Barra no longer wanted for anything. The souls had taught her how to covet and steal, how to cheat and lie, how to maim and kill. A young woman of twenty now, her hair twisted and turned down her back like a pit of snakes, and her wild eyes and whorish bosom seduced men and women everywhere. The Eldermen no longer cheered her return; they dreaded the approach of her lone figure across the causeway and tolled the bell to warn of her arrival. Her money bought her fine clothes and furnishings from the many towns she visited, and what she could not afford she took, by force or by cunning, just as her ghoulish tutors had taught her. Barra had everything she wanted, except that which she wanted most of all: her soul.
Thunder rumbled around the mountains and she packed up her water and hoisted the sack back up onto her back. It was only just gone noon, but the sky was dim and heavy. She knew from the way the clouds were moving that it wouldn’t be long before a storm reached her. She quickened her pace along the narrow trail leading up to the village and tried to ignore the flashes of light that struck at the ground not two miles from where she walked. Then as if it could bear to wait no longer, the rain began to fall. Barra shrugged the damp sack higher onto her shoulders and broke into a gentle trot as the drops gained momentum. Stones and dirt trickled away from her and bounced, silent in their precipitous descent towards the ground far below. She continued, undaunted; she was as nimble as the cats that left in winter to feed on richer spoils of the nearby towns. She would not fall.
Sometime later she arrived panting and wet, and stumbled through the gate into the main square. It was deserted, and the rain was coming down hard now, wind lashing at her hair and blowing through wet layers of cloth to make her shiver. Lightening flashed where she stood and the thunder bellowed in her ears. The sack bulged and dripped as she looked around for signs of life, and the souls inside moaned with desperation. Water poured from the sky in sheets, and as she made her way towards the clock tower she fell, blinded by rain, into an unseen pothole. Her ankle twisted and she collapsed in agony. She sat, water soaking through her skirts and her foot swelling. The souls screamed in sympathy as she scrubbed the rain and tears from her eyes to look around for someone to help her. Where were her brothers? Word must have reached them, that she was braving the storm to deliver the souls. Were they so afraid of her now that they would not leave their home to lend a hand? What about her mother’s friends – the ones who lived in this very square with their precious sons and daughters who she used to call her friends? She could not see their faces but she knew they were watching from the houses that lined the pathways, waiting to see if someone else would go. Barra waited too, in disbelief.
‘Will no-one help me?’ She shouted into the rain, her words dissolving in a crash of thunder so close it shook her teeth in their sockets. She began to crawl back towards the shelter of the gate tunnel, dragging the sack behind her. The rain fell harder still, and torrents of water flooded along the street. Barra debated leaving the sack in the square, but the souls wailed in chorus, as if demented at the thought.
The sky lit up, a thousand times brighter than the sun at solstice, and the boom of the thunder joined forces with the light, making Barra lurch sideways. She didn’t hear the crack of the bricks over the noise, and, hunched over to shield her face from the storm didn’t see the clock tower give way. The bricks tumbled towards her like balls from a canon. The first one glanced her shoulder, giving her the cue to get up and run, but she didn’t have time to register its impact before a second one struck the sack. As it hit, it ripped a small hole in the seam. Barra turned her head and watched in horror as the tear widened and tendrils of black began to poke through. And as tower crashed down upon her, knocking her skull and crushing her legs, the sack split open with the force of a hundred black souls. They pushed their way out and into the sky above as Barra was slowly buried.
When the last stone clattered to a careful stop and the storm edged away to more distant hills, the square was silent save the quiet drips from the gate onto the stones below. The vengeful chattering coming from above warned Barra that Death was near, called by the very souls who she had fought so hard to deliver to salvation. Still no one came. Beneath the rubble, in a mangled mess of brick and blood, Barra listened to her shallow breaths and waited for them to end.
Early the next morning, when the rats had already found her body and the cats were sunning themselves on the warm stones nearby, a young boy entered the square with a barrow, sent to start clearing up. He spotted Barra beneath the debris and at once cried out.
‘Lord have mercy, she is gone.’ He rushed from door to door, banging until each one opened for him. ‘Call the Priest!’ he said, and they obeyed, stirred into action by his passion, running at the speed of plague toward the church.
The boy began to lift the bricks from Barra’s battered body, intent upon releasing her even though the dried red rivulets under his feet and the eyes that stared upwards told him she was long beyond repair. Barra watched him work from her quiet vantage point just above, when she saw that the sun shone upon him in a peculiar way. She and the other souls followed him as he moved, their shadows upon his face, their excitement charging the air. They sighed as one in the ecstasy of recognition: a soul forsaken for all others. As the square filled, the priest rushed forward and the Eldermen fell to their knees. Barra paused a moment to mourn the boy’s soul, then began to whisper her confession.