Sometimes, he would find a lump on his skin as if years before a tiny piece of wood, a splinter, or a pin-prick of rock had embedded itself under the surface. Digging with needles never found anything except the things that are always found under the skin, and the lumps always healed at least as well as anything ever heals, but the appearances always left him itching and prone to dry flaking skin.
The diet, with its monotony, aside from the occasional feast day, perhaps contributed to his general malaise, and he was barely able to meet his obligations in the city. Luckily the trade was slow that autumn. The great plagues and slaughters of the past seemed to be over, and while people persisted in dying in a variety of traditional ways, there was no rush to overwhelm the capacity of the catacombs. His work was specifically the dressing and posing of the bodies for such ‘showings in state’ as might be wanted by the nobler families, and he was hardly called upon for weeks at a time. Putting in a token attendance in the halls, he was able most days to curl up on a shelf at the back of one of the display mausoleums and try to fight of the feelings of lethargy and disquiet that afflicted him.
He had never used to dislike his job, indeed he had once taken pride in doing the work of his forefathers. To straighted a contorted body, to smooth a distorted brow, to dress in samite or damask the loved dead, so that the living could glimpse for one last time, the image of the restfulness of the grave, that they too would come to: this had been a calling, and a form of art to him. But things were not what they were. Hardly anyone maintained a proper family tomb these days, and the black smoke-stacks of the competition, advertised all too gushingly the rapid cleansing of the fires. What was the point of anointing the seven entrances with napha, or sealing the nostrils with beads of amber, or putting the two coins with the two inscriptions, one for each eye, on the left and right respectively, if the body were to be burnt as fuel in an instant. These modern practices left him cold. It was a contradiction, for he knew that if they city had continued in all its traditions, he’d be worked beyond his strength, but nevertheless he regretted what – if it had been persisted in – would have been as unsatisfying in one way as the loss of trade was in the other.