by Eric J. Guignard
I’ve been hiding for hours, wearing the shadows like cloaks. Watching, just watching. The night is as dark as midnight’s reach, and this favours my examination; specimens are less likely to notice my presence.
I must be motionless at the moment of progression, or the mortals may see me in their dying breaths. If that occurs, the soul will spook and flee for the stars. It’s said that at the moment of progression — just before the physical body dies — its vision sharpens, adapting to awareness of our existence. It’s a tenuous transition into the domain of Mortuos, as the dying straddle the lands of dawn and dusk. Those fully alive do not notice us, but if dying mortals catch sight of our presence they may attempt to speak of our existence. Usually, if that should occur, their words are mere gasps and considered only delusional by friends and family wrought with grief. Nevertheless, no researcher wants his specimen aware it is being scrutinised; the results invariably will be skewed.
With much experience comes patience and facility, and it’s now a rare outing in which I am detected. I slowly adjust the lens of my Anima Viewer to optimal magnification and zoom in.
Like the colourful shells of brilliant scarab beetles, the mortal form gives visual clues to its genus and to the species of the soul encased.
This subject is female. Her exterior is frail with skin wrinkled as wadded fabric, but she is lovely and intriguing, coloured of autumn wheat. Wise green eyes flash between exaltation and long-suffering. Observing one who is aged, yet still filled with vitality, is hardly the visage I normally look upon during a death-watch. She has a large crowd of supporters, and I wonder as to her character. There is strength in her appearance and a glow from her aura I have seen in species such as Beloved Parent (Parenti dilectus) or Loyal Friend (Amice fidus), but this is something else.
She may be a species of Artista or, by its common name, the Artist, which happens to be one of my favourite genera. But is it the Uninspired Artist (Artista non inspīrāta), the Insecure Artist (Artista fragilemque), the Unknown Artist (Artista obscura), or perhaps that rare breed, the Celebrated Artist (Artista celebre)?
The moment is at hand: Death completes, and the human husk falls away. A pinprick of turquoise luminescence leaps to the air. I must set down my Anima Viewer in order to catch the soul within a collecting jar, careful as always not to touch it. A specimen’s behaviour can be affected by direct physical contact.
I prepare to leave. Time is critical and must be used studying the soul undisturbed.
Suddenly a loud crash sounds outside, and I detect a fresh death. Leaping through shadows, I emerge from the mortal’s building to find the aftermath of two collided vehicles. Even without the Viewer I recognise the pinprick of light floating across night’s complexion.
I collect it in another jar for study, though by clues found in its dull luminosity and listless movement I already predict its type. The subject is most likely some variant of the common Envious Neighbour (Proximum invidus) or Misunderstood Adolescent (Adolescente recte intellexeris).
Still, it’s certainly exciting to catch two unrelated species during the same field excursion!
I return inside the building to retrieve my Anima Viewer, where there is another soul moving through the air. It was not in the room with the dying woman earlier, nor can I sense any other deceased mortals in the vicinity. It’s puzzling, but I don’t hesitate to collect it in a separate jar; this strange soul is radiant, brighter than I’ve ever seen before. Colours of sapphire and lilac mingle and sparkle like a rainbow crossing rays of morning sunshine. It’s truly a magnificent specimen.
Before leaving, I make note of a curious thing: these mourners of the dead woman shed no tears. Rather, they seem inspired by her transition. A young man sings, his tune far from pleasant, but the sentiment of his lyrics is beautiful. A dapper woman draws people’s faces in celebration. Someone dances slowly and her partner joins, making a fine pair. Others seem to ponder or converse in broad topics.
I depart through the shadows, returning to my study.
Quickly, I line the three jars along my observation desk in the order they were collected: the woman, the car accident, and the unknown. I tune instruments to each, predictive timers and measuring devices, recorders and diffusive samplers, then I prepare to take notes.
You see, we reflect much upon the soul’s destination, its fate or mutation or rebirth. Even we, Watchers of the Mortuos, have no explanation as to what becomes of it, and we have studied the mortal anima for millennia. Each soul’s light will fade and its essence disperses to the cosmos. I’ve caught countless souls — as have other Watchers — but there is no method to preserve them. The soul simply fades into nothingness. How often have I have watched it dissipate, hoping for some glimpse or clue to its outcome which, in turn, may offer a hint of my own ultimate future?
That the soul disappears from a perfectly sealed container suggests it progresses somewhere else, the way it has progressed first into our domain from that of the living. Its next stop may be anywhere, another universe or time or dimension. Once the soul vanishes, there is no evidence of it ever having existed. We’ve applied every test and device to examine for ash or oil, chemical residue, a whiff of sulphur or a scent of lavender, changes in gaseous makeup, anything. All negative hits; nothing is left in the jar but questions.
It is always the same, and I wonder of its purpose. I wonder what keeps the mortals motivated to move forward in the great construct of creation’s uniformity.
So, like all naturalists, I persevere. Vigilance is key. Someday, something will be different, and I will observe a new variance, I will glean a bit more truth.
That day is today.
It takes the soul, on average, eight to twelve minutes to evanesce. Some last longer than others, according to the makeup of their species, the result of their vigour, their radiance.
I scribe quickly. The second soul I collected — the casualty of the automobile accident — is already beginning to fade. It’s only been five minutes and fifteen seconds since its mortal form demised. Vaporous callipers measure its size, luminosity, and the speed with which it flutters inside the jar. Machines test its mass and fine composition. I cross-reference the findings against known and catalogued species.
It vanishes. I mark the time at five minutes and forty-seven seconds, the indication of a trifling breed. The specimen turns out not to be as I guessed earlier, though it’s no less common; I make positive identification as a Lonely Businessman (Negotiatoris solitarios) and record its behaviour.
Two souls remain, and both move strong within their collecting jars. The machines continue to measure, to compute. I skim the data and search further through classification charts.
At fourteen minutes and twenty seconds, the anima of the woman I first collected vanishes. An impressive time, I notate it and label my identification. As suspected, she was of the genus, Artista. Specifically, she was a Brilliant Artist (Artista egregie), which is a finding rare enough to be celebrated.
Only the unknown soul remains, the one that shines as a tiny sun. The machines whirl and tick and tabulate. I review possible identifications, each a negative match, though with each elimination I feel more eager to determine its taxonomical classification. The more possibilities I dismiss, the rarer the specimen will likely prove to be.
After sixteen minutes, the subject continues to fly, confined, but no less brilliant. I still cannot determine its category, but my form tingles, my mind races: Such a thrilling find!
The longest I’ve ever witnessed a soul to remain is slightly over eighteen minutes. The longest recorded time from any other Watcher is nineteen minutes and thirty-two seconds.
After twenty minutes, I’m near to shouting with fervour. This is a record, and the specimen is still moving strong, still bright as a beautiful orb. I double-check the readings and time, ensuring everything records properly.
After thirty minutes, my fervour subsides, and I question if something is wrong. The species does not follow predicted behaviour. It still remains.
I review my data thus far. Anima classification charts only represent species which have been catalogued, and this specimen is not within chronicled annals. Other genera are hypothesised to occur, but without notable observation their names are not documented. A soul must dissipate, otherwise we cannot categorise it as having ever been mortal.
Speculations of concepts, influencers, that once lived in tangible form are debated, though considered by most Watchers to be myth. How can one collect the soul of Love (Amor), Pride (Fastus), or Grief (Dolor)? Such things affect the living, but aren’t believed to exist as their own physical entity.
Of course, the unknown is eternal.
I watch the remaining soul for days, uncertain if I should report my findings until they’re concluded. I’ve discovered something wonderful, I’m sure, but part of me worries at its continued confinement. I’ve never considered such doubts before; the soul has always vanished whether it’s studied in a jar or free in its natural habitat. It’s acceptable to collect anima for the purpose of research, but in this circumstance I know not of any regulations or recommendations. Its continued imprisonment weighs on my thoughts.
What is it? What is its purpose? Will it never fade away?
In current conditions, I decide I’ve done all I can. The machines have done all they can. Proper study necessitates I observe it next in the wild, so I return to the mortals’ realm at night. I release the soul and watch it, prepared to catch it again.
It drifts with the casualness associated with butterflies or loose leaves on a breeze. Mortals walk the sidewalk, mostly alone, shopping or dining. The soul touches them, and they seem to change without understanding why. Even those species that scowl with hard eyes, or ones that move as if an invisible burden pressed upon their backs, are swayed.
Their steps appear to lighten, their faces to brighten. A woman hums a tune she’s wished to compose, though not dared before attempt. Others join her.
An elderly man dances a spry jig. Decades have passed, perhaps, since he last revelled as such.
One mortal sketches landscapes with a pencil, and another looks upon the petals of a potted flower, deciphering the mathematical symmetry of its genetic code.
A lovely child measures a windowsill with his hands and plans the design of a tower never before realised.
I wonder again at the origin of my specimen. Did it arise from the old woman, the artist, like a creature hatched? Or had this soul favoured her, finding kinship in shared inspiration? Or, was I merely fortunate enough to discover it, randomly, gliding along as now and apparently without direction?
I watch it hover amongst the mortals, and how they are drawn to it, without seeing it, without realising why. They sing, speak with passion, paint, dance, imagine.
It is true, there are some species which must never be kept confined.
To my surprise, the soul reverses its course, floating back to me like a benevolent spark. The mortal anima should not be handled, but I am not compelled to avoid it. The soul touches me, and it’s as if a thousand lightning bolts collide.
Inspiration strikes to identify this new discovery!
As observer of an unrecorded species, convention obliges me to name it, and it takes no time at all to do so. I return to my study and log the findings of Mūsa fugacior: the Elusive Muse.
Eric J. Guignard’s a writer and editor of dark and speculative fiction, operating from the shadowy outskirts of Los Angeles. He’s won the 2013 Bram Stoker Award, was a finalist for the 2014 International Thriller Writers Award, and he still wants more. Visit Eric at:www.ericjguignard.com, his blog: ericjguignard.blogspot.com, or Twitter: @ericjguignard.
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