The Undertaking

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A black silhouette of a figure against a brown background crawls on their knees with their hands pawing through the air. In place of a head is a large flat rhomboid with celestial glitter at one end, and on the figure’s belly is a blue diamond encased by a red circle.
Rajni Perera, Dancer, 2018. Mixed media on millboard, 24 × 40 inches.

It's a world of white frost on all the windows.
Frost. Ash. Hairy and steady growing on rust.
Rust on all the windows, orange fringe of time.
White rabbit foot goes quickly through the city on a golden day
Not so much as a shadow to hide in or a hole
In the fallow ground of lime.
Bricks all tawny the color of sand, from a factory they were built in
Ages ago
Leaked out of the cementine streets
Effloresced under an orange sun.
Now rabbit runs
Under an ash white sky.

“That one’s got out of the warehouse, huh,” says Jarvis, picking up the roach and puffing it till his dark fingers are singed. His palms are already cracked white with the fringe of time. He sucks what little bit of hash he can get from the grooves of his thumb, rubbing his gums so the weed mixes with spit and ash. He spits and ashes the roach, watching the rabbit dart off. Jarvis pulls the iron door open and heads back into the bar.

It’s a slow day. Dim as usual inside, except the light under which Leo and Barley gnaw over obscure trivia in a pitiful bid for attention from the other noon regulars: Mesri, heavy-lidded and silent in a slim booth, and Mrs. Molina, perched by her dingy window tracing the lines from old letters with her thick hands. She chews on a cherry stem long gone. Jarvis’ thoughts are the loudest voice he hears, chasing him with a theory about the proliferation of rabbits and the shortage of books. They are building something. But what is the question.

“Not bad, right?” croaks Tyler, a rakish teen in gray overcoat and pants. He leans on the bar. Between his palms he rolls a napkin like a joint.

Jarvis grunts. “I’ve had better. Don’t know how you stay smokin’ it.”

“Had better? When? When weed grew on trees? You can remembah way back in th’ ol’ day of the twen’y-three-’undreds, sir?” Tyler teases.

“Ey, you be looking as old as me the way them spots on your face is comin’ in.”

Tyler rubs the condensation of a beer glass across his acne.

“Not my fault your beauty potions don’t work.”

Jarvis lets out a grunt of a laugh. “Saw another rabbit today.”

“So? Rabbits are part of a balanced diet.” Tyler intones in the voice of the public announcements.

Jarvis is silent for a moment. “It’s not usual to see so many on the loose. Left and right. Keep seein’ ’em.”

“Why don’t you catch one?” Tyler rolls another split in his ashy palms. “They say the Undertaker will take a rabbit in exchange for your heart. So if you give him one, then maybe you can live long enough to finally know what primo hash this is.” Tyler gingerly licks the split to seal it. He drags the glass absent-mindedly across his forehead, wincing a bit as cool droplets roll down. “Hey, you got something for this?”

Jarvis turns to a small metal cabinet under the bar, fishes out a lavender tablet from a jar, and plops it into the lager. It fizzes, and Tyler laps at the overflow, slurping the foam before it hits the lacquer. As it goes down, he can feel his headache and the violet haze in the corners of his vision start to subside. He smacks his head a couple times.

“Acch. They’re getting worse. It used to be just sounds. Anytime I’d hear a loud noise, it would give me purple eyes. Now it’s like anything is sending me. If I don’t smoke ... I’m seeing sounds I can’t even hear. And my head is all purple. It’s dummy aggs, man.”

Jarvis passes him a scratched pitcher of water, adding another tablet. “Drink. The whole thing.” Tyler chugs and Jarvis ducks down, rummaging further into the cabinet. “When’s the last time you read a book?” he calls up from underneath.

“Hmmh? Uh …” Tyler ponders, mid-gulp.

“Your eyes. You need to –– ”

“Knock knock.”

A rap of leathered knuckles on the bar. The unmistakable voice: velvety yet dry, like leaves being crushed. Everything about her crushing, crushed. A glacier melting. Her boots, knuckles, and dark stringent eyes. The weight of her bones in the chair.

Jarvis can feel her looming. He peeps up from his crouched position on the floor. “Well, speak of the devil.”

“Yah, Jarvis. It’s been a while.” Her eyes glint against dark brown skin in the shadow of her hat brim. She looks almost happy to see him. Her slim-fitting jacket and trousers are of a rough material, thoroughly worn. Still, every garment is black, dark black. Faded embellishments of tiny white stars adorn her lapel. Her boots come to ghastly points.

“You haven’t come to get me, have you? I haven’t got any rabbits.” Jarvis cuts a wary smile sideways at Tyler, who is trying to stare without staring, transfixed by the woman whose hair is like a horse’s, moving perpetually; it seems charged with electricity. Mesri stumbles up stupidly from the banquette and tries to graze his tarnished fingertips through her rough strands. With a quick glance from her, he’s stumbling back into his sodden polyester den.

“Not today.” Her words are flat. “Have you got any mead?”

“Mead? We haven’t got mead since … long time ago. Honey is not exactly lyin’ around these days. You should know that.”

“I know you like to hold onto things.” She glances over to Mrs. Molina, who has become like an ancient letter herself. “I get the taste for something out of the ordinary from time to time. Thought you might have stored some in the basement.” Her gaze comes to rest on Tyler, caught with his mouth faintly open. The hairs on his neck prick. He feels the crushing weight of her, the cold electricity.

“And what are you drinking?”

“Who?” Tyler looks, bewildered, between Jarvis and the woman. “M-me?” Something about her makes his eyes start to go violet.

With her pinky, she pulls his glass over and takes a sip of the foam. “I’ll have this, without the pills.” Jarvis nods. “Are your headaches getting worse?”

“H-how did you know?”

She places her hands delicately on his temples, the leather of her gloves sticking to his sweaty brow. “It’s my business to know,” she drums slightly. Tyler’s eyes droop, and he feels the purple fall over him with the heaviness of a flu or a blanket of sand. Then it’s gone. “And everything that ails you.” She is close to his face. “Don’t worry. The headaches will be fine as long as you stop smoking. Your vivisthesia won’t be the reason I come for you … eventually.”

“Come for me,” he repeats slowly.

In her dark eyes, Tyler can see, faintly at first and then with brimming clarity, the reflection of an older man, like him, but pocked and haggard. No sooner has he made the connection, the horrible realization, than she removes her hands.

He draws a heavy breath. “A-a-are you … ”

“The Undertaker. Yes. One of them.”

“But I thought you’d be –– ”

Jarvis slides over a mug of dark lager, stiffening. “So? What really brings you? I haven’t known you to sit and chat over a beer with ol’ Jarvie. You here to take one of them?” Jarvis motions out to Leo and Barley whose conversation, in an attempt to eavesdrop, has turned to nonsense. “Please say yes.”

She chuckles, with more warmth than he expects. “They’re below my pay bracket.”

“You get paid?!” Tyler leans in, wondering if there might be a viable future for him in Undertaking, thinking they’ll let just anyone do it.

“The more valuable the memories I extract, the more I get paid.”

“But who pays you?!”

“Forgive him. It’s his first time, and he’s got no manners.” Jarvis takes Tyler’s split and crumbles it into the waste. “And apparently no fear,” he murmurs to himself.

She turns to Tyler. “Everything in this world has a price. Even death and those who bring it. I’m paid by those who have an interest in the structure of memories. Certain people’s memories. Do you know what we take?” Tyler is blank. Jarvis quiets, for in all his meetings with the Undertaker — this will make five — even he does not know.

She lifts a long spoon from a steel canister and begins to stir the foam of the lager. The mutterings in the bar have gone still.

“I receive word of a body I am meant to take from a whisper, but not like the whispers you hear; a whisper comes in colors. Because you have vivisthesia, you can see purple. But I see blue, red, magenta, gold, citrine … and everything in between. Colors you’ve never seen before. It’s an art, chronochromostetics. The colors are time speaking.

“But I don’t receive the exact time to collect. I can’t follow the body or it runs. I have to wait until the body is weak enough. So I get a coffee, plop down in their living room, and I wait. Most delude themselves into thinking I’m a ghost. It’s easier for them to believe I’m less than human than to face the truth, which is the very opposite.”

Jarvis feels something murky in the pit of his stomach. The swirl of unease he feels when she comes around has solidified into a feeling he can’t place.

“As they see the horizon coming, I prepare my tools. The needle, the siphon, the vial. I wait in the living room with the light off. They come and go — until one day, they decide to acknowledge me. They always think I’m there to kill. But I’m only there to collect. To siphon from the heart and turn it to honey.”


“Honey titrated through a beaker. Honey purified.

“Honey sweet and precious.
With notes of green and gold.
Honey with instructions.
To preserve the things of old.”

“Is it true you eat the hearts of rabbits?” Tyler can’t hold himself back. Jarvis clicks his tongue, but secretly he can sense it’s more than a coincidence that the Undertaker has shown up on the very same day he saw yet another one darting around.

“No rabbits. But there are other things. I’m waiting for a man.”

“To take him??”

“To bring me chocolate. After a long negotiation,” she lets out a sigh like she’s just remembered how to do it. “Sometimes people are ready when the horizon comes. Other times there is a more complicated bargain. My last job …

“The word of this body came to me in sleep and white veils. Through veils there was the sound of wailing and the mark of vibrations. Whether it was pleasure or pain, I couldn’t tell.

“Your doctor will never tell you this, but your vivisthesia is the first marker of time. Today it gives you headaches, but as you age, it will refine. You will see sounds with violet eyes, you will smell voices. And, like some, you may learn to transmit the beams outward, as a vibration, used for many things.

“This woman had found a young man who specialized in turning vibrations outward. A lover. She wished to experience a final pleasure before she left. It didn’t matter that the pleasure was illegal. She had status enough to pay.

“I waited after their last act, and her eyes were watering. She strained to see me, through tears, knowing the dust would come. When I read her blood, everything was the color of gray. Her life had become it, except the fragments of joy that glinted through, especially toward the end. Joy clarifies a memory. That’s why the pleasure market is so heavily regulated.”

Joy. Tyler strains to read any emotion on her blank face. He thinks back to the time when he and his friends would roll down Fill Hill in spring, before Beatty and Erykah got jobs at the factory. They would climb up the slopes of the petrofield and slide down on bags. For an instant, Tyler sees a glint of green.

Jarvis wants to ask if the scarcity of books has to do with this pleasure market, a term he’s never heard. But he holds his tongue.

“It turns out, contracting a lover hadn’t been as much of a transgression as she believed it to be. My employer had arranged for her to meet him exactly when she did, to clarify her memory.

“When her time came, it was after dusk. I had just finished my collection and brought her to her favorite chair, cloaked in a sheet. I kept the room dark, as usual, the only light flickering from the transformers outside.

“And then something very strange happened.”


“Ximena.” A man’s voice.

She has not been called that name for a very long time. She is frozen in the dark, scalpel tucked in her palm. Her tools are still out, the honey not yet packed into its vial.

“Yah, Ximena?” The man steps slowly over the travertine in the kitchen. Soon she’ll be able to see his silhouette in the remaining blue light. She breathes like a viper, preparing to slit his throat. When she became an Undertaker, she had heard that the only thing she would come to fear was the sound of her own name.

The man rounds the corner into the living room, and from the blare of the petrofield transformers, she sees he is just taller than her, slightly stocky, strong enough to make a problem. His hands appear to be empty, but poachers always have a trick up their sleeve.

“I would turn on the light, but I don’t want to disrespect the dead.” His voice is high, clipped in its delivery, oddly misplaced with his frame. He holds out a hand, to ready himself against her likely attack. “I hear it’s bad luck. That it can taint the memory.”

“It’s always bad luck to find me in the dark. Tell me your name.” He is just within striking distance of her, having now entered the small reading chamber in which the woman lies dead.


“What do you want, Calvin.”

“I just want to talk. You’re not exactly easy to f —.” His word is garbled by the forearm pinning his neck against a wall. He is a breath away from her scalpel piercing his carotid artery. She jostles him back, her dark eyes dimly offering him a reflection of his fate. There is a rumbling in the distance.

Calvin takes a panicked breath. “Can you put that down? I don’t have anything on me. You can check.”

Ximena kicks his ankles, then knees. He buckles slightly. She pads a hand over his field jacket, which smells of burlap and rabbit down. He squirms as she unzips the jacket and reaches into the inner pockets.

“Don’t move.”

“It tickles a little bit.” She taps the scalpel slightly, and a drop of blood beads up on his dusty neck.

“Quiet.” Closer, he smells like old bandages and ferns, a scent Ximena hasn’t seen for many years. Rummaging around the quilted layers, she feels the corners of something hard: a box about ten centimeters on each side, the same size as the ones in her kit, but made of cardboard. She pulls it out, still pinning him with the other arm. “What is it.”

“For you. A gift.”

She chortles. “Go back. Walk.” The pressure of her arm nudges him back. Calvin shuffles his way across the travertine until he stumbles onto a sofa. She passes her other hand over an orb lamp, which switches on to envelop the cream-curtained room in a soft glow. She clicks the heel of her boot against the floor, and a retractable blade slides out from the toe. Resting her heel on his shoulder, the blade poised at his neck, she examines the box.

Across the surface is glossy lettering: First Street Bakery. She scans his face. He is probably in his mid-forties, with oily, walnut toned-skin and short-cropped waves. His hands look soft. His eyes are tired, but bright.

She slides open the corners. Inside is a gleaming red heart. The heart is round, almost inflated looking. It smells of cherries and chocolate, the mirrored sugar glaze flecked with gold. It has been so long since she has had something sweet that she finds its presence unnerving. Ximena carves into it with the scalpel, and caramel oozes out into the box.

“The little crunchy parts are almond toffee. I hope you’re not allergic.” She holds the box level with his lips. He takes a gooey shard, the caramel globbing off, holding both hands up in surrender. “It’s just chocolate, see?”

“What do you want?”

“Please,” he eyes her boot. “There was no other way to reach you. I’m here to ask you something. Please, I’m sick.” Ximena already knows this. “I’m sick and there are certain things I know, that when I die — soon — those things can’t belong to the wrong people. I came to ask if you’ll help me keep them safe.”

“If you want to hire a Disintegrator, I can send you to a friend, but otherwise, I can’t help Hagglers. Thanks for the chocolate. Now get out or I’ll take everything from you right now.” She takes her foot off his shoulder, retracts the blade with a stomp, and turns to gather her tools in the reading chamber.

“Please, Ximena, wait!” He reaches out for her hand. “It has to be you. Your mother sent me.”

“My mother’s dead. I don’t know where you got that name, but if you say it again, I’ll cut your tongue out.”

“No,” he lets the words spill out, “we both know that isn’t true. How can she be dead when she hasn’t been born yet?”

Now Ximena is the one backing away.

“She contacted me. She told me your name. I apologize. But please, with what I know –– you can free yourself in your time. Didn’t you see inside the box?”

Scrawled in the lid are the words her mother said when she was younger, now as bittersweet as the bleeding caramel. Calvin looks at her soberly, and she fights back the irrational trust she feels for this stranger who merely claims to know her mother. It’s quite possible all of this is an elaborate hoax. What has she opened with this box? Bribery, blackmail, sabotage — or most dreaded of all, hope.

“If you want my help, then help me take her.”

Ximena grips the woman’s wrists, her extraction tools clinking gently at her hip. Calvin lifts her ankles. “Where to?”

“To the pit.”

From beyond the rumbling fields
Where power is unloosed from the ground
Comes the evening star
A blazing light perched on the tower of the hill
Land filled beneath
High above the pit it shines.
Around every corner it can be seen
From even the darkest pockets in the maze of streets.
And after nightfall, rabbit always runs the other way.

A polaroid photograph of a black woman with a center-part and low ponytail wearing a white tank top and jeans and leaning against a sun-dappled tree. The image is slightly blurry around the edges.

Lex Brown is a visual artist using poetry and science fiction to create an index for our psychological and emotional experiences as organic beings in a rapidly technologized world. Brown has performed and exhibited work at the New Museum, The Hammer Museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the High Line, the International Center of Photography, Recess, The Kitchen, REDCAT Theater, MIT List Visual Arts Center, and the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway. She is a 2021 recipient of the USA Fellowship and holds degrees from Princeton University and Yale University. Brown is the author of My Wet Hot Drone Summer, a sci-fi erotic novella, and Consciousness, an anthology of poems and lyrics.



Photo by 8th House Residency