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  • Writer's pictureColette Des Georges

The Particles of Existence

Danielle extended a long white leg into a long white stocking and watched without interest as servants hooked the delicate lace into place. She didn’t understand why they stood on ceremony today of all days, but was too exhausted and too far beyond caring to protest. What was one more day of playing the puppet? The rest of the morning progressed as it always did: two hundred brushstrokes on the right side of her head, two hundred on the left, a soft step into her skirts and a teeth-clenching battle with her corset. Two maids solemnly strung gold chains around her neck and twisted diamond combs into her hair, before a third stepped forward with a silver tray bearing brushes and white powder. 

Her unloved husband, the reigning king, stepped into the room, his face nearly as pale as her own, without the same layer of powder.

“They’re nearly ready for us,” he said, voice shaking. She nodded.

Together, they walked outside, garments sparkling and heads raised high. They laid those high heads atop the wooden stockades set up in the center of the square, and turned their eyes to the sky, which was cloudless and blue, and its twin reflected in the executioner’s axe. It was a cold, brutal end to a cold, brutal marriage. Danielle’s last bitter thought as the axe fell was that she’d make an exceptionally well-dressed corpse.


There was sunlight in the underworld. Living people would never have envisioned it that way, but when Danielle opened her eyes, it was golden hour in a redwood forest. There was a thatch of ferns next to her and a small creek squirming over white rocks—all of it glowing with innumerable pinpricks of glittering light. She sat up in disbelief. It was beautiful.

She leaned forward and touched the tree next to her. It didn’t feel much different from the ones she’d touched in life—perhaps a little softer—but sparks swirled and eddied at her touch like dust motes that had been disturbed. Looking down, she saw similar glimmers in her own palms, blinking and sparkling with soft green luminescence. 

“You’re seeing the particles of existence.”

Danielle turned to find a withered old woman in a velvet robe walking toward her. The sparks dancing under the woman’s skin were mostly lavender, and her skin was thin enough to display them clearly. 

“Is this death?”

The woman nodded. “It is. A part of it, anyway. Not as bad as you imagined, is it?”

Danielle looked around. “No, I suppose not.” But she shook slightly, and laced her hands together.

“I’m here to be your guide. My name is Adeni.”

Danielle inclined her head automatically, then paused and raised a tentative hand instead. “Danielle.”

Adeni took Danielle’s hand and led her toward a dirt path, bare feet leaving imprints in the wet earth. It was hard to focus with the swirl of multicolored atoms everywhere, making Danielle feel like she was walking through the cosmos. 

The path led them to a little town with houses carved directly into the natural rock and a waterfall crashing into kaleidoscopic radiance at the far end. Adeni let Danielle pause and admire the vista before herding her into a large building where people of all ages drifted back and forth with plates of food and settled into large, decadent cushions—much brighter and softer than the ones in the living world. The feeling of the gathering was familial and light. Danielle realized that all of these people must also, naturally, be dead. She wondered how they’d made this little community, and if she was expected to stay. She wondered if her husband was in a town like this one, choking down outrage about spending eternity in the company of peasants. That thought almost made her smile. Adeni selected a cushion and presented Danielle with a mug of rose petal tea.

“You’re lucky; Aaron is cooking tonight. In his hands, food is a high art.”

“Do we need to eat?” Danielle asked. 

Adeni smiled. “No, but we like to. Food can nourish the soul as well as the body—and you’ll find that most of the dead like to imitate the experiences of living, at least for a while.”

An old man offered them a meal on a polished ebony platter. Danielle wasn’t hungry, but years of etiquette lessons compelled her to fill her plate anyway. Her fork moved automatically, but her brows raised in real appreciation when she experienced the flavors: lentils simmered in savory broth, fruit stewed with cardamom and cloves, cheese whipped and blended with fresh herbs. Each taste was impossibly, magically vivid, and all of it glimmered with gentle yellow light. Adeni smiled at her reaction. 

“It’s good that you are able to enjoy it so much. Many of the new dead are too distraught to do so.”

Danielle smiled hesitantly. “It is very good. And…I was not overly attached to my life—at least, not at the end. I didn’t have much in the way of personal autonomy.”

“Ah.” Adeni’s eyes were gentle, understanding. 

The man who had served them returned with a thin blonde man. This time, Danielle looked more closely, examining their particles. The old man’s were mostly blue, but the blonde man’s were the same cheery yellow as the food, but there were also speckles of lavender at their wrists and temples. 

Adeni spoke. “Thank you for the meal, Aaron. It was delightful as always.” 

He beamed. “I’m glad to have delighted you.” 

Danielle emboldened enough to thank him, and he smiled at her. “I’m glad to have eased your introduction to the underworld; it’s overwhelming for many. You’re lucky to have Adeni as your guide.” She nodded and slipped back into silence as the others spoke about the meal and the little joys of their day. When they left, she turned to Adeni.

“Everyone’s particles are different.”

“Of course, child. How dull if we were all made up the same!”

Danielle’s slender eyebrow wrinkled. “But those men had bits of lavender.”

Adeni laced her wrinkled hands and sat up to eye her squarely. “I’ve given some of myself to them.”

“You’ve given…yourself?” “My particles. My essence.”

Danielle stilled as confusion and another, icier feeling raised goosepimples on her skin. She looked at the rubble of the meal, still radiating that distinctive yellow glow—Aaron’s color. 

“What happens if you run out of particles?”

Adeni didn’t respond. Instead, she took Danielle’s cold hands in her own warm soft ones, and squeezed. 

After the meal, they walked to one of the carved stone cottages and Adeni delivered Danielle to a bedroom full of silk cushions and beautifully engraved mahogany furniture. She lit a beeswax candle and fluffed the pillows, then excused herself. Danielle crawled into the bed and found that it was decadently soft and springy—far more comfortable than any bed she’d slept in at the palace, and blessedly, blessedly free of scrutinizing attendants. But tonight she didn’t sleep. Instead, she stared at the embroidery on the coverlet and the fine detailing on the desk and the delicate leather bound books on the shelves, all of which flickered with faint rainbows in the darkness. Then she looked at her own palm and the precious green sparks freckling its surface. You can lose yourself here, she thought. You can give pieces of yourself away until there is nothing left. To finally get freedom now, and then to lose it… She watched them, sleepless, until morning.

The next day, Adeni greeted Danielle with pastries that melted in the mouth like snowflakes. They sat at a stubby little table in the garden, surrounded by roses. In the sunlight, it was harder to see whether the food they were eating was seasoned with somebody’s particles, and Danielle relaxed. For the first time, she overcame the strangeness of her circumstances and considered the afterlife’s possibilities. She was so incredibly unwatched here, and the liberty of privacy was dizzying. She’d spent the last hour before sunrise teaching herself to wriggle into her dress like a fish, and the triumph she felt when she finished was half because she’d figured it out and half because she’d made herself look ridiculous and no one cared. What was existence like without unwavering scrutiny and responsibility?

Adeni interrupted her thoughts. “My task now is to deliver you to a person or place of your choice, where I will leave you to make your own way. Do you have any loved ones you’d like to try to find?” 

Danielle considered. Most of her immediate family was still alive—thriving, she hoped—in her mother country. Her thoughts went to her husband, who would likely even now be sinking his vicious teeth into the people around him, and she winced. 

“No, no one. My family is young. But…” She hesitated, then pressed her hands firmly against the tabletop. “I can choose? For myself?” Adeni nodded. “Perhaps…there is a city somewhere here—a place where a woman could make her own way in the underworld?”

Adeni’s eyes crinkled in the corners. “Then we will go to one of the cities.” She stood and hefted the tower of crockery, and Danielle leaned back warily as it wobbled. 

“Is the underworld large, or complicated to travel through?”

“It is exactly the same as the living world, only more so.” Adeni’s laugh sounded like a boxspring wheezing, but her smile was lovely. 

They collected two horses and saddlebags from a thatch-roofed stable, packing oiled tents and thick sleeping rolls, and jars of Adam’s curry and scones. 

“Won’t you miss your house and your work here?” Danielle asked. 

Adeni shook her head. “Death isn’t like that. And I won’t be gone long.”

The horses had glossy gray coats and white forlocks, and were dappled with so many hues of particles that Danielle struggled to discern their original color. 

“Helter and Skelter have been well loved,” Adeni said, stretching onto tiptoe to plant a kiss and a single lavender particle onto each of their shaggy foreheads. Danielle pulled her arms away to avoid brushing them and held her skirts tight when she mounted. 

The nearest large city was called Viveret, and was three days’ ride away. They kept a gentle pace, and the forest setting made the exercise pleasant. Eventually, Danielle asked her companion about her previous life. 

“I don’t remember very much,” Adeni said. “I’ve been here a long time, and have transmuted a lot of myself into other things. But I remember the midwinter festivals and my home in the mountains, which was green and quiet and surrounded by sheep. I was a wool weaver.” 

Danielle’s lips gave a brave twitch. “That sounds lovely.”

“It was. I was much luckier in life than most, and even my death was easy—a few minutes of chest pain and then a warm baptism into the underworld.”

She’d opened her mouth to speak again when Adeni hauled her horse to a stop. The old woman kicked a foot free and tried to leap down, tumbling knee-first into the pine needles and kicking up a fog of dust. Danielle hissed in alarm, but Adeni was already up and bobbing toward a grassy clearing on the other side of the trail. Danielle squinted toward the target of her guardian’s concern: an old man crumpled in a heap on the ground. He was so short and frail that he looked like a child. Adeni sank to her knees and, with surprising strength, gathered him up with his legs bundled like firewood. She dragged him to her lap and gestured imperiously for Danielle to come join her. For a heartbeat, Danielle hesitated. She’d been a queen. But she wasn’t any longer, thank God. She obeyed. 

In the next hour, Adeni taught Danielle how to make a splint and brew a painkilling tea from poppies and willowbark, which the man sipped tentatively when it cooled. He’d been making a pilgrimage to see a beloved grandson, and fallen from his horse.

“I shouldn’t have brought my weakness with me into death, but I couldn’t let go of it. It’s a part of me,” he said sheepishly. 

By lunchtime, the man could stand and walk, and he left shortly afterward with a stick clasped in his fist and a few new lavender particles mingled with his dense red ones. 

“Did you heal him?”

Adeni smiled. “He didn’t need healing, not truly, but we gave him the care he needed.”

“And you aren’t worried about the cost?” Danielle asked, touching Adeni’s dun fingertips apprehensively.

“To me, it isn’t a cost. We don’t all hold our identities so tightly, and I have been in existence a long time.” Adeni gave Danielle’s arm a soft squeeze. Then she swept up the husks of their healing efforts and began to make camp.

The next day the landscape changed, and trees surrendered to wildflowers and limestone. On the way, Danielle asked Adeni about her world, learning about the villages and the people, and by proxy about the woman herself, who chose her observations with great care and spoke of her companions with enthusiasm. They stopped for the night in the shadow of a pockmarked boulder, and Danielle pitched the tents so that Adeni could rest. It took some significant trial and error, but the end result was indisputably tent-esque. She set out the jars of curry and bread, and had uncorked a bottle of dandelion wine when she caught movement near her ankle and lept back with a yelp. A field mouse staggered into the waning sunlight and came to rest inches from Adeni’s unshod feet. Danielle stepped forward to shoo it away, but Adeni waved her back and petted it absently. Danielle stilled—not because the wild creature was so calm, which she’d grown used to, but because it was so lightless. A single orange spark hovered at the tip of the creature’s nose like a raindrop. Adeni lifted it so that she could look into its little eyes, pepper flakes that they were, and held its gaze as her thumbs stroked its cheeks.

The mouse lifted its tired head and tapped its nose against the old woman’s palm, simultaneously relinquishing its final spark as casually as a tossed coin. Danielle’s breath froze in her chest, and there was a moment of absolute silence. Then, the mouse’s body dissolved into the air and vanished, and the entire valley filled with an unearthly, beautiful sound of chimes. The sound swelled slowly and then held, vibrating the skin on Danielle’s face and hand before fading away. Above, birds swirled in circles above them and a shower of flower petals fell from the trees to carpet the ground at their feet. The orange particle in Adeni’s palm migrated to her thumb, where it glowed brighter than any star Danielle had seen. 

Danielle felt a wave of conflicting emotions; here was proof that everything she’d feared could come to pass—complete dissolution, an absolute end to individual identity, real, permanent death. But it had also been peaceful and lovely and, above all, voluntary. She looked at the particle glowing in Adeni’s thumb like a beacon. The older woman caught her looking and gave her a radiant smile, then caught her in an unexpectedly tight hug. Danielle was unused to receiving hugs, but found, in that moment, that she didn’t mind them. 


On the third day, the two women talked. They talked through the low rocky hills and up into the high, grassy mesas, talked through fern-dotted woods and fields of wildflowers, and talked through the groves of figs and oranges that surrounded the city. Adeni’s voice grew haggard, but never lost its warmth, and Danielle’s laughs became freer and freer.

At sundown, they reached the opalescent pink wall of Viveret, and were greeted by a pair of giddy-faced welcomers who waved them on their way with lit candles. They found succor in a little inn built from the same pearly rock, directly next door to the building where new immigrants could come to find a place for themselves. Adeni tried to unload the horses, but Danielle could see that her legs were trembling from the long ride, and took the reins instead. She watched the old woman carefully, an unexpectedly strong wave of tenderness coming over her.

The inn was unattended, but well-stocked with warm food and cold drink. The women spent their final night together laughing over a hearty stew dinner that never grew cold. Adeni was a wealth of advice about life in the city, and Danielle was pleased to listen. There was fear, of course, but also excitement, and Adeni’s words only added to Danielle’s fascination. 

Their talk ran late into the night, and eventually Adeni’s fatigue stole the remainder of her words and they sat quietly, the old woman battling to keep her eyes open and her spine straight. Then, with slow deliberation, Danielle reached out and took the old woman’s hand and squeezed. When she released it, a single green particle remained behind, blinking on the wrinkled old palm like a star—a gift, freely given. And in the giving, Danielle herself felt free.


Colette is a California native living and working in Amsterdam. She’s spent most of her career writing, editing, and ghostwriting for various tech companies in Silicon Valley, but is increasingly focused on her creative pursuits. She has a grudging history in PR and marketing and a passion for studying history.


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