Sometimes I finish a collection of stories and I’m at a loss to choose which to talk about, because there are several that are uniformly good. Marshall’s debut collection presents such a dilemma, to the point that even as I’m writing this paragraph I have no idea which I’ll talk about. A story called ‘Dead White Men’ about a girl who makes love in old English graveyards so she can feel the old ghosts? A syndrome that makes tourists freeze into the positions of sculptures and statues they stare at too closely? Divorced parents squabbling over what saintly relic to give to their child?

The relic, I think. Though I’m giving the game away a bit by calling them divorced. When the story starts it just refers to Chloe’s parents leading her into the garage where a large crate lies. Inside is a small mummified human body, brown and leathery and brittle-dry: Saint Lucia of Syracuse.

Chloe’s mouth opened in a little “oh” of delight and then she reached out and let her index finger brush against the brown leather cheek. It was rough like a cat’s tongue in some places and smooth as fine-grained wood in others where the bone peeked through. “She was about your age, sweetheart, when they came for her. Wanted to marry some rich governor who thought she had the most beautiful eyes in the world. But, oh no, she wasn’t having any of that. Do you know what she did?”

“She plucked out her eyes,” Chloe said, barely a whisper, as her finger traced the smooth curves of the eye sockets.

“That’s right,” her mum beamed. “That’s exactly right, sweetheart. Now there’s a real saint for you, a saint to be proud of. Not just any martyr had that kind of panache.”

Such a gift is not unexpected. It turns out it’s normal for a child to receive a saint’s relic on their seventh birthday, although few families can afford an entire body. And now that she’s been given the relic, Chloe sees Lucia’s ghost step out of the desiccated body and follow her around, a perpetual intangible companion.

Chloe is then taken back to her other mother, and it’s here that the divorced status of her parents is revealed. Nor is the situation amicable. Chloe had snapped off one of Lucia’s fingers so she could always have the ghost nearby, but all too soon her mother finds out. She throws the finger in the trash and furiously swears that she’ll give Chloe a much more famous saint instead.

She does. But famous isn’t necessarily better.

The mother is loathsomely possessive throughout, with Chloe often seeming like a mere pawn to be used in a power struggle with her father. By the end the mother has become quite inventively cruel, culminating in a memorably abusive set piece involving the relics. After all, you know as soon as the mother appears that the story is not going to end on a happy note.

Blessed by Helen Marshall

Availability: free online, print, e-book

Word count: 3,500

First published: Hair Side, Flesh Side (available from ChiZine here and Weightless Books here)

Where else to find it: a free PDF of the story is available here

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