She had seen smoke. Remembered every detail. It was there when everything fell apart and changed form and disappeared and order was restored. Cigarettes had its smoke, forests had its smoke, houses had its smoke, bodies had its smoke. From black, burdened with soot and crawling along the ground to milky and thin, dissolving into spirals and wings, like mist aghast from a lake. Varying depending whether it was midwinter or midsummer, if it originated from the oven of a crematorium or a cottage chimney. She had seen beings self-transform into smoke to escape. She had seen entities caught and torn out of their shells and shapes. Also that resembled smoke. A grey belch, like fresh cobwebs crocheted together with the fume from an old locomotive floating over plane landscapes, tardy and sticky when pulled and sucked out of a body with bare hands, out of the sockets and the noose and the mouth and into another body through palms and fingertips and sometimes through the mouth. Then into a container, then into a mountain, then into an archive, then into eternity. Alice had seen not only beings and creatures deconstructed and bodies destroyed but also families and witnesses erased. She had been ordered to clean away all traces of breaches and beings and of strange and silent characters who came from foreign lands and did their task and then disappeared once more, as if they had never been there. She had locked entities into their beings, dragged bodies mile after mile through deep snow and forests, with sled and horse along country roads, in cars on freeways and with rowboats down the rivers and from islands in the archipelago to mainland and sometimes from mainland out to sea again after the deconstruction. She had stored bodies in the snow, like whelmed pale cocoons in deep winter slumber, pending the final depletion. She had burned corpses and looked at the smoke. Back in the days at burning pits in the pine forest while she froze, nowadays at the crematorium at night while she drank coffee. She had known pig farmers that helped her, as well as fishermen who caught eels with carcasses. It didn’t matter if they used horses or shapeshifters. The eel could’t care less. The smell of burned bodies was always like nothing else, regardless of being. The smoke never changed in its essence. Neither did fire, flame or afterglow. She had never liked electrical lights that you turned on and off in an instant, could’t quite understand, after more than a hundred years, how they worked. Nothing else new for that matter. Like telephones, and least of all airplanes. She had never sat in one and never wanted to. The car was good though. She still got slightly nauseated if it snowed heavily in the headlights and the road was bumpy, but the car was good. With the car she could transport locked beings in the trunk or in the back of a van and hope that she would’t be stopped by a police. ”It’s a witch, officer. She’s up for deconstruction for breaching the realities and putting men to harm, then I’m gonna burn her”, was a hard thing to sell. The same went for a vampire. And that was the whole point, that no one would know about it or believe in it, not even if you told them.

She had lived two lives. One brief before the Order and one looong in it, or for it. A life after was implausible. She didn’t remember much from the life before. Dreamlike fragments. One year the summer had been so cold that nothing could be sown. Then came the winter. They could see the cold as it seeped in through the timber walls and silently slithered down the chimney and choked the weakening fire in the open stove. The feet froze against the grey floor boards and the hunger strangled and pinched in their throats and bellies. The year after had been so warm and dry that nothing grew. Dusting fields covered with brown crops, swarms of flies surrounding meager and muddled horses shiny with sweat. They sucked and chewed on foul pieces of skin from a late cow, ate bread baked with bark that hardened in the stomach and swelled in the intestines. One sibling had hastily past away after something had bursted inside. He had screamed like a piglet dragged to slaughter, crawled up like frightened grass snake, then he had paled and gone dead silent and cold and the other children had closed their eyes and turned towards the walls and mother had hummed while father had silenced and starred blankly and he took the child in his arms and left the cottage. She didn’t know exactly what year but thought it was 1867 and 1868. Everybody starved. First the youngest and the oldest and the sick died. Thereafter the healthy and strong. She was still a girl when he came, had just begun to bleed. She had seen things already, shadows haunting in the sleep, woken at night, trapped between realities. Animal heads that grew out of human bodies, dusky shapes drinking blood and creatures emerging from the dark, out of the mountain with white eyes and wide jaws. And a witch. An old, bent beldam dressed in rags and bundles who boned animals inside a tower of some sort, stuffed scarecrows in the woods and adorned them with carved faces. Alice had thought that it was dreams of hunger and fever, but it wasn’t. She had been forced to go with a man and be taught. Then they had branded her, like a slave. No smoke, really. More like a thin mist. All the clearer was the memory of the sizzling, almost gurgling sound of skin boiling against annealed iron. The sound and the smell made her think of food and made her hungry, and the hunger in turn made her vomit. That’s what happens to a child who starves until the stomach sucks into the spine, who chewed on foul scraps from a carcass and searched the frozen floor for grains, just to survive the winter. Then they had sent her back to the ground, as it was called. The ground from which she came and to which she forever belonged. She could remember the first time she had sent for deconstructors. They had come on horses. It had taken a few weeks, but the had come. They didn’t speak the same language as her, barely spoke a word, just uttered some foreign words to each other and made restless and tired gestures to her. She had led them to the cottage where the disorders and breaches and visions had come from and where she had been sitting and watching until she had seen in with her eyes, the shifting. She didn’t need to see it with her eyes, but she had wanted to. She had watched as they broke down down the door and struck down a mother and a father and found the little boy, hidden beneath the floor boards, thin and terrified. They had grabbed him by the neck and tied his feet and arms so that he couldn’t shift and flee and then they had dragged him out on the field behind the cottage and sucked his entity out of his body before they broke his skull with a hammer of some sort and left the meager body for Alice to burn, likewise the bodies of the mother and the father, for they had known what he had been. They had seen him shift shapes from human to something else. It had been through their eyes that Alice had seen, and what she had seen had broken the order of things that are. Alice had made a burning pit in a forest where few ever came, made a bed of brushwood and laid them there, veiled in gunny and rags. The flames threw long shadows into the woods and the smoke rose towards a dark eternity with twinkling lights that saw her and saw what she did but never spoke a word. She had let the pit burn out and stop smolder, then she had filled it with dirt and covered it with stones and lichen and some more brushwood until all traces were erased. As if nothing had happened and no one had seen except the stars and nothing had been there except the smoke. That was her purpose and task, and that boy had been the first time of many.

She wakes up and tries to understand who she is, what year it is. Like trying to grab hold of smoke. She watches her cigarette where she sits in her sofa in her house in Luleå, on the ground that is hers to watch, basically the entire northern part of her country. Among forests, rivers and mountains, dying villages and grey roads without dust and slowly swelling cities by the coast, new people and the same stars and more sounds and brighter lights and fewer beings and creatures and the same Order as then, watching the ground, stationed at the outskirts of the world. Far from Babylon. Remembering the smell. She touches and feels the branding on her forearm,

Bulging scars filled with black color that has turned green and floated out with life. A circle, straight through the circle a line and in the middle of the circle a square standing on one of its tips and with the line running straight through it, dividing the square into two pyramids, she thought, one raised towards each reality. And so the ground number. Gets out of the sofa and walks over to the window and gazes at her own reflection and behind the reflection a street lying still and behind the street another house lying lifeless where no one eats bread baked with bark that swells in your intestines and no one asks who she is or what she do or how she makes a living and no one is afraid of what they do not know. She looks like 25, maybe 30. Born about 160 years ago, maybe a little more. She tries to tell herself that the face in the reflection is hers. Pale, except for a blackened beneath two hollows. A flush face, except for some scratches and scar tissue. Her fingers reaches out and touches the cold window glass, then she brings the cigarette to her cheek and feels the sting, hears the frizzle and notice how the eyes are brought to tears and she observes the reflection as it becomes cloudy and the face and the world outside and behind disappears, melts away. She knew there was others like her. Many others, with the same purpose and task. She had never met any of them, nor spoken to anyone like her. Never. Only her oracle and the deconstructors that came now and then and seldom spoke at all. And the messenger. A custodian is ment to see everything, feel everything. Keep the ground safe and watched, keep man and other beings apart, divided into separate realities. Keep the lines and boarders guarded, keep the beings within its grounds. Know where everyone or everything is. Know what they are doing. Know who they are. Register new ones. If someone disturbs the order, seek them and find them and lock them, if she could manage it by herself. Then send bid for a deconstructor who comes and abduced the entity from the being, the body. Then clear away all the tracks and traces from the face of this world, as if the being that no longer was never had been.

A long time ago, man hid in their homesteads and villages and cottages, inside their walls and fences and moats, protected from whatever was out there, in the forest, in the shadows, in the mountains, in the dark, in the wilderness and the wastelands. Another order reigned then, or there was no order at all. Depends on how you see it. Now, all the other beings and creatures are the ones locked within and confined to their grounds, ever watched and oppressed. Alice felt the branding again. Tried to tell herself that the face in the window was hers and that everything still wasn’t dreams of starvation and fever in a frozen cottage with a dying fire and a child gone cold lying on the floor and a mother humming. Realities meet in the smoke, comes together. Like a key in its lock or a dispersed breath between realities. The moments in between are shadows without bodies and movement. Time that doesn’t do anything but pass. She still didn’t understand how airplanes could fly or how telephones could transfer voices from hundreds of miles away. For her, it was more real to see a human boy shift into a sparrow, or being emptied of its entity and then beaten to death with a hammer of some sort. Or that she in waken dreams could see a witch on an island i Luleå’s archipelago, stuffing scarecrows in the woods and adorning them with carved out faces. That was more real, because that was her reality, and the smoke was the order restored after the realities once again had been divided, separated. The surface once again grows still and closes itself and turns back into a mirror after a breach and a brief moment of upset, then nothing. Like a breath withdrawn. She feels, sees, watches and guards, keeps apart and upholds the order of things that are. In her house. In ground 716. Stationed at the outskirts of the world. Between realities. Far from Babylon.