Sand and Ash 31: An Unexpected Role

The clans of the desert not of sun and moon speak so little that most forget they exist.

— Paromachīmu

Rutejìmo sat on the edge of a burnt-down funeral pyre keeping his back to the pile of ash and stone. The dying heat rolled against his back as it quickly cooled in the last remains of night. It was early morning, and Tachìra had not risen above the horizon. He felt the anticipation of morning light in his body, a quickening of his pulse that made the heat licking his skin even more intense.

His attention was on an old woman who never spoke to him. He didn't know her name or even her clan, only that she was waiting for him when he arrived to prepare the bodies of the six merchants who died in a caravan attack. She wasn't a banyosiōu, she just dressed like one. Despite the lack of colors between them, something told Rutejìmo that she was more than dead. She felt like she still had a foot in the world of the living; it was a gut feeling rather than something he could easily identify. There was a sense of power in her, a warrior's power, more pure than any other warrior he had ever met. It almost felt like she followed Tachìra directly. There were no signs of her clan on her clothes, so Rutejìmo was left with a sense of awe.

She stripped naked in front of him. She moved efficiently with no attempt at attraction or even concern for his opinion. The only sounds she made were the soft grunts of age and the whisper of pale fabric scraping off her body. Her hair, an unruly mane of white, stuck out in all directions except for a single braid over the left side of her face.

Rutejìmo watched curiously. He knew she was about to show him something, but she wouldn't speak to him or see him. He wasn't sure how he knew, just that after so many months body language and gestures were enough to tell him when his attention was required.

The old woman finished stripping and stood up. Turning her head to the brightening horizon, she raised her hands above her head and mouthed a wordless prayer. There was no noise beyond her gasping breath and the shifting rocks underneath her feet, but he could see the words passing soundlessly over her lips. It was a prayer to Tachìra. He caught sight of the words “life” and “living” more than a few times.

A tingle ran along his skin. The words were important, and she was teaching him. He focused on her mouth, trying to memorize as much of the unfamiliar prayer as he could. It was hard, reading in silence—though he could puzzle out where it was similar to the rituals he had been taught.

Almost an hour later, she was shaking with the effort to keep her arms raised. Sweat prickled her dark skin, following the lines of wrinkles and pooling in the dust and ash that clung to her.

Tachìra breached the horizon, and Rutejìmo felt the rush of power coursing through his veins.

She responded at the same time he did. Without a word, she lowered her hands and walked toward the rising sun, her bare feet leaving shallow imprints in the gravel.

He turned to watch her walk around the shimmering ash and then head in a straight line across the desert, walking with a confidence that he could only admire. She had nothing, no water, no food. If it were him, it would have been a death sentence.

Rutejìmo stood up to call for her, but was distracted by the sound of paper flapping in the wind. Turning around, he stared at the clothes she had abandoned. Curious, he padded over to them and picked up the plain fabric. A small paper book thudded to the ground, shaken loose from one pocket.

He picked it up. The pages were rough and stained, and the edges were ripped. On the front of the book, in the lower right, was the title: “Ash.”

When he stared at the plain cover, the world spun around him and it hurt to breathe. It was used and torn and burnt. Streaks of dirt and dried blood marked the edges. There were smears of ash-covered fingers on the pages from where she had opened it frequently. He held his breath and flipped it open. Inside there were dense, hand-written words that covered every inch of the page.

A faint breeze rippled across the pages and fluttered the edges.

He flipped through the pages, seeing the rites for the dead that he learned from guesswork and instinct. He found prayers for the spirits, not only Tachìra and Chobìre; and other clans, some with names he knew and others that were unknown. There were special rituals for children who died, for plague, for war. Special words for specific clans were written on the rough pages in ash, blood, and ink. Not all of the handwriting was by the same person or even from the same time. It was poetry, much like Pidòhu's, though terrifying in what it represented. Nestled among the words and actions was something else, a record of those who had died. A history of the desert and its dead.

He paged through the book, glancing over the names of the dead. The lines were ragged and different, written at the point of death with little more than a clan, a date, and the cause.

When he reached the end, he came on two rituals. They were the last of the pages but also the oldest, faded and worn as the cover. He scanned over it, stopped halfway through to start again, this time reading in detail.

The first was familiar: it involved stripping naked and walking toward the sun. He glanced up at the old woman's silhouette slowly growing smaller in the distance. He turned back and kept reading, going through the words. By the time he reached the end, he understood its purpose: to bring the living dead back to life. A way of bringing a banyosiōu back to the living.

He smiled at the sudden tears and sank to his knees. The ritual was what he would need when he finally could return.

Through bleary eyes, he read the second. It was simple, a process for shedding the cloak of the living and willing to become one of the dead once again. It was needed for those who took care of the dead and dying, for the living could not touch death. The ritual ended with a single word, kojinōmi. He had never seen the word before, but kōji meant death and dying.

He stared at the two rituals: one to live and one to die. They were two parts of a whole for those who willingly stepped between the two worlds. A breeze ruffled the pages, casting grains of sand and rocks across the pages. He brushed them aside and continued to read. He could easily picture himself in the old woman's place and continuing the words in the book.

Tears splashed down on the page, rolling across the stained page and adding the faintest of marks. He chuckled and let the sobs come. No noise came out, he had to remain silent, but he could feel it tearing at his dry throat. With the tears came a sensation of coming home, an epiphany that he had finally found his path.

He could become a kojinōmi, a tender of the dead.

The thought and decision settled across his mind, sinking in with the rush of power not unlike when he chased Shimusògo. It filled his body from the inside, spreading out from his bones until it tingled along his skin.

Quick as it filled him, the euphoria faded. He clung to the fading rush but it slipped from his mind and left behind only a vague memory of touching some power far greater than himself. His breath came in fast, short pants.

He looked up to call out to the old woman.

She was only a dark spot on the horizon where her footsteps left a trail directly toward Tachìra. He already knew what she would do; she would live when the sun sank below the horizon. At least until she needed to die once again.

Rutejìmo reached out for her clothes, intending to put them in a safe place, when his hands scraped against only rock. Startled, he looked down. They were gone. Confused, he looked around him, not finding any sign of the white fabric the old woman had stripped off. If it wasn't for his memories, there was no sign the plain white fabric had ever existed.

He knew it could be a trick of his eye, like the others looking away from him when he approached, but it was something else. He closed his fingers through the sand and let the grains slip through the gaps. She didn't need them anymore, not where she was going.

Rutejìmo smiled and stood up. He would follow soon enough, once he could return to the living himself. He pressed the book to his chest. First, he had to learn the path.