Sand and Ash 33: Cremation

No one suffers more than a mother who buries her own daughter.

Queen of the River (Act 1)

Rutejìmo slumped on a boulder near the funeral pyre and stared into the flames. The smell of incense and spices washed over him in a choking cloud that burned his eyes and seared the back of his throat. He coughed softly and then closed his eyes until the breeze blew the smoke away before opening them again.

When his vision came into focus, the first thing he saw was Gemènyo's corpse smoldering in the center of the pyre. The flames obscured the shadow of his friend's body.

Rutejìmo glanced down at the Book of Ash in his lap. He had already written in the death, but he couldn't close it. Instead, the charcoal stick he used to write with hovered over the line. He wanted to write something more than just a clan, name, and death. “Fell off a cliff” didn't even hint at the memories of a man who helped Rutejìmo grow up and survive. Gemènyo was a teacher and a friend, he needed more.

Sniffing, Rutejìmo lowered the stick, but then lifted it off the page. All the names in the book were just lists. There was no life, no story. He stared at the page, desperate but afraid to break the silent tradition before him.

A breeze washed over him, bringing stinging smoke to blind him.

He wiped his eyes, wincing at the dryness of tears that had long since faded. The empty hole in his heart remained. The memories kept replaying the sickening fall and Gemènyo's final words. Faríhyo's scream echoed through his head, the high-pitched shrillness of someone losing their love.

The breeze stopped abruptly.

Rutejìmo looked up to check the flames, but they were still roaring before him. He sighed and glanced down. When he saw that he marked the page with the stick, he froze. He stared at the tiny curve, not even a letter, but it was the beginning of a word. The magnitude of his action caused his heart to beat faster.

The world spun around him. He stared at the tip of the charcoal stick. It ground against the page, leaving little crumbs of darkness. He knew if he wiped it off, it would only smear.

It took only the faintest of efforts to continue the letter, drawing it out. When he finished, he started another, and then another. Supposing that his actions would offend the spirits, he continued to write slowly, trying to come up with words to express what tore at his heart.

“He was my mentor and my friend,” he wrote. Rutejìmo remembered how Gemènyo tried to teach Rutejìmo the ways of the clan without actually speaking. It was the Shimusogo Way, actually the desert way, to demonstrate without speaking.

He finished the line, and Tachìra didn't strike him down. The sun spirit would have been sleeping at night. He looked up to see that the moon, Chobìre, was also below the horizon, which meant his death could come when one of the great spirits rose. Mifúno, the desert mother, did not seem to desire penance.

Rutejìmo realized he didn't care anymore. While the flames buffeted him with heat and the breeze tickled his skin, he continued to write. Grains of sand bounced off his face, hands, and legs, but none of them stuck to the page he was writing.

There was no way to document everything grand about Gemènyo. No man could ever reduce the richness of anyone's life down to a single page or even a book. Rutejìmo had to skip over the little things to focus on what was important. He didn't have Pidòhu's flair for poetry, so it came out as a short list.

Somehow, it was enough. When he reached the bottom of the page, the words stopped. He looked over the items he wrote and felt a sense of not only pride but also relief. It was a eulogy for his friend, poorly written and probably doomed to anger the spirits, but at least Gemènyo's life would be remembered by the next kojinōmi.

When he couldn't write anymore, he didn't resist. Setting the writing stick between the first page and the cover, he held the book open and lifted his gaze to the fire.

The wind shifted, and the stinging cloud came back to him.

He closed his eyes and waited for it to pass.

It did, but only for a second. Moments later, it came back harder. It brought heat and ashes coursing around him.

Rutejìmo turned but the wind followed him. He blinked at the tears and turned his back to the flames, feeling guilty for his action.

With the light behind him, he could see the path that led back to the Shimusogo Valley. There were lights burning at the entrance, an hour's walk away.

He remembered seeing Mapábyo in a puddle of her own blood and a sob rose in his throat. He had no tears left to shed, despite knowing how close he was to losing his love. He closed his eyes tightly and turned away in renewed anguish, welcoming the burning of the fire.

A blast of wind slammed into him. He staggered back, choking from the heat. He held out his hand for balance and felt it streaming around his fingers, pushing him away from the flames. He snapped open his eyes and looked around. When he felt a tickle along his feet, he glanced down.

The sand was pouring over his feet, racing back along the path in streamers that looked like snakes. The grains scoured the top of his feet, leaving tiny scratches.

He looked back in the direction of the sand. It followed the path leading to the valley. A sick feeling rose in his stomach, and he shook his head.

The wind blew harder, cutting at his skin and yanking at his clothes.

He shook his head more violently. “No, no, I can't lose her. Please, don't take my—”

The funeral pyre flared up into brilliance and heat clawed at his back. The scent of incense and spices grew stronger and thicker. It choked him. The inferno pushed him further away, down the path toward the valley.

Rutejìmo sobbed and cried out. “No!”

The wind stopped abruptly.

He staggered back toward the fire before he caught himself. His foot tapped against a funeral vase that was for Gemènyo's ashes. He looked down at the clay pot with feathers shaped into the side. Someone had decorated it with glass and beads. Gemènyo's pipe rested on the top.

Despair rose inside him as Rutejìmo stared at it. The smoke from the funeral pyre seemed to gather in the bowl of the pipe before spilling out, tracing a smoky line in the same direction as the wind.

He took a deep breath and looked back. It didn't matter if his lover died, he had to go back. With eyes burning, he left the funeral pyre and headed down the trail, praying to the spirits that they would keep the fires burning until he returned.

The entire way back to the valley was filled with nightmares. He imagined Mapábyo's corpse waiting for him at the entrance. He imagined holding her frail form to his chest. Did he have the strength to carry her back? Could he still be a kojinōmi for his lover?

His thoughts made him sick, but he forced himself to keep walking. When he faltered, he imagined there was a wind pushing him forward, and he stumbled forward.

Before he realized it, he arrived at the entrance to the valley. No one stood there, not even someone guarding the opening. He glanced up at the lookout but couldn't even see a light.

He dreaded entering the valley. It was dark and still, an oppressive coldness bore down on him.

Only one cave had light spearing out of the uncovered opening. He looked at his home and realized he was about to see Mapábyo's corpse. Somehow, his body found moisture for tears and they dribbled down his cheeks. He made his way up the darkened path. He had to force himself to take every step; he felt every rock and ridge along the familiar path to his home.

When he saw white and gold at the entrance of his home, he stumbled to a stop. The tears came faster and he gasped for breath. Spurred by curiosity and dread, he stumbled forward, rushing the last rod to reach the entrance. The trinkets for the dead were resting on top of a small vase no larger than his fist. It was too small for Mapábyo, too small for any adult. It had no decorations because the person who died had no accomplishments in their life.

It took only a heart-ripping moment for him to realize who had died. With a long shuddering exhalation, he sank to his knees: he had lost his unborn child. His knees crunched against the ground. He shook violently and stared at the undecorated vase. He sobbed as quietly as he could, clutching the ground with one hand and his heart with the other. It didn't take long until his lungs ached. Tears poured down his face, splashing against the rocks.

He struggled not to make a noise. He knew he couldn't attract anyone's attention without reprisal, but it took all of his effort to keep cries from escaping his throat. He clamped his hand over his mouth and bowed down, sobbing until each breath ripped out of his lungs and tore at his throat. He dug his fingers into his jaw and his chest, trying to use pain to stop the tears but nothing would stop.

Ever since they realized Mapábyo was pregnant, they had been dreaming of their child's life: wondering what gender they would become, would they be a warrior or a runner or even a sage of Tateshyúso? A thousand questions and whispered fantasies were ripped out of him, torn out of his heart in an instant. He bowed over his child's funeral vase and let the tears splash against the pottery.

Bare feet stepped out of his cave. He tried to stand away but couldn't. He closed his eyes tightly and let the tears flow. The only thing he could do was clamp down on his throat to prevent the wails from escaping.

A warm hand rested against his shoulder.

Rutejìmo froze for a moment and then looked into Chimípu's shimmering eyes. She was crying herself, her body glowing faintly with the power of Shimusògo. She must have somehow answered Desòchu's call and ran hundreds of miles to return home. The flames were hot against his skin but not burning. She knelt next to him, not saying anything, grief and sorrow painted on her face.

In her arms, she had a bundle of white cloth stained with blood.

Rutejìmo looked at it and then up to her, his lips moving but no sounds coming out. He wanted to thank her for being there even though it did nothing to help the aching hole in his heart.

With a pained look, she nodded and held it out to him.

He took the bundle, marveling at the lightness of the body swaddled inside but also the heaviness in his heart. Clutching it tight to his chest, he staggered to his feet. He wanted to unwrap it to see his child but didn't. This wasn't a place to display the dead.

Chimípu stood up with him, picking up the vase as she did. She handed it to him.

Rutejìmo took it silently from her trembling fingers, giving her a sorrow-filled smile.

“I'm—” she started to whisper.

Rutejìmo shook his head.

She closed her mouth and started to cry again. Reaching out for him, she tried to give him a hug.

Inwardly, he cringed. She couldn't be seen interacting with him. If Desòchu saw it, there would be only more pain in their lives. He turned sharply away from her. She was living and he was dead.

Chimípu stepped back into the cave. She smiled at him, a wavering smile that was completely different from anything he had seen her express before: it was filled with grief but also pride.

He knew his place. Heading back down the path toward the entrance, he held his child to his chest—a delicate treasure, fragile as spun glass. His bare feet scuffed on the rocks, the only noise in his silent walk.

Rutejìmo stepped past the entrance before he realized someone waited for him. Thinking it was Desòchu, he tensed and turned his body away to shield the child from his brother.

“Jìmo,” said Hyonèku in a low, scratchy voice.

Rutejìmo stopped. He looked down, unwilling to look at Mapábyo's father's face.

Hyonèku stepped forward.

Rutejìmo cringed, waiting for the blow.

Hyonèku pulled him into a hug.

Surprised, Rutejìmo could only twist to keep the bundle away but then he was caught in the shaking arms of his lover's father. It was the first time Hyonèku had touched Rutejìmo since Rutejìmo had become a banyosiōu. It was terrifying and comforting at the same time.

“I don't care what Desòchu said,” whispered Hyonèku. “No father should ever suffer in silence.”

A sob rose in Rutejìmo's throat. He fought to keep it down, but the effort shook his body and he felt it forcing its way up.

“I lost my best friend and my grandson tonight, I won't lose you.”

Knowing that it was a son in his arms somehow made the pain sharper. The gender didn't matter, but the knowledge made it more real.

Hyonèku sobbed and clutched Rutejìmo tighter. “You were always the best man for my Pábyo. No matter what I said before, I was never prouder of you.”

Rutejìmo strained to keep silent. He shook from the effort to clamp down on his throat and look away.

“I see you, Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo. I always saw you.”

The whispered words broke the dam. Rutejìmo let out a loud cry and buried his face in the older man's neck. He grabbed Hyonèku with his other hand, dropping the vase as he did, and held him tight. The sorrow burst out of him, he stopped caring about silence or being a banyosiōu. He just let go and allowed all the grief and pain to pour out.