We all have our parts in a play that never ends.
— Nilamar Por
Rutejìmo leaned against the entrance to the bedroom and stared at the bed. It used to be his, but now it was Mapábyo's, and he just happened to sleep in it. He took a deep breath and picked up the fading scent of her perfume. The twisted sheets and blankets remained from the night before, when they shared one private goodbye.
He didn't have the courage to tell her he had to leave. Instead, he kept his plans to himself and tried not to think about the guilt tearing at him from the inside until after she left. His efforts left him sick and dizzy. He couldn't eat past the sourness in his stomach that stuck with him ever since he decided to lie to her.
Rutejìmo knew it was wrong. He should have told her, but he couldn't stop her from serving the clan. They needed her and he was willing to step away so she no longer had to make a choice.
Every time she hugged him, he expected her to call him on his behavior. Every time they kissed, he was terrified she would pull back with realization. She didn't. He guessed Mapábyo was too engrossed with her plans to notice his behavior. Or, at least he hoped that was the reason.
A wave of nausea rose up. Groaning, he pressed his face to the cool rock and panted for breath until the agony passed.
As soon as he could move again, he staggered across the room and gathered up his tazágu. The fighting spike scraped against the ground, the sound echoing off the stone walls. He buckled it into place and backed out of the room.
“I'm sorry,” whispered Rutejìmo.
It was close to midnight, and no one would see him leaving. His supplies were already gathered and packed into a large bag. It was more than he normally ran with, but he only needed enough for Wamifuko City. Once there, he could return to running errands for the city and settle back into the world that already accepted him.
He tried to tell himself that Mapábyo would forget him, but he knew it was a lie. His stomach twisted violently as he considered what she would do: probably cry herself sick and come after him. She would tear the city apart in hopes of finding him.
Rutejìmo shook his head and took a deep breath. He hoisted the pack over his shoulder and padded for the entrance of the cave. To his surprise, he shook from the effort.
“Hurry up, Dòhu!” Chimípu's voice drifted from the opposite side of the blanket covering the entrance. “I don't want to get caught.”
Rutejìmo gasped and yanked his hand back from the blanket.
He heard the scuff of Chimípu's feet right before she pushed the blanket aside and stepped inside. She wore a red dress with orange trim. The flowing skirt moved with the faint breeze, except where her knife pinned the fabric at her thigh. She looked across the room. Her eyes didn't focus on him when she scanned over him.
Pidòhu stepped in past her carrying a large tray of food. The frail man had his short black hair cropped close to his skull. He wore little, a loincloth and nothing else. His brown skin was paler than anyone else in the valley because he spent most of his days in the shadow of Tateshyúso, his clan spirit.
Chimípu released the blanket, and it swung back to cover the entrance. When Rutejìmo returned to the valley, they had replaced it with a thick one with Mapábyo's name on it and moved his old one to the bed. She smiled and peered into the cave. She gestured to a candle near Rutejìmo. “Looks like Mapábyo forgot to put out the light.”
“Good for me. That way you don't have to glow and show off.”
She chuckled and stepped forward, waves of heat rising off her body before the flames burst around her skin. It painted the walls with golden light and the smell of hot desert wind rippled through the air.
“You didn't have to do that.”
Chimípu smirked and continued into the room. “Just scaring away the ghosts.”
Rutejìmo continued to back away, watching both of the intruders warily.
The pair spread out, drifting through his cave like intruders.
He squeezed down on the strap of his bag until his fingers ached. He couldn't get around Chimípu to run away.
“Like you believe in those tales,” said Pidòhu. He set the tray of food on the table in the main room. Clay pots covered hot food on one end of the tray. The other held piles of sliced meat, cheese, and breads. Three bowls of soup rested in the middle. Next to them, six bottles of iced fermented milk dripped from condensation.
“I don't know, people talk of seeing Rutejìmo at night.”
Pidòhu set the clay pots on a shelf near the eating area. There would be food in them, but Pidòhu made no effort to check them or even remove the lids. Instead, Pidòhu grabbed some towels and brought them to the table.
Rutejìmo watched in confusion.
Chimípu dragged one of the chairs. It scraped along the stone. As she approached, Rutejìmo saw her eyes flick down to his travel packs.
He waited for the response, clenching his bag until his hand throbbed.
To her credit, only a single muscle in her cheek jumped with her thoughts. With a sigh, she continued to drag the chair clear around the room until she was centered on the entrance of the cave. A flicker of heat rose around her while she sat down heavily. She pointedly looked at Pidòhu, and said, “I miss him, you know.”
Rutejìmo froze at the quiet words.
“Jìmo?” asked Pidòhu.
“Yes. The sun doesn't seem as bright since the day he died.” She sniffed and brought her knees up to her chest.
The pack slipped off Rutejìmo's shoulder. It caught on his elbow before sliding down his arm to land heavily on the ground. He stared in shock at her, not only stunned that she would ever speak about him but that they had come specifically for him.
“Yeah.” Pidòhu dragged a chair around to the side. “He whimpered too much and usually made a lot of stupid mistakes…”
Rutejìmo glared at Pidòhu.
“… but, in the end, he always did the right thing. Even if he kept crying all the time.”
To Rutejìmo's surprise, Pidòhu left the chair and dragged a third one around the table until the three were equidistant from each other. Reaching over, he stacked some cheese and meat on bread before sitting down in the third chair. He left the food behind in front of the empty spot.
Chimípu reached over and grabbed some meat with her fingers. “He was a good man. Though, he had that shikāfu for that horse bitch.”
“Great Pabinkue Mikáryo is quite… attractive to a teenage boy. And she had a fondness for walking around in rather revealing outfits.” Pidòhu coughed. “I can see the appeal.”
“All those tattoos on her body?” Chimípu pulled a face. “That isn't the Shimusogo Way.”
Pidòhu shrugged. “I don't know about that. I saw that Mapábyo got a new tattoo somewhere on her last job. Maybe Shimusògo's way is changing?”
Rutejìmo smiled at the memory of Mapábyo showing it to him. It was a small dépa on the curve of her breast, a hidden place when she was dressed. Then, with a start, he looked up sharply at Pidòhu.
“And how,” Chimípu muttered with a full mouth, “did you see that?”
“I'm Tateshyúso, the shadows of the valley are all under her wings.”
“No, you're a pervert.” Chimípu waved her finger and swallowed. “A dirty pervert that likes to look at young women. She was Rutejìmo's, you know. You have no chance when she holds such a bright shikāfu for him.”
“The fool didn't know how lucky he was.”
Rutejìmo sighed. He didn't know what he had. Guilt slashed through his heart and he slumped against the table. Slowly, he slid down the wall and sat heavily on the ground.
“So, Dòhu,” Chimípu asked, “what's the chair for?”
“A place for the dead. I figured he deserved a seat if I'm going to read in his memory.”
Tears of guilt burned in Rutejìmo's eyes, he looked up.
Pidòhu made a big deal of pulling a book from the platter. It was a book of poetry, but one that Rutejìmo had not seen before. It was one of their shared interests, ever since Rutejìmo tried to save one of Pidòhu's books from Tsubàyo. In the years that followed, Pidòhu had written and Rutejìmo had listened.
Settling back in the chair, Pidòhu kicked up his feet and held up the book. “Do you mind?”
Chimípu shook her head. “That's why we're here, isn't it?”
Pidòhu held up the book in a toast. “To our little brother, Rutejìmo. May his memory live forever.” He opened to the first page. “Oh wait, that's what I wrote in the dedication.”
With a chuckle, he flipped the page and began to read the first poem.
As Pidòhu's voice filled the cave, Rutejìmo pushed himself up. He glanced at the entrance of his cave, but he would need to pass the flaming warrior to reach it. Slowly, his eyes slid over to the empty chair. It was obviously an invitation for him to sit, though neither looked at it or him.
Trembling with fear and nervousness, Rutejìmo circled around the room. At the chair, he looked at both of them for confirmation. Pidòhu continued to read, his attention focused on the book. Across from him, Chimípu leaned back with her eyes closed and a smile on her face.
Rutejìmo sank down in the chair. When Chimípu didn't strike him or respond, he leaned forward and grabbed a stack of meat and cheese.
Pidòhu finished the poem and sat there, staring at the page.
“That was nice,” Chimípu said after a moment, “when did you write it?”
“About a year ago. I was thinking of Rutejìmo at the time, actually. He held the shikāfu for Mikáryo so tightly he didn't notice Mapábyo trying to impress him. Remember when she kept climbing the rocks whenever he was nearby?”
Chimípu laughed. “Or the times she kept trying to sneak into the shrine, but only when he was sulking on top?”
Frowning, Rutejìmo tried to remember what they had seen. He remembered catching Mapábyo more than a few times trying to sneak into the shrine, but it never occurred to him that she timed it on purpose.
Pidòhu joined in the laughter.
“Poor Jìmo, but he could never take a hint, could he?”
Not feeling anger, Rutejìmo glared at both of them. He listened to them and began to second-guess leaving Mapábyo and the valley. He knew she loved him and it tore him in half to know she would be devastated by his disappearance.
“So, where did he go wrong?”
Rutejìmo tensed at Pidòhu's question.
Chimípu leaned forward and snatched two of the bottles of milk. Sitting back down, she shook her head. “He never went wrong. He really was doing the right thing.”
Pidòhu grasped a bowl of soup, pushing one of the bottles of milk toward Rutejìmo as he did. He grabbed another and rested it on the tip of his knee. “Then where did we go wrong?” Setting the bottle down, he picked up the bowl again and slurped from it.
She sighed and shook her head. “I don't know. Every night, I ask myself that same question. We should have shown we loved him, I should have stood up to Desòchu more often when the blowhard started ranting about the Shimusogo Way.”
“Great Shimusogo Desòchu was doing what he thought was right.”
“Yes, but Rutejìmo is my little brother now.”
Pidòhu held up his bowl. “Mine too, you know. I love him with all my heart.”
Chimípu nodded and held up her bottle. “To Jìmo, may he live forever.”
Grabbing his bottle, Pidòhu held up his own. “To Jìmo.”
They held their bottles up for a long moment before Rutejìmo realized they were waiting for him. Fumbling, he grabbed his bottle and lifted it. He said nothing, but when the other two drank deeply, he brought his bottle to his lips.
With a tear in his eye, he realized they were suffering as much as he was. And, there was no way he could ever leave them. They all had to play their parts out for the year.
He drank in a silent toast to himself.