Death strips the armor off our minds and bares our souls.
— Queen of the River (Act 3)
Hours later, the flames had finally burned away, and the two pyres had become nothing more than circles of smoldering ash. The heat cut at Rutejìmo’s feet and knees as he walked to the center of the largest one. He stopped in the center and knelt to scoop out the blackened ash with his bare hand. Mouthing words to a prayer, he held it over Gemènyo’s vase and let the ashes slip through his fingers. Small embers caught on his calloused hand before dimming in the relatively cool night air. He ignored the brief sparks of pain and worked in silence. He had to focus on his task to avoid the gnawing grief that clawed a hole out of his heart.
Despite remaining silent, he choked when the prayers came up to Gemènyo’s name. The memories were too raw and painful to even think the words, much less say them. He forced himself to shape each word, praying with all his might that the desert would guide his friend’s spirit to Shimusògo.
By the time the vase was full, the ashes were cold underneath his body, and the smoke no longer stung his eyes. He held his hand over the top and staggered to his feet, turning around once to orient himself. He staggered to the boulder he used as a seat.
He mouthed one final prayer while pouring wax over the lid and inscribing Gemènyo’s full name along the opening.
When he finished, Rutejìmo held up the vase and stared at it. It was night around him, but after a year of performing rituals, he found that he could see well in the darkness. He stared at the vase and tried to come up with some words to say to his friend. No one would hear them, and he knew that Gemènyo deserved more than just a name on a vase.
A cool breeze washed over him, the flames flickering. He leaned into it and took a deep breath to let the incense-laden air fill his lungs.
Memories drifted through his head, and he let them flash across his mind. They were formless, the idea of an event more than specific details, but he didn’t care. Scenes from Gemènyo’s life flashed and were gone, fading slowly until there was nothing but darkness in Rutejìmo’s head.
It felt like he had run out of things to say, though not a word had passed his lips. He set down the vase next to the boulders. He started to reach for the second one, his son’s, but his body froze. From the despair in his heart, he felt a welling of sorrow rising up in his throat. He considered the plain vase for a long moment.
Rutejìmo berated himself. He had to keep going. He had a duty. He had a purpose. He was a kojinōmi, or at least learning to become one.
It took all of his effort to grab the vase. His fingers slipped off, and he had to try two more times before he could wrap his fingers around the icy cold opening and pick it up. Glancing at the second funeral pyre, he knew it was cold enough for him to gather ashes, but he couldn’t force himself to walk closer. Closing his eyes, he clutched the empty vase to his chest and cradled it like a child.
There were more memories: he and Mapábyo coming up with names, their whispered dreams of what the child would become, and even the playful sex while she grew rounder with every passing night. None of them brought a smile to Rutejìmo’s lips anymore. He wondered if he would ever smile again.
Footsteps crunched on the rock behind him. Rutejìmo slowly opened his eyes. He looked at the final pyre but didn’t see anything. He focused his hearing on the approaching person.
“Rutejìmo.” It was Desòchu. He spoke in a low, cracked voice.
Rutejìmo tensed and gripped the vase tighter. He wondered if his brother saw him speaking with Hyonèku. If he did, then Desòchu was there for blood. Memories of Rutejìmo’s own suffering flashed through his mind, the remembered pain of being beaten and the look on his brother’s face when he kicked Rutejìmo out of the clan were the clearest.
The last time Rutejìmo and Desòchu had met, it was Gemènyo who stopped him. Rutejìmo looked down at the vase, whispering a prayer that Gemènyo was still there to watch over him. Otherwise, there would be three corpses on the desert that night.
“You don’t have to look at me. You don’t have to speak.” Desòchu said, “Will you listen?”
Surprised at the request, Rutejìmo could only nod as he cradled his son’s funeral vase. He couldn’t look back to see if the expression on Desòchu’s face matched his words. They were in two worlds, and he couldn’t be the one to bridge them. Desòchu had made that point clear.
“I… I don’t know where I ran off the path, but…” Desòchu’s feet shifted on the rocks and a pebble skittered across the stone. “I was wrong about you.”
Rutejìmo drew in a shuddering breath of choking smoke. He wished he could cry, he tried to, but it refused to come. He lowered his chin to rest it on the top of the funeral vase, holding it tighter in fear that Desòchu would attack and break it.
“No.” Desòchu stepped closer. “I was wrong. You just… frustrated me so much. Your shikāfu with Mikáryo wasn’t the only thing. You didn’t change the way I thought you would. You weren’t a brave fighter or a fast runner. You didn’t act like a Shimusògo. I-I was supposed to cut your throat, you know that?”
Rutejìmo nodded. He had asked about it after his rite of passage.
“Of course. Gemènyo would have told you?”
“He was a good man and a better judge of men like you. He tried to point out that you were still running the Shimusogo Way, just… on a different trail than the rest of us.”
Rutejìmo smiled bitterly. He tilted his head so his cheek rested on the rough cap of the vase and peered to the side at his brother’s feet.
“Did you hesitate before you tried to get my attention earlier today? Were you afraid because you thought I was going to kill you? Even if it meant saving someone’s life?”
Rutejìmo sighed before he nodded. He looked down at his wrapped hands and could still feel the ache of burned fingers and blackened skin.
“Damn it. It wasn’t supposed to be like that. I… I didn’t know what would happen when I,” Desòchu sniffed, “said that. I thought you would… I don’t know what I was thinking. But you just didn’t…”
Closing his eyes, Rutejìmo took a deep breath.
“We used to joke that you wouldn’t notice a sand wasp until it made a nest in your belly. I never thought I would be just as clueless to what you’ve become. Since you came back, before you came back, you never stopped. You came in last on every run, but you did what needed to be done. You cooked, you cleaned, you never complained. For years, you said nothing when I spoke of your slowness. And for years, I never realized you were never giving up.”
Desòchu sniffed and something splattered on the rock.
Rutejìmo glanced over, keeping his eyes on the rock, and saw dark splotches of tears.
“Could you forgive me, little brother?”
Rutejìmo stared at Desòchu’s feet for a long moment. Then he drew his eyes up to look directly into his brother’s green eyes. He saw the tears swimming in the fading light. He didn’t have the words, but he knew how to answer.
Desòchu reached out for him and then drew back. He looked torn and guilty. “Come back to the living, please? Just a few more months. And then, I… I need… I need to do something.”
Rutejìmo nodded mutely.
Digging into his pocket, Desòchu pulled out something. He rolled it in his hand and then held it out.
Confused, Rutejìmo reached out for it.
“No, for your son.”
Rutejìmo held out the vase, then opened it at Desòchu’s gesture.
Desòchu dropped something into it and it rang out against the clay bottom. He stepped back and then looked back toward the valley. “A year was lost but not forgotten. May you forgive me.”
He wiped his face and walked away into the darkness. It was a long walk back to the valley, over a mile, but it was the same route that Rutejìmo usually took.
Rutejìmo waited until he couldn’t hear Desòchu before peering into the smaller vase. At the bottom was one of Rutejìmo’s voting stones, a black rock with a white ridge. He had earned one for every year since he became a man in the clan. He would have gained an eleventh if not for becoming a banyosiōu for the last year.
He choked on a sob. It would be fitting that his lost year would be kept safe. Setting it down, he took a deep breath and started on his son’s ashes.
It took a depressingly short time before the second vase was filled. After mouthing the prayers of the dead over his son, he headed back.
Morning was approaching by the time he climbed the last of the trail to the shrine. The two heavy vases bore down on him, but it was an honor to carry them to their resting place. The torches in the shrine burned painfully bright after the darkness outside the valley. Inside, he saw almost everyone in the clan sitting there silently and staring forward. There were tears on their faces, and many of them struggled to keep their shoulders still.
The emptiness in his heart grew when he stopped at the threshold. He wasn’t allowed inside, not while he was dead, but he could finish what he started. Setting down the two vases, he let the edge scrape against the rock so someone knew he was there.
Turning around, he walked back into the darkness toward his home. The feeling of despair continued to fill him, choking off the tears and sorrow. Every footstep felt like the last of a run, heavy and plodding. He didn’t know what he would find when he came home, but he prayed Mapábyo would be there. He needed her as much as she would need him.
As he came up the final curve, he saw piles heaped at the entrance of his cave. He stopped in front of them with a scuff on the ground. There were two, one on each side of the entrance. On the left, he spotted little glass flowers, figurines from Wamifuko City, and wooden carvings from beyond the desert. They were little gifts of sympathy and grief for a family who lost a child.
He frowned in confusion. A second pile didn’t make sense. If he was alive, they would have just added more gifts to the same pile. The other, much smaller pile didn’t have gifts of grieving. Instead, the items were white and gold, the colors of death and life. On top was one of Pidòhu’s books of poetry.
“Do you know why there are two piles?” Chimípu whispered. She pushed aside the blanket and came out of the cave. She wore a simple dress and, for once, she wasn’t armed. Her green eyes caught his own without flinching or looking away.
Rutejìmo shook his head. He wanted to look away from her, but something kept their eyes locked.
“You are the tender of our dead, our kojinōmi, and you saved two lives today,” she whispered, “Even the dead deserve thanks when they speak that loudly.”
Rutejìmo’s throat squeezed painfully. He looked at her, fighting the sorrow that threatened to rip him apart.
She was looking at him with tears in her own eyes. “You spent so many years giving gifts like these to me, you know.”
He thought about the little things he gave to Chimípu and the others for saving his life or running with him. The little things that made his life a joy. He never got one himself. He was never that important before.
Chimípu stepped forward and rested her hand on his elbow. “You deserve it, little brother,” she whispered before kissing him on the cheek. “Go on, your love is waiting for you, and Shimusògo is calling me. She is safe for now, but hurt both in the body and the heart. No one will hear you tonight.”
He listened to her walk away before entering the cave. Padding to the bedroom, he steeled himself before entering.
Mapábyo sat on the bed, her eyes red and her hand resting on her belly. She wasn’t looking at him, but staring down at her stomach. Her shoulders shook and the soft pants filled the chamber. Underneath her hand, red-stained bandages crossed her belly above the hips. Her hand quivered as if she was struggling not to press down but at the same time, she was afraid of lifting her hand away.
Ignoring the grime and ashes that clung to his body, Rutejìmo crawled into the bed with her. He settled next to her and reached out for her hand. Afraid of hurting her, he held his hand over hers.
She looked up at him with tears rolling down her cheeks. “I-I see you.” She took his hand and pressed it against the warmth of her belly. The bandages around his palm and the ones covering her tugged on each other, the friction of their injuries holding them together.
The dead feeling inside him shattered, and a cry ripped out of his throat.
Mapábyo grabbed him tightly with her other arm and drew her body against his. “I see you, Jìmo, and I will never stop seeing you.”
He leaned into her and spoke for the first time since Gemènyo died. “I see you too, my love. And I will never stop seeing you either.”