No death is too horrific for one who refuses to defend their clan.
— Jyobikofu Nishígi
Rutejìmo pushed aside the heavy blanket blocking the entrance to his home, a cave carved out of the side of the valley. He released it as he passed. The red fabric scraped along his shoulder, and he felt the embroidered bumps of his and Mapábyo's name before it slumped into place.
The sudden darkness blinded him. He held out his hand and ran his fingertips along the familiar stone wall to make his way to the back bedrooms. He stepped over piles of toys and dolls he forgot to have Kitòpi clean up the night before. Now, his duties for the dead would take him away for at least a day, if not longer.
By the time he reached the back rooms his eyes had adjusted to the dim light from the three glowing spheres hanging from the ceiling. The blue light cast the room into stark shadows that clawed up the walls covered in chalk and scribbles.
He stepped into the sleeping area and made his way to the far end of the bed. His knees bumped against the stone blocks underneath the thick pad he shared with his wife. He knelt and pulled out a wooden box. Standing, he set it on the bed.
Unlike most possessions, the box didn't have a name on it. Only a single, carved word adorned the top: “Ash.” In a world where the clan was important, a single name was unheard of. But, to Rutejìmo, it signified everything about his duty to the dead.
The lid creaked when he opened it. On a pile of undyed clothes rested a hand-made book with the same name. Given to Rutejìmo by a woman he never heard speak, the book contained the rituals he would need; the silent words to speak and the proper way of tending to the dying, and the rituals to perform for the dead.
Sadness gripped his heart as he set the book aside and pulled out the top set of clothes. There were no colors in the white fabric, nor had it been embroidered or decorated. Simple white colors to represent someone who took on the mantle of death. The same colors he had worn when he was ostracized for betraying the Shimusògo.
He stripped quickly and tossed his clothes in a basket for laundry. The cool air of the cave washed over him, sinking into his skin. He shivered before grabbing the fabric. A few moments later, he wore white.
“Papa?” Kitòpi watched from the entrance of the cave.
Rutejìmo almost looked at his son, but stopped himself. When wearing white, he chose to step outside of society. The adults of the clan knew to look away and not to speak to him. He was dead in their eyes while he wore white.
Children, on the other hand, didn't understand the subtle ways, and it wasn't the clan's nature to explain things, only demonstrate. He let out his breath and kept his eyes averted.
Mapábyo had sheltered Kitòpi and Piróma from seeing their father in white, but she had to serve her clan just as much as he had to serve Bakóki.
Rutejìmo listened for a moment, then winced inwardly. He didn't expect Kitòpi to follow him, nor did he expect his son to stand in the entrance blocking Rutejìmo's departure.
Kitòpi whispered, “Why are you a coward?”
Rutejìmo jerked at the accusing words. He had heard them countless times whispered in the communal areas of the valley and out among the other clans. He knew that Kitòpi had heard it from someone else, but to hear the words in his son's voice punched him in the chest and gripped his heart tightly.
“Why did you come here instead of going with Mama?” asked his son.
Next to Kitòpi, Rutejìmo heard Piróma's footsteps as she joined her brother.
Lifting his head to look at the ceiling, Rutejìmo struggled with his options. To demonstrate he was among the dead, he couldn't talk or touch them. He couldn't explain what he did, or his reasons, without betraying the ritual that started as soon as he pulled on white.
Kitòpi stepped forward. “You're weak and slow, right? Is that why you run away?”
Each word struck Rutejìmo, and he fought back the tears. He was the slowest of the clan. He didn't have Chimípu's stamina or even Mapábyo's strength. But, he was also the only one who could touch the dead, a calling he treasured as much as his wife and children.
“Boy,” a new voice said from the other room, “who are you talking to?”
Kitòpi's bare feet, less than a yard from Rutejìmo, scuffed as he turned away from Rutejìmo. “Pidòhu?”
“Great Tateshyuso Pidòhu,” corrected Pidòhu. He used the polite form of his name, which included the name of his clan spirit, Tateshyúso. Pidòhu lived in the valley with the Shimusògo as one of its guardians. His clan spirit had the same relationship with Shimusògo. “And I'll ask again, who are you talking to?”
“Papa. I was asking why he was—”
“Your papa isn't in here.” Pidòhu's soft voice grew louder as he approached.
“He's right there!”
“I do not see him.”
Kitòpi let out an exasperated grunt. “You aren't looking, he's right—”
Rutejìmo bowed his head at the sharp tone, silently thanking Pidòhu for helping without forcing Rutejìmo to break out of his role.
Kitòpi stepped back, closer to Rutejìmo.
“Boy!” yelled Pidòhu.
“Great Shimusogo Rutejìmo is not here. You don't see him.”
“This is the way it is. Your papa is dead right now—”
Pidòhu continued smoothly. “—and the living cannot see the dead. Only the dying can see them. Are you dying?”
“Then your papa isn't here. Bakóki needs him.”
“I-Is,” Piróma's voice rose as she whispered, “Bakóki dying?”
For a long moment, there was silence. Rutejìmo held his breath, fearing that Pidòhu had come to say that the courier had passed on.
“I cannot see him. Come over here.”
Rutejìmo heard Pidòhu draw Kitòpi away. Grateful, Rutejìmo stepped across the room and headed for the door, his head bowed. When he saw Piróma's feet still in the entrance, he froze.
Piróma stood there, unmoving.
“Ròma? Come over here, please.”
With a swift movement, Piróma knelt in front of Rutejìmo. He tried to look away, but her piercing green eyes caught his own.
“Girl!” yelled Pidòhu.
Rutejìmo's breath froze in his throat. He could see the curiosity in her eyes, and a solemn quietness that startled him. She didn't smile or frown, only looked at him for a heartbeat before standing up. The stuffed animal in her hand, a red leather dépa, swung around her hip as she stepped away from Rutejìmo and pressed her back against the arch between the two caves.
He let out his breath and tried to calm his rapidly beating heart. The sight of her curious gaze swam in his thoughts as he hurried past her and out of the cave. He needed to return before Bakóki passed on.