Sand and Bone 22: Old Ways

The kojinōmi cannot ask because they cannot speak, but they are given shelter and food for their presence.

The Ways of the Dead

Rutejìmo groaned as he opened his eyes, his head fuzzy with sleep and his body aching from his day-long walk across the desert. He could feel sharp pains along his ankles and sides from sand fly bites. Along his shoulders and head, the familiar sear of sunburn rippled along his senses. The wound in his side ached, and he rested his hand on it, tracing the scab. Touching it added to the multitude of other discomforts and pressures that woke him from his sleep.

Knuckling his eyes, he sat up. A fur blanket slipped off his shoulder and slumped into his lap.

Rutejìmo froze. He didn't have a fur blanket. It was too heavy to carry across the desert. Shaking, he lowered his hands and peered around at his surroundings, a room just large enough for a single bed, a wardrobe, and a door. Light came in through the skylight of what appeared to be real glass. The sun shone on the walls revealing murals of children and adults. Unlike the outside of the shrine, the inside was obviously maintained and recently painted.

His eyes scanned his surroundings, trying to identify the owner. He saw clothes neatly folded on the dresser. He could see letters embroidered along the hems. Leaning over the edge of the bed, he read the name of the clan. Nyochikōmu. He must be in the shelter at the spring, though he didn't remember how he got there or even setting down his supplies.

Struggling with weak muscles, he crawled out of bed and stood up. He was naked and still raw from his purification ritual. He looked around for his own clothes, but couldn't find them. For a moment, he considered grabbing some of Atefómu's clothes, but he left them alone.

Instead, he staggered to the door and opened it. It was right before dawn, and the pale blue light suffused everything with halos in his blurry vision.

Atefómu sat where he first saw her, holding the same book and spear. Her wrinkled face hid the movement of her eyes and gave no hint of her moving or reading. It was as if she was a statue.

Rutejìmo used his hands for balance against the shelter wall as he limped around the corner and retrieved his belongings. And then he headed to the pond where it drained out into a thin stream. A sign that said “Bathing” hung from a rock outcropping. Below it was a shelf with soap and rags with “10 pyābi” carved into the front of the sign.

He dug into his clothes for the forty pyābi she had returned.

“The kojinōmi do not pay.”

Rutejìmo jumped at her close voice. He turned around, steeling himself for her presence. But even knowing she would be less than a foot away, it still startled him to see her wrinkled face so close.

Gulping, he bowed his head because there was no room for a formal bow. “Thank you, Great Nyochikomu Atefómu.”

“There is no thanks,” she said in her wavering voice, “because this is the way it is. Go on, I will help you break fast.” She turned, and then she was gone. He didn't see how she moved, only that one moment she was standing in front of him and the other she was a rod away, kneeling at an old fire pit.

Shivering, Rutejìmo set down his belongings and went about cleaning himself from head to toe.

Half an hour later, he felt cleaner than he had since Kosobyo City. His stomach gurgled happily from a rich breakfast of eggs, strips of meat, and vegetables. He didn't recognize the taste of the meat but that didn't make it any less fulfilling.

Atefómu sat across the fire, her smaller plate still laden with her half-eaten breakfast. She was looking at him, he thought, but it was hard to tell with her deep wrinkles.

He gulped. “Excuse me, Great Nyochikomu Atefómu.”

“Atefómu. No need for formalities right now.”

Rutejìmo felt uncomfortable with the familiar way of speaking that the eastern desert seemed to have. He hesitated for a moment, then asked a question that hung over him since he left her the day before. “You said that if I went toward… the smoke, I would die. I was thinking about it as I ran there, wondering if you mean I needed to run or if answering that… call would kill me.” He felt uncomfortable talking about being a kojinōmi out loud. It was something he wasn't allowed to do back home, but the eastern ways seemed to be more… lax concerning the dead.

She didn't move for a moment, then she set down her plate. “Shimusògo…”

“Oh, I'm sorry. I am Rutejìmo, and I speak for Shimusògo.”

Atefómu bowed her head to him in acknowledgment. “Who did you find at the smoke?”

“I… I'm not supposed to talk about it.”

“An old man surrounded by family, a scar on his face and missing fingers on his left hand?”

Rutejìmo inhaled sharply. “H-How did you know?”

“He was my sister's husband. Her third husband because the first two died. She was a kojinōmi also, and I protected her against the desert as she struggled to follow the old ways, just as you do.”

Rutejìmo set down his plate as she continued.

“And, just like her, I found you unconscious on the sands in the middle of the night. Helpless against the night. I guard you because of what and who you are.”

“I'm sorry.”

“For what? Not telling you what I was about to do? Or for you killing yourself trying to follow ways that don't make sense anymore?”

“I,” he tugged on his damp shirt, “I don't know any other way. It was the way… I was taught and what felt right.”

To his surprise, she smiled. It was a strange transformation with her wrinkled-filled face, but it was also the first expression that she had shown. “She said the same thing when we talked about it. She had the same book as you. In fact, it was hers a long time ago, before she passed it on to another kojinōmi.”

“I didn't know.”

“Of course not, why would you? But, I remember the smear of soot when she had a seizure and the burnt corner when I threatened to destroy it because being a kojinōmi was killing her.”

“Yet, it wasn't burned.” He flushed. “You didn't destroy it.”

Atefómu shook her head and looked down at the fire. She shook her head twice before she spoke. “No, because I realized that being a kojinōmi was the same as being a warrior. What I told you before is true, and also that we don't talk about how they are both champions. Warriors get glory and fame, kojinōmi die alone in the dark. They die in the dark, holding their sister's hand, as some disease eats their insides.”

A tear welled up from one of the deep wrinkle and dripped along her face, tracing the lines that years had dug into her.

“No one talks about the dead,” said Rutejìmo.

“No, but they should. What you do should put your sacred ashes right at the front of the other vases of your clan. It is easy to face a sword or hammer. It's hard to face plague, age, and the thousand other ways we die. A warrior ends life that is suffering, you ease it. It is far harder to be at peace than it is to kill.”

Unable to say anything, Rutejìmo nodded.

“You are Mifúno's warrior, Rutejìmo. You will die like us, serving Mifúno just as I will die serving Nyochikōmu.”

He nodded again.

She took a deep breath. “And that is why I didn't tell the people looking for you that there were two travelers.”

Rutejìmo looked up sharply. “W-What?”

“They came for you yesterday, while you were burning my sister's husband's body. Eight men from three clans, looking for runners of Shimusògo.” Her voice grew harder. “They threatened me before even asking a question, filled with their own pride and righteousness.”

“What did you tell them?”

“You will not like the answer.”

A feeling of dread trickled down his spine, a suspicion that gathered in his mind. Rutejìmo clutched the rock he sat on. “Please, Great Nyochikomu Atefómu, I need to know.”

“I told them that one runner had passed by and entered the desert.” She pointed in the direction Nifùni ran. “I told them he was alone and that he had no allies.” She spoke with a deadpanned voice, as if she was describing a meal or a sparring session.

“Nifùni? The courier I was with? What happened to him.”

“Dead. They came back this way, still proud of themselves for serving Kosòbyo.” She pointed back up the path. “They went home like cowards. With his head in a bag and cheering for their success.” A glob of spittle appeared at her feet but he didn't see her spit.

Rutejìmo stared at her in shock, his mouth opened. Only two days ago, Nifùni was alive and yelling at him; he was trying to outrace him, and being frustrated that he couldn't. And then, in a flash, he was dead.

He shook his head, trying to deny it. “No, no, you couldn't have done that.”

His fingers dug into the rock as he looked up at her. Seeing her deeply furrowed face and knowing that she wasn't devastated by her actions, he wanted to lash out at her. But, at the same time, he knew he couldn't. He wouldn't survive against a warrior. Even if he could, Rutejìmo had never killed anyone in his life. He couldn't change that, even for his clan.

He choked, trying to force words out. His vision blurred before he could work his mouth to make a sound. “W-Why?” It came out weak and quiet.

Atefómu groaned as she stood up. “Because I didn't see the dead.” Her voice never rose in tone, only creaked more with her emotions. “But I also served you for helping me.”

“Helping… how?”

“I have no love for anyone who threatens me, nor do I have respect for Kosòbyo and their allies. They are bullies who use their position as Tachìra's greatest allies to further their own goals. Whatever reason they want you dead, they were willing to start fights that no one would ever win.”

She pointed back across the sands, in the direction Nifùni ran. “They think they have killed the only Shimusògo nearby. They have closed the trails on the other end of the mountain, which means you have clear running along a path that is not guarded.”

“You killed my clan!” Tears ran down his cheek. “You killed Nifùni!” He let out his breath, it came in shuddering gasps.

“Yes, I did.” Her voice didn't falter. “And if you wish to strike me, feel free.” She dropped her spear on the ground and came around to him. Standing before him, she put her hands behind her back and lifted her chin.

Rutejìmo stared at her bared throat; she was willing to give her life for her choice. He couldn't even raise his hand. He stood up, stepped back while shaking his head. Tears threatened to spill out and he wiped at them, hating that he wasn't strong enough to save his brother or Nifùni.

The spear appeared in her hand. “I'm a warrior, Rutejìmo. I will be until the day I die.” She was in front of him again, moving faster than he could see. “I killed him, and if you wish to take my life in exchange, I will give it freely for making that choice.”

“Why? It can't be for helping a stranger.”

She reached out and pressed one wizened hand against his elbow. “Yes, because you were a stranger. You didn't know what was at the smoke. You didn't know you were running to my sister's husband. But, when you had a choice, you chose to help a stranger instead of yourself. And your clan would not.”

Rutejìmo sank to his knees and sobbed.

“You are not a coward. You may think you are, but you aren't.” He blinked, and then she was gone. Another blink, and she was back.

A heavy thump landed next to him, and he peered over. It was a large bundle of wood, wrapped in paper and string. A prayer had been written on the paper, and he could smell the incense nestled inside. They were supplies for burning the dead, blessed wood and sacred scents. He never had to gather them on his own because others would leave them near the dying for his use.

“Burn your clan, and give his spirit some peace, but forget some of the old ways. You serve Mifúno even if you don't purify yourself. Even if you skip the ritual in this time of need, Mifúno knows you are her champion. Don't ever forget it. And don't be afraid to speak about who you are. Everyone needs to know. My sister did not, and I wish not to see anyone suffer in silence like her again.”

Rutejìmo looked up at her. “What if I can't?”

“Ways are changing. If you remain who you are, they will know.” She smiled broadly at him. A heartbeat later, she was sitting back at her rock, holding her spear and her book as if she had never moved.

Rutejìmo wiped away the tears and stood up. He didn't know if she was right. The young kojinōmi who served Mifúno near Kosobyo City had refused to help one of the night clans, something that Rutejìmo would never consider doing. Their ways were changing, some for the good and some for the bad.

He straightened his back and took a deep breath. Gathering his pack and the wood, he gave one final bow to the old woman who didn't move.

The translucent dépa raced by, shooting out into the desert. Shimusògo would find Nifùni's body despite the wide expanses of sand and the ravages of the wind. He would burn the young man's body and then keep running, even if he had to skip the purification.

He didn't know what would happen, but he still had a message to deliver, and he couldn't abandon Shimusògo for Mifúno any more than the reverse. He would serve both.

And then he ran.