Sand and Bone 4: The Morning Before
The kojinōmi are the caretakers of the dying. They walk next to those who pass between the two worlds to ensure their souls reach Mifúno’s breast. — Tedoku Nuchikomu Machikimu Garènu (Act 1, Scene 2)
Even in the depths of his family cave, Rutejìmo knew the moment the sun rose above the horizon. The delicate tickle of power started at the tips of his toes and fingers before quickly coursing along his veins and bones. It reached his heart and blossomed into a euphoric wave of pleasure that quickened his breath and heart.
Across the valley, all the adults would be waking up in the same manner. They were all part of Shimusògo’s clan, and the dépa’s power came from the sun spirit, Tachìra.
Mapábyo let out a soft coo. She made the same sound every morning, and he never tired of hearing it. Rutejìmo rolled on his side and swept his leg forward, burrowing through the blankets until his shin thudded against the hard muscles of her leg. After so many years of sprinting across the desert, both of their legs were solid as rock.
She let out a happy moan and backed up against him until her buttocks nestled against the crook formed by his hips. “Good morning, my shikāfu.” Shikāfu once described the longing Rutejìmo had for another woman but now it labeled the love he felt for Mapábyo.
He lifted his head and propped himself on his elbow. Leaning over her, he slipped his hand around her waist, trailed his fingers up until he cupped one of her breasts. A moment later, he found her nipple and teased it into hardness.
Mapábyo tilted her head back and he kissed her. “You better hurry,” she said with a bump of her buttocks, “before the little ones—”
“Papa!” Kitòpi’s cry only gave him a heartbeat of warning before he came crashing down on Rutejìmo’s thighs.
Disappointed at the interruption, Rutejìmo rolled away.
Kitòpi crawled over Rutejìmo’s rolling body. His hands and feet jammed into Rutejìmo’s softer parts, bringing thuds of pain as Kitòpi fumbled blindly over the blankets and into the valley between his parents. He wedged himself between them, one knee against Rutejìmo’s stomach and, judging from the soft grunt, the other against his mother.
Rutejìmo groaned from the ache of being jabbed. “You know, Tópi, there is a glow light on the table by the arch.”
“No,” Kitòpi grunted, “I’m good. Just… there!” His foot nailed Rutejìmo in the groin.
Rutejìmo groaned and blinked away the sparks floating before his eyes.
The clicking of a travel light filled the room. Rutejìmo lifted his head and looked toward his feet. A blue glow spread out from Piróma’s tiny fingers. It lit her face before spearing out the space between her digits. The light came from a glass sphere with a crystal hanging inside it. A clockwork mechanism tapped against the crystal and, through a process Rutejìmo didn’t understand, caused the translucent piece of mineral to glow. She shook it twice before setting it on the blankets.
Piróma stared at Rutejìmo, her eyes glittering, and patted the bed questioningly.
Rutejìmo smiled and held out his hand. “Come on.”
She grabbed the blankets and hauled herself up. When she stood on the bed, her nightgown fluttered back to her ankles. It was red, one of Shimusògo’s colors, but in the blue light, it was black as night. Only her eyes were lit up, giving him the impression of her being a cat. With a giggle, she crawled over Mapábyo’s and Rutejìmo’s legs and thumped into the gap between their bodies.
In a matter of seconds, Rutejìmo was on the edge of the bed and holding squirming children instead of his wife. He laughed and exhaled hard and sloppily into Kitòpi’s neck.
Kitòpi let out an exasperated cry and tried to wiggle away, but he was trapped in the bed. “Papa!”
Mapábyo cleared her throat. “No roughhousing. I’m not falling out of the bed—again.”
“Yes, Mama,” said Kitòpi.
Piróma nodded but then jammed her finger into Kitòpi’s side. When her brother squealed, she slipped into the gap between him and Mapábyo.
Rutejìmo sighed happily and hugged Kitòpi tightly. “Have a good night?”
“No,” Kitòpi sighed before he turned to his father. “Why do you have to leave this morning? Why can’t you stay?”
“Well,” Rutejìmo started, “we have a job to do. The clan wants me and your mother to be among the six who are going to Kosobyo City.”
“Because we need money?”
“That’s right.” Rutejìmo kissed Kitòpi on the forehead.
Kitòpi squirmed and pulled away. “But, why you? I heard Nifùni saying you would slow everyone down.”
Rutejìmo froze for a moment in the sudden wash of regret and memories. “I know, I am slower than—”
Piróma interrupted him. “Aren’t you always the slowest?”
Rutejìmo thought for a moment before he responded. “Everyone is good at something. I may not be the fastest runner there is, but do you really think anyone could keep up with Chimípu?”
“No…” whispered Piróma.
“Mípu is really fast,” said Kitòpi excitedly, “she’s,” he swung his hands and accidentally smacked Piróma, “whoosh and she’s gone!”
Piróma jerked slightly at the impact and then looked at her brother. After a moment, she returned her attention back to her mother.
Mapábyo giggled. “Not even Desòchu can run that fast. If those two are going to the valley by themselves, then the one slowing her down would be Desòchu. We all run at different speeds, some faster and some slower. Part of being in the clan is that we run as fast as the slowest and we never leave anyone behind.”
Piróma lifted her head. “Then why aren’t Hyonèku and Kiríshi going?”
Rutejìmo waggled his finger. “You know they don’t like being called by their full names.”
“Or,” added Mapábyo, “just use grandpapa and grandmama.” She winked at Rutejìmo.
“Sorry, Rutejìmo,” whispered Piróma, “I keep forgetting.”
Leaning over Kitòpi, Rutejìmo kissed his daughter. “It’s okay, little one.” He didn’t correct her.
Kitòpi squirmed and Rutejìmo bore down, pinning Kitòpi to the bed for a few seconds with his weight before returning to the edge.
“You were there, it was comfortable.” Rutejìmo made a show of leaning on him, “I could go right back to sleep if you stopped moving.”
Kitòpi squirmed harder.
Mapábyo yawned and let out a sigh. “We should be getting up. We have a long run ahead of us.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Rutejìmo stretched and crawled out of bed. He wore a loose pair of sleeping trousers and a thin shirt. Outside of the blankets, the cool air of the cave prickled his skin and he shivered.
“Papa, why do you have to leave? Why can’t you stay in the valley?”
Rutejìmo looked back at his son. Kitòpi sat on the edge of the bed with Piróma next to him. They swung their feet off the edge as they stared at him.
He turned and swept them both into a tight hug. “Because it is what I need to do.”
Kitòpi asked, “Why can’t grandpapa and grandmama go instead? They can’t handle mama’s mail route, can they?”
Mapábyo laughed and crawled on the bed to hug all three of them. “That mail route was grandpapa’s route before I was born. In fact, they rescued my blood parents on it, back when I was Ròma’s age.”
“So,” Piróma twisted in her mother’s grip, “they can handle it?”
“Between the two of them, they will speed along the roads, and no one will ever lay a finger on them. They are safer on that route than anywhere else in the desert.”
“Then why aren’t they going to the Kosòbyo’s?”
“Because,” Kiríshi said from the entrance of the door, “I can barely get you four out of bed in the morning.” She grinned and slapped the side of the archway.
Both children ran to the edge of the bed and jumped for Kiríshi.
She caught them and staggered back. “Oof! You are getting big.” She stood up and smiled at Mapábyo and Rutejìmo. “Hurry up, you two. We are holding breakfast for you.”
“Yes, Great Shimusogo Kiríshi,” Rutejìmo said with a grin.
“Yes, Mama,” added Mapábyo.
Kiríshi gave Mapábyo a mock glare before dragging both children out of the room. “Come on, let’s get you two dressed and out in the sun. We have to say prayers to Tachìra before…” Her voice faded around the corner.
Rutejìmo watched the lights from the children’s cave flash with their movement. His thoughts turned darker as their questions echoed in his head.
Mapábyo came around and hugged him. “It doesn’t matter if it takes us longer to get there.”
“Two weeks more is a long time.” Reflexively, he wrapped his arms around her body.
“Two more weeks is nothing when I’m with you.”
“I know, but he’s right.”
“And so were you. We all have different skills. You may not be the fastest, but it was a unanimous vote to bring you along for a reason. You are brave, wonderful, and a good father. No one doesn’t want you to go.”
Rutejìmo chuckled dryly. “Nearly unanimous. Nifùni voted against it.”
“Shut up, Jìmo.” She continued after pulling him tight to her body. “You never give up, no matter how much the world grinds you down. When anyone else would have given up, you kept on running forward.”
He relented and leaned into her, resting his head on hers.
“You are also kojinōmi. You see things differently than anyone else. And, we may need that out there.”
“One would hope we won’t encounter the dead on this trip.”
“I’d rather have you there and never need you to don whites.” She lifted her head to look at him. “You run your own path. And I will follow you anywhere, you know that? Because I see you. And I will never stop.”
He closed his eyes and kissed her, enjoying the feel of her soft lips against his own. “I see you,” he said.
“And I,” snapped Kiríshi, “hear both of you stalling. Get dressed and outside!”
Rutejìmo lifted his head but didn’t look at Mapábyo’s mother. He smiled broadly before he said, “Yes, Great Shimusogo Kiríshi.”