Sand and Bone 8: Alone

The books of Ash are eclectic collections of barbaric rituals and death records passed for centuries among the desert clans. While initially destroyed by more reasonable folks, they quickly became a tool for measuring the slow progression of civilization among the barbarians.

— Bandor Turin, Words of the Dead

The little girl's confessions echoed in Rutejìmo's head in a quiet symphony as he wrote in his book. The hand-bound collections of pages creaked under his hand, the leather thong strained to hold the almost fifty pages of tightly-spaced writing. Over the years, he had added a dozen pages to the collection. It wouldn't be too long before the binding couldn't handle the additional pages, but he thought he had a few more years left before that happened.

Even with his additional pages, he didn't have room to write down any of the stories he had heard over the years. He wanted to detail the joys of the little girl's death, such as the choked story about how she had stolen her brother's toy when he wasn't looking. He had also wanted to write the horrors, like one man's confession for killing his sister. Each one was precious and important. Time would erase their stories and a part of Rutejìmo died every time he forgot one.

He could barely see the page underneath his hand. The dim light of the coming dawn provided only enough illumination to identify that he was writing on the page and his lettering didn't overlap with the line above it. One single line to condense a little girl's life to a simple phrase wasn't enough. After the name of her clan and how she died, there wasn't much left to describe her.

Rutejìmo wanted to write more. Years ago, he tried to, but there were simply too many stories to document. He ran out of paper and time long before the tales ran out.

Realizing his thoughts had become dark, he pried his mind away from the lost stories. But before he could find a happy memory, an image welled up of the young kojinōmi he had met from the day before.

Rutejìmo never learned his name or clan, but the young man had shown him a different aspect of the kojinōmi that Rutejìmo didn't know was possible. The revelations of his words and behavior felt profoundly uncomfortable. The idea that he, or any kojinōmi, could choose not to care for the dying went against everything he understood. Death struck everyone and therefore Rutejìmo, as a kojinōmi, should tend to everyone.

There were other disturbing things that the brief encounter revealed. For five years, he had faithfully performed the purification ritual even though it was the most exhausting part of his duties. The day of walking naked in the sun had left him burned completely and aching from his feet to his head. He hated it, but it was part of being a kojinōmi, or at least he thought it was.

Rutejìmo sighed and paged through the book with his small fingers, peering at the barely visible lines in hopes of having some answer. He knew he wouldn't find it from the book any more than he could ask the desert directly. It didn't stop him from looking.

A flicker of light caught his attention, halting his dark thoughts. He lifted his head to look toward the remains of the bonfire. Over the night, it had burned to the ground leaving nothing but a circle of black ash and a few cracked fragments of bone. Near the center, he spotted part of the girl's hip sticking up. A single spark lit on the tip of the shattered remains of a thigh bone.

His breath halted in his chest as he stared at it.

It started to dim.

A brief wind gave the spark life once again and it wavered in the ripples of heat.

Rutejìmo had seen the same thing many times. He felt it around him, a pressure gathering as if the desert itself was waiting for the last of the girl's spirit to fade away.

The ember faded again and darkness crowded close.

He kept himself still, feeling there was a mote of the girl's spirit remaining.

A breeze wafted over the sand, kicking up swirls of dark ash in a spiral that quickly faded.

The spark flared for the briefest moment, a tiny burst of life, before it was swallowed by the dark.

The tension around him snapped, and he felt his lungs work again. Wiping a tear from his eye, he bowed deeply to the ash and silently mouthed a prayer to Mifúno, the desert spirit and the mother of all spirits. When he finished, he set his book into his bag. Then, he stood up, his back to the ash, and stripped.

It only took a minute to remove and fold his clothes. He set them down by his bag. When he turned back around, the circle of ash and the girl's bones were gone. There was nothing to mark the place of her burning, other than the memories recorded in Rutejìmo's head and the notes in his book.

The desert worked silently and subtly. He never saw the sands swallow the ash, but the signs of the flames were always gone when he looked back. Not as visceral as the power Shimusògo gave him, it always left Rutejìmo in awe of the desert's power.

He bowed again, thanking Mifúno by mouthing the words.

There was no response from the wind.

He turned back around and picked up his bags. The white clothes had disappeared when he wasn't looking. He had seen it a hundred times now, but like the ash, it left him stunned that things could change so quickly when his back was turned.

Then, naked as the day he was born and carrying his bag, he started to walk toward the sun just as it peeked over the horizon. He had no destination or goal, only to walk toward the light. The only time Rutejìmo would stop would be when Tachìra held right above him for the few seconds of perfect harmony and then he would turn around and follow it back across the desert.

Despite what the other kojinōmi said, Rutejìmo felt he must do the ritual, no matter what.