NOVEMBER 2023, SHORT STORY, 1000 WORDS
Women’s bones never burn the same. You’d be forgiven for assuming perhaps that they take longer to blacken and ash, denser for burdens once carried, or that perhaps there is somewhere about in the smoke a scent, a haloed lingering which implies duress or pain, a weight woven into bone that makes them harder to flame. This is not true. Women burn like birds.
My mother, as her mother before her and hers before her, as all Janus’s priestesses, daughters of sun and night, have said, this is because when we die, when our bodies are brought through the high holy doors, arched and oiled and held closer than they might ever have been held in life, we have already been hollowed by the worlds of men, our spark already burned. But I do not think this is so certain. I think it is because we have no other choices left, all of us in death, but to yield. Each of us at a pace all of our own.
“Verlyn, the knife.” My aunt’s voice is warm against the barren dark. She uses my name, though like her, I will soon mislay it too. To me my aunt holds out her hand, palm turned, expectant. She does not look to see if I raise it for her. She has no need. I hand over the knife. Fingers made deft with the practice of time, my aunt opens the red seals, wax yielding beneath heated blade, slick. The scent of honeycomb fills the air, sweet. It is the only pleasant scent. When she is done, when the jars line up, little mouths waiting for their feed at the edges of the stone tables, the other mourners trickle in.
Beneath the gates the priestesses pass first, palms open, eyes bright, heads half-bowed. The others come next, mismatched and shuffling in their insecurities, meager homage to the women before, the scent of sunlight on their unwashed skin. The gates are of brass and of two separate doors, one leading in and one leading away. One for peace and one for war. For life and for death. Between them a great statue of Janus, our two-faced god, holds balanced judgment upon the threshold, his copper likeness warm as coals, should you wish to touch it. There is a moment here, when the procession passes through this maw, that is not guaranteed, not certain. It is for this that I hold my breathing, pull the cold of the waiting into my lungs and hold it there, tightening my skin. I have not seen it, but my mother has. Janus does not always weigh the living to pass. But then they are through, all, and my voice returns. There are three women in this lot. A mother and two children. Burials of war.
I help as each is laid down, shrouds cleaned and bodies still. My aunt says words I have heard a thousand times but can never quite remember, water from my tongue. Somewhere a man is crying. A child is held. There is no smoke, least not yet.
My mother joins her voice to my aunt’s, and the chorus rises. A flame brightens into existence, heat catching on the long edge of their fire-sparked wrappings, curling in the wool. I do not look away. I have a duty to see the dead. A duty to see to this new beginning as the family had seen to their end. A duty as it is only men whom may be buried above ground, their bodies left to rest and mourn, leaving the women to be burned, bodies left to memories and ash. I wonder sometimes when I am caught deep in the night at the strangeness to this verge; wonder at the seams about the need for such a course. But then I wake and eat and remember that fire is hot and the darkness is whole. And in time, each morning, I hear my mother’s voice anew, and I listen and remember. The earth above may be everlasting, but it is a world caught ever the snare of sameness, but the wind? The wind is the sky, and the sky is a place ever-changing. I understand this and I think perhaps this burning is the better way after all. For no one ever says the bird to be lesser than the vole.
Now in this tomb, in this dark, when the wool is eaten and gone, my mother hands me a jar. Stones, gathered at the crumbled edge of the wailing sea, tumble inside. She hands another to my aunt, another to the youth who had been crying. Careful, I cup the glass between my hands, hold tight. The youth strains his eyes between us three, and it is with confusion that the youth pours his jar as we pour ours. He might be forgiven for thinking it water, as even in the darkness paraffin has no odor, though it looks the color of wine in this our lonely den. But he does not ask questions or interrupt as we douse the bodies, and soon the latent heat, caught between the shroud’s spiraled threads, is more eager enough to burn. The youth steps back. He shields his eyes. Looks aside. Is ashamed. The light shines against the two-faced god, sparkles against the brass, the copper skin. For a moment only he looks alive and all the strangers now huddle against one another, blending skin to skin, heat to heat, pressing into each other’s bodies, as if mere proximity to the living might save them from the dead. I am not so afraid.
I stand with my mother and my aunts, proud with all the women, their bodies burned before me. Together we sing. We watch. And I count the wingbeats in my heart as bones burn.
Dr. E.E. Cypher grew up in Northern California where she, graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in Neuroscience and received her DVM. She has lived and worked all over the world from New Zealand to Tasmania to the United Kingdom. She is an author of SFF for adults and children. Her debut novel came out with S&S BFYR. When not writing, she can be found spending her time caring for all manner of creatures great and small, dreaming about traveling and generally wandering about the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains with her husband and fifteen-year-old black Labrador.