The Dead Are Easy to Keep
by Julie Wornan
part 1 of 2
I first noticed them at midday. They were three black specks far out on the white plain that descends slowly from the mountain. By evening they had come much closer and had human shapes. One was tall; the second, more rounded; the third, very small.
They approached slowly, struggling against the violent wind, stopping often to protect their faces or pull their ragged garments more closely about them. Then the deepening twilight hid them from view.
I left the field and returned to the house, took my usual supper of bread with boiled water and lay down for the night. The season was not yet so cold that it was impossible to sleep without a fire. Tired from work, I fell asleep soon. The star Fevral had already risen high above the horizon when I was awakened by their knocking.
I knew them each at once by touch: the tall one, the round one and the little one. Their hands and faces were cold. The tall one spoke, but the sound of his words was strange to me. I brought them to the bed and had them lie down. By good chance I had laid many dry sticks by in case the season should suddenly turn colder; I made a large fire.
By the firelight I saw their faces. The tall one looked rough and worn, either by work or hunger or years; his beard was ragged; his eyes wandered a little but their look was clear and like that of a child; his hands were large and strong.
The round one was a woman. She was dark and silent. The little one huddled close to her side: a girl child, dark also, thin-faced, with huge fearful eyes. They made no answer to the words I spoke. The old one, however, lowered his eyes and extended his arms toward me, palms upward; then I recovered my wits and hastened to fetch some bread.
They ate eagerly, and also drank the tea I brewed for them from a dried herb. They did not say the words one must address to Amaya before tasting bread.
After they had eaten and drunk, the old man again uttered some strange syllables. I did not know whether he intended these for me or for a god, so I said simply that he and his family were welcome to my house and all in it for as long as I would be granted the joy of their visit. Then I motioned them to sleep. There was no more room on the bed, so I lay down on the floor.
I thought about them for a long time before sleep overtook me again. They did not seem to know the goddess Amaya, nor did they speak the tongue that Hohar has given us; therefore, they must have come from afar. What might have driven them from their land? Had they, perhaps through some oversight, lost favor in the eyes of their gods? Or was it possible — dared I hope — that Amaya had heard my prayer?
For the gods of my country are hard gods. Far into the season of awakening, Hohar sends cold blasts to wither the frail green shoots that Juva brings forth. He broods, ill-tempered, behind his mountain throughout the short growing season; and the eager grains are not yet ripe, nor the last snow gone from the plains, before he again begins to storm and rage.
And when Amaya has brought the meagre harvest, the most difficult season of all begins: the season of snow and waiting. At this time there is little work to take one's mind off the hunger. Yet, when violent white nights break upon days so luminous and still, the very hours seem turned to ice and hunger is not the sharpest pain. On such days as these I have fasted and sacrificed and prayed that the gods might send me a companion.
I dared to hope that Amaya, the Giver, the goddess of the harvest, had at last answered my prayer.
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In the next days I learned their names: Mar, Rayu and Izimar; and also something of their language. I soon abandoned all effort to teach them my own tongue, seeing that they found it difficult. But I tried to impress upon them the names of the gods of my land, and the words which must be spoken to each upon awakening, when lying down and before taking bread. I did not want the gods to be displeased with them and do them harm.
Yet I could never make them understand the importance of this. Only little Izimar cared to learn some of the words, and she would chant them after her own fashion as she went about her play, sometimes seeming to address the fireplace or sticks or the empty air, but never speaking the words at the proper time. Still, she was so pretty and so young that I believed the gods would look upon her kindly, and maybe even count her awkward prayers as the due respect offered by the family as a whole.
If only I had spent more time with them during those first days! We might have come to understand each other. But there was still so much work to do in the fields before the first heavy snows.
I showed the woman, Rayu , on which shelf the bread was kept and how much was to be counted as a day's portion; also the box containing dried herbs. I use these only in times of illness, since I must travel for five days in order to pick them; but I understood my guests' need for nourishment after their wandering, and did not begrudge them the food.
At first Rayu was shy and reluctant, but after I had made her understand that it was my wish, she cut the bread and distributed it as I showed her, and also prepared the drink. After this, I went out into the fields. I went out early each day and returned at twilight.
The first evening I returned to find them well rested, but so quiet that it pained me not to know any words of comfort in their own language. By the second evening they seemed more at ease. By the third evening, Mar and I were able to exchange words of greeting, and little Izimar no longer ran to hide behind Rayu's skirts at my approach.
The third evening, also, they had washed themselves, and their garments as well, drying them by the fire; I was glad to find my guests so clean and radiant, only a little sorry that they had used all of my water, so that I had to walk to the lake to break ice and fetch more water in the early night cold if I did not want to go without drink that night and the next morning.
From the second evening I had tried to ask Mar and Rayu how they had occupied themselves during the day, and whether time did not press heavily upon them. I had thought that I would bring Mar to the fields with me as soon as he was rested, and show him how to help me break the earth and plant the last seeds. There would be few days left now when this work was still possible.
Most years, the harvest was scarcely sufficient for myself alone. Yet I was reluctant to ask him to work until he should offer it of himself, for I did not know the state of his health and would not have him work beyond his strength.
Neither did I ask Rayu to help me. Knowing nothing of their customs, I thought perhaps it might shame them both if the woman worked while the man idled at home. I believed that they would offer help when they could. They were my guests and my companions.
In time, I learned enough of their language to speak with them easily of such things as food and drink, warmth and cold. But there were matters about which I never could make myself understood. They seemed to have no words for those things we cannot see: the universe, the gods. This was a space between us — to my sorrow.
On the fourth day I had to return at midday for extra padding for my boots, the season having suddenly turned colder. I found Mar and Rayu engaged in some kind of ceremony, moving small pieces of wood from part to part of a design they had traced upon the floor.
I was alarmed: the gods of my country are jealous gods. Once I had fashioned a new goddess and had made a ceremony for her; that winter the snows came so early and lasted so long that I very nearly succumbed to hunger. Such is the wrath of our gods.
Therefore I threw the wooden objects into the fire and effaced the design. Mar said nothing, but his eyes looked sad; the woman rose up with a cry. I would willingly have stayed home as many hours as necessary to find the words to explain the cause of my action, had I not feared the hunger to come. Therefore, I fetched what I needed and returned to the field. Late that night I prayed to Hohar, Amaya and Juva, assuring them that no strange god had been honored in my house.
On the sixth day, the snow came down heavily. A handwidth of snow covered the ground in the morning and it continued falling all day. In my zeal to work the last possible bit of ground, I had neglected to gather enough firewood for the winter; now I set out quickly for the woods, and before midday had brought home several heavy bundles.
But the snow was piling thickly and the wind rose, driving heavy flakes under the darkening sky. At last I saw that I must turn homeward with my last bundle. Yet I paused again and again to take a few more sticks. When I finally turned toward home, darkness was coming and the snowdrifts were high. I had overestimated my strength.
In instructing Rayu how to apportion the bread, I had counted two days' portions as one day’s for the four of us, and now I felt the lack of nourishment. Nevertheless I succeeded in returning home with the wood.
I asked Rayu for bread and tea. She gave me bread and water; then she turned her back and stood looking at the fire. I went to the box: the herbs were gone. I ate my supper. Then, to show I was not angry, I began to sing a song. I sang, "Jinjab, the sower of bad dreams, got caught in a cloud and had no harvest." It was a song I made up a long time ago and it sounds very clever in my language, only of course they could not understand it. But I made funny faces as I sang, and soon little Izimar began to laugh; then Mar laughed and even Rayu smiled and we were all very merry.
Then Mar sang a song, and he took out a little pipe from his pocket and played a tune on it and Izimar danced shyly in a corner, more gracefully than a goddess. Then, as I knew there would be no more days of work that season, I fetched the Promise Berries and distributed them, tossing one out the door first for old Hohar to chew: moist, fat fruit, the first gift of Amaya the Giver, to be tasted once when fresh and then dried and kept carefully and tasted again on this day to remember the promise of spring. I gave the largest share to Izimar, and the look on her face was sweeter than the taste of the fruit.
After this, old Mar sang many songs. The first were merry, but as he went on, they became soft and sad. Rayu sat quietly looking into the fire. Little Izimar climbed onto her lap and was soon sound asleep.
Then Mar motioned me close to him and began to talk. I tried hard to make out the sense of his words. He drew images on the floor with a charred stick. He drew several tall beings with horns upon their heads, and I thought that perhaps he wanted to tell me a legend about his gods.
This made me think of the beautiful story of Hohar's descent from a wandering star, and I began to relate it; but he would not listen, he only talked more rapidly, his eyes grew moist, and at length Rayu prevailed upon him to cease talking and lie down to sleep.
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Copyright © 2010 by Julie Wornan