Prose Header

The Dead Are Easy to Keep

by Julie Wornan

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

And now we were in the white days. At times the wind whipped and lashed about the house day and night, and the vengeful sky seemed to bend down to throttle the very earth. Then suddenly the winds would stop and the world would be clasped in an icy silence.

Mar wandered about the house, sometimes playing upon his pipe or singing his beautiful sad songs which, although referring to a distant land I never would know, still seemed to speak of my land also: of the work in the fields, of the snow, of the promise of spring growing even now under the snow.

Indeed, all the things I knew and loved or feared deepened in meaning as I heard Mar's song. Then again, he would grow silent. Often he would look at me as though he would speak, but found no words to bridge the space between us.

Rayu seldom spoke. Sometimes she seemed to reprimand Izimar, who seemed afraid of her and tried to appease her as best she could. As for myself, the edge of time was less sharp when I tended to the gods and their ceremonies. I tried for a while to instruct Mar and Rayu about these ceremonies so that they might ease their hearts and receive a blessing. But my attempts made Izimar laugh and Mar and Rayu smile — he kindly, she with a hard mouth. Therefore I did not insist. Oh, had I done so!

We might have continued to live together. Bread for one can be bread for four; the body learns to withstand hardship. I asked little. But why were their minds so closed?

The bread was soon gone. Now we had to subsist on brit, the bitter, coarse grain that can be boiled to make a porridge just fit for eating when the bread is gone. But first it must be well polished. The outer covering, which is sweet and fragrant but must not be eaten, must be entirely removed. So it is commanded. Rayu would not have it so, and insisted on preparing the whole grain. I was able to prevent her from doing this. But something ill had begun between us.

I do not know whom to blame for what happened next. I cannot believe that the gods refused to reveal themselves to Mar and Rayu. Although they can be angry, the gods see into our hearts and do not desire to cause us pain; their greatest wish is to be adored. Nor can I believe that Mar and Rayu lacked the capacity to understand.

Why did they refuse to understand?

The appointed time for the Sacrifice of Midfrost had now arrived. Joyfully I prepared the images of the gods for the ceremony, polishing them and decorating them under the gleeful eyes of little Izimar, who inspired me to new artistic efforts and even contributed some decorations of her own from twigs and scraps.

When the gods were ready, we began to make music for them. Izimar helped by clanging on the water kettle with a stick. Mar pretended that his ears hurt and hid his head under a blanket, whereby Izimar clanged all the louder, and then they both laughed. But Rayu avoided my eyes.

The great sacrifice to all the gods is made in the coldest season. When hunger is our constant companion, we offer a portion of food to the gods. Then we will survive the winter and Juva will come. It must be so with the gods of every country. Whoever knows the mysteries of the gods, knows this.

I placed the sacrificial dishes before the images of the gods and filled them with grain. Then I brought the fire. Izimar's eyes were round as she watched me. Mar's eyes were stone gray. Rayu's eyes were black.

Then suddenly Rayu was between me and the gods. She snatched the burning stick from my hand and flung it back into the fire. She spat in Hohar's face. Then she stood before me, taut and vibrant. Rarely do I act without thought, but I did now. I struck Rayu hard on her face.

Mar rushed to the woman's side. Izimar cringed. I fell on my knees and begged their forgiveness, but it was too late. Mar, stoney-eyed, seemed not to see me; they all seemed not to see me; slowly, Mar approached the gods, then flung them upon the floor with a blow. Amaya's head rolled. Rayu laughed wildly.

Then they gathered up the grain I had offered to the gods and began to prepare it for eating. They prepared it without first polishing the grains. They sat close together near the fire watching the porridge boil. I sat on the floor with my face in my hands.

I do not know how many hours or days I remained there. Nor do I recall my thoughts very clearly at that time. I thought of Izimar's sweet face, I thought of Mar's songs, I thought of Amaya’s head rolling on the ground, I thought of the wind outside, I thought of the snow. Then Izimar's hair seemed to be porridge of unpolished brit and I, dazed by hunger, was eating it. Then I awoke and saw I was alone. I think it was the ceasing of the wind that woke me.

I do not know what made them leave the house. Perhaps they went to look for firewood. The firewood was low. They were not familiar with our winters. What made them take the child along? Perhaps they were afraid to leave her with me — as though I would harm her! When I climbed to the roof I could see their three forms lying dark upon the snow.

They were heavy, but I brought them back to the house one by one. I began to loosen their clothes and rub their wrists with snow. I saw that they would revive if I rubbed them. Little Izimar's face was so beautiful. How she had cringed when I struck Rayu! Rayu, in her stillness, looked like a goddess. Mar's face was noble as the god Hohar. Rayu murmured a little as though she would wake.

I do not remember what I was thinking. I remember thinking that I must polish the grain. I do not remember what I thought when I set them out in the snow again.

I raised the wooden gods from the floor and put them back in their place. I made a new nose for Amaya's head. I shaped it carefully. Then I polished the grains of brit and made the sacrifice, and I continued polishing grains until dawn.

When it was dawn, I went out to see to my guests. They lay still upon the snow. I carried them one by one to the plain where it slopes away toward the mountain. I drove three poles into the ground and I fastened them upright to the poles.

I bring them their portion of food each day. I sing new songs which I have invented for them. They like the songs. I thank the gods for sending me dear Mar, quiet dark Rayu and pretty Izimar. Soon Juva's season will come, and my companions will rejoice with me. I am happy that I am no longer alone.

Copyright © 2010 by Julie Wornan

to Challenge 385...

Home Page