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Ashes to Ashes

When he's not selling his soul to the financial world, spending time with his family, or bingeing on Netflix, Floris M. Kleijne produces fiction at irregular intervals. This sometimes results in publication of said fiction in magazines such as Galaxy's Edge, Factor Four, and Little Blue Marble. "Ashes to ashes" is his fifth publication in these here digital pages. More about his fiction (including freebies) can be found at floriskleijne.com.

The tracks on her cheeks could be rain. Shanylla would not cry, not this time. She watched with an icy heart as the flames licked the tiny body. The shroud caught easily, and yellow fire enveloped the empty, fever-ravaged shell of her daughter. The sonorous humming of the villagers gathered around the pyre intensified, grating on her nerves. Maire's gentle touch on her arm might as well have been a lash.
No more, she whispered, please. But her words sounded only in her head. On the outside, she had joined the chant, adding her counterpoint to the swelling lament. Let my house crumble, let the village collapse into the sea. She would refuse the brick this time, she told herself. The price was too high. Nothing was worth losing her moon and stars, her Dara. Having lost her, Shanylla wanted only to turn away from it all.
The chanting voices danced up along the cliff, mingling with the rush of the sea, the pounding of the waves far below. The wind sang along the lines tethering their fishing nets to the village rim. A stew of sound swirled, whipping the pyre into incandescent frenzy, blowing a plume of sparks into the night sky.
A whirlwind of flame and smoke formed on top of the pyre, and bore up what was left of Dara's body: some wisps of shroud, and a cloud of ashes. At a sign from the Brickmaker, the Catchers stepped in, their long sticks bearing the ceremonial chalice into the center of the pyre, the heart of the fire. Shanylla felt the power of the chant crescendo, until all at once, all sound ceased. Even the sea seemed momentarily becalmed.
The swirling ashes collapsed into the chalice.
No more.
She would not wait outside the brickworks for the Brickmaker's cruel gift. Nor would she go home, where Prajo would be waiting for her in pious red, ready to offer her his clumsy comfort, and later, his seed. Instead, she wandered the concentric streets of the village that clung like a barnacle to the steep cliff, built of slate, and gnarled wood, and occasional grief-laden bricks spotted ash gray and pink and eggshell white. Neighbors offered cautious comfort that she rejected by looking away.
Maire walked with her for a while, but turned back when Shanylla would not answer her compassionate entreaties. Maire was a friend, but as her touch had felt like a lash, so was her kindness worse now than a blow to the face. For it implied that Dara's feverish death might be overcome, that there could be life beyond this infinite blackness of loss.
No more.
Circling Fisherman's Lane, she came at last upon the jagged gap where Olaya's house had stood. It had crashed into the sea some years ago, taking with it Olaya, and Mor, and their half-dozen bright-eyed children.
Olaya had never lost a child.
Shanylla shuffled forward until her sandals toed the gaping hole. She glanced down at the wild gray sea.
"I don't care!" she screamed. "Let it all crumble. I don't care."
She let herself drop to her knees, but hands caught her before she could tumble forward into the gap. Hands helped her away from the abyss, helped her stand straight, and turn, and face the Brickmaker.
"From loss comes gain," he intoned. "From frailty, strength." And then, in a kinder voice, "I'm so sorry, Shanylla."
Bowing, he offered her the cloth-wrapped brick in his hands, holding it close enough for Shanylla to feel the heat fresh from the kiln.
She stared at the cloth, wishing for the strength to refuse.
In the end, she took what was offered. Not because it was expected of her, though it was. Not because the village's survival depended on it, though it did, and everyone would believe that her reason.
In the end, she accepted because Dara was gone, and this was all she had left. Even a brick fired from the ashes of her dead child would be more than the nothingness that threatened to smother her. She would take it to bed, and sleep with Dara's ashes, and perhaps its power to grant the village permanence would support her as well.
Dara's brick cradled against her chest, the cloth forgotten somewhere behind her, the wet streaks on her face impossible to blame on rain, Shanylla stumbled home. Prajo stood in the doorway. He had discarded the red, and for that, at least, she was grateful.
Her gaze roamed over the facade, clenching her hands with each of the four spotted bricks her eyes encountered.
Shanylla's house was the strongest in the village.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, July 1st, 2019

Author Comments

I've been a father for almost ten years, and one of the many things I have learned in that time is that the fear of illness, injury, or loss of one of our children is never fully absent. That said, and notwithstanding Shanylla's grief and pain, the real horror of this story to me lies in the ambiguity of the other villagers. "Sure, the death of your child is terrible," they seem to acknowledge, "but at least our village is that much stronger for it." How would it be to live in such a community, to have your child fall grievously ill, and see in your neighbors' eyes a combination of concern and... hope?

- Floris M. Kleijne
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