When tough times come, only the sturdiest survive! But only if they are lucky!
They came for her father. She didn’t know them, in fact she didn’t know anything of what was happening; but still, they came for her father and they killed him. HE IS DEAD! Oh my God, he is dead! Her precious dad. He who always hugged her, he who always made her laugh; even when she was down, angry, despondent, sick with everyone and everything. And yet, now he was no more.
How could all of this have happened! What could he have possibly done to earn the rage of those despicable Atlanti!
He was just a normal man, they were neither rich nor had any influence in the village. It was true that he always spoke in favor of independence for Caledonia, that they should not let be ruled by a bunch of foreigners who knew nothing about their ways; a corrupted minority who pretended to act in Caledonia’s interests only to serve their own and get rich on their back.
Could that be it?! Could someone have told on him? That must be it! But who could that be? Who was the traitor? Oh, she will find him and make him rue the day he was born! She had to, for how else could she hope to find peace otherwise?
The rain was drizzling softly on the faces of the crowd gathered around the pyre. The driarch in front was putting the construction to rights: pushing the fatwood inwards, laying twigs on the sides, checking the overall strength. He was dressed in dark green robes the hood of which was overshadowing the upper part of his face and his long grey hair. The latter was falling like a frothing waterfall that was soon joining the rapids of his venerable beard. Even though his face was old and wrinkled, his eyes had a youthful, almost playful, spark to them. After he finished his work on the pyre, he turned around and fronted the gathered multitude, browsing briefly through the faces until he found the teary eyes of a twelve-year-old girl dressed in black and blue, as pertains a mourner.
She looked at him dubiously, not certain what was supposed of her to do in this moment. The old man nodded reassuringly and said:
“The deceased is now ready for the journey. A journey that we all must, sooner or later, embark upon. To some it comes sooner, to others later, but it comes to all nonetheless: to the rich as well as to the poor. It is the same for the king, as well as for the pauper. The road is the same and yet what happens afterwards is not. For those who have done deeds of good, for those who have done well, for those who have respected and cared for others, for their community, for their children, elders, brothers and sister: for all of them there shall be praise, and they shall be like equals with all the high spirits in Heaven.
“Until, of course, they are reborn to this Earth, if that is their destiny. For all the others there shall be repentance and much scrutiny. And they shall wish they have done otherwise, but it will be too late. They shall walk with downcast orifices, unable to look their immaculate brethren in the eye, ashamed of their wicked craft and disbelief.
“Let us hope that this won’t be the destiny of our beloved brother to whom we say our last goodbyes today. I am sure it will not: for he was a virtuous man, a man of unshakable integrity, a martyr that died for his beliefs, defending his fellow countrymen. Alas, this wretched world is a crude place and it oftentimes takes away what is most dear to us. But we must live on and try to overcome all the obstacles laid before us. Because what does not kill us makes us stronger. It is a lesson we must learn, it is what we are here for.
“So let us rejoice that our brother, Thomas, has finished his earthly school and now has some time for, hopefully, well-deserved vacation in front of him. Let him rest in peace!”
The multitude solemnly re-chanted the exclamation. Then the driarch, having finished his long speech, prompted the mourners to move forward towards the pyre; as everyone had to pick and put a symbolic twig onto it. This was the last goodbye after which the soul of the deceased was free to leave this world; it was the final severing of all earthly connections, and it was, by far, the hardest part.
Aileen, as the closest member of the family, had to do it first. However, she was quite taken aback by the driarch’s long-winded speech about death, not sure what to do with it. She felt uncanny mixture of emotions battling inside her: anger, respect, awe, interest. It felt too queer. It was her first time seeing one of those reverent priests speak. Her village was too small for having an individual driarch to itself; so that meant they appeared in general only for funerals and weddings. Be that as it may, she had to perform the rite. Everyone was waiting on her, she could feel many dozens of eyes staring, gawking, pondering… She had to go first, and she had to do it promptly.
Thus, trembling, she started; shakingly at first but slowly gathering more and more resolution as she went – as she neared the enormous heap on top of which was her father.
Gradually Aileen braced herself to look up. There he was. Laying, almost sleeping… if it was not for his smashed face. It was too cruel to behold. It veered her towards the excruciating last moments of his life, to the way he was beaten to death. NO, she would not remember him like that! There were so many great memories, why only those horrible few had to overwhelm her like that? She would erase them, erase them, ERASE THEM!
Unheedingly, she had reached the pile of carefully stacked ceremonial twigs in between. Automatically, her right arm stretched itself, and she felt her hand grabbing a rough scraggy object. But her mind was not there, her mind had taken her across time and space to a better place.
She was a little girl gathering flowers in the glens and meadows near the village. Rubrum was on the right side of Kerula that warm summer day, the light of both suns joining together and creating a spectacular show: a scenery so bright, glimmering, and fresh it made the eyes cry in emotional (via glandular) outburst. She loved treading barefoot on the dewy grass while her mother was watching over her nearby, smiling. That was, of course, before she died giving birth to her stillborn brother. Ere that terrible moment, the world had seemed only full of joy and happiness: an endless warm and sunny spring day with never a cloud in the sky. Then the storms came, and now it was pouring as though it would never stop, the cold water inundating even the most resilient alcoves of her heart. It felt so cold. The world was so cruel and inhospitable: no light was there to brighten up the day but only darkness creeping from every side. Was there hope? Maybe not anymore.
What was she supposed to do from now on? There was no one left for her. No one left in the whole world.
She stopped suddenly. There was the pyre, only a step away from where she was standing. The time to say the final goodbye was at hand. She looked up, the drizzle was slowly soaking the stacked firewood and the funeral robes of her father: drops of water dripping from the sides of his cheeks as though he was crying. That made her heart ache so painfully she almost burst out crying like a little baby. Aileen put all her efforts into suppressing it, but her eyes watered nonetheless and tears started sluggishly descending her puffy cheeks. She squeezed the twig she was holding tightly, looked at it, and then decided to throw it as quickly as she could on the pyre, brush her tears, and get out of there. Her father was dead and no matter how many tears she shed it wouldn't matter: he would remain dead. No matter what she did, no matter how much she prayed this fact would never change. She learned that the hard way when her mother died. Thus she had no intention of making the same mistake of hoping and grieving this time. She would only look silly. So she threw the twig onto the pyre, turned around, and started walking with never a second thought of looking back.
The driarch, as she was walking past him, gave her a curious look. Did she do the obsequy properly, Aileen wondered becoming self-conscious. She didn’t look at him, rather she felt his deep priest eyes piercing her, as though he had a power to peep into people’s hearts, to read them as though they were open books. It felt very uncomfortable to be scrutinized like that. Alas, what could she do but scurry away from him? So she did just that, and before she knew it she was back into the crowd of distant relatives, friends of her fathers, and even complete strangers that had come only to see what was all the commotion about. For her father’s death, the way he was murdered, stirred a lot of spirits in their otherwise quiet Glendale. There were even curious visitors from nearby villages, who apparently couldn’t resist the temptation to stick their nose into other people’s funerals. Hence the huge crowd of “mourners”. Aileen hated that, funerals were supposed to be intimate affairs, not rallies, right? Yet again, she could do next to nothing about it.
Suddenly, she felt a hand on her left shoulder. Turning around, there was her aunt Sophie looking at her with a sorrowful and yet benevolent eye. She was one of her late mother’s sisters: a simple but good-hearted woman in her thirties, married to a tailor to whom she was bearing child after child, having already like a dozen of them. Aileen remembered her vaguely from the time her mother was still alive. She visited them briefly once or twice, for she was married in another village and spent most of her time there, caring for her large family.
“Aileen, I am so very sorry for your father. Why for Heaven’s sake had it happen to him of all people? And you, Oh Aileen! To lose your mother, and now your father. Oh, my little girl!” Then her aunt hugged her so tightly, Aileen thought her dead body would make a contribution to the pyre shortly. She struggled to breathe, smothered between two gargantuan breasts, hoping against hope that her slobbering aunt would let her go. Eventually she did, but then she grabbed for her cheeks, squeezing them in their turn, saying, “But don’t worry. Now you will come to live with us, me and James have a snug little house, not much space but if we can fit eleven we can fit twelve just as well. I will take good care of you, as one of my own children you will be, yes you will, yes you will sweetie, my sweet little child you’ll be.”
Aileen was flabbergasted. She didn’t know how to respond. Obviously she needed some place to go after no one was left to take care of her. But to go with Aunt Sophie? She barely knew her, and from what she knew she would rather prefer not to go with that elephant of a woman. It would be too noisy, not like with her father. It was so peaceful with her father. They would sit late into the evening, sometimes they would talk about everyday issues but usually just sit silently. Aileen was an inquisitive child, and when she felt that her father was in a conversational mood she would ask him questions about his work, about Caledonia, or about just anything that happened to sparkle her interest at that time. She would learn much, and spend the rest of the night pondering and trying to make sense of all she had learnt. Looking through the window on a moonlit night, she would gaze at the two moons: Emrald and Airyn, the blue-green and the rusty guardians of the night sky. Emrald was so perfectly round, glowing softly, caressing with light; whereas Airyn was rough and seemingly always angry at something or someone, its red stare making you feel uncomfortable, vulnerable. Two moons there were as there were two suns, and it was only natural that this was so. For the pair was a sacred structure in nature, as is evident from the animal body: two were the eyes, two were the ears, two the arms, the legs, two the cheeks, and the breasts. That Aileen understood very well. Something else she did not so much: i.e., why people were dying, why one day someone was here, the other that person was gone, never to return. It was so stupid. It didn’t make any sense. The only thing that came out of it was pain, immeasurable pain and sorrow. Why would the gods create such an imperfect world? Or maybe there were no gods, rather devils and demons occupied heaven, feeding on the suffering of their creations. That would at least make some sense.
The light rain was drizzling its way into the afternoon. The putting-of-the-twigs rite was almost done, with only a couple of people left to line themselves through. And then the most important part of the colloquy was to be performed: The Burning. All that man was, all that he strived for, all was to be turned to ashes. Ashes to ashes, mud to mud. That was the inexorable cycle of life all flesh succumbed to.
The driarch was already getting ready for it. There was a fire burning nearby, and next to it – an unignited fresh torch. He was standing by it, observing the flow of the mourners. When the last one did his duty, the priest took the torch with his gnarled right hand and addressed the confluence thus:
“Man cometh to the world and man shalt leave it when his time is due. James, here, lived among us for many a year, and now he has to leave us for another, much better, place. Let us sear our tears with fire and joy; for it is a happy event for the soul, not a sorrowful one.” The driarch, having said that, inserted the torch in the blazes and took it out burning sprightly. Then he moved towards the pyre, torch in hand. Before he lowered it down, he incanted:
Let the fire purge the flesh,
Let it burn the hard sin,
Release the wretched soul,
And anon make it fresh.
Hear me! Death comes to all,
We struggle and resist,
Then our time runs out
And we answer its call.
The blazes engulfed the pyre swiftly, many feet high they soared, warming the cold afternoon. Aileen could feel the heat burning her cheeks. Indeed it dried up her tears and helped warm up her heart a little even though it was her own father burning out there. That was the end and there was nothing in the world she could do to prevent it. For better or worse, she had to accept it as it was. However, she wouldn’t forget why he died and what he died for. She would do what it took to continue her father’s mission. And staying with aunt Sophie would not help her in accomplishing this. There had to be another way and she would have to find it. And she would have to find it soon, very soon.