Ashes to Ashes
by MP Ericson
It came at last, the rain. I sat on the earth floor of the hut, gazing at the wall of grey outside. Drops the size of my hand beat against the swirl of reddish mud, splattering through the doorway, drumming on the roof.
Tulu brought the rain. I was grateful. I was sad.
My mother called me back to the grinding-stone. An endless labour awaited me, rubbing stone against base, feeling the chunks that lay between them crack and shrink and finally whisper into dust.
We all took turns. My sisters had done their share of the grinding. Now they were mixing the dust with clay from the ocean of mud outside, shaping it into bowls, painting them with images of sun and moon and sea, and of Tulu dancing the Firebird. The bowls would stand along one wall to dry, before we took them to the firepit to be baked. Then we would use them, for many long years, remembering Tulu every time we touched them. Part of him would still be with us, while his spirit flew on the wings of the wind, bringing the rain.
He was always the best dancer. Not the best hunter: the other men laughed at him and called him clumsy, told him to save his spear for his wife. Not the most handsome: even I could see that. Other young men were taller, stronger, darker of eye. My body told me they looked better. I told it they did not.
But his dances were the best. Rain came when he called it; so in its turn did the sun. Men swore the prey would come and lie at their feet after Tulu danced the Hunt.
Three long turns of the seasons he danced life for us. Then he failed. The rain did not come, not though we all danced and danced until we dropped. Earth dried and cracked and crumbled, like over-baked bowls. Fruits fell unformed from the trees; roots withered; the huntsmen found no prey.
Tulu left. He took nothing, not even his spear. He simply walked through the village and into the gloom of the forest, and was gone.
I asked my mother where he was. She told me not to think of him.
I tried to obey, but I could not. I wondered where he was and how he felt, if he was ill, if he was sad. I wanted to tell him that no one could have done more, that if the rain would not come it was not his fault.
Six nights he was gone. Endless dark nights, while our village baked like a bowl at the bottom of the firepit. I lay awake, staring into the darkness, thinking of him.
On the seventh day he returned, thin and dried, with fire in his eyes. He called the council of elders, and told them he would dance the Firebird.
They told him not to. I heard them arguing, all the way from where they sat in the centre of the village. They said there was no need; we were not starving yet. The rain might be late, but it would come. He must be patient, they said. He must learn to wait.
Tulu listened. I did not hear his voice for a long time, only those of the elders. At length there was a silence. I was happy, because I thought they had convinced him. I thought he would stay with us and not leave to seek the wind.
Then he spoke again, quietly and briefly. I did not hear the words, but I heard the silence that followed, and I knew what he had said.
That night Tulu danced the Firebird. The girls and women of the village were sent to gather all the dry grass and branches we could. The men and boys remained to work with Tulu, singing to him, praising him. When the darkness had covered us, the firepit was filled with all the fuel we had gathered. Flames blazed up towards the sky. Tulu danced among us. His body was painted with intricate patterns; his hands and feet bled from the cuts he had made, his eyes were wild with fire. He touched me for the first and only time, left the seal of his blood on my forehead, added my spirit-prayer to his.
At last he leapt into the flames. A scream tore through the baking air and cracked the crumbling earth. His body writhed, dancing death for us. His spirit rose with the flames, flew towards the sky and sought the wind.
We waited until the fire had burned down, watched in silence through the long night, let our thoughts fly with Tulu. When the sun rose merciless over the shining sea, the elders began to sift through the warm ashes of the firepit. They gathered Tulu’s bones with reverent hands, and each elder’s wife came forward to receive her share. The men had done their work. It was time for the women to do theirs. We returned to our huts in silence, sat down on our earth floors and began the long day’s work at our grinding-stones.
My sisters had done their share. My mother called me to do mine.
It came then, the rain. As if a vast cloud descended from the sky, covering the parched earth. Great drops beat against the ground, like Tulu’s feet when he was dancing.
I took my place at the grinding-stone and felt the last of Tulu’s bones crack and shrink under my hands. I worked to the rhythm of the rain as it drummed on the roof, thought of Tulu dancing for me alone.
When the last sliver of bone had been ground — when the last bowl had been shaped and painted and left to dry — I went outside. I stood in front of the hut, felt the rich mud slither over my feet and Tulu’s mark weep from my face. I raised my smeared and dusty hands towards the sky, let the rain beat over my head and arms and body, drenching through my skin.
I could see nothing. Not even the huts around me. I stood alone in an ocean, fresh and clean and life-giving, grey like ash.
MP Ericson has lived in Sweden, Trinidad, and Tanzania, but is now settled in northern England. She writes novels and short stories.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish