When someone dies, the body is first severed at the head. The torso and limbs are smoked through the orifices to remove any trace of living beings, to sanitize it. Then the body is coated with a special mud mixture, made with real mud from a revered body of water nearby, such as the local river. This mud-coated body is covered again and again in wrappings that hold it together and that will allow it to decompose slowly at the bottom of the river, adding nutrients without disturbing the purity of the water.
The head, however, is different. The head is the seat of our knowledge, our emotions, our hearts, our souls, and must be preserved. Though it, too, is smoked, it is with reverence and prized herbs. Each head then has an elaborate funeral, first where people come to see it, until it is stored away.
I turn away when they call me, trying in vain to stifle the sobs with my hands. They keep coming, the sadness leaking down from my heart into my eyes. I cannot be at the viewing.
Later, though, sister-mom comes and tells me his head will be put in the storage morgue. I nod, barely listening, feeling the weight of something small in my hand. She closes my fingers over it and whispers, “It’s up to you to take care of him.” I fall asleep clutching it, holding on for dear life, and dream dreams of swimming in the cool, mud-filled river.
Seven afternoons later, I sit on my knees by the public well, the square water a beautiful muddy color, and sip and splash water on my face. No one sits close, all of them crowded around the other three sides. I leave the info cube on the grass and walk up to the shade of a tree on the hill. A girl picks it up and brings it to me. “téuqęt uin”* she asks, dropping down beside me. I nod, the square sitting in the palm of my hand. “téuqęt metım”* she asks, curious, her newling face bright. I hold it up, one side deep brown, the color of death. “My father-friend,” I reply, managing a sad smile. Her face looks sad, and concerned, then breaks into a bright smile. “Father-friends are the best!” she says, bouncing on her hands to stand up. I look at the cube, empty, soulless. “The best,” I agree.
That evening I head down to the morgue. Room after room is filled, dating back a millennium of more. The heads of the early prophets lie here along with neighbors and friends. It is rumored that even șipac̦a, the god, has a head here hidden away. I will never know. I find the qamak̦a room, my family’s space, turning the cube over and over in my hand.
The woman who presides over this room finds his cubicle and palms the door open. The head slides out – the first time I have seen it. I am flooded with memories: the gasp of astonishment in his face each time I came home, the pinch of his hands under mine when he lifted me, the soil-cakes we baked and ate together, the river races, the times simply sitting, watching him write page after page.
Again, I stifle a sudden sob and tears drip onto my clothes. The woman smiles sympathetically, but gently moves her arm in front of me so I take a step back. It would be disastrous to sully the remains with my tears.
When I have had a look, she slides the cover over his head, until all that remains is the small portal on the side. She nods at me to begin.
I put the cube in the slot. For the briefest of moments, I recall a smile from his face, full of teeth, whiter than the morning sky. Then it is gone, and the cube blinks, the red light indicating the transfer has begun.
The woman brings me a chair, and a screen. Across the screen, images and words flit so fast I barely catch them. But I see small brown legs, and shiny toothy smiles, and muddy splashing water. I know it is him. I know I am there, too.
I sit here for twelve hours, a vigil of watching my father’s memories being preserved forever. When it is done, I pull the cube out, turning it again in my hand. The woman gives me a rhasa-grass lanyard to thread through a tiny hole in the corner, and I pull the necklace over my head.
I place my hand on the open cubicle, sending warmth through my fingers. For a moment, the tips of my fingers glow with the warmth, as I leave a piece of my thoughts, my heart, with him.
Notes: in the constructed language șaimıq (shy-mick) [Shamcian]
téuqęt uin – is it yours?
téuqęt metım – whose is it?
— rani Jayakumar lives with her family in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has been in Honeyguide Magazine, Ab Terra, Secret Attic, Vine Leaves Press, and her upcoming novella will be published by Running Wild Press. More work can be found at okachiko.wordpress.com. The constructed language of șaimıq (shy-mick), or Shamcian, was created by Revikens.