“I wanted to see you. One last time,” Mamun said, from her bed.
Her face and hair was older beyond her years. The exhaustion had plagued for too long. There was no escaping death.
Hajra could only imagine the nights, over and over while death haunted her. Morning after morning, waking after little sleep to care for Hajra and her siblings. There was very little to her mother left.
“Tonight I’m going to give in, Hajra. You understand, but your brothers and sisters do not,” Mamun said.
“Mother, yes. Thinking about it now. I do not know how you lasted this long,” Hajra told her.
There were no tears. Mamun had changed so much, and Hajra would keep the memory of her. Hajra had accustomed herself to the knowledge that her mother was already dead, and doomed to get worse.
Mamun smiled, “I knew you would understand. I just needed to know that things were going to be different. I could not leave you like before.”
“I understand. But all those years. You must be so tired,” Hajra told her.
“Yes,” Mamun sighed, her eyes closing for a bit too long, “I long for it so badly. The rest.”
“You should rest. You have done so much. So many times you have been a good mother despite the curse,” Hajra said.
“You do not seem sad, my daughter,” Mamun smirked.
“I made peace with your death long ago. After the curse, and after I understood, I knew where you were headed. And I knew that death was a relief to a life of suffering. There is no shame in ending after your task is completed,” Hajra bowed her head slightly.
Mamun blinked rapidly. Tears rolled from her eyes but she smiled.
“I am so happy to hear you say this. Hajra, my youngest, I yearn to sleep so much I can hardly stand it. You have given me support in the highest kind,” Mamun reached out her hand.
Hajra grabbed her mother’s hand and held tight. Only now did she feel the pangs of regret, loss, and sadness.
“You will not see me move on. You will not meet my husband. You will not see me…”
“Bring the light to our misguided people,” Mamun interjected with a growling tone.
“Yes, mother,” Hajra nodded.
“Sing to me,” Mamun asked, relaxing in her bed.
Hajra held onto her mother’s hand, and clutched it with the other. Her mother’s grasp was nothing.
“Mother, I do not think…”
“Please. Ease the passing. I know it hurts, but think of the relief, the peace, the solace,” Mamun reassured, closing her eyes.
Hajra swallowed her sadness and began to hum a lullaby. The only memory she could use were the ones that Mamun would sing to her as a child.
There were long tones that shifted gradually. There were words picked for their peaceful nature. Brooks, rushing water, telling stories: they all flowed fluidly into a melody with too much sadness to be calming.
Hajra doubted if it mattered. Her mother was so tired she could have fallen asleep in the middle of a battle.
Within a minute she knew that Mamun had finally embraced death. Her mother’s body remained still.
Hajra stood up, recited the prayer of death to her mother and left the room.
The family was waiting in the sitting room. Her two middle sisters cried against each other. Kilde sat with Beliv, the two of them in quiet contemplation.
Charyk stood, and met with Hajra. The two embraced.
“I heard your song. You did well,” He said softly into her ear.
Upon her return to the sitting room, there was a time of grief. The two middle sisters reacted to their mother’s death like Hajra thought they would. There was denial, anger, accusations. Hajra took it all in stride, knowing that it would only be a few minutes before they would apologize and grow curious to the nature of her death.
Hajra told them of the glowing eyes, the pain, and the fear. And how constant it was. Every night, for years. Abidya and Liruz fought her the whole way, interrupting her. Kilde would silence them.
Beliv, who had been silent, spoke up during a lull.
“We have to burn the house,” he said, without looking up.
The talking stopped. No one reacted. With no money, and no one to lend them any, a traditional Sowd funeral was impossible.
“We must take what we can,” Charyk said, “Gather your things. But only what you can carry.”
He and Beliv rose up.
“Why?” Liruz spoke up, “Why!? She is dead, and now we make ourselves homeless!?”
The two men began to root through the house, making sacks out of bedclothes, filling them with items of sentimental value. They did not respond to Liruz.
“Liruz!” Hajra spoke, “You would have our mother be buried? The earth is frozen! It would take days. We would be out of water. Out of food. We would join her, and we would not be buried.”
“What will we do? We are alive!?” Liruz’ voice rose.
Kilde approached her younger sister, placing both hands on her shoulders, bending her knees to get on eye level with her protesting sister.
“Did you love your mother?” Kilde asked. Her face was stern.
“Of course,” Liruz said.
“We show this by a proper burial. Like the old ones,” Kilde said.
“The boat funeral?” Abidya asked.
“Like the boat funeral,” Hajra said.
“But with no boat?” Liruz added.
“It’s all we have to give,” Kilde said.
“It is all we have!” Liruz screeched.
Hajra stood up, took a deep breath and began.
“So we give this to our mother, who has given us so much, even with the curse of death upon her! I long for sleep every night! I came close! Many times. She went for years! Years! Every night death would look into her eyes, offer her solace and sleep, and she said no. She did this for you!” Hajra screamed, “You have no idea! None! Death looks into me every night, and already I long for its embrace! Only after a few months!”
Liruz’ face teared up. She looked to her sisters for any sympathy or help. Only Abidya gave her a semblance of solace, with a touch to her sister’s shoulder.
“I want to die,” Liruz said between sobs.
“It is,” Hajra sighed, “a sad time.”
“It will get better,” Kilde added.
“How? How could it get any better!?” Liruz said.
It shook everyone, to hear her speak such a miserable thought.
“We will find…” Kilde began.
“Find what!? A house? A new mother? We are marked, in case you have forgotten! Where can we go? People spit on us, and now you want to destroy the only safe place we can stay! The house too! She would want us to be safe! She would want us to be safe,” Liruz trailed off into sobs.
Abidya comforted her, looking back at her siblings.
“She is right about that. Where will we go?” she said.
“The tavern,” Charyk said.
He was at the doorway to the sitting room, with a large sack. The children looked to him for more words. Beliv filed in behind him with another sack of belongings.
“We go to the tavern. Warriv will understand. He will let us stay there for the night,” Charyk said.
“The tavern?” Liruz asked softly.
“Yes,” Charyk said strongly, “Now grab your coats. Your things. We are doing the burning.”
“It is my house! I built it with these hands! I will do with it what I wish! We will afford your mother a queen’s burial!” he took a deep breath, centered himself and continued, “Abidya, help your sister with her things and let us go.”
Liruz began wailing.
“Move!” Beliv seconded his father’s words.
Tears and wailing left the house. Hajra kept her composure as best she could to keep her sisters’ resolve high.
The boat funeral was something reserved for martyrs, royalty or high ranking officers. It was a massive sign of respect for the dead. The body was placed on a small boat, specially made by a loved one. It had to be done in a matter of a day or two. The craftsmanship was important, and it was an embarrassment if the boat should sink before its time. It would be cast off from the shore, with hay surrounding the body. An archer would launch a flaming arrow from the shore, and the body would be burned.
The ritual made it impossible for reanimation. Hajra had thought it was a powerful message to death. That they are somehow above death. But now, with death’s words to her, she saw it as a truly peaceful funeral. Death would be proud.
They had no boat, but Charyk had toiled to build the house. It was his own sweat and pain, and he made the choice to offer it to his wife, in death.
Their father made a gesture with his hand, “It is all I have, Mamun, and you deserve it all.”
Beliv used one of the lanterns from inside. He removed the candle, and held it to the underside of the thatched roof. When it caught, he backed away, joining the rest of the family as they watched.
“Mamun,” Charyk said, as the flames grew, “I offer my toil. Be at peace. I will find another place for the family.”
It only took a few moments for the flames to spread. Abidya and Liruz began to quiet down, and the family watched their home, with the body of their mother at peace in her bed, burn.
Hajra placed a hand on her chest, and said a prayer to her mother.
“I feel my life-rhythm. Thank you for your gifts, your melodies will live on through me.”
They embraced each other, brothers and sisters. Charyk separated himself from his children for a time, grieving on his own. When the flames ceased, and the clearing grew dark, their father came to them and ushered them towards the town.
There was no speaking apart from prayers.
The Tavern was owned by the only person to give Hajra’s family the faintest amount of respect. Many times the man had met with Mamun in the night to trade, without the fear of an effect on his reputation.
Charyk went behind the place, pulling a small string that went to the tavern owner’s bedroom. A lantern moved, and after a short time, Warriv appeared from the back door.
“Mamun is gone,” Charyk told him.
The man nodded in solace, and then looked around.
“You can stay in the barn; I’ll get you some blankets. Make sure you’re out by first light, otherwise I cannot help you,” Warriv told them.
In the cold, amidst the hay, the six of them laid under the same blankets to sleep. Moments later they were fading away, with only Hajra staring up at the ceiling.
Would her mother be there, in her dreams? Would she meet with death?
An hour passed before her body would not allow her to be awake. For the first time in a while, there was rest. But her eyes moved and her muscles twitched. In her sleep, death formed over her. This time, though, it rested a farther away than before. It swirled in a way that did not seem angry or vengeful. The god of death and Hajra looked back at each other for a time. She did not feel its pull, and relished the small moment as much as she could.
Death said it, but without words or motion. The word simply fell into her thoughts, not as a spelled, or heard, but felt. After death was satisfied that it had been understood, it faded away and left Hajra to sleep. She was confused, and afraid to let her guard down, for fear that she would be taken. Her body waved this anxiety away with the apparent disappearance of danger. She slept peacefully through the night.
“Wake up, my daughter!” Charyk said.
Hajra’s eyes opened like the gate of a castle. No fluttering, no sharpness of breath. If not for her father’s pained glance, she might have wept with joy for the respite.
“Hajra! You’re alive,” he hugged her.
Behind him, the rest of her family looked on with relief.
“What’s the matter?” she asked them.
“You were still. We thought you finally gave up and let death take you,” Beliv said.
“Death came to me, like every night. But it gave me a word,” Hajra said, smiling.
Everyone froze. Death had not spoken to anyone since the time of the first siren.
“You communed with death directly?” Charyk asked.
“Not quite,” she sat up, “It gave me only one word. North.”
“Why?” Liruz whispered.
“You’re sister has been chosen for something great,” Kilde said.
They all knew, and they all knew Liruz would not ignore what needed to be said.
“Death does not take interest in people. Why our family? Why now? What are we supposed to do about this?”
“Endure,” Charyk said, “Just as always. Hajra must go to meet death in the north and we must find our way.”
Beliv entered the barn, “We have to go. Warriv is stalling his wife but she is upset.”
The family gathered the blankets and sacks of belongings. They left Warriv’s blankets folded neatly over a railing, with a small amount of gold as thanks. On their way out, a group left the tavern with travelling gear. They gave Hajra’s family a stern and discerning glare, and headed into the south.
“Father,” Hajra ushered him apart from the rest, “You accept my words so willingly.”
“You are my daughter. If I abandoned you now, what precedence would I set for the others?”
“Father I…” she was cut off.
Charyk put his hands on her shoulders, bending his knees to be at even height.
“Hajra, you will bring honor to our family. Mamun saw it, and although I am not a siren I listened to your mother tell me the plight of her duty,” Charyk said.
“You are Hajra Neimev, and you have communed with death, you have shown the bravery of a thousand warriors, and you have endured fear, pain, and betrayal the lengths of which most cannot imagine. But,” he smiled, “You are not done. Make them see. Continue your mother’s work.”
Hajra wept, standing in the road. Charyk embraced her, and one by one her brothers and sisters joined.
“Thank you,” Hajra croaked.
“We are united. Our aura will follow you to the north, and the music of our hearts beats within yours,” Beliv recanted.
She wiped her eyes, “What about you? Where will you go?”
Her family looked at each other with confusion and a hint of fear, except for Kilde and Charyk.
“We are leaving. We are not safe here in the Sowd lands. There are rumors that in the south, those who are scorned by the Sowd are welcome. They can find jobs, and live in relative peace and safety. Look for us after your pilgrimage is complete,” Kilde said.
With her confidence, the two middle girls grew less fearful, and approached their younger sister.
“I am sorry,” Liruz said.
“For what, sister?” Hajra asked.
“For everything. I did not know. I did not understand. Death’s eyes, following you,” she exhaled, “I would have treated you better. I would not have acted the way I did.”
“Me either,” Abidya added, her chin tucked to her chest, staring at the ground
They were regretful, and Hajra never thought she would see the time when they would apologize for anything.
“Thank you. It is good to know I have your confidence, too,” Hajra said.
“Here,” Beliv handed her a small sheathed blade.
His thrusting arm surprised her, and Beliv laughed at her flinch.
“You may need this,” he said.
“I’ve never used a blade before,” she said.
“Aim for their life-rhythm and the fight will be over before it began,” he nodded.
“Listen for death, my child,” Charyk said, “It will be your guide. Return to us safely or you will never hear the end of my complaints in the afterlife.”
Hajra sniffled; her lip began to quiver again.
“You could have left. Spared yourself this pain,” Hajra said to her father.
“What a despicable man I would be to do such a thing,” Charyk smiled.
“Oh, father,” she embraced him like a child, letting herself be lost in the moment.
He patted her back gently, and then pushed her away like a bird releasing its young to fly for the first time.
She centered herself, straightened her back and turned from her family.
“The God of Death guides you,” Beliv said.
As she walked from her family, Hajra attached the sheathed blade to her belt.
The road was long and dangerous, and would shift with each rest. She would need all the luck she could get, and she still was unsure of death’s intention for her. But with each step, Hajra grew more determined to see this through.