My first encounter with Old Man Death was when I was five or six, and Ma called us all together with grave news.
“Lambs,” she said, and we could see she was upset. “I have to tell thee all something.”
But she couldn’t, so it fell on Uncle Khain.
“It’s your Babu,” he said solemnly. “He’s dying.”
“That’s crazy,” said Soch. “He’s perfectly fit. What’s wrong with him?”
And indeed it seemed incredible. Ma and Khain’s father (Naron was his real name, though I never knew it till after he was gone) lived upslope from us and was one of the heartiest members of the community, stronger than most men half his age, with a booming voice and a laugh to match. When ploughing time came, he was out there behind the ox, at reaping it was he who collected the most, his day’s cuttings filling 3 sacks for anyone else half his age’s 2.
It was a mystery to us that such a one could have sired the sour Khain, but we figured that was due more to his wife, Ma’s Ma Yaya Nalia. She was his contrary in every way: tiny, wicked, sharp-tongued, and we marvelled that Babu hadn’t throttled her years ago.
“Sit up!” she’d tell me, when she imagined I’d committed some social sin. “The Lords hate a sloucher. Look at Soch, straight as a rod. Thinkst thou They favour thee because thou canst write? They want devotion, not poetical gibberish. See Derdekea? She does her chores happily and respects her elders”—news to me!—”and Elorchaios, what a hard worker! I vow thou’dst rather find an easy way than eat” and so on. Everyone else stronger or smarter or more versed in the Ways than I, who was basically a parasite living off the hard-won travails of my much superior siblings.
How could she feel so? I asked Them. Was I not the most attentive to her incessant demands, always bringing her food she couldn’t even eat (she had a thing in her throat) but pretended to for pride’s sake, or people might think she was mostway to Mot’s already and, Lords forbid, pity her (not much chance of that in this town). To be frank, life in Gitta is not terribly hard, except at planting and harvest times, but to hear her tell it we were never more than a day from utter devastation at any given time: someone (to be specific, me) would commit some horrible crime, however inadvertently, and curse us all to who knew what devastating fate? The Lords would either flood or starve or dry us to death; the Romans (or the Shechemites or the Parthians or…) would massacre us all just for fun. Her detailed descriptions of what could conceivably go wrong because I, sole doomed grandchild amidst all these paragons, fucked up epically, gave me shivers when I listened to it and nightmares afterwards.
At least they did until the day I heard her berating Derde in private with exactly the same exhortation. The rest of the sibs she described in familiar terms, but this time it was I who was the shining exemplar, whose erudition and devotion to learning would allow me to far outrise the rest, especially Derde, whose chance of landing a non-half-dead, undrunken husband with more than two mites in his purse shrank perceptibly every time she dared talk to her dear grandmother—whom she well knew only had her best interests at heart—like that!
I was outraged at her deception at first, but what could I do? I couldn’t complain to Ma. Obviously she knew her own Ma and figured it was good for us. Or maybe she’d lived through it herself and never learned the truth… in which case it would cause a fine row between them. Tempting, but Ma didn’t need that. So I just shut up and thenceforth just took the old sow’s shit in silence and ignored her the rest of the time. I wasn’t going to tell the others what I had learned, figuring they probably needed the instruction, and if they thought I was better in every way than they were, that couldn’t hurt either. On second thought, though, I realized that Yaya’s comparisons would only make them hate me as much as I had them before I discovered the truth. So I did tell most of them—except Soch: we all agreed that he could only benefit from someone ripping down his high opinion of himself. But alas, even she couldn’t do that.
Anyway, Babu. Where Yaya was mean and petty, he was cheerful, expansive, always quick with a jab when you did something wrong; not nasty, though, just enough to make you feel utterly horrible and determined never to do it again, while still laughing. As I said he was always so strong and hale, but in the last couple of months he’d been suffering gut pains, bad ones, and in the last week that ruddy face was getting pretty pale. He ate, but couldn’t keep it down, and he started to get skinny. Pirhah came over and looked at him and just shook her head. I asked what about the Doctors? but no. And one day he was just gone.
Yaya took it hard. We were a bit surprised at this, as I don’t think I ever heard her say a loving word to him, though he seemed to adore her and would do anything for her. Indeed, he was the only one who could calm her down when her nattering and gossip got too much for even his good nature. “Now Nalia, dostn’t think that’s a little harsh? Not worthy of thee at all, my dear.” And she’d shut up for a while, or at least until he was out of earshot.
Not this time though. She wailed and moaned as loud as I’ve ever heard, ripped her hair, her clothes; rolled about in the ashes on the hearth and paraded her grief so loudly that I just wanted to say “Gods, get over it, Granny! Everybody’s already seen how sad you are. Why don’t you just go grieve quietly in the closet?” but as long as she was wailing she wasn’t bugging us about imaginary sins, so I didn’t. Of course I was sad too, we all were. He’d been a great companion to us lambs, taking us out gathering honey or trapping locusts and showing us all the things in nature like the stars and all. It’s a terrible thing, but I felt worse when he died than I did for my own Ba, whom after all I hardly knew.
Ma took us to see him before he was shrouded. Before he died he’d looked small, shriveled, so unlike himself, but now laid out on the altar he seemed hardly human, like the mummies Ba told us about in Egypt, something you’d make out of sticks to scare the birds. He’d been tall, and that was even more obvious when laid out at full length.
“Kiss him,” whispered Derde.
I looked again at the pale husk of a man before me. Where are you now, Babu? I bent and kissed his mouth, so cold on my lips, and I felt suddenly terrified. I’ll never live to look like that, I thought…
At that point Yaya ceased her ululations and got down to business. The girls were assigned to cooking, the boys to decoration, and within an hour everything was wake-shape. I was sent round to get everyone over to her cave, where she broke out the funeral victuals and we all feasted. I had my first taste of wine and found it totally disgusting, so gorged on honeyed locusts instead in his honour. Everyone cried and drank and laughed and told each other what a great guy he was indeed, and remembered fondly that time he did that really funny | smart | kind | dumb thing with | for | to them | old Phaios | that woman down… no, that was you, Nalia…wasn’t it? And she actually smiled (not a Yaya thing to do at all) and joined in the dance of the dead, though Ma had to lead her out of the circle before she got too into it. When it came to the actual rite, Khain was totally broken up and couldn’t do it, so Pirhah stepped in and led us all in a fine chorus of Wing On. Then she oiled him and wrapped him, and Soch and the boys carried him up the narrow path to Grave Cave, followed by all of us with our kits, chanting as we went.
The cave is a big one, but used to be a lot bigger. You go in though a short tunnel in the rock face directly above town, which slopes down into a great open space, with pillars of dripping rock everywhere. Even with half of us carrying lamps, there’s no way the light can penetrate to the far end, which Khain explained was directly connected to Mot’s realm. Babu would still be here until the final prayer released him and he went off, or possibly not.
The lads carried him to his spot. It was already dug, right beside Shenioe, Ma’s friend who’d died a-birthing a couple of months back, and her husband took the opportunity to have a bit of a communion with her now as we all said a last goodbye to Babu. And once the rite was done, the mementos deposited (mine was a little lizard he’d whittled for me from a sheep’s thighbone) and himself covered with the dirt we’d brought from his allotment, everyone wandered about the cave, locating the markers of their best-loved friends and relations and leaving them a little something too.
But Yaya just stood looking down at the mound of dirt that once was her man. I would have gone up to her, tried to comfort her, but had no idea what to say. Suddenly she knelt, then lay down full length in the next gravespot and reached under the new dirt to touch his hidden shroud, and she smiled. And when she did that, Khain suddenly came to life, and with whispered commands gathered everyone together, and we left her there in the sudden darkness.
She was in there all night, and the next day and night too but, to our disappointment, the morning after that there she was at the cave entrance, just standing there looking in with a strange expression on her face, and looking about half her already tiny size. Ma jumped up and ran to her.
“Ma, are you all right?”
She didn’t answer. Ma took her hand and led her in, sat her down and offered her bread and broth, but she didn’t eat, just sat there staring. We looked at each other, dreading what would come next. And it did.
“Lambs,” said Ma, and we knew she didn’t want to say it, but what could she do? “Yaya is going to be staying with us now…”
“What?” cried Derde furiously. “She can’t…”
“She can and will,” said Ma firmly. “Thou canst see thyself she’s in no shape to be alone now. She needs us, and I want thee all to be thy best as long as she’s here. The Lords have taken her man, and we all have to be here for her.”
Elios spoke up: “But why can’t Khain…?”
“He can’t even look after himself. She needs a family. Us.”
Derde opened her mouth and closed it and started to open it again but stopped, because when Ma was firm like that, there was no saying no. It was bad enough when she was with Babu, but the thought of her being around all the time, with her spite and her malice and her lies, was too much. Why didn’t the old bat just stay up in the cave where she belonged? we thought.
As it turned out, though, she had. Part of her anyway, the worst part, was still back there with Babu’s earthly remains, and I thought lucky him that he was gone to Mot’s and didn’t have to deal with that any more. All that came back from Grave Cave was a sad old woman, who all she could do was sit in the corner back of the cave rocking slowly. At first this was a welcome change, but as the days went on we almost missed the wicked old Yaya, and took turns acting as outrageously as possible in her presence, trying to get a rise out of her. A shriek of rage, a sharp rebuke of posture or etiquette, a hackneyed proverb on the consequences of not acting exactly according to the Ways; any of these would have been an improvement on the utter passivity which was all she had to offer now. But our efforts were all to naught; if she was even aware of them, she gave no sign.
Eventually we gave up and just accepted her presence as if she were one of the beasts. We all took turns feeding her, and Ma and the girls tended to her more intimate needs, and the rest of the time it was like she wasn’t even there. For a while, Khain was a regular visitor, sitting with her for hours talking, but eventually his visits dwindled and he, like the rest of us, just left her alone in her own little head.
So it was quite a surprise, about a month after Babu left, when she suddenly started talking. I was alone in the cave, well except for Yaya so yes, alone. Ma was out washing and the others were out wherever, and I was reading one of Ba’s books, the Song of Troy, when I heard a quiet voice coming from the back corner. A woman’s voice, but it didn’t sound like Yaya. I looked up and yes, it was indeed my grandma, sitting facing the altar at the back wall where we keep He and She, and burn the herbs when we have special intentions. Now behind that altar there’s a deep recess in the rock, too narrow for anything but storing planting tools; how far into the mountain it goes we could never determine. Sometimes there’s a little draught coming out of it, and Khain figures it hooks up with other tunnels that may or may not connect with Mot’s.
So Yaya was in front of the altar, and she was talking. To Them? I crept forward to hear. As I said, it didn’t sound like her at all, more like a besotted young girl whispering to her boy.
“…into the light, I beg thee. I must see thee, my handsome love. Don’t hide from thy dearest one.”
I listened hard, but could hear no reply. She did though.
“I know, I know, but…”
“No I’m not afraid. I’d burn for thee, thou knowst that. But how?”
“I can’t, there’s a boy here.”
“I don’t know. They call him Shim. There’s a foolish woman lives here too. She calls me Ma. Canst imagine? I’ve not even known thee yet.”
“A whole tribe of them. They keep me here and treat me like a child. Why do they do that, my love?”
“Nor I. All I know is I must see thee. Please, show thy face!”
Was there a movement in that dark behind the idols? A flicker from the lamp, no more? Or…
“Yes! There thou art! But still in shadow. Step out where I can see thy beauty, I’m imploring thee! How can I wed one who hides from me?”
But who- or Whoever it was didn’t or couldn’t do as she asked, or even give further answer, for her passionate importunings proved in vain, and eventually she gave up and sank back into her wonted torpidity.
I assumed it was Babu she was conversing with, back to give her some comfort before heading down. And so thought the others when I told them about it, and when they saw it for themselves. For her conversations at the crack in the wall grew more frequent, initiated without warning as we went about our daily work or sat to sup, or in the middle of her feedings or the middle of the night, when we’d be awakened by a high laugh at something her dark love had said, or a despairing wail when he declined to step out into her yearning gaze.
Until one morning she started uttering the strangest moanings, and when we looked her body was stiff as stone and she was apparently scratching an uncontrollable itch between her thighs. Soch chortled, and Ma hastily herded us all outside. “She needs privacy, the poor thing,” she said, and didn’t let us back in until she was sure that itch was well and truly scratched.
Unfortunately it returned the next day, and had apparently spread to her whole body, for she now found the feel of fabric intolerable and felt compelled to strip herself wholly bare before indulging in her scratching session, all the while imploring the lurker in the crevice for the Gods’ sake to please please come out from the shadows and help her out, she was aflame for his kiss, his caress… We were barred from home half the day this time, and this time Ma was less sympathetic. She called Khain and Pirhah together for an urgent conference, which I really shouldn’t have been listening to.
“Dost think it’s really him?” asked Khain.
“Hard to say,” said Pirhah. “If he were just coming back for her, thou’dst think he’d simply come out and show himself, and off they’d go to Mot’s together. He wouldn’t be playing coy and teasing her like that. An incubus is my guess.”
“Or she misses him so much she’s conjuring him up from her own desire,” said Ma.
“Could be,” mused Pirhah. “Does it matter? We’ve got to do something about her. She’s getting unseemly.”
“If it is a daemon, someone needs to cast him out,” said Ma. “Thou couldst do it.”
“Well I could try, but then what? If she snaps out of it now and remembers all, she’s going to be mortified.”
“It only matters,” said Khain, “if she does snap out of it. She should be with him. It’s not right that she…”
“…outlive her man?” retorted Ma.
“Thou knowst what I mean,” said Khain gently. “At her age, in her state of mind…”
Ma sighed. “Yes, of course. Thou’st got reason. So… what?”
It didn’t take long to decide what, or to implement the chosen solution. Ma called us in and explained our part in it, while Pirhah went back to her place for some soporifics, Khain to his for his best vintage, and we had a final sendoff for our Yaya. At which time she became almost tolerable, and after a couple of bowls actually perked up a little, looking around benevolently at all these strangers in her cave, while keeping half an eye on the darkness at back; she obviously hoped her phantom lover would join the festivities. When she noticed this, Ma hurried to cover the crevice with the screen, and Yaya looked away. Suddenly she appeared confused, alarmed.
“I’m here, Ma,” said Ma.
“Rachal dear, what’s happening?”
“We’re having a little party for you. You were so sad, and we wanted to cheer you up.”
Yaya’s eyes widened in dismay as she remembered.
“Your Ba’s dead.”
“And I… I’ve been acting silly, haven’t I?”
“Just a little. It’s natural when you’re sad. But you’re feeling better now.”
She considered that for a moment.
“Yes, I am. Could I take a titch more wine?”
Ma hastened to refill her bowl, supplementing it this time with Pirhah’s special herbs, and she drank it slowly, savouring every sip, and we savoured it with her. When she was done, she looked over at the two pallets we’d prepared for her, the one on the floor and the other up against the wall beside it, and yawned conspicuously.
“I think I might… would it be all right if I lay down for a bit? That wine’s gone right to my head.”
Ma lowered her head.
“Of course, Ma. Let us help you.” And we watched as Yaya’s two children guided her to her bed. As she knelt to lie down, she picked up a handful of the narcissus petals we’d strewn over it and sniffed them deeply. “My favourites! How lovely!” and she rubbed them all over her face. “Naron always said I smelled sweet enough. But a woman should always be at her best.”
“He’ll love it,” said Ma, and kissed her. She lay down on the mattress, folded her hands over her breast, and closed her eyes, smiling. And when the herbs took effect and she started snoring, Khain gestured to me and Soch, and we took down the second mattress, the thicker one, and carefully laid it over top of her. Then we all climbed on and drank a last toast to our grandparents. I half feared she might revert to form and start struggling, berating us for ungrateful louts, but she didn’t. I did keep watch on the crevice behind the altar, though, for any sign of her departure. Did the screen waver a little? Maybe. Maybe not. All we knew was when we stood up again and raised the mattress, she was gone for real, and we took her up to Grave Cave one last time and laid her down, hand in hand with her man forever.