“I was not there when I died, but she remembers everything. These words are my words, though I never spoke them. The one who saw it happen was not me. She remembers falling into the clear light and then rising, like an arrow shot from the heart. She saw it all and gave it to me as a gift, open-handed.
I was sixteen when it happened. There was a sickness taking many souls. They say I took ill and mother cared for me. I became weak and lost touch with living. They told me I lay dead for five days, but of course, I wasn’t there. I know it sounds odd, but it was the easiest thing in the world. “I” ceased to be. She told me that the everyday world dropped away and our soul drifted from room to room of our hut and out the roof. It was like falling asleep and then waking to another life.
There was no boundary, no separation. Death was our guide. The god showed us the palaces of fear and of joy, and gave her truths to share with the living. There was the wonder of just pure being, soaring on the gulfs of air.
The choice to come back was not mine, it was hers. She told me she could not stay and explore, she must return or go on. Wishing to do more was impossible. Wanting to share this bliss brought our body back. Floating back, falling back was a beautiful pain. Waking to new life was its own revelation.
They come to me now as if I am her. All day she must sit with their fears and questions. Unlike us, the seekers live under the power of death. Since we have died, we fear death no longer. I feel useless without her wisdom, and so I withdraw. Her spirit lives within me, but I do not fear her. It is she who comes from beyond to answer their endless requests, she who sits and speaks with the desperate people. They want so much; I find their hunger suffocating.
My days often pass in a state of emptiness, or openness, as if I myself am not present. It is as if I am dreaming of that flight on the bright gulfs of air. When I am awake, I am often nauseous or sick as if about to swoon. The body does not make me ill -- it is the mind. Confusion and loss of memory are common. I have given up trying to be whole. The gaps in my life are where she is living, and I inhabit her gaps too. We are joined, for better or worse into one body, one life.
Dreams are her way of reaching me, of making me see as she does. I am not as adept at reading the signs. She sees import in the web of the spider, the flight of the korek and the wingbeat of the glimmerfly. Every illness, birth, accident and occurrence carries a sign. She watches the crops, and the storms, the phases of the moon and the migrations of the animals. All are seen as messages from the dead.
The people ask her to read their futures. This she cannot do. But all her words are sifted as one would sift grain, to find the unground seed in the meal. Her words are like jewels to those who lust for the wealth of life. They find what they seek in spite of her reluctance. They base their lives on her cryptic pronouncements, on mere hints and vague wafts of words.
I was taught that the Ancestors are to be listened to and appeased. It was told to me that they must be consulted, that they act in this world from the worlds beyond. My dreams tell me that I am mistaken. It is both the dead and the yet to be born who are acting on us. We are merely knots on the rope between the past and present. We connect both the Ancestors and the Descendants. This chain of life is ours to protect and serve. We owe our lives to the former and our legacy to the latter. Our lives are a precarious balancing act. We must live as if tomorrow is promised, but with the full knowledge that it could all end today.”
I was at my window, peering through the slats of the shutter, into the gloom. The figures were vague, with ragged edges, like torn paper or cloth. They seemed like beggars with arms outstretched, their faces merely the eye sockets of skulls. Still, they had some form of seeing, or knowing where they were, for they sought her. I could feel their hunger.
Why had the dead come to my window? The shadowy figures clustered along the narrow track by the fencerow and drifted past the blooming night lilies that twined there. The crowd seemed to swirl, like smoke, and to huddle up against the chalky walls of the cottage.
I saw my own chest rise and fall, rise and fall. Then the shutter moved suddenly, as if pushed by a breath of cold wind, and one skein of smoke separated from the group. It was vague and flowing like a dark fog and it streamed straight through the shutter and window glass to hover beside my sleeping form.
I feared for myself, unaware on the bed. The smoky presence writhed and seemed to shift and gain solidity, gathering darkness to itself. Then I knew what would happen next, and I watched, helpless, as the form shrunk and descended onto the left side of my face. The smothering cloud of darkness spread like ink on my skin, burning me and marking me as I gasped for air.
Ibbi woke and her chest was pounding. She coughed until her eyes filled with tears. She struggled to calm her body, to let go of the horror of the dream and to still her racing mind. She lay there, too aware of the darkness and her own breath and heartbeat in the ringing silence of the night. Such dreams always left her heartsick and shaken. Why do these souls seek me in dream? What do they want from me? Ama will know.
Her ‘Ama’ lived in a cottage just over the Asichi River. The path from Ibbi’s house to the river was well-worn, since it was used as a goat path on market days. She walked through the golden leaves that had fallen from the stout Pilotas that lined the riverbank. In the shadows, their rusty red surfaces were still embroidered with dew. Ibbi remembered her father carrying her on his shoulders, like a package he was taking to market. She was three or four seasons old then. Her father had kicked at the leaves as he sang a song to his her. He was so young and strong. She thought of how old he must have been and was shocked to realize that she was already older now than he was in that memory.
The trees thinned and she came to the wide brown water. The little wooden ferry floated in the dappled light from the trees and she pulled it toward her by the guide rope. As she ferried herself across the slowly moving current, the sun fell on the water and created a shimmering reflection that danced before her weary eyes. I need sleep, she thought. Maybe Ama has a remedy for my dreams.
The old woman sat in her garden seat in the precious sunlight, watching the glimmerflies light upon the wilting Taga blossoms. Harvest was coming soon and there was a nip in the air despite the sunshine. Her back was stiff from a night of tossing and her feet hurt, but her mood was lifted by the thought of a visitor. The days had hung heavy now that her husband was gone. She had begged him not to sail off on another fool adventure. He was too old for such risks and should have known better. But, it was pointless to be angry with him now.
In a few minutes the young woman appeared on the path to the river. She was troubled, that was plain, and when Ibbi was troubled her Ama knew she would want to talk. Any visitor was good news, but best of all was the child of your child.
Ibbi ran to her Ama and the elder drew her in and enfolded her. The she kissed her on the forehead and looked hard at her.
“It’s so good to see you, my dear, I’ve been wanting news,” the older woman said, brightly.
“Yes Ama,” Ibbi replied, “sometimes I let things push other things from my mind. I’m sorry it’s been so long since we talked.”
“Don’t be sorry child, you’re here now, and that’s what matters.” She touched Ibbi’s left cheek, the oddly pale and splotchy one, and they gazed lovingly at one another for a bit.
“Ama, I need to ask you something,” Ibbi said.
“Can we talk here?” the elder asked. “I like to sit outside while the sun is shining. The warmth feels so good to me.” So they sat together on the rough wooden bench that her son had made for her and they held hands.
“It’s nice here in your garden”, the granddaughter said.
“You’re troubled by something, I can see it,” the grandmother ventured.
“I can’t hide anything from you, Ama.” Ibbi paused and looked down at their hands, she withdrew hers with a pat on her Ama’s. “I have been having dreams again, dark dreams…of…the dead,” she whispered the last word and swallowed hard.
Ama sighed and looked with sympathy at her granddaughter. “These seeing dreams run in your bloodline, Ibbi”, she said. “It is a ‘gift’ of the Ancestors. Your Twice Great Mother had them and so do I, and your father as well, of course.”
“What I wonder is, …why do they come? What good are these nightmares, Ama?” Ibbi did not share what had most unsettled her, that she had seen her Bapa among the crowd of the dead. Better to keep that to myself, she thought.
“The dreams are neither good nor bad,” Ona replied. “They come when they come and we cannot control them. Perhaps they are stories we tell ourselves, or stories told through us.”
“I see things in my dreams that are not meant for mortal eyes. I have memories that do not belong to me.”
“Yet they are yours, because they come to you.”
“From where, Ama?”
“From beyond, dear one.”
“I cannot recall many things, Ama, ordinary things. I have lost touch with the details of my days. There seem to be pieces missing in my memories, as if I was sleeping through my own life!”
“That is how it was for me as well. At least, that is how I remember it. But that is all in the past for me. Ibbi, the dreams come to those who are ready and able - one day they will stop coming, and you may find, to your surprise, that you miss them. It is not right to ask too much of the gift, dear one.
“It does not feel like a gift, Ama, it feels like a burden”.
“I understand, and I know how that feels, but your burden is a gift to your people. There is no more sacred duty in this life!”
“I know, Ama, it is just so lonely being me. Will I ever know love or be able to live as others do?”
“Only time will tell. For now you are called - perhaps one day…who knows the will of Asu? Certainly not I.”
They sat for a time, letting the sunlight warm their backs and Ibbi fell back into memory.
When she was sixteen she took ill her and life was changed forever. A terrible fever wracked her body as her spirit wandered in the world beyond. For seven days her mother and the healers fought to save her, but in the end she slipped quietly away at last.
Her family mourned for her for three days and sat with her, then they prepared her body for burial and sent for a priestess of the Temple of The Grove to lead her into the land of the Ancestors. When she was being carried on the Last Procession, she suddenly sat up on her bier. There was chaos and shock as the family realized that she had somehow come back to life after five days in the lands beyond the living.
The first pale spots appeared shortly after her resurrection. They began small along her eyebrow and then slowly spread, like a stain. They grew in size for two years until they became an archipelago of bleached patches that cut her face in two from eyebrow to cheek. Then, mysteriously, they stopped growing. The High Priestess and her Ama both agreed, it was the dead who had marked her.
Ibbi’s thoughts drifted to the day her beloved grandfather, “Boppy”, had died. At the time, it had felt like the end of all things. But it turned out to be just another day in the stream of days that followed. Though many days were full of heartache and bittersweet memories, others were full of joy and laughter, or simply passed without any especially memorable events. Life was change, Ama had always said, and she must change with it.
Boppy had been ill and he never knew it. He had caught the sickness on one of his many travels among the Isles of Eyona with her father. They called it The Fire Within, since the sickness caused severe fever and sweating. Many had survived it, but Boppy had been weakened by overwork. His efforts to unite the Isles had cost him dearly.
Ibbi’s father brought Boppy home to Orbacha to rest and to recover, but the illness would not let him rest. He could not sleep for long and so he took to sitting up in bed as his loved ones came and went from his bedside. They sat with him, sang for him and brought flowers and sweets. He would pat each of his four grandchildren on the hand or head, smile at them and listen to their stories, but often he was too tired even for that. He spent many of his last days sleeping on and off. Often, he was only able to stare into the fire, and toward the end his breathing became labored and rasping. In his last few days his eyes closed and stayed closed for the final stage of dying.
Ibbi tried to sit with Boppy through what turned out to be his final night. Ona found her draped across the foot of the bed. The fire had gone out, and the room was cold as ice. She breathed the fire back to life and brought out every blanket they had, but her Bapa never left the bed again. He died at home on the evening of the next day among his family, who watched with tear-streaked eyes as he let out his last breath.
Ibbi went into a numb grief after Boppy’s death. She had difficulty thinking clearly and simply went through the motions of living without feeling anything. She was unable to cry or to believe that Boppy was truly gone. She expected at any moment that he would walk through the front door, or whistle and shout a greeting as he had always done. Worst of all, she tried to grieve alone. She shut out the pain of her Ama, of her father and mother, and of her three younger siblings. She became angry, overly sensitive and irrational in her moods.
When her parents came to her to profess their love a cruel anger bloomed in her mind. In words that she would regret as long as she lived, she lashed out, blaming her father for Boppy’s death. It was a bitter and awful exchange. Her father was shocked, and deeply hurt. Her mother wept uncontrollably.
Over the following days, her father kept to himself. It was impossible for any of them to speak to one another. Shortly after the altercation, the decision was made. Her father and mother would leave home, sailing east to the Undaati Colonies. They did not explain their choice nor wait for an apology from their daughter. Ibbi was thunderstruck and felt a punishing sense of guilt. She suffered alone, not feeling worthy of comfort. She had questioned her father’s love and broken his heart, and now her heart was broken too.
Ibbi had lived in the little cottage near Ama’s farm for the past three years and had not yet spoken a word to her mother or father.
“Where did you go off to just now?” Ama asked. “You looked so far away.” She took Ibbi’s hands in hers.
“I was just thinking, Ama, of Boppy. I miss him so much.”
“So do I, dear one, so do I. He was my best friend,” Ama said, and she ran her thumb across Ibbi’s knuckle, again and again. It was one of her most unusual habits, but it calmed her grandchild and made her smile.
“Boppy always understood me, Ama. He was such a good listener, and so kind and so thoughtful.”
“Yes, he was. That’s how he charmed me, Ibbi. He just let me talk! He was patient with me… with all of us.”
“Ama. Do you ever feel…like Bapa is still with you?”
“No, my little toko, I wish I did. It would be nice to just sit with him again, just to talk. Why do you ask?”
“Sometimes…I think he is trying to reach me, Ama. It is hard to describe, but I have felt his presence in the night and once or twice in my dreams.”
“Ah…I see. And did you see him in your dream, Ibbi?”
“I did, Ama, and he was not alone…there were many with him…like a crowd of figures.”
“What happened in this dream, Ibbi?”
“The dead came to my window, seeking something…” she trailed off.
“What was it they sought? What was the mood in the dream?”
After Ibbi recounted all that she could remember, she said: “It was sad, Ama, so sad, they were, silent, speechless, and sightless, and yet I knew that they were hungry.”
Ama thought about what Ibbi had said, the idea seemed absurd, for, of course, the dead do not eat. But she was unsettled, for her granddaughter had felt their hunger as if it were a desire of her own. Ama knew that the dream mind worked like that, with odd jumps of illogic. What did they hunger for?
“Well, Ibbi, if the dead can hunger for anything,” Ama said, “it might be for life itself. But, the way is shut and the dead cannot touch you in the waking world.”
“But somehow they did, Ama, didn’t they? Ibbi’s tone was sad, defeated.
“Not in this world, child. That is how we know who is called.”
“In my dream I saw it, Ama. A black mist came over me and…marked me here.” Ibbi touched the left side of her face as she spoke.
“Oh, dear one, that is an awful dream.”
“What do the dead want from me, Ama? “
“Only they can show you their will. I do not presume to know why they haunt you.”
“Why was I marked? Have there been any others in your lifetime?”
“I have only heard of one other, and he was made an outcast. Ibbi, not all who are called can serve. Sometimes the powers demand too much of the servant.”
Ama looked at her granddaughter. In her mind’s eye, she could still see her as a child, carefree and impulsive, all eyes and fingers, touching, talking, and wondering about the world. But now she was a woman grown, with cares and fears. Where has that playful spirit gone, Ama wondered. In answer, the truth came dressed in the voice of her own mother:
It was left behind like a shed skin, as soon as she took her vow.