He awoke. The sounds of the ocean in his ears, birds outside; dust motes swirled in shafts of sunlight. The scent of salt and resin, pine and decaying things. Another clear morning. He was going to die soon.
The soothsayer was right; she had told him exactly what was going to happen. He had observed the rituals, he’d kept the fires lit. He was wracked with the sheer injustice of it all. Why him?
His joints were creaky and painful. Ossification had already begun, and what the doctors shaved away only grew back quicker. What part of his physiology was traitor here? No one seemed to know what caused it, but they just knew that too long without reproducing was a major predictor. The doctors were all useless; they could not offer any cures.
The soothsayer had no cures, either. She made the offerings, she ground the animal bones into dust with her mortar and pestle. She painted her face with vivid teal, streaked from temple to temple. Her teeth, yellow by contrast, made her look like some demon from the old legends. But her answer came clear and untroubled with doubt: you will die before the star returns.
He was not terribly old for a man of his kind, but he wasn’t a youth, either. He hadn’t reproduced since the last time the star came. His only child from that last mating had already turned into a sculpture of dead and twisted bone, succumbed to the wasting which wasn’t wasting as much as it was transformation, the sickness of those left behind.
He decided not to go to the soothsayer, or at least, not until he’d lit the bonfires. He wandered to the pine beach, cold in the morning, feet numb to the pine needles buried in the sand. He gathered dry wood into pyres arranged out in the traditional pattern—an arc with a trailing tail, and the largest pyre at the apex. He placed living branches of fragrant pinewood on top, muttering incantations, and knelt in the cold sand.
He waited for the right wind. The wind had to come from the south and travel along the arc to trace the comet’s path. Flint and tinder at hand, he knelt, waiting. His joints ached. He worried about kneeling too long. Would his legs be able to unbend after?
He tried to remember if the entrails had predicted favorable winds for a ritual today. A sinking feeling told him they hadn’t. He just couldn’t quite remember how the ritual changed for unfavorable winds; he might have to go see the soothsayer soon after all.
He waited. He cracked his knuckles repeatedly, just to keep them moving. His knees were numb, but he couldn’t get up and stretch until the right wind came. He didn’t want to ruin the ritual.
He’d been selected to perform the ritual for this unusual abeyance. During an abeyance, everyone retreated to the mountains to be closer to the stars and hoped that the comet would come again. Only the ones selected to light the bonfires each morning stayed on the low coastal plains. The cities lay virtually abandoned, towns were deserted, and nature began to reclaim some of their civilization; green leaves and pale roots would all need to be cleared out if and when the comet returned, and abeyance ended.
He decided he’d wait only another hour for the wind, then consult the soothsayer again. But his knees were cold, and he worried he wouldn’t be able to stand up if he waited too long. The wind would come, he hoped. He wasn’t sure how quickly his bones would fuse together and kill him. He decided to ask her that as well.
In the mountains, an old man busied himself in his kitchen, pouring hot water into a press filled with ground coffee. He hummed tunelessly. His movements were pained and slow. He moved like an ancient creaking ship.
He called down the hallway: “Amara, did you want coffee?”
No reply came from where Amara slept.
Still no reply. He sighed a little, then poured half of the press’ coffee into one mug, and the rest into his own. Amara hated the coffee with sediment in it. He poured cream into hers and gave her one lump of sugar as always.
He made his way down the hall as best he could. His right knee had ossified to such an extent that he couldn’t bend it anymore, making the leg no better than a peg leg. He’d wanted the doctors to operate, but the waiting list for treatment in the mountains was long, and the facilities here could only do so many at a time. They promised him they’d see him as soon as they could. He knew better than to hold his breath.
“Coffee,” he said, setting the mug down on the bedside table. Amara sat up in bed.
“Thank you,” she said with a grimace. Her jaw had started to fuse shut, giving her speech a pained quality.
“I’ll try the doctors again today,” he said, retreating to the doorframe.
“Don’t,” she said. “Go to the soothsayer. Bring her Goldie.”
Their best chicken. He shook his head. “No. She doesn’t deserve Goldie when she’s just going to tell us the comet hasn’t come back yet.”
“Well, bring her some of those pears from the tree. She will appreciate it.”
“Bringing her things ain’t going to change her mind,” he groused.
Amara waved her hand, taking a sip of coffee. “Just good manners.”
“Will you be out of bed today?” he asked.
Amara’s face seemed inscrutable, though something flickered in her eyes.
“I ask only because Sarai said she’d come by, she’s been asking after you,” he said.
“Oh, Enver,” she said. “Did you invite her? All she’s going to do is talk about how busy she is and those awful grandkids. I don’t want to listen to that.”
“Oh, stop it right now, Amara,” he snapped. “She has been worried about you. You were so close back when. The abeyance when she lost Iyen.”
“So, she’ll come at noon, she said. You don’t have to be up and about for long, just have lunch with us. That’s all.”
He left his wife alone with her cup of coffee. Enver worried about her. She seemed angrier than usual, more despondent. The ossification of her jaw wasn’t helping, either.
Doctors told them she had about five, maybe six months before she’d be unable to take solid food. Her husband was upset at the news, but for Amara, the worst had already come: she was unable to sing. Her jaws had fused so much that she could not open her mouth to sing her operas like she used to. She was furious at the sick irony of it, furious that there was no one, nothing to blame. Except for the gods, or the comet, of course.
Their traditions held that their gods left and only returned periodically in the form of a comet to breathe more life into them. But secretly, somewhere deep inside, Amara suspected that the comet was nothing but cold fire racing through the sky, no mind, no plan, no nothing. No amount of steaming entrails and bonfires on the beaches would convince it or the gods to return. Her son out on the beach would not summon them, no matter how many bonfires he lit.
Mathai. He was alone, gathering sticky, sap-covered branches together to plant them in cold, dead sand, and all for nothing. During a normal abeyance, the responsibility for summoning the comet usually fell to the youngest among them. But this was not a normal abeyance; the comet was nowhere to be seen on its predicted date, and the soothsayers all agreed it would not return yet. Astronomers strained their necks searching. The summoners lit the bonfires and prayed. But no return; the longer they went with no comet and no gods, more people began to die.
Abeyances were times of mourning and contemplation, but also rest. When the astronomers agreed they’d seen the comet, newly re-populated cities came alive with activity in preparation and excitement. They produced great tidal waves of art and literature, film, and music at a frenetic pace. There was no way for the ravenous crowds to take it all in, but they tried, even still. Eyes gaped wide like hungry mouths, and traditional opera like Amara used to sing would compete for attention at octagonal theaters simultaneously showing four or five other plays, a couple films, orchestras, acrobats, and tragedies.
Women became pregnant and birthed broods of babies. Their wombs, dormant during abeyance, worked overtime when the comet came, and filled the cities with great flocks of children. Many of their children would naturally perish in the great crush of activity and confusion of high season, but enough survived that by their own sixth or seventh abeyances they were able to have broods themselves.
Amara thought again of her children, all dead except for Mathai. Most of her young died during high seasons. Some made it through high seasons only to die during abeyance, their flesh turned into stone, it seemed, from the gods’ absence. Mathai was all she had left. Her heart broke when he was selected to light the fires.
During high seasons he worked as a trader, which kept him working far more than she liked, and as children often do, he tended to forget to keep in touch with his mother. After his selection, she went with him to see the beach. She tutted disapprovingly over the Summoner’s Lodge, the draftiness of it, the bats living in the attic. Mathai muttered that it wasn’t much, but the point was to humble oneself to bring the gods back.
Amara tried to stand, gasping at a sudden jolt of pain that traveled the length of her side. She had wanted to do this herself, but the pain was too much again today for her alone. She called for her husband. “Enver? Enver, help me up, I’m going to wash.”
He came at once to help her out of bed. She was still showering when Sarai dropped in.
“Hello Enver!” she cooed as the door opened, hugging him. She was always so familiar with him, even though it irritated Amara. All three had studied together when they were younger; Sarai had introduced them to one other.
They separated. Sarai heard water running off toward the back of the house and cocked her head in its direction. “Amara? How is she?”
He shrugged. “Jaw is getting a little worse, which is worrisome. We’ll sit out on the terrace.”
They sat at a rough-hewn wooden table. Enver had spread out some seed crackers, cheese, and roe for the three of them, even though Amara would not partake. She refused to eat in the mornings, preferring only a light lunch or dinner, but never both; abeyance usually caused a precipitous decline in everyone’s appetites.
Sarai took a scarf from out of her bag and draped it delicately over her shoulders. It was cooler in the mountains, and summer hadn’t fully arrived yet. She and Enver sat in comfortable silence for a short time as birds sang and fluttered through the perfumed air. A groan from the house and a door shutting announced Amara’s arrival.
“Amara!” Sarai said, turning around in her seat. She smiled broadly and stood up, arms out to embrace her friend.
“Sarai,” Amara grimaced. “It’s been so long. How are you?”
“Oh, I’m just fine,” Sarai said, hugging her close. “My hands are starting to get so stiff. My fingers—I can hardly sew. But I’ll be ok. It’s you I’m here to see, how have you been? I’m so sorry I haven’t called sooner. You know how it is.”
Sarai was a very in-demand designer during high seasons. Amara indeed knew how it was.
“Well, it’s abeyance now,” Amara said. She felt a brief surge of anger warm her joints before it dissipated. Sarai readjusted her scarf.
They sat, and Enver spread roe on a seed cracker and bit into it. Crumbs rained down onto the table and roe fell on his shirt. He cursed under his breath.
Sarai turned to Enver and asked him how the garden was coming along. “You always managed to grow the most incredible herbs here,” she said. “Astrid was complaining about how overgrown her garden was. I told her she should stop in to see you sometime.”
“Astrid,” he murmured. “She... She got Mathai the loan for that house, right?”
Amara nodded. “That big house, much too big. Too expensive.”
Sarai’s face fell a little.
Amara wasn’t sure if she intentionally meant to ruin the attempt at conversation, but she couldn’t help it. She felt a pleasant little stab of pleasure to watch Sarai’s smile recede a little.
“She doesn’t get out much anymore, poor thing.”
“Why are you here?” Amara suddenly interjected. She fixed Sarai with a scowl.
Sarai seemed taken aback.
“What do you want with us?” she asked. “Do you need something, or are you looking for something? Come to take some herbs?”
“Amara!” Enver exclaimed. “Stop it.”
Sarai’s blanch quickly disappeared. She laced her fingers together and set her hands on the table.
“I’m... No, no, it’s fine, Enver,” she said. He still looked horrified at his wife. “I came to talk to you all... I wanted to see you so much. I’ve been to the soothsayer. I’m... I’m dying. Having this terrible pain in my chest. Turns out the bones are growing in such a way that they’ll strangle my heart, the valve, maybe, I didn’t fully understand what the doctors said. Too little of celestial particulate to keep my body in balance. If the comet doesn’t return, they’ll... Well, I won’t see another abeyance.”
The three of them sat silent. Enver put down the knife in his hand and just stared at her.
Sarai exhaled. “There. Now you know.”
Amara laughed, a short, hoarse bark. “And?”
Sarai seemed startled by the laugh. She turned to Enver for a more empathetic reaction. “I haven’t got much longer, I don’t think. The soothsayer says it’ll be only a couple more lunar cycles. Doctors say rest and stay calm, as otherwise too much excitement could hasten things.”
Amara felt a great wash of bile in her esophagus. The smell of the cheese and the roe nauseated her.
“Sarai! I had no idea!” Enver exclaimed. “You never said!”
“I didn’t want you to worry,” she said.
“I’m not,” Amara observed.
Sarai decided to ignore her comment. “I just felt you should know.”
Enver looked from his wife to Sarai, wishing fervently that whatever poison in the air between them would dissipate. “Is there anything we can... I don’t know, anything we can do?”
Sarai looked down at the tabletop and wrapped herself in her shawl a little tighter.
“Well, you let us know,” Enver said, answering for her to fill up the silence. “We’re here for you.”
“No, we’re not,” Amara said. “We’re all dying, Sarai. This isn’t news.”
Sarai’s face began to buckle. Tears sprang out in her eyes. “Oh, Amara, I know... I just... I was hoping the soothsayer would have better... News. I was hoping it wouldn’t be this fast. I wanted to see you. Before.”
Amara clenched her fists on the table. “I’ve had enough of this.” She got up, wanting to get away as fast as she could. Enver grabbed her hand. She grimaced. Something clicked in her jaw.
“What in the world has gotten into you?” he cried, looking at her as if he’d never seen her before.
“Let me go right now,” she snarled. Something in her shoulder suddenly felt wrong. She jerked her arm away, and in an enormous, nauseating instant, a sudden swell of pain swept her senses away like a geyser. She screamed and fell to her knees.
Enver and Sarai gasped. They both heard a cracking sound like two large rocks colliding deep underwater.
Amara screamed again. Another series of cracks, duller now, doubled her over, each one causing her to convulse. They watched in horror as she pitched forward onto her face, unable to catch herself. She cracked her head on the flagstones, knocking herself unconscious. Her right arm jutted out bizarrely behind her as if she were urgently pointing at something. Another three cracks followed one after another like gunshots, each one causing the arm to point in a new direction.
Silence like ash after a volcanic eruption settled over them. Bone protruded from Amara’s bloody skin in a savage, angry spike—the shoulder had fused itself to her arm and a great swelling bloomed out at her shoulder blade, already hard and karst-like beneath her skin. Sarai and Enver tried to turn his wife over onto her side. Birds landed on the table and made off with a wonderful meal for themselves, pleased with the surprise feast. They had no abeyance, after all.
They managed at last to get Amara inside and onto her bed. It took Enver a great deal of energy to balance her comfortably, and he had to stay by her side to make sure he could help her if she seized up again.
Sarai called for the doctors and they promised they’d come as soon as they’d had their tea. She had a hard time keeping herself calm; they could do nothing but wait. She winced at a new tightness in her chest.
Enver sat with his unconscious wife. The sun was high in the sky, but the thin air’s sharp morning cold had not fully dissipated. Once she’d summoned doctors, Sarai joined him, gazing at Amara’s troubled body the same way she might’ve looked at some piece of wreckage alongside the road. Was this twisted form once her friend? Hadn’t this woman at one point been her closest confidante?
“She didn’t want to see me,” she murmured at last.
“No, no,” Enver began, “Don’t do that.”
Sarai began to feel slightly dizzy. “I just... I wanted to see her. And you. And she didn’t want me to. And I couldn’t just leave well enough alone.”
He didn’t respond; he just gulped and brushed a lock of hair off of Amara’s face.
“It’s been how many years, Enver?” she asked. She wanted to touch him but didn’t dare approach. She sat in a chair against the far wall.
“I lost track,” he said at length. “But it ain’t mattered to me. You and me? We go back long enough that things just pick up as they were no matter how many years.”
He was right. No matter how many high seasons passed without Sarai following through on one of her many promises to drop in on them, he’d always remained a constant friend: the perennial flower that needed no special care or attention to keep blooming.
Amara had not. She’d keenly mourned the loss of her friend, and every single time Sarai failed to return her call and return her love something had changed in her and aged her. Sarai felt tears coming on. She didn’t bother to hide them.
Amara convulsed, then fell still.
Sarai whispered, as if she was afraid to wake her. “The doctors didn’t sound very worried.”
Enver’s face betrayed no expression. He knew in abeyance time flowed differently, and that you didn’t rush things, death included. Amara would have to hang on. He decided not to let the thought of the doctor finishing his tea make him angry. Energy had to be conserved.
Hours crawled by. Unsure of what to do with herself, Sarai sat in a quiet vigil with Enver, the two quietly talking to pass the time, recalling childhoods together, the scores of siblings they outlived, their favorite of Amara’s operas, the best shows to watch in the great crushes gathered before the octagonal stages. She was relieved when someone finally called out from the foyer. She got up to welcome the doctor inside.
“Khesset,” Enver said, voice calm. “Thank you for coming.”
The old doctor moved laboriously. His face was haggard, but his eyes were bright. He smelled like cigars and old leather and lemon and flowers. His advanced age was clearly becoming more and more of an impediment to him, but he couldn’t retire. No one young wanted to do medicine anymore, and no one wanted to be soothsayers either. They couldn’t remember the incantations, didn’t have the patience for the rituals.
“Please. Sit.” Enver pulled a chair over. Sarai stood in the doorway, arms folded uselessly, throat constricted with guilt and shame.
The doctor’s pained expression lessened as he sat down. He gulped at the thin air with tired lungs. “Tell me what’s happened,” he finally said.
He examined Amara, listened to her breathing, checked vitals. His thin fingers lighted on different places of her arm and bulging shoulder, looking to Enver like the feelers of some large, pale insect. Enver shuddered in spite of himself and held his breath, waiting for the medical pronouncement.
“I don’t think there’s much I can do for her,” he said at last.
Enver’s heart sank. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting the doctor to say. He groped for words, but nothing seemed to come to mind.
“How... How long? Does she have?” Sarai’s worry came out in low staccato.
“Days, maybe? But... this is irreversible. The way that the arm has fused... We’re lucky that it didn’t puncture a lung. We’d have to break the arm to move it to somewhere more comfortable, but I don’t know if it’s worth it.”
Sarai covered her face.
Enver smoothed hair off his wife’s forehead. The pain in her face seemed to have lessened somewhat; she now had the troubled expression of a child having a bad dream.
“We’d better get the soothsayer,” he said quietly.
“She’s at her other job today,” Sarai mumbled. “I don’t know if she can come.”
The soothsayer worked during abeyances at the village’s grocery store.
“Can someone cover her shift?” the doctor asked. “Or something? My goodness. Surely she can get away for the death ritual.”
Sarai called the grocery. Mizehena answered herself.
“Djoru’s” she intoned.
“Mizehena—this is Sarai. Can you come? It’s Amara.”
Mizehena sighed. “How bad?”
“Khesset says he can’t do anything for her.”
“And did he say how long she had?” Mizehena wondered, trying to avoid eye contact with a customer. “I’m not off until sundown...”
“I think it’s best if you come quick,” Sarai urged. “I don’t know how long she’ll last.”
Mizehena sighed again. Her old bones were tired from standing all day, and she needed time to prepare and don the traditional vestments. But she heard something in Sarai’s voice, something plaintive and utterly desolate that quickened her pulse somewhat. She decided she’d go. She hung up.
“Djoru,” she called out. “Djoru, are you there?”
The old man grunted from somewhere in the back.
“I’m going out, I have to go,” she yelled. “I have to do a death ritual.”
“Wait, what?” His voice came floating out from the back tinged with irritation. “Who’s dying?”
“Amara,” she replied. She gathered her things and started to leave, not wanting to keep talking.
“She’s been dying,” he said, his voice coming closer. But Mizehena was already out the door, heading home to gather her vestments.
Enver was relieved to hear her knock at the door. He thanked her for coming so quickly.
Mizehena stepped across the threshold and into the house, dim in the evening, and asked to see her. Amara was still unresponsive, though deathly pale. Another few convulsions had struck as they waited for Mizehena. The unconscious woman had emitted a piercing shriek, a near-animal wail that had gone on for what felt like hours. Sarai had fled. The episode had subsided almost immediately before Mizehena arrived.
“Help us, Mizehena. Please... Tell us there’s something you can do.”
Mizehena sighed. Her answer was always the same.
Sarai emerged from the terrace with wet eyes and wind-tossed hair. She was shivering.
“She hasn’t woken up at all,” Enver said, sitting down as Mizehena examined his wife’s body. “Even during the convulsions.”
Bones jutted out from her skin which lay tattered between like old paper. There was no more bleeding.
Mizehena began by saying an incantation, entreating the comet to come back to nurture them again.
Midway through the recitation she noticed something hard stuck to her undershirt beneath her robe. As surreptitiously as she could she put a hand to her chest, immediately knowing it for the name tag she wore while working at the grocery. She gritted her teeth and continued the incantation, trying to focus. Once the incantation was finished and Enver bowed his head to offer his own, she unpinned it from her shirt and quietly set it on the dresser behind her.
Sarai came into the room, hovering just inside the door as if she was too frightened to come any further. Mizehena waved her over.
“You have an incantation to say, too,” she commanded. Sarai looked at the ground.
“I... I don’t think I have one,” she said.
Mizehena gritted her teeth. “Think.”
“I can’t,” Sarai replied in a small voice. Then, with a little frustration: “I can’t think. None of the words are right.”
Mizehena held up a hand. “Think back. Think of the prime words. They will come to you.”
Enver’s prayer ended. Each incantation was unique to its speaker: Enver’s was a husband’s, the incantation of someone who stood at the edge of losing a companion forever. Sarai didn’t know what hers should be.
Each incantation grew from what they called “prime words.” A prime word was one that had a unique meaning, and when brought together, the sentiment they expressed could be defined by no other words or emotions except for the words themselves and by the voice that spoke them—they were in many ways unspeakable and unimaginable, except for speaker and the intended recipient.
Sarai’s mind was blank. She hadn’t spoken in prime words in what felt like an entire lifetime. She couldn’t even remember exchanging prime words with her own husband. She suspected there were prime words in her somewhere for Enver, but they hadn’t surfaced yet. Amara had once been as dear to her as a sister, and they’d spoken in prime to each other before, she was sure, though Sarai’s memory failed her.
Enver looked at her imploringly. Her mind remained blank.
Mizehena threw up her hands in frustration and marched out of the room to find Khesset in the kitchen, a lamp lit, a pot of water boiling on the stove.
“Pour me a drink,” she said.
He opened cabinets, hunting for something stronger. Enver stumped in, looking haggard, and guessing what Khesset might’ve been searching for, opened a cupboard and took out a bottle of his own home-brewed whiskey.
“Oh, no, Enver,” Khesset groaned. “Not this stuff.”
“It’s for emergencies,” he declared.
“I can’t imagine what emergency calls for paint thinner,” the doctor sniffed, steeling himself. “But I’ll take your word for it.”
Mizehena smiled. “I’d like some, Enver.”
He poured them all a glass.
They contemplated the rough cups, all Amara’s making, and the amber-colored spirit inside.
“To Amara,” Mizehena said.
“To Enver,” Khesset added.
“To Amara. And Mathai,” Enver finished. They drank.
“That is... utterly vile,” Khesset wheezed, coughing. Mizehena laughed out loud at the priggish doctor.
“Amara hates it too,” Enver said, clapping the doctor on the back.
Silence overtook them again, and they stood together in lambent quiet. The night deepening outside made them feel like they stood in a golden bubble. Enver realized with a heavy heart that he hadn’t heard from Mathai in the past few days. He couldn’t see bonfires on the horizon.
Water now boiled, Khesset made himself coffee. The doctor sat himself down with one of Enver’s old books. “Have you read this?” he asked. “It’s one of the best books ever put to print.”
Enver shook his head. “Been meaning to.”
Mizehena excused herself, not wanting to listen to Khesset pontificate. She made her way back to Sarai and Amara, only to find Sarai in the same position, transfixed with grief.
“The words, Mizehena,” she sobbed, wild-eyed. “I can’t think. I can’t think of anything. I have nothing!”
Mizehena felt the weight of her vestments, the itchy bark-crown on her head and couldn’t help but feel contempt.
“You’ve spoken prime words before, you idiot,” she hissed. “Get a hold of yourself.”
Sarai’s hands clutched nervously at her own throat.
“I just... I can’t think of anything. Mizehena, Amara and I... She and I were like sisters. We were so close. And she spoke in prime to me, Mizehena, she spoke in prime words to me but I... I can’t think of any! I can’t think of even one!”
Mizehena squeezed her eyes shut in frustration. She took in a long, deep breath to quiet her own irritation before speaking.
“Calm down,” she soothed. “Breathe. Your mind is too agitated right now and you can’t focus. Your memory is all smoke. Allow the memory to catch first before trying to light the other fires.”
Speaking in prime was like that, like lighting glowing signal fires that pierced deep into the night. Sarai had always had a quick mind and little patience for things that required a more deliberate approach. She had in fact spoken prime to her husband, to Amara, to her surviving children. But when she couldn’t make the words come forward, she grew anxious.
Mizehena stood silently by and waited for Sarai to find the words. She couldn’t complete her ritual until Sarai spoke.
Amara twitched and spasmed, but nothing happened. Mizehena took Sarai by the arm and led her out of the room to go out to the terrace. “Let’s get some air.”
The two made their way through Enver’s brightly lit house on stiff legs. They found Khesset and Enver talking animatedly about a certain academic colleague of Khesset’s who had written a treatise on aging and the comet, which had caused considerable uproar.
“Tassa never said that the comet won’t come again!” Enver exclaimed. “She just said it doesn’t need to.”
“Missing the point. She says it doesn’t matter at all, meaning our mortality comes from within, and not from it, or from the gods. Which is utterly ridiculous.”
“She’s just asking the question, Khesset.”
“Which question?” Sarai asked breezily, dabbing at her eyes. She seemed glad to be able to speak again. She sat down at the table with the other two. Mizehena joined her, wishing she could shed her heavy vestments. But since the rituals weren’t complete, she couldn’t.
“You’ve read Tassa’s book?” Khesset asked.
“I have,” Sarai replied.
“What’d you think of it?”
“It frightened me.”
Khesset nodded at her answer. “It’s a frightening read, I agree.”
Mizehena rolled her eyes. She wondered if Djoru would fire her for leaving again; he didn’t think death rituals were as important anymore. She secretly agreed with him, but for some reason, she didn’t dare say it out loud. Perhaps she didn’t care to receive his condescension, the same as she retreated from Khesset’s.
“It just didn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Sarai ventured. “Tassa spends so much time asking us to imagine that our star doesn’t have any effect on us at all, which... is just wrong. I think she wrote it more to be provocative than anything else.”
Khesset nodded emphatically. “It’s just for attention.”
Mizehena cast her gaze out into the night. “No bonfires,” she murmured.
All three of the others looked out as well.
“No, not tonight,” Sarai said, traces of sadness in her voice. “But maybe they’ve just burned out early.”
“Maybe.” Mizehena breathed deeply, inhaling the piney air. Enver’s house had a beautiful view during the day, nestled as it was in amongst a crowd of steep, green-covered mountains, with a thin slice of turquoise ocean visible below. Enver and Amara could usually see the lights from the bonfires if conditions were right.
“I thought Tassa’s book was really well-written,” Mizehena said at last. She could feel the old doctor’s eyes on her. “She asked a good question.”
“A useless question,” Khesset replied, shaking his head. “What good does it do us now?”
Mizehena didn’t quite have an answer for him. “I thought she was onto something,” was all she could say. “And Tassa doesn’t strike me as the kind of woman who just wants to make a spectacle. I’ve been thinking about her book a lot, actually. I don’t know what good it does us if it turns out that the comet’s absence isn’t actually killing us, but I can’t help thinking about it.”
“Then it means, what, that we’re killing ourselves?” Enver grumbled, massaging his knee.
Mizehena didn’t dare look at anyone, just kept staring straight out ahead. She was frightened they might see she agreed with him.
Fortunately for her, Khesset piped up immediately, pulling all the focus. “All ridiculous. Phenology alone proves a positive and correlative effect that the star has on us as it passes by. Everything that happens with a Return isn’t just coincidence. Which is what Tassa can’t explain away so easily.”
Mizehena shifted her gaze back to the harrumphing old doctor. He grew more and more vehement the longer he talked about Tassa, as if she had published something maligning him directly. Sarai would chime in only to agree with him; she couldn’t say anything more substantive before he cut her off to continue what was quickly becoming a tirade. Mizehena’s head began to ache. She caught Enver’s eye and made a motion for a drink.
Enver cleared his throat. “Just a second, Khesset. I’m going to see if we have any more of that cherry wine.”
He stood to go inside but froze solid, as they all did, when they heard a great commotion from inside the house: a great, soaring voice, clear as clarion, unrelenting and stirring: Amara was singing.
“Amara!” Enver cried, hobbling to the door. “Amara!”
She appeared coming down the corridor, hair wild, her arm lame and twisted at her side, singing the entire time. Her voice sounded like it did when she was younger, fearsome and electrifying all at the same time.
It took Mizehena’s ears a few moments to catch the words Amara sang, but she knew the melody, and at last recognized the aria as the climactic moment of one of their most popular operas: The Last of the Matriarchs, a drama about the fall of an ancient forebears’ empire. Mizehena couldn’t help but recite the old words to herself, having learned them in school:
Arise, daughters, arise
There is a false heart among you,
One who has forgotten her duty
And who will not weep
When you are cut down.
Will you not look for her
Among your number
And feed her entrails to the dogs?
Amara staggered forward, her good arm gesticulating wildly. Her eyes were wild and unfocused, wide and unseeing. Sarai, Khesset, and Mizehena all rushed in after Enver to go to her, but no one dared approach her except for her husband, who grabbed onto her good arm, trying to shake her out of whatever trance she was in.
Mizehena couldn’t suppress the dread currently overwhelming her, and her fear grew the longer Amara sang. Enver shook her arm even more vigorously while the doctor shouted, trying to make for his bag, but his old body moved too slowly. The sound of a great crack split the air like a cannon, cutting Amara’s voice off immediately. Sarai screamed.
Amara crumpled to the floor like a rag doll. Khesset dropped to his knees and he and Enver huddled over her. The doctor, clearly shaken, checked her vitals. He shook his head.
“I’m sorry, Enver” was all he could say.
Enver’s face began twitching uncontrollably. He put his hands to his face and squeezed his eyes shut, moaning her name over and over.
His words became an incantation. He spoke in quiet prime to his wife, the timbre of his voice felt in each of the others gathered as a warm, tremulous current. Mizehena came forward after he was done to offer her own. Khesset gathered up his instruments and stood dumbly by, unsure of what to do with himself while the soothsayer conducted the rites. He never did know what to do; he felt even more awkward now watching Mizehena after she’d admitted her susceptibility to Tassa’s theory.
Sarai fell to her knees and sobbed. Khesset went to comfort her, but she moved away from him.
After a while, Enver stood and asked Khesset to call the neighbors to help carry Amara to the temple. They arrived in a slow trickle, all standing around and murmuring while Mizehena changed out of her vestments. She did not want to play the part of soothsayer anymore for the night.
As was customary, Enver was not permitted to re-enter his home until Amara had been cremated. He ordinarily would have stayed with children, though his only surviving son was currently somewhere on a lonely beach, likely asleep for the night, and oblivious to what had happened. He stayed the night at Sarai’s instead, while Mizehena went to get him a few things out of the house. She stole quietly across the still brightly lit living room where Amara had died and put things in a bag for Enver feeling vaguely guilty, like she was robbing the dead woman.
In separate rooms, Enver and Sarai fell into a deep sleep. They slept until the afternoon, when both awoke with a jolt, the same fear screaming across their minds: they’d overslept, and Amara had been cremated without them to send her off.
They hadn’t, of course. The cremation was the following day. As Enver slowly remembered where he was and what had happened, he felt a weight settling upon his chest, slowly crushing the breath out of him. He sat up, his back sore and aching, and realized that he had to tell his son.
He called for Sarai, who came right away. “I have to go to Mathai,” he said.
She nodded. “I’ll call Mizehena.”
Mizehena went with them, despite her misgivings. She hadn’t heard anything from the soothsayers who lived down closer to the city—she worried about what they’d find. But they still needed to tell him.
It took them hours to get down to the near-deserted city, and longer still to get out to the coast. Enver’s leg slowed them down considerably, and it took both Sarai and Mizehena to help him negotiate the path through the pine trees to the beach.
“I love the smell of the sea,” Sarai said, taking a deep breath. A smile stole across her face but disappeared as quickly as it had come.
“Almost there,” Mizehena wheezed. Enver was a heavy burden to handle.
“Wait.” Sarai stopped, smelling the air. “I don’t smell any smoke. I don’t see any either.”
She was right. There was only the scent of resin, salt, and the roar of the ocean. Nothing burning.
Enver’s heart dropped.
Out on the beach a cold breeze kicked up, flinging sand into their eyes. They all doubled over, bent toward the wind, faces down to protect themselves. The wind would let up for a moment then blast them over again, numbing them to the bone.
Sarai shielded her face from another gust when she noticed something ahead. She squinted but couldn’t make it out.
Mizehena saw it, too. Enver couldn’t straighten up enough to see it, but she turned to meet Sarai’s gaze and swallowed the lump in her throat.
A pyre of white wood, undisturbed and unburnt, stood close to them. Not far off was another—and after that one, still another. On and on, down a long line, there were bonfires set up, white driftwood built up around cores of green pine branches. Sarai began to cry.
Enver’s body suddenly went slack. He could see the first pyre now.
“Enver,” Mizehena urged. “Come on. We have to find Mathai.”
Enver sobbed. “I can’t. I can’t go on.”
“Enver, please. Come on. We have to find your son.”
Sarai and Mizehena dragged him along. The sun had long ago begun to dip down in the sky, turning the mountaintops dusky.
And then they finally found Mathai: knelt down next to another unlit pyre, he appeared to have been in that position for some time, judging by the amount of sand that had piled up against him in drifts. His arms were as crooked as tree branches, the desiccated skin now punctured in several places with bone spines, face twisted in agony. A great crooked spire erupted from his shoulder and jaw.
Enver and Sarai dropped to their knees, clinging on to each other and sobbing, while Mizehena stood stock still. She couldn’t look at them, couldn’t look at Mathai, so instead she turned her gaze into the night sky, eyes brimming over with tears.
Sarai tried to comfort Enver. She could barely speak through her sobs, but she kept going, and as she did, her words switched imperceptibly into prime, no longer understood as language but instead sensed as a warm current, the same Mizehena had felt earlier. Sarai sobbed and continued to pour her heart out to Enver. Mizehena wiped her tears away. When she opened her eyes again, she saw a bright, shining star in the sky: a new star, brighter than all the rest, tracing a path across the sky, a star with a long, glimmering tail trailing behind it.