SHORT STORY CONTEST
by Andrle Ward
A drop of sour sweat trickled down the side of Eetmus’s firm face. He stood next to the casket as he and the other pallbearers waited for the officiant to finish his speech. A rare, refreshing breeze blew past him, smelling of warm spices from the colorful oils the mourners had spread on their arms and faces. Eetmus rubbed the rough skin of his fingers against one another, trying not to look anywhere but straight ahead, trying not to react to the words of the officiant who thought himself an orator, delivering a punchline with pride as the crowd filled with an unexpected laughter.
Eetmus glanced at the Sender who waited at the base of the hill. He could have sworn he saw him glare at the officiant, and maybe he had because silence fell over the group of mourners. Like the person in the casket, the officiant was an outsider and did not know their ways—but the stern look of a Sender was universally understood. And so, in renewed silence, the officiant nodded his head, and Eetmus and the other pallbearers lifted and headed up the path of the Great Hill where they would send the dead to the sun.
It was common for outsiders to travel here for the Sending. The people of this village were proud to have the highest hills on the planet. It was said the dead had the best chance of breaking free from the planet’s gravity and being fed to the sun from the heights of the Great Hill. But traveling was not for the poor, and outsiders would have to pay a fee for the services. If they couldn’t afford the journey, they would have to try to launch their dead from their lower hills, and would have to hope the gods of the sun would choose to pull them in.
As the pallbearers made their way through the crowd toward the Great Hill, Eetmus took notice of the mourners. There were elders and young among the painted and veiled. Eetmus tried to hide his surprise; no matter how rich they were, the vulnerable were not supposed to make the journey across the hot lands.
The casket paused at the wall surrounding the base of the Great Hill. Eetmus’s face warmed when he saw Ingrit, the gatekeeper. He watched her small body as she turned the heavy key and moved nimbly to maneuver the gateway. She then came to collect the flag—the pallbearers lowered the casket so she could reach it. Eetmus didn’t dare smile at Ingrit during a Sending, and she didn’t dare smile at him. But she did brush his arm as she pulled the flag down and began the ceremony of folding it. He smiled inwardly, feeling the warmth of her touch.
No one ascended the Great Hill save the Sender and the pallbearers. To become a pallbearer was to undergo arduous training, and Eetmus was pleased he had impressed the Sender and the Council and achieved placement so quickly. The Great Hill was for ceremony only; those who wished to become pallbearers trained on lesser hills. The hopefuls performed runs up and down the heights, wearing heavy weights on their ankles to prepare them. Unlike on these test hills, traversing the Great Hill meant passing the threshold between the gravity of their planet and that of their large, looming sun. Those honored as pallbearers wore weighted vests to hold them to the planet, adorned with marks for each Carrying they had done. Eetmus would earn his first mark today. In front of him was a strong and giant man whose vest had so many marks Eetmus could not count them all.
At last they reached the heights where gravity shifted and their load became lighter. Eetmus silently thanked the gods of the sun for taking some of the weight of the casket. The pallbearers hiked until their breath became labored, the air so impossibly thin at this altitude. The Sender carried no load and trekked with less effort. He was waiting for them at the peak.
“Now it begins,” the Sender began, speaking words he’d recited thousands of times. “From our home planet to our sun, the wise Oska. We thank you, Great Orb, for this life.”
The Sender turned and bent his head as the pallbearers carefully slid the thin casket into the heavy metal cannon. Eetmus felt the weight and the outline of the body shift inside the material. It turned his stomach to feel the dead. He wasn’t expecting this, but he had been warned. The barrier could not be thick; the dead could not reach the sun if they were weighed down by material possessions.
“From you we are born. In death to you do we return,” the Sender continued as the pallbearers aimed the cannon toward the skies. “We praise you and feed you with our life.” He lifted his head and turned to light the heavy woven threads of the fuse.
The Sender and pallbearers stepped back several paces. This was the closest Eetmus had ever been to a Sending. The cannon fired and throbbed in his ears, the blast roaring inside him. He placed a hand over the center of his chest to hold the thundering in his core. Eetmus decided this was where he wanted his first mark to be placed. His eyes welled as he watched the fiery path the body tore through the sky.
* * *
At night, the sun was half-obscured behind their small planet, casting cool shadows across their town. Eetmus and Ingrit liked to hide in those shadows together. It wasn’t forbidden, but they hadn’t yet asked for approval from the Council on their joining. Until that point, any romantic interaction was considered inappropriate. Ingrit had joined the gatekeepers two years ago and, now that Eetmus was a pallbearer, their union would certainly be approved. But Ingrit seemed to prefer living with secrets.
When they were children Eetmus overheard a teacher say Ingrit’s soul was as bright as a fire and just as difficult to tame. As they grew older, Eetmus saw fewer of the flames; he hoped that meant her rebelliousness would cool to embers.
Ingrit had seemed unphased when Eetmus rushed to tell her he’d made it through training. He had been eager and proud, wearing his new uniform, telling her how much he wanted them to go through the joining ceremony.
“Let’s keep this to ourselves for a while longer,” she had whispered in his ear, and he couldn’t refuse her warm, mischievous tone as she led him into the woods.
He would wait, but in his daydreams they were joined and lived in a thick-walled home that smelled fresh and sweet, where their young played on the cool tile floors, blessed with resiliency because of their parents’ service to Oska.
That blessing from the gods of the sun would certainly be needed. More and more the young were not surviving the climate. It was said by the Council that the young could not have been of the sun if they could not endure. Those sayings did not make the loss of their young any easier for mourning parents and families.
The elders also lived in danger. Those who experienced hundreds of rotations around the sun weakened quickly as they aged. They were sent each day to congregate in the cool caves at the edges of town and would return to their family’s homes at night to rest in silence. Elders were forbidden from speaking—it was said that silence preserved their life energy. Nonetheless, Eetmus had heard rumors that some elders passed tales to their families at night in hushed tones. He cringed to think of himself in that place, having to keep an eye out for the Watchers. Eetmus had heard rumors that Ingrit’s grandmother was one such Elder who liked to tell tales. He imagined them in the cool of the evening, sitting together at their hearth pretending to warm themselves, exchanging whispers. He hoped Ingrit’s mother and father were wise enough to keep watch at their windows.
This night, Ingrit took him to the shadows but did not pull him close to her. “Eetmus, I have been waiting all day. There’s something I need to tell you.”
“Ingrit,” he interrupted, “there is so much to celebrate. It is a day blessed by the gods!”
“It’s nothing of the sort,” she retorted. Eetmus looked at her with confusion; how could the day of his first Sending not be a day of joy for her?
“Eetmus, the dead you carried today. . . .” She paused, choosing her words carefully. “She was not just an outsider. She was Silenced.”
Eetmus knew Ingrit heard many things performing her duties with the other gatekeepers. She would often share them with him, and they would muse over what she had heard. But Silencing was not something that should be spoken of.
Ingrit pressed on. “I saw her before she died. I woke to her shrieking and yelling in the courtyard. Eetmus, she lost her young.” Ingrit pressed her head into his chest.
“It . . . it is always a great loss when young cannot live on our planet,” Eetmus began.
“It is a great loss that no one is listening to the elders.”
“What are the elders saying that we should be listening to?” Eetmus’s anger grew. The rumors were true. “If your grandmother is filling you with stories, you both could be Silenced, Ingrit.”
“I cannot believe they’re just stories if it’s not just our elders who are telling them. The woman who was Silenced had the same stories. She was yelling that the sun is growing closer. Her elders think the heat is what is killing our young. She was trying to warn us! And…she was desperately sad. I’ve never heard someone sound so mournful—it seemed like she could cry forever. But the Sender and a Watcher arrived and dragged her away.” Ingrit looked away, her breath shaking in the darkness between them.
Eetmus wanted to fill the silence, but he didn’t know what to say. He understood the woman’s sadness, but to rant in a foreign village? The woman should have known it was against the law to speak such blasphemy.
“The woman was freshly buried when wealthy outsiders arrived. I was in the Council chambers and overheard—they said the woman had been joined to their Captain and they offered a bribe to get her a Sending. The Council took the bribe, and quickly removed her from the dirt and put her into a fresh casket, to be sent to the sun after all.” Ingrit wiped her face. “None of the other gatekeepers can believe it. We’ve never moved the dead once they are laid in the earth.”
Eetmus didn’t want to believe his first Sending was shrouded in such shame. Those whom the Watchers found to be defiant did not get the honor of feeding the mother sun. They were supposed to be kept in the earth, planet-bound until they rotted.
Ingrit peered into Eetmus’s face but he looked at her blankly. “Eetmus, there are things you don’t want to admit but you must know in your heart,” she pleaded. “I think the woman was right, and I think she was Silenced because of what she knew. The sun does seem closer every day. You can’t deny that it’s getting hotter. You have to feel it, how it weighs on us.” Ingrit wiped thick sweat from her brow.
“The sun is larger because of the dead,” Eetmus stated, exasperated to again be seeing this side of Ingrit, this side that made him hesitate, that he kept trying to ignore. He had wished for a cool-headed, happy woman to be his, but his heart had not chosen that. He tried to remind her what she should know to be true. “The sun grows large from the life we feed to it. Oska glows brightly because we send our dead to the sun.”
“You’re just repeating the words of a pallbearer,” Ingrit retorted. “Eetmus, our elders remember the sun smaller, and they remember our planet cooler. They share stories in the caves. You don’t know what they’ve seen in their lifetimes!”
A rustle of leaves a short distance away startled them. Ingrit grabbed Eetmus. They waited, their hearts beating loudly, unable to remove Ingrit’s forbidden words that seemed to hang in the air. A dark figure moved and disappeared behind the trees. Ingrit’s brow furrowed.
Hair rose on Eetmus’s neck. He waited a couple minutes before he spoke again. “It will be alright,” he whispered, mostly reassuring himself. He breathed in the scent of her thick hair. They felt too many things for each other for this to drive them apart. “Ingrit, the sun grows because of us. Just as my love for you grows because of the power of the sun.”
* * *
That night, Ingrit accepted Eetmus’s old proposal. He was delighted when she insisted that they ask the Council for permission to join as soon as possible. He suspected but did not mind that Ingrit’s decision was hastened by concern of being overheard. He always knew they would be joined one day and, if it distracted the Watchers, all the better. And indeed, everyone’s attention was turned to celebrating Eetmus and Ingrit’s joining with the great promise that they would soon start a new family. To everyone’s delight, it was not long after their ceremony that Ingrit started to grow.
The Council selected a large home for Ingrit and Eetmus—a reward for their swift conception, given in hope of many successful and healthy births. Ingrit’s gatekeeping duties had to be stopped. Women carrying new life were expected to stay cool during the days and rest. Eetmus headed each day to the Sendings, eager to earn new marks. He would return home each night overjoyed to see Ingrit. Each day she seemed to grow larger, and the sun seemed to grow with her.
When her belly was nearly as large as it would get, Ingrit’s mother and grandmother moved into their home. It was law for the living matriarchs to be present to assist with the birth, and Eetmus dutifully prepared their room. He was not eager for her grandmother to arrive, filling Ingrit with stories more easily now that they were once again under the same roof. But Eetmus tried to bury his suspicions. After all, it had been several weeks since Ingrit had tried to speak to him about things a listening Watcher would not like. And, to his relief, Ingrit’s grandmother did not speak, at least not when he was home.
The news of Ingrit’s labor would arrive during the middle of a Sending. It would be held until the end of the ceremony, but Eetmus knew what message the girl waiting eagerly at the edge of the ceremony was there to deliver. His arms and legs barely felt the pull of the climb, his elation carrying him to the top of the Great Hill.
As soon as the ceremony completed, Eetmus ran home. He could not wait to see Ingrit, to watch her give birth, to hold his small child. He wondered if it would look more like him or Ingrit. If it would be playful or serious. If it would one day become a pallbearer or a gatekeeper like its parents before it. He wondered how many young Ingrit would give him. His heart jumped and leaped as he navigated the stony path toward his home.
He threw the door open wide, but when he saw Ingrit he could not move. Her cheeks were burning red. Her hair stuck in strings to her damp forehead.
She looked up to see Eetmus and shook her head. “I can’t do it,” she cried. “I can’t bring life into a dying world.”
Eetmus stiffened. What was she doing talking of such things when she was giving birth to their child? The gods of the sun would not look kindly on this!
“Eetmus, the sun is going to consume us,” Ingrit insisted.
He stepped toward her, but her grandmother moved between them and Ingrit continued, getting louder with each word. “I watch it every day. I watch you deal with the dead and I cannot help but picture us as the dead. You, me.” She cradled the largeness of her belly. “Our child. What chance does this small one have? If the sun doesn’t eat us alive it will burn us alive!” Ingrit bent in pain, clenching her skirts. Eetmus stared at his wife, trying to find the words to contain this mad thought, when something caught his eye outside their window—something dark and unmistakable.
Eetmus tried to move, tried to speak, but was frozen. He looked at Ingrit’s grandmother—she saw it, too. Two Watchers and the Sender came through their doorway.
“No!” Ingrit cried. “You cannot hide the truth! It will not die with us!” Ingrit fumbled toward her bedroom to escape their grasp. A sharp pain on the back of Eetmus’s head dropped him to his knees. He heard his wife scream and her grandmother struggle and yell.
Through panicked breathing he tried to picture that future he had hoped for so strongly. They lived in their thick-walled home. Their young played on cool tile floors and grew older and safer. He and Ingrit grew older as well. Over time they mourned the passing of their parents but celebrated their return to the sun. Eetmus gained the eye of the Sender and apprenticed with him and eventually took his place. He saw his children grow and have their own young. And they were all blessed because of their service to Oska.
* * *
The morning sun cast a piercing heat on the pallbearers. They stood next to the caskets, waiting for the words the officiant read aloud to the absence of a crowd. The air was still. The words were finished almost before they started, and the Sender, having no climb to take that morning stood next to the gatekeeper, who would collect no flags. Four holes had been dug in the side of the Great Hill, and the pallbearers carried the caskets to be buried in the earth.
Andrle Ward lives in Seattle, Washington with her husband, son, and small dog. Her essays have appeared in Pif Magazine. A poet since childhood, she now enjoys reading and writing across genres, including speculative fiction and personal essays. She loves spending time with her family, learning about minimalism, and caring for her houseplants.