Sky Burial

“Why do we bury people in the sky, father?”

Babli clung to a framework and hung forward, straining like a kite at the wind. He had his mother’s fine bones.

Nur pressed his finger to a sisal knot so it would not untie while he answered his son’s question.

“Because it makes God happy.”

“Oh.” The boy watched with mute fascination, tonguing the gaps where his incisors would grow.

Nur finished the monkey’s head knot, the one that would last for five years of wind and rain and sun bleach, and turned to ruffle his son’s hair.

“We used to bury them, Babli, like your friends from the south. But God was not happy that we hid his children from his sight.”

Babli sucked his lips through the gap. “Those by the river burn them.”

Nur sucked air over his teeth. “A far worse thing than hiding them. Your friends may count themselves lucky God does not care about them. What else do they say?”

“Nothing.” Nur grunted and nodded as if that were the end of it. He waited as the boy fidgeted.

“Only—”

He grimaced to the planking before him.

“They say God does not exist. They bring colored pictures of their gods. They look like people, papa.”

Nur ran a kindly hand through his son’s hair. His father would not have been so understanding, Nur as a lad would have been cuffed by now, but Mera had borne children late and Knur could not bring himself to raise a hand against the boy.

“They look like people, yes, and they are fragile like people. Look at the basin god. Tanned as a farmer. How long has he been around? One, maybe two generations. God has been here longer than that. Before us, even.”

“What does God look like, then?”

Ah, this was an easy answer. “Like the headman tells you, child. God looks like all of us, for he is made of all of us. He will look like you when he calls me home, and he will look like me when he calls for me. Do you understand?”

Babli nodded, face pinched.

“Good boy. Now, give me that thread.”

With the cotton thread he bound an infant to the cradleboard, making sure its eyestones stayed in place. There were three that day, a woman, a boy, and the infant.

“Will I look like that when I see God, papa?”

Babli’s strange melancholy perturbed him. “One would hope you would be in such good shape. Broken bodies make god sad. But no, Babli, you will look like an old man when God calls to you.”

As it turned out, he was not even a young man when God called to him and the Hill people descended on the village, churning the earth into red mud. Nur watched the fires bank from his high perch and ran to fetch his wife, who had been at market when they attacked. He met a young warrior, philtrum pierced with an owl feather, and took a throwing stick to the head. Nur went down but did not die. The young man set to beating him with a stout club, but his call was not strong enough and Nur woke at dark.

It was oddly peaceful. He limped to his home and saw not a single living thing stir. Glutting themselves on the stored harvest, the raiders had set fire to the livestock, breaking every tool in the village. They mightn’t have bothered. Nur called and called until his head throbbed, but to no avail.

He allowed himself the luxury of weeping in the nest of his murdered kin, but not for long. His was never a sentimental kind. One by one, he dragged the bodies uphill, to the giving-place. As he did it he thanked the lord that the infidels hadn’t set fire to the slaughtered, added insult to injury.

He had only ever set up a platform big enough for thirty, when spring snowmelt had swelled the river and eaten the bridge to the fields. His father had managed eighty, the year of the famine. But now he had to stop and wait every few minutes until his vision stopped doubling itself, build a grave for his entire village without even a boy for help.

It was he alone who tied their sisal navel cords, who lifted and stacked and tied. He stole lumber from the outbuildings to make up for the store. He smeared the paste that was a mixture of butter and clay on their faces, so God would know them. He wept himself dry as he prepared the bower for his wife, placing their son in her arms like a suckling child.

They returned in the late morning and found him by a coop. He had been struggling to lift one more piece of lumber and his head had finally given up on him. They woke him by dashing cold water, then hot tea in his face.

He seemed unafraid to see them, which they were unused to. They slapped him about the head and asked him where his people were.

His smile pulled like a grimace over broken teeth. “With God.”

That earned him another slap. “God,” sneered a warrior, “you people have no god that I see. Where was he when we took your riches?”

Nur spread his hands as if to show how empty they were. They dunked him in the trough just until he lost air, and then let him up.

They bound his hands and feet and left him next to the coop while they argued what to do with him. They were still arguing when the noise came.

It was the sound of straining, of thousands of weight being lifted all at once. There was a look of grim satisfaction on Nur’s face.

Once of the warriors held out a skinning knife. Its edge caught the warm of the sun.

“No tricks, savage,” he hissed, “tell me where your people are.”

Nur looked him straight in the eye, cold and clear. “With God.”

And from the cliffs, a sound of something mighty descending on many, many, many little feet.

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