This story is by Miriam Calleja and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
During the last few days, if you knew that life was coming to an end in no uncertain terms, the measurements of essential oils mixed with brine had to be accurate.
My family had opted for the most organic approach, using almond flowers and lemon balm, keeping the brine at a homeostatic optimum. Uncle Anthony could barely stomach it already, although he forced a smile when it was all gone. That’s when I knew that I was probably a few days late in starting the rituals.
Mother told me that Uncle wrote his death note ten days ago.
She asked me to visit the shops after three days of preparatory prayer. He didn’t look ill to me. He was still working, meeting friends, exercising, keeping the house in order. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with him, and I wasn’t allowed to ask.
I had the privilege of first taste – it was an honour because Uncle would be my first sacred meal now that I’ve turned 18.
After feeding Uncle the first mixture, I was to prepare a series of baths. Since I didn’t know what Uncle was suffering from, I turned to my malady book. Under some maladies, there was a warning that the baths may prolong the time until the death, which was obviously desirable. It is said that in a few cases where the cause of illness was unknown, the baths relieved the person of their illness.
I set the water at a comfortable temperature, and repeated the prayers reverently. I tried not to think very long about the responsibility I now held. Uncle was only 55 and he had no wife or children. It was up to me to prepare him for the community in what he told us were the last days of his life.
During his bath, I waited in the living room and lit a new candle every seven minutes. After the 7th candle I knocked gently, and opened the door to place the 7th candle next to Uncle. At first I thought that he was asleep, but he did not respond when I touched his arm. Then I noticed that his lips were blue.
Even if you’ve seen dozens of dead bodies before, even if you’re expecting death soon, nothing prepares you for being the one to discover the person who has passed on your watch. I recoiled and slid backwards to the corner of the bathroom, buried my head in my knees and retched. I knew no one was allowed to come to my rescue at this point. I had to do what I had to do. But first I had to cry until I stopped shaking.
It wasn’t going to be easy to manoeuvre him the way I needed to. The book didn’t mention what to do if you’d only administered one meal and one bath before the passing. I hadn’t even had time to place the 7th candle next to him for the prayer that followed the first bath. I ran home to inform my mother, not bothering to fix my face that was now swollen with crying.
That’s a part that I got wrong too; the news was to arrive at the next of kin in a serene manner. I hope that Uncle will be forgiving in this. He knew that this was to be my first ritual.
Mother broke the rules too. I had never heard her scream so much. She seemed to be angry rather than upset. Do you know how the ‘light’ leaves someone’s eyes when they receive bad news? It’s as though something went on in hers. She told us that she had hope for a recovery, especially following the attention from me and the baths.
I still didn’t understand why and how Uncle had passed, but now that I had to look up new recipes in the book, I had to know where to look. She instructed me to go to the index and find ‘high-functioning depression’.
She didn’t even blink. Such was her rage, a tsunami bashing repeatedly on her face.
“We also have to inform the authorities. I’m really sorry Elise, there will be an investigation and you might not be able to prepare Uncle for your first sacred meal. Anthony will not have the passing that you’ve grown accustomed to. This is a special case. This is what happened when I was a little girl.” Here, for a moment, she seemed to regain her composure. Was that a flicker of a smile?
All I could think of was that time was passing and Uncle was not being prepared in the right way.
This, I had been taught over and over again since I was very young, was the ultimate disrespect. I tried to read the short chapter of the book under the title ‘high-functioning depression’ but I couldn’t imagine that Uncle had suffered from this. He had never said a word to me about it, not even during my birthday week when I got to know my first assignment was to be Uncle.
I told my sisters that I didn’t know anyone who had passed of depression, but they shook their heads. There had been a few, and one was grandfather.
The more I read about it in the book, the more scared and confused I became.
“The incidence increased from one in four in the 20th century and towards the beginning of the 21st century, this gradually became one in two. The incidence would increase around major life events, such as a change in career, moving house, being left by a spouse, concurrent terminal disease, and other similar events.
However, with the introduction of the rituals, there was a significant decrease within two years. It is thought that the decrease was due to the hope instilled by the rituals, the sense of purpose and fulfillment.
Victims of depression, or acute anxiety culminating in successful suicide, would consider the disturbance of the planned ritual after death to be more burdensome on their relatives than the burden they were currently imposing during life.”
It also occurred to me now that if I did not have my first sacred meal, I could not be considered an adult. That meant a lot of things would not go as planned for me. I would not be able to start my first job within days of my first consumption of human flesh. That meant that the countdown of three years until I could live on my own wouldn’t start.
The implications started to sink in. I would need to keep hiding my relationship with Pierre too.
Without a word I snuck out the back of the house and ran back to Uncle. The candles had gone out except for candle number seven which was still by the bath.
People often died without preparation.
Uncle had had one meal and one bath. The candle had almost arrived at his side to symbolise the light on his way across.
I inspected the bathroom. There was nothing that could give me any clues.
How had mother known the cause of death without even appearing at Uncle’s side? I was the only one who had seen him. She hadn’t shown me the letter. In fact she had vehemently hidden it, despite the fact that I was the chosen one. I went back to his living room and checked the pockets of all his jackets and trousers, feeling like a girlfriend on a mad, jealous rampage. Aside from a couple of receipts, still nothing. Then I noticed one long receipt from the pharmacy.
That was when mother rushed in. She wasn’t supposed to be here! If possible, nobody else should be able to see the body until I’d administered the massage, the ending prayers, and the anointing.
“Give me those,” she said, snatching the receipts. Without a word she disappeared into the kitchen and emptied the trash into a black bag . She wiped down the kitchen surfaces – then produced a disinfectant cloth and to my horror went into the bathroom.
I followed her asking questions that she ignored. When I got into the bathroom behind her she was on her knees in front of Uncle. With tears still streaming down her face, she wiped his face and then used a brush under his fingernails. She rushed past me and repeated what I’d done, checking all the pockets of his clothes.
Her eyes large black saucers, she snatched my book from the kitchen table, found the emergency numbers and looked into my eyes for the first time since she’d been here.
“Call the number. Tell them Uncle Anthony told us he was very ill with a weak heart. He passed much sooner than anticipated. The heart problems run in the family. Grandpa had it too. You WILL get your first meal. You can’t go through what I did.”