The corpse lay supine in the dust. Feet trudged clockwise in a wide, multi-layer circle around it. None of the owners of the feet knew who the sometime inhabitant of the corpse had been, but that didn't matter. Someone was dead. It was entirely appropriate to mourn.
There ought to have been a low, hopeless drizzle blurring the sharp lines and muting every color. Instead, the sky was blue, bright and thoughtless of funeral propriety. The sun shone down, perfectly cavalier. It beamed across the clearing as though upon children at play, friends hand-in-hand among tulips, or lovers picking their romantic way through golden stalks of wheat. It brutally emphasized the universal injustice of death, that life goes on. The sun and the stars and the sky don't stop to mourn. That's something only people do.
Sometimes, if the deceased touched only a small corner of the world, people don't do it either.
These people did, simply because there was no one else to do it. They had found the corpse alone, unknown and abandoned, and they mourned in part because no one was there to mourn. Their pace was slow, despairing, their feet heavy, their demeanor dejected. One has died, their manner said. This one has died. This one will never come again. At times, a mourner, overcome, would stumble to their knees in the hot, dry dust. Each fall went unnoticed by the others. Each mourner rose again unaided. Each was isolated in their grief, and it made the grief that much sharper.
At this point, an observer might have noticed that something unaccounted for by physical law was happening to the corpse, or, rather to the cracked earth beneath and around it. As the hours passed and the group of mourners plodded their heavy circle, the inner space it described and bounded was slowly, slowly descending. The corpse rested now in a wide, round pit, two feet deep and sinking all the while.
At some point of readiness known only to the participants, one mourner detached herself from the ring and climbed to the top of a rock standing just beyond its confines. With a voice pitched low yet raised effortlessly to reach each ear, she addressed the rest of the group. "Hear a tale to break your heart, O Earth, O you who huddle among the roots of the World Tree. Once was a day, cursed be the day, when ever-beloved Baldr was laid low..."
Thence continued the tale, known well by all who heard, the story of death by mistletoe flung blindly against supposedly invulnerable flesh. The mourners never stopped moving throughout the tale. The corpse continued to sink. When the tale reached the point where a single living creature refused to weep for Baldr, thus condemning the attempted resurrection to failure, several mourners left the ring and wandered away through the merciless sunshine.
No one had told them to leave. They had selected themselves out. They had felt inside themselves a limit to their grief that they could not, despite themselves, surpass. And so, rather than endanger the group's purpose, they had left.
The teller reached the end of the tale, then rejoined the group still shuffling their path ouroboros. And now, as though the story had broken a spell of silence, the air filled with a keening, a moaning, a singing of dirges from many throats. The afternoon moved on toward evening on the wings of forlorn cries.
When the sun first touched the horizon, another tale-teller broke out of the circle and stood upon the stone. The mourners quieted down and listened. "Hear a tale to blow chill through your heart, O Earth, O you who cower indoors while the wind wails restless without. Once was a day, cursed be the day, when one young son's two elderly parents were given the gift of three wishes..."
Thence continued the tale, known well by all who heard, the story of the monkey's paw that fulfilled desires but twisted each wish askew. Wealth was granted by the death of the son; the son's return was granted by powers to terrible to contemplate. And at the point where the third wish was made, undoing the son's resurrection, another handful of mourners left the circle and departed into the dusk.
No one had told them to leave. They had selected themselves out. They had felt inside themselves a fearful doubt which they could not, despite themselves, assuage. And so, rather than endanger the group's purpose, they had left.
The teller reached the end of the tale, then rejoined the mourners, all of whom stopped in their tracks. They faced the corpse in the center, sunk by now to the traditional depth of six feet below the ground. Each mourner stood still for a long, long time, while the sky darkened toward black and the night birds began to call. Then, on no signal an observer could have detected, they erupted in a flurry of motion, flinging fresh earth into the newly sunk grave. Despite the heat of the just-ended day that had baked the earth beneath them to a hardness like rock, they dug up handfuls of dirt easily and did not stop throwing their burdens until the grave was entirely full.
Then they scattered into the night, no two together and with no destinations in common. In the morning they would arise once more as ordinary people. They would see each other across desks and counter tops and construction sites, and not a one would recognize another.
The grave site they left behind all but vanished in the dark. The moon and the stars were absent. The sky was black as the ink in which Death pens its diary. The hours of the night passed soundlessly; the night birds had fled with the mourners and had not returned. Not even the quietest scuttlings of mice or beetle could be heard. It was as though this small corner of the world were holding its breath.
When at last, in time, the sun came up, it opened like an eye that was nervous of what it might see. And what it saw was a figure sitting cross-legged and motionless upon the fresh grave. The figure's hands were held up to chest height as though to study each finger and take inventory of every line of the palms.
The sun quit its squinting and rose fully above the horizon, only to disappear once more behind a low bank of clouds. The red tinge of dawn leached from the sky, leaving it a pale overcast gray. The figure let its hands fall into its lap. It said, to no one in particular, and in a voice almost too soft for a hypothetical observer to hear, "Why?"
Some minutes later, it began to rain.
"Because You Weren't There" is now the Fictionette Freebie for the month of May 2015. You can download the full-length fictionette (1141 words) as a PDF and/or an MP3 narrated by the author regardless of your pledge tier or whether you're a Patron. Get those files here:
Cover art incorporates original photography by Nicole J. LeBoeuf, who sometimes likes to play in the dirt.