Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Part 4

I walk slowly towards the river, fighting for footholds at the end of the treacherous, narrow brick street. I’m blind and the air is blackened and bitter, and carries an indescribable fervor. My face is red and stinging and filled with fluid and ash, and my skin is raw and whipped from the heat. The thick, acrid smell of burning bodies conquers my nostrils. Smoke, torrid and furious and filled with ash, spews past me, eager to aid the journey of the deceased into Nirvana.
It regurgitates its grisly burden onto the city streets and into the river, and fills the city with death.
My left leg slips into something warm and wet and heavy, then the air is filled with a large sucking and popping as I pull my foot back up and onto the last dry step. Clumsily, I attempt to wipe it clean of the mud and excrement that is now beginning to harden and cake on it, baking in the intensity of the heat. Smothering the urge to dry wretch, I snatch a small breath, and squint carefully, allowing the fluid gathered on the pupils to insulate against the onslaught for a moment.
In front of me the funeral fires burn bright, hot and constant; a grim and efficient factory, working continuously to process the dead and scatter charred, stubborn remains into the river. A caretaker uses a long stick to crudely stuff a pair of bare legs into the heart of one of the fires. In another, a foot, blackened and bubbling, waits for flames to finish their gruesome job. Someone tosses the smoking remains of a woman’s pelvis into the dark, churning water. Its sinks with a contented sigh into the murky depths, winking secrets in the sun. The ribcage of an unknown man crackles and hisses viciously and then spits a greasy surrender to the flames, filling the air with a smell of seared flesh and rendered fat.
A woman cries out, sobbing and wailing, and moves forward through the ghat to the riverbank to give her husband one final embrace. Her voice carries a raw, human urgency, naked and beautiful and full of grief and faith. The funeral bearers relent and lift layers of thin cloth from the man’s head, coloured garishly at first, then faded, and finally white, until there is no more cloth, and only a wizened face, shrunken and contorted and set into its last throws of pain.
The cries of the widow double in pitch and volume, swelling intensely, then grow shaky and doubtful. Just for a moment they waver and are battered by the terrifying uncertainties of the afterlife before they find renewed strength and start to climb, religious and robust. Above the body they climb, above the river, above the city and the clouds, and then they soar, above the fire and earth and water and sky, above the plants and the animals and the men, above man’s strange stories and customs, above his thoughts and dreams, and into the unknown, the cries soar, where they will remain, lost and innocent, until the end of time.
I choke.
I am back on the ground, and my head is swimming. The heat is becoming unbearable. I’m disorientated and my lungs are screaming, thirsty for clean air. I’m fighting the urge to suck in the foul cocktail around me with every fibre of muscle, every nerve, but it is too much. I collapse to my knees in the filth of the riverbank, gasp deeply, and fill myself with the blood of man.
And then I see them.

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