Cenizas And The Ash King by Lizanne Herd

The river receded again that spring. Four years in a row, and it meant one thing: King Yuntan had lost favor with God and his wife and another king must be chosen. He had been Ash King for a good, long time. For thirty-eight years he had maintained favor, and the village prospered. Their trade was busy, their gardens burst with success and the children were plentiful. Yes, thirty-eight years had been good to Yuntan and the people of Boran. They had been good until the river started to recede.

“What have you done?” asked Cindri, his advisor. “You have done something terrible, no doubt. Look at this river,” he said, pulling Yuntan by the sleeve to look at the muddy banks and quiet water. “The spirit of your wife is gone.” Cindri spat onto the ground. “She would not leave if you treated her well.” Yuntan looked up and down the thinning water. She _had_ gone, that was clear.

“She no longer loves me,” he said, almost to himself.

“Then tell me, Yuntan, what did you do? She loved you and blessed you with a good life all these years only to leave now?” Yuntan had his back to Cindri. “If she does not return, they will choose another king. You will become a sad, old man and I will have to train another child, God curse you!” He tried to spit again, but his mouth was dry.

“I went to visit my sister in Deodar,” said Yuntan, his back still to Cindri. “I stayed with her only a few days.”

“That was many years ago.”

“She had a maidservant.”

Cindri was silent, going over the times in his head. Yuntan had visited his sister five years before. He closed his eyes and bent his head. “Is there a child?”

Luntan turned to look at Cindri. “Isn’t there always?” He walked back up the path to his home, leaving Cindri to work out their fate.

#

The meeting at the Grange was subdued, mothers clutching their daughters and grooming their sons. Even Cindri’s own daughter was draped in an ashen gray frock, re-stitched and patched from years of attempted camouflage. His wife Calendra, covered with the symbols of her family’s trade, hid four year old Cenizas in the folds of her voluminous skirt. Other mothers did likewise. Calendra fussed with her medallions and bracelets and twisted her rings around her fingers until they were warm. The ring spell, she hoped, would cover Cenizas with obscurity. She looked over to Cindri, who was busy finding places for the latecomers, but his eyes looked old and tired. She had married him when he was already an old man, next to the king. Cenizas made him young again. She tried not to look at the child, keeping her as secret as possible. _Sleep_, she thought to her daughter. She could feel the girl’s body relax and become heavy against her legs.

Boys ran around the Grange, clomping their sandals and shouting. They were regaled in bright colors, their faces painted with cheery cheeks and feminine eyes. They were beautiful birds, raucous and bold. Calendra eyed their mothers with jealousy, who fussed over and preened their sons. Even if their child was chosen, they would not lose him. He would be king, for as long as he was favored. He would lose nothing but his heritage, since he would be wed to a ghost. _Just not _MY_ ghost_, thought Calendra. She resisted the temptation to pet Cenizas’ sleeping head.

Cindri found seats for the last arrivals and looked around. Nearly every villager was there, except for the ill, the feeble and the king. “People,” he shouted, trying to subdue the clamor, “We must begin!” Parents collected their boys, who continued to squirm and protest in their father’s laps. Cindri drew in breath through tight lips, disgusted. He kept his back to Calendra. From a cubby within the Grange wall he pulled a leather bag, heavy with smooth, flat stones. From the center of the large room, he spoke the rules of the drawing.

“Our king has lost favor in the eyes of his wife. Her spirit, which was shared equally among those of us on the day she was chosen, has left the village and taken the blessings of God with her. Our king Yuntan must be replaced. Today we will choose our new Ash King, and his wife, whose spirit will bring the favor of God upon us once again.”

“Glory be to God and his hand maiden,” came the responsorial.

“Boys! Come to me.” The parents thrust forward their boys, some barely able to walk and others old enough to look sheepishly for their girl friends’ hidden faces, knowing they would never again touch a soft breast if they selected the Ash King’s stone.

They pressed in to Cindri. One by one they pulled out the stones. He whispered something into each ear, and they nodded, covering the stone with both hands as they took a seat around him on the floor. Twenty-seven boys, each holding a stone.

“The Ash King’s stone,” said Cindri, “will match only one.” He reached into the bag and produced one more stone, hidden in the hem of the bag. Holding it up between two fingers, it looked new, just created by God. It had a simple swirl of hieroglyph on one side, the symbol of the Ash King, a man engulfed by a spirit. He turned around slowly so that each boy could see the symbol. As they compared their stone to the king’s stone, mixed sighs of relief and envy rippled through the assembly.

“It isn’t mine,” said one boy. Tears welled in his eyes and streaked his make-up as he slumped back to clearly disappointed parents.

“Mine either,” said another. And another. Tiny squeals of happiness flittered through the coverings of the young girls as their boyfriends returned to them unking-ed.

Barely more than halfway through the boys, Cindri grew tired. _How to make this last?_ he asked himself. _How not to select a queen?_ He slowed down to a toddler’s pace hoping with each stone it would again not match the king’s. He pinched his eyes against the thoughts of his beautiful Cenizas, the child of his old age.

“It’s mine!” He heard the shout nearly in his ear, so loud he opened his eyes and threw back his head like he’d been hit. A roar billowed out from the crowd and the boy’s parent led the surge into the middle of the room. Graham, only ten years old, held the Ash King’s stone at arm’s length above his head, bouncing within the circle of pressing villagers.

“I’m the new Ash King!” The boy shouted again. He was lifted off the ground and carried on many shoulders. They presented him with quick bouquets and a shower of praise. The musicians jumped into a quick melody of celebration.

“Graham! Graham the Ash King may he live forever!”

Cindri stood off to the side while the noise died down. The children sat with their parents, and Graham still giddy from his good fortune, danced and giggled in his own chair, center.

One of the mothers, only sons, mind you, looked from the crowd and back to Cindri. They were still fidgety and murmuring, but ready to go on. She leaned over her eldest son, a dolt by any measure and the town’s good fortune that he had not been chosen, and pulled at Cindri’s jacket. “Cindri!” He barely took notice, one knuckle touching his lips, eyes pinched tight. “Cindri, we’ve a king. Pick us a queen.”

Most of the crowd echoed the woman’s demand. “Yes! A queen, now.” Others held their breath and looked down, hating their neighbors. They tried to hide the girls, for what little good it would do. A queen would be chosen from among them; each mother hoped that God would not look upon their daughter for this Pyrrhic blessing. Cindri could not look into their eyes, so he focused on the feet encircling the Grange. He kept his back to Calendra, although he could feel her heart beating in his head. It matched the rhythm of his own heart.

He cleared his throat, but his voice still broke when he began. “No king should rule alone. Instead, we give him a queen. Her perfection will be upon us and in us. As long as the king remains true, she will remain as guardian of us all, and bring God’s kind grace to this town.”

“Glory be to God and his hand maiden.”

“Girls, come to me.” This time, no one pressed in. The girls came slowly, the older ones were crying and making the little ones nervous. Soon, most of them were in tears. The littlest ones tried to run back to the skirts of their mothers only to have their fathers pick them up and carry them to the center of the room. Cindri could see the mothers with their faces hidden in their skirts. Without looking behind him, he knew that Calendra did not bury her face. He could still hear her desperate voice in his head. She was not angry, not yet. He felt two arms clasp him about the knees.

“Pick me up, Daddy,” said Cenizas. She held up one arm, the other not letting go of his pant leg. “Please.”

“I’m sorry, Love,” he said. “Daddy’s doing something.”

He reached into the cubby and pulled out a second leather bag, this one as ornate as the girls’ dresses were drab. He counted out thirty-two stones, one for each girl. Thirty-two. The odds were good. “The Queen’s stone will match only one.” He held out the bag and the girls each took a stone. None hurried to look at theirs, and his whisper that they hold them between their two palms was almost unnecessary.

The stone Cindri took from the bag’s hem was elaborately carved with swirls of wind spiraling between the Eye of God and the body of a man. It was beautiful, carved into a deep, black stone with surprising heft for such a small item. One by one, he coaxed the girls to show their stones.

“Not mine,” the first girl quavered. She fell to her knees, palms outstretched and sobbed with relief. “Not mine!” Her parents ran forward and pulled her back into their embrace.

Cindri checked the stone in the hand of another child, Ella, who was even younger than his own Cenizas. He bent down on one knee. “Let me see, little one,” he coaxed. Her fingers were white around the rock. “Is that a black rock you have there, Ella?”

“Stop, you coward!” cried Ella’s mother. “She doesn’t have the stone. It’s not hers. Please, it’s not hers…” Her voice trailed off as she pressed her head into the shoulder of her husband.

Cindri looked back at Ella, who was biting her lip and knitting her little brow beneath her bangs. “Let me see.” He unlocked her fingers and revealed the black stone. The side of the stone facing him was blank. Cindri closed his eyes and prayed a brief second and turned it over in her palm. The symbol was that of a shepherd, not a spirit queen. He bent his head and stood. Petting her on the head, he sent Ella back into the crowd to her parents.

One by one, each of the other girls did the same: Revealed the stone, sank back in relief and ran back to their parents. Thirty girls checked, only two left: Jensa and Cenizas. Their eyes were huge and wet, and they looked for all the world like the twins whose tears filled the river. Cindri heard his wife’s voice in his head. _Just do it, Cindri. We’ve waited long enough._

He breathed deep and let it out slow through his nose, lips pinched tight. On his knees, he beckoned Cenizas to him, and she near fell into his chest. “Daddy!” She shouted, nestling her chin into his neck.

Slowly he pulled back. Taking her hands into his own, he cupped them, kissed their soft pudginess and slowly pulled them apart.

The stone was black. A murmur twittered through the crowd. Jensa leaned over trying to catch a glimpse. Cindri opened his daughter’s hands fully to expose the hieroglyph. He saw the spirit shape, the occluded woman’s shape, his future falling away. Quickly he recovered the stone with Cenizas’ hand.

It was clear to him that Jensa had not seen the glyph, and Cenizas did not know what it meant. _If I just say it’s not hers_ he thought to himself, _my own Cenizas will be safe._ He reached for Jensa, who opened her palms to him. He covered her hands, obfuscating their contents from the eyes of the crowd. The stone was dark. Not black, but the glyph was of a young flute player. _Yes!_ He thought to himself. _No one will be the wiser._ He looked at Jensa with sad compassion and reached to lift her up, announcing her as queen.

“Cenizas has it!” A voice shouted from behind him. “Her stone is black!” Whirling around, he saw it: Cenizas, holding out the stone to the crowd, clearly displaying her death sentence, the glyph of the queen. The room seemed to pull away from him now. He grabbed Cenizas, held her into his chest and ran to Calendra. They rocked and sobbed; voices and tears, the sounds of the musicians’ celebration melting into one blanket of noise.

#

The dedication of the queen brought a representative of each household. Each would witness the ceremony, to make sure it was done. Calendra looked outside her window at them gathering by the fire pit in the square just before the bend in the road. She closed the curtain and spat on the floor. Cenizas was still holding the stone. She twirled in her ceremonial gown, the brightest colored cloth she’d ever seen, much less worn.

“I did what I could, Calendra, you must believe me.”

She touched his face, the furrows and sags having grown deeper since morning. Papery and dry, the trail of tears having since been erased. Pulling him close, she kissed him, dry on dry. “We both did, Love.” She looked over at her daughter. “We both will, if we must.”

“What–?”

“Shhhh,” she said. One the counter by the window was a small cup, the one Cenizas used each meal. Calendra picked it up and carried to her cupboard of elixirs. Tiny bottles, little boxes, herbs and medicinals. She had small measures available for anyone who needed them, and today of all days, Cenizas needed them. “She will feel no pain.”

She mixed up what she needed: a few herbs, something dark and thick like autumn knotweed honey, and a powder Calendra would not touch with her bare fingers. Into the cup, and served with juice, and then to the hands of Cenizas.

“Drink up, baby,” she said. And the child did, even licking the sticky sides of the cup when the liquid was gone.

#

The fire was already starting to settle back from its initial burst when Cindri and Calendra brought out Cenizas. She had her arms draped on her father’s neck, and her mother held onto the fingertips of the girl’s right hand, behind Cindri’s back. She was wide awake and calm. The crowd split for their entry. Mostly men circled the fire. A few teenagers came to gawk, a handful of women, even Yuntan, who had been drinking. The sky was dark, so this little circle was all that was left to the world, as far as any of them could tell, the fire was so bright.

Graham was thrust forward, still grinning. In his hands he had the bandanas and a black, embroidered bag. “Here,” he said, giving them over to Cindri.

“You must help me son. This is your wife, the one to whom you are dedicated for the rest of your life. You are to bind her, as she is bound to you. No one else can ever take her place in your heart or in your bed.” Cindri cast a sideways glance toward Yuntan, who was looking at his hands. “Do you understand, Graham?”

“I am the Ash King,” he replied.

Together, Graham and Cindri bound Cenizas, who, although alert, did not resist.

“Here,” said Cindri, as Graham tied her wrists. “Not too tight. She’s just a baby.” Graham loosened the knot and Cenizas smiled at him. They bound her wrists, her legs, and a gentle angle knot to bring them together. The bandanas matched her gown, beautiful gauzy colors wrapped around her tiny limbs. “Before you cover her face, Graham, you must kiss her.” Graham curled his lip and backed up just a step. He gave a tiny whimper of disgust. “You are the Ash King, Graham. The fate of our village rests on your faithfulness to this child, your queen.” Graham looked around for support, but the people pushed him forward. Cindri spat on the ground. “I’ve seen you kiss miserable curs in your yard. Surely you can spare a kiss for the wife who sacrifices everything for you!” He pulled Graham over by his collar, forcing the boy to walk on tip-toes. He relented, bent over the face of Cenizas and pecked her on the cheek. He was about to wipe his mouth, but stopped with one look at Cindri’s expression of fury hidden beneath the grief.

That being done, the crowd relaxed just a bit and pulled back. The fire was just right now, and several of the men produced the pyre bed, metal framed filigree covered with pillows and flowers.

It was all they could do to place their only child on the bed. It was near impossible for Cindri to help Graham place the embroidered bag over her head. Neither of them could bear to watch as she was placed over the fire, and she was consumed.

The fire took her quickly, the medicine Calendra had given her made it painless for Cenizas, but Calendra and Cindri’s hearts were broken beyond measure. They held each other close. Even as the rest of the town left one by one, they stayed. Even as Ash King Graham was lead away to prepare for the morning’s final ceremony, they stayed. When the last of the red embers faded to brown then black, they stayed. It was very dark, not quite dawn yet, when they stirred. Cenizas’ ashes lay in the middle of the fire pit. Just after daybreak the coroner would come and collect the ash, ready to distribute to the king and the town.

“I’m staying,” said Calendra, “Just a few minutes more. You go, I’ll be in.” She sent her husband into the house.

She joined him just as the sun was rising. Over night she had become old. Just days before, she moved like a breeze over meadow flowers, now she walked as if on coals. Her dark, thick hair, the crown of her beauty, had become gray and matronly. She had even pulled it up into a bun like the crones did.

Cindri pulled her close. “I am so sorry, my love.” He reached to touch her hair, to pull out the crone’s bun.

“No, Cindri, leave it. I am in mourning. Everyone should see my grief while they all celebrate their Ash King and Queen.”

#

Now the entire town gathered. The coroner had collected the ash from the pit. Each bit was secured in the large bowl of his profession, mixed with water and just a bit of clover syrup to make it easier. He served Graham first.

“You are the Ash King,” said Cindri. “Through you and with you will the queen reign. Take this and eat, letting her wisdom and her connection with God guide you.” Graham took the smaller bowl and raised it to his lips. After a brief pause, he gulped down the ashen drink in one swig. He was given bread to clean out what remained, and ate that as well. A cup of river water, a celebratory refrain from the musicians, and Graham was king.

Each person present followed suit. The line was long, and Cindri sat next to Calendra on one of the rock walls lining the square. “We have to do this, love. If we don’t…”

“Yes, love,” she said. They both rose and the line took them in, the broken father, and the graying mother.

When it was over, the pit emptied and the Ash King properly trumpeted and festooned, Cindri and Calendra turned up the street back to their lifeless house. “I cannot stay here.”

“Yes, of course.”

“No, I mean it, Cindri. This town has taken our daughter. I cannot stay here.”

Cindri looked out the window at the town which now belonged to a ten year-old king and his dead daughter. It seemed strange and foreign. The road was empty with the ceremony done and mealtime approaching. A few dogs sought shelter from the afternoon sun.

“We’ll leave today. This house is empty without her.” He pressed back the tears from his eyes. Looking at Calendra, her eyes were dry and her jaw set.

“I have family in Deodar. They need a woman of medicine there,” she said.

#

It rained that night. The journey was less than a day by carriage, but it was open to the air, and it was getting cold.

“Help me,” said Calendra, as the first drops fell. “Cover me.” She handed Cindri a large blanket. It was smooth, with hardly a nap. Her face and hair covered, she relaxed into her husband’s arms.

It was well into morning as they arrived at the edge of Deodar, its rock wall entrance low and in shambles. The town’s fortune had been declining for years, longer even than their own town. But Deodar had abandoned the tradition of an Ash King. They let their children live and God make do as He will.

“Here,” said Calendra, as they pulled up by a low row of houses. “This one is my cousin’s house. He will take us in.” She removed the covering on her head, folding it carefully, tucking it into one of her bags. “He’ll be home, love.” She took Cindri’s hand, and they knocked.

Paolo answered the door. “Calendra! Oh, darling, it is so good to see you!” He pulled in his cousin, and she dropped her bags onto the floor. Cindri followed behind. “What brings you here? There is no wedding, no funeral…” He glanced over at Cindri. “You are Cindri, yes?” He took the older man’s hands and shook them like an old friend. “It’s good to have you here. Please, come in.” He looked from face to face, trying to read them. “So tell me, why are you here?”

Cindri took a step forward. “We’ve decided to—”

“The town took Cenizas as their Ash Queen.” Calendra’s eyes were wide with meaning. She grabbed Paolo’s hands.

“Oh, well, then.” He looked back at Cindri. “Yes, I see.” He moved back toward the kitchen which passed through to the enclosed garden. “Come, follow me.”

Calendra picked up the bag with the blanket and her medicinals. The bottles made muffled clinking noises as they crossed the threshold from the kitchen into the garden. A large fountain with a wading pool dominated the center of the garden.

Paolo looked through the bag. “It is here? You did bring it, I assume?”

“Wait, what is going on here? Calendra, please, tell me what’s going on.”

“It’ll be fine, my love. Everything will be fine.” She touched Paolo’s shoulder. “It’s not in the bag, Paolo. Stand up.” He did. “Look at me.” He did this as well. “I’ve got her here.” She pointed to her hair.

Cindri looked at his wife. Not gray with sudden age, not old with the loss of her child. “What is it, love? What did you do?”

“Help me, Paolo.” She pulled a large bottle from her bag and handed it to her cousin. “I made as much as I could.” He took a large knife from the kitchen and cut open the top of the bottle with one strike. Some of the liquid dripped out over the pool of water, and he poured the rest in. She untied her hair from the crone’s bun, and it cascaded down her back. She kneeled over the rim of the pool’s low, stone edge and waited as the water churned the liquid evenly throughout the water.

She beckoned over Cindri. “Forgive me, Cindri. I killed a dog yesterday.” She looked into the face of her husband. “The town’s queen is a dog.” With that, she bent her head into the water. Ash, pounds of ash, came filtering out of the dark tresses, mixing with the fountain’s water and the liquid Paolo had poured in. Her hair became dark and young, the pool water became gray and thick. The last of the clear fountain water rinsed her hair clean and she stood. “Now, it’s just time.”

As the water churned, the gray became pink, thick and discreet. Something coagulated within the ripples, thrashing and birthing itself in the pool. The three of them watched as a pink little girl, so recently dust, was risen again. She blinked once, her wet little head bobbing above the surface. “Mommy! Daddy!” She sputtered, just afraid enough. Rushing to her, they lifted her reborn body and held her close.

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