Yaras slipped inside the garden once night had fallen and the villa was asleep. It was nearing midnight, but the waning moon wouldn’t rise for hours yet. Instead, a million stars twinkled overhead, hidden here and there by black clouds, like the brightness she remembered from Ravah’s eyes.
She was old, now, no matter which way you looked at it. Eighty-two, come springtime, if she were blessed to see another one. She was still the caretaker of these gardens officially, but these days she only told the young what to do.
Another summer was ending, fall visible in the withering of leaves here and there on the bushes, blurred by shadow light. As she took one slow, sure step after the other, she could smell the lingering tang of summer’s flowers, like spices on the breeze.
Ravah had only been seventeen. Young and bright and alive like a new flower, strong and resilient like a young tree. Non-binary and proud of it, something Yaras, in her old age, had finally come around to understanding.
Ze had also—unlike so many of the young folk who passed through the villa, staying to apprentice themselves to the two mages who lived there before moving on as everyone and everything did in life—paid attention to both Yaras and the gardens. It wasn’t every year that Yaras met someone so young who had so much love for others and joy of life within them.
Yaras heard something, up ahead, and paused on the flagstone path, shining white in the starlight. Between the whispers of the leaves and the breath of the night wind, she heard unsteady breathing. Someone was crying.
When Yaras neared where Ravah’s urn had been placed, beneath zer favourite lilac bush whose branches still drooped in memory of the weight of flowers long gone, she saw the young man. He knelt on the path beside the urn, his hands pressed to his face, his tears glinting in the moonlight, and an identifying spike of lightweight metal where one of his lower legs should have been. In daylight, his features looked oddly like Ravah’s, though Yaras knew him for zer lover.
“Tayas,” she said softly, and Tayas spun around, clambering to his feet, his one metal leg clacking like a spark snapping free of a campfire when it struck the stones.
“Don’t tell Zila or Faisa,” he blurted immediately, his voice hushed, as if Yaras cared for the two mages’ curfew. She also knew, as he didn’t, that the two women had once been as wild and wayward as any when they had been young lovers, and would have made an exception this time.
Yaras smiled gently and offered Tayas her spotted old hands, and after a hesitation, the young man took them, and clasped them tightly, while fresh tears trickled down his face. “I loved zer,” he mumbled.
“I know,” she said.
She led him to a bench of white stone only half a dozen paces from the urn, and sat him down beside her, still holding his hand firmly. She let him cry, and be silent, for many long minutes. She breathed in the garden air, so familiar after thirty-five years of it, and looked up at the shining stars, tracing constellations like following the familiar path of wrinkles across her copper-brown skin.
“Why are you here?” Tayas asked finally, pushing back strands of loose hair that had stuck to his face with tears, and then self-consciously redoing his long black hair in its low ponytail.
“I miss Ravah too,” she replied without answering.
“You came here for the custom, didn’t you?” Tayas asked, surprising her. “The old one, with the lights? Ravah said you told zer about it.”
Yaras remembered the conversation, from only a few months back. She had no idea then that a sudden illness would take Ravah. She had only been answering the young person’s questions, but if some part of her had had another motive, it would only be that maybe someone could perform the old rite for Yaras when she died.
“Yes,” Yaras admitted. “Without it,” she explained, “The different parts of Ravah will always be tied to this place, rather than free to roam all the worlds. Do you mind?” she asked, considering how she might slip back when the boy was gone if he did.
“I want zer here,” Tayas murmured honestly, looking forlornly at the urn, but then his expression changed, aged. “No, I don’t mind,” he said, and Yaras got up.
“But Ravah said it requires magic, and I don’t know if I could do it,” Tayas replied, leaping to his feet for no reason at all but that he was young and the work and risk involved in standing and sitting were considerations that had never yet occurred to him.
“I think we can manage,” Yaras replied. She had made eye contact with Faisa, the day before, and had seen the answer in the woman’s eyes on where she stood. Faisa and Zila, both in their fifties now, would remember the custom from their childhoods, but the world was changing, and they had changed with it.
“Move the urn into the centre of the path,” Yaras told Tayas, and the young man did so almost before she had finished speaking. Young folk could make her feel like tree sap to their running water: slow, too slow, to be like them. As if she were were becoming more like the earth, the trees, the silence of deep night, with each passing year.
He did, and she gestured for him to step back.
In this day, this moment, she was the authority, but Yaras thought of her two fathers, one on each side of her, the day her mother died. She remembered her grandmother leading the rite. She remembered when, once upon a time, everyone did this, and everyone was part of it. She remembered community, and felt distinctly alone as she lifted her old, weathered arms up to the night sky, resolved to do her best.
“Between life there is death,” she incanted in a hushed voice, “and between death there is life.”
Her fingers began to glow a deep blue-black, and Yaras saw Tayas startle. Yaras could hold nothing to Faisa and Zila, had never and would never have the skill to stand out as a mage, but that didn’t mean that she had no magic, or wasn’t more than capable of this.
“Between the stars is the gift of darkness, and from the darkness is born the stars.”
Ravah’s dust lifted up out of the urn in a swirl like smoke, or like a jungle fern uncurling beneath the rays of a swift new sunrise. Yaras curled her fingers slightly, concentrating, and felt the fragments of bone left from the cremation break into powder like the rest, and lift up into the air above the urn as well.
“Between the worlds is wonder, and in wonder there is love.”
Ravah’s ashes plumed in the air like a swarm of spring insects, but one tendril reached out toward Yaras like a curious finger, and she brought her two hands forward to touch it. The light from her fingers, a yellow-green now, touched the cloud of ash and spread along it like fire along a line of oil, and Tayas gasped. Before them was a shifting ball of yellow-green light, like a baby star fallen from the abyss, the speckles of ash inside still visible if you looked for them.
Yaras lifted her hands to the sky, sparing one glance for Tayas’ upturned face. Tears still shone in streaks down his coal-dark cheeks, but his eyes were alight with wonder and the reflection of his lover’s light.
Yaras parted the air with her fingers and the ash divided into a ring in the air above the villa, shifting and swirling like an aurora from the far reaches of the world. It shimmered like possibility and impossibility, the beauty of celestial truths.
So many times, Yaras thought as she let the lights spin through the darkness. So many times she had been there to watch someone else’s lights, and though she did this now for Ravah, she thought of those others. She could not remember her mother, so young had she been, but she remembered her fathers. She remembered her grandmother. She remembered so many loves and lovers and bright sparks of life in all the people and all the deaths she had borne witness to over her many years. They never left her, even when particular memories of them did.
It was a gift, Yaras thought with a gratitude as deep and clear as a lake in the deep caves of the world. A gift to be the one to lead this. A gift to be the one to say goodbye. A gift to hold the space for love.
“Ravah,” Yaras said as the lights danced above them like so many dreams. They gave her faith, though after all this time, she still couldn’t say in what, exactly. In goodness perhaps. Or the power of mystery. Or maybe just that this was all worth it. That love was the beginning and the journey and the end.
“We love you. We remember you. And we set you free.”
Yaras lowered her arms, shaking now from the effort, though she kept her glowing palms cupped up toward the sky like moonflowers toward the light. Above, the shifting circle of light rose higher and higher, and expanded further and further out, like the first of dawn’s rays stretching out over the dark of a morning sky, or the hope at the beginning of a new world.
“May we live more fully, and love more deeply, because we have known you. May we remember what is important. May it be so.”
With her final words, Yaras pushed her arms out to the side like shoving defeat aside, and the lights above burst outward like a million shooting stars heading for every point on the horizon, and beyond. Each fleck of ash burned as it flew to another space, another moment, another time. As they passed between the spaces, between the words, between the constants of the ethereal.
And then, they stood in darkness.
Yaras made her way to the bench, and sat down heavily. She felt drained, but drained in a good way. It was the weariness of important work completed.
She found tears on her face, and wiped them. Because for every death, for every loss, for every change, there was always grief, no matter the years that passed. She would miss Ravah’s good morning, spoken with a broad smile and a ready laugh. She would miss wondering where ze would go and what ze would do when she was dead and gone.
For long moments, she and Tayas sat and stood respectively in the quiet of the garden, listening to the wind sigh like a wistful lover through the bushes, and some night bird trill a ways off like a friend calling her name.
At last, Tayas sat down beside her. “Thank you,” he managed, torn between staring up at the sky, now back to normal again, and hiding his face in his hands.
“Take care,” Yaras told him. She took his hand, and squeezed. She would have liked to linger longer, to rest in the still peace of the night, but she knew that this time was for Tayas.
“Good night,” she told him, patting his hand, and then climbed carefully to her feet, her joints creaking like old tree boughs. She left him there, knowing she couldn’t help him anymore. She left him there, knowing silence was the most steadfast friend he could ask for in his grief.
Yaras walked slowly from her garden, still smelling of flowers and dirt and tears, and slipped back into the villa, heading back to the tiny wing she called home. In the darkness, she sensed, more than heard, the sounds of a score of sleeping students, but she passed unheard and unseen, like wishes spoken to the night.
And then she went to bed, the lights of Ravah’s passing burning in her eyes like a lifetime of promises.
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