"You're not going to bury me again, are you?" asked Targold's ghost plaintively.
"Yes, I am, Targold of the Tree. I can't carry you with me wherever I go." I walked up the street towards the house beside the cemetery.
"But I wanted to see the world!" he wailed like a banshee in training.
"You're too heavy to carry. I'm going to have to be running up and down hills and climbing trees, and I can't have you swinging along on my back, I just can't." His jar was heavier than my waterskin, and it was starting to make my shoulder ache. A part of me thought bitterly that if I had a horse, I could carry him along. The thought made my eyes suddenly sting with tears. Here I am, getting sentimental over a boy dead for more than five years.
I wasn't sure why I had become so attached to the boy's ghost. Was it because his naive questions reminded me of my own early childhood? Was it that my old body was unexpectedly regretting never having children of my own?
"Okay, then just leave me in a barn or a shed somewhere and come back for me after you're done running and climbing! I'll wait! I can wait!" The specter wrung his hands at me.
"Child of Life, you're dead. I can't change that. The remains of your body should be allowed to become one with the earth of the World, and your spirit be freed from this world to go on to the next." To buy a horse and saddle to carry him with me would be the epitome of selfishness. My job as a shaman was to help him get on to the next life, not cling to him because he was sweet and made me laugh.
"But you talked to me. You named me my good name. You don't tell me to hush and do my chores, hush, no talking at the dinner table, hush, don't wake your grandmamma, hush go play outside before the weather turns bad. Everybody was hush, hush, hush -- except you! When you're gone, I'll have no one at all!"
His words were painful to hear, and I felt that my reassurances were completely ineffectual. I should never have named him as I did. Naming him had made a bond that was hurting us both. I stopped on the street and sat down on the grass at the edge. "Targold, I can't take you with me. I travel in some wild places, and if I were to die there, you would be not only alone, but utterly forgotten. No one would find your jar in the deep forest or a desert." I didn't even want to mention that I could be killed for my life's impertinence at any time, if one of my enemies found me unprepared.
"But if you were dead, we'd be dead together, wouldn't we? We wouldn't have to leave each other."
My heart panged again. "When I die, I'm going to be put on the Mountain of Remembrance in my own land. You could not follow me there, as you are not of Ur. And if I die far from home, I'm going to go straight on to the next world right away."
"Then at least take me with you until you go to your land -- we haven't even had a whole day together! A little while, then you can say goodbye, but not yet, please, Aser!"
I could see him so clearly. His spirit was uncluttered by personal images; probably the boy had never seen a mirror in his life. He would have had dark hair, and a rangy frame. His hands would have been calloused, along with his feet. "Did you ever have shoes, Targold?" I asked.
"No," he said somewhat indignantly. "I had to wait until I was all the way grown before I could have shoes. I never got there."
"What did you do in the wintertime?"
"We wrapped our feet with cloth to keep them warm ... Mamma hung them from the rafters in the kitchen to dry them. Looked like a kind of spiderweb! My oldest brother used to tell my baby sister that it was a spider that came in and made the web. Then when it got dark, he'd jump out of the shadows and pinch her and shout 'Spiderrr!' She'd scream, and then Grandmamma would grab her and make her sit on a stool by the fire and be quiet." Targold waved his arms as he talked, and demonstrated how his brother and Grandmamma would pounce.
"You were a born story-teller," I told him.
"I can tell you lots more if you don't leave me behind," he said, capitalizing on my sympathy.
If my instructors in the land of Ur had seen me hesitating over this task, they would have hung my hide on the outside of the Hall of Elders for my improper involvement with a spirit in my care. I thought of my teacher Rainer's face and her stern eyes, sighed, and stood up. "Come on, my dear boy. We can't put this off any longer."
"Sure we could. You could just turn around and go back down the hill and we could go see if your caravan was here or not. I've never seen a caravan -- what are they like? Is it a bunch of wagons, or do people carry stuff on their heads? Do they use oxen or horses?"
This time I refused to be drawn in by his innocent guile. "I don't know, Targold. It depends on the caravan, and where it comes from."
"Where do they come from?" he asked, a bit frantically.
"North and south, east and west," I told him, trying not to think about kids and questions and what it would be like, sitting before a fire, listening to him chatter to his heart's content.
We had arrived at the mortician's house. I climbed his front steps, my feet feeling like they had lead weights attached. Listening for the sound of footsteps from inside, I knocked on the door. If he's not home, I'll just wait until tomorrow, I thought. Maybe Dasher was mistaken and he's gone out of business.
My hopes were in vain. A young man answered the door. He was dressed all in black, and his eyes were ringed with kohl, giving him an eerie, otherworldly air. His skin was very white, obviously powdered to make him pale. "Yes?" he said solemnly. "How can I help you?"
Targold stared at him, and then turned to me in horror. "You're not going to leave me with this freak, are you? Tell me you won't, please! He looks like a haunt, like Grandmamma used to tell us about!"
"You know, your Grandmamma is a real pain in the ass," I said to him.
"I beg your pardon!" sputtered the undertaker.
"I'm sorry," I said to the pale man. "I wasn't talking to you." I showed him my tattoo, turning my face so that he could see my jaw. "Do you know what this tattoo means?"
"No," he said uncertainly. "Are you a biker?"
I stared at his eyes to see if he was insane, or just pushing his luck. "No, Mister ... Mister ... "
"Graves. Fadidom Graves, at your service, Madam," he said, drawing back a little.
"Mister Graves ... 'Graves'? Are you serious? Never mind, forget it. Mister Graves, this tattoo means that I am a shaman of the country of Ur. I can speak to the dead while their spirit clings to this earth. Inside this robe," I said as I unslung it from my shoulder, "are the mortal remains of a boy. That was the person I was talking to."
"Oh," said Mister Fadidom Graves. "I see."
"No, you don't," I told him brusquely. "But you will in a minute, at least figuratively. May I come in?"
"Yes. Yes, of course, please do come in, Mrs... Missus ... "
"My name is Ase Ur-Jennan. Not Mrs. or Missus, or Miss, or Madam. Ase Ur-Jennan. Thank you," I said as he gestured me into the entry room of the house, which was draped here and there with black cloth. There was a table at the side of the room, near a staircase, with a vase of elaborate cloth flowers on it. I pushed the vase back a little and put my staff on the doily -- didn't want to scratch the table's varnish, by any means, and I didn't want Targold interrupting me during the next part of the conversation. I put the robe and Targold's remains on the mat by the door. "Here's my problem, Mr. Graves. Inside the jar are the ashes of a boy who died untimely from lockjaw. His parents buried him in the woods, not realizing how lonely the little fellow would be."
Mr. Graves put his hands together. I saw that the backs of his hands had been powdered, also. "Did they not know that I have special rates for those who are, shall I say, of less than moderate wealth?"
"I don't even know if they knew Midway existed," I said, impatiently. "They lived on the other side of that mountain to the north. Let me cut to the chase. This boy's ashes need to be interred. He knows that he is dead, but he's still very curious about the world he never got to see. Can I arrange for him to be buried where his grave will overlook the town? And he's lonely. He needs some other ghosts around him to keep him company until his shade is satisfied enough to move on to the next world."
"The next world?" mumbled the undertaker.
"Yes, the next world," I said, wishing to shake him out of his stupor. "Don't they teach you anything about the dead?"
He sat down on a chair by the side table. "You're telling me, if you please, that you have been in contact with the boy's ghost, and that he has told you all this?"
"Yes, that's what I'm telling you. I want to pay for this boy's burial in a place that will be of comfort to him."
At the word "pay", the undertaker perked up and suddenly seemed to understand everything. "I know just the place for a curious boy, I think. Shall we arrange for a funeral service?"
"No, I'll let him know what's happening. No one around here would know anything of him. Time is short for me here, I have to get moving."
"Very well," said Fadidom. He opened a door and shouted down a flight of stairs. "Herbert! Get your shovel and meet me in back of the house!" He turned to me again. "Please, follow me, and bring Master ... "
I almost thought he was being snotty with me, but I needed his help and his cemetery. "Targold." I picked up my staff and my robe with Targold's Grandmamma's cookie jar.
"We provide full services, all that the bereaved require. Do you want to arrange for flowers, as well, and mourners, and perhaps a headstone?" He bowed as we went out the back door to meet Herbert, who stood there with a shovel.
"Gravesite ... and a headstone, good idea, but that's it." I began to hate him. He would permit me to do what I had to do, but he had little reverence in him. He was a professional, a studied act, this was all a business for him.
"Come along, and see what you think," he said obsequiously. He walked up the hill to the verdant graveyard.
"I can't believe you're going to leave me with this man," said Targold, now that I could hear him again. "Please don't do this! Please!"
"There's no choice, I would be in the wrong not to find you a resting place."
"This prime plot overlooks the town and has a grand vista of much of the valley as it spreads peacefully out below us," said the undertaker.
That it did. A person could stand here and watch the goings-on of this end of town, and a goodly portion of the hills beyond. There was one other requirement. I lowered the robe with the jar in it to the earth, and touched my staff to the ground.
"Hey!" Targold exclaimed. "Who's that? And who is she?" He looked around him in spectral wonder as children began to appear.
Maybe Fadidom Graves wasn't so stupid after all. "This is a children's cemetery," I commented to him.
He didn't smile, just nodded a little. "This end of the cemetery is reserved for orphans, poor things. I've always felt they should have something nice in their lives ... or after, at least."
"This will do, then." As Herbert put his shovel to the earth, I walked towards the ghosts of the children. They came forward timidly to stare at Targold. "Hello, kids. This is Targold of the Tree, from beyond the mountain."
"She can see us!" a little girl said to Targold.
"She's my friend Ase Ur-Jennan, a shaman from a far away land. What's your name?"
"Anna, and over here are James and Timothy, and Alanien."
"Pleased to meet you," said Targold, bowing as neatly as a page.
"Ahem," said the undertaker, to get my attention. "Are you ready, Ase Ur-Jennan?"
I wasn't, but I knew I had to be. I nodded, and untied the sleeves and tail of my robe, and carried Grandmamma's cookie jar to the small grave. I placed it on the bottom on the moist earth, stood, and stretched my hands up to the Life That Guides the World. "Take care of my boy, and thank you for this time with him."
Targold came over and watched Herbert carefully filling in the hole. "You're leaving me. Will you ever come back?"
"Of course I will. Targold, I will never forget you. Remember that you and your new friends can move on to the next world whenever you like."
"All right. Anna and Alanien are waving at me. Remember you're the best friend I ever had." He rushed back to the other children's ghosts.
I lifted my staff from the ground and walked quickly down the hill to wait at the undertaker's house.