Sarah J. Hozumi

The Burning Bones

Cosmic Mount Meru tapestry by unknown Chinese or Tibetan artist

In a room better suited for devil worship, relatives picked over the smoldering remains of his wife while a worker from the crematorium kindly pointed out some of the more impressive bones. The bones had turned a sickly shade of white to match the marble walls, while the ashes surrounding them helped complement the black marble floors.

He tried to understand how that could still be his wife as he stood in the doorframe, watching. Each relative would pick up a bone with chopsticks and move them to another relatives’ waiting chopsticks. It was a ritual he had witnessed a few times in his long life, but those had all been experienced through a comforting veil of indifference.

The husband hadn’t wanted to wear black, and everyone knew enough to let him be. While everyone else wore pristine suits that adhered to strict rules (nothing reflective on the clothing, no accessories beyond a wedding ring, no stilettos, prayer beads in the left hand only), he shuffled away from the doorway in slippers and a cardigan. His wife had bought him the cardigan a few years before. Some stupid bargain from the local shopping center. He didn’t even like the color, which was somewhere between brown and yellow. It had a hole in it. His daughters had noticed him wearing it several days in a row and had tried to get him to take it off. “Just to wash it,” said his eldest gently. No dice.

How was that his wife in there on that smoldering pile of ash? It looked like a horror movie. Or a science experiment. His mind knew the deep significance of passing the bones along like that from person to person. He knew it was a type of mourning. He knew it, and he ignored it. The knowledge was angrily shoved to the farthest corner of his mind while he inwardly railed against the practice. How did picking over someone’s bones like a vulture help console anyone? Didn’t they care it was his wife’s bones they were all staring at? Show some respect, he wanted to bark at them. It was respect, though. It was great respect, but he ignored it.

His youngest daughter had noticed him sitting in the lobby of the crematorium, staring at the carpet. Purple. A dark purple, too. Nothing in the place was bright and cheery, of course. Bad lighting, too. It was all too dark.

“Are you all right?” his youngest asked. He was hard of hearing, but she couldn’t speak up because the bone ceremony was meant to be done in almost absolute silence, so she had her mouth almost touching his ear. He hated the sensation and waved her face away impatiently. She leaned back in the chair next to his. She didn’t say anything else, but she didn’t leave either.

Out came the great-grandchildren, bounding toward them. Of course they couldn’t just stand still silently in a room of mourning. One of the relatives, a younger woman who was the mother of two of the brood, came chasing after them to watch them play in the lobby. Even he could hear their shrieks of joy as they chased one another. He was sitting there dying and they didn’t even notice. He ignored them.

How had it come to this anyway? He was supposed to die first. That had been their deal. In his heart, he wondered why he was still alive. He wondered for how much longer he was supposed to keep going.

That room. The atrocity of that room. The black marble floor and the white marble walls burned in his mind. He stared at the purple carpet, his mind still trapped in that room with his wife.

Relatives finally began leaving the forsaken room, some of them crying. Keep it together, he wanted to snap at them. Show some respect! But he was bewildered. His mind lost in a fog, he watched his eldest carry a photo of his wife out of the room, her face like stone. His only son had the duty of carrying the white decorative box that now held his wife. How could that be his wife? It was just a box. The house was still full of her things. He would throw them out.

“Are you ready to go?” his youngest asked, now able to speak loudly and freely.

He stood without acknowledging her. His legs were unsteady, of course. For years now his body had already begun preparing for him to leave by betraying him. Like a magnet, they would help him follow his wife all in due time.

But not yet.

He was still there, in his slippers and worthless cardigan, and with his youngest helping to steady him, he followed his wife out the door.


About the writer:
Sarah J. Hozumi is an American living in Japan and working as a translator and proofreader in Tokyo. Hozumi’s work also appears in Sonder Midwest.

Image: Cosmic Mount Meru tapestry by unknown Chinese or Tibetan artist. Appliqué and embroidery with silk. 115.6 x 70.5 cm. 18th century. Public domain. The setting, with beasts and floating skulls in a desolate landscape, focuses the mind of the meditator (or the initiate in a ceremony) upon mortality, and hence upon the eternal. Within the circle is a view of our world, seen from above (a sacred, imaginary conception, but based upon reality). The four continents are represented by groups of three buildings. India, the southern continent, appears on the left. Between the continents and Mt. Meru are seven concentric oceans and mountain ranges. Mt. Meru rises in the center. One heaven stands on its slopes, a second lies at its summit, and four float above it.