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The Dismay of Mister Jenkins

Pre­vi­ously on Bone Fire: The Tid­ings

“Who are you?” inquired Mis­ter Jenk­ins. He very much wished to explore the unex­pected swivel capac­ity of his perch, but sus­pected that spin­ning the office chair about would under­mine what lit­tle deco­rum he’d man­tled him­self with beneath his stolen cloak. Besides, he still felt a twinge of guilt about his lit­tle snack, and he knew from expe­ri­ence that one should only tan­gle with cen­trifu­gal force with a full and joy­ous heart. Oth­er­wise all that equal and oppo­site pres­sure expelled all that hard-won angst. It was hard enough remem­ber­ing how to hang onto one’s base sen­ti­ments with­out con­found­ing them with the lesser laws of physics. Which, Mis­ter Jenk­ins has­tened to add, sel­dom had oppor­tu­nity to exert them­selves upon him.

Bill Miller slumped in a straight-backed chair, star­ing from the wrong side of his desk at the hooded man he’d found wait­ing in his office after the morning’s cre­ma­tion. Bill was ill prac­ticed at enter­tain­ing guests out­side the baili­wick of rit­u­al­ized grief, and to his credit he real­ized that a prayer was not what this sit­u­a­tion called for, despite the some­what alarm­ing pres­ence of what appeared to be the grim reaper sit­ting at his desk. He told Mis­ter Jenk­ins his name.

“Yes, that much is scrawled on the door.” Mis­ter Jenk­ins felt it a bit odd for an office nobody vis­its to have a name etched right on the door, but odder still that the door failed to list the fellow’s posi­tion. “What is this place, Bill Miller? What do you do here?”

“I’m chief inhumer here on Grist.” Bill was cir­cum­spect by nature and Grist’s soli­tude had not loos­ened his tongue. The sud­den appear­ance of the gen­tle­man across from him piqued his curios­ity, though, so as he sorted through pos­si­bil­i­ties in his head, he added, “How may we usher your loved one to his or her eter­nal rest?”

As soon as he said it Bill knew, as he always did, that he was in the pres­ence of the bereaved. This man had lost some­one dear, you could see it in the faded light of his eyes. But there was only one rea­son a man showed up on Grist with­out an appoint­ment. The guy must be try­ing to pull off an ille­gal bur­ial in the liv­ing earth. A few times a year some­one would make their furtive way to his office in search of a way out of the fire, more dis­traught than most at the prospect of return­ing their beloved to dust.

“What? No,” said Mis­ter Jenk­ins. “I am some­what out­side the sphere of your influ­ence as far as mor­tal planes of exis­tence go.” He drew him­self to his full human height and extended one bony hand. “You may address me as Jenkins.”

“Oh, that’s a relief,” Bill said, shak­ing the man’s hand from his seat. “I thought you were gonna try to steal a body. We get plenty up here who don’t hold with the burn­ing, no mat­ter what the gov­ern­ments say.”

“The burn­ing?” Mis­ter Jenk­ins looked perplexed.

“You must’ve been in one of the satel­lite bunkers to not know about Grist, Mis­ter Jenk­ins. We’ve been using an eter­nal flame to hurry our dead to the maker for a good many years now. No more room for graves down there. It’s plan­e­tary law.”

Had Mis­ter Jenk­ins not been caked by a thin crust of white ashes, he’d have become pale, even stricken, at Bill Miller’s words. “So the soil no longer holds your bod­ies? The worms we gave you no longer quicken the loam to coax your human souls back toward the inef­fa­ble? What hap­pens to them up here, on this orbital inferno? How do they make their way home?”

Bill’s response was well rehearsed, first crafted dur­ing the ini­tial protests on the planet below and then honed through­out the last futile gasps of des­per­ate resis­tance after Grist became fully oper­a­tional. The human soul, he explained, could not be detected by our most sophis­ti­cated instru­ments, and there­fore must be pre­sumed to exist out­side the bonds of human con­se­quence. Leave the tend­ing of souls to those bet­ter equipped, he advised. The empty bod­ies, they just get in the way.

It was per­haps under­stand­able that Bill Miller, quot­ing from rote mem­ory the most deeply held tenet of his employee hand­book, still did not real­ize that he had shaken hands with an aspect of the same so-called and yet care­fully unnamed divin­ity he’d just been prat­tling about. Nor was Mis­ter Jenk­ins just any pass­ing man­i­fes­ta­tion; Bill Miller, chief inhumer of Grist, had just encoun­tered the very form of the unknow­able that hap­pened to be charged with the care and feed­ing of human souls. And he’d informed the hooded shep­herd that humans had started burn­ing his flock.

This, thought Mis­ter Jenk­ins, would not do. His eyes flashed cos­mic fire.

Every two weeks some friends and I cre­ate new posts on the same topic. This week’s syn­chroblog posts — about encoun­ters with aliens — are listed on our group blog, The Cre­ative Col­lec­tive. Please read them all.

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