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.