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A Gathering of Widows
by Dayna Mari
The age-old custom of flaying political assassins alive and wrapping the ashes of their victims in their skin was constitutionally terminated by the most recent widow. Badgered by the ruling party into assuming her late husband's premiership -- less out of respect and trust than the lack of a candidate acceptable to the opposition -- Mita Razumeu stunned all factions by mandating the amendment. No one dared vote down the proposal, despite fears that eliminating this horrid penalty signaled open season on politicians.
Her statement to the press emphasized the need to modernize the penal system, given especially the tendency of major economic powers to reward with trade privileges their definition of moral uprightness. That being the humane treatment of individuals. Mita's smirk seemed to criticize the hypocrisy of the rule-setting nations whose usual ploy of starving entire countries to death was exempt from scrutiny; faceless masses evidently were not people in their eyes. While accepting her logic, the general public was none too pleased at losing the one-day shut down afforded by executions. "Educate them abroad, and they lose all regard for tradition," became the buzzword of the week. Few, if any, had remembered that Mita, a former émigré, was technically a foreigner. So none could suspect the true reason for sparing her husband's murderer.
Predating the flaying ritual was the long history of assassinations in the region. Lucky politicians were ousted by elections; those felled by violence retained their positions in name, for their widows usually filled their seats. And rarely had anyone sought to kill a woman; assassins, predominantly female, had always struck male targets. And it had been a woman who drew up the punishment, prescribed by another woman who had longed joined the remains of her spouse in a now desiccated cocoon. The ghosts of the wives, while foregoing the state funerals, religiously attended the executions, their presence sensed by all, though visible only to the conjugally bereaved. Unspoken legend had it that a single glimpse of these phantom deputies initiated one into the society of widows, the consequences unknown to the neophyte until her own death. Mita, however, surmised it meant an eternity without respite, of wandering the land to console the grieving and to exact vengeance. Ambulance-chasing, something she had vowed never to do even if there were no demand for lawyers. Even if it didn't involve offering -- selling -- legal counsel. So she unwittingly proscribed the traditional gathering of widows, and in freeing them of their burden, extricated herself from it. She never believed in such primitive superstition; superstition, however, could refuse to believe in her.
Mita's pen tattooed an uneven beat against the budget report on her desk. "It's time I met the guitar player," she announced on her way out, bodyguards in pursuit. Only once, a century ago, had a widow come face to face with her spouse's assassin, and there only by accident. Mita's act of volition did not mitigate Security's misgivings.
Gone were the shackles and wires, the restraints of old. As was the ‘cage,' a cell in which the prisoner could neither stand nor lie down. In the sterility of solitary sat, knees tucked under her chin, the enemy of state, no trace of remorse in her mild countenance. Deep thought prevented her from noticing her visitors; only the mellifluous ‘good morning' of the Prime Minister roused her.
The gentleness of her expression steeled at the sight beyond the bars. Her hands met below her nose, not in prayer but ‘in calculation,' whispered the younger security agent. Silence unnerved the free citizens; the guitarist's words more so: "I suppose you expect me to thank you. If it's all the same to you, I'd have been more grateful if you had harshened the punishment."
The haughty voice in no way matched the almost childlike face. "I presume you want an apology," it muttered.
"For stating your preference?"
"No. For ..." Not even she could utter what she had done. "Even if I were, it wouldn't change anything."
Taken aback by the impenetrable nonchalance, Mita had realized the futility of speaking. Only the scent of a bodyguard's freshly lit cigarette provided a pretext to continue the conversation. "Would you like one?"
"No. They bring back bad memories." Her smile so secretive, bordering contempt.
Wondering if this girl (the face and body had yet to lay claim to womanhood) had come from the districts firebombed during the years of ethnic tension, Mita examined the shape of her eyes and nose, the cut of the cheek. "How old were you when it happened?"
"Officially fifty-seven, though I was really sixty-four."
Months? Days, Mita scoffed inwardly. And we're now pushing 6,300? Certain cultures age you faster than you'd like.
"I wasn't supposed to feel anything. But now I can't bear heat."
No wonder she keeps inching away from that ray of sun.
"You carry it with you even after you die, you see."
"But you're still alive. It's my husb..." She stopped, aware she no longer had one.
For the first time, the guitarist's eyes appeared to soften. "Do you remember a woman who would rub your bald head so your hair would never grow wild? Or were you too young?" As she held out her hand, the younger agent stepped forward.
"It's alright," Mita barked at him. What can she do? Wave at me to death?
The three major lines on the girl's palm formed a pronounced M. "M, like Mita," an old woman used to say. "It means I shall always protect you."
"You're lucky your religion forbids cremation."
What was she talking about?
"Though, no doubt, you've had to adopt the ..."
Again silence. And a cabinet meeting in twenty minutes.
"Why did you kill my ..." Now he wasn't even a word.
"To find my own skin. Since I can't rest in it."
This girl is psychotic, Mita concluded. But no psychologist could touch her case; political assassins were not allowed to plead insanity, as they tended to be saner than the rest of the population. Certainly more than most government officials.
"A curious reason." Glancing at her watch, Mita began her exit.
"But you, too, have denied me of that."
Security, alarmed by her tone, whisked the Prime Minister away.
Aside from the Minister of Finance's phlegmatic account of the difficulties awaiting them in the post-privatization era, the main concern of the meeting was the fate of the girl who had reduced a man to a pile of ashes and the provisional urn which held them. Despite advances in cosmetology, no one had wished to dispense with the tradition of cremation.
Mita's initial instinct had been to keep what remained of her husband at home. Rendered a part of the decor not by middle-age, as in the case of so many men, but death. Yet as she had already deprived the nation of one holiday, she knew better than to dispose of another, albeit less gruesome in spectacle. His family would never have approved anyway.
Confused amusement momentarily flushed the sallow faces of the chain-smoking ministers. No one spoke, however, fearing having misinterpreted her plan to intermingle his ashes with soil and roots. "I first considered growing him with a mango given his fondness for it, but fruit trees don't endure. Some trees in North America last hundreds of years, but I'm not sure if they could survive transplantation to this environment. Any recommendations?"
A pregnant pause, noticeable only to the ministers, broken by a suggestion in the guise of a question. "What's to become of the culprit?"
"Life," she chirped. "She can be of service."
Death would have better resolved the situation.
"The British and American ambassadors will attend. Remind them of our recent reforms."
"You're the daughter of Kurat, the guitar maker," Mita announced more than asked.
Young Kurat widened her eyes apathetically, as if saying, "Took you this long to find out. Woe to the nation."
"He taught you everything he knew." Including attacking public figures, his manner merely verbal, however.
She shrugged, purring, "Except what to anticipate on my wedding night. But that's a moot point now, huh?" Her burst of laughter forced Mita to step back, lest she be splattered by what seemed bitter spitting.
"We never knew he had a heart condition until he was in prison. No one in our family ever .... Think I might end up with one, too?" Voice ingenuous, eyes defiant.
Mita restrained herself from asking if young Kurat's fatal act had avenged her hapless father, too gifted and too articulate for his own good. She had not come to debate human rights. "What's the best material for a guitar?"
Caught off-guard by such an unexpected question, Kurat fluttered her lashes, as if their weight were throwing her off balance. "Brazilian Rosewood," she said matter-of-factly, her eyes now still.
Perfect, thought the Premier. A similar climate. We could put it ....
"But we're not allowed to use it anymore. The rainforests, you see. Endangered species. That's why we can't use ivory for the saddle or contact points. Not enough."
Whereas here, there was never a shortage of politicians. Or wanna-bes. "So what do you use?"
Kurat looked Mita up and down, seeking a reason for her line of questioning. The curiosity appearing sincere, Kurat answered, not in her until now brusque manner, but with the patience of a handsomely-paid tutor. "Cedar. Ebony ..."
Foreign trees. Damn.
"...and instead of ivory, bone."
Warmth swept through Mita's body. Bone. The tiny pieces that had not burned. "The wood is shipped over?"
"Tree trunks. It has to be cut a certain way. Like diamonds."
"Why didn't you use indigenous trees?" Her tone more appropriate to "Why did you kill my husband?"
"Then how do you know?"
"My father's eyes. Hopefully not his constitution." She placed a hand on her chest. "We know by sight how the wood will sound. The way some people can undress others with their eyes."
Mita lowered her glance. Her late consort could pinpoint weakness in an instant. As well as desire, love. A sixth sense, a gift, a curse. Would that he intuited danger instead.
"How would you like to continue your" -- she dared not say ‘trade' -- "craft?"
A smirk sliced through the bars. "I'm not allowed sharp objects. Can't let suicide foil the peeler."
"I have no intention of executing you."
Young Kurat's fiery gaze flickered out, as if receiving a death sentence. Recovering quickly, Kurat mumbled curtly," Trade status never took precedence over tormented souls before you."
Equating ‘tormented souls' with ‘nation of souls,' Mita retorted, "A stronger economy is in their best interests."
"But it's in yours not to forget the circus."
Set to make a snide crack about her inherited cabinet, Mita decided it best not to appear malcontent, even if to a single being more cloistered than a nun. After a drawn out sigh, she revealed the purpose of this, her second visit. "I'd like to commission a guitar."
With the expression of a woman who had no choice or anything better to do, Kurat inquired when she could begin.
"As soon as we plant the tree. It's a special ..." Mita stopped, Kurat's laughter shooting out blindly.
"I'll be long dead by then."
"I've repealed the death penalty," Mita protested.
"The best trees are anywhere between three- and five-hundred years old. No law you pass can keep me, or anyone, alive that long!"
The vision of this cackling child, now doubling over, disturbed Mita, who recalled a similar scene shortly after her own father's demise. The protagonist, however, had been a grown woman, a widow who would shortly join her husband.
"Besides," she added, her laughter subsiding, "the local trees won't resonate well."
"That's not important."
Kurat eyed her new patroness warily. "I don't make parlor decorations," she snapped.
"I didn't ask you to. I asked for a guitar."
"I told you, it won't ..."
"I don't want one like other guitars. I want a unique sound. Not just music. Something unmistakably from here. A testament." To everything he was.
Kurat shrugged, indifferent.
"Surely there's one suitable tree within our boarders."
"For what you want, yes."
"Then it's settled?"
"Not quite. I have a condition."
As if sparing her life hadn't been enough, thought Mita, awaiting Kurat's terms.
"You must keep the instrument in a special case ..."
"... lined with my skin."
Though not known to attend obsequies, the dead widows had plagued Mita's thoughts and daydreams. A brief survey confirming that the only widows present were very much alive, Mita focused her attention on the men, who obviously had never handled shovels in their lifetime. One of the privations of privilege. At least the Agriculture Minister knew which end to drive into the dirt. Perhaps she should have asked the Housing Minister, who would have learned from compulsory appearances at ground-breaking ceremonies. Fortunately, a six-foot depth was not required.
Setting aside the bone, Mita had sowed his ashes among the roots of the Tizeara, a species named after another widow, one of many she had called ‘aunty,' though the sole capable of joviality. The daughter of a botanist, Tizea had requested her own ashes be interred at the base of this tree, the only surviving hybrid created by her father. But as custom warranted, they were mingled with those of her spouse Sunim in the hide of his assassin.
Despite qualms, Mita ceded to Kurat's choice of the Tizeara. A one-of-its-kind tree for a one-of-its-kind memorial, though she assumed Kurat's rationale had been of a more aesthetic nature. She was not to begin her task for a year, in which time Mita had hoped the previous Prime Minister's remains would manifest themselves in the tree. As soon as grey blossoms sprouted among the smoky-purple leaves, however, Mita ordered the tree cut down, the stump burnt. And plum teardrops littered the path to the guitar player's makeshift workshop.
Present at delivery, Mita marveled at Kurat's joyful reaction. Hers was not the glee of a killer bent over its victim but of a woman exploring a lover's body. Feeling less jealousy than remorse, Mita could barely muster enough to pat the inert trunk in an impromptu farewell. She left precipitously, preferring not to witness this woman carve up the same man a second time.
Charcoal powder rained upon the floor as the saw penetrated the timber. Kurat's pale flesh became soot; her lungs freely inhaled the Tizeara dust, as if reclaiming her own breath. Only the drilling of the salvaged bone provided some relief from monochromatism, albeit minimal.
Yet the project came to a sudden halt. Brittle from an unseasonal heat wave, the wood leaned against the walls. Kurat sat in her cell, sifting through her hair, yanking out occasional strands. "Strings?" Mita inquired, on a spontaneous visit.
Kurat's eyes admonished the silly idea, while her colorless voice stated, "Dental floss."
Oral hygiene, one of her father's pet campaigns as Minister of Health. According the history books. "When do you plan to resume?"
Kurat shrugged like the child she had remained in spite of events and deeds. Her gaze fell lovingly on the polished Tizeara panels. "Beautiful," whispered Mita, as Kurat's face filled with coquettish pride. Mita repeated her question and receiving no answer, suspected Kurat of toying with her.
"The environmentalists are clamoring for my head. Not to mention the board of the Botanical Gardens."
"Give them mine. They might not be able to tell the difference. Or care to. That tree was my choice, anyway."
"I didn't veto it."
Sparing a nineteen-year-old girl but not a hundred-year-old tree loses all logic when the latter is irreplaceable. But isn't the guitar maker as well, pondered Mita, aware the public saw as merely one in a succession of undesirables someone who would have been a living treasure in any other country.
"The guards say they hear music at night."
"It's their walkmans."
"From another century. Are you also a musicologist?"
"If that's what it's called." Abrupt only because she was composing another fugue that would never be heard outside her head.
The Prime Minister resorted to words used to shame wayward trade partners. "We had a deal."
As if startled while sleepwalking, Kurat bolted in doe-like fright. Regaining her bearings, she declared that the guitar would be finished within two months, in time for the anniversary of Tizea's death, the day she should be scheduled to be executed.
While the abolition of public flaying did not incite an upsurge in attempted assassinations, a marked change in technique occurred. Shootings and stabbings became obsolete, as suicide bombings, like any fashion, popped up first in the capital before spreading to the provinces. Even children with less years than fingers had been enlisted into the service of death. The Interior Ministry underwent two reshufflings, mostly cosmetic, therefore to no avail.
Although unsuccessful, the attempts always claimed the lives of the perpetrators, leaving no one to interrogate. Lieutenant Colonel Pamiat, unable to pry information from the lone ‘rebel' in custody, entered the Premier's office in frustration. "She insists she won't speak to anyone else."
Mita's pen slipped from her writing fingers. She knew public opinion had begun to question her leadership. The rash of bombings also sent negative signals to the world powers, who were more than likely to support whoever seemed to have the upper hand, treaties or no treaties. Forgetting to dismiss the Lieutenant Colonel, she set out for Kurat's cell.
"I need more bone," Kurat pealed instead of a greeting.
Mita shook her head. "I had given you all that ..." Poor darling. Accused of not having enough balls, when what he had lacked, in fact, was bone.
"It can come from another source." Her eyes informed Mita that she had already decided which.
"I'd have to ask permission."
"No you wouldn't." In response to Mita's startled gaze of disdain, she added, "No heirs."
Which made it clear that Kurat sought the bones scraps of Tizea's husband Sunim. "The caretakers would expect ..."
"... an explanation."
Kurat's secretive smile counted on one to be found though did not provide one. First her tree, now his bones. Could there be a long-standing feud transcending death? "I came to ask you something."
"Then I doubt I can be of help."
"You've heard about of the bombings."
Kurat had to nod, for Mita had permitted her supervised access to a radio. Mainly for music, which news flashes would mercilessly interrupt.
"Is this in protest of your incarceration?"
"They have nothing to do with me."
"Rebel activity's just the in-thing, then. Like rock-n-roll."
"There are no rebels."
A single statement wiped away written and oral history, transmitted and analyzed by Mita's late husband. Did it eradicate everything else that man had ever told her?
"In other words, it's a matter of culture. Some have a tendency toward blue eyes; ours, toward homicidal impulses." Why did Mita think a young pup without a shred of university education could know anything?
"It's convenient to blame a generic enemy. You're not obliged to catch what can't be identified. What doesn't exist."
Mita's spine tensed. Was this nameless nemesis -- assigned a face only at the moment an executioner would cut it away -- a fantasy scapegoat? An invention to create national unity, necessary, even if artificial? Had her husband been deluding himself. Or a cynically willing cog? "Your theory doesn't account for centuries of ..."
"People always need an explanation, don't they?"
"I find it difficult to believe people go around killing for no reason." Running amok, an acceptable line of defense only in a primitive patriarchal nation, something hers had ceased to be. Mita's eyes bore through Kurat, who had never admitted the purpose of her act, written off as agitation in light of her family history.
"Maybe it's just fate." Kurat trilled her flirtatious laugh.
Annoyed with the wasted time, Mita began to leave. "You won't forget the bones, right?" Kurat called out.
Hoping for further insight, Mita rang the Education Minister, only to meet with frustration. Of all his cousins, why had the deceased offered the post to the one who failed history? Perhaps he had believed repeating the courses had doubled his knowledge, though it appeared to have accomplished the contrary. Mita was already dismissing his facts as watered-down legend when it occurred to her that his account was no different from that of the brilliant man she had married. Gaping holes and inconsistencies --the stuff of history -- remedied only by speculation, imagination, invention. Accepting his proposal to send official manuscripts from the archives, she brooded briefly about ancient nation-building before turning her attention to the modern.
Instituting a curfew to prevent further bombings would be ineffective, she mused, since most of the attacks took place in broad daylight. Still, she listened patiently to the languorous exchange between Interior and Defense, while wishing she could fast-forward. Martial law was out of the question, not until procuring loans from the IMF. In the meantime, she needed something to tell the media.
But the bombings petered out with as much warning as they had begun. No reason could be found for neither start nor finish. Those who hypothesized dissension among the invisible rebels preferred to hold their tongues, for fear that any statement would challenge them to resume.
The phone brought Mita the long-awaited news. Checking her schedule, she headed for Kurat's domain. The wood glistened like his body, though shaped more like a woman's. Well, one supposedly alternated genders with each incarnation. Only Kurat's presence kept her from caressing the guitar. "And how does it sound," she queried for the sake of speaking.
"How so?" As if it mattered.
Kurat closed her eyes and shook her lead. Her firm grip on the instrument's neck forbade Mita from taking it.
"Because of the different bones, perhaps?" More diplomatic than a frontal, "Why did you have Sunim's remains desecrated?"
Kurat smiled, her eyes still sealed. "But they're not really different. They belong together." Sensing Mita's bewilderment, she peered through her lashes. "You wouldn't understand; you were raised in a Catholic country."
"I was born here."
"But your mother, the foreigner, took you away after your father ... passed on." Her voice aged, as it had during their first encounter. "What was her story? God's will? You'll see him in Heaven?" The color drained from Mita's face. "Murder." Her an
swer an accusation, a reprimand.
"I believed Sunim was lost to me forever. Until the execution." She gauged Mita's reaction before continuing. "I suppose that's one of the nice aspects of our faith, the idea one must come back. But of course, without a guarantee of finding one another .... That's the purpose of the flaying."
Mita raised a skeptical brow.
"I knew you wouldn't understand."
"You're saying Sunim was my ..."
Mita stared at Kurat's hand, still curled around the guitar.
"But he returned, well, first as a woman -- never met her -- then a man. Yours. Reunions often skip lives."
"And that's why you killed him?" For infidelity -- with me no less -- she almost scoffed, harboring some incredulity.
"Cosmic compassion. So I can hold him forever."
"Isn't mixing your ashes good enough?"
"No. Dust has no arms."
"And where did you ... learn this?"
"At the flaying. Of Sunim's .... That's why the widows show up. Surely you've heard about that. All women must become their husbands' assassins. When you see them at my execution, you'll realize enemies had to be invented to discredit fate. Because no one wanted to believe it, religious leaders risked rejection, if not outright banishment, by adhering to this view. So, like your own church in the Middle Ages -- even now -- they were more than willing to lend credence to the eternal rebel threat. What's unprovable is also irrefutable."
Mita's mind mulled over Kurat's words, so alien to the mouth of a teen. But recalling she was her father's progeny, she was not quite ready to raise her tale to the level of history. Nor accept it as otherworldly knowledge. "One could say the same of your ... story."
"You'll soon see for yourself."
"Are you certain an infidel like me will be allowed initiation into these secrets?" She hadn't intended to mock her.
"Why not? Unlike yours, our faith isn't exclusionist. Following another credo doesn't brand you a lost soul. All souls are lost, actually, except political widows. We're probably the only ones who can rest."
Mita thought of her own mother, who supposedly would be among the crowd. But why hadn't she revealed this to her? The same reason she had never taught her about other feminine subjects? "How do you know the couple won't come back again ... after ... and never see each other?"
"Because destiny will have been fulfilled. Besides, no religion can be entirely without mercy. Bad PR. And we all have to believe in something. A shame to waste all that love."
That familiar chuckle, the last voice Mita had heard before boarding that jet with her mother, meant in indicate everything was alright. But Mita chose to interpret it as self-contradiction, the last shard of reality cutting through a poisoned mind. It would also resolve why Kurat had played along all this time, only to pull this on her now. She held out her hand, not for Kurat's but for the guitar.
Kurat shook her head. "You still need to provide the case. Normally I'd make it myself, but I won't be in any condition to. I can recommend someone."
Mita stared at Kurat's fingers, still concealing her palm.
"Could you ... could I ask why you wanted a guitar instead of, say, a statue?"
A howling silence deafened Mita. So I could have him until I die, hear him whenever I wish, now, always. So I could mold my hands along every contour, watch the plucked strings imitate his body rippling at my touch. So he could .... "No." Locking her gaze with Kurat's, she clarified, "You wouldn't understand."
"I see. It wasn't fate."
Though talk of the musical enterprise had circulated throughout the capital, it had warranted little concern. All leaders had some idiosyncrasy; Mita's, as far as anyone knew, did no more than sacrifice a freak of a tree. Beat the days of the monarchy when half the female population was forcibly drowned in the Crown Prince's search for a true soulmate. Then with the birth of the Republic came a president who, too proud of his formal voice training, sang his addresses -- in Italian, French, and German. (He did not win re-election, though the masses did admire his extravagant costumes.) Commissioning a guitar was no more attention-worthy than ordering a suit. Nevertheless, television, ever willing to overlook real news stories, arranged to film a brief segment should any dead time need filling in a slow week.
Before tape could roll, however, Mita insisted the journalist stress government reform, not personal interest, as the reason for clemency. He did such a fine job that the general consensus held the instrument a gift of gratitude on the part of Kurat. An interview with the craftswoman was left entirely up to Kurat, who declined. When asked if she would demonstrate, she referred the journalist to Mita; the instrument, after all, belonged to her. And in order to get the gossipmonger off her back, Mita assented, too preoccupied with the latest opinion poll regarding her austerity program.
Which is why the improvised soundstage had come as a surprise, the platform less appropriate for a flaying than a recital. Kurat, eyes luminous with peace, waited patiently on the side as technicians metered light. When Mita arrived, Kurat held out the instrument to her. Mita pushed it back, averring, "I don't know how to play."
A perplexed smile materialized on Kurat's lips; not one to judge, however, she said nothing. She blinked knowingly when informed that she would be the soloist. Touching: a swan song heralding reunion.
"I'm sorry," whispered Mita as Kurat headed for the platform.
Kurat turned, smirking acquiescence. "But you shouldn't be. I'll be protecting my love. For eternity. You know how some people squander a lifetime without finding their mate? I've found mine twice. And I'll be allowed to keep him. It's the only way."
As she tuned the strings, Kurat's glance scanned the surroundings, as if seeking familiar faces, honored guests. Her face radiating venom, she glared darts at Mita. Security, presuming Kurat was signaling an attack as she cried out, "They didn't come! You lied to me!" converged around the Prime Minister. Mita pitied this young girl, whose madness failed to provide a vision that would revoke her sentence to live.
Footage of the concert ended there. For the cameras ceased to function as soon as Kurat strummed the initial chord. And the audio remained blank as well, save for the Prime Minister's blood-curdling scream followed by anxious sobbing; "They're here. Then it's true!"
None of those present recalled her outburst, however, so mesmerized were they by the song of love and death that they couldn't even recall having heard the tune itself. All anyone remembered was discovering what appeared a flesh-colored cape wrapped around the guitar like a shroud.
The Prime Minister had no comment.
Dayna Mari's short fiction and essays have appeared in literary journals & anthologies in North America and Europe. The greater part of Dayna's time is spent teaching Romance languages & literatures in Honolulu.