PROTECTORS BY MAHA RAKTA

They never think of us, or thank us. We sit among femurs and rib cages in burial grounds with matted hair and pointed teeth. We tilt our noses toward funeral pyres, fill our lungs with melting flesh. We carry hooked knives, split skulls horizontally and drink from them like cups.

Our eyes flash lightening, we set forth wild dogs foaming and snarling. We stand on beds of corpses and weave the hair of the dead into necklaces so that their skulls rattle against our chests.

We dangle decaying limbs, pieces of skin still peeling from bone. Our bodies the color of dried blood, fill the spaces between graves… and still no one thinks of us.

Here in our garden of ash, we shake bones until spirits seep out. We shake bones until they let go and move on. We wrythe with wrath and cast out those would disturb the spirits still clinging. We swing our hooked knives at haunted specters until they have nothing to grab onto. We roar and thunder as reminders that they no longer belong to this world. We eat their bodies and wear their skin so that they have nothing to come home to.

We set spirits free, shatter ego.

It is a thankless job, protecting the charnel grounds.

In this moment, I sit and simmer. With two legs and four arms, I gaze into the horizon as the sun slowly slips into twilight. I watch the serpent like river as it coils itself along the borders of our grounds, glimmering in the last rays of daylight.

The other protectors rustle among the bones, faithfully upholding their oath. Yet something keeps me.

I flare my nostrils for the scent of the living. They come here on tests of courage having heard of demons. Others come to steal from the dead, to use limbs and hair for magic.

I can smell her beyond the hill where the Earth slips into the water. I can hear the soft jingle of her jewelry. There, pale and dark haired with giant black eyes, she appears. She stops at the very top, looks out as if she can see us, and pulls from under her blue and white shawl, a large red satchel made of wool. In a movement made of water she slips off her shawl and folds it neatly on the ground in front of her.

Intrigued, I stroke the skulls at my chest with my bottom right hand.

“What is she doing?” The loud one asks, her single breast hanging beneath the still rotting heads of her necklace.

The introspective one quietly squats next to me. Tilting his head, his three eyes blinking, he responds, “She is going to pray.”

“PRAY!” The loud one flashes her fangs, “no one comes here to pray anymore.”

“The ancient ones used to.” the introspective one twirls a rib in his hand.

“She is no ancient. If she steps into our ground I will eat her soul and sling her body into the river. The snake shaped beings will keep her.”

We watch, as she pulls a small hand drum from her satchel and places it on the her shawl. She digs further and retrieves a golden incense burner, digging further still she brings out dried herbs to burn. Holding the white leaves pinched between her fingers and thumb, she looks straight into my eyes and says, “Guardians and guides, protectors of this land, givers of wisdom and grace; I ask you to bless me with your essences. That you bless me with your compassion, so that I may offer the spirits of this place song and drum.”

“Guardians and guides, protectors, I offer you my heart through these songs that you may find joy in their melodies.”

We stay still in her gaze, unsure that she can see us, or merely sense our presence. She angles her head as if listening. I nod slowly, the introspective one bows in his squat, even the loud one tilts her head.

The black eyed woman, brings the leaves to heart before lighting them on fire and placing them in the burner. I close my eyes surprised by the scent. It has been a long time since I smell something other than rotting flesh.

With eyes still closed, I listen to the wind as it sifts through the ash. I listen to the waves of river, the grass as it rustles, the spirits that linger among their bones. I feel the sun completely disappear… and then suddenly find the air shaking with the sound of the drum. The loud one cackles as I open my eyes to find her tossing her head back. Her matted hair flinging in the darkness.

She dances, flames erupting from her skin, “Let us eat.”

The introspective one smiles, flashing his sharp teeth, his three eyes wide. “She wakes the specters, look at them glowing above their bones.”

Our charnel ground becomes a garden of ethereal fireflies. The orbs cautiously hovering as if peeking for a better look.

The dark haired woman, closes her eyes, and sings. I watch as the song escapes her mouth in a blue glowing plume of breath. The snake beings slither out from the river bed, holding their human heads high enough to view her.

The loud one dances and cackles through the charnel ground, swallowing orbs as she laughs. The specters dash back and forth throughout the grounds. Some even dangle above the woman’s head, spinning in circles as she sings. The introspective one claps, until he too joins the loud one, dancing through the bones and corpses. I stay seated shifting my weight, allowing the songs to enter my core. I close my eyes to find her voice in the center of my being, love and joy, and fire emanating. I find myself clapping, stomping my feet into the ground.

We dance for what seems like hours. The incense fades. The drums slows, and the voice gently leaves my center. I come to a rest, my foot on top of a decomposing hand. The woman sits with her eyes closed, a peaceful smile, drum held at her heart.

We come to sit as well. The three of us showing our pointed teeth. The woman bows her head, her dark hair falling over her face. Beyond her, peeking above the eastern horizon, is the first glimpse of the sun.

“Thank you Guardians and guides, protectors, givers of grace and wisdom. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

The introspective one taps my shoulder, “Many of the spirits have left.”

I bow to the woman, “Today our burden is less.”

The loud one groans, “I WOULD LIKE TO KEEP THIS ONE.”

The woman gently places her drum and incense burner in her satchel and covering her shoulders with her shawl; stands after bowing deeply.

“I offer you my heart, my love, my undying gratitude. I pray that you fill me with guidance and strength at my time of passing, that you will remember my devotion sweetly.”

As she stands she pulls a small knife from her satchel, the snake beings slip back into the river. The loud one widens her eyes and licks her fangs. “She is going to make a blood offering!”

“Oooh,” the loud one squeals, “It has been centuries since I’ve tasted living blood!”

The woman stabs her palm, squeezing the blood with her fingertips, leaving it to collect at an abalone shell at her feet. With that she turns toward the dawning sky and disappears into the hill.

We pass the shell among us, full with song and sweet blood.

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