For Death is the doomed hero, a mask of action. He steps forward, and with two mighty hammer blows knocks the corpse backwards. The creature’s hands have been cut off so that the actor playing Death may easily defeat it. Protect us, your people, King Death. Bash it just like that. Yes. Rain your hammer down upon the corpse’s brow. Crack its yellow mask and reveal the dead man’s face so we can see that this was our neighbor, our countryman, before he did not die. Spatter the nearby oak trunk with gore, a starburst of blood upon the ground around you.
Crush its skull, Death, and take away its unlife, then drop your hammer on the cold ground. Grab the destroyed head in your gloved hands and hold it just so. We want to watch. Mold it. Mold it into a pot before our very eyes, a thick-lipped bowl. Raise it up for the audience to see. Drink from it now, as you always do.
Take the pot to the Screamer in the Swamps, and then die, slump to the ground. You are dead, Death. Screamer drinks and passes the bowl of poison to Lover, and then Screamer falls into his bed of dead lilies. Lover drinks and passes it to Crooning Babies, all drinking the poison and collapsing. The jug passes then to the Miner, then to the Farmer Twins (who slap at one another, fighting over the cup and snapping in their strange language as they guzzle poison), to Rat Killer, and then the Childless Mother. All of You swoon and topple until, finally, that bitter pot of poison comes to the Healer.
Healer’s tall mask of grief sways from the bowl in her hands to her dead companions. She weeps into the bowl, tears fall upon the ceramic lip and stain it blue, because she’s thinking, you know, about her famous parents. She’s remembering how she accidentally killed the creators in a jealous fit upon seeing their cherished, second-born. She’s thinking about all the pain that she inflicted on her rival sibling, that is, the world — you — and all the pain that her ancient deeds will yet bring. She is the mask of regret.
You don’t blame her. You might have done the same, all those eons ago. As badly as you now desire your dead to die, she wanted her dead parents back. So there at the end of time’s very first harvest, with her parents gone and autumn’s fields lying barren and snowy, Healer put her hand upon the turning wheel of time, seeking to spin it back to a happier day.
Instead, she broke the calendar — and, oh yes, her parents did come back. But not with the love and forgiveness for which Healer longed, because their adoration for the world, you, was undone. Uncreators now desired to unmake their world. So along with her departed parents, the Healer invited undeath through that breach in the calendar. The dead that were planted and the crops that were cut rose with her risen parents — a second spring to undo the first.
Because of Healer, the corpses and crops that fall in this season rise, and the very soil unburdens itself of the buried. Because of her, your dearly departed can’t wend their way hearthward to become house ghosts nor secrete themselves into cherished heirlooms to guide your future generations. The calendar has imprisoned them in shells of discontented skin. And so your sweetest memories of smooth faces glowing in the light of springtime fires, or bearded cheeks reddening in the harvest chill, are mocked by the cold, bent mouths that crave to bite and rip at you.
In the darkness surrounding the lanterns and torches whose light falls upon the sole figure of Healer, you can hear corpses running. They’re in the woods. Right now. You can see them too. Their winding sheets unwind as they dart between the trees.
And in the glen, the Parade of You screams and stands. They are masked now in yellow demon masks and draped in sickly yellow shrouds, the color of the unliving grain that ungrows in the Burn.
Healer stands with that bowl, listening to the howl of the transformed figures around her, watching as they advance toward you, the ones they depict, the ones they now long to devour and replace.
At this moment, children return. They ring their bells as they dash into the glade and surround the Healer, consoling her. They lead her to the calendar and take hold of it, preparing to turn it forward. Healer stops them for a moment, almost turns the calendar back again in her misguided longing and sorrow. But then she joins them and helps roll the calendar forward, past the station of Burn — to Freeze, the winter season.
With that, the second mask of Death enters. He walks toward the assembled yellow masks on stilts, a clean white figure, towering in his iciness. A train of your city’s young fathers follows Death, imitating his slow, deliberate steps. This Death is a mask of concern and care, and while you watch his long-legged gait lead the line of fathers into the glen, you remember being upset as a child, sleepless in your fear of the dark. You remember how relieved you were when your father came to scoop you from bed, how you collapsed against his wide chest, and gratefully slept against him.
The fathers of Death fan out into the glen. You recognize these good men — your neighbors, your countrymen — because they are just themselves, uncostumed. Next to the stiff and enormous yellow masks of the undead Rat Killer and Childless Mother, their human faces look too mutable and small. Meager as they are, they form a wall between you and the avaricious You. They grab the yellow-cloaked figures of the transformed Parade, hold them close, and guide them to the bonfire. Then they march them, one by one, straight into the blaze.
The costumes ignite and painted masks burn with fingers of oddly colored flames. The screams are horrific, but you must watch this agonizing show of mercy, and suffer it. Mercy means letting your beloved go, and it might mean guiding them to rest as these loving fathers do, every year.
The drizzle that has been lightly spraying the woods throughout the ritual now ices into tiny flakes. In the woods around, the shifting shadows cease shifting and the howls become brief songs of lament — and then nothing but the silence of snow in woods.
Before you, Wintry Death looms over the glen in a swirl of snowy wind. He shouts for the fathers to fall in line, and the fathers call you to follow, too. The audience rises. The parade of you follows the trail of wax drippings back the way you came, but now, instead of passing spectral musicians, you see fallen corpses, lying as they should, unmoving in the wood. The world’s clock has been reset, and now, instead of a torch-lit gateway leading from the forest back into your citylit world, the gate of torches yawns upon some brown rushes, burst cattails, and a shore that banks a river you’ve never seen before
And here you witness the final image of Death. Not a figure. Not a mask. Death is seven egret-prowed boats, whose necks double back upon themselves as if in flight. And there upon the decks are all the family members and dear friends whom you’ve lost in this terrible season and in Burns past. They are all there, waiting for you to remember them. Call out their names, now, hurry, so they may wave to you, their bodies whole, their bare faces lustrous in the lantern light. Forgive the earth that betrayed them and turned them out of their graves. Adore them and send them away forever.