Varaya closed her eyes and let the gentle rhythm of warm hands on her back lull her to sleep. The last few days had left her shaken and confused. She embraced the opportunity to shut out the world and enjoy the luxury of a deep massage. She groaned involuntarily as the muscles in her back were stretched and kneaded. She let go and gave herself up to the pummelling. Through the open window she could hear birds calling and children singing; rehearsing for the great service tomorrow.
She drifted off and remembered the many times they had lain on the grass, giggling as they tried to interpret the songs of the birds; the cooing of the Tree Hopper as he flew from branch to branch in search of his lost love; the Blue Hooded Fleeter with his mawkish trill.
“Far better,” Joseph had said “is the croak of the Frog Willow”. It was his favourite bird. Large, ungainly and an unlikely candidate for flight; it made its home high in the tree tops and called down to the world below with a hoarse and dark croak. “It is the most honest sound I have ever heard from a bird. He doesn’t pretend to sing for his supper, he says what he wants and means what he says.” It was one of the very few occasions she had disagreed with her husband, but she kept her counsel to herself and let him stroke her forehead as he told her tales of the magical creatures that had once roamed the land before they were overruled and tamed.
“Sorry Ma’am.” The hands were whipped away.
“No, please don’t stop, it was just a knot in my shoulder.” The hands resumed their rhythmic motion.
Varaya slipped back to sleep. She imagined the hands caressing her were Joseph’s. Strong and powerful, but with a softness unusual in a man. In the dim light she let her eyes half open and manipulated the shadows, tweaking them here and there to turn them into the outline of her husband. It was not difficult; his shape was imprinted forever on her eyes. The perfumed oil misted her mind and she wandered back to the grassy knoll where he lay.
“The callioptra were the most mischievous creatures in the land.” Joseph rolled over and tickled his wife under her chin. “Except perhaps for you!” Varaya pulled herself up onto her elbows and planted a kiss on her husband’s nose.
“Impossible to be as mischievous as me.” She rolled into the crook of his arm and listened as he wove tales of beasts who changed colour according to the cycles of the moon, of birds who flew through time bringing back delicious morsels of tomorrow to feed their young. But Varaya’s favourite creature was the pensillia, half bird half mist the pensillia flew silently through the land carefully wrapping anyone who was lost in its sweet scented mist and gently returning them home.
“They fed on polyoptra flowers, that’s what gave them their delicious scent.” He tweaked her nose, she snorted and hid her face in the grass. “The polyoptra was the most strongly scented flower in the land. No other creature could bear to go within a few feet of the plant so overpowering was its smell. The blossomed only at dawn, giving each new day a heady birth.” Varaya sniffed her husband’s shirt as he spoke and believed that to be more wonderful than the scent of any flower. “After feasting on the huge creamy white blooms the pensillia would waft across the land. Though their routes appeared random and erratic, they were meticulously planned to ensure no inch was left uncharted.” As he spoke Joseph ran his fingers up and down her back, mirroring the hands of the masseuse who was now working her way down Varaya’s spine. “Every time they spotted a lost soul, perhaps a stranger to town lost in the labyrinthine alleyways or a child separated from his mother in the crush of the morning market the pensillia would slip down and swathe the wanderer in their aromatic mist and carry them back where they belonged.”
“Belonged?” Varaya sat up
“Oh yes.” Her husband tucked her back in his arms. “The pensillia were most fastidious and only returned people to where they ought to be at that precise moment.”
“But,” she felt Joseph’s finger on her lips.
“Shush,” he whispered as he leaned closer to her face, “the pensillia knew what was best. Why the child might have wanted to run to the bakers for a fresh sweet roll, but perhaps that day the baker’s boy was starting a fever and unwittingly sharing it with his customers.” He cocked his head and looked down at his young wife. “I am your pensillia. I promise to bring you home safely with me, always.” Varaya snuggled closer to her husband, burrowing herself in his sweet smelling mist.
She felt the masseuse roll her over and begin to rub a heavily scented cream into her skin. It was thick and felt almost like wax. She began to open her eyes but the pull of her husband’s memory was stronger. Through her closed eyelids she felt a solitary tear grow. Her future had been described as golden, touched by the spirits. The child bride, wooed by a prince and destined for a gilded life was now a child widow. Her pensillia was lost to her forever and there was no magical beast to bring him home.
The masseuse began to wrap silken clothes around her limbs and as the wax began to melt from the heat of her body the perfume became stronger.
“Polyoptra” she thought to herself, “that’s what it would smell like.” She had asked for polyoptra blossom at her wedding. “Surely they can be found somewhere, surely for the bride of a prince?” She had asked with childish hope in her eyes. Joseph had promised her the flowers.
“But not for our wedding my dearest, they would be too potent for our guests. We will keep them for ourselves, to savour alone.” She breathed in deeply as the masseuse worked her way up Varaya’s body with the silken strips. He had sent her the flowers after all. His gift from the other side. He had remembered.
She tried to move. The hands held her gently but firmly in place as the strips were wound around her.
“Ma’am, please be still. I am almost finished.”
She worked quickly and the final strips were tucked in neatly at her shoulders. Varaya relaxed, the combination of the warm aromatic wax and the swaddling was comforting. The towel was removed from her head and her long black hair fell to the floor. A new set of hands brushed oils through her hair, swept it up into a thick knot on the back of her head and tucked a deep red pinchella flower behind her right ear. Next the hands moved to her face, expertly applying colour to the cheeks pale from mourning and lightening the eyes heavy from tears. For the first time since Joseph had died Varaya began to feel like the sixteen year old girl she was.
“Ma’am we are finished. You look beautiful.” Before Varaya could reply she was lifted and carried out into the sunlight. She blinked in the sudden brightness and was surprised to hear the wails of mourners so close by. She strained her eyes to one side and saw the streets packed with men, women and children all in red for mourning and waving flags as she was carried along. Joseph’s funeral was not until tomorrow.
The wailing grew louder and just as suddenly as she had been brought into the sunlight she was plunged into darkness. As her eyes become accustomed to the gloom she recognised the place; the jars of wine and oils, the cases of fine foods, the bolts of rich fabrics, all gifts for Joseph in the next world. The heavy door to the mausoleum was closed gently and Varaya, newly prepared to accompany her husband on his final journey, was left alone.