Ancestor Night

Issue #260

We went to the lake of our ancestors on the longest night of the year.

As the oldest, I had to make sure I and my four sisters and little brother gave greetings to our parents in their first year under the ice.

Jasna, next oldest after me and my favorite sister, delayed our departure from the house. She had lost her glove. She also pointed out that little Asta needed her woolly hat. “Perhaps you haven’t noticed, Paolo, but it’s freezing outside,” she said. “Weren’t you the one who broke the ice on the water in the cistern this morning?” She sounded almost like her old self, teasing me. I had not seen that self since last spring, and I had missed her. Then her voice became serious. “Iko just sneezed three times. Can’t he stay home?” And perhaps Jasna could stay to look after him.

I bundled Iko in shawls and wraps and tied a scarf over his lower face. “Stop stalling,” I told Jasna. I thought I knew why she was reluctant, but I couldn’t let her undermine the rite. We needed it this year more than we ever had before. I pulled her glove from the mending basket where I’d seen her hide it after she’d brought in a load of wood earlier. I fetched Asta’s hat from under the pillow on the big chair by the fireplace. “It’s time.”

Delora, Melitza, and Asta were waiting by the door, dressed in their warm felted jackets, with fresh remembrance flowers embroidered on the pockets over their hearts. Delora carried the little pierced-tin lantern with its captive fire. The rest of us finished buttoning up, Asta pulled on her hat, and we all went out into the chilly night.

Snow cloaked the world in white under a nearly full moon. The air was cold and sharp. It carried only a faint trace of woodsmoke; most of its flavor was the glitter of winter. Our home was one of five snug low-roofed houses on the lane at the western edge of our village turned into arched bumps under the snow.   Farther west lay the forest, its jagged-edged pines snow-bleached. Memory Lake was north, at the end of the lane.

Other folk came out of their doors, joining dark-clothed families already in the lane. Some carried lanterns. Others let the snow under the moon and stars be their light.

I picked Iko up and settled him into his usual roost on my back. He gripped the straps Jasna had sewn onto my outer jacket and tucked his feet into my pockets. I reached behind to hold him up. The snow was too deep for his little legs, though we didn’t have far to walk.

My three younger sisters linked arms and walked on ahead, singing softly, harmonizing with each other on the sacred song about waking the past. They caught up with the two pale sisters from next door, and the song swelled as more voices joined it.

“Did you remember the candles and pine needles?” Jasna asked when we had passed the three houses at the end of the lane. Mistress Moseley and her consort stood on the porch of the last house. She was loading kindling into the pack on his back. He stared straight ahead, as most of her men did after they had been with her awhile.

“Yes,” I said. All the necessary things for the ritual were tucked into my big front pocket.

Jasna looked toward the forest. Hopeless longing showed in her face. I wished I could comfort her.

“Come on.” I nudged her shoulder. “We must.”

She dragged her feet. I walked on ahead. Iko chirped a word or two in concert with the others before and behind us, joining the song.

As all of us reached the frozen lake, we spread out, each going to where our own ancestors rose to the ice on this one night a year. The ice creaked beneath many feet—creaked but did not break. The noises traveled off into darkness, along with the threads of music from the children.

Delora, Melitza, and Asta rushed toward where our parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins would come. They carried wreaths of paper flowers.

I had to drag Jasna. On the ice, she slid along at a good pace, unable to hold back.

When we came to our family’s stretch of lake, I slowed. We saw pale blobs below the ice, round faces, the white doves of hands folded on breasts. I wondered if we could mark Ancestor Night with songs and rites and leave without trouble.

It was our parents’ first year under the ice. Probably not.

Jasna knew which faces belonged to Mother and Father. She hesitated on the edge of our ice as I carried Iko toward the center and set him down beside our younger sisters, who linked hands in a circle and stood singing “Wake or Rest.” Jasna sucked in breath, lurched forward, and slid to a stop to the left of us. When our sisters had finished the song, we all joined Jasna.

I set the six candles, one for each of us, in a circle on the ice where no faces were and lit them with a taper dipped into Delora’s lantern. We burned the pine needles, sending the scent of evergreen up to the sky and down to the ice and our ancestors. Melitza sang the Ancestor Night prayer. “Wake if you must,” she sang, her voice alone. “Sleep if you may.”

Jasna knelt on the ice, staring down. I dropped beside her and saw Father’s brown beard framing his stern countenance, Mother’s red hair streaming around her quiet face. Unlike the others we had walked past to get here, Mother and Father had their eyes open, staring up at us. Our parents’ eyes had changed with death. They were pale, almost white, without irises or pupils. The eyes of statues.

Our parents were awake.

Jasna wept.

“I didn’t mean it,” she said, and then she said it again. “I only wanted you to be sick so I could go to Luko.”

Heat flared in my chest. When our parents had sunk into sickness, then death last spring, I had suspected someone caused it. Had someone witched them because we had so many living children in one family, or because Mother’s weavings and Father’s delicate paintings were sought by people from far away, and we had more wealth than most of our neighbors? Had someone in the village done something to destroy us? I had studied all our neighbors and could not see how any of them benefited from my parents’ death.

After they died, I’d taken care of us as best I could. I traded away some of our treasures for food and wood and winter wools. All of us had been learning from Mother and Father, but none of us had mastered their skills yet, though Jasna had come the closest. I was not sure how we were going to survive when our treasures were gone.

After Mother and Father died, Jasna went deep inside herself. At first I thought it was grief. I held my own grief still and watched her, trying to figure out how to help her. Then I began to suspect the ill-wishing that killed our parents had come from someplace closer to home.

I had waited for Ancestor Night through the summer and fall.

Mother spoke, but I heard no words. Jasna cast herself on the ice, weeping. “No,” she said. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Father spoke, too. His blank white gaze seemed fixed on Jasna, though it was hard to tell where he was looking.

Jasna pressed her cheek to the ice, her long dark hair flowing out from under her hat to veil her face.

“What are they telling you?” I asked her. Why should Jasna, the murderer, hear our parents’ words when the rest of us couldn’t? People said the voices of the dead were cold and hurt to hear. I didn’t care. I wanted to hear my parents speak again. At the ends of their lives, they had been too sick even to say good-bye.

Jasna didn’t answer. She pushed her hair back with her gloved hand, tears glittering on her face.

Melitza knelt and looked down at our parents. She held out her hand to Mother. The cold face with its blanched almond eyes smiled up at my middle sister and lifted a hand to meet hers, palm to gloved palm, through a layer of ice. Delora curled up with the lantern on her knees, hunched in on herself. Asta gripped Delora’s arm and huddled close.

Jasna sat up. “I will. I will.” She rubbed her eyes, shook her head, and looked at me. What had weighed her down since our parents’ deaths had lifted away from her. Her shoulders relaxed, and something that had tightened her face for months was gone.

I wanted to punch her, kick her, slap her, kill her. Rage heated me through and through. My breath came out in white clouds. My hands were fists.

“I have done an unforgiveable thing,” Jasna said, facing all the rest of us. “I deserve to die.”

“Yes,” said Melitza. Her voice was cold as night. Delora looked at her, then at Jasna, as though she didn’t understand what we had learned. Asta pushed her face against Delora’s fuzzy jacket. Iko hugged my leg and peered around it at Jasna.

Jasna said, “Father said I have to stay alive to take care of you. I have to....” She sniffled and rubbed her nose with a gloved hand. “I have to work, so we can eat.”

She was the only one who knew what our parents had said. She could tell us anything she liked. I didn’t know if I would ever trust her again.

I didn’t care what she thought she was supposed to do. I wanted to cast her out of our family.

She had the strongest weaving skills of any of us. Already strangers paid high prices for her blankets and scarves. Her skill with blending colors into pleasing patterns was the best in the village.

She had not woven much since our parents died, though I had pushed her to work. I had not pushed hard out of respect for her deep grief, which I now knew had been deep guilt.

I was not sure we could survive without her.

I knelt on the ice and looked down at our parents.

Father stared up at me. He nodded once. His hand moved from where it was folded on his chest and grasped Mother’s hand. His eyes closed.

Mother blinked twice, and her eyes closed as well.

Jasna was silent as we completed the Ancestor Night rituals and songs and laid the wreaths over our parents. On the way back to the house, we walked unspeaking, joined by the dark figures of others who had finished their rituals. Jasna walked apart from us, as she had since last spring, and the rest of us linked hands.

She was the best weaver in the family, the best cook. We needed her.

A whisper in my heart reminded me how much I loved her, my favorite sister and best friend. I closed my ears to it.


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Over the past thirty-odd years, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold adult and YA novels and more than 300 short stories. Her works have been finalists for many major awards, and she has won a Stoker and a Nebula Award. Nina's novels have been published by Avon, Atheneum, Ace, Scholastic, Tachyon, and Viking. Her short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies. Nina does magazine production work and teaches writing. She lives in Eugene, Oregon. For a list of Nina's publications, visit ofearna.us/books/hoffman.html.

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