A faint grey line hinted at the approaching sunrise. The early traffic consisted of a few transports and an occasional patrol vehicle. The bars and restaurants were closed; the bakeries had started their ovens for the day. A few lights in apartment windows showed some had stirred.
The uniformed captain, arms wrapped around an awkward bundle, came slowly up the empty street. He stopped, checking the building fronts on both sides of the road. Each year it was a little different -- an increasingly wealthy class of occupants ran businesses on the ground level and the up and coming urbanites lived in trendy apartments on the upper floors. He had left the shiny expensive groundcar at the corner. The way they had always left the vehicles at the corner. He looked again across at one particular building and then down into the road itself. Halfway between the pillar lights (they looked beautifully period, but did not throw much light) the plaque was hard to see, but he knew the shape of it. There - set into the pavement where it had been for the last 29 years.
He set down the pack - the metal bowl clanged softly against the collapsed tripod. Another look at the sky and his chrono - a little time left. He shoved his hands into his pockets. He had only stopped at his apartment to get the necessary implements and change into his uniform -- he would have to go right on to work afterwards. He had wanted to be early and had not slept after last night's gathering. A pre-birthday Marcel had called it since the day itself was usually celebrated with his mother. His friends had accustomed themselves to this. It had been that way for all the years since he had gone away to school.
He remembered that birthday. He had only been enrolled for a few months and had mostly adjusted to the regimen of lessons, team sports and discipline. The authority he had recognized. There were always people in charge and you tried to get along with them as well as possible. It made for less conflict and you could work the system to your advantage. His friends there had already learned that he could blend quietly into the background and pick up the latest rumour or gossip. Not to mention his knack of deflecting official anger -- he would just stand there blinking vaguely, trying to understand what had gone wrong. The adjutant would glare, mumble something like "idiot" and dismiss them.
Maman had arranged to take him away for the day. He had been wondering about that because that birthday would have been the first in seven years that he had missed. But they had called him into the adjutant's office where his twelve year old brain tried to guess why they wanted him. As far as he knew he hadn't done anything recently that they would be after him for.
"Cadet, it has been arranged for you to have the day tomorrow to spend your birthday with your mother." The sneer was overwhelming. He knew he was going to be in trouble for months after this. The older boys would use it unmercifully. "Orders came down." -- implying that that was the only reason he was being allowed to go.
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Stand to attention. Keep your mouth shut. Don't offer any excuse or explanation. How could you explain the annual ritual to him.
"She will pick you up this evening and return you the morning after tomorrow. See that you obtain lecture notes and there will be extra study periods to make the work up."
"Yes, sir, I understand." He understood, but how to make Maman see what this would mean. She was so involved with this thing every year -- as though it re-charged her batteries for another year. Well he knew that afterwards there would be a present and enough pastry and cake to cause a stomach ache. He would survive this, again.
And he did, but it was spring before they stopped ragging him about spending his birthday with his mother like some little kid. The next year had not been so bad. He had more friends and had passed the first year well enough to satisfy everyone. By the last year of school no one even remarked except to envy him the day off.
He glanced over at the sky again. Brighter now -- not too much longer to wait. He took his hands out of his pockets, blew on them and rubbed them together to force some warmth into them. It was times like these he wished he was born in the summer. It was not too bad this year. It had been much colder the year he turned eighteen and had to stand there in his first year academy uniform, not wearing a coat, while the blaze burned slowly down to its dull embers. There had been snow blowing then.
"God it's cold," he thought. He had to stand to attention in his not nearly warm enough uniform. Maman always made him stand while the offering turned to smoke and ash and drifted away on the breeze. "Please burn faster." He shivered, but Maman, wrapped in her fur cloak and hat, stared at the plaque. He could hear her whispering under her breath. He wasn't sure if he was supposed to hear or not.
"Well, here he is, my dear. First year Imperial Military Academy, just as I promised. He'll graduate too and become an officer just like you. I wasn't sure that a woman alone could do this, but I had help and we managed. Soon he'll be a man. I've done what I had to. Can you let me go now. It's been eighteen years and I want to have my life back. I'm tired of grey clothing and being just your widow. It's time to move on". She laid a grey, tissue-thin scarf on the blaze and it exploded into flame as she hurriedly jumped back.
"Maman, are you all right. You could have burned yourself."
"I'm fine. I just wasn't expecting it to go up like that." She shook herself and took a deep breath. They both turned to look at the brazier. The flame had gone out and only ash was left.
Well, dear, I think we are done here and can get some breakfast. There's that new restaurant around the corner. We can get coffee and a bun and talk."
He packed up the brazier and tripod and stored it on the floor of the waiting groundcar. The liveried driver sat stolidly. He was new this year. Was he thinking the two of them were crazy? Coming out at dawn to this slightly disreputable neighbourhood and burning an offering to a plaque in the road. Not even in front of a proper headstone.
What a talk that had been. Maman had told him that as he was now in the Academy and almost an adult, it was his responsibility to take over the offering ritual. It didn't have to be done every year. But she had always felt that it was necessary. Some kind of annual report on his progress. Here had been the last place she had seen his father. No one had ever found out what became of the body. Not even his uncle had been able to discover that secret. It was gone in the chaos that had been the city back then. She had always hoped that some record or person would be found, but "Simon assures me that he has done every thing possible to find out, but nothing was written down and if any one knows they aren't saying."
"I see, Maman. But what does all this mean. You've arranged this for thirteen years. I know where everything is kept and what to do, but it always been yours. I'm not even sure they'll let me come next year. Right now the second-years are aboard ship seeing if they can use the 5-space math and navigation they're supposed to have learned. That's not going to change for one person."
"I know. I asked your uncle about it and he said that this the only year you'd be able to get away until you graduated. That is the reason for this year's change. It will be the last time until you are 21 and a legal adult. Then it will be up to you. You're his child. The blood and the responsibility are yours." She signed and looked at her hands.
All right, Maman", he covered her hands with one of his own. " I won't be forgetting, even it is a couple of years until I can get back."
It had been three years. By that time he had graduated, been assigned and moved into his own apartment. Birthdays weren't really something his new crowd of friends were involved with, but as the day approached he found himself going over to Maman's apartment and getting the stuff out of storage cupboard. It was easy to carry, stored in blue velvet drawstring bags with gold cords and embroidered versions of the family seal in gold -- the brazier in a squarish one and the tripod in a longer, thinner tube shape. Maman had not been there, but he left no message. Somehow it was something between himself and his unknown father.
Standing there in the cold dawn light, he watched the graduation picture of himself curl and dissolve. It hadn't been easy to get a flat burnable representation of the holo-image. He had managed. What now, surely he should say something. Up to now he had stood while Maman said whatever she felt needed saying. Sometimes he listened, sometimes he was more concerned with what was going on around him or breakfast or how cold it was.
"It's me, father." Saying it out loud felt stupid. But he was used to that feeling. He would just have to go on. "I graduated from the Academy this year. They've assigned me to Ops. I think I like it there. It's not ship duty like you had, but they haven't said I'm an idiot yet. Did they say that about you? People have been telling me that my whole life. But I've managed to do everything they asked of me.
"I met someone who said he knew you. It was funny. Maman never really seems to say what kind of person you were except that you were a good husband and were looking forward to me being born. My uncle told me things about you and him growing up, but he was so much older. Did you get along with him? Anyway, this other officer came in and had to wait in reception. He saw my name and asked was I your son. He said I looked like you and asked did I sing. He told me you had a good voice and knew every scandalous song going around then and more jokes than anyone else. But that you never had anyone stay mad at you. Was he just being nice to your son? He couldn't have been sure of when you died. He asked me did I remember you. I guess he thought I was older or something. Did you remember your parents?
I've always thought it was strange that your parents were killed when you were a baby and that you were killed when I was born. Maybe there's a curse on the family -- as soon as we have an heir our time's up. If that's the case, Da, the family is in for a good long wait. I like living and am not about to give it up. No matter what Maman says, I'm not getting married and having kids. It's too dangerous."
The scraps of scented wood had burned low and in the growing light traffic was increasing. "Time to go, Da. I'm due at work and I don't want to be late. I'll come back some time."
The captain opened his pack. He had left the embroidered bags at home. They attracted too much attention on the street. Not valuable, but Maman had spent too much time and effort with everything. The tripod in blued steel and the brazier in gleaming metal. The outside was still bright while the interior had acquired a black patina from the heat and smoke of all those years.
He hadn't come every year after he turned twenty-one. The next birthday he remembered clearly was his twenty-fifth. Thoughts spilling out of him like a rock slide, bouncing against each other in different directions.
"Just got back from Earth, Da -- I was actually on Earth in our embassy. It was a boring job. They had me entering data and reporting party conversation. But the benefits were great -- the women there. God, should I be telling you this. It's not the way a ritual is supposed to go.
Anyway, something strange happened there. I think we have a new relative and he tried to kill me -- what is it about our family, Da. They got your parents. They got you. They nearly got me. Practically the first time this guy could, he had me kidnapped and shut up in a ... It was horrible. No one could hear me. It was cramped and pitch black and I was banging on the walls and hatch and no one could hear me. It felt like forever. Cuz got me out. I figured, great, we'll scrag the guy or at least turn him in. But no. He's a relative -- gotta save him. Hey, I'm a relative and no one tried to save me. Well, yes, I guess Cuz did, but he got me into it in the first place -- just like always."
A strong gust of wind blew rattling the stand and nearly putting the flame out.
"Was that a sign, Da. Am I whining too much? I know I don't usually, but I was really scared. And every time I have to go into a dark room it's like I'm back there for an instant. I wonder how I'm going to get out. And I haven't even gotten married or had an heir yet." He took some deep breaths to slow his respiration -- think calm he said to himself.
"Speaking of marriage. Maman is fine. I don't know why she doesn't come anymore. Since I was away and she couldn't hover over me, she taken to doing that to Gregor. Everyone wants him married and as one of his closest female relatives and because of her position, she's the one who's looking. I hope she finds someone for him. Not that I want all her attention again, but I'm still too close to the throne. You know what that gets you. Dodging situations and people who want you dead because of who your grandparents were." He stood watching the fire shrink and die. "Well, the flame's gone, Da -- time to be leaving."
The captain remembered that he had saluted. The first time he had done that. Now, carefully set up the tripod. Balance the brazier. Yes, it was going to stay up. The wind wasn't bad. First the shavings. Easy to light. Then the wood. Not much. The traffic was heavier each year and they tended to shout at him if they felt they were being held up. And something of himself.
This year he had brought a copy of his new commission, the first promotion he felt he had earned. He was proud of that. Many of his friends had stuck it out the ten years and then resigned -- some captains, some still lieutenants. They either wanted something else or they were tired of the service. It was funny that he wasn't. He liked his life, his job. If it wasn't ship duty, and he still had a sneaking adolescent desire for that, the capital had its compensations. People said they envied him. So why was he here at dawn again. What did he need or want this year that only this ritual could provide. Some years he felt as though nothing was there. That it was an exercise in outmoded tradition. Perhaps it was turning thirty. His father had been married then, with only four more years to live. Perhaps it was the number itself.
Twenty-five years since the first time. His mother waking him in the cold glare of the lights. Dressing in his new uniform with its shiny trim.. He could picture that uniform so clearly. He had been excited to have one like the liveried men. They looked so neat, like soldiers.
He had stayed awake long past the time Maman said good night. Hiding under the blankets, playing spaceships. You had to be quiet. Too much noise and the sensors heard and then people came in and took your toys away. Tomorrow would be a cake and presents and his cousins coming for a party, even the one who couldn't walk.
Maman had said that five was old enough to have a special party and new clothes and learn something she called "trad, trad-i-tion". She had tried to explain, but he didn't understand very well. If you belonged to certain families like his you had to go and visit the place where a person in your family died. He couldn't figure out what that had to do with his birthday. He was born on this day. He knew what that meant. He had had another cousin born just a few month's ago to one of Maman's sisters. He was alive. ... But Maman said it was because he didn't have a father. That his father had died and they had to go visit where that happened before anything else that day. That's what his family did. No one had the same name that he and Maman did ... that's why just they had to do this. He'd get to wear his new uniform. ... and have presents... and cake. He fell asleep clutching his spaceships.
The next morning she woke him early and dressed him in the uniform herself. That was different. He didn't get breakfast. Maman said they would get something after. This was important and they had to do it first. She took his hand and they went out of the apartment, down and into the waiting groundcar. There were two liveried men in the front seat; one driving and the other holding something in a dark blue cover on his lap. No, it was two separate bags.
They drove for a long time. He watched the dark empty streets. He had never been out this early before. It was quiet. No one said anything to him and he didn't think he should ask. This wasn't anything that had ever happened before.
The car stopped and the doors swung open. The driver got out, went around and helped the other man with the bags. Then back around again to hand Maman out. He slid across the seat after her. Maman had a small bag as well. She took his hand and led all of the them up the street.
He looked around. This wasn't like home. The buildings were smaller and close together and not very clean. He glanced at the men following. They each had a bag in one hand and the other rested on a real weapon. Maybe there would be shooting. This was getting more exciting.
Maman stopped and gestured. One of the men opened his bag and took out three metal rods fastened together. He stood them upright, twisted and suddenly there was a three legged stand on the pavement. The man stepped back and took up a position a little distance away watching the buildings around him. The other man now opened his bag, pulled out a large metal bowl and rested it on the metal stand. Then he took up a guard position on the other side of them.
"Maman", he couldn't keep quiet any longer. He had to know. "What are we doing"
She looked down at him and smiled. It wasn't her real smile, but something sad.
"Remember what I told you about our family and tradition. This is it. In our family we come every year to remember people who have died. This happens on the same day as the one when they died. Usually this happens in a cemetery in front of their headstone where the body is buried." She took a deep breath. "But we didn't have your father's body. So we put up that plaque." She pointed to a square of bronze set into the pavement. "That's the place where your father was killed. That was the day you were born.
"So we have to come here every year and remember your father. So he will live in our hearts. Because he died and you were born on the same day. First we come here to remember him and then we have your birthday. That's the way it happened back then. They installed that plaque on the day you turned one. One year after he died. I held you in my arms while they did it."
He tried to take this in. It wasn't easy. This wasn't about presents or a cake. That he could understand. That was stuff you got because you were another year older. This was something else. Father -- that was a picture on Maman's desk. A man smiling. Black hair. Wearing a green uniform.
"We remember him by burning an offering. Something like a present. We give it to him. But he's not here, so the only way we can send it to him is to burn it. That's what we're going to do."
She opened her bag and took out small pieces of wood and a handful of a fuzzy material and placed them in the bowl. Then she was kneeling in front of him with a pair of scissors in her hand. "Keep still." She snipped a piece of hair from over his eyes, rose and laid it on top of the wood. Then she snipped a piece of her own long black hair as well.
"Now we light the fire." A long match. "Here take it. I'll help you." Swick. The flame wavered in the breeze. She grasped his hand and guided it into the pile. It caught right away. "You stand here and watch the fire. It's taking our hair to your father. So he knows we're still here and thinking of him."
It was a nice fire. He could feel the warmth on his face. Nice in the cold. It was getting lighter. He could just see the edge of the sun over the buildings.
"Padma, here he is. Our son. Five years old today. We survived."
Maman didn't say anything else. Just stood watching the fire, holding his hand.
A gleam of light caught Ivan's eye. Sun had come up. Time. He struck a long match against the pavement. It caught. Carefully lifting it and lighting the pyre. Watching the flame consume kindling, wood, parchment. Just being in the moment.
Soon it died away. He sighed. Packed everything away again. The noise from the traffic was getting louder. His stomach rumbled in echo. He started to go, then paused, turning back to the plaque.
"Still here, Da. Still surviving." He walked toward the parked car.
© 1999 by Ruth Bitz (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Current version by Michael Bernardi, email@example.com
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Last updated: May 6th 2002