I watched as the pyre was built; the wood layered and stacked in its rough way by people moving with workmanlike efficiency. The wood was dry, and I saw things moving there, crawling out of their homes to investigate this new development. I saw this despite my distance from the construction; haunting the edges of the charnel ground I, felt the eyes of the builders slide off me like oil spreading over the river. We would never meet, myself and they – I was, and ever should be, a vague shadow in the corners of their vision, their gazes eeling away from me like the fish in the currents of the holy waters.

Day followed night, and I remained there. There had been no rain for a moon, and I was covered in ash and gravedust – a pale grey figure resting there in the landscape of other people\’s grief. I took no food, merely tasting the offerings left behind for the dead and drinking from the river. The sun looked down upon me and I looked back, the air between us wavering while the spirits hunkered down in the relative coolness of the cracked earth, waiting for the twilight and silver moon.

When the gift of blindness came upon me, it was a torrent of baking pain that washed away vision with hot salt tears. I accepted it without reservation, and listened to the sticky breezes stir the few skinny trees scattered about, now grey of limb and almost leafless.

As night\’s relative coolness gathered about my hide, I heard the spirits come. Some were silent, while others hooted and howled, made clicking noises or shrieked like gutted children. A few chose to remain close to the living, protective of their kin; whole families clustered around soil now long scorched black by successive pyres as the generations rolled on.

But most were heavy things, weighed down by memories, hunger and fear. They shied from the grave-songs that sought to release them, irritated by the droned raspings, the discordant notes which would untether them and send them on their way to rebirth.

Those who risked the charnel grounds at night risked their ire; hostile at best, vengeful at worst. Woe betide the living who did not have protections or charms – faith and a pure heart – for their whispers would poison and devour all but the most prepared. Only the very brave or the very foolish were to be found there.

I am neither.

When the hungry came to me, I offered my own flesh and bone. When the thirsty cried out, I gave them my blood. As they waxed at my table, gaining shape and substance, I covered myself with earth, sinking down to the place from which they came. I gathered together the spines of their attachment, plaited their chains to make a rope of furious desire that burned in my hands and writhed like a serpent within my grip

As each night ended, another strand had been added, another fibre of spirit-stuff gathered about my shoulders, dense and terrible with weight. As dawn came, the violent phosphorescences before my eyes bore witness to their departure from the world above, as I sat and counted memories by my grim mala.

The hopes and dreams of over three-score spirits passed under my fingertips; the bones of their being carved with secrets which leapt at my touch, and as the sun rose, I raised my voice and opened my throat in homage to all those who had long stood their time amidst the light, and rested here and now.

By midday, with the heat shrivelling my tongue, the song had become faint but still insistent. It was there that I saw her first, standing before the unburnt pyre. Her hair was dark, features proud and beautiful; she held herself upright, clad in simple linen, a mouth made for smiling now tight with resignation. Her brows were knit together in an expression of fierce contemplation, her eyes unseeing as she stared at the wood stacked there.

I sang on then, recounting the names of the forgotten who had feasted at my table, night after night. Somewhere between fifty to a hundred I paused – may they forgive me this lapse – and fell to watching her silently with unblinking gaze.

She gave no sign of awareness at my interest, but I had seen her heart shift as I paused, her breast hitch for a fraction of a second as some part of her recognized the sudden absence of my voice. I tasted her perfume on the air, a thing of sweat and musky sweetness, of grief, sorrow and defiance.

I knew her then – wife, daughter, or concubine, it did not matter which – for she had come to look upon the place where one recently dead would be consigned to the flames. I smelt the garlands of flowers she would lay upon the corpse, would bear about her neck, and the mourning which would rise from her heart.

I reached out, sideways and forward, no longer needing the mudras. By way of the in-between, I touched the swirling smoke and hid behind the torches lit in the sunset as the funeral party made offerings and spoke of the dead man, saying prayers for him in all his next existences, until final liberation.

I watched her led to the pyre, saw her annointed and climb the stairs to sit beside him. Her eyelids fluttered as she waited, blood running fast in her veins, her jewellery gleaming in the torchlight. Her breath stirred the evening air and I felt the earth stir in response. Her life moved within her breast, and I clearly saw the tracks of tears upon her cheek, even as that which lay sluggish and confused within the corpse began to lose its grip upon the living world.

They were bound together, she by obligation and love, a love which paid no heed to time, or even its fermentation into bitter vinegar. It was a bond willingly undertaken, now a yoke about her, shaping her life and its end. Her life and willing death would strengthen his spirit, allowing him to avoid the temptation of a low rebirth. He would rise upon her shoulders, his bond one of hunger and possession. Not for him the realm of hungry spirits, no; he would never go hungry with her there to sustain him, until he had ascended to the heavens where one may be in pleasure forever, never hungering nor thirsting though one\’s appetites be as vast as a god\’s and twice as terrible.

As she lit took up one of the torches and flames began to lick around the base of the pyre, I was there, moving through the old wood, into cold flesh, pressed against his spirit. I felt decay all about me, those invisible movements now beginning their inexorable process.

Already the acids and liquors of decomposition were beginning to ferment in the corpse, slowly turning human flesh into spoiled meat. They tasted acrid on my tongue, burning with the ends of things undone, stinging my throat like thorns.

He wriggled against me; teeth like hooks sinking into my essence, seeking to rip and tear. As with all others, I gave freely, but the flavour of my self did not please him – I lacked the spice, the taste of her that he craved above all things. He spat me out as he woke, and that chewed morsel passed to the fire which gulped it greedily, as it always does.

As the flames rose, he grew more aware and the smell of burning hair arose amidst the incense. Linen caught then; billowing in the hot wind as tears were seared from cheeks and I could taste the salt on skin, the crackle and spit of fat.

The corpse-smoke wound its way about her, seeking entry inside her; it knew her life and poisoned her air as she drew it in, brought him in for the feeding. Those last moments of her life amidst the mourning of his kin, were thick with him. The fire danced, the smoke rose, and she choked slowly on him as he replaced her breath with his.

You have yet to see how a thing without a face may smile, how an eyeless mien might look with gleeful malice upon its prey, or how a fleshless thing may solidify to become harder than burnished steel. You have yet to know the coldness of the hunger that burns inside monsters, and I pray you shall pass through all your lives before you do.

For he had stolen within her, swelling beneath her breast, invading her belly, setting her womb to seize and heart to tear in agony as he waxed there. Flooding veins and viscera, gobbets of him in her guts, lapping at her tears as the flame roared and the pyre burned, he looped cold hands through her long dark hair and dragged her with him through the smoke.

I saw her throat tighten: the pulse throbbing beneath the skin, violent in frozen slowness there, on the threshold. The column of them rose to the heavens, writhing like snakes, and I willed her to struggle, but she did not – the bond betwixt the two was too tight, an inverted umbilicus.

I watched them rise, and saw the gates of the other realms arrayed before them, jewelled and shining, terrible in their beauty. You should know, I did not pause, no! I took up my ladder and climbed the rope of them, fast and easy; hand over hand like the Monkey King. With the strength of three-score spirits I rose like the bird of thunder, \’til I stood hidden behind them, veiled in bright darkness that gleamed blackly as Crow\’s wing.

Upon the gates did he knock, her essence giving him substance as they sprang wide to reveal those who watch and guard the holy places. Before them, he made offering of stolen self and passed on by, as I followed in the guise of a retainer serving his master.

(For all know that the servant is invisible until required – in this we are kin, they and I. Thus it was a simple matter to resemble the same, to water down my untouchable blood, to stretch it like it like a drum-skin and change the note of my song.)

Lambent were the eyes of those gate keepers; blazing things of lapis lazuli, of emerald and ruby, that whirled and spun and blazed with eternal fire. When their gaze fell upon me I was empty, as clear as glass, and their eyes saw through me.

Through those gates we passed, and we walked beneath the shade of mighty trees. Rivers of wine and great tables of food and drink lay there, and upon their couches lounged shining beings, feasting and coupling as they would.

Yet for all this, he did not eat, nor did he drink of this heavenly fare. Instead, he grew immense, and his hunger turned upon her – his great form now ten thousand times more desirous of her than before. He fell upon her in a frenzy, tearing at her limbs, her flesh; his grip marking her like a branding iron, bruising that subtle essence.

Now, in that place, all things are mighty, even suffering; this you have been told before by other voices and this you know. Her suffering was great and terrible and I stood by as it waxed; it grew and grew, until it was a thing of pain and slaughter; until it raised its head in that jewelled place, and looked at the humble servant who stood there with eyes downcast.

Awful was its gaze, terrible its teeth; blood ran from lips and a tongue sharper than a sword lashed the perfumed air. Burning eyes rolled back in its head, blazing brighter than suns; its hands held great implements of of agony and ruin, and where it walked, the bright earth was seared and cracked.

All around, as the shining ones played obliviously, a great storm sprang up, black as night, and Suffering smiled. With iron hand and painted nail, she grasped that servant and drew him to her maw, until at last he stood before her, about to devoured.

Yet those eyes, downcast for a seeming eternity, suddenly rose to meet Suffering\’s and they smiled at her.

About the palace the feasting paused, for the red rivers of wine had slowed, now sluggish blood. Every platter of meat, every dish of fruit was now the flesh of man; the eggs of birds now their eyes and balls, the heads of oxen now the sightless skulls of the endless dead. The bright gods, no longer calm and playful, became wroth. Lightning blazed in their eyes, blood dripped from their fangs and many were the limbs which twined like serpent

From skull cups they drank, the elixir of venom roared in their veins, and they danced the dance of the end of worlds as the palace became a slaughterhouse. Sharp were the weapons of those in this dark heaven, gleaming in the light of the pyre, as its denizens looked upon Suffering and smiled in welcome.

He who had feasted upon she who suffered looked about him then. Vast and mighty he stood, as his heaven became each of the seven hells in turn. She was torn from him then, ripped asunder. Her agonized screams as the cord was cut were sweet music to her Suffering, and so it grew.

Howling, the thief fell upon the deities, bellowing in rage. A thousand he slew, yet the bodies of dead gods were like an ocean; a quicksand of corpses, They slowed his movements as he waded through burning blood, clung to his limbs like the heaviest of lead. He saw her before him upon the tables of the gods, opened up and screaming as Suffering read her entrails and probed her flesh with cold joy, tasting her.

His hunger grew then, and he took up the flesh of dead gods, but it was as ash on his tongue. His belly cried out for her, and still he strove, yet with every movement, he burned, and his hunger grew more. He screamed, a mighty and terrible roar which shook the gates of this place. Hunger wormed through him, it bound his guts and seized his breathless throat, choking his voice.

Mighty was he, this one who had bound her when they were young and flesh was supple. With honest words and warm heart had they joined, the hunger for each other shared and satisfied. Yet the hunger had arisen, the might harvested from others, wisdom ripped from sleeping places to build a house.

Such a house it had been, shelter amidst the storms of life, and yet the hunger swelled, the need had grown, til the temple of the two had invited in the insatiable void. Power had he, this one in life, the strength to bend wood and stone, bone and blood. The darkness harnessed, chained down and put to work by the law of the strong.

Yet here his hands overflowed as the hunger roared, the abundance of heaven becoming spoiled and poisonous. Vitality turned upon itself, the fire licking at his insides, eating itself in the dark as it broke apart the organs of who he had been for nourishment, subsumed into the reflex of devouring.

All that remained was her; she alone gave freely out of love. He fed upon her, inflamed by it, on until she had ceased to be herself, and had become the centre of his existence. Hoarded and kept, an eye at the roots of all things, she was solely his, or so he had thought. To obliterate the world, to turn it to ash, this he would gladly do so none should disturb them, and thus he be inviolate and immortal.

He shook with rage, this mighty one in the grip of hunger. But he could not stretch out his arm, could not speak, nor move. Blood drowned him and darkness shrieked as awareness stood in sharp relief. The chains bit as the gods danced and sang amidst the charnel ground, every movement a mockery, fluid and fast as lightning; as deliberate and poised as glaciers. Inward then he fell, folding, disintegrating, breaking apart, the bonds of his being as nothing against the iron of his bondage.

What of her, she who cried out under the ministrations of her own Suffering, as it slipped with brutal ease into here every crevice and pore? She was cold with it, lost in the sickness, the violent dread of it. There in that place, the great gods and spirits feasted upon her, every morsel a joy to them, every bite, every taste an eternity.

She was devoured, and yet each moment was as a thousand years, the ravenousness of their meal driving his needs into the dust. Where he bolted, they savoured. Where he stole, they returned with joy, luxuriating in her. The agony was bestowed as blessing, each rending a gift, a remaking and revelation.

Screaming, they revealed her innermost secrets to her, glistening and raw, hidden from man\’s eyes, and the dismemberment set her bones to burn with awe, marrow electric; the spasms of life passed from her, its warmth departed. Seed and root crumbled and the soil of her self was salted. That old cord, they unwove, pulled each thread and peeled it back to lash her a hundredfold, \’til each fibre had laid her open and she knew its true shape, carved upon her.

Suffering ran her fingers over those welts, read them with bubbling laughter – a scripture of pain and blindness masquerading as a tale of hope. With the blood of slaughter in her cup she bathed the wounds and inked for all to see that sorry song.

With sharp blade, she cut off the head of she who suffered; held it up by the long dark hair, and saw the loss in those eyes, dead yet still living. So it was that he who had feasted upon her saw that head, felt the death of it, a dark and terrible undoing, here in this place of awe and ash, unspeakable sorrow and unending ash.

Folded there, a mote of hunger, compressed, devouring itself endlessly, madness rose and fell like the sea, locked there eternal and powerless. Shrieking, begging only for release from torment, he had become a thing of pain, begging for an end.

Suffering smiled wide, red lips and ash white skin; she drank in the horror and the vengeance – a dark goddess reborn. Bloody were her pale flanks, rolling were her eyes, sinuous her limbs as she danced.

With painted nails, she took the maddened hunger and popped it daintily into her mouth, as a lady swallows a sweetmeat, and then turned to her table, where the servant was quietly clearing the feast and bade him cease. Beckoning, she brought him close and looked upon him, seeking that smile anew.

I smiled for her then, for we knew each other of old, the dark one and I. I smiled for she was beautiful and as terrible as always, and her presence within my heart drove me on to give of myself. We stood uncloaked there, amidst the hells, naked and proud; beautiful in our darkness were we, corpse-white and blood red as we moved together, coupling furiously amidst the gods.

Beneath her, I arced. Above me, she ground down, and the worlds came together. Under my fingers I felt the familiar features of the one who had birthed her, now long dead and decayed and devoured.

I gave myself to her, to be devoured utterly, the darkness of it feeding and swelling so that I might nourish her, a meeting of seed and ground so to grow a fruit of compassion. For as I was consumed, I was reborn in her – my slaughter a scarlet rain to wash the ash from her cheeks and wet the earth.

In that deathly coupling I sat and saw anew, a mirror to reflect the truth that lies beyond vision, As night became day, I saw her there, before the pyre which lay unburned, and she turned then, and looked at me. I pressed by my palms together above my head, thumbs brushing my third eye.

Namaste.” I said, though without words, as I bowed low in my heart to she who stood there.

She smiled, and sorrow fled, hands reaching up to unbind her hair. It flowed like water in the dry dust, and she placed the bond atop the pyre. Then, with one last look at me, she walked away, and I watched her go.

As she passed from that place, I raised up my voice in song for he who would burn there tonight, as I have always done.