He held the stick firmly, fingers crisscrossed near the center. It would sturdy his grip and give him authority over the flames that were sputtering but then roaring again when he shifted the burning wood. The embers flickered red and orange, warning him of the approaching danger, the moment when the spirit would shed its burning cloak and look for an innocent boy to possess.
The other boys had fed him stories and eye-witnessed accounts of screeching demons and wailing ghosts who had taken hold of normal people, acting quickly before they were dragged to the bowels of hell or forced to hang from the tree limbs for centuries.
The boy’s father had laughed and rubbished the claims. He had been cremating dead bodies for fifteen years now but had never seen or heard a ghost or been possessed by any monstrous entity. The only noises he had heard were crackling skin and exploding bones. They had been music to his ears, the mark of a job well done. Half-burnt or slowly sizzling corpses were never a welcome sight.
So to empty the boy of his fears, the man had begun taking him to the cremation ground every Sunday. There was no better way to acquaint him with death and show him that it was nothing but a depressing and boring affair. Bodies were brought one after the other. Some were small, some larger, yet each one was reduced to almost the same amount of dust and ash.
This was the boy’s seventh and though the previous six had not misbehaved, there was no guarantee of what could happen. As smoke blew into his face, the boy shifted the brown shawl on his shoulders, fastening it tightly around his nose and mouth. The warm fabric had covered the dead woman whose burning body he now tended to.
It was customary to remove any cloth or fabric and pass it on to the poor and needy before feeding the bodies to hungry fires. The boy had kept the shawl aside for himself. It was soft and warm and just the right size. His father had gently nodded his approval.
The fire was dying down. The worst had hopefully passed. This made the boy smile, relax, and turn his back towards the smoldering heap. He would tell his father that he was no longer afraid.
A loud pop and a gentle hiss made the boy stop in his tracks. He felt a hard tug and the shawl came loose from his face. The voice behind his ear was soft but raspy. There was no mistaking what it said.
‘Give me my shawl back.’
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