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One More Flag
One more flag. One more grave. One more lost soul.
I tie the scrap of red fabric around the wooden stake, making sure to tie nice and tight. If the flag blows away, so does the soul.
I pat the frozen earth around the stake, brushing away the flyaway strands of flaxen hair from my cold cheeks. I stand, and the bitter wind whispers around me. I hear, in some countries, that they hold grand funerals for the dead, but in Cinnia, that is not the way.
I look out over the graveyard. Flags of all shapes, sizes and colours, like the souls they represent, snap in the wind. Some are frayed and faded from hanging there for years, and some are crisp and colourful, like Father’s. I see a dirty, faded blue flag lying, crumpled and forlorn, on the ground, and my heart wrenches for the soul, lost forever. I pray that, like Father, the flag that represents his soul never fades from its vibrant, bright scarlet.
I take one last look at Father’s grave, give a little wave, and walk slowly away, reluctant to leave but knowing I cannot stay. A graveyard is not a place for the living, only for the dead. In fact, in keeping with the customs of our culture, I was the only one who came to tie Father’s grave. Mother could not. And no one else is here.
The cruel, cold wind stings my face as I travel through the market on my way home. Vendors are still selling their wares on the city streets, their faces bright scarlet underneath their thick woollen wrappings. I pause to purchase a warm, fragrant loaf of bread from the familiar vendor on the corner of a side street. It warms my hands, and it will please Mother. If she is conscious. If she is alive.
I let myself in the house, shivering as I do so. Our house is usually warm, but today is as frigid as out-of-doors. I start a fire in the hearth with the remaining wood. We need more kindling, I think as I watch the fiery flames lick the wood. I must collect some more once the house is warm.
The house feels deserted, but I know Mother is here; she is in no condition to leave. I hear Philippi crying in the back room, and I push back the curtain of rough material that serves as a door. Mother is lying on her pallet, staring blankly heavenward. I touch her forehead, and she feels burning hot and sweaty. It won’t be long now.
Philippi is still screeching. He is in his crib. It is roughly hewn of wooden boards; Father made it before the baby was born. Philippi does not feel hot. Perhaps there is a chance for my small brother. I smooth his scarce, fluffy light hair and hug him close to me. How I wish I could sing him a lullaby.
I tear a strip of cloth from my apron, dip it in the wooden bucket of water in the corner of the room, and place it on Mother’s torrid forehead. She does not respond. Maybe she is not aware I am here. I brush her limp, stringy hair from her face, kiss the fingertip of my index finger, and touch it to her cheek. Ever since my voice was stolen, this has been my way of saying goodbye.
I know Mother is dying of the fever, just like Father. Her breath is coming in short, desperate gasps, and her eyes are wild, searching for something I cannot see. She gasps one last time, then exhales, her eyelids fluttering closed. Her chest rises, then falls.
It does not rise again.
A tear slowly drips down my cheek. I wipe it away hastily, knowing that tears will not bring Mother back. Nor Father. I clutch Philippi closer to me and swallow back tears. It is not my newfound solitude that frightens and saddens me. I have been on my own for nearly a month now, struggling to keep Philippi alive, knowing that is what Mother and Father would want. No, it is only my brother’s life I fear for now.
Later, as I tie a canary yellow flag tightly to another wooden stake, right next to Father’s, Philippi whimpers, and I hold him close. He is all I have now. I will keep him alive. I can do that much. I may not have been able to save my parents, but I will at least save my baby brother.
A sudden gust of wind shakes the flags, causing them to flap wildly. As I watch in numb horror, Mother’s yellow flag is ripped from its stake, carried off by the strong wind, the bright yellow a stark contrast against the dull grey of the sky.
The flag is black, the soul is cost
The flag is gone, the soul is lost.