NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Haru's Storyline.
Haru could feel the eyes of every sister on her as she scrubbed dirt from her hands.
Each tiny movement sent waves of pain scorching through her body. Her fingertips burned where she had dug splinters from them. Her back ached from turning earth. She had performed the rite of burial so many times that her throat was raw from chanting.
But those discomforts paled before the knife-like stares of her priory sisters, whom she could hear whispering her name in hushed tones.
Ritual held that the Goddess of the Fields welcomed the souls of the departed only if their bodies were buried beneath good earth, with a shock of winter wheat in one hand, and a heart of barley in the other. That was how the dead had been hallowed since time out of mind. It was how their souls returned home to the fields.
But the storm which had blown through the night before had carried away much of the sleeping village like a scythe harvests wheat, and it had claimed the bodies of the dead along with their spirits. So, as the soul-deadening day wore on, the priory had filled with weeping mourners, who had nothing left of their loved ones to bury, save for their memories and names.
Haru could not accept that the Goddess would abandon her flock. She could not believe that the Goddess would condemn those who had tilled her earth to such a fate.
So Haru had spent the day digging empty graves, and hallowing the names – if not the bodies – of those whom the storm had claimed.
For her kindness, she had earned her sisters’ scorn, and been denounced by the prioress, who accused her of tormenting the grief-stricken by promising false comfort.
The prioress’s words had stung. But Haru had not stopped. She would not stop until all the dead were buried, so that their souls could return to the fields.
From behind her, Haru heard the door to the priory open. She turned around to see a man, red-eyed and stoop-shouldered, step into the Hall of the Hallowed with his head held low, and a small, burlap bag clutched between his hands. Trembling, he made his way to kneel before the sister nearest to the entrance, before holding the burlap sack open for her to see, and offering her a single, solitary word by way of explanation:
A moment passed in leaden silence. Then the sister shook her head, and turned her back on the pleading man.
Undaunted, the man knelt before every sister in turn. To each woman, he offered the tiny sack, and to each woman, he uttered the same desperate word:
Each sister shook her head. Each sister turned her back.
Finally, the man came to Haru. She could see the tears welling in his eyes as he sank to his knees before her. He held the burlap sack up to her, and she could hear the raw emotion in his voice as he begged her:
Haru took the sack from him. With trembling fingers, she opened it, and studied its contents.
Inside was a single, tiny shoe.
“Please?” the man repeated, his voice on the edge of breaking. “I couldn’t find her.”
Haru placed the shoe carefully back inside the sack, which she returned to the shaking man. Then she simply held him, and she patted his back as he wept into her shoulder, until he had no tears left to cry.
Then, kneeling briefly before the altar, Haru gathered a shock of winter wheat in one hand, and a heart of barley in the other.
“Let’s find a quiet place for her,” she said to the shattered man, as she led him gently towards the door. “A place where the earth is good.”
The man clutched Haru’s dirt-caked hand as they walked.
“Thank you for bringing her home,” he said.
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