Salty sweat stung his eyes as he pushed the last log into place. He rested his body against it and the frame didn’t budge at all. He sucked in large gasps of air as his muscles ached and buzzed with exertion. A sour taste buzzed throughout his mouth and he staggered to one side, kicking aside a rock on the edge of the pit and spat. He dropped his hands to his knees and panted with his head hung low. Sweat slid down his nose and he could see his hair, shaggy and unkempt clumped together.
He inhaled deeply through his nose and stood up. Leaning back, he swept his hair back with one hand, dislodging the hair tie that had come loose. He closed his eyes and swept his hair back again before tying it back into a ponytail. He hadn’t been taking care of it, there were split ends, the roots didn’t match, and it was getting long, like the old days.
He took off his gloves and tossed them at the pack off to one side and considered his hands. They were raw, red, even with the gloves, it had been a lot of rough wood. He closed his fists slowly and felt them crack. He closed his eyes and breathed out slowly. When he opened them, it was time to get back to work. He knelt beside the ring of stones and replaced the one he’d knocked aside. Then he packed them in tightly with a layer of sand. The tarp was starting to peak up from the edges so he walked to the cart full of stones. He picked up the first and began carrying it to the make a second circle of stones.
Junko had seen and experienced more death since receiving his letter than he could ever have prepared for. He’d arrived at the school just after the earthquake and it had been a city recovering from disaster, but it was not the only one. In a way, he was also recovering. Hachi was gone, killed while doing his job leaving Junko alone with his mother. But he’d left gifts, his sword set, though Junko could not bring himself to pull them out, and the acceptance letter to the academy. Here at the academy, Junko ha abandoned who he was before, a metaphorical death to go with the others.
It would not be the last. Going out into the world, he’d seen more dead, abandoned and forgotten, ignored by society before and cast aside after their death. It resonated inside him, like a bell that just kept growing. He sometimes closed his eyes and saw their faces, not as they were in life but now, long after time had ravaged their bodies. He compartmentalized them but the memories would not stay in their boxes. They would escape and beg for help as he stood helplessly before their half eaten bodies, seeing it in vivid detail and seeing every small insect and animal now using them for meal and shelter.
That would not be the end, he was left behind as friends and classmates charged into the unknown on missions for the school to deal with rebel disruptions around the country. He had nothing to offer, so he stayed behind. Soon enough, the rebels came to the city. He killed people, bad guys, that’s what they were. They had done terrible things, they didn’t feel remorse. People told him all these things but it didn’t make him feel any better. He sometimes saw them in his dreams as well, not like the corpses, but like they were as he shot them. Their red glow fading to nothing as they came at him.
At the time, he’d focused on treating them like any other animal to be hunted. It had worked at the time. They were wild and savage, a well placed arrow put them down. It was important to kill them quickly so they did not suffer. It was a mercy. And yet, they kept coming back to him. Lights winking out in what could only be seen as accusingly. Junko wanted to be there for his friends, they were hurting, but he wasn’t sure he could help them while he was having such trouble himself.
The second circle was completed and he added more sand to hold it down. His shoulders were starting to ache. He walked over to his bag and leaned down to pull out a bottle of water. He took several long gulps and wiped his brow. His hair was coming loose again. He slid the tie off and poured water over his head and shoulders. It wasn’t cold, not anymore, but it was cool enough to provide some relief.
The pit had taken a while to dig and then refilling it partly over the tarp had been difficult too. Then there were the logs and bricks. Even away from the forests of home, his name had some clout, and he’d managed to get wood delivered and dropped off at the beach. Stone as well, but it wasn’t simple or easy. So much of it had been claimed for the rebuilding efforts. All he’d been eat with were scrap logs, not good for anything but burning. But that was fine, he would not begrudge anyone in need.
The bonfire was for everyone. He secretly hoped that a lot of people would come and be healed. But, in the end, he knew the bonfire was for him. It was selfish and childish. But he wasn’t sure that he could do anything else, not until the bonfire had been completed. He dropped the bottle on the sand again and ran his hands through his hair before rebanding it.
He couldn’t sit down, if he did, he might not be able to muster the strength to get up again as his muscles rebelled. He walked to the wooden tower he built. This was selfish, that’s why he had to do it alone. There were plenty of people who would probably have helped him. But he didn’t want to. It was his pride, he had to do it on his own if only to prove that he could. It wasn’t exactly machismo either. It was, also, a penance.
Junko had received very little medical assistance after the big event. Partly because resources were stretched thin and partly because most of his wounds were superficial. He was banged up, his hearing was returning, but he was technically healthy. Certainly healthy enough to keep helping and so he did. The city demanded that he find new depths. It needed him to be the best he could be and use his talents in a new way.
In the past, Junko had used his vision for hunting. He didn’t have to worry about anything sneaking up on him and he didn’t have to worry about anything getting past him. But he had taken it for granted. He had not had much use for it except as a casual way to avoid foot traffic during conversations. Even less useful was his ability to create a talisman that he could see through. Junko had no idea how that would be of any use until the disaster. For the last week, Junko had spent day after day hunting for survivors. Sometimes it was enough to walk through the rubble, other times he had to get deeper.
The first time he’d put the talisman on a drill, he’d vomited instantly and felt sick for awhile after. From that point on, they put it on the part of the drill that didn’t spin. He had been able to help some people. Locating them under buried rubble and getting the crews digging in the right spot. But those moments of joy didn’t compare to the far more likely event of him seeing nothing. Seeing those hopeful people and being forced to tell them that nothing was alive in the rubble hurt so badly.
They said his power was wrong sometimes. He never knew it to fail but he hoped it was, what else could he do. But he had to move on. Sometimes he’d be monitoring somebody in the rubble and he’d see as the last fading light went out before the crews could get to them. One heartbreaking day, they’d been digging and were almost to the victim when the whole thing shifted and the bright light went out instantly. Day after day, and the red lights were growing fainter and he was finding fewer and fewer as time went on. But what could be done, there was only one of him.
The wooden cabin was complete. Interwoven logs were stacked up high, slightly above his head. In the center of them all was the teepee of smaller logs. But above that and resting on the top of the box design was a pallet. On this, he set up the startings of the fire. The kindling and tinder would be placed there, then the fire would spread over the pallet and ignite the wood beneath. The small flame would turn into a raging inferno.
He took a small rock and set it on top of the pile of twigs to keep it from being blown away from any stray gusts of wind. The sun still was high in the sky, it wouldn’t be time to start the fire for another few hours. He wanted it blazing as the first shadows of night started creeping in. The fire would be a beacon. Hopefully it would call out the people of the city, give them a place to release their grief, to see their loved ones go into the fire.
But it was more than just the lost people. There were many missing, likely people who would never be found. There were bodies who would never be identified. People had lost friends, family, pets, jobs, livelihoods, histories, and memories. This fire might be a way to say goodbye, a funeral pyre for all that the city had lost to the rebels, the earthquakes, and whatever else happened in an unfair world.
Satisfied with his work so far, he collapsed by his bag and wrapped his arms around his knees. A bright light on the coast to draw people in. To attract them like a moth. But also to attract spirits. To draw the angry ghosts out from troubled minds and send them off to a peaceful final resting place as ash in the wind. After a few minutes of complete stillness, he reached into his bag and pulled out the buckets of paint and the brushes.
Lacking the physical objects to burn, he would let people make their own symbolic bodies to throw into the fire. There was a lot of left over pieces of wood and he’d also collected a large bag of flat chips. With brush and paint, people could write the name of what they had lost and give it to the fire for cremation. He’d also brought a sheath of papers but those might not be as easy to add to the bonfire. It would burn hot and throwing a wood chip in would be easier for sure.