Take a cold, translucent candle from the child in the bulb-eyed fish mask, and pray for your beloved to die. Light the candle from a torch at the woodland path's gate. Say, “Burn.”
Behind you, your city shines, but the forest is dark, and the night is damp as the freeze of winter encroaches. Your candle drips as you walk past musicians in the rainy forest. Gauze winding sheets shroud musicians playing violins and quiet drums, lit by the stream of your many candles. All of you leave a trail of wax drippings on the forest floor.
Please. Sit. Once you have spread your blanket on the dead grass and drunk a draft of sweet beer, your ritual will begin. Seven children bring the wooden calendar, wheeling it into the glen before you. Thaw, Sprout, Harvest, Burn, and Freeze — watch it roll — Thaw, Sprout, Harvest, Burn, and Freeze. It represents the five seasons, and the children stop rolling it when Burn turns round to the top of the wheel. They lean it against a bare maple and scatter into the woods, ringing little bells.
It's a dangerous night in the Burn. You hope soldiers with war-hammers are guarding these children now. Some of you glance into the woods around.
Are the creatures out there? Oh yes. They always course and stalk, this time of year.
Bid a welcome to the Parade of You. Applaud. Their painted wheat-stalk hair sticks out in shocks, and their eyes are sepulchral, lidless. Each wears grey, the mournful color of the Burn, just as all of you do, and on each face is a large, wooden mask, carved and painted into the singular pointed beard, grin, frown, bee-stung lips, scream, or broken nose by which they're known. A parade and parody of you.
Besotted Healer is first. Always. Her mouth is down-turned and her eyes are black crescents of grief. Healer arrives in slow, bobbing steps, accompanied in muted lantern light with a clashing cymbal-crash, because tradition says Healer is unwittingly responsible for all the suffering that comes with this season. Behind her, the tall Rat Killer dances in and the Screamer in the Swamps drags his train of dead lilies. Next is Lover with One Eye. The comforting swath of flush-cheeked Crooning Infants. The keening outrage of the Childless Mother. Then comes the Trapped Miner. The funny and argumentative Farmer Twins (you love them). Finally, and most importantly in the Parade of You, comes Death in his first incarnation, wearing the mask of a scolding king and carrying hammer and torch.
They march this march when the undead corn and fell wheat rise, when the calendar stutters and brings you nothing but smoke and ruin. When the Burn stirs the very land awake, when your own grandfathers and grandmothers come hunting, these masks dance the Parade of You.
Together, they ring around a rickety pyramid of oil-soaked wood. The Farmer Twins fight over the best way to light it, until the Lover finally takes Death's torch and ignites the bonfire. This is not a cheery blaze, a hearth fire or baker's kiln. You're solemn, as you should be. You place your loved ones in such pyramids and set them afire night after night in the Burn.
Decant the last covered lanterns and send a round of waterskins through the crowd. Drink up. Bring in the undeceased, now, and lay its bound and handless body in the clearing before the masks.
All these personas — Rat Killer, Lover with One Eye, even the joyful Infants — grieve when they see the undeceased, robed optimistically in red, the color of the completed passage into death.
Watch them as they claw at their own giant, wooden faces, and mourn the inability of this body to rest, as it ought.
Death, however, never mourns. He is an ineffectual king in this drama, because only winter truly kills. Resigned to his fate, Death raises his hammer and torch, and walks slowly toward the undeceased with violins screaming.
Attendants untie the corpse and dash away. The body senselessly rises. You, the audience, bridle in fright, because you can smell its cloying decay and hear its stiffened tendons cracking with movement. With its stump wrists, it tries to remove the yellow demon mask that has been placed upon its face.
Cry out for Death in your terror.