This excerpt is an exclusive prologue scene from In the Land of the Vultures. It does not appear anywhere else. Enjoy!

Paula Chaffee Scardamalia

Samara was grateful that she was yet too young to sit at the Table of Death this morning, even if she was an acolyte and priestess-in-training for the Goddess of Death. The old priestess, Damitra, had described in careful detail what happened at the Table of Death. Stomach turning as she listened, Samara was grateful that she wouldn’t be required to serve until she had her first menses. The old woman’s description caused Samara to frequently waken at night feeling herself torn by sharp beaks, and each morning she had to stiffen her back and clench her teeth to do her job of feeding the sacred vultures. She ducked her head when they swooped low above her head as she tossed bits of meat to them, and shivered when wing tips brushed her hair and face. As the birds, white with black tipped wings, gobbled up the village scraps and offal, her gaze always turned to the darkly stained, flat slab of stone that lay mounted atop another two large standing stones. That was the altar, the place where the dead were placed for their journey to the Land of Rivers. Where the vultures feasted on flesh and bone. She was glad not to be there this morning.

“Why is my momma crying?”

Samara sighed. Without having Damitra nearby, she was enjoying her play. What was someone doing over here on this side of the river anyway?  A village boy was probably trying to trick her. She moved the mother stick figure over to the baby—a small stone wrapped in a piece of sheep’s hair—saying, “Hush, hush.  Momma’s here,” and tried to imagine what it might be like to have a momma.

“Why is my momma crying?”

Reluctantly, Samara looked up from her play, hearing the tears in the question.

Micah, a village boy of about eight years, stood over her, hands fisted, eyes sad.  She knew his name, she knew all the other children’s names because, even though she never played with them—no one wanted to play with someone who served the priestess of Death—she’d watched them. She knew their names and who were brother and sister and, sometimes, even who their parents were. But, if Micah was here then who lay on the Table of Death? Had Damitra made a mistake?  Whose body did she watch over as the sacred vultures performed their role?

Samara could hear the wailing and the drumming as the village mourned, even though she couldn’t see them from her place behind a large boulder where she played.

“Why is she crying?” Micah asked, stamping his foot in the dirt.  No puffs of dust swirled up.  His foot made no sound.

She squinted at him—and saw through his body to the rock and sand behind him.  He was dead. His spirit was talking to her. But how? Damitra said the vultures ate the flesh of the body to release the person’s spirit. One of the vultures would carry that spirit to the Bridge and help it cross over into the Land of Rivers. What was Micah doing here—with her?

He soundlessly stamped his foot again.

 “Momma can’t hear me! She was crying and I told her I was right there. I shouted at her. I pulled on her robe. Why can’t she hear me?  Why is my mother crying?”

Samara’s belly hurt. She wanted to run away, but the boy was crying. She reached out to wipe away the tears, but her hand passed through his face. She wiped her dry hand on her tunic.

“You are dead,” she said quietly, looking behind him at a small clump of grass the goats hadn’t found yet, noting the way the wind moved over it.

“You are dead, Micah. You are a spirit. Your mother cannot see you. No one can. Or hear you. You are supposed to go to the Land of the Rivers now.” 

Micah was shaking his head. Samara nodded, “You climbed the cliffs and fell, remember? You fell and you died. That is why your mother cries.”

Phantom tears continued to rain down his face.  “My mother is crying because of me?”

Samara nodded and tried again.  “You must go to the Land of the Rivers.”

“I do not want to leave. Not without my mother.”

Samara thought for a minute. If she had a mother, she wouldn’t want to leave her either. She nodded and then squatted.  “So stay. Do you want to play with me?”

After a few breaths, Micah wiped the tears from his face and squatted in the dirt with her. He couldn’t pick up the figures or build a fence with stones for building a fence, fight a battle with sticks. Samara’s hands did all that. But he spoke for the shepherd father, and made goat sounds. And, for the first time, Samara had a playmate.

Until several days later when Damitra discovered them. Or rather, discovered Samara talking to Micah.

“Micah cannot remain with the living. That serves no one.”

Samara cried along with Micah, not wanting to lose the one friend she had, but Damitra was unmoved. Worse, seeing the tears on Samara’s face, hearing her pleas to let Micah stay, Damitra’s face turned as hard as the stone cliffs.

“Not only will Micah cross to the Land of the Rivers, Samara, but you will be the one to take him, so you learn how to do this when it is necessary.”

Damitra instructed Samara how to find the dark, quiet place inside where she could loosen her spirit to walk with Micah’s on the sky road to the Land of Rivers. Though tears dampened Samara’s spirit’s cheeks the entire journey, Damitra’s spirit, walking next to them, did not relent. She forced Samara to hold Micah’s hand and walk him across the Bridge to its midpoint, then made her let go of his hand so he could continue across into the Land of Rivers. She felt the pull of the Land. She even took a step after him, but Damitra shouted at her, and jerked her spirit back.

So she watched Micah walk away, never once looking back, so captivated was he by the Land. She retraced her steps back over the Bridge, hating Damitra, hating what she had been forced to do, and vowing she would never do it again…ever!

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