It was afternoon and earlier than the prisoners would usually light the bonfire. They stood in a clump around the card dealer, who held Oscar’s head in his lap. They stared blank as the one tending the fire gently poked the embers with a stick, as the fire took the wood with a crackle, ignited.
“I shouldn’t cry,” said the dealer, sniffling, fingers light on the sides of Oscar’s face. “It’s a waste. I barely knew him.”
“I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with it,” said the patient card player.
The prisoner with the stringy hair approached, queen cobra hanging limp in his fist. “That’s enough of that,” he said, and tossed the body into the bonfire. The one tending the fire shied back from the flare.
“What was his plan?” said the dealer. “I just stood and watched. I couldn’t understand what he was doing.”
“Mourn all you need. Mourning’s human,” said the patient one, removing his glasses to clear a tear from one lens. “Or get angry if you like. The only unprofitable thing is placing blame.”
“It helps if you think of it like just a trip he’s taking,” said the prisoner with the stringy hair. “I think he’ll go back to the city.”
“I’ve been to the city,” said the one tending the bonfire. “Once, when I was a kid. My dad took me out on a boat tour. The night one. Everything was all lit up, and I remember I thought that was crazy. How’d anyone sleep when everything was so bright? But it made me sleepy, all the little lights. I actually slept through the end of the tour. Dad made fun. Might have been mad. If he was, he didn’t say.”
“I took that same tour, but during the day,” said the dealer. His voice shivering though it wasn’t cold. “Our whole class went. A bunch of teenagers on a boat. Which was about as good an idea as you’d expect. We stayed overnight. They let us run around town a couple hours, no adults, and there were all these little shops, selling everything. I mean everything you could think of. Me and the boys and some of the girls went into all of them until we found a dirty bookstore. They didn’t have a rule that said we couldn’t, so we flipped through everything, pointed out the naughty parts to each other. Till the clerk started eyeing us.”
“Youth,” smiled the patient one.
“Bet he’d have gone with us,” said the dealer, face screwing up, turning red. “Listen—as if we were school chums. That’s the kind of idiot thing running through my head.”
“No,” said the one with the stringy hair, bending down beside, proffering a closed fist. “You just wish things had turned out different. If you’d been his friend, it might have.”
“That’s a nicer way to think of it,” said the dealer, bumping the man’s knuckles. “Thanks.”
The patient one knelt in front of Oscar’s feet, grabbed Oscar’s ankles. “I’ll help lift him,” he said. Three others came to join him, and Oscar’s weight hung in their arms as if in a hammock; the dealer was unburdened.
He shot up after them then, panicked. “I don’t know why, I know it doesn’t matter; don’t leave him face free to the elements like that,” he said. “I don’t like it if there’s nothing to keep him from seeing the fire.”
Everyone looked sympathetic, but it was all they could do to keep hold of the body, the uncompromising sharps of hip and shoulder moment by moment frustrating their grasp.
“I’ll go,” said the newbie. He broke into a stiff jog and ducked into Oscar’s tent. Almost instantly he came out holding a long black layered coat. “Weird,” he said. “It was on his bed.”
“I never saw him wear that,” said the dealer.
“It’s a woman’s I think,” said the newbie, examining the buttons. Somebody whistled.
“No,” overruled the dealer. He grabbed onto the dusty hem and with the newbie’s help, dragged the coat over Oscar head to foot, the sleeves trailing down at his sides like raggedy ribbons.
The ones who bore the body rested it gentle as they could, though with the flames as high as they were, there was a little bit of tossing to it, a little bit of swing. They did what they did with utmost solemnity. The ash rose in the aftermath, and embers spiraled up, spirited away.
The prisoners took their places in the circle. They concentrated in various directions, paying all their attention, studying the sky or how their toes moved in their shoes, measuring the pops in the fire, attending the crackle.
“I came here from the city,” the newbie murmured into the quiet.
“Did you,” his card partner said. “You’d think I’d know that.”
“I never said,” the newbie said. “People assume things about people from the city.”
“No, we have rules about that,” said the dealer. “People’ll show you what they’re made of all on their own.” His hands were nervous. He fished a heavy stick out of the pile of firewood and tapped it against his anklebone.
“What’s it like these days?” continued the newbie’s partner. “I thought people were leaving the big cities.”
“It’s okay,” the newbie said. “It’s still there.”
“That’s all you got?” said the dealer.
The newbie shrugged. “It’s a place to live.”
“That’s enough, these days,” said the newbie’s card partner softly. “That’s a lot.” And he took off his glasses again, wiped them clean.
“Yeah,” said the dealer, after a moment, winding the point of the stick through the sand, the child’s shape of snake, or a simple path. “You’re right. It’s enough.”