The field of orange flowers stretched itself out before me, inviting me into its beauty, inviting me into its sorrow.
“Right this way, please,” my escort said. “Mind the steps, Librarian Maris.”
They led me to the precipice of the long flight of stairs, stairs no human had ever been allowed to descend. No one else was here at the top, no one guarded the entrance to the Mourning Fields, and I wondered if I had tried to come before, without invitation, if I would have been stopped. Cultural taboo can bind more strongly than laws—Ambassador Jerrick’s words pushed their way from my memory into the forefront of thought, and a twinge of guilt graced my gut alongside my nerves. Shouldn’t it be him here? He’d spent his whole career engaging the Sperea: eating at their tables, attending their musical concerts, learning everything he could about them to be a better liaison between their people and ours. But this was one privilege they’d never given him.
Corcora’s shape, small from the high ledge I stood on, waited for me at the bottom of the staircase, and I waited, too, feet unsure of taking the first step.
“This is as far as I can go,” my escort said, and it was then that I realized I’d be making the trip down alone.
The stairs that scaled the side of the cliffs enveloping the Mourning Fields had been there for centuries. Not the originals, of course. Usura had explained the history and sanctity of the staircase to me one day in the Archives. Maintenance workers were allowed to descend and ascend them whenever needed. So I was both surprised—and not—as each wooden step on my descent was silent when bearing my weight.
I put aside the cataloging of my quiet steps. The journey down, I reminded myself, was to prepare me for what was to come.
Six years on this world, down similar steps into the Great Archives of Sperea every day. Exchanging our texts with theirs, past translators’ glorious work have been our stepping stones to learning not just the facts of our separate people, but the very essence of each culture: our history, our trials, our values, our legends.
Every day down in the Archives, telling stories with Librarian Usura and hearing her stories in return. Until the winter disease took hold of her and wouldn’t let go. Her last breath left her two Sperean months ago, and I’ve been anxiously waiting for the kallakress to bloom. I’d been invited to carry my grief into the Mourning Fields—though despite all my study, I was unsure entirely what that meant. I whispered an apology to my friend; I’m sure she’d give me credit for doing the best I could with this, wherever she is now.
After the final step, my foot landed in the dirt, grass torn from the trodding of many feet before mine. Countless others had come there before me that day, my traveling companion Corcora being one of them. He bowed to me in silence, and I returned the gesture. Attendants appeared at our elbows, from where I didn’t know, and I followed Corcora’s lead as he removed his outer clothing. The clothes I shed weren’t mine but had been given to me by Corcora days before in preparation. They were ceremonial clothes: nut brown tunics, to be shed before entering the Fields, and stark white undergarments underneath (modest shirts and shorts for both of us) that we would keep on as we traveled. I’d yet to see cloth this white anywhere else on Sperea. It wasn’t practical; it didn’t stay this white for long. But that was the point, I supposed.
I noted this observation then pushed it aside for later, wanting to strike a balance between observing a Sperean custom that had formerly been unknown to humanity and wanting to participate fully—to grieve my friend in the Mourning Fields.
Our attendants left us as quickly and as silently as they had come, and Corcora maintained that silence, gesturing to me to follow him. A path lay before us leading from the cliff wall to the Fields, and just a few steps from the staircase, the fragrance nearly overtook me. So floral and almost nutty in its depth with notes that sang of jasmine and apple, the scent from the kallakress was everywhere, inviting. The odor drew us in as if we were hummingbirds, come to drink deeply. Sweet and tangy, but not like food. Like something else.
And there was something else we’d come here for instead.
Thousands of flowers, bright orange and large enough for me to curl up in, presented themselves before us, their greenery viny and sprawling. The kallakress.
Following in Corcora’s steps, I remembered what he’d told me days before in preparation for this moment. We would be traveling the Fields together; there would be no cut path marking the way through. Instead, we would go as we felt, whichever way our grief would take us. We would follow our memories of Usura, our longing for her to still be here, our aching to have more moments with her, our sadness that those had been taken from us.
Breathing deeply to calm my nerves, I followed Corcora’s lead, slipping between two of the flowers, each spanning more than two meters in diameter, their leaves bright and welcoming.
I stopped when Corcora did, as he began the ritual.
“It is Usura who is missed, Librarian Usura whom we grieve,” he said softly, starting the call and response. He’d briefed me on all of this ahead of time, as the Spereans do their children when their first loss is experienced.
“Her absence is felt deeply, an ache we cannot remedy,” I said in scripted reply.
Corcora had briefed me on his next action, too, but I wasn’t prepared at all. He stepped into the flower, directly into its center, and the petals began to move, began to curl inward toward him. I stood my ground, refrained from crying out, though adrenaline coursed through me.
Each petal contracted in unison until the entire blossom was closed, and Corcora was gone.
I held my breath for two, four, six seconds, and then, to my relief, the petals began to peel apart, revealing Corcora, his white garments heavily dusted with yellow pollen. Nearly his whole body was covered in it, but he didn’t sneeze, had no reaction that I could see. From what Ambassador Jerrick had told me, allergic reactions to kallakress were rare, and when they occurred, Spereans had an effective medication—their version of an antihistamine.
Whether or not I’d react, however, was a mystery. So much of this was a mystery, and we were just beginning.
Corcora blinked a few times, and heavy pollen floated off his lashes. Then moving among the flowers, he began to speak.
“When Usura moved into the dwelling next to mine, she brought me sweet cakes to say hello. They were dry—over-baked—but she shrugged and said it was the best she could manage. That I should know upfront I was getting a neighbor who was a sub-par baker.” He paused, chuckling at the thought. “She asked to borrow a book that night, and I felt like I couldn’t say no. She brought it back two days later with more sweet cakes, this time from a shop nearby.”
Without warning, Corcora stepped into another blossom, this one slightly smaller. Again, it wrapped its petals around him, gently but enveloping.
I waited, thoughts divided between sweet cakes and Corcora getting trapped in there, but within seconds, it released him. More pollen dotted him all over, in his hair and on his back now, but he’d left behind some he’d been carrying from the first bloom as well.
He smiled. “Let us remember Usura’s generosity, driven by her humility,” he said.
“Let us take these things with us,” I replied, voice quiet.
It was my turn now. Corcora gave me a nod, and I took us toward the east, the flowers facing that way too, toward the morning sun.
Follow your grief, they’d told me. Let the feelings of losing your friend lead you through the Field.
All I felt now was intimidation and insecurity that I didn’t belong here. That I didn’t know what I was doing. That my friendship with Usura hadn’t been enough to warrant being included.
Usura. Dear Usura.
I stopped in front of a kallakress bloom, one that was no different than the others, but one that seemed right.
“The day I first met Usura,” I began, “we barely spoke to each other. She showed me around the Archives, answered my questions, and started to catalogue the works I’d brought with me.” I smiled, remembering her wide eyes and modestly decorated hair. Such a simple first impression. “That lasted for a long time before we finally warmed up to each other.”
My cheeks flushed. What a lackluster tribute to my friend. But that was the memory that had come. That’s how I first knew Usura.
Taking a deep breath, I wiped my hands on my shorts.
“I’m right here if anything goes wrong, Maris,” Corcora said behind me.
Before I could change my mind, I stepped into the kallakress bloom, chest touching its fuzzy center. This was the moment of truth, not just for me and Corcora, but for our two species. Would the kallakress accept me, reacting to my presence by closing me in? Would my body react negatively to being covered in its pollen? I’d been trying not to make this bigger than it was, a microcosm of the unity Humans and Spereans were working toward.
This was just a moment set aside to miss my friend. To move through the Mourning Fields and grieve her.
I almost missed it when the petals began to move, drawing me further in. Wrapping around me, their touch gentle and soft on my back, they constricted until the bloom closed, and I was encased in darkness. The smell was so strong now, so all-consuming. I could see nothing, couldn’t hear the birds calling as they flew overhead, only noticing they’d been there once they were gone.
Every muscle in my body was tensed, and I counted in my head; I didn’t know what else to do, and after eight counts—what seemed like far too many—it was like dawn broke, first a soft golden glow then full light spilling in as the kallakress opened once more.
I stepped out of the flower, took in a deep breath of fresh air as the breeze lifted a few spores from my cheeks, but most stayed firmly in place for now.
“Let us remember Usura’s sense of duty, her love for her work,” I said, having practiced that morning what I could say about her.
“Let us take these things with us,” Corcora replied. His smile almost reached his eyes. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
I shook my head.
“Where are you led to next?” he asked.
We continued on in this way, taking turns moving from flower to flower, getting deeper into the kallakress and sharing memories of Usura. Corcora shared about her helping with his garden, freely gifting him plants and seeds. I told of Usura’s sense of humor, of her blatant questions about why humans did something she found odd. At the bloom after that, Corcora shared the time at breakfast Usura knocked over both their juices in one fell swoop. She was always one to talk with her hands.
I spoke of the day she was determined to catch a rodent she’d seen in the Archives, staying so late with her traps that she slept there, not knowing she’d gotten it till I arrived the next morning.
As we shared about the person—the friend—that Usura had been, we gathered more pollen until every centimeter of us was covered. We gathered more stories, the memories of Usura both weighing us down and making us lighter.
The former became easier for me; I quickly grew accustomed to the sensation of being enclosed in the kallakress, even enjoying it at times.
The latter… well. As we moved through the Fields, telling stories of Usura, of the years that we knew her, time was running out. Our stories, though not always chronological, neared closer and closer to her death, and with them, my sense of dread deepened.
Usura. Dear Usura.
The sun rose higher, and I was thankful when we came across a store of canteens attendants had set out for mourners, some still full. Corcora and I sat on the small hill, resting and relieving our thirst.
My arms and legs were coated, pollen sticking to the fine hairs that covered them.
“We’re like the bees on my world,” I said, gulping down water.
“What are those?” Corcora asked.
“A type of insect.”
“Do bees on Earth move pollen when they mourn?” he asked, and I started, unsure of the emotions of bees.
“I don’t think so. They collect it to feed their queen, their hive. To feed their community.”
Corcora took another sip, then wiped his mouth. “Sounds like mourning to me.”
We headed back out into the blooms, work still to be done. We hadn’t yet seen anyone else out here, but signs of them were there. A yellow handprint on a kallakress stalk, footprints in a dip in the land, still muddy from rain two days before. After a while, I heard wailing in the distance, guttural and dense. That sounded more like mourning to me, but I didn’t say so.
Corcora and I kept going, alternating moving from flower to flower, each of us speaking of Usura in turn.
About her stubborn, research-fueled debates.
About a weekend trip to the beach together.
About her collection of leaves, dried and pressed in the pages of her beloved books.
About dissecting the works of Butler, Obu, and Pierre over herbal tea.
About her loneliness.
About Usura being the first person—the only person—I’ve ever told how much I miss home.
Waiting for Corcora to step out of a kallakress, I knew where my grief was leading me, and I didn’t want to go there. The flower opened, and he wiped pollen from his eyes. “We’re almost through,” he said.
“Are we?” I took off faster than I meant to, the grip in my chest tightening. Past the pentagon-shaped leaves and over vines I walked, Corcora at my heels, but it didn’t lessen. It wouldn’t. I knew it wouldn’t.
“I noticed her cough long before either of us said anything about it.” My voice was barely above a whisper. “How could I not? It echoed through the Archives even when she’d try to stifle it. It lingered. And finally I asked her about it. And she told me it was nothing.”
I didn’t wait, stepping into the center of the bloom, willing it to close around me. Squeezing my eyes tight, I didn’t notice the dark, just the petals gently on my back, the floral scent less strong after hours in the Field.
It let me go too soon.
Walking up to a nearby blossom, I had no words, no phrase to utter about this memory.
“Let us take this with us, Maris,” Corcora said behind me, “but share our burdens with others in a way that Usura often did not.”
I nodded, stepping in, then stepping out.
“Usura asked me to help her bring some baskets up from her basement. She wasn’t strong enough, was getting winded so easily. I didn’t even know she was sick until then.” Corcora’s voice strained with the words. “She asked if I’d be willing to help her with things like that from time to time, just until she got better.”
He disappeared into the orange petals, came out with more yellow. “Let us take her hope with us.”
The edge of the Field was in sight now, gray cliffs leading up to the egg-blue sky. We were almost done, but I knew we would never be.
“Usura wasn’t at work one morning,” I began, slow and measured. “No one had heard from her, and on my lunch break, I went to check on her. I… she was still sleeping. I could hardly wake her.”
No one knew this except the doctors. Who would I have told, except my friend, except Usura?
“I called the medics and went with her to the hospital. She told me to go back to the Archives, that she’d be fine. I did. But I shouldn’t have.”
I moved to step into a nearby flower, but Corcora put his hand on my shoulder, smearing the pollen.
And he waited.
“I went back to the Archives, like she told me,” I confessed. “But when I went to see her that evening, she was asleep. And the next day. And the next one. And then she was gone.” My eyes blurred then, mixing with the sweat and pollen on my face. “I held her hand when I was there, and sometimes she would squeeze it. I talked to her, but it wasn’t the same. What could I say to her when she couldn’t respond? Usura would always respond.”
The breeze rustled the kallakress, a song in the Fields of Mourning.
“I was there when her breathing got harder. Impossibly labored. The doctors gave her what they could, but it didn’t help. And then… and then her body was just too tired. It couldn’t keep going. And her hand lay limp in my hand.”
Corcora let go of my shoulder then, knowing it was time. My steps were so heavy, taking me to the flower, and when the kallakress closed around me, I let out the sobs—the ones that had spilled out as Usura’s hand became cool to the touch, the ones that escaped unexpectedly from time to time in the couple months since then.
I sobbed in the darkness, arms wrapped tight around my chest as the petals lay over me, and when they opened, I stepped out, letting one more sob go.
With no other words, I stepped into the nearest flower, let it close and then open in silence.
What are we to do without you?
Corcora embraced me, held me for a few moments, then took me by the hand and led me out. Emerging from between the last two flowers, we reached the edge of the Field and were greeted by attendants with warm water and towels.
“May the harvest be plentiful, a small comfort in your loss,” one of them said, stepping forward.
“Let feasting join our emptiness, as we hold both loss and life inside us,” Corcora said, tears still carving tiny riverbeds down his sun-yellow cheeks.
The attendant began helping us rinse ourselves free from the pollen that covered every part of us, yellow spores from each of the flowers we’d touched, from each of the memories we had of Usura.
“Yes,” I replied, letting an attendant spray my golden hair. “Let our grief be fruitful, at least in this way.” The words, now, came from a place much deeper than ritual.
There would be a time for feasting in autumn, a time when we would enjoy the fruit that the kallakress would produce. Roasted grains, salted nuts, baked fish to feed everyone. And these fruits—fruits that would not be had we not loved our friend. We would sit around a table together, telling more stories with laughter and tears, thanksgiving and longing. Remembering and forging new memories.
But until then—and after, to be sure—we would feel the ache of the empty space that Usura had left. A space that could never really be filled.