Illustration by Isa Condo-Olvera
Ba: whatever makes each person unique that is not physical: your humor, your worth, your charm, yourself, your soul.
I died today.
Everyone said death was only a temporary suspension, but I was unsure. I always wondered what dying would feel like. Death and I had danced throughout my life, competing to see who would lead. He robbed me of knowing my father when I was a child. He cursed me with solitude, snatching every friend and companion I ever had. He would taunt me with taking my own life. Death would circle around me, creeping closer and lingering. I can’t remember a time when my body didn’t ache in its struggle to dominate death. I pretended I was unafraid, but I wasted my seventeen years trapped in its dance. I can’t say I did much living.
I would watch the sun move through the sky every day, each day closer to when it would happen. While those around me would argue about whether the blistering rays of heat belonged to Sol or Ra, I did not care. I found it hard to understand why that violent orb in the sky had to be someone’s property.
I never fully believed in any of the gods. I loved hearing all the stories as a child, but I was always skeptical. This worried my mother. She feared my skepticism would anger the gods and unleash their wrath. I didn’t think they would care, even if they did exist,. It’s funny, my mother was so afraid of death. Maybe deep down she was unsure whether she was right about it all. That must have been terrifying. It’s much easier to just accept the uncertainty.
A man walks into the room where my body is held. I don’t recognize him, but I know he’s a priest. I don’t need any of these rituals, but my mother is probably comforted by them. I’m fine with whatever makes my mother feel better. Whatever makes life more bearable for the living.
The priest towers over my corpse and chants a prayer. He holds a golden blade in his hand with a carving of my ba. It’s beautiful, with wings along the handle and my name carved on the sheath. He removes the blade from the sheath, and plunges it into my abdomen. Dark red blood oozes from my stomach. I feel nothing.
The man is skilled, and he makes my corpse his canvas. Several men help him prepare my body, dancing their dance for the dead, carefully choreographed by the living.
I wonder if the dance will make a difference for my ba. I don’t really care though. I’m not all that invested in my soul.
I hope it makes my mother happy.
I died two months and twenty-one days ago.
The men spent many days and many nights carefully cutting my corpse and removing my organs. They poured white sand into my mouth, then sprinkled it around my body. The soft grains began to ease the smell of my slowly rotting flesh. My insides were placed in jars until only my heart remained in my body. The men sewed up their cuts and cleaned my bare skin. They began wrapping my body with a sheet of metal starting at the feet. Slowly and protectively, they wrapped every finger and every toe, preserving as much of my physical being as they could. When I was alive, I would’ve scoffed at how meticulously they cared for each corpse, but as they prepared my body, I was grateful for their death dance.
The final step was binding my arms for eternity. I had never heard of that step. Was I meant to be confined for my entire existence, in life and in death?
When I was on the verge of losing all hope, they covered my corpse with a shroud. My anxiety eased as I felt the warmth of my mother one last time. Although she wasn’t there, I knew she had painted my shroud with the face and body of the young girl I once was. With her delicate strokes, my mother had immortalized my youth and beauty. She’d adorned my shroud with gods and goddesses, meant to protect me in the afterlife. Even when she could not reach me, she did all she could to make sure I was safe. The stroke of her paintbrush on my shroud allowed me to feel the stroke of her fingers on my hair one last time. If only I could thank her for softening my soul. They placed my ba over the shroud.
That colorful little bird now freed my soul, allowing it to ascend.
As my ba soared, I lost sensation as I knew it. The freeing of my soul meant a final separation from the world of the living.
My mother’s warmth was replaced by my father’s. I had never expected I would be able to reunite with him. His love fills the pain of my mother’s absence. His soul saves me from solitude.
I can’t see the sun moving past the sky anymore, but I can feel how it changes the temperature of the soil. My grave is the only connection to the world I used to know.
I can hear my mother’s wails over my sarcophagus. Her screams pierce through the distance between the living and the dead. My father’s soul holds mine.
I died one thousand and six hundred years, two hundred and thirty-one days ago.
My mother was never buried with us in our family grave. I wonder what happened to her body. I hope it was taken care of. Every minute that passes, it pains me I couldn’t give her a proper burial. My soul flies, but her ba could be bound to her body still, perennially imprisoned.
Maybe I made a mistake. Maybe I should’ve continued dancing with death instead of surrendering to it. I should’ve cherished every minute with my mother and allowed that to be enough to keep me alive. I should’ve given my mother what she gave me.
It doesn’t matter what I should’ve done. I can’t change anything now.
In a moment, the soil around our grave shifts and sharply cools. I hear men speaking in a tongue I haven’t heard before, using words I can’t understand. It’s the first sound I’ve heard since my mother’s cries. A blade strikes my sarcophagus, and the thud startles me.
My ba begins to quiver and her flight becomes turbulent. Suddenly, I can’t feel my father’s warmth beside me anymore. The men’s voices get closer and closer to my soul, and they begin to laugh. Their laughter strikes my ba and she falls. I feel a sharp pain in my soul that makes me want to scream, but I’m condemned to eternal silence. I am trapped.
For the first time since my death, I feel bound to my body.
I think I died around a couple thousand years ago.
I’ve stopped counting. No one seems to care about my soul anymore.
Those men undid the priests’ dance for the dead, capitalized on my corpse, destroyed my mother’s work of love. I’ve gained life’s anxieties back, even though I can’t experience any of its wonders.
I haven’t felt the sun’s warmth for many years. I miss the way the sun would blind my eyes and wet my hair with sweat. I miss the way its streaks of light would slither effortlessly through the massive pillars of the pharaoh’s tombs. I miss the way it made my face burn and my heart pound in the middle of the day.
I reside in a city called London now. I’ve learned their tongue and listened to so many more. Listening to them helps sometimes. It distracts me from my imprisonment.
After “discovering” my family’s burial, one of the men opened my sarcophagus. He removed the lid and stared obliviously at my mother’s work of love for me. He studied the jars and touched every inch of my body. I couldn’t feel his fingers, but every glance, gawk, and stare made my soul grow colder. He was careful, at least, in the way one would be with an expensive antique. My corpse is just an object to him.
It started out being only the one man. Our grave brought him lots of fame. He was celebrated for my mother’s art on my sarcophagus. He was revered for “discovering” my corpse.
As more time has passed, more and more have glanced, and gawked, and stared.
Now I’m permanently on display for the world to see.
My ba is trapped in an eternal shiver.
Today, I decided to die.
The sun creeps in through the vast sands of the desert. Its rays are momentarily gentle, warming the air, embracing me, almost as if saying goodbye. The moment passes, and its intensity turns to stifling heat. I’m ready to depart.
I walk into my mother’s room. She looks so peaceful. I give her a kiss and whisper goodbye. I’m all she has left. She’s all I have left. I wish I could tell her it’ll be better for me once I’m gone. We’ll reunite when death takes her in a few years.
I walk out. I step out the door and grab a boulder. Its weight makes my arms shake as I raise it over my head.
I strike with as much force as I can muster.
My body collapses.
Isa Condo-Olvera (she/her) is a passionate Costa Rican actor, singer, and writer currently based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Born and raised in San Jose, Costa Rica to an Ecuadorian dad and a Mexican mom, Isa was always intensely fascinated with storytelling. Her poetry has been published in Fruit Journal and Mixed Mag, and she is currently in the process of developing her first play, a verbatim piece titled “¿love?”, first performed this February at UMN Guthrie’s Free Play Festival.