That she had not died yet. Not that anyone who had died this way before had been able to tell anyone else how long it took. So there was no one who could have told her how long it might take to become the stones that lay upon her body, how long to become one with that heaped mound of rocks upon the altar upon the hill not so far from the village where she had spent her life. But still, she was quite surprised that she had not died yet.
No one would return for a month. It was their way. Surely that would be long enough.
Her throat, the length of it from tongue to gut, felt painfully dry, as if she had been packed inside with sand. A heavy rock to the left of her throat pressed against the pulse point at her neck from which she could feel herself beating, reminding her that she was, oddly enough – still alive. It was cool underneath the stones. When, at one point, she soiled herself even the heat of her own urine against her legs, the insistent push of her bowels could not disgust her to herself because she was, quite clearly, still alive. She wondered why the body bothered.
Sometimes her body was hot. Then sometimes her body was cold. She realised it must have been the day, then it must have been the night.
And, one night, the snakes came.
First one, then another, gently moving across the sand, tracing soft lines towards the altar piled high with stones upon the hill. First there was one, then there were ten, then a hundred, then some myriad more. Snake and serpent, some small as fingerlings, some thick as a man’s arm, no matter their size they came. Moving as slowly as the dunes themselves, they climbed the rocks and stones and slithered up the altar mound, moving in over and in between the stones that had been carried by man and woman and child to cover her body. Starting at the top, then in no clear arrangement moving downwards, the snakes shifted the stones, first this way then that way, until first one and then another tumbled from its place on the pile. There was no sense of urgency, it would take a very long time to move all these stones, but eventually they were all moved. The small rocks brought by children fell with the sound of rain, the large rocks brought by men cracked like a rifle shots and slowly slowly slowly the snakes moved every stone until she lay open to the air and open to the sky.
She was careful not to disturb the snakes in their work, to lie still and simply listen to them, to feel them, the rasp of their bellies over stones, the shifting, the tumbling, the creaky grind of stone to snake, the percussive clatter as each rock tumbled down. When finally there was nothing, no rocks, no stones, nothing between her and the writhing, slithering, slippery, scaled bodies of the many hundreds of snakes, she released a long and gentle sigh, somewhere almost to a moan or a sob – long and bodily she moaned into the shroud of the sky.
Then she sat up and still atop the altar, looked around at the moonlit night.
To the west was her village where she had spent her life. One or two fires still burned, some animals shifted and stirred. It was quiet. There was only the murmur of many people sleeping and some people dreaming.
With stiff sore legs she walked slowly to the water pump where, on those special days when it was someone’s time to die, the village took its water. Then she pressed the handle down and up and down, to draw the liquid up and then she drank. And drank and drank until she could drink no more, then she washed her body of the stones and filth and cold and death and stood in the moon and the air until she was clean.
Then she started to walk east.
It was easier that way.