The twins are burning dolls.
The dolls are made with straw and twigs, their arms and legs twisted into shape with twine. They have no heads, hands or feet, and when they are standing they come up to my waist. Each one has a heart at its centre: a shiny red apple, or an apricot, a piece of meat, or even a small pumpkin. The fruits of our harvests.
We always make the straw-and-twig dolls in late October, to honor the god. As acolytes, we find the sticks, and the elders of the faith full give the dolls a shape. We’re supposed to leave them outside the temple to rot back into the earth, but this year Father Nerve has told us to burn them on a huge bonfire. It seems the god wants to inhale this harvest, not compost it.
“Smells like apple pie,” says Roland, the eldest twin, the funnier twin, twitching his nose like a rabbit.
Regis, the younger twin, the more serious twin, hugs a straw-and-twig doll to his chest as if it’s a small child. There’s a stripe of black ash on his cheek, another above his eyebrow. “What prayer do we say?” he asks uncertainly. “Did Father Nerve tell you, Ennaline?”
I shake my head. Father Nerve only said they had to burn, nothing more. Normally we could ask him for advice, but right now Father Nerve is at a meeting of the faith full some fifty miles north. We won’t see him again for another three days, maybe longer.
“He’d have told us if we needed a prayer,” says Ro, confidently, his eyes on the burning dolls. “Be cool, Ray.”
“We can pray if you like,” I offer. I feel suddenly distracted. A matted knot of frayed, beige twine lies near the fire–a piece fallen from the dolls. I kick it into the flames.
An apple explodes in the chest of a doll, spitting white flesh onto the grass. I take a step back. Ray looks at his brother as if the explosion is his fault–which, to be honest, it might be. Ro has recently become interested in fireworks, particularly cherry bombs. They don’t sell them any more for safety reasons, but that doesn’t mean Ro won’t try to recreate one.
“Not me,” says Ro quickly.
Ray looks doubtful.
“Really! I wouldn’t disrespect the god.”
“Maybe it’s a sign,” I say.
The twins look at me as one boy. The twins are close, as close as identical twins can be, I suppose, but they rarely do anything at the same time. When they do it feels (at least to me) as if the world has suddenly come into sync.
“Maybe the god is grateful,” I say.
Wind sucks a funnel of black smoke upward out of the bonfire, a miniature tornado. Ray immediately drops to his knees and presses his forehead against the earth, a gesture of supplication, of deference to the god. Ro doesn’t move, but stands stricken and silent until the smoke dissipates.
I cast my eyes to the ground and take a deep breath. I feel… I feel the god, just for a second, his presence in the air around us.
Or maybe it’s smoke playing tricks on me.
“We should go inside,” I say.