IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Joy in the Face of Danger
Sunday, August 2, 2708, continued
I forage in the canyon. Winter has reached here after all, more’s the pity. I push through dry and crackling foliage, falling even as I touch it, a few bitter, hardy evergreens holding on but offering me nothing digestible, though I might make a tea of the tips. And yet, over here, still lingering on their winter-reddened cane, the last jagged leaves still framing them, I find a single cluster of berries.
Soft. Most people wouldn’t eat them, but I have grown less particular. My hand pops them into my mouth before I even have time to think about what I do. Frost-kissed sweetness, maybe slightly fermented, but nothing I’d object to. Crunchy seeds. Flavor goes down riiiich…oh lord that’s good!
I forgot to save any for the children. I could at least slip a few to Kiril and Lufti, if I don’t find enough for all. I look around for more. Not another berry in sight.
* * *
(No storm lasts forever. By the time the sun begins to set, the thicker clouds have long since blown away to trouble other waters, leaving just enough aftermath to blush before us in apology. The first clear stars swing lightly overhead, and the children of the great waves that went before play gently with the boat, hastening it forward like a game, on towards the distant shores of Toulin. Don ends the game, for the moment, by tossing out sea-anchor, but I can almost feel him promise the waves that they can resume their sport first thing in the morning.
Weary but elated, I take my quiet moment alone before retiring, gazing out over the sea. Don and Jake know why I do this every Sunday, and give me my space. Jake knows what makes it difficult for me, too, but when did I ever let difficulties get in the way of anything important?
I bow my head, murmuring, “I just want to thank you Lord, for seeing this poor sinner safely through another storm. You know how unready I am to die, and you’ve shown me mercy once again, Lord, and so ever and always I give you my thanks.
“Now, you know more than anybody how not perfect I am, but once again I pledge you to do the best, in my limited mortal capacity, to set right whatever you send me to do in Toulin, and anything else you have in mind for me there. I won’t be able to handle it all by myself, and I’ll make plenty of mistakes along the way, all sorts of errors, as you have seen before and doubtless will see again, but I know that I can count on you to fill in the gaps, as you always do. I couldn’t manage it without you, Lord Jesus; I’m the first to admit it.
“And I don’t even know whether I’ll get my soul in shape for the final hour, whenever that might be, whatever that might mean, but that doesn’t matter—right now I’m your man, warts and all. You've never been one to waste time waiting for a perfect servant to come along. So thanks, from the heart, especially for that. Amen.”)
* * *
At nightfall Father Man conducts mass for us in what we have of a church so far, his tatters sewn up and laundered, a real stole for once flapping in the wind about him, green silk adorned, by the creative hand of our patroness, in grapevines and in wheat. He has bathed, his skin pink amid the baroque tangles of hair and beard. Streaks of fire from the fallen sun stream over the walls above his head, full into his face as though it glows, and candles twinkle sheltered at his feet, their flames rippling in every gust, the white wax puddling glossily.
I pay little heed to the incoherent stream of words, yet take comfort from it, too, as a child too young for speech takes comfort from a lullaby. Perhaps Father Man speaks a language too old for us: the language of those who have gone beyond.
After a decent interval Alysha lays a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine before the candles. As usual, he breaks off mid-sentence to regard them. But this time, instead of consecrating the host, he claps his paws wildly over his head, a grin splitting across his face.
On cue a donkey enters humbly into the not-yet-sacred ground, and on his back sways Kanarik, swathed all in richly-embroidered white; her veil flutters like moonlight over her face and all around her body, dancing in the drafts for her. Eyes widening, Damien lays aside the thambriy and rises to help her off, then halfway holds her up as they stand before the Priest.
"Do you both love God?" he asks them. "Do you both love Jesus together?"
They nod. He reaches to a crimson chainstitched border on the edge of Kanarik's veil, snaps it with his two remaining fingers, and draws the floss out, long, long, he circles around them with the unraveling silk and binds them to each other, muttering contentedly.
Then he leans into Kanarik's face and she tries bravely not to recoil from his breath. "Do you love this man enough to take him as your spouse, through war and plague and famine and death, through anything, through good times, too, parties and mast and babies and the distractions of fine things?"
"I do," she says.
"Then give him a ring." She brings out an embroidered little cirque of ribbon and slips it onto Damien's finger.
Now he turns to the groom. "Do you love this woman enough to take her as your spouse, through good and bad, ugly and beautiful, fat and skinny, through songs and silence, no matter what happens? Do you love her whether she can dance or not, do you love her whether you can provide or not? Do you love her when your pride hurts bad, and also when your pride's too big to see over?"
"Then give her a ring." Damien has woven one from a broken thambriy string, smoothed with a stone for hours, inside and out.
"Do you both love Jesus together?" he asks again, "As one?"
He stoops to snag the jug-handle in his finger, then pours wine over them: a pungent, red gush in the candlelight. Kanarik giggles and Damien grins as it splashes down on top of them, staining the veil and drenching their hair, but then Father Man solemnly intones, "May the blood of Christ cover you and protect you. May it wash away your sins. May it intoxicate you with love. May He die instead of you." He sets the jug down and says, "I now pronounce you Husband and Wife.”
We all shout for joy as they embrace in a kiss. They nearly trip from being bound together, then they untangle themselves from the red floss. Grinning again, Father raises the bread up in the air till we quiet and says, "Communion first! Nourish yourselves before the other celebration, come on all of you, up, up!"
Alysha interrupts, "You haven't consecrated it yet, Father."
"Oh. Oh yeah. Of course." He zips through all the proper words in order, but so quickly that only I can keep up with their sense—I thought nobody outside my friendclan could speak so fast. I'm sure God understands, though; this is one thing that Father Man never, ever scrambles up. We share communion among us rebel-style, passing around the jug and hunks of the Body of Christ, feeding each other in holy revelry.
When the revelry begins to get a little less than holy, Father Man shouts, "Out! Out! Out!" and chases us into the open spaces, where Deni and Hara have left jugs of a more profane nature outside for us. Kanarik shivers in her winesoaked wedding-gown, but Damien wraps her tenderly in a blanket, before mounting the donkey. Then Hara lifts her up into her husband’s arms, and the old folks escort them back on the long road to the warmth and comfort of their manor. We toast the departing couple with another cheer, then get serious about celebrating their union.
Rain to the roots of the desert-parched tree. Fresh, succulent fruit to the starving man's lips. A key left within reach of the prisoner's bars. Such is any occasion of joy in the camps of revolutionaries. The children sing and dance while Ambrette plays her flute like a mountain maenad, and the jugs circle 'round and 'round.
Malcolm and I try to stay relatively sober, since others will need our services in the morning. Tomorrow will be torture for Cyran and hir troop, I know that. But this should at least help them sleep tonight.