Give Them Wine
by Mary Brunini McArdle
In the mid-22nd century, a mysterious apocalyptic event has destroyed the world as we know it. In the Mississippi delta country, survivors reorganize in isolated enclaves and live in primitive conditions with little knowledge of their own history.
Donas, a beautiful, bright, curious girl on the verge of womanhood, discovers that her community is hiding a terrible secret: drug-induced conformity. She flees, taking her younger brother Mak and sister Rani with her. They make their way south and find a new life with a new people. They find hope, love and maybe some trace of their own past that might point the way to the future.
Katera directed a serving woman to pull the worn drapery across the light-holes in the dining room wall. Almost day’s end! In a few minutes the apple slices would be arranged on a tray for the children. Supper had been consumed and Katera had led the community in a thanksgiving. The trainers at the sides of the room (all females and all adults under thirty) were barking, “Silence! Keep your silence!”
Donas was in charge of five of the younger children; it was her task to put them to bed. Only two were of her blood and Katera was their natural mother.
She tried to control an involuntary shiver as the trainers again shouted, “Keep your silence!” The silence Donas was keeping was far more significant than refraining from talking in the dining room. She led her group to the trays and participated as each child took an apple section and put it in his or her mouth. Then Donas guided the children to the staircase leading to the second floor.
No one realized (or so she thought) that as Donas’ group rounded the corner, the three in the rear removed the apple slices and tucked them into a trash barrel. Mak and Rani were Donas’ younger brother and sister; they had listened to Donas’ dire warnings about what could happen if they were found out.
Everything had been so easy. The three girls in front were skipping ahead — they were so stupid! They never noticed what Donas and her brother and sister were doing with the apples. Mak and Rani were still young enough to sleep through the night without incident, leaving Donas free of worry about them. They were just beginning to understand that the only reason the rest of the children did the same was that they were drugged. Their sleep wasn’t normal. They would not awaken until the rising song.
More than once she had overheard adults talking and her curiosity had been aroused. What was an “initiation”? What were “wine and cakes”?
‘I’ve never seen any “wine and cakes” — are they some kind of food, like the apples?’ she had thought. ‘I wonder what would happen if I didn’t consume my apple section? I wonder what’s so important about them?’
One evening Donas followed her reckless impulse. She held the piece of apple in her mouth and pretended to chew, then threw the fruit away. Dark shadows shrouded the staircase and the adults’ attention was on each successive group of six.
There were no light-holes in the upstairs windows, which were covered with old pieces of peeling wood. After the retiring song, the five younger children fell asleep immediately. Donas lay with her eyes closed. Sleep evaded her.
She mustered the courage to open her eyes and look around. The blackness around her softened and dim outlines began to take shape. She could discern the forms of the children; Mak and Rani next to her, the other three in the large bed nearby.
Carefully Donas sat up. She went silently to the door and opened it a crack. Light and vague sounds were coming from the stairwell.
Donas scuttled back to bed, huddling under the covers and pondering until her weariness overtook her.
She awakened to the sound of trainers opening the upstairs bedroom doors. Mak and Rani bounced quickly out of bed; Lucee climbed out slowly, grumbling as her bare feet met the floor.
“Cherin,” Donas said, shaking her. “You must get up. Come on. You know I’ve got to help Thea.” This was an everlasting part of the morning routine.
“Thea, here... here are your clothes. Hold your arms up for me. Cherin, comb Rani’s hair. Lucee, you can do your own.”
Once four-year old Thea was dressed, her footwear tied firmly, and the others fully clothed, Donas led her group to breakfast. Then Donas’ group was sent outside with a trainer to garden. Near the door one of the mates loitered at his table, eyeing the women. He grinned at Donas as she passed. She ignored him but the back of her neck prickled. She felt uneasy about the mates. They seemed to do nothing but lie around and stare.
She let out a little yelp as she felt something grab her ankle. Whirling around, she slapped the mate’s outstretched hand. “Stop it!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Donas,” her trainer said angrily. “You’re delaying our work!”
Donas was already regretting what she had done. This was not the time to draw attention to herself.
Donas worked hard at her gardening, eager to drink in whatever was available in the way of knowledge. The children of the motele were taught pragmatic skills by the trainers — how the morning and afternoon tasks were carried out had something to do with whether a girl ended up a serving woman, a trainer, or a leader — the select few allowed to bear children. Boys became mates or outside men.
Once when Donas was twelve, she had childishly dared to inquire, “Trainer, why can’t we use the space beyond the gate to plant seeds? Then we could grow more food.”
“Plant seeds where you are told to plant seeds, Donas. It is not your place to ask questions.”
‘I don’t care what my tasks prepare me for’, Donas thought resentfully, as she seated the rest of her group. ‘I don’t want to be a leader, or a trainer, or a serving woman. I’d rather find answers, learn about things.’
The entire afternoon after Donas’ first natural sleep of her life was spent outdoors. The air was mild; Donas realized there were changes in the weather, but had no idea why or how those changes occurred. There had been a little frozen precipitation earlier and the mild temperature would probably be of short duration. Eventually the weather would remain mild with a great deal of rain, then turn sunny and hot. White puffy things would float overhead in the blue.
She repeated her performance of the previous evening and slipped her apple into the trash barrel. This time when darkness came, she didn’t stop at looking through the crack in her door, but crept to the top of the stairwell. She could hear the murmur of voices from below; above, all the bedroom doors were closed.
To her surprise there was another stairwell at the end of the hall. Maneuvering quietly down the steps she found an entrance. She turned the knob and peered into the dark kitchen. No one was there, nor were there any sticks with fire at the tips, like those used at the retiring song.
‘Why didn’t I notice this entrance before?’ she wondered. ‘I’ve worked in the kitchen often. Oh! There’s no knob on this side of the door — that’s why.’
Hearing a faint noise from the dining room, Donas leapt back up the stairs like a startled animal. She climbed back into the bed with her brother and sister, Mak with his arm flung out by his side, one hand entangled in Rani’s dark blonde hair. They were sleeping soundly.
Knowing it was important to appear normal in the morning, Donas lay still and tried to invite sleep. ‘I’ve been awake twice and I haven’t been caught’, she consoled herself. ‘Tomorrow night I’m going outside.’
* * *
It was simple for Donas to continue her new routine and to leave the kitchen by the outdoor entrance. She had seen Ter emptying trash barrels there when she was gardening. Ter was an outside man and Donas’ favorite of the adults at the motele. There was something in his eyes that tugged at her, but she couldn’t express exactly what. “Good” or “bad” were the words she normally would have used to describe such things.
Later Donas was to chastise herself for never once thinking someone could have found discarded apple sections in the trash.
It was almost as dark beyond the kitchen entrance as it was inside. When she looked up, the blue was black. She gasped in amazement. There were dots of fire scattered all across it! She blinked and looked again, craning her neck.
‘Where is the sun?’ she thought. ‘Where?’
When Donas returned to her bed, she was shivering with excitement. It was difficult to force sleep when there was so much to think about. Especially the fires in the blue-black? ‘What are they?’ she wondered. ‘They flicker like fire sticks but they’re much, much brighter. And so many of them! More than all the people in the motele. More than all the plants and shrubs and blades of grass in the garden! They’re so pretty — the prettiest things I’ve ever seen.’
Copyright © 2011 by Mary Brunini McArdle