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.
Donas began to tremble, partly from shock and partly from the strength of her new feelings. She was unable to move away from the stranger’s comforting arms. It was Rani who finally caught her sister’s attention.
Donas looked up at Rani’s red, swollen eyes and terrified face. The older girl struggled to her feet and went over to the cart. She reached up and lifted her little sister from it, smoothing her damp hair back from her forehead.
“You puzzle me,” the strange male said. “Why is a young woman out here alone with two children? We do not allow ours to venture so far from the City unaccompanied.”
“We come from the north, from a place of wrongness. We had no one to accompany us, because we fled in secret.” Donas continued to stroke Rani’s hair.
“What is a ‘city’?” asked Mak.
“Everyone knows that — it’s homes with a wall all around to protect one from enemies and wild animals.”
Mak wrinkled his forehead.
“What is your name?” his elder sister ventured. “I am Donas.”
The stranger laughed. “What kind of a name is that?”
“‘Donas’ is a perfectly fine name,” Mak said. He climbed back into the cart, glaring.
“Please forgive me. I’m often told I’m too brash. I am Lionel of Sebastian. You will find shelter with my people, and friendship, if you mean us no harm.”
Rani tugged at Donas. “He talks funny.”
“Hush. He probably thinks we talk funny.”
“I think you talk quaintly.”
Donas was curious. “I don’t know that word. Does it have something to do with wrongness?”
Lionel looked perplexed for a moment, then shrugged. “It’s nearly sundown. Why don’t we tie your cart to my horse and I’ll guide you home. You can stay with me and my family.”
The trio looked at him blankly. Finally Mak said, ‘What’s a ‘horse’?”
“What’s a ‘family’?” Rani chimed in.
Lionel stared at them. “I guess I really stumbled into something,” he muttered.
“Please,” Donas said. “We don’t understand some of your language. What is it you want us to do?”
“Never mind. I’ll do it.” Lionel squatted and removed the tether from the pony’s open mouth. After tying the reins to his, he straddled his mount, dug in his heels, and started off. Donas noticed there were two long sticks with pointed ends tied to either side of the yellow horse.
“Hold on,” he warned. “It’s going to be a rough ride.”
The cart rattled and bumped behind the large animal. Nibblers appeared and began to bother the children. Once Rani whispered, “Donas, is he one of the south peoples?”
“Keep still. Perhaps he is, but we don’t know yet, and I want you both quiet from now on.”
Donas was badly confused. Already there were communication problems with the stranger. She knew nothing about him — what if he was already a mate? But that conflicted with her idea of the south peoples and her instincts, which drew her to him in some mysterious and wonderful way.
She found herself thinking about his body. His thighs were muscular, his shoulders broad. She tried to picture him without his clothing. ‘Perhaps he has developed further than a boy child,’ she mused, ‘just as I am now so different from Rani.’
And what about mating? The strange male did not make the back of Donas’s neck prickle as had the mates’ rude stares. Donas’s only observations of sexual acts had been of flyers and ratters, which fought fiercely before, and then the ratter females screamed in pain.
* * *
The first pale stars were making their appearance when Donas was distracted by a yellowish glow ahead. “Look,” Lionel called. “The City!”
There was complete silence on the part of Rani and the recalcitrant Mak as the outline of the ‘City’ took shape. It was like dozens of small moteles behind a heavily constructed border, with fire-sticks reflecting against the dusky sky.
Then a gate opened, and an adult male raised a hand in a greeting. He was shorter than Lionel, and had an odd bald spot right in the middle of his head, with tufts of sandy hair all around.
“Lionel! Are you safe? Are you with friends?”
“I don’t think these children are any threat to us,” Lionel replied. “On the other hand, they may need our help.”
Donas bristled inwardly. She desperately wanted help — if these were really the south peoples, but she resented being labeled a child along with Mak and Rani.
“Who is this male?” Donas said loudly to her escort.
“My father. Sebastian.”
Donas gulped. She knew what a natural father was — a mate — and the connotation there was not pleasant.
Lionel and the other male led the cart down a stone pathway running behind the tiny ‘moteles’. At last the group reached its destination, and the cart and animal were taken away as Lionel opened the entrance to one of the buildings.
A smiling adult female stood inside. She seemed surprised that he and Sebastian were not alone. “Lionel, your guests?”
Donas was acutely conscious of her appearance, wanting somehow for this female to think well of her. It had been hard enough to keep neat and clean at the motele, but travel was a hurdle, especially since girls Donas’s age wore pajamas fashioned of the off-white material from the dining room. Even though she had bathed that morning, she knew there were spots of grime and blood on her clothing. Mak and Rani were red from the heat, their dark blonde hair damp and stringy.
Donas was too busy with her thoughts to notice Lionel’s frequent covert stares. How could this fifteen-year-old girl possibly know how very lovely she was? The light clothing, soiled though it was, only accentuated her olive skin and chestnut curls. Everything about Katera’s dark coloring had been softened a shade in her elder daughter. And in Donas’s stance there was not arrogance, but grace; in the planes of her face there was not ruthlessness, but calm intelligence. Her brown eyes shone with an innocence long lost by her mother.
“We come from a place of wrongness.” Donas repeated her rote explanation, the only means she knew to convey the truth. “I heard there were different peoples in the south, so I took my brother and sister and ran away.”
“Are you a trainer?” Rani found her courage and her voice simultaneously.
“This is my mother, Barrett,” Lionel said. “And this is our home.”
“You live with your mother?” Mak gasped.
The adult female spoke again. “Where is this place of wrongness — in the delta country?”
The trio looked at each other, confused by the word “delta.”
Barrett added kindly, “You speak of wrongness. Who was your leader?”
“Oh,” Barrett nodded. “Then you do need sanctuary.”
“Katera is—” Mak began and winced as Donas stepped on his foot, realizing he was about to reveal the three were Katera’s children.
“And you journeyed here alone?” Barrett asked.
“Amazing. Lionel, call your sisters and have them prepare a room for your guests.”
“We’ll need some clean cloth,” Lionel said. “Donas’s hands are hurt.” He turned and left the room.
“That is your name — Donas?”
“Yes, and my brother is Mak and my younger sister Rani.”
“I’ll take care of your hands,” Barrett said. “Come over here and sit down.”
When she had finished, Lionel returned with two young females. Donas saw that they were nearly as tall as he, and bore a strong resemblance to Barrett. All three of the females were fair, with light gray eyes; most interesting was the arrangement of the females’ hair. The mother and one of the sisters had woven pieces coiled high on top of the head; the other sister had a single woven piece trailing a few inches down her back.
Donas began to feel disoriented, unable to break down any more of the unfamiliar surroundings into concrete components. There was an overall difference, of softness and color — everything in the room seemed to blend together.
Donas didn’t realize she was reacting not merely to an alien environment, but from all she had been through — more discovery, tension, and danger in the past few months than most adults experienced in a decade, and a journey considered impossible by the people of her time.
She wiped the perspiration from her face with the back of her bandaged hand and clutched her seed bags close to her body. “This is Alfreda,” Barrett said, as the sister with the coils on her head nodded and smiled, “and Sewella,” addressing the one with the tail down her back. Donas noticed that Alfreda’s middle was rounded with the signs of pregnancy.
“Why don’t we use the room you two shared with Lionel when you were small?” Barrett suggested. “It has three beds; exactly what we need.”
“Of course.” The female called “Sewella” motioned to Donas and her brother and sister. “Come with me and I’ll show you your room.”
Mak and Rani questioned Donas with their eyes. When she nodded, the two little ones linked hands and followed, Donas just behind. The three mutely trailed the young female as she led them to another room on the same level. There were three small beds and square openings in the walls with plant material covering them, instead of the round light-holes common at the motele.
Mak and Rani delightedly began bouncing on the beds as soon as the refugees were left alone; Donas sat down, still holding her seed bags.
“Donas!” Rani exclaimed. “Look how pretty!” She fingered a coverlet, which was a pale violet. Not noticing Donas’s silence, Rani prattled on. “And did you see their clothes, Donas? They’re pretty too.”
Donas straightened her shoulders. She glanced at the dull garments Mak and Rani were wearing, so old and faded whatever pattern there once had been was indistinguishable. ‘That’s what’s so different,’ Donas thought, ‘the colors. And none of the females here wear pajamas — they have on flowing things without legs. And the cloth is newer — reddish violets or lavenders or purples or yellows or pure white.’
“Mak, Rani, hear me.”
Rani turned expectantly to her elder sister, while Mak proceeded to jump from one bed to another. He was getting wilder by the minute.
“You must listen to what I say. We have to be careful.”
“Why? We got here, didn’t we?”
“But we know nothing of these people yet.”
“I think they’re good,” Rani said placidly.
“They seem kind,” Donas reiterated, “but we don’t know.”
“Then how are we going to?” Rani asked, with unfailing logic.
“I will watch and you will listen to me.”
There was a knock on the door. “It’s Lionel.”
“I’m getting ready to feed the horses and I thought Mak might like to come with me.”
Donas sighed. “Go ahead, Mak.” ‘I can think better with him out of the room anyway,’ she added to herself.
“Are ‘horses’ the same thing as ponies, Donas?” Rani asked.
“I think so — yes.” Donas paused and looked around the room. “Rani, help me put these clothes under the bed, and perhaps the bags with the extra food on that table over there. Oh! I forgot to get the water jugs off the cart!”
“When Mak comes back, we could get him to ask Lionel for them, couldn’t we, Donas?”
“I suppose so. Do you think those containers are for washing? Let’s wash our hands and faces.”
Rani pointed, her hands dripping water. “There are personal containers under the beds, too, Donas.”
Before Donas could answer there was another knock. This time it was Alfreda. “Supper’s ready,” she announced.
Donas grabbed a seed bag and followed the older girl, who took them a good little way to a dining room. Barrett and the others — Lionel, his father, Mak, and Sewella — were already seated. Delicious odors filled the air.
“You are welcome to share our evening meal,” Barrett began.
“We have our own food with us,” Donas replied.
“But, Donas—” Rani protested, her nostrils filling with the wonderful smells, her mouth watering. Mak was already reaching for one of the large bowls on the table.
“Truly, we thank you, but we have our own food,” Donas insisted. Mak and Rani were crestfallen as they watched the south peoples consume the hot food, the young visitors obliged to satisfy themselves with nutsedge bread.
Lionel started to object, but his mother shook her head. “Don’t make your guests uncomfortable, Lionel,” she murmured.
She continued aloud, “Lionel’s father Sebastian and I have been talking. We would like you to stay with us. Are you content with your room?”
“Oh, yes.” Donas said. “We were wondering...” She hesitated.
“It’s pretty,” Rani interrupted. “Can we really sleep in those pretty covers?”
Donas could tell Barrett was trying to suppress a smile at this. “Of course you may. That’s what they are for. Now, what is it you wished to ask, Donas?”
“We forgot our water jugs. They’re still on the cart.”
“Lionel will get them for you. You are wise not to waste drinking water,” Barrett said approvingly.
“And also, the personal containers. At the motele — where we lived — the serving women took care of them. Do you have serving women here?”
Barrett replied, “No, here everyone has special tasks. Some are Horsemen, like Lionel and his father. Some are Cleaners — the women empty the personal containers twice a day and the men bury the contents. I am a Weaver. Sewella has decided to be a Seamstress.”
“But — who decides who is going to be what?” Donas asked, puzzled.
“We decide ourselves. If a child is completely unsuited to his desired task, an adult woman will help him choose another. But we try to accommodate each child’s wishes, encouraging in particular those places that need to be filled.”
“Do you have trainers?” Rani wanted to know.
“What is a ‘trainer’?” Barrett inquired.
“Trainers raise children as soon as they are weaned, at about six months,” Donas explained. “Then new trainers teach tasks to the children when they are old enough. We weren’t allowed to do some things, but we could prepare food and garden and sew. All twelve-year-old girls were put in charge of five younger children to take them to meals and tasks and to help them to bed.”
“Except we couldn’t talk,” Mak added. “Even though we were always six together.”
“Unless we were in the bathing room or getting dressed,” Rani put in.
“You couldn’t talk at meals, as we are doing now, or at work?” Lionel seemed astonished.
“No,” Donas said flatly.
“Why? How could you learn anything without asking your adult supervisors or your companions?”
“Perhaps our trainers thought we wouldn’t perform our tasks well if we were distracted,” Donas said hastily. She longed to add that the silence was part of the “wrongness,” but she was afraid to say too much.
“I’m surprised your community weaned its infants so young,” Alfreda commented. “We nurse ours much longer.”
“There was a special milk the babies were given,” Donas said. “I don’t know if anyone besides our people knew how to make it.” She paused, then added, the forgotten memory suddenly manifesting itself, “When I was little, the girl in charge of my group was good to me.”
“What happened to her?” Lionel asked.
“She... well... she was... she became a trainer.” Donas flushed. She had nearly said the girl had been initiated.
Rani yawned heavily.
“It is fortunate we have no Storytelling tonight,” Barrett said. “Why not retire early? You children must be tired. You’ll have plenty of time to become accustomed to our ways.”
Donas glanced at Lionel, biting back the phrase that sprang unbidden to her mind: I am not a child.
‘Barrett is only being kind,’ Donas chided herself. ‘Don’t take offense at a word — only this morning in the forest you did not wish to grow up.’
She was tired when the three reached their room, hardly aware of Rani climbing into the undersized bed with her elder sister. Mak was perfectly happy to have a bed of his own. “Lionel,” he informed his sisters, “says that children over four have their own beds.”
This made little impression on Rani; she obviously had no intention of sleeping in a strange room in a strange country without the comfort of Donas’s closeness.
And Donas was too exhausted to care.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2011 by Mary Brunini McArdle