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.
The day following the excursion to the market the three young refugees did not decline the offer of breakfast. Donas remarked that the tea tasted wonderful, while Mak and Rani happily stuffed themselves. Donas insisted Mak have a bath that afternoon.
“I want to work with Lionel in the stables. All day,” Mak protested.
“Only the morning. And only if you have a bath after the midday meal. You need to learn the new way of bathing. And to tell the truth, Mak, Rani and I don’t want you sleeping in our room without learning it. You smell bad.”
Lionel laughed as Mak made a face at his sister. “You’d better do as she says. You can help tomorrow too, you know.”
Donas gave Mak instructions later and left him to bathe himself. “I want you clean. Come show me and then you can go back with Lionel for a while before supper.”
She was in their room plaiting Rani’s hair toward day’s end when Mak, having passed inspection and returned happily to his “work,” opened the door. “Lionel says there will be a Storytelling tonight!” The eight-year-old was bursting with excitement.
“Where?” Rani asked.
“There’ll be lots of people. Lionel says it will be outside, on one of the hills.”
There were protected hills away from the City proper, but within the walls. The hills were used for various purposes: by couples for private conversation, by families for picnics, by children for romping and gathering wildflowers.
“It’ll be after supper,” Mak went on. “Can we go, Donas?”
“I’d like to hear more about it.”
When Lionel’s family gathered for the evening meal, Donas ventured a question. “Mak tells me there will be a ‘Storytelling’ tonight. Do these take place often?”
“Periodically.” Barrett took a sip of tea. “Whenever the Storytellers think it’s a good time.”
“It’s fun, Donas,” Lionel added, his eyes bright with enthusiasm. “We make a fire on one of the hills, and almost everybody comes, practically the whole community.”
“A Storytelling, after supper, for the whole community...” Donas’s voice trailed off. She thought of the hated, familiar words: “The roses remained in their places. The roses never asked questions...”
“What’s the matter, Donas?” Rani asked. “You look—”
“Nervous,” Lionel finished. “What’s wrong? This is the first time we’ve had a Storytelling since you’ve been here. You’ll like it.”
“Is everyone obliged to attend?” Donas said.
“Of course not. We go if we want to. But there’s usually a large crowd.”
“Oh.” Donas felt somewhat reassured. A community listening to a story after supper resurrected strong and unpleasant memories. How could she discard those memories after listening to The Rose year after year? However, if one could choose whether or not to attend...
“We’d better hurry,” Barrett said. “We need to find a good place so that we can see and hear everything.”
It was barely twilight when the family and its guests climbed the chosen hill; pale stars glinted on the horizon, partly obscured by the huge fire and its accompanying smoke. People were seated on the grass, some with mugs of tea.
“It’s hot with the fire, but Lionel says it’s needed to keep the nibblers away,” Mak stated.
‘Lionel says, Lionel says,’ Donas thought. ‘Mak is becoming foolish where Lionel is concerned. I will not be able to command obedience is this keeps on...’ She broke off, realizing the direction her mind was taking her. ‘What am I doing? Trying to be another Katera? But I desire obedience to protect Mak and Rani, not to control them. They are children. What if I discover danger here and Mak will no longer listen to me?’
Lionel slapped at his arm in exasperation. “Those fliers, the fire should be getting rid of them.”
“Fliers?” Donas saw as soon as she opened her mouth that he meant what she and Mak and Rani had been calling “nibblers.” “Is that the name for those things?”
“Yes, it is.”
“’Fliers’ is our name for much larger winged animals that sing and come in many colors,” Donas said.
“I think you mean ‘birds,’ Donas. It’s just another word; I understand what you’re talking about.”
“Good evening, Lionel, and to the house of Sebastian. And greetings to you, Donas. May I sit with you? My mother is not feeling well.” Nakoma sat down next to Lionel, obviously certain of her welcome.
“Of course, Nakoma. There’s plenty of room,” Barrett said graciously. “I must inquire about your mother; I hope it isn’t one of her bad headaches.”
“Yes. She always has more of them in the summer.”
Nakoma casually linked arms with Lionel. He smiled at her, but turned his attention immediately back to Donas, who was seated to his right. He reached out and clasped her hand in his.
The murmur of voices ceased and the crowd became silent as a tall man appeared and positioned himself in front of the fire. He was naked from the waist up, his chest already glistening with perspiration. He had grooves in his face and gray hair. Donas felt drawn to him because his skin was dark, like Ter’s.
“I wonder what the story will be tonight,” Barrett said. “It’s always a surprise.”
“My friends,” the tall man began, “let us hear the story I will tell this night. It happened long ago, in a make-believe place called ‘Eng Land.’ There were two men, the one dark and the other fair, and they were close companions.”
Sewella put her hand over her lips to suppress a squeal of delight, while Barrett touched Sebastian’s cheek and smiled proudly.
“These two men studied under the same Teachers, but were different as night and day. The dark one was a thinker, always wishing to reason and discuss. But the fair one had a lofty soul. Often they would argue, but never in a mean spirit. Once the dark man challenged the fair man about a legend. The dark man insisted the legend made no sense, if one thought about it with reason. But the fair man — and his name was ‘Sebastian’—”
At this the crowd applauded and Sebastian rose and made a little bow.
“This is my father’s story,” Lionel whispered to Donas.
“Sebastian queried the dark man in this manner: ‘And why must a legend make sense? Why cannot it be believed simply for itself, because it is wondrous? Why could there not have been a royal infant born in a stable and watched over by winged beings? And why not a great Star to shed its light on them all?’
“So goes the story of Sebastian, and who can say which man was the winner of the argument? There is something to be said for logic, but there is more to be said for sweetness of soul. That is one of the foundations for our stories and our names. So goes the story of Sebastian.”
* * *
The next day Lionel stopped Donas on the way to supper. “Donas, this afternoon’s thunderstorm has cooled the air. When I finish helping bed down the horses, it will still be light. Would you like to go to one of the hills with me? We could talk.”
Donas’s heartbeat quickened. “Yes, I’d like to.”
The air was scented with damp grass and the sunset partially distorted by clouds when the young couple climbed their hill. They seated themselves at the top. They could see the City below. Lionel pointed out his house.
“Lionel, I’m curious about so many things, but I don’t wish to be rude,” Donas said.
“It’s all right to ask questions, Donas.”
“It wasn’t right where I came from. That was part of the ‘wrongness’. I think I’m beginning to understand what a ‘family’ is. A group of relatives who live and eat together?”
“That’s part of the meaning, Donas.”
“Well, I wondered... Are you and your sisters... Is Barrett your natural mother?”
“And Sebastian your natural father?”
“And they stay together? They... they do not exchange mates?”
“No. They stay together always because they love each other.”
“Is ‘love’ the feeling a woman has for a man?” Donas lowered her eyes, her face flushed.
“It is that, and more. They also love and care for their children. Donas, do you know who your mother was?”
“Yes, but we had little to do with her. Perhaps what I feel for Mak and Rani is love.”
Lionel thought for a moment. “That’s the kind of love a parent has for her children. Did you know who your father was?”
“It’s strange, but Sewella and I both noticed how little you resemble Mak and Rani. Is it possible you don’t share the same father?”
Donas looked at Lionel, surprised. “I don’t know, I never thought about it. I suppose it’s possible. But they are still of my blood, are they not?”
“Half-brother and sister, perhaps, and no less loved.” Lionel reached for Donas’s hand. “Come, it’s getting late.” As they started back down the hill, Lionel added, “There’s so much I want to show you, so much more than you have seen.”
“Sewella has shown the market and the building that is the Hall of the Storytellers, and Barrett let me watch her loom. We didn’t go into the Hall, though.”
“You won’t get to do that, Donas. It’s too important to allow visitors.”
Donas chewed her lower lip. ‘Does everything have its forbidden places? I wonder if I can eventually find a way inside? To see for myself...’
“I’d like to take you out from the City, too,” Lionel said.
“I do so want to see the plants that grow cloth!” Donas exclaimed, distracted for the moment from the mysterious two-story building.
“Donas, they don’t grow cloth, they grow the product from which we make cloth. Anyway, first you must learn to ride. Would you like that?”
“On a horse?”
“I can teach you. We’ll start tomorrow.”
Donas was entranced with the stable, drinking in the sweet fragrance of hay and horse dung. She had always been fond of the ponies at the motele. Lionel explained that there were three stables kept for the City’s inhabitants, each housing about twenty-five animals. A fourth stable was used for a small herd of cattle.
“Oh, Lionel, can I ride that one?” She pointed to a brown horse with two white feet.
“Not yet, Donas, not Windflower. She’s much too fast for you. We’ll try something gentler.” He went over to a gray mottled mare, shorter and stouter than Windflower. “Spottedway is a good horse to learn on. Once you are skilled... Well, come here and I’ll help you mount.”
Lionel’s horse was the same yellow with the cream mane and tail Donas had seen before. The young man from the south guided Donas to a sloping field within the City walls. Donas’s legs rubbed with a strange sensation, even though they were covered by her pajamas.
Lionel made her walk her mount up and down several times. When he saw that she remained firmly seated, he let her try a faster pace. Then he allowed her a little freedom. She felt wonderful. ‘I love this,’ she thought. ‘It won’t be long before I’m riding Windflower!’
Donas was doing fine until she failed to control her mount in a sharp turn while still on an incline. It was hot, and the mare was slick with sweat. Spottedway went in one direction, while Donas slid off the other side and found herself suddenly seated upright in the grass.
Her expression of surprise and dismay caused Lionel to burst out laughing. “I’m sorry,” he gasped, dismounting and running over to her. “Are you all right?”
“You might have asked me that before you laughed, Lionel of Sebastian!”
* * *
Donas’s adeptness at riding progressed at a rapid pace. She couldn’t have said what was more enticing: the riding itself or the time spent with Lionel. When the day came that he permitted her access to Windflower, Donas was ecstatic. They spent entire evenings on the hills, sometimes riding, sometimes talking, sometimes sitting together quietly dreaming.
Occasionally they would see Nakoma on her horse, a black stallion with a splash of white on his forehead. She was free from the market in the afternoons. She stopped often to talk, Lionel maintaining a friendly but distant attitude. Once he complained about her frequent intrusions.
“She is only being gracious, Lionel,” Donas objected.
“Sometimes you’re too patient, Donas. Too accommodating. I want to spend time with you.”
Donas twirled a clover blossom in her hands, idly picking the petals off one by one. Deciding to change the subject, she said, “What is the story behind your name?”
“I was named for a speaker, a man who was many men and who said whatever was on his mind.”
Donas’s mouth twitched, and Lionel, guessing the reason, chuckled. “I suppose it fits; I’m not known for thinking things out before speaking. My mother was named for a woman who scribed a beautiful love song.”
At this, Donas frowned. “Children are like beautiful roses...” The phrase came unbidden into her mind.
“What is it? What did I say that bothers you?”
“That word ‘beautiful’. I don’t like it.”
“Why? Did it mean something bad in the north?”
“Yes, it meant...” Donas paused, struggling for the right expression. “It meant ‘slavery’.”
“No!” Lionel looked shocked. “Someone there twisted the meaning. That’s not right — not right at all!”
“Then what does ‘beautiful’ mean?”
Lionel pointed to the cobalt-blue sky, where the night sun had begun its rising, the large accompanying star glittering underneath. “That’s beautiful, Donas.”
“And,” he gulped, “so are you.”
Donas stared at him. “Me?”
“Yes, like a star.”
She felt as though she were falling into his eyes, dark and intense as the dusky sky itself. He reached for her and pulled her close. She continued to stare as his mouth met hers, and Donas, experiencing her first kiss, saw the deepness of the sky and the brightness of the star flash in quick succession until it seemed she had swallowed the star and it burned within her like the Storytellers’ bonfires on the hills.
Copyright © 2011 by Mary Brunini McArdle