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.
It was exhilarating to be out riding with Lionel on a morning such as this. Donas thought it intriguing how well the inhabitants of the City managed their work and at the same time, were so relaxed about their schedules — especially during the hot. No one minded when she desired to ride, and Rani was content on those occasions to follow Sewella about. Mak was eager to assist in the stable with whoever was there.
“Tell me more about the river, Lionel,” Donas said, as they walked their horses along.
“You mean the great river to the west?”
“Yes — I think so.”
“It’s indescribable, Donas.”
“Well — you’d have to see it for yourself. But it’s two days’ journey from here.”
“That’s not far. I could go there — on Windflower.”
“No. It’s too dangerous. We would never allow our women to go unaccompanied on a journey of that length.”
Donas looked at him, challenging him. Lionel flushed. “I suppose for the rest of my natural life, I must hear over and over about your travels from the north at the great age of fifteen.”
Donas laughed. “Be careful,” she warned, turning her mount toward one of her favorite hills. “Be careful, Lionel of Sebastian, that you know I can take care of myself!”
“Oh, can you?” Lionel nudged his cream and golden horse. Donas looked over her shoulder, still laughing as they raced up the hill, where Lionel caught up with her and pulled her off Windflower. They sat in the clover, Donas plucking blossoms and playfully scattering them in Lionel’s hair.
“How did you know about the river?” he asked.
“I overheard something once. About the river being closer a long time ago — before the earth split. But I didn’t understand — about the earth splitting, I mean.”
Lionel’s expression became serious. “We don’t talk about it much because we dislike dwelling on a terrible thing that happened in the past. We would rather use our strength to go about our tasks and take care of our people. But the Storytellers know something changed the land. It was more than just the earth splitting. It is said there were two suns in the sky for months before, and fires and upheavals. Even at night, the extra sun outshone the moon.”
“What is the ‘moon’?”
“The globe that waxes and wanes after the end of the day.”
“Oh — the ‘night sun’.”
“Then,” Lionel continued, “after the earth calmed, there was a long period of dark and cold.” He shrugged. “There’s no point pondering about it. Even the Storytellers can’t explain it.”
“I’d still like to see the river.”
“I suppose I could talk to my parents. We make occasional journeys there to collect salt and flint stone for our spears. If we have to go anyway, that would be your chance to see the river — before you get some foolish notion to go off on Windflower yourself. But we’ll need an escort of about twenty men.”
“What is so dangerous, Lionel? We came here.”
“You were fortunate. To the south and east are the Lonely People, as well as wild animals. It is not likely we would encounter them to the west, but—”
“Who are the ‘Lonely People’?”
“They wander in the woods alone or in bands. They are dirty and misshapen, and they will kill.”
Donas shuddered. “I remember we heard sounds in the forest at night when we were on our way here.”
“Animals. Large ones. It’s a good thing you didn’t come close to them, because you had no real protection against them.”
“Oh! What were you doing out from the City alone when you found us?”
“I was scouting for fresh water sources. Sometimes we don’t get enough rainfall. But I made certain I would be back before dark, and also, Donas — don’t forget — I was armed. Travel to the river involves even more dangers. The terrain is very rocky and unstable. There is little food and great risk of injury. It is even worse in the winter.”
“If Rani stayed with Barrett, do you think Sewella might go with us?”
“She would probably like that. Alfreda can’t, since she is carrying a child.”
Donas smiled. “She appears to be too happy about that to care about a journey. What about Nakoma?”
“Her mother needs her help in the market. There is no one else living in their family. Nakoma’s father was killed by the Lonely People long before she was born.”
“I didn’t realize that. I must visit her more often. She must need company, especially with no brothers or sisters. And I like having someone my own age to talk to. I didn’t — where we came from.”
“Rani goes over there every now and then. Nakoma’s mother always has a treat ready, when she’s not in bed.”
“I would hate to be ill so much. Lionel, I’m glad you mentioned Rani. Let’s go home for the midday meal. I want to spend the afternoon with her. Especially if we decide to make the journey. I need to placate her so she won’t fuss about being left behind. She won’t like both Sewella and me being gone at the same time.”
Not quite two weeks later, to Donas’ excitement, a group of twenty-three left the City at daybreak. A Horseman named Perce, a burly man with hair and beard the color of wild carrots, was designated the leader. Donas noticed that Sewella managed to maneuver to the front and engage him in conversation. She remained there for nearly the whole duration of the trip.
Sewella wore trousers similar to Lionel’s for riding, and both she and Donas had been given head coverings of lightweight material for sun protection. The material tied in the back beneath the girls’ hair.
Two of the men bore responsibility for the six extra horses that would carry back the salt and flint. Four large empty bags of reinforced cloth were draped over each horse’s back.
There was little sound as the procession made its way up the western bluffs, except for occasional snuffles from the horses and the click of their hooves against the rocky ground. Shallow gorges appeared at intervals; often rocks were dislodged and clattered down the slopes.
The men and two young women continued a steady climb for several hours. Up and down, higher and higher, until the sun was at its zenith. The landscape resembled the places where Rani and Donas had found overhangs for shelter, but was even steeper and more barren.
Once the journey was underway, most conversation ceased. It was hot; talking made everyone thirstier, and they had to stop and take drinks frequently as it was. Donas and Lionel were content to ride quietly side by side, smiling at each other — Lionel touching her arm to point out things of interest. He watched her carefully in case Windflower stumbled. Donas quickly realized how right Lionel had been about the danger of injury. At least each hour, there would be a close call, with one of the riders’ mounts slipping.
‘I’m glad Barrett made cowhide reinforcements for my knees and foot coverings too,’ Donas thought. ‘Even if it makes my clothing hotter.’
By mid-afternoon the air became hazy. The rocks and sparse vegetation became shadowed, although it was too early for sundown.
Donas heard an odd rumble coming from somewhere. It gradually became louder until it was a roar. “Lionel?” she said, suddenly alarmed.
“Control your mounts,” Perce shouted over the roar. “Control your mounts — there’s an eruption coming — and it’s going to be close!”
The horses were already rearing and snorting in fear. Donas gasped as she saw spurts of flame shooting up into the air a few yards to her left. A moment later she could feel the ground rocking. Then everything was quiet, except for the crackle and hissing of the fire.
The riders were engaged in calming their animals. Donas stroked Windflower’s neck, the nut-brown mare responding to the young woman’s touch. “What was that?” she asked Lionel. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
“The terrain here is very unsettled,” Lionel said. “We can’t predict them, but sometimes there are upheavals from deep inside the earth. The fire will burn for days.”
“Lionel! What if the upheaval had been right under us?”
“Well, I told you the way to the river was dangerous.”
“You didn’t tell me about this.”
“I guess I forgot to mention it.”
“Does it happen often?”
“Oh, no. Rarely.”
“Lionel, I just had a frightening thought. Do you suppose it is like before? Is the earth going to split again?”
“Our Storytellers are convinced that these are minor events compared to what happened before. They only take place in this area, never near the City.”
“Nothing like this occurred in the north, either.”
Donas’s heart had been racing, but she gradually began to relax. She was soon distracted by other marvels. As the party descended into the gorges and ravines, she saw numerous cracks in the earth. Lionel would point to the left or right and show her how steam was rising like gray smoke.
At dusk the group ceased climbing. Their campsite seemed even bleaker as the light faded.
They slept in little batches of twos or threes or fours. Lionel and Donas spent the night together, hands touching whenever she stirred. The only sounds were of the horses or of distant howls — nothing close enough to warrant fear.
The second day was much like the first, except the party progressed downward. The heat was intense, especially with the lack of shade, but the men and women were so accustomed to outdoor work they were all conditioned. Still, they were grimy with sweat and residue from the hazy air.
Finally, in the lateness of the second day, Donas saw a great shining ahead. It seemed to have no end, either to south or north, or before her or beyond her. “Lionel?” she said, awestruck.
“Yes, Donas, that is the river.”
He took her to the water’s edge, where she gasped in amazement. This was so different from any stream or creek she had ever seen. The swollen sun gleamed on a huge expanse of water, to which there were no boundaries. The shore on which Lionel and Donas stood was graveled rather than muddy, and the ripples on the water glinted with an unnatural color, like a transparent black. Strange lumbering shapes moved on the bottom.
“Lionel, does anyone go in the water? Can we bathe?”
“Not in this water, Donas. It would pull you to your death.”
She bent down and submerged a finger, then straightened up in surprise. “Why, Lionel! It’s so very warm!”
“And we’ve no knowledge of what lies beyond. Only that there are no fish here that we recognize.”
“Now I understand better the dangers of this journey. Even at its completion, there is no food or water source.”
“At least that helps eliminate encounters with wild animals or the Lonely People,” Lionel replied.
He pointed to the left. “About a mile that way are large caves which contain the salt domes. We’ll spend the night in the caves — they’re cool near the entrances. But first we’ll need a few hours to collect flint stones. When we’ve filled all the bags we will have justified our coming here, and then we can leave.”
“I almost regret having to, Lionel. I have never seen such a wonder in my life. Do you think we’ll know someday what lies beyond?”
Lionel shrugged. “Not in our lifetimes. The undercurrents are so strong no one has ever been able to construct a craft that wasn’t lost in the attempt. Although, the Storytellers...” He frowned.
“Well, they say that once a long time ago, before even my father was born, a half dozen or so strange people visited the City. These people claimed they were from beyond the river and that they had crossed it. They had left their craft far to the north, where the river was at its most narrow, if that can be believed. They were searching for something. But they’ve never been back.”
“Then something must be there, Lionel,” Donas said, eyes shining. “People? Cities? Something strange and beautiful. I wish I could see what is across this river!”
“And what purpose would that serve, Donas?”
“Lionel! So practical! It would be wondrous, that’s all. Like coming to the south. Like the first Storytelling I attended. Like... like knowing you.”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2011 by Mary Brunini McArdle