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 was not herself when she left the house of Sebastian that afternoon. Flashes of her strong survival instinct had demonstrated themselves in the Storytellers’ Hall when she had recognized the possible need for weaponry, and later in the certain need to secrete that weaponry away.
Now her fear and fatigue were interfering with her natural curiosity and her tendency to question everything. Otherwise she might have questioned Nakoma’s revelations. But at the moment Donas was like a sacrificial animal at an altar of terror — terror which had taken possession of her intellect and her perceptions.
Everywhere she looked she saw Katera. She stared at Donas over the parchment copy of THE ROSE and at the young initiate reaching out to take a cup of red wine. Katera’s cloud of black hair spread out amidst the shadows in the corners of the brick buildings. Her image darkened the sunlight of the afternoon and superimposed itself over every face that Donas knew — if she tried to envision Lionel, she saw Katera; if Donas tried to picture Rani, Katera was there instead.
A Nakoma-Katera greeted Donas at the door and invited her to the kitchen. “I’ve made us some tea and fruit pie, Donas — Mother is in her room.”
Donas started to follow Nakoma, then hesitated. “Nakoma... wait a moment... I—”
“What is it?”
A haze formed in front of Donas’s eyes. The Nakoma-Katera person seemed to swim back and forth. Donas put out her hand and tried to steady herself against the wall.
“Donas, do you feel faint? Here, let me help you to my bedroom.”
Donas allowed herself to be led to the room, unable to speak or to resist. When she was lying on the bed, she managed a feeble protest. “Nakoma, Rani will not sleep long — and Lionel will be back soon. I need to get back. I can’t stay here.”
“Donas, I don’t think you are able to walk right now. Why not sleep a little while? I’ll wake you, I promise.”
Nakoma bent down and pulled a coverlet over Donas. The City girl’s features were indistinct and formless, her bronze hair swimming about her face.
‘She’s the only young woman here besides me who ever wears her hair loose,’ Donas thought vaguely. ‘So did Katera.’ Donas started to speak again, then closed her eyes. When she tried to open them, she was so exhausted she very nearly didn’t care if she ever opened them again. She was asleep within a few seconds.
In her dreams she found herself in a place that was both inviting and familiar. Sunlight wavered through whispering tree branches. There was a cool breeze on her face and warmth on the rest of her body. She looked down and saw that she was unclothed. Then she heard the sound of children laughing.
Mak and Rani were playing several yards away, their naked bodies a tanned blur. Mingled with their voices were the sounds of flyers singing and leaves stirring.
Donas stood up and walked delicately across a meadow of soft clover to a clean, running stream. Honeybees darted about her bare feet. She bent down and put her hands in the water, cupping them around the silver fishes that slithered away from her fingers. She laughed with delight at the feel of the water on her hands and the capricious little fishes.
Donas felt safe and almost content, but something seemed to be missing. Or was it someone? The missing was a strange ache inside, but she couldn’t remember what it meant.
Nakoma was shaking Donas’s shoulder.
When she awakened, there was a trace of tears glistening on her cheeks.
* * *
Donas sat up, rubbing her eyes. “Have I been asleep long?”
“Just an hour.”
“I must go, Nakoma.”
“We need to discuss your plans, don’t we?”
Donas looked at her and blinked. “Oh! Yes, we do.” Donas sat up, pieces of her dream floating around in her head. ‘That place,’ she thought. ‘I know that place.’
“Nakoma, I think I have an idea of what to do and how to do it. Only I can’t stay now, I really must go. Rani is probably awake — and the others — but I will need your help. I’ll try to come back tomorrow afternoon.”
“I’ll help any way I can, Donas, you know that.”
Donas’s dream came into sharper focus as she returned to the house of Sebastian. She remembered the peaceful clearing where she and Mak and Rani had washed their clothes and bathed. ‘It’s less than a day on horseback — too close — but I wonder if we could follow that water upstream? That clearing would have been exactly what we need; there must be others like it further north.’
Donas felt better, both physically and mentally. Her youthful resilience and the brief interlude of sleep combined with the pleasant dream of a hopeful alternative had erased the nightmare images of her mother but unfortunately had not dispelled the underlying terror of what she had seen and heard in the Storytellers’ Hall. The shock of it remained with her, continuing to influence her thinking and her actions.
Lionel was home when Donas arrived. He kissed her, but she did not respond. It wasn’t difficult for a young man in love to know when a kiss was not what it should be. He stepped back and looked at her, puzzled. “Is something wrong, Donas?”
She tried to evade his eyes, saying, “Rani has a mild illness. I think I may have it too. I don’t feel well.”
“I need to go to the stables. Sewella and my parents are staying with Alfreda a little longer. Will you be all right?”
“Yes, of course. Don’t worry about me. Go on about your work. I am not too ill to take care of myself and Rani.”
Actually Donas was relieved. Her excuse to avoid Lionel sounded plausible, at least for the time being. She knew she was not really sick — she had been overcome with fear and exhaustion. But if she could mimic Rani’s illness for a few days, she would have the privacy to think. To plan. To run away.
She realized when she got back to her room that she had never changed out of the pretty yellow dress. She had been wearing it all through the night and the following day. The dress was crumpled and soiled.
Rani sat up in bed and watched as Donas pulled the garment over her head and dropped it carelessly to the floor. She put on a pair of her old pajamas.
“I’m thirsty again,” Rani said.
“No, just thirsty.”
‘Good,’ thought Donas. ‘She has not quite recovered.’ It was the first time Donas had ever been glad of something for her own purposes that was to the detriment of her beloved little sister. If Donas had been rational enough to realize how similar that thought was to those of her former leaders she would have been horrified.
“I’ll get us both something, Rani,” she said. “I think I am a tiny bit sick too.”
“Oh! Then you can stay here and play with me. It’s lonely.”
“Sewella and the others are all helping Alfreda right now,” Donas replied. “I suppose that is why Lionel and Mak haven’t been here either. They’re taking care of the stable work for Sebastian.”
‘The better for me,’ Donas continued silently. ‘I can pretend illness and everyone will be too busy to notice anything. All I need is two or three more days.’
Donas browsed the kitchen for quite a while when she went to fetch the tea, even stopping to eat something herself; she was, unlike her younger sister, quite hungry.
The elder girl made mental notes of the foodstuffs in the house. When she returned to the bedroom, she chattered idly with Rani, washed her hands and face, then rummaged around the room for water, for combs, for cloths, for soap.
Donas was also unobtrusively taking stock of how many water jugs she still had, and exactly what articles of clothing were clean and ready for the three of them. There were plenty of clothes and foot coverings, including the new ones with the cowhide reinforcements, but what was lacking was warm clothing. The weather would soon be changing; it was not long before the cool.
‘We brought nothing but light clothing with us when we fled the motele because it was the hot,’ Donas thought. ‘I don’t even know what the south people use for the cool. The head scarves we used on the trip to the river might help shield us from the wind, but they are thin, as are the bonnets. This is a matter in which I am certainly going to need Nakoma’s help — she’s the only one I can ask.’
At length the end of day came, the darkness stealing in a little sooner than the week before. Donas settled Rani for the night. ‘I’m going to have to talk to her soon,’ Donas thought. ‘It’s not going to be easy to convince her we have to leave. And Mak! Nearly impossible. By tomorrow I’m going to have to know what to say. I’ll need them both to listen to me.’
“Horses,” Donas whispered to herself, lying next to her soundly sleeping sister. “We are going to need horses, and the spears, and warm clothes — and food and water. Perhaps three horses — one for Mak, one for Rani and me, and one loaded with goods. And tools! We will have to dig for roots and wild carrots — any food that we can store for the cool — I suppose we could catch fish — and we will have to cut branches to make a shelter against the rain. And flint — I can make fire. Mak and Rani and I will have to build our own small city in the forest.”
Donas turned over, trying to ignore the ache deep inside which was surfacing again. The missing...
‘Lionel,’ she thought. ‘A family without Lionel. A family with just the three of us — myself and Mak and Rani.’
‘No more kisses, no more hands holding mine, no more —’
She moaned. She felt the missing everywhere, in her breasts, between her thighs, on her mouth...if she had known the word for it she would have realized she felt the missing in her soul. For the first time in her life Donas was grieving.
‘Stop it!’ she told herself. ‘Stop it! Don’t think about it anymore. You don’t need him. You don’t need anybody but the two who shared your bed as children! Think about Mak and Rani. Think about keeping them safe. That is where you must focus all the love and strength you have to give — as a mother to her young. You must not allow yourself to mourn again.’
To be continued...
Copyright © 2011 by Mary Brunini McArdle