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.
“Stop jumping on the bed. You’re worse than Mak.”
Rani stuck out her lower lip. One of her plaits had come loose, and her coverlets were a rumpled mess.
This morning Donas was cold and determined. Nothing was going to deter her from her purpose. “I’ll be back in a little while,” she said. “I’m going to the market and walk home with Nakoma.”
“Bring me a treat.”
“Rani, you’re spoiled.”
“But, Donas, I’m sick.”
“You’re almost well, Rani. Be good, and I’ll think about it.”
Donas trotted to the center of the City, feeling a sense of urgency. ‘It won’t be long before Alfreda is better,’ Donas thought. ‘She isn’t going to need her parents and Sewella over there. Then Lionel won’t be so tied up with the stable. He’s impossible to fool — I don’t know if I can hide my feelings or my intentions if he’s around. I don’t have much time — two days at the most.’ Donas was afraid to admit that if Lionel were there he would awaken the ache inside, and she wouldn’t be able to stop it.
Nakoma was waiting. She drew Donas aside. “Let’s allow Mother to get a head start,” Nakoma whispered. “So we can talk.”
“Why don’t we stall by getting Rani a treat?”
“Yes.” Nakoma raised her voice. “Mother, you go on. Donas and I are going to get her little sister something sweet.”
‘Well, that was easy,’ Donas thought. ‘Nakoma’s mother isn’t much of a challenge. I think the real challenge will be Mak.’
“I have a pack bag for you at home,” Nakoma said, when they left the market. “It will go over the back of a horse, but it is not as large and heavy as the ones used for the salt and flint you brought back from the river.”
“What about warm clothes? We have none.”
“Don’t worry about that. We have some furs, and shirts with long sleeves. Also blankets of cowhide. Mine will fit you, and I’ll cut some in half for Mak and Rani.”
“Oh, Nakoma — are you sure you can spare that much?”
“We still have my father’s old ones. Here we are, Donas, let’s go in the house.”
The two girls went quietly to Nakoma’s room and sat down.
“Nakoma, I foresee two large problems.”
“Let’s talk about them, then.”
“First of all, we’ll have to take food and water — and flint and tools and soap. I don’t know if all that and warm clothes will fit in one pack bag.”
Nakoma reached out and took Donas’s hand. “No, Donas, they won’t. But I have my own horse. I’ll wait three weeks or so, and then I’ll bring you the rest of what you will need. The weather won’t get really cold before then. You’ll have to describe to me where you’ll be.
“And... you know something?” Nakoma’s face took on a dreamy expression. “I could be ready to join you by then. I’ve pondered my place in this so-called ‘community’ for as long as I can remember. I do not wish to wed — I especially don’t want to bear children. Not here. I could leave this City behind me and never think of it again.”
“That would be wonderful, Nakoma. Then there would be four of us, and you and I would have each other for company. But what about your mother?”
“She can do what all widows do when they are ill and alone. She can share a house with another like her. She won’t miss me that much, Donas. It is my father she misses. Her slave.”
Her slave. Donas shivered at the words, a combination that expressed everything she abhorred. Nonetheless, she found that she recalled every detail of the way to the clearing.
When she finished relating the directions to Nakoma, Donas paused and made a gesture of frustration. “Nakoma, I just thought of something else. You’ll have to follow the stream north until you find us. If you are going there alone on horseback, you must be armed. We have half a dozen spears. I’ll attach two to my horse and two to Mak’s and leave two for you. Do you suppose we could learn to hunt?”
“Certainly. Not the dangerous animals, but deer, at least.”
“What is it?”
“The worst problem of all. To convince Mak and Rani to leave and to say nothing. Rani is attached to Sewella, but Mak is the one I’m really worried about. He worships Lionel. And the stable — his ‘work’, as he puts it.”
“Don’t tell them everything, especially Mak,” Nakoma suggested. “Tell them only what you need to get them to do what you want.”
Donas hesitated. For a moment she thought she saw something unreadable in Nakoma’s glittering green eyes.
“I’ve always told them the truth, Nakoma.”
“They won’t believe the truth, Donas. You know that. I think you’re intelligent enough to think of a way.”
Donas sighed. “I’m going to have to before another day passes. I believe we should leave tomorrow night.”
Frowning again, she continued, “I don’t want to keep my betrothal dress, Nakoma. Would you like to have it?”
“To wear in the woods?”
“Well, if we make a life for ourselves there — we may want to celebrate occasionally. For special events, like Rani’s year time.”
“You know — the time when each of us was born.”
“Yes. I’m going to bring my yellow dress. I’ve never had anything like it before. Celebrating special occasions will make us feel like a community.”
A sudden memory caught at Donas. ‘A community,’ she thought. ‘A community led by two women. But we won’t be “Kateras.” We won’t!’
Donas prepared a quiet supper for herself and Rani. Sewella dropped in briefly to tell them of Alfreda’s progress. “She’s stronger — I think another day or so and she won’t need so much help. Of course the baby feeds all through the night. We’re still taking turns getting up. But she’s so sweet! I could hold her all day and never get tired of it. How are you, Donas? Are you feeling better?”
“Nearly recovered. Just tired. I seem to need a lot of sleep.”
“I’ve never seen a baby, Sewella,” Rani said.
“You’ll get to see one soon. The prettiest baby in the whole City.”
‘No!’ Donas moaned inwardly. ‘Another hurdle.’ “Rani, you’re not going near that baby until I’m sure you are completely well.”
Rani swung her foot, knocking her toes against the table. She looked as though she intended to pout thoroughly for the rest of the evening.
‘How am I ever going to get her to listen to me now? Donas thought. She’s difficult enough without being in one of her contrary moods.’
‘I’ll have to wait,’ Donas told herself, as she took Rani back to their room. The wise thing to do would be to placate Rani and get her in a more pliable frame of mind. ‘There’s plenty of time before Mak comes home.’
It took nearly two hours, but Rani finally became sleepy. She allowed Donas to cuddle her while she played with her elder sister’s curls and petted her cheek.
Donas took a deep breath. “Rani, my blood. Hear me. I have something important to talk to you about.”
Rani looked at Donas intently. The formal way in which the younger child had been addressed was a signal that her sister did indeed mean to be taken seriously.
“I thought I had found us a home, Rani. But this week I have discovered great danger here. You must trust me and say nothing to anyone. We are going to leave.”
“No!” Rani sat up in the bed, shocked.
“Rani, you know I wouldn’t say or do such a thing if we didn’t have to. Haven’t I always taken care of you?”
“But, Donas, everybody’s so good here.”
“I know it seems like that, but there are terrible secrets in the City, Rani.”
“Terrible — secrets? But — but where else can we go?”
“I know a place where we’ll be safe and comfortable. And Rani — Nakoma’s going to come later.”
“Nakoma’s kind of nice, but I like Sewella better,” Rani said plaintively.
“That doesn’t matter — I have to keep you safe. Promise me you’ll keep silent and do as I say.”
“Are there bad people here, Donas?”
“But who?” Rani frowned, puzzled.
“I can’t tell you now. Just promise.”
“All right.” Rani yawned. Donas leaned over and kissed her. “Go to sleep. Everything will work out somehow.” Donas lay in their bed, chewing her lip until it bled. ‘I’ve got to be careful with Mak, she thought. He won’t give in so easily.’
Rani was sleeping so soundly she didn’t stir when Mak entered their room. Donas got quickly up and met him at the door. “Mak, hear me. I must talk to you. Over here, near your bed, so Rani won’t awaken.”
“I’m tired, Donas. We worked hard. We had to muck out the stables and Lionel made me take a bath before I even got to my room. He’s tired too.”
“Come here.” Donas drew Mak to his bed. “My blood, what I have to say is important. As important as your life.”
“Mak, I am deadly serious.”
“Uh-huh. I’m listening.”
“I have discovered great danger here. I’m going to need your help — to get away.”
“Donas, that’s stupid. Why do you want to leave?”
“Mak, please. There are secrets you know nothing about. We must leave this place.”
Mak looked at Donas. His demeanor was sarcastic.
‘He’s not convinced,’ she thought, struggling for the right words. “Mak — Mak — Lionel knows all about it,” she lied in desperation. “He can’t say anything because he will get in trouble with his father. You can’t say anything for the same reason. Lionel is going to join us later. But first we must leave without it appearing to his father that Lionel had anything to do with it.”
“But, Donas, Lionel says it’s dangerous outside the City walls.”
“Don’t you think he’s thought of that? We’ll be armed, Mak.”
“Oh. What do I have to do?”
“Tomorrow night — after you and Lionel are finished — when Lionel and Sewella are asleep, I need you to return to the stables and get three horses ready. Windflower for me and Rani, Cloudchaser for you, and another to use as a pack horse — one that isn’t anyone’s special horse. You are the only person who will know how to do this. Rani and I will meet you there.”
“Are you sure it is all right with Lionel? He always tells me things.”
“Of course I’m sure. I just explained why he has to keep quiet about it. Do you remember what Ter told you the night we escaped from the motele? The special words he said to you?”
Mak squinted in concentration. “I am the male,” he said, after a moment. “I shared a bed with you and Rani. I will always be with you. I have to be strong.”
“Yes, Mak.” Donas hugged him. “Now, go to bed. And keep this to yourself. Say nothing.”
“Donas?” Mak said drowsily, pulling his coverlet up.
“Lionel said he will have to work late just one more night. After tomorrow, he will be here for meals and everything. He said so.”
“Thank you for telling me, Mak.”
‘One more night,’ Donas thought. ‘I knew it was close. Too close. We must leave tomorrow.’
* * *
Donas was unable to think beyond her fear. She compounded this by steeling herself against the intrusion of feelings which might have led her in another direction, by putting up mental barriers that would block any interference against the course of action she had chosen.
She did not question the feasibility of a city in the woods, comprised of only four people, two of them young children. She did not take into account — at least not realistically — the nocturnal hunters she had barely escaped on the trip south — the cougar which had expanded its home range — or the wolves, the wild boars, the bear, the savage men and women from Katera’s motele who were unaware that they were dying and those about whose existence Donas knew nothing, the Lonely People already roaming the southern forest.
For Donas once more, the danger lay behind, not ahead. And she did not consider the constant vigil she would have to keep with her spear, all through the days and nights.
For weeks, and months, and years...
To be continued...
Copyright © 2011 by Mary Brunini McArdle