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.
“Was that one of those important talks, Lionel?” Rani asked.
“Yes, Rani, I think so.”
“Oh, Lionel, are you all right? You look so troubled... so...” Donas broke off.
“I’ll be all right as long as I’m with you, Donas.”
Donas’s knees began to tremble. ‘I’m so confused,’ she thought. ‘I can’t seem to take it all in. Nakoma has certainly shown herself for what she is tonight, but I still don’t understand everything — about the Storytellers and those awful books. What is the truth and what is not?’
“Donas, we haven’t finished what we were discussing when Nakoma’s mother interrupted us,” Lionel said. “You haven’t answered my question. And you don’t look well. I have to ask you once more: “What has frightened you so? Nakoma’s nonsense about that cup of wine? Or is there more?”
“She... she said the red wine would make you a slave. She said all the adult wives here were like Katera.”
“The wine we make is amber, not red, for one thing. Dandelion wine. You drank some of it at our betrothal supper.”
“Yes. And you seemed to enjoy it immensely.”
“But those books... the Guards at that building... Alfreda’s husband... and... and... I didn’t know what ‘honor’ meant — why didn’t somebody explain?”
“No one thought an explanation was needed.”
“It was just that every time I tried to ask you about that Hall — you seemed to want to change the conversation. I thought you were keeping some terrible secret from me.”
Lionel put his hands over his eyes and took a deep breath. “I tired of it so quickly, Donas, because the Hall of the Storytellers is not that interesting to me. The rest of us do not have the time to learn to read, so we relegate that task to them, and with it the preservation of our knowledge: how to make bricks, to weave cloth, to break horses.
“Sometimes the books containing that knowledge become old and worn and have to be replaced, scribed all over again. It is an unending task, to which the Storytellers are devoted. If I had realized how seriously you were misunderstanding...”
“Sewella isn’t bad, she isn’t!” Rani interjected suddenly. “Neither is Alfreda. It’s that Nakoma who’s bad!”
“Rani has a natural instinct for seeing people as they are,” Lionel remarked. “It is just as Nakoma’s mother put it: ‘There is only one liar among us.’”
“But those books—”
“Of course not — if you kiss me, you won’t be able to leave me.”
“Kiss me.” Lionel drew her to him. He kissed her for a long time. Then he grasped her gently by the shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Donas, you don’t see what’s right in front of you. When I found out you were Katera’s daughter, did I question you? No, because you are Donas, the one I love. And I am Lionel. We are what we are, regardless of blood. Think, Donas. What does ‘beautiful’ mean?”
She stared at him, the color beginning to come back to her face.
“What was wrong with the apples, Donas? Was it the apples themselves? They were just fruit. What was wrong with them?”
“Katera — the leaders — put something in them.”
“And books, Donas — what is wrong with them? What is wrong with our stories?”
“Mak told me about THE ROSE. It was only Katera who read its words aloud; isn’t that correct?”
“And you can’t read, so you don’t really know what was in that book or any other?”
“Something wrong was put in the apples, Donas. Just as something wrong was put in THE ROSE. And you want to give up your chance for happiness all because of the words of an evil woman and a so-called friend who fed you full of lies? What about these children? What about our children?”
Donas’s sense of reality began to shift. It seemed that everything within and without was falling into place. Now she was beginning to understand. All she had thought was wrong was right; all that she had thought was right had turned out to be wrong.
She put her hand over her mouth, eyes widening with horror. “Oh, Lionel! To think what I might have done—”
“To think what I might have lost, if it had not been for Mak.”
Mak was grinning broadly, his sturdy nine-year-old frame noticeably swelling with pride.
“Roses aren’t bad, Lionel?” Rani asked.
“No, Rani. Roses aren’t bad. They’re just flowers. Why don’t we put Windflower back in her stall? Here, Mak, take her. And pick up that candle before the whole place goes up in flames.”
Mak led the mare away, then strutted with youthful importance back to the others. Rani threw her arms around Lionel’s knees and hugged him. “Can we go home now?”
“Yes, Rani. I think now we can all go home.” Lionel put his arm around Donas and his other hand on Mak’s shoulder.
When they stepped out onto the pavement, the fog was beginning to lift. The first stars to be seen that night surrounded the newly visible moon with its bright companion, while the corners seemed to have given up their secrets. Donas looked up, and although she could not have said why, she was reminded of Sebastian’s story.
Copyright © 2011 by Mary Brunini McArdle