Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Homecoming Queen (updated 5/06)

Wanita Park held her brown arms to the sky, trying to catch the hands of the Lord. He reached those hands down from the deck of His yacht to lift her gently up, and together they sailed the firmament. His holy mountain soared to fabulous heights before and below them, and the cold rarefied air of that altitude lofted Wanita's long black locks in all directions. As they approached the sun, trapped in its frozen cavern, her floating mane bloomed into a golden radiance, and for a moment she was the image of a saint, a shadow-woman encased in a fiery nimbus. She alighted with the Lord on His mountaintop, and gesturing to the east, He showed her the slow path the sun had to take through its treacherous winter caves. Below, He showed her the world. As she looked down in wonder, He kissed her cheek, holy lips as delicate as the breeze that filled her room.

The scents of life filled that breath--leaves, smoke, bacon, apples--and it roused the girl reluctantly into consciousness and into the crisp gray autumn predawn. It smelled like the perfect day, Wanita admitted, her cheeks still flushed from her dream. The air just cold enough to warrant an extra snuggle under the down, and just fresh enough to pull her smiling out of the covers. It could only be perfect, of course. Today was Homecoming.

She savored the morning a moment longer, and then cast off the sheet with a giggling flourish. She put on her slippers and clambered down the wooden steps to greet her family, running up to her mother, who was frying leftover corn cakes on a griddle at the broad fireplace. She leaned against the woman's soft frame, enjoying the cooking smells at their source.

"Is there any news from the booster club?" she whispered conspiratorially, nuzzling close.

Shonda Park was, however, steadfastly ignoring her daughter, perfect day or no. Wanita would have been concerned had this not been her behavior for the entire week, with she and the other ladies hushed to secrecy about their lengthening evening conferences. Looking closer, she could see her mother's narrow, determined smile as she kept silently at her work.

In the corner by the stairs, her father was pounding his feet into his shoes--she'd run right passed him when she came down--and returned her glance with a broad smile. Wanita ran to give him a hug.

"Won't know for sure till this afternoon," he said brightly, "but I know who I'd choose." A cloud crossed her father's sunny face. "It's going to be the most important Homecoming we've had in a long time, you know. At least that's what Pater Molek said, and I'm inclined to agree with him, based on what I've seen."

He paused, hands on Wanita's shoulders; the clouds were gathering, threatening a downpour. "And who's a better young lady than you? The Lord has blessed us so. We'd about given up on babies you know... I don't how you grew up so fast."

Wanita embraced him fiercely as he lowered his head on her shoulder. It was, as always, a brief storm, and when it was over this time, he smiled again at her through drying tears, pushing back her hair to look at her face. "So big you've gotten, almost a young woman."

Shonda grunted loudly, and Wanita pulled away to gather the wooden plates from the cupboard and set them round the rough table. Still in her nightdress, she sat down with her parents, joining her hands to theirs as her father began the dawn prayer of deliverance, entreating the Lord Hayzeus to cast down the pale moon and raise the sun from its distant mountain home. The very thought was warming.

Following the morning meal, her mother motioned with her head, and Wanita dashed upstairs to get ready for the day, leaving her parents to quiet, spirited conversation. Wanita looked dreamily at her weekday dress hanging on its peg. Functional homespun wool it was, dyed onion-skin orange, which brought out the yellower highlights in her skin. She liked it well enough, but the Homecoming queen was as beautiful as one of Hayzeus's fabled consorts, radiant in a gown of the softest wool, of blue, purple, and pink. She hoisted the orange thing above her, and let it slide down before her eyes like the clouds of the sunrise. Could Dayne Westly lift her up like that? She had seen her mother whimper with pleasure as her father strained to carry her past the threshold of their room, and Dayne's arms were also very strong. But he was no Deliverer of men.

Her family didn't have much farm to run beyond a modest vegetable garden and a handful of goats and chickens, instead surviving on an honest commission of grain that was brought to the mill. Often the local farmers would barter with cured meats, preserves, cordwood, and so forth, and sometimes they paid with copper money, which the Parks used to deal with Mill Macks, the peddlar, or at the local salvage outlets. Although the harvest was nearly complete, and school was already in session, the mill was still in its busiest season, and Shonda tolerated her daughter to accompany her husband Jamal these autumn mornings. Wanita helped him where she could, inspecting the long wooden axle and the granite millstones before engaging them for the day's work. She loved working with her affectionate father, watching his broad muscular shoulders lift the endless shovelfuls of grain and flour.

The Parks’ business was located on the far side of their property, past the pens and gardens, and across the dusty expanse of ancient road, nestled in a stand of trees. The road was called the freeway, though in harder times, Deliverance officials sometimes demanded a toll for those passing through without business in town (which was rare). The millhouse was nominally made of brick, like the home of Hayzeus's third piglet, and in the summer, ducks lazily circled its little pond. As she approached the old building with her father, Wanita tried to imagine her storied ancestor Jimi and his tame savage digging out the mile-long stretch of streambed and building up the dam with rocks and rubble.

Jamal claimed that the building was centuries old, but it had been obviously modified to accommodate the mill's works, and the necessity of many decades of maintenance without old-fashioned materials and tools left it looking like most of the other buildings in town, an elaborately rickety structure resting on an ancient solid foundation. Family legend said that Jimi and his savage had painstakingly chiseled the original millstone out of some old basement wall. The making of foundation-stone was, of course, lost, but rigid as the stuff was, it still couldn’t compete with granite, and new durable stones were purchased every so many years at great expense to the Parks, mined or salvaged in unknown places abroad and no doubt cut with amazing difficulty. The great wooden wheel that Jimi had built had been repaired over the generations, and in Wanita's estimation, had been completely replaced several times over.

Whether or not the details of the story were strictly true, Jimi's mill (as it was still called) was certainly one of the early fixtures in Deliverance proper, and the struggling farmers almost immediately began pulling in their autumn corn in carts and barrows to be ground there, growing gradually more prosperous and reclaiming what dimly remembered threads of the past that they could manage. A church followed the mill, and then some salvage and drygoods shops, and slowly specialization and commerce accreted in Deliverance. The town expanded mostly to the south, between the river and the freeway, leaving the Parks on the outskirts. The close-knit community boasted a fortified downtown, many businesses, and even an intact building in original brick, a stately old edifice that now served as both the town hall and the school. Jamal and Shonda Park kept some of the rare and incomprehensible books that Jimi found there in a box under their bed, preserved under the condescending grace of the Church.

The first wagon pulled into Jimi's mill at about an hour past sunrise, dragged by a recalcitrant draft horse (one of the town's few) led by Chet Hakim. Chet, never the most sanguine of men, was nonetheless one of Deliverance's prominent, and oldest, farmers, whose ancestors were shivering through winters of raids and starvation back when Jimi Park was digging his stream. He was a short, wiry tangle of tendons and wrinkles. Upon living through enough hardship, the crusty old man had earned a measure of tolerance in his listening public.

As Jamal shoveled the dry corn into buckets, Chet made faces to get the miller's attention. "You hear what happened to my grand-niece's baby?" he said.

Jamal shook his head noncommittally--best not to get Chet talking--but he was unsurprised that Darla Washintin's pregnancy had come to term. Wanita tilted from a beam, listening wide-eyed. Darla's sister-in-law Lena had been last year's Homecoming queen, and her performance may have put all of them in a critical position this season. Hayzeus sought His revenge in mysterious ways, it was said, and if He was doling out retribution on the Washintin clan, then her classmate Bell was certainly out of the running.

Chet continued, animated by indications of an audience. "Come out lookin' like a little pink bloodsuckin' savage!" He paused and spat, eyes twisted up at his listener in evident satisfaction. Jamal had frozen at the exclamation, eyes wide and white and shoulders shuddering. He looked expectantly at the farmer.

"You mark my words, Park," Chet continued, "we been livin' too soft, and Hayzeus don't like to see us havin' it so easy. You know I'm a prayin' man, right?"

Wanita had heard her father suggest otherwise, but Jamal nodded, biting his lip.

"Bad winter, and that's the sign. Happened in my granddaddy's time. White baby, come out lookin' just like the snow. I tell you stock up, that's what I say. You save every damned ounce of that corn you skim from us honest farmers." He made to spit again, but Jamal, quickly sobered, glared at him.

Chet swallowed his loogie with a slow garish bob of the throat, and moved on to his finale. "I'm just sayin' what happened, that's all. You be careful this winter. You do what you gotta do." He looked meaningfully at Wanita.

When Chet left, Jamal hung his head with uncharacteristic withdrawal. Wanita knew that the Pater had been expressing similar warnings to her father. There had been a bountiful enough harvest, but Jamal occasionally waxed about his beloved father at the family fire, about how the meal had been rotting in the stores by Christmastime, and how the old man would not eat before his children did. Hayzeus had delivered the town that year, but not before taking His share of souls, as was the way. Wanita's unknown grandfather had been one of them.

Jamal held up a handful of Chet's corn, gazing it at. It was gray at the base of the kernel, and he sat for a time and watched the discolored grain dribble from his fingers, pattering the worn wooden floor, as his daughter went out front to await the next customer.

It was a busy morning as farmers hauled in their crops to be ground, trying to capitalize on the portion of the holiday during which business was allowed. But it was nonetheless Homecoming, and a bouncing Wanita was shuttled home at noon by her unusually moody father. The two retired to their table for a meal of grits, yams, and river trout grilled with chiles, a gift from the Munizes that had come with their morning's grain. After lunch, Shonda brushed Wanita's straight black hair, tied it, and kissed her daughter's head.

"Not much longer now," she whispered.


Wanita hiked with Toni Chavez along the freeway towards town, the sweet decaying redolence of the orchards drifting past them. The two had been friends since childhood, but both were contenders for the Homecoming crown, and it was a much more difficult walk than usual as the two struggled for words of scarcely-meant encouragement. Toni's voice was more barbed than usual.

"I'm sure it's going to be you" she purred, "the Pater loves your parents. Unless they want to go with the pretty one, I don't have a chance."

"I'll be sorry if they think flour is more important than cider in this town. And you'd better hope they go don't go with the prettier one, because if they do, you'll be all alone."

"Hayzeus would leave you crying on the river, bawling with that blind idiot Dayne." A sore spot between them: Toni never missed a chance to poke the young Mr. Westly.

"You take that back," screamed Wanita.

"He's a nobody and you know it. Not fit for the Homecoming queen, but that's fine. He'll be perfect for you."

Wanita put a couple of frosty yards between herself and her friend. True, it wasn't likely that Dayne would be the one selected to rush the pigskin through the D-line, not with that eyesight, and not with his family a scarce decade in the town, but maybe she and Dayne were both suited to be nobodies together. Maybe they could till the earth in untroubled simplicity until their elderly souls were harvested by the Lord.

The mood between the girls contrasted the shining warmth of the sun overhead, reneging on the promise of the chilly morning. As they sweated on their silent walk, the berm along the freeway grew beside them, soon sprouting the stockade crown that marked the secure outskirts of downtown. They marched diffidently through the gates, toward the old school house, and assumed desks on opposite sides of the room.

The Church governed all religious matters in town, including education. Two rooms in the town hall were devoted to this. Younger children, the low students, learned to read and write and add, while the high students mostly engaged in a reasoned study of the Goodbook. There were about sixty childen in all, and the town's three lesser clerics administered the lessons. Some years ago, the Pater had secured an expensive bale of paper (crumbly modern stuff) and each year the high school students set to transcribing two entire editions of the Goodbook, each student carefully copying three pages a day, which were used to reward the families of that year's Homecoming queen and MVP at Christmastime.

Since today was a holiday, there would probably be only token lessons, and Wanita quietly thanked the Lord that there would likely be no painful copying. When most of the students had trickled in from their morning chores, Acolyte Kalid, with his shaggy furrowed brow and odd green eyes (savage eyes), walked noisily through the door with his copy of the Goodbook and a slate full of chalked notes in his wrinkled hands, and plodded up to the lectern. The students hushed in obedience and fear of the man. He cleared his throat, setting the wattle on his neck trembling hypnotically. The students did not move.

"All of world history..." Kalid rumbled, looking at his notes, "all of the history that is meaningful, is in the Goodbook. Twice Hayzeus has destroyed the world, once with flood and once with fire, only to breathe life back into the few who kept the faith. Today I will tell you of the fire, of how Hayzeus stole the bones of the earth back from prideful men, and of how the faith is now kept."

Ah, the boring old catechisms, thought Wanita. She should have known it would only be official stuff on a day like this. Every lecture, every sermon this time of year, spoke the same story. It was the legend of how men grew so proud that they turned their back on the Goodbook's teaching, of how, neglectful of Hayzeus's admonitions, they had drained the earth of its very black blood and how, what they didn't burn of it, they used to grow ever more people. So many men were made this way that together they all grew prideful enough to challenge heaven itself. They built flying machines to assail the Lord's sacred mountain.

As always, Wanita felt a chill when Kalid described man's second fall. His voice had that perfect rasp of regret, a personal anger at the knowledge of all men's failings. He told of how Hayzeus grew angry and clotted all of the earth's wounds. The legions of vampires that had been suckled on the earth's veins had starved without those dark humors. Those that didn't starve had fought one another, and those that survived combat had frozen, burning all the trees, burning all of their houses, burning even their dead as they tried to live through the terrible winters that the Lord Hayzeus visited upon them in His vengeance.

Yet still, through all this, there were a thousand faithful families, which Hayzeus dispersed to a thousand farms to keep the oldest of His ways, hoarding their memories of the Goodbook, and harvesting only what the their Lord allowed the earth to provide. The chosen families remembered to save their corn, and they worked together. Before long, they coalesced into towns like Deliverance. (Wanita always wondered if her great-great-grandfather was one of the thousand families or if he was one of their descendents.)

Hayzeus, however, remained suspicious of even the faithful, for men had betrayed His creation not once but twice. He brought back the trees, but allowed men to take no more of them than needed, for homes and for heat--waste and carven images were punished by damnation. He allowed some of the vampires to survive too, to test the faith of His chosen. Savage creatures, they nested in the distant ruins and roamed out into the countryside in small bands, seeking to sup from the earth's veins once more. Wanita imagined their pale crabbed figures scurrying about the countryside, heads and wrists plunged futilely into the hillsides like ticks on a corpse, trying to draw out the blood that turned men's souls brown, and coming out with only a mockery of dry dirt crumbling from their wild, toothy visages.

The grinning specter of one pale brute filled her vision. In her mind, Wanita walked toward him, and he, dusty from clawing the ground, also came closer, prodding at her cheeks with filthy fingernails, staring at her with animal lust from green eyes. The foul thing reached for her again, and, with the buzz of purification distant in her ears, she reached her heart out to Hayzeus, to the lifegiving sun, and she was filled with light, floating, as in her dream. She looked down at the beast and the sunrise bloomed radiant behind her, sending the savage cowering at her brown toes. She lifted her arm.

"...the glory..." it croaked in an old man's raspy voice.

"...of the Homecoming, when faith is renewed." Wanita dredged herself unwilling from the vision. Kalid was concluding and eying her with mistrust. Seeing her alert, he expanded his sour gaze to the rest of the students, who remained silent and sunken in their chairs. The Acolyte released a short growl of satisfaction, though he had timed it imperfectly. "Take out your slates," he said. "We will do sums until the Pater arrives." He impaled one hapless pupil with his green gaze. "First you, Nino."

It was not, thankfully, a long wait. Only two students had a chance to be quizzed before the door opened discretely and Pater Molek, the head cleric of Deliverance, crept in. He was a wizened little man, with wispy white hair, a well-worn smirk, and a twinkle in his brown eye. Even hunched over a cane, he gave an impression of hidden spryness, as though a younger man were hidden somewhere in the wrinkles and folds. His doddering elderly gait always seemed something of a surprise. He patted Kalid on the shoulder as he passed, who scowled down at his own chest in response. The Pater struggled up the podium by himself, smiled beatifically at the students, and spoke in a high, strong voice.

"The time has come to choose the MVP and the Homecoming queen. You may take a short recess," (Kalid's head twitched back up), "as we assess the final opinion of the booster club. We will summon you back in."

The actual decisions had been made the night before, but last-minute changes by the committee were not unheard of (especially in easy years), and sometimes the acrimony that had been festering for weeks--everyone tended to overestimate their family's importance in the town and the quality of their children--erupted at the zero hour. It had been smooth enough for the three years Wanita had been in the high school, but long Homecoming recesses were legendary among the children, and desperately anticipated.

Wanita felt timid as she joined the students' exodus. She knew parents were lurking somewhere in the halls, but she saw no one. She found Toni in an animated conversation with Georgia Cho, apparently delivering the same acidic, backhanded consolation that Wanita had experienced this morning. Wanita wasn't wearing the pressure of the decision well either. She was sweating, she noticed, and finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate. Without noticing the person holding it for her, she drifted out the door and staked out a pacing circuit on the grounds.


"Oh, Dayne." Wanita smiled thinly at her admirer, mild disappointment in the arch of her eyebrows.

"Wanita, I--"

"Oh, look," cried the girl, brightening, and pointed to the sky. Watching Dayne comically screw up his face to see was enough to bring her down from the mountain, and she continued more sympathetically.

"It's the harvest moon, Dayne." She lowered her voice to a mock growl, "the vampire moon, scowling his big round face across the sky for the last time at his betrayed Lord."

Dayne chuckled at the impression of their teacher. As he laughed, she moved up against him, her smell of flour mingling with his smell of apples. Up close, he could see her well, but always when she got that near, there was a nervous jerk before he relaxed into the moment, as if in surprise at her presence, at her willingness to be near him. Wanita found this reaction so utterly charming that she snuggled up to him at most available opportunities. He was handsome too, tall, with heavy dark brows, and lovely angled (but myopic) eyes. When he took her hand, it was Wanita who was startled.

"Wanita...look, I know I'm not going to be the MVP, and you...I--I don't see well, and maybe I'm not as smart as you, but..."

"Who would say that!"

"I mean, I'm smart enough to see that this is my last chance," he said with scripted, but genuine, resolve.

A moment of lost hope passed over his face before he turned toward Wanita's beaming smile, a glow which could absolve any inhibition. He leaned toward her. His skin was so warm, and she found that those arms were pulled around her. She leaned into him too, and as the sun passed, unnoticed, behind a cloud, her eyes brimmed with fire behind closed lids. And not just her eyes. She leaned deeper, their lips brushing. She heard bells.

Dayne pulled away abruptly, a wounded look on his face. Kalid was angrily banging the chime, chins and body jiggling in time. There would be no long recess this year.

"Dayne, if I don't win--" she started.

But, head in hands, he couldn't return her gaze, and Wanita was pulled along by the tide of children.

The students filed up at the teacher's direction. Separated from Dayne, Wanita fell in next to Toni, who was looking like a child again, her former hauteur abandoned. She gripped Wanita's hand with both of hers, eyes imploring.

"You know I didn't mean it, right? You and Dayne. He'd actually be pretty handsome you know. If he weren't so squinty. If I don't win, I hope you do. But if you don't, I want you to be happy anyway."

"I almost hope you get it, Toni," Wanita replied distractedly.

Toni grinned with self-effacing openness (her most appealing expression, and rarely used). "You don't know how special you are, do you? I don't think it'll be me." She sighed, "not for a second, not really."


"But even if it is, then we're still friends forever, right?" She revived her grin with an upheld pinkie, and locked it with her friend's. They hugged, giggling. Kalid walked by, scowling at them.

Eyes still dwelling on the two girls, the teacher cleared his throat and intoned, "please move along. It is time."

Kalid marched the students into passed the classroom into the old auditorium, onto the scarred and ancient wooden stage. The parents followed in from their unknown places, seating themselves on the assembled wooden chairs, the light from the open windows casting long shadows across the floor. The low school students followed, led by the young Acolyte Asrel, and took standing positions behind the parents.

The Pater had been lurking on the shadowed stage, and hobbled out in his orange ceremonial robe. He winked at the high students before turning to face the assembly.

"As the harvest season ends," he piped, "and before the vampire moon slinks away in fear of Hayzeus' dawn, it falls upon us to honor our deliverance--our Deliverance—and to celebrate the Lord's gifts and repent the sins of we men who have squandered them. Homecoming is the most glorious of the year's seasons, and we elevate the best young people among us to entreat the Lord Hayzeus. After great deliberation with the booster club, the clergy and the town have chosen this year's Homecoming queen and and MVP.

"First, our lovely queen. The Homecoming queen must embody all the traits we hold dear among the thousand families: beauty, health, chastity, steadfastness, character. You will find this year's queen to embody all of these attributes. Truly she is the best among us. Chosen from one of Deliverance's most prominent households, she has upheld every virtue we strive for. Loved by her peers, adored by her parents, and a benefit to our entire community. I present to you...Wanita Park!"

The blood drained from Wanita's face, and she stumbled to the front of the stage to join the Pater, the applause washing over her. For his part, Molek placed his hand in hers and gently pulled down her head so that he could kiss her cheek. Then, bracing heavily against his cane, he raised the hand in the air, to the cheers of the audience.

"May you make us proud," pronounced Molek, and both arms dropped.


The afternoon officially belonged to the men, and though both parts of the holiday were important, the early part had devolved over a century into mere ceremony, while the later part, the women's part, culminated with a grand feast that included the entire town. As the high school boys lined up in the field at dusk, roaring as the MVP carried the pigskin triumphantly past them, Wanita remained at the school, cloistered with the booster club women in a teetering upstairs room.

The dress she would wear sat in a nearby alcove, lit by candles, and it was astounding. It was made by the ladies during the long evenings they spent discussing the candidates. The color was the pale gray-blue of the dawn sky, with elaborate orange scrolls embroidered up the sides and across the breasts like flames. On the back was sewn a mutlihued sunburst, and a pink ruffle was stitched along the bottom. It was sleeveless and low-cut and stunning, fit for approaching the Lord. The ladies hadn't the luxury of tailoring it exactly, and spent the evening measuring, cutting and coaching. Wanita, though she'd played out every moment of the past five Homecomings in her mind, nonetheless felt awash with advice about poise, stability, and control: wave with a still hand; keep your chin up; under no circumstances raise your voice.

The men could be heard cheering and singing outside, but Wanita greatly preferred this quieter environment, comforted in the soft bosom of the chattering female sphere. The shouts from the men’s group subsided as it got dark, and before long there was a coy knock on the door of the room, three short raps. The women allowed Pater Molek to shyly enter for the last ritual before the feast. The old man's cheeks burned as he spoke the words.

"By Hayzeus, you must be pure," he muttered uncomfortably, and Jem Cho held out a bowl of ghee to him, into which the old man dipped his hand. Shonda whispered encouragement in her daughter's ear as Terri Muniz removed her old orange dress, to be set aside and cast on the bonfire with this year's pigskin and the few meager relics of Wanita's childhood.

"He has done this before, every year," said Shonda quietly, as the old man probed with soft hands. "Chin up. Quiet," she whispered, and Wanita obeyed, held her dignity. It was over quickly enough, and Terri passed Molek a towel as he shuffled toward the door.

"The Lord bless us all, she is chaste," he uttered with a quaver. "I will await you at the ceremony," he said, and he made his way out of the room.

Naked in the candlelight, Wanita breathed deeply as two of the women brought the marvelous dress to her, each holding a shoulder. Her eyes picked up the light from the guttering flames and seemed to take on a glow of their own. She caressed the fabric as the women carried it to her, and bit her lip as they lifted the elegance over her head and onto her lanky frame. Shonda reached on the table for a beautifully polished piece of salvage metal, and handed it to her daughter. Posing with the candle's glow behind her, Wanita inspected the ladies' work: beautiful, absolutely beautiful.

Jem pulled some ribbon off the table, "we are not quite done yet, dear," she said, and the women began carefully twisting her straight hair into the many small braids that were called harvest cornrows (though they looked more like the small virgin hills of the springtime then stubbly dry mounds now in the fields), twining the ribbon between them. The chitchat had subsided, and Wanita dreamily entertained her conflicting fantasies, holy and blasphemous, as the women attended to her hair and her face, turning over their own thoughts of the long, lean winter nights to follow, their busy hands working independently of their minds. The evening quietly passed this way, and eventually the upstairs room yielded a beautiful and stately woman where only a nervous adolescent girl had entered hours before.

The booster club women filed out of the hall, with Wanita and her mother at the end. Shonda held her daughter's elbow, whispering instructions on proper pacing as they marched toward the feast. The night was bright, but several of the women carried candles protected in various salvaged glass, with Terri Muniz hefting the small bundle of Wanita's old things.

The school and hall were fairly close to the stockade gate, on the eastern end of the protected downtown. They proceeded toward the center, following one of the many flat, wide, dusty old tracks that crisscrossed the area. The plaza was about a mile in this direction, and Wanita's feet were beginning to grow uncomfortable in her wool slippers by the time the smoky smell and orange glow of the bonfire began to reveal themselves. The aroma of roasted pigs and lambs also delightfully filled the air, but the crowd was murmuring quietly in anticipation of the arrival of the Homecoming queen.

Deliverance Plaza was a wonderful place for a festival. The ancient path dropped down into a wide open space, surrounded on three sides by ruins of brick and broken foundation-stone. The bonfire in the center of the lot was already twice as high as a man, with a gigantic indulgence of timber stacked around it. The flames cast dancing shadows about the cavernous heaps of broken stone along the far perimeter. On the western side of the fire, a multitude of tables were arranged, and furthest away, a small wooden dais had been constructed, with a table for one atop it, garlanded with dried corn stalks and with carved-out pumpins sitting on its corners, glowing little faces cut into them. Two miniature wood fires burned on either side of the head table, adding to the cozy illumination.

When the small parade of women was sighted by the townspeople, a roaring cheer rose up, and the booster club ladies raised their candles high over their head in acknowledgement. Shonda led Wanita to the center of the procession, and, with a final whispered blessing, backed away and joined the other ladies to form a circle around the queen. The crowd stepped back toward the tables to make room, and the circle assembled before the fire, the flame at their backs, closed like an oyster about the homegrown jewel within.

Pater Molek (who had traveled to the plaza by rickshaw, dragged by his two younger clerics, while Kalid grumbled alongside on foot), hobbled forward and stood between the women and the crowd. He raised his arms and all grew quiet once more.

The old man began in his ceremonial voice, "The end of the harvest is always a solemn and joyous occasion. Soon, we will face winter, with its savage white snows and frozen wells. We have worked hard to prepare for the cold season: we have harvested our grain, smoked our meat, sheared our wool, stored our fruit, fortified our homes, hidden our seeds, and kegged our cider. We will shiver and huddle, and if Hayzeus judges us well, we will rejoin the budding world in the springtime to start the year anew. Today, however, we honor the Lord by glorifying the best among us, that He be pleased with our worth and grant us deliverance again this year. We have rushed the pigskin, and now it is time to present the Homecoming queen. Ladies, if you will join the others."

Shonda grabbed Jem's bundle and passed it, with tearful haste, to her daughter as the circle dissolved, and darted away to join her husband near the front of the crowd, the firelight painting their faces in furtive relief. Without turning around, Wanita hurled the things high onto the fire, and, when the throng became sufficiently calm, spun slowly to face her people. A rustle grew and was tamped down by the Pater's gesture.

The orange embroidery on the sides of her dress and the red ribbons in her hair seemed to gather the light of the blaze and place the rest of the queen in an ebony sillhouette. She stood for an amazed moment before she began, in a clear soprano, the fight song of Deliverance. "Deliver us, O Hayzeus from damnation of the cold; Deliver us from vampires who'd take what we must hold..."

Molek held out an arm toward Wanita and then to the crowd, and thus cued, the swells of the townspeople lustily joined in, drowning out the crackle of the fire, dulling the chill of the night. They'd fight the winter soon enough, but tonight was a celebration of a year lived. Joined in song, they were no longer simple men and women, but something bigger than themselves, and Wanita imagined herself looking down on them as one thousand-limbed body. As the song closed, the men shouted "Fight, fight, fight!" and the women replied in kind. The cheer resounded off the crumbling buildings behind them, howling back in their direction like the voices of ghosts.

The Pater faced Wanita, "That was wonderful," he said quietly, and extended an elbow. Wanita took it, and they walked to the head table as the people parted before them. He bobbed his head at her as she climbed the rough stage and took her seat alone.

The food was set up on several long tables on one side of the banquet, between the fire and Wanita’s table. On the other side, a couple barrels of fresh cider were lined up. It was too young to make you dizzy, but anything left from last year was traditionally distilled and served at the party in small jugs. Children mixed a spoonful of the liquor into their mugs, and the adults milled around with little cups of the stuff. It usually got loud. Wanita had a small glass on her table, and to start the feast, she hoisted it to the crowd and took a sip. It was vile when undiluted, burning her throat, but she smiled as she placed her cup down, and the crowd roared.

Though a constant tide of people jostled around the food and the kegs, Wanita alone was waited upon. The Acolytes (even her teacher) came regularly to the dais and asked of her desires, which they dutifully fulfilled. She only had one cup of the brandy, and was too entranced to eat very heavily, though she realized the food was delicious. The four clergymen sat at a table directly below her, on her left. Next to them, her parents occupied a table with the Akbars: Wan and Soong and their son Rondel (the MVP as it turned out) and his two sisters. Wanita frequently stole grins at her father, who sometimes giggled and sometimes sniffled. Her mother stared at her with constant, reassuring pride.

Rondel, as was his duty, stood to make the first toast. It was for an easy winter, and he complimented Wanita on her beauty and poise. It was standard fare--they belonged to different circles of friends--but Wanita felt touched nonetheless, thinking of how much she could inspire these simple men. But once the feast had begun, there was little other attention sent her way. The crowd crested in the occasional cheer, but for the administrations of the cloth, she was left mostly as an ornament. She watched thoughtfully as the fire burned, food was consumed, drinks were imbibed, and the darkness blurred the edges of the crowd in and out of existence.


As is the case with many eventful times in one's life, the hours both compressed and drew themselves out as she lived them. Wanita felt like she'd been sitting there watching the crowd as a head of state for nights on end, but when the time came to proceed, it seemed like she'd been in the schoolyard only moments before. When the eastern sky first showed signs of lightening, the Pater, motioning to his Acolytes, stood and called attention. The spent crowd responded, sleeping children in arms, cups depleted, and quieted very quickly. The vigil under the moon had been kept. It was time.

Shonda nudged her dozing husband awake as Molek spoke. "Our night is nearly over, the Lord's festival is nearing its climax. Please rise, dear citizens, and proceed with me to the riverbank that we may honor Him."

Asrel bustled over to the Park's table and whispered to them before joining the other clergy. The Pater would have to walk this last stretch to the river, and was supported heavily by his juniors, everyone else following tentatively behind them. Jamal and Shonda gratefully approached their daughter on her stage, embracing her from both sides. They stood beside her as the throng progressed slowly, the parents with heads bowed and Wanita with a tired, wooden wave behind cold charred pumpkins.

As the people rose, most of them pulled tallow-and-rag torches from beneath or beside their chairs, which they had brought with them. As they passed the head table, they plunged them in the dying flames of Wanita's two fires, and held the brands high to illuminate the autumn march to the river.

Wanita finally saw the members of town closely, as they called out blessings in their approach. Bell Washintin came awkwardly with her family, her sister-in-law cradling a tiny newborn, who, in the growing gray light, looked no less dark-skinned than many townsfolk. It was a good omen; sometimes babies grew pale in their mothers if they weren't sharing enough of the earth's blood. When the babies breathed and suckled, they often grew healthier. She smiled at wide-eyed Darla who scuttled behind her husband to avoid Wanita's gaze, peering warily over his shoulder at the queen.

The Chavezes and the Westlys passed in rapid succession. A sobbing Toni couldn't meet her gaze, and Wanita giggled at Dayne's earnest attempt to do so, the only break in her composure in the whole night, quickly frozen by her mother's questioning look. After that, she realized, she cared about the other families in Deliverance only in the abstract. She smiled at them, and raised her hand as the rest past without incident. When all were gone, Jamal lit his own torch, and the Parks followed the procession behind the rest.

The walk to the riverbank was shorter than the earlier trek. The beach was a scant quarter mile away from the plaza, and the crowd continued west through the open stockade, to the landing where the fortified section of town met the river, the bonfire diminishing untended behind them. The folk spread along the shore in chilly torchlit silence.

A tiny boat was moored in the sand, it's bowsprit pointing across the water at the descending moon. Wanita looked up at the pale thing suspended in the sky, and thought of her fantasy nearly a full day before. Was she really worthy to approach the Lord? It didn't, she supposed, matter any more.

An obviously fatigued Molek and an expectant Kalid stood on either side of the gangplank. She kissed her quiet mother and her sobbing father a last time before abandoning their hands and approaching the boat, savoring the crunch of the cool sand and the crispness of the cool air, so much more poignant than yesterday's--colder, she thought, a thousand years colder. The Pater placed his hand on her back as she ascended the plank, but she walked up to the prow alone.

Wanita turned one more time to the assembled throng, being careful to keep her poise. She saw her father, trying to smile through tears as he clutched her mother. She saw Toni looking at her, uncharacteristically discomfitted now, neither smug nor open, and she watched a squinting Dayne place a comforting hand on her friend's shoulder. She waved her arm, and as the town began the fight song a second time, she turned her back to them all. It was well that she did not cry.

The song ended and as the men and the women echoed "fight, fight, fight" back and forth, during which the group of priests, old and young alike, heaved their weight into the stern of the boat after every triad. On the third or fourth round, the craft was freed of the beach, the two young men splashing further along to shove it on its correct westward course. Wanita eyed the fading vampire moon as she floated toward it. She thought of Hayzeus's vanquishing fire, which would soon be rising behind her, to cast the damned thing down.

Even as she thought these things, she heard a hiss as the first torch dropped into water beside her, followed by another. She did not turn to look at them. She heard a thump on the deck at her back, and knew she could make no sound. Lena screamed like a child last year, and the corn had been blighted, whether most of the people in town knew it or not. Wanita would be blessed to avoid this winter.

She breathed deeply, and even as she smelled smoke, she felt a bloom of warmth on her back, and saw her unwavering shadow suddenly arch over the water ahead of her—perhaps it was the sun. The heat was building quickly, and she heard crackling amongst the clatters and bumps behind her. The pink hem of her dress felt uplifted, as though in a current. She felt her hair rise in it too, blazing like a red and orange halo.

Was this the cleansing dawn? Were those black hands, coming to pull her up?

Without a sound, she lifted her arms to them.

Friday, September 02, 2005

A Slow Burn (updated 5/06)

"A monk said to Tozan, 'Cold and heat descend upon us. How can we avoid them?'"

Time is almost over. Though I'm surrounded by clockwork, the context of all those carefully portioned tocks and dings is lost. Once, those moments were so precise, pristine, each day an hourglass full of them, dripped off like tiny snowflakes into the whirling abyss, each fleck a microscopic shard rent from the intricate, interconnected whole like a blizzard in reverse. Those days when I was big, and when I was real. (Like you.)

It is not that I have no memories--I'm awash in the things in fact, and I lay here watching them dance feverishly around me like natives to the drumbeat of the machines, unconnected visions caught in garish pose by the flickering firelight. They are ghostly things, these thoughts, the wisps and drifting sparks of my expelled substance. I do not know how much is left.

Here's one glimpse: I am laying down my large body in blankets. My clammy, trembling body. It's a bed, but not like this one. There is someone there with me: a husband? wife? I am not sure which, nor quite sure of the difference now, nor why the difference is important. (Is it you?)

What is important to this memory, as far as I can gauge these things, is the cold. The cold was everywhere. I tried to pull my body under blankets, to wrap it like a cocoon. The person next to me (it must have been you) was hot, hot with anger and hot everywhere else too, but I couldn't be near. Under my layers of cloth and skin and fat, I was turning to ice. The cold was something inside me too, I realized, maybe more inside than out. Inside me and pushing me out. I understood the sensation no more then than I do now, but I know it was important because this thought comes back more than most of them. It plagues me, chases me through the dark and echoing labyrinths.

"Tozan said, 'Why don’t you go to the place where there is no cold or heat?'"

Here's another glimpse: the man placed his right hand above my chest and asked me to concentrate. The verse, he said would focus me, free me from logic. I'd submit to my thoughts, or ignore them maybe, or control them, if there's any distinction between those things. Anyway, he asked me to concentrate on his hand and also on my chest, and he chanted. He asked me if I felt anything, and I am sure I did not. He asked me once more if I felt anything. Focus, he said, and then I did. Warmth I felt, and then a satisfying heat, and then a climax of fire. Do not touch me, he said as I bounced my big body all around the room, glad of the heat and afraid too.

And there I am running. My legs burning now, the heat lifting me, floating me above the cold pain. My chest was not hot this time, or not burning as much, or maybe not in the same way. I could feel my legs burning inside though. If I went further, harder, this time maybe I could look down and watch them boil. I tried to do this, but my body fought back with its pain, brought me back with a soreness that craved, that sucked out the warmth from my heart. My feet thudded, and my chest throbbed in double time.

Not cold, you said as you touched me, but I disagreed. The cotton and wool around me, it made the warmth bleed out slower, but this helped nothing, it wasn't the problem. You shouted. You broke the thermostat, and I told you it was just as well, it wasn't the house. You were warm too, and that didn't help either.

Running but not in the dark, not through the shadows, not yet. In the light this time. (Like this thin illumination? No, in daylight I think, a fiery but distant sun.) My big body was a little smaller, a little denser, and I could keep the glow up longer, however dully. My body would burn faster if I could go further, if I could outdistance the chill, smother it with the fire of my blazing bones. A little further, a little more, fighting against the icy ache in my flesh. My heart was warming only a little, but I realized that this was something.

The man said that my heart was not hot, not cold, normal. He said to improve my diet. Nurture my spleen, drink enough water. He was wrong, and I didn't think he meant it anyway.

But watch this, he said, and picked up his right hand.

I did not ask about the man's left hand.

Each day I left the house I could go a little further. You kept pushing the water on me, and I hated it, so cold it could kill me. But the water fed the fire too in its way, and with it I could keep the glow going longer, if fainter. So a little less each time, I tried to drink. I could feel my flesh blaze sometimes, and that was a start.

We sat, you and I, in a damp, chilly field and watched a conflagration blaze distant in the sky. You were pushed close, or as close as our flesh would allow. I wondered why you did not feel the emptiness.

"The monk said, 'where is the place where there is no cold or heat?'"

Empty, but I could concentrate, become concentrated. I had been practicing the focusing trick, and chanting. I had been doing little else in the room I think. Was I there a long time? There was a bed (like this, I am sure) and I sat my body on it, small as bodies go, but it filled up the vastness of space in the inadequate rarefied way that explosions fill up the sky, pushed out by a cavernous emptiness. So I sat on the bed, collapsed on it maybe, and practiced. Was my chest warming this time? Moving faster?

Stars collapse when their big bodies can't support their burn anymore, when their substance becomes too riddled and crazed and worn, too full of a labyrinthine emptiness, to withstand the pressure of throwing their nuclear fire into the sky. They collapse and burn more conservatively, until, I suppose, there is no energy left to discard, leaving only a perfect, black, dense sphere.

Every time, I could go with less water, and every time go farther. I poured out the water you gave me. I poured out the icy liquid you'd fill me with, and I felt my heart, my head, my legs get warmer as I ran. The emptiness behind me, I was fleeing some, but not all of it. Not all, because it would sneak back into my joints and creep into my lungs. When I got back, you pushed more water on me, tears this time. I drew your body to mine, but you were draining the heat from me and I shivered. You're burning up, you said, but you were wrong, or at least you were not right enough. As you ran to get more water, I cried a little too: hot, dry tears. Maybe I was burning a little after all.

You were crying again. An accident, you said, but it was not an accident. You pressed our bodies together. You closed the door to my solitary room, leaving me alone on the bed, with the ticking machines. It was not an accident, but it didn't work.

He did not tell me about his left hand. When he turned from me, he was rubbing both of his hands together, and he looked surprised. His left hand was very cold, I think.

Though you were surprised at the idea, you thought it might help, the running. Make me happier, close the distances within myself, and the distances between us. Close them, even as I ran hard miles away from you. I was getting too big anyway, you said, and you were right about that. You brought me light clothes, a water bottle, a headset. You smiled at me as I closed the door and ran away.

The room was small, and I had nowhere to run, and my veins were pumped constantly with frigid quenching liquors. But collapsed on the bed, I could concentrate. I held my right hand, trailing its jiggling tube, to my chest as I recalled a man had once done (long before, I think) with his hand. I held my left hand under my head. I focused. How could I avoid the heat and cold?

Not just my legs, and not just my heart, but my head too this time. And there was no water at all. I had dropped the bottle at the door, and I knew that this time I would run until I got there, got past my chill, drenching body. The heat had pushed up from my legs, out from my chest. It entered both my hands, and surged in my head. I knew I was glowing incandescent, burning like a star. A few more paces. A few more. But then I collapsed, my face looking at the sky, at the distant sun, as the chill fought back, crashing over me in waves.


I focused, chanted, pressed my mind to keep the gelid tide from hollowing me out. My chest surged under my right hand, straining the buttons on my pajamas. Yes. Not just warmth this time, but real heat. I breathed in; my chest raced. Closer. Red hot, scorching, blazing. Breathed out. My chest was under my right hand, but where was my left hand? Another accident? What about the man's left hand? No.

"Tozan said, 'when cold, let it be so cold that it kills you; when hot, let it be so hot that it kills you.'"

The machines are comforting in their way, spinning little automatons, sucking breath in and out of my crumpling body. They push rivulets through their various internal courses, but they cannot prevent the implosion. It is only a body, after all.

Reduced, collapsed, I smolder like an ember or like a candle's blown-out wick, the luminescence sinking inward, hiding behind gray ash as the outside cools. Those cells that are left in my body, they burn up your miserable fuel a molecule at a time, pushing out the chilly water and spent carbon with each beat of the clock, tiny droplets in my processed breath, on my pallid skin. It is a slow burn, those bellows pumping in air to keep a steady glow somewhere deep in the infrared.

The sky is mostly empty really, decorated with only a few perfectly dense, nearly invisible spheres, which are very far apart. The canvas is flawed only by a rare spark from the far reaches, some distant body gasping its last. I can wait just a little longer, I think.