Note: We’ll be posting the series excerpts one at a time in the next several months. Part IV is being published by Moon Willow Press in August 2017. Read an excerpt of Part I of the Infinite Games series: The Marshlanders.
Chapter Fourteen: Fly Out of the Darkness
Dawn came later and dusk fell earlier until, as midwinter approached, only a few hours of sun slanted through gray skies. The darkness was upon them. Clare’s mood did not lift. She had not sunk into such despondency in years. William was disturbed, gathering her into his arms and holding her all night long, only to find her shaking with fear when he awoke in the watches of the night.
Of course Mother was upset, thought Beth, who wouldn’t be if her daughter was getting ready to the ride the wind and she wasn’t allowed to do it, too! Fifteen year old Emma, a deft wind rider, would carry Ben on her pony, while accompanying Beth on her first wind ride over the Ocean Sea. What Beth didn’t know was that Clare, Janet, and Riven would leave on their own quest soon after their children’s departure.
Margaret, like Bethany, could hardly wait for the first gale after Midwinter. She surprised herself with her eagerness to be on her way. It wasn’t the quest for Richard that stirred her up— who knew what he would be like, probably married for years and years and with a whole new family—she was excited about traveling southward to learn what was going on Twist and then penetrate the Delta. What an adventure! So she threw herself with gusto into exercises to strengthen the shoulders and legs of the cliff climbers, amazing her friends with the change from her customary solemnity.
Midwinter fell on the last Sunday in Advent. Everyone rushed around preparing the banquet, which they sensed would be their last celebratory meal together. By dusk the trestles were laid with bright linens and wreathes of holly bound with red ribbons. There was a basket of candles set down by the door. The children, who had been told to play quiet games of spillikens and marbles, were at such a pitch of excitement that their wins and losses were accompanied by sharp squeals and penetrating yells. Then Father Adam appeared at the door to summon them to worship. Everyone hushed and lined up solemnly, with nothing to be heard but shuffling boots as the person chosen from each family of the Cedar Haven received its midwinter candle to bear into the pitch dark sanctuary.
As Margaret, William, Clare and Bethany took their places in the abbey, William whispered something over Bethany’s head to her mother and grandmother. At their nod, he leaned down to tell her that, this year, she would represent her family. When the time came, she must carry their candle to the altar, light it from the central candle, and place it in the wooden holder. Bethany, who had hunched with displeasure at their whispering over her head, squared her shoulders and stood with pride, because only children ready for womanhood and manhood were allowed to light the family’s candle. Although she had scornfully dismissed the news of bleeding and its portents as disgraces to do with other girls and not with herself, it looked like Mother and Father and Grandmother considered her nearly a woman grown. She had been twelve, after all, last September!
The community’s silence was broken only by occasional coughs. When the quiet seemed thick as molasses and the darkness penetrated every corner until they couldn’t even see each other’s faces, the great bell of the Hermitage tower tolled solemnly, just once. They felt a draft on their backs as the great oak doors swung open.
Up the dark aisle walked a figure cloaked entirely in black— Brother Cedric—singing in his bell-like tenor:
“Watchman, tell us of the night,
For the morning seems to dawn”
to be answered by the great low boom of Brother Seamus, invisible at the altar:
“Traveler, darkness takes its flight,
Doubt and terror are withdrawn!”
Clare shuddered. What hope was there that the darkness in which she had dwelt for weeks would lift? But the customs were strong, and, as the Traveler made his way down the aisle bearing a heavy lantern with its small wick glowing and flickering in time with his deliberate steps, she, too, sang the traditional query:
“Watchman, does its beauteous ray
Aught of joy or hope foretell?”
She felt her heart lift at Seamus’ booming answer:
“Traveler, yes, it brings the day,
Promised day of Israel!”
Invisible in their dark habits, the Sisters and Brothers entered the dark chapel to file silently down the aisle and enter their stalls. As Cedric placed his hand in blessing on Brother Seamus’ head the Brothers burst forth:
“Watchman, let thy wanderings cease;
Hie thee to thy quiet home.”
and the Sisters responded:
“Traveler, lo! the Prince of peace,
Lo! The Son of God is come!”
The congregation, which had risen as one to honor the Sisters and Brothers, seated themselves again, with a susuration of winter clothing.
Silence resumed, deeper than before. The Cedar Haveners sat and thought about the winter darkness, and what it would be like if the sun kept rising later and setting earlier until there was no day at all. Clare was thinking that the sun of her world would set when Bethany flew away on the gale. Margaret reached over and took her hand, stroking her palm. Mother, from whom she had been parted for so many years, but who was sitting right here beside her with William and Bethany, interwoven in her life after all! So it had come around, thought Clare. And so it might come around again, she affirmed, a flicker of hope rising briefly from the darkness clouding her spirit.
Then, at last, Brother Cedric lit the great church candle from Seamus’ lantern and held it high, casting the shadows back, and they all chanted the midwinter blessing.
“Out of the darkness,
Now and forever
World without End
The pews filled with the rustling of those who wriggled their way from their groups to carry their candles forward. Bethany went too, proud and upright, to light her family’s flame from the great midwinter candle, placing in one of the holes in an arched wooden holder gradually flickering into a circle of light representing their spiritual community. When all the candles were in place and the chancel illuminated, they settled down for the midwinter homily from a Sister or Brother.
No one expected the round little figure of Father Robin to rise up over the lectern like a mouse from inside a crock of cheese, nor could they believe his soft voice could ring against the stones of the abbey so strongly and clearly, commanding them to
“FLY OUT OF THE DARKNESS”
so loudly that little children could be seen rising and falling upon their seats, while adults gaped in astonishment at the soft spoken old Priest who hadn’t delivered a homily to an audience larger than his bees in years.
“FLY OUT OF THE DARKNESS,”
he shouted, chuckling to himself at what a good idea it had been to secrete one of his honeycomb boxes behind the pulpit so that he could climb up on it to surprise all of his friends, gathered there in the dark below him. For once in his life, he felt tall and commanding.
“There is nothing but light within us! There is light in you. There is light in me!”
Truly, they could believe it. His fine, wispy hair was illuminated by the candles and his silken cope, which he only wore on rare occasions and which many of them had never seen before, whirled brightly around his shoulders. Drawing a deeper breath than he had been capable of for years, he declaimed from his bee box:
“There is light in me, there is light in you, though the night seems dark, there is light!
Deep in the cave, in your sorrow, in the storm, in your broken hearts, there is light!
Did you think otherwise? Did you think the dark absolute? Does the dark of December go on forever? No! Of course not— it gives way for the spring. On this darkest night of the year, what do we know? We know that at this very moment, now, just when we have lit our midwinter candles, the sun begins to return.
I am not saying that no one here tonight dwells in darkness. Every heart has its dark places. Some of us choose to remain there, crouched in terror and pain because we have been wounded by evil.
I am not denying that evil can touch us, and mark us, and wound us, and even kill us.
What I am saying is that evil is a shadow, and a shadow is always cast by a light. If you crouch in a shadow, you are holding yourself back from the light that casts it.
If your heart is wounded, you are afraid of healing! Better pain, you say, than a heart healed only to be wounded again!
But I tell you that life is worth stretching your heart for.
Are you afraid of feeling? Love again!
Are you afraid of the wind? Take wing on it!
Are you afraid of heights? Climb them!
Are you afraid of the depths? Dive into them!
Are you afraid of the uttermost parts of the earth?
Take courage, friends! Though the path is dark and the way unclear, dare to take up your pack and go forth!
Is it separation from loved ones you fear?
Fear Not! We are always together. We can never be parted, we who carry each other in our hearts forever!
Fear not evil! The universe is luminous with good. There was only one utter darkness, and only that once, into which the light poured that is all around us.
That brightness does not shine from afar, it shines from within. The light of the world is within you and within me and the heart of our beloved community!”
Father Robin rose up on the tips of his toes to lean across the pulpit, feeling as tall as he had ever felt in his life, to shout his peroration in a strong, forceful voice, to the amazement of the whole congregation.
“FLY OUT OF THE DARKNESS,” he shouted at the top of his voice, then faded abruptly into the darkness behind his pulpit.
Margaret and Bethany heard Father Robin’s thrilling call to cross the Ocean Sea and undertake their great adventure. Janet and Riven looked at each other and decided that it might not be so terribly frightening, after all, to go to the aid of the mainland folks even though there were those among them who had once driven them, chained to their mothers, to the Cliffs of Doom. Rory and William stopped worrying about ropes and grommets and stakes and handholds and footholds, deciding that what would be would be.
Clare, who, like everyone in the abbey, felt as if that Father Robin was speaking to her and to her alone, felt her sorrow at the impending absence from Bethany subside and the spirit of adventure rise in her heart. She remembered morning mists, and paddling swiftly and silently through the reeds and sedges, and the Heron singing lovingly about friends from whom we must be parted though they dwell in our hearts forever.
But the Sisters and Brothers in the choir stalls had seen Father Robin fall back from the pulpit, his bee box tumbled to the side. The old Priest lay on his back, absolutely still, with his eyes wide open. It was clear to everyone that the little form was but an empty shell now; his soul had departed from it. Father Adam lifted him in his arms and, with one accord, they rose from their places to march solemnly behind him down the aisle, trying to keep the tears out of their voices as sang his favorite hymn of all:
“Through the night of dark and sorrow
Onward goes the pilgrim band,
Singing songs of expectation,
Marching to the promised land.
Clear before us through the darkness
Gleams and burns the guiding light:
Brother, Sister, Sister, Brother,
Stepping fearless through the night.”