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 picking a row of tomatoes in the company of several women. Two men rode escort around the boundaries of the plot of ground crowded with the plump red fruits, while the workers’ bonnets bobbed up and down in the brilliant sunshine.
Donas felt especially content when she remembered her brief discourse with Lionel before breakfast. She had cornered him alone and asked him if Barrett had told him the truth about Katera.
“What does that matter to me?” he replied. “You are not your mother, Donas.”
How simple his answer, she thought, and yet how comforting.
The women smiled at each other across their rows every now and then, and Donas relished the camaraderie. From behind her, a woman’s voice suddenly rose in spontaneous song:
Come out to the fields,
You young, strong, and able....
Another voice joined in the next lines:
Give thanks to the sun,
The food for our tables...
It wasn’t long before all the women except Donas were singing:
Sing praise to the rain,
For its gentle waters.
We harvest our crops,
Strong sons and fair daughters.
When the women began again, it seemed as though they were keeping time as the tomatoes made their way from the vines to the baskets.
Soon Donas had learned the words, and sang loudly with the others:
Come out to the fields,
You young, strong and able;
Give thanks to the sun;
The food for our tables;
Sing praise to the rain,
For its gentle waters;
We harvest our crops
Strong sons and fair daughters.
We’ll work the day long,
And rest in the evening;
And feel no fatigue
So long as we’re singing!
‘Oh, how wonderful,’ Donas thought. ‘This is what I dreamed of, when we ran away from the motele. We talk at our meals, and now we are singing while we work!’
The joyful song swelled into the bright sky, and when it had been sung several times, a different woman started another. And so it went, through the long afternoon.
It was the night for the Storytelling. When Donas had bathed, she put on her new yellow dress. Unfortunately, Lionel and Mak were not yet home by the time supper was ready.
“Why are they late?” Sewella grumbled. “Here is Donas, looking so beautiful, and Lionel is not here.”
“He’ll be here,” Barrett said. “He won’t keep Mak out after dark. If they don’t come soon, we’ll send someone after them.”
“Surely you don’t think something has happened to them?” Donas asked nervously.
“No, of course not. Lionel can take care of himself — don’t fret. Let’s clear the table and get ready to go to the hill. By then, they’ll be here.” Barrett rose to her feet, followed by Sewella, Donas, and Rani.
“I hope the story’ll be good,” Rani said. “I hope it’ll be Sebastian’s story. It’s the best, ’cause it has a pretty star in it.”
“We never know what the story will be until the telling begins, Rani,” Sewella replied. “But you know that, don’t you?”
“I know that.”
Sewella bent down and hugged the six-year-old. “Oh, Rani, you’re such a darling.”
By the time the family was ready to depart, the two missing young males had appeared.
“Lionel! I think your father was starting to worry!” Barrett exclaimed.
“Mother — I thought I told you we were taking food with us so as not to waste time. Then we had to put the horses up. Our schedule is going to be like this for several more days. Remember, Donas — I explained it to you — that Mak and I would be extremely busy for a while? And working extra hours?”
“Yes, I remember.”
“Mother forgot you were not going to eat with us,” Sewella said. “We are just now about to leave. Look at Donas.”
Lionel gazed in appreciation at Donas in the soft yellow dress. “Very lovely, Donas. You make a good model for our Sewella.”
They all laughed and paired off, Sebastian and Barrett holding hands, Rani attaching herself to Sewella, and Lionel taking Donas’ arm. Mak trailed Lionel like a faithful dog.
The air was moist and heavy, the sky streaked with haze. Already the bonfire was roaring, little spurts of flame disappearing into a multitude of pale stars.
Lionel helped Donas as she made her way up the hill. This was the first time she was attired in skirts, with the exception of the betrothal ceremony, and that had been indoors. She learned quickly to hold up her hem to keep the yellow dress from dragging in the grass.
“Look, Donas,” Rani said. “Nakoma has a new dress too.”
Donas saw Nakoma and her mother a few feet away. Nakoma waved. She had on a deep crimson dress with a low neckline; her hair reflected the firelight and framed her perfect shoulders in rivulets of bronze.
“I wanted Donas to be the only one wearing something special,” Sewella muttered.
“It doesn’t matter,” Donas replied. “Mine is so different from hers.”
‘I was right,’ Donas thought. ‘Sewella simply doesn’t like Nakoma — for no reason. Just like Mak’s dislike for Lucee.’
Donas turned to Barrett. “Is Alfreda not coming?”
“She has been having pains all morning,” Barrett said. “She’s feeling a bit uncomfortable.”
“She’s close to her time, but it is still a little early,” Sewella commented.
“Only about ten days. It’s difficult to predict the time, especially with a first baby,” Barrett replied. “I don’t think she’s ready — she hasn’t dropped.”
“’Dropped’? What does that mean?” Donas inquired.
“Often when the birth of a child is imminent, there is a noticeable difference in the way the mother is carrying it. The baby actually looks lower,” Barrett explained.
“Oh, I see.”
As the murmuring crowd began to settle down with their mugs of tea, and mothers motioned to their children to stop running about and seat themselves — even Donas and Sewella had to call Rani back to the family circle — Tolk appeared.
He stood in front of the bonfire as usual. But tonight he had a surprise for his audience.
“My friends, let us listen to the story I will tell this night.” There was no difference in the introduction, which was always virtually the same.
Tolk continued, “This a story you have never heard before. It did not happen long ago, but in the season past.”
At this the crowd began to gasp and chatter among themselves. Tolk waited until they quieted down again before going on.
“There is a place of evil in the delta country, of which some of you have heard. We do not know much about this place, for none of us have been there for twenty or more years. But the name of its leader has always been known wherever there are communities of people. There is no doubt that this community to our north is a bad and frightening place.
“A young woman lived there and did not accept its way of life. She risked hers and that of her kin in refusing it. She received help from no one but a single good man, and that only as she made her escape.
“With no weapons and nothing except food she had prepared herself, she undertook a journey of three weeks and suffered many hardships. But her courage brought her here, where we welcome her, along with her brother and sister. Her name is Donas.”
Applause began to break out here and there. “Stand up, Donas,” Lionel whispered.
She hesitated, embarrassed.
“Go ahead, Donas — just for a moment. It is the custom,” encouraged Barrett.
So Donas stood, and the applause became louder and more widespread. She sat back down, still embarrassed by so much attention.
“So goes the story of Donas. My people, you are to understand that Donas’ name will be a permanent one for generations, and her story will become part of our tradition. From this day forward, Donas is a name that may be used for girl children by any parents who choose it. So goes the story of Donas.”
There followed such a flurry of congratulations, Donas’s head began to spin. It seemed that almost everyone there wanted to come up to her and say something.
Finally Nakoma made her way over and hugged Donas. The lateness of the hour and the crimson of the new dress made Nakoma’s oddly shaped eyes turn a murky emerald, beautiful and slightly mysterious. “We’ll celebrate together tomorrow,” she whispered. “I’ll make us something good to eat.”
At length, the crowd began to disperse, and Lionel reminded his family that he and Mak needed to spend at least an hour or two in the stable, despite the fact that it was nearly time for bed.
“I’m tired,” Rani said, yawning.
“So am I,” agreed Donas.
“Lionel and I are not,” Mak stated.
Donas smiled at him. ‘You would say that for Lionel to hear even if you were about to drop to the ground, she thought.’
“We’ll all sleep well tonight,” Sewella said, unaware that her words were the very opposite of the manner in which the next several hours would unfold.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2011 by Mary Brunini McArdle