Aifa had always asked herself, ever since she was a little child, why would a community decide to perform a ceremony that featured water during the time of year when it was almost guaranteed to be frozen. Of course if she asked her mother, she would have gotten hours of cross-referenced instruction about the significance of the holiday, complete with historical dates and the most important writings about it.
It had to do with the Twins, of course, everything in Cré had to do with the Twins, but as far as the particular time of year, she couldn’t remember a reason. To her family’s dismay, whose members were never satisfied with the level of interest Aifa showed to her doctrinal studies, she didn’t much care what the reason was, but that didn’t prevent this holiday from being one of her favorites, because it involved something very special indeed: a trip to the sea shore.
She didn’t mind the cold, or the treacherous hike along the cliff side, made barely practicable by snow and ice, she didn’t mind the ceremonial carrying of water, and the religious imperative that no drop be spilled. She saw this annual descent to the sea as a precious gift, and she liked to keep this opinion to herself, for no reason.
The Blessing of the Waters brought everyone out to the shores, nobody would dream of missing the joyful event and the field trip associated with it. Young and old, as soon as the bells rang to mark sundown, filled their ceremonial cups, used only for this day and no other, with water from the fountains of their homes, and started their slow walk towards the beach, to return the waters to the sea.
They held the ceremonial vessel in the cupped palm of their right hand, as a reminder of older times, when they had arrived tired and ragged to these rocky shores, and knelt down by the sweet tasting mountain streams to appease their thirst. In the left hand they carried the small bundle of salt, the salt of the earth, to bless the fishing nets.
“Don’t spill your water, granddaughter, it is just not done!” Aifa’s grandmother preemptively admonished; her words made the young girl sigh, because she knew full well there was no way she was going to get all the way to the shore with all her water in the cup. Her grandmother did her best not to notice when the slip-ups occurred, but her mother and father never hesitated to give Aifa a piece of their mind.
“It’s not humanly possible!” Aifa quietly protested, somewhat peeved that her grandmother provided living proof that wasn’t true.
“The secret is not to fill your cup all the way up,” the latter chuckled softly.
“But mother says…” Aifa retorted.
“I know what your mother says. Do you want to get to the shore with all of your water or not?”
Aifa eyed her grandmother’s cup, when she thought the latter wasn’t looking, to assess exactly how full the vessel should be. Grandma’s cup was filled to the brim. She sighed and gave up, placing another mark in her mental column of reasons why Cré needed the twenty year education system.
“It teaches you balance, granddaughter,” grandmother answered her unasked question. “Don’t worry, with practice you’ll get there.”
“What kind of practice only takes place once a year?” Aifa asked herself. “By the time this feast rolls around again, it will be like I’ve never done this before.” She looked to her grandmother in search of an answer.
“Just because the feast is only once a year, it doesn’t mean the practice has to be,” the former replied. “Watch your step!”
They had been lucky that year, the temperatures were low, but not extreme. In other years the water in the cups would freeze by the time they got all the way down to the sea, and they had to grease the cups to make sure the ice didn’t stick to them. Water was, however, much easier to carry in solid form.
During those very cold years, a fascinating phenomenon occurred: because of the frigid temperatures, the water sublimated, rising in ghostly wisps of fog until the ice was all gone, as if the spirit of the sea was trying to bring the water back to a state that would allow it to return to its source all by itself.
The long trip along the side of the cliff was blessed every year with the most spectacular painted skies – every shade of purple, rose, bright orange, green and yellow, reflected on the ever moving turquoise waters of the sea; Aifa was secretly convinced that the Twins put up that show for the citizens of Cré on purpose, to make them forget the bitter cold and the seemingly endless rugged climb to get back home.
“We made good time,” grandmother commented, looking at the sky. “With any luck we’ll get back while it’s still light outside.”
The group of people who had already made it to the beach was growing slowly, surrounding the members of the High Council who were preparing to start the ceremony.
“I see you still got your water, for the most part,” grandmother teased. Aifa looked down, feeling awkward, but her mother nudged her to pay attention, for the ceremony was about to begin.
“We are gathered here, as we are every year, to return our waters to their source. We have been blessed with rain, so we lacked for nothing. In gratitude, we offer back a gift of water from our homes.”
“Do I pour the water now?” Aifa whispered to her mother, stomping her feet to keep warm. The beach wasn’t exactly user friendly at this time of year.
“Not yet, have patience,” her mother calmly admonished her, and her poise felt a little intimidating to Aifa; the former didn’t seem to notice the cold and had the graceful and relaxed posture of a marble statue.
“We thank our fishermen for their sacrifice, we know it’s not easy to be away from the safety of the city, at the mercy of the waves. We have brought salt for them to salt their nets, so that their fishing is always blessed with luck.”
Aifa looked longingly at the frozen masts, and at the sails, and the thick ropes, off of which the icicles dripped like weird sparkling beards, and thought to herself that whatever that sacrifice was, it must be worth it. She wished she could, just once, be out there, on the open seas, to breathe in the salty air and listen to the seagulls, and watch the sun rise over the water, however that was an unlikely prospect, given the fact that, by birth, her fate had already chosen otherwise for her.
“Aifa,” her mother chided. “Your salt.”
Aifa shook off her reverie and joined the line of people who were waiting to deposit their symbolic mineral offering into a large bowl, placed on the line where the sea met the land, in the neutral territory along the border between two worlds, accessible by both, belonging to neither.
“Let us give our offerings of water, to be returned to us in good time for a bountiful harvest. May the water be blessed so that all the people, and all the other living things whose lives it sustains, be they of the land, of the sea, or of the sky, may also be blessed and thrive.”
Aifa approached the water line, walking slowly on the salt bleached beach covered in wispy snow and frozen seashells and clumps of seaweed encased in ice. Everything sparkled in the low light of the setting sun, and as she poured her cup into the sea, slowly and reverently, as the ritual required, Aifa thought she never, in her entire life, had seen a most beautiful sight.
“They must be in there somewhere,” she pondered, looking around and trying to figure out which was the exact place on the beach where the Twins were first seen. If she really listened, she could almost hear their laughter and their footsteps echoing against the rocky cliffs.
“It’s only the wind, child,” her grandmother whispered, breaking the spell of the sea. “They are not here.”
“What do you think they will look like this year, doyenne?” Aifa tried to imagine the endless variations on the theme of long brown hair and blue-green eyes that the Twins countenance embodied each spring.
“You’ll find out soon enough,” grandmother smiled. “Don’t be too impatient; be thankful for the rest you’re getting for now, you’re going to need all your strength when they arrive.”
“Are they really that boisterous?” Aifa doubted.
“Oh, dear me! Every hour on the hour, I tell you. Night and day!” grandmother said. “It looks like I was right, we’re going to get home by daylight. Come, granddaughter, it’s time to return.”
Aifa started the long stretch home, thinking to herself that it would have been nice if the sea level wasn’t so far down, and feeling embarrassed to fall too far behind her grandmother, who, as always, engaged the hike with no effort at all.
The night was drawing near and it was getting really cold, and the sky turned dark shades of indigo and ultramarine which made it feel colder still. Aifa held on to the little empty cup, hidden under her heavy winter wrap, and the cup was warm from the touch of her hands, as if it too was made of flesh and blood, not stone. Aifa thought it so strange that this little artifact was going to accompany her through all the events of her life, and when she would finally go to her place of rest, the cup will go with there with her. It had been chosen with great care by her family, as her mother was getting ready to bring Aifa into the world. What a strange thing this was, to have an object made for you and you alone, an object that waits for you to be born and follows you into the afterlife when you are gone. The little cup got even warmer under her fingers, as if it understood. “This cup of life was given me,” Aifa automatically mouthed the little mantra that the people of Cré recited at the end of each day, “to hold my spirit inside it like water.”
Somewhere in the fishermen’s village somebody was preparing the nets to be salted in the morning, and little lights started glowing, one by one, in the small abodes by the sea. “They always get home first,” Aifa thought, huffing and puffing her way up the last portion of the slope, the one right before the city gates, which was the steepest. She was tired and hungry, and was looking forward to the traditional steaming cup of tea; she resented her age, which didn’t allow her to strengthen it with something a little more substantial, like the grown-ups did, ‘cause it sure seemed to do the trick for them. “At least the hike keeps the blood flowing, otherwise I’d be frozen like a pillar of ice by now.” It was getting really cold fast, and dark enough that the world turned off most of its colors and retired for the night in somber shades of blue and gray. “I guess the Twins got the right idea,” she begrudged them. “Skip this horrid season altogether and show up in spring, when it’s nice and warm.” And then she felt bad about it, and she wondered how cold the deep sea was, if they were indeed there, and thought that maybe their winter world was more daunting than hers. “What on earth am I thinking!” she shook her head. “They’re Gods, for crying out loud. I wonder if we could maybe suggest to them to lighten up a bit on the winter weather, maybe come back a little sooner this year.”
“You’re lost in your own head again, granddaughter. Be here with us, will you? We’ll be home pretty soon.”
“Doyenne,” Aifa started, since she had nothing better to do on the long cold way home. “Do you think we could persuade them to change the weather?”
“What in Creation are you thinking, child!” grandmother retorted, outraged. “Do you think you know better than nature what to do with the seasons?”
“Not a lot, you know? Just a little bit,” Aifa tried to soften up the impious comment. There was no way to get anywhere with her grandmother once the great scheme of things was touched upon irreverently; she was really strict about these kinds of things. Aifa prepared herself for a good talking to on the subject of ethics and morality, but grandmother was tired, hungry and cold too, so she deferred to comment.
(A Year and A Day – Excerpt – January)