A Year and A Day – Excerpt – March

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The Day of the Blessings usually started early in Aifa’s household. Aifa and her siblings were already dressed up in their costumes by the time the sun was high up in the sky, and were crowding each other in the kitchen, where they were all gathered to stuff their goody baskets with filled pastries and other yummy treats.

They were lucky this year, the day was sunny and relatively warm for the beginning of March, it was really no fun having to wear a heavy coat over the costumes they had spent so much time and energy to create for themselves.

They all got out of the house at the same time and dispersed in every direction, cheerfully offering their sweet treats to passers by, in exchange for blessings. It was considered very lucky if they managed to give away all their baked goods before they reached the Hearth, and Aifa was way ahead of the game; by the time she reached the half point of her journey, her basket was already empty.

The aroma of fresh pastries accompanied her along the way, wafting from every house, every baker’s basket and every bake shop around the square. The market was full of people, most of whom had come just to socialize and make great noise in order to chase away the shadows. The children couldn’t believe their luck when their parents assured them that on this day being noisier than usual was not only not chastised, but welcome. They jumped at the opportunity with gusto and endless amounts of energy, pulling pranks on each other and poking fun at themselves.

“Grab a rattle and make some noise, granddaughter!” Aifa’s grandmother welcomed her in the Grand Hall. She’d been there since morning, reading blessings to the visitors and offering pastries and fruit. “We don’t want the winter to linger any longer. The Twins are soon to arrive, we need to welcome them with good weather and good cheer.”

Every time the word ‘winter’ was mentioned, somebody immediately swirled their rattle, to drown it with noise and not allow it to be heard.

“Why can’t we say winter, doyenne?” Aifa asked, and the word ‘winter’ was instantly drowned in deafening noise; she had asked her grandmother, even though she knew the answer full well, just to tease the latter, who happened to be in great spirits, and as such, was sure to give an entertaining answer. On this particular holiday, histrionics were appreciated as an art form, and people went out of their way to outperform their neighbors in joking and merrymaking. Her grandmother didn’t disappoint.

“Don’t you speak that evil word out loud, child! And in the middle of the Hearth, no less! What is this city coming to?! Have a pastry!” she said, shoving the pastry platter in her face, with no transition in attitude or tone of voice, which made the scene hilarious.

Another group of visitors had arrived, and she had to return to the reading of the blessings, part of which could not be heard, because the children, diligent in their assignment for the day, were saying the word ‘winter’ over and over, just for the opportunity to play with their rattles inside the Hearth, were their echoes reverberated for minutes, an unthinkable feat on any other day.

A group of people seemed to coalesce out of nothing and break into dance, to the glee of those around them, who gathered round to get a better view.

“Dance with us, granddaughter, and rejoice, don’t be shy!” Aifa’s grandmother reached for her hand to bring her into the dance. “You don’t want the shadows of winter to loom over us for weeks to come!” Again, the word ‘winter’ was drowned in deafening noise, and Aifa got dragged, reluctantly, into a chain dance around the circular recess at the center of the Hearth. People had brought musical instruments for instances just like this, and joined in gladly to broaden the harmony.

Aifa was always shocked to watch her grandmother on the Day of the Blessings. The latter was usually rather reserved and dignified, not in any way prone to any extroverted behavior, but it was almost a statement of faith, on this particular day, to show Divine Mercy all the joy, good cheer and gratitude one was capable of. Therefore she sang, and danced, and she laughed, and she partook in the spirits, just as the day of the blessings demanded, and expected her granddaughter to do the same. Well, not the spirits part.

“Be grateful, child,” she said. “We are healthy and thriving, our lives are never lacking for joy, and winter is soon to be over.” The word ‘winter’ was again drowned in a terrible racket. “Sing and rejoice, and dance with us, so that our communal celebration can be heard far and wide!”

Aifa got pulled in the wake of her grandmother’s glee. She just realized she too was in a good mood, so she asked the latter.
“What about me, doyenne? Don’t you have any blessings for me?”

Grandmother stopped, surprised by the request.

“Of course I do, granddaughter.” She took the girl’s hands in hers, and said, suddenly very serious.

“May you be free, child.”

“Free? But I am free, am I not?” Aifa asked, confused.

“Listen, don’t talk! May you be free: may your purpose never be swayed by need or by fear, may all your wishes be freely granted, may your light always shine brightly to the world and may your voice be heard and respected by all. May you live a long life and may every day of it come to you with a blessing.”

“And that would set me free?”

“Let me ask you something. What is the meaning of life?” grandmother asked.

“Doyenne, I thought I would be the one to ask you this question,” Aifa replied.

“It was a rhetorical question, child. It’s the Day of the Blessings, time for a little flamboyance. Nobody really knows, but we have a vague idea of what it is that darkens our lives, makes them less than we wish they were, do we not? They are easy to recognize, because you can almost feel their shadow fall over you and try to drag you away from the things that give you joy and make you look forward to the day. We have been blessed with the gift to be able to feel its presence, it is a lot harder for people who don’t even realize it exists. In a way we all shade each other at times, we’re all failing humans, but you have to remember one thing, granddaughter: whenever you are in the shadow, your soul is chained. You stop existing to your purpose until you go back into the light. Don’t you live in the shadow even for a second, child! Keep your purpose unstrained by the winds of this world.”

“But how do I do that, grandmother?”

“You don’t have to do anything. You just have to know it.”

“But what is this shadow that you talk about, doyenne?”

“It is human nature, granddaughter. We are constantly battling our demons, the undesirable outcomes of our own creation. Do you remember the candle story?”

Aifa did, but grandmother decided to tell it again, just to press the point.

“When you are in complete darkness, all you have to do is light a candle and its tiny, flickering light will be seen from far away. The candle doesn’t chase away the shadows, the candle transforms them into light. If you are in the dark, be the candle in the dark. If you are in the light, be one with the light.”

The celebration had started to wind down, giving way to the comforting light of the sunset.

“We were blessed with a beautiful day for the celebration, were we not?”

Aifa nodded, looking at the warm glow that had already started to melt the snow. One could almost feel spring approaching.
“You have to remember something, granddaughter. Throughout your life, there will be many times when the shadow will try to surround you, and it will try to make you feel the fears of the things you think you cannot do, and it will try to convince you to surrender everything that you are in exchange for its help. There is only one thing you have to remember: you will never need any force outside of yourself in order to live your life. All of those feelings that are trying to rob you of your essence, which blow back and forth like winds trapped in a cage, only have the power that you are willing to give them. Without your consent, they are nothing, and they go back to the place whence they came.”

Grandmother looked around, to see if anything needed cleaning before they all started back home. Aifa’s mother was still reading blessings, and in between them, she had her customary posture of relaxed stillness, almost like a marble statue. When she finished her blessing, she folded back the cloth, according to the ceremony, and placed it neatly on the table in front of her. Aifa wished she could achieve this level of peace, it seemed that nothing unsettled her mother from her own inner bliss.

The waves of the world returned to her shores, and she started to worry about the Twins’ arrival, until she realized she was doing the exact opposite of what her grandmother had just said.

“I see the shadow is pushing already,” grandmother smiled at Aifa’s scrunched up forehead. “It follows the light like a hungry wolf, always trying to gnaw at its heels. Don’t feed it, granddaughter.”

On the way home, Aifa wondered what the Twins would be like, and pictured them surrounded by light, like she heard many people describe them, splendid in their divinity, above all human weakness, two young demigods enlightening the world with their surreal benevolence.

Grandmother started laughing so hard, she almost startled Aifa into dropping her little basket.

“Why are you laughing, doyenne?”

“Oh, dear!” Grandmother finally settled down, wiping her eyes. “If only our expectations of things ever had anything to do with the things themselves! Just wait and see, granddaughter, you’ll soon understand why I’m laughing. They are not as unearthly as that, I’d have to say the exact opposite.”

“How did you know…” Aifa asked, surprised.

“I am old, dear. When you get to this age, things tend to come to you. I just didn’t want you to be disappointed, not all the countenances in which divinity reveals itself upon this earth look like they belong in the heavens, some come dressed in the tattered cloak of the mundane. On this day we are grateful for the hidden presence of the light among us, especially in our daily comings and goings, when we tend to forget all about it. Its soft radiance blesses our lives in ways we are often not aware of, keeps us from harm and lights our paths. Sometimes divinity speaks to us in all its power and glory, and then we are in awe. Its voice is like thunder, its countenance is like fire, and we humble ourselves before it. Most of the time, though, it’s just there for us, plain as day, and we are so used to what we are seeing, we don’t even realize we are staring straight at God, that we uphold the divine through the humdrum of our daily life. That, my dear child, is worth celebrating.”

Aifa pondered on what her grandmother had said, a little worried now about what the Twins were going to be like, and then shook off her worry and thought that if they were truly divine, they couldn’t be that bad, and then she abandoned any thought of the Twins and remembered the gift she had received from her grandmother that day.

She contemplated her blessing of freedom, wrapped it neatly in her thoughts, and placed it inside her soul, to guide her path from that day forward. It was a precious gift, an elder’s blessing, and because it came from her grandmother, whom she loved dearly, it was all the more precious to Aifa.

“I forgot to mention one more thing, granddaughter,” grandmother said simply, almost as an afterthought. They were almost home, making their way through the melted snow that had started turning back to slush in the chill of the evening. The combined effect of the dimming light, the cold and the slush at their feet didn’t look particularly awe inspiring. Aifa shivered and walked around a puddle where the thinnest, almost imperceptible layer of ice was starting to form.

“What is that, doyenne?”

“When in presence of the divine, one must be still.”

(A Year and A Day – Excerpt – March)