On the longest night of the year, the women of Cré gather quietly, dressed in their festive garments, whiter than snow, to walk the gentle hill towards the Hearth of the Gemini, whose limestone walls glow ghostly in the distance. They have no lights to guide them, other than those of the stars and the moon, as they slowly join in long files, which in turn join larger streams, which in turn join the main procession to pass through the gate of the Hearth together, like confluences of rivulets and rivers finding their way to the sea.
Nobody utters a single sound, as it has been the tradition for thousands of years, and with each year passing, the significance of this silence amplifies and lends more decorum to the sacred ritual. It isn’t forbidden to talk, there is no mention in the law that everything has to happen in silence, but every woman and girl past the age of thirteen knows and abides by this unspoken rule, as a measure of respect and pride in their tradition.
Once past the gate the group disperses to fill the large round hall at the center of the Hearth, settling into their customary places, by family and by rank, grandmothers, mothers and daughters, quietly sharing the celebration of womanhood and the privilege of bearing the gift of life.
The hall is completely dark, but no one stumbles, or fails to find their place. For every one of them, including the thirteen year old girls, for whom this is the first time they are allowed to participate in the Night of the Mothers, the Hearth’s great hall is as familiar as their own homes. There isn’t a single person in Cré, man, woman or child, who hadn’t spent time there during the warm months, because it is the dwelling of the Twins, and the Twins’ daily activities are the blood and purpose of city life.
For those for whom this is their first celebration the place feels different during the Night of the Mothers, however, and a bit intimidating in its highly ceremonial decor, because this is the first opportunity to experience the hall in the Twins’ absence, devoid of the usual laughter and chatter and playful chaos the two carry with them everywhere they go. Their sunken beds, shallowly carved in the stone floor and marking the center of the hall, are empty, their edges strewn with mistletoe and ivy. The shape of the beds is strange, two halves of the same circle, barely separated by a slab of agate, so thin it is translucent, and whose bright orange, blue and burned sienna hues provides startling contrast to the sparseness of the room.
Almost thirty feet tall and surrounded by slender columns, its vaulted ceilings stripped of unnecessary details, the room is otherwise empty and every word spoken in it reverberates in endless echoes and bounces about the structure, rising higher and higher, until it reaches out to the sky through the large oculus at the top of the central dome. The opening seems small seen from below, on account of it being so high up, but it is in fact the exact size of the circle that borders the Twins’ beds in the center of the floor, and perfectly aligned with them too, so that whatever sparse rays the starry night lets through will all be shining upon their circular bed, connecting it to the sky via a column of ethereal radiance.
As their eyes adjust to the scant light, the women of the Cré start distinguishing the activity that is unfolding around them, whose only indication is the soft shuffling of feet. Right in front of them, on the other side of the twin stone beds, the matrons of the High Council wait for the clock tower to strike midnight, the hour where the celebration of the winter solstice traditionally begins. At the center of the group, the city matriarch waits patiently to preside over the ceremony.
She is a dignified woman whose hair is almost as white as the loose ceremonial scarf that covers her head, an artful piece of needlework, the work of a master creweler, embroidered with white silk and silver thread. Nobody remembers how old the matriarch is, not even the women of her generation, but her unwrinkled face looks ageless, almost like it was carved in stone.
The clock strikes midnight and the soft shuffling subsides, and every eye in the room turns towards her.
With very measured gestures she repeats the ritual of the lighting of the candle, the same way she had done for many decades, and the soft flicker of the candle flame, the only light in the room, casts a halo around her features as she speaks the first words of the ceremony.
“Tonight we celebrate the woman folk for been graced with the gift of bearing life. This is the longest night of the year, and yet our souls are filled with hope and patient anticipation of life’s renewal. We are grandmothers, mothers and daughters, who have joined together to rejoice in the knowledge that those who have never known a mother will return to us in the fullness of time, as they do every year. Tonight we share the light, to remember that we are daughters of women and mothers of women, we are of the same flesh, we are of the same blood, and we are bound through the centuries to all of those who have come before us and all of those who are yet to be.”
The little flicker of her candle flame touches the wicks of the candles held by the matrons to her left and to her right, and then their tiny flickers multiply by tens and by hundreds as the warm glow disperses through the crowd to form waves and streams of light, and it feels like all of a sudden hundreds of faces appeared, framed by artfully embroidered white scarves, faces young and old, placid and curious, poised and fidgety, the celebrants of the feast.
“Each winter solstice the Night of the Mothers is one and the same, forever reverberating through time. The cradles of the Twins are still empty, but like expectant mothers who await childbirth we have came to whisper to them our wishes and prayers, knowing they will be granted in due time. With reverence, we ask the matrons of the High Council to start the procession.”
The restless flow of white garments and candle lights accumulate towards the center of the hall, as the members of each matrilinear line approach the center of the Hearth together, to make wishes for the coming year and to place white anemones in the shallow beds. Time seems to stop flowing in the monotonous rhythm of their silent procession, and only the growing mound of white flowers attests to its passing. As the last women approaches the circle, the first glow of the morning perches on the horizon. The matriarch speaks again.
“We have gathered to witness the longest night of the year together. We have seen the first dawn of the year renewed. Let us now part so that we may return to our homes, but let our hearts remain united by its light.”
This was little Aifa’s first grown-up celebration, and she walked clumsily on her way home, wobbling behind her mother and grandmother, gazing with tired eyes at the glow of the sunrise, still quiet, despite the fact that after the ceremony was over, the unspoken tradition of keeping silent no longer applied. She was trying to take in as much of the meaning of this event as she could, and had to admit that all the preparation she did before it did not completely jive with the experience itself. Her preparation had been more involved than usual because she was to become a Caretaker, like her mother, and her grandmother before her, and all of her female ancestors, going so far back in time nobody in the family could remember when this great honor was bestowed upon it. They were the keepers of the Hearth, the many earthly mothers of the Twins, beings who, in their long, endlessly repeating existence, had never known a mother of their own.
Aifa had never been all that good with children, and worried endlessly about being made responsible for the well-being of what one could call a pair of demi-gods. The Twins were human, sure, if one could call human a being which disappears without a trace each year at the beginning of the dark season, only to reemerge, fully grown, when nature comes back to life in spring. There were many legends regarding the origin of the Twins, like there were many legends relating to every holiday, feast and celebration in their symbolic year; legends and traditions were the life blood of Cré’s society, the meaning of life itself. Some believed the twins had descended from the sky, others that they were the fruit of an enormous blue-green flower, whose petals had subsequently scattered to become the oceans and the seas. Others swore the Twins were born fully human, only to be subjected to an enchantment that made them relive the same year when they came of age. The truth is nobody really knew, and the shelves of the anthropology section of the library were buckling under the massive weight of Twin mythology, whose sheer volume of information was daunting to all but the strongest of heart.
All of this symbolism was somewhat lost on Aifa, despite her model upbringing; by the age of thirteen any educated child was expected to know all the intricacies of the Twin myths, but lore and legend didn’t make up for the fact that, as far as she’d heard, the Twins were a pain to take care of: they listened to no one, feared nothing and were given to tantrums and fits. If one asked Aifa, if there was anything worse than an entitled baby demi-god, it must have been two entitled baby demi-gods. Goodness gracious! Having to teach words, and foods, and colors to a couple of eternal youths with the emotional development of a three year old!
To make things worse, the Twins were over six foot tall, or so she’d heard, and Aifa worried about having to keep up with them. She was mignonne, like all the women in her family, and whatever strength she possessed was more of spirit than of body. How does one handle a pair of six foot tall toddlers?
She didn’t dare protest her predetermined fate to serve as babysitter to the gods, anybody would have been outraged if she dared complain about something deemed to be such a great honor, and which had been automatically bestowed upon her by the mere circumstances of her birth. Short of the High Council, the Caretakers were the most respected members of the community, and Aifa mumbled under her breath that without doubt, this was due to the thankless and never ending nature of their work. It is one thing to raise a child once, it is a completely different thing to raise the same child again, and again each year, starting over every spring with a new teaching of foods, words and colors, like pushing the proverbial boulder back up the hill.
Aifa’s grandmother didn’t have much patience for the teen’s lack of mental discipline, which she perceived to be a failure in her granddaughter’s upbringing, but secretly cheered her stubborn spirit, a great quality for one to have if the success of one’s task bears on perseverance.
“You’re so quiet, granddaughter,” she commented, out of the blue, startling the thoughtful teen. “Did you enjoy the ceremony?”
Aifa was buried so deep in her philosophical musings, that the sound of her grandmother’s voice made her jerk and she had to replay the question in her head before responding.
“It was beautiful, Doyenne,” Aifa replied, with the deference her grandmother’s position entailed. The latter kept pushing.
“And yet not exactly what you expected?”
Aifa didn’t know if it would be appropriate to elaborate on her opinion, but since her grandmother insisted, she gave it a good try.
“It’s not that, it’s just…I expected it to be…I don’t know…” She hesitated again. “It’s just that we all gathered at midnight, by candle light, to welcome the year’s renewal. I didn’t expect it to be so…traditional.”
Aifa’s grandmother started laughing heartily.
“So, you expected it to be more whimsical, magical, more like a fairy tale?”
“Maybe, a little bit,” Aifa admitted. “I…I just thought I’d feel different after the ceremony, that’s all.”
“There is no circumstance on earth that will make you feel like anything other than what you already are. The real magic, my dear child, the one that endures, is the one born right inside your heart.”
A Year and a Day – Excerpt – Chapter One