Chapter 24 – A night in the desert

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Later that day Lucille prepared a basket of food, like she did every evening, not forgetting Mary’s favorite cookies, fresh out of the oven, waited for the night to fall and stepped out into the desert quietly, careful not to attract attention.

She walked without noise through the soft, powdery sand, under the stars that shone so bright they cast shadows around the dunes and brightened the desert night enough to light her path. She stopped at times, to put the basket down, sighed in response to her thoughts and then continued on her way. She walked for a couple of hours, too deep in thought to pay attention to her surroundings, the way a person who walks the same familiar path is suddenly surprised to find herself much farther along it than she thought she was. At the end of the journey she slowed down and looked around swiftly, and then, reassured, turned at a sharp bend around a dune and stopped in front of a mound of rocks which looked like it had been placed there intentionally, as if to mark the spot.

There she stood for a while, waiting with increased impatience, and then, realizing that it was getting too late, she placed the basket in front of the mound and reluctantly left, sighing again, very deeply, and looking behind her in hope of seeing a familiar shadow appear from the depths of the desert.

She walked back home picking up the pace a little bit, as the entire firmament moved towards the horizon, and the wee hours’ constellations started to appear. Almost home, she turned sharply again, following the path that led to the cave, shuffling her feet in the powdery sand to cover her tracks and as she did, she noticed, pleased, that the girls had left no traces in their passing either.

“Thank goodness, aunt Lucille! I was worried sick!” Mary jumped from her chair in an explosion of relief. The last presentation was wrapping up and the girls frowned at her for disturbing it, so she lowered her voice to a whisper and pulled Lucille to the side. “Whatever happened to you, are you alright?” She looked at her aunt, to ensure everything looked fine.

“Of course I’m alright, don’t I always tell you not to worry for me?” Lucille smiled, swiping a stubborn strand of bright blond hair off of her niece’s forehead. “Get your hair out of your eyes, child, it’s not good for your eyesight,” she commented.

“What happened?” Mary asked again.

“I had to shake Rosemary, the woman is nothing if not persistent. Harder to get rid of than a clump of thistles.” She looked at Mary and remembered. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Mary! You’ll have to make do with food from the pantry tonight, I had to put the food basket to good use.”

“How did you know you were being followed?” Mary asked. Lucille smiled, but said nothing.

“How was school today?” she asked her niece, while searching through the pantry for ingredients to put a meal together.

“Good,” Mary replied. “I aced organic chemistry,” she smiled proudly.

“Wonderful!” Lucille said. “Would you grab a pot from the shelf for me, please?” Mary complied.
“So, what’s going to happen now, aunt?” she asked.

“Well, if I were to guess, our dear Rosemary is lying in wait at the rock mound, hoping to catch you.”

“You walked all the way to the rock mound?” Mary exclaimed, shocked. “In the middle of the night? That’s two hours away from the village! What if you got lost?”

“My sweet child,” Lucille smiled. “I lived here my whole life, I couldn’t get lost if I tried.”

“What are you going to tell her? She is going to raise the whole village when she comes back?”

“I’m counting on it,” Lucille smiled like a Sphinx. “In fact I think the team in charge of breaking the curse of the Fair Maiden will be quite busy with preparations for your punishment for a while. I assume they’ll set up camp at the mound. I would have liked to make it a little farther from the village, but two hours away is not too bad.”

“But…” Mary protested, trying to put together in her head the pieces of the story, “last time I saw them they were planning to bring me out into the desert and leave me there to fry with no water,” she said, almost apologetically. “Why on earth would they think I’d come back?”

“Because you are expected to obey, dear,” Lucille replied. “Besides, they assume you’re alone in the desert and you should be desperate enough by now.”

“What about you? Isn’t she going to get back at you for feeding me in secret?” Mary asked, concerned.
“I told you not to fuss over me, child, I can handle myself very well, thank you,” Lucille retorted. “Can’t a concerned aunt hope against hope that her prodigal niece finally saw the error of her ways and returned to face the consequences of her actions?”

“I wouldn’t, really,” Mary commented.

“Here’s hoping,” Lucille mumbled under her breath. “Anyway, I’ll handle the details of this, you pay attention to your studies. After all, all of you, with the knowledge and the skills you are learning now are going to shape the future of our village. What a beautiful future that will be!” Lucille’s eyes welled up, with gratitude for this unexpected fountain of knowledge that yielded its extraordinary wonder and wisdom day after day, with sadness for not having found it sooner, with concern over the challenges to come, with pride for her niece’s, and all the other girls’ avid thirst for learning. “I love you, Mary,” she said, somewhat embarrassed by this outward display of affection, “I want you to be happy. You know that, don’t you, dear?”

“I love you too, aunt Lucille,” Mary smiled, reassured. Right then, the first rays of the morning sun got caught in the cold mirror of the girl’s clear green eyes and put a shiver through Lucille’s spine, despite her better angels. “Good grief, child! Are you trying to turn me into a snake?” She looked up, concerned. “Oh, my! It’s already light out, if anybody sees me I’m not sure how I’ll be able to explain myself.”
“You can stay here until nightfall,” the one in the mirror suggested.

“Don’t you ever sleep?” Lucille turned around, annoyed that her private conversation with her niece had an audience.

“We work in shifts,” the one in the mirror apologized.

“Thank you,” Lucille answered the previous sentence, “but I have to go back, otherwise everybody will be on alert about what happened to me, and besides, I need to bring Mary the cookies I promised her, the desert mice must be making a feast of the previous batch by now.”

When she got back to the village the sun was already up, and a large group of villagers and Council members was assembled in front of the Council Hall. The full Circle was there, staring intently at Lucille as she approached the gathering. After explanations were exchanged, the full attention of the group was consumed by Rosemary’s plans for apprehending Mary, plans which were elaborate in nature and requiring generous amounts of the community’s time and resources. After about half an hour of emotional appeals for compassionate but exemplary punishment of the errant girl everybody lost track of the discourse, zoned out for the remainder of the speech and politely waited for Rosemary to stop talking.

Two hours later, in the daze created by the convoluted details of the punishment plan, a group was selected to take to the desert and find any traces that the exile might have left behind. The little creatures of the desert, delighted by the unexpected feast the universe had bestowed on them had cleaned up the food basket with great efficiency, and there was no way to tell if the creature whose hunger was appeased was human or otherwise. In the fervent unfolding of events, Rosemary decided to take the high road and forgive Lucille the human weakness of trying to feed and protect the child she had raised from infancy, even though, as everybody had to agree, the fair girl was nothing but pure evil.