Cover by FrinaArt at selfpubbookcovers.com
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 being allowed to bear 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 home 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 provide 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 down on 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 when 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 is 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 who had been graced with the gift of bearing life. This is the longest night of the year, and yet our souls are filled with light, 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 those who have come before us and all 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.
(From the month of December – A Year and A Day)