Every buttercup drooped, sagging and flaccid in the blooming humidity. Saturated air stained floral gowns and starched suits with perspiration. Hot wind teased the air without offering relief, yet Ma-maw’s eyes were icy. She deliberately fastened another button on her crocheted cardigan as the crowd settled behind her. No back row for Ma-maw.
The masses shuffled into tiny rows of tidy seating and flapped limp programs against unwavering heat. Lacquered chairs creaked under the heavy crowd, raw thighs pressed against stifling plastic.
“She’s looking at us again,” I muttered, darting a glance at Ma-maw’s stony demeanor. Her frown deepened when I met her eye. Ellis shrugged.
“I told you, Ma-maw likes things traditional.”
This had been his line for months. Potluck dinner? No, we needed waiters to serve a five-course chicken dinner, and a choice of three desserts. A wildflower bouquet? Ma-maw called in a favour with the florist for roses. No proper woman is married without them, she said. I settled for clusters of buttercups lining the aisle and Ma-maw pointedly averted her gaze.
“Do you think she’s still mad about the church?” I asked. She found out last Saturday that our “church wedding” would be on the back lawn of St. Patrick’s cathedral rather than humbly cloistered at the foot of its crucifix. She folded her lips into a narrow line and hadn’t yet lifted the sign of disapproval.
“Maybe she’s blaming Mother Nature for sending a heat wave, Jas-o’-mine, Ma-maw would disapprove of God himself. Don’t let it get to you.”
“She probably thinks I caused it. Seriously, Ellis. Your grandmother believes I’m corrupting you. She’s controlling everything—Ma-maw even told the pastor that under no circumstances could we write our own ceremony.”
“Jas, you don’t even like writing.”
“It’s the principle of the matter. What if we wanted to change the script? What if we'd rather fast-track to man and wife? This is supposed to be our wedding, not some symbol of her community status.”
Ellis twined his fingers through mine as Reverend Alton beckoned us with a geriatric hand. Young pastors were going the way of the dinosaur, and none could be unearthed under Ma-maw’s watchful eye. This fledgling, at the spry young age of 92, claimed cousinship in the distant branches of Ma-maw’s straight-laced family tree. Ma-maw glowered from the front row.
“Miss,” he said, shifting uncomfortably beneath Ma-maw’s determined gaze. He tugged at his collar. “Aren’t you—”
“Wearing a veil?” I sighed. This was another bone of contention between us. Ma-maw insisted I wear the yellowing, heirloom lace that graced her own wedding day and every wedding in the family thereafter. I agreed for Ellis—he had a tough enough time balancing my tension with the family matriarch—but I refused to put it on before the ceremony began. Long curls tumbled down my back, free from modest up-dos that never successfully bound my hair.
Reverend Alton shook his head awkwardly and coughed into a handkerchief. He spoke in an arid whisper. “You aren’t supposed to stand up front. He’s not supposed to see you.”
I softened as Ellis squeezed my hand. We only had to get through one more day before we moved across the country, chasing my work. Let them have one last perfect memory of us. Of Ellis.
“Alright,” I apologized, “I’m sorry. But please hurry before everyone gets heatstroke.”
Among the superfluities that come with outdoor weddings, Ma-maw rejected tents. Instead, our guests broiled like lobsters beneath the humid sun and mounting clouds. Their flushed faces struggled to conceal their discomfort.
The pastor nodded, relieved. “Go to the back now, I’ll check on you in a minute.”
Ellis winked at me, eyes shining with fun. “We can’t have them thinking we’ve actually met before.”
“Definitely not, Ma-maw arranged it.”
He stifled a snort as I walked away. With a university degree, a career, and a skin tone darker than prescribed, I wasn’t even eligible. Ma-maw spent his weekends home parading perfect southern belles through their parlour until Ellis came back to school exhausted from empty small talk. It’s no wonder you caught my eye, he’d murmur in my ear, you’re different. Intelligent. Beautiful.
Hidden behind a screen, I fiddled with Ma-maw’s veil, trying to pin it in place and tame my fly-aways. I plucked a wilting rose from my bouquet, picking apart the petals and scattering them on the lawn. I fidgeted. The string quartet began their prelude.
A light rap sounded on the edge of the screen. “Jasmine, we are about to start. May I?”
Reverend Alton stepped in as a distant rumble sounded. We first looked at Ma-maw, then at the sky. Ma-maw straightened and I envisioned her lips pinching into a firmer line. Faint thunder echoed again.
I bowed my head as the pastor blessed me one last time. Intermittent raindrops fell, still too thin to be considered a shower. A flicker of light on the horizon.
“Reverend, how familiar are you with The Princess Bride?”
Ellis and I watched it years ago in a crowd of young adults, popcorn, and laughter. For some reason, it stuck. I called his Appalachia hills “the cliffs of insanity” every time we visited, while he made fun of his Relatives Of Upscale Society.
His weary eyes betrayed a flicker of amusement. “Miss, I’m not that type of clergyman.”
“Your speech is impeccable. But in light of the season,” I nodded at the darkening sky, “wouldn’t it be prudent to expedite the service?”
The quartet had already been looping too long.
“You know there’s no crossing Ma-maw.” His eyes flickered again to the front row and he lowered his voice in a confidential whisper. “Much as I’d like to.”
“One can dream,” I sighed. In my heart, I knew nothing would shake Ma-maw’s careful planning, nor could I risk it. “Anyway, I’m sure she’d blame me.”
His eyebrows rose.
“Full responsibility, you say,” Reverend Alton mused, straightening as he shook my hand—perhaps he was less senile than he looked. “Then what are we waiting for?”
He signaled the conductor and the music changed.
“Wait,” I scrambled for a final moment, “I wasn’t—”
But he was already walking. I agonized through my scripted pause then followed in measured stride, heart pounding. Thunder rumbled and a chill gust cut through the humidity. Ellis kneeled and I followed suit, roses clenched.
“I’ve been asked to open with a short verse.” Reverend Alton pulled out a bible and Ma-maw nodded approvingly from the front row. Her frown lost a shade of hostility. I tried to telegraph my worry to Ellis, but his head remained bowed.
My anxiety skyrocketed.
“—my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father, prepare to die.”
Forget senility—that was malice.