In other years, the light of moon and stars would shine upon the white stone path, illuminating the processional way through the dark to the place where the first lights would be lit. Or in other years, the thick clouds would brighten the sky, heavy with the promise of snow. Or in other years, the snow-packed plains would glimmer palely in the night and the path would form a trench, a way through.
This year, the dark was complete. The ground was frozen solid, but barren, a scorched stain. The sky was obscured by the lingering billows of smoke so that no light of star or moon could pierce it. The icy wind that cut through all my clothes carried the stench of the smoldering shells of houses, and the rusted iron scent of spilled blood. This year, ashes fell like snowflakes, invisible in the dark, but brushing the edges of my face like tears as I followed all the members of my village to the festival grounds.
We no longer wept. Some griefs were too heavy and lasted too long--they just eclipsed the sky in blankets of smoke and hung about our shoulders like plates of iron. In other years, the howl of wind would be outmatched by the joyful patter of drums and voice upon voice raised in riotous song. This year, the wind rattled through the scorched remnants of houses and fields, and the silence was only broken by the shuffling of our feet along the path.
The cold had teeth this year. Every exhaled breath created a cloud around my face. Every tiny bit of exposed skin stung, enough to make my eyes water. But most of all, my right leg ached. The cold scraped its teeth against the once-snapped bone, newly healed. The deep ache of that old wound soon pushed every other thought out of my head. I tried to grit my teeth and drag myself along in the procession, but the pain seemed to grow larger. I felt as if the marrow in my bones was producing ice instead of warm blood.
I could take it no longer. This was my mistake. I stepped off the path, into the dark. Bending over I rubbed and massaged the life back into my leg. Slowly the ache receded, until it was once again only a pinpoint. I had stepped off the path on the right. So all I had to do was go to the left a few steps and I could squeeze my way back into the procession.
But when I had taken the same number of steps, my outstretched hand did not brush against thick, fuzzy coats. I heard only the sweep of the wind and no shuffle of feet. Had I miscounted? I counted out a few more steps. Still nothing. Only emptiness.
I squinted into the dark, as if narrowing my eyes against it would somehow allow my vision to pierce through the overwhelming gloom that pressed against me. I could see no shapes, no glimmers, no movement--not even a silhouette. Had I spent too long slapping warmth into my limbs? Had they all passed me by?
Surely not. Our numbers may have been small now, but I had been near the head of the line. I pressed a hand to my forehead. Had I actually stepped off to the left? I counted my steps back to the right. And then the same number again. Only empty air and the omnipresent darkness.
My breaths came faster now. Which way was the path? Had I turned some direction? Was it behind me? In front of me?
I turned in a circle, trying to catch a glimpse of anything--the palest glimmer, the faintest outline. I couldn’t see. The night blinded me. And fool that I was...I now had no idea which way I was facing. Fear clawed its way up from my stomach to seize me by the throat. Something snapped in the distance and I whirled towards it. Was it the procession? Or…something else? Who knew what else lingered in this pitch black night?
I flung myself forward, away from the sound, stumbling over my own feet. All thought of counting steps dropped from my thoughts. There was no caution, only me in the dark, in a stumbling run, with no sense of what direction I was headed.
I had not gone far when common sense caught up to me. Something crunched beneath my foot, shocking me into stillness. I scrambled to a halt, afraid to so much as shift my weight. My imagination filled in what my eyes could not see. Perhaps the crunch had been the splintered remains of a door. Or the shattered stones of some crumbled wall. Or perhaps it had been a bone beneath my foot. Shuddering, I began to move the opposite direction. But this time, slowly and hesitantly, like a frightened deer picking its way across a field of rubble.
“Help,” I whispered. I winced at the rasp of my voice breaking through the sacred silence. But not even the wind replied. I began to call out louder then. “Hello? Are you there?” Nothing. Still louder. “I can’t find you! Help me please!”
Then I was shouting, my voice breaking. Would they not respond? Did they dare not speak? Perhaps they would just leave me in the dark forever now, since I had violated the command to stay silent for this year’s festival.
But I couldn’t hear or sense any sign of other people.
I bit back tears as I fell silent. There was nothing to do but fumble my way forward...or sideways.
I closed my eyes for a moment. I tried to retrace my steps, from the moment I had stepped off the path, to my panicked running, to my cautious movement. I knew I had wandered into the ruins. That didn’t give me much information. They encircled us. But if I moved away from them and forward as best I could...I should reach either the procession or the remnants of the village.
The stink of destruction filled my nostrils now. I pressed the scarf wrapped around my face tighter across the bridge of my nose, trying to take shallow breaths. The crackle of rubble beneath my feet served as a guide in the black night. Slowly, the stench diminished and the ground became soft and quiet under my feet once more. I kept walking, the cold seeping through my clothes and my skin, numbing everything. The dark and the cold became my entire existence, muffling even my thoughts.
I did not reach the village. I did not reach the procession. Had the world just disappeared? Did nothing exist anymore?
My leg had begun to ache again. I finally just...stopped. I slowly sank to my knees, as if I were simply deflating.
I could not tell you how long I sat there, drooping into the dust. Only that suddenly there was a spark, a bright little ball of light. I tried to cup my hands around it, but it was not there...it existed far away, in the distance. I squinted at it, my thoughts moving like mud. The sound of my heartbeat was in my ears.
No...not my heartbeat. It was the sound of drums, growing louder, the beat quickening. I clambered to my feet.
The spark rose through the air, a bright speck in the pitch black. And then another joined it. Then, all around me in a great circle lights begin to blink into existence. The lanterns were being lit. I stood in the dark and the silent and watched the light grow and spread around me. A field of orange stars bloomed around me, filling the air, pushing back the dark. They rose into the air, balls of gold and orange and yellow dancing against the bleak blackness. I could see the shapes of my people now, illuminated in the gentle glow of the lanterns. I could see their arms stretched out above their heads. I knew it was because they had let go of their lanterns to drift upon the air, but in that moment it looked as if they were reaching up to those dancing, golden stars.
Voices joined the sound of drums. At first it was just a low, melodic hum--like the memory of a mother’s lullaby. But it grew louder, spreading through the night like the light. A song of flame and light--warm and bright, but tinged with melancholy blue.
And then another spark appeared on the horizon. And what began as a spark became a bright line. It zigzagged along the ground, like lightning that arched through the sky. It was the sacred fire, burning along the lines laid out for it. I should have moved in that direction, but instead I stood still in the silent and the dark, watching the light gather and speed toward me, criss-crossing the earth.
I was standing in the sacred spiral, I could see the shallow trenches scoured into the ground around me now. But there was no time to leave. In a great rush of sound, the fire flared around me, leaping up in a great flash of light and heat. And then it was spiraling around on the other side, in tighter and tighter circles towards the center. Only small flames crackled merrily in their lines now.
I stepped over them, feeling the heat briefly sear my legs as I moved. I had just reached the outer edge when the sacred flame reached the center of the spiral. The beating of the drums had reached a fever pitch, the voices crescendoing ever louder.
And then the night shattered--an explosion of light scattering the darkness, a burst of heat throwing off winter’s icy mantle, the thudding of drums and the peal of voices resounding across the plain.
I threw my hands in front of my face and fell backwards. Then I sat in the dirt, watching the flames leap towards the sky--finally bringing light and warmth to the world instead of destruction. All around me I could hear the song continuing--words I had known from my youth, welcoming back the light.
And then, from the corner of my vision I saw a woman approaching me. Her colorful robes reflected back the light--gold and silver streaks shimmering, red and orange glowing, green and blue strips vibrant. The luminous folds of fabric swayed around her as she drew nearer. She carried a large bowl, painted in all the bright colors, balanced against her hip.
I knew what she carried. How many years had I seen my brother grinning around a mouthful of the raspberry-lemon cakes, sugar powdering his cheeks? How many times had I watched my grandmother’s wrinkled hands skillfully folding the dough?
Winter crept around me again. They would never taste the cakes again.
The woman knelt in front of me, holding out the bowl to me. But I couldn’t bear to even raise my hand to refuse.
She came closer, so I could see the streaks of paint across her face. She reached out with one hand and brushed away the tears I didn’t realize were falling. She laid one hand against my cheek, and with the other, gently pushed a cake into my hand.
“Today we are closer to this festival than any other year,” she said.
I frowned at her.
“We celebrate the light on the darkest night of the year because that is when we need it most. We remember summer in the midst of winter because that is how summer comes to us again.”
She kissed my forehead gently, and in that was the echo of my grandmother.
“It feels wrong to celebrate anything now,” I whispered.
She looked at me again, and I could see the bright flames reflected in her eyes. “That is why we must celebrate even more tonight. So that grief and pain cannot conquer us.”
She left me with those words. For a long moment, all I could do was look at the circular cake in my hand, lemon glaze and sprinkled sugar glistening. I closed my eyes. I whispered the names of my lost loved ones under my breath and then I took a bite. There was the tang of lemon and the sweet crunch of sugar, soft, warm dough and then the burst of raspberry.
I was standing in front of my home, knee-deep in the tall, waving grass. The sun shone gold in a clear blue sky, dotted with soft clouds. My brother was holding my hand, tugging me towards the stream where the younger kids were splashing and laughing. I knew, without looking, that my mother and grandmother were watching us fondly from the house windows as they washed up after lunch. The summer breeze was sweet, the air warm.
It carried the sound of my grandmother’s voice--words she spoke to me long ago. I had gotten in trouble for fighting with some other kid and had run to her, crying about how unfair it all was.
“Darling,” she said to me. “When we are most afraid or angry or sad...when the thing we most want to do is fight because of the way we feel...that is when we most need to show love.”
Then it all faded again. I’m still sitting on the frozen earth. But when I open my eyes, the blaze of the great bonfire is there. And the sky all around me is filled with bright, glowing stars--the stars of our own making.