Ceremony (Chapter 3)

The book, I’ve gathered in my years dedicated to its study, records instructions for how to participate in the years, to honor and set right their course. Hardly a day passes when there is no ceremony; to the proper reader, each day finds its proper ceremony. Browsing the book, stumbling across illustrations meant for other days (the wrong days), is an adventure in whimsy but nothing more.

From the night I held the book later that week, in the emblazoned candlelight of the Cathedral, the faces of men and women, children and the elderly, staring down in muttered expectation, the mosaics fully restored above me, on all sides, I remember several illustrations whose meaning escaped me, and still does, seeming flights of fancy by some monkish solitary, rather than repositories of action for other, more or less fortunate, times. An angel resembling a porpoise, for instance, with the wings of a hummingbird. Not all of the illustrations were as easy to decipher as those of the maze to be traced on a tabletop.

The illustration for that night, which it was for me to make an illustration of that night, presented all manner of possible activities, from which I was to choose: full across a page a map of a coastline, shells littered on the shore, fantastical fishes dallying in the sea, a river of waving lines in bright cerulean emptying itself into the darker tones, greener and browner, of the sea itself, and all along the shore, some inland, others nearly falling into the terrible water, skeletons standing, their toes curled down, their heads bent upwards, mouths open, as if howling in praise. It would have been impossible to know what they were doing, had it not been for the page facing, which showed, in great detail, a single skeletal foot, toes curling into an earth thick with objects, with bones, and gems, and worms, and geometrical miscellany; between the toes, something was being gripped, as if the skeleton were clamming. Looking back at the other page, I could see, inconspicuous among the two dozen or so figures, one reaching down to pick up something from his upraised foot.

When I awoke from the dream, it was hours from morning; without thinking, I quietly passed my mother asleep on the sofa, walked into the hallway, closed the door behind me, and descended the stairs, one flight and then another, to the door that led to the front of the building, where a small patch of muddied grass persevered in the dwindling patches of snow. The night was cold, but not piercing, even in my shorts and t-shirt; my bare feet soon became nearly numb to the ground, but I trusted what remained of their feeling, as I stood and moved them into the soil, working hard, scraping them, refusing to look down, and instead, to preoccupy myself as I waited for what I surely would find, counting stars, wondering at the shades on the moon, humming to myself. When the morning broke, I held in one hand several pebbles of red, brown, and silvery-gray hue, each distinctly beautiful and some probably quite old; but I had not yet found what I knew must be waiting. My feet ached, some scrapes had deepened and blood mixed with mud clung to the ends of my toes, but I continued, humming more loudly now, and regularly, to the rhythm with which I worked my toes back and forth into the rut I had formed across the grass.

When my mother walked outside—because I was nowhere to be found within, she said, and she thought I might be getting a coffee up the road—she said nothing, but approached steadily. I saw her when she was a few feet away, just as I clenched between my toes what I had needed and wanted, what the book had prescribed. “What are you doing out here so early?” In a steady, restrained tone, to which I offered no response, but an increase in the volume of my humming which, had it not been audible before, would now reach even the upper windows of the house; I was exultant but she burst out, louder even than me, with my name “Sarah” and I broke off in my song, reaching down to my feet to take what was held between my toes. “Sorry, mom, I just needed. I’ve found it now.” And I held up a piece of turquoise studded stone, small, rounded, and perfectly resembling a morning sky nearly densely stippled with clouds. “Look at how beautiful it is.” I extended it to her, and felt a sense of relief and achievement, a sudden calm.

“You need to go on leave. Enough, Sarah, it is enough.”

Without pausing to reflect, I agreed.

Her face lost its tautness but she did not relax; instead, the energy that had held her expression in place, focused on me, forming her mouth, her eyes, her forehead into an attitude that would break through to me, turned inwards and weighted her as she walked up the stairs behind me. I could hear the heaviness of her step, and wanted to explain, as I could not when I had been younger. Now, though, the explanation made less sense, even to me, beyond my saying, “You don’t have to worry. I won’t again. It was the right time, and it will only have to happen once.” That provided little comfort, and the silence of the next few days, as I spoke to the Institute administration, as I broke the lease on my apartment and boxed my things, would have been unbearable had it not been for the sense of profound success with which I was met whenever I slept at night, dreaming that I was a child again, on the couch, wearing a rainbow sweater. I picked at it until the threads ran through my hands and became rivulets across the floor, until a stream ran through the living room, and out the doorway; leaping into it, I found it to be deep, over my head, and I was an adult again, and it carried me out, across moors and through marshes, so that I was a raft and the sky above was a light blue; to one-side, pylons extended, but there was no settlement, no habitation near, only lengths of grass, rustling, and in the distance, where the river seemed to meet a larger body of water, a lake, or inlet, or maybe even the sea, a group of people, not yet distinguishable as men or women, young or old, stood, preoccupied with something at their feet on the shore. They said nothing to me as I arrived among them and took my place, not too near to anyone, but not as far that I could not see, as an old man looked at me sideways, that he was smiling as I joined him, beginning to hum.

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