Authors: Julie Bertagna
Once upon a time there was a worldâ¦
â¦a world full of miracles. From the whirl of the tiniest particles to its spinning orbit in the unthinkable vastness of space, this world danced with miraculous life. Ur, the first people called their beautiful world, and the sound of that early name would carry down all the years, until eons of time and tongues ripened Ur into Earth
The people feasted upon their ripe world. Endlessly, they harvested its lands and seas. They grew greedy, ravaging the planet's bounty of miracles. Their waste and destruction spread like a plague until a day came when this plague struck at the very heart of the miraculous dance. And the people saw, too late, their savage desolation of the world
The globe grew hot and fevered, battered by hurricanes and rain. Oceans and rivers rose to drown the cities and wasted lands. Earth raged with a century of storm. Then came a terrible calm. Imagine the vast, drowned ruin of a world washed clean. Imagine survivors scattered upon lonely peaks, clinging to the tips of skyscrapers, to bridges and treetops
Now backtrack to the dawn of the world's drowning. Stand at the fragile moment before the devastation begins, and wonder: is this where we stand now, right here on the brink?
No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere
Earth spins. And Wing, the high island, is hurled into the sunless shadow of night.
It's just a minute past three.
The people of Wing are gathering in what's left of their village. Downhill, the salty, sea-lashed streets run straight into churning, cold-boiled ocean. The oldest islanders can remember a time when Wing's folding hills sheered away to sandstone cliffs that plunged onto a wide and rocky shore. The cliff tops were still visible at ebb tide last summer, haunting the waves with their dark shadows.
Now it's all ocean.
The people turn their backs to the waves and head uphill through the field of windmills. The slow grind of the wind blades is only a hoarse whisper in this evening of rare midwinter calm. The Pole Star glitters overhead, a tiny torch that guides the islanders to a plateau high in the hills where eleven tall slabs of stone stand in an ancient circle. As the last of the sun's rays fade upon the ocean and night cloaks the island, the people banish all thought of the rising waves that surround them.
Just as their ancestors did, for time out of mind, they
stand in the middle of the standing stones to celebrate the midwinter solstice. Excitement fills the air as fireballs on ropes are set alight. Throwers grasp the long ropes and spin the flaming balls of straw around and around, then send each one hurtling high into the sky. Whoops and cheers echo all across Wing as the darkness is shredded with a cascade of falling stars to mark the death of the old year's sun.
Now a huge wheel, an ancient symbol of the fiery revolution of the stars, is set ablaze and sent whirling downhill. The islanders roar with delight as the fire wheel flames a great track through the dark, all down the hillside and across the waves, burning itself out like a fading supernova upon the black ocean.
The darkness is absolute. People huddle closer together as it engulfs them, glancing up at the flickering stars for reassurance.
Old Tain feels his way to the center of the standing stones. He has seen nearly eighty midwinter fires, more than anyone else on the island. He lifts out the ember that he has brought from his own fireside in a clay pot and lights the stack of dried peat and tindery driftwood at the center of the standing stones. After a while the fire begins to spark and crackle. The people of Wing cheer as light breaks the dark, heralding the new sun that is about to be born.
Tain climbs upon the twelfth stone that lies fallen inside the circle. When he raises a hand the others fall quiet.
“Happy New Year!” he cries. “Tomorrow we'll see the first sun of a whole new century!”
Tain eyes the happy crowd, knowing they are all anxious to eat and drink and party. He hesitates and the lines that plow his face deepen.
“Maybe the new century will bring us a miracle,” he declares. “We'll need one to save us from that rising seaâ¦ But what if the miracle we all hope for doesn't happen? Listen to me. We must begin to plan for the future. We must look out to the world beyond these islandsâ”
“Oh, Tain, no!” cries Brenna, a small, apple-cheeked woman with a noisy brood of young children. She smiles at him to soften her rebuke. “We don't want to think of such things on a night like this!”
“This is the very night we
think of the future,” Tain responds.
“The children are all here. I don't want them frightened,” argues Brenna, her smile fading.
“It's the children I'm thinking of. It's their future that's at stake if the sea keeps rising and we do nothing,” growls Tain.
An angry muttering starts in the crowd. Brenna's right, people agree, no one wants to think about the sea tonight. The anger swells and voices rise. A few islanders try to defend Tain but they are drowned out by the many who, like Brenna, just want to celebrate and forget. People begin to turn away for home. But a girl, cheeks blazing, dark eyes flashing, her long hair glistening like a midnight ocean, jumps up onto the toppled stone to stand beside the old man and pleads with the crowd to stay and listen to him.
There's a lull as the islanders halt for a moment, their attention caught by the fiery spirit of the girl, by her sheer energy as she stands upon her stone platform like an avenging angel, haloed by the flames of the sunfire behind her.
Tain takes advantage of the lull to try and calm everyone.
“Peace now!” he urges, in pacifying but resigned tones. He puts a steadying hand on the girl's shoulder. “All right, Mara. Let's all calm down and be happy tonight. But before
the celebrations begin, we'll join hands around the sunfire and ready ourselves for the future.”
The people regather and a moment of silence falls as they stand cocooned in the light and heat of their sunfire, snug together within a dark, cold world. A hundred hopes and wishes zip skyward with the sparks and smoke.
Now everyone warms up with steaming mugs of mulled beet wine and fire-baked potatoes before the trek back down the hillside. The midwinter fires of the other islands scatter the ocean with a constellation of tiny lights that mirrors the fiery network of the skies. The procession ends back in the village as the island's church bell peals, finding its echo in others across the waves. Wing's narrow, huddled streets are soon full of firelight and feasting and rousing songs that drown out the noise of the ocean, long into the night, as the islanders celebrate the living power of the universe.
But Tain's words linger in the air. The new century will surely bring the miracle we need, the islanders tell each other. Earth may have abandoned others to its swallowing seasâpeople in far distant landsâbut, they claim, that could never happen to
Yet tonight the ocean takes another hungry gulp, reaching farther up the hillsides of Wing, ever closer to the village and the farms, toward the very doorsteps of the islanders' homes.
Mara Bell wakens full of restless flutterings, as if there's a tiny bird trapped in her heart.
The air is full of the noise of hammers and saws. Quickly, Mara unbolts her window and unlatches the storm shutters. Sunshine explodes into the room. She blinks, stunned and delighted, then leans out of the window and revels in the sensation of fresh air, in the panorama of sea and sky; an endless electric blue.
Frantic activity fills the island as the people of Wing take their chance, during this rare lull in the weather, to repair the storm-battered barricades.
“Breakfast, Marabell!” her mother's clear, quick voice calls up, merging her two plain names into one beautiful sound, like water running over stones.
But first, before she does anything else, Mara reaches under her bed for her cyberwizz. The islanders have long abandoned such relics. No one has any use for the old technology now. No one except Mara.
She clicks open the small, solid globe of the cyberwizz, takes out two tiny solar rods that are almost out of power, and lays them on her windowsill to recharge in the sun.
Then Mara flings on her clothes and races downstairs to escape the house she has been trapped in for three interminably long months of storm.