Wedding Breakfast

The morning after the wedding, Asa stands at the center of a circle of his kin. Overhead, a startled shout sounds from the bridal suite. It is followed by an audible scuffle and the gathered family laughs. Asa’s uncles are pulling Matthias from his wedding bed.

Gavin and Griswald, both in their forties and strongest of the Stonehaven uncles, drag the naked and hollering new bridegroom down the inn stairs. His butt smacks each step on the way down. Asa winces for his friend. The chuckling circle of Stonehavens parts to allow the trio into the center and closes behind them. As they reach him, the uncles force Matthias to his knees before Asa.

The young bridegroom breathes hard, his face red with rage. Asa smirks at Matthias’ tan. The swarthy and muscly farm boy is milk white and scrawny from the waist down. Matthias glares up at Asa, but goes quiet as he notices his friend’s clothes. The anger in his face gives way to fear.

Asa looms above him, wielding a black, iron sickle. Matthias had always teased Asa about his figure—an overlarge head of shaggy, flaxen hair atop a rail thin body. Broom handle, he’d said. Stickbug. Now, Asa looks predatory. A mantis, clad in the blood red robes of The Witch.

Gavin and Griswald release Matthias’ shoulders and he slumps from his knees to his buttocks on the cold, stone floor. Griswald, the man’s new father-in-law, ruffs Matthias’ hair before retreating to the general circle of Stonehavens.

Asa smiles down at his friend. He’s been looking forward to this moment since Matthias asked him to be best man at his wedding to Asa’s cousin, Souzel. The Wedding Breakfast was a rite of passage for all who would marry a Stonehaven.

“Matthias,” Asa said in a clear, resonant voice. “You are bound to my cousin and her bloodline both by sexual congress and by Oath sworn to the Holy Betrayed One. Such Oaths are unbreakable lest you lose your light.”

Matthias glances down at his body and the faint, yellow-white aura surrounding it. Visual confirmation of the gods’ favor and a secure place in Paradise.

“You cannot now betray your bride or her family, lest you commit the one unforgivable sin. And so now, we tell you our great secret!”

Asa raises his arms with a calculated flourish designed to show off his robe’s billowing sleeves to advantage. He has rehearsed this speech more than the best man’s toast he’d delivered last night.

He draws the sickle across his palm and flicks his wrist to sprinkle his red blood on the inn’s stone floor. The circle of Stonehavens join hands and sing. Not a set song, with words. Rather, each one chooses a note and harmonizes with his or her neighbor. They sing their sustained harmony in a wild crescendo. As they raise their joined hands, green shoots sprout from each of Asa’s sixteen blood drops. Before the singing stops, the shoots mature and blossom into yellow roses

Matthias gasps and reaches out to touch one of the flowers. But he stops his hand and draws it back to himself, cradling it in a protective gesture.

“We are witches!” Asa declares and the circle of family cheers.

Matthias blanches and looks ill. It is an impressive display of power, Asa knows, growing new life from stone and blood. Only possible when dozens of Stonehavens gather and concentrate. That’s why they save it for when someone new joins the family and needs impressing.

The declaration made, the Stonehavens break their circle and form a chatting and chuckling line for breakfast. It smells good. Savory and warm bread and sausages. As is traditional, they give the new initiate some space after the hazing to receive a kinder, gentler explanation of life as a Stonehaven.

But Matthias is crying. Witchcraft mocks the Holy Betrayed One. By Church law, witches were to be turned in and driven from the land or burned. It is a sin to keep a witch secret. But only familial betrayal extinguishes your light and locks you out of Paradise. Asa takes pity on his naked and terrified friend. Fun’s over. He kneels by Matthias, plucks a rose, and holds it out to him.

“It’s just a flower,” he said. “Really. That’s all.”

Asa smiles a smile that brightens his already-glowing face and crinkles the corners of his eyes. At twenty, Asa has already worn smile lines into his features.

Matthias doesn’t answer him and he doesn’t accept the flower. He is still pale, still breathing hard. Asa frowns, not liking to see his boisterous, carefree friend scared quiet. He tries an old tactic from their years of friendship.

“If it was me,” Asa said, “I’d be pissed.”

He takes off his outer robe and offers it to Matthias. Matthias hesitates. Probably the color—blood red of The Witch.

“Take it, you nanny goat,” Asa says. “We’re all sick of looking at your winkie.”

Matthias’ cheeks redden angrily at the ribbing and he glares at Asa. He snatches the robe and spreads it over his lap.

“Well, I am pissed,” Matthias says. “And rightfully so. But we both know you wouldn’t be pissed if it was you. You’d be piss-ing yourself all over the floor!”

“Probably.”

He grinned at Matthias with his sharp, white teeth until his friend half-smiled back.

“So,” Matthias said in a quiet voice, “Souzel knew, then. When she married me.”

“Aye.”

“I thought she didn’t look worried when they came for me,” Matthias said, deflated.

“It’s not so bad as you think.”

“No? It’s a sin not to report a witch.”

Second-class sin,” Asa says. “You’ll lose any high station in Paradise that you earned in life. But you still get in.”

Matthias barks a laugh.

“As if I plan on doing any Holy status earning!”

“That’s what Souzel and I both thought you’d say,” Asa says. “Plus, there are perks.”

“Oh?”

“Well, our family’s rich you know.”

“Yeah…” Matthias says.

“It’s why you married my cousin.”

“Hey!”

Asa grins at him.

“It’s not why,” Matthias says. “It’s sure nice, though.”

“Sure it is,” Asa says. “But we’re rich because we work in fertility.”

“Oh?”
“That’s our gift. Some witch families are cursers or hunter’s luckers. But that’s too much work for us. We just lie about on our farms and make our crops and animals fruitful.”

“I see,” Matthias says.

“Our people, too.”

“Wait,” Matthias says. “Are me and Souzel going to have fifteen babies or something?”

“You’ll have as many, or few, as you want,” Asa says. “Well, as Souzel wants. It’s all up to the Stonehaven-by-blood, you see. Oh and Matthias? They all live.”

“What?”

Tears come again to Matthias’ eyes. But Asa knows they are happy tears. Matthias’ sister has lost an unborn baby each year since her marriage five years ago. Matthias confided to Asa before his wedding that he was afraid he would bring this curse to Souzel too.

“Yeah,” Asa says. “So you come out on top after all.”

Matthias wipes his eyes.

“I sure did last night.”

“Not the way I remember it,” says a woman’s voice.

The men turn. Souzel stands before them, bathed, dressed and smiling.

“Asa, are you done filling my new husband in?” Souzel says. “Because I’m starving.”

“Husband!” Says Matthias. “I’m not tired of hearing that yet, wife. Wife, wife, wife.”

Souzel gives Matthias a hand up and helps him secure the red robe around himself. Matthias kisses her to a scattered applause and leads her toward the breakfast foods. Stonehavens clap him on the back or outright hug him. Matthias hugs back, enduring their good-natured teasing with grace. Asa smiles. They always come around, he thinks.

From the corner, Asa’s father beckons him. Asa goes cold and a flutteriness seizes his stomach that feels somewhere between falling in love and falling ill. He moves toward the grey-faced man, taking him in.

Asahel Martin has turned old before his time. Too weak now for the hard farm tasks, silver-haired at thirty-nine, and face worn in frown grooves.  Asa resembles his mother’s Stonehavens more than his father’s Martins, but Martins’ faces always wrinkle early, following the lines of most common expression.

Asa draws a wooden stool alongside his father’s and sits.

“Father, do you require breakfast? I can get if for you.”

“No, my son,” Asahel says. “I require your ear.”

Asa nearly falls off his stool. He had expected only a nod or a shake of the head. Asahel has not spoken one unnecessary word since he married Asa’s mother twenty years ago.

“Yes, Father?”

“You marry next week?” The corners of Asahel’s mouth turn up.

“Yes Father. To Mira.” Asa is touched that his father has been paying attention. He believes his father might touch him.

“Then neither of you may back out.” The corners flick back down.

“No, Father. Not without betrayal.”

“Correct. Unless…”

“Unless?” Asa doesn’t want to back out. But that momentary smile is the first he can remember his father giving him.

“I have read Church documents.”

“You can read?” Asa says, awe in his voice.

“Aye. I have many talents that go unrecognized in the shadow of Stonehaven witchcraft. The documents say that if compelling reason for annulment is uncovered prior to sexual consummation, the intended parties may end their agreement. Both still secure in their light and in the favor of the gods.”

“What reasons, Father?”

“Impurity, sudden illness, or false pretenses. Stonehavens only marry under false pretenses, do they not?” The man gestures around the room at the Wedding Breakfast.

“But I wish to marry Mira! And she wishes to marry me!”

Eyes around the room turn to them at Asa’s outburst and Asahel’s face reddens. Asa clasps his hands, filled with shame.

“My Father,” he says.

Hardness returns to Asahel’s face. He glares back at each curious Stonehaven glance, until all are looking away once more.

“If you care for your bride,” Asahel says, “Think. Think how she will feel the morning after your wedding when they drag her naked and terrified from your bed. Parade her before the family and mock her for unknowingly taking oath with a witch. Tricked and trapped into sin and swindled out of her true place in Paradise. What rotten start to a marriage!”

“But. But our family brings wealth.”

“A poor trade that. Temporary physical comforts for eternal spiritual glory.”

“And health! And the power to have or to not have children!”

“Ah, but all that power lies with the Stonehaven blood.”

“We would discuss how many children to have. Make the decision together,” Asa says.

“But it’s all really up to you, isn’t it? And she’ll know it deep in her heart. For always.”

Asahel grips his oak cane and hoists himself to his feet. Asa jumps to help him, but Asahel waves him away. Before he left, he turns to his son.

“Think on it. You are half Martin, after all. I hold some hope for your character.”

Blasted, Asa watches his father leave the inn and the merry chatter of his happy family. He and Mira are to meet with the priestess in the afternoon to discuss their wedding. I will talk with Mira then, he determines.

***

After the breakfast dishes are cleared and put away, Asa leaves the inn and walks the dirt path through the pine forest back to town. The communal well sits in the center of the square and rising into the sky behind it is the temple spire. The temple is the grey-white marble beloved by the Holy Betrayed One.

The story went that the last sight the deity-saint beheld as she lay dying—stabbed in the back by The Witch—was her crimson blood spreading across an outcrop of light grey marble. The crimson banners hanging from the temple windows echo the holy color scheme.

Asa pauses to make the signs of blessing, then he pushes the heavy door open and enters the cool church. He hears a sunny laugh down the hall coming from the Priestess’ cell. Mira’s laugh. A temporary lightness lifts Asa’s heavy heart as he walks toward the cell. Mira has an easy, ready laugh. There in the doorway she sits on a chair that faces the Priestess’ desk. Her flaxen curls frame a round face with delicate features and pink blossom cheeks. She brightens upon seeing Asa and beckons him to the empty chair beside her.

The grey-headed Priestess greets him and launches into their final lecture topic before their nuptials next week: Sacramental Consummation. As the stern, older woman launches into a description of the tilling of the Holy Furrow by the Blessed Plow, Asa notices Mira’s deepening blush. He realizes he ought to be concentrating on the fetching way her petal blossom cheeks are deepening to rose.

But his thoughts return to his father. His father had spoken to him. Again. He’d done it once before on a rainy, cold day when Asa was seven. Asa and Matthias played on the hearth rug. Asahel sat in his corner chair in the shadows that the firelight couldn’t reach. He sat so still, as usual, that the boys forgot his presence.

Matthias grabbed the stick Asa had been whittling out of his hand.

“Hey!” Asa said.

“You’re going to snap it.”

“What do you care? It’s my stick.”

“We can’t go get another one,” Matthias said. “It’s too wet outside.”

“Yeah?” Asa said, incensed that his friend had taken something from his hands. “I could dry it.”

“It’d take hours.”

“Not for me,” Asa said. “I could just do it. In an instant.”

“Stop!” The sudden, strong voice came from the corner.

Asahel stood, shaking with weakness and rage. Cane supporting him, the grey man strode toward the boys. He turned to Matthias.

“Get out.”

Matthias scrambled out the door into the downpour, forgetting his cloak.

“You,” Asahel said to a cowering Asa, “nearly betrayed us all.”

And he lifted his cane and brought it down once on Asa’s forearm. Asa did not know his father had such strength in him.

 

“It was love,” his mother said later while she was setting the bone. “Of a kind. He meant to stop your fool tongue before you damned yourself, my featherwitted son.”

“Love?” Asa said through pain and a numbing drink that dizzied him.

“I suppose.” His mother’s usually jolly face was drawn with anxiety. “I’m glad to see it’s there, since it’s the only kind of love I’ve seen him show since we married. He’s a withholder, you see.”

“Withholder?”

“Yes. He loves you, but he’s too angry with me to show it. Except like this.” His mother indicated Asa’s arm.

“Angry? With you?”

“Because he hasn’t any of the power we Stonehavens have. So he exerts the only control he can. He withholds. Ever since our Wedding Breakfast. It’s why you haven’t any brothers or sisters,” his mother said.

 

Asa hadn’t understood what she meant then, but over the years he’d figured it out. Long before today’s talk about the Furrow and Plow. As the Priestess motions the couple to bow for the concluding prayer, Asa looks at his bride to be. She is a pious woman; her aura always glows brightest in the temple.

He imagines her the morning after their wedding, dragged naked from their bed. He realizes he wouldn’t let them take her. Wouldn’t let them frighten her. His fathers’ words echo in his memory: What a rotten start to a marriage.

Mira and Asa take their leave from the Priestess and walk to the sanctuary for meditation. They kneel in one of the pews. Asa stares up at the etched glass window depicting the five deity/saints welcoming the faithful to Paradise.

“What are you looking forward to about Paradise?” He whispers to Mira.

Mira looks up from her meditation and smiles.

“Odd. Asking about the end of things when together we’re making a beginning,” Mira says.

“I only want to know more about you.”

“Well,” she says, “being there, of course. Seeing my Gran and Papa again. Speaking with the Holy Betrayed One and the other Saints.”

Asa smiles, reassured. A second-class sin endangers none of these simple desires. But Mira continues.

“Also, I’d love to see what my work in life ultimately wrought. I say my beads each day. Give my five percent plus ten more to the welfare of the Lightless. Maybe it’s true that the faithful can buy those poor wretches into Paradise. Also, I intend to become an excellent wife.” She squeezes Asa’s arm. Her hand is warm. “I’d love to see what value the Saints place on such work as mine. I imagine I’ll be proud.”

“I see,” Asa says.

He hopes the guilt he feels doesn’t show on his face.

“What about you?” Mira asks. She looks concerned.

“Oh you know. Loved ones gone. Meeting the Saints. Never getting a hangover.”

Mira laughs. The pair finish their meditations and part with a fond kiss. Asa leaves by the back of the temple past the soup kitchens. He usually hurries past the kitchens, but today he pauses to look.

The lightless, six of them, are sleeping on blankets on the marble floor. They look like creatures of nightmare. Human-shaped but missing the glowing aura of Holy Acceptance. In its place, a filmy aura of dark mist swirls over them.

Each of these men and women committed the one sin unforgivable by their oathsworn Saint. Murder, deception, sexual immorality, miserliness, or betrayal. Given that Asa’s parish is dedicated to the Holy Betrayed One, these are likely betrayers. Shut forever out of Paradise, their souls doomed to wander the earth and fade with time.

If Asa entrusts Mira with the Stonehaven secret, the fate of the Lightless could be his. If she elects to tell a Church authority. Horrified, he turns from the sleepers and passes through a cold, grey vapor. He staggers back. The transparent form of an old man stares at him. A few of these disturbing spirits haunt the temple, though Asa rarely sees them.

The Lightless ghost moans voicelessly and reaches for Asa. He flees.

***

A week later Asa stands at the temple altar with his jaw set. The harper and the fiddler have stopped playing. The congregation rustles, turning alternately to look between Asa and the empty sanctuary doorway where Mira ought to have entered.

Matthias comes through instead. Grim-faced he shakes his head. Asa bows his. The aura surrounding Asa’s skin flickers and goes out. His and Mira’s gathered family members gasp.

“No!” Asa says.

Somewhere, Mira has divulged the Stonehavens’ secret to a Church authority. Betrayal. Temple soldiers are coming from the King’s City bringing fire and death to his witch family. Mira will still reap her full eternal rewards in Paradise.

“But who did you betray, Asa?” the Priestess asks. “Your poor bride?”

Asa shakes his head and faces his gathered family.

“Flee! They are coming for you!”

Shrieks and cries of horror rise from his family. They scramble to gather their children. The old refuse to be carried and thus slow their loved ones’ flight.

“Coward!” he hears his mother’s voice.

He looks up, expecting to face her wrath. But she stands above Asahel and spits on him.

“You got what you always wanted. And you didn’t even lose your own soul.”

But Asahel ignores her. He is looking at Asa with a warm smile. The first look of pride and satisfaction Asa has received from his father. The baleful, dark aura of the Lightless erupts from Asa’s mouth—the instrument with which he’d betrayed his family—and spreads over his body. A deep cold takes him and he shudders.

 

 

1 Comment

  • Isabel Nee says:

    Wow. That was intense! And a little sad/creepy at the end. I think you nailed the “bizarre” in bizarre family traditions!

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