The Tale Begins HERE!
Our breakup cast a pall over the remainder of Summer. I brooded on it all through Saint Michael’s Lent but the festivities at Michaelmas managed to lift my mood. I spent most of the day with a small group of friends, parish and classmates and my two favorite cousins, Francis and Betsy, called Bitsy on account of her diminutive size.
We walked along the beach, joining in a variety of games, Four Square, Bocce Ball, Ring Toss, Volleyball, Corn Hole. The guys in the group also tried out our skills at a wrestling circle. We then took a turn each climbing aboard a catapult which hurled us fifty meters out into the Atlantic surf. Here and there along the coastline, clusters of musicians played beach music. We stopped and Shag danced to a few songs as Carolinians have been doing on these sands for thousands of years. All the while, we stuffed ourselves with raw oysters, fried seafood, sausages and sugary snacks of a seemingly endless variety. Between events and meals we cooled off with dips in the ocean.
We crossed Jacinta’s beachside home twice on our walk up and down Litchfield beach. I spotted her on our first pass, sitting where I last saw her, laughing it up with a group of girlfriends. Engrossed in their conversation, she did not notice me among the throngs crossing to and fro before her family’s sundeck.
And I made no effort to be seen.
The sight of her, I confess, smarted a bit. On the way back, we made our way along the water’s edge which would’ve made spotting her more difficult. I purposely avoided the effort, keeping my gaze on the horizon where sea met sky.
Bitsy noted my pointed avoidance of Jacinta’s house. “Still pining for her, are you cousin?”
I shrugged, and said, “Maybe.”
Betsy wrapped her arms around my own right arm and pressed her pigtailed head against my shoulder. “My brother Tommy fell in love his second year of college,” she said. “Claire was her name. A beautiful girl, if you remember. They were crazy about each other, Claire and Tommy. It was storybook perfect, their love.”
Knowing the story, I said, “Until Claire decided to become a nun.”
I felt her nod against my arm. “Oh, the tears, which that decision caused. Claire’s, Tommy’s, my mom’s…”
“And a few from you, no doubt.”
Betsy nodded into my arm again. “A few. I couldn’t help it. Tommy has always been my favorite brother.”
Walking beside us, the gangly Francis objected to what he overheard. “I thought I was your favorite brother.”
Without missing a beat Bitsy raised her head to respond to Francis. “You thought wrong. Again.”
Francis feigned heartache by clutching at his breast.
Bitsy lowered her head onto my chest again. “It was sad to see Tommy so heartbroken.”
I kissed the top of her head. “I take it there’s a point in reminding me of Tommy and Claire.”
Betsy shrugged and said, “Maybe.”
“Come on, out with it, Bitsy.”
“I was just thinking of Bishop Flint’s homily this past Good Friday.” Betsy said. She stopped our walk and lifted her head from my shoulder. She unwrapped her arms from mine but took my hand. She stared down long enough to watch a foam-topped wave wash over our feet and then recede.
Betsy gave me a dimpled smile before continuing. “I don’t remember the exact words, but the Bishop said something to the effect that all love this side of heaven is in one way or another eventually touched by tragedy, wounded by the very fallen world in which it exists because this fallen world is always disintegrating. Everything and everyone is flying apart from everyone and everything else. Every decision separates possibilities. Each of us, sooner or later, in one way or another, will be separated from those we love, from everyone we love.”
There was a sheen of tears over her big, brown eyes. I knew she was thinking not just of Tommy and Claire or Jacinta and me; my darling cousin was also anticipating our own coming separation when I would leave for the Golan Heights next spring.
I kissed her forehead and said, “There’s always an Easter Sunday after Good Friday.”
Betsy smiled, loosening a single tear. “Yes, there is,” she said and began walking again. “Easter is our glimpse of heaven, the Bishop said. Heaven, where our choices bring us together, bind us in the communion of saints and draw us into the communion of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. There love is touched, not by tragedy, but by boundless joy as it is absorbed whole into the bliss of eternal beatitude.”
“Wow cuz,” I said. “No one can ever accuse you of not paying attention at Mass.”
“You don’t remember what your priest preached on Good Friday?”
“Not verbatim, like you can,” I admitted. “Father Sao Paolo’s Good Friday homily wasn’t quite as poetic. It was more of a forensic study of crucifixion, exquisitely detailing every excruciating torture our Lord suffered on our behalf.”
“Well, that’ll work too.”
“Sure did,” I said. “No one has complained to Father about anything since.”
We laughed and then walked in silence for several seconds before I continued, “Tommy is engaged now to a new girl, just as lovely, I understand; and, we can trust that Claire is happy at the convent.”
Betsy nodded and added, “And Jacinta and you will eventually find happiness as well without each other.”
I nodded and paused to repeat my cousin’s words silently to myself. “Yes we will,” I said. “And you and I will also be happy no matter how long this fallen world separates us.”
“Amen, amen, we will,” Betsy said, choking back a sob. My cousin then threw her arms around me and pressed her head against my chest. She squeezed me with all the might her small body could muster. I returned the hug proportionately and kissed the top of her head. Then, with the sun sinking behind the beach homes lining the coast, we headed back to our family camp.
Major Feast Days throughout the Empire usually occasioned the reunion of extended families. Michaelmas was no exception. At sunset, families gathered in clusters up and down the Grand Strand in anticipation of the evening’s fireworks. Our camp was nearly seventy in number, consisting of eight of my parents’ eleven siblings, each with their family in tow.
The fireworks were an intricate combination of explosives, lasers and holograms expertly choreographed to depict the war in heaven and Saint Michael’s vanquishing of Satan. After the thrilling display, we, along with thousands of families stretched along the Grand Strand, lit bonfires and ringed them in a cozy circle. Bottles of wine and beer and flasks of various spirits began circulating.
Fabian and Faustina, my youngest siblings, nine-year-old twins, joined in with a dozen of their similarly aged cousins in a skipping dance around the fire. The children sang a ditty about Saint Michael throwing devils into hellfire as they skipped/danced and tossed dragon tails into the pyre at every refrain of ‘Burn, burn! Wicked angel, burn!’
The children’s incendiary devices sent up flailing tongues of flame and let out short, shrieking whistles which elicited peals of delighted laughter from the children and smiles from the adults who watched.
The festivities took an intimate turn after that. Conversations deepened and laughter sweetened. Guitars and fiddles eschewed popular tunes for long and dearly-held family favorites, songs both plaintive and playful which were sung aloud and heartfelt, on key and off.
Linus, my eldest brother and freshly ordained priest, had arranged for some free time before his first posting to witness our sister Miriam take her final vows. I hadn’t seen either sibling since last Christmas. They were radiant in the firelight, holding hands and whispering together.
Miriam’s twin sister Martha was visiting from her new home on the planet Adria with her husband Mark and their two small children. It had been over three years since she left Earth. Martha was talking to our mother, enjoying the attention lavished on her toddler son by his grandmother.
Father was talking with his son-in-law. They shared a passion for sailing, and the subject was no doubt the reason for their animated conversation.
Clement, the second eldest Zapatas son, was on leave from the Solar Defense Corps. It was his first time home since being posted to Mars two years ago and he was regaling Francis and our other young cousins with stories of his off-planet misadventures. Having grown up on a steady stream of Clement’s tales myself, I knew his stories to be highly embellished if not spun outright ex nihilo. To Clement’s credit however, they were always entertaining. Our cousins listened with rapt attention.
Uncle Bruno Barbarino, one of my mother’s four brothers patted my back in greeting, “Hola there, Zeph my neph!”
I flashed the sun-browned, barrel-chested and dome-topped giant a warm smile. “Hello uncle Bruno!”
We clasped hands and hugged. When we pulled apart, my uncle said, “I understand congratulations are in order, my boy. You’re going to the Heights!”
I grinned and nodded.
“You’re making family history,” Bruno said mussing up my hair. “Good on ya, my boy!”
“He’s breaking family tradition,” my brother Clement butted in suddenly. “Going off to an academy halfway around the world when there are two perfectly good ones right here in Dixie, each of them with a three thousand years-long legacy. I don’t get it. The Citadel was good enough for Paw-paw, for Pop and for you too, uncle Bruno. It was good enough for me, but not good enough for li’l Zippy here.”
Uncle Bruno dismissed Clement with a wave of his hand and told me, “Don’t you listen to him, Zeph. Golan Heights probably rejected his application.”
“I never applied to the Heights,” Clement said. “That school is for wanna-be Drumsticks.”
My brother Clement was a great tease besides being a teller of tall tales. ‘Drumsticks’ was one of the more popular slighting references to Imperial Marines used throughout the galaxy. There were other, more deprecatory names, Clement was good enough not to use.
“Drumsticks” was innocent enough. The term arose from the Imperial Marines uniform. Its wide-topped zouave pants tapered below the knees and narrowed at the ankles to more readily slip into boots. Many saw a resemblance to fowl limbs in their silhouette. Personally, I had long-loved the uniform and hoped to have the honor of wearing it one day.
“If you want to be an Imperial Marine, Zeph,” my uncle Bruno said. “Then I pray God grants you your wish, my boy.”
“Thank you, uncle.”
Bruno pulled a flask from his back pocket and continued, “And who knows, maybe you’ll even win yourself knighthood.”
“Now don’t go swelling his head, uncle Bruno,” said Clement. “It’s fat enough as it is.”
“That be something, wouldn’t it?” said Bruno and then nodded at Clement. “He would have to call you lord, then.”
My brother laughed and said, “Lord Zippy. Ha! That’ll be the day.”
Uncle Bruno handed me the flask with another, “Congratulations, my boy!”
“Thanks,” I said, taking the flask. I searched out my parents in the immediate throng. My father had his back to me, still in conversation with his son-in-law. My mother was faced in our general direction but engrossed by the new grandson in her arms.
I held up the flask and called out across the short distance, “Mom?”
She looked at me, the flask, her brother Bruno and then back at me before answering, “Sure, go ahead. But no more than five pulls.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said and unscrewed the flask. I took a generous swallow and almost immediately regretted it. The whiskey burned going down and I couldn’t help but cough some of it back up.
My brother and uncle had themselves a good laugh and even my mother smiled as she shook her head. I handed Bruno his flask back. He took a swig and breathed out a satisfied exhalation.
Clement patted my back and asked, “Hey mom, would that be five total shots or five from each flask making the rounds?”
My mother gave him her stink-eye and warned, “Clement, if you get your little brother drunk, there’ll be no place in the solar system the SDC could hide you that will spare you the paddling I will inflict upon you.”
Clement grinned. “Yes, mother,” he said and shot me a wink when she looked away. “Do yourself a favor and save one of those five shots for a flask with a mother-of-pearl fleur-de-lis. There’s three of them out there. I got them on my last trip to the Jupiter system. Europon moonshine. Quite tasty and it gives the gray cells a good scrambling.”
“Don’t care for synthahol, myself,” Uncle Bruno said and handed Clement the flask.
“I ain’t the discriminating type,” Clement said and took a drink. “It’s all good to me.”
My brother offered me the flask but I waved him off. “I think I’ll pace myself.”
I spent the next few hours moving around the ring spending some time with every branch of our family tree, listening to stories, singing songs and exchanging well-wishes, hugs and kisses. I didn’t know how long it would be before I could return to this blessed circle of mine, so I savored every bittersweet moment. I had no more than three other shots of various liquors during that time (never did cross paths with the Europon moonshine). I was light-headed enough when I crawled into my sleeping bag.
I fell asleep staring up at the stars.