Festival of Light

By Margot Pepper
From forthcoming book, the Acrobat and Other Stories for Dark Times
In memory of Rachel Corrie

The swans knew the sun had set. They retreated under the bridges to tuck necks under wings in slumber, and it was another exodus of light: the departure of brilliant white leaving only the dismal colors of dusk—the mercurial river, clouds like coals long since burned to ash. The scene was etched in metal, cold, colorless, hard; the red, ochre and olive houses, lusterless, mildewed.

Then came droves of dwellers rushing sea-side streets, in spite of the weather, and despite the fact that the last intimations of light would soon vanish. There must have been thousands.   Who’d have believed it?–past nine on a Sunday night, Kira thought. Families pushing prams along sidewalks with clear vented plastic encasing babies, parents holding umbrellas over the heads of older siblings or allowing them to skip alongside bundled in rain hats and slickers. This was why the roads had been jammed for days, and the couple’s cramped little B&B, the last vacancy in the village.

Brendan pulled on a string to tighten his hood and bent his head resolutely against the sheets of rain as he leapt off a curb, over a puddle to cross the street. “See. It’ll be tough to find a good spot.”

Kira shrugged, uncomprehending of her new husband’s enthusiasm. The only thing that could have possibly lifted her own spirits hadn’t shone for more than minutes at a time in the last five years. Could it have ever really existed, she asked herself now: an object so bright in the sky you simply could not look at it directly? An object so fierce, it’s mere appearance heated the skin. How had she known it was round? It nearly belonged to another dimension, since her sight was incapable of seeing it.   She gathered her scarf tighter around her neck and felt her rain hat to make sure the rain still hadn’t come through. Her jeans were soaked from the knees down. Another fine summer. She had on every layer she owned, yet was frozen to the bone. Except perhaps for the frenzied days preceding the wedding, the wedding itself and brief period following, she had spent the last five years shivering.

A few days had passed since their arrival in Land’s End, still Kira wasn’t over her absurd disappointment at not having found sun for their honeymoon. After all, they had traveled so much farther from home this time, having kept the wedding small in order to do so. Maybe finally this vacation, as a wedding present, as a good omen, she had foolishly hoped, there will be a miracle of light. It wasn’t often she expressed her wishes to the wind. Other than this dissatisfaction, she usually tried to be appreciative of all the universe bestowed upon her, like the gorgeous wedding and Hope and Mary Ann all the way from Tiffin, or just the cod and potato dinner with Brendan in their small kitchen the night before they left, steam frosting the panes and the kitten playing by the fire with the strap on Brendan’s pack before Moira downstairs came for him.

Kira peered up at the bruised sky and remembered that the astounding rise in the sea level had less to do with spent rain than with melting land masses of polar ice; there would be no end in sight to the amount of moisture still remaining within the heavens. The fact was, she and Brendan would have had to leave the country to see any cracks of light in that dark, starless mask, but that required winning the lottery. Anyway, with their luck they’d end up somewhere that was burning up. You never knew where a fire would be raging these days, but there were always at least a dozen. They were like the wars between the globals and some unwilling citizenry somewhere. Only the increasingly smaller population of wealthy could afford the few temperate zones that remained. The rest, were left like India’s untouchables, to fight for real estate options on the borders of what was reasonable for human existence.

Kira’s breath grew deeper, more rapid to accommodate the crowd’s quick pace. What were people so excited about anyway? She despised parades and the kind they attracted. During the Independence parade back home in the City, a couple had persuaded the police to seek Kira’s arrest merely for squirting, in good fun, a stream of whipped cream at a contingent of soldiers brandishing a United Oil banner. What had shocked Kira and Brendan more than the stool-pigeon couple’s reaction, was the willingness of crowd members to point the fiancées out to the authorities before Kira and Brendan managed to wriggle their way to a spot where noone had seen what had occurred.

Gone were the days of overt marches in their own community where nearby spectators might have applauded Kira’s comic statement about a company that had joined the Fortune 500 immediately following a tenfold surge in household energy expenses–a hardship that had driven yet more families to homelessness. In contrast, this breed of spectator so believed every hallucination that tormented its leader, it was willing to take up arms to fight them. When the Plutocrat envisioned a planet eaten alive by infirm cockroaches by the end of the decade, tax payers willingly forked over billions to CAT Company for tank subsidies to squash the vermin where they originated in the ghettos and artist cooperatives. Little did they suspect that their leader (who had built an artificial lake by his home and filled it with fish he killed for his pleasure as though he were God himself! Kira reflected) was nothing but a middle-man for the globals.

The stream of pedestrians, which Kira and Brendan had joined, merged with another stream and flowed thicker along the ocean promenade. As they approached the town’s bridges, the river of umbrellas and raincoats began to coalesce. They looked like oversized balloons, Kira mused, her imagination desperately reaching to fill the bleak scene with something bright and cheerful, devoid of antagonism. There was always the hope that the crowd was not as vicious as the one in the capital, that the knot of bloodthirsty people there was now just a diminishing minority, a fluke. Afterall, cynicism had begun to spread throughout the country.

From time to time Kira would catch sight of a face: rain dripping from a beak of a nose, gray coarse eyebrows like a terrier’s, a double chin, pale wrinkling skin and cracked lipstick, a flash of blue eyes, water cascading from a navy plastic sleeve onto hands with large pores and black hair follicles, dirt under nicely trimmed nails, images on which one might fixate to pass the time at the post office, ordinary working people out for a stroll in the wicked rain to avoid the Sunday night blues.

The crowd became impossibly thick.

“This all right, Kira?” Brendan asked, backing up against the brick wall of a church and pulling Kira gently backward to rest against his chest. About six feet above their heads, a solid chain of spectators balanced on the top layer of the bricks, holding onto the iron spires of the fence. Through the gaps in the crowd Kira could guess that they were on the promenade that was separated from the town’s main square by a large inlet of water and several bridges. How could they possibly see the parade from here?

Fighting off her frustration, she gazed again at the now-dark sky. If they couldn’t have sun, the silent white twinkle of a distant sun would be enough light. Not all those blinking, roaring artificial stars that were in fact just lights belonging to the dozens of heat-scanning, electro-reading security planes and helicopters that scarred the heavens. Just a single star to wish upon, she thought, something in her chest growing unbearably heavy, waterlogged. The muted gray stain of a moon trapped behind the fog and clouds still allowed her to discern the bold lines of the scenery minus its details. Impressionism, she reflected.

A few flashlight beams wove in and out of the shadows from time to time; someone rich enough to blow batteries on the mere act of waiting. Ever since the electricity and gas consortium had so thoroughly taken over distribution of the planet’s resources, most of the world’s citizenry had resigned itself to enduring in darkness. For illumination most relied on the dim blue fluorescent glow of state-subsidized televisions. Since running them was far cheaper than even candle wax, they could be heard blaring ceaselessly on their default setting in most rooms after sunset; only the more affluent could afford batteries for the remotes to decrease the volume, which crept up steadily without manual interference. And even those with resources soon tired of the diligence necessary to maintain volumes less than that intended for theaters and big screen televisions. Kira and Brendan were convinced this was to discourage impertinent conversations, but kept these thoughts to themselves to avoid being labeled paranoid conspiracy kooks by their more trusted colleagues; anti-patriots by the rest.

Nothing infuriated the couple more than this television manipulation, since they were certain that therein lay the apathy, even the manufactured approval that had allowed the globals to rob the planet blind of natural and human resources with the citizenry’s blessings. Certainly, the media’s purpose was not to disseminate news; the only events deemed worthy of air time were those capable of being framed to reinforce the regime or lower intelligence. Yet the very existence of the regime was denied, as though it was logical that those one seldom saw working should be the best off, while, say, the home-builders and harvesters of food suffered near homelessness and malnutrition.

What Kira and Brendan found so astounding was the fact that most pawns did not question this hierarchy. Rather, they were among the first to assert that the very use of the term “pawnism” was in poor taste and marked the user as a kind of freak. Art and literature which attempted to grapple with these and more philosophic questions were considered frumpish and unsophisticated, hence unmarketable; investigative journalism, non-objective.

Two of the couple’s videographer friends had managed to shoot footage of a wheelchair with a leg buried in the rubble of a home, and of a teenager who had been shot fourteen times by police while leafleting in the S-Mart parking lot, both clips refuting the administration’s assertion that there had been no civilian casualties in the real estate and labor disputes. Clean Channel and Dizzy, both recently-acquired United Oil subsidiaries, had declared the shooting of just another worker commonplace, therefore un-newsworthy; the wheelchair tragedy, biased. Not long after, the journalist who shot the footage was jailed for possession, his video of the leg, seized by authorities as evidence of a demolished crack house–until the video was lost.

It was high time to wage a war on the globals, Kira reflected, it was they who had really stolen the light; it was they who had brought on global warming in the first place; it was they who were already investing in property on the highest land masses above sea level and food substitutes in anticipation of the coming floods and famines, none of which were as inevitable as they claimed. Alternative energy-sources and economic solutions had long since been discovered.

Only, Kira wondered sadly, where was the resistance? How many others like Kira and Brendan had managed to disconnect the sound in their complimentary television sets without jeopardizing the light, and kept them covered with sheer fabric? Indeed other artists from their community most likely had, but the cost of living had scattered them across the planet. And the majority of those remaining in the city seemed uninterested in the kinds of visions that inspired the couple’s art. Kira had spent almost a decade working on a show of her paintings but once the final panels were in place, both gallery and agent had changed their minds.

Brendan had suffered similar rejection many years prior for his “Beyond Television” installation, which had the misfortune of making its debut at the height of the government’s television give-away campaign. Fighting off intermittent bouts of crippling disappointment, Kira and Brendan were adapting to the fact that just a teensy minority would ever appreciate the pains they had taken to cultivate their artistic gifts.

“Look, up there, love.” Brendan motioned to a hole between the people perched on the wall above them. “Think you can make it?” He held his hands clasped to make a step for her.

A man in a worn black leather jacket reached his hand down to help Kira up.

She thanked him, declining. “This means more to you, really,” she coaxed Brendan.

“Really, love, you go. I’ll have a look in a bit.”

The man in the black jacket who had offered Kira his hand hoisted himself down from the wall. Water ran in torrents forming a peak of hair over his bowed forehead, keeping the rain out of his eyes.

“Visiting?” he inquired of the couple.

“From the capital herself,” Brendan said.

“Go ahead, take my place there,” the man told Brendan.

“Come on up, the both of you!” a woman called down, nodding. The four-year old she held bundled in a red parka waved to his father before being distracted by two navy and black helicopters shooting search beams at the crowd. Kira noticed it odd that the free illumination hadn’t been met with the usual dozen or so cheers of gratitude.

Brendan hesitated.

“Go on man, really. I’m well over six feet,” insisted the man in the black jacket. “Anyhow, I’ve seen this before and, the Mighty willing, I’ll see it again. You’re guests here. Really, now. You shouldn’t miss this.”

“That’s very decent of you. But won’t you miss some spectacular fireworks?” Brendan asked, giving Kira a boost until she established her footing and a firm grip on the iron rods above his head. In the process, the clear plastic of her raincoat ripped several feet worth.

“Fireworks?”   The man in the black jacket was shouting, laughing. “Not like you’re thinking. There won’t be any official energy sponsors here. This is our community’s festival. To bring back the light. You remember Lugh?”

“The Celtic god of light,” Kira smiled down at Brendan, though her insides felt heavy from the tear in her slicker.

“You might say this is an appeal to him. To defeat Crome Dubh. The black bent one.”

“Ah, like the old days,” Brendan smiled.

The old Festival of the Harvest, Kira thought to herself, holding tightly to the spires as Brendan hoisted himself up next to her.

The voices around them began chattering at a frenzied pitch.

“Look! Look! Here it comes!” someone said.

An explosion of ivory-colored fire ripped across the canal, lighting up the steep roof and windows of a building bordering the town square. It was followed by a collective gasp, punctuated by some laughter which faded to silence. Then came several more white fiery explosions that looked as though they had been shot by a giant’s blow torch. They maintained light along the municipal building and delineated the black silhouettes of the houses that prevented Kira from seeing their source. As the light faded, all breathing things along the body of water went still.

“Listen,” the woman whose husband had given up his spot whispered to her boy. On the other end of the silence, seeped some eerie music, melancholy, metallic, a hybrid of classical and modern space music. There was something about it that chilled Kira’s bones like seeing the bleeding red lights of an official in the rear view mirror, or returning home to find an open drawer, a paper, or canvas in an unreasonable spot.

The explosions, now proceeding at regular intervals to the pace of the music along the promenade, created swirling towers of light on the body of water separating Kira and Brendan from the town square. Shots of fire emerged from behind rooftops, bathing the entire promenade in tangerine light. Below the wind-swept surface of the water, a volcano of glowing embers seemed to have unleashed itself.

Now Kira could see the source of both the light and haunting music: a five-story headless metallic dinosaur with a fire-spitting Ferris wheel for a belly. As it made its jerking, heavy way forward on a platform of inadequate wheels, Kira could make out a procession of heavily-clad, hooded, figures behind it, a small army hiding behind a modern-day Trojan horse. Each explosion was propelled forward, as though through a dragon’s nostrils, along the promenade, where it flared up and remained burning like a small bonfire, obscuring the now-perfectly well-lit buildings and walkway, in plumes of salmon smoke. The plumes became trees, the older ones dissipating into clouds that broke like tidal waves over the town beyond them. The water, however, remained sharply focused in the foreground against what was now the flame-colored smudgy intimation of a promenade. It had been over a decade since Kira had seen a nightscape so clearly and she longed to paint it. This one, she thought, would actually lend itself to watercolor.

She shivered. The rain had seeped past the tear in her slicker where her increasingly-porous leather jacket was sopping it up like a sponge. Yet this wasn’t the primary source of the raised skin. “Brendan,” she said as quietly as she could. “It’s all over the legal limit, isn’t it?”

He nodded without looking over at her.

Odd, she mused, how what had once been such an innocent ancient ritual could now be construed as potentially criminal. Once the globals had gotten away with demanding royalties on the earth’s creations–seeds and plants, clean water— the damn had burst. Now even the use of certain amounts of light required costly copyright use permits only the globals could afford.   Naturally, the free corporate-sponsored firework and light shows–particularly at ball games–attracted multitudes, who obediently swallowed obscene streams of the government’s patriotic propaganda.

The woman with the boy next to Kira spoke into her ear. “You’re right, darlin’–about the bootleg light. But our mayor says he won’t stop us. Only he likely can’t stop the Guard.”

Were the mayor to attempt such a maneuver, Kira deduced, it would put him at risk for obstructing the supra-national globals’ Guard in their duty to protect international free trade; if allowed, bootleg light in Land’s End would drive down royalty payments for light. Kira repeated the information to Brendan. He remained unshaken.

“Remember what happened to Laurie?” she persisted, recalling their friend’s organizing efforts abroad for a Global Trade protest which successfully postponed a treaty privatizing ownership of the sun’s gifts worldwide. Two years after her arrest, she was still awaiting a trial as a potential witness, her translating job down the drain and her tiny house seized by the bank.

“If they want to get you, they’ll get you using any pretext,” Brendan muttered. “They have enough videos and spending trends on all of us to splice and edit any kind of portrait they want.”

“What if we end up like the Florence Four?”

Kira still suffered an occasional recurring dream from having imagined so vividly the two armored cars running back and forth over the young Italians, until one of the faces, a pair of glasses long since swallowed, looked like unevenly ground beef. Kira’s nightmare always began at McDonald’s and ended up with her retching realization that the company was cutting corners by “recycling” the remains of anti-global humanists, bits of which Kira had just consumed.

“Fear is the cement of this regime,” Brendan insisted.

By now the mechanical, bonfire-belching beast had lurched its way around the water to the promenade in front of Brendan and Kira. Unearthly music filled their ears as the monster escorted the first floats past them.

“Shall we be leaving, then?” Brendan asked.

From the shadows, black-clad dancing figures reminiscent of Mexico’s bony calaveras from their own ancient Harvest Festival twirled into the night: black ski masks with white circles denoting the eyes and mouth, and silver gas-masks as helmets. They waved flowing skull and cross bones banners high above their heads. Fire sprang up behind them illuminating the ghostly pirate ship float that had transported them with its phantom spider web sails. At the helm, surrounded by more white-circle faces with webbed sea-horse spines, a Cheshire cat captain played some slow, thunderous bagpipes, an odd accompaniment to the strange metallic music emanating from the steel dinosaur. The floats rolled onward like a train of specter lights.

A wave of hard rain pelted the crowd. Kira pondered Brendan’s question. She couldn’t possibly ask him to leave after all the enthusiasm he had expressed. Should she then suffer a sleepless night, wondering when her new husband would return to the safety of the B&B? When they first met, Kira had equated marriage with a legalized form of human ownership. She had been appalled by a feminist documentary exposing the Hindu practice compelling widows to throw themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres.   Now, she jested, were something to happen to Brendan, she’d volunteer to follow suit—launch herself into some tidal wave somewhere.

Several tin unicorns rolled by, illuminated supernaturally from within, followed by a 20-foot-high wooden horse, dancing red-eyed skeletons waving from the door inside its chest. The glow of each float, burned through the wet curtain of darkness, rendering each spectacle magically impossible. Kira’s fear was swallowed by wonder and the edges of Brendan’s words, which had been left hanging in the damp air like so many airplane trails, became fuzzy and disintegrated into the clouds of smoke.

The people around Kira and Brendan clapped and cheered. She could make out words pronounced in French and German. Below them next to the wall, she thought the group looked Latin American. The mix of internationalists and art reminded her of the creative resistance to global trade talks. Perhaps there was a burgeoning movement; the isolated groups and members that had been scattered across the globe, now linking up with more kindred spirits.

Kira had forgotten the rain pelting its way through her bonnet and the tear in her slicker, soaking her hair and some of her back. Trumpet-playing skeletons strolled by with lights studding the seams of their black suits like Mariachis. Kira skimmed the peripheries of the parade for police. Snaking around the inlets of water on the thin promenade, the light-makers would be too difficult to contain. Police would be more likely to wait for the participants to exit by the gated field, where they could be corralled. “When we leave,” Kira told Brendan suddenly. “Let’s go back through the town.”

Brendan nodded without hearing and laughed at the next float: a four poster bed the size of a small room. The sheets were lit up from inside so you could see the people caught inside them, somersaulting, writhing as though to escape, one trapped inside the pillow.   Curiosity, then excitement replaced Kira’s fear.

Next came an equally tremendous green monster puppet with King Kong pectorals, ram’s horns and lower fangs that curled upward, illuminated from below—another enemy of light.   Brendan shook his head.   “Can you believe this?!”

Actually Kira couldn’t.   She felt as though she and Brendan had been invited to partake in some other kind of parallel, more profound reality. She tried to capture each image in her mind’s eye and file them in her imagination for her paintings. Finally, a giant sun passed, with curling petals for rays and a bikini-clad Cabaret dancer setting its orange core aflame with her motion. It was difficult to discern where the dancer’s limbs ended and the sun’s gold and orange streamers began.

“Look, love. Our sun!” Brendan beamed, hooking his arm around Kira and bringing her closer for a kiss.

The onlookers began to file into the procession behind the sun, around her, following her rays and the other floats to the end of the promenade. Still grinning at each other and the woman whose husband had given up his seat, the newlyweds let themselves down from the wall and stretched out the parts of their bodies that had been folded around the spires to support their weight. Kira’s hands ached. She rubbed the red creases that had formed from gripping the iron rods for such an extended period.   Though it had stopped raining, her hair was soaked and the water ran down her neck, under her jacket, meeting up with the wet patch along her left shoulder blade.   She noticed the wind trying to turn this water to ice and how much she was shivering.

Once on firm ground, the couple looked for the man who had given up his seat for them. Never, Kira thought, would she forget that man’s generosity. In a way, she thought, he had given them the gift of light for their honeymoon. But as instantly as they had materialized, the family had disappeared with the procession.   Kira remembered overhearing the woman’s son asking when they were going to the field to watch the finale and wondered what such a spectacle entailed.   She glanced around, and still saw no sign of any police or guardsmen. Perhaps thanks to the mayor. It seemed strange to her how afraid she had been of venturing to the field earlier. She felt suddenly liberated, as though the invisible leash the regime used to keep her from straying too far had been severed. It suddenly occurred to her that she must have been depressed. Perhaps it was the lack of sunlight; the realization that her art would not be exposed to larger audiences who would have appreciated it; the worsening situation in the country. Was this what everyone’s fear around her was: a sign of a people’s collective clinical depression?

Brendan looked apprehensively at Kira expecting her to appeal to him to make their way back to the B&B. But missing “the finale” had ceased to be an option for her. It was as though after having braved the rapids in a turbulent river, they had finally arrived at the most beautiful fall of all, the one with the unreal, clear aqua pools at the end of its sun-speckled whitewater, secret air pockets under the rocks for breathing, and hot rocks for sunbathing; the one they had felt sucking them towards its vortex from the moment they entered the river; and now that they had arrived, Kira wanted to be perfectly positioned to ride it.

This time it was Kira who excitedly took Brendan’s hand. She pulled him past the ambling crowd to the open gates of the field, barely illumined by the moon’s cloudy mask. They rolled up their dripping jeans bottoms and plowed their way through the muddy grass and patches of two-foot deep bog to the end, a yard away from a chain link fence. Where the mud had failed to scale the tops of her boots, it greedily lapped up Brendan’s high tops and seeped into his socks. He laughed as he pointed this out, wriggling his toes, even though it was as cold as the sea.

“Here,” she announced, though there were only a few teenagers standing there, fumbling to light some torches. In the silence of waiting she heard water gently lapping. The sea couldn’t be far off.

Slowly, the crowd began filing into the soggy arena, grinning, laughing, little ones jumping heavily up and down in anticipation, going squish, squish in the bog. Beyond the fence, an army of darkly-uniformed men in white glowing helmets marched forward. Kira turned to Brendan ready to bolt from the scene. He only laughed and cushioned her momentum with his chest. “Look!” he smiled, pointing with his chin. Kira heard a firework burst and crackle in the wet air. The shimmering sky made her feel as though she were inside a water-filled plastic diorama that had been shaken up to make the stars fall every which way. Then the air became light with symphonic sounds, classical violins, cellos, horns punctuating the rhythmic paths of these stars.

“It’s raining tiny suns!” Kira whispered.

The eight white-helmeted men Kira had mistaken as Guard marched forward, an astounding amount of white light issuing from the focal point of the twelve-foot metallic arcs they wore high above their heads. They came to a halt before a colorful paper maché Judas on ten-foot stilts. The first white-helmeted person, a woman with long hair it seemed to Kira, leaned the arc forward until the bar of flames at the end ignited something on the Judas which immediately began hissing and sparking. Then a beam of light shot out of the Judas’ head like Athena from Zeus. It whizzed high into the sky where it popped and fell down in a shower of glittering cool green, turquoise and lavender lighting up the grassy hillside.

A line of black-clad men and women with white painted faces on high stilts appeared. Apparently the bog sloped off to such a degree that the hillside hid the next performers until they filed forward with long balanced stork steps. Their white gloves were linked and among them they somehow supported yet more Judases on stilts. Through an elaborate circular dance, they spread out across the field at fifteen foot intervals, the Judas’ stilts sunken deep into the mud to support them. Once they had taken their solitary places, they stood motionless like mimes before the commencement of a show. It was nearly impossible at this distance to tell the humans from the Judases.

The helmeted men marched forward, their arcs the same height as the stilted beings with whom they paired themselves. One by one, they began igniting various pyrotechnic devices that were strapped both to flesh and paper bodies balanced atop the stilts. Rockets of roman candles exploded in sprays of white sparks from what seemed like every pore of these souls. Soon, the acrobats were swallowed by galaxies comprised of a sextillion of fiery suns shooting high into the sky. All that was left of the human beings and Judases were the bases of the stilts peeking out from under the conflagration, calling into question whether the humans were actually some sort of robotics, or suicidal artists striving to make a statement on their way out.

“This is what it must be like to be on the sun!” Kira squeezed Brendan’s arm.

Through the swirls of white glittering light, there was an explosion and one of the black-clad figures rocketed from her stilts and flew in an arc across the field, before igniting and disappearing into a blaze of pink. From the opposite direction, another figure was ejected from his stilts and repeated the pattern inversely and was engulfed in violet flames. Several more Judases sailed through the sky, bonfires of sunshiny orange and marigold, jade and iris blue tore through the air still pulsating with ivory sparks. When the last showers of sparkles began to settle, it was possible to see all the floats from the parade lined up like pirate ships on a flat muddy sea: the sun, the strange bed, Trojan Horse, green monster. It seemed a miracle that all the pyrotechnic acrobats still remained standing atop their stilts. They bowed, eliciting roars from the crowd, before strolling off to join the floats.

With a bang like canons, the floats fired comets into the inky night with brilliant shimmering tails that swayed to the rhythms of the symphony music and terminated in gold suns. They fired dozens of fireworks resembling exotic diving sea anemones of every shade until Kira believed she could make out the spherical shape of the earth’s atmosphere filled in with pointillist splashes of light. In addition to the sea flowers, there were added bursting stars raining brilliant twirling and spiraling ballerinas of colored light, dancing synchronously to the majestic sounds of the symphony. Next, drifted dazzlings teal and turquoise snow flakes the size of small islands. They overlapped and glided in patterns like ripples on a pond.

From the front row, staring straight above her into the living sky, Kira felt as though all the rivers of the earth had absorbed all the rainbows and had emptied in the sea with such force as to create a tsunami, under which she and Brendan now stood.   We’re being bathed in neon color, liquid flames, she thought. The sweeping violins stretched her limbs, expanded her lungs. She clasped Brendan’s hand and they giggled like excited children. Another tidal wave of color broke overhead, overwhelming the couple’s senses. Kira imagined herself as the liberated soul of the man that was swept from the lighthouse in Tiffin by a 240-foot tsunami two winters prior. She looked over at Brendan to remind herself she was not dreaming.

“It’s like riding a tidal wave!” he pronounced her thoughts aloud. They laughed because in each other’s eyes they could see that the dream, the hallucination they thought each had privately conjured, was actually in progress. It reminded Kira of the timeless period during which she and Brendan had first fallen in love, the feeling they experienced during the wedding.   It was like having the sun shine again, only somehow, miraculously, during the night. The idea that their wish had been granted (thanks to the stranger in the black jacket, for wasn’t it the parade that had seduced her into staying?) made her feel comforted, less alone in the universe.

Behind Brendan, the field was a lake of liquid fire. Everywhere Kira looked, there were torches ablaze. She hadn’t registered the fact that while the pyrotechnic spectacle had been in progress, the spectators had busied themselves passing rags doused in kerosene and stuffing them in tin cans fastened to mop sticks. It was exhilarating to see so much light where, day after day only darkness had dwelled.

One of the teenagers they’d been sharing the front row with offered Brendan a torch. “To bring back the light,” he explained.

Under her leaden burden of cold, wet layers, Kira could feel her heart start up. While possession of a lit torch was not illegal for individuals, lighting them collectively, especially in resistance without costly use permits, was.

“What’ll happen to us?” she asked.

The boy in the flannel shirt shrugged, forcing a smile. Kira knew the answer. Most likely the resisters would be rounded up inside the fence, arrested, held without trial and eventually released, harassed incessantly in their mundane lives: endless speeding tickets, probes from the energy department, tax audits, more wire taps, problems with jobs, possible confiscation of their paintings or computers.   If unlucky, they could be injured, even killed.

Kira’s eyes strained above what looked like a lake of flaming lava for the quickest way out of the field—straight ahead over the fence where the light show had been. She scanned the edges of the darkness for signs of the guards. The music had stopped. There was nothing but silence and the light the people themselves had created.

Several hands passed a second torch to Brendan. The dampness quelled its emergent sparks. Brendan handed the torch to Kira inquisitively. Kira looked carefully at the faces of the youths around her. They didn’t seem too apprehensive. Hope, she saw, ecstasy, calm, reverence, some giggling, but no fear. Fear, she scolded herself. Why should she be so afraid of living? Why so fearful when all she was guilty of was bringing a little more light into the planet, a little more beauty? She accepted the torch and held it to Brendan’s until it caught.

Sinking backward into Brendan’s free arm, Kira looked out across the scenery. There seemed to be no holes of darkness left as they held their torches, the lake now a living river of orange and amber ripples waiting to meet the sea. It was like seeing a glimpse of heaven on earth, she thought.

They stood like this for what seemed like an eternity, staring at the surreal landscape, drinking in the invisible sea and universe of stars beyond the flames, magically warmed by either torches or touch, Kira couldn’t discern which. She had never felt so calm, so happy and at peace. Images and feelings experienced during peak moments: holidays, hugs, hot springs, mesmerizing views, landscapes, nights of love-making, even the memory of a sunset glimpsed from the back balcony of their flat gently enveloped her thoughts.

And isn’t that the point of it all? she pondered. To create enough beauty to keep each other going, in spite of the ugliness, in spite of the wars all waged with holy, moral excuses to disguise thievery like perfume sprayed to mask the fetid sweet stench of corpses: the chair leg sticking out of the woman’s middle after the retaliatory suicide bombing, ten and twelve year olds struck dumb by the terror, wetting their pants anew, recoiling from too ugly a world into drooling infancy.

Kira wiped her eyes, holding the torch high over her head as though it were an umbilical cord to life itself. Then a gasp began, at first from the periphery of the sea of fire, then rippling through all the flames. “DISPERSE!” rumbled the instructions on a loud speaker.

Then there was a deafening shot, followed by screams. A single word reverberated through the crowd like the first shock wave preceding a tsunami. “Tanks!”

Kira caught a glimpse of a young man passing his motorcycle helmet to an old woman who had buried her face in her hands.

“Was anyone hurt?” Kira demanded. Far away, at the beginning of the field, the screams had turned into some kind of commotion. Beyond the disturbance, the tanks looked a lot more terrifying than the police on horseback she had expected to see.

Her question was silenced by a distant ambulance siren and the crowd’s second utterance, building and pitching its way to Kira and Brendan. “Resist!” or was it, “Persist!”

“Resist! Persist!” the sea chanted to the increasing sound of African drumming. “Resist! Persist!”

Then, “The time is here, another world is near!”

Kira got ready to scale the fence in front of her and tear past the floats, into the open field before her. But she knew Brendan was anchored to the ground beneath them. Seized by panic she looked over her shoulder. The water level rose in undulating waves of gold and copper flame tips as the people turned 180 degrees to face off the tanks, holding the torches higher over their heads. Seeing Brendan had followed suit, Kira turned her back to the field like those around her. Should the tanks advance, she tried to reassure herself, they were in an excellent position to escape, being the farthest from the front lines.

Brendan held her hand. In the other, the torch seemed to shield them with a magic warmth. They exchanged looks of encouragement with the teenager, who had given Kira her torch, and his friends. How could the Guard override the mayor’s wishes and bulldoze all of them, they inquired of each other;   annihilate the entire town of Land’s End? What would world opinion make of it? Perhaps this action was really a blessing in disguise, Kira posited; perhaps she and Brendan were going to be afforded the chance to speak out to the world about all the things they had tried to express through their art, which instead had been confined to obscurity. She shared these thoughts with her soulmate.

“But let’s not forget–” Brendan cautioned, “you know they’ll justify use of their tanks by claiming our torches are dirty bombs.”

“Maybe. But too many people have stopped believing official hogwash!” Kira realized, though she had to admit that she had no way of ascertaining how large this number was, nor its power.

Another wave rippled through the river of fire. Hands; linking each ripple in the tide. From this vantage point at the foot of the river, Kira caught sight of half-turned flickering faces smiling their utmost courage at each other, the copper halo of their silhouettes fusing into the million tangerine and honey tongues of flame devouring the darkness. In her left hand, Kira cradled her torch with a young hooded girl with thinned eyebrows who had smiled lovingly at her like an old friend; in her right, Brendan and she stroked fingers around his torch.

But who would see them raising this river? These modern-day headless horsemen astride their two-ton steeds of steel? Or the evil wizards behind their orders? Somewhere a reporter perhaps, who would become a window for the myriad eyes of the world. Or only Lugh, the Celtic god of Light?

“This is what freedom feels like!” the crowd near Kira chanted to the beat of nearby drummers.

She noticed her hands had stopped shaking, not only from the cold, but from fear. Strange, she thought, as she felt her heart open with curiosity from all the love she felt around her. The flames of the night-time sun they had all created–or was it her inner sun?–spoke to her.   She was not afraid, she realized, because she finally felt so alive. And when one is truly alive, time stretches endlessly like chewing gum. There is time enough for everything. Years can take place in an hour; more can be experienced in that short interval than in a decade droned away for someone else.

How easy it is to forget there’s a bigger plan, Kira laughed to herself. Everything in its time. Fear made no sense.

In this heightened hyperconscious state she became acutely aware of the weight of mud on her boots, the cold wind on her face, ice down her back. The point, she mused, was to be awake, acutely mindful to notice the details comprising each moment, the infinite beauty in simple things, the preciousness of life. Gestures. The young man who had passed his motorcycle helmet to the old woman earlier. The story of the young woman who risked being shot during the curfew to bring a flower back inside for her mother who missed the sunlight so much.

I’m alive! She thought. She could feel the moisture begin to collect on the creased palm of the woman holding her left hand, the smooth polished metal of Brendan’s wedding band, his graceful knuckles, the splintery wood of the torches, the beautiful strength of those around her. The rest, she meditated, were most likely sedated with television, numb, walking dead. She had been so fortunate in having evaded that drug.

For much of her life, she had hungered to find her truth, never expecting to find it without first sacrificing herself like a Fakir in India to a bed of nails. Now she realized for the first time that she was satisfied with her perception of truth.   She had been fortunate enough to have had a life rich enough to allow her to practice and experience this truth, taste her greatest potential, if only for this evening. Were her life to be terminated prematurely here or at any other point by the regime, she deduced rationally, she’d know it wasn’t a mistake of some sort; but rather a cold, pre-meditated mathematical calculation. She’d know full well the economic motivations leading to her death. They may claim our lives, she tried to console herself, but they can’t take our truths from us, nor our artistic and human integrity.

Then, to her horror, she glimpsed a tank off to her right, just meters from where she and Brendan stood. More emerged from the shadows beyond the torches; they were surrounded on three sides by tanks, on the last by the chain-link fence. She pointed this fact out to Brendan, her heart sprinting over the fence behind them.   He gripped her hand tightly, then let it go to stroke her back as he whispered in her ear, “I know how strong you can be.”

A black hole ate its way into Kira’s chest, sucking everything in with it, as she realized that death really could be the price of her truth. All those years, she thought despondently, that she and Brendan had spent working on their art; death would bring their work no global recognition; more likely, it would bury it with them. So all those years driving herself past her breaking point, of trading social occasions and vacations to paint and teach full-time, had been for naught.

Yet, the sun within her argued, wasn’t it through her art that she had met Brendan and half their friends, who in turn had opened her eyes to that truth she so coveted yet had never expected to arrive at within her lifetime? Certainly their art had enriched their lives immeasurably. Even tomorrow, she realized, with or without Kira and Brendan, the essence of their community’s creations would somehow remain like collective memory, already ingested into the life cycle; they had nourished minds like seeds to be scattered on the wind until they found soil fertile enough to germinate. What is the life cycle of an insight, a vision? Kira asked herself. Wisdom can’t just die…..

“THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE! DISPERSE!”

“How?” Kira laughed absurdly, sadly. She felt like a fly caught in a spider web hoping the spider would not be hungry. Now she knew about herself what she had always assumed about Brendan: it was simply not in her nature to do anything but defy the injustices of the current order, even to the end. Yes, it was tragic, but also a relief. It was as though she and Brendan were going to win the chess game, Kira thought insanely–if one thought of one’s beliefs, one’s art, one’s principles as the king surviving intact until the end, one wins the game.

Then the shots came, the screaming and mad rushing of the crowd. They were going to be the regime’s example for the world after all: this is what happened to resisters. Before Kira could think, she was scurrying like a mouse up the fence with the others. She could feel Brendan beneath her, trying to push her upward.   Then the fence came down and the wind was knocked out of her.

The last thing Kira heard was someone nearby yelling out in pain, then, through the ringing in her ears, a young woman was screaming to keep going, keep going, someone was dead.

***

She regained awareness of her surroundings in an upright position.

“Come on love!”   Brendan was leading her onward.

She was still alive, she thought ecstatically, stumbling forward with Brendan’s and another woman’s help, hundreds more along side them. Down into more mud they sped, many still holding torches for illumination. The mud became harder, grainy. Kira could smell burning mixed with the tangy salt of sea air. More shots were fired, more shouting.

Then they saw it shimmering like embers in the glow of the torches and they began to laugh, knowing the river of fire had reached its destination. By now people were throwing off their shoes, wading forward to hoist themselves onto the wooden platforms of dismantled floats which had turned into rafts.   Others were risking their lives by the shore dismantling more floats into rafts.

“Are we dreaming!” Kira laughed aloud as the couple beheld what seemed like miles of boats, ships and platforms waiting to ferry the protestors to safety. Off shore, police helicopter beams illuminated a lively scene: people waving from the procession of boats, others from within a floating wooden horse torso and pirate ship, some flipping off the impotent helicopters and tanks amid laughter, others struggling to help more rafters aboard. Obviously, the craftily-planned action had been conceived months prior by a burgeoning movement.

Just then, to the couple’s horror, the tanks regrouped to form another solid line trapping the remaining resisters who had not managed to get past them back to the town or onto the floats.   Brendan turned to Kira and looked at her the same way he had when he sat by her bedside in the hospital the night she almost died of too high a pneumonia fever. She got ready to bolt to the sea, toward those calling to them on the Trojan Horse float.   Instead, Brendan held her.

Kira panicked; Brendan’s reaction must have meant they didn’t stand a chance of survival. Afterall, the tanks had bullets.

“For good luck,” he winked.

She succumbed to his embrace with some initial resistance. Until she understood why it was so important to stop, even now. And, Kira thought, as she closed her eyes and inhaled Brendan’s breath, remembering the time he kissed her in the rose garden, when he pointed out it was like finding a missing puzzle piece–how many could claim they had been fortunate enough to find reciprocated, passionate, sustainable love in their lifetimes?

Then the tanks advanced, firing, back tracking, lurching forward.

To Kira’s astonishment, the resisters began cheering.

“It’s working!” people were shouting.

“They’ve begun sinking! Look, look! The tanks are sinking!”

The crowd paused, people audibly gasping as one tank disappeared almost completely into the slush, the helicopters swarming in for the rescue.

“Go!” someone declared.

“Go!” Brendan shouted to Kira, as realization spread that the drivers of the tanks were too preoccupied with their own safety to keep firing.

And so they galloped into the sea with the rest, free, unfettered, laughing ecstatically as they joined the celebration.

A few days later, the rain stopped and a blinding ball of light emerged from behind some cumulous clouds, forcing the clouds to scatter. By midday puddles were steaming, bricks nearly pink again. Children ran out nearly naked to play marbles and ball. There was even a sunset for the first time in years, lasers of light issuing from within gossamer scarves of peach and salmon. For the most part, the sun remained visible in the sky into the next day. And the next, straight into the following season.

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