Storytime with Stidmama

Chapter Seventy Nine

The evening of Polly's wedding was a flurry of activity.

Nan was tired from the many new experiences, and all the commotion. Esmeralda was nowhere to be found, and Nan really wanted to talk with her about the strange "hole" she felt around some of the people at the dance.

She found Andy, playing in a corner with some of the other children. They politely made room for her, and she stood and watched the little glass balls rolling around on the reed mat. It seemed obvious to Nan that the balls were destined to roll to the right -- it was, after all, the way the floor slanted -- but perhaps it wasn't so obvious for people who only looked with their eyes. They offered her a turn, and she quickly learned that it was a lot harder than it looked.

Smiling, she excused herself and wandered off.

Polly and Marko were sitting on a brilliantly decorated bench, resting their feet after leading off the first set of reels. Polly caught Nan's eye, and gestured.

Shyly, Nan approached, to be greeted by the happy couple, and gifted with a lovely handkerchief Polly had embroidered with the same pattern on her blouse. It was wrapped around a little golden ring that just fit Nan's little finger. A daisy-chain of flowers was inscribed around the ring, and Nan smiled. They were the first flowers she had noticed when she regained her sight.

Marko moved over so Nan could sit between them. She swung her feet and leaned against Polly.

"Are you doing well, Nan?" asked Marko gently, bending so she could hear him easily. He wore a look of concern, and Nan realized her exhaustion was showing more than she had intended.

"Yes, thank you -- I am just tired from all the busy-ness today, I think," replied the tired girl, stifling a yawn.

Polly laughed, "I felt the same way when Annie got married!" She grasped her sister's hand and gave her a gentle kiss. "Would you like to lie down? The carriage outside has a very comfortable seat, and Marko's mother could sit with you."

Nan kissed Polly back and shook her head. Though tired, everything was much too interesting to leave.

"I'll be okay, but it was nice to sit for a spell!" Nan stood and stretched, shyly extending her hand to Marko, who elegantly bent to kiss it. Nan giggled and Polly gave him a solid thud between the shoulder blades...

He smiled sheepishly and stood, "Nan, I would be honored if you would take a turn on the floor with me. The next dance should be a walking reel." Nan giggled again, and they moved to the edge of the dance floor.

Gilly sat down next to Polly with a cup of hot cider and a plate of cookies, "Do you think she's okay?"

Polly gratefully took the cup and looked at her little sister and husband. "Yes, I think she is tired, and a bit overwhelmed, but I think she will be okay Mother."

"Hmmm." Gilly mused, "Still, I think Father should take her and Andy home soon -- it's quite late for them." She stood and patted her daughter on the arm as she left.

Meg and Doris swept by, each on the arm of a classmate; Inga and her beau and Daniel and his intended were at the refreshment table, ladling out cold cider for hot dancers and hot cider for spectators. The room was a bit chilly, and Polly gathered her shawl a little closer around her shoulders.

Marko returned, a look of amusement on his face, "Nan said she needed to stop -- that her wings were tired!" Polly grinned, and flinched inwardly. Nan had been talking about wings a lot recently...

Suddenly, Esmeralda was beside them. "Have you seen Nan?" she asked urgently, and swiftly moved off in the direction Marko indicated.

A brief commotion at the door, the music petered out, and the dancers withdrew to the sides. Polly and Marko sat at the end of the hall, looking at the open doorway.

Otto and Owain appeared in the doorway, looking disheveled, supporting another man between them. A group of men dashed forward, Paul and Peter at the head. The twins set their burden on the floor, and before Paul could stand up, Esmeralda and Nan were there.

Polly gasped as she caught sight of Adam's jacket being peeled off the man, and saw Nan's face blanch as she and Esmeralda bent over his still figure.

Ava was found, and Cathy, as they lifted Adam gently and carried him out toward the carriage. Polly and Marko were making their way through the crowd, when Gilly caught up to them.

"Go on, keep the dance going," she urged, "Grampy is ill, but this is the winter festival, and your betrothal dance. To stop the dance would be bad luck." She looked around for Nancy -- and catching her attention, gestured toward the band.

Nancy walked up to the leader and whispered in his ear. The strains of a familiar healing song took root in the people, and the song followed the carriage as it moved slowly down the street toward home. When it was over, Polly and Marko took their place again at the head of the row and led reel after reel until early in the morning, dancing their hope with their neighbors and kin.

Nan rode in the carriage with her grandparents and Esmeralda. Adam was pale, and his skin was a peculiar color, and damp. His breathing was ragged and he seemed not to know where he was.

Ava looked grim, holding his hand, and bending over to murmur in his ear. Esmeralda put her arm around Nan and began speaking in urgent tones.

"Your grandfather is dying, child, but he has one last gift to give you. We will wait until we get him home and then he will tell you. But you must be strong."

Nan tried to stop the tears that were streaming down her face, but Esmeralda shook her head, "No. You must grieve, and your tears do not distress him or us. Strength is measured in the ability to love, to feel -- and to do what must be done anyway."

Ava glanced up briefly and smiled at Nan through her own tears. The carriage was at the gate, and Paul and the twins gently lifted Adam down while Peter held the horses steady. Cathy darted to open the door, and suddenly they were in the house, and Adam was lying on the sofa in the front room with Ava sitting on a little stool, watching his every breath

Peter and Paul stood in the doorway and the twins hovered nearby while Esmeralda urged Nan forward.

Nan was trembling as she took Adam's hand. "I am here, Grampy, are you in pain?"

The old man opened his eyes, and smiled. "No child, there is no pain, just a fading of the light." He sought Ava's hand and placed Nan's in it.

"Nan, there is an old tradition in our family, that we come from the bird people." He began.

"Yes, Grampy, I have heard the stories."

Otto and Owain were listening as hard as they could. Peter glanced at Paul.

"And I am sure that Esmeralda has explained more to you, as has your father."

"Yes, Grampy."

"In our family, once in many generations, a person is born with the wisdom of the bird people in their heart. To this person is given a choice. Do you understand me?" His voice was growing softer and his breathing was uneven. Ava squeezed her hand gently.

"Yes, Grampy."

"Esmeralda will tell you what the choice is. I want you to know that the best gift you will ever receive or give is Love." He paused, and closed his eyes.

Nan's eyes leaked like the rocks of the mountain in the spring rains, cascades of tears coursing down her cheeks. She dabbed at her face with the handkerchief her sister had just given her.

Ava put her arms around Nan and rocked her gently. Esmeralda's expression was inscrutable, but her shoulders slumped as if a great weight had settled on them.

Nan put her arms around Ava, and began to croon a snippet of a song. Her tears stopped and she wore an expression of concern.

Adam opened his eyes again. "Nan, you must spend time with your grandmother when I am gone -- and your aunts. They have many things to teach you."

"I will help them, Grampy - " cried the little girl.

He smiled. "Yes, I know you will -- but there is a bigger job for you. You must study -- you must learn. Your path lies far beyond this village." He caught his breath and sighed, closing his eyes.

Nan looked around for Esmeralda, whose expressionless face betrayed no thoughts, no feelings. She looks numb, thought Nan, like I feel. Ava's face, on the other hand, told the story of decades of love, laughter and loss.

"I love you, Grampy," whispered Nan, bending quickly to kiss his forehead.

Nan stood back to let her father and uncle speak with Adam, then the twins and Cathy...

Gilly, Doris, Meg and Andy came through the door, followed by Helena, Inga and Daniel. They looked at Nan, whose expression mirrored Esmeralda's.

The next few hours were spent with one person at a time holding Adam's hand, keeping him company while he dozed, listening when he spoke.

The sky was a deep indigo with pink edges when he asked again for Nan, who had fallen asleep in the chair.

Sleepily, she held his hand, gently she kissed his cheek, quietly she listened.

"In my room in the shed, Nan, is a small box with a set of scrolls. It is in a hidden compartment that only you can open. The scrolls show the lives of everyone in the family who has been like you. They were entrusted to me by my great-grandfather when I was a child. He was the last before you." Adam paused again, for so long that Nan thought he had fallen asleep again.

He picked up where he had left off, his voice so faint Nan could scarcely hear it, "The scrolls are important, they may give you guidance when it is time for you to make decisions. You must care for them and keep them until you know who they will belong to next."

Nan nodded, then realized Adam's eyes were closed. "Yes, Grampy, I understand," she whispered, "I love you."

He relaxed his grip. His breathing got shallower and slower.

Ava sat next to him, and the family formed a circle around them. Paul began the song of leaving, and gradually each person took a part and began to fill it in. Outside, the leaves were light with frost, and the last merrymakers from the dance were wending their way home.