Short Story: “The Union”

The short story I wrote yesterday depicting the preparations for some kind of religious festival inspired me to write more in this setting – depicting a small-town wedding ceremony from the perspective of perhaps the same laconic observer.

Fantasy theology, to me, often is too obsessed with creating a dynamic pantheon of Gods doing mighty things, of creating paladins and clerics and great Parthenon-esque temples without much consideration of everyday faith. As my writing on Eureka Seven has suggested, the difference – in a genre fiction setting where God is real – between practiced religion and philosophical, ethical religion is a very interesting one. What is more interesting to me when worldbuilding is imagining how people would live their lives, how some fictional theology would be turned into day-to-day traditions and rituals and even superstitions.

Thus turning once again to this imagined world’s practiced religion – of priests, and services, and holy observance – seemed natural.

Picture a small temple, in the crook of a mountain’s nurturing rise. Set within trees with pale bark and dark, regal leaves, it is made from red-stained wood and white walls. There is excitement, for today there is to be a wedding. Not a particularly notable one, this is no great house entering communion with another or alliance of kings via the marital bed. Just the son of one family, of some means, who live in a town like so many others, and the daughter of another. Its simplicity is quite elegant. The families, it seems, have enough wealth to have laid on quite the ceremony for the size of this town; the temple court is rich with flowers and the usual necessities of ritual, and as the morning sun climbs higher the bride and groom rise uneasily from their vigils in separate, beautiful chapels. That they stayed awake the whole night in prayer – did not employ a monk or young shrine-girl to give their devotions in their place – marks this couple as most pious indeed. The brightness of the sunrise is harsh on tired eyes that have spent the night focused on the wedding-lanterns and the scrolls of marriage-eve prayers.

The groom heads out to the courtyard, wearing the blue-grey robes of the temple’s priesthood as is expected of someone praying within the inner chapels. He heads off to one side, down an alley between two buildings and into a smaller court where a wooden pipe tumbles down from the mountainside and fresh spring-water, icy cold and welcome to sharpen the mind. The sunlight breaks the falling water into a shower of diamonds that break upon his brow and he lets it drench his clothes before stripping off to clean his body. He will bathe again before the ceremony, of course, his body must be cleaned on, as the priests say the spiritual level – and that can only be done with hot, scented water under the sun’s light. But like any man from these parts, he rises early, bathes in cold fresh water and faces the day with a frugal, health-giving breakfast of fruit, some bread and water from the same stream he bathes in. This is a man – if you look upon his tanned back, his muscles and even the scars on his hands – that has worked through his youth, who comes from a family who value hard work and diligence. He will not waste anything – words, food, coin.

Who then is he to marry? Until the ceremony, an outsider who had not been privy to the engagement and courtship would not know. The bride is attended by the temple’s shrine-girls, the ones who perform the rituals to maintain the sanctity of the physical aspects of this holy place. She spent the night in prayer like her husband-to-be, in the ladies’ chapel under the watchful golden gaze of The Divine Majesty. From the sunset of the day before her marriage to the afternoon of her wedding-day, a bride sees no man’s face. Even the paintings in the ladies’ chapel, anyone knows, show only womens’ faces. Of course, she will be bathed in the divine waters to clean her body and soul, as will he. She will put on her finery after this, and be reunited with her beloved before the Divine.

Those of few means need only donate to the temple and all will be provided for the ceremony. Someone will say the prayers all night, fine robes will be drawn from the stores of the temple for the lovers to wear, and the ceremony will take place with all due respect. Of course, those poor in actual wealth are so often so rich in piety and selflessness they will say the prayers themselves, sew the gowns themselves and impose as little as possible upon the Divine.

Outside this sheltered corner where heaven is all the closer to the world of the living, the families who are to be joined eat a hearty meal together, in the groom’s father’s dining-room. The bride’s parents stayed the night, as is customary, and they will dress themselves in no hurry and make their raucous, overjoyed way to the temple for the ceremony itself with their own rituals of celebration. It seems, to watch some wedding-parties proceed through the town on the morning, that they are celebrating on behalf of their children who have been secluded in spiritual contemplation. And it is often the case that come the end of the day, once the feast is done, the whole cycle will begin again as first love’s hand has brought together a fresh couple.

Breakfast is over, and the preparations properly begin. The bride’s father is a man of minor government rank, who will wear his clothes of office to the ceremony. Standing before his servant, he adjusts his wig – for sadly, age has worn away his fine head of hair and now he must make do – and ensures his belt is properly, evenly fastened with a good knot. His fingers, still yellow-purple with the residue of years of ink, shake – is it age, or nervousness, or joy? He is losing a daughter, some would say. Today he will stand and watch her join his family with his son-in-law’s. The servant, a young boy, aids him and now he stands the measure of a man of station, someone whose family means something. His clothes are elegant, his bearing noble enough.

The procession is a procession, it does not bear description. The families are in high spirits, and joined at every turn by distant relatives and hangers-on looking to join a party. Back at the temple, the groom has finished his morning devotions and preparations – burning a lantern to the Divine while singing the appropriate verses, rehearsing his part of the ceremony and so on – and now he begins to prepare for his bath. The temple’s pool is a close wooden room used for baptisms, and the ritual washing that is needed before a man may be brought closer to the Divine. A lady does not bathe like this; she is washed by the handmaidens of the Divine, as one reads and young men try to imagine quite how. The air inside is hot and dense with steam, smelling strongly of the wood being burned to keep the room warm and the fragrant herbs thrown upon it. The groom, quite naked, steps into the water, mindless of the heat, and immerses himself up to his neck. Then, with a steady, unflinching step, he ducks his head under the surface and holds himself there until his lungs burn and he stands to his full height breathing in the aromatic air. Some say the forbearance needed to hold your head under hot water for any length of time is a sign of piety and fortitude, others merely say it is bravado. A monk pours freshly-warmed water in which flower-petals float over the groom’s head and as he does sings the verses of cleansing. More prayers are said, more immersions in the water, and then the preparations are complete. He steps out of the pool, is dried with cloths and begins the process of dressing for his wedding. He wears a gown of slate grey spiked with white stripes, and over that a coat of white on which black vines curl. His hair is flattened underneath a simple cap, and his face is covered with a veil. The groom must approach his bride faceless, anonymous – as she will be and she must trust in him enough to see through this.

The wedding-party are approaching, one can hear their singing of the traditional songs and the crashing of the drums and bells they have brought out. Any frailty the father of the bride might have shown is gone as he heads up the procession, helping the father of the groom throw out flowers to line the way home. Those petals, tramped down by carefree feet, will be a carpet on which the married couple will return to their bed tonight.

The main chapel is apparently empty, a silent home to a screen sat beneath a large visage of The Divine Majesty. Cushions line the floor, for those who cannot stand, and the guests begin to pile in. They, too, wear at least something of the slate-grey the groom wears. That is tradition. The groom is nowhere to be seen. The sun has now reached its height, and the singing begins. One of the youngest monks opens the ceremony with a high melody, met even higher by one of the younger shrine-girls, and they sing in call and response, asking where the groom is, whether this man will stand before the Divine.

He is led in by the monks, veiled and head bowed. He says the words he must say, and the screen is discreetly moved away to reveal the bride, sat in mimicry of the Divine but likewise veiled and distant. He and she begin the song that the young clergy began, the words changing, and each verse brings him a step closer to her. The guests join in the singing as he gets closer still, and then there is silence. He has reached her. He sits down at her feet, offers her a cup of spring-water, and the priest in charge begins asking him the ritual questions. He answers, then the chief shrine-maiden asks the bride in turn for her answers.

Who removes whose veil first is a point of debate. This time, he reaches out with hands that shake with anticipation and lifts his bride’s veil, seeing the familiar curve of a cheek. Her hands meet his wrists, walk down towards his face and remove his veil. They kiss. Heads high, they begin walking back down the chapel’s length, singing in unison. Behind them, the wedding-guests stay at a respectful distance, answering the questions each verse of the song ends with. The whole ceremony has taken only perhaps an hour, but to anyone who has been inside a chapel during this time of union those minutes are long with seriousness and importance.

Of course, what will follow is drinking and feasting. The ceremonial caps will be laid upon the lanterns at the temple gate, and children will probably pick them up and put them on and play at bride and groom. The groom’s family held the breakfast, the bride’s will play host to the dinner. Someone will have provided the wine, another the food. These are traditions as time-worn as the bathing and the veils, but, perhaps obviously, the Divine has no part to play in them. A marriage has taken place. Two families are now one, and we celebrate.

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