The sun rises every day. The sun is reliable. Up north, I know it leaves them in the deep of winter, that they have to persuade it, satisfy it with sacrifices of wheat and salt and sometimes more, but not here. Here, it’s the moon.
We have God Father, of course, and his son and his priests and church every Sunday, but the moon is our goddess, our mother, our ruler and queen. She pulls and pushes the sea, brings us high and low tide, brings us the fish we need – if she wants to. She is changeable and fickle, smiles at us one moment and hides her face the next. We fear her and adore her.
In the warmest weeks of summer – not at midsummer, but the sweltering hot month just before the fever breaks and the year tumbles into autumn – she rises blood red. Then, we gather on the shore of our harbor to see her reflection in the water. The young people swim out to bathe themselves in her glow. It brings them great luck, sure hands at the ropes and steady feet on the rocking boats. If you have bathed in the blood of the moon, your own blood will never stain the water.
The days before that full moon, we watch the sky closely. Every cloud is an ill omen. Even the smallest hint of white in the blue above makes brows furrow and mouths tighten. Not among the young people, of course. They look at the red lanterns rusting in the boathouses with scorn. They still swim out to be blessed, of course, but for every year it is less out of reverence and more out of a will to prove themselves. They don’t know. I try to tell them, but they have stopped listening.
I remember, you see. I have held a red lantern in my shaking hand, in a suddenly small and somehow forlorn boat on a cloudy night, trying to sooth the sea, trying to lure the moon out to meet this false reflection. I have seen the clouds shift and open to wash us in red moonlight – that was the first year. I have seen the sky remain stormy gray, I have returned to the shore once my lantern had burned out, I have lived through the year after such a night. That was the next seven years.
For seven years, the moon refused to let her blood for us, and those seven years were the worst that our village has ever lived. We would not have survived an eight year. For seven years, the fish didn’t fill our nets, the grain didn’t grow in our fields, our sheep sickened and died. We sickened to, all too many of us, and so few ever got well again. The old and the far too young had to go out in the boats instead of those who drowned, the weak and the sick had to work the fields and watch what sheep we had left. And in the late summer, we lit all the lanterns we had, painted them red, and shone them on the sea, let their light reflect at the unrelenting clouds.
The seventh year, only five people went with lanterns out in the harbor, the rest had to be out at sea even this sacred night, trying to catch enough fish to feed us another winter. Three young men in one boat, me and my sister in the other, with lanterns hung all around the railings. I rowed and my sister was leaning over the prow, our brightest lantern in her outstretched hand, letting her tears fall in the salt water. She pleaded to the moon, and to the clouds, and begged the sea to bring his lover back. She prayed to all she held holy, and all that she feared, and offered them anything if they would just let the moon shine on us again. The wind that had whispered in her hair on the shore rose into a loud cry to mingle with her voice. Waves rocked the boat, dipping the lanterns and quenching them one after another. I tried to hold us steady, tried to keep us from drifting too far off shore. I wished the wind would help us, scatter the clouds, show us the sky again.
Then my sister cried out. Her lantern was the last one still shining and when it went out, we were all plunged into darkness. It seemed an eternity, but I believe it was only moments before the light returned. “She’s back!” I heard the others call, and it wasn’t until I looked up into the indifferent face of our moon that I realized they hadn’t meant my sister.
That is why I watch the sky so closely. That is why the clouds fill me with a fear so strong that my hands shake and I drop the needle I’m holding. And you laugh at me, and you pick up my needle – because you are good hearted, only so very young and thoughtless – and you pat my shoulder before you go away. I look at you as you stroll down the path to the harbor – good, strong men and women, all of you – and I hope that the sky will remain clear tonight, that the sea will remain contented with my sister’s sacrifice, that I will not live to see which one of you it will claim one day to keep her company.