The sound of joy in Restitution rang all the way up to the hills and all the way down to the sea, the whole town shaking like a tambourine when it heard the news, and it seemed that everyone heard at once. Children’s squeals and women’s laughter mixed with the pleased shouts and snorts of the men, all of it reverberating over the town in an uproar of… Well, what was the uproar about exactly?
“What is that uproar about exactly?” asked Alderman Charity Barker, who sat in the village hall with Alderman Virgin, also forenamed Charity, trying to enjoy a game of chess in peace. “Why the racket?” Barker was already irritable because his opponent had blockaded his white-squared bishop and posted a knight to the sixth rank.
Alderman Virgin left the hall to ask a hardscrabble boy who spent his idle hours trying to knock over a row of green-tinted bottles with blue stones beside the Alderhall wall. When he came back, he had to whisper the news, he was so shocked: “Caesar and Endurance have announced their engagement!”
If Alderman Barker wasn’t so stunned by the news himself, he might have thanked providence for its timing: the two men couldn’t possibly finish their game now.
The whole town had always wanted Caesar and Endurance to be married. It made you want to giggle and laugh and shout they were so perfect for each other. They fit together like a turbot and a turbot pan.
Consider the facts: Caesar and Endurance were Restitution’s two orphans. They were born on the same exact day. Both their mothers had died in childbirth. Both children had been named after the mother’s suffering. Ms. Carpenter and Ms. Saltdate, Restitution’s midwives, would never talk about those births to anyone but each other, used to wince at the mention of their names, and once were overheard, slightly tipsy at the Scala, to say that Caesar and Endurance were born on the foam of a sea of blood. Those were their exact words: “the foam of a sea of blood.” They refused to spell out exactly what they meant and so the town’s imagination took over.
Then there were the other stories. About the christenings, to take one instance, there was the story…well, it was the story that determined their whole lives.
Their christening was a double ceremony since they were born on the same day, so Caesar’s father was lifting the boy all in white and overhead down to the shore while Endurance’s father was just bringing her down to the font. The town was still clad in mourning for the mothers, but everybody cheered and a bottle of brandy was unstoppered and handed to Caesar’s father for a toast. All more or less the usual scenario, until the child—Caesar, that is—grabbed the bottle in his baby fingers and toasted his own life by pouring it out on the sand. That was where the town’s astonishment began, but not where it ended, because the bottle spilled and spilled and spilled out and spilled out some more and in a minute the father was standing in a puddle of brandy. In three minutes the whole congregation was standing in a drunken pool. The whole world might have drowned in brandy from that one bottle. Then a sudden cry from the church pierced the air, and poor baby Caesar dropped the bottle and started bawling. Inside, at the christening table, Endurance’s father was displaying her back to a room full of sailors.
At first glance, it looked like some scoundrel had scattered a handful of white scars over her smooth light skin. The dots were evenly spread over her front, too. “The stars! The stars!” her father was shouting, and he was a navigator, so it meant something. Yes, with a closer look every sailor there could see that the pattern over Endurance was the same as in the heavens. Her skin somehow was a map of the asterisms.
So those were the miraculous stories of their christening. It was easy to see why the whole town thought from the beginning that their marriage was inevitable.
A few days after the christening, the fathers both sold their children, one to the Scala, the other to the good ship Monroe, left town in a single boat to seek their fortunes in Port Hope and were never heard from again. Caesar poured unlimited brandy to the tavern owner for free (the rate to the customers at the Stairs was only just reduced), and Endurance was forced to live up to her name on the sea, where her flesh was spread out on a mariner’s table like a shifting map, even when the sky was clear and there was no need for her. A miracle is an extraordinary piece of furniture, Restitution discovered, and it was not a misfortune to either of the children when their miraculous abilities evaporated with adulthood and, after adolescence, they were just a perfect masculine tavern-keep (who didn’t have a single tattoo at that), and a well-battened, strong-timbered sailorine.
Then they decided to get married.
Whether or not there are miracles marrying, or mothers dying, or children listening to elders telling stories about orphans, when the sun tilts over in Restitution, the men are at the boats with fixed tender lines, their eyes on the horizon. The morning after the announcement was not a Sunday, and so down by the piers the men prepared themselves for the sea just the same as usual.
Endurance was reining in her tackle. She burlapped her forearms. She tightened the laces on her boots. None of the sailors could see any change in the woman. She was still dressed in her dirty fishing weeds, smoking her owlshead pipe to cover the reek of scale and pulled guts. Her eyes were still fierce as a deep-water fish, and she hadn’t traded the rough hub of her sailor’s mouth for a girly portico of soft lips as far as anyone could tell.
“How are the waves blowing?” hazarded one of the men.
“See them for yourself,” replied Endurance, head-pointing to the shore. Orange light licked the darkness steadily like a panting dog at a trough. She didn’t want to talk about the future. She wanted to talk about fish.
“Maybe we’ll catch a tuna for your wedding,” he said.
“Or your funeral,” Endurance shot back. The men laughed, then they threw themselves into the ships singing “Keys and Plenty.”
At the same moment, the women of Restitution were streaming down from their houses towards the market. That path, which is taken “more for the chat than the chits” as they say, neatly passes the Scala, where Caesar, as he had done every morning, was sweeping the covered terrace with a switch. Today was no different from others, and it was Caesar’s trade always to greet the wives and misses with their proper names and to remember whom he had seen and whom he had not. This was the heart of his profession.
“Caesar,” called out Estella, who happened to be the eldest woman in the village.
“How is our fine groom this morning?”
“Fresh as a sea rose. Do you have time for tea, Estella?”
And as they came along, Caesar invited all the wives into the Scala for a sit-down and sip. The gossips gossiped that day about where the ceremony would be (at the pier church naturally), about what Caesar might wear to it (his best church suit of course), about what would be served at the breakfast (the ordinary wedding dishes of lamb and mountain spring grasses), and then about other marriages (successes, failures, battles, truces). But it’s a fact of life that even gossip ends. The women filed away in dribs and drabs, ones and twos and threes, for shopping and stewing and gardens.
The church bells rang up and down the hills and out across the sea, and all the men from the town left their dinners and went to the meeting with the Aldermen Charities, who were once again forced to put aside a game of chess to discuss the wedding of Caesar and Endurance. The meeting was rather brief for a Committee meeting and rather unanimous. Alderman Charity Barker suggested that the wedding of Caesar and Endurance was the responsibility of the whole town, and Alderman Charity Virgin seconded his point. All the men in fact (certainly all the men who were married), agreed with the statement. These poor children had been born from the foam of a sea of blood, said someone from the back. They deserved a town wedding, shouted another robust voice. A quieter speaker mentioned quietly that Father Nuncet was due at the end of the week.
Father Nuncet! They had all forgotten about Father Nuncet! Disaster! Disaster!
The men flooded out of the church down to the waiting shores of their homes. “The priest is due at the end of the week!” they shouted. The wives gasped, “At the end of the week?” The men nodded. “He’s not due for another three months after that,” they added needlessly. Everyone already knew that, even the children.
They had four days. Well, it would just be possible. They would have to clean the town, dress the bride, prepare the feast, but it could be done. With great faith and every hand pulling, there would be time enough. Just time enough. First, a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, there was much thinking to be done, much weighing in both hands, many decisions to be sliced thin-thin. It required tea and sugar and there was no better place for those (and to keep Caesar out of it) than the school before the school hour. Ms. Moonthorple, the schoolteacher, brewed a fine sip.
A white dress for the bride was essential of course, and only Charity Virgin’s wife Trin had the cloth. After a few cups and nudges, she offered it relatively gracefully, to more or less free applause. Secondly, it was agreed that Romana Lambden, the youngest bride in the village, would oversee the roasting of the lambs, just for the charm of it. Laurentia Tapamount, for her part, would lead a battalion of wives into the bakery for her tricolour hat pastries, and send another battalion into the hills for spring grasses. Ms. Moonthorple sighed and volunteered to cook them on the day itself, just like she had done for dozens of weddings which were not her own.
As for the cleaning, there being nobody else and no other time, the men would have to clean the streets. There was nothing else for it.
Business concluded, tasks assigned, rigorous matters dispensed with, a less practical question came up: how had Caesar and Endurance found time and place for a rendezvous? The boy lived in the Scala, slept in the back of the tavern, and the waves of a boat were the only cradling lullaby the girl had ever known, so when could they have managed a session?
Answers were swirling thick and sweet as fume over the teacups until Trin Virgin solved it: they had made love in their dreams. All the wives were convinced utterly and instantly— those two thin little beings rubbing into one another like silver spoons in a drawer, and all over the town too (that’s where dreams happen). They must have made so much friction in the street corners, their enormous dream backs lying down like fakirs on the points of the rooftops, their sweet moans caught in all the dishes slow-cooked overnight in the whole town’s kitchens. Yes, that must have been why all the food had tasted so savoury these last few months.
There was no time at all. Absolutely no time. There was barely time enough to let the zap of the thought that there was no time zip through your mind. If every second was a minute, and every tick was a tock…there wasn’t enough time to complete the metaphor even. The wives told the husbands, and the husbands told the aldermen who reported it to the fishermen and their wives: “There’s no time.”
“So, tomorrow all the women will go together up the hills for spring grasses and spices and to talk to whatever shepherds they can find, Nobby or Christian or Luke.”
“And the men?”
“The men will clean the town.”
The women’s laughter was sudden and bright, a fish leaping from a reed boat, and so it was decided that the women would leave for the hills before dawn, since once the men had started they would never be able to tear their eyes away.
Give them their due: the men didn’t flinch. They set their staunch backs to cleaning the town, all of them. All except Terence Olive, that is.
Terence Olive refused not to fish. He said, “If I don’t fish, I will fall apart from my ankle,” and nobody knew what he meant, so they let him go. The rest of the good-hearted, strong-backed men went to work with shovels, pails, mops, brooms and rags, until the dusty streets had been raked, the white walls reflected like shells, the wood walls gleamed like new, and fresh green garlands hung in tight-fisted bunches over the porticos. The women, coming back from the hills with the slaughter when the sun was slipping, said nothing.
The men said, “How do you find it?”
The women said, “Oh wonderful, but…”
“What is it?”
“Well, it’s nothing, it’s just that…” But the thought will never be finished because Terence Olive interrupted it, calling for witnesses, chasing down the raked streets howling (still in his fishing gear too), and all Restitution ran after him down to his vessel. There a monster fish was still slapping almost the length and breadth of his little-man boat. “I had to sit on it to row home,” he said between pants. The fins were a sleek yellow, and its fatty, silvery sides hadn’t even been torn by netting. But the cast of its eye was the strangest part, like the dying fish could smile. The bottom of the sea had sacrificed itself for the wedding of Caesar and Endurance. That was so obvious to everyone it didn’t need telling.
“How did you land it?” was the first question.
Fisherman Olive couldn’t say. He just didn’t know. He didn’t know why he didn’t know either.
Ten men carried the beast to the public square where the women stuffed it with slushleaves and bitters and packed it in buckets of salt. Its heart was still beating when they laid it down in the pit behind the yard of the Scala, at least that’s what Cecilia Barker and Ms. Moonthorple said.
The men cleaning, the women’s trip to the mountains, the fish, that all happened on a Friday, so the Miracle of the Smiling Fish That Leapt into Terence Olive’s Boat was doubly, maybe triply, significant. The date was certainly remarked upon.
Saturday afternoon was the appointed hour for the circumnavigating priest to arrive, and Father Nuncet was always punctilious. He was a tight man, Father Nuncet, young and shipshape, tall and thin, cleanly shaven and neatly cropped. A bit severe, he was thought on the coasts, but generous, proper and serviceable. Always on time too, and there’s not more a cove can ask from a priest.
Father Nuncet barely had time to put his carrying case in one corner of his churchside chamber when a storm patter of knocks on his door started falling. He opened the door and it seemed like the whole town tramped into his little suite.
There were so many stories and so many people to tell them, that the priest had to bring in all the chairs from the kitchen and, as more people with more stories came, he had to lift in the bed so a few elder Aldermen could recline on it, and later there were children lying in the corners, and men squatting on footstools, and a standing crowd too. All to tell Father Nuncet about the massy fish that jumped itself into the Olive boat, or the men cleaning the village, or the lovedreamcovescape where Caesar and Endurance had made love or the miracles after their joint communion (those stories the father already knew), or that they had both been born from the foam of a sea of blood.
It is a well-known, long-established fact that stories put people to sleep.
Sitting, standing, leaning, kneeling, their voices calling out, or asking somebody else to explain, or to clarify or just to repeat, they fell asleep talking, the priest too. He told his stories and dozed off like the rest.
The next morning, where there would usually be the muffled sound of the women enSundaying themselves, now only a snore was drifting over Restitution. Nonetheless, Caesar dressed himself in his steam-pressed wedding suit, and stood in the doorway of the Scala waiting for his coterie, but there were only a few young children playing in the streets with wheels and winks, and they were as confused as he was. The sun was already high.
Endurance was already wearing the white muslin dress, minus gloves and parasol. She waited slung in a low hammock among the tackle and netting. Having once herself been a miracle, Endurance was rarely surprised, but even she was a little mystified by the town’s silence.
They were all dreamlessly asleep…
Only when the sun ran up the mountain, and ten, and then eleven showed on the tick-tock clock in the priest’s cabin (the only timepiece in town other than the one in Charity Virgin’s pocket), did Caesar and Endurance begin to tremble a bit. The problem was that tradition in Restitution held that all weddings must finish in the morning, which if their fellow covers remained opiated by stories too much longer, would shortly be impossible. Then it would have to be another Sunday. Then the priest would be gone. One feature of time is that there’s always less and less of it.
Restitution’s sleep was broken by the laughter of children. Everyone woke up. The clock read a quarter to noon!
In the confusion that followed (nobody admits it but it’s still true), several of the less necessary, more time-consuming traditions were not exactly maintained. For example, without time for a sip to clear their heads, the wives ran to the tavern to get Caesar while the husbands fetched Endurance from the ships. There was also no time, in the fury when the whole town ran to opposite ends (market and pier) and then ran back, to sing the traditional songs. No “First Ray of May.” No “Kings and Queens.” The bride and groom, who remained serene throughout, were pushed through the church doors, not introduced with gay stateliness. There was also no one but children in the church aisles, where Sylvia Romani said, “It’s a lovely wedding, isn’t it?” to her neighbour Marsha Walpole, and Marsha Walpole said, “Yes, isn’t it?”
Naturally, the necessary sacred words were uttered, if a bit hurriedly. It wouldn’t count as a wedding otherwise. Father Nuncet’s wedding sermon, however, was abbreviated sharply: “We all know what is going on here. God is Love.” Which was not the sermon he had given a month before at Openroar, but was enough. “Kiss-kiss,” Restitution shouted. Caesar and Endurance kiss-kissed. “I now declare you husband and wife,” said Father Nuncet. One interesting fact is that at the word “wife” the last toll of the clock sounded in the next room.
It was exactly noon. Without knowing how, without being able to remember what they had done to push it through, the villagers of Restitution had married Caesar and Endurance. The grown spectators were standing in the church aisle, still in the clothes they had slept in. The children politely applauded.
A feast followed, a feast of the flesh of the fantastic fish. Ten men carried it out of its grave. Ten women washed the salty dirt from its back. They roasted it over a bed of burning spindles and thorns, and the smell of the smoke pouring over those monstrous sides sent up a gentle, hastily smothered moan in the crowd around it as the aphrodisiac fume flooded the streets. In the mouth and on the tongue, its flesh was soft and giving, rich and delicious and unlike any other seameat any of the sailors or their wives had ever known.
“As if compassion had a flavour,” said Ms. Moonthorple, who had read a lot and had been fidgeting ever since the first waves of its scent.
Another woman at a completely different table said it tasted to her more like mercy.
The meal began at dusk, and as if to make up for the hurried ceremony, it went long and slow, with every song sung and every ritual performed. Like the streets themselves were the bride’s sitting room, Caesar and Endurance were kept at opposite ends of the market, following the rite of keeping bride and groom at opposite ends of the wedding chamber. There was also a speech by Alderman Virgin (from the groom’s party) about the beauties of the bride, and there was a speech by Alderman Barker (from the bride’s party) about the strengths of the groom, but both thinned out in the tide of gossip, and general toasts, and the rest of it. Even the most traditional let the feast take its course from that point.
That fish should have fed the town for a week but it was already gone by the time the whale tapers were being lit on the tables and set on the branches of stonetrees. They devoured, off the bones, the stuffing of slushleaves and bitters, ate it right from their hands. Everyone had to rush home for a session, or rather every wife just remembered some chore that was pressing, and needed the help of her husband at home. The only people left were fidgety Ms. Moonthorple looking up at Father Nuncet who was looking down on the ground, and the children (sick with hilarity) gathered around Caesar and Endurance. “Will you make love tonight?” “Can you see by the stars on your back?” “What names will you give the babies you’re making tonight?”
The orphans offered no answers but Caesar did pick up an empty bottle and poured continually, poured a whole pool of brandy around their feet. Endurance tore off a strip of white muslin to show them by torchlight that her back matched the constellations. The children giggled, the priest and the teacher gasped, but they never spoke to anyone about The Last Miracles of Caesar and Endurance. There would be no others but nature.
Slowly the growns came limping back from their homes, a bit weary, frailer, tinged with sadness. Father Nuncet remarked on it to one of the Charities (he could never tell them apart). “Why do we all seem so suddenly melancholic?”
“Besides the errands we have all so hastily had to run?”
“I cannot see why that should sadden the group but yes, what beside the those?”
“The boat,” said Alderman Charity.
“Ah, good. What boat is that?” asked the priest.
“I suppose you could not know about the wedding boat. It is a tradition only in Restitution.”
Charity opened his mouth to answer…
The cove spoke for him by performing it: They lifted Caesar (the men), and led blindfolded Endurance (the women) down to the shore. Father Nuncet and his companion followed behind the crowd, who tenderly placed Caesar and Endurance in a vessel, threw in oars, a blanket, pillows, and pushed it off.
“What does it mean?” asked the priest.
“The tradition,” answered Charity.
“But what is the tradition? What happens now?”
“Now we wait all night to see if they return.”
The town was silent as Caesar and Endurance drifted into calm waters and slipped beyond the haloes of the tapers. The quality of that darkness was unique. It wasn’t an absence or a presence but a possibility, and possibility isn’t black. It’s sort of brown and sort of blue. The people sat on the border of the sea. The children played “Tangerine and Trouble” in the courtyard. Will they come back? Will they be destroyed? Will they bring us a gift from the sea?
Father Nuncet tried to stay awake with them for their vigil. (They told no stories that night.) He tried to stay awake because he could sense that the cove dwellers were contemplating memories of their sins and virtues, and that is when a priest is really needed. The food weighed him down like a sinkstone though, and he nodded and nodded and could not quite manage to keep himself on the right side of the border.
At the hour of snails and night-hawks, he was asleep and nobody could wake him. They would not wake him.
In his dream, Father Nuncet felt a hand on his shoulder, and a swift wind at his back, and then he felt as if he had been bundled in a sack and was being carted by a heavy workman up a series of ladders. The priest did not struggle. His release blew him upwards into the infinite heavens of Jehovah, into the empyreal realms of Paradise, to the seat of God Himself. At His Right Hand, Jesus Christ sat in judgment, and His judgment was perfect. Light was turning in heavenly orbs infinitely outwards in waves of perfect love and utter mercy. (This is how the priest described it when people asked him later.) At Christ’s feet were Caesar and Endurance, and then they were carried up to His Right Hand by engines of angels. The priest went unnoticed, a spy of the Last Day, wondering what the judgment would be and angels stared past him into the abyss. Then Jesus, who was about to speak, opened His mouth: the roar of a crowd came out and Father Nuncet awoke into a bright dawn. “My, my,” he said.
The uproar in Restitution rang up to the hills and down to the sea, as Caesar and Endurance, embracing, let the waves carry their vessel to shore. Charity Virgin and Charity Barker stopped. They had been playing chess to while away the hours of the night. “We will have to build them a house now,” muttered the one alderman to the other. They sighed, put their game aside, and joined in the uproar.