The shore is packed with people: young, old, native-born and off-planet transplants, human and non. The din ought to be overwhelming, but I stand in a small oasis of stillness, imposed by my nearly-invisible security personnel or possibly by my own Name. My Family is respected here.
It was not originally a custom on Vinde, this Festival of Lanterns. I had brought it with me from Loess, and the locals embraced it fully and wholeheartedly. They are sailors, the Vindeans. These rituals bring them comfort. Three days to mark the solstice; three days to lighten one’s heart. A slip of paper, a handful of words, a lantern to carry them up and away: regrets, promises, wishes.
The first night of Festival is for regrets, that we might start the year fresh. When I was small, we stayed in on the first night. Regrets should never be public, my mother used to say, and we so we marked the evening in our little house with wine and bread and stories of what might have been. We wrote out our sorrows, our apologies, and let them go.
I keep the same custom here. The sky had been overcast two nights ago, but nevertheless we had climbed up to the rooftop garden with our lanterns and buried our regrets in the clouds.
The second night is for promises and pledges, when marriage contracts are brokered, vows renewed, treaties signed. We write names and dates, sometimes filling entire translucent sheets with the details, weighing our lanterns down until they hang low over the waves.
My own marriage had been contracted elsewhere, of course, but yesterday, like every year, my husband and I had celebrated the second night of Festival with dancing and speeches, and later, more privately, with gifts and carefully delivered compliments.
And only in the deepest well of night, when my husband was fast asleep, had I let my mind drift, lamp-like, to the time and a place where one double-edged line of poetry had been tempered in the heat of desire.
if you stay
I will make you
It was the only promise she had ever made to me, knowing it was the only one she would never break.
A camdrone whirs overhead. The Festival would be all over the newsvids, of course. This is the third night, the most raucous, the most joyful, when all of Tokovina spills out onto the beaches with their lanterns. It is a beautiful sight: hundreds of paper ships spiraling upwards into a sea of stars.
The last lantern, tonight’s lantern, is for wishes. For hopes, for dreams. I could fill a book with my wishes over the years, I think. My wish, for truly I have only ever had one. It is written on into my bones. It is inscribed on my skin, invisible etchings like the memory of a touch. If I close my eyes, I can still taste her name on my tongue.
It is a childish thing, perhaps, to believe regrets could be so easily shed, wishes granted or promises kept.
“Mama, mama!” My daughter, auburn-haired and green-eyed, dances just out of the ocean’s reach. The lantern in her hands is misshapen, the paper balloon splotched with watercolors. Even so, it rises steadily enough when she lets it go.
“Mama, I wished for a boat of my very own,” she confides in a whisper, eyes darting left and right as though she feared to be overheard. “A real boat, not a toy.”
I do not tell her that there is a little skiff waiting for her at the pier. She is no great keeper of secrets, especially where her own dreams are concerned, and her father and I have known for months what our daughter would write.
“What did you wish for, Mama?”
“Ah,” I say, laughing a little. “I cannot tell you that. It is a secret.”
I do not tell her, either, that my little slip of paper is blank, that I could not bring myself to write upon it. That all my little ships have carried no cargo, not since my daughter was born. I cannot afford regrets; I have nothing left to promise. Like an automaton, my arm lifts, my fingers unclench, and I release my lantern into the night, one of the hundreds that race toward the stars, never to reach them.