As the sun rose high in the clear sky, Andre drove with his brother to the healing center. He followed the highway along the eastern shore. The landscape dipped toward the sea and merged into barren rock shelves between patches of windswept grasses reaching to the sandy dunes. The car pulled in front of Iasis Manor, the Koinonia healing center. Andre drove down a narrow street and stopped before a row of small huts with whitewashed siding and mismatched porthole windows. He could hear the familiar tinkle of wind chimes through the open passenger seat window. At the sound of their approaching vehicle, the on-duty nurse stepped onto the compact front deck with a welcoming smile.
“She’s in her room,” she told the boys as she led the way inside. “I will let her know that you are here.”
Walking to the back of the small house, the nurse knocked lightly at a door adjacent to a narrow hallway beyond the sitting room. The cottage afforded only the essential furnishings: a sofa, a plush chair, a table with a reading lamp, and a bookshelf holding a few leather-bound volumes leaning against one another for support.
The kitchenette had the same simple design with a short row of bleached cabinets, a refrigerator, stovetop, and sink basin. Along the wall sat a rectangular table with three straight-backed wooden chairs. In the center sat a transparent blue vase holding a single yellow wildflower. Everything about the cottage was serene with cool tones to invoke peace and rest.
“Boys?” the nurse called from the open bedroom door. “You can come in.”
Andre and Davi crossed silently to the hall. The creak of the wooden floorboards under their feet sounded loud and out of place.
The in-home caregiver stepped aside so they could enter the room before retreating to the hall and leaving the door open behind her. Imani Dietrich sat by the window overlooking the pebble beach in a cushioned rocking chair wrapped in a faded quilt. Her long dark hair lay in a braid down her shoulder and there was a warm flush to her almond-toned cheeks. Andre’s first observation was that she looked thinner than the week before.
“Hi, Mama.” Andre moved around the edge of the neatly-made bed and took a seat on the window bench near the rocking chair.
Imani’s eyes lit up at the sight of her sons. “My boys!” She reached out a hand for each and squeezed theirs tightly. “How are you?”
“Tell me about school, Davi. Did you give your science presentation?”
Davi nodded but explained that the project had yet to be graded, so he wasn’t sure how well he had done. His mother was confident he had received top marks without a doubt. She turned to her eldest next, waiting expectantly for an overview of his week. Like every other visit, Andre had to choose his topics carefully without giving too many details. He wished he could hide the obvious results of his debate at the altar made obvious by the apparent wounds on his face, but it could not be helped. Imani noticed them but did well to repress the distress the sight of the battle scars invoked.
“I’ve been busy,” Andre told his mother honestly. “The professors have assigned us our final projects.”
“Before graduation,” Imani understood.
“Have you completed them?”
“Mostly,” Andre nodded. “I’m still working on one. It will be finished in time for the Eleutheros Festival.” He watched her carefully, waiting for a change in her eyes as a result of his words, but there was none. Encouraged by this, he continued. “It’s a video album in honor of the fiftieth anniversary. It’s taking a long time. There’s a lot of clips to search through, but I think it looks alright.”
“I’m sure it does,” she assured him warmly.
“They’re showing it after the graduation ceremony,” he mentioned cautiously. “You could come see it, if you’d like.” The change was evident this time, like a cloud passing over the stars in her eyes, leaving them dark and distant. Andre regretted having suggested it, and Davi passed him an irritated glare for the mistake.
Imani was gone only a moment before she covered her pained expression with a smile. Grabbing for Davi’s hand once again, she clasped it tightly with both of hers. “How about a walk on the beach? I have been sitting here waiting for you all morning. I need to get out of this room.”
“On the beach?” Davi’s face lit up at the suggestion.
“Yes, mijo, on the beach. I do take walks and occasionally they take place outside,” Imani laughed and messed his hair before getting to her feet and setting aside the quilt. “Care to join me?”
Davi jumped at the chance and left the room ahead of his mother and brother. Andre hesitated while watching her cautiously.
“A few minutes,” Imani pleaded softly. “Walk with me a step or two.”
Nodding, Andre accepted her outstretched hand and stepped from the cabin into the salty air.
The sun disappeared behind a wall of slate gray clouds which promised rain. A sheepdog perked his ears when it spotted them from the porch of the cottage next door. Davi whistled and encouraged the familiar neighborhood dog to join them in their walk. The carefree expression on his brother’s face reminded Andre of when they would have races on the beach when they were little, laughing and wrestling in the crashing waves. Imani always loved the shore, and she took them almost daily from their home in the village. Now Davi actually looked young again instead of the growing weed that threatened to surpass his older brother in height and girth. Tossing the dog a stick of driftwood, he turned and waited to see how far their mother would step from the house. The boys’ eyes met across the sand as Andre offered Imani his arm as they walked. She breathed in deeply and sighed while leaning into him for warmth in the cool ocean breeze.
“Don’t look so surprised,” she teased with a sideways glance at Andre. “This isn’t the first time I’ve done this. My therapists have been encouraging me to take a few steps further from the house every day.” She stopped and looked down at the compacted dirt beneath the soles of her shoes. “This is as far as I’ve come.”
The two of them stood and stared at the spot, an invisible, un-crossable line encircling the healing house and the stony patch of earth it sat on. Andre was surprised, pleased, and confused all at once. Why hadn’t she mentioned her walks before?
“I can’t go to your graduation, Dre,” his mother spoke softly and apologetically.
He swallowed his disappointment with a steady nod. “That’s okay,” he assured her. As much as Andre wished it wasn’t, the Alleluia House was simply on the wrong side of the line.
Kentro sat in the heart of Koinonia in a valley at the base of Bethel Peak. The village was built into a tri-level bowl with Highway 1 shaping the outer rim. Side streets joined the highway with the next level, Oikos Crescent, a residential drive lined with stone and brick houses of various sizes. Below Oikos Crescent was Metoche Market. A circle of shops of every description, catering to every need, clustered in a tight ring facing a central park of fresh cut grass and tended flowerbeds. Here, at the bottom of the bowl, sat the Alleluia House of Worship. Not so much a house as a circular copper roof supported by stone columns and massive wood beams.
Comparable to an overgrown teepee, the Alleluia House used a ventilation smoke pass at its peak when the fire was lit in the stone pit below. During most spring evenings the subarctic climate of the Norwegian Sea required the lighting of this source of heat to warm the crowd of feasting citizens. All around the outer rim of the House long, curving troughs loaded with fuel were also lit for the comfort of villagers while they worshiped, feasted, or congregated in the open air.
There were no chairs or pews, only a few wooden benches closest to the fire for those who couldn’t stand. On a feast night, long plank wood tables were brought in and spread with steaming casserole dishes, heaping trays of roasted fowl and lamb chops, loaves of buttered bread, varieties of vegetables from the greenhouses, and an entire section set aside for desserts alone. Those serving the feast roamed the buffet line to supply fresh helpings when dishes had been cleared. A line of torches lit a path to the kitchens across the market courtyard where an army of volunteers stood over stoves and pulled loaded pans from broiling ovens.
Andre and Davi picked up Declan at his home in the village before driving to the feast. When they arrived, Davi went straight for the food tables to load up a plate. Declan hung back to wait for Andre as he made his rounds greeting conversing groups of villagers, shaking hands with deacons, and speaking to each of the three new families in turn as his Agabus duties required. There were many jokes and renewed jeers over Andre’s lateness at the Arrival the day before. He took it in stride, laughing with the rest as if he wasn’t mortified by the whole ordeal. When it came time to face the circle of elders, Andre was thankful to find Costa among them. The komer carried a heaping plate of food as he nibbled from a sausage speared on a fork.
Andre took a deep breath and stepped forward. Catching Costa’s eye, he waited for the holy man to get the attention of the entire Council of Elders before moving into the light of the fire. “Good evening, Council,” he forced himself to speak, darting glances at several expectant faces before resting his gaze on the neutral, glowing coals in the trough bed.
“Andre,” Elder Mathis nodded. He was the oldest of the councilmembers, a thin, frail man with bowed back and a hairless head he often covered with a wool cap when the weather was cool. The hat was currently tucked into the side pocket of Mathis’s coat, and his smooth dome shined bright under the dancing light.
“I’m sorry for showing up late at the pier.” There was no immediate reply to his request for forgiveness, so Andre glanced up, unsure if his apology required more. “I promise it won’t happen again.”
“Not at all, Agabus,” Mathis spoke for the council. “An apology is not necessary.” He may have thought so, but the frowns on all the faces standing before the prophet sent a very different message.
The coals shifted suddenly in the trough, sending up a renewed surge of heat and light amongst the group of men. Andre blinked, feeling a sudden chill. Looking rapidly into the eyes of each member of the council, Andre searched for the source of the disturbance. Costa’s gaze narrowed after noticing the prophet’s agitation.
“We understand that mistakes happen,” Mathis continued. “It was merely an Arrival, nothing to—”
“Elder Irons,” Andre broke in abruptly with his attention focused on a middle-aged elder standing to the komer’s right. “Can I speak to you in private?”
Elder Irons appeared surprised by the request and glanced at his fellow councilmen before catching Costa’s short nod. “Certainly, Agabus,” he agreed before stepping away from the fire and following Andre outside the circle of light.
Andre glanced at the komer with an invitation to join them, but Costa was already a step behind. The two men met with the prophet across the courtyard beneath a lantern burning from a peg outside a closed dry goods shop.
“Is there a problem?” Elder Irons asked. He glanced from the Agabus to the holy man with furrowed eyebrows before settling on Andre when he spoke.
“You have a shadow.” The prophet’s announcement was given calmly, but received an alarmed reaction from both the elder and the komer.
“A shadow,” Andre repeated for the uneasy councilman. “I saw it behind your eyes. Whatever it is, you need to get rid of it. It’s affecting them.” He indicated the other elders waiting where they had left them.
“I will take you to the Sanctuary.” Komer Costa stepped in without hesitating.
Irons opened his mouth as if to protest but stopped himself in compliance. Andre’s eyes met his and saw fear and defeat beneath the wavering shadow. Immediately dropping his gaze, Elder Irons gave in. “Yes, I didn’t realize. I’m sorry.”
Andre shook his head, “I almost missed it too.”
Irons nodded appreciatively with a solemn frown. “I confess that I doubted you, young man. I shouldn’t have done so.” Reaching for Andre’s hand, he shook it briefly before walking away from the lights and action of the feast at the center of the courtyard.
Andre watched both men disappear into the grey dusk and released a lungful of air in relief. He always dreaded having to do that. It was the most awkward part of his responsibilities as Agabus. Shivering in the cool night air, he crossed the street and returned to the warmth of the feast.
Declan was already in line for food, and he shuffled over to give Andre space in line. “Where did you go?” he asked, reaching for a clean plate at the edge of the first table.
“I had to talk to the elders,” Andre told him while picking up a plate for himself.
“I’m sure that was as enjoyable.”
Andre shrugged, “It was fine. Better than expected, actually.” Looking about at the crowd of dining villagers, he scanned the faces for one which he had yet to see. “Are the Kirkebys here?”
Declan stood on his tiptoes to reach a basket of rolls far up on the table. “Yes, Jora is here. I saw her with Svana, sitting near the center circle a moment ago. The captain brought his guitar. There’s talk of a worship session after this.”
Andre heard nothing beyond the direction to where Jora was sitting. Scanning the row of tables, he spotted her sitting next to her sister, Svana, on the edge of the main fire pit. The dancing flames framed her silhouette like the glow of burning wings.
“You’re holding everyone up.” Declan elbowed him to get him moving.
“Sorry.” Andre returned his attention to the table.
“Fill up your plate,” his friend instructed. “Then we’ll go over and say hello. Svana’s dying to give you her sympathies for your minor faux pas on the pier.”
“Great,” Andre muttered. He had really hoped that neither of the Kirkeby twins had seen his blunder. He had enough trouble not looking like a walking mishap in front of Jora, and Svana never let up over his mistakes no matter how small. “I didn’t think they saw that.”
“Everybody saw that, Agabus,” Declan kindly informed him, “absolutely everybody.”
With smiles and nods of greeting, Andre and Declan wound their way through the crowd with their plates of food and mugs of steaming tea. Captain Kirkeby sat on the stone ledge around the central fire. He held an acoustic guitar, strumming with his thumb while precisely tuning the keys. Several accompanying musicians sat on blankets or benches preparing their own simple instruments for the upcoming worship session.
“Happy Feast Day, Andre,” the seasoned fishing boat captain greeted him warmly.
“Same to you, Herr Kirkeby,” Andre bowed slightly as a sign of respect for the older gentleman.
“How prompt of you to join us.” Svana leaned forward with a suppressed giggle. Her green eyes sparkled with mischief, a characteristic she consistently possessed. “Forgive me for doubting, but your track record, well,” she shrugged to make her point, “it’s worrisome, Agabus.”
Mr. Kirkeby spoke a sharp reprimand to his daughter in Norwegian, calling her out on her disrespect.
“Tilgi meg, pappa,” she responded, not looking the least sorry.
“It’s fine,” Andre assured them both. “Although, track record?” He raised a skeptic eyebrow at Svana. “I’ve only been late once.”
“Twice,” Declan was kind enough to point out with a mouth full of half-chewed food. “Late probably isn’t the correct word since you never actually showed up at all.”
“Last year’s Autumn Baptismal Ceremony.”
“Oh, right.” Andre had forgotten about that.
“No worries, Agabus.” Declan plopped down on an open section of blanket near Svana’s feet. “We’ll get you a day planner for Christmas, eh?”
Andre had yet to take a seat, still holding his warm plate of food and looking around the spread of conversing villagers.
“Jora’s getting us refills,” Svana informed him before he could even ask. “Here she comes.” She jerked her head in the direction of her sister advancing through the crowd. Jora held two mugs of hot cider, walking gracefully so as not to spill a drop. She nearly knocked her arm against an elderly woman as she attempted to sidle past before catching herself and meeting Andre’s eye with a sheepish grin.
“Hey,” she greeted him while handing off Svana’s drink and sitting in her empty place beside her twin. “Sit, please.” She offered him the open seat beside her.
“Herr Kirkeby,” Andre address Jora’s father first. “May I join your daughters on the bench?”
“Certainly,” Kirkeby nodded without ceasing his strumming on his guitar.
Andre thanked him in Norwegian and sat, finally able to dig into his plate of food. It was hard to enjoy the delicious meal while sitting so close to Jora with their elbows touching every so often in the jostle of things. Playing with his food, Andre attempted to focus on the conversation. The topics shifted from music to who was at the feast and who had yet to make an appearance. Generalizations were made referring to the newcomers with an interest on finding out who they were and where they had come from. Little information was ever given about new citizens. It provided them a fair chance to have a fresh start and the choice to share what they would about their past lives with whomever they chose. Only the Acclimation staff and the elders really knew who these people were. And Andre; Andre always knew. He just didn’t share.
“Were the elders upset then?” Svana felt the need to return to his embarrassment.
“Svana—” Jora wasn’t pleased with her sister’s pushy mannerisms and her pointed look contained a personal warning for her twin.
“What? It was just a question. He doesn’t have to answer.”
“No he doesn’t,” Jora agreed on that point.
Andre and Declan shared an unspoken expression of amusement. “Not upset, no,” he answered the question anyway.
“Just disappointed,” Declan finished his thought.
“As they should be.”
“About what?” Svana asked. “Showing up two seconds late? At least you were there.”
“The elders have their reasons and they deserve respect,” Jora reminded her.
Andre passed her a grateful smile, thankful that she understood. He did respect the council, a great deal. That is what made it so hard to face them sometimes. They were great men. Not just powerful, but noble. They were chosen for their positions in the community for their sound business and family sense, and they maintained them because they understood which came first in order of importance. The elders were the shepherds of the Koinonians. If their standards were high, it was for a reason.
The musicians were prepared for worship. Elder Mathis stepped forward to begin with prayer before Captain Kirkeby led into the first hymn. The people joined in singing the old familiar songs and listened to the new. A feast was an opportunity for those gifted in melody to share their talents with the community. Every musician and vocalist was given their chance to present their piece if they so desired. The singing and playing could go on for hours, late into the night. No one minded; everyone loved a good worship session. Mothers bedded down their young on the Alleluia floor, layering thick blankets to ward off the chill. The men maintained the coal fires and the servers replenished the coffee and cider urns as needed. No one was cold, and no one was tired.
Andre could have sat there all night listening to Jora sing along to her father’s guitar. With the heat of the flames on his back, a warm cup in his hand, and the laughter of comfortable citizens twinkling like bells in the dark, it was easy to forget about his battle at the altar and the lingering pain in his healing ribs.
When the celebration finally broke up, Andre asked Mr. Kirkeby for permission to walk Jora home. Consent was given only after guaranteeing that Declan and Svana would join them for the stroll. The Kirkebys lived on Oikos Crescent, just up the hill from the Market. It was a short distance from the Alleluia House, so they took their time.
Andre offered Jora his arm which she accepted with a blushing smile. They slowed their steps to maintain a few feet of space between them and the other two walking on ahead. Declan made a show of offering his own arm to Svana, but since she was more than a foot taller, she chose to lean her elbow on his head instead.
Jora shook her head with an exasperated smile, watching her sister attempt to engage Declan in a game of Leap Frog down the sidewalk. “She’s such a child.”
“You’re very different, for twins,” Andre agreed.
“You’d be the first person to say so.”
“Really? I don’t think you’re anything like Svana.”
“No, just that I look exactly like her.”
“At first glance maybe.” He shrugged and caught her incredulous expression. “Maybe second and third glance also…” Andre understood how stupid he sounded and looked for a way to correct it while she laughed at his obvious struggle to do so. “I mean, if you look closer, there are many little differences.” He caught her eye and held it until they both looked away with nervous smiles. “Like your eyes,” he went on. “Hers are green, yours are blue.”
“Yes, that is a difference,” Jora teased.
“And your nose…”
“Your nose is straighter. Since you never stick it in other people’s business the way she does.”
“I wouldn’t say she does that,” she stuck up for her sister, “Maybe she’s a little too curious about things that—”
“Aren’t any of her business,” Andre concluded unwisely, catching Jora’s grimace before she easily covered it with a smile.
“What are you saying?” Svana called back from her position spread out on the pavement, flat on her stomach while Declan prepared to make his jump over her midsection. “Am I being insulted?”
“Of course not,” Andre assured her as he caught up and lifted Declan under the arms, tossing him over with an extra boost before offering his hand to Svana to help her back to her feet.
“I think you lie. The Agabus just lied. Two offenses in two days, what do you have to say for yourself, prophet?”
“I say, take your turn, toad. Your frog friend is waiting.”
“Who invented this humiliating game?” Declan spoke to his toes, crouched holding his ankles with his head down. “And why are we playing it?”
“To humiliate you.” Svana geared herself up for the jump, running and launching herself over with a boost off of Declan’s shoulders before sticking the landing with a hop on the balls of her feet and arms raised in a victory V.
“Purpose accomplished.” Declan stumbled to his feet. “You win.”
Too soon they gained the Kirkeby front door. A light was on in the front window. Andre and Jora slowed down by the gate, both wishing they had another block or two to go.
“God natt, little frog prince,” Svana patted Declan on the head. “Sleep well.”
“No transformation kiss?” he suggested hopefully.
Svana backed up the walk to the door, pretending to give it some thought. “Ingen,” she shook her head in the negative. “I prefer you green.”
Declan merely shrugged like it was her loss before walking off a few steps to give Andre and Jora a moment of privacy.
“Mor er venter, Jora,” Svana spoke a warning over her shoulder before slipping inside.
“Ja, Svana, thank you!” she responded impatiently before turning back to Andre with an apologetic smile. Releasing his arm, she crossed hers in a personal hug and danced on her tiptoes in the cool air. “Thank you for walking me home.”
“You’re welcome.” Andre awkwardly stuck his hands in his pockets, chewing on his lower lip and searching for something to say next. “Well, goodnight.”
“My father leaves port on Monday,” she said, stalling his leaving. “Perhaps you could join us for evening meal tomorrow?”
Her expression was so hopeful Andre couldn’t help but smile. “I’ll try.”
A curtain moved in the front window, and he stepped back. “Goodnight, Jora.”
She passed him a small wave and walked to the house. “Buenas noches, Andre.”
He smiled, liking the sound of his mother’s native language on Jora’s tongue. He waited until she had disappeared behind the closed door before looking down and finding Declan beside him. “Ready to go?”
“You’re asking me?” Declan snorted. “I’ve been waiting on you, mate.”