You stand on the shore of the defenders, the sand coarse against your feet and the summer air heated despite the sun still deep beneath the horizon. With your friends you paint green stripes upon your arms and tie green cloth about your swim-ready shorts. The air is filled with quiet laughter, eager anticipation and yarns spun by older defenders who had played within the holiday for many, many years.
A sense of calm wraps about your heart as the barest hint of light begins to creep over the world. You can sense him, standing there, on the opposite shore. Out of sight, but never out of mind.
Slim shadows mark where small schooners and dinghies and even non-wind-catching craft dot the bay, but the largest of all, that Barge of Delights, seems an ominous presence in the predawn hour. Port controllers drift further off, toward the entrance to the bay where the ocean currents ran rougher.
In front of you, just past the lapping waves, sways a platform, bending and dipping and every so often disappearing completely: the first stop along the Broken Pier. The true entrance into the Festival of Fools.
You’ve never stepped foot on it before, that platform, or any of the ones bobbing in the waves after it, a trail, like breadcrumbs, that cross the bay, connecting the defenders along this shore to the invaders on the other.
They would wear red and gray. Headbands about their foreheads, ends hanging down bare backs or braided or folded in new-fangled designs. You’d braided one, the red strip down the center, the gray to either side. You’d given it to him, your heart hammering in your chest.
He’d taken that band. He’d be here today. You are sure of it.
Around you, some wax on about their swimming prowess while others snicker and mock. Brags of distorted proportions and boosts about the results of today’s debauchery and joy ripple through the contestants on the shore. The green-striped mass of people lean further and further into the lapping water, eagerness palpable in the way the crowd ebbed out with the tide.
You are caught up in it. In the race, the need to prove yourself.
You don’t want to be captured close to this shore. You want to cross the bay at a speed that would rival the best.
There are those about you who don’t want to be captured at all. They have their sights set on the Beach of Respite rather than that Barge of Delights, no longer a shadowed presence. Now a colorful ship, banners waving, sails painted and masts littered with favors that could be climbed for and won…if you managed to reach the barge at all.
And then, the light extends further, touches down upon the surface of the water, shedding a sparkle. Your friends push around you, bare shoulders rubbing against yours, palms against your back as the shouting begins.
Voices are raised into a cacophony, so loud you cannot hear your own. A battle cry from a war long won roars out across the bay.
And you’re off.
Pounding feet upon the sand. Splashing through the saltwater. The spray of the waves kicking up into your face, the taste of them on your lips.
Your heart already beats too fast before you dive into the oncoming wave, cool water a shock to your system. You’re a strong swimmer though, sure strokes and hard, quick kicks getting you to that first platform among the leading rush of contestants.
You pause momentarily to take in the flood of emotion that swells about you. The laughter, the light-hearted dunkings, the bets and dares thrown and caught with gusto and pride.
You glance back.
Behind you comes the scattered slower wave of defenders, many of whom might take breathers on every platform making up the Broken Pier, but who will, eventually, make it to the opposite beach—or be captured before then.
And last, farther away, still trailing upon the shore, come the stragglers, swimmers yet, but who claim age or youth or disease that will most likely find them on one of the many mariner boats littering the bay before the day is out.
That wouldn’t be you though.
You turn with a smile for one of your lagging friends, tease him for a mere second, then you’re off, a running leap and a curved dive that gives you distance rather than depth. The water lifts you up and drops you down, the shuddering of the wave familiar, even comforting, letting you imagine his arms, a different sort of embrace that is yet to come.
The first few platforms bottleneck quickly, refs rushing to help pull and push people up and over and off the opposite side so the game can move on and no one is caught within the crush.
But after those first few where you’re forced to hover and wait, wasting precious time before you can make it off the side of the platforms, the crush stretches out. The best swimmers extend their lead, moving one, two, three platforms ahead of the rest. Out of shape contestants plop to their asses, holding up the first few stops and freeing up space upon the next ones.
Above your head the gulls cry, their calls no longer overridden by the shouting of the people around you, for breath is now saved for the swim. Water drains down your back every time you pull yourself onto the next bobbing platform, your hair plastered to your forehead and curled at your neck.
Children hang off the bows of nearby schooners, waving green striped flags and shouting gibberish, their happy screams becoming mere echoes when you dive once more, bubbles roaring past your ears.
You’d been one of them once. When you’d been too young to understand the level of intimacy that led to being dragged off to the Barge of Delights. When you’d just thought of the Festival as a huge party celebrating that last day of a war in which your great-grandfather had fought.
Back then, there’d been flavored ice to cool you down and games back and forth among the boats that involved swimming and flips. Contests of knot-tying and rigging scaling and mast painting, the last of which you’d only participated when pressed because the paints had never been your fancy.
Now, your shoulders feel the pressure before the rest of your muscles. The strain, you figure. Your mind less on the tang of the salt or the hardened wood that echoes hollowly when you sprint across it or the current tugging you sideways, forcing you to automatically correct to the right, to dive off the right-most corner of every platform.
No, your mind is narrowly focused.
Even as the sun crawls higher, bright rays causing a sparkle so severe your eyes water. Even as your pace diminishes and you find yourself pausing to pant, hands on knees before you take the proffered water from the platform’s ref.
You think of nothing but him.
And when the musicians on board the Barge begin their flurry of music, signifying the first defenders have met the first invaders, that first crash, you stretch your strokes to reach the next platform quicker. You pull yourself up, shield your eyes in an attempt to see the spots of red, the men and women who would be coming for you.
There they are.
Tactics then begin to take shape. Deep divers taking advantage of their own breath game. Groups sticking together, forcing back invaders. And even a single man standing with legs spread, red and gray headband dry enough it whips in the wind as he scans for his quarry.
When the horn blares out for the first time, your heart beats fast, hard, painfully so. You can hear it pound in your ears. Feel the blood flee from your fingertips, leaving them numb, tingling.
The first capture. The first defender fallen, no longer striving for the Beach of Respite and instead being loaded into a skiff to be ferried with his or her captor to the Barge of Delights.
The debauchery begins.
You move more carefully now. Watching the water for shadows under the surface and unnatural bubbles rippling through the froth. You dive outside the reach of the first red and gray banded invaders, but they ignore you regardless. You aren’t who they want. Aren’t who they seek.
You swim past as a male invader tugs a female defender from her group. Hear her shout, thrashing, then the subsequent surrender followed by a seductive chuckle. You don’t glance back, but you don’t have to. You can hear their kiss. Hear the mood of everyone around them alter as a cheer roars out.
A ferry is called for, but you won’t be there when it arrives. No, you have to focus. You must reach the next platform where more and more of the territory is dominated by invaders.
When a man you know shouts at you, the red of his headband folded so it takes up his entire forehead, you dive. Deep in the water you twist to the right, the water swirling around you, echoing the crashing of people leaping into the bay, their kicks, their yells, seeming to come down a tunnel.
And when you see the black shadow of the platform, you rush to the surface, hands on the wood, already pulling yourself up as you break free from the water. The invader who had been aiming for you twists around in surprise and makes a moue of disappointment that is quickly replaced with a twinkle in his eyes as he turns to focus on a different quarry.
Good, you think. Because there is only one for you.
You gaze about you, searching for him, and though you recognize some of the muscled men on the invaders team…none of them are him.
The hour grows long as you race between the platforms, dodging invaders, swimming both on the surface and deep down where the saltwater grows cold and the fish dart away in fear.
Your already narrowed focus heightens to a point. The shouts about you become mere noise, unidentified voices blurring together all layered with a giddy excitement where exhaustion could not touch.
Once you pass the halfway mark along that Broken Pier, you begin to think you might not hear his voice after all. That maybe you passed him by. Maybe he hadn’t seen you. Or maybe…and this was the worst thought of all…maybe he hadn’t joined the invaders today. That he had taken to his boat as he had in all the years previous.
So you scan the bay, searching for that familiar mast, that rounded bow. Like a puzzle it was, the schooners, the dinghies all dotting the surface, their masts quaking like starving men every time the wind shifted.
You cannot possibly tell if he stands out there, somewhere, shirt off, soft pants, bare feet slapping against the deck. You hug yourself against the hot sun and suddenly chilling wind, unconsciously shifting your weight as the platform roils under your own feet. You have a sailor’s stance, but it came from being on that boat with him during so many hours at dawn and dusk.
His came from birth it seemed, his body all but created of the sea.
You give a sigh of disappointment, ready to accept the possibility that you had not been enough to tempt him. The Beach of Respite would be a consolation prize. One you are sure you will share with a few of your friends.
Then you turn and take a running leap off the platform. The water crashes around you, cooling your frenzied thoughts. It does not calm the swirling emotion thrashing in your heart.
You swim, a numbness spreading along your limbs the further you travel across that Broken Pier. The Beach of Respite grows larger. The Barge of Delights now at your back, its deck already flooded with people, the music no longer a song in your ears, but an ache to fill the spreading hole in your hopes.
There is no gong or bell to signify when the first person reaches the beach. It makes you wonder, would that person be you? There would be no telling, not till you felt the sand beneath your feet and saw the stretch of emptiness and the vendors beyond.
So focused you are, on that desolate image, so lost within your mind, that you startle when someone brushes past your foot. You spin abruptly, already taking measures to escape…but it is merely another defender, his green paint flecking off his face. He waves a hand apologetically before he moves around you.
You shake your head at yourself, at your loss of concentration.
Then your mouth fills with saltwater as you’re yanked under. You expel it and kick hard at whoever has grabbed your calves, but the grip is strong and gaining. It climbs up your body, first your thighs, then over your groin, then that grip tightens about your waist. Only then does the resistance fade and you’re allowed to break the surface spluttering.
You spit out the last of the water and lick salt off your lips. People are watching, some swimming still, sideways, their heads remaining above water to see what might happen.
Out of the corner of your eye you glimpse a red and gray braid, one you are intimately familiar with, for you’d worked those bands yourself. The colors are stark against his tanned arm and you suddenly recognize the familiar callouses on fingers now running along your abdomen.
With a last cough, you lay back your head to see him. Ask him what ever took so long, why had he lingered so close to shore when you knew how fast he could swim, how quickly he could have marked the distance across the Broken Pier.
He laughs and kisses your cheek. Because someone had to save energy for the Barge of Delights, he says. Then he calls for a craft to help him ferry his capture, his shout loud and deep as it carries over the water.
Around you a cheer rises, but you pay them little mind, for his salty lips have found yours, and your mind is already dreaming about drying off together aboard ship, where cushions would cradle your exhausted body as he did things with skillful fingers and adept hands for all the day and long into the night. A fool you might be, but of the best kind, it seemed.
~ ~ ~
When spring and summer is on the mind, I write a lot about water and warmth :)
This piece started as more of a historical excerpt during it’s first draft. The first line then was about artists depicting the festival despite never having participated. It then went on to document the whys of the festival, the history behind the end of the war, etc., as well as a breakdown of what occurred during the day.
But it all seemed so stiff and boring. So I rewrote it in second person so there’d be more excitement and sensuality and less history.
Also, spent most of last month working on a project for 2019, still trying to do a lot of prep work. I’m <-> this close to being done so I can move on to finishing a few other things.
Happy April Fool’s and Easter if you celebrate it! Hope your April is warm and not too filled with showers :)