Friday, 18 April 2014

Traditions of Court: an Easter Allegory

Every child in Court is given one gift on their birthday, but not until they are five years old. Boys and girls are taught from the cradle what makes a birthday special and as a family they acknowledge the day with sweet cakes and pink lemonade, but never with a gift of any description -- not until the child is five.

A person's fifth birthday in Court is a fervently anticipated affair. It is not uncommon to see entire communities rally around the central figure, each household in the neighbourhood preparing enough lemonade and cake to feed counties of bellies. You might find a block party on the street, or a celebration hosted in a large hall, or a collection of people in a park or at the beach if the weather is nice; but there is no question that you would find them, should you be in town on one of these looked-forward-to days. The joyful noises of the place echo around every corner in the city, steadily drawing people nearer. It is a playful afternoon, bursting with music and dancing and family and joy, topped off with a vibrantly ribboned present, presented and opened at the festivity's start.

The gift is beautifully wrapped in gold paper. Sometimes the gift would be box-shaped and sometimes it would be swaddled simply in a few layers of newspaper below its lovely metallic sheen; whatever its outward adornment, the content of the gift was well known to every person in town. It was the same sort of thing that each of them had received on his or her fifth birthday, and on all following birthdays for nine years more. It was a bear. It was always a bear.

"On this great occasion, little one," announced the Mayor of Court as soon as the paper had been pulled away and the soft stuffed animal had been coddled in a smothering embrace, "on this day you join us as an official Courtier. You will learn with us, live with us and grow in this land. When the time comes you will serve with us, and when you grow old you will be cared for. By receiving this bear, you receive the gift of the protection of Court, and by receiving this bear you enter into a lifelong commitment that you will not yet understand. We will help you, as you gain knowledge, experience and understanding of what this covenant really means. But for now," his voice swelling in a grand crescendo as he turned to the crowd and spread wide his arms, "it is time to celebrate!"

Cakes were cut, lemonade was poured and the music got cranked up in volume to an almost inappropriate level. It was impossible to hold a grudge or keep a frown on a fifth birthday. It was a jubilee where all such weights and burdens were thrown off and then forgotten: a cultural cleanse, committed several times a year.

There were no toyshops anywhere in the land of Court. No miniature cars, no baby-like dolls, no easy-bake ovens or marbles or chess. In place of these contraptions, kids played together in elaborate games of make-believe and pretend that always featured their bears. For five-year-old children that first bear was hero and heroine, villain and victim, brother and sister and friend in turn. That first bear, though joined by another on each birthday until the child turned fifteen, was the most important gift ever received, and was the most treasured possession of any Courtier boy or girl. It was always given a name; it was always treated with particular respect; it was always remembered with a tender fondness, even in the legendary stories told and re-told by those of the greatest age. Ten bears given, nine bears cherished and displayed for a lifetime.

No one in Court would deny an answer if you asked them directly about the fate of that first precious bear, but the story might come out from behind glazing eyes. Deeply wounding moments and deeply proud ones can sometimes reflect similarly in remembering faces, and in this particular case the two are so closely conjoined that it can make emotion difficult to swallow -- but if you are patient and willing to sit for a while, they might invite you to stay for tea, pick up one of those treasured bears, and place it in your hands.

For fifteen years, they would say, children in Court enjoy a peaceful, playful life. Oh, they go to school, they learn to cook and build and are taught to participate in other household work, but their cultural burdens are low. Their air is clean, their home is warm and they fear neither stranger nor disease.

On the eve of their fifteenth birthday, every Courtier is brought to a very old building in the center of town. It can be an intimidating process for these kids, especially if they are the oldest among their siblings or friends. The edifice is used for nothing other than the ceremony on the evening and day of a fifteenth birthday, leaving it empty for months at a time. As with the fifth birthday celebration, many neighbours, local dignitaries and family members are in attendance to support their young loved one -- but the mood on these occasions is sober, somber and solemn.

Surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, a layer of familiar faces as thick as smoke, the birthday child is led into the middle of the open space by their same-gendered guardian. Four chairs and two elders await their arrival: the Orator is seated to the left of this parental figure, and the Magistrate on the right. The child faces them, alone.

There is a moment of silence.

"My child," his father or her mother would begin, reciting with precision the same words they received on the eve of their own fifteenth year. "Tonight marks a very special moment in your life; you are mere hours from adulthood and the full weight of social responsibility in Court. The time has come for you to live out in reality all of the theories we have trained into you and which, up to this point, have almost made sense. Your age of innocence has come to a triumphant end. The covenantal burden is upon you."

On this cue the Orator would stand, step to the seated child and place a strong hand on one shoulder. With a voice to the crowd he would carefully repeat an old story - the oldest anyone knew, entrusted word after word by the man by whom the responsibility was previously carried. It was the history of the whole world in the language of its making, in the elaborate poetry of simple, well-woven words. Every facet of character was unveiled in its turn: the gentle affection of an artistic creator, whole mind engaged in the project of life; the hopeful pursuit of an invested lover, whole heart devoted to courting His muse; the acute attention and protection of a doting father, whole soul consumed by the security and peace and purity of His children. The Courtier God was all of these things and more: He was the arbourist of their orchards and the mason of their rocky land; He blew wind to the sea when the fish needed catching and when the bows turned homeward again He shifted the currents towards the shore; He was the crafter of law, the sustainer of light and the architect of their dome-sheltered realm, after which design only one building was patterned. Like the myths of an Atlantean world, lost but living beneath deep ocean waves, Court was protected by an atmosphere sealed away from the rest of humanity.

"And He has provided for all of our needs," continued the Orator in his thundering way, "by giving us the blessing of the Flowering Ivy!" The crowd erupted in shouts of praise, swelling like a brass crescendo in an orchestra, vibrating louder and louder as their excitement and their adoration reached its climax with a sudden and united cry of "GLORY TO THE MASTER!"

The Orator sat as the Magistrate stood, taking up the same commissioning posture next to the youth. "It is concerning the Ivy that we assemble here tonight," he said with a weight in his words. "The Ivy which grows around the perimeter of our land springs a tiny, cream-white blossom every year. We harvest from between its petals the saffron-like fibers of material oxygen. Pure, delicate and of immeasurable value, this precious silk is thin as cloud and strong as canvas. From these threads we create the front-door filters that bring to each home the Breath of Life; the woven cloth of this Ivy smolders in the Memorial Chamber without end as a physical blessing to the inhabitants of the whole world, keeping us alive in the most fundamental of ways; and it is the Vine that gives life to the Body of every child's fifth-birthday bear."

From the doorway, the child's second parental guardian emerges carrying a small package, beautifully wrapped in gold paper. Sometimes the gift would be box-shaped and sometimes it would be wrapped loosely in a few layers of newspaper below its lovely metallic sheen. It was a bear. It was *the* bear.

Everything else in the room ceased its movement as the young man or young woman became transfixed a second time by the soft little creature coddled in his or her arms. It was a tender thing, full of grape-juice memories that leave a permanent stain on the affections of your mind.

"With this gift came the promise of security and protection, but the gift itself was the fulfillment of that promise. The heart of the gift sustained you in a special way through your journey of growth and maturity. Now that you are grown, now that you have matured, now that this gift has completed everything it was designed to do, now the time has come. You must sacrifice this gift, precious and loved, to the One who holds you preciously with a far surpassing love. He has given much... and tonight you must give some of it back."

Like a frost that begins around the edges of a winter window pane, sadness creeps into the eyes of every Courtier child who hears those words. Understanding dawns slowly: something is required of them; a sacrifice must be made. The Magistrate continues his speech with a mechanical crispness that is unique to matters of law, but it is heard as through a fog, or as though spoken softly from far away. "Are you ready?" asks the Magistrate. Broken daze, eyes and thoughts refocused. "Are you ready," came the refrain. There was only one answer to give. "Yes," says the child, "I am ready."

"Then come."

The sun was rising as the child, his parents, the Orator and the Magistrate led the way from the Great Hall to the Memorial Chamber. A white smoke rose from the center courtyard, a vapourous flag of peace that signaled the continual alignment of God and Man. Once a year this pale, translucent wisp will flash with the brilliance of a lightening strike; once a year the altar does not simply smolder - it burns.

The air pressure changed as the large, gold-embroidered double doors of the Memorial Chamber opened before them. The tips of your fingers had only to brush against the mahogany handles before they parted in two as if crafted of the lightest silk, as if by enchantment. Behind the doors was a great courtyard of open-space design. Furnishings were simple: an extremely tall pillar of steel towered in the center; a long, high table to the far left that shone metallically in the natural sunlight of the place; off to the right was a structure that resembled an enormous cardboard box with something spilling out of it. On the opposite side of the hall another set of doors could almost be seen, camouflaged against the wall and overgrown with an ivy - the Flowering Ivy. The roots of the Ivy grew deeply in the room beyond and the vine of it spread out from there, wrapping around the skirting edge of their domed world and back to this very spot, back to the source.

All of these things could be seen from the open doorway, and from a Courtier's earliest childhood memories they are able to piece together the basic layout of the Memorial Chamber from this vantage point, but children are not permitted to cross the threshold.

Stepping into this place for the first time as a youth of barely fifteen is an overwhelming experience for many. A freshly broadened understanding of sacrifice made every inch of the place feel weighted with a sudden gravity. The stone floor had been worn smooth by the tireless treading of devoted Courtiers over time immemorial. Their ancestors had walked these paths. This was the sacred space of history's preservation.

With only the bear for company the child would cautiously cross to the table. On busy days the decision of where to begin can be a trick, but on this day it was quiet and only one other person was in the whole cavernous room, standing behind the table. Smiling, but with a worrying pity in his eyes, the older man would beckon the newcomer to himself.

His uniform was covered in threads and bits of cloth and tufts of soft fabric fur. Stuffing was caught in the ridges of his corduroy pants, on his hat and under his fingernails. All over the table and all over the ground the remnant evidence of thousands of bears could be seen. When most people encounter this for the first time they instinctively take a nervous step back in retreat... But there is only forward from this place. Swallow your fear, force your feet to move, hand over the thing you treasure the very most in the world so that you can fulfill an old vow to an older God... so that you can remain in alignment.

The bear is placed with trembling hands on the cool steel of the high table. The Attendant nods ominously to the pair of large fabric scissors that everyone works so hard at first to ignore, but there is no more room for pretending not to see things.

"Make one incision," says the older man, "along the back, towards the head. We want to save as much fabric as we can."

"What will you do with it?"

"Make another bear. Another bear for another child."

The scissors are heavier than they look, and the fur is often thicker than you might expect. All told, making that first cut is a hard thing both physically and emotionally with the only merciful consolation being a swift accomplishment of the task. Before permission to leave can be granted, the Attendant must take the bear by the scruff of its neck and empty it of the life-giving material. He will then brush the fur of its pelt, snip the threads that hold on its eyes and cut off the ribbon collar. The skin of the bear is sent across the courtyard to the Crate to be recycled into new animals; the fibrous insides are added to the Post; the ribbon and both eyes are placed with the firmness of love into the right-hand palm of the young man or woman across the table. "Off to the next doors," they are told by the Elder Attendant, "you must leave by the exit beyond them."

Two buttons, a bow and all the memories of a lifetime drag their feet across the stone floor of the Memorial Chamber. The doors that separate the outer courts from the heart are so small and slim that you might mistake them for a cupboard if you came across them in someone's home. They were covered in Ivy, carved and cultivated. The knot of branches looks so tangled that a wave of discouragement often stuns those attempting to pass through - but eventually, as with the scissors, it becomes obvious that something must be done: a knob turned, a panel pushed against, the Ivy brushed back gently as a mother might find herself tucking her daughter's hair behind one ear. Each person approaches this door a little differently, but unlike so many things in life this door responds to the simple faith that something will happen; everyone who makes a move is rewarded.

A short flight of wide, shallow stairs descends to the middle of the room and rises again at the far side. The space is lit by the glow of a hundred candles encircled around the stone chimney that stands proudly in the center; directly under the chimney draft, sitting on a heated plate of gold, was the tightly wound ball of the precious thread. A white smoke that swelled and faded as calmly as a sleeping breath rose as it smoldered. Along the ceiling, down three walls and growing along and up from the dirt floor was the Flowering Ivy in its perplexing perpetual bloom. On the only wall uncovered by the Vine was the memorial that gave the Chamber its title: a hundred thousand button eyes stared down from the wall, each different from the next, each mounted on a short ribbon bow. There were no names, no dates, no labels of any kind; each eye and its ribbon stood alone, a testimony to the bear and the child that placed it there.

On a slender pedestal centered under the memorial is found three things: a threaded needle, knot tied; a clasp of the sort used for brooches or decorative medallions; and a fine pair of scissors in every way unlike the coarse sheers of the High Table in the Outer Court. Engraved into the side of one silver blade was a simple inscription:

“A time to tear, and a time to sew.”

Cut the ribbon. Center the button. Affix the pin. Tie the knot. Follow the silent instructions of those who have gone before you, ease the transition of those who will come in your wake. It is the way of this world; it is the symbol of obedience and participation worn over the heart. Emerging from that small, dark room is the first milestone of maturity, impossible to forget.

Your teacup has long been empty, your face drawn taught with compassion. “Tragic,” you might say. “Tragic indeed,” says your host, “and brutal and beautiful. For centuries on end the people of Court have been repeating these ancient traditions, and some still do.” “Some?” “Yes, some. For most of us, Maria’s bear changed everything.”

Maria was a timid girl, rarely in the middle of things, never in trouble, never one to fight or fuss. She was born on the Night of the Flame when the Ivy’s annually collected fiber is set alight and the whole world celebrates. Every year she participated in this celebration with the added joy of a new bear and a belly full of cake, but on the evening that she was to turn fifteen, the night before the Festival took place, her whole world went sideways.

“Are you ready?” asked the Magistrate. “No,” said Maria. She looked at the opposing authorities. Their faces were stunned, their script interrupted for the first time in living memory. “No?” her mother asked nervously. “Of course not!” said Maria, horrified that they would insist she give up her bear. “He is special! He’s not like other bears!” “What are you talking about, girl!” Her mother asked, angry and afraid at once. She flushed. “He …he can breathe.”

The onlookers laughed and shot looks across the room to each other in tones of derision. “Grow up, Maria!” shouted a boy from the group. “Let it go,” came another. The Magistrate called for silence and addressed the little girl. “These bears can’t breathe, they assist people to breathe. They filter the air, and that is all. Tomorrow morning, your bear will purify the atmosphere along with the remnants of all other bears sacrificed this year. It is special to you, but it is not unique. It’s just a bear.” “You’re wrong!” she shouted and jumped up out of her chair. “You don’t understand! He can breathe! He can!”

Two of Maria’s neighbours came into the circle to try and settle the situation. She was growing hysterical, but the Magistrate was insistent. “The ceremonies cannot be delayed!” he thundered. “Bring her to the Memorial Chamber!” The men held her fast and carried her out the door. Her mother and father followed closely, carrying the bear. All the way to the High Table Maria continued to struggle and scream. “I won’t give him up! I won’t kill him! He can breathe! He’s BREATHING! STOP! Please!” The Magistrate was deaf to her cries.

When they arrived, he ordered that the men put Maria down and make her to stand up alone. “Take the scissors,” he demanded. “I WILL NOT!” she yelled at him, no longer acting with any reserve on emotion. “YOU WILL OBEY!” He yelled back. “MURDER!” she screamed, and his voice turned to ice. “Fine,” said the Magistrate, shoving the sheers into the Attendant’s hands. “You do it. Make her watch.”
The Attendant did not speak. He took the scissors, made the incision and emptied the bear. Maria was beside herself, throat raw, consumed by grief. The Magistrate took the pelt from the Attendant and held it in front of her face. “This is the covenant, girl. This is how the world works. It is cruel, it is true.” He popped off the bear’s button eyes and tore the ribbon from its limp body. He dropped them on the ground at her feet, flung the skin towards the Crate with bitter indignation and left her to weep alone. The men who remained escorted her to the Inner Chamber and softly closed her in. As the latch shut, the Flowering Ivy shivered and every white blossom fell from the vine. The Attendant, still holding the sheers, began to cry; Maria’s parents sank to their knees in shock; the Magistrate retuned to his office and slammed the door behind him.

In the cities, people went to their front doors and tapped at the filters that seemed to have stopped working. The gatherers returned home with empty baskets and fallen hearts. As a result, a record number of citizens showed up to celebrate the Night of the Flame at the gates of the Memorial Chamber. Maria, mute with sorrow, stood at an edge and observed as the Orator and the Magistrate took center stage. They both spoke about the importance of Sacrifice and the deep, unchanging virtue of obedience to their ancient traditions. After their speeches, the Elder Attendant struck a match and set it to the fiber-covered Pole – but instead of the familiar white cloud, a toxic black smoke billowed into the sky. The towering testimony of human devotion turned to pitch and tar. The crowds fled for shelter afraid, confused and terribly short of breath.

What the people did not know and what the Magistrate and his allies could not believe is that Maria’s bear had been special and it did breathe. It was filled with threads harvested from the Ivy growing in the Inner Chamber, right from the Source. It was infused with a supremely holy vein of energy that remained mysteriously connected to the Vine, and when the fibers were destroyed, the Flowering Ivy suffered the wound. Maria had treasured her bear with every drop of devotion and loyalty she possessed, knowing that he had preserved her life in a way she couldn’t articulate. He had been a comfort in fear and a hope in sadness; He’d loved her back. While the rest of the world was breathing shallow breaths, she filled her lungs full and deep; though even her parents suffered from the withering of the Ivy, Maria showed no symptoms of failing health.

Courtiers struggled through one miserable night after abandoning the Flame. At home with their families they prayed to their God for mercy. At dawn, the hour of forfeit and exhaustion when even the Magistrate had fallen to his knees in a plea to the Divine Sustainer, a mighty cracking was heard throughout the land. The Flowering Ivy, as through stretching awake after a good long sleep, sprouted fresh new vines that shot through the city streets weaving around telephone poles and wrapping cars, creeping under front doors and through open windows. The Land of Court became a jungle of bright green vines and tiny white flowers in less than nine minutes. Everyone took a deep breath of relief and ran to the Memorial Chamber to praise in chorus.

Maria got their first. The Magistrate was close behind. A crowd pressed in past the gates and gathered around the High Table. The stone floor of the Outer Court was a carpet of vines that had swallowed the Crate and crept up the legs of the High Table. Its steel surface shone like crystal and the butchering sheers lay broken upon it, one half at each end. Between them lay Maria’s bear, eyes in place, ribbon restored, back stitched with a fine crimson thread. Everyone saw it there, breathing, and then nobody saw it. The bear disappeared.

“As the years have passed,” explains your host, “Courtiers have become divided on what caused the Great Bloom. It seems obvious to me, but some have chosen to hold to the ancient traditions despite the miracle I have just described. Some saw the Bloom as proof that the rituals were ineffectual all along and have since abandoned the work of honouring the Creator in every way. It’s a heart-wrenching decision. Breaks this old heart.” The elder extends a hand for the bear you are still holding and puts it back on the shelf. “So, what happens now?” you ask.

“The Ivy grows thick in every house and up every street, and the air in Court is filtered now even outside; the Breath of Life is everywhere and abundant, and the silk harvest reaps more every year! Instead of padding only the fifth birthday bear with our precious fibers, now every bear is stuffed with the stuff, and the Night of the Flame has been, shall we say, extinguished. My granddaughters will still be called to give up their first bears, but as a gift to another child and not as a sacrifice to the Great Provider. To most of us in Court it is clear that He no longer requires us to abide by all of the old traditions. We believe there is something else He has asked for – our daily faith.”

The elder Courtier places an Ivy-covered book in your hands and begins to gather up the empty tea things. “Read this a bit,” comes the gentle suggestion. “I’ll put on the kettle.”