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After Ren and Fay announced their plans to the village, they decided to hold a festival. The sake season had been the most productive yields the village had ever seen, so they decided to celebrate. The festival also commemorated all the great things Ren and Fay's family did for the village, from helping to build houses to donating money in times of need. As a last act of philanthropy, they decided to open up the cellar and let the sake flow, so to speak, for the celebration.
Grace's eyes lit up as she made her way through the busy village square. Candles and streamers hung from the houses, delicious smells steamed from the open grills, and charming music filled the air. All around her, people laughed, talked, and greeted each other like long-lost relatives. The happiness written on their faces caused Grace to stop and smile, but then her smile twisted comically "alcohol: what a magical substance."
Even though her parents brewed for a living, Grace never drank a single sip of sake. First of all, she didn't need it to have a good time. The lights, sounds, smells, and electric vibe overwhelmed her to begin with. Anything else would surely cause her to dance on a table or perform some other act of debauchery she'd come to regret. No, she didn't need alcohol to immerse herself in the life of the party. Second of all, Grace was deathly afraid of muddying her mind. The basics of swordsmanship require focus, concentration, and a level head; even the thought of getting a bit woozy from a drink frightened her. She wanted her mind to be clear and straight in every situation.
This doesn't mean she didn't enjoy watching other people drink. Seeing drunken people flop around and speak slurry thoroughly entertained her. Whenever someone said something like "We should tame aquatic life and take over the world with our underwater army," she couldn't control herself, and she ended up hysterically laughing to the point that she might as well be drunk. Right now, Grace wasn't drunk; nevertheless the festival enchanted her.
Children danced in rhythm to the tsungi horn and drums, all sorts of colors glowed in the candlelight, and stars lit up the night. The air was cool with the waning days of summer and the onset of autumn. Grace wore a light dress, similar to the one her mother wore the first night she practiced Jian Dao. The white, silken fabric absorbed a diverse color pallet and shimmered softly. She noticed her mother and father waving to her from across the square.
"Wow, it sure looks like you're enjoying the party!" exclaimed Ren.
Grace skidded to a halt in front of her parents after she sprinted over. She didn't really know why she ran. She just felt alive, happy, free even. Tonight was a night to enjoy life and the people she had come to know.
"Yeah, it really is something. Isn't it? I never expected so many people. The colors, the music, everything is so...well, festive!" her face lit up.
"Well, they don't call it a festival for nothing."
"Everyone is so happy, but I can't help feeling a little nostalgic. After tonight it's over. I'll probably never see this place ever again. Now that I think about it, I've never known anything but our house, the forest, the beach, and the village. Seeing this festival has really made me realize how real this is." She paused and chose her words carefully. "I mean, how real it is that a part of my life is ending, and another one is beginning. For me, this festival is that much more meaningful because it will be my last memory, the last image in my mind that I can always go back to. I'm just so glad that image will be beautiful."
"Wow, I wasn't expecting something so sentimental out of you," Fay grinned. "Go have some cake or something...enjoy the party and stop thinking so much. You're making me nervous."
"That was so righteous, Grace," Ren wiped a single tear from his eye.
"Mom, I'm going to have to take your advice on this one."
Wake lay flat on his back, carving into a piece of driftwood to pass the time. He turned away from the cheerful sounds of the festival, but the thin walls of the hut did nothing to block the laughter and music. It was just he and the Old Man. Hunter was at the party, probably stealing snacks and causing trouble.
"You should go get something to eat, dance a little, meet a girl," said the Old Man. "Hunter knows what he's doing."
Wake sighed and tossed the driftwood aside, "I wish I could enjoy the party. I really do, and I feel guilty, but at the same time I know I'll only be masking my problems by going. I'm afraid that tomorrow morning, while everyone else is hung-over, I'll have a rude awakening. The reality that the party will never happen again, that I'll return to the pain and confusion... I just can't."
"Just listen to yourself. You sound like an old man," he laughed softly. "You've always been so concerned with the your past and future that you've lost sight of the present. Live! Make memories you can return to when you are an old man like me. Make memories that last, memories that make the pain fade away every time."
The passion and energy in the Old Man's voice surprised Wake. Even though he could barely move, breathe, or sleep, the Old Man's eyes pierced blue and fierce.
"You can't approach life like an eel-hound with its tail between its legs. Life isn't going to stop and wait for you to catch up! My greatest regret was that I was too afraid of the moment. There are times in our lives that define who we are. In time, we all come to a crossroads in our destiny, and I know it's just a silly party, but you can't let this attitude control you. Don't be afraid to rise to the moment, to change as a person, to take a risk. Don't watch life pass by from the shore." He smirked, "I guess it's ironic that at the end of my life I finally realized this, and now it's too late."
He continued, "Do not be afraid to regret your choices in life. Keep moving forward."
The Old Man broke out into a cough. It was the most he had said in the past few months. He wheezed and struggled to regain his breath. Wake could do nothing but watch. He had no medicine, no medical experience, nothing; he was powerless. He could only watch.
The Old Man regained control of his breathing, sunk into his bed, and closed his eyes. All was still again, but Wake felt terrible, and he understood what the Old Man meant when he said, "don't watch life pass by from the shore." Wake regretted not being able to help. He regretted the entirety of the moment that passed. By standing by and watching life, he would surely die an old man, filled with regret for the past, hanging onto hollow memories.
"My name is Inasahan," the Old Man looked into his eyes.
The timing of the statement caught him off guard. Once he gathered what just happened, he said, "So after all this time, now you tell me?" Wake paused, "Why?"
Inasahan answered, "I've sat by all my life, watching and regretting. I am about to die, and wanted to prove to myself that people can change, even in the last moments of life. When I close my eyes for the last time, I don't want my thoughts to be filled with what could have been, but with a sweet memory. And now I am sure that my last act on earth wasn't a complacent mistake. At least now I have something to hold on to."
The last traces of color faded from his wrinkled face, and his eyes softened into a calm shade of blue. He swallowed, gasping for breath, and then seemingly surrendered. Lying back he breathed faintly and let time flow freely. It was as if his confession used the last bit of his energy, and now he was content to rest.
Wake spoke with urgency, "Don't die. There's still time. I- I can help."
The dying man spoke softly, "Don't be a fool, Wake. I want this."
With tender eyes, Wake smiled at the Inasahan, "I understand. See you on the other side, my friend."
The two friends embraced in silent understanding. When a loved one dies, the scene can be filled with sobbing, choked last words, and refusal to let go. The hypothetical witness can only stand petrified, fully aware of everyone's helplessness in the situation, yet unable to convey that reality to the mourner as their friend breathes their last.
Inasahan died in Wake's arms. There were no tears, no words, and no regrets.
"Hey Nini! What are you doing?"
Nini sat crouched over on the ground meticulously concentrating on something.
She realized someone was addressing her and looked up, "Oh, hi Grace! I'm working on my floating lantern." She held up what seemed to be a simple white bag.
"That's a floating lantern?" Grace asked skeptically.
"Yup! It may not look like much now, but when it inflates it will fly high into the night like a glowing orb. Just look around, everybody is making them."
Sure enough, children and adults alike tied together their floating lanterns. They used brushes and ink to write characters on the outside. The characters symbolized virtues like happiness, hope, love, trust, and all the others. The goal was for everyone to release the lanterns at the same time in a display of goodwill for the future.
"You're right! Wow, I feel left out. Where can I get materials so I can build one?"
"Here you go!" The huge guy came out of nowhere smiling cheerfully. He handed Grace thin wooden sticks, a white bag, and some string. "That's everything you need!"
"Gee thanks! Random huge guy!"
As quickly as he entered the conversation, he left.
Nini burst out into laughter, "I just don't understand that guy. What an odd person."
"At least he gave me free stuff," Grace shrugged.
She examined her supplies and snuck a peek at Nini's design. With this information, she planned how to build her lantern. First she tied the thin wooden sticks perpendicular to each other and set them diagonal to the corners of the white bag. Then, she made sure the bag's shape would inflate correctly. Finally, with her brush and ink, she drew a single character.
Nini poked over her shoulder "What's your character?"
"This character means "thanks" because I'm so thankful for my family and this opportunity we have."
"Oh you are such a sweetheart, Grace!" Nini joked.
A moment of silence passed.
"I'm really going to miss you though," said Nini sincerely.
"Not as much as I'm going to miss you" Grace hugged her friend.
A voice rose above the noise of the party, "Get your tea lights for your floating lamps!" Miss K stood center square, surrounded by a large group of people. She handed out small tea lights to be placed inside the floating lamps. The concept works like a hot air balloon; the tiny flame heats the air inside the bag and then the bag rises because of convection. Grace and Nini walked over to get their candles.
"Here you are Grace" Miss K handed her a tea light. "Good luck on your journey," she smiled.
"I'm really going to miss your stories. You know that right?"
"Eh, most of them were made up anyways," she chuckled.
For the second time that night, Graced hugged a friend. She always took her friends for granted as if they were constants in her life, but seeing them on this last night together made her realize how transient they were. She couldn't believe this was the very last time. It's going to be so different without these people in my life.
In a few minutes, every resident on the island lit a tea light and let their lanterns float into the sky. The lights twisted and curled, radiating a soft glow. They reminded Grace of the grains carried away by the wind the first night she learned Jian Dao. Hundreds of lanterns circled in the night sky, floating like lone dandelions in the breeze. Conversations stopped, laughing ceased, and the festival was quiet for the lapse of time as everyone gazed in admiration of the spectacle. Spirits lifted higher and higher as the lamps blazed, burning away the blackness and ushering in an overwhelming feeling of calm.
Wake sailed into the dark ocean alone. He needed time and a place to think about what just happened. An important person, no the most important person in his life was gone. He wasn't depressed; he just wanted time to reflect on what happened and where he would go. What Inasahan said really spoke to him, and he began to realize the truth about his situation.
Hunter swooped in like a gust of wind, his white feathers illuminated by moonlight. He perched on the tip of the bow.
"Well, well, look who decided to show up," Wake grinned. "Looks like someone had a good time at the party."
Hunter ruffled his feathers and cackled.
"I'm sorry I couldn't join you."
The black waves lapped against the sides of Wake's finished boat. His prized creation cut sleekly through the water like a knife through butter. The sails caught a late summer breeze and propelled the boat forward. With a perfect wind, Wake only had to sit back and control the rudder. He was just sailing, going nowhere in particular: he simply preferred to move instead of stay still.
He glanced back at the island, and something caught his eyes. Lights hung in the sky like low stars. What are those? Instead of thinking more about the lights, he settled back and watched them methodically rise. They reminded him of cinders flaring up from a lit bonfire, and just like the cinders, the floating lamps gradually faded into the night.
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