Saturday, September 26th [Second day of the Festival of Nations], around 7PM
Our booth, and the Obdresti temple
Things were pretty dead right up until around 5:30, when I guess the dinner rush hit – suddenly everyone wanted a hot dog. They sold as fast as I could grill them. The candy sold nearly as fast, and by the end of the evening all we had left was the batch of hot dogs I’d set aside for tomorrow back at our apartment. I’d had the booth to myself throughout that time, so I missed out on getting my prints from Galen’s class booth, or able to check anything else out at the festival.
Joel came back a little before seven, and as he helped pack up the booth, I mentioned, “Elise stopped by this afternoon.”
His eyes brightened, remembering her from the assembly. I wasn’t sure how interested in her he was, but he’d signed up for a shift in our classroom the next day overlapping with her. “Did you talk to her at all?” asked Joel.
“You know me – not much. I sold her some candy, and she had some questions about trade through the gate. I suggested that she could talk to Hull tomorrow, since he’s the expert on that stuff.”
Joel smirked, “Didn’t even introduce yourself?”
I shrugged. “Was I supposed to? You’re generally the social one.”
Joel gave me a shrug right back, along with a disappointed look. We chatted a bit more about what he’d seen as the festival and were just about done packing when Dormer came by. I thought it would just be to drive Joel home, but instead he was going to take Joel to an Obdresti shine.
He went on to explain to Joel, “Tonight is a new moon, which means an important observance to Tennia. I think you should come with me to services.”
“That’s the bonfire ceremony, right?” asked Joel. When Dormer nodded, Joel went on to ask. “It’s already getting dark, though. Isn’t the bonfire supposed to be lit at sundown? Will we be too late?”
Dormer nodded. “The ceremony has already started, but it runs all night. There will be periodic opportunities to give offerings, and you’ll get to see some prayers from home.”
“This is the sort of thing I’ll be doing every month if I stick around?” asked Joel.
“It would be a good idea to attend while you’re in school, but you aren’t required to. However, if you decide to stay like we’re asking, it becomes part of your responsibility.”
Joel hesitated, then said, “I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it, but I am curious.” Turning to me, he asked, “Want to tag along?”
I thought for a moment; I hadn’t much interest in religion in general or Tennia’s in particular, but I didn’t particularly relish the streetcar ride home in the dark. “Sure, why not,” I said.
The temple was around a ten-minute drive. Nestled in a residential neighborhood, the temple grounds were like a park, centered around a short hill. The temple itself stood at the top – a ring of white stone held up by columns with a small building at one end. The bonfire itself was a massive pillar of burning wood that gave off an intense glare even in the parking lot.
Before we walked up, Dormer gave Joel a box from the grocery store to carry. “Your offering,” he explained.
Joel peeked inside. “A roast chicken and potatoes?”
Dormer smiles. “In the old days, I’m told it would have been a live one.”
Joel shrugged and carried the box.
As we walked up the hill to the temple, I glanced over at Joel. His eyes kept darting around the grounds, and he rubbed his hands together nervously. As for me, an uneasy feeling was settling in my stomach. Unlike at home where I was a skeptic, Joel and I had seen that the gods here were real and took an interest in the world.
I was still not sure what to make of that, and unlike the cribbed-from-Rome Pantheon we’d seen, this lacked that bit of familiarity to hold on to. Grand and imposing, the stone columns and the ring above them were intricately carved. At the back, the statue of Tennia loomed large, cast in wild, dancing shadows by the towering bonfire at the center.
People sat on the ground around the fire, and Dormer found us a spot not too near anyone else. After we were seated, an elderly priestess greeted Dormer in the Obdresti. She then turned to us with a warm smile, welcoming us in English. She seemed genuinely pleased to have exchange students at the ceremony.
Joel gave her a tense smile and handed her the meal. When I noted she set it aside rather than putting it in the fire, Dormer clarified, “It’s symbolic. It either feeds the priests or goes to those in need.”
On returning, the priestess offered us a bowl of charcoal chips and dried herbs. Demonstrating what to do, Dormer took a generous pinch from the bowl and threw it towards the fire. As if carried by the wind, the material was sucked up into the fire and the flames responded with a flash of color and a puff of fragrant smoke.
"This is when we offer our thanks to Tennia,” he explained. “The fire delivers our thanks straight to her."
Joel took a pinch and threw it, his motions rigid. After this, Dormer bowed his head to pray and Joel did so as well, but I noticed his eyes occasionally flickering around at the other worshipers instead of remaining closed. After this, we returned the bowl to the priestess.
For the next little while, we saw many people come and give offerings. Some prayed silently, while others did so out loud – one so loudly and abruptly that Joel flinched slightly. His jaw clenched and he stared straight ahead into the fire rather than watching the others like I did. I wondered if he felt like a fraud here compared to these people who had grown up with this faith.
After the offerings, the priestess said a long prayer in Obdresti. At the end she summarized it in English: "Tonight we pray in thanks to Tennia's purifying fire that drove invaders from our shores long ago. May she continue to protect our people and lead us to prosperity."
I noticed Joels eyes widen at those words, and he then said quietly to me, "This is really going to be my life if I stay, isn't it?"
Next, a group of children came forward; each carried an unlit golden lantern. Pla2cing them around the fire, each was lit by sparks from the bonfire. Their soft glow contrasted with the fire's fierce brilliance, and the Priestess gave another blessing. More prayers followed, as well as another priest leading many of those in attendance in song.
Joel seemed increasingly uncomfortable. Every so often, he'd glance my way as if to say so. I tried to offer reassuring nods. I felt oddly comfortable as an observer; my main thought was how fascinated my father would be to see this living ceremony straight from the ancient world he studied.
When round of worshipers giving offerings to the priests, Dormer signaled that it was time to leave. On the drive home, Joel stayed silent, while I asked Dormer to explain more of what we’d seen. I wanted to write it up for Hull while it was fresh in my memory.
When we got to the apartments, before heading to his own, Dormer asked Joel, “What did you think?”
Joel hesitated, and his eyes clouded with doubt. Then he shook his head slightly. “I’m not sure. I could not shake the feeling of being watched the entire time.”
“As heir, Tennia has a special interest in you. You have a great destiny ahead of you here.”
Joel responded to this with a worried expression. I wondered if destiny was what he wanted, or he'd rather remain just another kid from Queens. Either way, the look on his face made it clear tonight had not made the decision any easier..