Authors: Jill Williamson
“Elder Eli, bless my face.
Elder Eli, give me grace.
Elder Eli, teach me more.
Elder Eli gets the floor!”
Mason entered the hall. The smell of fresh bread filled the air. He stopped just inside the door and leaned against the wall, hoping he’d be allowed to remain outside the proceedings for at least a few more minutes.
The hall was warm and bright. The entire population of Glenrock —some four dozen people —sat at four long tables that were filled with platters of food and drink and Jemma’s wildflowers. The head table stretched across the center of the longest wall, right in front of the hearth. The other three tables ran perpendicular to it.
Omar sat at the end of the head table, his State Patrol hat making him stand out. Mason never had found him earlier. Though he’d heard Father yelling once he’d returned from the trade with Elsu, furious that Omar had missed his chance to meet a girl from Jack’s Peak. Mason had stayed in his room, as far from the conflict as possible.
The thought of conflict pulled Mason’s gaze to Mia. She sat with her mother at the table on the far right. Mia was now wearing an Old red-and-black-print dress. Mia liked Old clothing, and Mason often wondered how the other women felt about Mia claiming so many that could be used for fabric.
Papa Eli stood, front and center, at the head table, wearing his cattail cape over his formal deerskins. A fire in the hearth behind him rimmed his body in orange fire glow. At ninety-two, he was still tall and spry. Wrinkles and age spots covered his face, and his hair was thick and white, but his gaze—green and sharp—flitted around the room like a bird seeking its next meal.
“My question is for my grandson Justin. Stand up, boy,” Papa Eli said.
Since Grandpa Seth had died a few years back, Mason’s father was next in line for patriarch of the village. As such, he sat to Papa Eli’s right. Father pushed back his chair and stood. “Ask your question, Elder, and I will answer true.”
Mason smiled at how Papa Eli could get Father to play along with the puzzles and songs of celebration festivities. He doubted Father would carry on such traditions once he was the patriarch.
“Riddle me this,” Papa Eli said. “The more you take, the more you leave behind. What are they?”
“Pictures?” Father guessed immediately.
Papa Eli shook his head, a wide grin stretching the wrinkles across his cheeks.
Father took longer to come up with his second answer. “Smiles?”
“No, Justin, my boy,” Papa Eli said. “When you
smiles, you keep them.”
The people laughed, and Nell’s squeal rose above the others. Father’s face darkened a shade at his grandfather’s chide, but he quickly said, “Omar’s blunders?” and smiled at the words that poked fun at his youngest son.
The laughter dwindled into groans of pity for Omar, who sat staring at his plate. Mother’s lips squeezed into a thin line. Father would no doubt hear her thoughts on that “joke” later.
“Three false answers must take his seat, and I will ask another.” Papa Eli glanced around the room as Father sat down. His gaze settled on Mason. “Let’s see if my great-grandson can fare better. Mason?”
Mason pushed off the wall and straightened his posture. “Ask your question, Elder, and I will answer true.”
“The more you take, the more you leave behind. What are they?”
“Footsteps,” Mason said, trying not to smile, which would only aggravate his father.
A handful of people responded with an “Ahh!” and the crowd applauded.
As the clapping died down, Mason overheard his father say, “Sissy word games won’t put food on the table.”
Papa Eli gripped Father’s shoulder but smiled at Mason. “Right you are, Mason. And since you answered correctly,
have the floor.”
Mason took that moment to walk to the head table and sit between Levi and Omar. He nudged his little brother. “You okay?”
Omar shrugged one shoulder. “Why wouldn’t I be?” He picked up a roll from a basket and ripped it in half.
“Mason, we’re waiting. The floor is now yours,” Papa Eli said.
Why had he answered correctly? Mason quickly stood and spat out the simplest riddle he could think of. “Wisdom of the aged, with the length of days. Elder of the line, what youngest is thine? Uhh …” He searched the faces until he made eye contact with Jemma’s father. “Harvey.”
All heads turned to the far left table as Harvey stood. “The youngest in my line is Shaylinn,” he said, setting his hand on Shaylinn’s head.
“No!” Shaylinn, who was sitting beside her father, pointed across the table to where Jordan and his wife, Naomi, sat, their hands interlocked and resting on her belly, which was very large so late in her pregnancy. “Your youngest heir is there, Papa.”
The crowd laughed.
“True as that may be, Shay, my youngest heir cannot yet speak for himself—”
“It’s a girl!” Shanna, Shaylinn’s mother, said.
“—or herself,” Harvey added with a nod to his wife. “So the floor goes to you, my daughter.”
Shaylinn stood and smoothed out her dress. “A wise old owl lived in an oak. The more he saw, the less he spoke. The less he spoke, the more he heard … Omar, finish it.” Shaylinn fell back into her chair and grinned at Omar.
An owl rhyme for the moody boy who was obsessed with owls. Mason admired Shaylinn for wanting to cheer Omar, and for the clever way she’d done it.
Omar set down his mutilated roll and said, his voice raspy as always, “Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?”
The crowd clapped.
Omar pushed off the tabletop as he stood. “My question is for my father.”
And just like that, Omar threw away Shaylinn’s gift. The room went silent. Mason lowered his gaze and held his breath.
“I already went,” Father said. “Pick someone else.”
Papa Eli slapped the tabletop. “Stand up, Justin. Your son has a question for you.”
“Fine.” Father pushed back his chair and stood, staring at Omar with raised brows. “Ask your question, boy.” He didn’t bother with the traditional reply.
Omar’s neck and ears flushed pink. “Will you take me with you to Denver City?”
“But you promised I could go.”
“Someday, yes. This time, no.”
“But Levi went when he was only fourteen. I’m sixteen.”
“As everyone in Glenrock knows,
not Levi. My answer is final.”
Omar sat down, leaving Father as the focus of everyone’s attention. He cleared his throat. “Well, now that everyone is here, uh … Before we start the engagement proceedings, I do have an announcement. Jennifer of James and I have made a match. My son Mason and her daughter Mia will marry.”
Mason’s heart slid into his stomach. He stared at the empty plate before him, unable to look at the table on the far right, unable to bear seeing Mia’s face. A deep, silent breath, which Mason blew out in a short puff, helped him hold his tongue. How typical of Father to announce this publicly before Mason had even a chance to get used to the idea.
The crowd applauded politely; Nell didn’t even squeal. Mason noted how different the reaction was compared to when Father had announced Levi and Jemma’s engagement. This was what happened to the leftovers after the people who actually loved each other paired off.
“Will you serve as elder to this young couple?” Papa Eli asked Father.
“Jennifer will serve as their elder as I’m already mentoring Levi and Jemma.”
A blessing, in Mason’s opinion. He could only imagine what advice Father would give a soon-to-be husband who didn’t hunt.
Jennifer added a chair between hers and Mia’s. “Come, then, my son, and sit at my table.”
Mason got up. Moved across the room. Offered those around him a tight smile in return for their warm ones. He would keep an open mind, focus on Mia’s positive attributes, her looks. The chair beside Jennifer was only six yards away, but the journey felt like miles. He sat down. Again, everyone applauded. Polite. Obligatory.
Mia whispered in his ear. “Don’t look so excited.” And again she spoiled her beauty by speaking.
“I don’t see you beaming with delight,” Mason said.
had to settle.
wanted a hunter for a husband.”
Mason ran his tongue along his bottom row of teeth to keep from saying something cruel. He settled on, “It’s not too late to marry Omar.”
a hunter. And he’s always sniffling or rubbing his eyes like some dumb toddler.”
“He’s allergic to pollen.”
Papa Eli’s raised voice silenced any rebuttal from Mia. “And now let’s focus on tonight’s festivities. Levi of Elias, you have a request of the elders of Glenrock?”
“I do,” Levi said.
“Then stand and make your request known.”
Levi stood. “It is my wish to marry Jemma of Zachary two weeks from today.”
Jordan wolf-whistled, which set off an infectious round of laughter and applause.
See? How could I do that? How could I stand before all of Glenrock and declare my intentions to marry Mia when I want no part of it?
“Jemma of Zachary, your favor has been petitioned,” Papa Eli said. “Stand and tell this community how you respond.”
Jemma pushed up from her seat and faced Papa Eli. “I accept the offer.”
Nell squealed. More applause.
“Does anyone have reason to speak against this union?”
Levi glanced at Omar, and Mason prayed Omar would not say anything rude. But no one spoke. No one ever said anything during this part.
“What elder will speak for this couple?” Papa Eli asked. “Who has seen their commitment and helped to mold it by offering guidance and mentoring?”
Father stood up, shoulders back, proud. “I have.”
Papa Eli looked around the room. “People of Glenrock, you have
witnessed an offer of marriage, an acceptance, and an endorsement by a village elder. I hereby declare Levi of Elias and Jemma of Zachary engaged to be married in two weeks time. You are all invited to the celebration. Levi and Jemma, come before me to receive your blessing.”
Levi stepped out from behind the high table and waited for Jemma. He took her hand, and they walked to stand before Papa Eli.
Papa Eli placed his hands on their heads. “May God be with you and bless you. May you see your children’s children. May you be poor in misfortunes, rich in blessings. And may you know nothing but happiness from this day forward.”
Yet another round of applause filled the meeting hall, but Mason’s silent scream was a roar between his ears that drowned all other noise. He was happy for Levi and Jemma, sure. But he couldn’t imagine that Papa Eli’s beautiful words would come true in his own situation.
“Father God, we thank you for the fine company of family and friends and for the blessing of this feast. Amen,” Papa Eli said then took his seat.
Jennifer passed Mason a platter of chicken. “I’m thankful to have a man in the family again. James has been gone two years. It’s a comfort to know his line won’t die with Mia.”
Mason nodded, unable to manage a verbal response. He passed the platter to Mia without taking any meat.
“There’s no way I’m becoming a vegetarian like you just because you can’t stomach being a man,” Mia said. “I don’t suppose you’ll even butcher a chicken.”
Would every word from her lips be poison? It hadn’t been a question, really, so Mason didn’t answer. This might be the first day of his new life of self-imposed silence.
As people talked around them, the volume of his father’s raised voice was a welcome distraction for the first time in his life. “I’m
taking him, Grandfather,” Father said to Papa Eli. “He’s a useless extra mouth to feed.”
“No one is useless in this world if they lighten the burden of another,” Papa Eli said.
“That’s just it. Omar
the burden on a trip like this. He can’t shoot. He can’t follow simple instructions. He eats more than the rest of us combined and is too much of a weakling to help carry the haul. The boy only wants to come so he can look for owls or find more art materials for his sissy drawings.”
“You’ll have many days on the journey to teach him what you feel he lacks.”
“Then you teach him. I’m
taking him anywhere until he proves he has a brain in that round head of his.”
Omar jumped up and ran out of the hall.
“See! Off he runs to cry. Denver City is a trip for men of strength. And Omar has a long way to go.”
Mason pushed back his chair and stood.
Mia grabbed his wrist. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“To talk to Omar.”
“You better come back. You’re my dance partner.”
“Mia, I don’t dance.”
“Of course you don’t. Mason, everything about you embarrasses me.” Her eyes were cold and angry.
“You may as well get used to it.” Mason pulled free from Mia’s grip and left.
He found Omar in his room, kneeling on the floor before one of his notepads, blackening the eyes of an owl with a charcoal pencil. He’d removed his Colorado State Patrol hat, and his hair was sticking up. Omar’s artwork wallpapered his room. Mostly close-ups of animals or people. They made Mason feel like he was being stared at by a million eyes.
Omar ripped away the owl drawing and scraped the charcoal pencil over a fresh sheet again and again, creating the soft lines of a wing. “Go away, Mase. I’m fine.”
Another owl materialized on the paper under Omar’s skilled strokes, this one soaring. “He’s said the same about you before.”
“Naw. About me, he says, ‘If it weren’t for Mason’s brain, he’d have
no muscles in his body.’ Or my personal favorite, ‘Don’t mind you talking so much, sissy boy, so long as you don’t mind me not listening.’ ”
Omar tossed his shard of charcoal into a tray of pencils, ripped the page from the notebook, and crumpled it. “He never calls Levi a sissy.”
“That’s because Levi came out of the womb holding a rifle. In regards to Father, I refuse to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed man. I suggest you do the same.”
Omar snorted a laugh. “That’s mad good, Mase.”