The Winter Festival

J.L. Weinmeister

After our stay in Shamarki, we travel down the coast to Belatolo. Our time on Linea is coming to a close, so this is our final night in a mellowmiran settlement. Some of you take this opportunity to enjoy some of the mellowmira’s performing arts one last time.

The next day we cross the border and reach the city of Taram. We stock up on supplies for the fast-paced journey we have ahead of us. We’ve done our exploring, and now it’s time for us to hustle back to our transporter on Burnis Island.

I set a grueling pace. You’re all so exhausted by the time we find a campsite that you don’t bother setting up tents. You curl up in your bedrolls by the fire and pass out. I end up taking the night watch, but don’t worry: I’m used to surviving on no sleep.

We continue our trek across the grassland, and you all rejoice when you see lights from a settlement up ahead. While some of you pass out in your beds, a few of you stay up a little longer, and I tell you a story about an elvirian festival.

* * * * *

The Winter Festival was a week away, and Evran didn’t feel prepared enough. When he was a kid, he had attended and enjoyed the festivities, but this time he was performing. Now that Evran was nineteen, it was time for him to find an apprenticeship that would start when he turned twenty. So long as Evran could find a teacher, he could study whatever he wanted.

For as long as he could remember, Evran loved poetry. His mother often read it to him before bed when he was a young child, and his father would buy him poetry books whenever he travelled to the bigger cities. Evran had a whole bookshelf in their home. He had read every book on it at least once if not twice or more.

While reading poetry was fun and enjoyable, writing it was something else entirely. He wanted to write like the great poets of old, but every time he tried, he just wasn’t satisfied with his work. He wrote poem after poem after poem. Most of them ended up in the burn pile while a few were tucked safely into his box of personal items. None of them seemed suitable for the upcoming festival.

“I’m sure you’ll write something amazing,” his mother said one night as he crossed out, rewrote, and tweaked various lines in his current project.

“I don’t know, Mother,” Evran said. “I write it down thinking it’s good, but then it just doesn’t sound right.”

“You’ll get there. Just keep trying.”

* * * * *

It was the night before the Winter Festival, and Evran still didn’t have anything he felt was worthy of sharing in front of the town. If he didn’t write something good, he wouldn’t get an apprenticeship. If he didn’t get an apprenticeship, he would have to pick another job to study. Evran couldn’t think of anything else he wanted to do. If he couldn’t so much as write a poem, he doubted he would be able to get a letter of recommendation to study at the University. He had to get a poem written.

He wrote late into the night, drafting and redrafting a poem. His candle was nearly depleted when he finally gave up. He was too tired to keep going, and he was too tired to care about what happened at the festival.

* * * * *

Morning came too soon, and Evran was still exhausted. When he got up, he noticed his mother sitting by the fire reading his poem.

She smiled when she finished it. “I’m so proud of you, Evran. This is beautiful.”

Evran took the paper and read it—he couldn’t remember what he had written. “This is trash.”

“No, it’s not. Make yourself a clean copy, and read it at the festival today. Trust me. It’ll be fine.”

Too tired to argue, Evran sighed and copied the poem, leaving out all his edits.

After his family ate, they put on their warm cloaks and boots and ventured into town. Bright strips of cloth were draped over the snowy tree branches, and small wooden stands lined the clearing they used for events. Behind the stands were rosy-cheeked vendors who proudly showed off their wares. If Evran were interested in visual art or being a craftsman, this is where he would find a teacher. Instead he followed his mother, admiring all of the beautiful items on display.

One of the stands sold jewelry of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Evran’s mother picked up a brooch in the shape of a bird. “This reminds me of your poem.”

Evran took it from her and examined it. She was right. The bird matched his poem perfectly. Evran heard the clink of coins and looked up to see his mother paying the merchant.

“For good luck,” she said.

“Thank you.”

* * * * *

The Winter Festival lasted four days, and each day was dedicated to a different category of performances. The first day was poetry and storytelling, the second was theater, the third was music, and the fourth was dancing. Evran didn’t like being first, but he may as well get it over with, so he could enjoy the rest of the festival.

Everyone gathered around a stage at one end of the clearing. The first performance was always by a professional poet. This year it was a woman named Jeralean. Evran closed his eyes and listened to the rhythm of her words as she spoke. Her poem was lengthy—they usually were—but he didn’t mind. He got lost in the beauty of the story she wove for them.

When she finished, the crowd whistled to show they enjoyed it. Now it was time for the students to share. Students weren’t required to perform at the Winter Festival, but they could if they wanted to. Now that Evran knew how important the festival was to his future, he wished he had opted to participate in years past. He tried to calm his nerves while children as young as seven read their poems.

After the students came the apprentices who were seeking mentors. It was almost Evran’s turn. Two other people went before him. The first was a girl he knew well. They talked about poetry at school sometimes and would often borrow each other’s books. The second was a boy whom Evran had seen around, but he’d had no idea he was interested in poetry. Both presented beautiful poems that the audience loved. Evran didn’t think he could compete with them.

But it was Evran’s turn whether he was ready for it or not. He took a deep breath and stepped onto the stage, his shaking hands clutching the poem he had spent all night writing. He found his mother in the audience, and she nodded her head in encouragement.

Evran started reading. At first he was jerky, and nothing sounded right, but then he got lost in the poem. His voice became more emotional as he poured his passion into each and every word. He came to the end and looked up at the crowd, unsure of how they would react. They whistled. He wasn’t sure that meant anything because people often whistled out of respect even if the performance was bad.

Evran hastily left the stage and walked toward his mother. He was intercepted by a woman.

“Pardon me,” he said, trying to walk around her.

She moved to prevent him from getting away. “Evran, is it?” she asked.

He looked up. He knew that voice. She was Jeralean. Evran opened and closed his mouth a few times before giving up on speaking.

“I was quite impressed by your poem,” she said. “I wanted to talk to you before any of the other poets in town did.”

“Y-you did?”

“I’m interested in taking on an apprentice next year as I didn’t have one this last year. One poem isn’t enough for me to make that decision. Could we schedule a time to look over some of your other poems? If you’re interested, that is.”

Evran couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You want to see my other poems?”

“If that’s all right with you.”

“I-I…Yes, we can do that.”

“Fantastic. How about lunch the day after the festival is over? Does that work?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“I look forward to seeing you then. Oh, what a lovely brooch. Was your poem inspired by it?”

Evran shook his head. “My mother bought it for me this morning.”

“How nice of her. I’ll let you return to her now. It was nice meeting you.”

Jeralean let him leave then, and Evran walked toward his family. His mind was buzzing with excitement. Jeralean was interested in having him as an apprentice. He couldn’t believe it. He told his mother as soon as he found her.

“That’s amazing, Evran,” she said. “I’m so proud of you, and I know you’ll prove yourself worthy enough to be her apprentice.”

“But, Mother, I don’t have any other poems to show her. I burned them all because I thought they were garbage.”

She placed a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right. I’m sure we can figure something out.”

* * * * *

Evran couldn’t stop stressing over his upcoming meeting with Jeralean and his lack of poems. What was he doing at the festival? He should be at home writing. His mother knew he was restless. She kept glancing at him. There were still several hours of festivities left for today, and Evran finally snapped.

“Mother, I’m going home to work on those poems.” With that, he left, making his way back to their winter home. He didn’t realize his mother had followed him until she stepped inside behind him. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I want to show you something.” She walked over to the shelves where they kept their personal belongings and pulled down a wooden box from the top shelf. It wasn’t dusty like the other boxes that lived up there. She set it on the table and opened the lid.

Evran looked inside at a stack of papers and recognized his own handwriting. He picked up the top sheet and read it. “This is a poem I wrote yesterday. I thought I put it in the burn pile.”

His mother removed the whole stack from the box and showed him the bottom paper. It was the first poem he ever wrote. “I saved all of them for you. I knew you’d want them someday.”

Evran sat down. “You kept all of them?”

“Of course I did. I love your poems, and I know Jeralean will too.”

Evran stood up and hugged her. “Thank you.”

She hugged him back. “You’re welcome. Do you think you can enjoy the rest of the festival now, or do you still need to write poems for your meeting with Jeralean?”

“I think I have plenty of poems to show her.”

“That’s what I thought. Come on. Let’s go have some food with the others.”

Evran returned to the festival with his mother, thankful she had recognized his passion and talent when he hadn’t. Evran knew he had the best mother in town.

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