Part 12: The Counting Ceremony
What was first a feeling of being watched escalated into pure fear. Andrew could sense something following him. A branch snapped behind him. He took off, sneakers slipping as he struggled to keep a lead. Something was chasing him now and gaining with every step. He didn't dare turn around, afraid that whatever it was would tackle him down to the ground. Instead he barreled blindly through the forest, regardless of the stitch ripping painfully up his side the faster he went.
He slowed as he neared the crest of a hill but delighted when he could see the low stone wall just beyond it. His feet stumbled to keep up with his momentum as he ran downhill. If I can just get to the wall, he told himself, I'll be okay. I just gotta get to the wall! He didn't know why he felt this way but he didn't have any time to think about it.
Andrew tried to jump the wall but slipped in his haste, his knee banging against it as he tumbled forward. His arms flailed, trying to protect his head as he ducked into a roll. He landed hard on his back, the air rushing out of his lungs. For a few moments he couldn't get a good breath. His throat was tight and burned from running. He couldn't get enough air and hyperventilated. He stared up at the trees above him. Whatever it was, it wasn't vaulting over the wall.
He stayed down until he could breathe without gasping. He pulled himself carefully up, peering just over the top of the wall, ready to duck back down if it attacked.
Nothing. There was nothing there. Had there been anything there to begin with? He didn't know. He backed up and stumbled to his feet. If it was still around, he wasn't sticking around to encounter it again. Taking one long last look over the wall, he turned and hurried as fast as he could to the farm. He didn't stop until arrived, afraid that it could catch him if he did.
~ * ~
By the time he arrived at the farmhouse, Aunt Jenna was waiting on the porch, sitting on the swing there. She stood up and ran to greet him. He was about to mumble some kind of excuse when she crushed him to her. She was wearing her long white cover-up again and it brushed softly against his cheek. He could smell her jasmine perfume.
"Andrew! Where on Earth have you been?"
She released him enough so he could answer, but he couldn't look her in the eye, a wave of guilt washing over him. He had broken the rule, but he couldn't tell her that. He finally mumbled, "Fort Andrew."
She didn't seem convinced. "But you didn't come home for lunch..."
"Sorry," he quickly replied, but his stomach interrupted with a deep growl. "Can I have a snack?"
"You'll have to wait until after the ceremony," she said.
"No buts. Now go inside and get changed."
While he was upset he had to wait for food, he was glad she hadn't interrogated him any further. He ran inside, hoping to get this thing over with quick so he could eat. He changed into his swim trunks and slipped on the long woolen robe over his head. She had hemmed the long sleeves but he still looked like a kid wearing a giant's coat. He tied the sash and now he looked like he was wearing a dress. He sighed. He was glad his mother wasn't here with her camera.
~ * ~
When they arrived at the lake, Andrew's breath caught in his throat. Not only were his gulariss relatives gathered on the shoreline, but a group of people were gathered there as well, all wearing swim suits like they were attending a beach party. Four other gulariss surrounded them, one just as big as Duke.
"What's going on!" Andrew exclaimed, "Who are they?"
"The other members of our clan, of course," Aunt Jenna said smiling, "I told you there were others out there, didn't I?"
Yes, he did remember her saying something like that, but still, he didn't know they were part of their own clan! He couldn't help but feel angry. She hadn't told him anything about this. And what would have been the harm in telling him anyway? Maybe she just didn't trust him? Suddenly he didn't feel so guilty about not telling her about TJ.
"Why are they here now?"
"For the ceremony," she replied. "They come every year and stay for awhile."
How come he had never noticed? It was no small thing to have so many people and creatures around, though he supposed that when he was younger he wasn't allowed to be up this late. The summer sun was just setting beyond the lake, a perfect red circle.
"You do this thing every year?" he asked, but she didn't hear him. She was calling out to the newcomers, waving her arms frantically. Without warning she ran to meet one of the people, a tall man who hugged her tightly before sharing a long kiss. Andrew's eyes widened. Aunt Jenna had never married, so he couldn't even begin to imagine her with a boyfriend.
They broke it off amid much cheering as she reached out to pull some of the others into a group hug. Among them were two teenage boys, who looked like identical twins. There was also a younger girl and a little boy who tugged at her cover up until she scooped him as she had always scooped up Andrew when he was younger. She kissed their cheeks just like she kissed Andrew every night. He felt something flare up in his chest and he felt angry.
"Andrew! Come here," she waved and he had to force himself to come over. "Andrew, these are the Masons. They're one of the families who have joined our clan."
The man, who seemed just as spry as Aunt Jenna despite how old he looked, offered him a hand, "I've heard a lot about you, Andrew," he said, and then added, "Don't worry, only good things."
Andrew didn't take his hand and the man pulled it back, still smiling anyway. "The name's Rick Mason, and these here are my pride and joy," he pointed to the teenage boys, "Luke, Dean," then to the girl, "Aubrey, and this here's little Mikey," he ruffled the little boy's hair who giggled and hugged him tightly. "Kids, this is Andrew, treat him like he's your brother."
Each of them greeted him and he blushed. He had never had any siblings and barely saw his cousins. He didn't know what to do. "Hi," he managed half a wave.
"Monty!" Rick called to the large gulariss, "Bring your kids over too."
A gulariss who resembled a huge golden carp approached him. This "Monty" looked very serious, which made Andrew nervous. Two much smaller gulariss accompanied him. One was striped and the other spotted.
"So this is the new recruit," he said, eyeing Andrew closely. "I'm Montague and these are my youngest children, Belle and Bartholomew."
"Where are the others?" Andrew asked, grabbing his aunt's arm.
"Andrew," Aunt Jenna said, "Don't be rude."
Montague smiled. "I like him, he's very precocious."
Andrew frowned. He didn't know what that meant, but he was sure he was being made fun of.
"Has he met Hiro and Matsuko yet, honey?" Rick asked Aunt Jenna.
"Oh, I forgot! Thank you, dear."
Andrew was dragged along again. He was having a hard time keeping up with all of this, especially because he wasn't the type that was good with names. He could barely remember the names of his own gulariss, let alone other ones and people too. Why couldn't have things just been simple like they always had with just him and Aunt Jenna all summer?
Jenna introduced him to Hiro and Matsuko Sakai. They had just one gulariss, who was barely older than his own little one. It was the size of a large dog, and looked just like a koi fish, a white one with black and orange spots. His name was Showa and he stuck close to Hiro and Matsuko, saying only a brief hello.
A warbling voice sounded out and everyone turned to Duke. "Thank you everyone for coming. It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to our annual Counting Ceremony! We have much to celebrate, so let us begin. Follow me to the Great Circle."
Everyone waded into the water, the gulariss forming a wide circle around their human companions who gathered in the center.
"Let the counting begin!" Duke called out and stomped a fin against the ground under the water, creating a large splash. "I am Duke, the head of this clan, and the first of many to come."
Andrew covered his eyes as a white light surged under the water beneath Duke. Magic! This was real magic! He could feel an energy pulsing in the ground under the water, as if the whole area would explode.
Esmeralda stomped down beside him, calling out, "I am Esmeralda, the Second." A light surged underneath her as well, joining with Duke's light. The humming grew stronger.
"Once a stranger, but now a brother, I am Montague, the Third," he said, stomping from the other side of the circle. The light surged beneath where Andrew stood, lighting up the water like a light in a pool. He realized they were all standing on an intricate carving of some kind.
They continued on in this fashion, each gulariss calling out and stomping down, details filling in, until nearly all of the carving was glowing brightly from within. Andrew could only see bits of the pattern and wondered what it looked like when seen from above. Whatever it was, he had never seen any design like it before, and it excited him.
After Showa announced himself and stepped carefully back, Duke called out loudly, "Who will speak for the youngling of our clan?"
He felt Aunt Jenna's hand touch his shoulder. He raised his hand and a few of the kids laughed. He blushed.
"Speak up young one," Duke said.
"I will!" Andrew cried.
"Very well," Duke replied, "You hatched this youngling, therefore, it is fitting that you should give him his name. Name him, and he shall be counted."
Andrew gulped. Sure he had thought about it, but having to pick a name, a good name, in front of everyone when he had nothing prepared. His leg shook nervously. For once he was glad for the robe so no one could see him wobble.
One came to mind. It was the name of the hero in his favorite video game. He hesitated though, he couldn't name the baby that. Everyone would laugh at him and mock him. He should pick something regal like Duke or...
"Pick a name that comes from your heart," Aunt Jenna whispered, "You can't go wrong."
The name swelled within him and he blurted, "Cloud," before he could stop himself.
Everyone looked to Duke for approval. He nodded and announced, "Henceforth, this youngling shall be known as Cloud. He is the tenth of our clan."
He nudged the little one who leaped into the air. As he splashed down more light flowed into the pattern.
"And who will speak for the egg?" Duke asked.
"I speak for my firstborn child, though we shall never meet," Esmeralda held up a bronze-colored egg high into the air. Andrew hadn't realized she no longer had the bulge in her stomach. "The eleventh of our clan!" As she set it down in the water, it began to glow brightly and light spread forth in a wave, filling in the remaining details.
"Eleven!" Duke cried out, "Eleven and counting!"
Everyone cheered as the gulariss came splashing playfully into the circle's center, embracing their human guardians. Andrew giggled as Cloud leaped into his arms and nuzzled him, his little whiskers tickling his face. Andrew hugged him tightly. Aunt Jenna put an arm around him. He leaned against her and felt the beating hearts of his aunt and his little dragon brother. They beat in time with his own.
The light underneath them brightened. Andrew couldn't look down anymore, shielding his eyes from the light. The lake water, which was normally so cold, felt warm and pleasant, as it began to bubble. The water surged upward, blasting into the air, raining down onto everyone, still glowing like tiny fireflies. As each droplet hit him, he felt something move in his heart. It felt a little like Christmas morning but also like when he rode his bike for the first time, gliding along on two wheels, his stomach flip-flopping. Light and warmth filled his soul. He laughed loudly.
He realized this feeling wasn't magic, it was love.
Continue to Part 13?