Sunfast, Shadowplay, and Saintswalk

By Rudi Dornemann

The afternoon was starting to rain already by the time the shadowplay ended and we left the tent. We ran from doorway to doorway, my sister and I, all the way home. It was three days before the sunfast.

We crossed the weeping bridge and went up the hill on Old Laurel Street where the sidewalks are mostly stairs and none of the churches have any roofs but sky. Our heads were wet from the rain coming down, and our shoulders too. Our shoes and socks and our pants from the knees down were soaked heavy from all the puddles we didn't bother to dodge.

We came out onto Wisdomhall Boulevard and had to slow down -- there were so many people and so many of them were shoppers, carrying baskets and bags full of things that might break. By the time we'd walked as far as the harbor, the sun had come out again, but the rain wasn't much lighter, and I couldn't see a rainbow anywhere. When we reached the warehouse end of Front Street, the crowd was thin enough that we could run again. We sprinted over the canal bridge that meant we were halfway home, our footsteps thumping on the planks like somebody using an empty barrel for a drum.

The shadows of the chains fell over the canal, and it was a little spooky, the way you could see down through the water where the shadows blocked the sun and the surface of the water wasn't mirrory. I had a glimpse of what looked like a broken wheel and a scarf of lace waving in the deep current, and I looked away as quickly as I could. I was afraid I might see something I wouldn't be able to forget. I was glad I was running.

As we entered the more familiar side of town, I tried to remember friendlier shadows, puppet shadows out of the show we'd just seen, but none of them came back. Not Thin Luke or Wandering Paul or even Merry Margaret. Just one of the tunes, and only the chorus of it, over and over again in my head, as we splashed puddles and the rain drummed at us. The city was quiet, as if it were listening very carefully, maybe trying to hear that song in my head.

My sister was older than me, taller, and a faster runner. She had to stop in doorways or under awnings to wait every couple blocks so I could catch up. We were almost home and I noticed she was shivering, so I gave her my coat to wear over her own. Three days from now, it wouldn't matter if I was sick, but if Philomella caught a cold, she couldn't go walking with the saints.

My sister had her kite-day two years ago, but this will be her first sunfast. Last year, we both came down with the pine itch and she missed everything.

Father had called the doctor right when we noticed the itch and the first hives. She'd come as soon as she could, and looked at the redness on my arm and my sister's leg. She'd said that it would take us three days to get better, and that we would miss the sunfast, because we couldn't be around other people until the itch was gone.

I could see her eyes behind her goggles and a bit of her mouth under them. Her mouth was a smile that looked like it was supposed to cheer us up; her eyes looked like she was sorry.

"Time takes time," the doctor told us. "You'll have to be patient. There's plenty you can do in the meantime. Plenty for everyone to do."

We watched all day from our window, but none of the saints went by and we could barely hear the parade music at lunchtime or the bonfire songs in the evening. We'd played game after game of checkers and Nine Men's Morris and Robin Hood's Roundabout. I kept trying to think of games to play to keep Philomella from thinking about what she was missing. She told me the next day that she'd kept playing because I'd looked even sadder than she was.

Nothing will keep my sister from the sunfast this year, not pine itch or even the seventy croup, and neither of us will have to be sad.

On the second day before the sunfast, we gathered rose hips and angelbane out on the dunes between the river's last bend and the beach. Sand in my clogs, I followed Philomella up and down through the thickets and the long grass. The wind was cold, and colder still with all the dampness off the water. I had to put my hands in my pockets every few minutes. We each filled two big canvas bags before the sun was completely down. We headed back to the city, talking about what kind of saint she might become.

"Maybe you'll be one of the slinky ones, in the long dresses, breaking candy-glass jars in the street," I said. "Or maybe you'll get to be one of the lonely ones, and you'll holler around outside of town, and you'll get to sing in the evening."

"I don't know," said my sister. "I'm not sure what I'd want to be."

"Maybe the Saint of Coins and Candles or maybe the Saint of Hands and Thunder. . . ."

"I don't know," she said. "I won't really have any choice in it, so I don't know if I should try too much to guess."

The clouds were charcoal black and the rest of the sky was redder than my thorn-pricked fingers. We walked quietly for a few minutes. My feet were sore from the sand rubbing in my shoes. There were scraps of fabric and bits of wing struts in the waves at the edge of the sand. Someone must have bailed out and ditched their flying machine over the water.

"I wouldn't mind becoming the Saint of Clouds and Windows," said Phil. "Everybody says you only remember your time in the Saintswalk like you remember a dream from last week, but I'd like to remember some of those poems she chants, like the ones about birds and everything. . . ." She trailed off and shrugged, and we kept walking.

We came into the city through the Tower Gate, and there were still a couple bicycles hanging on the hooks outside the porter's shed. The porter saw our bags while my sister was counting out the bike fare.

"Angelbane and rose hips, eh?" he said. "Going to be baking some pies, are we? I had a daughter, a lot like you two girls. She used to love this time of year. All the pies and sweets and cookies. And all the bonfires and the masked dances and the shadowplays." He was smiling but his eyes weren't looking at us, they were looking at the shrine he had in the corner of the room. His voice sounded like his mouth was dry. "The poor dear," he said.

The shrine's niche was full of so many old flowers I couldn't even see which saint was in it. I got a shiver when I tried to look closer.

I wanted to ask the porter what had happened to his daughter, but Philomella thanked him and was gone out the door before I could say anything. She rode fast and I couldn't catch up. Back home and in through the kitchen door, the air that met us was as warm and sweet as those rose-and-angel pies would be when they were done.

On fast eve, we spent all day in the great hall, helping with the preparations. I helped hang bunting from the rafters and mixed the paints for the murals that Mother painted on the windows and the walls, and later I cleaned the brushes. Philomella was all covered up in quilts and scarves because the hall was drafty and she didn't want to take any chance that she might get sick. She carved faces in the little turnips that were going into the stew.

"You never become the saint you guess," said Mrs. Thomassen, when she heard us talking. So we stopped.

I went out and helped Osier wind up all the mechanical birds and clip them on the branches of the trees in the courtyard. Then I came back in and filled the stewpot with turnips that Philomella had finished. "What about the Saint of Doors and Luck? Wearing those bell trousers and hitting everything with those bamboo clap-sticks?" It sounded like fun to me.

My sister didn't answer 'til I came back from the kitchen with an empty pot for her turnip faces.

"I think I know that one," she said. "But he's a sainter, isn't he, not a saintess? And I doubt if a saint would cross, not when it's just my first time and I probably won't carry all that well anyway, no matter who takes me."

Everything comes back to a worry for her. With the afternoon half over, the fast eve's nearly gone and the sunfast itself is almost here.

"I don't think you have to worry," I said, and I meant that. My sister knows more alphabets than anyone else in her class and always remembers her prayers.

Before dawn on the morning of the sunfast, Mother and Father woke me up and we went to the town square. We stood in the crowd and all sang a hymn, the one that begins, "For all the shadows and the saints who cast them . . ."

The saints were coming out of the side-alley fog and into the sunlight of the square. I watched: First came the Saintess of Ice and Whisper-Chants, and the Saint of Knives and Ambergris followed quickly after. The Sainter of Moss and Forgotten Promises stepped around the corner, but ducked away again. Then a rush of saints from all the alleys and side streets, too many and too fast to recognize any one out of the whole mob of motion and color.

It was all like I remembered it from other years. The saints were fun to watch, you could never guess the next thing they would do. But the more I watched, the more I had a twitchy feeling, like I wanted to be moving and not just standing there, and whenever one of them looked in my direction, I ducked behind Father.

Old Moss-and-Promises was coming into the square from the other direction now. He was rattling his rattles and yelling, "Now or Nevermore! Never more than now! Needles and niceties! Noodles, noodles, near and far! Nooo-oo-oo-oooodles!"

All three of the Saints of Pockets and the Things Carried in Pockets were already there, dancing together the way they do in their unbuckled boots. And here came the Sainter of Lost Stars and Yellow Apples, with his ibis-head mask and his cane, and the Saintess of Eggs and Lace, with her finger-bone necklace and the clicking and clattering of the rings on all her own fingers.

No saint is the saint of only one thing, so we always give them names with two things in them.

I'd lost track of which verse we were on, and before I could figure it out, the hymn was over. The square was full of saints -- cavorting, leaping, running, dancing, singing, screeching, chortling. The rest of us were safe away into the alleys, walking quickly, not talking, hoping the saints wouldn't notice us, wouldn't follow. I hadn't seen my sister, or any saint who looked like her.

Sometimes, the saints don't let go; they keep riding the moment a little longer and a little longer and they don't let go. There was a mask-wearer that our grandmother told us about, a friend of hers when they were little, who was the Saint of Stones and Answers for thirty-four years.

Grandmother says that after the first ten years or so her friend just kind of crumpled up, and lived the rest of her life in a hut in the woods, being tended by her friends and family, who came by twice a day to feed her broth.

Grandmother says this could happen to us if we don't say our prayers and learn our alphabets. Mother says we shouldn't worry; we're good girls and everything will be fine.

By noon on sunfastday, all the blackbirds were asleep in the trees around the square. Osier turned off the fog guns. We waited upwind, and he waved to us when the gas had blown clear. We'd all strapped pieces of old blankets and other padding over our shoes. We ran across the square. It was as close to silent as the city can get. I could hear the wind whispering and the clockwork birds ticking and my pulse beating in my ears. The mayor was waiting at the city hall doors, motioning us in, everybody in one long line, down the halls past all the shuttered offices, down to the safety of the catacombs.

Wherever Phil was, she wasn't funny and dancing anymore; she was something I wouldn't recognize. All morning, the saints had grown into their hosts. The city belonged to the saints now.

Under the city there were ways to pass the time while we waited. We sang songs in rounds, back and forth with our own echoes. The dust made the light look foggy and I could taste it, a little bitter, a little burnt, if I breathed deep enough.

Every year we take some time to decorate the statues of the dead. This year, I painted green flowers around the hem of my great-great-grandmother's dress and I wrote a poem around the hat that a school teacher from a hundred years ago was wearing. I felt comfortable around the statues and the crypts and even the dusty rows of urns, all of us living and dead together, all hidden safe away from the saints. Without the sun, though, it was hard to know how late it was or if the afternoon was any closer to ending.

Finally, the time for the feast came around. Mother found me and we went to the main cavern together. The wicker tables and chairs had been set up. There were checkered tablecloths and there were candles in the glasses painted with the figures of saints that seemed to shake and dance as the flames flickered. We had rolls and butter, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, cabbage salad, and pastries that were shaped like crescent moons and stuffed with roast meat and apples. The town choir was humming saint-songs quietly in the halls nearby and grottos off the main cavern, so we could hear murmur-music in the background all through the feast.

For dessert, I ate rosewater pudding with a spoon shaped like a mermaid and laughed at the stories Mother was telling about the sunfastdays when she and Mrs. Thomassen were little girls. They used to make up stories about the statues and how they would come to life after everyone left the catacombs at the end of the day.

After the feast, I stood at the memorial fountain outside the crypt of the first mayor, floating petal-boats and little prayers on the water, asking the saints to do things for children on the other side of the world. "Give shoes to the ones without shoes," I thought, "and coats to the ones who are cold. Give soup to the hungry ones and rose and angel pie to the ones who have sad lives. Please." (I remembered my manners at the end.) "Let it happen if it fits with your plans." And I bowed my head just as the first of my boats passed under the curtain of falling water. Then the boats were only petals, scattered, most of them drifting down to the coins and buttons at the bottom of the fountain. But some of those petals floated back in my direction, and that told me that some of my prayers would be answered. I'll probably never know which ones.

Some year, I, too, will take the mask. On that day, I won't need a roof over me or a guide in front of me. I will walk and I won't be me. The saint will know where I'm going and the saint won't care what the weather is.

I will go into that place where things are another way than they are and the saint will ride in my body for as long as it takes for the sun to get from one side of the sky to the other.

I will be the linen sheet, stretched out tight by the sunfast, and the saint will be the shadow image cast on me by something outside of the world.

And when I come back, I'll be a little different, a little holy.

The prism was chiming out the hour of dogs; the sunfast would be over soon. We came up the spiral stairs out of the well in the middle of the town square, single file. Shadows tumbled over each other across the common and into the square, almost all the way from the woods on the far side to city hall on the near side.

We each carried a candle in a little paper cup even though it wasn't really night yet. We walked, in a long line, across the grass, the birds ticking above us in the trees. The common was quiet, and the square in front of city hall was empty. All the banners we'd strung from the trees were down on the ground, muddy, trampled.

We stood in a circle all around the edge of the common, facing out, with our candles flickering in the wind, waiting. A little wax dripped down through the tear at the bottom of my cup. It wasn't hot. I picked off the little bumps it made on the back of my hand.

Then the birds began to ring and crow, and we walked back into town. The sunfast was ending; the saints' time was over.

We walked deeper into the streets while the city got more and more purple with evening. Some of the adults had big hurricane lanterns and shone the light in front of us in big sweeps up the street. Once, we surprised a saint, who dropped the glass pineapples he'd been juggling and dashed away down an alley when he saw us. When we got up to where he'd been standing, I saw that the pineapples had smashed to sand when they hit the bricks of the street.

As we went, we saw some of the things that the saints had done during their day in the world. They'd painted stripes and swirls on the street and the building walls up Icebridge Boulevard for five or six blocks. They'd hung musical instruments in all the trees in a little park near the Whistler's Gate. They'd blocked the doors and windows of a shop on Chandler's Court Avenue, filled it with water and stocked it with carp. If it stays that way, it'll be fun to go and watch the fish. We never set our hands against anything the saints have done, but their works don't always last.

The last of the sun had gone down under the horizon. I couldn't see it, but I could hear the shouts from the towers and I knew what they meant: the sunfast was over. The bonfires were all lit and the streets were almost as bright as day. I hurried to the great hall.

Teams of parents and priests went out into the dark and brought back the ones the saints had ridden. They went out with little flasks of double-blessed water for breaking the fast and breaking the trance, and little apple-scented twists of rag for leading the empty ones back to us.

I stayed in the hall. I set out bowls and spoons, and Father filled the bowls with stew. He stayed with me, while Mother went out into the dark to look for my sister and the others.

The search groups came back and the unsainted ones they brought were quiet and shaking. Some of them muttered bits of chants or hymns and the priests watched them carefully, making sure they didn't get anything more to eat, just water, until the muttering stopped and the saints had let go completely.

Osier and Mrs. Thomassen found my sister shivering in a pile of leaves under a railway overpass on the east side of downtown.

Philomella was blinking when she came in, like the hall was too bright. We had fires going in all the hearths and all the lights turned on. There was mirror-paper on all the walls, catching the light and doubling it over and over.

My sister shivered, even though we brought her chair right near the fire, but there was no sign of the saint, so I gave her a big bowl of stew. She was lifting the first spoonful to her mouth when the priest leaned near to her.

"Shouldn't you say a prayer first, hmm?" He was almost whispering.

She looked at him, and her eyes seemed lost for a moment, like she didn't understand what he was saying. Then her lips started moving, but no sound was coming out.

A shiver went up the back of my neck all the way to the top of my head.

"What's that?" said the priest. "Speak a little louder, and we can all pray with you." He was watching very carefully. I don't even think he blinked.

Philomella cleared her throat, "For all the . . ." She swallowed a big gulp of air. ". . . All the . . ." She crinkled her forehead: ". . . the . . ." I wanted to say it with her, to help her, the prayer we said every night at the dinner table, but I couldn't make a sound. Then she spoke, fast: "All the saints and those who cast us like shadows . . ." and the spoon was in her mouth, with a whole piece of turnip, and she was up out of her chair.

She was still the saint. And now that she had food, she might never be anything else.

The priest tackled her before the spoon was even out of her mouth. They tumbled over and nearly knocked the chair into the fireplace. The priest was shouting something in the ancestors' language. Philomella kicked the priest, hard, twice, and was back up on her feet. She was chewing and laughing at the same time, with a look on her face like someone who's been locked up for years and is finally getting out into the light, and she was crying. Then Osier was behind her all of a sudden and with one move he picked her up and squeezed her hard around the waist and the piece of turnip flew out of her mouth with a cough.

Mrs. Thomassen picked it up with a handkerchief and made a warding sign. She handed it to the priest once he got up again.

The saint who had been my sister was shouting. It was something in the ancestors' language, but it was no prayer. Her face was red with the screaming.

I was screaming, too. "Phil!" I yelled, "Phil! Come back!"

She looked at me and she looked at me. She had a confused expression, like I was a puzzle in front of her.

"Shadows," she said. "All shadows. All the shadows."

I realized I was still holding the bowl of stew. She realized it a second later.

"Please," she said. She tried to reach toward me, but Osier still had her arms pinned.

I took a step back. "Let go of them, Phil. Let those shadows go."

She said something else, a little singsong poem in what might have been words, and then she collapsed, like a puppet with no hand in it any more. Osier let her down, carefully, on the floor by the hearth.

Mother and Mrs. Thomassen scooped her up. They carried her to the recovery room and I followed. I felt tired, like I'd been crying hard, but I touched my face and it was dry. My face felt unfamiliar as a mask. And then I really did start to cry.

A couple hours later, Mother gave Philomella a new bowl of stew and then some bread, and, when she'd finished the first bowl, a little more stew.

I asked her if she wanted some rose and angel pie.

She opened her mouth like she was going to talk, but she just nodded, so I went to get her a slice.

Coming back from the kitchen, I passed the door. Someone was sitting there, on one of those wicker folding chairs like we'd had down below. It was the porter Phil and I had met a few days before. He was looking out into the dark.

I think all of the parents had come back in a while before. I was about to say something, to ask if he was waiting for someone, when he turned to look at me. The chair creaked.

"Would you like this?" I held out the plate of pie.

He looked at it for a moment, then took it and said, "Sure."

He was almost as far as the crust before I had an idea what to ask him. I would have said, "Are you waiting for someone?" or maybe "Do you think she'll ever come back?" or even "What would happen if she did come back?" But before I could gather up my courage to say anything, he'd finished and was handing the plate back to me.

"Thank you very much for the pie," he said, and he glanced back at me. "You should get your sister some of that."

I nodded, blushing as much as if I'd asked all my questions, and half-ran back to the kitchen. I got two pieces of pie for Phil, and one for myself, and we ate them together by the fire.

The day after, when the masks were all safe back in their boxes, nothing was left of the fast but a few piles of wet ribbons in the streets near the common. Nothing was left of the feast but some leftovers, and I helped my sister make a day-after casserole out of some scraps from the great hall and whatever we could find in the kitchen at home.

We didn't talk about the day before, except once:

"Which one was I?" she said. She had been grating a bit of squash and she set down the grater to better hear me answer.

"The Saint of Rain and Dreams," I said. "When you came into the hall you still had the red rubber boots on and you were carrying that mask like a basket woven out of willow branches. I guess you'd been swinging the rope with the whistling bells around and around."

"Oh," she said, and she thought a moment. "My arm is still a bit sore."

Then she went back to grating, and when we talked again, it was about something else.

It's a week since the sunfast, and I still have that song in my head, that tune from the shadowplay. I remember now, it was the final chase and dance of shadows, a flickering rush blurring over the water-stained linen. We sang along, but I don't remember the words now.

My sister doesn't remember any of it. She doesn't remember the play or anything else for a few days back before the sunfast. Those days are a gift gone to the saints now.

Maybe I'll hum it for her later, and we can make up our own words.


Copyright © 2003 Rudi Dornemann

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An earlier story of Rudi's, also set in the imaginary city of Fisher, will appear in a forthcoming issue of Electric Velocipede. Rudi lives in the reasonably real and largely catacomb-free city of Portland, Maine. More of his fiction can be found at The Fortean Bureau. To contact him, send him email at For more on his work, see his website.