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Ashes of the Sun by Walters, A. Meredith (1)

Pastor Carter often said that in order to be reborn, one had to first lose everything.

This was his mantra. His poetry spoken in the lovely lilt of a well-rehearsed southern accent. Pastor Carter was a firm believer in the idea that out of despair, beauty could blossom.

My mother subscribed to this fundamental pillar of her hard won

faith with the devotion of a fanatic. And being her daughter—nurtured into placid obedience—I believed as well.

Because we both had learned many years ago that you could lose everything in a moment. Whether by choice or by circumstance, it didn’t matter. The loss was the same. One didn’t necessarily tiptoe towards rock bottom. You could crash, head first, into the mouth of hell itself in three seconds flat.

Those were the lyrics of my mother’s song.

Daphne Bishop splashed in puddles of tragedy. She clutched it to her chest with bloodied fingers. An orphan in and out of the foster system, she teetered on the edges of madness until she suffered a breakdown at the age of eighteen.

But it hadn’t ruined her.

It would take the heavy handed grip of God to devastate her completely.

Institutionalized and alone, she pulled herself together with the help of a care assistant named Dan, fifteen years her senior. They fell in love—though they shouldn’t have—and when Daphne was released at the age of twenty-three, they built a shaky sort of life together.

Pastor Carter said that worlds built on crumbling foundations will eventually crush you. It was one of the many things he was right about.

The tipping point—the moment of absolute and terrifying truth—came and went in the span of thirty minutes. That’s all it took for my life to change. For my mother’s entire universe to flip inside out.

For the hard, unyielding floor at rock bottom to greet us with open arms.

It played like a movie in my mind during the dead of night. Strong, masculine shoulders, weighed down by my mother’s fluctuating moods. His bowed yet resolute back as he walked out the door and out of our lives. For good.

But that was then. A past meant to be forgotten. Embracing the present, preparing for the future—that was the only way to live.

I opened my eyes, alert and awake without the dizzy fog of interrupted dreams. I could hear my mother moving around in our tiny, one room home. Her footsteps muffled. Her movements careful and controlled.

I didn’t linger under the sheets.

Blessed is the morning God has made, I thought silently as I put my feet on the floor and got out of bed, making sure to be as quiet as possible. No sound escaped my lips. It was still dark. The early morning air cold on my bare legs, the thin material of my nightdress tickling my skin.

Mom was just as quiet. Both of us having been conditioned to maintain total muteness during the Sun’s Morning Blessing. She had already dressed. She was usually awake an hour before I was. Her internal clock set to the rooster crow. She smiled at me, little more than a brief movement of her lips before they pressed into a neutral expression once again.

Daphne Bishop was a beautiful woman, even after everything life had thrown at her. I had inherited very little of what made her so attractive, instead taking after the man I had barely known. With thick, unruly blonde hair that could only be managed by pulling it back away from my face, I couldn’t be described as conventionally pretty—if those things mattered. Interesting perhaps, if the person was feeling generous. My eyes were, in my opinion, too wide for my face. They were a fierce, rather aggressive green that would have been nice if not for the almost pigment free spot in the left iris that instead made my gaze off-putting. Few people met my stare head on. I wished it didn’t make me sad. Some obstacles were harder than others to overcome, I had learned.

Mom picked up my thick, woolen sweater and handed it to me, indicating I was to wear it. It was early June, but still cold in the mountains. We were experiencing a late chill in these early summer months.

I quickly threaded my arms through the red and white sleeves. I was particularly fond of this sweater, having knitted it two winters ago. Once fully dressed, I followed my mother out of the house and into the still morning.

We joined a group of equally silent men, women, and children, all walking with slow and steady purpose towards the break in the tree line that I could barely see in the dim light, but knew with practiced familiarity.

A hand brushed mine before sliding away. I glanced at Anne Landes, my best friend. We fell into step beside each other as we had done every morning since she arrived with her father four years ago.

I loved this time of day. The silence. The weary nighttime just before it gave way to the constant steadiness of light.

My feet crunched on fallen leaves. My toes curled in the chill. The thin slippers doing little to protect them. They throbbed with a constant ache I was used to.

Too cold. I shivered in my sweater, in my thin, linen skirt. My freezing, throbbing feet.

No choice.

The sun was waiting.

It was always waiting.

Our movements were slow. Expected.

No one spoke. Not a sound. Not even the soft whooshing of breath as it was released and reclaimed.

I felt the brief bite of anger. It didn’t last long. It never did.

An irritation at being forced out of bed in this ritualized manner every single morning. No matter the weather, I stood, arms outstretched, greeting the day.

Even those times the sun refused to rise, and remained resting behind heavy clouds, we were there. Praying and singing and murmuring exaltations of gratitude.

But for those few moments I hated every minute of it. It was a quick and noiseless rebellion. One I had little control over. And one I would never admit to anyone. Not even Anne.

Most certainly not my mother.

Never her.

We pushed through the trees. An abrupt conclusion to the meandering forest and we stood, wind in our faces, at the precipice of the white, crumbling slate cliff that felt like home.

The sky started to turn a dusky rose. I could smell the morning. It filled my lungs with the one thing we all shared. Hope.

Feet shuffled along, pressing in close together. But not too close to the edge of the rock. It was a hundred foot drop to the trees below. No one dared foolish curiosity by peering over the side. We knew the consequences of not respecting the fear that kept our feet on the ground, backs to the rock.

Anne looped her arm with mine. Elbow to elbow. Her skin was cold. Always cold. I noticed how my friend continuously glanced at her father, Vince, who stood huddled close to Miriam Holler. His arm around the smaller woman, her frizzy, grey hair wild around her pinched face. I was surprised by the familiar intimacy between them. Romantic relationships were discouraged, even if not outright forbidden. We were one big family, but our true love was meant for the Lord alone. Even though I knew Vince and Miriam spent time together, I never thought they were anything more than fellow disciples, walking the path together. Clearly there was something else going on. I could tell by the set of Anne’s mouth that she wasn’t happy about it. She didn’t like Miriam. Truthfully, I didn’t either. She was the type to preach loudly for all to hear. She thought her kind of faith was the only kind of faith. And that it made her better—godlier—than everyone else. She was clearly having a hard time learning modesty. Perhaps she needed more time to reflect on her sins.

Though I would never say this to anyone but Anne. It wasn’t my place to question the behavior of my elders. I knew better.

Watching Vince and Miriam I wondered what Pastor would say about their behavior. I couldn’t imagine him condoning it. I looked away, not wanting to give any more thought to what they were or weren’t doing.

I searched the group of fifty odd individuals looking for my mother. Knowing I’d find her waiting at the tree line. Alone. For now.

The wind on the cliff blew hard. My ears and nose were numb. Anne shivered beside me, but tried to be discreet about it. I often thought she was made of tougher stuff than I was.

The silence was comforting. It was imbued with a constancy that was desperately craved by everyone here. We breathed in tandem. Puffs of air in the crystal clear morning. The sky began to lighten. The distant horizon began to turn a rich color.

I felt my heart soar at the first sight of the coming sun.

A crunch of rock signaled the footsteps we all knew were coming.

Pastor Carter, his long, thinning blondish grey hair was held back from his face with a string. He took my mother’s hand and made his way towards the rock outcrop. We parted for them in unison. Making way for the man who had brought us here.

Mom fell back, letting our leader take his place before us. Eyes closed. Tips of his thin leather shoes precariously close to the edge. He began to hum. A deep, throaty song.

The sun crawled steadily upwards. My voice joined Pastor Carter’s. I opened my mouth and the melody melted into the air. Reaching the heavens.

I was joined first by Anne. Then Caitlyn Walker and Stafford Givens, fellow disciples I had known since we were each ten. One by one each of us leant our tune to the congregational song. Our music greeted the dawn. It was our prayer. Our communion.

“Blessed is the day the Lord has made,” Pastor Carter exclaimed as we sang around him.

“Blessed is the sun, a true manifestation of God’s love. Of God’s power.” I felt a chill in my bones at the words. I could recite them by heart but their message felt different each and every time.

“Feel the heat. Feel the fire. Without it, we will die. Without it we will cease to be. Glory in the sun. Glory in the day. It is our gift.” Pastor Carter lifted his arms upward as if embracing the sun as it continued its torturous ascent into the waiting morning.

And we sang and sang. Until the sky was bright and the sun was full and warm.

Only then did we break our unified voice and make our way back home. Content that another day had begun. Another day on our planned course.

Another day towards our joined fate.

“You heading to the kitchen?” Anne asked as we walked steadily through the woods. Arms still linked, we moved as one. Our closeness obvious by anyone and everyone.

“Not yet. Pastor Carter asked me to come by the solarium first.” I felt a fullness in my chest at the admission. A sense of duty and purpose that no one but the other fifty-five people in my chosen family would understand.

Anne glanced at me, her eyes clear and bright in the early light. Eyes so blue they were like reflections of the sky.

“Why?” she asked simply. No accusation. No jealousy either. That’s not how Anne and I worked.

I looked around, ensuring that others weren’t paying attention. Of course they weren’t. Each and every one was immersed in their own thoughts. Their own conversations.

“We’ve had many talks,” I began to say softly. I felt her tug on my thumb.

“What do you talk about?”

“Plans. My path. The journey,” I answered. To some this would sound vague. As if I weren’t really answering her at all. But those words would be understood by every single brother and sister of The Gathering.

Our path was what defined us. Defined our lives at The Retreat—the 100-acre home of The Gathering of the Sun.

“Why your path specifically?” Anne prodded. I knew she was simply interested. She wanted to know. She wanted to hear the words that had been gifted to me.

There was curiosity in her tone. An eagerness to live vicariously.

Pastor Carter was our leader. Our mentor. Our guide.

His attention was craved. His words a blessing. He spent time with all of us at different points, but I knew that his time with me was different.

I shivered. Suppressed darkness always there. Reminders of things I didn’t want to think about…

I smiled, forcing my thoughts to a different place. A comfortable one.

My life had been crafted into perfect devotion.

And I was the absolute disciple.

Pastor Carter was everything to the disciples of The Gathering. He was leader. He was father. He was our conscience. He was our moral center.

In reality, he had absolute power over us. Over our lives. Some men would become rotten with that sort of control over others. He could have wielded it mercilessly, ruining us without anyone being the wiser. But he handled his responsibility with seeming care. Everything he did was for the betterment of his flock. I truly believed that. Because that’s what he told us to believe. And if there was anything festering, I looked the other way. I could justify it a million different ways.

I refused to believe anything was there in the first place.

“When you think about life—about the future—what do you see?” Pastor Carter had asked the first time he had requested that I join him in his private solarium. I was a teenager. Gangly and awkward but desperate to feel special. To feel unique.

The solarium was a place unlike any I had ever seen. I had often wondered about the walls of glass at the back of Pastor Carter’s house, but never dared ask about it. Now I was seeing it for myself. And it was beautiful.

The silence inside was profound. We lived a mostly quiet life. Noise had very little purpose unless in prayer or song. Yet in spite of this, I still found the calm of Pastor’s solarium almost overwhelming.

I had just left the soft voices and hushed laughter of the other women making lunch. We had spent the morning in prayer as we always did. Every minute cataloged. Every moment accounted for. It was meant to smother the chaos of the outside world. Only through consistency could we find peace.

Our routines were rigid. But the times allowed for talking together were sacred. Laughter was hallowed. True joy was a gift none of us took for granted. Mostly because we experienced so little of it. We spent most of our time fearing the inevitable.

I wanted to be with Anne and Mom. I wanted to laugh too. But I knew that this was more important.

It felt life changing.

“I think about being here. Being a disciple for The Gathering,” I told him. This should be self-explanatory.

I hadn’t been given a choice to come. But now I chose to stay.

I was fifteen. In the full throes of teenage-hood. Ready to be an adult, yet with a childlike devotion to those around me. In my mind, my heart, my soul, I belonged here. With my family. With my faith.

With Pastor Carter.

Pastor smiled. His smiles were strange things. They didn’t seem to be born from happiness. They were mired in grief. In hope. In everything he took on for the rest of us. His smiles made me sad for him.

“Tell me about The Awakening, Sara,” he prompted softly. He stood at the wall of windows, his back to the sun. It’s dusky glow like a halo around him. I had to look away. It burned my eyes.

“The Awakening?” I swallowed. My tongue felt thick. Too big for my mouth.

Pastor Carter nodded.

The Awakening.

My head buzzed.

My heart thudded.

The Awakening.

I wasn’t scared. I was… exhilarated.

“We are all waiting for our Awakening. We pray to be taken so that we can start again. In a new world. In a new life. Away from the pain of the outside. Away from the destruction of a greedy earth and a life of darkness.”

My words took on the impassioned breathlessness of the eager. Of the fervent.

Pastor Carter crossed the room to where I stood. He took my hands. Smooth palms. Cold skin. I relaxed. Like a prayer, he soothed me.

“What if I told you The Awakening is soon?” he murmured. I wasn’t sure I had actually heard him.

I straightened my shoulders. “I say I hope I’m ready,” I said steadily. My eyes felt hot. The tears threatened.

Pastor rubbed his thumb over my knuckles. “I’ve watched you since you were a girl, Sara. You’re different than the others. Different than your mother. Better.”

I felt immeasurable pride.

Better than my mother.

I loved her, but Pastor had to know how much those words would mean to me. He wasn’t blind to the strange competitiveness between us. One that came from her insecurities, not mine.

“Tell me about the Awakening,” he said again.

I frowned. I didn’t understand. What did he want me to say?

I knew I had to please him. I wanted to. I had spent years existing in the bubble he had created.

“We are all waiting for our Awak—”

“No,” Pastor Carter interrupted. His voice sharp. That one word slicing me open.

I sucked in a breath. The pain of not doing what he wanted acute.

“Tell me about your Awakening,” he corrected. Then smiled again. So painful.

“My Awakening…” I said slowly, drifting off.

Smile.

“It’s time to prepare, Sara. Your soul has to be ready.”

I felt a mixture of so many things. But I recognized very real fear as the most prominent.

Pastor Carter must have seen it on my face because he took me in his arms. He held me close. The way a father would. Almost.

He led me to the small door at the far end of the room.

“Show me what God has made,” he whispered. A strangled command I was meant to obey. “I am God’s servant. I am his messenger. His will is mine. Mine is his. Trust in me, for what we do is holy.”

My cheeks were wet with tears.

“You will lead the way for all of us, Sara.” He spoke it as a promise as he closed the door behind me. Enveloping me in a new kind of darkness.

I would lead the way.

The end was the beginning…

“I’m not sure,” I told her truthfully. I squeezed her hand. “But all our paths are just as important.”

Anne nodded. Her smile was less bright though. I put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed. “I think Evelyn made those oat cookies you like so much.” I was trying to distract her. I didn’t want her to feel bad.

The truth was Anne’s fate was very different than mine.

Pastor Carter had said so.

“Will Anne be Awakened too?” I had asked that first time. The most important time.

Pastor Carter’s smile was gentle. The kind of smile you give when you let someone down.

“I know you love Anne. We all do. She’s a wonderful child of God. But her path is different. She’s not you, Sara,” he had said.

“But she’s special too—” I had started to say but Pastor Carter held up his hand, silencing me instantly.

“You’re special, Sara. Very special. Especially to God. And especially to me.” He had hugged me again and it felt good and warm and right.

I never mentioned Anne’s path again.

I focused on me. And preparing my soul.

Because Pastor Carter told me that’s what I was meant to do. And I knew that God spoke with Pastor’s tongue. We all believed this.

“It’s my turn to clean up after our meal.” Anne made a face. “Why do I always get the jobs no one wants?” She laughed but it sounded false. “I’m starting to feel like I have no real purpose here. Except as garbage lady.” She laughed again and it was jarring to hear.

I took her hand, lacing our fingers together in the normal way for us. “Of course you have a purpose here, Anne. Don’t be silly. You help me with Bible study, don’t forget.”

“Minnie and Bobbie straighten the hymnals. Stafford is responsible for cleansing the Sun Sanctuary. And Caitlyn walks with Pastor and writes down his words for our holy book—”

“And Tate cleans the shower room. And Sharon washes the floors. We all have duties that require more or less of us,” I reminded her.

Anne smiled again. It was her default reaction to stress and worry. To happiness and joy too. She used her smiles as a wall to keep doubt and pain away. I was pretty sure it didn’t work. I was privy to the secrets of my best friend’s heart and I worried that her unhappiness was too much sometimes. For her and for me.

I couldn’t dwell on negativity. None of us should. Pastor Carter said it was a symptom of a diseased world. And at this point in our journey, we should be better at dispelling it.

Anne was slower than most in walking the path.

I shook her arm. Slightly. A note of warning. “Accept what you are given. Blessed is the day God has made.”

Anne’s shoulders slumped a little, yet I couldn’t feel bad for lecturing her. It was what she needed to hear.

“I shouldn’t complain. I am blessed with this life.” I could still hear the lie and I knew she didn’t entirely believe what she said. That concerned me more than anything.

“I’ll help you clean up after the meal,” I said, hoping that would be enough to turn the dark thoughts away. I wasn’t entirely sure if it worked.

“Sure, that would be great. It’s been a long time since we swept a floor together. Especially now that you have so many meetings with Pastor.”

I hugged her. In so many ways I was closer to her than anyone. Anne was the family my mom wasn’t.

I loved my mother but she wasn’t mine to claim. She hadn’t been since I was eight years old.

She belonged to The Gathering. Her position as highest ranking elder meant most of her time was spent in prayer and solitude. And when she wasn’t in the Sun Sanctuary, she was by Pastor Carter’s side. His right hand. Teaching and sharing the word of God as received by Pastor.

She was still a woman of ebbs and flows. Her love could be given so easily. It could be taken away without hesitation.

The disciples accepted her “fits” as something beyond mental illness. That was too narrow a definition for what my mother experienced. Pastor recognized her for what she was. A truth-sayer. A prophet. A purveyor of the holy.

Because of that, Pastor Carter elevated her status within the Gathering of the Sun soon after our arrival. He claimed that her scattered mental state was a result of her brain trying to process messages from God. Her body couldn’t contain such divinity. He said history was littered with stories of people dismissed as crazy when they were really filled with a mystical truth.

What had been diagnosed as depression and paranoia was in actuality something greater. Something amazing.

Pastor Carter embraced those things the rest of the world misunderstood. The people they turned their back on. The shunned people. The marginalized. That’s why we loved him. That’s why we knew he would lead us to better things.

No one could dissuade us from that one absolute fact.

“What’s going on?” Anne asked, stopping before we entered the dining hall—a long, narrow building made of clap board and off cuts of wood.

There was a commotion by the Sun Sanctuary. I saw two men surrounded by a group of disciples. I could hear distressed murmurs.

“Let’s go find out.” I pulled on Anne’s hand and we hurried over.

“What happened?” I asked the closest person, Bobbie Mann, a disciple only a year older than me. He stood nearby watching the scene with a blank expression. He wasn’t a man prone to emotive responses, yet the firmness around his mouth alarmed me.

“They went to town to get some supplies Pastor needed,” he answered, his voice low.

I looked at the two men—Adam Brewer and Tyler Rhea—and noted that both appeared to be hobbling. Adam had a busted nose that bled sluggishly. Tyler was cradling his left arm to his chest.

They had gone into Whistle Valley, the small town at the base of the mountain. I didn’t need any more explanation than that.

It wasn’t the first time a disciple had gone into town only to return battered and bruised.

The people of that tiny, tiny town hated our family. They tried on numerous occasions to evict us from the land. Public officials had shown up at the gate, demanding to be let inside. There had been reports of child abuse. Of ritualist murder. Of every terrible, depraved thing you could imagine.

Pastor Carter always handled it.

We stayed away from Whistle Valley as much as possible. People only went when absolutely necessary. Venturing into the outside world wasn’t something any of us relished doing.

Seeing Adam and Tyler only reinforced every single horrible thing I had ever been taught about the people out there.

My mother rushed over. Her long hair knotted and tangled down her back. Her leggings, torn at the knee and her thin, cotton dress dirty. She clearly hadn’t bathed in several days. Nor changed clothes. She was in the midst of a prayer journey. Sometimes they lasted days. Sometimes weeks.

Everyone parted the way for her, allowing her access to the injured men. She put her hands on their foreheads and closed her eyes, her lips moving silently.

All noise ceased.

We held our collective breaths and waited. We needed direction. We needed to be told what we must do.

We would not make the decision ourselves.

Mom began to hum. It was a pleasing sound. Melodic and high pitched. As if tuning into a frequency only she could hear.

I recognized the wild look in her eyes. Her mind was most likely brimming with some new message. New words to share with our family.

I watched the woman who had given birth to me with a mixture of awe and fear. My early childhood—in the days before The Gathering—was peppered with memories of her like this. It had scared me then.

I hadn’t understood why she was the way she was. I had curled into a tiny ball and waited for the madness to pass. I had wanted to make myself as small and insignificant as possible to wait out the storm.

I had since learned the reasons for things.

“We must pray,” she howled, falling to her knees. I immediately bowed my head, sinking slowly to the ground. Following the orders as they were given.

“Pray for the souls of those who wish us harm,” Mom wailed, her hands raised upwards towards the sky. Towards the sun.

“Pray for the healing of Adam and Tyler. Let the sun bathe them in warmth and light. God’s ultimate gift to us.”

We all lifted our arms in supplication.

And still we were silent. Letting Mother speak for us. To pray for us.

There was the sound of footsteps on gravel. I didn’t open my eyes. I could sense him.

“My children. Blessed is the day God has made,” Pastor Carter murmured. I felt his hand on my head. His fingers stroking my hair before he moved on.

My stomach clenched and then retracted. I felt mildly nauseous.

“Try to forgive those that hurt us. Pray for our own immortal souls. Look to The Awakening. The sun guides our way. Adam and Tyler remind us not to waste time on those already lost. You can’t change their hearts. They will know only pain and suffering at the end,” Pastor Carter preached, his voice like a hundred bells in my ear.

My muscles were taut. My head began to pound. Remembering what lay at the bottom of the mountain filled me with an anxiety that consumed me.

But I was safe.

Here.

The Gathering of the Sun protected me.

“Blessed is the sun. Blessed is our path. Blessed is our family.”

We repeated Pastor’s words in unison. As we had been taught to.

Over and over again.

The act of repetition calmed me.

I felt Pastor’s hand on my head again. His palm warm. “Blessed is our path.”

I bowed my head further. My chin touching my chest. My hair falling on either side of my face.

“Blessed are the chosen,” I whispered.

And I felt the prayer.

There was no room for any doubt in my heart.

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