The Courier Ch. 27bycaligula97236©
Chapter 27 – Epilogue
Just one week after the Day of the Dead festival, heavy rainstorms swept across central Europe. The rain continued unabated throughout October and the early part of November. In December the rain turned into snow in the higher elevations. By New Years Eve a snowstorm hit and soon all of Danubia was buried under a solid white veil of ice. A major cold snap hit the Danubian Republic and the neighboring countries, a grip of cold that did not let up for three months.
As the winter dragged on and the snow kept falling, meteorologists started comparing that winter to the brutally cold winter 1942-43, during which the weather played a major role in determining the outcome of World War II. All of the smaller rivers froze over completely, including the Rika Chorna that flowed from the eastern part of the country into Danube City. A thick sheet of ice formed over the Rika Chorna Reservoir, which forced the nation's power plant to reduce operations. For the first time in many years Danubia had to import natural gas to get through the winter.
The cold was so severe that Danube City's criminals were forced to wear their capes, which was considered a major humiliation. For several months the bright orange and yellow capes stood out among the mostly drab colors of civilians' winter clothing. Of course, the capes had to be taken off the moment criminals stepped into any building, so they were a major inconvenience for their wearers, as well as being an embarrassment on the street.
Vladim Dukov became increasingly worried as the winter progressed and the snow-pack continued to build on the Danubian mountain ranges. By the middle of February the snow on the mountains was at record levels. Yes, right now the business was great for the ski lodges, but the Prime Minister's worries went past ski season. Spring was coming, and with it the snowmelt.
At the end of February, the Prime Minister of Danubia stood on the top of the dam of the Rika Chorna Reservoir, along with the Minister of Energy and a team of engineers. The frozen lake was full to capacity and the snow on the mountains had not even started to melt. The Energy Minister and a couple of the engineers overheard their leader say to himself:
"This is the year...this is the year it's going to happen."
Dukov turned to the others:
"We're going to need to put everything we've got into trying to drain off this water. I want evacuation plans set up for all of the towns along this entire region, because I can guarantee that we will need them. I want a plan to commandeer all trucks and buses...everything this country has. And we'll need to rent some buses and dump-trucks from the other EU countries and bring them in. I want bulldozers and backhoes...lots of them...and diesel...and experienced drivers. I don't care where you get them or how much it costs; we need them here by the end of next week. And sandbags and cement pilings. We need to get started on flood levies immediately."
Three weeks later the temperature rose and heavy rains fell across Danubia. All of the nation's criminals, along with all of the younger public employees, university and high school students, and army soldiers, worked feverishly on constructing levies and digging trenches. The drafted crews worked 16-hours shifts as they battled a seemingly hopeless situation. The rain poured down around the teams of workers as they shivered in the cold water. It seemed futile to stop the coming flood, but everyone knew that the country had to at least try.
There was one thing the levee crews did not need to worry about, saving civilians. Just hours before the flooding started, convoys of buses moved through the villages to evacuate the population. By the time the area was under water the civilians already were safely out of the way.
There was flooding along the entire Rika Chorna valley, but the hastily constructed levies kept most of the water confined to the agricultural areas and slowly moved it towards the East Danube River. Anyhow, the Prime Minister was not really worried about the situation in the valley. His concern was the dam. The spillways were filled to capacity and water was starting to flow over the top. The rain continued to pour onto the mountains and torrents of cold water made their way through the thick forests, carrying mud and fallen trees into the lake. On the news the Danubians watched their Prime Minister, in shirt sleeves and soaking wet, sitting with boat crews as they worked to try to keep ice and debris out of the spillways and away from the dam. It was vital those spillways not be blocked. While sitting in his boat, Dukov was continuously on his cell phone, talking to forest rangers who were monitoring the hills above the reservoir. He knew that if those hills gave way and collapsed into the lake, there would be, at best, about 30 minutes to evacuate Danube City.
For a week the situation stayed the same...the countryside was flooded but most of the towns were kept dry. Water continued to pour into the lake at about the same rate it poured out through the dam. The water level rose along the East Danube River and completely flooded out the beaches and the forested area behind the Temple of the Ancients. There was a moment during which the water was within a few centimeters of the platform where most people began Public Penance. The docks were underwater and part of the industrial area of Danube City flooded, but fortunately the private residences and downtown area were spared. There were scares, of course, and a few broken levies that were quickly fixed. The nation held its breath...
The rain did not let up until mid April. There was a week of hot, sunny days and slowly the water receded from the landscape. Eventually even the situation in the reservoir improved. Water stopped flowing over the top of the dam and went where it was supposed to go, into the spillways. Dukov, as always, was out on the lake in his boat with teams of engineers, constantly checking on the dam. The cell phone was always in his hand, as he continuously called to monitor what was going on in the mountains. News commentators noted that he was being reckless with his own safety, because if that dam were to give way, he most certainly would be killed. To that the Prime Minister responded:
"I am just a single citizen of this country. I have my job to do, just like everyone else I drafted to come here and assist in this effort. In the eyes of the Creator, my life is no more important than that of anyone else."
By the beginning of May, the flooding in the farming areas had partially receded. Water still continued to pour off the mountains, but the dam's engineers had managed to lower the level of the reservoir to a level that no longer put the structure in immediate danger. Finally Dukov was able to leave the crews on the water and go into the mountains to examine the hillsides that overlooked the lake. Forest rangers pointed out that the woods were heavily damaged and covered with fallen trees. There were large portions of hillsides that barely were being held in place by tree roots. One geologist commented:
"I'd hate to think of what would have happened had these trees not been here, Prime Minister."
"This hill...all this dirt...it would have all gone down into the lake."
"Yes, Prime Minister Dukov. I think it's safe to assume that's what would have happened."
"...and the dam would have broken."
"Yes, Prime Minister. Given the weakened condition of the dam, I'd say that would have been possible, yes...probable, in fact...we would have lost the reservoir."
Dukov climbed down a hillside to where a large section of ground had pulled loose, but was held in place by the exposed roots of several trees. He grabbed a root, sinking his fingers into the ooze that still covered it. He knelt in the mud and closed his eyes, as the bewildered geologists nervously watched him.
For the first time in seven years, the images of Danube City's final moments were not present in Prime Minister Vladim Dukov's mind. That vision had tormented his thoughts and affected his decisions, but now, kneeling in the mud with his hands holding onto one of the real heroes of the flood, he tried to bring the image of destruction to his mind and couldn't. His question finally was answered. What he had seen was not the inevitable future, but only something that could have happened. It would have happened, but because the hills had not been deforested by Mega-Town Associates, the disaster had been avoided.
Cecilia's exchange program group was included among the crews that were tasked to build, and later to dismantle, the emergency levies that protected the towns from the flood waters. Neither the Danubian government nor Cecilia were concerned in the least that the Americans were not Danubian citizens: the fact was that they were university students and all university students had been called upon to help out in a national crisis. Anyhow, classes had been suspended during the flood, so there was not much point in staying in Danube City anyway. The students got to see a part of Danubian life they never would have seen otherwise, so there were few complaints. The only problem was that their classes resumed in May and would not end until July, so all plans for summer travel around Europe had to be abandoned. As Cecilia pointed out, however:
"Don't you be stressing about havin' to stay here 'till August, 'cause there's a lot worse places you could be spendin' your summer...like New Jersey, for example..."
Cecilia exchanged several e-mails with her US coordinator Dr. Halsey to try to figure out who was going to replace her as program director. Halsey recommended that she try to find a candidate from the current exchange group, maybe someone who was planning on staying in Danubia past the end of the semester. Cecilia shrugged her shoulders...because that was easy enough to figure out: the one person who fit that description was Carmen. The outgoing director knew that her student was dating a criminal and that she had expressed regret about leaving Danubia. Well, if Carmen took the director's job; that would solve two problems.
The moment she got the offer from Cecilia, Carmen realized that her Path in Life was indeed to remain in Danubia. That vision from the year before was no dream; it was to be part of her future. She would stay in Danubia at least as long as Anthony remained collared, which would be seven more years. Now she knew how she would support herself, by taking Cecilia's position at the university.
The days and weeks went by as the country continued to dry out from the flood. What had been a wet disastrous spring turned into a pleasant summer. The end of June was rapidly approaching and along with it the Summer Solstice celebrations. As usual, Kimberly Lee-Dolkivna's group "Socrates' Mistresses" would be performing a live concert in the Plaza of the Ancients.
Maria Elena went to the Plaza with Victor and a large group of others, which included Carmen, Cecilia, and other members of the exchange program and various boyfriends and girlfriends. Jason was not with Cecilia because he had been invited to formally participate in the Church procession. Cecilia had mentioned that was a huge honor, because as far as she knew, no other foreigner had ever participated with the Clergy in the main procession.
Maria Elena knew another person participating in the procession: Grand Duchess Anyia. The nation's Grand Duchess traditionally played an important ceremonial role in the Solstice festival, and it was obvious that Anyia took her duties seriously. Her behavior was a huge change from the previous year, when she had snubbed the Church by not even bothering to show up.
Everyone noted something else important about Anyia, that she was pregnant. The nation now knew that the Grand Duchess was carrying the heir to the Danubian Throne. Within a few months the Danubian Republic would be excited over the Royal baby and the symbolism that child would have for the future of the country. To see that Grand Duchess Anyia was pregnant was something that most of the Danubians found comforting. The public knew that, no matter what, the Royal Family would go on, in spite of whatever crisis they might have to overcome at the moment.
The Grand Duchess was, of course, totally naked except for her Church collar. She was the first Grand Duchess in three centuries who attended to her duties at the Summer Solstice festival while performing Public Penance. The change of her behavior and her lifestyle affected the lives of many of her fellow Danubians. A couple thousand young people, mostly women, but a few men as well, were following suit by wearing Temple collars. As for the followers who had taken oaths to remain naked as long as the Grand Duchess remained naked, eventually they would come to be known as "Anyia's generation".
It wasn't long after the Summer Solstice that Jason's Priestess asked him to bring his fiancé to the Temple of the Ancients. Jason knew why: it was time for the couple to stop performing Public Penance and begin the process of returning to their normal lives. The Priestess correctly assumed that her protégé and his fiancé would need at least a month to adjust to being "normal" before they left Danubia. They would spend their final month in Danubia dressed in regular clothing and psychologically preparing themselves to return to the US.
The Clergywoman knew that readjusting to the United States would be harder than either Jason or Cecilia could possibly imagine. Perhaps Jason understood that it was the Creator's intention that he return to North America, but doing so would be one of the most difficult tasks in his Path in Life. In Danubia everything made sense, everyone had his or her place in society, and from day to day one could be sure of knowing what was going to happen. To leave such a secure life for the chaotic and aggressive life that the US had to offer would be hard on anyone, and certainly on a couple who had lived the past five years of their lives in the Danubian Republic.
The Priestess regretted that Jason had to go back, because with another year or two of training, he would have made an excellent Priest for the Danubian Church. However, the Priestess understood why Jason could never become a Priest, because there was no way that Cecilia would ever be able to join him as a Clergywoman. It was Jason's path in Life to be with Cecilia, and ultimately Cecilia would have to return to the United States. So, Jason's Path in Life would be to return as well.
The Clergywoman reflected that there must have been some important reason why the Creator would have asked her to spend so much of her time mentoring Jason, even if his Path in Life was not to serve in the Danubian Clergy. He would return to his homeland and apply what he had learned in Danubia to his own future and hopefully to the future of the US. He was an intelligent and charismatic person and one of the best public speakers she had ever known. His Path in Life would be to mentor the people surrounding him, and maybe that would eventually include all of the United States. Anyhow, the Priestess was satisfied that her task with Jason Schmidt was complete. Within a month they would have to go their separate ways, but throughout his life he would always carry her in his heart.
Jason understood what lay ahead. He picked July 4 for the date that he and Cecilia would report to the Temple...an appropriate day to begin the transition back to being US citizens instead of guests of the Danubian Republic. Cecilia had expected that the ceremony would be a big deal, in the same way that the Ministry of Justice always conducted a special ceremony for criminals when they were being de-collared and released from their sentences. As they made their way to the Temple of the Ancients, Jason explained that de-collaring with the Church was different.
"This is a private matter between us, the Priestess, and the Ancients. It is not a public spectacle, unless we want to make it into one later on with a party or something."
Cecilia may have been happy about her impending freedom, but she noticed that Jason seemed a lot more reflective.
"You're...still not really happy about this, are you?"
"Well, to be happy or unhappy about what's going on is kinda like being happy or not happy about the sun coming up every 24 hours. How I feel about it at the moment doesn't matter, because it won't change anything. Our Paths in Life are to go back to the US. I know that if we tried to go against the Will of the Creator and stay in Danube City, we'd end up being unhappy. I know that for a fact. Yes, I've enjoyed my time in Danubia and learned a lot and like being here, but in the end it's not important. Our lives here are over and next month we're going home."
With that the couple ascended the stairs of the Temple of the Ancients and made their way into the main chamber. They took a pair of candles, lit them, and knelt, to let the Clergy know that they needed attention. A minute later Jason's Priestess showed up and led the couple to the back balcony of the Temple. An attendant followed behind, carrying two prayer robes.
The two Americans knelt naked for the last time. The Priestess took Jason's hands, closed her eyes, and prayed. For a long time the Clergywoman was perfectly quiet. However, Cecilia noticed tears running down her cheeks. Jason seemed to be fighting back tears as well. At that moment Cecilia realized just how important Jason and the Priestess had been in each other's lives. She said nothing, but inwardly she was glad to see that relationship coming to an end.
The Priestess regained her composure and ordered Jason and Cecilia to stand up. There was a brief prayer before the attendant handed a key to the Priestess. A moment later the collars were unlocked and off the couple's necks. Jason and Cecilia put on their prayer robes. Already Jason looked uncomfortable in the garment, because it was the first time in four years he had been dressed at all. He was a natural nudist, so having to return to wearing clothing would be a major sacrifice for him.
A month later Jason Schmidt, Cecilia Sanchez, and her nephew Pedro Mejia, boarded a plane and left the Danubian Republic. Before they departed there were, of course, numerous parties and send-offs, including a state dinner at the Prime Minister's official residence. Finally all that ended, and the day came when Cecilia and Pedro left Victor Dukov's house for the very last time. A police van passed by the house to take them to the airport. There were a final series of hugs before Cecilia and Pedro boarded the van and disappeared from lives of Victor and Maria Elena. Perhaps they would return someday, but...if they did, it would only be to visit. Everyone's lives would be different. Everything would be changed.
For the first time Victor and Maria Elena were alone in his house, truly alone. Yes, they had been alone in his bedroom plenty of times, but very rarely had they been in the house when Cecilia or Pedro had not been there as well. Now, except for the days when Victor's sons came over as guests, the house would be empty.
As they stood in his front yard, Victor and Maria Elena were very nervous, not only because of the departure of the other members of the household, but also because each had something important to tell the other.
Victor went first. He handed a small wooden box to Maria Elena. When she opened it, she saw that it contained three pieces of jewelry: a silver hairpiece, a necklace, and a ring. Following protocol, he stood at attention while he waited for her to respond.
She understood that he was proposing to her. To accept, she had to take the items out of the box, one by one, and hand them to him to put on her. Once he had placed the three items on her, the couple would be formally engaged. Maria Elena smiled and was hugely relieved as she took out the hairpiece and Victor placed it in her hair. Next came the necklace, and finally the ring. When he took her hands she responded in accented Danubian: