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By nighttime Hornby Island would be a blaze of lights. It was the summer solstice, and for the festival of Luminara all the scattered squatters and homeowners were making luminaries to celebrate the day of longest light.
Madeline, walking home from the ferries her last day of school, wondered why they celebrated a long day of light with more light. They celebrate the shortest days with lights, winter solstice with lights and the long days of summer with lights. Lights, lights, lights. What's wrong with a little dark? If we didn't spend so much on candles, maybe we'd have money for shoes.
Hornby was a very small island east of Vancouver Island. Madeline lived there with her parents, Flo and Mildred, for so they asked to be called by everyone, including Madeline, even though their names were Harry and Denise. Flo and Mildred were hippies who had started out in San Francisco but migrated north. There they joined the rest of the family, who were living not one hundred percent legally in Canada, spread out on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. When Flo and Mildred got to Hornby Island, they came into their own by discovering that with very little effort they could both play the marimba and make jewelry out of sand dollars. There was no stopping them after that.
As nature often has it, they had a child who did not want to join them in their all-day pursuit of enlightenment and a better mung bean. Instead, she became very good at cooking and cleaning and sewing and bookkeeping and minor household repairs. She was the one who changed the lightbulbs. When only ten, she got herself a waitress job part time at the Happy Goat Cafe, a fine establishment of three tables, some tree stumps, the owner, (KatyD), and a resident goat. Madeline managed to earn enough money there that if the sand-dollar art had a slow month or two, they still managed to get by.
All the other children on Hornby were homeschooled, but Madeline preferred to get up at five every morning and walk to the harbor, where she took a ferry to Denman Island, the bus across Denman, the ferry to Vancouver Island and then the bus that took her to a real school. She had made the decision to do this when she entered grade five and was finally old enough to make the trip without help. This earned her the reputation for eccentric, but the happy hippies of Hornby were tolerant of Madeline, if a little wary. Mostly they felt sorry for Flo and Mildred, raising an oddball like that.
The children in Madeline's school were less tolerant. The students who came from other tiny islands like Hornby usually wore homemade natural fabrics and, often, tie-dyed clothes. They bathed infrequently because water on the small islands was scarce. They never had money for field trips, and a good portion of them didn't seem to brush their hair. Madeline was as neat and clean as she could be, but her clothes were never in style or even always in one piece, and she was the only child who had ever come all the way from Hornby. This alone made her suspect.
Madeline's schoolmates, raised in more mainstream, connected-to-the-rest-of-the-world ways, thought all children from the smaller islands were holier-than-thou, attached to bizarre goddess-worshipping religions, and surly. Madeline didn't start out surly, but she quickly became surly. She didn't know how to make the other children like her, and she felt she constantly had to defend herself from unspoken accusations about a way of life she hadn't chosen to begin with. Well, she thought, who needs them? I bet none of them know how to make plumbing repairs. I bet none of them have read Pride and Prejudice. Twice.
On this summer solstice day, the last day of school, she really felt surly. Her teacher had announced that Prince Charles, who was doing a Canadian tour, was stopping on Vancouver Island and visiting one school! And that school was theirs! He was going to grace them with his presence at the graduation ceremony for grades four, five and six. He was personally going to give out the awards! The children who had won awards would get them from Prince Charles himself! Because of this, today they would be making special white tissue paper graduation gowns, which they would decorate with red maple leaves, and for graduation were requested to wear white shoes to match. If they did not own white shoes, they could be purchased cheaply at Walmart--no one need go out of their way to get expensive white shoes, Madeline's teacher stressed. She was sure all parents would be amenable to this. After all, it wasn't every day that Prince Charles made an appearance at your graduation ceremony! Such an honor would probably never come again!
Madeline's heart sank. Mildred got Madeline's shoes from the Salvation Army. They were usually serviceable, scuffed and ugly. Often they were the wrong size, because there was never much choice. Madeline knew that even if she could convince her mother to take her to the Salvation Army store, the chances of just happening to find white shoes was unlikely. Graduation was in a week. What waitressing money Madeline had, Mildred had already spent on Luminara.
Of course Madeline knew she didn't have to go to graduation. But she had won the reading award and the music award and the writing award. Three awards her first year in a real school! She wanted to stand on the stage and collect them. She wanted Prince Charles to hand them to her in front of all the kids who didn't talk to her because she was "islandy" and "homeschooly."
"Come look at this luminary," called Flo from the porch as Madeline made her way up their driftwood-lined walkway. "I've been working on it all day. See, it's got this lacework picture of sheep."
"Nice," said Madeline, and sat with a thump.
"So--school's out. Hallelujah," said Flo. He waited for Madeline to say something else about his luminaries. Usually she was supportive of his artwork. When she didn't praise them further, he eyed her warily.
"Of course, there's still the graduation ceremony," said Madeline. She paused. "Did you hear Prince Charles was coming to Vancouver Island?"
Flo laughed. "Yeah? You planning to lead the ticker-tape parade?"
"No," said Madeline. "But he's coming to our school. He's coming to our graduation ceremony!"
"Oh, for heaven's sakes," said Flo. "That. You don't really want to go to that, do you? You know I never even went to my college grad. Pointless thing. What does it mean, really? And the monarchy! Please! What a bunch of crap. Queen of Canada. Come on, Madeline. You can't say it's anything but a bunch of nonsense. Look at all her money. Richest woman in the world. They ought to split her money up among the poor in England. Do you know what their unemployment rate is like? Instead, they send this silly man around Canada to attend children's silly graduation ceremonies. Get real."
"I couldn't go if I wanted to. I need white shoes," said Madeline.
"They can't make you wear white shoes!" said Flo. "Wear the shoes you have. That'll show them."
"No, my teacher said we have to wear white shoes to go with our white tissue paper gowns. We have to."
"Nonsense. Sending people out to buy white shoes when they have perfectly good brown ones! Bunch of crap. You see how our consumer culture has infiltrated everything? God, I wouldn't go to some ceremony given by people whose raison d'etre is to pressure children into buying shoes they don't need to stand in front of some pointless outdated symbol of colonialism."
Flo started to go back into the house, shaking his head.
"I DO need them," muttered Madeline, watching his retreating back.
"You do need them?" said Flo, turning back to face her.
"Prince Charles is giving out the awards himself. I won three," said Madeline. "I can't go up there in brown shoes."
"I'll tell you what, Madeline," said Flo. "If you can tell me what makes him so special that you have to put on white shoes for him; if you can explain it in a way that makes sense, then I will attend the ceremony. But I would bet you a pair of white shoes that you cannot. This goes against everything we have tried to teach you."
Madeline frowned. Flo nodded, triumphant at her silence, and went inside.
Madeline went down to the garden, where her mother was stringing luminaries between the beans.
"Hi," said Madeline.
"Prince Charles is coming to our school."
"Oh, for heaven's sake. Better not tell Flo. Aren't these luminaries pretty? Oh, and Danika has made some giant animal-shaped ones. Giant rabbits and deer and strange Martianlike figures and salamanders. I just love salamanders, don't you? They always look so magical."
"Yeah, they're okay," said Madeline, eating a bean. "Next week at graduation, he's coming. It's kind of once-in-a-lifetime."
"Speaking of once-in-a-lifetime, Danika says the paper is so thin you can only use them once. She says they're thaumaturgic when lit. She's going to bring them early because they take a while to set up. We're going to scatter them through the woods for people to happen on when we do our midnight lantern walk."
"How many candles do they take?"
"Lots. I think they're the biggest luminaries anyone's made yet. One of them is ten feet."
"All those candles drip drip drip, gone by morning. I don't suppose there's any waitressing money left?" asked Madeline.
"Not a penny. I had to buy more art supplies. Flo needed paper to make some new luminaries and we had to fix some of the ones that got torn last year."
"And tomorrow all those luminaries will be done with. Dollars' and dollars' worth."
"We can recycle most of them for next year."
"But not the candles. We'll have just burnt up all that money. I thought we were supposed to be conserving resources and living green. How green is it to use a bunch of candles on one night of fun?"
"That's true, but think, Madeline, it's like the Zen sand mandalas. Remember when the monks came and spent all day meticulously making a detailed picture on the beach with colored sand and then at the end of the day this great and detailed creation was borne away by the tides? Nothing lasts. Besides, Luminara is part of our great cultural heritage."
"Luminara was invented by Zanky Marsala one night when she was in a hyperspiritual state."
"Hyperspiritual state? What do we, uh, mean by that?" asked Mildred, looking a little nervous.
"KatyD told me that. So clearly it's just a made-up holiday."
"Luminara is a lovely tradition. And all holidays are made up. And lots of things of enduring mysticism come from people being in, well, more-than-average spiritual states. Look at Stonehenge."
"I need shoes."
"No, you don't," said Mildred, surprised at the sudden change of subject and looking down at Madeline's feet. "You only have one tiny hole in that one." She pointed.
"I need white shoes for graduation."
"Oh, those things they dream up at the end of the year. God, that's why I didn't want you to go to school. All this business of grading and this person is better than that person. And we all have to dress alike. It's so meaningless, Madeline. And graduation is just a silly artificial rite."
"Well, you could say that about anything. You could say that about Luminara."
Mildred sighed again, stopped threading the luminaries among the bean strings, and leaned down to look Madeline in the eye.
"Luminara celebrates light and our connection to Mother Earth. What is a graduation? It's just another way of brainwashing you into believing that achievement is the answer. Of course you must make your own choices, but I wouldn't go if I were you."
Then she straightened up and went back to stringing lights.
"Prince Charles thinks it's important enough to come!" said Madeline as a parting shot.
"Don't get me started on the monarchy!" warned Mildred as Madeline headed to the house. "Sometimes I wonder where you came from. You're not like anyone in the family except Uncle Runyon."
"I LIKE Uncle Runyon!" called Madeline over her shoulder.
"So do I," said her mother, shaking her head. "But I don't understand either of you."
Uncle Runyon was the only relative living on Vancouver Island one hundred percent legally and with consistently covered toes. He worked as a secret decoder scientist for the Canadian government. No one was supposed to know where he lived because it was top-secret, but he had the family over for Easter every year anyway and he attended what celebrations of theirs he could stand. He always said all this hush-hush business concerning him was just a lot of hooey. No enemy spies were interested in him. His job was really very boring.
Or so he had always told Madeline. But out there on Vancouver Island somewhere there was suddenly a group becoming very, very interested in him indeed.