July 9th – The Festival of the Night Swimmers

There are two festivals happening tonight under the full moon, both called The Festival of the Night Swimmers. As the name suggests, they both involve swimming at night time, although other than that primary factor they vary greatly; for example, one is very old and little known, whereas the other is very recent, and very famous. Contrary to the claims of the its organisers, the more recent festival was probably based on the second in some way.

In 1958, a few years before colour television was invented, the film Night Swimming was aired on the night of the July full moon. It was a slow-paced thing, wordless and lingering, with fantastic cinematography. For many film experts, the footage represents the height of black and white film as an artistic medium, and it is often evoked by those looking back to a so-called ‘golden age’ of television, before colour footage changed things immeasurably, suddenly making things appear more real and in the process destroying the dream-like, unreal quality offered by films like Night Swimming.

The climax of this lauded film (which has little in the way of narrative, instead being a series of beautiful, well balanced shots that imply a certain feeling or mood) takes place, unsurprisingly, in a large natural pool of water, synchronised swimmers breaking the inky black surface occasionally, sending ripples across the reflection of the huge full moon. If you ask anyone about Night Swimming, this is the scene they will describe; the ethereal movements of the swimmers seem to have touched something deep in the hearts of many. It must have been quite something to have been up that night, early in the morning, when the film was first aired. It was a hot and sticky night, like tonight, and many would have been up staring at their televisions trying to forget about the heat. In that maddening half-sleep, Night Swimmers must have seemed like it had cut through the curtain of dreams and into real life.

The latest, and most popular Festival of the Night Swimmers is based around this well-loved film, taking place tonight in Revolution Park, around and in the People’s Mirror, the small lake nestled like a blue-green jewel therein. A re-enactment of the dance performed in the film is held as the main event, the culmination of the festival after the rest of the film has been projected onto a large screen specially constructed just for tonight. Deckchairs and picnic blankets are provided free of charge, although many people watch from their beds or mattresses that they pitched up there to escape the heat of their flats. The film is very quiet, although the sound of hundreds of people getting up to watch the swimmers in the Mirror might wake up a few people who nodded off early.

For many years, nobody knew who had made Night Swimmers. The BBS (Buentoilliçan Broadcasting Service) were very tight-lipped about their mystery director, on account of their askance for anonymity, but eventually someone got a producer drunk and extracted the information from them. The director was one Lerna Beralle, not a name anyone had heard before. According to the producer who drunkenly outed her (and was later himself dragged from anonymity, revealed to be Gorvalle Thrall), she had turned up to the BBS offices with a fully formed script and a case of wine. Three weeks later the film was broadcast.

It turned out that Beralle had never directed a film before, but had spent most of her life in religious seclusion, as part of the Sisterhood of the Water Lily, a religious order who believe that women were ‘birthed’ from water lilies, brought to grace the world with beauty. Men, according to the Sisterhood, arrived later, a perversion, corruption of that initial beauty. Little is known about their religious practices as they are a very secretive order who do not allow men or ‘women who have lain with men’ into their convent. The only time they leave is to recruit new members. Much of what we know about the intricacies of their religious rituals and festivals was learned from Beralle.

Apparently the spiritualist-turned-director had spent months watching the television of a household that neighbours the high-walled convent from a perch in a cherry tree within the convent, and had decided that she must leave to make these beautiful, silent images. When she was later interviewed about her inspiration for Night Swimming, she ignored the question and told of her life in the convent. She had been ‘donated’ to the Sisterhood as a baby by her mother, an orphan who’d had her when very young and was incapable of raising her properly. The convent is built around a large pool of water, in which water lilies are obsessively cultivated, and she’d spent many thousands of hours as a child sitting by the cool stillness. She’d been taught from a young age that the moon was the mother of all women, and when she was old enough she was initiated into the Sisterhood properly, on the night of the July full moon, as part of the Festival of the Night Swimmers.

Tonight, in that central pool of the Sisterhood, the moon will be reflected brightly, and the women of the convent will undress and swim there together, in a beautiful synchronised manner. Around them, transcendent fireflies will dance, gathering nectar from the water lilies, the primary foodstuff of this particularly bright firefly species. They drift down from on high, entering each water lily for a short period, lighting them briefly like a bright white candle. Between these bursts of light the moon is visible, reflected in the pool, the long hair of each woman (they do not cut it their entire lives) spreading out beneath the flowers.

The transcendent fireflies can be seen doing the same thing anywhere else there are water lilies, and plenty of folks beyond the high walls of the convent will go to watch them. Like mayflies, they only live out of water for a day (or rather, a night), although the emergence of this species also seems to be linked to the appearance of the full moon. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Sisterhood believes that the fireflies emerge from the reflection of the moon, her spores sent to earth to nest in the lilies, where they become the souls of women.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Festival of the Icy Bucket
  • The Fair of Saint Casom
  • Pine Tree Day