July 28

[Darkling Light]

The foredoomed danced of the Winter Wait had finally flickered out and faded into the crisp morning mist of first light. With it went the feathered figurants followed by the Spirit of Ice and his consorts Deathblow and Wizened. They had taken so many of our people. I know that in the quietude of tears and shimmering dewdrops every lodge is stirring, preparing a banquet for the dead, a final farewell to those who would join our ancestors in their own celebratory feast of the Infinite Present.

The women were busy assessing the last stores of hazelnuts, grain, and crabapples. Others went up on the mountain to make prayers and gather strawberries and fiddleheads. In this early day I detect the bouquet of baking bread and hear the lowing of lady cows being relieved of their udder burdens.

The night fire breathes its last breath. A deep bed of embers clings to its glow as intermittent puffs of smoke rise and vaporize into the morning. Men, young and old, have gathered there. Spirit Fletchers and Stone Society elders stand with Cloud People and the Men of the Sun offering prayers for hunters and fishermen. Other Old Ones whisper their counsel, giving bundles of herbs and deerskin pouches of paint to those embarking on a grand journey. Some will fish; others will hunt the great boar, its namesake clan busy with the blessing.

Beyond the compound men are already working a field with the familiar tenderness with which they stroke the women, the self-same vessels of abundance and passion. Young bards stand at the periphery watching, wondering why their magic has yet to stoke a fire. They do not comprehend and yet should they survive they will face a similar end, lost in the verve of some wise woman, somewhere. A dog dances as do the lapwings. A timid doe and her fragile child delicately nibble in the shadows of the tree line. Each is a spirit of the grain that will soon be planted in the field and they have come to lend their oversight.

I hold my breath in awe of the old Gossips who have made the journey through winter but have yet journeyed no further. Their voices, crackling like an eloquent blaze, drift across the compound and ignite my attention. I am drawn in like a firebrand to its target, lighting my curiosity. I follow the sonnet of the old wisdom and hope some spirit of invisibility will conceal my inquisitive nature from the Crones’ scrutiny.

They sit in a sunbeam, opening bundles and bags, chattering about the bear and the turtle emerging into the new season. Like the old women the bear and the turtle had made their way to spring again. The omen is propitious after a long, portentous winter. As they spread out their treasures a cacophony of mumbled prayers immixes with the smoke of their fire and summons eager spirits that echo the litany. I hear rogations and obtestations to the unknowable mystery. Others simply invoke the spirit of desire for the young ones who inspire our Earth’s bounty and will fill next winter’s lodges with the satisfied sigh of well-suckled newborns.

Some unwrap decrepit sheathes of grain and with inordinate care pluck a kernel or two to be mixed in the season’s seed. A few more go to the animals that will soon be released to a summer of grazing in the hills. Those tiny tidbits will bring them protection and the strength to face their own slaughter in the fall. The hunters will come in soon with the boar. Its blood will be mixed with the seed before his remains are buried in the field worked ardently by the men and envied by bardic hopefuls.

But the prevailing mendicant melody is a descant for the deceased. We will bathe their graves with the milk given by inconsolable creatures. The bread will call their spirits to our table where we will feed them the last of our hazelnuts and our fruit, the boar and the fish. We will feast with them. And then we will get on with our lives.

I steal myself away from the Crones’ auspicious day and make my way into the darkness of the surrounding forest. It smells of the perfume of damp decay from which ascends perpetual new life. I dawdle admiring the fiddleheads poking through the detritus and wonder how they escaped harvesting hands. Moss cloaks the deadwood and mushrooms dance in the shadows. Where canopy breaks permit shafts of light to penetrate, blackthorn and crabapple, flocked in iridescent blooms, scrambled to reach its blessing. In the months to come their branches will grow heavy with ripened, voluptuous fruit. Blackthorn cherries will be fed to young girls. Others will find their way into an elixir of enlightenment tippled by women intent on finding a mate to consume and destroy at the Showoff Dance. Some horned bull or ram, goat or buck will gladly die in their arms after impregnating those fertile vessels with the seed of ancestral spirits. Such measured intonation brings delight to our Mother Moon, the keeper of the night and kaleidoscopic carnal delight.

In the fall the crabapples will bring a blessing of a different sort, the feast of completion, offered at graves and rendered into tart mead made sweet with honey and woodland flowers. The dead will awaken and walk among us again, resurrected, recreated, immortal, leaving wands of apple wood carved with mysterious symbols at the thresholds of the chosen. We are a strange and wondrous people, worshipping Earth and Sea, making slow peace with those who persist in digging into the heart of the greatest mystery ever known. Someday we will forgive them or die in the trying.

In the distance I detect the wailing of a creature that stands facing his death; it is unmistakable. I am drawn to his desperate cry, into a clearing. There a group of men have stripped an oak of its mistletoe and are set to cull the old giant, sending her into oblivion. The scene makes me heartsick as their axes rhythmically strike the trunk, ringing out a mournful song of despair for the tree and the brute. The thread of life is cut from both, the oak shuddering its death song and the denizen spurting streams of blood before both thunderously crash to a heart broken Mother. The wood is assembled for a massive blaze, adorned with corpulent gobbets of glistening, bloody bull flesh. I want to wretch from the smell and flee back into the comforting old growth embrace of darkness. But I stay, struggling to reconcile the inestimable loss of such wisdom keepers. It is a new way confounding to my old soul.

The smoke, believed a blessing, turns my stomach inside out, and I would favor coughing up what’s left of my lungs rather than endure another moment of inexplicable devastation. The men will haul those ashes back to that field and give them to the Earth before the new crop is sown. They believe their grain will be blessed, but the Old Ones tell me no good can come from a senseless slaughter. The people will pay the price, just as they had last winter, and the winter before that, and all winters to come until we are gone.

I wish the new thinkers would slither back to their own world. Instead they will devour ours as though provender for their beasts, toasting to their illusion of power, and dismissing our humility, it withering away with the last of our lives.

I wonder when it was decided that the righteous thing to do was to destroy that which was believed sacred. The old oak had been our teacher for more generations than could be remembered. And that stout bull had only just reached his prime. He could have gone on to sire a multitude. The prayers have been forgotten. And like the bull, the blackthorn and the crabapple have been corralled in a thing called an orchard, stolen from the wild landscape and the groves that were once thought the wombs of wisdom. Long ago the cherry pit was strung on a cord and worn by receptive women at the Showoff Dance. Now they are hoarded for cultivation. I still remember when the Crones read the stars hidden in the crabapples’ hearts. From that knowledge the old women divined journeys to unknown worlds and matched up lovers for Sacred Marriage, the very bliss that incites our Earth’s plentitude. Now men guard the women’s fields as though some thief would soil himself with a theft. Has it been forgotten that our beloved Mother is the center of the universe and the life force of our women causes the plants to grow, not men armed with spears that look for that which couldn’t be seen. There had been special occasions when our young girls were festooned with crabapple blossoms and thought of as irreplaceable jewels. Now they work the fields, their sacred state of being unremembered as well. Where ritual lovers had blessed intractable trees the orchard slaves are now tied together with rope on Winter Solstice and the fools call that marriage.

I make my way back to the field, following the woodsmen with their plunder of burnt bones. The moon is waxing; as they spread the ashes women wait with baskets of the seed that is to be sown. A great troupe flocked in leaves and carrying torches circumscribe the field following the path of the sun. An altar is being set in place and the faithful will supplicate daily for a good yield. The ceremony concludes with others sprinkling holy water to entice the rain. Later on young girls will grind the first harvest on stones made somehow magical. The last sheathes will be dressed in women’s clothes and placed in a manger so that the cows will thrive. All of this is needed to maintain the misbelief of control over the natural world. Some of us still hold that wild places know the way. They provide for us and when that provision is lean we accept in harmony the mystery of it, knowing to do otherwise is bad medicine. Somewhere far to the north where the ocean thunders in with sand and treasures, men are standing waist deep in the surf while women stand on the shore singing songs of gratitude for egg laden seaweed. I should be there. Instead I watch a great wave advancing to consume the ancestral airs.

It is thought that the field exemplifies a peace loving, nurturing mother. If that were true why must men guard it? They believe it to be alive with spirits; it is, alive with the spirits of avarice and greed. The beneficent ones have fled to the untamed landscape, back to a world where trees strut like mummers and the Ancient Ones hunt the spirits of legendary stag. There, water spirits sing the songs of antiquity and salmon eat hazelnuts to prophesy about the foibles of man and the wisdom of the old keepers. There, the bear and the turtle regale us with translations from the dreamtime and remain the envy of every dreamer that ever lived. While the farmers believe that their fluted field is a woman in which they plant their seeds, the eagle and the boar teach us that women are our only link to the moment of Creation. They and they alone create life without end. A woman is not a furrowed field in which determined men sow their seed to manipulate the outcome of her life. I have tied the knots in the honeysuckle, breathed my incantations; I know this to be true.

But today is a feast day for the dead and I will set aside my sober deliberation to honor them. Taking my share of bread I’ll feed it to the animals that will be driven between two smoky fires and released to their last glimpse of freedom. I’ll eat boar and rowanberries, hazelnuts and fiddleheads, strawberries and fish. And while I watch the Crones divine from fluttering wisps of grasses I’ll find some solace in the remnants of ancient songs. Even a single note is enough to resonate with my old soul. Then quietly I will slip away to some wilderness place where I will be lulled to sleep by the branches of trees dancing on a windless night. Spirits will reign over my dreams, showing me great warriors who once hunted enlightenment and the women who gave them their dreamtime. My sorrow will be forgotten.

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Responses to “July 28”

  1. Angela Cheetham Wilkinson July 31st, 2013 - 7:58 am

    Here again I am beset by a story of intense longing, yearning to recover understandings and practices of the past.
    The contrasts between ways of doing things – a blessed tree – an orchard – the all too ready slaughter of the oak and the bull – points to a deep mourning of the loss of old ways and old wisdom.
    I found the eighth paragraph especially moving – it resonated with me of a recent time when a friend and her son suffered two losses very closely together. Ultimately the grief had to make room for ‘getting on with our lives’.

    • It is a way to convey the immensity of what we have lost, illustrating how a people becomes fractured and eventually disappears. Some are determined to remain traditional while others intend to move into the modern world unfolding before them. The situation continues today among the tribal cultures. The abandonment of a way of life, and the language and customs that support it are immeasurable losses. Thank you, Angela for your comment.