The Hanged Man: Part 5: Imbolc
Post #33: In which a young woman begins to discover what she is for ...
Part 5: Imbolc
(i-MOLG) February 1; strengthening light, fertility and creativity. Awakening of youthful, chaotic energy. Midway between Yule and spring equinox.
The Card: Strength
Fortitude, passion, self-empowerment and initiation
“In a time long passt and coming again ssoon, in the dessert hidden under a falcon’ss wing, Nephthyss and Minerva select boness, boness that might be shaped to ssing, to carry the wind, to press against lip and finger pad in ecsstatic voice, boness ridged and cracked, folded, curved and knotted.”
“Our flutes,” said the Hanged Man dreamily, earlier irritation forgotten in the absorption of Mirmir’s story.
“A courier comess with lambent wingss, dark eyess and a long golden tail, flashing through the dessert night, trailing a shower of ssparkss. He flies with the bones to a land where snow drifts like fallen stars and night sky ripples with color, and lays them before a man with small shining dark eyes and hands that find shape within shape. In hearth light, his wife sews skins together and his baby son crawls around his feet.”
“The baby was Kunik, and his father the maker, whom the ice bears ate.”
“The ice bearss ate Kunik’ss father and mother, yess,” said Mirmir. “Now the one you call Kunik is the maker.”
“The Firebird carries the flutes?”
Mirmir smiled. “Later, the courier returnss out of flickering curtainss of northern lightss and collectss two bone flutess, pierced, polished and carved. He carries the flutes to an underground cavern where Dvorgs give lives and love to stone and mineral. They inlay and band, adorn and embellish with citrine and copper, topaz and brass, gold and amber for one, and moonstone, pearl, turquoise and silver for the other.”
“Finally, the courier carries the finished flutes to Minerva in her workshop above the sea, and she makes a careful note, tells the courier they will do, and wraps them tenderly until their next journey to a warm-windowed house in the dark of the year, where miracles happen.”
“And so the wheel turns. The body of the man who found shape within shape feeds his brethren, the ice bears, along with his wife, but his child survives and wanders sea, forest and desert, far from the land where snow drifts like fallen stars and night sky ripples with color, and his hands too find shape within shape. Lady of Bones meets him and knows him. She passes word to Minerva, the courier and the gem masters.“
“All shall be well for the next cycle.”
“Yes,” said the Hanged Man ruefully, “everything is bound to the cycle. I know. Go on telling about Mary. What happens next?”
“The wild maiden returnss,” said Mirmir. “The aspect that cannot be brought to heel.”
“Something wild always looks out of the maiden’s eyes…” said the Hanged Man, musing. “It should be so.”
“Nephthyss ssmelled water in the desert and made preparationss for a journey,” Mirmir resumed. “The dwarve Rumpelstiltskin dreamt of thawing stone and woke with an old cradle song in his mouth, knowing the greatest test of his love approached. Trees dripped in the forest and Artemis and the White Stag turned together within the cycle. Snow melted into slush and the child Molly became the woman Mary without noticing. Mirror’s power cracked like a thin skin of ice, and Baba Yaga played marbles while the chicken legs under her hut stretched and flexed in preparation for the road.”
Day waned. Morning wore a fine green mist draped over trees and hills, but as the sun dimmed the hint of green turned chilly and grey. Mary heard no piping that day. On some days, it threaded along her path, now near, just around the curve, now far in the distance, beckoning, beguiling, teasing. She had yet to see the piper but the sound of his music was companion and reassurance. If she heard it, she went in the right direction. Other days there was nothing but the path and the slowly awakening spring around her, and she felt full of lonely doubt.
She walked through a forest on last season’s leaves. Trees showed budding growth but no warmth of green. She felt tired and hungry and remembered with longing the comforts of Janus House and her mother-friend’s arms, so many miles and days behind her. She nurtured a vague hope she would meet Mary in some unexpected place. Hadn’t Mary implied they’d be together again? She hadn’t expected this endless lonely traveling, following the sound of pipes, watching the painfully slow advance of spring around her, but having no goal, no fixed point ahead to walk toward. The path unrolled before her and she walked it. That was all.
She caught movement out of the tail of her eye. The forest grew on gently rolling hills and something moved between the trees on a slight slope. She looked carefully for the brown shape of a deer. It would be hard to see in the grey and brown of the evening wood. Ah! There it was. Not brown but light grey—a horse, perhaps? Why was a horse loose in the woods? She saw no saddle or rider. It stepped into a clear place and it was white, a glowing warm white, antlers branching from its head. It was the white stag she’d seen on a night of fire and frost, in a circle of resurrection.
For a moment, Mary didn’t believe her eyes. The dreamlike quiet wood gave her a feeling of being in a suspended interval between one thing and another. The stag watched her out of dark eyes, majestic and confident, and without thinking she left the path and walked slowly toward it. It watched her coming as though it had been waiting for her. As she drew closer, her steps slowed. She didn’t dare get too close. She hesitated, stopped. Delicately, it stepped toward her, lowering its antlered head. She let her mitten drop onto a damp mat of leaves and held out her left hand, palm up. The stag pressed its muzzle into the cup of her hand. She had a brief impression of warm breath, the prick of coarse hair. Then it was gone, yet she felt as if the stag had touched some deep, intimate place that had never been touched before. Painful tears welled and she gasped, choking. The hairs on her body stood erect in a ripple of gooseflesh. The stag turned unhurriedly away and moved off through the trees. Mary picked up her mitten and followed.
They walked up a gentle slope. Above the trees, light dimmed. Mary wondered in a distant sort of way where she would shelter for the night. After a time, the stag turned suddenly into a cleft that went down between trees. In the steep cleft walls, she could see layer upon layer of tree roots, earth and leaves. The cleft widened out into a narrow valley and the stag led her to a high jutting ledge of woven roots and earth. Under the ledge, she found a hollowed-out shelter. She heard the trickle of water and discovered a spring flowing into a natural stone basin. Against the wall the ground dipped into a depression filled with dry leaves and bracken near a neat stack of furs. She looked up at the White Stag, but it wasn’t there. She was alone.
The cold water in the stone basin smelled of leaves and growing things. She drank thirstily and splashed her face. Against the wall of the hollow leaned a silver bow and a pouch of arrows. The bow curved in a delicate half-moon, giving off a gentle silver glow. Mary could see intricate carving. She touched neither bow nor arrows, feeling their power was not for her hands. She took food from her bundle and ate, taking another long drink at the stone basin. She felt tired. She laid a fur on top of the piled leaves and boughs. They made a comfortable mattress, whispering and rustling with her movement. She took off her shoes and outer clothing, covered herself warmly with more furs and laid down to sleep.
She dreamed. She dreamed of ivory-colored antlers, twined and woven into an intricate pattern and holding a wreath of flowers, yellow and white and fragrant… She dreamed of walking down into the earth’s body, past layers of green moss and rich dark earth, layers of crumbling bone with fronds of fern growing up around them, brown roots stretching and swelling with life, and rock and shells, the salty litter of an ancient beach. She dreamed of a handful of black seeds. They felt warm, like little embers. They hummed and vibrated with sound she couldn’t quite hear but rather felt in the small bones of her hand as she held them.
Then she heard the familiar, haunting sound of piping, and threads of fragile golden light began to radiate out of the black seeds. Silently, the seeds split open, one by one, and her hands filled with golden light, touched with green and blue and violet. Gently, she spread her fingers wide and released the handful of light and seeds. They fell softly to the ground in a shower of sparks. She looked down, watching them glow against the dark earth, watching to see if they would take root and live. In their midst, the cloven foot of a goat appeared, pressing the glowing seeds into the ground, and the earth under the hoof begin to glow and pulse with a web of light spreading in every direction. The piping grew louder, more insistent, and she tried to let her eyes rise up the leg, wanting to see the rest … but her eyes would not obey… The sound of flowing water ran over her skin with wet warmth, touching her, dripping into every hidden fold and cleft of her body. She realized she stood naked and ran her hands voluptuously over her breasts and hips, appreciating the strong muscles of her thighs. Her nipples hardened and she felt slick moisture between her legs…
Mary stirred, turned over, threw back a fur as though too warm in her sleeping hollow, and quieted once more into deeper sleep.
The next morning, she washed herself at the stone basin, drank, shook out her clothes and dressed. She picked up the seed pouch she’d set aside while sleeping and washing, its familiar weight comforting in her hand. On a sudden impulse, she took it out into the early sunlight and unknotted the drawstring carefully, emptying it out onto a flat rock. She stirred the packages with her fingers. She wanted to plant a few seeds here for the White Stag, or whoever used this place and kept it. Her eyes fell on a bundle of seeds tied in a twist of pale green linen. The label said, “Forest (White Stag).”
Mary caught her breath. She thought she’d seen every package in the pouch, not once but many times. Evening after evening, she and her mother-friend, Mary, bent their heads over the seeds, Mary teaching her their names and where best to plant them. She’d never seen this package. Mary must have put it in the pouch before she left. But how did her mother-friend know Mary would meet the White Stag and come to this place? It seemed incredible.
Carefully, she untied the thread around the package and spilled seeds into her palm. She brought her cupped hand to her mouth and breathed over them, closing her eyes, remembering the touch of the White Stag’s muzzle. Closing her fingers loosely over the seeds, she walked up and down the narrow valley, choosing places where sunlight touched the moist ground, and scattered the seed.
One morning, some days later, she found herself on a track too wide to be called a path. Spring advanced, and on this day she appreciated the lighter weight clothing Hel had given her before she left Janus House. The sun warmed her bare arms. She hadn’t heard piping yet, but it had played in her dreams.
She heard voices behind her and turned to look. Two women of late middle age walked along, laughing together like young girls. One of them was generous bodied with wide hips, heavy breasts and thick hair the color of faded wheat, loosely plaited. She raised a hand to Mary in greeting when she noticed her looking back. The other was thinner, leaner, not so abundant. As they came closer, Mary thought the second woman looked rather careworn. Grey frosted her dark hair. Her smile emphasized lines in her face. Mary waited for them to reach her, feeling shy. She smiled in greeting and held out a hand as they came up to her but the woman with the plaited hair took her unhesitatingly into her arms. Mary felt enfolded in affection and reassurance and resisted the impulse to cling and rub her face against the woman’s bosom like a young child. The woman took her by the arms and looked into her face.
“Mary,” she said with joy, “I’m Demeter.”
Mary knew the name. Eurydice had spent many evenings telling stories to Mary and Molly in front of the fire at Janus House, and she’d told of Demeter and her daughter, Persephone. Mary bowed her head, not knowing what to say or how to address the Corn Mother.
Demeter laughed and put a callused hand under Mary’s chin, raising it until their eyes met again. “No, Lady. I’ve come for your blessing. You mustn’t bow before me!”
The other woman stepped forward, distracting Mary’s attention from this remarkable statement. “And I’m Elizabeth, Mary. We’ve been watching for you. Will you walk with us?”
“Of course,” said Mary automatically. The three of them fell into step together and Mary tried to gather her scattered thoughts.
“I … how do you know me?” she asked.
“We know Hel,” said Demeter simply. “And we know Mary, the older Mary, I mean!” She laughed. “Spring is wakening again and we’re gardeners, like you. We’ve brought seed to give you, and we came for your blessing on our seed.”
“Yes, my dear. The blessing of your hands, your breath and your passion.”
Mary felt like an imposter. “I’m really not a gardener,” she said. “I mean, I’ve not done it before. Not like you! I’m just … I just love the seeds …”
“Perhaps you underestimate yourself,” said Elizabeth.
As they walked, Demeter talked of the corn, the wheat, the barley and oats, how each grew and what each needed. She pulled out bags and bundles of seed, showing them to Mary. She talked about her own vegetable garden, tea herbs, tall grass for the horses. Gradually, Elizabeth joined in, she in her turn showing Mary tiny seeds of herbs and salad greens. They stopped at midday to eat. Demeter provided barley bread and honey, cheese, olives and dried fruit and meat.
“Greens and many herbs can be planted now,” Elizabeth continued as Demeter passed out food. “They like cool weather best.” She handed Mary several packages. The largest was labeled “Rapunzel.”
They sat in a depression near a cluster of trees just coming into leaf. Grass and other plants greened and grew where the sun struck. Demeter, moving around to look at new growth, gave a pleased exclamation.
“I thought so!” she said with satisfaction. She raised her eyes and looked around. “Anemone! Come out, my dear! I know you’re here! She’s come!”
From around a large rock stepped a young woman who instantly reminded Mary of Eurydice. She had thick dark hair and olive skin with big, dark eyes. She wore a gauzy dress of deep red and her feet and head were bare. She smiled at Demeter and then looked at Mary with something like awe mixed with curiosity. Mary gave her a shy smile.
“Hello,” she said softly. The girl in the red dress looked fragile and wary and Mary didn’t want to frighten her. Elizabeth sat quite still, saying nothing, watching the scene. Mary, glancing at Demeter, noticed a clump of red color exactly the same shade as the dress Anemone wore at her feet. She gave an exclamation of pleasure and dropped to her knees in front of it. It was the first flower she’d seen in bloom and the color glowed like a pulse of joy.
“The anemone,” said Demeter quietly. “Some call them wind flowers. They say the spring wind blows the petals open, and then blows them away.”
Mary looked up at Anemone from where she knelt. “There’s a story! You know a story! Please tell it!”
They sat down with Elizabeth. Mary stretched herself out full length in the sun, feeling like a child again. Anemone began:
“Beautiful Adonis, whose name means “lord,” ruled the earth. He loved the excitement of the hunt.
Aphrodite, goddess of love, conceived a passion for Adonis. As is often the way with lovers, she became possessive. As her love for him waxed hot within her, she discouraged him from pursuing wolves, bears and boars—all the dangerous creatures of field and forest—lest he come to harm. Dressed in a short tunic and leather boots, she strode over the hills with him, calling to her dogs, pursuing stags or hares or other, safer game.
But one day she was absent and Adonis, chafing under the burden of her love, went hunting wild boar. He brought one to bay with his hunting dogs. He hurled a spear at it but missed the vital spot, and the creature charged, maddened with pain. It buried its tusks in his side.
Adonis lay groaning, stretched dying on the ground. Aphrodite heard his distress and found him there, bright blood from his wound spilling on the grass. Gasping, he breathed his life away, dark blood against his skin like snow, his eyes heavy and dim. She kissed him but he didn’t know it. She wailed and tore at her hair, and in her grief, she turned the scarlet splashes into delicate flowers, and I was born.”
They call me wind flower, for I’m born out of spring winds, bloom, and then the same winds tear my petals away …”
“The first anemones possess great healing powers,” said Elizabeth softly. “In this way Aphrodite sought to save others the grief she felt.”
Anemone reached between her breasts and brought out a red silk bag. She handed it to Mary. “Here are my seeds. Scatter them where sunlight falls in early spring and the ground is damp. They’re delicate and need shelter. Their flowering is swift, but they’ll announce spring every year and gladden winter-weary hearts.”
“I’ll plant them,” said Mary. “Thank you. I won’t forget.”
Anemone rose gracefully to her feet. “Will you bless me, Lady?”
Mary stood too, looking bewildered, bag in hand. “What blessing could I give you? You’re already blessed in your beauty!”
Anemone held out her hands to Mary. Dropping the bag into Demeter’s lap, Mary took them. Anemone turned Mary’s hands over, palms up. “Without you, I’m not,” she said simply. Impulsively, Mary pulled her forward and embraced her. “Grow and bloom and gladden our hearts, beautiful one,” she said. She felt Anemone’s warm lips on her cheek and then the girl stepped away, turned, and disappeared.
(This post was published with this essay.)