The Hanged Man: Part 7: Beltane
Post #54: In which a quest begins ...
PART 7 BELTANE
May 1; fire festival; midway point between Ostara and summer solstice. Sexual energy and power.
The Card: The Lovers
Relationship, choice and sacrifice
In the beginning, the shape of his hands woke her body into desire, the shape and soft pale skin against the colors of her loom. She imagined his hands and her cloth together wove a life of passion and creativity, the kind of life she’d always wanted. The promise of that life ripened her flesh. It wasn’t a temporary arousal, a tidal wave cresting and ebbing, but a slow, moist budding. Skin and hair unfurled, releasing scent. The world caressed her senses, and she received each caress.
Now both beginning and end had withered. She no longer received. She walked through life like a cold ember. Her senses were sterile and the memory of the shape of his hands was bitter. She felt barren in a gravid world.
She wore a dark hooded cloak to shield herself from strange eyes, and all eyes were strange. She had asked Persephone for a body, a cloak to cover it, and leave to go back into the Green World and search for her murdered children.
“So it shall be,” said Persephone. “Maria, you must always be tied to the scent and sound of water. Search where you will along the waterways of the world. You’ll find what you seek near water.”
Since early spring Maria had searched for a clue or rumor of her children. Over and over, hope swelled and died. They’d vanished. As weeks passed, a slow-growing dread stunted her hope. If they lived, someone else cared for them. Would they know her? Would they remember? Would they fear her, and run away from her? Yet still she searched, relentlessly driven. When day softened into dusk, she released her grief and despair, wailing and keening along waterway, spring and well. Others heard, and the story of The Woman Who Weeps crept along at her heels like a gaunt dog with suffering eyes.
Now she walked through the burgeoning fragrant morning, following a river winding through field and copse. The night before she’d woken, wrapped in her rough blanket, to the sound of piping. It blended with the night song of frog and flowing water. It made color, that piping, and texture against the soft darkness, but she didn’t try to discern them. Such inspiration was not for her now. She turned over and drifted back to sleep.
Grass grew high and the river chuckled over a shallow rocky bed. She came upon the two girls eating and resting in dappled shade too suddenly to turn aside.
She didn’t intend to pause, but a fierce hunger for companionship leapt in her when she found them there. They’d been laughing together and the laughter lingered on their faces. She saw curly, disordered black hair and the bare brown shape of an arm. The one called Mary leaned forward, offering dried meat and bread. Her hazel eyes showed friendly interest.
“Rosie, is there still some water? And that last cheese?”
The black-haired girl passed Maria water, took a knife from a sheath at her belt and cut a round cheese into pieces. She wore a linen tunic embroidered with trees and forest creatures. Maria longed to examine it more closely.
Maria ate and drank without enjoyment. Dread took taste from the food. They would ask, out of friendly interest, who she was and where she went. She’d made up her mind in Hades she wouldn’t hide the truth. She avoided others as best she could, but when avoidance failed, she was honest.
They proved easy company. Mary lay back on her elbows, her thick corn-colored braid draped over her shoulder and the swell of her breast. Her feet were bare. She and Rose Red talked of friends left behind. Maria understood there had been some sort of gathering or celebration. When it was over, someone called Artemis directed the girls to journey together to a holy well in the forest. At the well they would part.
So much Maria gathered. The girls didn’t question her. Their conversation provided all the information Maria might want while leaving her own business private.
Perversely, she found she wanted to share with them then, as thanks and in reciprocity. Their generous vitality fed her. Once she had been like them, before the shape of Juan’s hands came into her life.
In a few terse sentences, she told her tale.
Tears gleamed on Mary’s cheek. Rose Red’s face was expressionless, her gaze fixed on the ground.
“Maria,” said Mary, “will you take off your hood?”
The dappled shade was kind. Maria wore her sleek black hair smoothly coiled into a heavy twist at the back of her head. Hazel eyes looked into brown the color of dark chocolate.
“You’re beautiful,” said Mary.
Maria clenched her jaw.
“I murdered my children,” she said, pausing after each word for emphasis.
“I’ve lately learned something important,” said Mary. “Life and death are two sides of the same thing. We must come to terms with both to live well.”
Maria heard the words but didn’t understand. She spoke the thought lying like a stone in her breast. “How could I be such a whore?” No words satisfied her self-loathing. Her clawed hand came up to her face, meaning to peel away skin with nails until the sticky blood released her pain.
Rose Red clasped her wrist in a strong grip. “No.” She returned Maria’s hand to her lap. “You wanted to be loved.”
This simple, matter of fact statement swept away the cold defense of self-hatred. Maria clenched her hands together and let tears come. It was a relief.
When she quieted, Mary passed her a wet cloth and she wiped her face and blew her nose. She felt tired. She wanted to stretch out in the grass under this tree and sleep.
“I did want to be loved. I loved him as hard as I could, but in the end, I knew he didn’t love me. Not then and maybe not ever. It all felt like a lie. I knew he would take away my sons. I didn’t want to live without them — or without him. He was my life and my hope. I gave him everything I was and he threw me away.”
“Everyone wants to be loved,” said Mary. “It’s not wrong.”
“It’s wrong to keep trying when there is no love,” said Maria. “It’s wrong to kill for the sake of love.”
“What were you before him — before your sons?” asked Rose Red.
“I’m a weaver,” said Maria. She lifted her chin and looked the girl in the eye. “I was a weaver.” She dropped her gaze to the ground.
Rose Red packed up her bundle. Mary rose, brushing off her clothes. “Come with us,” she invited. “We’re going to the Well of Artemis. We follow the river now the rest of the way. Travel with us.”
Maria hesitated, glanced at Rose Red, who gave her a smile and held out her hand. “Please.”
Trees grew around the well. Maria couldn’t identify them. They were slim with white bark and their leaves quivered in the warm air. The well was actually a spring bubbling up out of the ground. A low stone wall surrounded it. Many of the stones had come loose and lay about. Mossy silence held the gentle gurgle of water. Maria felt alien in the dim green light. Her presence made a dark stain in the fabric of this place. She stopped under the trees a few yards from the well and let the others go forward alone. The ever-present hope her children might be lingering here couldn’t overcome her reluctance to approach.
Rose Red and Mary knelt and cupped their hands, drinking. They explored the old stone wall and found offerings left for Artemis. Rose Red discovered a rack of antlers lying on the mossy ground, decorated with a length of bone beads, an old wreath woven of willow twigs and the skeletons of unidentifiable flowers, and a holey stone. They left this mute evidence of prayer and petition where it lay.
Maria watched, unwilling to join them. She pulled her hood over her head. Movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention and a huge white stag materialized between trees. For long moments, she wasn’t sure it really stood there. The whole place felt dreamlike, the great stag just another part of the dream. Its hide cast gentle silver-white light, like starlight. The stag’s antlers were immense, an intricate knot work of bone. It moved regally, balancing the great weight on its head. It met her wonderstruck gaze with large, dark eyes.
It stopped in front of her and regarded her. She reached out a slow hand, palm up. She wanted to touch it, but hesitated. The stag dipped its head and laid its muzzle in the palm of her hand. She felt the “whuff” of its breath and then the flick of its tongue. An indescribable feeling of hideous, painful joy tore through her. She wanted to weep, to vomit, to scream with madness. She broke into cold sweat and at the same time recognized with shame the deepest arousal she’d ever felt. She wanted a man! She wanted to be taken, to surrender. She wanted to be used, to be crushed and nipped and bruised, to feel flesh beneath her fingernails. She wanted! She wanted! She’d never felt such lust for Juan. For him she’d had a despairing, abject love, a twisted, weak emotion compared to this riot of desire.
She stood suspended between a hot clamor of feeling, dim green light and gurgle of water, her hand cupping the White Stag’s muzzle.
Maria started. Rose Red called her. Was it possible the children…? She turned her head toward the call, opened her mouth to respond, and the White Stag vanished.
Her voice died in her throat. She closed her outstretched hand and brought it, clenched, to her breast. Gone! Had she imagined it, then?
“Come and see! It’s a beautiful place!” Mary called.
Maria found she could. She wanted to. She no longer felt her presence defiled the well. That kingly creature had touched her, scented her, seen her. It hadn’t driven her away.
But her children weren’t there.
The three women camped by the well that night. They found an old fire ring and built a fire. The deep silence of the place didn’t diminish with daylight. They sat around the fire, feeding it with bits of wood and bark, each thinking her own thoughts.
Maria thought of the White Stag. The wonder of being alive still filled her. When had she last felt her own existence so vividly? Before Juan. Before she gave up her life for a look, a kiss, a touch from his narrow hand. She closed her fingers around the palm the stag’s muzzle had touched. She’d been seen and accepted. She was allowed. She’d been awakened.
Tomorrow she would leave the sweet companionship of the other women. Clearly, Mary traveled toward some kind of meeting. Rose Red stated no intention. Maria would go to the nearest water and continue her search. Would she find her sons at the next place, or, if not, what else might she find?
“I count four deaths,” said Mary, as though continuing a conversation.
“Murders,” said Maria automatically, determined to spare herself nothing.
“Murders,” agreed Mary, “if you like. I count four.”
“Yes. Your sons may be gone. You may never find them, living or dead. But the other two you can save.”
“You said before you gave him everything and he threw you away.”
“I threw myself away,” said Maria.
“You died. Now you’ve come back. You’re alive again.”
“I don’t deserve life!”
“Then there are three murders,” said Rose Red calmly. “Three lost, along with all they might have given. And the fourth?” She arched a slim black eyebrow at Mary.
“You said you were a weaver,” said Mary to Maria. “You threw your weaving into the river, too.”
“I’m a weaver,” said Maria, remembering saying the same words to Eurydice in the Underworld. “I’m a weaver.”
“I’m a Seed Bearer,” said Mary. “It’s my gift, my thank you, my love letter to life. It’s what I can do. It’s what I’m for.”
“I’m handmaiden to Artemis,” said Rose Red. “I’m protector of the forest and those who live there.” She smiled sadly. “I know more about what I’m not than what I am.”
“That’s just as important,” said Mary.
“There are many weavers,” said Maria.
“But none are you,” said Mary.
“Where’s your power?” Rose Red asked aloud, though she asked herself.
“Our greatest power is within the circle of ourselves, isn’t it?” asked Mary. “Others come and go around us. We can’t make them love us or want us. But we can choose to love and want ourselves. We can learn to notice if others feed our power or diminish it.”
“Do the people in our lives help us be who we are or take away from who we are?” asked Rose Red.
“That’s it,” said Mary. “That’s what I mean.”
Long after Mary and Rose Red wrapped themselves in blankets and went to sleep, Maria sat by the fire, watching the ebb and flow of color as flame consumed wood. When the flute started playing, she imagined a thin thread of vivid green against red and orange on a background of charcoal grey. She took the picture with her down into sleep.
They stood together in muted morning light. Mary held a handful of violet seeds over the spring, brought them to her mouth and breathed on them, held them out again. “Bless these seeds,” she said simply. She tucked them between moss-covered rocks, scattered a few among the prongs of the antlers lying on the ground, shook some between the tree trunks. “Grow,” she whispered to them. “Live.”
Rose Red cupped a green frog she’d found while washing her face in the bubbling water. “Be blessed,” she said to it as she opened her hands. “Create many children and grandchildren. Watch over this place.” The frog hopped with a splash into the stream and disappeared.
Maria thought, I’ve nothing to give, but the thought hardly took shape before she imagined a blanket of warm charcoal grey wool woven with a pattern of red and orange and a single thread of vivid green. If I ever weave again, she promised the well silently, I’ll weave this place.
“She did weave it,” said the Hanged Man. I saw it at Rowan Tree. Her work always contained something of the desert in it, but that green wasn’t a desert color.” He smiled, remembering. “This is where Mary and I finally come together, on Beltane, the Day of Seeds. Tell me our story, Mirmir.”
Mirmir dipped his head in what looked like acquiescence, but his golden eyes gleamed with humor. “Beltane welcomess many loverss.”
“No one ever loved as we did,” said the Hanged Man.
Mirmir blinked lazily at him and continued. “Beltane, Day of Sseedss, findss Mary, Sseed-Bearer, walking across a field toward conssummation.”
“It finds the murderess, Maria, following the scent of water.”
“On yet another path the dwarve, Rumpelstiltskin, moves between one thing and the next. Love’s grimmest burden bows his shoulders — that of letting go. As he strides along in the dim dawn, he thinks of the young women he’s released. One by one, he dwells on their dear faces. He thinks of what he’s seen in Baba Yaga’s cauldron, mentally shies away, resolutely looks again. The difficulty, he thinks to himself, is not only in recognizing the right action to take. The difficulty is having the courage to take it. He turns for comfort to the feel of the earth beneath his boots, the touch of sun, the smell of the morning forest.”
“In the wood near the holy well a fox trots among trees in tender dawn light. Its long muzzle twitches. It stops. It lowers its head to a patch of damp rotted leaves near a decaying fallen trunk and sniffs, then draws its lips back in a grimace and licks its muzzle. It draws scent into its nose, the back of its throat, onto its tongue. For nearly a minute it absorbs the scent, then lifts a leg briefly and marks the place. Light strengthens.”
“The fox moves on, flowing now on silent feet, slipping through light undergrowth. Trees vibrate with birdsong. The fox approaches a fire ring. The ashes are still warm. The scent of burned wood has beckoned him for more than a mile. Nose to ground, he explores intently. Three have been here. Three gathered wood. Three lay down to sleep. The scent the fox follows is one of the three. He finds it around the bubbling spring; brushed against tree trunks; on stacked firewood; on a flat rock, convenient for sitting.”
“She was here. Her scent is strong and fresh. She was here. The fox raises his gaze from the forest floor. He stands in a shaft of light that glows in his red coat. His thick brush of a tail stands straight out from his body. Ears pricked, alert and graceful, he opens every sense to his surroundings.”
(This post was published with Edition #54 of ‘Weaving Webs and Turning Over Stones.’)