The Hanged Man: Part 9: Lughnasadh
Post #90: In which more meetings and reunions ...
“It’s like being taken over by a depressingly efficient maiden aunt,” Dar complained. She’s asking everyone, ‘What do you need to be self-sustaining?’ She expects good answers, too. I’m terrified of her!”
“I’m exhausted,” groaned Lugh, stretching out.
“Oh, stop bellyaching, you two,” said Mary. She sat in a chair in the shade, Lugh and Dar stretched out in the grass at her feet. Maria sat with her back against a sun-warmed boulder. “You could hardly wait to get to work, remember?” She stretched out a foot and poked Lugh in the side with her toe. He reached up and grabbed her by the ankle, swinging her foot gently.
“I couldn’t wait to harvest,” he said, but he smiled.
“This is a kind of harvest,” said Maria. “All of us with our stories, finding ourselves here at the same time and working together. It’s like a harvest of personal resource instead of land resource, is all.”
“Well, whatever,” said Lugh, releasing Mary’s ankle and sitting up. He smoothed back his hair. “Is there grass on me?” he asked Mary.
“Fop,” said Dar, with some affection.
“Sloven,” replied Lugh, grinning.
In less than two days Minerva had spent several hours with Maria, whom she appeared to take for granted was the de facto leader of the group, sized up the situation, people and immediate needs. Her energy and intelligence were formidable. Under her supervision, food and shelter for both people and animals were finalized and Maria, grateful, realized they wouldn’t have been ready for winter without her. She was determined to learn everything she could about both business and leadership from Minerva.
Maria made a master list of skills and goods. Lugh set to work directing construction of a slaughtering shed, and Dar added every day to a list of needs, including hooks, hoists, buckets and a variety of saws and knives.
The community at Rowan Tree would slaughter none of their precious stock this fall, but breed and develop small herds and flocks for the following year. Maria knew how to harvest chickens, as did some of the villagers. Persephone promised to visit the following summer and show them how to harvest rabbits. This year Rowan Tree would survive on what the hunters brought in.
Some of the villagers hunted, or wanted to learn the skill, including two women. Rapunzel was also interested. Artemis, who appeared the day after the villagers, proved to be a patient, exacting teacher, and several people developed an interest in archery. Lugh was an expert butcher and over the weeks he taught a small group how to handle meat safely and efficiently, including drying and preserving in salt. Kunik was an expert in the value of fat, traditionally the life-giving fuel of his own culture.
Rosie, with the help of Rowan, oversaw balance, judging the number of grouse, turkey and dove to cull to keep local wild populations healthy and strong, as well as deer and wild pig. They used every butchered animal in its entirety, the bones eventually going to Kunik for carving or shaping. One of the villagers knew how to tan hides, and he quickly chose a couple of apprentices.
Jan and Gwelda headed a team of builders. Kunik was in demand to help choose building sites, and Rowan Tree began to sort itself into households. The stock was housed and cared for in common, and everyone possessed at least one skill to teach to others.
In the midst of this activity, Maria decided to lead the way in revealing her full story to the group. She’d told parts of it before, but left out other parts, depending on the listener. Ever since Persephone and Demeter appeared, she’d mulled over Persephone’s statement about helping with harvest. The association between the Corn Mother and harvest was directly simple. The association between the Queen of the Underworld and harvest was obscure and tinged with unease, especially for some of the younger folk.
Now she thought she could help to foster an understanding of the life-death death-life cycle internally as well as externally. She knew each one of them kept parts of their own stories close, parts that were too tender, risky, or shameful to share. Maria knew how fearful secrets sapped power.
After a day of sun, work, learning, advice, and laughter, she sat cross-legged in the circle around the fire and wove words the way she wove rugs on the loom, color and texture, scent, and touch. In the telling she grew confident; unafraid of judgment. Her listeners were rapt, softened, moved from tears to outrage and horror and back to tears.
When she had finished, Persephone gave a long sigh. “Maria, Maria, I’m so glad. What a beautiful life to live. What a beautiful harvest you’ve made from shame and despair.”
“Not only me,” said Maria. “I’m just the first to speak. Having you here gave me courage. You were the first to teach me how to create life from death and death from life.”
“Our stories intersect,” said Kunik. “Radulf’s a friend of mine.”
“Not to mention Baba Yaga and Nephthys,” put in Rose Red. She shuddered. “I’m glad I didn’t see that version of the Baba. She was horrifying enough in human shape.”
“Maria,” said Demeter quietly, “do you carry the eyes?”
Maria reached into the neck of her tunic, fumbled between her breasts, and held out her palm. Four white marbles lay on it, open eyes dark in firelight.
“Yes,” said Demeter, her voice thick. “I see.”
Maria woke, opened her eyes, and discovered early morning light. Someone was whispering her name.
“Yes? Who is it?”
“Eurydice. I’m sorry to wake you, but something came through the Rowan Gate at dawn. I thought you should know.”
With the help of Gwelda and the others, Eurydice had constructed a small shelter. She planned to add on to it in future, perhaps even make it big enough for two, but for this winter she concentrated on making a warm, weatherproof space. She’d used one rock wall surrounding the spring and portal through which she, Maria and Kunik had come. The walls were newly repaired by Rose Red and Rowan. She incorporated two living tree trunks into the rough square of her abode. They weren’t olive trees, but it felt like coming home to be living and sleeping with her cheek against trees again. Almost literally, for the simple platform she slept on rested against the trunks.
She explained to Maria she’d been lying, drifting between dreams and waking, when she heard the sound of a huge wing, a sound of passage through air laced with trees and leaves. She could see the shape of the leaves against a golden blur of light. As she came into wakefulness, the sound became more earthbound — the rustle of quick, light feet. Opening her eyes, she’d swung her feet onto the floor while the real or imagined echo of a thread of laughter lingered in her ears.
“I went out. I half expected the blurred golden light of my dream, but the air felt cool and dawn paled the sky. Everything was quiet. The birds had started to sing. The spring gurgled away, just as it always does. But something came through. I’m sure of it. I wasn’t scared. It didn’t feel evil. It felt … wild. I thought I’d better come tell you.”
Maria rose and dressed while Eurydice talked. “You did right to wake me. Let’s go out and see.”
Rapunzel stood on the crest of the hill, scanning the still dawn. As Maria and Eurydice approached, she said without preamble, “Something’s coming.”
Cassandra, a light sleeper, appeared, alerted by Rapunzel’s absence from the rough shelter where they slept with Minerva. She stood quietly at Rapunzel’s shoulder, listening. Rapunzel groped for the eye. It was open.
“The witch’s handmaidens,” said Cassandra. “They come for the Red Dancer, the queen.”
Maria could make nothing of this and accepted it in silence, as did everyone else.
“Something came through the gate,” Eurydice said to Rapunzel, low voiced, aware of sleepers nearby. “It woke me.” Movement near the river caught her attention. “Oh! Who’s that?” She relaxed in recognition. “It’s only Heks.”
The four of them stood together, watching Heks toil up the slope toward them. Maria realized suddenly there was no dawn birdsong. Every tree seemed to be holding its breath. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled. “Why aren’t the birds singing?”
“They were,” said Eurydice. “They stopped as I came to get you.”
Heks arrived, breathless, ordinary, her face seamed, her thin hair damp, tucked behind her ears. Juliana’s cream-colored shawl was draped around her shoulders. The sight of it, as always, gave Maria a pang. “What is it?” Heks asked. “Something’s happening. I felt it as I lay in the water.”
Maria filed away the remarkable fact that Heks, dry and colorless, rose at dawn on a late summer morning to lie naked in a river, to be considered later.
“We’ve come through the open gate,” said a voice.
The speaker was a woman with the strangest eyes Maria had ever seen, golden and round, like an owl’s eyes. Next to her stood an unremarkable young man, slim and dark.
“Doorkeeper,” said the woman, addressing Eurydice. “You’ve done well. The way is open. Connection returns.”
“I…thank you,” said Eurydice.
“I’m Morfran,” said the young man. “This is Sofiya. We’ve come, with some others of our community, to support yours.”
“The Red Dancer,” said Cassandra to no one in particular. She appeared fascinated by Morfran. She took a few dancing steps around him, arms outstretched. “I know you,” she said.
“Yes, lady,” answered Sofiya, surprising Rapunzel with her respectful tone, “the Red Dancer and the king. They approach from another direction. Many paths meet here.”
Morfran turned in a circle, watching Cassandra as she flitted around him, his look of surprise turning to dawning recognition.
“It’s not…the little sparrow?” he said slowly. “Cassandra?”
She stood still, smiling like a shy child.
“Morfran!” Dar came striding along the crest of the hill, his cloak like a curl of glittering smoke in the late summer dawn.
Morfran, with a glad exclamation, went to meet him, his gait unexpectedly awkward and lurching. Maria realized he had a malformed hip.
The two men met, pounding each other on the back with wordless affection before embracing.
“A dancer,” said Eurydice.
“Hmmm,” said Heks expressionlessly.
“Red Dancer,” said Cassandra.
“Red Dancer,” amended Eurydice, with a smile for Cassandra.
“You’re a dancer yourself, I think,” said Rapunzel, looking narrowly at Sofiya.
Sofiya dipped her head in assent, smiling.
“The guardian of this place serves Artemis. I believe there’s a birch forest somewhere around,” said Rapunzel, returning the smile. “You might like to see it. Will you come with me?”
The hill was stirring, the woods rousing. Birds began to sing again and sunlight arrowed silently through trees. Dar took Morfran back to his cart, followed by Cassandra. A small group clustered down at the fire ring, heating water for breakfast. Heks went to check on Mary, Rapunzel took Sofiya off to find Rose Red, Eurydice returned to Rowan Gate and Maria joined the others for breakfast.
Ginger and Radulf chose a direction in which they hadn’t yet explored and set out on a crisp late summer morning. In early afternoon, they found themselves in a birch forest, the slim trees like candles burning with green and gold flames. The trees grew so thickly they circled back to the edge and left the horses grazing, fetlock deep in lush meadow, while they reentered the forest on foot.
The air under the trees was rich with color. Filtered light danced beneath the canopy of leaves. Ginger could almost taste the life of the place, like cool wine. They moved quietly. The birch trunks felt subtly pliant under her hand, as though they could bend right down to the ground if they wanted to. Frills of peeling bark decorated the black-splotched white trunks.
Ginger held up a hand. “Shh. Listen.”
They stood still, listening under the green and gold crown.
“It sounds like girls,” whispered Radulf.
Female voices, anyway, thought Ginger. But not girls, exactly. Something wilder than girls.
Suddenly excited, she made her way between the trunks, following the sound.
She thought she was nearly in sight of them when the voices stopped, not suddenly as though cut off, but dying away in lingering laughter. The silence left behind was louder than the voices. Leaves trembled, filtering the sunlight. The trees seemed to be holding their breath in anticipation. Hairs stood up on her arms, but not with fear. It was a response to a deep pulse of mystery, the way the leaves stirred in invisible currents of sun-warmed air.
She glanced at Radulf. He smiled at her, his own eyes alight with awe and curiosity.
Something was here.
Without warning, a flock of crows exploded out of the tree tops around them, cawing harshly, tearing the brocade of leaf and sun and trunk. Ginger flinched back with a startled exclamation and they both looked up at the flock, which stayed right overhead, rising, falling and circling with sarcastic sounds like laughter.
“A murder of crows,” said Radulf in a normal tone of voice, watching them. “They’re acting odd. There’s no smell of carrion to draw them. If they were startled enough to take off like that, why don’t they fly away?”
As they watched, the crows settled back into the treetops like flakes of cinder coming to rest. The wood fell silent. A crow cocked its head, watching them.
Ginger and Radulf stood still, looking up at the crows looking down at them. Everything seemed to be waiting. Ginger took Radulf’s hand.
“Is the eye open?” she asked in a whisper.
It was. It lay in his palm, so wide as to be glaring. Gingerly, he rolled it in his hand. The amber eye rolled smoothly in its white sphere, always looking in the same direction, off to their left. Radulf turned slightly, following the eye’s gaze. Trunks of birch trees stood motionless around them, looking the same in every direction. They glanced at each other. Ginger nodded.
The trees grew so close together the wood floor remained largely free of heavy undergrowth. Walking was easy, but not side by side. Radulf stepped in front of Ginger, leading the way.
She grimaced at his back. She recognized the protective intention to shield her, but something came for her, she was sure, not threat but power. She’d felt this way in the avenue of trees sometimes, and alone on the lake. She didn’t want to be shielded from it. She wanted to join it, mingle with it, be it, whatever it was.
As she followed Radulf, she scanned the forest, watching. Waiting.
Radulf walked right by the wolf. It sat out in the open between the trees, not ten feet off the path. It mingled remarkably with the green and gold of the woods, grey coat blending naturally with white, grey and black of birch bark. It sat, dog-like, ears pricked. Its gold eyes glowed.
She exclaimed softly and laid a hand on Radulf’s back as he looked down at the eye, still in his palm, and watched it close firmly.
Only then did he become aware of the wolf.
He gave a grunt of astonishment. The wolf extruded several inches of pink tongue and panted, revealing a set of sharp teeth in a derisive canine grin.
“Radulf,” it said.
He jerked with surprise and stared in astonishment at the wolf, who grinned back, tongue lolling.
“Hello,” said Ginger cautiously.
A woman in a white apron, black skirt and vest embroidered with colored threads stood between the trees.
Thanks for reading A Stone, a Web, a Story! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.