In Spring, Mother Earth begins her exhalation, breathing warmth and energy into all living things. Sap rises, leaves unfurl, flowers waft their sweet essence to tempt passing pollinators, mated pairs begin to rebuild their nests, jackets are left at home and shoulders are bared. In Summer, all is replete. Vines are heavy with fruit, grasses bend under the weight of their grains, spindly fawns prance and run, fledglings proudly soar, browned skin glistens with sweat. But at Samhain, Mother Earth begins to inhale, drawing all back to herself. Leaves dry and curl upon themselves, flutter to the ground, drift in winds hinting of winter’s cruelty, days grow short, and witches gather.
Thirteen women wake feeling electric with power. When Mother Earth begins her inhalation, there is a moment of in-between, a fulcrum, a window of opportunity. Anyone who pays attention can capitalize on this turning, but for the most part, the only ones who try are the recently dead, troublesome spirits, faeries, and witches. It does not do to meddle in the spirit realm without clear intention, comprehensive knowledge, and the support of a coven. For most, it is best to simply celebrate Halloween: costumes and parties will disguise and protect you sufficiently to avoid any supernatural harm. But these thirteen women have been preparing for a full year for the evening’s events, and they intend a different kind of celebration.
Each of the thirteen move through their day as usual, but hold their secret close to their hearts. Some send their children to school, fold the laundry, prepare the bowl of candy for trick-or-treaters. Some head to the office, wearing cobweb earrings or tiny jaunty witch hats with their business casual, and partake in the candy corn cupcakes with their afternoon coffee. Some meet the girls for gentle yoga, stop by the food bank to pack lunch bags for the homeless with a surprise snack-size Snickers. But the High Priestess has cleared her calendar. This is the highest of holy days, the beginning of a new year, and the best chance to catch the ear of the Goddess.
The High Priestess rises before dawn and walks down the pebble shore to a tiny secret cove. She scrambles by the light of the full moon over seaweed-slick boulders pocked with barnacles to a crescent beach enclosed by sheer walls of granite. She pulls from her pack thirteen branches: oak, juniper, cedar, maple, elm, birch, pine, holly, yew, hawthorne, alder, and hemlock, each representing one of her coven, and for herself, as always, an aspen. With the proper incantation, she lights the fire. When it is burning hot and fierce, she removes her clothes and walks to the water’s edge.
There is only the slightest hesitation before she enters the sea. The water is frigid, but soft and gentle, and long ribbons of kelp wind around her legs as she wades deeper. When the water is waist-high, the fecund orb of the moon touches the watery horizon, sending a silver spear of light across the rippling surface bathing her form before she submerges. Sinking to the shifting seabed, she makes an offering of her weakness, her fears, her regrets, her doubts. She is purified as the tide teases out her long raven locks shot with white, lifts the hair upon her arms and legs, even the short hairs of her pubis drift gently in the current. Her lungs begin to protest, and she rises to the surface, striding back to her little fire as the sea runs off her body in rivulets, eager to return to the source.
Renewed and ready for her day, she dries and warms herself at the fire as the sun gradually lightens the sky. When the fire burns itself out, she scrapes the warm ashes into a tin. Later tonight, they will be part of the evening’s ritual. As she stands to go, a dark form slips from the water. A sea otter. It barks a laugh at her, spins and slips away again. A moment later, a number of heads appear off shore. A family of otters, their eyes dark with mischief and delight, invite her to return to the sea. She laughs, a raucous throaty burst like her sister the raven. “Another day, my sweets,” she calls to the otters, “I have work to tend to tonight.” But she wraps their message in her heart. The work is serious. The work is significant. But she must remember the work’s ultimate purpose is the simple truth of the sea otter: find joy, hand in hand with the beloved.
She spends the day putting her garden to bed, trimming, composting, mulching. She cleans and oils her shears, trowels, and pitchfork and packs them away for winter. She separates her iris tubers and sinks them in buckets of sand. She rakes the leaves carpeting her yard, then remembering her morning invitation, falls backward into the pile, flinging armfuls of amber and red against the brilliant blue sky, relishing the tickling patter as they fall back to earth. Then she rakes them up again, smiling. She makes bread dough and sets it to rise. She shuffles through the chickens to collect eggs. She brings Big Lucy out from the coop to the side yard and gives her a handful of her favorite treat, frozen blueberries.
The High Priestess holds Big Lucy fondly for a moment, thanking her for her years of eggs, then, with the proper incantations, breaks her neck swiftly. The ground thrums with energy as the blood soaks into the earth. She reads the entrails and sees only what she already knows: humanity is at a precipice, with two possible paths branching toward two wildly different futures. Impossible to say which way it will fall. She calls “Chiron! Chiron!” Just seconds later, as though he had been waiting, the raven lands on the wooden picnic table. “Good Samhain, Chiron,” she says as she gestures at the offal on the ground, “a feast for you.” Chiron quorks and drops a bit of blue sea glass onto the table. He pushes it toward her with his stout beak before hopping to the ground to gobble up Big Lucy’s liver. “A gift for me?” She is pleased. Chiron often, but not always, brings her gifts, and it is always a good portent.
Inside her warm kitchen, she chops the chicken carcass into bits, and drops them into her biggest stock pot. She brushes through the bundles of herbs hanging in her pantry and draws down thyme and marjoram. She cuts a head of garlic from the braid. Onion, carrots, celery, peppercorns and salt all go into the pot. Big Lucy’s sacrifice will be central to the coven’s feast. She turns out her dough onto the kitchen table and kneads it, divides it into three, and three again, and braids three loaves for the oven.
Day fades to dusk. She pours a glass of mourvedre, and placing the peaked witch’s hat atop her snarled and salt-crusted hair, settles into the wide wicker swing on her front porch to watch the neighborhood children parade up and down the sidewalks in their costumed finery. For the first time in many months, the masks everyone wears do not seem foreboding. This is a day for masks. The children dart into her yard to snatch up the little bags of candy she has placed throughout, while their anxious parents wave from the sidewalk. She toasts them silently, savoring the too-rare sound of children’s laughter pealing through the darkening air.
There aren’t many trick-or-treaters this year, and the festivities, such as they are, wind quickly to a close. The wind lifts leaves into skipping spirals and sputters the candles behind the gruesome and ghastly faces of the jack-o-lanterns lining her path. The night is quiet. She pours a second glass of wine. The witches begin to arrive.
Each woman of her coven has brought a dish for the feast, and an offering for the altar. They gather around the long table of the High Priestess and pass platters of roasted vegetables, and green salad, and mulled fruit, and scalloped potatoes, and stuffed squash, and bread warm from the oven, and of course, great steaming bowls of Big Lucy soup. A fourteenth chair sits empty at the table, but the plate before it is piled high with food, and the glass filled to the brim with cabernet. The High Priestess stands.
“Blessed Samhain, dear friends. Tonight the veil grows thin. Tonight the world is fraught with peril. But here, in this circle, is safety, is gratitude, is love. Tonight we honor those who have crossed over this year, and bid them join us in one last earthly feast before they move on. We ask all spirits who partake of this feast to assist us in the work we are about to undertake on their behalf, and on behalf of those still living.” The women raise their glasses to the empty chair in bittersweet communion. “Let’s eat!”
For an hour, the evening is simply a gathering of friends enjoying the last bounty of summer. Their conversation dances around social pleasantries of families and pregnancies and promotions and books that should be read and shows that should be binged, but as the meal ends, so too does the frivolity. For they are not just friends, but a coven, and talk turns to the hopes and challenges surrounding the ritual they are about to undertake. One younger woman suggests, somewhat breezily, “Are you sure we shouldn’t just curse him?” The room falls abruptly silent. The High Priestess turns. The woman quails under her gaze.
“This is not a matter to make light of. ‘Harm none and do what ye will’ are not just words. The forces we invoke are powerful and affect us as well.” Her eyes strafe the room, “Are we in accord?”
Twelve women nod, “Aye.” They follow her to the backyard where a grove of slender trees shelters a circle of stones. Each woman stands at a torch, evenly spaced around the circumference, and with the proper incantation, the torches are lit. The High Priestess stalks, widdershins, sprinkling ash from her beach fire mixed with salt to seal the circle. She lights a fire under a cauldron in the center, then drops into the water a pinch of dirt saturated with Big Lucy’s blood, and the bit of sea glass from Chiron. “The sacrifice, and the acceptance,” she intones.
A matronly woman steps forth from the circle and pours a few drops from a small vial into the cauldron, “The tears of children separated from their mothers,” she says, then returns to her place.
A middle-aged Black woman approaches next, throwing in a crumpled piece of paper, “The words of law, and justice unmet.”
A crisply dressed woman adds a gnarled and blackened branch, “The ruin of wildfire.”
And around the circle, each woman steps forward to drop another element into the cauldron, until all thirteen have contributed. They stand in silence as the fire crackles, flames lick the base of the cauldron, and steam begins to rise. Clouds skitter away from the face of the moon, bathing the grove in her cool light.
The High Priestess raises her arms and cries, “We stand at a crossroads and the Universe asks us to choose our path. There are those who stand opposed to us, and they choose the path of cruelty, the path of selfishness, the path of annihilation. And many stand united with us, eager to move into a new world bright with promise. But others are poised on the knife’s edge. They could fall to either side. Some are befuddled by lies so thoroughly, they can no longer recognize truth. Some are crippled by fear, overwhelmed by the unknown. Some are so convinced of their own powerlessness, they have simply opened their hands and let their power fall to the dust at their feet. Tonight, we focus on these people. Our cauldron burns with a desperate need for justice. It simmers with righteous anger. When we release our spell into the night, we release motivation, inspiration. All those poised on the knife’s edge will feel their hearts called to action. They will shake off their torpor. The scales will fall from their eyes. They will seize their own destiny. They will rise.”
“So mote it be!” cry the witches.
* * *
Much later, most of the women have stumbled home, exhausted, worn out from the intensity of the ritual. They have children or husbands or wives or jobs requiring their attention in the morning. Only three remain, collapsed on the big sectional on the back deck, looking up at the stars and eating bite-sized candy bars. The High Priestess sprawls indolently with her head in the lap of her dearest friend. The woman tries unsuccessfully to work her fingers through the rat’s nest of the High Priestess’ hair. “Ugh. You’re going to have to jump in the shower. This salt is the worst for your hair. There’s bits of seaweed in here!”
The High Priestess waves a hand vaguely, “Tomorrow. I’m too tired to move tonight.”
Their third friend reaches over and places a burning joint in her outstretched hand. “Well, what do you think?” she asks, “Did it work?”
The High Priestess sighs deeply. “The whole world is screwed if it didn’t.” She takes a long hit and holds it a moment before blowing out a cloud of smoke. She passes the joint. “We’ll just have to wait until the election is over to see.”
In Winter, Mother Earth holds her breath. Conserving her energy. Ruminating. Preparing for something new. A birth. A spark. A beginning.