(Joanna’s note: I originally wrote this piece in 1991, and it was first published in The Beltane Papers in October 1992. The “Helen” in this story is Helen Farias, founder of the Beltane Papers. She died in September 1994.)
All day long I had looked forward to dusk, to the turning of the Wheel on this day of Samhain, Summer’s End, the New Year of our Celtic ancestors. My three circle sisters and I had planned a ritual, and while my heart longed for it, my body was weary; and I still had some residual fear. Last year, my son had been gone only six months, and I could not bear to observe the Samhain rites. This year, would I have the courage? I almost begged off, pleading weariness.
But Rowan said she’d drive to Helen’s, and so we went. Those lonely dark country back roads on All Hallow’s Eve were dark and eerie. It was easy to imagine faeries and spirits abroad on that night. Our neighbors had stacked a pyramid of jack o’lantems on their lawn, all set ablaze with fiery grins, sentinels and witnesses to a rite more ancient than we could recall.
We arrived at Helen’s house, and were ushered into a warm room, scented by cider bubbling on the wood stove. The table was set for pumpkin carving, the apples were ready for dunking, the altar was decorated and ready for our ceremony. We were all dressed in black to honor the Cailleach, Alma wearing the robes and headband that marked her as Priestess for the evening.
We unpacked our baskets, taking out dark mirrors and crystals for scrying, masks, and photographs of our beloved dead that we laid lovingly on the piano. Alma, you look just like your great-grandmother! Rowan, is this the cat you loved so much? This is my first love, dead the year we turned 18, his death changed my life. Her father, my mother, our grandfathers and grandmothers, our cats, my son, snatched away on a full moon in April, one month before his sixteenth birthday.
My head was pounding, I needed to sit for awhile. I took a seat in the north and closed my eyes, listening to Alma and Rowan chatter and Helen bustle in the kitchen. She thrust a wooden bowl of colcannon into my hands. “It’s a dish made from all three harvests,” she said. “Onions from Lammas, potatoes from Equinox, and cabbage at Samhain.” The dish was warm and filling, and I felt its lifeforce heating my blood. A Holly Tannen tape played in the background.
“In a narrow grave, just six by three
they buried me there on the lone prairie … ” 1
“But tonight is Hallowe’en,
when the elfin court do ride.
‘Hold me fast and fear me not,
it’s the father of your child, lady,
oh it’s the father of your child.'” 2
Helen was worried that her hearthmate had not yet arrived with the pumpkins, and that he would interrupt us once the circle was cast. But we all shook our heads and told her he would not be an intrusion. We decided to go outside to the mound where Helen had buried the ashes of her mother, her father, and her beloved cat. Coats and mittens on, we walked out into the black night, careful not to slip on wet and shiny leaves, or the apple windfalls strewn across the ground.
Helen placed a votive candle at the base of the bush where the ashes were buried. The foliage was so damp there was no chance of fire. The flame flickered up through branches and leaves as we encircled the bush. Helen told us about her mother’s life and death, her father, her cat; and how their ghosts have appeared at times, bringing love and comfort. Her sister had seen the ghost cat run into the woods, caught up in the arms of a long-dark-haired Diana. Rowan spoke of her grandfather, whom she remembered as an embittered old alcoholic, and how she found a photo of him as a gay young man, “Eddie Smith, 1915”, and honored that spirit she’d never known.
I found myself with much to say. I honored Aaron, good Jewish boy, first love, who died the summer of1970, whose death sent me searching for cosmic answers and set me on the path I still walk. His death taught me that love doesn’t end when life ends. He has visited me in dreams over the years, growing with me as I have grown, seeing him at age 25, 30, 35. It had been years since I dreamed of him, but in this season, he was again on my mind.
I spoke of my mother, who died in January of 1984 after a long illness. I remembered her with desperate love and desperate anguish. I dreamed of her often after she died. One dream in particular I remember as a visitation. It was her wake. Friends and family were bustling to prepare food. My father was there, my boys, and my childhood friend Mary. My mother sat on the couch in the midst of the gathering, looking as she did in photos from the forties, young and thin. She was wrapped in a robe, and looked exhausted, but radiant and happy. She was finally going to get to rest and heal.
Then it was time to honor my third beloved dead, my son Jake, who had died about 18 months earlier in a hiking accident. I was choking on my tears as I tried to speak. The words would not come at first, but I needed to honor him and share the last visitation dream I had. It was on Lammas Eve of 1990, when he appeared to me in white jeans and a clean T-shirt, his long hair blond, his body slender. He was beaming, hugging me, loving me, and then he walked away and left me again.
It was Alma’s turn, and she spoke of the patients who died while in her care as a nurse. She told us about the courageous woman who asked her, “Am I going to die?” A twenty-one-year-old Alma gulped and replied, “Yes, you are.” The patient smiled and said, “I knew that, dear, I just didn’t know if you knew it, and I was going to pretend for you.” Alma honored her grandmothers, women she never knew, but whose features were hers.
Our faces were damp with tears by then, and our toes were numb. We lifted our hands to the flame at the center of the bush and sent prayers and blessings to our dead. We asked for their guidance and direction in our lives. We circled the bush once, twice, thrice, then headed back to the warmth of the candlelit, wood-warm room.
We held each other, crying for a bit. “They were there,” we said to each other. “They were really there. We felt them.” Alma and I began to sing a bit of the Sweet Honey in the Rock tune, “Breaths,” the one that Ruth and Cyntia sang at Jake’s memorial service:
“Those who have died have never, never left;
the dead are not under the earth.
They are in the moaning trees,
they are in the crying rocks.
‘Tis the ancestors’ breath
when the fire’s voice is heard,
‘Tis the ancestors’ breath in the voice of the water …” 3
Helen’s hearthmate returned with the pumpkins. He apologized for interrupting, we told him he hadn’t, we blessed him and he disappeared. The lights were dimmed around the altar as we assembled for the casting of the circle. Helen picked up a wand, a branch as bare as November, and invoked each direction, slowly, quietly, carefully. The energy built, the power rose, we each became a vessel. My arms were lifted.
“Hecate,” I breathed. “I invite you to this circle.”
“Cailleach, Old Woman of Winter, come,” Helen called.
“Kali,” Alma whispered.
“Mor . ga . na.”
“Me . du . sa.”
The syllables were long and drawn out, becoming chants, becoming hisses:
”The Fates, the Noms, She Who Spins, She Who Weaves, She Who Cuts the Thread of Life.”
“I invite my mother to this circle.”
“My grandmother … ”
“My grandmothers and great-grandmothers I never knew.”
“Those women who died for taking a courageous stand.”
“The women who were burned as witches.”
“Women who died of botched abortions.”
“Women who died of abuse.”
“Our foremothers who walked this path before us.”
“I invite Susan B. Anthony to this circle, she is still working for the revolution.”
“Come join our circle, come … ”
Then they were around us, dancing, moving, leaping like shadows and flames around the periphery of the circle. I heard them chanting:
“Under the earth I go,
On the oak leaf I stand,
I ride on the filly that never has foaled,
And I carry the dead in my hand.” 4
We relaxed a bit and tried our hands at scrying, one with a crystal egg, one with an obsidian ball, one with a candle flame, one with a darkened mirror. We saw portals, openings, doorways, a churchyard, and dancers in a circle. We chose runes from a velvet bag; she who sat in the West found the sigil for water. She who sat in the North chose the sigil for earth, deep roots in winter. Runes of movement, of blessing, of sparks. She who was called Rowan chose the rune of the rowan tree.
Then cards were pulled. Helen chose “Sunset,” the Death card, 13; next year her Tarot year card would be Death. “I’m expecting major transformations,” she said with a sigh. This Hanged Man year had been rough for her. Alma’s card showed her initiation as priestess, with a necklace symbolic of power, not unlike the necklace she wore about her forehead. I chose “The Grandmothers” (the Moon), a lovely depiction of an ancestor sending dreams to a sleeping woman. I would be listening to my dreams, indeed.
I faded, I tired, my energy waned. I did not follow the rest of the rite. I floated somewhere between here and there — and trusted my sisters to tell me what I missed.
Then it was time to open the circle. Helen lifted the Soul Cakes above her head in blessing, and gave one to each of us. “Soul cake, soul cake, please good missus a soul cake,” ran the song through my head. A Soul Cake in exchange for a prayer for the dead. We saluted our beloved dead, we blessed them as we broke the bread, we bid them leave our circle. “The circle is open, but unbroken, may the peace of the Goddess go in our hearts.”
We did not dunk for apples, we did not carve the pumpkins, we did not heat the hazelnuts in the fire till they popped to tell us our fortunes for the coming year. But it was late, and the dark night called. We stayed long enough to have a cup of cider, a portion of pumpkin pudding baked in a pumpkin shell, and a listen to the tale of Thomas the Rhymer. The Faery Queen blessed him (or was it a curse?) with a tongue that cannot lie. And when he protested, but how shall I make my way in the world? she replied:
” ‘Be careful in your silence,
As you’re careful what you say;
May your truth outlive them all,’ she said,
As she turned and rode away.” 5
And so did his truth outlive them all. And so it does today. For when mortals spend time in the Otherworld, they leave profoundly changed.
And so were we all changed,
on that night of witches and faeries and ghosts,
that Holy Evening,
that All Hallows E’en.
I dreamed that night of Faeryland, of harps woven in wheat, and strings that shone like gold, with spells inscribed in the making. My hearthmate woke me before dawn to show me the waning crescent moon and her sisters the stars, gleaming through mists and bare November branches, at the pivot point where Hallowe’en becomes All Souls Day.
1. Traditional, “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” Holly Tannen, Between the Worlds, Gold Leaf Records, 1985.
2. Traditional, “Tam Lin,” Holly Tannen, Between the Worlds, Gold Leaf Records, 1985.
3. Diop-Barnwell, “Breaths,” Sweet Honey in the Rock, Good News, Flying Fish Records 1981.
4. Scots traditional saying quoted by Charles DeLint, The Little Country, William Morrow and Company, 1991.
5. Danny Carnahan, “True Thomas,” Tania Opland, Renaissance Fare, 1987.