The first warning was vague, like an indistinct cramp that could be heralding the beginning of her menses or the beginning of something far more unpleasant. It was a sudden awareness of places within her which, when running properly, she was blissfully unaware of. The not-quite-a-cramp caught her off guard in the middle of her invocation to Water. She stuttered over her welcome to the spirits of the wetlands around them and to the rain that so recently saturated the ground they stood upon. Across from her in the circle Lysabeta giggled. Ellaine shushed her. Karrah breathed through the awkward moment, allowing the pattern of the invocation to see her through. She always welcomed Water, and the invocation chant was familiar. Karrah lowered her hands as the final words rang around the circle. She lit the blue candle on Water’s altar, traced the element’s pentagram over the pitcher that housed their lustral water, smiled her gratitude at her priestess, and turned northward as Tad began his invocation to Earth.
Her coven was eight strong, an eclectic bunch if ever there was one. Ellaine and Tad served as priestess and priest, and had been together the longest. Ellaine could boast lineage back to some of the more tight-knit of the Traditional Wiccans, but she was never one to drop names. They ranged wide in age as well as in background, from Ellaine at sixty-eight, a retired professor originally from across the Pond, all the way down to Omid, their newest covenmate: a twenty year old, first generation Iranian-American. They were students, homemakers, urban farmers, and nine-to-fivers. The diversity within the coven was what originally drew Karrah to it, five years ago. They were all different enough to keep challenging each other, different enough to keep things fresh and interesting, and similar enough that, when it came time to gather in sacred space, those differences built that space as much as the similarities did.
Even if every now and again Lysabeta snickered at inappropriate times.
The rest of the ritual went smoothly. They gathered in Ellaine’s marshy backyard to honor the equinox, to mark the turning of the wheel from winter to spring. Small bundles had been prepared previously, of various seeds to bring home and plant, and these were passed around, chanted over, infused with goals for the growing half of the year. They worked their magic together, raising the energy, channeling it into their seeds. The Guides and Elements were thanked, the circle opened, and the cakes and wine consumed. Karrah clutched her bundle of seeds in one hand, her wine glass in the other, and wandered away from the others just far enough to get some space. She settled upon Ellaine’s back steps, set her glass aside, and rubbed at her abdomen.
The vague cramp-that-wasn’t returned, steady this time, and stubborn. She closed her eyes, letting her ears pull in the sounds of her covenmates, their laughter, their easy banter, their easy conversation. Lysabeta was recounting her latest disaster of a date to Ravena and Giselle; Tad and Erick were nearby, ironing out the details for their upcoming fishing trip. Omid was busy helping Ellaine pack up the central altar to haul back into her house. Karrah could hear his rich, thickly accented voice accented peppering Ellaine with questions about what would go where. He’d only been with them for a year; this was the first time he’d been allowed to help deconstruct the altar, but Karrah knew him well enough at this point to know the man was nervous. His accent became almost impossible to understand, the more nervous he became. She wondered, not for the first time, why he worried so? What was his home life like, that it mattered so much how an object was placed into a box or put on a shelf? There were some things Ellaine was a stickler for – the eradication of so-called pagan standard time from her coveners, for one thing – but for the most part she was rather laid back. Intention was what mattered. Respect and good intent undid whatever harm ignorance could cause. Still, Karrah remembered how nervous she’d been, the first few times she was allowed to help. It was something they all had to go through, in their own way.
The noise created by these people Karrah counted as closer than family was a balm to her soul, and she drank in their presence deeply. The wind around the yard, the dampness of the air, the rich smell of the ground underfoot, the warmth of the sunlight as it streamed down upon them – all of these things Karrah drew into herself, filling herself with laughter and life and kinship. This was the stuff of life, and she would need life, in the coming hours.
The discomfort in her gut trembled on the edge of actual pain. Karrah kicked back the rest of the wine in her glass, rose, and crossed the yard to begin her good-byes. “Do you want a ride home?” Lysabeta asked as they embraced.
“No,” Karrah murmurred. “Stay. Enjoy the day.”
“Merry part.” Ravena hugged her tightly. “See you in two weeks.”
“Going so soon?” Tad asked, and “I can give you a lift,” Erick offered. “Put your bike in the back?”
Karrah hugged them both, smiling and shaking her head. “I’ll be okay. It’s not that far.”
She found Omid and Ellaine in the interior Temple. Omid was holding his athame, showing Ellaine the design on its hilt. They both smiled at Karrah as she interrupted. “It was a beautiful invocation,” Omid told her, his brown eyes crinkling with happiness. She didn’t offer him an embrace; there were some holdovers to his former religion that were deeply ingrained into his culture as well. She beamed at him, and he grinned back, and that was embrace enough.
“Are you unwell?” Ellaine asked. Her eyes were piercing, and her Sight even more so. She knew, more than any of the others, of these sudden pains and what they meant. There was a wealth of concern in that one question, layers and layers of meaning condensed into one precise inquiry.
Karrah hugged her priestess and, just for a moment, let herself lean against her elder. Ellaine returned the embrace with spine-cracking strength, firm fingers holding onto Karrah’s shoulders. Karrah took from her what was offered, strength and energy, love and concern, a constant offer of aid that had not once faltered in the years Karrah had called her ‘sister’. “I will be okay.” Karrah could only offer truth in reply.
She wheeled her bicycle down Ellaine’s dirt driveway, avoiding the muddy puddles sparkling like so many gems under the blue sky. She listened to the wind in the trees playing with the young spring leaves. In the distance she could hear the traffic on the road and she welcomed another layer of life to the treasury within her heart. It was the middle of the week, a workday or a school day for most people, and there they were, going about their lives. Busy. Filled with purpose. Karrah fastened her helmet to her head, mounted her bike, and began to pedal.
The cramping hovered on that edge between true pain and discomfort while Karrah traveled the bike lanes and trails. It was not yet time for her presence. She kept herself with a few miles of Ellaine’s house, and allowed both the present and the past guide her. She watched the shadows of the trees, still mostly bare, play with the sunlight across the ground as she moved. She heard children playing in yards. She heard cats fighting, heard crows and robin and starlings calling. Her stomach clenched as one crow darted too close in front of her, and the cramping spiked into true pain at last. She swerved sharply, too sharply, and the bike wobbled underneath her. The fall happened in slow motion, and Karrah landed without injury. Wiping the mud from her hands onto her jeans, she surveyed the land around her.
A foot path led from the street into a cluster of alders and oaks. She could see the glint of water from between the tree trunks. Pulling her bike away from the road, Karrah unfastened her helmet and looped it on her handlebar. She took a step further down the path, and then another, her head cocked while listening to the pain in her body. The cramping squeezed one final time as she took a third step, and then the pain left her completely. She knew better than to pause now that her feet were on the right path, so Karrah kept walking while she began breathing exercises meant to steady her racing heart.
Half a mile down the foot path the trees fell back just enough to reveal the flood line. The water in the pond was high, but not the highest it had been. Karrah wondered whether, should she return here when the rains really got under way, the spot she stood on would be under water? Then the grasses by the water’s edge rustled, and the goose waddled out from his cover.
Scars were obvious on his head, and the webbing of one foot was in tatters, though the injury looked old. His plumage was almost solid white, with random-seeming bands of brindled grey his head, by his wings, and on one side of his tail. He paused when he spotted Karrah, and for a moment they stood, taking each other in.
Finally, Karrah sat. She folded her legs in front of her, placed her hands upon her knees, and waited.
He waddled closer, first eying her this way, then eying her that way. He paused to nibble at the grass. He shook his tail feathers out. He spread his wings out wide, displaying his long wingspan, standing tall and proud. Tears pricked Karrah’s eyes, but she remained motionless, watching him. Waiting.
He settled down, folding his wings upon his back. That last display seemed to tax him, and he walked with his head a bit lower, his limp a bit more pronounced. Karrah made a low, soothing sound in her throat, adding a touch of a warble to it, and the goose responded in kind. He nibbled at her shoe laces for a moment, and Karrah moved her hands from her knees to the ground on either side of her. She moved slowly, so as not to startle the bird.
He clacked his beak together, then paused. He nibbled at her laces again, his beak questing up her jeans, nipping without any real threat. He called low under his breath, a secret question, seeking permission. Karrah clucked her tongue in her mouth and hummed a deep sound. The goose sighed, stepped first one webbed foot into her lap, and then the other. For a moment they both held still, his wet guard feathers soaking her clothes where they touched, neither human nor goose willing to move first, both held in that moment of forbidden contact, where nature still held sway. Then the moment passed, like a cloud before the sun, and the goose settled into the nest Karrah’s legs made for him. He rested his head heavily upon her left shoulder, and she brought her arms around his body, holding him. She could feel his heart beating against hers, as well as the tell-tale rattling within his lungs, and for a time they sat, her body providing a warm, dry, safe place for him to rest while he gathered his courage for one last launch.
As he grew heavier in her arms, Karrah grew more confident of his acceptance. She leaned her cheek against his scarred head, and stroked his neck with one hand. She sang to him the wordless tune her nonno had taught her, ages ago. She sang and sang and sang, holding the goose, cradling him to her as he left this world for the next. She sang until she felt his body grow limp against her, discarded now that it was no longer needed, nor wanted. She sang as the tears rolled down her face and the pain that had been in her gut flared from her groin to her throat, thick and scorching.
Movement, when it was time, came with difficulty. She moved with care, finding her footing without stumbling, without releasing his body. She waded out into the pond until the water hit her chest. She sang while she returned his body to the water that had been his world. She kept singing as she backed her way to the shore, watching as first his body floated and then, slowly, as it sank.
Her teeth chattered as she picked her way back to her bicycle. The sunlight was gone, as if the life-giving orb dared not to show its cheery face to her. She dripped pond water as she mounted her bike and headed back for Ellaine’s house.
The others were long gone, the afternoon spent. Ellaine waited by her front door. She didn’t speak as she led Karrah through the house into the Temple. She didn’t speak as she stripped the pond-soaked clothing from Karrah’s chilled limbs. She asked no questions as Karrah dried herself and stepped into the clean pajama offered to her. Karrah sank gratefully onto the floor in front of the main altar that took up most of one wall in the Temple. Ellaine wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, lit the three candles on the altar – one for the Goddess, one for the God, one for the All – and then lowered herself to sit beside her sister. Karrah pulled her knees against her chest, still shivering, and wrapped the blanket more tightly around her. Ellaine placed one hand upon her back, fingers splayed wide and strong, a comfortable reminder of her support. Karrah closed her eyes. She dredged her carefully stored treasury of light and love and life up from the depths of her heart. Light, from the candles upon the shrine, from the sunlight streaming down through a blue sky and stored in the memory of her cells; from the sun, filtered through clouds and growing weak with the passage of the day, but strong and eternal in the cosmos itself. Love, from the hand upon her back, steady despite the trembling in her own limbs; from the embraces and kisses and shared smiles of her covenmates; from her place in the tapestry that was her family. They held each other up, through everything. Life, from standing side by side with her family, outside of time, honoring the cycles of nature and experiences; from the number of creatures who have shared their lives with her, and allowed her to witness their passing. Life, more than anything .else, Karrah clutched to her heart, reminding herself that death was but a part of life, an important part, a natural part. She leaned against Ellaine, and her sister wrapped an arm around her, holding her close.
“This might be easier if you’d let us help you.” Ellaine suggested.
The words held no recrimination, no censure. Karrah blinked slowly, her eyes on the flame of the All. When the first one had sought her out, to bleed to death in her lap, trailing his broken limb through the field, Karrah’s nonno swore her to secrecy. He taught her everything he knew, but he did so without explaining or naming it. The pain would come, and they would go “hunting”. A dog or a bear or swallow would find them, and they would “see to things”. Once, there had been a car accident, a mile away from his land, and he’d brought her to sit with the woman, “helping her” while they waited for the paramedics. He passed on the songs that he used, that could sooth nerves and calm fears and settle the most agitated, but his was a legacy of euphemisms and hedging. Only once, just before he’d died, Karrah managed to get him to have a candid conversation about what it was to be a death-singer. She didn’t even know what her nonno called what they could do; death-singer was her own term for it. Until she’d found Ellaine, Karrah carried her ability like a shameful secret. With Ellaine’s Sight, it wasn’t much of a surprise that the priestess would know. She’d been trying for years to get Karrah to share her secret with her covenmates, but fear and habitual secret keeping always stopped her from doing so.
The idea of telling them no longer filled Karrah with dread. Maybe it was time to set aside these secrets, at least here, at least with these people. They’d become her light and love and life; maybe it was time to let them know just how much they meant to her. Maybe it was time to make room in the depths of her heart from life, as well as for death.
[Jolene Dawe is a polytheist devoted to Poseidon and Odin. She is the author of Treasures from the Deep, a collection of Poseidon’s myths retold, and The Fairy Queen of Spencer’s Butte and Other Tales. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her partner, a small horde of cats, one small dog, and three spunky spinning wheels. You can find her online at http://thesaturatedpage.wordpress.com%5D.]