folks across the sea, we did not exchange gifts on St. Nicholas's Day
-- we received too few gifts to do that. Christmas in our community was
family and church. Christmas Eve we had supper and leftover cake with
our evening tea, and Papa read to us from the Book of Luke. What presents
there were would come after church and dinner the next day, in honor of
Days were short in the winter, and the
solstice was just past. This meant the boys were going to bed early. Even
Josh did not stay up long -- he had handled all the livestock himself
that day, plus run Mommas errands in Sun-Return, and he was tired.
I was tired, after standing in the
kitchen most of the day. It felt good to sit on a cushion before a roaring
fire and sip tea without an audience. The poltergeist had been very quiet
since the dancing sprigs of holly. Wed heard footsteps upstairs while
eating supper, but that was it.
It was very nice to sit in the living
room without the scraps of fabric attacking me.
Marta was working on a square of her latest
quilt, called Fish Tails for its sharp edges. She really liked working
triangles, and this pattern was a challenge -- it took eight colors. Since
the scrap bag was full, shed decided to deplete it a bit. I was still
addled by her design, which was much more complicated than the Irish Chain
I was doing. Marta was piecing the overall coverlet in her head from the
center out, so that in case she ran out of a few remnants, the blocks
would gradually change color.
"Ready for a lesson?" Marta said
I blinked, surprised by the question. "Tonight?"
Marta lifted her head to meet my gaze;
a half smile flitted across her lips. "No time like the present,"
she offered, tugging her thread back through. "Between fetches and
poltergeists, I think it is time for you to learn the first of the major
Suddenly I was wide awake, and there was
an ache in my chest, like I couldnt catch my breath. Between fetches
and poltergeists, Id been feeling a bit ragged, truth to tell. I
wasnt sure I was ready just then for any more surprises.
"Christmas Eve?" I clarified.
Marta had conducted a ritual on the solstice a few days past, but as a
neophyte, I had not actively participated. Christmas was also a good time
Marta looked amused. "Tis said
that ghosts walk on Christmas Eve. Can you think of a more appropriate
-- or safer -- time to look beyond the borders of our world?"
"Ghosts?" Well, now...spirits
were interesting. I straightened up.
"Actually," Marta began, pinning
her needle in place and setting aside her square, "the first major
arcana you must learn is how to call upon Death." Turning to smile
at me, she added, "Nothing else is truly frightening after you have
I just stared at her, a sinking feeling
in the hollow of my stomach. "Death isnt really a person, is
it? I thought that was just poetry, in the Bible...."
"Death is a spirit," Marta said
softly, her hands folding in her lap. "Some claim it is Azrael, the
angel of death. Most people never see Death -- or never know it is Death
they see at the last. Death can wear many faces -- Death can be anyone
you have ever loved or known who has gone beyond. The face chosen is usually
whomever the failing person wants most to see. And so the dying are comforted
as they step over into the next life."
The angel of death. Lord and Lady, these
were deep waters now. "Do we find those people over there?"
I finally whispered.
"We may. Death is ambiguous when answering
questions about the other side of life." Marta looked a little evasive
"Death will answer questions?"
Marta nodded as she stood up. "That
is why a practitioner calls upon Death, to ask questions. But it is not
done lightly. You do not ask Death anything that can be answered by anyone
or anything else. You have to work at the answers -- Death does not make
As she started for the kitchen Marta added,
"And you never, ever ask about your own death. That is the one question
Death will not answer."
Rising to my feet, I threw the big pillow
over on the pile and started after her. "What are you going to ask
"This is the only time that you call
upon Death when you have no questions. When you begin learning the major
arcana, you must introduce yourself to Death." Looking back at me
as she lit a single taper from the kitchen fire, Marta went on: "All
apprentices learn this spell first. Once you have cast it, Death will
know your call, and may choose to answer you."
I thought about it, and shivered. "May
Marta smiled and went into the stillroom.
"When Death is invited, Death may choose whether to come." Her
voice grew lower as she continued. "The only way to guarantee Deaths
arrival is to kill something. Soldiers do it all the time but rarely see
Death passing by. However, if a practitioner kills to demand Deaths
presence, it changes the relationship."
"Changes?" I hesitated at the
doorway of the still room. Relationship?
Marta returned to the kitchen holding the
candle and her carpetbag of wands, wards and beeswax candles. "Death
is a friend to a practitioner, Allie," she said solemnly. "Death
is the last, great healer, who takes away the pain we cannot ease. Its
not Death people really fear -- it is suffering. Death will answer specific
questions concerning healing." She stopped before me, her expression
grave, if youll pardon the word. "Once you shed innocent blood
to summon Death, you are no longer perceived as a healer. You become...something
else. You become an enigma to watch, and perhaps a danger, a black sorcerer."
"Death no longer trusts you?"
I asked slowly, watching her eyes.
Her brows lifted slightly, and she said,
"Perhaps. I try not to attach emotions or attributes to Death. Death
is not human, and helps us for obscure motives. Death never volunteers
information -- but Death always answers." Setting down the bag on
the table, she began to take out things. "Sometimes the answer is
no," she added.
"Is Death male or female?" I
asked quickly, more to hear someone speak than to know the answer...which
was a good thing, because Marta was done answering questions.
"Both, and neither. Get your coat."
As I looked at her in surprise, she said, "We do not need ritual
robes for this ceremony. Just fire and water, tobacco, blood, and honesty."
I was halfway into my coat before I realized
Marta had said blood.
Might as well have not bothered with the
coat. No mere sheepskin was going to warm my body, much less my soul.
Not this Christmas Eve.
had disappeared earlier in the afternoon, and had been gone much longer
than a visit to the outhouse would require. Id wondered where she
was, but had not asked -- practitioners sometimes need solitude, and prying
is the worst form of rudeness.
Now the evidence of her sojourn outside
lay before me. In the clearing behind the barn the snow had been scraped
down to the ground in a circle about nine feet across. A small cone of
wood was carefully placed in the center, ready to be lit. Marta had not
changed into her shapeless purple silk gown or let her hair down. Tossed
over her shoulder was a small leather bag. In oiled leather boots, woolen
gloves, and a sheepskin coat covering her wool dress down to her boot
tops, she seemed a strange figure to be staging a major ritual. Her only
visible tool was a warming pan carrying a couple of live coals.
As we arrived at the scraped circle, Marta
reached into the bag and pulled out her athame, the black-handled knife
all practitioners use. She made a slashing motion on the east side of
the area, and gestured for me to enter the shoveled ring. Following me
inside, she gestured once again with the athame, and I felt a snapping
sensation thrum against my left side. Apparently Marta had set wards earlier,
when she created the circle. It looked shoveled, but who knew? Maybe she
had cleared it with magic.
"The ward is not necessary once the
circle is drawn, but a ward is a good precaution when you have the time
and strength to create it," Marta told me, sliding her knife into
"Why isnt it necessary?"
Might as well ask now, before things got busy.
"A good question, but I cant
tell you why. All I know is, when the circle has been drawn and closed
and Death called into it, negative influences shun the area."
So...even demons feared Death?
Pulling her metal goblet from her bag,
Marta set it at her feet and then heaped snow into it. When the cup was
overflowing, Marta touched the warming pan to the metal bowl. As the snow
melted she continued heaping the goblet, until it was nearly full.
"Youre not going to pull water
out of the air?" I finally asked. Id seen her do that very
thing more than once -- three nights earlier, in fact, for the solstice.
Marta shook her head, a gesture barely
visible in the eternal twilight of a winter night. "That is a major
form of magic, one you cannot yet do yourself. This is your ritual.
Also, the air is too dry." Standing, she gestured for me to approach
the center, and then poured the coals over the cone of dry wood.
A little encouragement from breath and
tinder, and the wood caught fire easily. It was a fragrant blaze -- there
were oak, apple, and a sliver of resinous pine or cedar. Once the fire
was burning brightly, Marta turned toward me and offered her knife to
my left hand.
I hadnt even seen her pull the athame
"This is almost the only ritual a
practitioner performs that requires blood. It demands the blood of the
person casting the circle -- you. Take the knife and just prick the index
finger on your right hand. You need a drop of blood in the goblet. That
also provides your salt for purification."
Oh, my...I could not believe what
I was doing on Christmas Eve. Would Momma send Papa to look for us, or
would they be mumchance about our absence? Would they even notice we were
missing from our beds?
Standing there shivering, I knew full well
that there was no getting out of this ritual. Marta was an adept, a fully
trained practitioner. She could stay out in the cold for days without
ill effect. My toes would freeze off long before she agreed to go back
Lord and Lady, my mind was spinning like
a windmill. Sighing, I held up the silver knife to my right hand, thought
about something else, and let the sharp tip slide across the surface of
my first finger. The pain registered immediately, and by firelight I could
see a dark drop welling up.
"Shake it into the goblet," Marta
instructed. I did as she asked.
"Now take the knife, dip it in the
water and stir, preferably clockwise, three times." Solemnly I did
so. "You are ready to draw your circle. Start east, as always, and
end there, drawing an unbroken line with the water. You keep dipping the
blade into the water to refresh the line. When in doubt, you can pour
the circle, gently, so it doesnt roll away."
Stifling a sigh, I moved to the edge of
the cleared snow and began drawing my circle. "What if I run out
of water?" I said haltingly.
"You may stop, melt more snow, and
put more blood into it," Marta said simply.
Ask a foolish question...
I did not run out of water, Im glad
to say. I had a complete line circling the cleared area, although I could
not tell by firelight if my ritual was complete. Marta solved that for
me -- she muttered a few words, and a faint red glow, like foxfire, was
visible, as if Id made the circle with live coals.
"Now the inner circle?" I said,
looking over at Marta. At her nod, I backed up a step and made another
complete circle within the first.
Then I ran out of water and had to heap
the goblet once more. Its always more painful to get blood out of
a cut when the slice has started to close, but I managed. Marta told me
what to write between the rings -- the names of the angels who are said
to guard all who petition for their help. Raphael protected from the east,
Michael from the south, Gabriel the west, and Uriel from the north. Between
the names I drew crosses. Then, I turned back to my teacher.
"And... ?" I prompted.
"Only those names and the cross,"
I looked down at the circle Id drawn,
and then back at Marta. Suddenly I felt hot inside, flame searing down
my veins. "This is all?" Marta nodded. "And were protected?"
Marta nodded again.
Didnt seem like enough to protect
from Death. But maybe that was the point -- there was no protection.
"Black magicians and black witches
do not draw circles of this type," Marta said quietly. "They
certainly do not call upon angels for protection from demons -- they call
upon the dark god, Satan, who has ruled the amoral and vile since the
dawn of time, to protect them from his servants."
Anything I might have said seemed wasted
breath, so I simply nodded.
"Remember, this is not a summoning."
I thought about it a moment. "So the
forms used to call upon spirits dont really hold?"
Marta smiled and her fingers brushed my
cheek. "You cant threaten Death with the wrath of angels, my
dear -- remember that some say Death is an angel. You are appealing
to a force. Its not a prayer --Death cannot create life, it is not
one of the powers that be. You are offering up an invitation to
Her last words gave me a clue. Marta must
have seen the change in my face, because she held up a finger to stop
me from speaking. "There is one last thing you need." Reaching
back into her pouch, Marta pulled out a tiny leather bag. "Open your
hand." When I did so, she took out a hefty pinch of a dried and crumbled
plant and placed it on my palm. "Death can always be found in the
coiling smoke of burning tobacco. I suspect thats part of why the
Indians respect it and call it sacred. Toss this into the fire before
you begin. You will end by flicking the rest of the goblet water into
I closed my fingers over the flakes of
tobacco to keep any errant breeze from stealing them. Glancing quickly
at the flames in the center of the ritual circle, I thought of one last
question: "What name do I use to speak with Death?"
Again Marta smiled that sudden, twisted
smile that only echoed her usual expression. "You may use the earthly
name your parents gave you, or the Craft name we selected on the equinox
-- although you have had good luck using no name. Your calling must ring
like a solitary bell, its voice known to all."
She was reminding me that Id actually
had the nerve to call on the mother goddess without identifying myself,
back when we were trying to lay that ghost. It was almost enough to make
me grumble. I knew I was to use my Craft name in invocations -- I didnt
know I was to use it when praying.
Id had my first magic name three months,
since the equinox, and had yet to use it. Time to break it in...
Suddenly I was warm all over, almost too
warm for my heavy coat. I undid the big horn toggles and let the garment
hang loose. Then I turned to face the bright fire. Inhaling deeply, I
took about a third of the crushed tobacco and tossed it into the flames.
The familiar smell of burning tobacco filled
my nostrils. It seemed stronger than what Papa used, more biting. As the
smoke rose into the cloudy sky I managed to swallow once, and then said,
"I call upon you, Azrael, great healer of the ages, most compassionate
of spirits, who knows all that we are and might ever be. I, Alfreda Alethia,
come before you to announce my intention and offer you my service. I was
born a healer, and now learn all the mysteries you have yet revealed,
to better practice my calling."
I gulped some air and tossed more of the
tobacco into the flames. "In a circle drawn with the wine of life,
I ask you to look upon me and listen to my petition, so that you will
know me as a healer when I call upon your name." I inhaled once more,
to finish my request, but nothing else came out as I realized that someone
-- something -- was seated on the other side of the fire.
In form it was a young man wearing buckskin,
his skin the color of fresh ivory, his hair so pale a blond it looked
white by firelight. I could not see his eyes, but I knew they would be
a pale blue...and that there was a smattering of freckles, like sand,
etched across his nose.
It was a face much like my own, except
that my eyes were like Papas, as blue as the sky. Fury seized me,
and I threw the last of the tobacco at Death -- useless, as it floated
into the fire. "How dare you!" I shrieked. "How
dare you choose that face! How could you choose it?"
Deaths expression did not change.
"I was not uncalled."
"I most certainly did not choose my
brother! Dont you have a face of your own?"
I stood there, suddenly uncertain. Marta
had told me the exact truth -- Death answered questions, and no more.
"Why do you think I chose that face
for you?" I asked, my voice quieter.
"Perhaps because you felt you never
properly said good-bye," Death suggested evenly. His -- its -- face
did not change expression.
There was truth in that. My last words
with Dolph had been ordinary words, brisk words dismissing a troublesome
"I miss you," I said simply.
"Someday Ill forgive you for acting stupid and touching that
wolfs mouth. I know you couldnt guess it was a werewolf, but
still...to toss all your learning out with the wash water just to impress
some fool young men -- " I stopped then, knowing I was addressing
Death as if it were Dolph. "I loved him."
Death seemed to waver before my eyes, becoming
an image of smoke. My eyes watered in response. When I could see again,
Dolph no longer sat across from me. Now it was an elderly woman in a dress
with many petticoats, her beautiful shawl held in place with a cameo,
her cap trimmed with a wide band of lace. The gaze upon me was sharp.
She seemed to be sitting on air, as if an unseen chair were present.
"Do you understand about the triad
yet, Allie?" Her voice was low for a womans, almost gravelly,
as if she had spent her life speaking through smoke. My great-grandmother
had been a great practitioner in her time...she had read a lot of futures
in the curl of a smoking fire.
So...not only could I question Death; Death
could question me.
"I know that I am rooted in life,
Gran, and you in death, and that theres love between us," I
told her, reaching up to finger the woven silver necklace at my throat.
It, like the bracelets that matched, had once belonged to Great-grandmother
Emma. "The triad is always those three things, but what they mean
changes like a breath of wind."
"The meaning never changes, my dear,"
she said gently, smoothing her full skirt with one hand like she always
did, "but which meaning we recognize flickers like sunlight on the
face of a pond. It never repeats itself."
"Ill do right by you, Gran,"
I said impulsively. "Ill learn these things."
Emma Schells sweet smile slipped
out. "I know you will, Alfreda Golden-tongue, Veritas. You
were born to walk in the Dark on the Other Side. You will bring light
wherever you tread."
I blinked and frowned. Those were not names
I remembered from anywhere. "Why do you call me that? Its not
"It will be."
What else was there to say? "When?"
"Sooner than you think."
So much for questioning Death. I guessed
future names fell into knowing your own future, and such information was
hard to find and uncertain.
It dawned on me that Id gotten mad
at Death and thrown something at it. Death had not responded -- whether
from courtesy or because response was not its nature, I did not know.
Maybe it was time to fold my cards and
leave the game. ...
"I thank you, Azrael, for your courtesy
in coming to face me in this circle, and for your answers to questions
I did not know I had." Lifting up the goblet, I dipped my hand into
it and flicked the blood-tinged water into the flames. "Farewell
to you, until we meet again."
"It will be soon," Death said
implacably as it wavered and disappeared like a windblown candle flame.
I flung the water in an arc of droplets,
causing the fire to hiss. Then I turned toward Marta.
She was not looking at me; she was looking
at the spot where Death had been seated. "Well done, Allie,"
she said softly.
I would have felt better about the whole
thing if she hadnt been frowning when she spoke. That ended Christmas
Eve for me, as at the age of thirteen years I first met Death face-to-face.
God rest you merry, gentles all, and peace
on earth to folk of goodwill.