Horla Fiction (August-September 2020)

 

REFLECTION

by

L.S. MADDEN

WHEN I was very young the old gods and spirits were still around, interested, and available enough that lots of us – humankind I mean – knew them, saw them, spoke with them now and again.

I whispered secrets to the moon; she seemed willing to keep them safe. I saw the blonde woman in the sleigh drawn by cats, waved, and she smiled at me. The auburn-haired woman looked out at me from over the forge, and I saw her singing and reading poetry in the pub. Crow and Coyote visited, but did not talk to me. Every spring, stream, river, and lake had nymphs that would play with you in the shallows. The fairies danced at the end of the garden; pixies and sprites stopped by for fresh cream; and the oldest of trees still had dryads. I would seek out their trees, and in a small soft voice tell them stories of my ordinary life.

I used to go into the wood-lot and whistle up Pan. We’d play at the forest’s edge like young foals or seek out a quiet glade and sleep in the dappled sunlight curled up like puppies.

: ~ :

By the time I was nine I was comfortable with the seasons.

Spring was the sweet innocence and power of youth. The beginning, the seed, the egg, the coming together, and the creation.

She laughed in the orchards, and danced in the rain, welcomed crocuses, and snowdrops at the edge of receding snow banks, and whispered to me of where the morels would appear.

Her consort was Pan. He of the flute and wild places, the burgeoning greenery and budding trees. He whose mind was never far from the passions lighting in the eyes of youths and maidens alike. Hand outstretched to lead his lady love off to some secluded bower for an afternoon of love-making and exploration.

Fecund Summer strolled the gardens, breathed fertility into the fruit trees, and stroked newly born creatures in welcome. All the while smiling as she would take a moment, sit back and gently curve her hands around her growing belly.

She would look up, catching the eye of her hunter/companion, now tending fields and herds, letting his forests and wildernesses grow and increase as did the wild creatures.

His eye was never far from the wild nor from his love in her ever-nurturing aspect.

I traveled forest pathways with Autumn in her cloak of leaves turned gold and scarlet, orange and yellow, burgundy and brown, and with her consort Jack Frost. He of the intricate traceries on glass and crystal sparks along the edges of blades of grass. The one who paints the leaves that Autumn gathers to stitch into blanket to cover the tree during the harvests, and eventually the ground beneath them in preparation for the long rest to come.

I would meet with Old Man Winter and his Crone companion. We would walk the deer paths, talk about winter kill of animals and trees, watch the storms come in, and marvel at the many crystalline differences of individual snowflakes.

She talked of the rest, the short one of winter, and the long one of death, of long nights, the safety and comfort of a snug den, and the relief of hibernation.

They both taught me the necessity of death and rebirth in the structure of the Wheel – of the Year, and of Life.

: ~ :

Four years later I took my place as Maiden of our Circle, helping, studying, learning the lore, the ways and the things that must be done for the eight Sabbats, the Rituals, and the Gatherings that were how we celebrated the turning of the Wheel.

The women of the Circle gathered to celebrate my first Moon Time, to welcome me into the sisterhood of the goddess and my blossoming new role as a woman.

It was during that time I asked about my place as Maiden. Was I required to remain chaste? Was a Maiden the same as a virgin?

The reassured me that no, I would not be required to give up my position as Maiden should I choose to take a lover.

Maiden to us means an independent woman who has not chosen to commit herself to an individual person by ritual, or to bear children that she will raise in conjunction with another parent.

This was to be my time, to learn about the world, the various people, myself, and what forms of love I would embrace.

: ~ :

Three turnings of the Wheel and I moved forward in my craft—of the moon, her ways, her phases, the houses she passed through and how it all influenced the Magic around me.

This was the beginning of a life-long study and practice of spellcraft and the use of Magic. It was also the start of my service to the Circle, becoming a Witch, stepping to altar as Priestess, aspecting Mother, and eventually taking up my place as Teacher.

: ~ :

In all that time the old gods and spirits remained close to those of us who revered them. The fairies continued to dance at the end of the garden; pixies and sprites came to collect their cream. Things seemed to remain the same, and yet they did change with time.

: ~ :

Now that I am an old woman I am content with the life I’ve lead.

The things I’ve seen and felt and lived through.

The people I’ve met and interacted with, love and cared for, who challenged me and fought with me. Some I’ve lost along the way – our paths slowly separating as we each followed our own. And the ones whose paths took them across the rainbow bridge where I could not follow at the time, as those still close, tucked into my life, my heart, and my memories.

I had a desire to tread the pathways of my youth, to visit the nymphs and talk to the dryads. And so I returned, took the path through the orchard, along the edge of the wood to a barely perceptible deer path that lead to a sweet water spring.

Nothing had changed, nothing but me.

A tear slipped down my cheek, and I found myself softly crying.

“Why do you weep my little one?” an old familiar voice asked from behind me.

“I’m not certain,” I responded. “Perhaps for my long lost youth.” I wiped my face with hands damp from the water flowing by me.

A gentle hand rested on my shoulder. “We all age, my friend,” he said sitting on the soft earth next to me. “The children of men faster than some, slower than others.”

I looked up into the same golden eyes I’d known my whole life. “I know. The cycle of Life moves at its own pace for all creatures. I just miss the incredible intensity of youth.”

“You would have burned out too quickly if you had maintained that pace.

“Do you remember how time slowed down in the arms of a lover? Or how holding a new born life stopped everything for a moment? Do you not still love to sit by the fire in the evening as the day slowly fades? There is much to be sought after, and found in the slow quiet times as well.”

“You are right, as usual,” I replied. “I am fortunate to have lived such a long full life. But I have aged so much. I do not recognise myself, what must I look like to those who loved me once?”

“Give me a moment” he said, rising. “I have someone you should meet again.”

He stepped to the forest’s edge and held out his hand.

In the soft dappled light a small pale hand reached out and took his as a figure stepped into the clearing. He tucked the hand into the crook of his arm as if it were the most precious thing in the world, then step by careful step he guided his companion to me.

 “Do you recognise me, child?” she asked after they were both seated. “I have changed much on the outside.

“My once luxurious chestnut-coloured hair has thinned, become brittle, and turned grey. I pin it up now, as it is too wispy to allow to float about all willy-nilly.

“My skin, once rosy and plump, and silkily smooth, is wrinkled and loose and saggy. Look, I have liver spots on my hands.”

She held them out for me to see and I took them gently in my own, noting the delicate thinness and translucency of the skin, the traceries of blue veins and the brittle bones beneath the surface. One or two knuckles swollen and stiff with age showed these were hands that had worked for a lifetime.

“My once strong supple body has settled, and spread, my shoulders are stooped, my knees are a bit wobbly, and my neck is quite frankly scrawny. It lets my head tremble if I don’t watch it.

“Do you recognise me yet?”

I looked carefully at her face, the lines I saw were mostly from laughter. She was smiling a friendly open smile at me. The eyes within the wrinkles were still bright with curiosity and wonder. The eyes of a child, and yet there were echoes of sadness and loss, and having seen too much of what the world can sometimes be. I smiled with recognition.

“You are the spirit of Spring.”

“I am. One of the aspects of the goddess, the Maiden.”

Pan reached out and collected her hands from mine, raising then gently to kiss.

“You are so beautiful,” I said in quiet awe.

She smiled serenely back at me, her beauty glowing softly from the inside.

“You still don’t understand, do you little one?”

Pan looked deep into my eyes, then searched through the small pouch he carried at his hip. He passed me something small and flat, closing my fingers carefully around it. “This will help you to see what you haven’t yet grasped.”

I uncurled my fingers and looked closely at the antique lady’s hand-bag mirror. The top of the silver case showed Pan himself, resting in an arbour of flowers, playing his flute. I looked up at him.

“Open it,” he said.

I undid the clasp and peered into the spot were the old mirror should have been. It was an image of his consort, Spring. Not as a young woman, but as she was now. I gazed at the image for quite a while marveling at how lifelike the miniature was, then watched her eyes widen as I realised what I was looking at.

When I looked up, I was alone, the little mirror still clutched in my hand. As I walked slowly from the wood the distance echoed with the soft sound of his flute.

 

***

L.S. Madden lives and dreams on four acres in rural Ontario, Canada.  She is a self-taught visual artist who has done children’s murals, reproduction nose-cone art on actual fuselage, and wildlife and magical creatures on hen’s eggs.

She comes from a long line of story-tellers in the oral tradition, and has recently decided to try “painting with words” as well.

Title photo credit: Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

Horla standard disclaimer – image has no direct connection with the fiction