the golden web tells of her quest to find some unbroken thread of belief from those ancient times, and a people with whom she feels at one, and to come to terms with the consequences of the practice of the Art Magick, and the implications of the Witches’ Law: An it harm none, Do what ye will.
My mind is wandering again. Drifting down that wide river towards the sea like a fallen leaf devoid of any vestige of self-will. To the Great Mother from whom all life arose, and to whom all life must return as inevitably as night follows day and the stars revolve in the firmament.
I believe I was born with knowledge of the ancient ones. My earliest memories are of their voices whispering from the trees and flowers, rising in waves of soft murmuring from the very earth and the boulders that lie sleeping in their time-forgotten hollows. Those voices I learned to answer silently, for to do otherwise was to invite ridicule and scorn, and sometimes even physical abuse.
But that was later, much later, for at first I hadn’t the language to understand their words, which ebbed and flowed around me, over me and through me, vibrating with a warm and loving resonance that held me in its thrall.
I have long forgotten my christened name. I knew from the very first that they were mistaken. For the appellation by which they addressed me was foreign – not my own – and, young as I was I recognised this fact and ignored the hated epithet, leading them to suspect some disability and eventually to seek medical help. For some time they believed I might be partially deaf – nowadays I suppose autism would be suspected – but this all happened long ago, and such things were almost unknown then.
Many summers were to pass before my true name emerged. I searched long and empty. But at last it opened before me like a spring blossom, and I stepped naked into the soft folded petals and breathed in their heady perfume. I became one with the truth. From that moment my natural name was the only one to which I would respond.
But that was long after the child was born. His coming almost tore my mother in two. I covered my ears to shut out her screams and ran to the land for comfort. And I was not disappointed, for the breathing hills held me and murmured inarticulate words of such soothing sorrow that I slept and travelled to far lands where they knew me and gave me succour.
Only one good thing came from the arrival of the child. Their attention was diverted; wholly engrossed in the puce wailing bundle with its tiny flailing fists, and they left me alone to do as I pleased.
Eight words ye Wiccan Rede fulfil -
An’ it harm none, Do what ye will..
Do as ye will, an’ it harm none. But what of intention? Suppose even after forethought one’s actions begin a chain of events that lead to another’s harm? The beating of a butterfly’s wings on the far side of the earth. And what of harm to oneself? The weight of living by the creed would surely be insupportable and leave us immobilised by fear did we not accept that we are human, and thus fallible. We can only do our best in this life and hope to learn those lessons that will advance us in our next. So did I.
‘Ellie!… Ellie!… ELLIE!’ I ignored him. He squatted over a tin bucket filled with water, a small muddy figure whose pale skin and sandy hair were hardly visible through the smears of wet and drying earth that covered almost his entire person. He had spent the morning collecting snails and dropping them into the water, from which each would climb slowly and painfully up the metal side only to be dislodged to fall in an eccentric motion to the bottom, to begin the whole process yet again.
Unable to bear their suffering any longer I flew across the wet garden and snatching up the pail tipped its contents over the garden wall. The child placed the palms of his hands on the earth in front of him and stood with difficulty. He swayed slightly, gaining his balance before the strawberry lips opened wide and a piercing scream – almost unbelievable in intensity and volume – issued from the small body. My mother appeared instantly at the garden door.
‘Ellie! I told you to look after him. What have you done?’
I turned away. There wasn’t much point in explaining. They never listened anyway. She rushed out and scooped him up, carrying him indoors still screaming, his small face scarlet with fury. I heard the noise diminishing with their progress through the old house, its thick walls absorbing the clamour of his protestations and the soft waves of her blandishments. I climbed the apple tree and crouched on the top of the wall in the warmth of the sun, which had just appeared from behind the clouds, before dropping down on the other side and slipping away over the field towards the wood.
The spirits of the trees welcomed me, enfolded me in shadow, caressed my skin with dappled sunlight. I breathed in the scent of damp earth which rose visibly around me as a pale wraith pierced by shafts of sun, and blinked, dazzled by the droplets of sparkling crystal which lay sprinkled on moss-starred cushions and hung suspended from leaf tips, waiting only to fall as I passed to land quivering on my brow and run down my cheeks in lines of tender cool.
All life was here. The feathered ones above me clattered among the branches, sometimes breaking from the treetops to fall locked in a flurry of love or rivalry, only to part seconds before touching the ground and flee laughing while I watched enthralled. Fallen giants heaved and groaned with the multitude of creeping life within – from the earth they had come, and to the earth they would return – and a red fox slipped unhurriedly by, pausing only to turn his fine head and regard me dispassionately with dark eyes.
I drank in the beauty, and the silence that was not silence, the solitude that was not solitude. For a little while I could leave the babble of humankind behind. For they spoke much but said little, and I needed peace.
The wood absorbed me and I became invisible. I travelled a few inches from the ground, my shoes brushing the undergrowth, until I arrived at a small clearing between the trees. The light shone down through the branches and gathered in a golden pool at its centre, but I avoided this magic place. Preparations must first be made.
I found some early daffodils and buried my nose in their soft yellow trumpets, breathing in the warm scent before picking three. I had brought with me three empty snail shells from those the child had collected that morning, and now removed them from the pocket of my dress. They were striped with yellow and black, their whorls spiralling smaller and smaller to infinity. I needed just three more offerings. After a little time I came across the deep turquoise eggshell of a song-thrush, lying in two pieces beneath a holly bush. I braved the prickles to retrieve it, and was rewarded by finding another small blue cup nearby.
I searched until I found a small straight stick, and removing my shoes and socks and gathering everything into the skirt of my dress stood at the edge of the small clearing. I closed my eyes and spoke the words, then stepped into the pool of light.
My offerings made a beautiful circle – the daffodils pointing outwards with the blue of the eggshells in the centre and the yellow and black whorls of the snails between. I added a ring of the tiny blue and red tesserae that lay about in the earth in the centre of the wood, walked slowly around the outside three times, knelt on the soft earth, and taking up the little stick with an invocation on my lips closed my eyes again and allowed its point to trace random shapes in the dark loam.
The words came to an end, and I welcomed the clear spring light. Examining the marks in the earth I discerned a ‘D’ almost hidden between the swirls and angles. I remained on my knees thinking for some time. Then I circled the offerings once more – this time in the opposite direction – and walked backwards from the pool of light, which immediately disappeared. A cloud had covered the sun. I put on my shoes and socks and wandered slowly home.
The house where I lived with Mother, Father and the child was very old. It was said to have been built on the site of a priory founded in the thirteenth century, which had been colonised by a silent order of monks. During the Reformation it was almost completely destroyed, and lay in ruins for over a hundred years, until acquired by a distant ancestor on my father’s side and rebuilt with the original stone as a family residence, keeping only those features that were almost complete and easily restorable. The great arch of stone that surrounded the main entrance, the vaulted undercroft below the house and part of the outside wall were practically all that remained of the original building. As time passed, and the need arose succeeding generations had added to the structure, accentuating its eccentricity and disguising its origins still further, but for all that it remained manageable in size, although the interior resembled nothing less than a warren on different levels with surprising nooks and crannies and unexpected spaces around every corner.
It lay waiting as I approached, nestling there in the warm golden light among the beeches that sheltered its western corner. I crossed the field and climbed the wall into the garden. What I saw there almost made me lose my balance and topple down onto the grass on the other side.
She took my breath away. I sat gasping on the warm stone, fingertips clutching at the rough bark of the apple tree to steady myself. Her beauty drained the strength from my body, my legs began to tremble and I couldn’t trust myself to jump down onto the grass without mishap. For I knew her. Although I could not then have named her, I recognised the form of the Goddess in the cool white stone. It was only later that I learned her names – Venus, Aphrodite, Hathor, Freya and Lakshmi, and these but a few.
I tried to slow the pounding of my heart, and gradually it calmed and quietened. Where had she come from? Was she there or was I experiencing a vision? There was only one way to find out, and I climbed carefully down the apple tree and stepped slowly across the small patch of lawn and around the lily pond, to stop a few feet from the statue and gaze up into the lovely face.
How can I find the words to describe her? It was as if a young woman of flesh and blood – but one of such ideal beauty found only in dreams – had been suddenly turned to stone as she let her robe slip from her hand to enter the water. Her long hair wound around her head like a serpent to fall in tendrils over one perfect breast, her lips were parted in sweet anticipation, and her eyes held some mystery of their own which I couldn’t fathom. Her form, slender yet curvaceous in its perfection, seemed about to breathe or move, to step down from the pedestal and greet me. I felt possessed by a desire to touch her, but I feared she might disappear.
‘What do you think, Ellie?’
I started violently. I had been so engrossed that I hadn’t heard my father’s approach. I decided to overlook the misnomer, and reply.
‘She’s so beautiful.’
‘She should be – she cost me enough.’
I didn’t know what to say to that, so remained silent.
‘Don’t you want to know where she came from?’
‘I already know,’ I said, and with that turned and ran away between the roses down the sunlit path that led to the house.
The statue possessed my thoughts during the days that followed. She supplanted even the quest for my true name, and although I immediately ran upstairs to my room and wrote the ‘D’ in what was eventually to become my Book of Shadows, I suspended all else but the overwhelming desire to devise some fitting way to welcome her and make her my own. A sacrifice would have to be made, I knew that – no, nothing must die, all life being sacred – but something dear and precious to me needed to be given. But what did I possess that was sufficiently important to me?
Toys, clothes, books? Yes, books were indeed precious, precious enough perhaps, but as I tried to decide which to select something else leapt to mind, and my heart began to pound with fear. I had been given, as a christening present, a string of pearls. They lived in a velvet-lined case in the drawer of my mother’s dressing table, and I was allowed to wear them only on special occasions. I would sometimes go and look at them when my mother was busy elsewhere and there was little danger of being found out, although I suppose she might not have minded; I never thought to ask, and they were mine, after all. Their beauty almost equalled that of the Goddess, and I loved them. It would be painful to relinquish them, but that was what sacrifice meant.
I could hear my mother’s soft tones cajoling the child somewhere outside. Their voices seemed to be emanating from the other side of the tall box hedge that divided the kitchen garden from the lily pond and the Goddess. I hoped the child wouldn’t despoil her with those small fists that seemed permanently encrusted with dirt. It almost hurt to imagine the white marble marked in that way.
I ran along the narrow passage to their bedroom and carefully opened the door. The spring light shining through the arched windows reflected from tiny motes of sparkling dust suspended almost motionless in the air, and as I closed the door behind me they began a slow dance around the room, moving like a myriad of microscopic spirits over the dazzling white bedcover and around the limed oak and the blue glass that my mother loved.
I sat at the dressing table and slid open the lower drawer. It was there. The dark leather case felt smooth to my touch as I pressed the catch to open its lid and reveal the lustrous wealth of soft colour within. The pearls glowed as if alive, their hues ever-changing; from palest pink like the nose of a baby mouse, through the blue of the sky after rain, and the green of the tenderest of young apple shoots suspended in cream. I nearly changed my mind and replaced the case in the drawer. But the image of the Goddess appeared before me, and opening the door carefully to make sure there was no one about, I ran back down the passage with my treasure.
Three days later all was ready. I had collected everything necessary, and tonight the moon would be new. My excitement that evening can barely be described. A visible pulse beat in my neck, and I feared my heartbeats were audible. How I lived through those extended hours until the house slept I cannot tell. But, at long last all was silent. Only the sonorous tick of the grandfather clock downstairs in the hall marked the passing of the moments.
Slowly, carefully, I eased down the door-handle of my room and peered out, then crept quietly on naked feet along the narrow passage – skirting those floorboards I knew from experience might give me away – and down the stairs and across the large hall. Avoiding the heavy oaken front door I crossed to the kitchen, and from this to the garden door, which opened without mishap.
I breathed in the cool night air, and lifted my face to that pale one, partly invisible, but almost imperceptibly outlined by a thread of silver. I could see the dew forming on my bare arms like a million miniscule crystals, and the moisture-laden air seemed to shine like clouded glass, cloaking the familiar garden in a seductive otherworldliness. I walked slowly through the kitchen garden delaying the moment with delicious anticipation. I looked down as I approached the archway in the box hedge, the thumping of my heart loud in my ears, then, with a deep breath raised my head.
She was there, poised and glowing in the light of the new moon. The darkness of the garden seemed almost to intensify her whiteness, as if she drew the light to herself, stole it from those other familiar objects and made it her own. I stood absorbing the moment for some time, fixing the memory in my mind. Then I walked down the path towards the Goddess.
I stopped when I reached the lily pond, and placed the objects I had collected over the previous days on the old stone seat. I laid them out in the order in which they would be needed. Then I removed all my clothes and stood naked in the moonlight. A delicious shiver rippled through my body. I lifted the small jar of blue glass that I had taken from my mother’s room and stepped down into the pool. The clear cold of the dark liquid made me gasp. Bending to fill the jar I poured its contents over knees and thighs, scooping again and again, letting the cleansing liquid run over my body in swift cold streams from higher and higher. It filled me with an ecstasy of delight that almost caused me to cry out in joy.
I was shaking now. Then with an intake of breath the final libation ran from the top of my head, down over hair and shoulders, trunk and legs, and back into the pool. The ritual cleansing was over.
I stepped from the water and glanced towards the Goddess. She seemed to be smiling. I was filled with love for her. Gathering the offerings I stood before her, and closing my eyes recited the invocation. The words were my own – made especially for her – and I repeated them twice, making three times in all. My magick has always been my own, and the power of rhyme known instinctively from my earliest days.
Placing the flowers and fruit at her feet, I stooped to pick up the pearls, which I had placed in a small metal dish on some strips of bark and twigs and dried grass. They glowed white in the soft light, and joy swept over me that I was able to offer her a fitting tribute. I lit a match and dropped it into the dish. I watched as the flames caught, tentatively at first, then rapaciously, consuming, engulfing, until all I could see was a glow of pale spheres among the dancing spirits of the fire.
‘What in the name of Christ Almighty are you doing?’
I jumped almost out of my skin, and turned to face the livid countenance of my father in his dressing gown and slippers. My mother stood just behind him. There was a look of utter disbelief on both their faces. My father shook his head slightly from side to side, his face pale in the darkness. The small fire had gone out.
‘Cover yourself up.’ The voice was harsh, the manner brusque.
‘Get dressed, Ellie,’ my mother said gently.
I did as she said. The magic dissolved and fled silently into the woods. Everything was despoiled, contaminated, violated. I would never forgive them for the way they made me feel at that moment.
Later, as I lay awake in the darkness their voices escaped from their bed and scratched and scurried down the narrow passage past my door. They were still talking when the false dawn swung its lamp across the night sky and I finally slept.
After Easter they sent me away. I was seven years old.
* * *
published by Fig Tree Press, 2004 buy now from amazon