A Stillness at Samhain

Sometimes we don’t recognize true love when it comes along

 

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She literally brought the light with her the day she opened the door and walked into our lives.

It had been one of those stormy June days when a cold front moved through, creating havoc with wind and rain. By lunchtime the weather settled into a steady drizzle that gradually lessened as the afternoon wore on. At three o’clock the door of the building opened, a ray of light shone through the doorway, and Serena Cybelia, in a swirl of long skirts and dark hair glistening with raindrops, swept in.

She looked around at the three of us in the room:  FairWynd, hunched over his laptop; Robin Elfsong, busy with his iPhone, a half-smile on his lips; and me, one hand on the desktop keyboard and one holding a cell phone. “Hi,” she said. “I saw in the City paper that you need Web site developers for Pagan Pride Day, so I’m here to volunteer.”

All eyes focused on her. “Thank you,” we chorused as one. I added, “I’ve been on the phone for three hours trying to drum up volunteers for Pagan Pride Day. It’s wonderful to have you join us! I’m Elspeth Winterborn.”

“How do you do?” Serena introduced herself and said, “I design Web sites for a living, so I’m sure I can help you. Now—what would you like me to do first?”

“You may have this seat,” I said, getting up.  “I’m not sure what software you use—we probably don’t have it—“

“No problem.” Serena smiled.  “I brought it with me.”

Indeed, she’d brought a capacious bag, out of which she took a reusable water bottle, a flash drive, and a cushion, which she arranged on the chair seat. Then she set to work.

By six o’clock, when we volunteers were ready to call it a day and lock up the Pagan Foundation office, Serena had created the main page of the Web site and several eye-catching graphics. I thanked whatever Goddess had seen fit to send Serena to us.

“Come on, everyone,” I said, getting up and stretching.  “Let’s go out for dinner.”

FairWynd and Robin sprang up from their seats; Serena hesitated. “Come on, Serena,” I said. “You’ve worked hard today. Come to dinner with us—unless you have other plans.”

She hung her head. “Thank you for asking, but I-I…”

She can’t afford it, I thought. “Oh, never mind about paying,” I said.  “Did you know the Foundation has a fund to buy dinner for volunteers?  It’s their way of showing appreciation for our efforts. They know how hard we all work.”

There was, in fact, no such fund.  I concocted that tale out of whole cloth and both Robin and FairWynd knew it. They also knew, in that way Witches have, why I’d done it.

Serena smiled. “In that case, I’d love to. Where shall we go?”

After some discussion we agreed on Ben’s Chili Bowl. After the rain the evening had turned cool, so chili seemed quite appealing.

We had a good time at dinner, discussing the day’s work. Somehow I’d managed to get volunteers to staff all the booths, Robin had persuaded sponsors to donate food, coffee, balloons, and door prizes, and FairWynd had created a budget.

“I’ll run you back to the office so you can pick up your car,” I said to Serena.

Again she hesitated.  “I don’t have a car.  If you drop me off in Adams Morgan, I can walk home.”

I was appalled. It was always risky for women to walk alone at night, in the city or anywhere else; for transwomen like Serena it was downright dangerous. Only yesterday, in my capacity as legal counsel for the Pitman-Porter Clinic, I had met with the mayor, the chief of police, and half a dozen activists about increasing foot patrols in certain neighborhoods. There had been several instances of violence against transwomen in the last year.

“I’ll take you home,” I said. “It’s no trouble at all, I’d be happy to.”

On the way to Serena’s apartment, to put her at ease I told her about my two cats, Peterkin and Pumpkin. In turn she told me about her job, her drumming circle at the Unitarian-Universalist church in town, and why she was so hard up. “I’m saving for my operation,” she confided. “I want to go to the Philadelphia Center for the surgery to complete my transition. It’ll cost the earth.”

I nodded.  Two of my good friends had gone to the same clinic. It was pricey, all right.

“And yet you volunteer,” I asked, “instead of getting a second job to increase your savings?”

“Oh, I do have a second job,” Serena said. “I work in a grocery store three nights a week, mostly for the health insurance. My day job doesn’t have benefits because I’m a contractor.”

Inwardly, I sighed. The wretched economy had destroyed millions of jobs. Even highly qualified people had to take contract work if they could get work at all.

“Here we are already,” Serena said, sounding surprised as I turned the car into her street. “How the time has flown, Elspeth!”

“Yes, it’s been fun,” I agreed. “Okay, see you next Saturday, Serena. Same time, same place, right?”

“Yes,” she said. “Good night, and thanks!” She turned to wave as she went up the path to her front door. I waited until she was inside the house. For some reason I felt protective of her.

I drove home, deep in thought. I was lucky, compared to some people:  I had a place to live, a savings account, and a car, all thanks to the job I had willingly and gladly given up the year before. After eight years I found I could no longer stomach corporate law; I yearned to set the world to rights, I burned to work for social justice. Now, at thirty-three, I had a job I loved, helping AIDS patients with legal problems, conducting transgender legal clinics, and filing amicus curiae briefs from time to time on behalf of the clinic. The pay was modest compared to what I’d been making before but I was a thousand times happier. No—make that a million times.

____________________________



Pagan Pride Day, held in September, was a huge success. The clever gadgets Serena installed on the Web site made it easy for people to donate money, organize activities such as Tarot readings, Morris dancers, and Pagan rock bands, or simply volunteer to be part of the setup and breakdown crew.

“I’m going to take a break from volunteering for the Foundation,” I told Serena as we met for coffee one Saturday morning. “I’m thinking of working at a soup kitchen on Saturday evenings.”

“I know just the place! Why don’t we stop by, now that we’ve finished our coffee?  It’s quite near here,” Serena said.  As she rose from the table I admired the graceful flow of her broomstick skirt and the artistic way she’d arranged a fringed shawl around her shoulders. She’d left her smoke-colored hair loose today. As she preceded me out the door I smelled hyacinth, the scent she always wore. It suited her, somehow.

“Where do you get your clothes?” I asked, just for something to say.

“At thrift shops. You wouldn’t believe the bargains I find there!”  She chuckled. “It all helps with the operation fund, you know.”

As we approached The Pot on the Fire soup kitchen, we passed a group of youths boisterously shoving each other around on the sidewalk. They stopped their activities as we passed.

“Hey, look at the tranny!” one of them yelled.

I whirled around and walked toward them in a fury.  I’m five-eleven and various persons have told me I look like a Viking war maiden, the Norse goddess of something or other, or a yellow-haired barbarian bitch, depending whether they were friend or foe. I also happen to be trained in judo, which gave me the confidence to walk right up to them.

“What did you call my girlfriend?” I asked in a voice that was more like a lion’s snarl than human speech.

I don’t know whether it was the look in my eye, the energy field emanating from my person, or sheer luck, but they backed away. “Nuthin’, we didn’t say nuthin’,” they mumbled, and sloped off in the opposite direction.

I returned to Serena, breathing deep, slow breaths as I’d been taught. “Are you okay?”

She nodded, averting her face.  “Thank you defending me, Elspeth.”

“No problem.”

She looked at me then. “And thanks for saying I was your girlfriend. I hope,” she said in a dreamy voice, “that someone will fall in love with me one day. Seriously in love.”

“Well,” I said with a smile, “that wouldn’t be hard.” And really, I thought, it wouldn’t. She was such a sweetie.

We arrived at the soup kitchen, talked to a couple of organizers, and agreed to start work the following Saturday.

________________________________



The volunteers at the Pot on the Fire were a varied lot—students, activists, church ladies, and addicts in recovery. Most of us got on quite well with each other and we all enjoyed the contact with our clients. Some were the newly poor, who’d been living paycheck to paycheck before they were laid off from their jobs; some were homeless; and some were recent immigrants who couldn’t speak English. One afternoon in October I arrived a little later than usual to find Serena already in the kitchen, stirring soup in a huge pot.

“’M’mm, what’s this?” I asked, sniffing.

“Lentil soup,” Serena said. “Would you like a taste?”

She poured a little of the soup from her ladle into a small ramekin, gave me a spoon and watched as I tried it.

“Wow,” I said. “That’s the most kick-ass lentil soup I’ve ever tasted!  It’s wonderful!”

Serena smiled. “I learned to make this when I lived in Bangalore, years and years ago. The kick comes from the ginger.”

Not for the first time I wondered about Serena’s past. I knew very little about her other than the fact that she was estranged from her birth family in Maryland. I wished I could ask about her previous life but I didn’t want to intrude. When she wanted me to know, she’d very likely tell me.

Just then DuVane, one of the elderly volunteers from a nearby church, marched into the kitchen and stood looking at Serena, arms akimbo. “You should be ashamed to be here! Your kind is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord!”

Serena’s hand trembled slightly for a minute on the ladle; then she resumed stirring the soup.

“You know, DuVane,” she said in a conversational tone, “I find that people who have orgasms are so much nicer than people who don’t.”  She looked directly at DuVane and smiled.

DuVane gasped, flushed, and turned on her heel. As she stamped off, I shot Serena an appreciative glance. Translated into words it would have been that half-admiring, half-appalled saying from my Southern girlhood:  Yew thang, yew!

I didn’t say it aloud, though. If Serena was unfamiliar with that expression, I didn’t want her to believe I thought she was a “thing.” But I couldn’t stop grinning the rest of the evening.

We were among the last to leave after the food was served, the kitchen cleaned, and the pots and pans scrubbed and put away.

“I’ll take you home,” I said, holding the door open for Serena to precede me through it. As we drove through the crisp October night I said, “I’m sorry about the incident this evening. Does that bitch think a transwoman has no feelings?”

Serena sighed. Then she said, gently, “You know, Elspeth, I don’t want to be known as a ‘transwoman.’ I want to be known as a woman.”

I cursed myself for my stupidity. In my own way I was as bad as DuVane.

“Understood,” I said. “I’m sorry if I offended you, Serena.”

“You’re forgiven,” she said lightly.

After she’d thanked me for dropping her off and I’d seen her safely into her house, I drove home feeling slightly disturbed. There was something tugging at the edge of my consciousness, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I finally decided to put it out of my mind.

Before opening the door to my townhouse I glanced upward. A chill night like this, with the white moon hanging in a black sky pricked with the diamond-points of distant stars, demanded to be celebrated with a partner—someone to dance with through moonlight and shadow, someone to share a taste of wine before we poured the rest on the grass as an offering to Artemis.

During my eight years with the law firm I was too busy and exhausted to even think of sharing my life with a partner, let alone having the time to actually look for one. But for the past year I’d had a job with regular hours that allowed me some time to myself, and I discovered I was lonely.

___________________________________

Serena and I had volunteered to work on the North altar for the Pagan Foundation’s annual Samhain ritual, so we planned to meet at the office on a Saturday two weeks before. That morning I was chatting with Lochdru of the Silver Tongue, who would serve as high priest of the ritual, and Oakwyse, a devotee of Isis who would take the role of high priestess, when Serena walked in. I turned at the sound of approaching footsteps, caught sight of Serena, her smoke-dark hair flying behind her, and experienced that odd lurch of the heart that instantly revealed the cause of my recent disquiet.

Great Goddess, I’m in love with her!

Although I gave her a smile of welcome I guarded my expression.  Careful! Don’t say anything yet. What if she doesn’t feel the same way about you?

A few minutes later we were deep in discussion. We would emphasize Earth as North’s quality for the ritual. We would create a mound of earth with silhouettes of leafless trees rising from it, and erect a couple of small tombstones to signify Death. We would also hang a black chiffon panel, torn in two, to represent the parting of the veil between the worlds. “We can secure each half of the veil with hidden wires to emphasize the opening,” Serena said.

“What’s going to be beyond the veil?”  I asked.

We thought for a moment and then I had an idea. “I know!  I’ve got a crystal ball on a dragon stand.  We’ll place it behind the opening of the veil and shine a small floodlight on it. That’ll convey the idea of communications from the Otherworld.”

I was distracted, trying to quell the feeling that threatened to burst out of me before the time was right. Wait, I told myself. When you pass her during the spiral dance, look into her eyes and if you see what you hope to see there, you can find a way to tell her how you feel.

“And how are we going to represent the idea of rebirth?” Serena asked.

Did those shining brown eyes, fringed with long black lashes, seem to hold an affectionate light this morning?  Could it be affection for me?

“What about an ear of dried corn? After all, remember the chant, ‘Corn and grain, corn and grain/All that falls shall rise again?’”

“That’s good!  I’ll look for a dried wheatsheaf too.”

At the end of the planning session the group agreed to meet at the Pagan Foundation office the week before the ritual to gather all the materials in one place. We would set up in the large hall being lent us by the local UU church on the morning of the day Samhain would begin.

On October twenty-fourth I went to the office dragging a kid’s red wagon behind me.  It contained the earth for the mound, the square wooden tray to hold it, and sundry other items. When I walked into the storage room I saw people arranging their items in neat stacks. I scanned the faces, looking for Serena, but she had yet to arrive. A moment later Lochdru entered. He looked stricken.

“Blessed ones,” he said. “I bring terrible news.”

We looked at him, questioning.

“Our beloved sister Serena Cybelia was found murdered this morning in the street leading to the apartment building where she lived.”

“No!” I screamed.  “NO!  Not Serena!”

Immediately my sister and brother Witches surrounded me, enclosing me with their arms, grieving with me. I heard someone sob.

A babble of voices arose, asking questions, expressing sorrow. I felt as if all the breath had been knocked out of me.  Nothing seemed real except the hot tears on my face and the sobs shaking my chest. Time itself seemed to have slowed down.

“She’s in shock,” Oakwyse said, her powerful voice making itself heard over the tumult.  “Someone make her a cup of tea. And get her a chair.”

Someone helped me to a seat. Someone gave me a mug of tea. Around me, there were people talking, people doing things, but I was hardly aware of them. I sat staring at nothing, the tea untasted, while in my mind there was room for only one thought:  The woman I love is dead. I’ll never see her again.

__________________________________




Serena’s friends in the Craft were denied the opportunity to attend her funeral. The family in Maryland who’d kicked her out years earlier claimed her remains and held a private memorial service. There was no obituary in the newspaper.

Nor was there any progress in finding out who’d killed her. Someone shot her twice in the chest late at night as she walked home from work. The police suspected a hate crime because her handbag still held money and her jewelry had not been taken.

Heartsick as I was, at first I contemplated staying away from the Samhain ritual but then I thought better of it. Serena had been so enthusiastic about our plans for the North altar.  She would have wanted me to attend for her sake as well as my own, so I did and had the pleasure of hearing people’s compliments.

“Fantastic altar,” they said. “Best Samhain altar for North I’ve ever seen.”

“Serena’s ideas,” I told them. “She designed most of it.”

I was able to retain my composure through the beginning of the ritual, but when we began to chant,


Hoof and horn, hoof and horn
All that dies shall be reborn
Corn and grain, corn and grain
All that falls shall rise again,

hot tears pricked my eyelids. That chant would forever remind me of the last time I saw her alive.

As the chanting died away, Lochdru of the Silver Tongue invited us all to sit in a circle on the floor and ground ourselves. Then, as we closed our eyes and breathed deeply, he took us on a trance journey. Down, down, down we went into the underworld, through the red mist, the orange mist, the yellow, following the path through the ever-changing colors, from yellow to green to blue to indigo. Finally the mist-gates appeared through a swirl of violet fog and we walked through them until we came to the shore of a lake.

“Step into the rowboat,” Lochdru’s sonorous voice intoned. “Your guide is waiting to row you to the shores of Avalon, the Isle of Apples.”

The only sound was the ripple of water as the guide’s oars dipped through it; then we approached the shore of Avalon. Behind the island the sun was setting, bathing those that stood on the shore in a red-gold glow.

I caught my breath:  Serena was among the white-robed beings standing by the lake’s edge. Her dark hair, loose to her shoulders, was tinged with red from the sunset and her face held a look of joy.

As soon as I could, I jumped out of the rowboat onto the beach and ran to her. “Serena!”

She smiled at me.  “Hello, Elspeth, it’s good to see you.”

“Serena, I miss you so!  I wish you were back on earth with me.”

Her eyes held neither sadness nor regret. “Blessed be, Elspeth.”

I caught her hand. “Serena, are you happy?”

Her smile could be described by no other word than beatific. “Yes, I’m very happy.  Goodbye, my friend.”

She leaned forward to put an apple in my hand.

Behind me, the guide tugged at my elbow.

“Time to take your leave,” Lochdru said.

Reluctantly I stepped into the rowboat for the journey back.  Looking at the apple in my hand, I wondered why she had given it to me and what it all meant.

“When you hear me count to three,” Lochdru said, “you will open your eyes and pat yourself down. Slowly, your spirit will come back to your body. You will be present once again in this world.”

Mystified and not a little disturbed, I followed directions and rose to my feet. It was time for the spiral dance. I joined hands with my neighbors and we began to circle in and out as the mellow, strong voice of Oakwyse led us in the chant:

On the same wheel we spin
Into life and out again—
One is many, many one
Brewing in Her cauldron.

Once I’d hoped the spiral dance would help me discover whether my love was returned; instead, Serena had spun out of life into the Otherworld.

I’d volunteered to help with the breakdown after the ritual, so after packing up the North altar materials I lent a hand to other tasks. As people began to leave the hall, Lochdru and Oakwyse came up to me.

“Elspeth, are you all right?”

I looked at them.  “I saw Serena in Avalon. She said she was happy.  How can she be happy?” My voice shook with passion. “How can she be happy there?  She was so full of plans! So full of life!  She had everything to look forward—” my voice broke, so I had to bite my lip and look hard at the floor.

Oakwyse put her arms around me. “Elspeth, she will be reborn into a new life. And for those she left behind—well, her life here will be an inspiration to others.”

I jerked away from her embrace. “An inspiration?  For that she was born, lived, struggled, aspired? That’s all she’s supposed to be—an inspiration to others?  I think,” I said bitterly, “given a choice, she would have wanted to go on living. Why should her life be nothing but a human sacrifice on the altar of equal rights?”

Lochdru spoke gently. “Elspeth, my child, in the Otherworld Serena wants for nothing.  And she wants nothing. Can you understand that?”

“No, Lochdru, I cannot.”

“Elspeth,” Oakwyse said hesitantly, “we’re organizing a ‘take back the night’ candlelight vigil tomorrow night in honor of Serena and every other victim of violence. We hoped you would lead it. We’ll meet on the front steps here.”

I shook my head.  “Sorry, I’m in no shape to do that.”

Then I turned away to gather my belongings and leave.

Because I knew I’d be coming home in the wee hours of the morning after the ritual, I’d arranged to take off work the next day. When Peterkin and Pumpkin woke me at the usual hour on November first I climbed out of bed and attended to their needs; then I made coffee and sat in the kitchen drinking it, looking at the gray day outside.

A morning of chores followed. I lit a fire in the family room fireplace after lunch, intending to sit and read the newspaper, something I usually left until the evening. But then I found myself stretching out on the sofa, yawning as the flames crackled in the grate, releasing the scent of burning logs. Lulled by the rain tapping on the roof, I drifted off to sleep.

Quite suddenly, I awoke. I didn’t shift position, merely opened my eyes. The room was absolutely still except for the logs burning in the fireplace. Peterkin and Pumpkin were curled up on my feet at the end of the sofa. I was in a very strange state—not quite awake, not quite asleep, incapable of movement or speech even had there been anyone in the room. And the most interesting thing was the complete absence of any desires.

Normally, when I’m awake I want something every minute: to enjoy a cup of coffee or read a book, clean up the house, text someone…I always want something. But now I didn’t want anything at all. I didn’t care about anything at all, either, and when I’m fully conscious there are things I care about a lot. I want to be known for helping those that no one else wants to help; I want justice for the oppressed and freedom for those whose sexuality does not accord with patriarchal society’s norms. I want to live a fulfilled life. But while I was lying there in the stillness, held motionless in that strange, half-conscious state, I wanted nothing.

Gradually full consciousness returned and I sat up.  I wondered whether in Avalon there also existed a state of “not-wanting.” Was this how Serena felt?

As I sat there lost in thought I began to accept without bitterness that The Veil divided us now. I would never again see Serena in this life, and my happiness—or lack of it—was no longer any concern of hers. She’d given me an apple to take back to this world: might it symbolize a quest? I stood up and stretched, and it seemed to me—although it might have been my imagination—that mixed with the scent of woodsmoke was the scent of hyacinths.

____________________________________



That evening I arrived at the UU church an hour before the appointed time. I sat down at the top of the steps, watching as a long procession of people, many carrying black-edged photos of those they had loved and lost, began to gather on the pavement. I stood up at dusk as Oakwyse and Lochdru joined me at the top of the steps.

“Thank you for being here, Elspeth,” Lochdru said.

“No, thank you, Lochdru of the Silver Tongue and Oakwyse, beloved of Isis,” I said.  “Thank you both. I understand now.”

As darkness fell I turned to face the crowd gathered at the foot of the steps. The Witches were cloaked and hooded; the other participants wore black. More and more people were joining the crowd.

“Let the candlelight vigil begin,” I called out, and lit my candle, holding it out in front for all to see.

The others lit their candles and began the chant.  “Take back the night!  Take back the night!”

Someone began to sing “Amazing Grace.” As the crowd took it up and the melody swelled into the night, I looked down at my candle and thought of Serena, whose bright flame had been quenched before her time. I thought about her killer, as yet unknown. How terrified she must have been, hearing those footsteps echoing her own in the deserted street. Or had it all happened too quickly for her to feel terror, too quickly for her to realize these were her last moments on earth?  One day I would know the answer to those questions.

I looked up at the crowd again. I’ll find you, whoever you are. However long it takes, I’ll find you.

So mote it be.

The End

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