We walked the perimeter of the village, the Elder Priestess leading the procession. Stately and strong, she held her knife before her, glimmering in the moonlight, point toward the ground. The entire village, babes in arms and oldsters alike, all in this solemn parade, were careful to stay within the line of the circle she was calling up from the Earth:
By all powers brave and sure
We be held in Lady’s love
Earth below and Sky above
Circle of Haven, beyond doubt
Keep life in, keep death out.
The words of the ancient chant vibrated in my head. I had heard them since my childhood, and always known that one day I would bear the burden of being left outside this circle of haven, from the dark Samhain night till the return of the Sun Child at Yule. It would be my task, the proof of my power as a Priestess, to brave the Elemental Kingdoms alone through the most unforgiving time of the year.
Returning to the northernmost point of the circle, the Priestess, my Teacher, my Mother, called me forth. The chanting quieted as I moved out from the comforting press of bodies to stand, alone. Knife still held in her hand, the Elder brought me before her. I could feel the tension in the nearly completed bubble of energy that would stand to protect my village. It Wanted to be closed. There was not time for long good-byes. No words of comfort came from her as she moved me through the small opening at the gate, only this: “The Lady’s will be done”. Then closing her eyes, she moved her knife to complete the circuit. Blue fire sprang up before me, shimmering and beautiful. I could just barely see through to my Mother’s face and the single tear that traced its way down her cheek. The circle was closed. And I was outside.
It is the custom of my people that the harvest must be complete before Samhain. The culling of the herds, the gathering of the crops must be finished, for on that Holy Day, the gates are closed. No blood may be spilled; nothing pulled up from the ground. The time between Samhain and the return of the Sun Child on Solstice morn belongs to the Dead. My people rest. Anything that is left outside the circle becomes food for the Earth and the wild creatures that are Her children. For the first time, I thought, “Might that include me?”I stood there, just outside the gate, until all the villagers had moved away. I watched them go back to their homes, their hearths, cold beds that would warm to their bodies. For a moment, I envied them the normalcy of their lives. Then the howl of a wolf broke the silence and I was filled with exultation. Yes! This was mine! For me the fierce passion of the wilderness; kinship with all things wild and free! My spirit leapt and I returned the call of the wolf. It seemed the air reverberated with our cries. Then quiet. The first light flakes of snow began to fall as I turned to walk away.
The next morning, I awoke nearly frozen. I had no better luck finding food, and if anything, the cold became even more bitter. I tried to make a fire to warm myself but no spark would ever come. I could not melt snow to drink and when I tried putting the frozen stuff in my mouth to melt there, it remained frozen to my tongue, bringing a fiery pain when I tried to spit it out. Each breath I took seemed to sear my lungs. In desperation, I called to the Elementals of Earth, “Please, just let one injured deer cross my path…” But I heard no response. I became delirious with cold.
I screamed at the Earth and the Sky and the Goddess, “Why? What am I supposed to learn from this? To die well? Death comes too quickly here. I choose to live!” Yet even as the words left my lips in a mist, the cold overcame me and I collapsed into a tall drift of snow, the cold seeming to me warm, like a lover’s arms.
I lost the feeling of my body. “Ah”, the thought came, “At least I shall return this empty husk to the Earth and no more pain will I feel.” I lay there for God knows how long, hypnotized by the snow falling through the trees “like stars” I thought in my delirium. “Like I am rising up to the sky.” Then my face was covered and I saw no more.