I danced the bonfire with an old friend on the last night of the Heartland Pagan Festival. I could barely walk into the sandy circle that night; my legs were sore, my side ached, and my big toe had swollen to twice its normal size. (I fell off a bridge the night before. I'll tell you about it some other time.) But I felt all that melt away when I faced the roaring flames, and joined the others in the clockwise spiral, our feet in time with the crowd of drums around us. The wind blew hard out of the south and curtains of sparks and eye-burning smoke blocked the northern end of the circle for minutes at a time, but we leaped through the black air as best we could and made our way around the sand pit again.
I heard him before I saw him, the small melody of a pennywhistle playing against the thunder of the drums. I looked up and saw a man with long gray hair, a beard, and glasses. He stood in front of the drummers, his fingers working the pennywhistle, playing a fae melody that gave shape to the rest of the music. He stopped me dead in my tracks; all I could do was look at him and wonder.
"Tom?" I said, too soft for anyone to hear against the sound of the drums.
Let me tell you about Tom.
I knew Tom from the time I was born, and I never once saw him without a musical instrument. Guitar, pennywhistle, I think occasionally a banjo; if it was used in folk music, Tom had one and played it. He played the accordion more often than anything else, though, or at least, that's how I remember it; it could just be that the accordion stuck out more. He was also a carpenter, a Morris dancer, and a pagan. I knew him through the latter: he had been a part of Sabbatsmeet, the network of covens my family belongs to, for as long as I could remember.
Tom was about my parents' age, a little older, perhaps. He always had long hair and a beard and big square glasses. He always spoke in a soft voice, and almost never seemed to get upset about anything. He had the same aura of playful niceness that one hears on A Prairie Home Companion on a good week. The word, I think, is gentle; he was a gentle man.
I never got especially close to Tom. I never went to his house on the weekends, or cornered him at a sabbat and got to know him better. And not because I didn't like him; I did. He told good stories and played good music (although sometimes he couldn't take a hint and kept playing the accordion past midnight). I never spent a lot of time with him because, well, I thought he was a constant. As I grew up, from toddler to child to teenager to adult, Tom was always there: playing a jig as we danced the Maypole on Beltaine, singing a carol to us at Yule, strumming his guitar at Harvest Home while he sang a Greg Brown song called "Canned Goods": Come and take a little taste of the summer, Grandma put it all into jars . . . If I didn't talk to him today, well, the next festival was only six weeks away . . . He had always been there, as others joined us and left us, as I changed and grew. He always would be there.
But of course, that's wrong.
Tom drank too much. I didn't know that until he had already gone into the hospital for liver failure, back in February. He was a self-employed carpenter with no insurance, so he was only there for a day or two before they let him out with a bag of antibiotics and not much else. About a week later they found him lying on the floor of his house, bleeding and unconscious, and he never really left the hospital again after that. He had a strong upswing in March and April where he was able to tell a few jokes. But he fell off in May and never recovered, even after a surgery.
Tom died on May 29th. He had some of his family with him, even, as I hear it, giving one last chuckle when his brother offered to send out for pizza. They held his hands and played Woody Guthrie on his brother's iPod: Go to sleep, you weary hobo, let the towns drift slowly by. Don't you feel the steel rail humming? That's the hobo's lullaby.
Tom's breath stopped, and a few minutes later, so did his heart.
I was afraid to approach the man playing the pennywhistle, that last night of Heartland. I thought Tom's doppelganger would vanish if I came too close—or worse, would be just some stranger at the festival, and not a last chance to see my friend at all.
So I turned away from him, looked back at the fire. I felt the warmth, the heat, the love, felt it radiating outward, felt it touch everyone in the circle and transform them. I closed my eyes, cupped a ball of that warmth in my hands, felt its light seeping between my fingers. Beneath my breath, I whispered to Tom: "Let it go, the pain, the dark. Let it in, the love, the light." Then I threw my hands into the air and sent Tom that little jar of summer, full of love and regrets.
Tom had already been gone for an hour by the time I made it to the circle that night, but I hope the light got to him anyway.
Author's note: many thanks to Kristin, Mary Ann, Drew, and everyone in Sabbatsmeet, who provided details for this column that I could not have known without them.
6/12/2011 4:00:00 AM