“The gift of flight will come at Walpurgisnacht,” Granny Magda tells me. “We will travel airborne upon our besoms to the Brocken. You will then learn of your blessings, all the goddess has deemed to give you.”
“What will they be, my blessings?” I ask impatiently. I have waited all of my sixteen years for this nacht, for the firefest of summer. It will be the first time I go to the mountaintop. The first time I, as a daughter of Hekate will become a coven member and know my true and unique power.
“Hush child,” Magda orders. “Speak of them no more! What is yours is already yours.” She puts a hand to my cheek and smiles through crinkled eyes. “Trust me. The gifts will come.”
The month of April rolls by with its rain and wind, daffodils and tulips blooming in our meadow. On my calendar parchment I count the days, marking them off with a charcoal crayon. The time cannot go quick enough.
Two days before Walpurgis, Peter the goat boy appears at our door. He brings me a bouquet of wildflowers, colored blooms that float like a sparkled rainbow from his hands. “For you Kathe,” he says, “In honor of your special nacht which is soon to come.”
Peter! He is an annoyance, always milling around me, nosing in my business, cheating me at games and sport! He has been my chief nemesis for years. And now he brings flowers? An offering of peace, just as I am soon to come into my powers? Reluctantly I accept, but only out of politeness. “What do you know of it?” I snap.
“Peter knows plenty,” Granny Magda shouts from the kitchen. “You’d be wise to listen to him.”
Never do I have a moment’s privacy in this cottage! Granny Magda is always hovering over me, like a bee to a honeyflower. She now takes Peter’s flowers and places them in a vase.
“Have a seat boy,” she nods to Peter. “I trust you will stay for supper?”
Peter shakes his head. “The invitation is most kind Frau Magda, but I cannot. I am just returning from the mountain, my goat herd outside. I fear they are most cumbersome, and I only stopped to give Kathe the flowers and wish her well.”
“Nonsense!” Magda has already placed a root stew on the table and set a trencher for him. She glances out the window, waves a hand at the goats who then stand still as statues.
“The animals will keep,” she says. “Kathe, fetch the ale for our guest.”
Taking a ladle to the pail I serve up three helpings of ale. Peter nods. “Most gracious.”
We bless our food, toast good health and begin eating. I sit next to Peter. His clothes are soiled and he smells of his goats. He also smells of the meadow, of earth and something more. What is it? A sly masculinity, a scent lacking in Magda and myself. Despite my annoyance I scoot closer to him.
“Your comment, Granny,” I say later as we eat dessert, a cake with fresh berries I gathered from our orchard. “You say I must listen to Peter. Why is this?” Peter stops mid bite, red berries making a stain on his lips. His eyes, blue as the river, pop wide.
“Do not ask foolish questions, child.” Magda says. “Now Peter,” she looks out the window and waves her hands at the goats who instantly begin bleating. “I wager your goats need milking. Be off with you afore the late sun sinks on its horizon! Auf Wiedersehen.”
Peter stands and bows before us. “I thank you for the victuals, my lady.” He takes Magda’s old withered hand and kisses it. He then turns to me. “And you Kathe, I trust I will see more of you in the near future.” With awkwardness he grabs my hand and kisses it as well. I catch his eye, nod and curtsey before he exits.
I have known Peter all my life, since I came to live with Granny Magda as a two year old orphan. We played together, leap frogging in the meadow, tumbling down the rolling hills. It was he who taught me to catch fish in the river, he who taught me to shoot a crossbow. He who, in his boyhood always shot more bullseyes than I. But Peter is no longer a boy.
Through the window I watch as he rounds his goats, whistles to his collie dog. He has grown tall, his shoulders broad. His lanky frame casts a long shadow across the cobbled road. As he walks away I notice his swaggering hips, his bowed legs.
“How old do you suppose Peter now is?” I ask.
“Two winters past you child.” Granny Magda puts a hand to my head and unwinds my tight braids. “Come the Yule last he reached his eighteenth name day.”
“He has quick grown to a man.” I glance one last time before he turns into the forest, his goats following in a gray blur.
“Ja child, that he has.” She tilts her head. “And your thoughts of this?”
“I have no thoughts, it is mere curiosity!” I hiss. Granny smiles.
Finally Walpurgisnacht arrives. I stand naked in the meadow with the other women. Magda rubs my body with unctions, a rich combination of oils and nectars that will, coupled with my own magic, give me the ability to fly.
When the sun sets we mount our besoms. Soon the wind begins to blow and we rise, steady in the air, a team of thirteen, Hekate’s witches, gliding through the sky with the skill of crows. Higher and higher we rise. Soon we are bobbing amongst stars, drifting under the light of the moon.
On the mountaintop we land near the Bergwasser, a crystal stream that flows, now icebroken with the onset of summer.
“Your baptism will be tonight, Kathe,” Granny Magda tells me.
I have never before met the high priestess who now stands before me, clad in robes of black. “I am Lucinda,” she says. Taking my hand she guides me down the stone steps into the water. She lifts her wand, a branch of heavy oak inlaid with rich jewels, rubies and sapphires.
“Kathe,” Lucinda begins. “I baptize thee, in the name of the Mother, the Crone and the Holy Maiden. You, a daughter of the line of Hekate, now come full of age, are on this evening of Walpurgisnacht to enter into our coven.”
With that she pushes me underwater. The stream is cool on my head. Opening my eyes I see an array of fish before me, yellow as lemons in the blue water. I watch as they dart and bolt, thinking of this baptism, this instant I have waited for my whole life. What is to happen? The water is a silent chamber around me.
When I can hold my breath no longer I ascend. Gasping, I lie in the grass. Magda clothes me in a white robe.
“The ability to breathe underwater,” Madga smiles, “was not your gift.”
What will it be? What will it be?
“Time will tell, my girl,” Lucinda says. “Before rise of the May day sun you shall know it.” Lucinda’s gift is surely the reading of minds. Granny Magda’s is the taming of animals. And mine? The suspense haunts me.
Lucinda reads from the Book of Freya. She lights a great bonfire. Together we chant and dance around it. Holding hands we skip in unison. Even Granny Magda, now well beyond her dancing years, kicks her heels like a young maiden.
In the distance I hear a drumbeat. Approaching over the hills I see them, the tribe of Pan. They are thirteen men, goatskins over their thighs, naked from the waist up. On their heads they wear crowns of horns and masks of feathers and fur.
The balefire rages and the drums beat. Magda leans and whispers in my ear, “Granddaughter. You are ready. You will bleed to bless the earth which has blessed you. Only through this can you find your womanhood.”
One of the thirteen men then approaches me, takes my hand and joins in the dance. All is a blur of color and sound, the dance faster and faster. Soon I am on the grass, flat on my back, the tribesman atop me.
I am not the only one. Other women have been taken as well. All around me the couples are a whirl of flesh, thighs upon thighs, breath heavy, hair streaming. Wails, screams and moans fill the night air, voices desperate and satisfied.
Magda had said I am ready, but am I? My heart pounds, my whole body pulsed to the music. I am frightened but then the tribesman pulls me closer, his face next to mine. His scent is of goats but also of the earth and our meadow, a musk that lures me like subtle perfume, releasing a passion I did not know I possessed. Although he wears a mask I recognize his eyes, blue as the river. His look is the question and I nod my answer: Yes.
His mouth is firm on my lips, his tongue sweet, his thighs braced against me. My secrets are wet as the mountain stream that baptized me and in an instant he is inside me. It hurts but only for a moment until my hips synch in rhythm with his. My body quivers and I hear him breathe my name, feel his spill within me.
Before rise of the sun we anoint ourselves with unction again, then mount our besoms. The men disappear into the mountains as we fly away.
It is finished.
In the weeks after Walpurgisnacht we live quietly. I am changed but still the same, although Magda no longer hovers over me, no longer calls me ‘child’. All is well until the day the constables come, riding up our path upon their sleek stallions. They dismount and look suspiciously about the cottage. One knocks on our door, holding a warrant for our arrest.
“Which warrant and how so?” I demand. “Arrested for what?”
“For witchcraft Fraulien,” the constable says. His face is like a hard brick, impenetrable, a moving mouth with two tiny slits of eyes.
“We have done nothing wrong!” I shout.
“You both have been seen cavorting in the meadow, spreading yourselves with evil unctions and potions, then taking flight to the sky on your brooms.”
“And who has been harmed by it?” I scream. My head is burning.
“All are harmed by it! All good honest folk. You women, by your madness and your lasciviousness, violate the very decency of mankind!”
I attempt to protest but a hand slaps my mouth. Just then another constable grabs Magda and binds her wrists. I charge at him, but the next constable overpowers me, this one tall as a tower and twice as strong. He pulls me away, knotting my arms.
“My Granny is frail,” I scream again. “She does you no harm! What satisfaction do you get to badger an old woman?”
“Hold your tongue Fraulien, lest I gag your foul mouth,” the third constable orders. I fight with all my strength but in the end they win. Granny Magda and I are put onto a rickety old cart and brought south to the village of Stuttgart.
We are thrown in a slimy, rat infested dungeon where we live in squalor for weeks. Our food is gruel and brackish water, the meals so meager I fear Granny Magda will perish. Others join us, country women and bumpkins, some midwives, some herbalists, all innocent of the crimes they are accused. Yet when we are taken to trial the jury declares us guilty before we are given a chance to speak.
We are sentenced to be burned at the stake. “Consumed by the hell fire from whence ye came,” the judge declares.
Like cattle we are led to the pyres. A hooded executioner binds our bodies to the stakes and the fires are lit. I hear the crowd around us yell, “Brennen die Hexen! Burn the witches!”
Granny Magda gives me a look, hopeful in her sunken eyes. I nod. Just as the flames begin to creep around us I shout:
“As the powers within me rise, so this man-made fire now dies!”
The flames sputter and vanish as if drenched by a thousand buckets. I watch as the crowd of people turn pale with horror. “Relight the flame!” someone yells. “They must be burned! These witches must die!”
“Brennen die Hexen!” the crowd chants again. “Burn the witches!”
The executioner moves to relight the flames, but the embers are cold. He tries again and again, adding more wood, more torches, but the fire only sparkles and dies. He then stares at me, eyes wide. He crosses himself and moves away as if I am carrying the plague. “Hexe!” he whispers.
“You can relight the flames all you want and they will never grow,” I say calmly. I then begin to laugh, loud and haughty, my voice echoing on the wind. The crowd stares at me as if I were a madwoman.
“There will be no burnings today,” I say richly.
One by one they turn away in fear. Women lift their skirts, scurrying away and men run fast as their boots will carry them.
Just then I see his body in the crowd, the lanky frame and broad shoulders. Peter approaches, pulls a knife from his pocket and slices the ropes that bind me. He then rescues Magda and the other women.
“You should not have allowed it to go so far,” he says quietly.
“O, but it was well worth it! Just to see the looks on their faces,” I answer brightly. “You must admit it was a picture.” I run a finger across his cheek.
“That it was, wife.” He smiles. “As long as no harm comes to the child.” He lays a hand on my belly.
“The child is fine,” I assure my husband. “Her gift from Hekate will be the same as mine. She too will have the ability to control fire, and she too will never be burned at the stake.”
** NOTE: The real witch persecutions and Burning Times occurred in Europe during 1450-1700. Historians estimate that over 100,000 accused witches, both men and women were killed during this time. The majority of burnings took place in Germany, in some cases wiping out entire populations of women in small Medieval towns.
The real Brocken is the highest point of the Harz Mountain range in northern Germany. The Brothers Grimm spent a good deal of time in the small villages at the foothills of the mountains collecting tales of local folklore. From these tales came stories such as Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel and Rumpelstiltskin.
Walpurgisnacht (pronounced :Vol-POOR- gus-nokt) is celebrated on April 30. Witches then gather in the Brocken and other sacred places to conduct rituals of spring.