Walpurgisnacht

 

Baptism 2

“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.

goats

“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.”

medieval 2

“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.”

The Walpurgis Night Alexandra Nedzvetskaya

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.

baptism 3

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.

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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.

Walpurgisnacht

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!”

baptism 9

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.”

baptism 8

** 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.

 

 

The April Fool

 

court jester 3

They called me Jane the Foole, but it was they who were foolish, believing as they did in the atrocities of government and church. At Court I stayed close to my Lady Catherine Parr, yet closer still to Elizabeth Tudor, for I knew it was Elizabeth who would one day conquer all.

I juggled, danced and told many a story.  In my raiments of motley and purple, I entertained the greatest of statesmen.  I was merely a jester, yet it was my good fortune to have a room of my own, a canopied bed, the finest of costumes and best of all, access to the royal kitchen.

Truth be told, I did not care much for King Henry. He was an old lecher and I had watched him behead many a woman. In the last days of his life I know he suffered, for the Fates cannot be kind to any man who takes a woman’s love and devotion so lightly.

The poison I gave to Henry’s cook was unknown to all but me. It was an act of mercy, for the man was obese to the point of vulgarity, his leg ulcer constantly inflamed. To make matters worse, he was deranged of mind and smelled badly. Trust me, death was a blessing.

When Henry died his son Edward, a mere boy of nine, took the throne. I disliked Edward, yet I stayed in his household. The boy was not much of a leader, taking counsel from greedy sycophants, lords and earls.  It was only my Lady Elizabeth who was fit to lead, that I knew, sure as I knew the bells on my own headfrock.

At age fifteen the boy king took ill. His symptoms looked to the world like the consumption, but I knew better. Edward was a mere cog in the wheel, a false ruler to be disposed of. And so, when I gave the poison to his cook I was left unfazed. This was my duty to the Crown, a step in my own advancement.

When Edward died,  his cousin, the Lady Jane Grey became queen. Of necessity, her reign was short, lasting only nine days, for she had been placed on the throne against her own will in a conspiracy.  She was declared treasonous and sent to the block. My work in her demise was therefore minimal.

The sweetcake I brought to Lady Jane Grey in her jail cell at the Tower would serve only to ease her pain. “Eat it right before the beheading,” I told her.

She nodded in agreement, for the poor child was bewildered, having served only as a pawn in this deadly game of thrones. I watched her eat the sweetcake, then blindfolded, she faced her executioner. Death enveloped her just before the ax hit her nubile young throat.

Jane Grey

The Lady Mary, Henry’s oldest daughter, then took the throne.

The Queen Mary kept me yet at the palace where I continued to amuse and delight.  In the meantime, my Lady Elizabeth was placed in the Tower on treasonous charges against her own sister.  They were false of course, Elizabeth a mere victim in a political plot designed by Mary’s enemies.  Amateurs! The true business was always best left to me.

I made it my duty to visit Elizabeth in her damp and murky chamber. “Fret not my Lady,” I told her. “Plans are set and in place.” I then gave her a sly wink and she knew, in the way only a secretive and powerful woman could know, of my intentions. I dared not utter them, for the Tower was filled with ears and spies.

I bided my time, waiting and watching.

The good of England was only ever in my thoughts. Tho’ I was but a foole, I knew a disaster when I saw one. This monarchy was a disaster, many slaughtered under the reign of Bloody Mary, many brought to the pyre.

There were burnings of devout Protestants, the likes of which the country had never seen before nor would ever see again. I watched it all. The flames as they crept high over the stakes, the victims as they wailed in terror.

burning-at-stake

The lucky ones were given a pouch of gunpowder, so to end their misery sooner. Such uncouth barbarism, never had I witnessed before!  And all in the name of religion, politics and other things, much too foolish to abide.

The Queen Mary was ill of health, a tumor in her chest that grew to large proportions. I watched as she became weaker.  I suspect her conscience was troubled also and her health reflecting it. The poison I gave to her cook was an act of mercy and one I have never regretted.

And so it was, on a blustery day in November, the year 1558, the Queen Mary finally breathed her last and my Lady Elizabeth took the throne.

“I’ll keep you close Jane Foole,” Elizabeth whispered to me, flashing the royal ring in my eyes.  “For I know your power is not merely to entertain, but to dole death as well as life.”

Elizabeth was the one, the only one, who never underestimated me.

The reign of my Lady Elizabeth was long, lasting nigh fifty years. I stayed with her through it all. None noticed, save for Elizabeth herself, and a few of the other servants, that during this time I aged not a day. I watched with amusement as those around me withered and fell. Even the great Queen was unable to stave off the wrinkles of time, much to her dismay. She was a vain sort and begged me give her the potion of youth. Instead I spread her face with crushed eggshells which served to hide her age spots nicely.

Painting of Queen Elizabeth I of England Elizabeth 1_original.j

I told her (and rightfully so) that my potion of eternal youth was not for princes nor noblemen, but only to be used by we, the Fooles, born into this life of jesting and merriment.

When my Queen could no longer kick her heels in a dance, and my Lord Cecil of the privy council had wasted away before us, I continued my jesting. My jokes and story telling, as well as my face were much same as they had been in the court of King Henry years before.  None bothered to question me, for it was assumed I could not possibly be that same Jane. None examined a fool too closely, for we were but ornaments; the entertainment, amusement and artifice taken for granted.

The Queen grew fragile, debilitated by her long years in office. Finally, on a rain soaked day in March, the year 1603, she summoned me with her last request.

The poison I slipped to Elizabeth’s cook was unknown to all but the Queen and myself. Still a troubled soul, she remained standing and fully awake, biting her own fingernails until she took her last breath, the poison finally doing its work.

As for myself, after Elizabeth’s reign I vanished from court. I had no desire to serve under her cousin James.  My work was done. Besides, the golden age of the jester was fading and would soon be forgotten, replaced by the stage, the works of Master Shakespeare and all that would later take to to the fine art of merriment.

My Queen, ever faithful, had left in my name an enormous country estate, the deed and keys belonging to me only.

estate 2

There I have lived quietly ever after.  I have seen the turn of some four hundred summers. Laughter and my own elixirs  being the best medicine, I still have not aged a day.

I have taken seventeen husbands and birthed seventy-one children. All of them became fine entertainers as was appropriate to the eras in which they were born. They scattered to all corners of the earth, bearing offspring of their own who carry on my traditions.

court jester 6

Yet I grew weary of this world.

And so it was.

On April 1st, 2017 in the Year of Our Lord now called Common Era, on the day they have named specifically  for fools, I Jane the Foole played the last of my (very practical) jokes. The poison I gave to my own cook was only known by me. I passed quietly, painlessly, and peacefully into the night.

All I will tell you of the realm I entered is that it is beautiful, a land of summer where the flowers bloom quite indecently. There is always much laughter and merrymaking. There is no poison, no aging, no politics, no religion, no kings nor queens.  And there is, most certainly, never a need for the employment of fools.

flowers 4

 

** NOTE: The real Jane Foole, pictured below in this 1545 portrait, was the only female court jester ever recorded in history. She is believed to have served three generations in the Tudor dynasty.

jane foole

The full painting below features (left to right) jester Jane Foole, Mary Tudor, Prince Edward, Henry VIII, Jane Seymour (posthumous), Elizabeth Tudor and another jester Will Somers.

King Henry

 

 

Marcellus at Lupercalia

 

loin cloth

On the morning of Lupercalia we went first to the temple of Pan. It was here we paid tribute to the god of shepherds and nature, he that watched over all animals, including the beloved wolf, Lupa, for which this festival was named.

I was lucky, for I was among those of the Brotherhood, we the high priests who would be anointed with blood of the goat and dog. In the temple we raised our voices, shouted prayers to the hooved god, knelt in praise. We then passed wineskins, drank in camaraderie and offered the robes off our backs in sacrifice.

When devotions had ended, we marched down the cobbled streets wearing only our loincloths. In the village we met Calpurnia, of Juno’s temple. She held an alabaster jar and inside it, etched in parchment, were the names of every unwed maid in the city.

jar

Calpurnia shook the jar. “With the blessings of Juno and in hopes Cupid smiles upon you. May you have the maids you desire, gentlemen,” she said. She held out the jar to me. I was first to choose, for that year it was I who  represented Romulus.

I thrust my hand into the jar, twisting and extending my fingertips, all the while silently praying to Pan for a good match.

When I pulled up the parchment I saw the name: Lucretia. I knew of her, a modest girl, daughter of a widowed grain farmer. She claimed no fortune nor dowry yet her beauty had always astounded me.

“Lucretia.” Calpurnia smiled, ruby lips etching her white teeth. She raised a hand, beckoned to the girl who stood, arms crossed, her rain colored garments flowing in the February wind. She was lovely. But would she have me?

Lucretia glanced at her father who nodded and motioned her forward. The girl smiled, moved with an awkward grace and stood before me. “It seems, my lord, I am yours for the duration of this festival,” she said. She gave a stiff curtsey and I bowed before her. “I shall unite with you after the anointing,” she added. Before she moved to Calpurnia’s side her gray eyes caught mine. There was a teasing glint, a passing smile. She tossed her hair. “Be aware, Sir, I am of the cult of Diana.”

lucretia-2

It was an odd custom, the drawing of names from a jar. All matches were left to the Fates and the Gods. Yet in the case of Lucretia, I knew Pan had favored me.

When the Brotherhood had finished selection all the men of the village moved forward. Calpurnia dispensed names. Some were pleased and some appalled. “Take heart,” Brother Julian counseled Cicero, who had received the name of the plainest girl in all of Rome. “It’s only for a fortnight.” He winked. “And you, Brother Marcellus. You have been given a great gift. Lucretia is a beauty among beauties and the purest in the land.”

“Too pure for words,” Cicero added. “But also wild. It has been said no man will ever tame her.”

“Tame her?” I answered. “It is not my desire to tame her. Is it not said, the wilder they are the better they shall breed?” It was a bold claim on my part, and somewhat vulgar.  I should be so lucky as to bed her.  The cult of Diana were sworn virgins, every last one of them.

With the other high priests I proceeded to the cave of Lupercal. It was there that Lupa the she wolf had once nursed Remus and Romulus. They were, the legend says, abandoned by their natural mother and then suckled to health from Lupa’s teat. Later they founded our great state of Rome, and indeed it was only one fierce as a wolf that could be worthy of such a founding.

The sacrificial animals were brought to the cave. Two young goats and a dog. With my blade I sliced their throats.

Brother Julian took my knife. He cleaned it with a cloth of wool that had been soaked in milk. He then drained the animals’ blood and anointed the forehead of each priest. “The blood of life,” he said solemnly. “May your women prove fertile as the earth.”

Once anointed, we proceeded to skin the hides off the animals. We soaked the hides in lukewarm salt water and vinegar, toughening them into the februa strands, those that would be used to strike the women.

“Remember to hit softly,” Julian cautioned. “So  they not be afraid. We want them eager for more. Their loins will then spill with their own milk to bring you sons and daughters.”

The next morning, armed with our februa strands, all the men of the village lined up for the run. The women laughed and gossiped, whispering in each other’s ears. They leaned like soft willows along the buildings and aqueducts. They were quarry, waiting to be caught by we the hunters.

Lucretia was nowhere to be seen.

Calpurnia chimed the bell and the februa run began. Swift on my feet, I softly struck as many maids as I could reach.  “To make you fertile, to make you bountiful, to ease your pain in childbirth,” I chanted along with the other men. The women, although feigning pain, deliberately stood in our way. Only those that were touched by our goat hides, so said the legend, would be able to bear children.

lupercalia-large

After the run Calpurnia led us to the great dining hall. Before we entered she took hold of my shoulder. “Marcellus,” she said, “Have you not seen your young maid?”

“No Madame,” I answered, “and of it I am quite disappointed.”

“Remember she is a child of Diana and therefore not easily moved.” Calpurnia tilted her head, smiled broadly and rested her gaze across the dining hall. “There she is. Not too proud to attend the feast. Go to her, boy!”

I bowed to Calpurnia, made my way across the hall. At the end of a long oak table sat Lucretia, a goblet of wine in her hands.

“Brother Marcellus,” she greeted me. “Please accompany me.” She patted her long, sun brown hand on the bench I quickly sat beside her.

“I missed you at the run of februa,” I said, stammering slightly.

“The hide of goat to insure fertility?” She scowled, popped her gray eyes at me. “Surely you do not believe such a lame custom?”

“We of the Brotherhood, my lady, are instructed to believe in such.”

“The Brotherhood is falsity!”

“My lady?”

“You heard me. Falsity I say!”

“I beg pardon my lady, but the fertility of goat hide is our custom and our belief. In this I have been trained and in this hold the title of Romulus Luperci.”

“Luperci!” she sneered. “When he meal is finished, I shall take you to the wood.”

Although the venison and goat’s meat were tasty I barely noticed them. My thoughts were only upon Lucretia. When the feast was finished the mummers aligned for the evening’s entertainment. Lucretia took my hand. “Now,” she said.

“What of the pageantry my lady?”

“Rot the pageantry!” she nearly screamed, gray eyes blazing. “Would you not rather see the vast pageantry of Diana’s wood?”

I could not refuse her. Together we slipped from the dining hall. She led me through the streets of Rome, past the coliseum and the temples, past the merchant’s square and the emperor’s palace. She led me far into the forest. The grass was stiff with winter’s frost.  Night had fallen and the Quickening Moon shone bright and full. In the distance stags and deer pranced freely, pausing to watch us as we passed. Finally she reached a myrtle tree, its enormous branches full with tiny buds.

myrtle-tree-2

“Here,” she declared. “Remove your loincloth.”

Her lovemaking was passionate and strong, with the timing and precision of one who has never in her life been a virgin. No blood spilled beneath her. She smiled, arched an eyebrow, stretched a finger across my cheek. I dared not question her.

“Not all the women of Diana are virgins,” she offered. “Do not let it perplex you, Marcellus.”  She breathed in my ear, climbed atop me again. I was young, virile and not yet spent.

We made love four times before the yellow sun poured its rays through the trees. I fell asleep in her arms.

When I awoke she was gone. The myrtle tree stood, now towering and ripe with flower.

myrtle-tree

The air was hot, steamy as the bath houses in summer.  The grass had grown thick around me.  I stood up, my legs stiff and depleted. In the far distance I saw a new wheat field, golden with stalk. On wobbly legs I walked.

The landscape of the forest had changed. Orange and lemon trees towered above me, fruit falling off their limbs. Flowers of every genus sprouted from the ground. Tangled vines extended before me like tentacles of octopi, heavy with purple grapes. I trudged on.

In all seriousness, I knew I must get back to the temple of Pan.  My duties as Luperci were not yet complete. But Lucretia? What had happened to her? Surely she had returned to the village, to her father. I decided, right then and there, I would ask her father for her hand in marriage. It was only fitting. Such a wife she would make — beautiful, ravishing, unstoppable! I wondered if she was already with child.

At the edge of the forest I tripped over a mass of gray fur, a curled body, soft and warm against my sandals. Clumsily I fell to the ground. Lucretia had exhausted me and I felt very sleepy and dazed.  In my stupor I rubbed my eyes, not believing the blurred sight before me.

It was a wolf stretched out on the grass. Five tiny pups suckled her teats. The wolf lifted her head, gray eyes glinting.  She bared her teeth, white and pearly against her jowls, but not unkind.

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The wolf sat up, lapped her tongue against my cheek. “Your intentions are well, but you need not marry me, Marcellus,” she said. “I have no dowry and besides, my duty is forever to Diana’s land. Rest assured you have served your role well. Now we shall part forever.”

I crouched down beside her. “I will have you,” I said quietly.  “You are a shifter, a child of Diana. I see that now. But nonetheless I will have you.”

The wolf stood upon sturdy legs. She tilted her head, perked her ears as if she meant to say more, but then in a flash she bolted into the forest. The five tiny pups scurried after her.

There was a rustle in the trees and I looked above me.  There in the branches, the god Cupid stood, half naked, holding his bow and arrow. He winked at me and in one swift movement he shot his arrow, hitting the wolf straight in the back.

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She then transformed. She was Lucretia, gray eyes, hair in disarray, her simple dress the color of rain, clinging to her sweaty body. She walked toward me.

“Brother Marcellus,” Cupid called from the tree.  I looked up. He hung like a sloth, sultry smile on his face. “You will love her, and she will love you. But there will always be a wildness in her and you will never completely tame her. Do not try.” He then vanished.

Cupid was right. My wife was a night prowler, forever chasing the moon, quick of temper, insatiable for sex. My daughters, all five, and the sons that followed would never be completely tamed either.  We had grandchildren, great grandchildren, and more after that, generations that lasted long after the Feast of Lupercalia was forgotten. Our ancient festival was swallowed up in the more ‘civilized’ traditions of Valentines and chocolates.

And yet.

Ever after that all descendants of Lucretia and myself were thought to have bit of the wolf-blood within them. Our descendants scattered to all corners of the world.

If you, dear reader, have been drawn into this story, or if you have gone giddy under a Quickening Moon, or if you have ever fallen truly, madly and inexplicably in love by the shot of Cupid’s arrow — well then, you just may be one of those descendants!

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The Page’s Story

 

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For seven years of my life, I was privileged to serve as a page to his Majesty, the Good King  Wenceslas of Bohemia. This was a great honor to me, for I was from  a modest family, orphaned at a young age, and it was the King  who took me in, treating me practically as his ward.  A fine page I was and I served my master well, so much so that I became his favorite. I was privy to the King’s every secret and whim and I daresay I came to know him better than his own advisers.

The story I am about to tell may come as somewhat of a shock to you. It may in fact seem unbelievable. I assure you it happened,  for I would never tell a lie, and sure as my hand is my hand and my bone is my bone, this story is true.

It was the Year of our Lord 946, on the 26th day of December, the Feast of Saint Stephen. As was the custom for every saint’s feast day, a great repast was served in the King’s hall. The cooks prepared every carnage known to the kingdom; succulent ducks, hogs heads, blackbird pie, mutton and  hens. Great barrels of mead and momsey were served, as well as desserts of apple cakes and plum puddings.

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There was grand entertainment, jugglers and dancers and acrobats that walked like crabs, hands extended over their heads and bodies arched. Fiddlers and drummers and choirs chimed in magnificent orchestration.  The King was quite pleased with this entertainment, but the evening grew late. The King excused himself, and just as he was retiring to his quarters he looked outside the window. Here was something  most  disturbing.

A peasant in tattered clothes with no cloak to warm him scavenged outside in the forest for spare wood. The man rummaged and shivered , filling up his tiny cart, then hobbling away, for he had no horse to pull it.  The King  peered through  window and then tilted his head and let out a long sigh. I quickly jumped to his side, for quite fond was I of the King, and being his favorite I was able to approach him about his every sadness.

“Sire, something troubles you?” I asked.

King Wenceslas nodded. He gestured toward the peasant. He then looked upon me, suddenly serious, a depth of sorrow in his eyes.

“Ah, my dear boy,” he said. “It is with much grief I view yonder peasant. Did you see the  man? Scantily clothed, gathering meager wood from the barren trees. From whence comes he? Where lives he?  Knowest you?’

Sadly, I told the King I was well aware of the poor peasant’s dwelling. Leagues away from the castle the man scraped out his living in a hovel that was little better than a cave.  I was lack to reveal more of the bleak story,  but Wenceslas urged me.  The peasant’s wife and child had recently taken ill from malnutrition.  The small supply of wood the peasant stole would barely last them the night.

Upon hearing this, the King hung his head. “Their Feast of Stephen was meager I take it,” he murmured.

“Sire,” I said, “Their Feast of Stephen was none!”

The King shuffled his feet, something he was fond of doing when thinking of solutions. He scratched his head and looked back out the window where snow swirled like a vast tornado.  The peasant was long gone.  The King then glanced back to the dining hall where the servants were cleaning up the leftovers.  Suddenly he pivoted on his heel, smiled broadly and grabbed me by the shoulders.  “But of course!” he bellowed, eyes bulging. “Boy,  go to the servants! Tell them to pack baskets of meat and mead, breads and cakes of all kinds!  Kindling wood and candles and blankets and raiment. Tonight that peasant shall dine in splendor.”

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The servants packed up several baskets. My first thought was to get the carriage driver to transport the goods, but the King bid me no. “I shall deliver them in person my dear lad,” he said. “And you shall go with me.”

The King was known to sometimes get odd notions in his head. When this happened, there was no stopping him until his ideas were completely carried out.

The night was bitterly cold, with snow packing the castle walls, so deep  I could barely tread upon it without my legs becoming enveloped. Yet the King insisted we walk, for he longed to visit the peasant in person, goods in hand, making a grand and bold entrance.

We left the palace and headed out into the bleak night. The wind whipped at my back. On and on we walked. The night grew darker still, the moon obscured by  thick drifting clouds. A numbing cold set to my toes. I breathed heavily, teetering my bundles. The King also carried bundles, but I was just a small boy, my legs short and spindly. Finally I knew I could go no further. I longed to retreat back to my quarters in the palace.

“Sire,” I panted. “I fear my heart will fail if I continue.”  My numb hands dropped my bundles in the snow  and I clutched my side. My ribs ached.

“Ah, my dear lad.” The King knelt beside me. “Be not troubled. I have just the solution! Now hear me. You see that my boots make large footprints in the snow, yes? I want you to tread behind me, follow in those footprints. You will find that you are soon warmed and invigorated.”

I knew it would do no good.  My master had surely lost his sanity. The night was now black as pitch. Snow swirled like icy diamonds and I feared a blizzard was  heading our way.  Yet the King casually set back on his path, blithe as if it were a summer’s day. I followed, doing as Wenceslas asked, only because it was my job to amuse him.

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If I had not seen it with my own eyes, felt it in my own flesh, I would not have believed it. The instant I stepped in the King’s footsteps, all chill left my body!  I was invigorated with a health and vitality such as I had never known. Merrily I followed Wenceslas. Once or twice he called behind to me, “How fare thee my lad?”  “Ever so happily Sire,” I sang back, for it was true.

When we reached the peasant’s hovel we found him with his wife and child, shivering in the darkness.  Quickly the King lit wax candles and commenced to lay the feast upon the table. The peasant’s eyes popped. He dropped to his knees, squinting through the candle light, lack to believe that this  generous stranger was actually the King.

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When the meal was finished Wenceslas made a promise; none in his kingdom would ever suffer hunger and cold again.

It was an extravagant promise, but the King made good on it. His great stores of treasure and gold were traded in exchange for new housing, timber wood and farmland so that all in the kingdom were given the chance to thrive.  Wenceslas then had a great dining hall built on the same land where the peasant’s hovel had once been. Ever after that, on the Feast of Stephen, all in the village, peasant and courtiers alike, dined in that great hall. Indeed, no one in Wenceslas’ kingdom ever went hungry again.

I frequently asked the King how it came that my feet had been so warmed and my heart so invigorated in his footsteps that night. It was still a puzzle to me.  The King only smiled, patted my head and said, “The snow and wind and I – we have an understanding.”

 

 

 

Krampus Nacht

 

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KRAMPUS:  Oh, it was easy enough for Saint Nicholas! His job was to coddle them. He gave them sweets and toys, praised them on how good they were, filled their stockings with candy and marzipan. When a child is docile it is simple enough to reward that child with some shiny, useless thing!  But the rebels, the transgressors, the nay-sayers, what of them? Oh yes they are much harder to deal with!  It was I, Krampus, who was given that difficult job.  You see, I was deemed the disciplinarian, whereas Nicholas was the jovial gift giver.

My position was not enviable in the least. Obedient children are simple. They rise when told, sleep when told. Perform their chores and tasks as expected. But the bad ones.  Ah, the bad ones!  It is they that must be punished, and that punishment is most necessary if ever they are to achieve their true potential.

And so it was upon the eve of the saint’s feast, the 5th of December, 1877 that I took to the humble Kabacki Forest near Warsaw Poland in the Russian Partition. It was there that dwelt a poor family of seven who were much in need of my services.  All of the children were quite obedient, save for one; the youngest. She was called Mania (as in maniac) though her true given name was Marie.

Mania had a fine but scattered mind when she first came under my switch. Yes, yes, I took a birch stick to them!  What of it? Spare the rod, spoil the child. Have you not read your Good Book?

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Seldom do folk take the time to consider the anguish I felt!  For what sane being would take pleasure in the injuring of a child? Still. They needed it.

 

MANIA:   I first encountered Krampus in the forest of Kabacki on the eve of the Feast of Saint Nicholas.  I was but ten years old and my mother had sent me, along with my sister Zosia and my brother Joseph to fetch kindle wood for the fire.

The night was black, the waxing moon only a yellow arch in the sky. A deep snow had just fallen and my boots crunched on the path. When we came upon a small tree suitable for chopping Joseph took his ax while Zosia and I tied its base. It was there in the shadows I first saw him; a man with a goat’s legs, hooves and a long thudding tail that swished back and forth.  From his head sprouted two twisted horns. I was a child of great imagination, and so, in all honesty, such a being seemed entirely credible to me. My brother and sister, however, were not so open minded.  Joseph stopped his ax in mid air, frozen in a mixture of fear and disbelief.

Krampus approached slowly, stealthily. Had the adults been with us, I suppose their first instinct would have been to kill him, for all manner of dangerous beasts are known to lurk in the forest. But he was no ordinary beast.

“Lay down your ax, boy. I mean no harm,” Krampus said in a voice that was husky but not  unkind. “It is your sister that interests me most.”

Zosia shuddered as the goat man approached closer.  She put her hands over her eyes and began to weep.  The sight of him, I’ll admit, was quite gruesome, for his body was hairy and he stood a good eight feet tall. As for myself, I was intrigued. I had always been a curious child, and somehow, in my heart of hearts, I was certain that the world I lived in,  as it had been presented to me, was not whole.  Therefore, I was delighted when Krampus turned to Zosia and spoke again. “Not you, precious girl,” he reassured her. “It is Mania I must address on this night.” He then placed a furry hand upon my shoulder. “Come with me,” he ordered.

I followed him through the woods, all the while keeping my eyes upon his twitching tail. In his hand he carried a birch stick, and I knew what was coming. I had been a bad girl.  A defiant, disobedient child. I spent far too much time with my nose in books and I often neglected my chores. Why, just that very night my mother had to pry me away from my science books in order to get me to chop the wood!  I was lazy and hopeless, never doing my part to help the family. Now I would pay for my despicable behavior!

Krampus lead me to the edge of a babbling brook, one that had not yet frozen over in December’s cold. The water churned, silver blue and fast moving.

 

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The goat man stood at the bank gripping his birch stick. “Bend over, Mania ,” he commanded.

I stood close to him, determined I would not show fear or vulnerability. I would TAKE my punishment. I’d take it like a woman! I closed my eyes, turned my back to him, bent over and braced  for my beating.

I waited.

A full minute passed. Then another.

Impatient as I was, I turned around, squinted at Krampus through my half closed eyes. He stood tall and straight, his body black against the already black night. He grinned and his white teeth gleamed in the darkness. He then began to laugh a hearty chuckle that rang through the forest.

I keeled around and stomped my foot in the snow. “What is the meaning of this?” I demanded. “Are you not to beat me? You, the great and powerful Krampus who punishes all bad children? Am I not a bad child? What delays you?”

It is an odd thing.  Sometimes one can be so ready and accustomed to defeat that when the defeat does NOT come we are angry, taken aback.

Krampus dropped his switch to the ground. “Mania ,” he said, “you have no need for this switch. You have proven yourself curious and dedicated enough to follow me to this brook. I shall not injure you, but I will show you something marvelous, something sacred.”

It was then that the goat man reached his hairy hand to the stream. He retrieved a cupful  of water which he poured into a glass jar. He held it to the sky, tiny ripples reflecting the sparse moonlight.

“In this water,” he stated, “you will see your future.”

I stared in the glass. The water separated into balls and spheres, swirling, vibrating particles of light and color. They spun round and round, droplets jumping, some emitting light as bright as flickering candles.

 

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“What is it?” I asked, but Krampus only smiled.

He then shook the jar again and this time I saw a picture. The jar became  a snow globe and inside was a domed building. Snow swirled over its high spire and arched windows. In a nearby courtyard men in cloaks passed, clutching books, engaged in conversation. It was, to be sure, a place of learning. But why present this to me?

“Sorbonne,” Krampus said. “The University of Paris. You  will study there, if you are disciplined enough.”

The Sorbonne? But it was beyond my wildest dreams!

Krampus shook the jar again. This time inside the glass there appeared a collection of gold letters. They floated, surfaced and formed a strange name which made no sense to me: Polonium.

“What is the meaning of this?” I asked, but Krampus only grinned and poured the water back into the brook.

“Polonium,” he said finally. “Named for your native Poland, which will never be far from your heart.”

Silly words!  Of COURSE Poland would always be close to my heart.  Though our region was now occupied by Mother Russia with her Cossacks and soldiers, we, the Skłodowska family, were Polish nationals and would always be so.

Krampus was a frustrating and nonsensical old goat!

“Go back now Mania,” he ordered. “Your siblings await you. Remember, keep steadfast to your studies. This world will be unkind to you, and your life will not be easy, for you are a female competing in the scientific realm of men. However, you must never let this deter you!”

With that he kissed my forehead, chucked my chin and waved a hand to motion me away.  He then jumped into the brook. He bobbed up and down, grinning the whole time, before he began to sink.  I watched as his twisted horns vanished beneath the water.

I ran back through the forest to where a dumbfounded Zosia and suspicious Joseph awaited me at the standing tree.  I never told them what had transpired.

KRAMPUS:  Mania Skłodowska was perhaps my best prodigy. She did indeed go on to study at the Sorbonne and even became the first ever female professor at the University of Paris.  Her chemical research led to the discovery of – yes, you guessed it — polonium. Her revelations in radioactivity shook the very foundations of physics itself. She was the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize, though she gave away the money she acquired from it. Even Mr. Einstein himself said of her,  “She was a person who could not be corrupted by fame.”

Needless to say, I was most proud of my Mania.  And to think I never even once used my switch upon her!

She married a man named Curie and was ever known to the world as Marie.

 

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** This story was inspired by my friend Vicky.  Check out her post Scary Xmas for more about Krampus and an EXCELLENT Krampus Night recipe!

 

 

 

 

 

Ryder and the Wolf

 

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As I stepped to the forest path the moon was platinum full, bathing its pale light over the changing leaves of October. The Native tribes called this moon Hunter, and sure as I gazed at it, I knew Diana’s strength embraced me.

In my basket I carried victuals, all manner of  which would aid my ailing Granny. There were sweet cakes spilling with honey. Wine pressed from dandelion and elderberry. Ginger root to be brewed in a strong tea and garlic bulbs to be steeped in milk. All of it was surely enough to cure any grippe or fever. My poor Granny suffered. Her health and well being were the most important things to me in all the world.

The night was gray, a thick fog rising, air soft as early autumn’s gauze.  There was a stillness to the wind, an eeriness like the calm before a storm.  This night was odd, I felt it in my bones. Strange things were portended, and if it weren’t for my ailing Granny I would scarce have left from my cottage.

Yet the Hunter moon beckoned.

Halfway through the lupine pass I spotted the wolf. A coat black as ebony and blue eyes that gleamed bright as sapphire.

 

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No doubt the animal had sniffed out my victuals, or even, I daresay, my own blood. I was not a-feared. Humankind surely has dominion over the beasts of this planet. Still, I knew I’d best keep my distance.  I made myself scarce among the heather and pine. I even scattered a few cake crumbs so as to throw the beast off my trail. I then proceeded in another direction entirely, forgoing the shortcut yet proceeding to Granny’s cottage all the same.

My dodging was to no avail, for some three leagues down the road I encountered the wolf again. This time the most wondrous of things happened, so much so that you gentle reader, may doubt my words. I assure you it all is true, sure as my name is Ryder Redd and I dwell in the forest of Galbraithe.

The wolf spoke to me, in a voice clear and stern as any man. “Ryder Redd,”  quothe he. “What brings thee to the forest?”   I was, of course, taken aback.  And yet, in the pale light of the moon, where all manner of wondrous things  happened, and in the still of the fog where metamorphosis morphed, a talking wolf seemed, in that instant, not so very strange at all.

“I bring remedies to my Granny, black wolf,” said I. “For she ails in fever and such victuals are sure to cure it.”

The wolf then sniffed, stuck his snout in the flannel napkin of my sack.  “Have you no meat, woman?” he asked, a rise of tension in his voice.

“Nay sir,” said I. “So sorry to disappoint, but it is medicine I bring. Honey cakes, ginger, strong wine, and garlic, noxious enough to clear any head.”

“Bah, what good are you?” said the wolf. With that he bounded up the path. I silently thanked Diana, for she had no doubt protected me. As the Huntress keeps her animals at bay, so humans are free to wander the earth.

By and by I came to Granny’s cottage. I knocked upon the door. No answer. The house was still as rock, no sign of stirring within.   Granny was, no doubt, in slumber.  I opened the door. The house was dark and I fumbled for some candles.  Having lit them I checked the bedroom, looked beneath the sheets, lifted the dust ruffle and even peeked under the bed. “Granny?”  I called. She was nowhere to be found.

Just then through the window I heard an earth shattering howl. Then more howls joined in unison. My heart quickened, for, confronted with one wolf I was able and competent, but this – a whole pack outside my Gran’s door? For this I was not equipped.

Still, curiosity got the better of me and I went to the window.  What I viewed, gentle reader, you will surely not believe. Yet I saw it with the eyes in my head, a steady gaze not tempered by imagination nor spirits. I even pinched myself to make sure it was so.

There, under the light of the moon I saw the pack of black wolves.  Nay wolves!  I say wolves – but not these! These were some strange form of animal, heads and bodies like wolves but with spans of feathered wings that fluttered from their backs.  They were like Pegasus, if such a creature existed.  Like Gryphon, were such a creature true!

 

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By my wits and my troth I should have been frightened. Frightened white as Diana’s moon. But no.  The winged wolves stared at me with eyes of interest. Something was so enticing, so inviting about them.  And so I opened the door, left the safety of the cottage and joined them in the field.

The one whom I had seen in the woods came forward. He  now had sprouted wings but when he spoke, the voice was exactly the same as I had heard it before. “Ryder Red,” quothe he, “we are pleased to see you.”

The wolves then swarmed in their circle. I moved closer.  And then! Such a hideous sight I have never before beheld.  Between them they shared a large carcass of meat, marbled  with gristle and tendon.  Upon closer look I recognized it as the torso of a human chest. The flesh was bloody, severed at the waist, spiky bones of a rib cage protruding. The air smelled of iron and meat.

I watched mesmerized as the gryphon-wolves, with dagger sharp teeth, ripped at their prey.  They growled and squabbled, slithered their tongues to lap up the pouring red blood. Finally one beast, the leader of the pack, dug his snout deep into the torso, gnawing until he pulled out a heart. Greedily  he chewed at it, a stew of scarlet veins, aorta bursting and even more blood that splattered on his fur like liquid roses.  The others consumed all  the leftover bits, licking remnants from the grass. I took a step back.

Pleased to see me? My ears burned.  Had the wolf  actually said ‘pleased to see you’?  And where o where was my Granny?

The wolf I’d made acquaintance with moved away for the circle and approached me.  He studied me and inasmuch as an animal can smile, he smiled at me.

“What name sir?” I asked nervously, for it seemed the beast must have a name and I should use that name to address him. “And what know you of my Granny?” I added. She was the most important!

“I am called Lycan,” he answered. “As for your Granny, she is changed. Never to be the same again.”

“Changed how?”

“She ails not.”

“Not how so?”

“She is well.”

“Well how so?”

“She is different.”

“Different how?”

“She is changed.”

“Aye sir!” I screeched. “Bring an end to this riddle! I am to tend to my Granny.”

“She needs not tending,” quothe he.

Then, with all the grace and ease of the moon and all the obscurity and blur of the fog, one magnificent gryphon-wolf flew forward. “I am she,” said the voice and I knew it was the voice of my Granny.

“To what form have they brought you?” I gasped. Yet as I watched her I was not frightened nor disgusted. Inasmuch as an animal can smile, she smiled at me.

 

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“My eyes child,” she said, “are all the better to see with. And my teeth all the better to eat with. My ears hear as never before. Sharp as an animal’s.”

In that moment I heard a scurry of feathers, the loud beating of wings.  A glitter of silver like so many falling stars scattered across the sky. All the gryphon-wolves, save for Lycan, disappeared quick as cats, vanishing into the fog.

“My Granny is no more?” I cried desperately.

“She is no more for you to see as such,” answered Lycan.

My heart fell although Lycan assured me it was for the best. He then guided me back to the cottage. Once inside, he bid me open my basket. “The honey cakes need not go to waste,” he insisted.

By then I had grown quite hungry, and so I devoured the cakes.  I had also grown quite thirsty and so I drank the wine. I felt my head go light. I became very sleepy and stupid, still unable to grasp what had happened. My world was a prism, a split of fog and moon, a mixture of fear and compassion. The fire blazed in its hearth, surreal in its ever changing facets.

 

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“Time for bed Ryder Redd,” said Lycan. With that he pressed his paws to my chest and unbuttoned the stays of my red cloak. Yet in that unbuttoning, his hands somehow changed. They were no longer the paws of a beast. The fingers that pulled at my stays were graceful fingers, with well manicured nails. The hands of a human and a wealthy one at that, the hands of fine breeding.

He pulled the cloak from my shoulders and pressed his face close to mine. It was not the face of a wolf, but a man with a mane of black hair, a face chiseled, cheekbones that glowed bronze and healthy.  His sapphire eyes glided over me. His touch was gentle upon my shoulder, gentle upon my waist.  He unlaced my camisole, slid my pantaloons off my buttocks and I, docile and sleepy with elderberry, complied to him.  I fell into the sheets of Granny’s bed and Lycan climbed beside me.

“You have not eaten, my lord,”  I said, for in that moment it occurred to me; I had been most inhospitable, gobbling all the tarts and chugging all the wine. “Of the honey cakes, I fear none are left,” I added sleepily.

“Ryder,” said he, “I am a carnivore, consuming only blood and meat.” His kiss was warm on my breast.

 

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Needless to say, he did not devour me, for if so I would not live to tell this tale. Yet suffice it to say he did not go hungry. That night, and every night thereafter I spent with my wolf- man.  He was an agreeable sort and a perfect gentleman toward me, save for once a month at Diana’s full moon when he transformed.

It was then that a pack of black wings fluttered over the forest. It was then that the gryphon-wolves feasted, the poor body of some disease-ridden human finally rescued from its illness. It was then that the flesh became silver stardust, spread across the sky like a flurry of crystalline diamonds.

The saved one would speak of new eyes, all the better to see with. And new ears, all the better to hear with. And of course, new teeth. All the better to bite with.

 

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Halloween Jack

 

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I first met the Devil in a pub called the Boar’s Head on Old Cork road.  The night, as I recall, was all hallows eve.  Having spent my last farthing on ale I tried to barter the barkeep for  one last drink.  My mouth watered but he refused me.  “Go on home boy,” he ordered. “Get you a good night’s sleep. Come the morrow all the world will be brighter.”

He was wrong. My world was darkness. I had no intention of retreating home to my bare and filthy hovel where paint peeled off the walls, rats basked in the waste bins and I had drained every ounce of my whiskey bottles dry. I knew not where I’d wander, yet the barkeep bid me leave.  And so it was to my great fortune that before exiting through the pub’s swinging door I encountered Lucifer himself.

 

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There he stood, hands crossed at his chest, a blithe smile on his face. He was oddly graceful, a strange dignity about him.

“Your days are numbered Jack,” he told me. “A life of thieving, gambling, drinking and whoring. What have you to show for yourself?  Well now. It seems time has expired and I’ve come to take you to the iron gates.”

The Devil. He may think himself wise, but I, Sneaky Jack Skrumpington, was much wiser!

“You don’t look like the Devil to me,” I challenged. “If you are true, then prove it. Change yourself into a shilling!”   One shilling, I reasoned, would buy me a fresh pitcher of ale.

Lucifer scowled. He laughed at my challenge, and yet, he could not resist a good dare. In an instant he transformed himself into a shiny silver coin which I did not hesitate to snatch. I quickly hid it in my pocket, right next to my rosary’s shiny cross.

 

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Everyone knows the Devil cannot abide a cross. He was thus under my spell. Yet I was not entirely unmerciful. I  made a bargain with him. In exchange for his freedom he would give me the sum of one million ducats and another ten  years to live upon this earth.  He agreed. After all, he had no choice.

During my next ten years I lived a life of decadence.  I dined at the finest of inns, drank wine under crystal chandeliers. I slept in silk sheets upon feathered beds, beautiful women accompanying me at every turn.  I spent much of my time gaming, cheating and winning, caring not a fig for those I left in debt.  I steadily increased my ever growing fortune.

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Finally it all came to an end.

It was upon all hallows eve, ten years later when the Devil returned to claim my soul. He found me sprawled beneath an apple tree, sleeping off a long drunk.

“Skrumpington!” he barked. “Your time has expired.”  His lips formed a wide smile, green teeth reflecting the light of the moon. Although he attempted his best of horrifying theatrics, commanding streaks of lightning across the sky and claps of thunder, he did not scare me. I knew better.

“Lucifer,” I pleaded, kneeling before him. “Can you not give a damned man one last request? Do it!  Do it, so you prove yourself a creature of mercy, not the evil demon they paint you!  Do it, so you prove yourself a being of justice, not the slithering snake they claim.  Forget not, Lucifer,  you were once a son of light!”

He stared at me. This remark had struck a chord.  I moved my face close to his. “Aye,” I whispered in his hairy ear. “Once, dear Lucifer, you sat at the right hand of the Father. You were his favorite, were you not?  The brightest star of the heavens, Luz the light. Oh, but  that was long before your great sin of pride, wasn’t it? You banished yourself from the heavens, fell from grace into your own lonely cavern of hell. Surely you remember?”

I stroked his neck, moved my hand across the small of his back.  He quivered at my touch.  “Show me now you have not lost all your goodness,” I urged.  “Grant  me but one last request.” I moved my lips to his cheek, kissed him gently and tasted the salt of a single tear that fell from his eye.

He nodded, for even the Devil had some shred of decency.  Besides, he knew a pacified soul would be more useful to him. He clutched my hand.  “What then would you have from me Jack Skrumpington?” he asked.

“Only a simple apple,” I answered. “Ripe and sweet, picked from this very tree.” I pointed to the top bough, heavy with fruit.

 

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Lucifer nodded and like a lizard he shimmied up the bark, entrenching himself between the branches. He reached up to pick the largest, reddest apple the tree bore.

I wasted no time! In one instant I pulled my knife from its scabbard. Quickly I carved a cross in the trunk of the tree. Lucifer’s eyes widened in terror. He was now stuck on the branch of the tree, unable to descend, for everyone knows the Devil can never approach a cross.

I grinned up at him. He spat down on me. “Skrumpington,” he hissed. “You have deceived me again!”

“I will release you,” I said. “If you make me but one single promise.”

His body writhed and wrinkled, now blending into the wood of the tree. He wheezed, struggling to breathe as the tree’s tentacles closed in around him. His eyes were frightened and white. A knot in the bark swallowed him whole, then spit him out again and he hung like a folded fish on the branch.

“Very well Skrumpington!” he gasped. “What bid you this time?”

“This time…” I sighed a sigh of deep satisfaction, strolled grandly in a circle, watching him the whole time.  “This time you shall agree to never take my immortal soul, regardless of whatsoever evil deeds I may perform.”

He nodded slowly.

“Swear it!” I commanded.

“I swear it, Jack Skrumpington. I will never take your immortal soul.”

He was a defeated thing, weak and gray, his body now sliding like a stretched lump of clay . I almost felt sorry for him. Almost.

 

For what remained of my life I continued my ways of debauchery, drinking and whoring myself  into an inevitable grave.  I was a liar, a user and a sycophant. I frequented gambling dens and houses of ill repute.  I lived only for myself and my own gain. It would later be said of me “Jack Scrumpington  never once performed a selfless act nor did any kindness toward his fellow man.”

Yet time waits for no one and even I was not immune. My body grew old.  My back bent, my bones ached with arthritis. Finally my unbridled whoring caught up with me and the syphilis pox set in.  My hands shook.  My walk became a staggered, struggling gait.  My penis withered like a crumpled twig.  My liver became diseased, bloated with cirrhosis, swollen from years of hard liquor. Yellow jaundice enmeshed my flesh.  Death, when it finally came, was a mercy.

I then found myself at the gates of Saint Peter.

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The Saint shuffled his feet, looked at me and  shook his head. “Can’t take you Jack,” he said sadly, “for never in your life have you performed a single selfless act. Not once have you done any kindness toward your fellow man.” Peter leafed through his book of souls, double checking as if there might be a chance he would still find my name.  But no. He closed the book.  “Sorry Jack.” He shrugged.  “Not once.” He caught my eye with a look of genuine sympathy as he locked the white pearl of the deadbolt.

 

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The wind gusted. I felt a chill up my spine. Winter was coming and it would be a long, merciless one.  Ice formed on the pavement beneath me.  I wore only the sack cloth I had been buried in.  My teeth chattered.

What to do?  What to do?  I’d go to the Devil! Of course I would!  At the very least, it should be warm in hell. Yes, it would be an eternity of misery, the lake of fire, but I’d embrace it, punishment for the damage I’d done in my waking life.

Lucifer peered through the gray mist that surrounded his iron gate. Upon recognizing me, he furrowed his brow and shook his head. “Oh no,” he said. “I’ve no want for you here, Jack Scrumpington.  I promised I’d never take your immortal soul and I’ll not take it. A promise is a promise.” He clasped his hands together and bowed his head.  “I may be a lot of – er – unsavory things.  But Lucifer Luz is a man of his word!” He stomped a foot and pounded his own chest.

Not fit for heaven, not welcome in hell.  I was the lowest of souls, left to wander on the brink of nothingness. I turned away from Lucifer’s gate. The thick mist clouded my eyes. I stumbled like a blind man. The night was black as pitch. I could see not one outline, not one shadow.

Just then I felt Lucifer’s warm touch upon my shoulder.

 

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“You’ll need something to light your way,” he said, not unkindly.  He then handed me a hollowed out pumpkin.  A lone candle burned at its base, blackening the inside rind.

“Take this lantern, Jack,” the Devil said. “May it guide you through the darkness.” He then handed me a knife.  “You may want to carve some designs in it. Allow extra light.”

It was an act of unmerited kindness, considering what I’d done to him.

In that moment I felt guilt for the first time. I was sorry I had treated him so badly.  I realized my skewed values.   But alas, it was by then, too late.

With Lucifer’s knife I carved a face in the pumpkin, triangle eyes and nose, even a smiling toothless mouth.

From that day on I was left to wander through the land of spirit. I am usually unseen but sometimes, upon all hallows eve you might find me. It is then the veils are lifted and humankind may enter our realms. Look for me in the alleyways, in your dark streets of trick-or-treaters.  I am the ghostly figure who carries a lone pumpkin of candle light to brighten my sad path.

They call me Jack of the Lantern.

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