IMBOLG

BY JANICE LICHTENWALDT

“Genaine, thank you for doing this for me,” Weylin said.

Genaine spat on the ground in front of him.

“I’m not doin’ it for you, my lord. I’m doing it for Brigid,” growled the elder woman. “Someone needs to look after this child in the way she would have wanted.”

Weylin stood calmly nodding his head in affirmation. Keitha thought she might have even seen a tug at the corner of his mouth.

“Yes, of course. My mistake. Praise be to the goddess that you are here to serve.”

Keitha thought she detected a slight lack of sincerity in her father but his reverence seemed to have placated the older woman.

“Now, be off with you and let me see what I’ve got to work with here.”

She dismissed Weylin and grabbed Keitha by the hand, pulling her into the recesses of her stone cottage. The odor struck Keitha first, as her eyes adjusted to the sudden dark interior. The pungent stench of dried herbs mixed with animal dung floated in the air. Keitha blinked her eyes several times. Wiping away tears, she spat, “What IS that smell?”

“None of your business. Yet,” Genaine snarled . “Drink this. You’ll stop worrying about the smell.”

Keitha obediently took the cup and drank. To her surprise the contents were mostly pleasant. Her lips tingled a bit and her tongue felt cool when she breathed in.

“Emm…that’s good. Thank you.”

Genaine’s face softened slightly.

“Oh, but you do look like your mother. She would be delighted to see the young woman you are becoming. What has your father told you about her?”

“His eyes become sad when he thinks about her. He did tell me she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen and her laugh sounded like birds chirping to welcome the morning sun.”

“Anything else?”

“Not from Father. My brothers have told me bits and pieces of what they remember. Herne was 10 when Mother died. He said she was kind and brave. He said she loved animals, and that the deer from our forest would eat grain out of her palm.”

Genaine’s hands moved quickly around a cutting board as she took in Keitha’s words. She grabbed herbs from drying racks above her head without looking, chopped them, and tossed them in a large stone bowl. She appeared to be absorbed in her work, grinding the herbs with an oblong rock.

Keitha stood quietly, shifting from one foot to the other, hands clasped in front almost whistling to fill the silence. Finally Genaine seemed to make up her mind about something and spoke again. “Yes, that is all true. Your mother was a lovely woman and I considered her a good friend. I am happy you’re here.” Genaine paused, then added, “Your father wants me to teach you about becoming a woman. I will do that, of course. I’d also like to teach you about becoming a healer. Would you like that?”

The girl’s heart quickened. Had she heard the old woman correctly? Genaine was well respected across the land. She had overheard trading parties extol the virtues of having access to such a powerful healer. Several villages had tried to lure Genaine away with promises of gold, fine clothes, a larger cottage, and more. She politely declined all of the offers and said she was happy where she was.

Keitha even remembered her brothers whispering about the time men came from far away and tried to steal the healer. The boys snickered that the men had been found with their bollocks cut off and shoved in their mouths. When their father walked in on them he punished the boys and told them to never speak of the incident again. He assumed Keitha was too young to understand what they were talking about. But she knew and she liked the story.

An opportunity to study with Genaine was a rare gift. All Keitha could do was nod slowly as a smile spread wide across her face.

“I’ll take that as a yes then, my dear,” Genaine said.

For the next five years Keitha spent each afternoon with Genaine after completing her chores at home. She learned about her moon cycle, how to ease the pain that sometimes came with it, and how to properly dispose of her blood to please the goddess.

She became Genaine’s secondary midwife, helping to deliver twelve babies, including two sets of twins. She also learned the art of keeping a baby from growing inside the belly and with that lesson also came the lesson of discretion. But, even more importantly to Keitha, was the lesson of power and importance that controlling life gave her.

Keitha’s favorite part of her education was learning about, and preparing for, the holy days. Each year of her training brought a deeper understanding of the sabbats and the sacred honor bestowed upon her by Genaine and the community.

She would turn sixteen a few days before Imbolg, the first sabbot of the new year. Imbolg was Keitha’s favorite of high holidays. It represented new beginnings, the lengthening of days and set the tone for the remaining year. Huge feasts would be prepared and the village would share in the Ewe’s Cider in honor of her mother’s namesake, the goddess Brigid.

“Keitha, I believe you are ready,” Genaine said while they were harvesting wild herbs in the forest by moonlight the week after Yule.

“Ready for what?” Keith asked distractedly, barely looking up from the hole she had managed to carve out of the frozen ground at the base of an Elder bush.

“Ready to lead. Imbolg is in three weeks. You will lead the ritual for our people.”

“Genaine! I am not ready. I’m too young! No one will follow me!” The words came out in a rush, pushed together to be nearly unintelligible but the meaning was clear enough.

“Hush! You are fully capable and you are a woman. It is time you take your place in service to the community. You are ready.”

The look in Genaine’s eyes made it clear there would be no more discussion. Keitha turned back to harvesting. Each thrust of her digging stick was an acknowledgement of her effort. She had made it. She felt moisture welling at the edge of her eyes, a single drop of joy fell to the earth in front of her. Her father would be so proud of her and her brothers would be as well. She would bring great honor to her family.

Without turning her head, Keitha said, “I am ready.” Genaine grunted in response and continued gathering in peace.

 

***

 

The next two weeks were a blur of activity and preparation. Keitha was terrified and excited at the same time. She scouted for patches of crocus flowers to harvest for the altar. She visited the people of the village to gather supplies for the ritual. They donated straw, wheat, apples, honey and ewe’s milk. With each passing visit, Keitha found herself welling up with pride. She was going to be an important member of the community. Everyone would be looking at her during the Imbolg ritual. The more she thought about the ritual, the more her heart swelled.

The most critical aspect of the ceremony was the presentation of the Bride, a Grain Dolly presented in symbolic form and used continuously throughout the year in the village’s rituals. The construction had to be impeccable so the Dolly would last through all of the high holidays to ultimately be burned at Yule. Given the Dolly’s significance to the community, Genaine controlled nearly every aspect of construction. Keitha was allowed only to bring the materials to Genaine. This was extremely sacred work and Genaine made it clear the steps were to be followed exactly the same way each year. A voice inside Keitha wondered why they didn’t do a better job of making the straw figure look more like a girl – what Genaine created was formless and uninspired, in Keitha’s opinion. Once, during construction, Keitha tried to approach the subject only to receive a death glare and explosive “shusss” from Genaine.

Five days before Imbolg, Genaine received word that a pregnant woman from a village two-days’ ride away needed help. Their healer had been killed in an accident after Yule. There was no one else with the skills necessary to guide a difficult birth. Genaine did not hesitate to answer the call but felt compelled to provide Keitha with a great deal of direction for Imbolg preparation.

The most irritating directive came around the Grain Dolly.

“I know this is a terrible time to leave but I also know you are completely capable to make us ready. I’ll be back the morning of the ritual. I’ll construct the Dolly then. Make sure the materials are prepared. You will also need to make ready the altar at the well and start brewing the ewe cider at dawn. After I’ve completed the Bride I’ll meet you at the well and we can consecrate the altar together.”

“Genaine. Let me build the Dolly. I’ve watched you for five years. I know I can do it,” Keitha pleaded.

Genaine stopped her preparation and considered the young woman standing in front of her. In a resigned tone she said, “I suppose you are ready to learn the darker sides of our practice.”

Keitha’s heartbeat quickened.

“But now is not the time. I must get to this woman before she goes into full labor. I promise we’ll talk when I return. For now, for the sake of the goddess, please do as I ask.”

Keitha nodded, but the tears in her eyes confirmed her disappointment. Genaine was too distracted to notice. The voice in the back of Keitha’s mind whispered, Genaine is stalling and making too much of a big deal over such a small thing.

Recovering her composure Keitha said, “I’ll be fine, Genaine. You’ve taught me well.”

As Keitha watched Genaine’s horse disappear over the horizon the voice whispered, Make her proud. Make your father proud. Make the entire village proud. You know how.

Over the next three days, Keitha worked in solitude inside Genaine’s cottage. She weaved and pulled, knotted and bundled. The sheaves of wheat, straw and corn took shape into a beautiful young woman. Keitha was proud of her work. The Dolly had a wonderfully round head and plaited locks of straw nearly matching her own. The Dolly’s breasts swelled, the waist narrowed and opened up again, flowing into fertile hips.

The ceaseless work took a toll on Keitha. Her shoulders rounded forward, her back ached, her fingers cramped, and yet she continued. On the third day her hands began to crack, blister, and eventually bleed. She hadn’t noticed the blood until it was too late. She had stained the figure’s belly. She exhaled a small curse and quickly covered the blood up with another husk of corn tucked between the waist and the bosom.

All the while, the internal voice whispered encouragement and praise.

At the end of the third day, the Dolly was complete. Keitha stood back from her masterpiece and collapsed on a stool. Both she and the voice agreed this Dolly would be remembered for a very long time.

Deep satisfaction flowed through her. Keitha then turned her attention to the other tasks Genaine had assigned. The most important of which was to ensure the ritual well inside the sacred circle was ready for the ceremony. Keitha considered her options and decided tomorrow would be soon enough to ready the well. When she opened the door of Genaine’s cottage she was surprised to see the sun had already set long ago. As she steeled herself to face the freezing temperatures on her walk home the voice whispered, wouldn’t it be lovely to surprise everyone with the Dolly at the well?

Yes, it would be lovely, thought Keitha. Traditionally the Dolly is carried from Genaine’s cottage to the well the afternoon of the ceremony but that wasn’t a part of the ritual. What if the Dolly was already there at the well and the entire village got to see it at the same time! She would be celebrated as a genius for her work! Her father and brothers would beam with pride. Genaine might be a tad bit irritated…who was she kidding, Genaine would be very angry – but it was a small price to pay.

She wrapped the nearly life-size Dolly in oilcloth and headed for home. The sacred circle and well were only a few hundred yards inside the forest behind her home. As she came upon her house, she carefully made her way past so her father wouldn’t see her and ask questions. That would ruin the surprise.

She stashed the Dolly just inside the tree line and a few yards off the path for the night. She couldn’t take any chances that someone might come upon it before the actual ceremony. Tomorrow night she would sneak out after her father and brothers had gone to bed and take it to the well.

With the Dolly safely hidden, Keitha went home more tired than she’d ever been in her life. Her father had left her a few slices of bread and cured meat on the kitchen table.

 

* * *

 

Keitha felt the pinpricks of icy night air on her cheeks as she slinked out the front door of her cottage. The moon was nearly full, casting long shadows across the hard crust of snow covering the yard. The entire landscape twinkled with frosty exuberance. A slight breeze married with the moonlight swished ice dust through the air.

She tugged the fur-lined hood of her winter cloak and took in a calming breath to steady herself. She felt the excitement of the adventure building in her and her inner voice become more thrilled with each step she took. The trail from her cottage to the forest was well-traveled thanks to daily firewood gathering. She easily slipped through the tree line without incident.

She felt the pull of the Dolly with each step she took. She could almost see a faint glow from where she’d hidden the body. In her excitement she failed to notice the frozen lump on the forest floor. Keitha gasped as her face slammed into the hard ground. Warmth ooze down to her lips and dripped off her chin. She rolled over to her back and raised a hand to her face. Blood. Her nose was burning and her lip stung when she probed it with her tongue. She pushed herself up on her elbows and discover the thing she had tripped over was a deer carcass. Its entrails had been ripped from its soft belly and the viscera were now frozen darkly solid across the trail. It seemed nothing else on the deer had been touched.

Keitha scrambled back as quickly as she could until she hit the brush where the Dolly was stowed. What felt like fingers jabbed into her back forcing a yelp from deep in her chest. She scrambled to her feet and turned to see that it was the Dolly’s arm poking out from under the brush.

Black fear welled up in the pit of Keitha’s stomach and spread through her chest, across her shoulders and down her arms. Her hands tingled in fright. She sucked in the cold air, the jagged bursts burning her lungs. The hair on her neck slowly rose and her entire body shuttered. Keitha was afraid, more afraid than she had ever been but she didn’t know why. The unknown had taken hold of her heart and wrapped cold fingers around it, squeezing tight.

Her instincts screamed to her to run. Run back to the safely of her father, her brothers, and the warmth of her cottage. Her body started to move, her weight moved to the ball of her left foot to propel her toward home. But then the voice returned. It whispered: You are so close! Tomorrow is the ritual and the village will love you. You don’t want to miss that, do you?

Keitha hesitated. Her mind flashed scenes of her labor over the past several days. She steeled herself against the fear. It drained from her body, the voice filling the void with seeming warmth and courage. It urged her forward. She dragged the Dolly out from under the brush and began her march to the well. Her creation seemed heavier than it had the day before but she still managed to carry it most of the way. She gave blessings to the Goddess that the path was easy to follow. However, as Keitha drew closer to the sacred circle, her body became bent under the weight. Each step seemed to add another 5 pounds. She finally gave up and dragged the figure by its “feet” the last 20 yards. Upon reaching the well, Keitha dropped the figure and collapsed to her hands and knees. Her chest heaved, her lungs burned from exertion and the bitter cold.

The heaving was replaced by a deep cackle that rumbled in her chest. She had made it. She was going to be triumphant in front of her village. She would show Genaine she was capable of so much more than she had been given credit for.

Keitha reached up to the top of the well with one arm and dug her fingernails into the stone. With last bit of strength she had left, she dragged herself up to her feet, leaning heavily against the well. Her hand knocked a few pebbles loose and into the well. She took a full breath in and exhaled before she heard them splash.

A warm wave of satisfaction washed over her. She had one final task to perform before she could head home. She turned to pick up the Dolly, only to find it standing in front of her. She gasped, eyes wide as the Dolly punctured her belly with a sturdy grain arm and then pushed her backwards into the well. Keitha’s body was received with gratitude.

 

* * *

 

There was a loud pounding at the door of Keitha’s cottage. Weylin answered to find a seething Genaine standing in his doorway.

“Where IS she,” Genaine sneered through gritted teeth.

“The girl was gone before I got up. I think she is excited for the ceremony,” Weylin said quietly. He winced when he saw Genaine’s glaring eyes and was happy he wasn’t in his daughter’s shoes that day. He had never seen her this angry. “She’s been workin’ non-stop since you left.” He hoped to get a few good words in for his daughter to mitigate the storm that was about to descend upon her.

Genaine spun on her heels and thundered off, griping under her breath about all of the punishments she would unleash on the girl. She was so deeply enjoying the convolutions of penances she failed to notice the dark stain across the trail.

As she neared the sacred circle, Genaine looked down long enough to notice the trail had deep grooves cut into it. Something heavy had been dragged down the trail. “What, in all that is sacred, are these gouges?” she growled. The anger finally boiled over. “Keitha! Keitha! Show yourself now!”

Genaine stepped into the sacred circle that surrounded the well and stopped short. Her heart skipped a beat and for a moment, it considered not beating again. Before her was the Grain Dolly…a perfect likeness to Keitha, one arm darkly stained up to the elbow.

“Keitha. What…did…you…do…,” was all Genaine could get out before collapsing to her knees, tears burning her cheeks in the freezing air.

The Dolly answered, “What you would never do,” as it moved closer to take its next sacrifice.

 

The End