She gathered the night about her as the Sun set. The lodge was wreathed in brilliant light as the solar disc descended, but, within, Her work was just beginning. Stillness wrapped a cloak of darkness around the wise woman as she knelt to speak with the ancestral spirits at the hearth stone. She felt for the warm heart of embers at the core of their shrine, the sacred fire. She listened for the song they were singing……and, slowly kindling the flame, the song began to work its magic and issue from her mouth. The spirits came, luminous orbs of blue and quick-fire red, and Her heart glowed with their presence. As the last rays of daylight died away and cloaked the land in mystery, she let the song fade back into silence and smiled. It was time……
…..many moons ago I had awoken beneath a bower of wysteria to find Magpie Woman, the old mother Aluna, tending this very same fire. It was the beginning of my journey with her, but, how I had come to be there was a mystery ~ all I knew was that, the night before, the spirits of the fire had called me into the heart of their realm as grandmother had opened the ancestral dream path. Our village had been blessed by her coming, but, as we soon found out, she had also given the people fair warning. She had come to us in the midst of a long journey, searching for those who would follow and learn her ways, but, it was fire of a different kind that had set her off on the search. She was carrying a precious treasure to safety and, as the moons passed, she began to tell me the story.
“……we were a peaceful people, carrying a long memory of who we were and where we had come from, my daughter. The first glimmer of news that this was to change had come from the star-dreamers, the spirits of the ancestral sky fires had given them the signs. The Puridai, our tribal great grandmother, who oversaw the affairs of all the clans, called to council all the surrounding settlements and it was decided that together, as a people, we must leave early for our winter strongholds. Each would make their way to the hills above the plains – from there we would be able to keep watch in safety.
“….we knew the world we inhabited was changing, we had seen the stars moving by different paths. It was a subtle thing at first, speaking only to the eyes of the far-seers and star dreamers, but, the omens began to build. It was the time of the Spider Moon and the trees were turning red and gold at the beginning of their own journey to dream with the heart of the Earth Mother. She had been generous to us that year and provided us with food and skins enough to last well beyond our time at the strongholds, but, it was this very generosity that alerted the Alunas. The Mother always provides for what is coming….the Alunas agreed, this would be a long hard winter.”
Magpie Woman’s ways, like all the Alunas, always held the people at their heart, so, I was puzzled and had asked, “why did you leave, grandmother, did something send you out of the village….?” Her eyes looked into the far distance as She recounted Her journey.
“We had seen great flocks of migrating birds travelling south, so many in numbers that the sound of their wings and cries travelled before them. But, we first heard news of other travellers when the far-seers told of people coming over the high passes, many people, they had said, carrying their villages with them…..and, once they began arriving, the seeing of the Aluna’s was confirmed. The northerners told us of dangerous spirits abroad in the land, of a creeping fog, freezing everything in its path, that was spreading across the plains to the north. They had heard strange sounds carried on the wind, groaning and deep drumming, as though the Mother too was pulling Herself up by the roots. Their hunters had met with the people of the far north, people who always came south following the migrating herds as the Moons became brighter than the day, but, they to were travelling much further south than was known within the living memory of the people. And, as their news came to our council fires the dreaming itself began to change, and within this we were gifted with a warning…..the Earth Mother was drawing a mantle about herself, as if preparing to enter the long sleep of the winter dreamers.”
I knew of the winter dreamers, from stories told by our elders that had been passed down from long ago…..but, in our lands the people had seen few signs of such great change; I wanted to know if such change was coming to us all…..Magpie Woman reassured me that such change was not the threat, it had always been known within the traditions carried by the rememberers, but, protecting the dreaming was Her concern. She had made Her journey, following the songs of the land, as her spirits instructed Her….
“A man of the plains north of the mountains, one of the spirit seers named Bear Walking, entered our campment at that time and shared his medicines with us….I will never forget the news he brought to us. The land beyond the mountains had fallen out of balance and people were dying, especially the young and old, and some had disappeared altogether, leaving no trace…..he told us that, while his seeing remained strong, his medicines had begun to lose their power and after the advice of his totem, the Great Bear, had decided to follow the birds and leave his lands. He had struck out with only the company of his trusted spirits……in the dreaming, he had discovered, many of the totems had advised the same and he wondered if this might account for some of the missing people…..he suggested I do the same……”
Magpie Woman must have caught my thoughts all too easily for she quickly reached over and took up my hands,
“….do not be affeared my daughter, those people did the very thing they knew would protect the people first, and trusted the spirits to look after themselves….whether their bodies perished or not, they took to the spirit road alive and in full possession of their minds and hearts, and travel there still….such things are in our kenning…..”
She had let her words sink in and waited for my response. I had no inkling of the meaning of these words at that time and soon the questions came. I sensed that this was somehow connected with the treasure she was guarding and pressed her, “but, is that how you came to our village, grandmother?” My question brought a smile to the wisened face of my mentor….
“…..yes, that is why you are here my daughter, you know how to ask the right questions and, at the right time, you too will find your own answers…..”
I felt a pang of disappointment, wanting the answers now, but, it soon passed when she picked up the thread of her story again.
“…..I had taken Bear Walking’s advice and received an answer in kind ~ my path lay south, and, like him, I was to carry the heart of the village to safety. His totem holds council with the Mother through the winter dreaming and She had spoken through the Great Bear. We follow the path of spirit and accepting their guidance is at the core of our ways, my daughter….it is our way.” She let out a deep sigh. “You will learn, it is the very reason I am here, to make sure that you understand…..”
In the months that followed Magpie Woman taught me the ancient ways of healing that the Great Mother had provided for us, the use of plants, preparations and the protocols surrounding them, how the plants and animals each had their own song, and when to use them, and when not….She had instructed me in the art of tracking, both through the reading of worldly signs and through senses that the plants themselves opened up through their use. We walked the land gathering all we needed to feed ourselves, both in kenning and in body, and slowly I began to understand that She was leading me into deeper and more intimate relationships with the world into which I had been born. She had been preparing me, without my knowing it, for our journey. And, She was wily….She had been observing everything, so that, when the time came, She would know which allies could help me on my own path and, through this, when I would be ready…..but, for what? I was about to find out ~ the time had come!
After nine moons the world in which I walked had become very different to the one I had grown up in, amongst the familiar smells, sights and sounds of my village. I had been free to visit with the poeple and bring gifts, healing salves and soft skins, and even talked of the pathway of learning itself. But, one morning I had seen an augery, a host of black Cranes flying south had passed just above the pines that lined the shore where I had been gathering shellfish, and, amidst their cries and the sweeping sound of their wings I had heard the call of grandmother’s own bird, the Magpie, laughing and cackling in the tree-tops, just as I had heard them on the night that Magpie Woman had first come to our village ~ sensing the turn in the road, a more urgent feeling emerged in my heart, that I should visit with my clan once more….on telling of the Cranes and Magpies and hearing my concerns I was surprised to see Magpie Woman smile with delight.
“Well, you are right my daughter, and I am pleased….you are learning fast! You are seeing clearly with your heart, beyond this time and, yes, the moment is upon us….we must leave this land very soon. Go, to your people and give them your leave daughter; neither you nor I can say when you will return and this you must also tell them….ask for their blessings. On dark moon we open a new road…..”
It had been so easy until now, and I had become wrapped in a sense of security as I learned the medicine ways, but, the reality of this journey had suddenly come home….and, I knew this was the end of the beginning. I was now either to follow this path into the unkown or leave it for good. Grandmother’s story had itself been preparation for this moment. She had told me much, but, what had happened after she had left her village, she had never fully disclosed to me.
“Come to the lodge after darkness has fallen, daughter ~ the waning moon is folding her dark robes about her and we must work with her to open a crack in the worlds. Now, go and make peace with those you love.”
It was not until I had entered the village under the midday sun that I knew where my choice would take me ~ and, it came as a surprise to myself to hear the words coming from my lips, but, as I told my family of my intent to follow the path and continue my journey with Magpie Woman, where-ever it may lead, I knew with an uncanny certainty, for all the tears and sadness that our farewells brought, that it was the right choice. As the Sun dipped towards the horizon and I began to leave the village I heard footsteps on the path behind ~ under the bows of the forest at the edge of the village I turned to find the women’s chief elder running to catch up, a bundle in her arms.
“Wait young one….wait….before you make an old woman lose her breath….”
She came to my side and, taking a moment to compose herself, smiled as she held the bundle before me. “It is a part of the path you are upon…..we have been careful to hold it in your stead since Magpie Woman took you under her wing…..we knew this day would come. Now a part of this village must travel with you into the world, an ancient talisman, that came to us as it is now coming to you…..”
I was suddenly filled with questions, but, She bid me not to unwrap the bundle until I had returned to Magpie Woman. As I held the skin-wrapped bundle, darkened with oil and quite damp to the touch, it began to radiate with warmth and for all the world felt as if it were a living being.
I looked from the bundle to the old woman and she nodded, saying….”yes, it is a mystery, but, one the grandmother will know and understand ~ She may well be surprised, however, when she finds out what we have given to you.” And, smiling, she reached into the folds of her wrap and pulled out a small pouch of white fur.
“This, I have been making for you these nine Moons……just as the elder mother of our village made one for me when I was your age…..She will protect you on your journey. Here let me put the pouch safe in your robe….”
The beautiful soft fur pouch tucked safely away, the old woman, leaning in close to kiss my cheeks, raised her eyebrows and said, “….well, go on my girl….you have a date with your destiny……” and, as she turned and walked slowly back down the forest path, called out…..”fair you well, young one…..blessed be, blessed be…..”
As I came to the lodge, the Sun spreading a ruby and emerald blanket across the sky, I found Magpie Woman emerging from the low doorway, singing one of her medicine songs…..She looked me up and down, taking in the bundle with a raised eyebrow, and bid me follow as the night wrapped its dark robe about the land…..
The smell of juniper and sweet resin mingled with the smokey air within the lodge and a feint glow nestled in the hearth at its centre, barely illuminating the smooth river stones that surrounded it. I sat at the hearth side, as grandmother bid me, and watched as She gathered up her own medicine bundle from the back of the lodge.
“I first met with the Puridai of your village when we were both fresh from our initiation path, daughter ~ she is a carrier of women’s medicines that are sacred to all the peoples and is a wise woman in the ways of the Moon. It is good that she gave you her blessing…..”
I had not known that the two old women were kin in spirit, let alone that they knew each other, but, I also wondered how Magpie Woman had known that it was the women’s chief elder who had made her gifting to me, but, coming to the fire and placing her bundle at its side, She continued….
“….yes, I too was surpised when I saw her face in the circle on the night I arrived…..it was a good sign, one I had not foreseen, but, such is the way of things…..”
She had pulled down the flap on the lodge entrance and brought a small clay lamp of tallow and woven nettle wick to the fire side. With a strand of straw She kindled a flame from the fire’s embers and soon the little lamp cast a luminous glow in our midst.
“This gift is precious that you now carry, of that you can be assured….but, before you open it…..”, taking her divination bag from her bundle,“….lets just see who else is with us this night. Once again the spirits will be our guides…..”
She unwound the leather strap and let the fine tanned skin fall away, smoothing it out upon the floor between us. In the midst of the skin was a small mound of strange objects – I gazed in wonder at them as they slowly revealed their shapes. There was an assortment of bones, some bleached and white as the sickle Moon, others blackened by fire and burnished with age, and, amongst these I began to pick out more ambiguous shapes, stones perhaps, shells or polished pieces of wood…..Magpie woman smudged them with juniper smoke and said…..
“Take up the bones, my daughter, and let me remove those you do not gather…..then cast them onto the skin”
She began to hum a simple melody as I placed my hands on the bones and, scooping up a handful, held them above the skin. She swept the remainder up and put them in the folds of her lap. Her song washed over me and small blue iridescent sparks of light flew swiftly around my hands. I let the bones fall…..the old woman leaned in, singing to the bones as she began to search amongst them for signs.
“Ahhh, white deer running…..jumps the waters……keeps her feet dry……finds her clan…..under the sign of the Sky Bear, under cloak of night…..”
Her words enfolded in the melody, the bones shimmered and I felt something move deep within, a memory in the shape of a feeling, as She continued….
“….the fire of the ancestors is guiding you dear, a red bone with a star stone…..a far journey led by starlight……there’s an offering in this, see there….”
Her boney finger pointed at a small bead of polished red wood. The bundle that I had been given flashed into my mind.
“Willow mother…..holds you fair…..ocean brother, brings you there…..a gathering of crows and and ravens, a council fire in the Mother’s haven…..”, and, with this She stopped and gently pushed a stout finger bone aside, and looking up, said….” see this, shoulder blade of the Mole – she sets a seed within your kenning, fireseed, from the Mother’s body – sister Mole is the Bear’s teacher my dear, and she is resting beneath him here…….you are carrying a great responsibility!….perhaps we should see what the Puridai has given you my daughter. I have a feeling there is more to this seed than meets my old eyes!”
I reached for the oiled skin bundle and brought it to my lap. After a moment I felt a warmth radiating from its interior…..the moment felt familiar, like an old, long forgotten memory emerging.
“The augeries are clear”, the grandmother said, “this journey will take you to a very special place, there will be a moot there, under earth and dark sky, many people, keepers of the laws and ways, medicines and spirits….we will journey from the Bay of Willows, following the ocean path……this is a journey that will take us far beyond my own lands, a journey to a land I have known of, but, never undertaken…..something is being returned to the land, held in safety and kept for those who come after us……and, you are blessed by the running deer……”
She held me with a powerful gaze of deep love and I watched as she seemed to settle into her body, as if a thousand Moons of fatigue were being lifted from her shoulders, “….I have heard something of this land, the land of the running deer…..it has roots as old as ours, but, the winds and signs speak another tongue in that place……it is good, it is good…….yes, the land of the White Deer…..now, I am wondering if this gift you have been entrusted with is what I hope it is”
Magpie woman nodded at the bundle in my lap. It had become quite warm and, as I gently unwrapped its leathers, a dry heat began to emerge from its heart…..a layer of compacted wild strawberry leaves concealed an inner wrapping of skin that had been coated with a dark sticky unguent that looked like tar mixed with sand, losely closed about the mystery at its heart. The rich aroma of pitch and charcoal suddenly rose from the bundle as a bright red nugget became visible in its midst.
“Ahhh, yes! This is no small matter my daughter…..and, we must be careful to keep it alive, for you are holding the heart of your village…..”
I gasped at these words, and felt the weight of them settle upon my own heart.
“….by the fires of the ancestors, the spirits have spoken and you are truly blessed ~ do you know what this is child?”
I knew it was hot, that, were I to touch it, it would almost certainly burn my skin, but…..just what in its nature it was, I had no clue.
“Take a good look daughter and then wrap this precious bundle carefully a moment. It must not be allowed to cool too much…”
The glowing light and warmth of the fiery kernel in my hands seemed to whisper, ancient soothing words, and I watched entranced as small bursts of orange light pulsed from beneath its surface. I felt soft waves of sound, words I did not recognise, breathing into me and in that moment saw a circle of people in a great lodge, moving slowly around a mighty Oak that grew at its center. Branches grew around me and tawny feathers covered my hands as I looked down from the crown of the great tree…..then, with the sound of Magpie Woman’s voice, the image receded and we were once again sitting by the hearth of our little lodge….
“Good, it is speaking to you……this my dear is a talisman of the ancient fire, the first fire, and I wouldn’t wonder if your Puridai, waiting for a day such as this, has kept a small part of her in her own keeping, its sister…..she meant you to have it from the first night, I now know……wise old bird!” She nodded gently for me to close up the wrappings again and said, “I will teach you of its nature, for it is unknown to all but those who carry and tend such a talisman, and….”, She reached over to the fire and stirred its embers, “…there, can you see….this is the heart of my own village….she lives on yet, her own sister still kept by our Puridai ~ this is one of the treasures I have been carrying. I too have been entrusted with its well-being…..”
Within the heart of the embers I could see a ball of fierce carnelian light, embedded within the glowing coals. I wondered how this had come to be ~ that we were both carrying these precious things was surely not by any foreseeable design. But, my question was answered almost as I thought it….
“We are guided by the spirits my dear, even though we may not know it…..every turn in the path is known to them, far into time and across the lands….but, this is the medicine of the Great Mother herself at work. She is calling us to bring her inner light to safety.”
I placed the heart of the village at the hearth side and, as I leant over, did not notice as the small white fur pouch tumbled from my wraps. I had forgotten all about it, but, when I looked up Magpie Woman was looking directly at me,
“Well, I think you may have another secret to unfold daughter……”, she said, her eyebrows raised as she dropped her gaze to the ground in front of me. My eyes widened and I caught my tongue as I realised what had happened.
“Oh…yes, this…..the Puridai gave this to me as well….”, I involuntarily picked up the white fur pouch and held it to my chest. “I had almost forgotten…..”
Magpie Woman had a knowing look on her face as she said, “…and….”
I smiled a little sheepishly as I nodded and quickly began to unfasten the bone clasp. A gasp escaped my lips as a gleam of white appeared inside…
“…..grandmother…..its”, but I could not finish as a wave of deep longing suddenly engulfed me and, as I slowly pulled the precious object from its pouch, a tear rolled down my cheek…..in my hand was a perfect carving of the Mother, her rounded belly and swollen breasts beautifully carved in creamy white ivory, her legs coming to a single point beneath her.
Magpie Woman nodded slowly and drew a deep breath……
“Your task, my daughter, is greater than I thought…..come, bring the Heart of your Village to the fire and let it join with my own…..and, the Mother….keep Her next your skin….one day She will find her Earth, and you will….”, but, Magpie Woman hesitated as a bright blue luminous orb of light hung momentarily in the air between us. Puckering her chin as She considered the spirit’s intervention, she said, “….well, that too, it seems, will be revealed when the time is right!”
…….find out what happens as the journey takes Magpie Woman and her young ward to the Land of the Running Deer, in the third and final part of the story, as the light of the inner Sun, the Heart of the Mother, returns to the world…..
Image of Gaia : Mother Earth Dreaming, Susan Seddon Boulet
The first part of this story, ‘Dancing in the Dark’, can be found here……