The Magical Solstice
I woke up on December 21st ready to celebrate the winter solstice. I was a bit nervous, for I had not actually done a druid ritual before. All this happened ten years ago, just after that memorable Halloween I told you about. I was more than a little nervous, ok, I was terrified. I admitted it, are you happy now? I was a 24 year old man and I could still be afraid and still cry and all that weakling stuff. Anyway, back to my tale of druidry and my path. Ever since Samhain I had thought I was a druid. I wasn't really sure, but I thought I might try it and see if I was really a real druid. I needed to go to the store and purchase some things for my ritual. One thing I still didn't have was a large stone for an altar. I was quite nervous about not having one, and at the same time, nervous about using one. I was not raised praying, so I have never really been comfortable with religious symbols and things like altars and candles and things. I would just have to improvise and hope the god/gods weren't too disgusted with me. I got my ritual cup of coffee, then jumped in my trusty truck and drove mallward. I looked and looked, even asked a couple people, but I couldn't find any stones suitable. I drove home, disheartened, wishing I had looked earlier, but really, I hadn't been sure I was even doing this until the day before. On December 20th, I said to myself, "Oh, heck, why not already?!".
I spent the morning feeling sorry for myself for not having a stone to learn with. I had some old bricks and I decided to use them even though they weren't exactly natural. I have no wooden bowls for water either. I wondered if glass was ok? I wasn't going to use real fire as the smell of wood smoke on clothes bothers me no end. I was afraid the fire element wouldn't like me very much but I really am not comfortable with fire so why pretend I am? I prepared my little altar outside. I have an apple tree in my garden and really no other trees. I decided to have the apple tree in the centre and put the elemental symbols in each direction. I piled bricks to the east and didn't put my bowl westward yet since I didn't want the water to freeze in the glass and break it. Then I decided to move a bit south so my apple tree would form the northern edge of my grove. I put a picknick table at the centre instead. I prayed to the god/gods/whomever that I was sorry the grove wasn't perfect but I had no druid skills so please don't punish me. Suddenly, the wind gusted, whispering "CD" or what sounded like CD anyway. "CD" I thought. "Hmmm, maybe the CD from Samhain that makes elves appear".
I took the CD from my drawer I had it in and put it in the player. I had a weird feeling. I pressed play but nothing happened. The veils must be too thick right now for elves. Then I thought hey, why not try track 2 and see if it did anything different? There were 99 tracks on disc, maybe they all did something, or maybe they were just copies of track 1.
I pressed 2, then hit play. I instantly felt weird, like I was moving, but shrugged that off as nonsense. Then the earth began to tremble and I was afraid. We couldn't possibly be having an earthquake since I didn't live near any faults in the Earth. I trembled with the Earth for 5 seconds or so, then I heard a low-pitched chanting of elven words and then there was blackness.
I growned. That was the first sound I made in the otherworld. Otherworld? I thought frantically. Am I dead?
"He awakes," said a soft silvery voice. "He growns with agony and he is afraid. Be not afraid, Mikey, for you are with the elves again."
I opened my eyes and saw a sight so beautiful I nearly blacked out again. I was in a clearing in the woods! I was not dead, not broken, just bruised and I was in the woods! I was lying on soft, green grass. I looked at the trees which seemed to be oaks. I also saw other trees I could not name. "Hello, Mikey," said another voice. "I recognized the voice from Samhain. "We brought you here so you could get some necessary equipment to help you in your druidic rituals tonight at sunset. You were out cold for an hour. Sorry about that, our spell was a little rough because I made a mistake when I chanted it and you plunged into our lands instead of floating here. I have repaired the CD and that won't happen again. It wasn't the wind who said CD to you, it was me. I wanted you to come here and see our land and get your things and then I will send you home and you will conduct your ritual and the solstice will come and speak to you."
I wasn't sure about the last part but everything he said sounded just fine. I wouldn't have to worry about bricks or glass bowls. "First you need a stone," said the elf. "By the way, Mikey, call me Samhain since that is when you met me and my real name is in the elven tongue and I fear it would be impossible to pronounce until we have taught you our language. So, now for a suitable stone." He skipped over to a path and bid me follow him. I was a little timid but I followed. I realized I had no shoes and asked him to please stop so I could find my footware. "No need," he said. "Your shoes are at home on your floor. No need for shoes anyway. The forest floor is soft enough."
I wasn't sure, but I decided to be brave. I walked behind him, and to my amazement, the floor was soft! In fact, shoes would have been uncomfortable and cumbersome. We walked down a tree-lined path for what seemed like no more than half an hour. Finally, we came to another clearing. There was a large stone in the east there. It looked very natural, but the top was flat and smooth so objects could be placed on it. I realized with a chill that a person could also fit on it. "You are thinking of sacrifice," said Samhain knowingly. "You mustn't do that. Look hither, see there is no blood upon this stone. The only kind of sacrifice we do is where you sit on your altar for awhile to meditate then get down unharmed. There are stories of blood sacrifice, but we do not know for sure about them. We think some of them may be true, but that was many years ago and all blood sacrifice has ceased now. Now, for transportation of the stone." He went to the stone, placed his hands upon it, and began to chant loudly. I stood still, listening to him chant. He was such a good chanter! Suddenly, the stone simply vanished. It was completely removed from the elven lands! "It's on your altar spot," said Samhain. "Your bricks are where you had them stored. You could have used those but this here stone is infinitely superior."
"I suppose we need a bowl?" I asked. "My glass one probably will freeze. I considered plastic but thought that would be too unnatural."
"Yes," he said. "Plastic is a no-no. Glass is fine but not in the cold. Wood rocks!"
I was surprised to hear him use earthly expressions such as "rocks". "I listen to people talking all the time," he explained. "I know a lot of earthly expressions. 'Tis my job, young one."
He led me down another path for about five minutes and then we came to a log cabin. He opened the door and led me inside. "Welcome to my forest home!" he cried. "This is where I go when I'm meditating and being with Nature and away from other elves. Sit down, Mike, be my guest. I have many things to show you."
"Thank you, Samhain," I stammered. "Thank you so much for your help."
"Not at all!" he cried joyfully. "Thank you, Mikey! I so love visitors."
We sat down in his kitchen and he bustled around like a lady in a kitchen. "You think of kitchens as places for women?" he asked me. "Well, in my world, it's different. Ladies are of course permitted in kitchens, but men do a lot of cooking and cleaning. Women are excellent hunters and gatherers and often tend to the fields. We don't have specific rules for each gender. We just have people do what they are best at."
"Do you have any children?" I asked curiously.
"Oh yes!" he cried delightedly. "I have 6 lovely children. Two boys, four girls. All are still quite young. My oldest is 10, my youngest a tiny baby. My wife is very lovely. She is timid around earthly folks but I am sure you will meet her in good time. In addition to being lovely she is also kind, generous, intelligent and industrious, but then again, all elves are like that so it's the spiritual aspect of her that I cherish most of all. She is truly a creature of the forest. She lived in an underground cave for three weeks and then was reborn to the outside world. She said the cave was so beautiful to her that she almost didn't leave it. She goes back there for a couple weeks every year. She loves that cave because there is an underground river flowing through the centre of it. She can bathe, sleep, meditate, and everything else there. Yes, I said sleep. She sleeps on the cold hard stone and says it's soft as a kitten's paws."
"You have cats here?" I asked.
"Oh yes, loads of them!" he cried. "In fact, I have ten or so of them around here. They come and go and we feed them. They are delightful with the children and always purring."
Their lives seemed a little too perfect for me.
"Oh, no," he said. "Sometimes we have poor harvests and natural disasters and things. We are just more able to accept such variations in weather and climate and we don't get all ruffled up about such events as hurricanes and floods. Thousands of us die every year of natural causes. We mourn their losses and call them back for Samhain visits. We have conflict, marital problems, even murder. We have a strict legal code and we don't let murderers go unpunished. The punishment is worse than death and I won't trouble you with the details of that. Now, for a glass of tea. Let me see...ah yes, the tea of Earth I have in this cupboard." He rummaged for a minute and came up with an earthen jar of tea leaves. He took a metal tea ball and filled it with leaves. He set a kettle on his hearth fire and let it boil. "Why is there no smoke from your fire?" I asked.
"Special wood," he said. "'Tis from a tree that grows only in our lands. It produces heat, but no smoke so you won't smell it. I knew you didn't like wood smoke on your clothes so I used it. Elves have a very keen sense of smell and some of us prefer smokeless wood also. We also have the normal types of firewood which of course have smoke."
The kettle boiled and he poured hot water into a teapot into which he had already placed the tea ball. The tea brewed and then he poured it into lovely earthen mugs. He handed me a spoon and gave me the sugar bowl. He went to a door, opened it, and brought out a pitcher of milk. The air from the opening was very cold and I imagined it was some sort of refridgerator.
"We have grown," he said. "We have modern things but we use the old as much as we can to avoid polluting our lands. We have oil, coal, etc., but we prefer wood fires and we always plant trees to replace those we use for timber and firewood. We know the earth is a nurrishing mother, but we also know her resources are not infinite. We are trying to help humankind understand this, but it will take a long time since most of them think elves are the stuff of legends and people who won't accept our existence are hard to communicate with. We can hardly ever get to your lands. Samhain is best, but still we need to be called there by a CD or some such device. Technology will help us, and eventually we will be talking freely with man and mankind will finally realize what a gift mother Earth is."
He reached into another cupboard and pulled out the loveliest bowl I had ever seen. "This wood is magical," he said. "Well, all woods are magical, but this one is supremely so. Now, you must be very careful with this bowl. I do not give it to you lightly."
"Is it truly rare?" I asked, thinking he meant the wood was hard to get or the tree even endangered.
"Michael," he said seriously. "Be very careful with this bowl. You are thinking it is rare or endangered. I am telling you it is magical. If you upset its spirit, there could be magical consequences. I give it because I think you are a fine man and won't use it for play or ill, but you must be careful handling it."
He placed the bowl in front of me and I was afraid to touch it.
"Oh bother it," he said, slapping his forehead. "Now look what you've gone and done! You've gone and frightened poor Mikey. Sorry Mike, I only meant be careful, not be frightened out of your wits!"
"Samhain," whispered the bowl. "Stop beating on yourself. Michael has been suitably terrified and that is fine. Now, Michael, are you ready for a truly magical experience?"
Samhain stood there in astonishment. He had obviously never heard the bowl speak before.
"Close your gaping mouth, Samhain," laughed the bowl. "Mike and I will be just fine. I was only joking about him being suitably terrified. I have no intension of hurting him. He rocks, as he would say."
I touched the bowl then. "No!" shreeked Samhain in fright. "Mikey, be careful!"
Nothing happened when I touched the smooth wood surface. The bowl was slightly warm, but no dreadful calamity took place.
"Easy, Samhain," said the bowl gently. "Do not fear my magic. I am magical, of course, but I am not going to harm you or Mikey. He is my friend now, for he alone has had the courage to touch me."
"Um, Samhain," I said. "Didn't you touch the bowl?"
"Correction," said the bowl. "I meant spiritually, not physically. You, Mikey, touched me with your soul, not just your hands. Our dear Samhain didn't let me see his soul when he touched me, but since you are new to this world, you didn't know your soul could be touched."
"Telepathy?" I asked.
"Well, kind of," said Samhain. "But you have to actually touch somebody to get really good telepathy going. The thought flow better through the hands. I can sort of read your thoughts but only the most recent ones. Touching telepathy makes it possible to read everything you have thought and done since childhood but it would take a long time for all that information to flow and it would be exhausting. We would have to take days reading each other like that."
"So," I said. "You were so afraid of that bowl's soul you magically blocked yourself from it?"
"Yes," admitted the elf sadly. "I have always been afraid of that bowl. You are now probably wondering why I gave it to you if I myself wouldn't touch it. Well, Mikey, the reason is because both the bowl and I have great knowledge of magic. If I touched it, there would be new spells forged and that would be a scary thing because nobody would know what would come of it. I warned you to be careful because this bowl is going to teach you magic and it might be a little hard on you. Be very careful touching it and make sure you have many hours of free time when you do. You see, Mikey, you will learn so much from this bowl, but you will also sometimes wish you hadn't touched it, for this bowl also knows magic best left unmensioned. Oh no, it never actually uses that knowledge, but sometimes, when the nights are dark and the fire burns low, secrets from centuries ago reer their darkened heads. I would prefer never to know such things. The bowl can keep them out of its thoughts most of the time, but sometimes, especially at winter solstices, the darker magic gets through. You would never be tempted to use it, you would just be burdened with that knowledge and it would possibly haunt your nightmares."
"For example," spoke up the bowl. "You might dream you had murdered somebody with it and wake up terrified and thinking you had done that. I would have to calm you down and tell you you hadn't really done it and that you had only dreamed it. It's not as bad as Samhain says, Mikey, it's just more than some folks can handle. I sense strength in you, Mikey, and I think the darker side of magic won't trouble you. I can even help you put a mental block on it so you will forget the exact spells and so can't cast them. Samhain is actually quite fearful of his own power. If he touched me, nothing bad would happen. He just thinks our magics would combine and be powerful. That's true, but we would still be able to decide whether or not to actually release the spells we made together. However, Samhain wishes never to try this and I respect his wishes."
"Our dear wooden friend is a very ancient bowl," said Samhain. "He is made from the wood of a now extinct tree. There are only ten bowls like him remaining. So yes, you are correct, they are rare and more than endangered, they are extinct. The extinction was natural, so don't trouble yourself about humans causing that and all that. It was many millions of years ago and not of your doing."
"I am exactly 100216901 years old," reported the bowl.
"Wait a minute," I said. "How'd you get fashioned into a bowl then?"
"Elves," said the bowl. "Elves were around since trees have been around. I was simply made by hand by an old elf who was dying and wanted a magical legacy. He was a kind man and a great wizard. He had twelve children and walked the earth with dinosaurs. No, I'm not going to tell you exactly how the dinosaurs became extinct for that is the job of earthly science to find out and for me alone to know."
"If I touch you," I said slowly. "I would be able to learn your thoughts and how the dinosaurs disappeared."
"But you are clever, Mikey!" chortled the bowl. "You could indeed, but I can easily block that information from you."
"It is almost time," spoke up Samhain. "We need to send you home soon so that you will not miss the sunset. We must get going and I will show you the rest of my home another time. Thank you for visiting, Mikey. 'Twas a pleasure having you as a guest and please use track 2 any time you wish to visit my humble home."
We said our goodbyes and then Samhain chanted a spell and the bowl and I went home. We landed softly on my doorstep.
"Well, Mikey," said my wooden friend. "Are you ready for sunset? Do you have everything you need?"
"Yes, ancient one," I said respectfully. "I do indeed. I have you, a lovely stone, and I am ready in spirit if that is what you meant."
"That was indeed what I meant," said the bowl. "You are clever, Mikey."
I prepared for my ritual then. I had to make it perfect. I put the bowl down in the west, filled it with water and then prepared myself. I had bought a silk robe but this wouldn't be warm enough so I had to wear a wool suit. Not exactly druid clothing, but practical. When the bowl saw my suit it said "Oh Mikey, please wear your silk robe. You would be so much more comfortable in it."
"But it's cold outside," I said. "I can't and won't wear that robe."
Suddenly I felt warm, too warm for the suit. I was afraid and backed away. "You don't seem to believe I am magical," said the bowl. "Thought I would show you I am. You need only your robe and no shoes and you will be warm enough during the rituals. Go, take off that suit and wear your robe. Make sure you remove those boots too."
Meakly, I obeyed.
I was indeed warm enough! I went to the centre of my grove and prepared to start.
The bowl began to chant what I thought was a spell but turned out to be in English. It was a request for the blessings of all four elements and some stuff about peace in each direction. The bowl was apparently conducting the ritual and I was helping so I could learn. At sunset exactly, my altar began to glow. That's right, I said glow. It was not like sunlight, but more like the light of the dear moon. The stones spoke to me and I nearly fell down in surprise. "Here is the moonlight that will guide you through the cold winter. May you be warm in your shelter and may you remember that spring will return. Nature and man are one in the same and you have seen that this night. Thank you, Michael for opening your eyes and seeing that all things and all beings are worthy. Good night, good winter, and may your wisdom guide you always."
With that, the sun went away for the winter and the longest night commenced.
"Are we finished?" I whispered to the bowl, unwilling to speak but needing to ask. "Or do I do a ritual now?"
"We have finished," said the bowl. "You were only meant to observe this time. Perhaps next time you will conduct the rituals but I rather think it could be longer than that. We shall see. Let us go inside now."
"Did I do a bad job?" I asked. "Am I so unskilled that I need many years before I will be allowed to do anything?" I was very disappointed and the bowl sensed this.
"Not at all!" it said. "You will take over from me gradually is all. You are not unskilled, in fact, you rock at this, but you do need to learn first. Please be patient, Mikey, now, let us return to the warmth of your dwelling."
I mutely brought the bowl inside, poured out the water, and placed it on the table. "It is time for you to sleep and renew," said the bowl. "Your soul is tired from the long interesting day."
"Interesting," I said. "Is an understatement."
I went upstairs, carrying the lovely bowl with me. I placed it gently on my bedside table and turned off the light. I got into bed and pulled the blankets up to the pillow. I knew I would have much to learn from my dear bowl tomorrow.
Thank you, kind reader for your attention and patience while I told this tale. This is of course the follow-up to the Halloween to Remember tale I presented at Samhain. I hope to have another one for you each time there is an Eisteddfod competition. Let us ccall it a series.
Underground River AKA GreenDruid