I have been an enthusiastic amateur photographer for decades, and a writer always. I wrote professionally for more than 40 years: technical writing, promotional materials, public relations, advertising, poetry, news, news features and one novel. Thus I can’t claim to be doing something completely different — at least as it pertains to me — but I certainly can do something that I have not usually done in this blog.
A few days ago, I was out with the camera. It was the first sunny day in a week. Autumn in New England is all too brief, so as soon as I saw the sun shining, I grabbed my photo gear and hit the road.
It was a good day. I caught some amazing pictures. One entire set of perhaps 50 frames were taken of a huge golden tree that stands alone near the end of town on Main Street. After doing basic processing on a half-dozen of these, I decided to play a bit with Photoshop and see what else I could do with this overflow of images. Thus emerged the tree in an entirely new light (everyone who uses Photoshop is snickering at this). For the first time I had an image that needed a story. That is a first for me, because always the words have come first and images later. This picture screamed at me it needed a story. I knew the name of the story before a single word hit the page: Samhain’s Tree.
I have written the introduction and introduced the woman who I believe will be my main character, but it is so new and so far from complete that everything remains subject to change. Whether it will be a book or a shorter story, what additional characters will become part of this world, I don’t know. Characters often create themselves. One of the ways you know your story is working is that characters come to life and do unexpected things that you hadn’t thought of. They don’t behave, are sometimes quite naughty and redefine your original ideas by having their own.
No one could remember a time before ancient trees, their roots sunk deep into the Earth, drew magic upward to protect people, creatures, and all things that grow. This Earth magic kept the water pure, the soil fertile, the seasons on schedule, and life thrived.
Village people knew their trees and which ones had roots that tapped the magic. Such trees were evident to everyone. It seemed natural that Beltane and Samhain would be celebrated under their spreading arms and indeed they were.
Trees are sentient, but it is a different sentience than that of humans. Trees transmit knowledge and the secrets whispered to them, but do not judge the relative importance of one thing over another, nor necessarily understand what they pass along. At the time of the great festivals, if you know the right words, the right ritual, you can whisper to a tree who will obligingly pass it through its network to a different power.
Asking magical favors should never be done lightly. Magic has value, but it is powerful and power equals danger. Though many have deluded themselves that they could harness the forces of the Earth to their will and whim, humans are not adept at magic. Magicians learn to manipulate power, but never understand what they are doing or how they do it. Earth cares nothing for people. It is the Deities, the immortals both great and small who protect humans, often from their own stupidity.
Knowing the dangers, desperate people will nonetheless go to the trees at the hours when power is most available and the veil between the worlds is thin. It is very human to take great risks in times of perceived great need.
So it was in older times, earlier days. As man’s civilization has taken over, most people have fallen out of harmony with the Earth. One can live an entire life, birth to death, and never touch the soil, never sense the magic. City life, busy lives and most folks forgot the trees and magic. A young child running barefoot on the grass has reached the pinnacle of knowledge of Earth’s magic. These days, it’s all downhill from there.
The trees never did much care what people did. They continue to grow, to find places and spaces in rural fields, suburban backyards and city parks. Wherever a tree can sink roots deep enough, it seeks the magic.
In a small town in rural New England, exactly central to the middle of nowhere, there is a richly verdant valley that was briefly, as the Earth reckons time, filled with factories, mills, and squalid towns. Through this valley a river flows, today as it has for ages past. Much of the area’s agricultural land had returned to the trees. Some farms continue breeding their chickens and dairy cattle; every summer, fields of butter and sugar corn grew along pastures where fat horses graze.
As in most human habitats, many – maybe most – of the oldest trees have been felled for wood and some have died. Even trees are not immortal. In this valley, the tall oaks are fewer than a hundred years old, but you can find old trees with deep roots here, there, and elsewhere. When you see one of these old ones, you recognize them. You do not need anyone to tell you that this tree is old and runs deep. Tree knowledge is inborn to all people. We know trees bring the Earth’s magic up to the light. We’ve forgotten the rituals, but we can’t forget the magic. It waits for us.
In this town, everyone knows Samhain’s tree. Annabelle understood its name, though she was not sure who had named it thus, because it had not been Annabelle … yet it seemed that no one but her knew what its name symbolized. They didn’t know Samhain from Santa Claus. Most townspeople assumed the name originated with whoever had once owned the land. Nor were they sufficiently curious to look it up, though it would have been easy enough what with everyone owning a computer.
This was not a town afflicted by excessive curiosity. If anyone other than Annabelle understood what the tree’s name implied, they kept the information to themselves.
The tree was huge and stood alone at the northern end of Main Street. It occupied an open field along the road on a slight rise, so it was easy to see from a distance. Neither an oak or maple, it was a much less common tree, an alder. Not extremely tall, its branches spread wider than its height, an untypical growth pattern for an alder. Huge, heavy branches dipped close to the ground. Rather than arching up to reach the sun, Samhain’s tree seemed inclined to touch the grass, inviting children to swing on low-hanging branches. But children did not play in the tree. No tree houses were built and no one set up a lemonade stand in its shade. When children approached it, they did so cautiously and quietly.
Annabelle had lived in the town as long as it had been a town. As far as she knew, the tree had always been there. It was there when she had arrived in the New World. It always stood alone, first in a meadow, now in a field as if other trees preferred to give it space, not wishing to crowd too close.
The tree was orange and yellow today. It was the middle of October. The air was chilly at night, brisk in the morning. Just another couple of weeks to Halloween.
“That’s what Samhain is to them,” she thought wryly. Well, what did it really matter? It was close enough. Costumes, bonfires, candy, figures made of rags and straw … all done with not a trace of understanding. The celebrants had no clue what holiday they were celebrating. Yet, they had were effectively observing most of the customs. Blindly, but Annabelle felt quite sure that her Goddess cared not at all if those who celebrated knew why they observed the festival and would only care that they celebrated at all. Immortals are not detail-oriented. If more people realized that, the world would be a more peaceful place by far.
Halloween was the next most popular holiday to Christmas. Halloween was the harvest, the bounty of the summer before the little death of winter. Decorations, costumes, candy and parties … terribly appropriate for whatever the reason.
Annabelle was bemused at how celebrations of ancient rituals persisted though virtually no one saw their significance. Ask anyone why did they did all this stuff they do for this rather unimportant holiday. They would stare at you blankly and answer with “It’s just fun.” “We felt like doing it.” “There’s nothing like a great bonfire on a chilly night.” They cared nothing beyond that. They would have laughed had Annabelle told them it was Earth’s magic calling to them.
The weeks passed quickly and as the end of the month drew near, the trees were close to bare. Hard to believe just a fortnight ago, the world had been aglow with color. A few stubborn leaves clung to branches, but peak was gone and icy tendrils of winter sometimes nipped at a nose or a fingertip. Just a reminder from Mr. Frost that he was coming soon, so lay in a supply of wood. Be ready.
“Well,” murmured Annabelle, “Tonight I will build the greatest Samhain fire ever seen in these parts.”
Building her bonfire was no mean feat for Annabelle. She had wanted to do it herself, the way she always had. But in the end, she couldn’t and she’d hired a boy to help her haul and stack things. The kid thought she was a nutty old lady and maybe she was. The years had taken their toll. Her hands were gnarled with arthritis and her balance was askew. She knew she walked at an odd tilt, but she was old enough to not care. Her white hair seemed to give the world leave to ignore her eccentricities.
“No one pays any attention to old people,” thought Annabelle, as she plodded along the sidewalk toward her house all the way at the southern end of town. It had been a short trip when she could drive, but her eyes weren’t good anymore. She didn’t trust her reflexes. At the exact time of her life when she most needed to drive, she had to walk on tired old feet. It wasn’t fair. She supposed she could have gotten an electric chair, but somehow, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Pride? A little. But also a tooth-grinding determination to stay on her own feet as long as she was able … and she sincerely hoped that would be until she no longer needed legs at all.
Which was stupid, because life was never fair.
“I have disappeared,” she thought. “The day my hair turned white, I became invisible to all but other old eyes.” Older people saw her, but younger ones looked right through her. She was the hag who heralded the true fate of all humankind, inevitable death. The hag was never a popular incarnation of the Great Mother.
Invisibility cut both ways, because Annabelle could see right through the pretensions of the younger generations. They seemed to think that they could exercise or maybe straight out buy eternal life. Sometimes, she wanted to stop and ask them “How’s that working out for you?” but she didn’t. It would be rude.
Age might not bring wisdom, but it did bring a certain level of cynicism and shrewdness. You might not be able to read the fine print with your old eyes, but you could see through the veil and easily see through most people. Yet when they looked at her, they saw nothing. Just a bit of white hair wrapped in an overcoat.
Annabelle attended church, if not every Sunday, then often enough. Christmas Eve and Easter at least. When she was younger, she’s gone regularly, but she’d lived in this town so long no one questioned what or who she was or might have been. No one could remember a time before Annabelle lived there. If there was an eternal person, she had to be it. In return, Annabelle was greatly amused by watching her fellow parishioners at church. Some were sincerely devoted to their God, but most were there for some other reason. Obligation. Habit. To show off. Because they liked the music or the Pastor or the sound of church bells … but genuine devotion to any God was rare. Annabelle saw it less and less with the passage of the years.
Tonight was not their God’s special night. Tonight was the night for her Goddess. Samhain was Morrigan’s holiday and though Morrigan had not visited for many years, Annabelle believed with the help of the tree, this time, she could bring her out and end the silence that had grown between them.
In just a few hours, as darkness fell, it would be time for Annabelle to implement her plan.
Not the end.