Thursday, January 3, 2013

On This Longest of Nights

In preparation for the Yule festival here, the villagers gather all manner of greenery and the children trek into the forests hunting for winter berries. It reminds me of the preparations for Christmas back home, only where there is no church, there is no nativity, and where there is no Christmas, there is instead a festival to honor the darkness and the returning of the light. The customs do not differ greatly from those with which I am acquainted enough to justify elaboration, save one. While May and many of the other women of the village bake treats to enjoy through the long night, and the men erect a veritable tower in the commons of twigs and split logs, Mayor Green walks into the woods, every year. Preparations begin many days before the Longest Night, and with them, he takes to the woods. According to the villagers, they have never seen him take more than his overcoat with him, and D and I both saw him off at the forest's edge and can attest that indeed, he  traveled with only what a man might keep on his person. A walk through the woods, of course, requires little else, however, it is said that he sometimes returns that night, and sometimes he does not return until the sun sinks early low and red on the horizon, marking the beginning of the Longest Night itself.

I stopped at the apothecary to procure more ink the day he left, where Shorts, who has proved good natured, but has a lackadaisical relationship with the truth, at best, spun a tale as to where Mayor Green was off to. As Shorts tells it, Everett, who, understandably, has gained a fair amount of prestige within his village, and seems to be regarded as something of a feudal lord, with all the marked attention one would presume may come with a title, does not venture far into the wood at all, but merely steps between the world of our people and his mother's people. Once within the realm of the Old Ones, Shorts insists he meets with his fae lover, whose gleam is so bright that she can not dwell among us mere mortals. There he stays, for one night, which sometimes stretches into as many as a week, for time does not flow the same in the realm of the fae, before he returns to us, as obliged by the curse set upon he and his kin by the Old Ones when his father first came here.  Returning every year with a cask of the finest honey mead, always by the festival, he is ever forgiven for his adulteries, for how can a man who is not of men be held to their rules?

I asked neither May nor Everett any questions regarding the veracity of this tale. It is peculiar, honestly, dealing with legends that are both inherited generationally, as well as the fact of the persons about whom said legends are spun. Typically, even when dealing with families of witches and inherited possessions, the tales are about the people who have already passed, and contemporaries will often repeat the same salacious tales which have been told to them in the cradle. Here, however, I have a marvelous opportunity to see both what is said by others and what is said by the subject, so to speak. Of course, ultimately, I am always limited by what is said, when in all instances, the mouth which says anything has a reason for saying anything at all.

Reluctant to pry into the affairs of the Greens so directly, I was overjoyed when we were invited to dinner with them that evening whereby I did enjoy a piece of their own tale.Dwas enjoying a tart, and I was sipping an elderberry tisane after dinner when Everett cleared his throat. "I'll be leaving tonight. Yule is coming, and I go every year. I don't know how many nights I'll be gone, but I expect you will still be here when I return, surely in time for the festival."

Still intrigued by the tale Shorts had spun, I inquired, "Where will you be off to?"

Everett laughed, "Haven't you heard?" He wrapped his arms around his wife, hands lingering on her growing belly while she was clearing the table, "I'm off to see my faerie lover, or is it demon lover? I can never recall."

Laughter bubbled out of May, and I realized my face must have blanched. "Indeed, I had heard some construction to that end, however, I do not lend credence entire to every tale. I simply write them down." I do believe D nearly choked on his tart. I had not mentioned this story to him before our coming, there hadn't been time, and so I do believe he was taken aback by the seeming lack of propriety. Ever since the succubus, jokes regarding infidelity have not sat well with him.

Everett's open smile put D somewhat at ease, and he began to nibble at a second tart. "No, I will be off to the land of my mother, but only for a brief visit, to greet my family, and bring home a keg of mead for the holiday. It's a tradition I've kept every year, though when you write the tale of my lover, can you make her pretty? I'm tired of overhearing people jest that she's beastly and too hideous to be beheld by mortal men."

May raised an eyebrow, but I told him, "Never fear, the story I had heard was that her gleam was too bright for the eyes of mortal men."

"Gleam too bright, I like that. Yes, definitely write that down. It's much more interesting than sitting with my grandfather and exchanging tales of the hunt and the iron beasts."

"Might I ask though, I had been told that to eat or drink anything from the realm of Faerie meant that one might never leave, how is it that you bring from there a cask of mead for the villagers?"

The light went out of his eyes for a moment. "Of course, so they can never leave me here."

May dropped a saucer of fine bone china, which, although delicate, did not break. "It will be a lovely festival, and the mead is a tradition."

Everett's eyes moved between mine and D's, the gravity of the statement settling in. I looked at the tea I held in my hands, eyed the fresh apples on the counter top, D stopped chewing. How many times had they extended our stay? Even well preserved apples will be soft this far into winter, how were theirs so fresh? One loses track of the oddities when so often presented with them.

"Never leave?" D asked, brushing the crumbs of the tart from his lip.

"No. Who knows how long I'll live? Another fifty years? Another hundred? Two hundred? The number of years and by whose reckoning? I hardly can be asked to spend it alone, and who would stay if they could leave? Would you?"

"In all frankness, I'd return home to my children and to my work."

"Of course you would. Everyone would."

"But we're not within the Realm-"

"You are, and you aren't. You'd never have found my village uninvited. No one does. Instead they scratch their heads confounded at the directions given them and return to the next village over. No, we're not fully within the Realm of the Old Ones, but we are near to it. You need not fear, you have dined only on mortal food, and the mead will not bind you to this village anymore than I hope our hospitality has, not in this life. But they who drink the mead of the Old Ones, their spirits will linger in the Sleepers' Meadow, and I will walk among them until they rouse to move on, and even when no one dwells in these few streets, I will not be alone." He turned and put a hand on May's shoulder, and wiped a tear from her cheek, then kissed her forehead.

Their intimacy was palpable, we should have excused ourselves. "I'd like to think that when I return you will join us in lifting a cup to herald the coming of the sun. I'd like to think that you've come to think of us as friends enough to consider that letting your spirit sleep in the meadow for a time would, perhaps, be a welcome thing. No, you don't have to decide today. It is a decision for the Longest of Nights, but I know ever song I've ever been asked to remember, and I sing them for the Sleepers. I do not forget." He frowned. "I hadn't set out to leave on a somber note, but it is late, and I must get going if I have any hope of returning before the sun. Won't you please walk me to the edge of the forest before retiring to the inn?"

We walked in silence, my hand in D's, May's hand in her strange husband's. Beside the trees he shook D's hand and mine, kissed his wife's cheek, and strode into the wood just as Shorts had said, armed against the night with only his jacket and a solid pair of brogans.

Turning back toward the village, May and I linked arms and D lingered near the woods a while. "Please, don't cry, May."

"I'm sorry, it's just you see," her breath was short, "he doesn't want to be alone, and it's my fault."

"What do you mean?"

"When I was little, although he scared me, he was a very happy man. He'd go sing in the Meadow almost every day, happily dealing with the living and taking great joy in singing for the sleeping. But then one day, he stopped. They weren't with him any more, the sleepers. His first wife, his baby girl, his second wife. They were gone, because I woke them up."

She pulled away and I couldn't ask any more questions as she hurried through the snow like a doe born to it. The inn was nearly empty that night and the fire could not warm me. D and I retired in silence, though I am sure we were both occupied with wondering whether or not to raise a cup to herald the return of the sun. How could anyone choose?

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