In the first moments of darkness, they lit the fire and the older women got up to dance the steady rhythm to Cailleach and her faerie choir who would bring winter with a tap of a hammer and a cold breath to the hard ground. Shivering slightly in the damp cold, Brigid watched the faces of the other girls. They had talked about this night for so long and as they all turned sixteen in the same season, this was their first Samhain celebration. Two young girls beside her peeled apples, their faces quiet and intent on the task. As they threw peelings over their shoulders, Brigid’s mother came over and put her hand on their shoulders, explaining quietly how this was not a night to look towards the future. This was the night of the other world.
“Imbolc is a time for looking to the future,” she said quietly, “that’s the time for the young. And in Beltane, the fires show us what we need to learn from the past. Lughnasa shows us to look to the earth and live in the present. Samhain is about going beyond that…into the air we breathe. Tonight is about looking into your very soul and taking all the love you’ve ever felt with you.”
Brigid turned away. All year, she had waited for this night and now that it was here, she felt no different. Cliodhna’s presence was as far away as ever. She had imagined that maybe she would look into the flames and see something of her friend’s face that, to her distress, she was starting to forget. The trouble was that everything held a memory. The coastline where they had all grown up; Cliodhna’s mother, with her hidden resentful glances at the children who had survived and grown up while her daughter remained forever the laughing girl-child who played in front of them and recited sacred words on the hilltop in her white dress.
Everyone had memories of their departed friends and sometimes she could see how it seemed to help them to relive past times, but it didn’t help her. Hearing someone mention her name hurt with an intensity that was worse than physical pain. Some nights, Brigid sat by the dying firelight, reliving each of her sixteen years and trying to take Cliodhna’s presence out of them. That’s what she wanted to do tonight. Unlike the rest of them, she had no wish to send messages to anyone in the spirit world. All she wanted was to remove Cliodhna’s very essence from her, to live a life where she would move forward, free of her memories.
After a while, they all fell silent, each woman sitting apart with her own thoughts as they watched the moonlight drift across the shadows, finally falling to rest in the centre of their circle. The shamaness, Deirdre, got up and scattered a handful of ash around them. In a low hum, she murmured the words that would protect them from evil spirits. Brigid remembered how frightening this part of the ceremony always sounded when as children, she and Cliodhna sat outside at the bottom of the hill, trying to see what was going on. Once, it seemed to them that the mist could form itself into spirits that rose from the firelight to encircle the group sitting around it. The women always returned the following evening, safe and sound, but quiet and reflective almost as if fearful that a return to normal daytime activities would interrupt their insights from the previous night.
Of course, last year, it hadn’t happened at all. When the celebration should have been taking place, they sheltered in a small cave along the sea front, listening to the tide coming in and out. How long they had been there for, Brigid could no longer remember. Her memories of those days were still hazy and she preferred it that way. They crept out, one by one, when it became clear that the ships were leaving and the last of the warriors had left. Bodies littered the small coast and pyres were prepared even for the men they had managed to kill. Brigid had taken no notice of any of it. She sat all night by Cliodhna’s pyre, not hearing the chanted words, not noticing anyone else beside her and hardly aware of the terrible cold and the rain crashing down on top of them. Still, the fires burned on and the tide came in and by the time it was out again, there wasn’t a trace of anything that had happened there. Only the shouting and screams raged on inside her mind with the cracks of their hastily prepared weapons. It was the first and last time they had not been prepared for anything like that. Since then, they had all spent days preparing weapons, planning what each of them would do the next time, using their knowledge of the course of the tide, anything but reflect on what they had lost.
“We mustn’t carry around with us what they’ve done,” Brigid’s mother said.
She and some of the others wanted little to do with the making of weapons and strongly opposed any sort of revenge attack. Brigid and the younger girls spent time planning as quietly as they could the advantages of surprise, their knowledge of medicine and healing which also gave them insights into injuring and killing. The spring celebration of Imbolc was the key to their future, her mother had said, and their future now was all about taking lives in return for those who were lost forever.
Brigid jumped slightly, realising she had lost track of what was going on. There were fresh tears on her cheeks and as she hastily wiped them away, one of the older women reached over to take her hand, whispering to her that the spirits needed to see her grief, that the loss she mourned for was a part of the love she had felt and it was that love that would save her. She’d heard it before, many times, she’d heard all of their lies. She got to her feet and approached Deirdre who chanted louder now, holding her arms high above the growing flames. The women beside her echoed the words in quiet voices.
“Brigid, sit down!”
Ignoring them, she moved to stand beside Deirdre, staring deep into the flames and whispering her request so that only the shamaness could hear her.
“You would have no future without the love you felt for Cliodhna,” Deirdre said, staring straight ahead of her.
“I don’t care.”
Deirdre grasped her shoulders to turn her, looking deep into her eyes.
“You don’t understand me. There would be no future for you or Cliodhna”
Brigid twisted away, an old familiar pain burning away behind her eyes.
“She’s dead,” she shouted, “none of this means anything! They’re all gone!”
Deirdre knelt in front of her, holding her wrists tightly so that she couldn’t move.
“What would you say to her” she asked loudly, “if she were here now?” Even as she spoke, the wind seemed to pick up and the air grew colder. The low chanting beside them was deafening.
“She’s not here,” Brigid cried, “I’d tell her to leave me alone, I’d tell her…” Her voice trailed away and she turned her head, trying to escape Deirdre’s gaze.
“What would you tell her?”
Brigid found herself slipping from Deirdre’s tight grip, her legs giving way and her vision go out of focus.
“I’d tell her I’m sorry,” she whispered.
In that instant, the flames seemed to rise and instead of reacting to her words, the women stood, holding hands to strengthen their circle and shouted the sacred words into the wind. The smell of the herbs became so overpowering that Brigid felt dizzy. The scene around her grew darker but she was just about able to make out the figure of Cliodhna’s mother stepping forward and throwing a sparkling object onto the fire. It was Cliodhna’s ring; put on her finger at birth, identical to Brigid’s. For a moment, the flash of gold dazzled her, then the voices grew quieter, fading away to silence and darkness.
She opened her eyes and found herself outside the circle. A voice called to her and she stood up shakily.
Cliodhna stood under a towering evergreen tree she had never seen before. She wore the dress which contained even the scrap of material that Brigid had cut from it before they lit the pyres that night. She was whole and beautiful, uninjured, her smile just as bright as the glimpses of her Brigid had dreamed about for so long. A light mist surrounded her.
“I’m sorry.” Brigid realised she was crying and tried to stop herself.
“I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you,”
Later, she would remember saying these words with a strange wonder. She saw, almost dispassionately the image of the bearded warrior with his sword high over her head. She watched the instant which seemed to last forever, of Cliodhna throwing herself across her, taking the blow without a thought. Many of them had died that night, many of them had almost died because they’d all been prepared to die for each other.
“I wish it’d been me.”
Suddenly it didn’t seem strange that Cliodhna was there at all. It was almost as if this moment could have happened anytime, as if maybe she was there all along. Cliodhna walked towards her and as she did, other memories, far beyond last year, filled Brigid’s mind; childhood games, singing together on the hillside, watching birds in the woods and splashing each other in the sea. As she thought of them, her mind felt quieter for a long time and her body relaxed deeper into the grass without the pain she’d grown so familiar with. Cliodhna had always been the only one she could ever talk to about her deepest fears and she told her now.
“I don’t want to forget you.”
In the final instant before waking and finding herself back in the circle of her family, Cliodhna sat beside her and they held each other in a tight embrace. As they pulled apart, her smile was one that Brigid would never truly forget.
She would see it in future battles as they fought alongside each other. She would see it in other countries when they met, as friends once again, three times as sisters, six times as lovers and once, as mother and daughter. Over the years, she would see that expression many times and each time, there would be a strange feeling in the back of her mind, something she should remember, some feeling that this scene had happened before.
Slowly, she opened her eyes and felt the gentle hands of the women help her to her feet and rub her forehead with a soothing balm. Deirdre came over, took the scrap of material from her hand and placed it reverently on to the flames.
“They are always with us,” she said quietly to Brigid, who nodded, taking a deep breath.
A cloudy mist accompanied them all the way down the hill, but the path ahead was dry and filled with early morning sunlight.
Lucie Kavanagh lives in Co Mayo in the west of Ireland with an array of pets and plants. She works as a social care worker, though she is currently on sick leave and learning to find her writing voice which has been silent for a while.