A Druidic Short Story by Irony Sade
E-mail: irony at starmind dot org
Copyright November 2000
Irony, author of A Sociological Look at the RDNA at Carleton College, where he was Archdruid for serveral years, offers this short story based on his experiences with the RDNA. It too will be offered in serial format, over the course of six issues (you have been forewarned!). Appropriately the story opens at Beltaine.
It was the eve of Beltain when I first heard of Juliana Spring. The Maypole was being danced for the sixth or seventh time while the tall piper and the boy on the fiddle churned out complementary versions of Kati Barri's Wedding. A crowd of brightly colored folks was clustered around the long table bearing our potluck feast and there were flowers everywhere, for it was the festival of spring.
I noticed the young man when he arrived, standing uncertainly on the edge of the clearing, too curious to pass by, too hesitant to join in the revels. He was short, sandy haired, and serious looking. I marked him as an undergraduate from the university nearby. A voluptuous lady with violets in her hair called to him to join us and eat. He came, smiling suddenly, and they were soon conversing freely. I smiled too, at the pleasure of a new face--then I forgot him, for it was time to crown the King and Queen of the May.
The lad stayed on, late into the fire lit night, and sipped the honeyed wine as it was passed from hand to hand. People sang and told stories as the stars yawned back to life, and I watched the couples snuggle together for warmth, wondering idly how many would carry the festivities on into the privacy of the forest or bedroom. When my turn to speak came I rolled out the old yarn of the boy from Cork who fell in love with a harp he could not play. The longing tormented him so much that his mother offered her soul to the Druid if he would give her son the gift of music. The sandy haired lad watched me closely as I spoke, pitching my voice low to the slow crackle of the beech logs. It was an old and beautifully chilling tale that I told, not one entirely appropriate for Beltain. It may have snapped him out of the festive mood. He seemed distracted from then on, and kept peering at me through the flames as the night progressed. Eventually he rose for a mug of mead, and, upon returning, sat down to my left in the spot just vacated by a delightfully tipsy nymph.
Silence stretched between us with the expectant air of impending conversation. At last he turned to me, head to one side.
";Are you really a druid?" His voice was soft and low.
The focus of the group had shifted to the far side of the circle. I considered the flames and reviewed the dozen-odd debates for a pair of slow breaths. There were too many ways to respond to that question, but it had been a day of laughter, and I was in no mood for an argument.
"Yes," I replied.
The answer seemed to satisfy him. He too stared into the coals, rolling a warmed mug between his hands. Eyes always gravitate towards fire at night. I have always wondered why.
"This is silly," he remarked at length, still regarding the flames. "I am supposed to be a medical student. I don't even know why I showed up tonight." The lad hesitated, uncertain, and I took a sip of my own mead. Suddenly he was facing me.
"Can you really sell your soul?"
I glanced at him, startled.
"What I mean," he stammered, "is if someone wanted something they couldn't have so badly that they were willing to sell their soul to get it, could you give it to them?"
I continued peering. His shoulders squirmed.
"Like that story you just told," he trailed off. His eyes were still on me, embarrassed, but determined.
"Are you serious?"
He nodded, sucking his lip.
I stared away into the stars between the swaying leaves. Laughter from the lingerers drifted through the night.
"If someone you know, or you yourself, wanted something badly enough to sell their soul for it, then I would certainly be willing to talk to that person."
"It isn't me," he said quickly. "It's my girlfriend. She. . . She would probably rather tell you herself."
"Do you want me to talk to her?"
"Yes, I do."
"As soon as possible."
I considered this. "Could she meet me at the Bubble and Squeak for lunch on Tuesday?"
"I'll tell her," said he, breathing heavily. "I can't believe I'm doing this. My name is Sam, by the way." He grinned. "I guess everyone knows who you are." I forced a dry chuckle.
"Pleased to meet you Sam. You should smile more often- you look old when you are serious."
Sam laughed and turned back to his wine. The cluster across the flames thundered their giggling way into a final chorus of The Rattlin' Bog, and I stared off into the stars above the treetops. They winked back, which was all they ever did, leaving me to guess at the meaning.
The Bubble and Squeak was a friendly little cafe not far from the university. It had been established by a widowed British matron who had cheerfully wedged her way in between the clothing stores and simply out baked the competition. She employed a small clan of students and mothers, kept university hours, and was willing to cook anything one cared to name. They really did serve bubble and squeak, if you could order it with a straight face.
Juliana Spring found me at my table by the wall. She greeted me by name and I stood, surprised to find her so tall.
"Miss Spring, hello."
"Sam told me all about you," she began as we sat, and I grinned, imagining that conversation.
"Are you hungry?"
Her pale face shook slightly.
Long fingers fidgeted with something at her neck as we sat, her eyes staring, jumping away when she saw me see them. I watched her hands and realized they held a crucifix.
I leaned forward, speaking gently. "I do not bite."
Juliana started and blushed faintly.
"It's not that. I just don't know how to begin a conversation like this. I feel like Faust!"
"Faust sold his soul to the Devil," I smiled. "I am just an ordinary man."
"Then how can you buy mine?"
I looked away to the budding maples outside.
"What did Sam tell you?"
"That you were a druid, that people seemed to trust you. He told me about the story you shared on Saturday and said he thought you might be for real." She was looking straight at me now, a question perched upon her eyebrows.
"Have you slept since he told you?"
Her dark hair rippled as she shook the head beneath it.
"Then you should definitely have some food in you."
We ordered and she told me about herself. She was twenty, a sophomore at the university, and had loved dancing as a child. Her father delivered sermons at the Revivalists Center a few hours south and wanted her to become either a teacher or a nurse. She relaxed as we ate, and a bit of color emerged in her heart shaped face.
"And what is it you want?" I asked when only her coffee was left. Juliana's body straightened and she looked me in the eye.
"I want to play the harp."
"Do you have one?"
"My grandmother gave me one when I left for college," she nodded. "Dad wasn't going to let me keep it, but I told him I was dating a medical student and taking English classes." Her eyes dropped. "He doesn't know we're living together."
"Have you got a teacher?"
"No. People have shown me different things, and I have all sorts of books, but to hire a teacher you need money. My father will only help pay for what he sees on the tuition forms, and I'm working half time already to cover the rest. I practice all the time though. . . "
"Whenever I can. I have to pass my classes, or Dad will have me home, and I have to work to pay for them, but I still play a bit every day."
"Then what do you need me for?"
"Because, you see. I don't just want to play. I. . . I want to be the best in the world."
On the walk out front students passed in threes and twos, giggling or serious, free and careless. Discoursing passionately on things they would forget completely a few months hence. They had all their options open, these people outside; there was not an irrevocable commitment amongst them. None of them were ready to sell their souls.
"Why?" I asked Juliana quietly.
"It's what I've always wanted."
"Since when? You are twenty."
"My whole adult life--since I was ten years old."
"Why?" I repeated softly. Her eyes were hazel and very clear.
"When I was ten I heard a record of harp music at somebody's birthday party, maybe in the adults room, I don't know. I don't even know what piece was playing, only that it was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. That night I started dreaming music. It was so lovely, and I knew it was harps. I thought I was listening in on Heaven. In the morning I could still remember some of it, but there is no way to describe music like that, and nothing I could do to reproduce it. I told my Dad, and he said it was a vision sent from God to urge me on to a good life. I told him I wanted to play like the angels I'd heard. He said that that was foolish arrogance and that I could be damned for even thinking such a thing.
"I tried to stop wanting it, to do what he told me, but the dreams just kept coming. Sometimes it's as if I don't even sleep, but just lie awake listening all night long. In church sometimes I would forget to pay attention and just sit remembering the music, smiling. I told my father once when he asked what was so funny. He got so mad he hit me. He doesn't understand."
"Do you still dream like that?"
"All the time. It's what keeps me sane, even if it is maddening. I used to think that all I needed was a harp and that then I could play like that. Then I got one at last and realized it was harder than I'd imagined. After six months I realized it would take my whole life to play the way I wanted to, even if I did nothing but practice. After a year and a half I figured even that wouldn't be long enough. I finally decided it was impossible, and that God was just torturing me with the dreams. I nearly killed myself, it hurt so much. Sam is the only reason I didn't. Then we heard about you, and I thought. . . I'm almost afraid to hope."
"Where was your mother in all this," I asked when she fell silent.
"She left." Her face was masked. "When I was ten."
I digested that without expression.
"What made you think of selling your soul?"
"I thought of it a long time ago, actually, but I didn't really believe it was possible. I also had no idea how to do it. It's not exactly the sort of thing you advertise for."
My head was swimming. I glanced down at the tea in my hands. It was cold.
"Even if you did, there would be no quick fix. You would still have to practice, live in the world, pay bills, deal with your father."
Juliana tossed her head impatiently.
"I know. . . But I want this."
"It's your soul, girl! Can't you think of anything less drastic?"
"I came to you for help, sir. Are you going to help me, or are you going to try and talk me out of it?"
There was steel in those hazel eyes. I saw suddenly why it was Sam loved her.
"I just want you to know what you are getting into. Otherwise there can be no bargain."
"I know what I am getting into."
"Are you certain?"
She glared back defiantly. I swirled my cold tea.
"You, Juliana Spring, want to sell your soul to me in exchange for the chance to play the music you hear in your dreams, here on earth, alive, and to be the best harpist in the world?"
"Are you willing to do whatever I deem necessary to make that happen, however difficult or painful it happens to be, to live your life by my word so far as regards the playing of the harp?"
"And do you undertake this obligation freely, without mental reservations, and in full knowledge of the consequences?"
She bit her lip.
"Then give me your hands and open your mind to me. Close your eyes when you are ready."
I leaned forward and took her long white hands in mine. I wondered suddenly if anyone was listening. Her eyes closed, and I spoke a very few, swift, syllabant words. Her hands clenched in mine. Her eyes flickered open. Juliana Spring shuddered.
"Is that it?" She gasped.
"That is it."
Juliana shifted her eyes cautiously about the cafe her gaze darting to the diners, the window, the sky, the trees outside, and me. There was a peculiar intensity to her study, as though she had never seen a world like this before. She flexed her long boned fingers, fascinated by their supple movement.
"What happens now?" She asked me.
"Go back to Sam and get some sleep. Tomorrow morning at ten meet me in the park behind campus, on the bench beneath the bur oaks. Bring your harp." She nodded.
"What about. . . What about my soul?"
"Do not worry about it," I smiled gently. "That is my concern now." I stood, smiling down at her trembling eyes. There was a light in them that I had not observed before. I wondered what she was thinking.
"Lunch is on me," I said.
And so it began. We met beneath the oaks the next day on a hillside overlooking fields and meadows creeping slowly back to wild. A brook danced its nearly inaudible way along the foot of the hill. Too far away to really be a presence the red brick buildings of the university dorms glowed in the morning light. Juliana wore long tan pants that made her look even taller, and a dark light sweater against the chill of the wind. She looked willow thin against the trees, and strode along with the cased harp as if it weighed nothing. She sat down on the end of the bench. I folded my coat across my knees. For a long time there was silence.
"I love this place," she remarked at length. "Sam and I used to come out here on walks before things got so busy."
"What does Sam have to say about all this?"
"I told him everything. He said that he couldn't quite believe it had happened, but that he thought it was very brave of me. He also said it was me that he loved, soulless or not, and that he'd stay with me through everything."
Far away I watched the movement of students to and from the dorms, smaller than ants and twice as aimless.
"He is a remarkable man if he means that. I hope he follows through."
"What do we do now?"
"I do not know yet. Play for me."
The harp case looked homemade. Juliana unzipped it and set the leather carefully aside. The harp stood shoulder high as we sat before it, darkly gleaming chestnut, unadorned. She screwed in its legs and settled the instrument back into her arms.
"What should I play?" She asked, brushing the strings. It was already tuned.
"Anything you wish."
She brushed the chords again and bent her long dark hair. So softly it seemed that she was still warming up, Juliana began to play.
In the middle air before us a cloud of insects danced beside a small yew tree. From its branches darted forth a small brown bird, flickering and flitting into the swarm, matching its mindless, eye-defying movements with its own. It tumbled about immune to gravity with no discernible wing beats, but a twisting, fluttering, graceful confusion of feathers and open beak. Then it was back in the branches, panting, as the swarm danced on, unconsciously reduced. After three long breaths it darted forth again.
She was good. Better than I had been after six years practice, but then, I had never had her passion. There was a freedom and a flow to her movements already beyond anything I could muster. She would never be my student, I decided.
At the end of the second piece the harpist's hands floated away from the strings. A breeze stirred her hair and caught the last of the chords, stretching them out into an inhuman blaze of harmony that drifted softly down the wind. Far below us water shimmered.
The lady turned to me with her heart shaped face. I searched for, found my voice.
"How much did you say you practiced?"
"Maybe two hours a night."
"What about your classes?"
"I have one right now, actually." She gazed over at the dorms. "It doesn't seem that important anymore."
"Then why do you take them?"
"Force of habit. It keeps my father happy, and I'll need some sort of skills if I can't make it as a musician." I turned my face towards her.
She realized it now, I saw. There was no more 'if' in this adventure. We were playing all or nothing.
"Do you want to be in school?" I asked.
"I like the atmosphere, the people, but no, not really."
The bird was back in the air again.
"If you dropped your classes, kept your job, and stayed with Sam, would you have enough money to pay a teacher?"
She considered, strangely calm as the possibilities assailed her.
"Good. I will try to find you one. Where do you work, by the way?"
"Down at the Symposium. I'm a waitress there."
"I shall have to visit sometime. Have you got a telephone?" She told me the number and I committed it to memory.
"Here is mine if you need anything. I will call within the week."
"What should I tell my father?"
"That is up to you." I replied, smiling. "And make that six hours a night." I turned to go. She stopped me with my name.
"What's the other half of our bargain? You never said. Whatt will happen afterwards?"
I waited, still as the rough skinned oaks. The wind brought a sheen to Juliana's eyes that almost looked like tears. Her lips began to form a question I had no way to answer. I spoke to cut her off.
"Do not think about it. If you let it worry you the concern will keep you from concentrating completely on the harp. Without that commitment you will never become the best, and the whole deal will be pointless. I am not the Devil, Juliana. You have nothing to fear."
Her eyes were not wholly convinced, but I had said too much already. I left her sitting with the harp and fled to the shadow of the silent trees.
That afternoon I made some calls. I was looking for the best teacher in an hour's radius. Not the best player - for any musician could get jealous of what Juliana Spring was going to become. We needed someone who could teach her all the things I could not, and who would be able to let her go when she moved beyond their skill. It took me longer than I had thought, but at last I found a woman who would serve, and made a reservation at the Symposium.
The restaurant where Juliana worked was very much a creation of the town it served. Its clientele were students and faculty, townies out for a night's splurge, and the occasional interloper like myself. The Mediterranean food it prepared was better than most, and the staff was no slower than many. Juliana was a bit too striking to make the perfect waitress, too ethereal to draw the biggest tips. She saw me when I entered and pounced upon my table to claim it as her own.
I gave her the number of the instructor I had found. She very nearly jumped with glee.
"It's going to work," she bubbled over my order. "I talked to all my professors, and they say it's all right. Some of them think I'm nuts, of course. Sam says we are still on, too, so I'm living there, and the manager here let me up my hours to thirty, so I can probably even save a little!" She grinned proudly. "And I'm playing seven hours a day!"
"Bring my food!" I laughed. "People will think I am flirting with you!"
Spring erupted into summer that year, as it always seems to manage. Beasts that had been wild and rutting a few months before settled down to raising families. The equinox came and went with its festivals of balance, and the stars slid slowly backwards through the heavens. The Hunter began to appear in the mornings again, his jeweled belt and longbow burning down the year. Leaves glowed, and in simpler climes people worked to gather in the harvest.
Juliana and I kept in touch throughout the changes. I also met quietly with her teacher now and again. Sam passed at the head of his class and began courting medical schools. Juliana lost her job, but found another closer to the city. Together they bought an old, tired station wagon and found a way to make both their schedules work. Juliana's teacher discovered her student had been fingering wrong all along, and showed her a new way of sitting that took the strain off her spine. Juliana said she was happier than she had ever been.
Three nights before Samhain someone tried to pound my door in. I came out from the kitchen and pulled it open. The woman the storm blew into my hall was a wreck, her face and hair plastered with tears and rain. She was nearly hysterical, tumbled words escaping in great gasps and stutters.
"I got back from work... and Sam was there... and the door was down... and he said he just came in... and started screaming... and threw Sam around... and was looking for me... and started throwing things... and... and... "
I barred the door and pulled her into the kitchen, still shaking. Juliana went into the softest chair and the tissue box went into her lap. The kettle was still smoldering quietly to itself. I grabbed it and a box from the high shelf.
"Tea." I told her. "Drink."
She grasped clumsily at the deep mug, her lungs still sobbing. I waited until she managed to take a full sip without slurping.
"Who?" I asked her. She stared at me blankly.
"Who threw Sam around?"
"My father... He found out I wasn't taking classes and discovered where we were living somehow. He tore the door down looking for me. When Sam told him I wasn't there he just went wild. He smashed everything he could find and kept roaring about me being a disobedient slut until our neighbors called the police. They were still there when I came home, and the landlord as well, but my father left before they could catch him." She paused for breath, clutching at the tea.
"He found out you were not taking classes?"
She nodded dumbly.
"Had you not told him?"
"I told him I'd gotten a scholarship so that he could stop paying tuition, and that I was working as a nursing intern over the summer. I gave him the number of a girlfriend who would say I lived there but was out at the moment if he called..."
She stared into her mug. I stared into her ear.
"It was stupid, I know. But I didn't want to face him."
"You lied," I breathed softly.
"So what? I sold my soul too. What damage is a lie going to do?"
"Selling your soul is just a sacrifice. A lie is a blow to your own integrity. . .that is much worse."
"You've got to be joking. Haven't you ever told a lie to avoid trouble?"
"No! When I do something as bad as lying you had better believe it is for something more important than just avoiding trouble!"
Juliana stared up at me, shocked out of her shock for the moment. My voice was louder than I had intended.
"You have a weird set of morals," said she.
You do not know the half of it, thought I.
I turned away from her, studying my dishes. In the reflection of a hanging pot I saw her take another sip from her mug. Her face took on an odd look.
"Why am I drinking mushrooms?"
She nodded, still puzzled, then her lovely frame collapsed, crashing back into shock and despair. Her voice was almost too faint to hear.
"He smashed my harp."
There was a knock at the door.
I turned, palms tingling.
"Don't go," she whispered. Her eyes were very large.
I walked through the hall to the door's heavy oak panels and laid my long left hand upon them.
The young man who stood there was big, but not tall. He wore a checkered mackinaw and a tattered blue cap. There was a chaw of tobacco in his cheek, and he looked up at me with amusement and contempt in his grey-blue eyes. He touched his hat brim in the ritual of respect.
"I'm here for Miss Raskin," he drawled.
He grinned and spat tobacco.
"I followed her here. That's her car out front. Don't try to tell me she's not around."
"There is a Miss Spring here. I have never heard of a Miss Raskin."
He spat again on my clean stone porch.
"Spring's not her real name."
"Who are you?"
"I'm a friend of her father, Mr. Raskin. He told me to come and find his little girl." He smirked up at me. His smile showed oddly clean teeth beneath the brown slime.
"I know she's in there."
"Mr. Raskin is currently liable for housebreaking, assault, and destruction of property. Miss Spring is currently under my protection. Cross this threshold and you will be liable for trespassing, assault and attempted kidnapping."
The clipped words flowed from a well of controlled wrath.
The man on the porch took a half step backwards.
"Now. Did Mr. Raskin tell you to find his daughter, or to find her and bring her back?"
"He... He only said to find her, sir."
"Then you have done as he asked. Go tell him where she is, if you feel you have to." The visitor rolled his poison uncertainly between his cheeks.
"He's still going to want her back," he appended.
"Then we will speak to him in the morning. Goodnight, Tom. It would be best for you not to come here again."
I closed the door in his startled face and dropped the heavy beam across it. Juliana was sitting still and pale when I returned to the kitchen.
"Who was it?"
"Thomas Weedon from Willard's Landscaping, according to his hat. Do you know him?"
"He goes to father's church. I didn't think he'd do anything like this."
"Is your name Juliana Spring?"
"Juliana Spring Raskin. Spring was my mother's name. I've never much cared for the Raskin part."
My eyes searched the woman sitting in my favorite chair, wondering what else I did not know about her. I felt the sweat of adrenaline evaporating off my sides, the almost taste of blood along my tongue.
"What are we going to do now?" she asked.
The storm churned outside like the Wild Hunt in training. Beneath the wind I heard a car start up and leave.
"You and Sam are going to stay with me while we sort this out. Tomorrow morning you are going to talk with your father."
Bleach would only have darkened Juliana's face.
"Could I have some more mushrooms?"
The couple stayed for four nights. Sam and I packed up their apartment. It only took two trips; they owned very little beyond clothes and books. I collected the tangle of nylon and shattered walnut as Sam talked to the landlord. The harp was beyond repair.
"What are your plans?" I asked when Sam returned.
"We'll move somewhere else. There are a couple of schools that seemed excited about my coming. I did pretty well last year, and my medical requirements are all finished. I might try talking one of them into accepting me a year early. There is a seven-year MD/PhD program I was especially looking at. It can't hurt to apply anyway. Desperation must count for something"
"I'm more worried about Julie," he added after a pause. "That harp was her life. I don't know what she's going to do without it."
The day after the attack Juliana called her father. Their conversation was brief and private. She emerged from my study in tears. I held her as she wept and came as close as I ever have to hating someone I had never known. There was more grief in it than anger, really, but hate is such a simpler word.
"What did you tell him?"
"Everything. He doesn't understand."
"Except where we are going and about our bargain. He figures I'm damned anyhow, so what's the difference? He said I'd end up just like Mother."
"What happened to her?"
"She was a dancer. She taught at some of the community centers, YWCA and places like that. She was very good, but it was always just a hobby. Then one day she got an offer to join a dance troupe and get paid for it. My parents fought about that for weeks. She felt she had only ever been a housewife and was entitled to at least try for her own career, and that even if it only lasted for the season it would be an adventure, so what was the harm in it? He argued that she would be abandoning her sacred duty as wife and mother. Making a charnel exhibition of her God given beauty, I think he called it. She said he had no right to talk like that, and that she was going to go off with them anyway.
"Then one day she did... I came home from school and she was just gone, no note or anything. Dad fumed about it for months. He still gets furious if anyone mentions her. I kept hoping she would come back, or write, but she never did." Juliana sniffed.
"Why couldn"t she have taken me with her?"
She fell silent. I stayed with her there in the darkening room until Sam came home to my rescue.
With no further prelude, Samhain was upon us. The displaced pair stayed on to wait out the weekend traffic and tie up some last loose ends. The celebration was at my house that year, in the woods out back. I invited my guests to join if they wished. Juliana begged off, pleading illness, leaving me once more in the kitchen. Baked pies, breads, and squashes; mulled wine, cider, and mead helped to distract me from her troubles. Sam came down after a bit to help me cook.
"What is Samhain, exactly?" He asked as we sat amid the smells and bubbling pots, a pile of apples and peelings between us.
I swallowed a crisp of red skin and reached for a Macintosh.
"Samhain is the Druidic New Year. The harvest is in, the god is dead, the goddess is going into mourning until she gives birth to him anew on the Winter Solstice, December 21st."
I flicked some seeds onto the table and shot Sam a hidden look. He was still listening.
"It is a time when we remember all the people and things we have lost that year. Friends who died, lives that changed, parts of ourselves that we choose to lay to rest. It is a time when spirits of the dead come half way back to earth. Some people believe that messages can be passed between them and the living, tonight." I paused. He waited.
"It is also the beginning of the New Year, and we remember that there is birth in all death, life in all change. It is a time to recall that things move on, however bleak or dismal the threat of winter seems." Sam was staring at me, the knife idle in his hands.
"What are you going to do?" He asked.
"Sit around a fire and talk, mostly. Sing, remember, tell stories." I waved a peeled apple. "Eat good food."
The right corner of his mouth twitched upwards.
"No devil worship?"
"'Fraid not. Sorry."
His grin became a full smile. I smiled as well.
"You are a good listener, Sam. Thank you."
We piled in the last slices of fruit, added the final dusting of spices and lemon, then pinched down the sage sprinkled crust. The first batch of pies was ready to be pulled from the oven.
"Those do look good. I think I may join you."
"We would be honored."
That night I watched the flames, listening to the stories of loss, grief, and healing. Some of those who came remembered Sam from Beltain, half a year before, and they welcomed him quietly. Samhain is a much more subdued holiday, deeper than the festival of spring, and less wild. You could say that the one celebrates Life, the other Death, but that is only half true. Sex and Sacrifice are closer; Spring and Autumn. In the one the world is leaping back to life, winter is vanquished at last, and all of nature pours forth its joy in reproduction and song. In the other we see the dark half of the year beginning. Winter is real, the leaves are down, and the god has given himself in sacrifice that the world might continue on without him. They are Beltain and Samhain. They may be irreducible. I sat between the old year and the new, and wondered what would become of us all.
A few people did actually burn letters to the dead. One man declared his life in the closet was over. A woman said good-bye to her father, killed in a car wreck eight years before. Food was passed, eaten, enjoyed. Sam said nothing, but his eyes burned, and I saw that he understood.
The stories continued. My mind was worn out by other peoples' troubles. I stared vacantly into the fire, content to merely listen. One lady sang of the Fairie Courts riding and the rescue of Tam Llyn from Elfland's Queen. The song seemed to take shape in the coals as I dozed, the great host passing, Tam with the star upon his brow, Margaret waiting, waiting, in her circle of holy water, the soul searing beauty of the Queen and her riders. I saw faces amidst that flickering host. One was a tall woman with eyes like the sunset and a face like Juliana might wear in another twenty years. She smiled, reaching out a long hand to brush my cheek; and then there was only the cold night wind, and smoke stinging tears from my old, tired eyes.
The morning they left I gave Juliana a new harp. The black cherry pillar gleamed like plaited hair in the low sunlight of my library. The knotted maple soundboard whorled, swirls and ripples of grain on grain, eddies of foam on a long white shore.
"She is strung with wires," I cautioned, as I watched Juliana's fingers quiver. "They ring differently than gut or nylon strings. You will have to learn to finger all over again."
"But where did it come from?" Juliana breathed.
"She is my harp, Lorelia- and older than you are too, I might add, so show some respect!" I smiled. The harp whispered, my voice resonating in her sound box. It sounded like a chuckle.
"You are a better player than I, Miss Spring. I think she would rather live with you."
Her sandy haired lover was grinning. Juliana threw her arms around me and squealed.
The next day my phone rang, early. I answered. For a long moment there was nothing. Then came an indrawn hiss.
"Thrice damned Druid. I know who you are. Let me speak to my daughter."
"Good morning to you too, Mr. Raskin. That was a nasty way to start a conversation."
"You are a Devil worshiping hell spawn. Why should I be polite to you? Your soul will rot in Lucifer's bowels till the day when God dissolves you both."
"The Devil is a Christian figment, Mr. Raskin. You would know more about him than I."
"You are corrupting my daughter, leading her astray from the church and her family, encouraging her in that damned music and distracting her from God's will. Let me speak to her."
"Who is to say God did not give her that passion, those dreams, the gift she has for music?"
"Don't play games with me. Where is my daughter?"
"She is already gone. You have driven her away from both of us."
"Where is she?"
"I am sorry to say that is none of your business. If she chose not to tell you herself, then I am not about to."
"Tell me where she is! I'll kill you, Druid!"
"Vengeance is mine," saith the Lord." You are not He, Russell Raskin. I am perfectly willing to be judged by God. Try anything yourself and I will see you in court."
There came a long drawn hiss of air forced between teeth.
"You thrice damned Druid. I'll see you in Hell."
"Only if you are there. Good night, Russell."
I broke the connection before he could curse me again. Leaves swirled past my windows in their endless autumnal Totentanz. I stood and watched them, breathing very slowly.
The wetlands behind my forest rose and fell with the changing water table. A family of wood ducks moved into a dying soft maple, and I watched each May to see their chicks take their kamikaze leap of faith. The young ones hatch in a hole fifty feet up the trunk and are raised there by their long-suffering parents. When the ducklings decide they are ready to leave, they scramble to the opening and tumble out. They then have but moments in which to learn to fly. Each spring I sat watching in the moss, and the terror and the joy of each plummet peeled years from off my heart.
The young lady who had sold me her soul was making the most of those years. While Sam drilled and researched his way toward twin degrees, Juliana played. She studied, practiced, improved, discovered, and soon she was herself discovered. The fiddle player of Sheebeg Sheemore was quitting the band, and the group's manager had offered her his place. "What do you think?" She asked over the crackling phone from Seattle, "Should I take it? "
"That depends on what you want."
"What do you mean?"
"Do you want to be a popular, successful, possibly rich and famous musician? Or do you want to be the best harpist in the world?"
"I want to be the best in the world," she decided.
"When you know what to do. "
"Yes, I guess so"
"Are you happy?" I chanced, just before she hung up.
"Deliriously! No worries at all!"
For several years after this she was traveling, six seasons in Ireland, three in Prague. She had moved beyond what any teacher could teach, into the boundless and stupefying realm of self-mastery. She learned something from every person she watched, heard, or played with, incorporated each skill into her own playing, and blossomed. She caught wind of an archaic bard in Scotland, of a novel percussive harping technique from Argentina. She traveled to see and to study, sharing always what she had learned.
A withering bout of Dengue Fever ended Sam's three-year tour as a village doctor in Papua New Guinea. He returned to the mid-west and started a family clinic, eventually buying a house with the profits. My own life and works progressed too, over that slow decade, but this is Juliana's story, not mine, so I shall not speak of those.
Late one December the couple invited me to spend the holidays with them.
"Julie is giving a Christmas concert," Sam told me. "And, well, we were thinking about getting married."
"After twelve years, I should certainly hope so!"
"We wondered if you would want to be in the ceremony."
"I would be delighted."
The concert taxed one's credulity. It was said that the old Celtic bards had three musical gifts: They could make an audience laugh, weep, or sleep dreamlessly at will, such was the power of their music. Juliana was almost that good. She played moods, memories, concert pieces, orchestral segments that were feats of pure skill, and songs that seemed dragged out of the listener instead of the harp. She played and played, and a hall full of musicians, students, artists, academics, fans, strangers, stragglers, and I sat in frozen wonder, our hearts scoured and our minds in awe at what her fingers drew from those shimmering chords.
When it was over I moved through the clamoring sea of admirers and stood beside the stage as the waves swept about her, saying the things that people always say when trying to express admiration of the inconceivable. Juliana stood flushed, as thin and tall as the day we had met, thanking them all with a quiet, blushing, angelic grace. One boy of ten or so was ushered forward between his parents and stood with fire in his eyes as they offered up their praise.
"My daddy says you must have sold your soul to play like that," he piped out between the thank-yous.
"Wow, wait," His father laughed, a hand on the boys arm.
"That's not true, is it? It's just lots of hard work and practice, right?" His parents chuckled nervously. Juliana smiled.
"I practice all the time," she assured the young, earnest eyes. "Hours. Every day."
The boy nodded as he was led away, but I witnessed how the harpist shivered once his back was turned. The flush of exhilaration had drained from her. The crowds flowed on unheeding.
There was tension over the dinner table of Hammersmith and Spring that night. Sam looked silent questions at the both of us through the meal, while the conversation danced and wandered, avoiding things not said in threes. I retired to leave them alone after the pudding, but the walls were thin, and when I lay down to rest in the dark spare room, their words crept through the woodwork.
"But what if he's right?"
"This is what you've wanted your whole life, Ju."
"But what has it cost us?"
"What about it?"
"Then he asked that it was as if all the things I haven't thought of in ten years leapt back. I've been so busy playing I never thought about the price! Sam... I sold that man my soul! Do you have any idea what that means?"
"No more than you do, when you stop to think about it."
"What's going to happen to me?"
"Ju. That man's been the best friend either of us has ever had. Did you know he talked the Chair of the Admissions board into letting me enter that seven-year program when I was still a junior? I didn't find out till after I'd graduated! He's helped us with everything we've ever asked, been there when our own families were not around."
"And I owe him my soul."
"So what if you do? You thought about all that before you left college and decided it was worth the sacrifice."
"Well, now I'm thinking about it again. I don't want to go to Hell, Sam, or just stop when I die, or go wherever Druids believe soulless people go. How can we even be talking about belief? If he buys the things he must know what happens to them!"
"You're getting hysterical, Ju."
"No I'm not! I'm just scared."
"Would you rather give up your music?"
There was silence after that, or sounds too soft for me to hear through pine.
I turned slowly from the wall feeling every one of my years, and the bitter pit of all the things that men have ever called me. Judas, Efnisan, Heart-wrecker. What becomes of people who cannot forgive themselves?
The doorbell chimed.
Sam's soft tread moved to answer.
There was a crash, a scream, the sounds of struggle, and I was out the door and moving before I knew I had risen.
A man I had never seen was swearing in the hall. Sam sat upright but dazed against the sofa, blood coloring his sandy pale hair. Glass from the door was sprayed across the carpet. The intruder turned to face me. We both froze.
Juliana's father was skeleton thin, his flesh burned off by the flames within him. A long coat billowed round him like a dark, wild, robe, threadbare and whisper thin. He looked like a man to whom heat and cold were the same: both inconsequential to the climate inside. His arms and jaw writhed in a frenzy of continual motion, the left hand, claw-like, snaking out toward me. He waved an iron crucifix like a blunt, inverted sword, and his eyes blazed with something that I never hoped to see. I looked up at him.
"You," he whispered. His knees crouched like a fighter's.
A door slammed and locked behind me. Juliana's voice was frantic on the phone. I studied his shoulders and the angle of his feet, feeling the room about me, and hoping there was space to move.
"I come only to reclaim my daughters soul, and God sees fit to set a devil against me, to test my will and courage. Well?" He roared, "Curse me, Druid! You cannot stand before the wrath of righteousness. Do your worst."
"I am your daughters friend, Mr. Raskin, and no more a devil than you are."
Blood from Sam's scalp dribbled from the crucifix.
"You lie. I've studied you. Orgies in the woods, preaching to young students, scheming and smiling and striving to undo two thousand years of Christ's work on earth. You seduce people away from the Trinity with your Triple Goddess and blind them with your nature worship. You tell them the world is God's word made flesh and the Good Books be damned and manage to hide my daughters movements from me across eleven years! Yes, I know you, you thrice damned Druid. Curse away before I strike you down."
"We both teach what we believe, Russell. No human being knows the full truth of reality. We each live as we think best and pay the price for that choice. You know this. Do not make it any worse."
There was a siren and the squeal of tires in the drive. Record timing, that.
"Clever, Druid, trying to turn my mind against me. But you are wrong. I know." He shuddered. "I know the will of God as well as you do, who seek to pervert it. And I know this too," he swung the cross in an all-encompassing arc. "The Lord has told me that no human hand can stop me in my mission. Not him on the floor, nor the foolish arm of the law, nor you neither, devil though you be. Curse away and meet your doom."
"Put down your weapon!" Came a voice from the door. Young, scared despite its training. "Throw down your weapon! -- Base, I need backup!"
"I will not curse you, Russell, and I will not let you touch your daughter. I have been her friend for eleven years, watched her through every storm, helped her realize a dream you would not even see. I have been more of a father to her than you have, and not you nor God can take that from me."
"I will take her from you now," he growled, advancing. (Drop your weapon, Mister!) "The care of her soul is in my hands, and takes precedent over any dreams of the flesh. God condones all actions undertaken in the interest of the soul. I will have her from you before she ends up just like her mother!" He spat these last words with a roiling hiss and raised the cross on high.
I do not often read people's minds. Sometimes I wish I never did at all.
"You bastard," I breathed. "What that you've done would your God condone?"
Russell Raskin halted mid stride. His eyes bulged. His throat gurgled something that would never be a word. His left side spasmed violently, and the force of it spun him twitching to the ground. The crucifix leapt from his hand, hiding its face in the carpet. Russell curled and splayed, and then lay still.
The policeman came forward, gun drawn.
"I would have shot him. Really, I would have."
Shut up, I willed him.
"What did you do to him?" He asked in awe.
"Nothing. Call an ambulance."
The beeps and muted bustle of the world's worst waiting room fought the smell of antiseptic for possession of the air, as I sat down to wait beside Juliana Spring. The slump of her tempered shoulders informed me she had no emotions left. Sam was sleeping down the hall, six stitches, no fracture, and an egg on his crown fit to hatch the Christmas turkey we had not had time to eat.
"Is he awake?" I offered, by way of conversation.
"What did you do to him?"
My eyes winced shut.
"I did nothing"
"How is he?"
"Doctor Sato says his mind is clear, but his body is completely wrecked. She says it was either a stroke or a heart attack, or possibly both at once. She says it's hard to tell because we don't have any medical records..."
She trailed off, gazing through the tiles. Her hands tore at a Styrofoam cup.
"The police searched his house for paperwork, but they couldn't find anything useful. Just junk and religious tracts...no records...no will..."
"They found..." Her voice died. She tried again.
I put my arm around her, but she was done with tears.
"They found my mother's teeth in the basement."
"You know? Why do you always know?"
I shook my head.
"What will you do?" Said I, when the silence became too painful.
"He's dying, isn't he?"
"Yes," I responded, knowing it was true.
"When I suppose I'll have to forgive him."
"That is up to you."
Nurses flitted past, pale as ghosts, busy as angels, each sacrificing their Christmas day to make the world a touch less painful. After a timeless tedium Juliana squeezed my hand.
"Thanks." Only a whisper, but sincere.
I smiled thinly.
"He wants to see you, you know," said Juliana suddenly.
"That's what he said."
"He didn't say. He just asked me to send in the damned Druid if he came around."
I contemplated the machines, the smells of death and healing.
"Then I will go and see him."
Russell Raskin lay like a skull on a pillow, his hands gnarled and nearly lifeless on the sheet that pinned him down. Wires trailed beneath the cloth. A tube bled oxygen into the air beneath his nose. His eyes followed me as I entered the room. There was a chair by the window. I sat.
"You knew." His voice was quiet.
"I looked into your eyes and saw the truth that lived there."
"God told you," muttered Russell. "He told you, so that you would tell me, that I might see my life for what it was. The bastard. You are no better than I was. Why should He let you win?"
I said nothing.
"He did not lie, you know."
"I do not think the gods can lie. It seems a purely human art."
"He told me no human hand would stop me, too. I did not realize that meant He would."
"Perhaps he was giving you the chance to stop yourself."
"Shut up with the righteousness, will you?"
I studied the wires and tubes, the machines that stretched his life.
"Look at me- a dying preacher discussing God with a Druid. I must be mad."
"I once read that the important religious distinction was not between those who believed and those who did not, but between those who loved and those who did not. What you or I believe may not matter so long as we act with love."
"What does not leave me any better off," growled Russell.
I looked away.
"You loved them both, Russell. You could not have hated so powerfully else."
"Do you believe that?"
I shrugged carefully.
His eyes blazed.
"Answer me, damn you! Do you believe that? Or are you feeding me lies so I'll die content?"
"I was offering an interpretations of events that might bring you peace, should you choose to believe it. How could I know what you felt?"
"You knew what I did."
'What is not the same thing. Besides, is it not the role of priests to bring comfort to the dying?"
"Not this priest. I've never wanted comfort. Comfort keeps you from facing the truth."
"Facing the truth just got you killed."
"Bullshit. Hiding the truth got me killed. Owning up to it just let me die- that and your damned questions. And don't expect me to thank you for that either!"
"I don't. Believe me."
Raskin coughed, exhausted by the effort.
"Why did you do it, anyway?" He asked.
The preacher was silent.
"I heard her play, you know. At the concert. A friend of a friend told me about it. That's how I found you. She is good. If God loves music you may not have done such a bad thing."
"She has thrown her whole life into the harp," I responded. "I only hope she forgives me that."
"If not, it's nothing worse than what I've done."
"So? You only hid the truth. I let her believe a false one."
"That's not as bad as murder. Maybe I will see you in Hell after all." The pale Christmas sunshine sidled slowly down the wall. Church bells caroled in the steeple outside.
"Why did you want to see me?" I asked.
The old man chuckled.
Who else was I supposed to talk to? Juliana? My flock? Haven't you read your Nietzsche? All friends lie. Only your enemies will tell you the truth."
I smiled ruefully. There was nothing I could say to that.
"Speaking of which," said Russell sharply.
I stilled my features. Dying as he was, this man could still wound me.
"I've heard it said that Juliana sold her soul to play the way she does. Do you know anything about that?"
"There are different ways to sell ones' soul," I answered very carefully. "One can drive a supernatural bargain, one can destroy some thing or quality central to ones' identity, or one can commit ones' self so completely to a single pursuit that everything else must be neglected. Out of countless paths Juliana has chosen one- and never left it. She has never explored anything else, never tried to discover other worlds, other loves, other things she could be. She has brutally pruned her own possibilities, and thus accomplished something practically impossible. In that sense she has sold her soul. To me that is an admirable and terrifying choice."
Juliana's father watched me very quietly.
"There was nothing supernatural involved?"
"There was nothing supernatural involved."
Russell grunted. It could have meant anything.
"What a strange way to think," he muttered at last.
Minutes drifted by. Raskin's breaths were getting weaker.
"Is Sam alright?" He asked me suddenly.
"A few stitches. He will be fine."
A certain tension went out of him.
"Last request time, isn't it?"
I bit my lip, nodded.
"Tell Juliana she can perform at my funeral." He grinned savagely. "Bet she always wanted to play me to death."
"I'll do that."
Russell Raskin glared up at me. His grey eyes burned, dimming.
"Thrice damned Druid! Take care of my little girl for me."
"I will," I whispered, and he was gone.
Very few people can manage a funeral and a wedding in the same week with any sort of grace. Sam was one of those few. Watching him move amongst the wedding guests and the mourners from Russell's church, I realized what it was in him that my lovely harpist loved. Juliana Spring Raskin Hammersmith refused to have the wedding put off. She put on all the requisite roles and played at both events.
There was something new in her music now. In her triple guise as daughter, widow, and angel of death, she played at the funeral something I had never heard. There was grief in it, and longing, forgiveness, surcease and healing. She was burying both her parents that day, though none but we three knew it. She played what she played, and the gathered mourners wept, longed, suffered, and forgave, without ever understanding what it was for.
"What was that?" I asked her later.
"The music in my dreams. I just sat and listened and played what I felt. It is the first time that has happened."
"Maybe it was worth it," she added.
She was staring at nothing at all as she spoke. I knew not if she addressed myself, or the grave.
"Juliana," I began.
"No." She stopped me. "I am not the best in the world yet. Almost, but not yet. That might not be so important now, but this new thing is. This is a thing I need to explore."
She rose and left me where the wind played games with the snowflakes and the headstones, the memories and the souls.
At the wedding she played love, but that is an impoverished word to call what was in her music. She played the passion of the newly wed, the depth and humor that comes of knowing another life and mind through twelve long years. She played the tender care of a parent- and this from someone who had never had a child. And she played something else. A thing too powerful to name, that choked me with a private longing. It reached inside to drag out notions I had sworn I would never entertain, and left me shaken with its passage. Juliana's eyes caught mine as she touched the strings, and she smiled at me for the first time since the concert.
At last she released us and took Sam's hand in hers. The guests gaped, daring only to breath. The pastor stood slowly at the head of the chapel. He stretched forth tremulous arms and raised his face to the heavens.
"Amen!" He exclaimed.
And that was the wedding.
Now I grow weary of the passage of time, and this telling has nearly reached its end. Five years later Juliana was the best harpist in the world, without a doubt, by any standard you cared to name. There were those who said she was the best musician in the world, that she played on peoples' souls instead of strings.
The seasons' changeless change had swung through to Beltain again when the couple came to visit me. I led them down to the workshop where I had labored all winter.
"I have something for you," I let on as we approached.
Standing on the bench was a small traveling harp of darkest mahogany, completely unadorned, polished as glass. Its strings glowed like liquid sunshine in the clear spring light.
"Is that what I think it is?" Sam wondered aloud.
"Golden strings," I smiled. "The best harpists have always had them."
"You're trying to make a legend out of me, aren't you?" Said Juliana.
"If I am, I am too late. You are that already. I just wondered what gold harp strings might sound like, that is all, and you are the only one good enough to do them justice."
She gave me a quick hug.
"You are too kind."
"Hardly. But come outside. The Maypole is starting."
The rest of the day was a time of celebration and life, that fluid, wonderful, time defying clarity that once seen remains forever living in a persons' heart. The feast was consumed, the pole danced and braided, the King and Queen of the May chosen, crowned and married. I sat on a sun soaked log to rest my knees after the ceremony, watching the wedding games. The King and Queen stood in a circle of revelers, their hands tied to full wine cups, holding a kiss between them. Those in the ring joked, teased, and shouted, gleefully doing everything they could short of actual contact to make the couple laugh and break it off.
Juliana collapsed lightly to my right, flowers in her hair and laughter in her eyes.
"All these years, all these Beltains," she began. "How is it that you never married?"
I looked at her in surprise. Her eyes teased mine.
"Who would have had me?"
"I might have."
"I am twice your age, dear."
"Not any more you're not."
"True. But you had Sam."
"True." She gazed at him fondly from across the green.
"We are thinking of having children, he and I. I am not quite too old yet."
She laughed. "But what sort of mother would a soulless woman make?"
"Juliana Spring," sighed I, and took her hand in mine. "I never took your soul."
"I never took it. Your soul has been yours all along."
"But you did! Our bargain- you spoke those words and I felt it leave!"
"It was all in your mind then. I do not really know if souls can be sold. Lost, saved, destroyed, nourished, abandoned, loved, certainly, but to the best of my knowledge your soul is with you always, love it or hate it, to do with as you will. What would I have done with an extra soul, anyhow?"
The harpist's jaw worked soundlessly.
"But if you couldn't buy my soul, why did you even want to meet me in the first place?"
"I wanted to see what it was like to want something that badly. I never have, you know. Most people never do. I could not imagine a desire so strong in a person that young. I had to meet you."
Laughter erupted throughout the glade. Someone had started people-fishing with doughnuts.
"You tricked us," she said at last.
"I did. Are you angry?"
"I don't know yet... If there was no bargain, then everything you've done..."
"I did nothing." I cut her off. "It was all you, Juliana."
"What would you have done all those years ago, if I had told you souls could not be sold, that only practice, passion, and infinite dedication could make you a better harpist? What if I had told you that even with guidance, time, and expert teachers there was no guarantee you would ever be as good as you wanted, or that dream music could never be properly reproduced? I had never even heard you play, remember?"
"I might have become a nurse," she reflected. "Why didn't you though?"
"Because you were serious. Because you were strong enough to make me wonder. Because the gods love it when we act bravely." Her deep, deep eyes searched mine.
"And because, watching you, I got just an inkling of how powerful that desire might be."
In an ideal world she would have kissed me then. But we were in this one, and the moment passed.
"I will name my firstborn after you."
"Even if it is a girl?"
"Even better! I could never have done it without you."
"Nonsense," said I, but it is hard to sound believably stern when your cheeks are flushing crimson.
Juliana played her new harp for us that night, while the couples snuggled and the stars blazed down. She sat on our log in a borrowed cloak with her hair blowing long about her shoulders. The strings burned golden in the firelight as they sang, and a whole generation of listening fools began to believe in magic.
It was the story of her life we heard, made music, wordless and eloquent. Dream songs from her childhood, her mother vanished, father possessed, early despair in her years in college and the flush of young love in meeting Sam. Then came the power, the wonder, the mystery and horror of an unspeakable bargain, the surrender, confidence and strange purity it engendered, and at last the full splendor of the mature theme began. Two decades of concentration and skill in one ascending spiral, the struggle, journey, grief, love, discovery, mastery... and at the end, when I was sure there could be nothing left to feel, came joy.
Webmastered by Mike Scharding