The Three Wild Ghosts of Autumn: A Harvest Carol for September’s Soul Retrieval.
The wise crone was dead to begin with.
The wayward Priestess shivered under her blankets, haunted and hunted, the echo of her grandmother’s beyond-the-grave promise looping in her depression-heavy mind: Tonight, you will be visited by three spirits, my lost creature, my kin. Together, these wild ghosts will bring you home.
She had begged her to stay, the specter of the Stalwart Feminine, the woman who taught her how to fearlessly feel with her whole body, the knowing healer who showed her the Old Ways, the original Priestess of her matrilineal line who gifted her with a wild Book of Shadows and left this world so long ago.
Don’t leave me again, Gram! The Priestess had sobbed into the dark, but it was too late; the red-hooded wise-woman faded into nothingness, leaving only the warmth of her memory behind.
Alone again, this fragile Witch was. The threat of the pending visitation had dragged her out of the murky depths in which she had found herself these passed weeks, and she wondered if that was her grandmother’s game.
She could not wallow in her woundedness if she was terrified beyond the point of all thought, after all. Had her mind become so weak it was vulnerable to possession?
Perhaps she had died one of these last days, those early September between-days when the veil was thinning and she could not bring herself to get out of bed, those days that were as black as midnight even though the sun was shining. Indeed, she had wished for death; maybe it had come for her without her knowing, and her lonely heart had been condemned to the enduring purgatory of her bedroom.
The Priestess thought her soul was lost forever, stolen and dragged through the mud by those who once claimed to love her. Her ego had been struck hard by Kali’s sword, and she no longer knew who she was. It was no well-planned defense, but she surrendered to the madness now. What did she have to lose?
The so-small, whisper noises, to which her more alert mind would never attend, now made her body jump and jerk. She had never been more awake, so, no, she was still alive… for now, at least. Every demon from every horror movie she had ever seen, every villain’s face her mind had conjured from every book she had ever read, now waited for her outside her bedroom door, she was sure.
A hum so low she was uncertain she really heard it buzzed from the hallway, and her beast of a cat perked up and growled. Her heart-drum was pounding so loudly she could hear nothing else, and she crushed her eyes shut against the swelling, diamond-light glow calling to her from beneath the door.
Whoever was coming for her was here, and any warrior woman energy she used to have drained from the bottom of her bare feet. She was a little girl again, hiding under her bed, praying to the moon to save her from the monsters they told her were not there.
She repeated every mantra she knew. She made promises to all she knew as holy, and she repented the sins of her wilder days. She vowed to bow down before anyone who would save her from this great evil, and she resented the choices she made in her stronger days that left her alone in this house now.
Get up, wounded Witch a sultry voice demanded. Get up, and know me better, woman!
Cautiously opening one eye, she immediately felt more at ease. This was no horned demon before her, no red-eyed elemental come to drag her into the lake of fire; this was a soft-skinned, fire-haired, and full-bodied woman with bright eyes and a crooked smile. The Priestess obeyed, standing on shaking legs and managing to ask her visitor’s name.
I am the Ghost of Autumn Past the Maiden answered. Take my hand, for we have much to see.
Again, she did as she was told, and her bedroom wafted away like so much sage smoke, leaving behind blue, painted cinder-block walls. At first, she wondered if she was in a prison, but the sad chalkboards and scent of guilt told her exactly where she was. The lost Priestess immediately wished, with all that she was, to return to her dark bedroom, for now she truly was in hell.
Do you remember this place? The fire-haired Maiden asked her, waving her hand ceremoniously around the stale-aired room.
The Priestess swallowed hard, affirming Yes. Yes, I remember just as she saw her own face as a young girl, a face built from chubby cheeks and relentless hope. Her small body was seated on a bench, the angry-browed Sunday school teacher looming over her, pointing her holier-than-thou finger of shame. The Priestess searched her mind, trying to recall what catalyzed this specific reprimand.
Was it her skirt which was too short, or had she forgotten the words of the woman-damning Bible verse? Maybe this was the day she had asked too many questions about Mary Magdalene. The confused faces of the other little girls were too much to bear, and the Priestess covered her eyes.
Spirit, why did you bring me here? Take me from this place! she begged, and the ghostly Maiden squeezed her hand a little tighter.
The sounds of the soul-suffocating church faded, and the Priestess peered through her fingers; it was dusk now, and the buzz of the cicadas and songs of night-birds were a welcome change.
Do you remember this place? The Maiden asked, hopeful.
Hot tears welled in the Priestess’ eyes, for, indeed, she knew where she was. When she was a girl, if church was hell, this was surely heaven. Her grandmother’s garden bloomed abundant to her left, to her right was the great Mother Oak she used to climb as an act of holy communion, and before her was the fertile expanse of wild forest that was truly her sacred ground.
An adolescent version of herself dropped ungracefully from the oak’s branches, clutching her grandmother’s handwritten book of healing brews and spell-craft; she would steal it from to time before it was bequeathed to her at the hour of the wise one’s death, but she was sure her Gram always knew full well of the book’s whereabouts.
This is my grandmother’s house the Priestess managed to say, the holy waters of reverent emotion streaming down her cheeks. I was allowed to be wild here she smiled. This is the place where I learned who I was… before I forgot.
She heard her grandmother’s voice calling her to dinner, and she could almost smell her cooking again. Her heart welled so full and deep she fell to her knees, burying her face in the unmowed grass and praying to the Maiden to let her stay.
Don’t make me go back! This is where my soul lives! This was before they hurt me! I was so safe here she wailed. The Earth held me here with soft loamy arms, and I knew I belonged. Here, I was a She-God, and all was right with the world. I was so blessed… Her voice trailed off, muffled by the ground and going quiet just as the sky went a strong pink. I was so blessed, but I took it all for granted.
There was a long, oddly peaceful moment then while she cried into the dirt. She felt the Maiden’s hand on her back, comforting her, and the sounds of her childhood heaven faded. The next sensation she felt was her cat’s scratchy tongue on her cheek, and she found herself alone in her dark bedroom, alone and questioning her sanity, wishing for dawn.
Fluffing her pillow, she vowed to sleep dreamlessly this time, but a hearty cackle from behind her interrupted her plans. She leapt from the bed, heart in her mouth, meeting the eyes of a dark-skinned, bejeweled medicine woman who was smiling with a mother’s love.
I am the Ghost of Autumn Present, my love the spirit boomed. Take my hand, and let me show you the grace of the Holy Wild.
The Priestess hesitated, but only for a moment. Being near this woman was like nesting next to a fire with a warm, ceremonial drink; she was rooted perfection, Mother Goddess embodied.
Again, the room became immaterial, fading into a soft mist as soon as the two joined hands. This time, the mist lingered, looming cold and damp over a wide, moonlit field. There were others around, women busying themselves gathering wood, swaying their hips like temple dancers, sharing stories, burning herbs, giggling, crying, comforting one another, nourishing each other with whole-grain feminine sustenance.
This is your circle, my love the medicine woman crooned, squeezing the Priestess’ hand tightly with a knowing compassion. They are waiting for you right now, waiting for you to remember who you are.
A deep longing consumed the lonely Priestess then, a need to belong here so immense that she released the Spirit Mother’s hand and started to run toward the coven, but as soon as she let go, the scene faded, and she was returned to her room, alone.
It was pure isolation then, and she cried softly into her pillow, for some reason recalling threats from her childhood church that promised separation from divinity was hell; that was how she felt, leaving the circle of wild women behind. She felt as if she had been removed from the venerable warmth of divinity. For an instant, she felt her depression returning, but a spark in her belly ignited, stopping her from sinking deeper.
No she growled aloud. No! I am not going back into the dark. If I survive this night of soul retrieval, I will seek out that holy place she vowed. I will find those wild creatures who remind me of those parts of myself I’ve forgotten, and I will search for them until my feet are bloody, if I must.
Yes! A disembodied voice bellowed, shocking the Priestess back to the moment. An elder-woman with a lined face, grey, wire curls, and crooked walking stick stepped from the shadows, a shock-white and yellow-eyed wolf at her side. The hair on her cat’s back stood upright, and the two beasts stared at each other for a long moment, coming to an understanding.
I am the Ghost of Autumn Future the crone affirmed. Take my hand, and I will show you the hours before your death.
The Priestess was fairly certain that those hours were very nigh, and she had no fear left. She gripped the paper-skinned hand firmly, and the room faded. She found herself in a graveyard, wind howling and dead leaves swirling. The crone’s hair blew about her head like Medusa’s snakes, and the Priestess wondered if she was wrong to be fearless. Surely, one of these graves was her own.
Come the wise elder ordered, and her wolf snorted, as if to say the same.
They moved between the stones, and the Priestess began to hear voices. In the distance was a teenage girl and an old, red-hooded woman. The Priestess strained to hear them under the sounds of the Autumn night, and the wise ghost brought her closer. The two strangers were staring down at a nondescript grave-marker, and the Priestess could hear them now.
She was a force of nature the older, red-hooded woman said.
I wish I could have met her nodded the teenager.
The Priestess swallowed hard, realizing who these two were.
The red-hooded woman pulled something from her coat then, a tattered book, and handed it to the girl. This was hers. She gave it me when I was your age, and now I am giving it to you.
The Priestess listened to her own aging voice as the red-hooded one continued. There will be times when the world tries to make you forget who you are, granddaughter. People who you love dearly will paint their own wounds bright red on your skin, and you will think you are bleeding. There will be days when your world feels dark, when your soul feels stolen, and when you feel you’ve been irrevocably tamed.
The old Priestess nodded to the book. There is magick in your blood, young one. My grandmother had it, I have it, every woman in this world has it, and you are the wisest among us. Long after I’ve passed over to Spirit, you will wonder if it is truly your birthright to be a wild woman, and you will remember me telling you this: You are everything. You are the Holy Healer returned, and you are Wild Divinity embodied.
Yes the teenage girl affirmed, and the Priestess gazed at the wise eyes of a granddaughter she had yet to meet. The red-hooded one was her, and she had quite plainly lived a full life of rebellion.
The white wolf howled slow and mournfully just as the clouds above parted to show the full Harvest moon; the Priestess crushed her eyes shut at its brilliance, opening them to find herself again in her room, a dim orange glow promising dawn from the window.
She had survived. She had journeyed to the Underworld and back again, and she had brought her soul home with her. She pulled her somehow energized body from the bed and moved to her bookcase, pulling her grandmother’s Book of Shadows from the dusty corner. She stuffed the precious thing into her knapsack then, about to set out in search of the Wild Ones.
The dark night of her soul was over, and she knew the merit of the Holy Feminine, felt the call of the wild resonating in her bones.
She kissed her cat, a last sacrament before her journey, whispering Goddess Bless Us, Everyone.