Aylwin thought her way was the only way—until the Goddess showed her otherwise.
All seemed well in the orchard that morning and in the woods beyond.
Walking from the Big House through the orchard, Aylwin paused on her way to breakfast to drink in the sight of a cluster of rosy-yellow apples against the pale blue sky that showed through the branches of the apple tree. She stood very still and breathed deeply, trying to fix the color and scent of the apples in her mind.
She’d risen at dawn as usual, in company with her colleagues, to gather on the veranda of the Big House that served as their dormitory while the Great Barn’s bedrooms were undergoing repairs. They sat on the wide veranda drinking coffee and talking in low voices while they watched the grey mist rise slowly from the wet lawn to reveal the shadowy deer coming out to nibble around the edges. They were mostly does and fawns, although the occasional buck appeared.
Resuming her walk through the rows of apple trees, Aylwin turned a corner and stopped again. A doe was standing beneath one of the trees, nibbling apples from a low-hanging branch. Two dappled fawns, one on each side, stood close to their mother. Sunlight filtering through the foliage highlighted the spots on the fawns’ backs and the lustrous dark eyes of the doe.
Aylwin did not breathe at all, but sent up a prayer. Thank you, Diana, matron goddess, for giving me this moment of pure beauty and joy. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.
The wind shifted slightly; the doe became aware of the human. In an instant she and the fawns leaped away through the orchard into the woods.
In a mood compounded of exhilaration and reverence, Aylwin resumed her walk. It was time for breakfast in the Great Barn, where most of the commune’s business was conducted. There was a great deal to do because it was the day before Lammas Eve.
Tomorrow she and several others would spend the day baking the bread loaves for which the sabbat was named: “Lammas” derived from “loaf-mass.” The day after would be market day, which this year would fall on Lammas itself. Half the loaves they made would be sold at market; the other half would be retained to feed the commune. And two loaves would be placed on the altar, of course, in thanksgiving.
I am lucky to be here, Aylwin thought as she savored her breakfast of granola and blueberries. I never thought I’d be doing anything like this—living miles out in the country, doing farm chores.
Indeed, it was an unlikely thought for a city-bred teacher of high school English. But during an Ostara ritual several months ago, in which the leading priestess had invited everyone to aspect a patron god or matron goddess, Aylwin had received the message that was to change her life. Diana had delivered the message in no uncertain terms: “You are too contented with your home and hearth. You need to get out into the woods more. You need to spend a great deal more time looking at the moon than you have been.”
Struck by these words, Aylwin had mused on them for some time afterwards. It was true that she loved her life: loved her little walled city garden with its beds of herbs and flowers, its espaliered peach trees, its pots of strawberries and lavender. She enjoyed making her way around the city by bicycle if the weather were fine, rejoiced in the slow change of the seasons, took great delight in curling up with her books at night in her favorite recliner with a cat or two. Yes, she was far too content.
By sheer chance an opportunity to work on the farming commune had offered itself through a flyer at the local farmers’ market: free room and board for two months in the summer in exchange for eight hours’ work a day, six days a week. Aylwin’s request was accepted immediately, and now here she was—windblown, tanned, and insect-bitten, but happy.
Just as she was lifting the last spoonful of granola to her mouth, the voice of Falcon, one of the commune’s administrators, boomed through the room. “I have a few ANNOUNCEMENTS!”
Across the room Red Hawk, Falcon’s husband, held a finger to his lips. Falcon grinned in acknowledgment and resumed his speech. “Okay, folks, you probably don’t want to hear this but we’ve had a visit from a county board member and a landowner. They’ve declared a deer cull on the land adjoining ours, which means—” Falcon held up a hand to hush the murmur of protest that rose from twenty outraged throats—“that we will not interfere with the hunters in any way. No attempts to engage them in conversation, no attempts to stop them, nothing! You know the trouble we’ve had getting permission to rent this land. The owners think we’re a bunch of hippies that drum all night around the fire circle and go skinny dipping in the lake. We’ll have to just ignore the deer hunters and go on with our work.”
Someone raised a hand. “When does the deer cull begin?”
“Today. And oh, by the way, I checked—it’s bow hunting, not guns. Be careful as you go about your chores and don’t wear anything white.”
Someone else raised a hand. “More important, when does it stop?”
“Saturday will be the last day. Now, with regard to the Lammas ritual, the ritual planning team will meet in the Big House this afternoon and…”
Aylwin, who was not a member of the ritual planning team, returned to her breakfast, seething. A deer cull! Blast the county board, the landowners, and all who would participate in the deer cull! She thought of the entrancing sight she’d been granted just half an hour ago and felt a wrench of the heart at the thought that any of them, doe or fawns, might be killed.
A thought struck her: as soon as she finished this morning’s chores she’d visit the Queen Oak in the woods, where she had put up a little statue of Diana and erected a small altar of fieldstones. She would implore the Goddess to spare the lives of the wild things in the woods—the deer, the rabbits, the squirrels, the birds.
After lunch, hurrying through the woods to the Queen Oak, Aylwin picked as many wildflowers as she could fit into the jar of water she carried with her—white Queen Anne’s lace, black-eyed susans, blue wild chicory, yellow lady’s slipper. After placing the jar on the altar she bowed her head. “Diana, Goddess of the woods and all that is wild, please accept my gift of flowers and protect all your beautiful creatures. Let them come to no harm! So mote it be.”
As she straightened up, still looking at the statue, she felt the hairs rise on the back of her neck. She sensed she was not alone. Someone else was there: someone in the woods, perhaps, watching her. Slowly, she turned around. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a sudden flicker of movement behind the trees but she could not discern whether it was animal or human.
Well, back to work. It was her turn to pick the lettuces for tonight’s dinner. Aylwin made her way quickly back to the Great Barn and the greenhouse. She stopped to laugh at the sight of the white duck chivvying a group of hens away from the barn toward the springhouse. The white duck reminded her of a drill instructor in charge of a gang of raw recruits: the chickens appeared to be in awe of him, scurrying along every time he flapped his wings and quacked.
That evening after Affinity Group Ritual, Aylwin, still deep in thought, found herself walking behind two of the priestesses, White Crane and Silver Oak, back to the dining hall for the usual after-ritual “grounding” meal. This was simply apple cider or herb tea, along with nuts, honey, and slices of fruit bread.
There was a sudden noise ahead, then the two in front stopped dead and exclaimed in surprise and concern. “Great Mother!”
Coming up alongside the priestesses, Aylwin saw that a bird’s nest had fallen from the eaves of the dining hall, along with two sinuous black snakes. The baby birds’ cheeping was quickly stilled as the snakes swallowed them, made short work of the two unhatched eggs, and slithered off.
“Oh, how awful!” Aylwin clutched White Crane’s arm. “Did you see? Oh, those poor babies!”
“Aylwin, dear,” White Crane said, “it is the way of Goddess. There is nothing we could have done and nothing we should have done. It is not for us to interfere.”
Silver Oak patted Aylwin’s arm reassuringly. “We don’t like to look at ‘nature red in tooth and claw,’ my dear. But it’s part of the endless cycle of life. The big fish eats the little fish and we eat the big fish…”
“Not I,” Aylwin said. “I’m vegetarian.”
“But still. You drink milk from cows, you eat eggs from chickens, you consume honey from bees. All part of the cycle, Aylwin, remember that.”
Aylwin bowed her head in assent. The priestesses were right. She was as guilty as anyone of exploiting the animal kingdom. She resolved to become a vegan.
Sick at heart, she could barely force down the tea and bread, and went to bed still in a somber mood.
The next morning found her in better spirits. It was Lammas Eve, after all, and there was nothing like Lammas tide to put a smile on one’s face. How good it was to mix the yeast with the water, to add the flour and lovingly knead the dough, how fine to set the dough to rise in the great ceramic crocks. As the kitchen was cooled only by fans—the Great Barn wasn’t big on modern conveniences like air conditioning—some of the workers stripped to the waist as the day went on and the temperature rose.
The smell of baking bread always soothed Aylwin’s soul. She admired the perfect loaves as they were turned out of their pans and set to cool on wire racks. “Wish we could have some of it now, don’t you?” Lily Waterdaughter whispered to her.
“I do indeed! But at any rate, we’ll have it for dinner tonight.”
The workers finished at mid-afternoon. Leaving the loaves to cool, they wandered off in twos and threes—some back to the Big House for a nap, some to the lake for a swim, some to simply sit somewhere cool and do absolutely nothing.
On Lammas Day Aylwin woke just before dawn. There were so many things to think about: the Lammas feast, for example. That night they would enjoy roasted vegetables over pasta, along with the bread they’d baked. Berries were traditional food at Lammas, so she and Lily would make strawberry tarts, blueberry cake, and blackberry rolypoly for dessert. After dinner there would be an outdoor ritual with a huge balefire shooting sparks toward the heavens. As they danced around it they would symbolically cast the qualities they wished to discard from their characters into the leaping flames.
Time to be up and doing. Quickly Aylwin washed and dressed, leaving the Big House just as day was breaking. Before she began the day’s work she would gather flowers again to place on Diana’s altar at the Queen Oak. Today was to be the last day of the deer cull. To be sure, she’d already asked the Goddess to keep the wild ones safe, but the wildflowers would have withered by now. It couldn’t hurt to make a fresh offering.
She enjoyed what she always thought of as “the summer smell” of dew-heavy grass and moist earth. The grass was so thick that although it left a sheen of moisture on her boots her passage through the woods made no sound. Aylwin picked an armload of flowers and made her way to the Queen Oak.
A shaft of sunlight struck the glade just as she reached it, lighting the scene that met her horrified eyes. With a gasp she let the flowers fall to the ground and ran to the altar. “Great Mother!”
There were fresh wildflowers in the vase, although the flowers she’d offered the other day should have died by now. But it was the dead deer lying at the foot of the stone altar that shocked Aylwin.
It was a doe. Oh, please, Diana, let it not be the doe, the mother! But no: this doe appeared to be young and slender, not a female in the full flush of maturity.
At a sound behind her Aylwin whirled around. She saw the man in hunting clothes, bow and arrow in hand, his face a study in bemusement.
“You,” she said, and the single word shot like an arrow through the stillness. “You did this!”
“I didn’t kill her.”
“You must have!”
“I didn’t, I swear! Look, do you see any arrow marks? Not one, not one. No wounds of any kind.”
Aylwin looked. It was true, as far as she could see. No punctures or bullet wounds were visible.
“I watched you the other day. I saw you put the flowers there. Yesterday evening I picked flowers too and put them on the altar. I prayed to Her.”
He turned to look at the statue of Diana and said in a tone of wonderment, “She heard my prayer and accepted the flowers. When I came here this morning I found this, Her gift to me.”
He picked up the deer, slinging it across his shoulders. “This will feed us for a couple of months, along with what we grow.”
“Why don’t you eat just what you grow?” Aylwin said angrily. “Why do you have to kill?”
He met her gaze. “I have growing children. They need protein. I can’t afford to buy food, and the food banks are empty, the demand is so great. I was an engineer before I was laid off. I’ve sent out resumes, I’ve interviewed, I’ve called, I’ve walked the streets trying to find work. It’s been a year now and I still don’t have a job.”
Aylwin continued to look at him, not speaking.
“Do you have a job?” the man asked.
“Can you afford to buy anything you want to eat?”
Tears sprang to her eyes. She nodded again.
“You’re lucky. I hope nothing happens to your job. Good day.”
Turning once more toward Diana’s statue, the hunter bowed his head. “Thank you, Goddess.” He shifted his burden more comfortably across his shoulders and turned to go.
Aylwin heard the voice of White Crane echoing in her mind. It is the way of Goddess.
She looked at the hunter and lifted her hand in farewell. “Warm hearth and sweet medicine.”
“The same to you,” he said, and walked away.
Going back through the woods to the orchard, Aylwin realized what she had to discard: her arrogance toward those who didn’t believe what she herself believed, who didn’t follow her religion or her way of life. And there was something else she had to acknowledge—that there were events in which she could not, should not interfere. She thought of what Silver Oak had said. “It’s part of the endless cycle of life, Aylwin.”
Reaching the orchard, she turned for one last look in the direction of the Queen Oak. “Thank you for giving me the gift of acceptance, Goddess. So mote it be.”