On the first night, we slaughter animals for the winter.
I walk behind my father carrying a shallow bowl of blood. Mother and I drained it from one of the chickens moments ago and it’s still warm.
We are a chain of people weaving through the field. Father first, then me, then my mother and sisters with black veils over their faces. The rest of the town comes behind, trailing back to the edge of the trees. We are a snake, a serpent of frost, of death, searching out the oldest of the cows, the ill hogs, the troublemaking goats. When Father chooses a beast for death, he turns to me and dips his fingers into the cooling blood. I murmur, “Blood to mark,” and he replies, “God protect us.” He smears a widdershins circle onto every forehead; enough to feed us throughout the long dark of the year.
Oldest sons lead the animals away to the shambles, and there they wait for us.
It is the first night of Samhain, and the grass is dead. Trees spit scarlet and orange leaves to the earth, turning the fields to fire. There will be no more free grazing, no more evenings laying out among the sheep, staring at the stars with my sisters and whispering predictions for each other’s husbands. Nights will be spent huddled by the hearth fire at home, wrapped in my sisters’ arms beneath blankets rubbed with evergreen needles and dried rosemary to keep bad dreams away.
Blood to mark I say again and again. We kill many this season, for the cunning man in Rose Spring says it will be a rough winter. My mother looked to the crows this morning and agreed.
Children at the end of the line gather handfuls of dry grass and their favorite leaves to toss onto the fires tomorrow, and I hear their laughter and nervous giggling. Tonight it is safe, but soon the spirits will come, the devils and goblins hungry for our winter harvest.
Last, we come to the horse pasture. Here we do not go to the dying or troubled. Father pushes through the herd for Fourth Wind, a stallion in his prime. Gray as a ghost and proud, Wind’s nostrils flare at the scent of the blood in my bowl. I hate this, the feeling of loss twisting my stomach. Wind has sired beautiful horses and I’ve raced over the hills on his back, thrilled and terrified.
Two men step forward to restrain him. One is Rhun, my neighbor’s oldest son. He has dark eyes and a slow smile that makes me glance away. He holds one hand out to me, shaking his head to keep me back. Wind rears and my father’s shoulder knocks me so that my blood bowl sloshes.
Ropes wind around the horse’s neck and Father quickly marks a dark red circle over the slash of white starring Wind’s brow.
My face hurts from holding back the ache. But a horse must be slaughtered. The dead must eat this winter, too. Rhun leans forward and wipes his thumb down my cheek. “You have blood on your face,” he says with a frown.
The second night we burn their bones.
The day’s been spent killing and butchering, salting some for the year and dolling parts out to the families who share the herds. We’ve been baking, too, and stringing woven grass around the bonefire as Rhun and his brothers build up the tower of wood. Old Miss Marion’s cauldron waits like a chunk of nighttime, waits for Fourth Wind’s head.
Icy wind blows through town, promising to keep cold our meat over the night. The smell of death wipes the last scent of flowers from the sky. I bundle dry lavender and the last of my dill together and pin them to my sisters’ collars. Between gusts of blood and cold, the relaxing perfume trickles up.
I take a final bucket of water to Fourth Wind, where he’s tied at the edge of town. He does not drink, though I smooth his mane, feeling my fingers weave through his coarse hair. He rolls his eyes so I see the white all around and I want to free him, to untie the hobbles around his front legs and slap his flank until he runs faster than he ever has. But not even a horse can run from the dead.
A hand touches my back and I shudder. I close my eyes, not knowing if a human being stands behind me until his warm breath skims my neck. “The wind is too cold for you to go without your hood, Riana.”
“I wanted him to know me,” I whisper, watching Fourth Wind’s eyes.
Turning me by my shoulders, Rhun makes me face him. “When he comes for you tomorrow, will you go with him?”
“Everyone will.” My hands are shaking and I tuck my arms over my chest, burying my cold fingers against my ribs.
“But you…” Rhun tightens his grip on my shoulders. “If he comes for you first will you dance at his side? Will you walk with him into the arms of the dead? Will you help him be strong to survive till morning?”
I stand with my lips apart, barely breathing. “Yes.”
When he kisses me there is no warmth. Our lips are as cold as the rest of us.
We go separately back to the fires as the sun sets and the roar of flames draws us in. Barley ale is passed, and bones, too. We suck at marrow and throw the hollow bones onto the fires.
The moon rises and we feast on roasted pig. Aaron stands near the cauldron with his fiddle and plays hard and fast. Mother drags Father to dance and my littlest sister shrieks with laughter, clapping in time with her friends. I toss rosemary and evergreen into the fires, changing the smoke, and for a while at least I forget the horse as I whirl and laugh with the rest of my town. Tonight is the second night, when we feast and celebrate and toss out the bones, just us and us and us; no dead, no haunting devils, no goblins pulling skirts and clawing ankles.
The sun rises for the third day and we rise, too, from shallow sleeping, from prophecy dreams and ale-soaked nightmares. I whisper my dream to my closest sister: I am watching her wedding from above, as though I float in the wind. I feel free and happy, and she looks up at me from beneath her flower-crown. With a smile, she beckons me to join her. I fly down, and when I take her hand it bleeds.
Before she can respond, Father walks into the circle for coal-fires. Behind him is Rhun and his father, pulling a skittish Fourth Wind. My fists clench. I close my eyes as my sister takes my hand and leads me into the line. In darkness I walk. Out into the fields again, where the light of the sun does nothing to steal the chill from my cheeks. I do not join in the quiet humming. Nor do I watch when they cut his throat and his blood pours into the earth. It soaks into the cracks of the field, splattering the dead yellow grasses.
I stand with my arms wrapped around myself as they quarter the corpse. Parts are taken to each corner of our land, a boundary of blood and bone to tell the dead where we are.
But the head is taken back to town. Old Miss Marion’s cauldron is set over flames and Wind’s head is stripped of skin and meat. Eyes go to Mother, who will save them for burying with honey half a year from now.
The skull goes into the cauldron. Two hours hard boil, with the bubbles roiling and popping so hard the children play at getting as close as they can without burning their faces. After that, it will be picked clean and returned to a simmer for the rest of the day. Come night, come night – the final night – Fourth Wind will invite the dead to feast.
The third night we wait in our houses. My back presses against the inside of the front door, my shawl clutched around me. Father and Mother wait in the center of the little house, holding hands. My sisters flank them like a flock of geese fleeing south.
The red glow from the setting sun traces along the dining table, highlighting generations worth of nicks and gouges. I know every singe one, and have run my fingers along them. I wonder what the table of the dead will feel like under my hands.
The door vibrates with the first knock and I close my eyes. The second comes and Father nods to me. At the third knock I turn and throw open the door.
He is there.
White bone glows in the moonlight; a horse skull grinning down at me. His shoulders are covered in a horsehair cloak and leather’s from last year’s beast wrap around his legs. Braided tails spill down his back.
And I can just see his slow smile hiding in the shadows under the jawbone.
He spreads his arms and steps back, tossing his head like a prancing horse. Inviting us out. I take a deep breath and reach for his hand. It is warm and we weave our fingers together. He pulls me into the road toward our neighbors. I hear my family lining behind us.
Together we knock on every door, calling the town to join us, to dance with us to the dead feast. Through houses and gardens we weave; a cold snake, a death snake, but now with our own death’s head.
Around and around the bonefire, through the bloody smoke we dance. His hand firm in mine. We do not laugh or shriek or call with the rest of the town. The moon rises higher and we spin into the field where Fourth Wind died.
He stops. The town pours around us in a massive crescent. A shield between us and the town. And at the edge of the trees the dead wait.
Crouched and huddled, peeking through branches, crawling up from the ground. Meat in their teeth, blood under their nails. Pale as light, hard as stone. They are everything dead: maggots and rot and perfect airy spirits. Floating, reaching, begging. One holds a horse hoof in its hands, another braids tendons together into a bracelet. They have our quartered offerings, and they wait. They stare at Fourth Wind’s skull.
His hand trembles. I grip it between both of mine. He steps forward. He must go to them. To dance with them in the death-mask. To survive the night on his feet, leading them a chase through the woods so they cannot come back to town before dawn.
My mother calls wordlessly, unwilling to say my name before the hosts of the dead. She has realized what I mean to do.
I glance back once, and wave.
Then before Rhun charges, I leap away from him, running toward the dead.
His steps beat after me and I hold out my hand.
Our fingers link.
The dead slather gleefully and lick their lips.
It is the third night of Samhain, and we run together.
Note: image by mpujals.