Samhain, a Tale of Death




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Autumn was waning and a cold wind blew, scattering the dry leaves. The crops had all withered, and the roots been stored away for winter. In the village, a man named Duskward looked up somberly into the bleak sky. His wife had taken ill, and he feared the coming of winter.

So Duskward went to the home of the village healer. "My wife is ill," he said. "She has a terrible cough and cannot stand up for long. She eats little."

The healer pulled a great book down from its shelf and quickly turned the pages until he found what he was after. He read, muttering to himself, and then closed the book with a thud and spoke. "She has taken ill from swamp vapors. Here-" He rummaged through his shelves until he found a bottle of yellowish powder. "You must give her this, a spoonful dissolved in hot water, three times each day."

"Will this cure her?"

The healer squinted and scratched his chin. "It is the best treatment known," he said. "But her illness is a serious one. Not everyone survives it."

Duskward paid the healer and returned home with the medicine. A week passed. His wife's cough improved, but she became very weak and dizzy, and her complexion was very pale. Fear grew inside him. The medicine was changing her, but she was not getting well. He did not know if he was doing the right thing.

Duskward then visited the village priest. The priest listened patiently to his worries, and put his hand on Duskward's shoulder. "Listen, young man. You must pray for her, each morning and each night before you sleep. Only by the favor of God does each of us enjoy the blessings of life and health. Your wife, perhaps, has done some wrong, and so God has withdrawn his favor from her. If you are pious and dutiful, it may be that He will be merciful and bring her back to health."

Duskward thanked the priest and walked home, quiet and thoughtful. He knew his wife was not perfect, nor was he. But he did not believe her illness could be a punishment for wrongdoing, when there were so many thieves, killers, and scoundrels in the world who remained in fine health. Nevertheless, Duskward did say a silent prayer before entering his house.

His wife looked even paler than when he had left her. He prepared the medicine for her, but she refused it. "Take me to the wise woman," she said, "she will know what to do."

"It is a long way," said Duskward. "and it is cold outside."

"If I have my walking stick, and you to lean on, I will be fine."

Reluctantly, Duskward agreed, and they prepared to walk to the wise woman's cottage. He gave his wife his heavy coat and fur-lined boots to wear, and helped her from her bed. When they stepped outside, a bitter wind blew down the village street, carrying with it the first snowflakes of winter.

It was indeed a long walk. The wise woman lived at the very edge of the village, in a cottage nestled near a large copse of old trees. Brown leaves covered the ground, and the gray, clouded sky made the place seem forlorn and dark. The path leading to the cottage was lined with bushes and herbs of all kinds, and wild grass and vines grew up between them.

Duskward knocked on the small wooden door that was the cottage's only entrance. After a long pause, the door opened. The wise woman, whose name was Shadecloak, looked at them both with dark, sharp eyes, and welcomed them into her cottage. Her body was small and bent with age; she carried a twisted old stick to lean on, and wore layers of gray and brown clothing.

Duskward explained the illness and his efforts to find a cure. "I know you are wise with herbs and spells and old lore. Can you help?"

Shadecloak approached the ailing woman, who was slumped over and shivering. "Are you in pain, child?"

"Yes, in my chest."

Shadecloak made some strong, hot tea and gave it to her. "This will help."

"Will it cure her illness?" asked Duskward.


"Do you know what will cure her?"

Shadecloak sat silently for a few minutes, gazing off into space. Then she pulled a small shawl off her back and handed it to Duskward. "Would you mend this?" she asked.

"I'd be happy to," he said, "but is that all you need in exchange? I could bring you food, or money, or-"

"You don't understand," she smiled. "I didn't ask you for anything except your opinion. Would you mend this?"

Duskward now took a closer look at the shawl she had handed him. It had many lines of stitching where it had been repaired before. It was frayed around the edges and the cloth had grown thin. Many small holes were opening up around the old stitchwork. He was quiet.

"I wouldn't," said Shadecloak. "If it tears again, I will take it out into the garden, and it will crumble under the winter snows. In the spring, birds will use pieces of it for their nests. It was mine for awhile, I have made good use of it, and now it is time to pass it along. I can find new."

Duskward began to weep. "I thought you would help. But now you are saying I should just discard her, let her die? She's not a shawl, she's a person. She can't be replaced."

"You don't understand," Shadecloak smiled again. "It's not you that needs to let go of something, it's her." The wise woman turned her gaze away from Duskward and toward his wife, who seemed very peaceful now, slowly drinking her tea.

"You mean this body of mine . . . I should give it back."

"Yes, child. When the time comes, and you know that you no longer need it." She turned to Duskward again, "It's very hard for those of us left behind, on this side of the veil," she said. "Because we miss the ones we love. But you cannot stop the turning of the wheel. One thing must pass into the next. Everything comes, stays awhile, then goes away so that something new can come."

"But she is young still!"

"Life isn't about years," she said quietly, and Duskward suddenly realized how very old she seemed. "It's about what we do. The years are just an empty pot, be it large or small. It's what you fill it with that matters."

There was a silence that felt to Duskward as though he had stepped outside of time and found a place where all the happenings of the world, real and imagined, became like the foam on a tumbling mountain stream.

With a dull clink, the empty tea cup hit the earthen floor of the wise woman's cottage.

Seasons of the Goddess is a regular feature of Starweaver's Gems from Earth and Sky

Copyright © 2007 Tom Waters