Samhain

Saturday, April 27th, 2013

The trees on either side of her appeared black in the waning moonlight. She continued walking along the path, scarcely discernible through the overgrown brush and the dark canopy above. Pushing through the thicket, she heard the lap of the water up ahead. Stopping at the edge of the trees, looking out over the loch, Ciara reached down and pulled a small blade from her boot. Methodically she scanned the rocky shoreline, searching. There we are. She crossed to the far side of the bank where the patch of purple heather flourished along the bank and, pulling the blossoms aside, she began to hack at the base from the stems where they branched off of the primary root. Collecting several handfuls she rose slowly, tucking them away in her satchel.

She turned back and began making her way along the bank heading for the forest path. The clearing was quiet at this time of night, the rustlings of animals still a few hours away.

Ca-CAWW! Ciara reeled backwards, her blade held firmly against any oncoming threat.

The black hooded crow looked down at her from one of the lowest branches of the giant sentinel. Squawking again, it flew to the opposite bank. Ciara rolled her eyes and reached her hand into the satchel, twining her fingers through the heather. Healing is not heather’s sole purpose, she thought balefully, glaring at the crow. Readjusting the strap on her shoulder, she made her way to the mouth of the forest path.

Ciara walked steadily, breathing in the scents of the forest; moss and dirt fused with the fresh scent of heather in her bag. The trees grew sparser as she approached the tiny cottage. Her father would be waiting inside for her.

She entered the cottage and turned her face immediately to the warm hearth.

OOOMPH!

She tumbled to the ground, sprawled out on her back as the frumpy creature that tackled Ciara looked down at her with a toothy grin and bright eyes.

Ian! You’re supposed to be asleep.”

“Da said I could wait for you to get back. He said I could watch over the fairy mounds.” Ian’s face beamed under his mop of coppery hair. Ciara sighed with a tired smile, pushing her own tangled, red locks behind one ear.

“Ian, you’d better be more careful. Those fairies might just pluck you from the window and then what would we do?”

“I want to see the fairies.”

Ciara smiled patiently. “I know it. Now run along to bed, you’ll want to be rested for the festival tomorrow.”

Ian gave her a resentful look, his lean face pinched in a pout.

“Go on,” she nodded towards the small pallet on the floor.

She brought out the brass pot, filling it with water. Then, dumping the heather into the water, she hung the pot above the fire to simmer the herbs. Once the steam began to rise she moved to strain the dried leaves, pouring the tea into a small goblet. This she took to her father in his quiet corner by the hearth.

Ciara shook him gently and he woke with a start, wheezing and retching.

“Ciara, is that you?”

“Yes, Da.” She carefully tipped the cup to his mouth. This was his third of the night; they had run out of the herb earlier that evening, and she had planned to go and get more the next morning. That is until her father started coughing again. The Wasting Disease was sapping him of his energy.

Audrey?” Ciara looked up, taken aback. She wiped the hair off his sweating brow.

“No. Da.”

“Audrey? Ciara, I miss her so much.”

“I know, Da”

She watched him finish the tea. Then helped him to stand up out of his rocking chair, moving him over to his cot in front of the fire. Then she left him to rest.

Only three days ago he had seemed to be fine. Only coughing. Now he was getting worse. Mother. He had called her by her mother’s name. Her mother. It had been almost seven years now. She remembered running around in the glens with her mother when she was young. Her mother would allow her to hide amongst the heather. The downward slopes of the vale awash in shades of pink and purple, she would crouch low trying not to be seen, but her fiery hair stood out amongst the blossoms. Her mother would throw back her flaming hair in laughter, her bright eyes shining and lift her out of the sea of blossoms. The image of her mother swinging her around, dimples flashing, all the colors of her hair shining in the sunlight, shades of russet, burgundy, cinnamon, and copper. Ciara closed her eyes, the memory curling in at the edges of her mind, slowly fading.

She prepared herself to go to sleep, lying down on her own pallet by the fire, closing her eyes and drifting off to sleep.

...

She was down by the edge of the loch. Ciara stood at the edge of the forest path watching her quietly. A young woman in folds of white gossamer, her hair pulled up into a loose bonnet. She was running something under the water. Kneading it and then plunging it into the loch once again. She seemed lost in a trance, lost in the mindless dipping and kneading of her work. Ciara watched her, the moments trickling by.

Ca-CAWW! That blasted bird again! Ciara scanned the lowest branches of the trees, then felt a shiver go up her spine as the woman’s head turned slowly towards her.

Ciara, Wake up!” She sat up straight her thin blankets tangled about her. The light streaming in across the floor.

“Ian, What’s wrong?”

“You were thrashing in your sleep, Da said to wake you.”

Her father was sitting up in his rocking chair. Wheezing and coughing. Ciara rose and went over to him. He looked thin and pale. She put her hand to his forehead, still flushed with heat. His blue eyes were watery and unclear. He looked up at her.

“Are you alright, Ruadh?” Her father’s face was pulled tight with anxiety.

“I’m alright Da, I’ll be back soon with some more heather.”

“Ciara, be careful in the woods.”

She turned and gave him a timid smile as she finished pulling on her boots.

Setting off down the forest path she pulled her tangled mass of red hair into a knot at the back of her head. The birds were all chattering as the sunlight streamed in through the breaks in the canopy. What had that been? She remembered stories her father had told her, stories of the Bean-Nighe. She clenched and unclenched her fist as she came out onto the rocky bank of the loch. She went to the patch of heather she had found last night. Putting her knife to the shrubs she cut away a handful. She rose to go until she caught the flash of something white on the far bank. Turning she looked to the far side. There was nothing there. Nothing except that black hooded crow in the lower branches.

Ca-CAWW!

“I hear you,” she muttered.

She turned to go back up the forest trail. She would have to brew the tea quickly. The festival of Samhain was tonight.

...

“But, Da, you promised you would come.”

“Ian, leave him be,” Ciara hissed through her teeth. She sat straining the tea into the cup.

She rose , handing it to her father.

“Thank you, Ruadh.” He held her hand for a brief moment, looking at her, his face solemn.

“Not all the signs are bad, Ruadh. Some are simply there to prepare you for what is to come.” She closed her hands around his briefly, and for once her father’s grip was firm, his eyes clear. She wanted to cry. Looking down she kissed her father’s wasted cheek. She looked back at her father as Ian began ushering her out of the door, the smile on his face was brief but resilient.

...

The fires of Samhain were roaring as she sat at the edge of the clearing, watching Ian, his face ablaze with wonderment listening to the stories of the elders. Stories of the faerie world, a realm that would soon be opened as the seasons turned. The elders began to chant.

And so it is, we gather again,

The feast of our dead to begin.

Our Ancients, our Ancestors we invite, Come!

And follow the setting of the sun.

Whom do we call? We call them by name

The Ancients have come! Here with us stand

Where ever the country, where ever the land

They leave us not, to travel alone;

Flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone!

Grandmothers, Grandfathers, Great be their Power!

Past ones and present-at this very hour!

Welcome within are the dead who are kin,

Feast here with us and rest here within

Our hearth is your hearth and welcome to thee;

Old tales to tell and new visions to see!

...

The fires began to settle as the festival came to an end.

Ca-CAWW! There again was the crow looking out over the gathering. And there at the edge of the forest, a ghostly pale figure, her hair softly flickering in the Samhain flames. Without a sound she turned her back and slowly faded into the darkness.

As the flames of Samhain died down, Ciara gathered Ian in her arms and carried him back to their cottage across the glen, gathering strength.

...

Ian began to stir as they approached the cottage in the moonlight. When they got there, he climbed down out of her arms rushing to tell his father tales of Samhain. Ciara stood in the doorframe, quietly waiting.

“Ciara, where is Da?”

Ciara walked into the cottage and silently embraced her little brother.

“Ciara?”

“Everything will be alright Ian. He’s gone to be with the faeries.” She held him tightly as the tears streamed down her cheeks.

Piafsky:

Caroline,

Quite a lovely story. It feels appropriately pitched as young adult and the subject matter, sentimentality and language all fit that genre wonderfully. The story feels short to me, though, perhaps three or four pages short. It does a lot of preparatory work with the cutting of the first heather and then dissipates almost immediately. There is a missing middle section, I think, although I can’t quite determine what it is, plot-wise. But what you have on the page now is really strong and really well written. The fairy tale itself feels organic to me (you’re right not to mess with it, or modern it up, or even try to superimpose an intellectual strata upon it. Telling this one straight definitely seemed like the right way to go) and while Ian, Ciara, and Da all feel very familiar, that’s perfectly acceptable within the genre and you make use of that efficiency nicely by devoting a lot of space to well-depicted physical space. Really, this feels quite near completion to me. I’d be interested to see what you might insert in the middle (the beginning and end feel right and I’d avoid messing with them). I should probably teach a young adult writing class since you and others have exhibited quite a bit of talent for the genre.

Best,

Dr. Piafsky

18/20

Peer Responses:

Jessica:

I liked this story. I want to know what the crow represents. Is it the same woman in her dream, or is that dream about her mother? What does the word Ruhad mean? Is it gaelic? I feel like the crow came for her father, and like her father had a spell put against him. In Samhain festivals people would try to make prophecies and tell fortunes by counting crows. Does one mean the loss of one life?

Aislinn:

Caroline,

This was such a gloomy, sad story, but it was done really, really well!  Immediately I was amazed by the setting descriptions of heather, and the character details of red hair, so I assumed we were in Scotland, and it really reads like a Celtic myth.  I like how in Celtic myths, nature really plays a part in the story.  The earth provides heather and herbs and other remedies, and the fairies are these earthly sprites.  In this story, though, the images are a lot darker.  The crow is constantly intruding on the story, making Ciara aware of its presence and that death is looming I guess.  And coughing is a serious cue that death is coming quickly to the dad.  Ciara was really badass though.  SHe seems pretty young and she's going out into the dark to help her family.  Kind of a darker version of that Disney movie Brave, which I totally watched and enjoyed.  I like the relationship with her brother.  He is really innocent, and can't even grasp the seriousness of their father's situation, but he provides some light in this otherwise somber tale.

I wondered about what the father was trying to tell Ciara.  He kept calling her his dead wife's name, which made Ciara think of her mother, but I felt like he was warning her or trying to prepare her for what was coming.  I figured Ruhaid was like a term of endearment in Gaelic or something, but maybe not.  If not, I think it's probably significant.  The fairy festival, really reminded me that I was in a mystical world, whereas the death stuff felt very real, and that was interesting.  What are they gonna do now though?  It's just Ciara and Ian and Ian's gonna be scooped up by fairies at any minute.   I really liked the elder song too, by the way.

Nice job!

Aislinn

Cale:

I like this story. It was a very interesting way to show two different people navigating and handling the death of their father.

There's an older sister and a younger brother. And presumably this story starts out on the eve of the event referenced in the title. We get a lot of good symbolism and folk beliefs and sense of the culture just through a few scenes of interaction of the characters with each other and the characters with the world.

I think that this story is about a girl who is rooted in this tradition and mythology, something she has probably known her whole life and probably even was passed to her by her father. These traditions and beliefs affect the way she sees the world, as well as the way she sees events in her life, like death. This story probably takes place just when she is starting the transition into adulthood. Her father is on her deathbed right on the eve of this Gaelic..holiday, I guess?, so it's a time when there is a lot of reinforcement of the mythology and tradition. But there's this very real event of an impending death that compromises her belief in this mythology.

In my reading, she sees things that can be considered innocently or as symbolically important, or even mythologically existent, as they related to the events of the story. If it wasn't for her little brother, I think this story would be very different. I think this would be a complete break from her tradition and beliefs, spurred by the death of the father, and she is forced to accept the harsh realism and indifference of the world. This would result in throwing her mythology to the side. But I think because she has a younger brother, who in the story has a lot of charisma, but is portrayed as vulnerable, the dynamic is completely different. I think she feels that because she has no mother, and eventually no father, she feels it will become her responsibility to introduce to her brother their culture of traditions and beliefs. She has a decision to make. Does she follow her gut and forsake the tradition? Or does she passively, and possibly reluctantly, put on a show of accepting these things to preserve the innocence and tradition in her younger brother? In this story, I think the line where she claims that the father went with the fairies shows that she is choosing to preserve his childhood in the face of their father's death.

Good story, I think it very effectively and subtly did a lot of work and panned out very well

Emily:

Caroline,

I really enjoyed this story. It was cool that you used Celtic mythology. The writing in this story was just very good, very descriptive. There was a very clear sense of place, the setting really came through in the text, and the characters, all of whom were likable and felt real.  I liked the sense I got of this little family, trying their best to take care of each other in the wake of tragedy and sickness and the whims of the fairies.  Even the dad was still trying to look after them from his sickbed. I liked Ciara and the way she took care of her family.  Ian was adorable. Ciara tried to protect him from the harsh truths of the world by telling him the faeries had taken their father away, but since their mother's ghost did appear that night and their da's body was gone, I tended to take her literally, and thought that the ghost of their mother actually did come to take their father away to live with the faeries. But maybe I'm just a sap.

The foreshadowing was very good.  I looked up the Bean-Nighe (heard of a Bean-Sidhe before but this one was new to me) and was incredibly creeped out by Ciara's dream. The constant reappearances of the crow were a pretty bad omen too. I did get this very creepy sense of unrest mounting throughout the story, but the ending wasn't creepy, it was just sad.  Ciara obviously knew that her dad was going to die, and that she was going to have to protect her brother from the truth somehow. She knew it the whole time they were at the festival. It was really poignant and sad that as the little boy reveled in the fairy stories, his sister knew they were going to return home to an empty house.

Nice work!

Edwin:

I like it.  Very solemn and a bit macabre.  Mostly reverent.  I liked the tone of the story and the language the daughter uses.  She's serious and loving and respectful.  I don't know where to place her age, but she's not young and not old, I suppose.

There is the constant presence of death in the crow, in the cough, in the ghostly dreams, and in the coming festival.  The father will die and he will die after the festival.  That much is clear from the beginning.  So, I'm in the mindset of Ciara, who clearly knows what's up.  But then we have little Ian, who doesn't seem to realize what's up and what's going on.  His father is dying and may or may not have explained that to him (if he could even understand death at whatever age he is).  His mother is gone, and likely before he even knew her (possibly at child birth even).  His sister is taking care of their father and is dealing with the death herself (which has come so suddenly).  So Ian doesn't know about death.  But nor do I believe that this story is about his understanding death and seeing death first-hand (at least not primarily).  It seems to be more about death as that which stalks us in life as we catch glimpses of it here and there.  And the time of Samhain is such that the dead can speak to us, and seemingly call us to death (as with the father) or haunt us (as with the daughter).

What is Ruhad?  I'm assuming it's a name. But I don't know the significance and that one seems to be the one that would have significance if any of the names did.

Zach:

Details: Samhain (Gaelic fall/winter) - Harvest > Reaper > black hooded crow. fairy mounds, Wasting Disease, fiery hair, crow represent death, Ruhad? her mother at the end.

Yep, it was the crow. This is a cool story. I really like the descriptive language used throughout. It’s very rich. The voice is also well done in the way that it keeps distance. The end is only slightly convoluted by the absence of direction it leaves. Essentially, Ciara’s purpose is to take care of her father and Ian. But her time is almost entirely invested in caring for her father. It seems as though it’s now just her taking care of Ian, which is fine. Good job!

Ryan:

This story was written very well and successfully appealed to the reader's emotions. From the very beginning, the story communicates a very depressing(in a good way, if that's possible) feel through the imagery and memories of her mother. I felt the emotion was appropriate and did well to foreshadow the father's death in the end. On a small note, I enjoyed the setting and culture that was illustrated through the descriptive and purposeful writing. I think it added something extra to the story that made it more captivating.

An interesting thing to notice in this story, is the difference between Ian and Ciara as characters. Ciara is affected and understands the death of her mother much more than we expect Ian to. In addition, Ciara is also completely aware and tormented by her father's unavoidable death while Ian seems not to understand it or see it coming at all.

The chant included in the story was spot on and a pleasure to read. All around, a well executed and creative story.

Nicole:

This was a very sad, yet lovely story. I liked how descriptive the writing was throughout the story. I loved the character Ciara. She's so brave to keep everything together while her father is slowly dying. She's very protective of her brother, Ian. He was innocent and seemed to be oblivious to what was going on. There were definitely signs of impending death throughout the story like the constant presence of the crow and her father's violent cough. The ending was very sad, especially since Ciara knew the whole time that her father was going to die. It would be interesting to find out what happens next in this story. Based on Ciara's character throughout the story, I would assume that Ciara would continue to take care of her brother Ian and raise him. Really great story!

Anna:

Caroline,

I really enjoyed reading this story. I thought you did a really good job with the descriptions of the setting and the hints that helped us along the way so that we could figure out what ritual/event was about to take place. I enjoyed reading it partly because your details and descriptions were so good and so well written. They helped me get a sense of where she lived, and feel as if I had already been there. The sounds, smells, colors were all vivid and worked nicely to create this sort of myth/fairytale-like story immersed in nature. Different aspects of nature were interesting -- like the heather tea for healing, and the black crow as an omen or sign for death. I liked all of her treks through the forest, across the brook, through all of the overgrowth, all of which she does in the dark of night. I liked all of the characters. I liked that it was just three of them, and I could see their closeness as a family. The story is mythical with its fairy rituals, traditions, beliefs, but still has the elements of real life, especially with the emotion and need to take care of one another. Their relationships with each other are real and heartfelt; they only have each other and are quickly losing one another. I also thought you did a good job with the song, too. It added to the story and the ritual. Nice job!

Tiffany:

The trees on either side of her appeared black in the waning moonlight.

This first sentence immediately sets the mood for the entire work - dark, spooky and ghost-like. The presence of the crow amplifies this (I appreciate his being hooded as well. Ink/Night/Pure/Coal black crows and ravens are a little trite. And his hooded nature puts the image of executioners in my mind).  Ciara’s own dark reaction to it (“balefully”) is even more ominous.

Healing is not heather’s sole purpose

Heather, the iconic plant of Scotland (hello there setting) has been used in the past for luck as well as sore throat/cough/general healing. So Ciara is relying on the heather to protect her from the crow? Or maybe protect isn’t quite the right word.

Skipping far forward...

Ruhad

I couldn’t find any translation for this particular word. I tried babel fish, google translate, and “gaelic terms of endearment” with no result. I assumed it meant daughter or darling, but if it has some other special meaning I would love to know.

This word stuck out to me, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story. What would further enhance my enjoyment is a description of the Samhain festivities. The chant was excellent, but after such a vivid description of the loch and glens earlier I set the festival in a generic field with a generic bonfire.

Bean-Nighe:

As the "Washer at the Ford" she wanders near deserted streams where she washes the blood from the grave-clothes of those who are about to die. It is said that mnathan nighe (the plural of bean nighe) are the spirits of women who died giving birth and are doomed to do this work until the day their lives would have normally ended. - Wikipedia

Thanks be to Wikipedia! The bean-nighe as an omen of Ciara’s father’s death was clear at the end of the story, but with this handy knowledge I picked up even more is added to her presence. Is the bean-nighe Audrey? If this is the case, then did she die giving birth to Ian?

I think this theory is correct and works very well with the sequence of events of the story and other information given. I submit to the jury:

 

1. Ciara’s father calls her Audrey

2. Cue memories of Ciara and Audrey playing in the glens

3. Cue dream of the bean-nighe

and

 

4. Audrey’s mother died approximately four years ago. How old is Ian?

 

a. If Ian is staying up to wait for fairies (and later doesn’t realize that his father has passed) he is likely younger than 7/8 (the age of disillusionment or so first graders have taught me).

 

5. If all of this is right, will Ciara every see her mother as a bean-nighe again? Does she realize the bean-nighe is her mother?

Ciara’s final line of dialogue suggests she does not. “He’s gone to be with the faeries.” instead of “He’s gone to be with mother/mom/mum.”

P.S. I found it interesting that Ciara's father did not just appear peaceful in death, but stronger as well.

for once her father's grip was firm, his eyes clear

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