Mariah tipped the plastic tumbler up over a purple leafed plant. Water dribbled down the cup, leaving a puddle on the laminate counter top before she was able to tilt it high enough for the water to pour outward from the lip. Droplets of water slipped from the individual elongated leaves and the soil beneath darkened from light brown to nearly black. She emptied the cup and set it down, splashing in the puddle on the counter.
The sun shone on the plants, slanted in the early morning. It was warm on her hand as she rested it on the laminate beside the empty cup, raising a coffee mug in her other hand to take a sip of the dark liquid within.
Mariah’s dark blue eyes flitted over the backyard her kitchen window faced. Small blackbirds pecked at the dew damp grass, foraging for bugs that had surfaced in the quiet, cool air of the night.
She reached up to her neck and touched an iron Celtic cross that hung heavily there, nestled over her collarbone. It felt warm against her fingers and she knew, it was time.
Diana hurriedly parceled out the bread and sliced turkey between three Tupperware bowls. Carrot slices and cauliflower florets set to the side of the hastily constructed sandwiches.
“C’mon, guys! The bus will be here in five minutes!” she shouted as she popped the lids on the bowls and shoved them in her kids’ lunchboxes. Wonder Woman, Lightning McQueen, and Naruto stared back at her from the shiny painted lids as she snapped them each shut with audible clicks.
Miles raced in first, different shoes messily tied on each foot. Diana had anticipated her five-year-old’s mismatched footwear having found the mates to both in her own closet that morning. She forced him to sit at the breakfast table and pulled one shoe off, quickly replacing it with the matching shoe to the one he still wore and retying both in a more secure bow.
Jada strolled in next, her eyes glued to her phone screen but dressed and ready. Diana studied her over the tousled blond of her son’s curls, noting the blush and eyeliner her daughter knew she did not approve of. She tightened her lips, eyeing the clock which was three minutes from striking the time of the school bus’s arrival.
George followed close behind, hair rumpled and eyes still red from sleep, obviously he had only just rolled out of bed. They gathered their backpacks and lunchboxes, making it out the door just as the bus turned down the street.
Diana waved at them from the front porch as they loaded the bus, only Miles waving energetically back.
As they drove away, she turned her eyes to the rising sun, her hand instinctively heading to the thick silver chain hanging from her neck. She pulled the chain from under her oversized sweater, revealing an iron Celtic cross.
They were calling.
The hand drawn pictures from Lucretia’s grandchildren were not large or bright enough to detract from the sterile white walls of the nursing home. She lay back on the adjustable hospital bed identical to her roommate’s save for the crocheted blanket with its colorful whirling patterns she had made in her younger days when her hands had been nimble and delicate. They were spotted now, and her joints were so knobby it hurt to squeeze her fingers together. The blinds on her window had been tilted to allow sun to shine through, though they were permanently lowered and could not be raised to allow for an uninterrupted view of the cloudless blue sky without.
Lucretia missed the span of the sky the most. The feeling of insignificance she felt when she laid beneath it and felt like she could fall into the depths and be lost to space beyond. The ceiling in the nursing home was low, maybe 7 feet high. And just looking at the nearness of the speckled tiling made her feel claustrophobic.
Her roommate snorted loudly in her sleep behind the thin white curtain meant to simulate privacy and Lucretia started. Her hand flew to her chest where her heart skipped a beat, shortening her breath. Her fingers grazed a fine silver chain, warm on her skin. An iron Celtic cross hung from it, grazing the top of the neckline of her hospital gown.
Though the link was fading in her old age, she could feel the call of the Goddess. The swollen moon hung between the blinds, visible in the daytime. She had to get to them.
A Forest Clearing, Midnight
A circle of large, white stones sat in the center of a cleared section of forest. Old stumps and fallen logs provided ample seating for the cloaked figures entering from the shadows of the surrounding trees. They came like mosquitos to a flame, though no fire had yet been built in the pit of the rock circle. The light of the full moon above lit the glen with a mercury sheen. As the figures uncloaked, their unbound hair, in colors spanning from deep black to white, caught the moonlight like signal fires, lighting one after another, sending a message of assemblage.
One figure hobbled into the clearing, propped by two others. The figure paused as the light hit her head and shook the arms the supporting figures held. They released their hold and the figure reached trembling limbs to pull the hood down. Dark silver hair, still thick and curling despite the decrepit slope of the woman’s spine, the dark splotches on her wrinkled hands, tumbled down over her shoulders and she pulled the bulk of it from beneath her cloak, exposing it to the sky. She looked up, eyes bright with excitement and breathed deeply. The two figures who had also uncloaked, two younger women, one red haired, the other salt and pepper gray made to clasp her arms again, but Lucretia shook her head. She stood taller, forcing her back to straighten and walked forward, no longer hobbling, no longer shaking, tall and beautiful and liquid.
Lucretia glided to the stone circle, a teepee of wood had been erected there, tinder shoved beneath, ready for lighting. She pulled a box of matches from the pocket of her cloak and knelt to strike it on a stone. A hush fell over the clearing with the whoosh of the match igniting. Lucretia looked around wickedly over the light of the flame and winked at a young woman across the stone circle, a new recruit with mousy brown hair that hung limp at her shoulders. She tossed the match at the base of the wood. A much louder whoosh and the teepee ignited in a burst of flame, rising taller than the tallest woman in the glen. A cry of elation rose from the women as they cast their cloaks to the ground, revealing an array of sparse garments beneath. Some had covered every sensitive part of their body while others stood stark naked in the flame light, unashamed.
Lucretia turned to face the crowd of her coven and lowered her own cloak, revealing a thin frame, the spots that decorated her hands covered the rest of her, stretched over dimpled and trenched skin. But she stood uncovered in the midst of the other women, her chin high and proud. She smiled at them and they smiled back, hands raising as they twirled and pounced, a rising drum beat subtly guiding the dancing that began as each woman undressed.
A young woman stepped up beside Lucretia, holding out her bare arms, the brown skin appearing gray under the light of the white moon. “Lucretia,” she greeted, tears glimmering in dark brown eyes.
“Diana,” the older woman replied. She fell into the young woman’s arms.
Diana had been a convert for several years, Lucretia had been in her sixties then, a little younger, but independent. It was just before the stroke that landed her in the nursing home, unable to care for herself in the cottage she had owned since her mid-twenties. Diana had been in her teens, freshly 18 when she found her way into the coven, unmarried and childless. A baby, really. At least to Lucretia who was decades her senior. Lucretia brushed shining black braids back from Diana’s cheek and cupped her face in her aged hands, wrinkled pale skin stark against the dark smooth skin of the young mother.
A newer convert stood quietly behind Diana while the women embraced. She was slightly overweight, her bare stomach swelled slightly over her covered pubic region. She had long hair that reached to her lower back and shone red black silhouetted in the light of the fire. She had fine bones, a long straight nose and stark, green eyes. Diana pulled back from Lucretia, looking to the girl with excitement.
“This is Mariah, my convert.” She introduced her.
“This is Sister Lucretia,” Diana explained to Mariah. “She converted me, and she is the oldest member of the coven.”
Mariah’s eyes widened in surprise and she curtsied awkwardly out of respect.
Lucretia laughed, her voice raspy but pleasant and Mariah smiled in return. “No need to be so formal,” she assured the young girl.
Diana and Mariah flanked the elder woman as she turned back to the bonfire and began swaying to the beat. Diana closed her eyes and spread her arms, flowing like the fire that crackled before them. Mariah watched them, still holding back, not comfortable enough in her skin to succumb to the natural urge to move herself.
There were many other new converts. Each sister was tasked with converting a new member once a year, expanding the coven to encompass as many sisters as could be claimed.
Womanhood was a peculiar sorority, Lucretia thought, her stiff limbs flowing like water under the moon’s soothing light and the comforting heat of the flames. They were all connected by the uniqueness of their anatomy. The necessity of the sacrifice of their bodies to continuing the human race. Millions of women had given their lives to it. The ability itself was nothing short of miraculous. A gift bestowed on their gender.
Lucretia had never had children. Her body sagged with age, the skin of her stomach riveted with lines and stretch marks, but none had been caused by carrying a baby. She had learned at an early age she was infertile and so never married. Yet she praised the Goddess; the maiden, the mother, and the crone. She would never make the middle passage, but she was woman all the same. Instead of mothering children she had devoted her life to a Sisterhood, to caring for the women of the world who were too often weighted down with the cares of their men, of their jobs, of their children, in fact. They needed a place where they could be. Lucretia had provided that.
She was the oldest coven member, because she had formed it. She did not call herself or her converts witches, though society did. They were simply women connected to the Goddess and to Nature. They were Sisters in the highest sense of the word. Though she could not bear children of her own, in her coven, they felt the joy and pain of each individual as acutely as their own. They were able to share their experiences of womanhood even though she could not physically experience some things.
She had created the coven in part for the company. She had been lonely, childless and husbandless in a time when that defined a woman’s purpose, an only child born to a middle-aged couple who had passed long ago. And then she believed in the Goddess, had learned the ways of it from her mother who had learned it from hers. Women were falling away from the Goddess though, and it showed in the gender. They had lost what made them powerful, allowed themselves to be overshadowed by men. In the home and the workplace women were subordinate to their male counterparts. It is like they didn’t know they carried the weight of the world in their pelvis, that they, as women, are the closest to God a man may ever get.
Lucretia allowed her eyes to graze the clearing, Mariah awkwardly following Diana’s movements as she accustomed herself to the group, the other women grouped with their converters and convertees, laughing and free. It was beautiful. She raised her arms once more to the low hanging moon bulging with promise. Her life was nearing its end, she felt even then the skipping heartbeat, her labored breathing. But she had turned these women back to their true purpose, supporting each other and reveling in their femininity. They would carry on her life’s work and teach their daughters that they have intrinsic value not assigned by others.
Diana had grabbed Mariah’s arms, helping her match the rhythm of the drums. They laughed as they took a spin, Diana’s chest was uncovered and her breasts, heavy and slightly sagging from nursing three children, trembled under her movements, swinging wildly. They opened their eyes, laughing, and turned to Lucretia only to find she had collapsed in a heap at the base of the bonfire.
“Sister!” Diana fell to her side, reaching for the elder woman’s wrist, desperate to feel a pulse. Lucretia’s eyes were open, her toothless mouth stretched in a wide, thin smile. She was staring at the moon, but there was nothing of recognition in them. No throbbing met Diana’s searching fingers. The sisters quieted and folded in around them, the drums tapered to a low rumble.