Happy Samhain, everyone!
Though I admit is is a bit creepy to be celebrating the Day of the Dead right after such a frighteningly dangerous hurricane. It makes honoring the dead seem very real. We are ok here, though there are some areas in our town that flooded...I don't want to say too much and give away clues as to where I am. For various reasons, I do not want the places I talk about to be easy to find. There are things I want to talk about today, to continue my narrative, but before I get into that let me just say that I hope all my readers are ok, and that those who are not ok (whether they read my blog or not!) are in my thoughts and prayers.
So, back to my story...or my continuing information-dump, as it has become. I've decided to continue as I have begun until late January or so, when my second attempt at this blog will begin as a true narrative, showing you, not telling you, what the school was like. But in the mean-time those of you who have been reading me get a sneak-peak, as it were, of this world I am trying to describe. And along the way you'll get tidbits that probably won't be in the next version, like the Moon Man post, or the fact that this year Samhain is poignant for me in a way that next year probably won't be. I'm not going to go into detail (it's private), but the second year after a loss...how do I put this? It's the beginning of it being normal that the person is gone. Samhain was always a big deal on campus, just as it is for Wiccans--one of the few holidays where campus as a whole agreed with its Wiccan plurality--and it is a big deal for us, yet. We got together last night, everyone who could make it, and went through the old ceremony complete with party. Kayla's boy and a couple of the other sprouts and their friends held me for ransom and were duly paid off with candy, and it made me feel a bit better.
Samhain (which is pronounced "Sah-when") was always a big deal on campus, as I said. It is the Day of the Dead, from Celtic tradition (the Mexican Day of the Dead is a mixture of Aztec and Celtic tradition via the Catholic Church), which sounds creepy, like zombies, or something, but is actually warm and kind of goofy in mood, at least it always was with us. It doesn't have a lot to do with Halloween anymore, except for sharing the date. But Samhain was also the end of our school year; we had a long winter break instead of a summer break, so that we could shut down most of the buildings in the coldest weather and not have to heat them. Samhain to Brigit, only the Mansion stayed open and those of us who stayed the winter cooked in our dorms or in the small kitchen off the Great Hall. Except for Brigit itself, the Chapel Building stayed closed until Ostara. Time to think and time to plan, and time for the Masters to go off and be ordinary people again, if they wanted to be, instead of witches and wizards.
Celtic sabbats, like Jewish holidays, start at sundown the previous day, or at least so said Kit. I haven't encountered anyone else who says it, but it makes sense given that a lot of our mainstream holidays have an "eve" to them. Any little kid knows Christmas starts on Christmas Eve, and Halloween itself is All Hallows Eve, the night leading into All Saints Day. So as the sun set on Halloween my first year on campus and I got ready to head to the Chapel, I looked out the window of my friend's dorm-room and saw the campus was becoming a sea of stars. The little lamps lining the streets and paths of campus might have been Jack-O-Lanterns, and at first I thought they were, but Sarah would not hold with growing food with the intention of wasting it, and Charlie would not hold with buying hundreds of pumpkins from off campus as mere decoration. So there were very few carved pumpkins around, and instead campus glowed with hundreds of tea-lights floating in wooden bowls borrowed from the Dining Hall. Sheafs of spent corn stalks graced every doorway, and tables of whole pumpkins, squashes, beats, apples, and dried seedheads of dozens of plants had replaced all the flower arrangements and window-boxes that had adorned campus all through the growing season. Walking over the the Chapel I passed dozens of people I knew, but I noticed they were all adults; I knew the sprouts and even some of their friends had come on campus earlier in the day, and I couldn't figure out where they had all gone. "Sprout," in case I haven't explained, is our term for a child associated with the school in some way, usually relatives of Masters.
The ceremony started the same way the one at Brigit did, except there was an extra row of seats in the audience. We sat in cold candlelight as the Masters filed in, chanting, holding their candles, which this time were already lit. They put their candles on the stage and then everyone except Greg and Allen left the stage and joined us in the audience. Greg held a candle, Allen did not. Greg had been the Head of the Master's Group for two years, and now it was Allen's turn, so after a short speech calling the ceremony to order, Greg handed the candle to Allen and formally transferred leadership status. We all clapped. That's all the hierarchy the Masters had, just the Head. They did most things by consensus.
The ceremony itself was kind of short. Allen acted as MC, introducing other people as they came up to do their part. Greg read aloud a list of people being memorialized, mostly friends and relatives of community members (anyone was allowed to add a name to the list in the days leading up to Samhain). I recognized a few names of cultural "ancestors," too, and later I learned to recognize more such names. Edward Abby, Jacques Cousteau, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, it was an eclectic list. Three names, I later learned, belonged to Masters who had died while working for the school. Two, a male couple who had helped found the Masters' Group, had died together in a car crash in the mid-eighties. The third man had been disabled by a stroke and lived on in semi-retirement on campus for several years before finally dying of pneumonia. I don't know how many people in the chapel that day had known those three when they were alive--some had, most had not--but the memorial ceremony insured they would not be forgotten. After the reading of the list, three people got up, one by one, to eulogize people who had died within the past year. And then things got a little silly.
Kit, who had the best voice on campus, lead us in a song. I'd never heard it before, but I've since learned it was adapted by a song written by a folk group called "Schooner Fare." The chorus of the original goes like this;
Hats off to old folks, wherever they may be,
cause they have the best hopes for you and for me.
I stand up for old folks, so you'll hear me say my
hat's off to old folks, and I hope I'll be one someday.
What Kit taught us switched the word "dead" for "old," and "I know" for "I hope."
My hat's off to dead folks and I know I'll be one some day.
One after another, half a dozen or so people stood up and sang a verse, each one celebrating the life of someone who had died. Then we'd sing the chorus and then there'd be another verse. I think us yearlings all felt a little uncomfortable with the song, at first, I mean hats off to dead folks? It's hardly reverential and it's certainly not euphemistic. But with each verse we loosened up a bit until by the end of it I, at least, meant every word. I stand up for dead folks. My hat's off to them. Seriously.
I'd only ever really lost one person at that point, my great aunt, who had died several years earlier. She was very old so it hadn't been a surprise, and I'd liked her, but I hadn't known her very well. She didn't live near us when I was growing up. But listening to that song got me thinking about who she was, what she'd wanted, and what she'd done. I made up my mind to ask my Mom about Aunt Ida next chance I got. We'd lost cats and dogs, too, when I was little, but I'd stopped counting those when Aunt Ida died, because it seemed childish to think of those as losses, too. But I remember I'd cried when my little black and white kitten died, when I was seven. Charlie, I knew, kept a photograph of a dog, framed in silver, on his desk in his room. He obviously did not have a dog now. If Charlie could count a dog as important enough for a framed photograph when, so far as I knew, he kept no images of humans, maybe I should start remembering my kitten again. Some of the people around me in the audience were crying openly while others were laughing, and a lot of people were doing both at once. Finally, the ceremony ended; all the candles (except for the ones on the walls) were snuffed out but one, the one Allen had, and he solemnly returned it to somewhere in the next room. The others stayed with us. All around the walls of the Chapel room were posters celebrating the lives of the people the community was memorializing, and some of us spent some time looking at them before heading out to the fire pit. Allen had told us there would be food there. That there would also be a bonfire and songs and stories and merriment went without saying. The posters would be up for the following day, until we closed the building. On my way out I heard something that sounded like a struggle of some sort, but everyone around me ignored it, so I did, too.
When we collected at the fire pit there was indeed plenty of food set out on tables, plus hot chocolate and cider, both hard and sweet, and a couple of people already had out their guitars and drums. And then someone said that Allen was missing.
And he was. It was odd, because everyone else was there, even Greg, who rarely went to parties, and Sarah, who was usually uncomfortable with things pagan, though she liked parties in a general way. Everyone was there, but Allen was conspicuously missing.
A small figure, either a woman or a boy, it was hard to tell which, strode suddenly into the clearing. It wore a homemade costume, vaguely pirate-ish, and carried a plastic sword and a very real lit torch. In the torchlight I could see it had a black patch over one eye and a bandana tied around the head, covering the lower half of the face. I did not know what was going on, but the older students and the faculty acted as though the figure were armed and dangerous. When it spoke, the voice was high and strange, deliberately disguised.
"We have stolen Allen! We have him! He is our prisoner, and you will never see him again if you do not do what we say! We are in charge, now!"
The figure was a child, and in a moment I had figured out who he must be; it was Allen's own son, one of the missing sprouts. Of course it was a prank of some kind, but the use of Allen's first name struck me as more of a violation of the ordinary than the charade of threat. Of course, Allen's kids called him Dad or Daddy, but all the other sprouts always called him Dr. Allen. The school community was not quite egalitarian, and while none of us called the Masters "professor," or anything like that, the children were not allowed to be so assertive. All adults were Ms. Mr. or Dr. to them. Except on Samhain.
The masters and some of the students begged and pleaded. They melodramatically groveled, but they could not make the boy relent. The ransom would have to be paid, and it must be paid in candy. The begging and the pleading was an act, and the child knew it, but the bargaining was obviously very real and in the end the sprouts got far more than I had expected them to get; nearly five pounds of candy each ("only the good kinds!"), plus a couple of glow-in-the-dark toy swords, three jars of jam, and a promise that this year they would all be allowed to have sleepovers on school nights, as long as the guest went to the same school and everyone stayed caught up on homework. Then they returned Allen, bringing him into the circle flanked by costumed guards of ridiculously small size but fearsome mien. He'd been treated fairly roughly, it seemed, bound and gagged and face-painted like a clown. The booty was exchanged for the prisoner and the miscreants cheered and ran, taking their treasure with them. Allen could not untie himself, so we helped him, but predictably as soon as his gag was off he started laughing.
"You taught them to tie knots this year, didn't you?" he accused Charlie, "I really couldn't get out." Charlie protested his innocence, but he had in fact taught a knot-tying course at the summer camp.
"At least they've learned to paint faces properly," Charlie pointed out. "Last year they used my sister's make-up."
"What is going on?" I asked the student standing next to me.
"Trick or treat," he explained. "They do this every year, kidnap one of the Masters, or sometimes a senior student. Last year it was Charlie. Twenty years ago it was the Masters' own idea. The Six set the rules, said how far they could go, instigated the whole thing. Since then it's been passed from kid to kid and none of them know the game was invented by grown-ups anymore. They bring their friends. When you see them again, remember to pretend you don't know who did it."
"Do they know we can recognize them?" I asked.
"The older ones do--it's sort of like Santa Claus, I guess. But them being in charge for one night isn't a charade--you saw Allen, he really couldn't get loose on his own. And twenty kids against one man, he probably couldn't have resisted capture without seriously hurting them. He really was at their mercy."
Trick or treat!