To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Part 6: Post 9: Getting Ready for Samhain

It’s just under two weeks till Halloween, now. A lot of the places out along the main road have ghosts and lights and whatever else in their trees and the stores in town are selling costumes, candies, pumpkin-shaped desserts, etc. We don’t have any of that. You’d think we’d be really into Halloween here, given how into Halloween imagery a lot of Wiccans are, but as far as I can tell, nobody here is going to actually celebrate Halloween at all. 

Instead, we’re getting ready for Samhain, which is on the same day…I’ve heard of Samhain before—it’s pronounced “Sah-wain,” I don’t know why—but I’d always thought it was basically the pagan version of Halloween. I mean, that’s more or less what my high school friends said—that Halloween is the Christianized version of the ancient pagan holiday of Samhain. But now, seeing Samhain actually gearing up on campus, I don’t see much connection between it and Halloween at all.

There are no artificial spider-webs and no plastic bats. There are no fake tombstones and no ghosts made out of sheets. There’s no creepy horror-movie stuff at all. There are pumpkins and squashes and dried corn stalks arranged decoratively on the porch in front of the office and in a lot of the other entranceways. The tables in the Dining Hall have centerpieces made of apples and small decorative gourds. Sarah and her people are harvesting huge numbers of small pumpkins and Nora is making huge numbers of small candles, though nobody has said anything about actual jack-o-lanterns. You could argue, I suppose, that decorative style does not a holiday make, but in this case I’d say there’s some qualitative difference. I couldn’t figure out what it was on my own, though, so I went looking for Kit. I couldn’t find her for a couple of days, but then she turned up today while I was looking for Charlie.

I’d finished my cleaning for the morning a little late, so instead of trying to find Charlie in the
gardens as I normally do I went right to the Dining Hall. He wasn’t there, so I got my food and left, hoping to bump into him so we could have lunch together. It turned out he was supervising some work on the front of the Mansion—they’re taking the window boxes down from the balconies today, since the beans are all done, and instead of carrying the boxes of dirt in through our bedrooms and out through the Mansion (as a janitor I’m REALLY glad they didn’t do that), they were lowering them down from the balconies on ropes. Obviously, Charlie wasn’t going to be able to have lunch with me, but Kit was sitting on the porch in the sunshine and since I wanted to talk with her anyway, I sat down next to her.

She was making, of all things, a broom. A besom, she’d call it—a witch’s ritual broom made of sticks. She had already tied the sticks onto the handle, and she was busy tying the sticks into smaller bundles so that the broom would be flat rather than round. She had a plastic five gallon bucket of water with her and she was keeping the sticks wet, so they’d be pliable, I suppose. So she was pulling and yanking on the bark twine to keep it tight, making little grunting noises with her effort, and she’d spilled water all down her uniform front. She didn’t look especially glamorous, she just looked practical, competent, and unselfconsciously girlish. When I sat down near her she made an inquisitive, friendly sound, like a cat does, and I smiled, to her and about her, and I ate my beans and kale quietly while she worked.

When Kit finished she looked at her work appreciatively and asked if I’d had any of the raisin squash bread.

“No, I didn’t see it.”

“Maybe it was all gone by the time you got there. Too bad, it was really good. Maybe they’ll have it again tomorrow.” She was still looking at her broom.

“I hope so,” I told her. “Nice besom.”

“Thank you.”

“Kit, why do witches use brooms? You don’t really ride on them and fly?” I was pretty sure she didn’t, but you never know.

“People used to,” she said, lightly. “Accused witches in the Middle Ages spoke, under torture, of certain ‘flying ointments.’ The recipe included belladonna, which is a very dangerous hallucinogen, dangerous as in it will kill you if you use it ever so slightly wrong. Now, assuming that only a real witch would know something like that about so dangerous a plant—an assumption that is questionable but not completely out of bounds—it seems plausible such flying ointments were actually in use.  They would have had to be applied to sensitive areas where chemicals could be easily absorbed. And how do you think the Medieval witches applied the ointment?” 

She looked at me then, for the first time, holding her broom up near the top of the handle in such a way that her meaning was more or less obvious. I think I turned beet red.

“Oh don’t worry,” Kit said, laughing a little, “there are all sorts of reasons why I wouldn’t discuss such a practice with you if I actually followed it! As with so much else, the modern besom seems to be a back-formation, a new thing based on inaccurate assumptions about the past--people know witches are supposed to use them for something. It doesn’t matter. A besom works as a meditative focus, however it was once used, since it unites the male and female—it has a phallic symbol on one end and a yonic symbol on the other—see?” She flipped the broom brush-side up so it looked a bit like a woman’s pubic delta and the line between her standing legs. I nodded, to show I understood. “And it also works as a
ritual tool for sweeping out negativity. And you can jump over it, to get married. I believe it’s an African-American tradition, maybe from the days of slavery, but certain European-American Wiccans have adopted it. I made this one for a wedding—a handfasting? I’m officiating one right after Samhain.”

“Isn’t that a creepy time to get married?”

“I don’t think so—it’s pagan New Year, you know. Anyway, it’s something to do with taxes, they have to get married in November. But none of this is why you came to talk to me.”



“Why aren’t there fake gravestones and corpses and stuff on campus now? It’s supposed to be the Day of the Dead coming up, isn’t it? I don’t know, it seems important, but I can’t figure it out.” Kit put her broom down and looked at me intently.

“What-all is missing, in your opinion? List it.”

I closed my eyes to consider her question, letting my mind walk around inside my memory of the Halloween supply stores I’d been in. My sister works at one this year. I’ve visited her there a few times.

“Severed feet, made of rubber. Heads, made of rubber, with loose eyeballs and bloody necks. Plastic sickles and scythes. Plastic machetes with red paint on the edges. Rubber rats. Giant rubber flies and spiders. Fake tombstones. Fake spider webs. Costumes….”

“What kind of costumes? Could I dress up as anything I wanted?”

“No,” I blushed again. “All the costumes for women are prostitute costumes. Any fantasy you want—as long as it’s sex. Lots of cleavage, everything super-short…”

“What do all these things have in common?”

“Bodies,” I said, without thinking, and opened my eyes. “It’s all bodies. Blood and decay and sex and…alcohol. Lots of alcohol for adults, sugar for children. It’s all bodies, all appetites.”

“And why is that scary?”

Again, I answered without thinking, or maybe the thought came as soon as I spoke, prompted by my speaking, one of the two.

“Because we’re mortal,” I answered, with sudden clarity. Kit smiled at me, brilliantly.

“And why do we celebrate Samhain here? Why do the Christians celebrate All Souls’?” she prompted.

“Because some part of us isn’t. Isn’t mortal,” I answered, wonderingly. Kit grinned at me again, nodded decisively to herself, and started to clean up her mess from making the broom.

“You’d better get to class,” she told me. “You were almost late last week.” I have no idea why she remembered that, though I can imagine how she found out—Nora is her student, and talks.

“Hey, Kit?”


“Uh, wow.”

“You’re welcome,” she told me, giggling a little.

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