The hard-packed snow crunches underfoot.
More than thirty of us wend our way in single file on the narrow trail along the frozen pond. All around, the woods are whisper-still, silent watchers of this curious band of darkling figures inching forward with short, halting steps.
No creaking branches on this windless night; no fallen leaves can rustle under almost-virgin white. Only the sound of trudging feet disturbs the silence; only the tracks of our grim passage mar the snow.
I am not pleased to be a part of such indelicate intrusion: This is as close to a notion of sin as I allow myself, but sin--if such it is--we must. It is the eve of February, the night of Imbolg, the time of midwinter. Tonight, the covens gather in the forest.
There is a clearing up the hillock bearing left, a site where we have met for years. Most of us could easily find it in the dark, but tonight the sky is clear, the stars are glimmering, and the moon is just past full.
One by one we reach the meeting place, and one by one we form a ring. Gloves and mittens drop, and naked hand on naked hand the link is made.
Silence and stillness reign again, if just for a brief tenure. We have no need for words. Our eyes gradually close, a hairsbreadth at a time, summoning darkness. Gradually, too, our breathing slows and deepens and shifts: breath by breath, the familiar pattern grows. The transition is subtle, almost imperceptible, yet I can sense it all around.
In the next moment, the change comes over me--a liquid surge, both explosion and implosion all at once. I can feel my body changing, my shape loosening, shifting, growing. Everything goes numb. My mind reels as if about to collapse--the usual moment of swirling, spinning vertigo; then clarity, sharp as a razor, icy silver-blue like the shard of moon above. My entire being shivers with a spasm, though not from the cold.
I can feel my body again, softly throbbing as if fed by a mild electric flow. I can feel my senses opening, expanding, adapting to the change coursing over me, becoming charged, intensified. A wild burst of scent suffuses me--sweat, bark, snow, after-shave lotion, pine needles, leather. I am suddenly very warm.
The waves of an invisible ocean sweep over me; the gusts of an intangible wind buffet me about, and I know the others are ready, too. My right hand squeezes the hand it holds, and the slight pulse is passed around the ring, till it returns to me. Our fingers sigh, and let go.
Randomly, we open our eyes slowly, and purposely not to fullness, peering at our surroundings with the half-veiled sight that can perceive two worlds at once. We are enveloped by the soft mist of our joined breaths. Every shape is luminescent. Like the mist, the world around us has no edges.
Across the way from me, a match is struck. Fire sputters and sparks. The tip of a wick winces in the flame as a candle is lit. The fire is passed, candle to candle, moving earth-wise, until a ring of tiny dancing flames has been completed.
A gray-cloaked figure moves to the center with the first lit candle, nestles it softly on the snowy ground, and steps back into the shadows. The movement is so sudden, so smooth, that it is hard to be sure it really happened. Without a word being spoken, we scatter at once in all directions.
I know precisely where I'm headed: up a rocky escarpment to a bare hilltop just beyond the treeline. The trail is rough on a good day. Covered with snow and slick, slippery ice, it is downright treacherous to negotiate, especially with one of my hands cradling a lit candle in a jar.
But I manage. I step up to the flat top of the hill with a groan of exertion and a prideful sigh: despite all the travail, my candle is still lit.
With the very next step I sink up to my thighs through crusted snow, losing my balance, keeling forward onto the fraudulent ground, landing hard on my chest, losing my breath and my jar in the same instant. I quickly retrieve both, but the candle is out.
Given my altered condition, this triggers within me a sudden, overwhelming sense of anguish and despair. The emotion is so powerful, so unexpected, that I am driven to keen and wail in mourning for that little flame. Just as I am about to do so, the feeling vanishes like the shadow of a bird that has flown away, leaving no trace of its passing, while I am left sprawling on the crumbled snow, wistfully examining the naked wick and marveling, yet again, at how intense and deep everything turns when touched by magic.