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.
The wave of intense feeling swells anew, but this time I am ready for it. I am overcome with joy, with hope, and with relief. Tears of gratitude and gladness well up in my eyes and I let them flow; I breathe deeply and slowly, and let it all flow.
Under normal circumstances, this sharp and violent swing of mood might give me cause for alarm. I remind myself that I am not in an ordinary state of mind, then stand and walk again, this time with careful gliding steps that sense with ample warning when the ground is soon to cave under my feet.
In time, I reach the large domed rock that crowns the hill with understated splendor, and there we sit and huddle, my little flame and I.
With my fingers, I make a small hollow in the snow, and there I place the candle. The flame flickers warily, uncertain of its new surroundings, a shivering glint of gold in a sea of frosty white. Such a tiny, delicate flame, so helpless in the snow, so frail against the wind, so vulnerable even to my own breath. And yet it fights so bravely to be alive, to hold its bit of warmth and light, to keep its dignity in the face of such imposing adversaries.
I look up at the cloudless sky; the winter constellations glow dimly, almost with chagrin, like long-kept secrets shamelessly betrayed by the night. At such close range, my little flame burns brighter and much warmer than any far-off star. It strikes me, then, how very similar my life--any life, I suppose--is to that tiny flame: so fleeting, so seemingly insignificant in the face of time and the unknown, yet so precious and so vital in its immediacy.
The flame burns steadily now, with Sisyphean resolve. The rim of the hollow, wreathed in golden light and basking in unseasonable warmth, has not much option but to yield: to the snowflake, my candle is a sun. Shiny drops of erstwhile frost wind like budding rivulets down the slopes of the slight crevice. Mighty winter weeps in its surrender.
The gift I bear, this tiny flame, is a sweet kiss--or in this case, perhaps, a mere fleeting peck of timid lips--of brightness and of warmth upon the gelid face of dormant Earth, to awaken her to life once more.
I remember that the ancient rite we celebrate tonight is also known as "Là fhéille Bhríghid," the feast of Brighid, the renewed and youthful Maiden who turns winter into spring.
She is not quite there yet, of course. She is still the Woman in the Snows, the dreaming, slumbering damsel--source of such old legends as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, awaiting the reviving, fiery kiss of her bright consort.
But Brighid, more than woman, more than saint, more than goddess, even, is "brìgh"--the substance, the pith, the power, the very essence of Nature. And in this essence, the flame in the snow provides a lesson--not of conflict, nor even of incongruity, but of fitness.
Fire and ice go together, need each other--are, in the end, the same. And so are pleasure and pain, happiness and hardship, and all the seemingly irreconcilable polarities and paradoxes that vex our every feeble attempt to know, to understand, to clothe the naked awesomeness of unfathomable mystery with the comforting raiment of easy certainty.
The mystery that is "brìgh," the mystery that lives in the essence of Nature, cannot be apprehended--neither captured nor understood--it can only be experienced. And the experience of the mystery is the experience of Wonder--bereft of words and thoughts, immediate, open, visceral. The tiny flame upon the sea of snow, the melting fringe of winter round the flame, can only truly be felt....
I leap onto my feet as though possessed. The little flame leaps too, perhaps alarmed by my abruptness. I am not thinking.
The wind, hitherto secluded, decides to make his entrance in grand fashion. I stand my ground. Icy lancets hurled with gale force pierce every single inch of my bare skin. My nipples become spearpoints to engage the joust. I don't stand a prayer.
So I don't pray. Instead, I fling myself against the wind, daring it to do its worst. It sneers (though with a hint of grudging admiration at my gumption), and knocks me tumbling and skidding to the ground.
I am too stunned to do anything but laugh. And then I roll my body wildly in the snow, and rub the clumps of whiteness on my chest and on my crotch, on my beard and on my hair. I push my face into the snow and bite, again and yet again, until my entire mouth is filled with winter. Then I lie still, breathing softly, letting the snow melt on my tongue and drool over my lips. I am wallowing in Wonder.
I stand, and brush the snowflakes off my buttocks. My little flame is still there, smiling placidly; humoring me, I'm sure. I walk over to the edge of the rock. I do not feel the cold.
Above me, the stars are shining bolder; I raise my arms to greet them and steam flies off my body like a faerie mist.
Below me, the forest is still. Soft, flickering spots of light--each of them a tiny flame--dot the landscape: the others are still in the woods. This knowledge fills my heart with gladness and with hope. I am a kin to each of those shadowy figures below as closely as my flame is kin to theirs. I make a wish that each of them will have, this night, as rich a time as I. And then I think of what could come if all those little flames combined.... This is good. This moment is very good.
Beyond the woods, a dry house awaits us, and a crackling fire in the hearth, and sleepy children, and hot mulled cider, and genial company.
That, too, will be good, in its own time.