Winter Solstice – 21st December – Evening
Mizzy’s encounter with the old woman has unsettled her, ‘What a weird old woman,’ she mutters to herself, as she makes her way down the path to her father’s bungalow.
She rings the doorbell but gets no answer.
‘Typical!’ she moans, and decides to lean on the doorbell until she gets a reply.
Eventually, Frank Chegwidden opens the door, holding a book in one hand and staring at the pages, totally absorbed in their contents.
‘Just came to warn you that aliens have landed in the village and are killing everyone.’
Her father, a tall man with a mop of tousled grey hair, wearing a tweedy jacket with leather patches at the elbows, looks up distractedly from his book.
‘What’s that? Oh Mizzy!’ he says, and, realising who it is, remembers something very important. ‘Happy Birthday!’
‘Thanks, and thanks for making me wait in the freezing cold with the snow’s filling my boots.’
‘Snow? Strewth, sorry, yes, come in darling, you must be frozen. When did it start snowing?’
‘Only yesterday, I expect you were on Planet Frank and didn’t notice.’
‘Yes I expect so,’ he replies thoughtfully, it still comes as a shock to him that his daughter no longer calls him dad.
Frank turns around slowly on the spot as if trying to find his bearings. ‘Now, let me see. A hot chocolate! That should warm you up. Now, I must tell you what I’ve been reading. You’ll be fascinated. I’ll lend it to you, it’s is all about the smuggling that has taken place in the village over the years.’
‘Is it for one of your guided walks?’
‘Yes,’ says Frank stabbing at a page in his book. ‘Did you know that in the 18th century the coasts here swarmed with smugglers from Land’s End to the Lizard? And with the active support of the local population these swarms would use violence, but only against the revenue forces…’
Mizzy tunes out her dad as he drones on, while absent-mindedly making her a cup of hot chocolate.
The problem with both her parents, she thinks to herself, is their obsessions. Mum with her witchcraft and Dad with his history – and Mizzy caught in the middle. She lets out a deep sigh.
‘Are you listening, Mizzy? I hope you’re not away with the faeries like your mother.’
Mizzy takes the cup of chocolate drink he proffers her. ‘No, Frank. How about you? Why am I here? Can you remember?’
Her dad looks puzzled. ‘Yes, of course, it’s your birthday.’
Mizzy frowns, ‘And? What do you give someone on their birthday?’
Her dad thinks for a moment.
‘Oh, of course, yes, your present. Now, I know it’s here somewhere.’
He rummages through the pile of papers and books on his desk, tunelessly humming to himself, whilst still holding his precious tome in one hand. Finally, he finds a small box and shoves it at Mizzy.
‘Frank, it’s not even wrapped up.’
‘Well, you’re a bit old for that, aren’t you?’
Mizzy frowns, again. ‘Yeah, I suppose so. Not a little girl anymore, if I ever was.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Nothing!’ snaps Mizzy, opening the box. Inside there is a beautiful set of silver earrings in the shape of standing stones.
‘I hope you like them. I know how much you like to go out and photograph them.’
Mizzy feels tears welling up in her eyes.
‘What’s the matter, dear? Don’t you like them?’
‘I love them Frank, it’s just…’
‘Well, you and mum, those stones meant so much to you both, but…’
Frank interrupts, angrily. ‘She stopped seeing them purely for their archaeological significance, and started blathering mystical nonsense about how they were used for magical rites. Honestly, that woman is ridiculous with her obsessions.’
‘Well, if you hadn’t started it by researching her family history, then she would never have known about all that witch stuff, would she?’
‘So, I’m to blame, somehow, am I? For your mum’s strange mystic ideas?’
‘I’m just saying you could have tried harder to see her point of view.’
‘What? Yoga? Tarot cards? Crystal healing? It’s like living in a fairy tale!’
Both decide to say no more, for this is clearly a well-worn argument.
‘She’s making a bit of a fuss about my birthday,’ says Mizzy, breaking the silence, ‘You know, becoming a teenager and all that.’
‘Well, I’m sure she will take you somewhere nice.’ says her father, cheerfully.
Mizzy looks doubtful, ‘Well, knowing Mum, I expect it will be different, anyway.’
‘O.K. darling, you can take the blindfold off now!’ says Cordelia excitedly.
Mizzy lifts her hands to her eyes and takes away the scarf wrapped around them
‘So, not Nando’s then.’ she mutters as she looks around her surroundings. She is in a clearing, in the ancient wood below Spriggan Point. The moonlight, breaking through the branches above, reflects off the snow-covered ground, bathing everything in an eerie blue aura.
Four hooded figures in white robes stand by a brightly burning bonfire.
Mizzy waves sheepishly to one of the group. ‘Hello, Debbie.’
‘Damara!’ hisses Cordelia, ‘She prefers, Damara, when we are in a coven meeting.’
‘Oh, yeah, right, I forgot, sorry.’ mutters Mizzy ‘and is that you Mrs Parker?’ she adds, looking at another member of the party.
‘Yes, dear, but here you have to call me Arwen.’ replies a tall lady with angular features. She is the Vicar’s wife, and although she sees her presence here as a slight betrayal of her husband, she really likes to be involved in all the Village societies. She sees it as part of her parochial duties, and, after all, it is really just a night out with the girls isn’t it?
‘Happy Birthday, Dear,’ says Mrs Nance, the local policeman’s wife ‘Your initiation, Isn’t it exciting!’
‘Happy Birthday, Mizzy!’ they all exclaim.
‘All this snow is terrible, isn’t it!’ says Avalon (Dora Basset, the Post Mistress) ‘Poor old Bobby had a terrible time this morning on his round, and I heard that old Mrs Braithwaite had a bit of a turn, I was just saying, only the other day that I didn’t like the look of…’ she trails off seeing the steely look in Cordelia’s eyes.
‘Right, shall we get down to business?’ snaps Cordelia, ‘I’m sure there will be time to chat after the ceremonies.’
‘Yes, High Priestess!’ they all answer in unison, very aware how seriously Cordelia takes sticking to the correct agenda for their meetings.
‘Now, we will carry out the ceremony of the winter solstice as normal at this time of year,’ says Cordelia, ‘to celebrate the rebirth of the Sun God. Then we will initiate our new member of the group by invoking the third act of power for Ostara, namely, by jumping through flames.’
‘What!’ interrupts Mizzy ‘Jumping through flames. Are you mad?’
‘Don’t worry,’ pipes up Auria (Denise, Deputy Head of the local primary school, and very efficient) ‘I have done a risk assessment, and as we are wearing our fire retardant robes, and limited the size of the bonfire to no more than two feet square, the dangers are within acceptable limits,’ looking pointedly at the portly figure of Avalon she continues ‘for the less athletic people present.’
‘Well, that’s fine then!’ replies Mizzy sarcastically, ‘Look, Mum, I’m not much of a joiner, you know? Could I just…’
Cordelia ignores her daughter and carries on her explanation of the proceedings.
‘First, I shall cast the Magic Circle,’ she declares, taking a knife from her belt and waving it around in the air, ‘by pointing my athane, that is my ritual knife,’ she explains ‘ at the four cardinal points, beginning in the North, which represents the earth element.’
‘Is it time for the wine yet?’ asks Arwen, whose husband believes in practicing what he preaches – particularly in regard to the dangers of over indulgence of alcohol. Even at Christmas, he is known to be somewhat parsimonious with the Vicarage drinks cabinet.
‘I’ve brought chocolate cake!’ pipes up Avalon.
‘No, feasting and drinking, yet, the ceremony will end, as usual, with cakes and wine – but first we must dance and jump!’ replies Cordelia, ‘Now do you all have your bits of paper, with the things you wish to change, or let go of, written on?’
‘Yes, High Priestess!’ they all intone, with the smugness of children who have completed their homework.
‘Good, now, all dance with me around the fire, yes, that’s right, in a circle, focus on the fire and send it energy, and sing with me,’ instructs Cordelia.
‘O, the sun comes up at the break of day. And the equinox breaks old winter’s sway. May the fires carry my ills away!’ she chants. The rest of the group, a beat behind, repeat after her and dance around the fire.
A mortified Mizzy mouths the words, and tries to join in, very half- heartedly.
‘Now throw your wishes into the fire!’ commands her mother.
‘What did you wish for?’ whispers Arwen to Damara. A look of panic crosses Damara’s eyes, but, thinking quickly, she answers ‘Oh, to banish poverty from the world.’ In truth, she had written the name of her rather annoying boss. ‘Bet I know what she wants to let go next year,’ says Auria, gesturing towards Avalon, and sniggering ‘She’ll be wanting to go down a few dress sizes.’
Nearby, Hep is busy foraging in the wood. She is collecting various herbs ideally, for efficacy, picked fresh in moonlight.
‘Penny-cress, nap-weed, wormwood and bloodwort, all have their purposes,’ she mutters to herself, delightfully, as she fills a plastic carrier bag.
Then she hears the chanting of Cordelia’s coven who are, having now begun drinking the fruits of bacchus, in strong voice.
Spying over the branches of a large bush, she sighs at the sight before her.
‘What nonsense is this! That Cordelia knew nothing, and knows nothing, she does not have the gift. Just a head full o’ dreams, and she has dragged poor Mizzy into them.’
In the clearing, Cordelia is preparing for the fire jumping. She brings out a large bone from her robes and holds it aloft.
The sight of the bone sends Hep into paroxysms of excitement. ‘I sense it. One of mine own!’
Cordelia intones, ‘this old bone represents life past; it shall burn and welcome in the future life of our sister Misercordia! See the fire glowing brighter and brighter, the energy stronger and stronger, send it forth in manifestation!’
‘Hang on Mum; I’m not sure about all this. I don’t really believe in any of It.’ pleads Mizzy, as the members of the coven take turns in jumping over the fire.
‘Honestly, darling,’ argues Cordelia, in frustration, ‘you were just like this with the Brownies. Refused to join in. I really didn’t think you would be so difficult about this. You are thirteen now, and it’s a family tradition, I don’t see why you can’t just do it for my sake,’
Before she can go any further in her argument, there is a sudden commotion, and a thin squeal of alarm from Damara, as a demonic figure with flashing eyes and fiery red hair jumps through the fire.
‘Oh, God,’ cries Arwen ‘It’s a devil. What have we done? We’ve accidently summoned a hellion! My husband will be furious!’
‘Don’t be silly, it’s just the bag lady,’ yells Mizzy recognising the face beneath the sooty veneer, ‘Hep, what are you doing here?’
‘This foolish wench would burn my bone!’ cries Hep and tries to grab it from Cordelia’s hand.
‘She’s balmy!’ gasps Aurora.
‘Let go! ‘I need it for the initiation!’ shouts Cordelia, fighting for possession of the ritual object.
Suddenly, she loses her hold on the bone and sits down heavily on Avalon’s chocolate cake.
With a cry of glee Hep hugs the bone and vanishes off into the trees.
‘Shocking!’ declares Arwen, ‘I vote we all go round Cordelia’s for a few drinks, to calm our nerves, after such a traumatic event!’
The rest of the coven murmur in agreement, and Cordelia reluctantly concedes.
‘I suppose you are right, I’m not really in the mood to carry on after that assault. Sorry, Mizzy, we’ll have to do the initiation another time.’
‘No rush, Mum, perhaps I could just be a sort of provisional member, for the moment.’ says Mizzy, consolingly, as she helps her mum to her feet. She is secretly rather pleased that she has avoided all that fire jumping nonsense.
In her bed that night, Mizzy cannot get to sleep. What was Hep playing at, jumping through the fire and stealing Mum’s bone? The evening had turned out quite well in the end, though. The ‘coven’ had got quite merry after a few drinks and had done a ‘Divine Mother Prayer Dance’. This was basically a conga, and Damara must have overdone the ‘ritual wine’ a bit – judging by her demonstration of twerking.
Mum had decorated the living room with a ‘mystical altar’ that had consisted of a photo of the birthday girl on the mantelpiece, surrounded by perfumed candles, witch-lore plants and strange arcane symbols painted on the wall.
Mizzy decides to read, hoping that she will nod off. But the thriller she is reading is far too exciting – she needs something boring. She picks up the book on smuggling that her dad has lent her. This should do it, she thinks, It’ll be dull as ditch water.
As she turns the pages, however, she spots an illustration that shocks her.
It is a woodcarving from the 18th century of an old lady captured by two revenue agents. The woman depicted looks exactly like Hep.