The sound rose, higher and higher, reaching, spiralling, pulling the women beyond their bodies, reverberating off the cavern walls, strengthening, taking flight. The voices merged, a giant winged serpent of sound, swooping and diving, caged by hard stone walls, incited by the circle of figures. Mercilessly it blasted its way through anything that blocked its way, splintering fragile humanity, shattering the psyche.
‘Sshhh!’ Salerna hissed, hoping to escape attention. Beside her, Assana’s body trembled in Beatrice’s arms, her voice now jarring with the collective as it dropped to a low tone that emerged from deep in her chest. Beatrice placed a soft palm over the young woman’s mouth.
The last thing Assana had felt as she slipped away were the supporting arms of her friends. Breaking from the circle, they had carried her quickly to the small alcove behind them, where, with perfect timing, the glinting water in the tall stone font signalled the arrival overhead of the full moon. It was the Rose Moon they had been waiting years for.
But their departure from the ceremony hadn’t gone unnoticed.
Beatrice’s heart sank as she watched the stately Beldam make her way around the outside of the circle. She paused briefly to glance down at the three taking shelter in the alcove, then stepped in to fill the gap they had left in the circle, her voice catching and smoothing the dip in sound caused by their absence before it fell too far.
Assana’s tremors rose and fell as the sound serpent swept the room, her body electrified by the high tone vibrating through the enclosed space. Salerna scooped a palmful of illuminated water from the font, sprinkling it over her friend’s face and neck, drops darkening the edge of her silver robe, running into her black hair. It made no difference. Assana’s shivering and discordant tone continued, an uneasy undercurrent to the heightened reverberation in the chamber.
Beatrice continued to hold her, her hand kept lightly over her mouth, wishing the evening would hurry up and end. There was no magic in it for her any longer. It had been replaced instead by dread. Months of preparation wasted by Assana’s strange behaviour. She glanced up at Salerna, leaning against the wall above her. She had no need to be still standing there, but once you left the circle, you couldn’t return. That was the rule.
No, that was the second rule.
The first rule was that you didn’t leave the circle, no matter what. And, as far as she knew, no-one had ever broken that first rule. What would happen now, she wondered. It wasn’t their fault, after all. They had simply helped a friend. Or should they have acted differently? She began to doubt their response. Perhaps they should have left her to fall, allowing the Beldam to decide what to do. Or maybe they should have carried her to the centre of the circle rather than out of it.
Above her head, the high-pitched toning undulated endlessly, beginning and end as inseparable as in-breath and out-breath, fused into a never ending loop. The women in the circle had surrendered long ago, eyes closed, silver-robed bodies swaying gently. At the zenith of the serpent’s power, Magda’s voice dropped all of a sudden, now synchronising perfectly with Assana’s own. Beatrice, relieved, lifted her hand from her friend’s face.
Deep and low, this new sound stalked across the floor, a sonorous resonance waiting for its moment, prowling, alert. Then, without warning, it shot upwards, wrapping itself around the sound serpent’s tail as it swooped overhead, pulling it to the ground, draining its power. A collective shiver ran through the group as the high tone cracked, fell. Only Magda and Assana’s deep tone remained, gradually fading as the women collapsed to their knees, the circle finally broken, the energy seeping quietly away into the earth.
As the Beldam approached the water font, Salerna also dropped to her knees, squeezing as best she could in beside Beatrice and Assana at the back of the alcove, out of the way. But Magda paid no attention to them, her focus on the task at hand. Turning to face the chamber, she waited for the final part of the ceremony. Salerna could see the back of her heels from where she sat, showing an inch below the frayed end of her robe, cracked and dry from the summer earth, spider veins branching thinly under the ankle bones.
It took a few moments for the group of young women in the ceremonial chamber to gather themselves; stretching arms, yawning, rearranging robes, tidying hair. In Beatrice’s lap, Assana also stirred and then woke. She smiled, her eyes fresh and wide as if from the purest sleep. Beatrice did her best to smile back but it was little more than a slight quiver at the corner of her mouth. Assana turned her head, noticing Magda’s straight back, Beatrice and Salerna beside her, her other companions now queuing at the font. Carefully, wordlessly, she eased herself upwards to sit beside Beatrice.
One by one, the young women drank from the font – long, thirsty, mouthfuls of water scooped with their own hands, the moon touching each head gently as it bent into her light. And one by one, they had their damp hands carefully and lovingly dried and oiled by Magda.
Assana tilted her face upwards, her gaze travelling up the shaft of moonlight that shone down the narrow grey stone funnel from the world above. She sensed her friends’ anxiety creeping in around, but unable to access, her. Whatever had happened, whatever she had missed, mattered little to her just then. She felt washed clean inside, though by what force, she had no memory.
The women were starting to gather by the upright carved rock that hid the exit at the far end of the chamber, soft excited chatter starting to replace the hush. As the last hands were dried and oiled, the Beldam indicated to Assana and her friends that they should also drink. Her drying of their hands, however, had none of the care and delicacy with which they had watched her tend to the others. Nor were they oiled.
‘You will not go tonight,’ she said curtly. ‘When we reach town, you will return home. We will speak tomorrow.’
Magda walked swiftly away to the end of the chamber, slipping out past the carved rock to check that all was quiet outside. When she reappeared, it was time to go.
In single file, hoods up, the women left the flickering light of the cavern. Carefully they climbed the small stone steps, smoothed by generations of bare feet, which led up through the roots of the old Angel Oak and out onto the hillside above the town. Last to leave, Assana gripped thin roots poking through the earth walls to keep her balance as she climbed, holding up the end of her unfamiliar robe with her left hand. Her senses, heightened by her temporary absence from the world, were filled with the smell of damp humus, the cool touch of silk on her skin, the perfumed oil of her companions.
The Rose Moon hung full and ripe over the town, guiding them down the hillside, the dew on the grass cold on their feet. As they reached the town gate, the group paused. They knew it was important not to be seen, once inside the town, and they waited until the Beldam was certain no-one was about. The townsfolk also knew it was a curfew night – one of four each year when daylong festivities ended with the town bell ringing not long after sundown, indicating the time to retreat indoors. The shutters were all long closed, lamps extinguished and everyone abed by the time the women returned from the hillside, walking quickly through the commercial district and down steep cobbled Main Street, before turning left onto the avenue that led directly to the Dominie’s Residence.
At the steps of the Residence, the three young women at the back lowered their heads and kept walking, as the Beldam had instructed, leaving the group behind them. However carefully they had prepared for this evening, whatever nervousness they had felt, returning home to face their families had not been part of their preparations. And now, whatever the morrow would bring, the more urgent need was to slip into home and bed without waking anyone. The three parted company as they reached South Lane, unable to find any words of farewell or closure that would fill the space that had emerged between them, trying not to think of the evening that was continuing without them.
(Currently work in progress at 20,000 words)