CW: blood, animal sacrifice
In her robes of whitest snow, the Blessed One strides light and proud down the forest path. Despite the winter chill, her bare feet land warm and without haste on the earth as she makes her approach to the sacred oak.
The base of our great tree is bathed in a warm halo of light. Encircling the clearing are a dozen of our most esteemed acolytes all wrapped in pale hooded robes, with great burning torches held between their palms.
This is my first time being honoured with an invitation to the annual atonement ceremony.
Two of my shrouded sisters step aside for the Blessed One to walk between and enter the glowing circle. At the foot of the oak sits a crude altar of stone and moss, on which the ceremonial chalice already sits.
Illuminated by the dancing firelights all around her, our dear Mother smiles. I forget myself as I gaze upon her transcendent beauty; my breath catches. Though I lower my eyes as she turns to face me, I feel the intensity of her radiant force boring into me.
The rumbling song of a single voice grows in the darkness of the path from which the Blessed One just emerged until two handsome white bulls appear, drawn by a sister whose face I cannot see. From under her hood, she chants the words of the Ancient Mothers. As she enters the clearing, the circle ignites with similar song. Again my two shrouded sisters make way and invite her and her hoofed companions into the circle. The Blessed One bows her approval at our sister and looks on until the bulls are presented before her.
Our Mother pulls back her hood to reveal her throng of brilliant hair, red and vibrant as the flames all around her, plaited with ivy and bound with thin sheets of birch. She is gentle when she strokes the nose of one bull, then another. The nod reverently to her and she smiles again. I resolve to control my respiration. She looks to me knowingly all the same.
The Blessed One speaks now in the language of rituals and the circle sways to her rhythm. A hooded brother breaks from the group to present her with a bundle of white cloth. She accepts it and carefully, delicately, our Mother unwraps her golden sickle. She hands the sheet back to the brother, who lays it out flat on the ground, and she takes to dancing around the trunk of the great tree, virginal robes billowing in her wake, with equal parts beauty and madness.
Our singing has staved to make way for our Mother’s voice. I’m enthralled by the glint of the sickle in the torchlight as she draws circles in the air for all creation to see, chanting all the while about endings and beginnings and the spaces in between. Of prosperity and death; of mastering both.
I watch in even greater awe as the Blessed One then stops before the white sheet on the ground, hooks the sickle into her belt, gathers up her robes, and begins to climb the trunk of our sacred tree with the strength and agility of a wildcat. Every hooded face follows her ascent into the branches.
The Blessed One climbs the tree alone, so that we may all rise on this most auspicious day.
Straddling the great tree’s limb, our Mother reaches out with the sickle in one hand to slice a bundle of the ghost-berried bush that latched onto the oak when lighting struck true. The spoils of her climb, she drops to the sheet spread below. She comes back down to earth with the same ease as she rose.
It’s now that I realize my mouth has gone dry. In my rapture, I’d forgotten to swallow.
Knelt before the altar, she whispers prayers in tongues known only to Mothers and trees. Slowly, carefully, she plucks berries and leaves from the mass on the sheet and muddles them on the mossy rock face.
When she stands again, she loosens her belt and lets her robes fall away, revealing every last inch of her snow-white flesh. Her hair tumbles in loose ringlets all the way down her spine. She steps away from the pile of garments and approaches the stoic bulls. With her eyes on the beasts, she wordlessly commands the brother. Without hesitation, he does her bidding, fetching the chalice and sickle for her and offers them to her with a deep bow.
With the chalice in her left hand and the sickle in the right, she approaches the first bull, staring it in the eye until to my unending awe, the great beast bows down to her. She coos sweetly to it as she wraps her arm around its thick neck, nuzzles into its shoulder, and runs the sickle across its throat.
My knees quiver but I dare not look away as the beast’s dark red lifeblood steams and oozes from the slit and fills the chalice. Once full, our Mother pours the contents of the chalice down her front, painting her in long dark lines in the snow of her skin. She fills the cup again and again, until she is a dripping in offerings, until the beast’s soul returns to the Above and its vessel collapses in a puddle of its former existence at her feet.
We all watch on as she turns to the second beast, approaching it with the same sweet ferocity she had with its brother. Again she fills the chalice with offering, and gestures to the brother with another twirl of her sickle. He gathers the poultice from the altar with both hands and approaches the Blessed One. He drops the mixture of leaf and berry into the chalice and takes it from her hands.
I wince when she slice a line into her own palm with the sickle, blending her blood with that of the beasts, She squeezes her essence into the chalice and takes it from the brothers hands. Raising it above her head, she howls in prayer to the brilliant moon above, and brings the cup to her lips to drink.
When she opens her eyes, the Blessed One locks her gaze on me, holding it as she takes soft, slow steps towards me with the chalice clasped between her palms. My grip on the burning branch in my hands tightens until she changes the step in her path and approaches the brother to my right. He plants his torch in the earth and removes his robes to bare himself to the night. Then, he accepts the chalice from the Blessed One and they exchange the words we have learned as she presses her bloody hand to his forehead in blessing. He drinks deep from the cup and returns it to her care.
One by one, my sisters and brothers drop the robes to the earth and welcome the Motherblood into their vessels. And one by one, they begin to dance. As if the very the Ancient Mothers themselves now run through them.
I am the last to drink of this benevolent magic. My heart beats harder than the solstice drums when the Blessed One stands before me. I plant the torch in the frozen earth; the blood on her body glistens in the moonlight. She offers me the chalice with both hands.
“Drink, Sister,” she whispers. “To the healing of all things.”
Behind her, the naked bodies of my sisters and brothers already consumed by the Motherblood are coming together in wild frenetic unions with the dancing shadows.
“To the healing of all things,” I echo.
She presses her slit palm to my forehead and I drink, welcoming the ferrous essence into my body. Before it can even warm my gut, I feel the ancient magic grip me from within. Any last lingering chill of the night melts away and all I feel is light.
Like those who came before me, I step away from the dregs of last year’s robes and our Mother takes my hand. So warm is her touch as she leads me into the throng of bodies dancing and writhing at the base of our scared tree.
On this sixth day of the moon, I ascend.