‘Tis time. Tonight, I shall join my sisters and become one with them. I shall leave the terrors and shadows of my past behind me and bloom like the blossoms in Spring after the harshest Winter. At long last…
“Make sure ye tuck in all the straw at the head.”
I look up to see Mairéad smiling at me. Of course she would come to check on me. She always does.
I hold up the Brídeóg to her after smoothing out the straw and tying it tightly with another ribbon.
“Perfect,” says the petite woman with clear cat-like green eyes and wild black curly hair. “Ye’re a fast learner, Aislinn.”
“Thanks to you. All of you.”
“Nah.” Mairéad waves the compliment away. “‘Tis yer dedication to the craft that has led to this moment. I knew ye’d make it, mo chailín daor.”
Her hand gently caresses my cheek, and I watch as she joins her sisters to bless the amethyst crystals we wear during our rite. I still don’t understand how she came to be in my life, but I continue to thank my lucky stars for the day that this thirty-year-old walked into my hospital room with her book trolley five months ago. She was the only visitor I had. No one else had cared enough to come. No one still alive, at least.
As I think of how we met, my left arm starts to ache again. I drop the Brídeóg onto my lap and shut my eyes, trying my very best to dispel the pain. It’s all in my head anyway. Something that isn’t there can’t hurt anymore after all.
“Aislinn? Are you all right, sweetheart?”
My eyes open. Orla, our High Priestess, is crouching in front of me.
“Is it your arm again?” she asks, concerned.
I nod. She immediately takes a small vial of lavender oil out of her pouch. I chuckle. She really is like Mary Poppins. Always prepared for everything, knowing just what people need, and with a magic carpetbag of her own. The Englishwoman moved to Tara about fix or six years ago, I think. She, too, left her old life behind her. Only in Orla’s case, that old life was the life of a lad named Oliver. Orla often compared her transition from an insecure blond boy to the confident high-standing woman she was today to the cycle of a butterfly. Born as one being to evolve into another. She has become who she was meant to be.
Gently and with extreme care, Orla takes off my prosthetic. I avert my eyes. The sight of the scarred stump still churns my stomach. Orla dabs some of the fragrant lavender oil in the palm of her hands and massages my arm. Her soothing touch calms me. I glance back at her concentrated face.
“Do you truly believe me ready, Orla?”
“If I didn’t, we wouldn’t be doing all of this, darling.” She winks at me. “I cast the runes and read the cards before we came here. They all say the same thing – if the Goddess allows it, you will become our sister.”
I tilt my head. If the Goddess allows it… Why does that sound like I have to take an exam?
Orla moves to help me to put my prosthetic back on my arm. I stop her. She looks at me curiously for a moment but then nods without asking any questions. I thank her silently. If I am to ask Brigid to allow me into this coven, I want to do it as myself.
The High Priestess pulls me up from the grass by my other arm as I hold the straw doll I so diligently made in Brigid’s honour. Together, we walk to the altar and put the Brídeóg in the crib. The others gather around us in a circle. Each holds a candle. The flame brightly illuminates their face. If this weren’t a night of blessings and prosperity, I would find it eerie. Mairéad steps forward and puts an amethyst pendant around my neck. As she resumes her place, I wonder where her own is.
“Blessed sisters,” begins Orla, speaking in her strong, vibrant voice. “We have gathered this night to celebrate the feast of Brigid of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The seeds have been sown, the first of the snowbells has bloomed, and with the new dawn of Spring, we ask Brigid’s grace in welcoming Aislinn to our coven. Blessed be.”
We repeat the final words, and Orla passes me her cup to drink. I draw back a little when I detect a pungent smell amidst the honeyed aroma of the milk. I raise my eyes to Orla, who nods encouragingly. I drink. Whatever that smell is, I don’t taste anything weird. I return the cup to the High Priestess and begin the chant I memorised by heart.
“A Bhandia Uasail,
Tabhair ó do bhainne maitheasa le go mbeimid go léir cothaithe,
ionas go ndéanfaimid míorúiltí
ionainn féin agus inár dtimpeall.
Te ár gcroíthe le do ghrá.
Bronn d’eagna orainn,
ionas go bhfoghlaimeoimis fútsa agus faoi shaothrú.
A Bhríde… a Mhuire an Earraigh, a mháthair dúinn go léir,
tar anseo agus tabhair dóchas dúinn… achainímid oraibh.
Tá… Tá Bríd tagtha.
Tá fáilte… roimh… Bríd.”
By the time I finish, I feel heavy. My eyelids flutter. I struggle to keep them open. I try to focus on the altar in front of me, but I’m seeing double. The others dance in an ever-expanding circle, but their white-robed shapes blur. I can hear how they call on Brigid to join us.
“Bridean, Bridean, thig an nall ’s dean do leabaidh.”
The chant slowly fades into my mind. I stumble back. Someone grabs me and lays me down. Blond straight hair. Black wild curls. Orla? Mairéad? I cannot keep awake. I… I…
Killian, listen to me; it’s over! We can leave now! Don’t go back, please!
Killian, you’re driving too fast!
I sit up with a jolt, my own screaming voice still echoing in my head. My wild eyes search everywhere for him, but he’s not here. No one is. I lie alone in the middle of a circle of torches. In the glow of each flame, I see an amethyst bound around the wooden stakes. I reach for my own. My hand closes around the pendant, and I sigh in relief.
“Who is he?”
My head turns toward the voice. A girl with braided flaming red hair dressed in a snow-white sleeveless dress sits in a perfect lady-like pose in the grass beside the altar. She is petting a lamb in her lap. I gape at them, wondering where they came from.
“Answer me,” she orders. ‘Who is Killian?”
“H-He’s… my brother,” I stammer. “I’m sorry, how…?”
When she raises her head to me, I gasp. Her eyes are two different colours: one brightest blue, the other sterling grey. I dare not move as she gazes at me, seizing me up from head to toe. She scoffs.
My eyes narrow at her. Killian was the only one who ever called me that. But he always meant it as a jest. Her words sound more like an insult.
“Do you feel guilty?”
I stiffen at the question. The girl continues to pet the lamb, who sits quietly in her lap, looking all around except at me.
“You should,” she goes on harshly. “It’s your fault he’s dead after all.”
“It’s not,” I whisper.
“You drugged your parents after they beat you again. Killian wanted to take advantage of their vulnerability and make them pay. He was in that car because of you.”
“It wasn’t my fault!”
“Oh? Keep telling yourself that… diabhal beag.”
A furious wind suddenly picks up and nearly knocks me flat on my back. I shield my eyes as best I can. The torches go out one by one, and we plummet into darkness. When the wind subsides, I lower my arm. The girl has vanished.
In her stead is a woman – captivating, with the same flaming red hair and the same white dress. Only hers has sleeves and gold thread embroidered on the waist and hemlines. Her eyes are different too. Her blue eye is darker, more the colour of a clear spring sky. And her grey eye sparkles like silver.
From behind her comes a swan. The bird is the most beautiful I have ever seen. Just like the girl’s lamb, it looks everywhere except directly at me.
“You want him back, don’t you? Your brother?”
I stare at her, unsure what to say or do.
“I can help you with that,” she continues. “Your brother can live again… for a price. A life for a life.”
“A… a sacrifice?” I exclaim in shock as I grasp her meaning.
She grins and waves her hand. The robed figures of my coven appear in a circle around us. They are all asleep. I get up to run to Orla, but I stand frozen, unable to move.
“Name any from your coven, and the ones you have lost in your life may return to you. Killian, Gwen, Saoirse, Jamie… So many names… So many trades.”
“What? No, the women of this coven are innocent! They don’t deserve to die!”
“Did any of the others? Were any of those you loved guilty of anything? It’s a simple trade, Aislinn. The coven… for all those you love.”
It feels unreal. It is unreal. This must be a dream. Orla must have put something in the cup to make me sleep and be stuck in this horrible vision. This is a test. It has to be. Yet I cannot shake the awful sensation that whoever this woman is, she is not to be trifled with.
Suddenly, I remember reading about a being – a demon who resembles Brigid in all she does yet intends only heartache; Amun. Could this creature before me be said demon?
I reach for my pendant once more. It vibrates in my hand and gives me enough courage to speak with a quivering voice.
The swan beats its wings furiously. The white feathers glow brighter and brighter until the bird is engulfed in searing hot flames. The last I see of the woman is her wicked grin.
When the flames die, and I am once again in darkness, I make to run to Orla. But I double over, blinded by sudden pain and tumble to the ground. My body contracts, and I cough violently. Blood spatters on the grass. My vision blurs, yet I still perceive an old woman approaching.
Her pinned-up hair was once red. The white dress is faded, as is the gold thread. Her blue eye is nearly black. Her grey eye is nearly white. They look at me in pity.
“Oh, ma wee lass. Look at ye. So much pain. So much guilt. Why suffer? Say the word, and it ends. They sleep; they won’t feel it.”
“Ye’ve already lost so much. Yer friends, yer brother, yer arm… Must ye lose yer life now too?”
I close my eyes. I refuse to look. I refuse to listen. This crone won’t make me say it. Yes, I want to live. Yes, I want them back. But not at such a horrid price. I saw Death once… I am prepared to see him again.
I feel something against my body. The wind picks up once more, and then, all falls quiet.
A hand gently touches my shoulder. I open my eyes. Orla and Mairéad look down at me, smiling. I frown and push myself up awkwardly. Something drops to the ground I look – a Bogha Bríde, with ashes scattered over and around it. Around me.
“Brigid has blessed you, sister. Rise.”
The High Priestess offers me her hand. I stare at it a moment and then take it. She pulls me up. The sun is rising over the treetops. The first rays shine upon my face. It is such welcoming warmth.
I feel renewed.
I feel… reborn.