“Did you bring photos?” a woman asks, her gorgeously wan body draped in clothes like dark cobwebs, her skin powered ghostly white.
I brought a picture of my mother when she was about my age. She was photographed from behind, walking on the ties of a railroad track, her hands reaching out to the sides for balance. Just as the picture was snapped, she had turned her head to smile at the photographer – my father, I assumed. It was my favorite picture of her, and three years ago I had placed it by her casket at the funeral.
We leave them on the altar, already crowded with pictures. I study the faces in the photographs. The children hit me the hardest. Sweet little lives cut short, memorialized on photo paper.
Faintly, in the background, a drum marks time like a heartbeat.
A book in the center of the table is titled “Ledger of the Dead,” and several names are already listed on the open page. I write ‘Nancy Campbell, beloved mother’ below the other names, surprised to notice my hand is trembling. Is it possible she will actually show up? And what does one say to a ghost? Should I tell her what’s been going on in my life, or can she see me and my life through the veil?
In the middle of the dark back yard is a large circle of autumn leaves and cornstalks, punctuated by torches. We line up outside the circle and two people walk down the line, one fanning smoke onto us from a smoldering sage bundle, the other anointing our foreheads with scented oil. I draw a deep breath of the wonderful aromas, feeling the tense muscles in my shoulders unknot and release.
Quietly we step up to the circle. A woman in a black dress and veil hands us each a silver dollar as we enter.
The Priestess raises her dagger and points it at each of the flames flanking the circle, making them pop and crackle. “Bless this space and the spirits who come to visit.” The embers rise and orbit round us like tiny moons, tumbling and floating, until we are all contained within a cone of golden light.
“As above, so below!” The Priestess cries. “This circle is sealed!” The embers drop to the ground with a final sizzle.
Inside the circle, it is so quiet I can hear my own breathing. I immediately feel warmer. Is excitement raising my blood pressure, or am I truly cocooned in protected space, a time outside of time? Every sense seems more acute, yet at the same time stilled. I smell the pungent incense, hear the tree leaves rustle, pick out every detail of the dozen or so candlelit faces across the circle.
We listen to readings about the final harvest, the earth going dormant. With my heightened awareness, I can actually sense the earth drowsing beneath my feet, waiting for the warm spring sun to return. I have never been so alive, or felt my own mortality so acutely. A chant begins.
“The Moon is bright, the Crone is old,
The body lifeless - the bones so cold.
We all live and pay our dues
To die in ones and threes and twos.”
Witches believe that at Samhain, or Halloween, the veil between the worlds of the living and the spirits is at its thinnest, and the dead can visit their living families. Communion is safest in a magical circle, cast to both contain energy and to protect those within.
“Behold, the Western Gate is now open, let us pass through!” calls our Priestess.
We join hands and walk round and round, spiraling, descending to the Underworld, chanting as we go:
“Come ye, good spirits of the dead!
Be ye spirit of plant or pet
Or human spirit that we have known,
Into this Circle you are let!
Speak to us of things unknown!
Lend your energies to this rite!
To speed your journey, we have joined
On this Sacred Samhain night!”
The spiral tightens and the chanting quickens, then gentles and goes silent. The torches have been extinguished. Darkness surrounds us.
We have arrived. It’s time to pay Charon the Boatman and be ferried across the River Styx to visit our ancestors. We each hand a coin to the black-robed figure who traverses the circle in silence.
Piling our hands on the black leather-bound book in which we signed the names of our deceased, we speak their names aloud—who they were to us, how they died. My father, a burst aneurysm, Karen’s friend, cancer. Your mother, heart attack. Another mother, a sister, best friend, uncle, track coach, favorite pet.
The names multiply and tumble over each other until they are swirling around us like tendrils of memory fog. One woman cremated her father three days before. Tears pour down her face, and we drape our arms on each other’s shoulders in a communal embrace. We share family news with our loved ones, love and laugh, and say words we may not have had the time or the heart to say while they were alive.
Our twenty minutes pass too quickly. It’s time to say farewell.
While the Priestess finishes our memorial, I close my eyes, blinking away tears. Of all the unusual things I have done since choosing the Witch’s Path, communing with my mother’s spirit this evening is the easiest. I dropped my guard, suspended any last vestiges of former beliefs, and was simply comforted by her presence. Why did I ever question if she would show up? Love guided her back to me, as it will on this night every year.
We stop at the ancestor’s table to pick up our mementos, but leave the candles to burn out in their own time.
I kiss my fingertips and caress each skull. Blessed be all, I whisper to those souls. The candles flicker for a moment.
Silently, we file past the table, back into the world of the living.