Disclaimer: This was written for the Academy of Bards Halloween Challenge - thanks as ever to Steph for the invite to take part.
Copyright to the author October 2004
In dark ages Europe, an early form of a Halloween custom called souling used to take place, an early precursor to todays trick or treat. On November 2, All Souls Day, early Christians would walk from village to village begging for "soul cakes" made out of square pieces of bread topped with currants. In return, they would say prayers on behalf of the dead relatives of the givers. At the time, it was believed that the dead remained in Purgatory after death and that prayer could hasten their passage to Heaven. The soul cakes would be shared with the beggars family, and prayers would be said for the deceased.
Hallowmas - the three celebrations comprising what we would now understand as the Halloween period; All Hallows Eve, All Saints or All Hallows Day and All Souls Day.
Samhain - the ancient Celtic festival connected with the return of the herds from summer pasture, the rekindling of fire for the coming year and the study of omens for the future. The souls of the dead would revisit their earthly homes on this day. Subsumed by the early Christians into All Hallows Eve.
Jack OLantern - the ancient Europeans used carved turnips and swede to ward off evil spirits. With the emigrations to the New World, the tradition was maintained but turnips and swedes being hard to find, pumpkins were used instead.
It had been an exhausting day so far, but the weight of the sack thrown over his shoulder spurred Ifan onwards. Walking the small villages of the forest was always hard work, but each year, the yield seemed to get better as more and more people came over to the Faith. The small band of his fellowes, too, seemed swollen compared to last year. He remembered going souling with his father and uncles and the other men of their tiny village; more often they had the dogs and geese set on them, and were chased away with curses and threats. Now, he stared around their small band of about fifteen men, women and children - their party was large enough to allow them to plan their strategy within the larger villages they were now approaching and they had found that this year in particular, they were welcomed more openly. Their swelling soul cake sacks also meant there were many more souls to pray for at the end of the night. And more people who were becoming open to their Christian messages.
Tramping through the rough undergrowth of the forest, following the well-worn paths of the herdsmen and charcoal burners as the fading light of the day trickled through the canopy of autumnal leaves which were slowly dying on the branch. Their feet rustled and crackled as they stamped over the discarded and now browning greenery; branches and roots grasped at cloaks and skirts, erupting through the earth like the twisted, gnarled fingers of the buried dead.
Ifan half-laughed at himself. Such fancies a man could conceive, in this half-light world of Hallowmas.
Ifan loved this time of year, the calmness and decaying beauty before the harshness of winter truly set in. When firewood and food was still reasonably plentiful, if only a man had the will and the strength to collect it. Ifans sack was filled with branches, roots and nuts gathered from the forest during his walks today, and the satchel strapped around his waist held his share of the precious soul cakes and other dried foodstuffs; alms begged in return for prayers for the dead and shared around the group of Christians with whom he walked the paths on this All Souls Day. He carried a heavy load, but he didnt mind too much - he needed the stores for winter, and he knew he would soon be sitting in his small wooden hut with his family, feasting on the nuts, berries and soul cakes before prayers and bed.
The light was fast seeping from the sky and already a few of his fellow travellers had lighted their candles and lanterns. One child held a carved turnip with a candle stuck in the top, a crude Jack OLantern whose garish and wicked face danced on the tree trunks, its evil eyes winking amongst the branches and leaves of the oak and elm trees which towered above them. Ifan tugged his cloak closer to him, shivering as the faerie glance of the lantern flickered over him; symbols of the old ways, the dying religion which somehow refused to lie down and give in gracefully.
The jagged grin of the Jack led the way through the darkest part of the forest, seeking and searching for the rough paths of the swine hearders which would take them into the glades and clearances where woodland villages have lain for hundreds of years. Ifan was aware that, in this part of the forest at least, traditions had lain untouched for generations; the Old Ways were still followed. Christianity was indeed, here, a young and upstart religion. The people who lived in this part of the land had successfully weathered attempts by the Romans, the Norsemen and countless other invaders to change their beliefs and their ways - all to no avail, as Rome and Norse practises were simply grafted onto the pagan festivals and rituals.
It was rumoured that the Celts still worshipped here, and that there was a stone circle hidden deep in the heart of the forest where pagan rituals - some said sacrifice, even - were still practised.
Again, Ifan shivered as the cold of the evening started to bite into him, and he stopped to pull his fur cloak from his pack. He shucked it on and tied it snugly around his waist with a cured leather belt, specially made for him by his wife from the hide of one of their precious goats, slaughtered last winter for its meat, bones and pelt.
The villages that lay in the heart of the forest certainly would be a challenge, not just for their begging, but also for their conversion. Souling wasnt just about begging for treats for the children and food for the hungry - it was also about spreading the word of The Lord, bringing the Faith to those who were lost. Saving the souls of those who did not believe. He lit his own lantern, and trudged along with the others.
The forest began to thin, and outlying structures of a village could soon be seen as the edge of the woodland disappeared. In a clearing just south of the woods edge stood the charred remains of a bonfire, the embers still glowing. Villagers and their children still clustered around the fire, chattering, laughing and eating haunches of meat and roasted potatoes dug out of the ashes. Ifans nose picked up the aroma of charred flesh, fat and singed skin and his stomach rumbled. Catching the sound, one of the villagers proffered a handful of roasted chestnuts, freshly harvested from the bonfire. Ifan shook his head and mumbled a thanks, knowing that the food was part of the Samhain festival, where meat and other offerings were burnt in the sacred bonfire as sacrifice to the seasons by the Druids in order to assist with their divinations of the future. Several villagers carried burning brands away from the bonfire to their houses, transporting the sacred flames to their own hearths to restart their domestic fires with the blessed fire of the Druids.
Ifan took a deep breath, steeled himself against the cold and followed his compatriots into the village proper.
Low wooden houses crept along the small valley sides, rough mud streets criss-crossing the little community. He could pick out pin pricks of vacillating light all through the village, and as he got closer, Ifan could see the Jack OLanterns, stuck on gateposts and mounted on poles outside dwellings and other village structures, put there to ward off evil spirits. Their grimacing faces almost seeming to mock the Christians as they entered the village boundary and started walking down the main pathway which cut through the village square.
Involuntarily, Ifans fingers grasped the carved wooden fish which hung around his neck from a small leather strap and muttered words of prayer under his breath. Receiving his orders from Athelstane, the leader of their pack, to go west, Ifan again grasped his medallion and set off to the west of the village, accompanied by a few of the others. Their plan was to cover the entire village, meet up later and pray for the souls of the dead before sharing their soul cake offerings around the whole party. The cakes and other collected foodstuffs would be taken home and eaten later that night at a feast with their families, or added to the winter stores.
The first house he approached was, like most of the houses, guarded by a Jack OLantern which sat and leered at him from the door mantle where it had been put out of the way of the pigs which grunted and snuffled around the open front door. A grubby child sat with the pigs, playing in the mud of the street. Ifan gingerly yelled a halloo into the open doorway. The child stared at him, a mute challenge in its eyes, until its mother came and swept her up from the muddy doorstep. With a scolding, she was turned indoors with instructions to scrub her face and report to her father.
"What ee wantin, stranger?" the woman asked, quite kindly.
"Say a prayer for a loved one, missus, for a soul cake?"
"Ahh, one of them, is ee? Surely, Im needin a prayer for my eldest. Im gone since summer. Fever took im."
"Want me to pray for im, missus?"
"Was hopin hed walk tonight, it being Samhain, but no." She nodded towards the small dish of milk and bread which had been overturned by the pigs. "Is favourite food, to bring im here. Milk pail overturned earlier and I thought as was im - favourite trick of is - but turned out just to be the pigs. Say a prayer for him, will ee?" She handed him a small cake, still warm from the oven. His mouth watered as he picked up the sharp tang of cloves and honey coming from the little package in his hand.
"Surely will, missus. Thankee," he said as he placed the little cake carefully with the others in his satchel. "Well pray for im and ee. Gods will be done."
"Was Gods will as took im, mister." She made to close the door.
"Are you a believer, missus?" Ifan asked quickly.
"Mister, I believe in anything as gets me and my family through winter safe. Tis parlous dark and wicked round ere some nights. Ee be careful, boy." With that and a cautious yet kind smile, she scooted the pigs inside the house and then closed the door upon him.
He received similar success and a handful of dried fruits at the next house, was turned away with a curse and a boot to the arse at the third house, and spent time in the fourth house discussing God and his faith with the curious inhabitants who kindly invited him to sup with them. Politely, he declined, taking only a cup of ale, but took the opportunity to tell them about God, Jesus Christ and the rest. He left with a sackful of salted pork and an agreement to meet for prayers and worship in a few days time at their chapel in Lewisthane.
His heart considerably lightened, he approached the next house, a rickety timber and daub structure. The smoke pouring out of the chimney stack told him that the inhabitants were home, but the windows had a cheerless, cold and dark look. The only light which seemed to come near the place was cast by the illuminated carved turnips which lay either side of the gateposts, their grotesque features casting devil faces on the yellowing daub of the building. Inside, he could hear a dog barking, but no other noise came from inside and he noticed that the local children, who had been running around the streets with their own Jack OLanterns, begging treats and foods from their neighbours, hadnt approached this place.
H e faltered momentarily, but then rallied as he thought of his wife and children back in their own meagre wooden hut in Lewisthane, huddled around their fireplace and waiting for him to return with their supply of food, cakes and firewood. Stores to get them through the harsh winter months, when the earth died and men had to scratch for survival until she came to life again. Could be that whatever he begged from this house would be all that stood between his family and starvation this winter. He took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders and continued up the overgrown path.
He knocked, and waited. There was no answer, so he knocked again and gave a holla. Still no answer. He was preparing to turn and leave, when the door was suddenly jerked back. A pair of piercing blue eyes peered at him from below a mop of cascading grey-black hair. The face was weatherworn, lined and wrinkled, and the mouth parted and seemingly leering. For a moment he was reminded of the grimaces of the Jack OLanterns, and his heart thudded in his chest.
The apparition in front of him smiled. "Ee knocked on my door, stranger?" The blue eyes twinkled, teasing him from beneath their bushy brows.
Ifan relaxed a little, and returned the smile. "Thats right, I did."
"What ee be wantin then?"
"I be collectin soul cake or offerings for prayers..."
"Be ye now?" The eyes brightened even more. "God lover are ye? Soul believer?"
"Aye, thats right." Unconsciously, Ifans hand crept up to the carved wooden fish that lay around his neck; warmth spread from his fingers as he touched it and he felt the strength of his convictions flood through him. "Do ee know God?"
"Not personally," grinned the person in front of him. "Why dont ee come in, and tell me all about He?"
"Uhhh..." Uncharacteristically, Ifan hesitated.
"Now mister, think Ise gonna do ee harm? On All Souls Day? Ise just a poor woman, all alone in the world. All my loves have left me... I needs many prayers. Will ee no help a poor lone widow woman?" Eyes twinkling again, she cracked open the door and gestured for him to come in, then trundled slowly into the room and settled herself down next to the hearth. Gesturing again for him to come in, she picked up a plain clay pot from the fireside and commenced stirring the contents. "Come on in, boy, do I ave to tell ee again? I dont bite."
"Thankee, missus." Ifan dragged the door shut behind him, walked into the room and took the seat that was offered to him, opposite the old woman. The room, what he could see of it in the darkness, was shabby and dusty, strings of cobwebs trailing from walls and ceilings like fishermans netting. Her meagre possessions were arranged tidily around the tiny room; he caught glimpses of objects in corners, but he couldnt make them out in the dim light. Bunches of herbs and onions hung from the low ceiling beams, giving a musty smell to the place; a smell made worse by the intense heat being thrown out by the fire. The only source of light came from that fire; Ifan supposed that the woman was too poor to afford candles or oil burners. He spotted a rush torch by a bolted door, behind which the dogs barking could be heard, and supposed that she had to burn a brand to light her way into the other rooms.
"Parlous time to be out in the wilds, man, when the dead are walkin." She interrupted his musings. "Ee carry no Jack or spell to protect ee?" She continued stirring whilst peering at him with curiosity-filled blue eyes.
Ifan bristled. "Nay, missus. I need no lantern or spells; God protects me."
Her lips curled into a small smile, and her eyes twinkled again. "Do he now? So what ee keep grabbin that thing round thy neck for?"
Ifans hand dropped from his necklace; he hadnt even realised he was fingering it. "No reason, missus. It just reminds me of God, is all. Reminds me that Hes always with me." He tucked his hands carefully into the front pocket of his cloak, and twined his fingers together.
She placed the bowl at her feet, picked up a small cup of milk and tipped it in, then placed the bowl back on her knee and continued stirring and beating the contents. "Ee likes cakes sweet, do ee?" she enquired. He nodded, and her arm whipped out, spindly and almost black in the shadows, pointing away into the dark corners. "Pass me the honey there."
He looked around him, confused as the dancing firelight made shadows heave in the corners of the poky room, before fixing on a pot of honey which stood on the rough hewn dresser at the far side of the room. He got up to fetch it, and could feel eyes on him the whole time.
As he passed her the honey jar, his fingers brushed against her arm and it felt cold, oddly bristly. But then again, she was fairly hairy even around the face, as women of a certain age could sometimes get. He remembered the bakers widow in his childhood village who grew increasingly more shrunken and bristly as old age took her. Some said it was Gods punishment for making her husbands life such a misery with all her nagging. Maybe this woman was paying a similar price?
"Eell not mind waiting until the cakes are baked," she stated. "Better warm and fresh, I always says, when ee can get it."
"Uhh.. Well, missus, my friends will be waitin on me..." he stuttered, knowing that it probably wasnt true. People tended to drift off by themselves when they were out this late souling, and theyd probably think hed had enough and gone home if he missed the rendezvous.
"Always an event, when a stranger comes to town," she continued as though he hadnt spoken. "Good to talk to travellers, dont ee find? Only way news comes through." She tossed him a knowing glance, making him shiver slightly in the warm room. "Dont look so frit, mister. Your God will protect ee, as all Gods do."
"Am ee not a believer, missus?"
She guffawed, the sound grating in the enclosed space and causing her hefty body to judder up and down in its seat. Some of the mixture she was making slopped over the bowl; she mopped it up with a snap of her thin wrist and licked it off her fingers. "Nay, boy. Ise believe in anything as gets me through the night. Wem all do round ere. When ee gets to be my age, thyll learn to pray to any gods as promises thyll live to next harvest and warm weather."
Ifan spotted his chance, and countered piously, "Only one God can truly promise ee that, missus."
"That so, be it? Fancy that." She leaned down again, picked up a small stone jar and sprinkled the contents into the mixture; his sensitive nose picked up the scents of cinnamon and clove. She then threw a handful of dried fruits into the pot, and stirred again, before adding a dob of flour. "Maybe I should start prayin to thy God then, if im be so mighty powerful."
"Ee be, missus," confirmed Ifan ernestly. "Would ee like to hear more about Im?"
"Ee said there be more of thy folk around the village tonight?" At his nod, and with a sudden flick of her thin arm, she pulled out a tiny phial from a pocket hidden in the folds of her voluminous cloak and carefully added a few drops of reddish liquid into her pot. She gave him a sly smile when she noticed him watching her. "Ee gets to my age, ee notices things. Changes to the seasons, winters gettin colder and colder. Snows deeper and frosts more cruel, year on year. Only so much them Druids can do for a body. Old ways been good for many a year, but time be leavin them behind now."
"Aye, missus." He shuffled his chair closer to the warming fire as she heaved herself to her feet and approached a sturdy oak table set to the side. She tipped out the dough she had been mixing, and started rolling it out and shaping it. Her shadow was cast huge by the firelight, jigging and flickering on the walls behind and around him, humped and squat with arms flicking out and to the sides. In the half-light of the room, Ifan fancied the shape like a black spider bustling about its web. Nervously, he glanced around the room as the shadows in the corners seemed to skitter and jump; he could see deeper darkness gathered in the cobwebbed corners and almost fancied he saw them moving, eyes glittering like shards of marble as stray firelight beams struck them. He gasped, and jumped slightly in his wooden seat.
"Ee look frit again, boy. No need to be so, thems just my grandchildren playin in the dark. Come out, show thyselves to the nice young man." She smiled, her jagged teeth glimmering in the firelight. A small, dark haired and blue eyed child dragged itself from the shadows reluctantly before disappearing back in. "The others is shy. Dont mind them, mister, thems only playin. They likes the dark."
"I think maybe I better go, missus. Forget the cakes, Ill pray for ee without them, itd be my pleasure." He tried to rise from the hearth, but suddenly she was there, her huge bulk blocking his path. He marvelled at the speed with which she could move her cumbersome body.
Gently but insistently, she pushed him back down into his seat. "Stay where ee is, traveller. It be bitter out tonight, and thyll not be leavin my home without somethin inside ee." She handed him a cup of warmed milk and ale, and placed a small bun on the side of his chair. "Sup, boy," she said, almost anxiously. "Ee wouldnt insult a poor old woman, would ee, whos only showing kindness and concern for a traveller out in the wilds?" She relaxed visibly when he pickled up the cup and started drinking. "Good, looks like ee could do with a few more of em. Theres not a pick on yer. Sup up, and Ill fetch ee more."
"I best be goin though, missus. My friends will be waitin." Hurriedly, he drained the cup and placed it in the hearth.
"Theyll come a-knockin later. More an more on ee God lovers by the year, so there be. Im sure tis a good thing. God do help those who help thyselves, so tis said, and folk do need help in these times ochange. Eat thy cake, stranger." She pressed the small bun on him. "Build thy strength up. Ee needs fat on thy bones through winter."
He replaced the small cake back onto the arm of his chair and prepared to pick his gear up. "Whom ee wantin me to pray for, missus?"
"The dead, ocourse. They not what your sort pray for? Why do ee pray for them as cant hear no more?"
"Theyse trapped in an awful place, called purgatory, missus. Needs prayers for to help get em out and into Heaven."
"Such madness. Everyone knows the dead cant be helped no more. Tis the way of things. Some things die so others can live. Aint natural, your way, trying to hang onto things which have to be let gone."
"The soul lasts forever, missus, even after death. Thats why God tries to save our souls, so we dont suffer through Hell for ever. I must be goin missus. Thanks for the drink and all."
"Dont go yet, boy - you must eat your cake."
Ifan grabbed his sack and heaved it over his shoulder. "Ill take it with me, many thanks missus."
She grabbed his sack and pulled it from his shoulder. "No, eat now I beg ee. Ise baked ee more cakes to take with ee. Eat this now and make an old woman happy. Ee can make prayers for me later." She held out the cake. "Taste it, is all I ask. Ee can go after, just let an old woman know if her recipe is good enough for a God lover. Look, Ill wrap the others up, fresh from the stove for ee." She thrust the cake into his reluctant hand and then bustled towards the hearth, where the cakes were griddling over the open fire, and kept a watchful eye on him as she lifted the cakes from the griddle and wrapped them in a bit of muslin cloth. Smiling, she held the package out to him. "Is good, sir, thyll see when ee tastes it."
Reluctantly, he raised the cake to his lips; although cold now, he could still catch the aroma of cinnamon, honey, plump fruits and cloves. In spite of himself, his mouth watered. The hopeful look in her piercing blue eyes was almost irresistable. He raised the cake to his lips and nibbled a corner.
It was delicious.
His eyes closed in pure pleasure and he beamed at her. This is lovely, missus. There be a flavour I cant place. Some new spice, be it?"
She beamed back at him, pleasure radiating from her eyes. "Sit back down and enjoy it, stranger. Itll put meat on thy bones, and set store for winters long months." She hustled him back into his chair and pressed more warmed milk and ale onto him, which he accepted gratefully and with pleasure as he continued to savour the cake. "Have another, mister. Have to feed the hungry mouths of the family through the dark season somehow, dont we all?"
"Aye tis so, missus. Is it the way ee cures thy fruits as gives it that flavour?" He bit into the other cake, still warmed from the griddle, and the flavours burst along his tongue and sent shivers of anticipation along his nerves. "I wish my wife could bake so as to catch these flavours "
It seemed to Ifan that the pleasure he was feeling affected his senses, and he had to close his eyes for fear of becoming overloaded. When he opened them again it was to see her face, bloated and gorged in front of him, blackened by the smoke from the fire and grinning into him. Her visage seemed to waver and wobble before his eyes.
"Ee cannot copy my flavours, stranger. That be me you be tastin." The tiny phial appeared in front of his wavering vision, blurred and doubled as she shook it in front of his eyes. "My poison. Does ee no good to fight, boy. Numbness will creep on soon thyll not be able to move thy limbs, or to cry out."
Feeling like his head were about to explode, he grasped his ears and tried to knock his senses clear. The buzzing in his head grew, and his eyesight increasingly became blurred. "What has ee done to me? Why did ee do this?"
"Pray to all gods who will listen and yell be provided for. I needs to feed my family through the winter. Hungry mouths need meat, and meat dont last through the winter. I needs food to cure, flesh to salt. Ill keep thee alive with cakes and milk until thees fattened a bit.more."
He could feel his limbs starting to convulse, his chest and throat tightening and his vision swimming even more. He tried to scream, but his breath merely whistled along his paralysed vocal chords. With the last vestiges of his strength, he tried to fight her off but she had bound his wrists and ankles so tightly that, completely trussed with strong hide cords, he was incapable of mustering any movement. With terrified eyes, mutely begging, he watched as she whistled. From the shadows, her grandchildren emerged, creeping and skittering spider-like across the room. Their yellowing eyes peered into his as they began to drag him across the room towards the one sealed doorway, their tiny, sharp fangs dripping saliva onto his face.
There was a knock at the door.
She squealed, and clapped two of her hands together. "More God lovers. Indeed, tis a good harvest this year. I knew the prayers would work."
The last thing Ifan saw as the door closed behind him was the spidery creature hauling its bulk towards the door, a huge grin on its face and a soul cake in its claw.