It is the second week before the Midsummer’s Eve on the northern world. The flowers are blooming to take up the little space nature has left for them, filling the air with sweet jubilating scents that tease you on your every step to the forest.
Forest is where we are going today. It is the last time to collect healing herbs mom said, when she sent us off in the morning. We went all together, it was easier this way : me, Zahrah, Erika and Viika. I’m supposed to teach Erika and Viika, but I have little success with them wondering off all the time. Zahrah is already married and lives in her new home- she only came with us because she is afraid to go to the forest alone and the other women in her new family are too old to come. That’s what you get if married off to man as old as your father. But soon she’ll have a daughter of her own, who will get her maiden circlet dad made us.
Erika and Viika are not married yet. Viika is not, because she is too young and Erika… Well, Erika is sort of already taken, but the process hasn’t been finished yet and so she, by the law, is not married yet. But she’ll make a fine bride when the leaves turn to gold and fog covers the earth, because her wedding dress is silvery grey and her hair are just as golden as the leaves. I should know, I helped her make it. Then she’ll move away to the south, closer to the sea.
I, though the eldest of the girls, wasn’t actually the eldest. Zahrah was. I was found wondering around on the beach fifteen years ago and they, good people, took me in. They say a boy from the village brought me here, to my family, but I don’t remember – I was too young.
I loved my two sisters, they meant the world to me, and my two brothers too, though one I hadn’t seen in years – it was quite common around here to send your brothers off for trading roots – and the other was now busy keeping the household together while father was tuned on his blacksmith works. He loved being the only man in the village, who knew how to deal with the rage of raw metals. He even had two apprentices, from whom one lived with us and the other came every morning from the neighboring village. My brothers are older than me, first being Magnus and the second Hagen.
And that’s what our little family was. Next to them were about another twenty five hearths and ten in northern side and fifteen in the south, who weren’t quite part of us, but belonged in our bloodlines. Meaning they don’t bother us, we didn’t bother them – most times. Little grudges between families are not even worth mentioning.
If you leave people out, the place itself is quite beautiful. I say quite, because the nice weather stays here only for the summer and most time of the year it’s mere one storm after another sort of weather.
That’s why mom sent us out to gather herbs today, because it wasn’t raining. It always does on Midsummer’s Eve. Perhaps we angered gods with something or did our ancestors do something to aggravate them enough to take away the only true holiday we had. Old people say if it rains on Midsummer’s Eve, the winter will be cold. They sure knew what they were talking about – swimming through snow up to your knees or hiding in the house from the creeping cold is not what I like to do. But it is a good motivation to keep the spinning wheels going and spindles working.
Today I didn’t have to think about it.
“Viika has wondered off again.” Zahrah hummed from where she was gathering moss. It had taken her quite some time to find it and she had said little since we left from the village.
I spun my head up. “Not again! The girl has no abilities to stay put and do what is told to her!” This was the fifth time she had disappeared and I had no willingness left to go after her again or yell my lungs out to get her answer me. “One day the spirits will take her if she isn’t careful!” I cursed and continued collecting the blackberries.
“Don’t say that! You know she can’t really help it.”
“Yes she can,” I argued, “if she keeps a keen watch not to let us out of site!”
“You are mean today, are you alright?” she tweaked her apron back up where it was supposed to be.
“Yes, why do you ask?” I had been somewhat moody today, but I wasn’t ready to acknowledge it was in open view to everybody. Bad time to wake up, I suppose. “Erika kept me up with her worries about becoming a wife.” I searched for excuse and berried myself back to bushes.
“I did not!” Erika blushed so hard her next turned red too.
“Yes you did! Mom told you to be quiet too, remember?” She was the culprit and I wasn’t gonna take the blame for keeping the family up.
“Girls!” Zahrah interrupted harshly. She was the quiet one in our family and the most charming compared to others. This came out every time other started arguing and she reminded us all how to behave, straightening her back and thus shining like a fallen star through the darkness of sisterhood. Compared to her I was ugly, light brown hair down to my waist and screamingly wild curls around my hairline. They had light hair too, but nice and smooth.
She gifted us with her bright smile and turned back to her work. “I’m sure Viika is around here somewhere and Erika only wished to share.”
“Share? She needs a good woman’s teaching is what she needs! That will suppress all her childish fears!”
“Really?” Zahrah turned surprised. “I thought you were with us in the sauna when I was consecrated in the womanhood, weren’t you?”
“No, I was too young. Why can’t they just take us all together and tell us right there and then how things work? It would simplify everything in great deal.”
We exchanged looks with Zahrah “In what way?” I asked low. I had been there, though only a year younger and even I had been confused.
“There you have it!” I was ready to let the thing go, I had no wish to talk to her about how things were done. Wasn’t her time to know, when. It wasn’t my time either, but… I don’t know why I was there. Oh, yes, I was betrothed too, but my future as a wife had been cut short right there.
Zahrah shrugged. “All in good time.”
“And when is that time?” she demanded, visibly frustrated by her two big sisters. “When I sit on the bed with my husband?”
“Pretty much.” Zahrah’s smile grew wider, but instead of assurance, she was spooked. “Oh, don’t be like that, Erika – you’ll be fine!”
“At least he’s honorable man, I’ve heard.” I united with Zahrah. “He’ll make you happy.”
“I hope so…” she didn’t sound sure, but at least I could end the conversation here and now.
I minded a lot talking about husbands and suitable suitors with them. Two days after putting away my maiden circlet Magnus came to me and said the man was dead. Apparently that happened through Saxon’s spear, because he had slept with his wife, little truth I was kept from until I accidentally discovered it. In that light I was happy I hadn’t have to learn this after the marriage had taken place.
Since then I tried to avoid this getting married thing in all. To keep my family happy, I did collect the dowry, but when my hand was offered to one or the other, I always found a way to make them change their mind.
One time there was this little tall man, who was charming in all, but had thirst deeper than the sea. Because Hagen had taken over the tasks of the house, he was now also responsible getting us wed. Hagen didn’t believe me at first, when I pointed out that I did not allow myself to be taken to a house, where the head of the house drinks our property away. So I indulged his thirst on the village fire by keeping his cup filled and then showed him to my brother.
I hadn’t been kind to my brother, making it so hard to find myself a husband, but to tell you the truth – I wasn’t interested in getting myself tied up. With every passing year, my dislike to men, except my own brothers, grew stronger, seeing how low they could get, seeing the heartache they caused to their wives.
I kept rising my eyes towards our holy forest. So often even that in moments I forgot I was collecting berries. Yet I dared not to go there. Like a garden of thimbleberries had grown between us. Or that I didn’t feel pure enough to go there, especially after the last trick I played on the poor fellow I dismissed a week before.
Perhaps I should give up the fight and just accept the man he chooses for me?
“It’s getting late, we should start going back.” Erika offered, but Zahrah refused.
“No, the Son is still walking. Besides, Viika hasn’t returned yet.”
Oh no! I forgot her again. “She has been away rather long, hasn’t she?” I marked, still angry for her pulling jokes like that. “Mom’s gonna be angry when she gets back.” As I said that I noticed a little blue tunic coming out from the holy forest. “I know where she’s been.” I added seriously.
Children were scared off from the holy places in order to keep them from playing there all the time. She was totally opposite and liked spending time there. Only wind found her way easy between her two big ears now and then and on those occasions I didn’t like her wondering alone. Like now, seeing her emerging hands full of daisies and an oak branch.
I immediately rose and met her half the way.
“Where did you get that branch?” I asked her, fear growing under my heart that this wouldn’t be the place I thought it might be from.
She froze on the spot, realizing what she had done and on that moment I knew, where she got it – from the oak grove in the middle of the holy forest.
“Oh, Viika…” I moaned. “You are too old to do something this stupid!” But it was too late to brag her, the deed was done. “You take it back to the grove and ask for forgiveness right now!” Not even fool was that fool to pick flowers from the holy grove – she was.
Her eyes filled with tears. “Oh, come on, it isn’t that bad…” I solaced her. Alright, I thought, it was that bad – taking a branch from the grove was as good as…
“Viika, how could you!” I heard Erika behind me and caught her up just as she was storming towards the poor girl.
“Erika, please! We’ll take it back and ask forgiveness. She was foolish, I’m sure gods won’t get that irate on her.”
“Her? She can bring doom to our whole family!” she fell silent. “On my marriage!” and there I had two howling girls less then a moment.
“We’ll make it better, you’ll see – no curse on your future.” I tried my best, but couldn’t handle them anymore. “Zahrah!” I called out realizing I was loosing this battle. “Can you help me?”
“Shortly, Laurien, with what?” she asked behind the tree, already hearing the crying wolves. She took one look in Viika’s hands and sighed. I took a step back and watched how she handled it.
She didn’t think long, first wiped off their tears with her sleeve and hugging them strongly. “It will be alright.” She said then, when they were ready to listen. “Viika will go to the grove and take the branch back and say she’s sorry and on dusk we’ll take the gods bread and mead. They understand she didn’t mean to do it.”
I felt like Son had wondered out behind the cloud again. How did she do it? Calm them down by mere touch when I had such hard time keeping myself serene. She’d make a wonderful mother, I wondered.
“I’ll come with you,” I offered to Viika and took her hand before she could refuse.
This was also a good excuse to take a trip to the grove myself. I knew in my heart I had to go there any time soon, but this way I could push down my own fears to stay away.
We got there fast. Before entering I bowed and told Viika to do the same. Children didn’t come here often, only with their parents.
“We can’t just leave the branch,” I explained to her, “The best we can do is to put it in soil, to give him a chance to be reborn. But this way he becomes your responsibility to keep it safe, to help the spirit rise.” I helped her dig the hole and plant it. “If a strong tree grows from it, you’ll know if gods have forgiven you or not.”
“And if he dies?”
“Then they haven’t and you’ll have to be very careful for the rest of your life.” In my heart I apologized for such rood explanation, but I only meant to keep her from playing here again.
“Now run off, I wish to speak with the spirits.” I said soon and watched her leave. I had my own trouble to fix.
I sat before the new tree and thought long, what to say. My heart grew heavy on the matter, too and felt myself like howling.
“I know,” I finally started, “I haven’t been the best daughter to my father and sister to my brothers. I am selfish to push myself on their good will, keeping myself from becoming a woman. Therefore I offer now, here as I am, to accept what ever faiths have meant for me.”
That done I thanked them once more and left feeling not even little better. Coming out, I didn’t see others where I had left them. I called out, but no one answered. I didn’t know how long it had taken me there, but I resumed they had left home and decided to follow them there.