Sweet Valley High and the Babysitters Club meet cult life and H.P. Lovecraft mythos, as we continue our special Lovecraft anthology month this week, bringing you an original story by Shaenon K. Garrity.
The Wakefields were the worst family in Oakes Isle. Even the grown-ups knew it. Whenever a chicken was stolen or the air was let out of a bike tire or a starving hex was chalked on a barn wall to sicken the sheep, there was a Wakefield behind it…
The Best Scarlet Ceremony Ever!
by Shaenon K. Garrity
The Wakefields were the worst family in Oakes Isle. Even the grown- ups knew it. Whenever a chicken was stolen or the air was let out of a bike tire or a starving hex was chalked on a barn wall to sicken the sheep, there was a Wakefield behind it. Every kid in the village knew to steer clear of the Wakefield house and the three rotten Wakefield kids. Daw was sneaky, Gib was ornery, and Colleen, the biggest, was just plain mean. She’d sock you in the jaw faster’n Jack in the Green would snatch a virgin at the Rye Dance. But, as Rowan said the day of the Scarlet Ceremony, that was what made the miracle all the more miraculous.
Grown-ups didn’t like Mr. and Mrs. Wakefield. They didn’t like the Wakefield kids either, for all the reasons grown-ups don’t like kids and then some. They were dirty and smelly and shirked the Ceremonies and ran through the King’s field with shoes on and never left flowers on the stone in the wood and cussed all the worst cusses there are.
One spring Daw and Gib and Colleen turned up to the maypole dance fully clothed, right down to their socks. Old Mrs. Reed had a conniption on the altar.
It seemed like the Wakefields would always be a minor vexation on Oakes Isle, like fleas on a dog. Then they went too far. It all started when a beehive went missing from the Garricks’ farm. The Garricks were sure as shoeshine who was responsible. Mrs. Garrick paid a social call to the Wakefields, and wouldn’t you know it, the Wakefields had a whole new swarm out behind their old tin shed. Strong words were exchanged, as Dad would put it, and the next thing you knew the Garricks had lost three more hives. The feud kept escalating until, long story short, the Wakefield kids smashed half the Garricks’ hives and didn’t even apologize to the bees.
Well! Stealing hives is one thing. But showing disrespect to the bees is a bridge too far. If the bees are angry you get failed crops, barren land, and mead too sour to offer the gods. They might tell the Goddess herself to hide her sun face and leave her daughter, the Flower Witch, caged under the earth in the shape of an owl. You learn basic stuff like that in Sunday school. But I guess the Wakefield kids never went to Sunday school with us, any more than Mr. and Mrs. Wakefield ever bothered to join the grown-ups in their sacred orgies.
It was near the end of the school year when Mom came home late from work and dropped a soggy grocery bag on the kitchen counter. “See if you can turn this into a stew,” she said to Dad. “Might as well get something good out of it.”
Dad peered into the bag. “Ah, rabbit. You read the entrails today?” I looked up from my homework. Everyone at school was talking about how the town council had called for an oracular decision on the bee crisis. It didn’t seem as mystical when the oracle was your mom, but even I was a little curious.
Rowan practically jumped out of his seat. “What’d they say, Mom? Are the bees mad?”
“They aren’t happy, that’s for sure.” Mom collapsed into a kitchen chair. “To set things right, we’ll need to make a special effort for the Scarlet Ceremony this midsummer.”
“The white stag!” said Rowan. “Are we gonna hunt the white stag?”
“Don’t be a dip,” I said. “That’s just about the biggest Scarlet Ceremony there is. Anyway, who heard of a third-grader hunting the white stag?”
Rowan flicked a stale Cheerio at me.
“Hazel, leave your brother alone,” said Mom. “And remember, there’s a bigger Scarlet Ceremony than the hunting of the white stag.”
All activity in the kitchen stopped. Dad’s knife halted between two of the rabbit’s joints. “No way,” Rowan breathed.
Mom nodded. “This year the Goddess demands a Summer King.”
Dad lowered the knife. “Well. It’s been a while. It’ll be educational for the kids.”
“It has to be an outsider, right?” It wasn’t like I’d never seen outsiders. I was old enough to go to the mainland to sell honey and preserves, and for school field trips. But an outsider coming to Oakes Isle was something special.
“Doc Hawthorn and the council will handle the selection,” said Dad.
“And then I’ll have to scry again to make sure they’ve chosen a true vessel,” said Mom.
“Which means spending a week fasting and high on ergot—sorry, I mean communing with the rye.”
“It’s okay, Mom,” I said. “I like it when you’re not all formal.”
Dad gave her a cup of tea and kissed her on the top of her head. “My sweet little seer.” Rowan made a gagging noise. It was so embarrassing when Mom and Dad acted mushy. But kind of cute, too.
“Those darn Wakefields,” said Mom. Only she didn’t say darn.
Word of Mom’s augury got around Oakes Isle like it was on roller skates. On the last day of school, Mrs. Darrow handed out ditto sheets of the Summer King Ceremony, copied from the village council’s own deerskin-bound books.
“Of course, you’ll all be part of the Ceremony,” she told us. “But because you’re at a special age, some of you will have different roles.”
A few kids groaned. From the back of the class, Colleen Wakefield let out a snort. It was just my luck she’d gotten held back the year before, landing her in my class.
“Shut up, Colleen,” whispered Ashley Hawthorn. “We wouldn’t even need a Summer King if it wasn’t for you and your no-good family. We’d be having a bonfire like we’re supposed to.”
“It’s an honor to host the Summer King,” said Mrs. Darrow, raising her voice. “And it’s always a lot of fun. Now. Boys whose voices haven’t changed are encouraged to try out for the choir. Those boys who don’t get into the choir will be assigned parts in the pageant or be masked pole-bearers in the King’s retinue. Remember, no hard feelings. There are no small parts in the Ceremonies, only small players.”
Everybody rolled their eyes. Being in the choir was obviously miles better than carrying a boring old oak pole. Grown-ups always lied about stuff like that, and they were terrible liars. “As for the girls, those who have started their menses–” Mrs. Darrow glared at the class to stop giggling. “Girls who have started their menses and been within the Womb of the Earth will join the Goddess’s retinue. Those who haven’t will perform in the pageant. Any questions?”
“Can you tell us more about the menses?” said Colleen, smirking. “I wanna hear all about the menses.”
More giggling. “Shut up, Colleen,” hissed Ashley Hawthorn. “I had a whole new outfit for the bonfire, and now I have to wear a plain white dress like everybody else in the retinue.”
“You’ll look ugly in it,” said Colleen.
“And you’ll look like trash, Colleen Wakefield. Because trash is what you are.”
Colleen kicked Ashley. Ashley screamed.
“Girls!” shouted Mrs. Darrow. “Enough! We’re planning a Scarlet Ceremony here!”
“Colleen started it.”
“The summer solstice isn’t about who’s right,” said Mrs. Darrow. She turned her chilliest gaze on Ashley. “And it’s not about showing off the expensive clothes your father buys you on the mainland, either. In fact, I think we could all use a reminder of what we’re preparing to celebrate. Over summer vacation, I want each and every one of you to write an essay on ‘What the Scarlet Ceremony Means to Me.’”
This time the groans were universal.
I stared down at my desk, trying to hide my red cheeks. Thanks to the Wakefields we were having a Summer King Ceremony, and thanks to the Summer King Ceremony everyone would know I was just about the only girl in my class who hadn’t gotten her period.
“What’s in the Womb of the Earth, anyway?” I asked Ivy. Ivy was my best friend. She’d gotten her period moons and moons ago. At first all she did was brag about it, then all she did was complain about it, and finally it got boring and she stopped bringing it up all the time.
“Hazel! You know I can’t tell!”
“Oh, come on. I’ll get my visit from Flo any day now anyway.”
“Pass the meadowsweet.” Ivy hunched over the garland she was weaving.
“Okay, okay. The Womb is up on Louthe Hill.”
“Ivy. Literally everyone knows that. There’s a gigantic naked lady carved into the chalk and you can see her every time it rains.”
“Fine, if you know everything, I don’t need to tell you what happens when you go in the cave between her legs.”
“No! Tell me!”
“Shh!” A few kids glanced at us. It was a sunny afternoon, and Mrs. Darrow had decided to take us to the King’s field to make decorations. Rowan’s class and some of the other little kids were picking flowers. I watched Gib and Daw Wakefield run around whacking kids with stalks of yellow broom.
Ivy lowered her voice. “You have to go while it’s your actual time of the month, and you can’t wear underpants. When you get there, some masked women lead you to the entrance, and you have to stick your finger…you know, down there…and mark the lintel stone with your blood.”
“It’s so embarrassing. Even with the masks I could tell one of the women was Mrs. Bosch from the deli and one of them was my mom.”
“No you won’t. You’ll go in the cave like everybody does. They give you a candle and you have to crawl through a tunnel to this cavern with prehistoric paintings. When you come back out they ask you which painting you saw first, and that’s supposed to signify your future womanhood.”
“Whoa. Like what kind of paintings?”
“I don’t know them all. If you see the boar it means you’ll be a good provider. Seeing the bull means fertility, like it always does.”
“What did you see?”
“I saw the wolf. It means I’m a warrior.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of the best one. Except if you see a red handprint it means the Goddess’s hand is on you and you can do sacred stuff. That’s why the same girls get picked over and over for the good parts in Ceremonies.”
We exchanged a look. “Willow Garrick,” I said.
“Of course Willow Garrick.” Ivy made a face.
Willow Garrick was eighteen and the prettiest, most popular girl in Oakes Isle. She wasn’t helping out at the King’s field because she was off somewhere getting purified to be the avatar of the Goddess in the Scarlet Ceremony. It was the solemn duty of girls like Ivy and me to hate her guts.
“Once I’ve been down in the Womb,” I said, “my mom had better let me wear a bra.”
“You don’t need one.”
“That’s not the point. Jerk.”
“Anyway, thanks for telling me everything.”
“It’s okay. My cousin told me before I went in.”
Mrs. Darrow clapped her hands for attention. “All students who have been cast in the pageant, meet at the bandstand in the village square!”
“Oh no,” I said. “She expects me to walk past everyone from school? In broad daylight?”
“You can do it,” said Ivy.
“What if I lie? What if I say I got Flo and join the Goddess’s retinue with everybody else?”
“Hazel! The Goddess would know! The real Goddess, not stuck-up Willow Garrick! The Ceremony would fail! Then we’d have to do a Winter King on top of a Summer King and it’d be all your fault!”
“And my mom would kill me.” Reluctantly, I got to my feet. Crossing the King’s field, carrying my shoes, seemed to take hours. I focused on the distant trees and the roofs of the buildings in the village square—the spire of the council hall, the funny onion dome of the library—and tried not to see who was staring. I pretended I was the Flower Witch on her passage to the underworld, enduring the jeers of the stone people.
I pretended all the way to the bandstand. There, the rest of the pageant cast was waiting for me: a gaggle of girls clustered together on one side, a knot of boys on the other, and between them, with a face like a summer stormcloud, Colleen Wakefield.
Mrs. Delaney, Ivy’s mom, came puffing up to the bandstand. “Everyone here? Wonderful. Wonderful! Let’s get started!”
No surprise Mrs. Delaney was in charge of the pageant. She loved being in charge of things. On top of being on the village council and the school board, she ran the ferry trips to the mainland and coordinated the equinox rites and had a book club. Mom told me she used to be in charge of the sacred orgies until she was voted out for taking all the fun out of them. I was sure she’d take the fun out of the pageant, too, if there was any fun in it.
I couldn’t stop stealing glances at Colleen. First I kept thinking: Colleen Wakefield is in a Ceremony? I’d never seen a Wakefield do anything at a Ceremony except cause trouble. Then I kept thinking: Colleen Wakefield hasn’t had her period yet? She’s older than me!
I could hear kids around me whispering the same thing. Colleen flashed a gesture that’s only acceptable at male fertility rites.
“Colleen!” barked Mrs. Delaney. “Attention, please!”
“As some of you children may have noticed,” Mrs. Delaney continued, “our little troupe has three members who haven’t acted in our solstice pageants before. The village council thought this would be an educational activity for them.”
That was when I noticed Daw and Gib slouched against the bandstand. So that was it. The Wakefield kids were being forced to do the pageant as community service.
“I hope each and every one of you will welcome our newcomers and treat them just like everyone else,” said Mrs. Delaney, guaranteeing that we wouldn’t.
Then Mrs. Delaney handed out parts. Dara Bosch, the tallest girl in the group, got to be the Lady of the Girdle. The tallest boy was the Green Man. A girl from Rowan’s class nearly burst out crying when she was assigned to be Maid Death. Most people were animals.
Mrs. Delaney looked me up and down and said, “A perfect Crone.” I gritted my teeth. I’d been hoping to be a fox or a sheep, some minor role in a mask so no one would notice me. Instead I’d have to wear a white wig and caper around like a dope. I was a gross old Crone and I hadn’t even had my period yet. But it was no use arguing with Mrs. Delaney about anything.
Mrs. Delaney avoided the Wakefields for just about as long as she possibly could. When she got to Colleen, she hesitated. That was her fatal mistake. Because in that moment, Colleen opened her big stinky mouth, and for some reason what she decided to say was, “I’m gonna be the Goddess.”
A murmur ran through the group. Somebody laughed. “Colleen, dear,” said Mrs. Delaney, “you can’t be the Goddess.”
“Why not?” said Colleen.
Mrs. Delaney, poor dumb Mrs. Delaney, stopped again. The reason, we all knew, was she was saving the Goddess for her youngest daughter, Elda. Every other girl had been given a part. The Goddess would be Elda or Colleen or nobody. Suddenly Colleen had made it public and awkward for Mrs. Delaney to toss her some crummy role and hand the best part to her own kid. I almost admired Colleen for that.
Finally Mrs. Delaney said, “Oh, well, it’s only the pantomime Goddess for the pageant. Willow Garrick will do the real job. “ And just like that, Colleen Wakefield, of all people, was the Goddess Herself. Mrs. Delaney quickly made Daw a hare and Gib a huntsman, roles where they hopefully wouldn’t draw much attention to themselves. She made Elda the lady in waiting to the Lady of the Girdle, which wasn’t even in the script.
Then we sat in a circle while Mrs. Delaney passed out orange slices and told us the story of the Summer King. And things started to go funny again. Because the Wakefields insisted on asking questions. When Mrs. Delaney talked about the battle between the Summer King and the Winter King, and how the Goddess was wed to both, Daw said, “She’s got two husbands? Where do they sleep?”
Mrs. Delaney sure wasn’t happy to be interrupted. “The Goddess is wed to the Summer King in the waxing year and the Winter King in the waning year,” she said in a sing-song voice, just the way we learned it in Sunday school. “They are two-in-one and one-in-two, hero and weird, mirror aspects of the divine consort.”
“Do they use different toothbrushes?” said Daw.
Mrs. Delaney turned red. But I thought Daw had the shadow of a point. What if my mom had two husbands—if I had two dads? Would they need their own towels and cereal bowls and shaving cream? Would they like different things? Maybe the Summer King would make Mom tea when she came home tired from work, and the Winter King would make her coffee. Or maybe they wouldn’t do anything. They didn’t seem like very attentive husbands. You never heard about them helping raise the Goddess’s many children. Of course, they weren’t always available to help out, being sometimes dead.
While I was mulling this over, Mrs. Delaney was trying to explain how the Kings could be one person but also two people but also mortal enemies. She wasn’t doing a very good job. It was funny; I’d grown up knowing the Eternal Courtship by heart, but I’d never thought hard about it.
I remembered something Mom had told me. “It’s a metaphor for the changing year,” I said. “The Kings symbolize the seasons and the Goddess symbolizes the earth.”
Mrs. Delaney jumped on me like a terrier on a rat. “Hazel! Goddess stay her hand from cursing you for blasphemy! The sacred mysteries are real. They aren’t stories.” She took a deep breath. “I think that’s enough for today. Everyone study your parts and be here tomorrow with bells on. But not real bells unless you’re in the morris dance.”
I guess that was supposed to be a joke, but nobody laughed.
I walked home mad as a hornet. Mom always said a thing could be symbolic and be true, too, and the strongest symbols have more reality than the hand in front of your face. And Mom was an oracle while Mrs. Delaney was the school secretary, so what did old Mrs. Delaney know? I wished I’d had the guts to stand up to her.
Stand up to her like the Wakefields had.
I passed Colleen Wakefield on my way home. She was in the Grotto of the Bright Nymphs, smoking a cigarette.
“Darn it, pricked my finger again,” said Mom. Only she didn’t say darn. “Why did that so-and-so Holly Delaney have to make you the Crone?”
“Don’t ask me,” I said. “I don’t know why the pageant has to have a Crone in the first place.”
Mom held up the cloak she was trying to sew. “This is a mess. I never was any good at crafts.”
“Well…I guess it’s supposed to be an ugly cloak.”
“It doesn’t even look enough like a cloak to be an ugly one.” Mom sucked on her finger. “In our mystery pageants the Crone is the symbol of time, also death, also wisdom and augury.”
“Augury? She’s an oracle like you?”
“In a way.”
Rowan ran into the room singing. Ever since he’d gotten in the choir he’d been insufferable. “Nay is no queen so sticky sour, nay no lady bricked in flour…”
I laughed. “You dope. It’s stark ne stour, not sticky-sour. Don’t you know anything about the old tongues?”
“How about this tongue?” He stuck his out at me.
“Yuck.” I turned back to Mom. “If the Crone is supposed to be an oracle, I don’t see why she has to be old and ugly. You’re not old and ugly.”
“And I don’t see why Holly Delaney can’t let you be one of the nymphs. We could use your old ballet costume.”
“I think I ought to be a modern Crone to represent what women on Oakes Isle can be today.”
“Oh yes? And what can women be today?”
“Not hunchbacks. Please, Mom?”
“We must respect tradition.” Mom pricked her finger again. “Ow. I’ll think about it.”
I turned back to my notebook. At the top of the first page I’d written “What the Scarlet Ceremony Means to Me.” Under that I’d written my name. Then my inspiration had run out. Rotten essay assignment. Another thing that was the Wakefields’ fault. Dad came in. “It’s official. The Summer King arrives tomorrow.”
“All right!” Rowan jumped on the couch and started singing at the top of his lungs.
“Merry it is when some elastic bugles sing…”
“You’re sure?” I said.
“The chosen vessel was told he had won a free day cruise around the islands, and he RSVP’d for tomorrow. The ferry will stop here at Oakes Isle and ‘accidentally’ leave without him, forcing him to spend the night at the Sheela na Gig. It’s all in order. Handled the financials myself.”
For once I was proud that Dad was an accountant instead of something
normal like other dads.
“Can we see him?” said Rowan.
“We’ll all see him sooner or later,” said Mom, still scowling at the terrible cloak. “Remember his power and his burden and give him every courtesy described in the Rhyme of the Glame-Stone.”
“Want me to try sewing that?” said Dad.
“Please,” said Mom, and practically threw the cloak at him.
I didn’t get to see the King arrive. Rowan and I were set to run out the door when Mom stopped us with, “I got a call from Hideki Kimura. They need help setting up down at the Sheela na Gig.”
So instead of hanging out at the docks or in the square like every other kid in Oakes Isle, Rowan and I trudged off to the village inn. Normally it’d be a treat. The Sheela na Gig is one of the oldest buildings on the island, with a thatched roof and so many layers of whitewash its insides are like caves. The Kimuras give kids free Cokes and bowls of rice crackers. But who could get excited about a walk to the Sheela na Gig when an honest to gosh outsider—not just any outsider, but a King—might be setting foot on the island at that very minute?
The inn was buzzing with activity. Villagers were scrubbing the place so it shone like the moon and hanging flower garlands from every rafter. Kegs of beer and barrels of mead rolled through the crooked doorways.
Mr. Kimura waved to us from the patio. “Hazel! Rowan! Want to help set up the cheese trays?”
There were wheels of local cheese and crates of local fruit instead of the usual imports from the mainland. I guess it was important to show the Summer King what he was there to save. I cut thick white slices of cheese while Rowan arranged berries and brown bread on wooden platters. Just about everyone in town who could play the fiddle or the concertina shuffled in to rehearse old songs.
“What are you doing in the Ceremony?” Rowan asked Mr. Kimura.
I jabbed him in the ribs. “The Kimuras don’t worship the Goddess, remember?”
Mr. Kimura laughed. “My family won’t be in the Ceremony, Rowan. But we’re happy to help out and celebrate the season.”
I was little when the Kimuras moved to Oakes Isle and took over the Sheela na Gig, but I could remember the holiday decorations and special feasts they put together for every single solstice and equinox. I thought about how the Wakefields had grown up with the Goddess but didn’t act like it one bit, while the Kimuras lived the spirit of her, somehow. Maybe that was what I’d write my essay about. About keeping the Ceremonies in your heart.
I stayed on the patio for a long time, arranging fruits and flowers.
Time seemed to hang still in the warm honey air. Some high school girls started up the Crane Dance. A group of old ladies passed an incense censer around and got very cheerful. I noticed a lot of women in thin summer frocks, their legs making shadow plays against the sun. Mr. Kimura wasn’t the only one getting ready to make our visitor feel welcome. The Summer King had privileges besides a free cheese tray.
“Cuckoo, cuckoo,” sang Rowan. “Well singest thou, cuckoo.”
“Finally,” I said, “a song so simple even you can’t mess it up.”
He threw a currant at me. “You’re just jealous because I’m in thechoir and you have to be in the pageant with the Wakefields.”
“The pageant!” I jumped up like my seat was on fire. “What time is it?”
I showed up at the bandstand late, panting, but it didn’t look like I’d missed much. Everyone was in position for the First Circle. A few kids already had costumes or lumpy masks. From what I could tell, the procession had made it about three steps before the Wakefields stopped it cold.
“Don’t wanna be skinned,” Daw was whining. It looked like he’d been crying for a while. I could hardly see his face through the snot.
“Come, now,” said Mrs. Delaney. “The children aren’t really going to skin you. It’s part of the pageant fun.” She dodged as Daw’s grimy little fist shot out at her.
“It’s like a game,” said a girl wearing a paper-mache fox mask as a hat. “In the First Circle we skin the Three Hares for the Summer King, then in the Second Circle you all hop around.”
“With your skin off,” said another girl, less helpfully. Daw stared wide-eyed, then began to howl.
“Can’t you do anything about him?” Mrs. Delaney snapped at Colleen.
Colleen shrugged. She was wearing a sacklike yellow-white dress that was practically falling off, showing a ripped T-shirt underneath. Probably Mrs. Wakefield’s old solstice dress, I thought. I noticed Daw wore the old fuzzy scarf and earmuffs that Colleen had worn to school all through the winter. So that was supposed to be his hare costume. And all the screaming and crying was over not wanting it taken off.
“Knock it off, Daw,” said Gib. He gave his brother a lazy kick.
“Remember how we studied up on it? Everybody gives the Summer King fruit and meat and mead and the Lady of the Girdle’s girdle.”
“I know what the girdle means,” said Colleen. “It don’t mean a girdle.”
“Colleen Wakefield!” said Mrs. Delaney.
“Everybody gives the Summer King all the good stuff,” said Gib, “and then they come back around and put him on trial for taking it. And me and the other huntsmen chase him down and bring him before the Goddess to be summarily judged in judgment.” He nodded with satisfaction.
In spite of myself, I was impressed. Just the day before, the Wakefields hadn’t even known the basics of the Eternal Courtship.
“It’s stupid,” muttered Daw, smearing snot around his face. “It’s stupid and I hate it.”
Gib looked up at Mrs. Delaney. “He’s got a point. It’s pretty dumb stupid.”
“Gib Wakefield, the Goddess stay her hand—”
“Well, it is! Why give the King stuff and blame him for taking it? If everybody in Oakes Isle was giving me rabbits and girdles andwhatever, you better believe I’d take it. Then I’d hightail it out of town before the huntsmen showed up.”
Daw brightened. “Like when we took that ham outta the butcher window.”
The missing ham last Birchfires Eve! Everybody in town knew the Wakefields had stolen it, but the council had never been able to scry what they did with it.
“Point is,” said Gib, “it don’t seem fair to give somebody presents and get mad at him for it.”
Which, come to think of it, was true. Of course the trial of the Summer King had to happen, or there wouldn’t be a Ceremony and the solstice wouldn’t pass and the bees would stay angry forever. It was all symbolic. But like Mom said, a thing could be symbolic and true, too, and the truth of the way the Summer King got treated was pretty harsh.
“And if I was married to the Goddess,” Gib went on, “I’d ask her to smite their butts.”
Which was another good point.
“That’s not what the Goddess does,” said Mrs. Delaney. “She carries out the sentence and performs the—” Her jaw wobbled. If you looked close you could sort of see into her brain, where a boardroom of little Mrs. Delaneys was debating what to do next. Did she want to go on arguing with the Wakefields about religion and toothbrushes and ham? Or did she want to start rehearsing the pageant? The solstice was coming up fast.
If Gib wanted to admire the Summer King’s girdle collection and Daw wanted to be a hare that kept its earmuffs on, maybe we could all live with that.
“Back in line, children,” said Mrs. Delaney. “First Circle, on three.”
“You’re not missing out on anything,” Ivy told me. “Being in the Goddess’s retinue means doing purification rituals and watching everybody suck up to Willow Garrick.”
“What are people saying about me? Are all the girls talking about…why I have to do the pageant?”
“What? No! Nobody even cares.” That didn’t make me feel better. “All anybody can talk about is what the Wakefields are going to do to mess it up.”
I leaned against the fatherstone and gave my back a good scratch. Ivy and I had hiked up to the stone circle to get a little quiet. It was just about the only place in Oakes Isle that wasn’t being planted or reaped or decorated or sanctified in preparation for midsummer. The Scarlet Ceremony would start there, but it had to be kept plain. The grass was long and full of chiggers.
“This is where the pageant will happen,” I said. The hot sun and the buzzing of the cicadas were making me go dreamy. “We do the Three Circles around the stones, then lead everybody in town down the cowpath to the King’s field to meet the Summer King and the Goddess.”
“Led by the pantomime Goddess,” said Ivy. “Who happens to be Colleen
“She could go down to the grottos to sneak a cigarette and the whole town would have to follow.”
“Tell me the truth,” said Ivy. “How bad have the Wakefields been?”
I thought about it, and what I thought surprised me. “They haven’t been bad at all.”
“Gib built an idol of Mrs. Delaney and set it on fire. But she had it coming. What purification rituals do you get to do?”
“Nothing cool. Willow Garrick’s been bathing in donkey milk and stuff like that, but the rest of us just stand in the creek naked until Mrs. Reed tells us we can get out.”
I started to ask where they got so much donkey milk, but Ivy gestured for quiet. Someone was coming. We ducked behind the fatherstone just as Willow Garrick stepped into the stone circle, hand in hand with a man I’d never seen before.
“That’s the Summer King!” I whispered.
“I know! He’s cute.”
“Are they here to do a purification ritual?”
Very carefully, we peeked around the stone.
“No,” said Ivy eventually. “Not a purification ritual.”
A twig snapped. Willow glanced our way. We ran for it, laughing.
“With her perfect luck, I bet she’ll get knocked up,” said Ivy as we took the cowpath home. “Then we’ll have to hear about Willow Garrick’s stupid sacred pregnancy forever.”
“And her sacred offspring,” I added. “My mom says a baby born that way is called Robin of the Wood and is basically like a King you have around for years. She says there was one in her class growing up and he was so annoying.”
“What happened to him?”
“Same thing that happens to every King. Ugh, Willow would have to go around being the most perfect Goddess ever.”
“She sure looks perfect next to Colleen Wakefield in that potato sack,” said Ivy.
“Why isn’t Colleen wearing any garlands yet?”
“She keeps setting them on fire.”
Midsummer morning dawned. The whole village gathered at the stone circle, even the Kimuras. On top of honoring the Goddess and placating the bees, everybody wanted to see what the Wakefields were going to get up to. The only people missing, best as I could tell, were the Goddess and the Summer King with their retinues, who would all be waiting down at the King’s field.
Also missing were the Wakefields.
“They didn’t show,” moaned Mrs. Delaney. “I just knew they wouldn’t show.”
Which was funny, because the night before I’d heard her at the Sheela na Gig saying, “I don’t mind telling you, I hope those Wakefield children don’t show. I just know they’re going to shoot off BB guns or something.”
She was being ridiculous. The Wakefield kids all had real guns, which they’d stolen. The choir started up. It sounded pretty as long as you didn’t listen to the words, because all the little kids had the lyrics wrong and every one of them was wrong in a different way. I could hear Rowan singing his lungs out about laminating Adonis.
The fires were lit, the bells were rung, and the masks went on. I tied Mom’s best scarf around my head. We’d agreed I could be a sophisticated modern Crone who did the capering but didn’t wear a hunchback or a false nose. Dressed up in one of Mom’s formal divination robes, I looked almost okay.
The choir launched into its third song and the pageant still hadn’t started. Masked heads turned, searching. Why had we let Colleen Wakefield be the pantomime Goddess? Well, because we were scared of her, of course, but we should’ve stopped her somehow.
Then something happened that made me think I might have inherited Mom’s knack for scrying, because I thought of where Colleen might be. Sure enough, she was smoking in the Grotto of the Bright Nymphs. I was so worked up I forgot to be afraid of her. “Colleen! You have to start the pageant!”
She gave me that smirk that made a person want to smack her and run.
“Can’t. I’m sick.”
“You are not! This is important! We have to make the sacrifice to the Goddess!”
I was gobsmacked. “She’s the Goddess.”
“So?” Colleen sucked fiercely on her cigarette. “I know all about the Goddess. Thanks to this dumb stupid pageant I went and read the deerskin books and ate mushrooms and touched the stones and all that crud.” Only she didn’t say crud.
“You did all that?”
“Delaney said it’d answer my questions. What a liar. I got more questions than before and it sucks. Why’s the Goddess do it, huh? Why’s she demand sacrifices?”
Mom would say that’s why the sacred mysteries were called mysteries. You were supposed to wonder instead of know. But that wasn’t the kind of answer that would satisfy Colleen. She’d read the books and touched the stones, and I hadn’t done that. Not since I was a little kid. I must’ve been a little kid the last time I’d really thought about the meaning of midsummer.
“Anyway,” said Colleen, “I was the dumbest of all for wanting to be the Goddess. The Goddess is somebody like Willow Garrick. Not me.” For as long as I live, I’ll never forget the way the solstice sun shone through the grotto on Colleen in her baggy sack of a dress, with a meadowsweet wreath hanging off one ear and a cigarette dangling from her lips. I felt full of fire, somehow, and I smelled flowers in the air. Then it passed and it was just awful Colleen Wakefield and the smell of stolen smoke, and I wasn’t sure anything had happened at all.
I grabbed her by the arm, something that was usually a one-way ticket to a broken bone. “No more sulking, Colleen Wakefield. Today you’re the Goddess, and that’s the way it’s gotta be.”
She looked shocked that I dared lay a hand on her. I could hardly believe it myself. Maybe she saw something in me the way I saw something in her, because instead of snapping my wrist she stubbed out her cigarette. “Daw! Gib! Let’s go!”
Daw and Gib popped out of nowhere. Daw was dragging three bottles of beer and munching from a sack of rice crackers, both definitely stolen from the Sheela na Gig. Collen kicked them in the direction of the stone circle, gathered up her muddy skirts, and marched ahead. The pageant was a little different that year, that’s for sure. It was the first time the Three Hares kept their fur on and gave the Summer King beer instead. I noticed old Mrs. Reed giving that a sharp glare from behind her eagle mask, but I thought it was an improvement. After all, it was midsummer. The Summer King would appreciate a refreshing beer or three over hot, sticky rabbit fur.
During the Second Circle, the hunters chased the pantomime Summer King like they were supposed to. But when they caught him, Gib Wakefield stepped up in front of the others and looked the King straight in the eye. Everyone craned their necks to see what he would do.
He gave the Summer King a hug. And that was that.
The pageant went on because it had to go on. As Mrs. Delaney had explained it, it was a sort of preview of the Ceremony that would be done down on the King’s field. We had to act it out first, then do it for real, to make it a proper Ceremony. Mom said all the people dressed as animals and nymphs and characters like the Fool and the Crone were there to symbolize that the entire land was witness. Of course Mrs. Delaney got mad if you suggested there was anything symbolic going on. Mrs. Delaney didn’t understand how symbolic could mean real, or even more than real.
Maybe she understood more than I gave her credit for. She watched all the Wakefields’ additions to the pageant without saying a word against them. It was hard to tell under her humungous rabbit mask, but she might even have been smiling.
Near the end of the Third Circle, the little kids got too enthusiastic about hitting each other with sticks and foils. Colleen Wakefield waved a bough of broom in the air. “Knock it off,” she hollered, “and get to the sacrifice!”
It was a little different from the script, which had a fancier way of saying “knock it off.” But she put feeling in it.
We followed her down the cowpath dancing. The Goddess’s retinue and the Summer King’s retinue, all in white, were lined up on either side of the field. Between them sat the Summer King on a throne of wicker and broom, and behind the throne stood Willow Garrick, looking so much like the Goddess you’d think she’d stepped out of the ancient mosaic in the wood. As we got closer, I could see an empty bowl at the King’s feet. So he’d already taken the poppy draught. That explained the comfortably empty look in his eyes. He smiled lazily as the pageant approached. I bet we were something to see, a rainbow winding down the hill to join the columns of holy white. By then everyone was dancing a different dance and singing a different song, but it all wound together into one marvelous thing. I felt like I was really the Crone, a beautiful Crone, and everyone was exactly what they were symbolizing, and the symbols were realer than real.
We danced around the throne. Ivy was right. The Summer King was awfully cute.
Willow Garrick raised the sacrificial sickle. Then she nearly spoiled everything by dropping it.
“I can’t do it!” she cried, beautiful and awfully dramatic. “I love him!”
The Ceremony stopped right there. You could’ve cut the silence with that sacrificial sickle. The only sound was the Summer King humming softly and sweetly to himself, off in a poppy-scented world where it was midsummer forever and ever. “Oh, for Goddess’s sake,” yelled Colleen. She strode up to the throne. “Make the sacrifice or I’ll do it my own self.”
“You can’t,” gasped Willow. “It has to be me—you’re not even a woman
“Am so,” said Colleen, and darn near everybody but Willow Garrick knew it, because darn near everybody but Willow could see the big splotch of blood on the seat of Colleen’s saggy white dress. “It’s too much,” Willow was saying. “I’m just a person, I’m not the Goddess, I can’t take a life…”
Colleen cussed, grabbed the sickle out of the long grass, and before anyone could move a muscle she’d slit the Summer King’s throat. Willow screamed. Colleen stood staring at the bloody sickle, like she couldn’t believe what she’d just done. No one could believe it. It was easy to imagine Colleen Wakefield killing somebody, but not somebody she was supposed to kill.
A low golden hum rose all around us. It seemed like every bee in Oakes Isle had gathered into a single swarm. For a minute I couldn’t see anything through the cloud of tiny yellow bodies, then the swarm moved as one to cover the body of the Summer King. He rose into the air on a million wings, tears of resin flowing from his eyes. His head tipped back and the wound in his throat opened like a mouth.
“Well done,” it said. “Well done, little children of the Goddess. The sacrifice is accepted.”
He dissolved into flowers.
It was then, as oak flowers and rose petals drifted around us, that I saw the miracle. Colleen Wakefield, awful Colleen Wakefield, was crying.
I’d always thought of the Goddess as something like her mosaic in the wood: beautiful and perfect and cold as stone. But maybe the Goddess was really more like Colleen. Someone tough as an old boot and mad as a one-eyed cat. Someone who threw punches without caring where they landed, but if you put a knife in her hand it’d go exactly where it needed to go. Someone who didn’t much like us but saved us anyway.
I knew just what I was going to write in my essay.
According to the ditto sheets I’d gotten at school, the Summer King Ceremony was supposed to end with the burning of the King’s body. But since that had turned into flowers, the whole village went to the Sheela na Gig for a chicken barbecue instead. As I walked back with Ivy and Rowan, I knew I’d always picture the Goddess handling the Summer King and the Winter King the way Colleen handled Daw and Gib, with cussing and well-aimed kicks.
And on the warm night air, scented with smoke and rose petals, I could hear her voice crying out to all of us, all across Oakes Isle:
Knock it off and get to the sacrifice!