When my grandmother was no older than I am now, she lived in a cottage in a remote hillside village. She shared the cottage with her mother (my great-grandmother) and her mother’s brother, his wife and their four children, with three rooms for all eight of them. The children slept together in one bed, except my grandmother, who shared the tiny loft room with her mother. Uncle Jan and his wife slept in the kitchen by the fire.
One night, Hilda (that was my grandmother’s name) was woken by a nightmare. Three cackling old witches of the forest had been chasing her, trying to pluck out her kidneys for their wicked spells, just like in the stories that Uncle Jan had been telling the little children before bedtime. She had felt them clawing at her as she struggled to escape.
Hilda listened, wondering why her mother had not yet come to bed, and seemed to hear an eerie sound from outside the shuttered window. She rolled over, shaking her head to get rid of the lingering horror of the dream, holding tightly onto her thin blanket. She told herself that there were no witches, that it was just a tale told to frighten the little ones. But the sound grew louder and more distinct. A wordless, tuneless ululation resolved itself into voices, into something like a fierce, wild song.
“Come, join us! Come little girl-children, young women and old! Come, free-women and slaves! Come wives, come mothers! Come widows, and childless, and lonely! Join us, sisters! Come and celebrate our strength tonight! The wind is blowing and we call you, sisters and daughters. Join us! Join us!”
The voices seemed to fill the room. Hilda was really frightened now. She even felt under the blanket in the place where she thought her kidneys should be, as though to reassure herself. She no longer had any doubt that there were witches, outside her window, and that they were after her. Not in a dream or some silly story, but really after her.
“One night! One night is all we have and we shall dance in the sky, we shall sing, we shall celebrate! Join the dance, join the light and the dark, open your soul and lift your body into the night! Reach out! Claim your freedom! The wind is blowing and we call you, sisters and daughters. Join us! Join us!”
And, although Hilda knew that this was not a dream, she felt strange and light-headed. Perhaps it was the cold, or the fear, or perhaps it was an ancient magic. Against her will, her trembling limbs drew back the blanket and took her to the window, and her fingers cautiously edged the shutter open, just a little.
“Leave the ground behind, sisters! Drop your shackles and fly! Come with us, daughters! Lift your selves into the night and give wings and legs and arms to your joy! Tonight is a night to celebrate and be free! The wind is blowing and we call you, sisters and daughters. Join us! Join us!”
Hilda drew in an icy gasp. She was so astonished by what she saw that she did not stop to wonder who had unbolted the shutters. For outside was what seemed to Hilda a host of women (afterwards, she told me that there were perhaps twenty) and all of them, every one of them, was flying! They were gliding and swimming through the air, effortlessly weaving an ecstatic dance. They were not the frightful hags of her uncle’s stories. They were women: transfigured, glowing with power and joy, utterly themselves. For a moment, Hilda wondered if they might even be angels.
“Celebrate and dance! Tomorrow we may be earth again, tomorrow we may be ashes. But tonight we are air and fire! Blaze forth, join the Celebration! Tonight, the weak are powerful, the fearful have courage, the hidden is revealed! The wind is blowing and we call you, sisters and daughters. Join us! Join us!”
Then Hilda noticed that one of the women was Mrs Gorsson, the blacksmith’s wife. And there was little Annie Smit, engaged to Hilda’s cousin Peter! Amazed, Hilda saw that old Mrs Amundsen, the innkeeper’s widowed mother, was there too and that she was stark naked! She was swooping around, singing at the top of her voice and it was the most beautiful sight that Hilda had ever seen. Everybody was joyful.
By this time, my grandmother’s shutter was wide open and she was leaning dangerously out, caught up in what was happening, no longer cold or afraid. As the women sang again: “Tonight we are air and fire! Reach out!” she found herself raising her arms towards the dance and becoming light as air herself, the world beginning to feel insubstantial as her feet left the bare planks of her bedroom floor and she floated right out of the window.
“Welcome sister! Welcome daughter! Join us, dance in the night and celebrate your power! You are with us, sister, and our love will support you. We called you, daughter, and you have joined us! Dance! Dance! Celebrate our night!”
And Hilda danced. She drifted, dived and cart-wheeled, somersaulted and flew, racing from one end of the street to the other with a bubbling joy at her new power. She felt her mind and body entirely attuned and free: real and warm and vibrant.
And Hilda sang. She knew, instinctively, the witches’ song. She sang out of tune, and lustily, and wonderfully, and more women joined, sisters and daughters.
“To the woods! To the woods! Sisters, it is time! Daughters, it is time! Follow us, fly streaming through the night to the place of the Celebration! Dance and fly! Dance and fly! The wind is blowing and we call you, sisters and daughters. Join us! Join us!”
And soon all the women were flying together, singing together. They reached the forest and, then, a clearing where there was a still pool of water.
Now, the witches themselves became still, and settled on the ground like snow. The clearing was lit only by the half-moon and the stars, and the light of the celebrant women. In the centre of the pool was a woman in soft grey who was seated, cross-legged on the water. She was old, wrinkled with time and motherhood. The last echoes of the witches’ song faded to nothing as she rose to standing, and Hilda heard whispers – the old one! the wise one! Aballa! – and then a respectful silence.
“Daughters! Welcome!” she cried. And then, after a quiet moment, “Celebrate!”
She began to approach the women and talk to them individually. They, taking their cue from her, soon broke up into groups: some sitting together and sharing their stories, others flying together in dramatic dances, and a few just staring, spellbound by all they saw. As for Hilda, she could not take her eyes from the ancient witch: Aballa, the old one, the wise one. And it was not long before Aballa came to her.
“Hilda,” she said, gently.
Hilda was not surprised, after all that she had already seen and felt, that the witch knew her name. Aballa’s calmness soothed her and, awed as she was, she was able to answer.
“I never could have dreamed of this,” she began.
“You have dreamed,” said the old one. “I have seen you in your dreams. You are a powerful one.”
“Everyone here is powerful, aren’t they?”
“You are right. But some are still afraid.”
“What will happen next?” Hilda asked.
“Now is a time for joy and sisterhood. Soon will come the time for choosing.”
“Surely your mother has explained?” Aballa looked around. “Where is your mother?”
Hilda was taken aback. “My mother? I don’t understand.”
“Your mother is not here?”
Hilda shook her head, confused. What did her mother have to do with this? Why was Aballa speaking of Hilda’s mother? What was it that her mother should have explained to her?
“Goodness, child! Do you know nothing? Has your mother not prepared you for the choosing?” Aballa seemed angry now, and her eyes were suddenly – blank. Hilda became frightened again. Everything was strange.
At last, Aballa softened. “No, I see not,” she said. “I am sorry. It is not your fault. Do you know where your mother is tonight?” Hilda again shook her head. “Then,” sighed the old one, “I must begin from the beginning.”
The wise one took Hilda in her arms and, in the warmth of this embrace, began to tell my grandmother of another night of Celebration.
It happened every year, on the one night when the witches could be truly free: when those who feared would not leave their homes, and the witches could fly together and call their sisters. One night, seven years before, Hilda’s own mother had been called. Just like Hilda, she had been drawn from her bed by the wild song, and flown with the others to the very same clearing. She had been especially powerful, Aballa said, just like Hilda.
Every year, as dawn approached, came the choosing. The women of the villages, those who had answered the witches’ song, were free to stay, to learn their ways, to enjoy their freedom and their fierce life; and equally they were free to return to the hearth.
“Your mother chose to return. Some do, but many do not.”
“My mother returned?” echoed Hilda.
“Yes,” said Aballa. “She was your mother. She was to come again, when you were old enough to choose. She has not come, but she has sent you.”
“She returned, because of me?”
Hilda fell silent . She thought of her mother’s lined face, her reddened hands. She thought of her impatience with Hilda‘s foolishness or ingratitude, her laziness or clumsiness, grumbling that the girl ate so much and helped so little. She wondered whether her mother regretted the choosing.
Aballa seemed to know what Hilda was thinking and repeated: “She was your mother.”
“But she didn’t send me,” Hilda said. “She was somewhere else, she hadn’t come to bed. I came by myself.”
“She is in the cellar of your uncle’s cottage,” said the old one.
“Your uncle fears that his sister might become a witch,” said Aballa. She was smiling a little, but there was pain too. Again, Hilda was silent. She felt very small. Aballa continued: “But she made sure that you would come. It was your mother who drew back the shutter bolts.”
“She wanted me to come?”
“Yes,” said the old one.
But Aballa only whispered: “She is your mother.”
Aballa tightened her embrace and kissed Hilda. Then she stood. “I must speak to some of the others.” Kissing Hilda again, she glided away to where three women were holding hands and smiling like young lovers. One of them was Mrs Gorsson.
My grandmother never saw Aballa again. At the time of the next Celebration, she slept in the tiny, stinking cellar of her uncle’s cottage, with her mother. She embraced her mother as Aballa had embraced Hilda and, when they awoke, they wept silently together.