Samhain at the Cave
It’s been so long since I visited this place that I am strangely afraid. Afraid that it will not be here, or I will not be welcome. Or that I will find everything changed beyond recognition.
I need not have been so afraid. While I cannot remember precise details, I find that when I pass into the lighter part of the cave, I feel that sense of coming home that always greeted me on arrival. I expected cobwebs and dust and perhaps for small creatures to have nibbled at the belongings I left here, but the floor is without footmarks in the deep soft sand, and the ledges are untouched, and the items stored as fresh as when I last came.
It’s early morning; the damp air is filled with the scents of an autumn forest. From the lower slopes of the forest I can smell the tang of fallen leaves, that spiced mushroom fragrance mixed with woodsmoke. From higher, I can smell the pines and the other evergreens that cloak the peaks. I can even smell the distant odour of snow, though the clouds today hold only rain.
A small movement catches my eye; rising up from the path at the edge of the clearing is a figure I had not realised how much I missed. The clear shining eyes are the colour of morning sun on spring water rising through peat-rich soils, that luminous, glowing brown. We greet each other, and I run my hands through the warm pelt that feels like rough silk, and lean my head against the strong neck of the reindeer who is my guide. I do not apologise for my long absence; for time does not run the same here, and apologies are not necessary. I am here now and that is all that counts.
We spend the day gathering against the coming winter: nuts, a final crop of berries to dry and store, wood, the last batch of herbs and barks to see the winter through. Soft rain falls all the day, but it does not matter. At midday I light a fire in the fire-pit at the edge of the cave; the smoke does not fill the cave but is drawn away and lost. I make pine needle tea to warm and restore me; it’s a good source of vitamin c, and of good cheer. There is a stoneware jar in a niche to the back of the cave; it’s stoppered with a well-worked bung of wood, and I lever it open to find that it is filled with honey. Thick golden goodness and some comb. I put a small spoonful into my tea for the glory of it.
By mid afternoon, I can feel the pull of muscles unused to this work and am glad when Reindeer suggests we have done enough. I stoke up the fire and we sit companionably, me with a blanket around my shoulders and Reindeer a little further from the fire. We watch the light fade from the sky, and the forest below becomes quieter. I can hear the wind in the remaining leaves, rustling them. I think I hear something else, but I convince myself I am imagining it. I walk to the edge of the clearing, where the ground drops away steeply into the forest. There are paths which wind down this mountain, and into the forest, but few use them but me. This night is the night when the ancestors may walk among us, but I cannot sense anything this year. Previous years I have seen the glimmer of souls passing by to reassure me that they are not lost, but this year, I see nothing. The forest is lost in a dense, velvety blackness. I look down; in the very far distance I see the flicker of a few lights, camp fires perhaps, but most of the forest is in comfortable darkness.
As I turn to go back into the shelter of my cave, for the night is raw with rain and a wind that is starting to chill me to the marrow, I see a light. Two lights, in fact, which are approaching up the steep path from the forest. It takes me a moment to realise that the lights are actually eyes, reflecting back the glow of my fire in the overhang. I ought to be afraid but I am not. I ought to run for cover, to grab flaming brands from my fire but I do not. I step back, to allow my visitor to enter the open space before my cave.
It is a great she-bear.
Reindeer stands beside me, unconcerned, and nudges me, reminding me of my duty.
I clear my throat.
“Greetings, sister,” I say. “You are welcome to share our fire and our food.”
She-Bear turns her head this way and that so that she can look at us both, but she does not speak. I see that she is thinner than she should be at this time of year and there are wounds on her flanks, which look only half healed. She grunts, softly, and we all move back into the cave mouth. She-bear skirts around the fire, cautious but not afraid, and lies down, still watching us.
I bring food. I find dried, smoked fish (salmon, I suspect) and berries and even some dry bread, and then I remember the crock of honey. I unstopper it, and pour it onto one of the slabs of smooth bark that serve here as plates, and place it close to She-Bear. She sniffs at it, and throws her head back in what I interpret as delight, before licking the plate clean. I give her half the crock, and then she eats fish and berries, but declines the bread. Then she yawns. Her teeth are huge, and frightening, but she is a good guest and we do not fear her. Instead, we sit together, the three of us, and we talk, in our own ways. Of those we have lost, of our fears, of our memories and of our hopes. I do not know how it is that we understand each other, but somehow we do. I learn that She-Bear has come to guide me, to be my guide as well as Reindeer, but that her lesson now is that of rest. I learn that the deep rest of winter is essential, and that I have not rested sufficiently in previous years. I have fretted and refused to rest.
The sky has begun to clear of rain clouds, and the temperature has dropped, as the stars begin to show in the dark sky. I can feel frost starting, and my other senses can feel the snow that waits, not many weeks away. The sharp, bright, invigorating smell of cold and ice and snow is still muted by the soft spicy scent of autumn, but I can smell it. Unconsciously, I find myself leaning back into the dense fur of She-Bear, her breath sweet from the honey and the hawthorn berries she has eaten, and I find her solid warmth extra comforting. I curl up in the space between the two animals, pull my blanket around myself and allow myself to sleep, guarded by two sentinels who I trust entirely.