[Note: Originally published in Refuge: Tales of Myths and Magicks. Reprinted here with permission of the author.]
The smile stayed in place till the girl turned the corner at the end of the street. They all thought that her refusal to wave was due to some sort of decision about conscious dignity, or that it was some sort of “elder thing”. (It amused her, that for all that some of them clearly held her in awe, it never occurred to any of them that her hearing was both acute itself and enhanced by careful arrangement of furniture and fittings … ). In fact, she didn’t raise her hand in greeting or parting because of something far more simple and disturbing: aching, bone-deep weariness. She’d learned economy of movement over these last few years not out of any desire to appear graceful, but simply to conserve what little energy she was able to garner.
Moving through the house now, she put out most of the candles, and thought back to a time when no one had considered using them: the only candles available when she’d been young were those kept around for storms so bad that the electricity went out: they were functional, cheap and relatively nasty – much, she supposed, like the candles which had really been used “in the old days” they kept on about. Ruefully, she snuffed out a “lavender scented hearth light” designed to “bring peace to your home”.
“Doing that with a candle would be a good trick …. ”
She picked up the plates and cups, shaking her head over the serviettes “Glenda” had provided – the pentagrams on them had about as much to do with magic as that name did of the girl who used it. (Oh, yes, she knew their real names – and much more about them, besides. She was old, admittedly, but she was far from stupid).
Having set the dishwasher going, she wandered aimlessly through the now empty house, hearing distant echoes of previous times … the cries of her children as babies, the raucous laughter as they grew, the sounds of love and their creation, the harrowing sounds of grief when the news of their father’s death arrived with sombre-faced policemen …. Well, they were settled into their own lives now, creating their own tapestries of sound and memory.
She knew that there were things she could do – a new book waited on her bedside table, (About as much excitement as that room sees anymore, she thought with a sigh – though it had seen much more than most supposed and far more recently).
There were things she should do – for some value of “should”. There were social letters which could be written – welcoming someone’s new grandchild, congratulating someone on a promotion … nothing urgent, nothing pressing.
But she could settle to nothing – nothing attracted her, nothing held her attention.
She sat for a while, in the old, comfortable chair, in front of the last of the candles. She’d left these burning, but they were simple, ordinary candles – they gave out no scent and had little significance other than giving light and comfort.
“And is that not enough?”
She smiled at the well known, well loved voice – it was always on the edge of hearing (or, almost always … there had been a time …. ).
She answered, “I hope it is – it rather describes my life, after all”.
“What, fire? Fire that comforts as it burns? Yes, that works …. ”
She mused on the attributes of fire …. Did she still have them? Were any of these youngsters “fired up”, as it were?
Again she smiled – because the answer was yes, of course they were. It was, for most of them, a different sort of fire, as befit a different age. It burned more steadily, and was cooler – it had less chance of burning anything at all.
“And yet ….”
And yet – she nodded. And yet – there was one – small, dark, the quietest of the group. She sat, usually, watching the others. Never awkward, and when called to take her place in ritual did so with grace … and power. The rest would dance and sing and move on, eventually … but this girl – she would, if she chose, do so much more ….
“And you intend to teach her?”
There was sharp tone in the voice now – one she’d rarely, if ever, heard before. She sat up a bit straighter.
“Don’t you think I can?” Deference was something she’d never really got the hang of.
“Oh, you could. But, should you?” The voice now seemed to be veering … where?
“What?” She may not be deferential but she wasn’t above learning.
The voice was much gentler now, when it asked, “Who taught you?” As a memory of Annie came to her mind, the voice continued, “No, who really taught you? Taught you what it is to be alive? Everything else is secondary”.
She smiled, again. “You did. And … you will do the same for her, is what you’re telling me?” She nodded. “Well, she can have no better teacher – I wish her joy of it, as I had”.
“But then, what of me, now?” The question had been behind so much, lately – it was a relief to finally get it out.
“Don’t you think …. it’s been time enough?” There was welcome, and love, in the voice now.
And now, for the first time since that Solstice so many, many years ago, the voice had timbre, resonance and tone. It issued from the figure before her, arms outstretched to enfold her as she rose to meet him ….
They gathered, of course, after the public funeral. Her family had arranged all that, from the instructions she had left.
They each spoke their memories of her, burning sweet smelling incense to remind themselves of her wisdom and care.
And then they left, refreshed and released.
“You coming?” they called.
“In a minute – go on, I’ll meet you there”, the dark haired girl said. They looked at her oddly, but then, she was a bit odd, and they went on their way ….
The dark haired girl waited, sitting by the remnants of the fire, letting her thoughts sort themselves out. She was aware of … something … unfinished?
“No, something just beginning”. She was not overly surprised to see the old woman standing, smiling, next to her.
“There’s someone I want you to meet …” and the dark haired girl looked up into eyes as dark as the depths of space ….