Autumn Moons and Apples: A Samhain Short Story by Chris Collins
Autumn Moons and Apples
Death is part of life.
I think about that now, watching the leaves begin to bleed. Red, a rich stain of blood that makes my eyes shrink and inspires the silks and rubies of far off lands we have never seen. The colour of greed that leads to the red blood of death, and autumn reminds us of our fragility.
Across the river, a shot of evening sun brilliantly illuminates the gold leaves of the willow, weeping for summer. Such gold; like my youngest child’s hair. I watch the leaves staining in that beauty-sadness of green to red. The chill in the air off the mountains is so crisp but the sun has not slipped behind them yet and I still feel its honey warmth on my cheeks. The hills cut clear into the sky and the first fires of the year and weave their smoke into the scent of earth and moist mulch. There are hard black lines of already balding trees against the blue white sky. Hazy trees glow; shadows stretch their fingers out to stroke the world in night.
It will soon be apple time.
We watch the swallows take their last skim of the rivers and go, then after the next full moon I will set my daughters harvesting. Then we celebrate what our wassail calls forth.
Apples are the original fruit. They are love, fertility, nourishing. They are as ancient as roses and take us through the year. When we harvest them; we feast, there is dancing and the goddess is ripe; mother of us all who walks through the forest handing out riches in purple, red and green.
The sun sets, smearing the sky purple to gold. I return to my hearth and gather my daughters round me.
Morning. Light blooms like a honeycomb. We start at the upper orchard, the sun in our eyes. The green of the leaves is just losing heart, and blushes, like recognising an old lover from years ago.
My eldest child pulls an Egremont Russet clear and sets a wave of them dropping over her sister who squeals and giggles. A few are thrown – deliberately wide, but my children are both soon in the rhythm and the shaking of leaves and swaying branches – as of crows landing – prevails, and now the only sound is the bubbling pop of apples rolling into the baskets.
The sun climbs higher over the leaves and the day wears on. My daughters chatter; a book one has read, the fixing of the water pump, the apple feast and ribbons. Snatches of song. I teach them a harmony and they try it until I am satisfied. My neighbour’s son prattled that when they sing together it is like sun in raindrops. A childish caprice but a pretty one. They are so part of myself that I cannot hear their voices from outside of me; I cannot see these lovely comparisons.
I watch my eldest hoist herself into the higher branches and drop apples into the deft catches of her little sister. She praises each catch with a voweled shout until it becomes such a game with them both that my youngest child nearly collapses laughing and her sister spasms in panic as she nearly falls out of the tree in mirth.
They are strong, my girls. Vigorous young women to tend the apples and observe the wassail and Beltane offerings so we thrive for another generation and the land will be blessed. Their faces are glowing blossoms in the sun and their hair so bright it hurts my eyes to look. I blink and turn away. Strong girls. Clever girls. Our women survive.
We follow the sun east to west across the trees. As its sinking pricks the leaves to more bleeding, we gather the last Bramleys that have rolled off and heave our baskets homewards.
Night pulls the red and gold out of the earth and turns it monochrome. The world’s fire fades and I build ours up and send my daughters to hand out apples. Neighbours arrive, laughing, tossing their Allington Pipins, their Annie Elizabeths and Newton Wonders to compare with ours and goad and tease. We mull spices in our cider and pass it around, cut meat and cheese and crisp apple slices. It is warm by the fire against the hardening frost outside, and the apple harvest is piled up. It will be like this until the last varieties are got in, then we all dance for the apples.
My daughters plait each other’s hair and weave in ribbons of their favourite colours. Pipin gold. Egremot green. Pearmain red. They spin round and fling their skirts wide and laugh. I smile at their joy; childish, ripening, apple blossom and apple fruit; apples of my eye. My little girls. Don’t grow up. But you must, babies must grow, or they wither and die and so much vigour in these two cannot be stopped. Our women survive.
It is cold as we leave our cottage and I watch my youngest obediently lift her chin so her sister can fasten the hook of her shawl. I pull one on each side and, arms linked, we step out into the owl-calling night under the full moon. Samhain.
Tell us a story mother! my youngest clamours. She wraps her arms round me and keeps walking with her head buried in my stomach as I laugh and try to support her swaying weight. Her sister looks up eagerly, eyes shining at me. Yes, please mother, something to make us shiver. It’s Samhaim! Really girls, I say, are you not chilled enough? Fie, they cry, if we shiver, we’ll dance and run it off. So I tell them their favourite tale; their yearly warning never to cross a bridge or boundary on Samhain night or the spirits will take you. Once a little boy crossed the river at Sahmain, right here, years ago; he lingered, and was taken off.
Why did he linger? they beg, did he not know? Oh he knew, I tell them, his mother loved him very much and warned him just as I warn you, every year. Why did he not listen to his mamma? they cry, didn’t he love her? I look at the trees. Their leaves are nearly all gone, spread like tears underneath. I don’t know, I tell them, I think he loved his mother. They tell me he did. But perhaps he was greedy. He wanted to see what the spirits had, what treasures; where they would take him. He turned his back on his home and it did for him. So you must mark me girls, and never walk the bridge on Samhain eve. I stop and look them both in the eyes in the moonlight, my hands on their shoulders, the three of us a circle and the whole world linked. Swear it, I say. Swear it. Mother, they say lowly, we swear it, and they hold still long enough to convince me of their solemn faces, then wriggle free and race off laughing. I watch them skirt the bridge wide and dash straight for the long barn, holding hands, with their ribbons and skirts streaming silver in the night.
I swallow and smile. Three children, once. And in tales, when the first child goes off on their journey, they do not come back. My son did not. Autumn. Death. It is part of life. My daughters though, are strong and vigorous. Our women survive.
The hall spills light as the door is thrown open. There are shouts, stamping of feet dancing, vibrant strains of fiddle and pipe, and tabor, and I can even feel the warmth from here, smell the roasting meat from here and the sticky thick smell of mead. The silver birch before the door has thrown its gold coins down to the earth – we are rich; we are blessed. Then naked and silver, it is ready to meet its winter lover.
I go in.