Samhain – the festival of the dead.
Meredith had arrived home at noon and washed her hands. She would not take the cleansing bath. She would not wear the robes, or the smoky quartz pendant. She would wear a simple dress, plait her hair, and acknowledge only the very basics of the evening’s festivities. She would not look into the scrying bowl or hold a séance.
But she could not deny the thinness of the veil. She could feel the spirits moving around her, dancing through the last rays of twilight before darkness. And on this night, of all nights, she felt grateful for the haze of her gifts that still remained.
At least on Samhain, she could speak to her son. And he would hear her.
Meredith wrapped a woollen shawl around her shoulders as she stepped into the chill of early winter. She gathered some logs from the pile at the back of the house, and carried them inside, dusting off her hands in the hearth. In silence, she laid the fire—first, the parchment paper interspersed among the tiny twigs, then the kindling, then a small log at the top. She sprinkled some scented oil over the pyramid, and returned to the kitchen, satisfied.
Anyone who accused her of being a witch would have been immediately silenced by a swift cold stare. But they would not have been wrong. The days when she would have claimed her gifts—used them, developed them, and grown as a priestess in her own right—were long gone; and yet, on the Eve of the Dead, she still laid out provisions for the wandering souls who had crossed—accidentally or with purpose. And her daughter still cast nuts into the fire at midnight, and read shapes in the smoke they created.
“Hello,” Ella called from the front hall.
“In the kitchen,” Meredith called back.
Ella swung backwards through the wooden kitchen door, holding a deep dish pumpkin pie. “Vivian’s in the driveway. Look what Bren’s made.”
“Mmm,” Meredith said, taking the pie. “That smells wonderful. I’ve just drawn you a bath. Go and relax a little before dinner.”
Ella raised her eyebrows. “A bath?”
“Yes. Don’t you remember you used to have a bubble bath on Samhain?”
“No. But it sounds like a great idea. I haven’t had a bath in months. Lydia only has a rain shower.”
Meredith frowned before she could stop herself. It still galled her that Lydia swept in to fix things that she’d broken. But Ella had finally said something halfway pleasant and she wasn’t about to ruin it.
“Go on,” she said, taking her daughter’s bag. “I’ll start the cider.”
Ella hurried up the stairs. Meredith placed Ella’s bag in the corner and set about preparing the cider.
“Hi!” Vivian called.
“Vivian! This pie looks amazing.”
“Bren made it,” Vivian called back.
Meredith froze, reaching for the spices.
She took a breath, grasping the thyme. “Is she here too?” she called, hearing the strain in her own voice.
Vivian pushed through the door, holding another pie.
“Yes,” she said, slightly tense. “She finished her catering job and has a night off.”
“Wonderful,” Meredith said, reaching into the cupboard again, though she’d already taken down all the spices she needed. She deliberately relaxed her face into a welcoming smile, then turned around.
Vivian stood in front of the table, laying down a pie and a tray of squares. Bren hovered in the doorway, holding a pan of mixed harvest vegetables.
“Hello,” Meredith said, taking the pan from Bren and kissing her cheek. “Thank you for the beautiful pastries.”
“My pleasure.” She’d plaited her long brown hair into a side braid, and wore a painter’s hat with dark green cargo pants and a slouch-necked t-shirt.
Vivian looked no better, in jeans and an oatmeal sweater. Her dark brown corkscrew curls bounced as she crossed the clay tile floor.
“Happy Samhain,” she said.
Meredith relaxed into her younger sister’s arms. “And to you.”
“We’ll set the table then?”
She pointed to the counter, where she’d laid out the slat placemats, wooden utensils, and clay mugs. While the two ladies set to work on the table, she turned to the cider.
Reaching back to the top of the spice cupboard, she selected a delicate wooden box. It contained a special blend of spices. Samhain was a peculiar holiday—festive and rich—but intense. Tradition pulled at her, even when she had determined not to feel it. Something about the cider and the crisp fall air always tipped her—threatened the precarious balance she held from day to day.
That’s why she invited her family over on holidays—since forgetting the holiday was impossible, she celebrated like a Mundane. Yes, she reflected on the dead; she laid out their favourite foods and invited them inside—but she did not pray. She did not scry. She did not open herself as a conduit, and she refused to see into an unbearable future.
That night’s feast would be the best she had prepared for a long time. Ella had returned from Lydia’s, and she wanted to make the night memorable. They would have leek & potato soup with fresh baked bread and whipped butter; roasted chicken with mashed potatoes and harvest vegetables; corn and beans; cranberry chutney and mulled cider… and pumpkin pie with whipped cream.
Samhain was difficult—for so many reasons. Tonight, weight pulled at her mind and she fought to keep moving. If she gave in to the temptation to lie down, she might sleep through days, and Ella might leave for good.
“Do you have candles, Meredith?”
Meredith’s shoulders tensed when Bren said her name, but she relaxed them immediately, and turned to the sideboard. “Yes, in there.” She pointed. “Use whichever ones you like.”
Tying an apron securely around her waist, Meredith hauled three pumpkins out from under the sink, and laid them on a large cutting board. She concentrated hard on digging the sharp knife into the tops of the pumpkins without jamming a blade through her trembling fingers. The edges of the resulting lids were jagged—but at least they popped out.
Vivian moved in beside her, and grabbed a pumpkin and a large sharp-edged spoon. She slit her eyes darkly in Meredith’s direction as she dug into the pumpkin and wrenched its guts out.
Meredith sighed, digging into her own pumpkin. “I know,” she muttered. “And I’m sorry.”
Vivian rolled her eyes. “Try a little harder,” she whispered fiercely.
Meredith felt Bren’s eyes at the back of her head, and tapped Vivian’s hand lightly with the back of her spoon.
“How’s work?” Vivian said in a normal tone.
“Fine,” Meredith answered. “How’s work with you, Bren?”
“Great. Busy. And making Vivian fat, apparently.”
Meredith turned around and smiled. “Thank you. I’m tired of being older and plumper.”
“Are you back full time?”
“No. They have me on part-time days. And they’ve moved me from Surgery to the diabetic clinic.”
“Well, that’s easier on you, isn’t it?” said Vivian.
Meredith shook her head. “It’s not what I trained for.”
“No. But you’ll get back in time.”
Ella raked slender fingers through her damp hair as she swung through the kitchen doors.
The warm smell of cider and baking bread hit her instantly, making her mouth water as she looked at the table. Meredith had gone to a lot of trouble.
The small smile playing around her mother’s lips betrayed her pride at the feast. Ella knew she should say something kind—to acknowledge the effort Meredith had made. But the words wouldn’t form. “Any trick-or-treaters?” she asked instead.
“Not yet,” her mother said, a trace of disappointment in her face. “Give the little ones until six-o-clock at least.”
“Your desserts look fantastic,” Ella said.
Bren smiled and cut a small square from the pan. “Better try it and tell me whether or not it’s good.”
Ella gladly accepted the delicious coconut and lemon square. “Mmm, that’s terrible. Don’t serve it.”
“Will you finish laying the table, Ella?” said Meredith.
Ella concealed a tinge of annoyance. She rolled her eyes behind her mother’s back and Vivian quickly squeezed her hand.
“Don’t,” she mouthed.
Ella gritted her teeth and grabbed three more plates off the side board, adding places for Jonathon, Granna Lachran… and her father. She bit her lip as she laid the blue striped tie on his plate. When she glanced up, Meredith was watching her carefully. With gritted teeth, she let the tie go and moved away.
Every year, she felt sick at counting his name among the dead.