A Long Walk in a Deep Valley

Eric O. Scott —  August 9, 2013 — 9 Comments
A photo of the farm. Photo by William Scott.

The farm. Photo by William Scott.

I grab two pieces of firewood at a time from Alaric’s grandmother’s pile and throw them into the back of the trailer. Wood lands on wood with a solid clack, like the woodblock in an orchestra.

“Who cut this, anyway?”

Alaric drops a log onto the trailer. He is a few years older than me, old enough that we were never close until we were both adults. “Me and dad. We cut her three cords of wood for heat last winter – this is the leftovers from that. We’ll cut her another three this year.”

“Oh,” I say, setting my last load into the back. “So we’re not really stealing it from her.”

I lumber into the trailer and sit on a bale of straw. Then Alaric starts up the tractor and we’re heading across the grass and down a gravel road, traveling down into a valley, coming to rest at a circle of just-mown grass with a depression in the center.

“Fire pit,” says Alaric with a self-congratulatory grin. “For later. I just made it yesterday.”

It’s Lammas, or the Saturday closest to it, anyway. We’re at Alaric’s family farm, somewhere in Jefferson County, Missouri, where his grandmother and several other relatives live in houses scattered across the property. Alaric lives a few minutes away, on the outskirts of Imperial, but for the past few years he’s farmed wheat and vegetables out here on the weekends and after work at his day job as a tech and data guy for a law firm. Most of his farm equipment is a hand-me-down from his deceased grandfather; he’s constantly taking it apart, rebuilding it, scavenging parts from other machines. His latest acquisition is a new combine. The one he had been using was made in 1955. The new one’s from ‘65. Practically just off the assembly line.

I grew up in the city, and that’s still where I’m naturally drawn to live; when I moved back to St. Louis, a little over a year and a half ago, the idea of living in the suburbs, much less the country, never occurred to me. Alaric, who grew up out here, likes to mock me for my city-boy ways: “You feel okay out here, buddy? I know everything’s not all paved over, the way you like it.”

Still. Riding in the trailer, looking out at the tree line rising up all around us, at the creek, at the weeping willow off in the distance… It’s hard to think anything else.

This place is paradise.

*     *     *

This is the first sabbat we’ve held at the farm, mainly because Alaric’s grandmother is severely Lutheran and would have certain reservations about her property being used as the site for witchcraft. She is at church all day today, though, which is apparently not an uncommon occurrence. Alaric told her he and his wife, Amanda, would have some people over for a party at the barn. Further details were omitted.

After we unload the wood, Alaric drives the tractor across a muddy stream to an ancient barn. Our family has gathered outside, drinking beer and bantering from their camp chairs. Inside the barn, a handful of them set out the feast. There are no lights in there, and shadows overtake the interior even though it’s only six in the evening.

We spend the next few hours discussing the dangers of smoking in the barn and the extent of the property line. There is a brief episode wherein bearded men spirit away the Baby Julian so Amanda, his mother, can have a rest. And then we pile into the trailer, seated on the bales of straw, and ride off to one of Alaric’s wheat fields for the ritual, singing John Denver’s “Country Roads” as we go.

Most of our rites, it must be said, are citified. We mention the harvest, yes, but usually in a metaphorical sense: we talk about the kinds of seeds we have planted in our lives, the kinds of bounties we can expect to reap. We mention the struggles our forebears endured, but we do not live off the land, as they did. We must find other ways to connect with the meaning of the festival.

This one, however, was different: we were performing it in an actual wheat field. Alaric and Amanda had actually harvested wheat here – the communion bread was made from that crop. For the first time in my memory, our harvest sabbat was literally about the harvest.

I don’t have any illusions about Wicca being an ancient religion; I know the specific things we do were not done by any mythical set of ancestors in the Times Before. But in that bread, made from wheat reaped by my brother and his wife, I could taste just a touch of the life my people must have once lived.

Perhaps it’s coincidence: my father had been telling a story all weekend of a man he’d met at work. He saw the man had a Celtic cross tattooed on his shoulder, and dad congratulated him on our mutual Irish ancestry. Then the man admitted, while rolling up a pants leg to reveal another tattoo of the Red Lion of Scotland, that he wasn’t pure Irish – he was Scots-Irish. Again, just like us. So they started comparing notes: where their families came from, where they settled. The similarities were uncanny: they both had relatives buried in the same tiny graveyard next to the Huzzah Baptist Church, a church that serviced a town that hadn’t been there in decades. “I think we must be cousins,” my father had told the man.

The bread made me think of those Scotts, the line of our tribe that had made its way here, to the heartland of America, who had resulted in me: their lives, and their struggles, and their hopes and dreams and failures. And thinking about that, as it always does, made me think about my other family: my coven, the family of choice that I never chose.

When we finish our bread and wine, Alaric and Amanda send us out to the fields to take some wheat, like the gleaning once allotted to the poor. I take Alaric’s knife and cut nine blades.

I don’t take the hay ride back. I walk with my father back to the barn, mostly in silence. We cross through the woods, over shallow streams and bridges, over grass and gravel. I am thinking about the harvest to come.

*     *     *

Every time I’m near a bonfire now, I find myself singing the runes into it. I don’t have any justification for this, other than it seeming like a thing worth doing. It’s simple: start with fehu, work your way to othala, sending each rune into the flames and then out into the world with the smoke.

I throw each of my wheat blades into the fire as I sang. Sometimes I miss – overshoot the fire, or toss with too little force, so that the blade ends up near the edges instead of the heart. But when the flames catch one, the blade erupts in bright orange light, then blackens, crumbles into the ash. These were my sacrifices, my gifts to the gods. Something for the future.

The fire spreads out of the pit, a tiny orange finger in the living grass. As one of the only people wearing good shoes, I stamp it out before it can get out of control. My friend Megan scolds me afterwards. “Be careful!” she says, pointing a finger from me to the fire. “I saw what you were doing over there.”

I smile and stand next to her. We watch the fire for a moment before she asks the question.

“So when are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow morning,” I say. “We’re picking up the U-Haul tomorrow and heading out as soon as we can load up the furniture and the books.”

She nods. “I’ll miss you,” she says.

“Columbia’s only two hours away,” says Web, one of my parents’ generation, on the other side of the fire. “You act like you’re moving to another continent.”

He had a point, of course. The problem wasn’t really the distance. It was what the distance implied about the future.

In the morning I would be leaving St. Louis again, so soon after returning. I was starting a PhD program at the University of Missouri, something I thought I had put behind me until I read the acceptance email while laid over in a Dallas airport en route to Pantheacon this year. The program was scheduled to take five years to complete. After that – assuming the academic job market still exists, which sometimes seems like a big “if” – I would be searching for work any place that would take me. A place that, undoubtedly, would not be St. Louis.

Since I became an adult, since I really understood what it meant to be a second-generation Pagan, I have begun to realize just how wonderful the circumstances of my life are. I knew that I wanted to inherit the coven from my parents, to shelter it, to give it to my own children someday. That’s such a rare gift, to have something like that, to pass it down. I know now that I probably won’t be able to do that, at least not as directly as I had hoped.

But then again, I can look across the fire and see Alaric and Amanda there, cradling little baby Julian.

Families are never about one person; they are about all of us, together. And if it so happens that I can’t be with them as much as I’d like, well, my family doesn’t live in Huzzah anymore, either. This is something every family experiences.

I kiss my family good night, pack up my bags and my trash, and set off towards home. I still have things to throw in boxes and furniture to get ready for the move. I won’t fall asleep until three hours before I need to wake.

It is Lammas, my last night in St. Louis, the night of the first harvest. I pass by the Weeping Willow tree and Alaric’s grandmother’s house. I turn from the gravel road onto the pavement, and make my way out of paradise.

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Eric O. Scott

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Eric O. Scott was raised by witches. He is a staff writer for The Wild Hunt and a contributing editor at Killing the Buddha. He won the Moon Books prize for Best Pagan Fiction Writer Under 30 in 2012. His first book, The Lives of the Apostates, was published in 2013. He received his MFA in Fiction and Creative Nonfiction from the University of Missouri - Kansas City in 2010, and is currently a PHD student in Creative Nonfiction and Medieval Studies at the University of Missouri - Columbia. His middle name is not "Odin."