Your humble author.
The sewing machine’s name is Elizabeth. I am borrowing her from my girlfriend’s sister. Her manual, produced on clean white paper with green ink by the Babylock Corporation, refers to her exclusively with feminine pronouns. Elizabeth is a very talented seamstress. She will help me with all of my sewing projects. She knows dozens of stitches and has a built-in arm.
I am more than a little afraid of Elizabeth.
The first thing Elizabeth needs is a bobbin. I have never heard of a bobbin before. When I finally get the white thread to spin onto the tiny plastic cylinder, Elizabeth makes a noise like she’s being minced to death, feet first. I call my girlfriend in a panic, asking if this is normal. It is. Elizabeth just makes noises like that sometimes; she is an excitable girl.
Beltane is in three days. In that time, Elizabeth and I need to assemble the collection of squares and triangles of white cotton laying on the floor of my living room into a robe. We will also need to make a red overcloak, for which I haven’t yet bought the fabric. I also need to buy wine, cakes, plastic wear, ribbons, and at least five other items that I haven’t even thought of.
We are having Beltane in Tower Grove Park this year, in one of the beautiful, ancient Victorian pavilions that Henry Shaw bequeathed to future generations. I have been envisioning this ritual for months now: a sweeping ceremony, full of spectacle and pomp, set against the backdrop of St. Louis’s most picturesque public park.
It is supposed to rain on Beltane.
I still haven’t written the damned ritual.
I am not a very good magician.
* * *
We are going to do all the sabbats.
That’s a simple goal, but when I and the other members of my generation in Sabbatsmeet took it up seven years ago, it seemed scary as hell. I had never led a ritual before we did that first Lughnasadh together in a park near the edge of the city. I had no idea of how to write a ritual, really, and no idea of what I actually wanted in one. I was twenty years old and had no idea what I was doing.
I am twenty-six now. It feels weird to talk about twenty-six as though that were some kind of advanced age, worthy of an experienced master – I mean, I’m an adult, but just barely. But it’s hard to look back on your past with any other perspective. That kid thought he knew everything, but he was barely even sentient. I’m sure at fifty-two I’m going to look back at forty-six and think that guy was an idiot, too.
One thing that twenty-year-old me did was put a bunch of rules into place for our Sabbats, and I have done my best to honor his wishes. Sarah, my best friend and High Priestess, and I do one sabbat per year. That sabbat is always based on a particular mythology and its attendant culture. Everyone in our age bracket, a group that has had as few as four and as many as ten depending on the year, gets a part in the ritual. We don’t repeat sabbats. We don’t repeat gods. Not until we get to Samhain.
So we’ve had Norse Yule and Roman Harvest, Egyptian Imbolg and Greek Litha, always invoking different gods, always doing our best to do right by them. But we had hit most of the low-hanging fruit as far as mythologies go years ago, so we stretched our definitions a little bit. Sarah, being something of an Anglophile, really wanted to do a Victorian-flavored festival, and given my love for Tower Grove Park, I was okay with that. But what would we actually do in the ritual? What were we going to invoke?
And then I thought: the Rider-Waite Tarot. What could be more Victorian than that?
And then I thought: I don’t know anything about Tarot.
And then I thought: what’s the worst that could happen?
I am not a very good magician.
* * *
Elizabeth cannot tell me how to hem a neck-hole. Neither can my girlfriend, Megan, who is asleep down the hall. Elizabeth and I are running thread through the edges of my robe, folding the cloth over into something approximating a hem. But the neck-hole is a strange and terrifying part of the garment, and I’m afraid that I’m going to accidentally give myself a plunging neckline if I mess with it too much.
I look at the clock and see that it’s almost three in the morning. It’s the night before Beltane, and as much as I would like to get the Mystery of the Unhemmed Neck solved, it’s probably more important to get the ritual finished. I bid Elizabeth goodnight and sit down to finish writing the ceremony.
I was stumped by how to write a ritual involving the Tarot. The biggest problem, of course, was deciding on which figures to include. We don’t draw enough of a crowd to justify 22 named parts, and besides, that ritual would take hours. I have to cater to the needs of my audience of the young and the middle-aged; they don’t have patience for that kind of thing.
Above: John Madden presents Beltane.
As usual in these circumstances, I turned to my father, who suggested I cut it down to seven: the trumps corresponding to the classical planets, The Sun, the High Priestess, the Magician, the Empress, the Tower, the Wheel of Fortune, and the World. (“Why is the moon the High Priestess and not, uh, The Moon?” “Ask the Golden Dawn, son. I didn’t make up that list.”) As it happened, I needed exactly ten speaking parts to accommodate my rules, and this gave me exactly that many: six trumps plus four suits plus one Maypole for the Wheel of Fortune. I declared this a miracle and accepted it immediately. We got together three weeks before Beltane and drew up an outline of the ritual, complete with a strangely football-esque diagram; all I needed to do was sit down and write out the text. Nothing to it.
I finish the Empress’s speech at four AM the night before Beltane. Only three more trumps to go.
Above: Look at that hat!
It is the day of Beltane. It’s cold, and the sky is thick with clouds, but it doesn’t rain. As people start to arrive, I realize that we’ve cast our spell too well: we planned for an English festival, and the weather has complied. As always, the danger of magick is getting what you asked for.
Small things go wrong throughout the course of the day, mostly in the realm of things I never got a chance to buy. Thankfully my friends are both dutiful and clever, and the only thing of real importance missing is a bit of salt for the ritual’s opening. More troubling is that we had not one but two people set up to play the King of Swords, and neither of them made it to the ritual. Oh well. That’s one not in costume.
The defects don’t matter much, in the end; they rarely do. Because when the circle is cast and the wind picks up and blows my red cloak around me, I can feel the power of ritual overwhelm me, bubble over me and drown me. When I raise my tools to the sky and call upon the elements, I feel them with me and within me, responding to my summons as they have my entire life. This is a thing which is always rote and always strange.
We take a deep breath, each of us looking ahead at the Maypole, at the Wheel, at the spokes on that wheel each of us represent, and we begin.
Sarah is draped in blue, her head covered by a hat in the shape of the three-fold moon. A hush comes over our congregation as she casts the circle. Sarah, the High Priestess, the Moon.
I, clad in red, the infinity sign on my brow, hand the Priestess her tools. All of the exhaustion and worry of the past few days melts away, fading into the ritual. I am ready now for the Great Work, the creation of something full of wonder and hope.
I am now something more than myself; I am Mercury. I am The Magician. And a pretty damned good one, too.
We each silently mouth the words in unison with her, the words we have heard so many times before, the most powerful words we know:
This is the circle.
This is the space between the worlds.
Here be magick.
Here be love.
So mote it be.
And, gods willing, so it always will be.