This is the story of a friendship that grows slowly, untended, and accidentally as a patch of wildflowers along a fencerow. It’s about a relationship that, rather than flourishing, catches a slow and steady burn that flickers and flares but never quite goes out. Too often, I talk about the love of the gods as a powerful and driving force, a defining current in my life. This is a familiar face who becomes dearer only after long acquaintance.
* * *
I was awkward in the back garden, a body that isn’t yet sure how to take up its own space. The people around me were mostly strangers – friendly enough, but not faces I would ever match firmly up to the names I was given. I was pleased to be at my friend’s coven, but I was young still. I didn’t know what my path was, yet, but I was starting to realize what it wasn’t.
The thing that kept me coming back was the rituals. I didn’t know the words – not as well as the coven, certainly, who had been doing this for decades – but I liked the ideas, the energy, the brief connections with magic. I had started to gather a little cache of items from them, the take-homes that we poured energy and thought into. They lived on the TV tray that served as my altar, real pieces of magic hoarded close and for no purpose.
This afternoon was warm for the season. At least, I remember it as warm, although I think the ritual itself was rushed, a brief foray outside from the slightly close quarters of fifteen Wiccans in a small house. We stood in a circle, sky above us, the printed-off slips of our lines from the ritual clutched in hands that hadn’t yet grown chilly. Each of us was given a simple white taper, and a woman came around with hers already lit, hand shielding it from the Missouri day.
“This was lit from the fires at Kildare,” she said to me, touching her flame to my wick. “And I have brought it to you. Now you also carry Brigid’s fire.”
I blinked at her, and smiled, and shook my head. “Who?”
My altar has changed a great deal over the years, overflowing from the small wooden tray into a bookshelf. From there it split and divided, flowing over my apartment, taking up flat spaces and nooks with faces and names and gatherings of objects that remind me of one spirit or another. But at its center there is always a candle for me to burn. It’s a way for me to signal to myself that the altar is “on,” with energy flowing through to make it a gateway, to call me up to the gods and call them down to me. The candle has changed as well, in shape and placement and color. But each time a new one takes its place in the wax of the last, it is lit from a small white taper, now no longer than my hand. I do not know what will happen when it burns itself to a nub, finally.
Most likely, I will go to Kildare.
This wasn’t intended as a devotional practice. When I was given that taper, all I understood was that it was magical. Lighting my own candles from it seemed like a way to continue that magic and augment my own – if I had any to speak of. It didn’t seem likely, at the time. I would never have claimed to be depressed, but the days alone in my apartment stretched out in unpleasant ways. I wasn’t used to being alone. I wasn’t confident, really, in anything about my life. My practice was a fledging thing, treated with a benign neglect that bordered on avoidance. If I didn’t engage with it, if I didn’t truly believe in magic – well then, I couldn’t fail, could I? Besides, the gods that interested me were laughing con men and bloody-handed heroes. I didn’t know anything about the Celts.
My best friend did, though. We met in the late winter, at the beginning of the year, and built worlds out of words and humming laptops. It took some time before we started to talk about things that mattered, and even longer before they told me about their fading Catholicism, the affinity they felt for stones and bones and the work of their farm.
“I like the saints,” they told me, “but Brigid – she feels different? It’s tough to talk about. I always feel like it’s stupid, or like the words are going to make it go wrong, somehow?”
“Like looking directly at it is going to make it go away,” I agreed. “That doesn’t sound stupid. She seems nice. I’ve been to a couple of her rituals.”
“Well, say hello from me,” they joked. That Imbolc, I took a poem they had written for me and read it in a different ritual, at my new grove.
By then I knew enough to know it was a good offering. Brigid – or Brig, as this grove called her – was a goddess of poetry. I didn’t think my own was good enough, but this seemed like a good thing to do for my friend as well as the goddess, a nice way to connect someone who was much closer than I was to her.
It was well received by the grove, who were slowly starting to become my friends. Our leader, an ex-Catholic himself, had a slew of stories about Brigid that delighted me: offerings gone slightly wrong, promises made and kept, long years of rituals where he offered her many aspects. “I don’t work with her, myself,” he explained, one hand on the altar. “But I like to hold this space for people who do. We have several here who are really close to her. She just likes punking me.”
The image behind him beamed, head tilted down and green eyes up, looking amused and pleased and, to my eyes, immensely fond. “I guess the gods do that,” I said, as if I knew what I was talking about, and didn’t think much more of her that year.
That was the year that someone brought water from her well in Kildare to ritual, and I tried not to feel odd as I touched it to my hands, my forehead, my neck. The next year was when an employer dropped her name during an interview, and I found myself in the best job I’d had to that point. The year after that, I was walking through London and stumbled onto St. Bride, a quiet place to sit and rest when I needed it. The year after that, I walked to ritual through the snow and learned about the tradition of leaving a length of fabric out overnight on her holy day, to receive her blessing. Her presence on my altar grew slowly: a three wicked candle, and then a three-legged cauldron, a hand-thrown vase of faded flowers. “I don’t work with her,” I’d think to myself. “But I appreciate her. She’s done some nice things for me. I can’t just ignore that.”
It continued like this as other gods moved into my life like storm fronts, sculptors, thieves in the night. Against their spectacle, other spirits dimmed. Still, I found myself back at the grove every Imbolc, sharing my growing trove of stories. It was always pleasant. I never got a strong sense of Brigid herself, but I noticed her from time to time in sweet coincidences as I went about my life. At home, working in the kitchen, I would light her candle from time to time. Surely, working with a goddess meant more than that?
This year, after one of my partners found a job that seemed more than slightly blessed, we agreed to set up a proper altar for Brigid in zir new space.
“I don’t work with her,” ze said, “but I know you promised-”
“To do something nice by Imbolc, if you got it, yeah.” I nodded. “A candle, maybe.”
“Something a little more than a candle,” ze said. It seemed like as good a time as any to invest.
Her images had never really spoken to me – my best friend had too many good points about blacksmiths, and the build it takes to forge and fight sheep and pull life into this world. What called me was the reed knots that bore her name, hung up to protect the house. Crosses, but like all of Brigid, the Christian trappings seemed to slide off, for me. I bought two of them, and hung them near her altar.
On February 1st, Chicago got nine inches of snow. On February 2nd, my partner lost zir glasses digging out the car. I booted up and trudged the mile to help zir search, bundled tight but in good spirits. It was a beautiful day, and there’s a part of me that’s still delighted by proper sized snow drifts after pining for them as a kid. Things were still mostly fresh, the spans of white unmarred by dirt or footprints, and the walk had enough residential streets to have clear sidewalks almost the whole way. Lost glasses aside, I was in a great mood.
Which might be why I saw the wool. It was speared on one of the wrought iron fences near zir house, just frozen enough to show that it had been there a while – maybe overnight. Even in my hurry, it pulled me up short, and I stopped to look. Someone had obviously picked it up off the sidewalk for its owner- but that had been a while ago. One skein was already knit into a length of scarf, and the other skein laid beside it, label still in place.
I looked up and down the road, expecting someone to come running, looking for their alpaca/merino blend. Nothing. I put it back, and walked away, went to find the glasses. Then my partner and I walked back together, and gathered up the fabric still covered in the frozen dew.
We put it on the altar my partner had built, around the base of the cauldron ze had bought, and ze grinned at me. “I know I said I don’t work with her.”
“Neither do I,” I agreed, and smiled at the cross on the wall.