Sea: Welcome to Saga Kraft. Myths, fairytales, legends. Stories comfort us, inspire us and heal us. Please join us as we share stories both old and new. More than anything, we’re open to the story and it’s unfolding. At times, it may be one story told by one person. At times it’s the same story told through three different voices. In the end, we go where the story takes us and we invite you to follow.
I’m Sea, a writer, artist, and storyteller.
Betsy: I’m Betsy, a medium and teacher of mystery traditions.
Gabriela: I’m Gabriela, an artist and practitioner of folk magic.
Saga Kraft: We are magical fairy godmothers in training.
Gabriela: Today’s stories will be about this time of the year. Winter time, Yule time, the winter solstice. So many traditions, sacred traditions around this time. So many customs. We want to honor the sacred time with our stories today and share with you the stories of Yule time. And we hope that they bring blessing to you and that they sooth you during the season.
My story is called the secret supper.
The wind was unusually wild this year, Jania thought, while glancing out the window before she pulled out the final batch of Christmas Eve rolls out of the oven. The gusts of snow whirled and danced joyfully outside against the blue- black winter backdrop. How nice it was to watch it from the safety of a warm home, she thought, smiling. It was almost time for their feast. As soon as the first star of the evening was spotted by one of her grandchildren they could sit down and start the festivities.
As usual Jania spent the last few days cooking and getting the home celebration ready for her and her family. The winter holiday, and especially Christmas season, was very important. It was the most magical and sacred time. And she was so lucky to have a big family to share it with, and a warm home and a table full of food. This was a great blessing.
“I see it! I see the star!” Cried out excited Tomek, the oldest of her grandchildren, which encouraged the younger sister and cousin to cry out with excitement.
“All right everybody, let’s gather together.” Announced Stefan, after checking with Jania to make sure everything was ready.
He was always happy to help her, but Yanya rarely took him up on the offer. The kitchen was her domain and he knew better than to interfere. Besides, their two daughters circled around her effortlessly. The three of them moved with grace and precision and created dishes that smelled and looked heavenly. After all, they have been making these dishes together for many, many years. Since it was time, Stefan turned off the electric lights and lit candles to aluminate their evening in a more intimate way.
“Ahh, this is more like it,” Jania sighed gratefully as she entered the family room. Now they could truly start.
They shared the Christmas wafer with each other, an old tradition of offering good wishes to each family member while eating delicate bread. The oldest couple would always start first. They would share with each other, then their children and grandchildren. Kind words and simple blessings were exchanged.
“In the coming year, I wish you happiness and good health. That is most important.” Stefan said to Jania
” And I wish that your arthritis will ease up so that we can enjoy more walks together like we used to.” Jania said.
The younger couples wished each other success at work, ease in their marriage and happiness. The children mimicked the words they heard from the adults and made their own sweet, heartfelt wishes to the family. Siblings promised not to argue and to help parents around the home. Even at a young age, they took the sharing of wishes seriously. They could see and feel how important these exchanges were for their family and how open everybody’s hearts were.
Twelve dishes, no more, nor less, were served. Vegetarian and fish dishes only. No roasted red meats or poultry could be consumed tonight. Red borscht with dumplings, fried carp, pickled herring, cabbage stew, mushroom noodles, fried potato cakes, poppy seed rolls, and a variety of breads and gorgeous rolls and ginger cookies, which were shaped like stars, deer, canes, and evergreen trees. The family ate, sang songs – carols – shared stories, and laughed for hours. Their bellies full and faces warmed by joy and the soft glow of candles on the table and all around. And as always an empty seat and plate we’re left at the table, the chair decorated with extra ribbons and a beautifully embroidered cushion on the seat.
Little Gosia, the youngest of the children, admired the cushion and seat with curiosity. “Who will sit there? Are we waiting for somebody?” She inquired, while reaching out for another sugar glazed bun.
” It’s the seat for the wandering guests. Don’t you remember? You asked about it last year, too.” Her mother Maryla answered smiling.
The young girl pinched her face in fierce concentration and shook her head.
“No, I don’t remember. Who is the wandering guest and why haven’t they arrived yet?”
“Nobody knows who it is until they arrive, and often they don’t arrive at all.” Her grandfather told her, smiling under his mustache, knowing that this will make her ponder even more. “But whoever it is, no matter how strange or unfamiliar, there must always be a seat ready for them at the table. They can not be turned away. Not on this night.” He added, glancing at his wife Jania lovingly, who looked at the empty plate and smiled.
“Yes, tonight is a true test of hospitality, communion, and relationship. I learned this from Father Foka Szumej a long time ago.” she said
“Who is Father Foka Szumej? Is he coming? Is the plate for him?” Now all the children were curious.
Jania’s eyes softened and fixed outside the window, where the whirling snow gave form to beasts and creatures of the mountain nearby. She could almost hear their songs from far away.
” Who is Foka Szumej, you ask. In order to tell you that, you must hear the whole story.” Jania said, and settled more comfortably in a chair near the fireplace with little Gosia climbing onto her lap, excited to hear another one of granny’s tales.
“It was a long, long time ago. I was just a girl that older than you, Gosi, and the night was Christmas Eve. Very much like it is now, cold and windy and snowy. My father, mother, and I were traveling around the mountain to visit my great parents, your great grandparents, who lived one village over. We had a basket full of sheep cheese and honey to share with them as well as some freshly baked ginger cookies.
We left a little later in the day than we had hoped, and a blizzard came out of nowhere and caught us by surprise. Papa knew that we were taking a small risk of venturing so late in the evening in December, but since he knew the side of the mountain so well and we didn’t have a long way to travel, he thought we would be able to avoid any mishaps. But the weather fates had a different plan.
The road we normally took was blocked by a massive tree, and we had to go around a north side of the wood to the more treacherous side of the mountain to get to town where their family was waiting for us. The winds were sharp and cold, and the snow obscured our vision and it was very difficult to walk.
“Oh sweet Lord, help us find our way, help us find shelter.” Mama whispered under her breath while holding me close to her. I could tell she was anxious.
She was not from these parts. She married the handsome shepherd, my Papa, and settled in with him in the hills of the Carpathian mountains, near the town of Alicia. She often complained a little about how wild and untamed the winds were in these parts, and how the people connected to the winds and trees in a non-Christian way. Papa, even though he was familiar with this land and the non-Christian ways, was beginning to grow nervous too. We wandered in circles unable to find our way safely to the path we needed to be in, and the wind only grew stronger.
My father turned to my mother and said, “We have no choice. We must head to the north side of the mountain where the old man Foka Szumej lives, if he still lives. My grandfather used to tell me stories about the man, and other people talked of him, too. He is a hermit, a guardian of the mountain.A weather worker, among other things. He lives alone and is not fond of people, but right now his dwelling is our closest safety, and I know the way.”
My mother nodded, understanding the dire situation we were in. She trusted Papa and had faith that God and this Foka Szumej would offer them shelter and save them from the cold. Smiling tightly at me to console me, she held me closer and followed Papa around the other side of the mountain, which appeared more ominous and treacherous than where we just came from. The trees swayed and bowed intensely, almost as if they were ready to lift off the ground and start walking. The wind sounded like harsh whispers, but we kept going.
Father seemed driven by an invisible force. Forward and onward, looking back to make sure we were close by, he kept going. How did he know where he was going? I don’t know. It was impossible to see anything, and the winds only danced stronger as we went up, the dense snow beating our faces sharply. Suddenly Papa stopped ahead and mentioned for us to stay back.
“Who goes there? A loud booming voice rose above, seeming to be coming from all around as if the wind itself was questioning us.
We saw the beast first. A white/gray wolf dog charging towards us at great speed. Then we heard a loud, sharp whistle and the creature stopped just a foot away from where we were. And then the wind stopped, too. Suddenly. Abruptly. Freezing a moment in time so I could hear my mother’s heart beating as I clutched to her belly. We heard thundering footsteps, and a staff driven into thick snow with a thud.
” Who goes there?” the booming voice asked again, much closer this time. But now the voice seemed to be coming from one direction. I turned my head and saw a figure of a man and a big hat with a tall walking stick looming over us.
My father took off his cap in a greeting gesture and said “We were caught in a blizzard and have lost our way Father Foka Szumej we seek shelter for the night. We don’t mean to disturb you this evening, but we are desperate and cold. I will gladly repay you however I can.”
The old man pulled his wolf dog closer to him as the creature was restless and still unsure whether we were friends or foe, ready to strike on us at the slightest nod from his master.
“Put your hat back on. Only a fool would take it off in such weather, and only a fool would travel in such a night.” the old man grumbled, as he eyed our family with dismay.
My father put his hat back on immediately. My mother crossed herself discretely, though not unnoticeably. His icy blue eyes settled on me, as I was staring right at him, hypnotized by his electric blue eyes peering like cold fire from under his hat.
“Come, follow me quickly while the wind is still, which won’t be long.” he said, as he turned around and began to hike back up towards the house, expecting us to keep up, which we did just barely.
The man was incredibly fast for his age. The uphill slope didn’t slow his pace at all. At times he appeared to fly up in steps, his cane and feet above ground more than on it. My mother, gripping my hand, tightly, her eyes wide in mild horror. But we followed him. What choice did we have?
After some time we arrived, shivering and breathless at the front porch of his cottage. Old man Foka Szumej knocked the snow off his boots while the Wolf dog shook vigorously. Foka Szumej didn’t invite us in exactly, but left the door open, so we followed him inside, grateful for the warmth of the hearth fire and the shelter. We took a few moments to slow our breaths and shake off the freezing cold which we came from. After a few minutes, Papa addressed our host who seemed preoccupied and indifferent with what we were doing.
“We are in your debt, Father Foka Szumej we don’t want to be a bother. We can just sleep in the corner of the room.” Papa said, while pointing to a humble side of the house.
” You will do no such thing.” Foka Szumej said sharply.” You will take my bed chamber and stay out of my way. You have stumbled here on a most auspicious night. My guests will soon arrive and you can not get in the way of my custom. You will remain behind closed doors, unheard and unseen.” he said in a tone that meant no negotiation.
“Guests?” I wondered, “He was expecting guests? “
I looked around the room and saw a sturdy wooden table with rustic plates and wooden spoons upon it. Winter berries, nuts and dried meats, as well as cups of golden liquid were laid out carefully. Mama looked confused, but Papa had a strange tight look on his face as he slowly took in the table setting.
“The secret supper.” he whispered.
“Yes, it is tonight. And you will not interfere.” Foka Szumej said clearly. He could hear across rooms as well as make his eyes glow in a blue fire.
Father reached out into our basket and pulled out a round package of fresh sheep cheese and jar of honey.
” Please, for your feast. May it appease your guests.” he said, while offering it to Foka Szumej
the old man didn’t refuse.
“Set it on the table and to go retire to my bed chambers. Close the door. I don’t want to see you at all for the rest of the night. No matter what you hear out here, stay in that room.” he said, and added while looking right at me, ” and you, under no circumstances, can make a sound. Understood.?”
I nodded in agreement, stunned and amazed by the events of this night under strange and terrifying hosts. Without further discussion, the three of us went to the room and closed the door as Foka Szumej demanded. In the privacy of the room, Mama and I had all kinds of questions.
“What is the secret supper? This sounds very unchristian.” Mama whispered, concerned.
“It’s an old custom, very old. I didn’t know anybody practiced it anymore. I’ve heard about it from my grandparents. It happens on this night. It’s a sacred night to more than just us Christian folk.” Papa told her
“Are there people really coming here? Why can’t we see them and sit with them?” Mama asked
“They’re not exactly people. Remember, these ways are different from what we know and remember, and much older. Better we just get some rest. At least we are not out there in the snow with whatever creatures roam the night.” Papa said, which caused Mama to cross herself again.
” Who is coming? Who is coming to the feast of Papa? I asked desperately curious.
” Nobody we know, Jania, and they are no friends of ours, but that is the way. Just keep quiet and go to sleep. Tomorrow will be Christmas morning and we will safely find our way home, I promise you.” he said, while bringing me and mama closer to him and towards the big bed.
With me snuggled safely next to them, and them so exhausted, they fell asleep shortly. But not me. I could not and would not sleep, not with such a mysterious feast soon to occur in the next room. The winds howled wildly outside and the tree branches tapped on the cottage windows and roofs so loudly. Wolves close by howled, as did other creatures, making noises I have never heard before. I listened to all of the sounds wide-eyed in the darkness of the room, with my parents sleeping soundly huddled together.
Through the wind and cracking branches, I heard a loud knock. I snuck out of bed and crept up to the door, which was old and rough, with some of the tree knots holes just big enough for me to spy through. I promised Father Foka Szumej to be quiet, but I didn’t promise not to look. I pressed my eye against one of the small wood holes and could see the main room and Foka Szumej at the table and the arrival of his first guest, a frail man, in wet clothing, shivering, his skin and bluish hue.
“Welcome brother. Come in and warm yourself and eat” Foka Szumej told the man, who entered without a word and took a seat at the table, leaving a pool of water in the place where he sat.
Another knock and another guest arrived. A woman, snow clinging to her cloak. She had blue lips and frost bitten hands and held a bundle at her breast.
“Welcome sister, come in and warm yourself and your child. Sit at the table near the fire.”
The woman entered quietly and took a seat closest to the fire. More guests kept arriving, all looking ghastly, pale or haggard. Some couldn’t even walk very well. Some were so transparent that they were barely visible, like wisps of smoke setting into form one by one. They took their seats at the table quietly, not looking at the other guests or even Foka Szumej serene, their faces slowly shifting color and even shape as they ate.
And as if they were in strange enough, other guests came too. F. opened the door to anyone that arrived.
“Welcome, Brother Bear, come and feed. Nourish yourself for the long winter.” he said to the bear, who entered the cottage and took a seat at the table, the chair cracking under its weight.
“Welcome Brother Fox. Welcome Sister Wolf. Tonight you are most welcome.” Foka Szumej said as these wild beasts arrived.
Other beasts and creatures that I’ve never seen before came, too. Strange and terrible, with large hooves, human faces, and antlers, black wings and goat tails. All knocked and all were welcomed. Together they sat in quiet company while the wind howled outside and snow whirled in a frenzy.
Foka Szumej honored each guest equally. To some, he whispered words which I couldn’t hear, but could see the faces of those he talked to softening lightning. Even those that had most grave expressions and looked scary. They stayed all night. Or at least I think they did, for I fell asleep at the door at some point, exhausted by the day’s events.
When I woke up it was still dark, but the darkness was more blue now and hinted at the dawn soon to come. The gusts were gone. Foka Szumej sat in a rocking chair by the fire, smoking a pipe. A look of calmness on his face. He blew rings of smoke and all kinds of creatures formed in that smoke and drifted around the room. He gazed at these shapes. What he saw interpreted, I do not know, but it seems important. He nodded and spoke to himself about what he was seeing, waving his hands at some shapes, beckoning others in like a symphony of signs and messages he was the conductor of. One of the shapes was a stag, which seemed to surprise him a bit because of its size, and the fact that the shape turned and headed right in my direction.
I gasped loudly and Foka Szumej looked at the door, his electric fire blue eyes burning through the door, seeing into my own. I, pressed against it. Slowly without turning away and still looking at me, he smiled and blew a huge gust of smoke with such force that it entered through the crack in the door and filled the bed chamber and caused me to fall asleep again.
That was the last I saw of Foka Szumej, for in the morning he was gone, and my parents and I safely found our way back to our side of the mountain.”
Jania’s words lingered in silence for a few moments, as she listened, absorbed by her story and memory.
“Who are all these guests? They sound so scary. And F. Sounds scary, too.” Gosia exclaimed.
“Oh yes, my dear, Foka Szumej was indeed scary. He was a much better match for the wild guests than we were guests for him, but he let us in anyway. He trusted us. His guests are the lonely, the cold, the forgotten and the dangerous, too. But tonight all are welcome. Tonight we all gather. This is how it’s always been.”
The children pondered at these words. They were not quite sure what they meant, but they knew granny was wise and knew so many things, so they paid attention. The feasting night for the family came to a close and everybody went to bed.
Jania, as she always did, stayed up the longest, keeping watch. She looked outside, listened to the wind, and put the last log on the fireplace. She picked out a crooked stag ginger cookie and set it on an empty plate. She took out a pipe, lit it and set it on the table. She sat with memories of that wild and sacred night, so long ago. A night and a man who is so much more than a man. And how he had appeared and changed the shape of her world and how she saw it. What she didn’t understand then, she understood now, and she was so grateful.
“Thank Foka Szumej thank you Father Wind, guardian of the mountain. Thank you for offering us shelter when we were lost. Thank you for teaching me about the true nature of hospitality. You and your wild guests will always have a seat at my table.”
Sea: That was very, very beautiful. Thank you.
Gabriela: It’s my pleasure.
Sea: I loved it. I wanted to know who everybody was.
Gabriela: Well, F. Is a ficitonal character from a story from the region of the H. people. So between Poland and Ukraine and the Carpathian mountains, who really lived by the wind and by the mountain. And there is a retelling of the holy upper or the secret supper in one of the stories of the man, his name is ??? and He’s written about this region. But I remember reading just one little short story or just a description of this feast, and it took me and it has, I read it many years ago, but it has held such a grip on me. And I just love that concept so much, of somebody setting up the table for all of the wildlings and all the spirits and all the beings that people normally wouldn’t sit with. On this one night, they are welcome. What sacred time that is.
So I just really wanted to honor him in that way. And I wanted to honor my family too, and our traditions, which are not as exciting, maybe, but certainly carry some of the older ways. Yeah. A lot of the names are my names of my family.
Betsy: I especially appreciated the story within the story because I was enjoying the first part of the story so much with all the customs and the food and the incredible sense of enjoyment that you were describing that this family, your family, were experiencing , and then to take it to the next level and experience this secret supper was really amazing and beautiful. I’m glad it’s had a grip on you all this time and that you could share it with us.
Gabriela: Thank you so much.
Sea: Me too.
Gabriela: Thank you for listening.
Sea: I also love the concept. Like, I have to figure out how to do that. I love the concept of setting up dinner.
Gabriela: I think the concept starts with the heart. That’s the first and only concept really, and out of that the table can be easily set, but the willingness to do that.
Betsy: Also, the way that some people are provided with an extraordinary curiosity, like Yanya and her willingness to see, when clearly her mother and her father for their own very strong reasons, were choosing not to see and to stay out of it as per their instructions. So I would say a special blessing for those incredibly curious people who, with their curiosity, keep those traditions alive in their own ways.
Gabriela: Yes. The parents decided to go unconscious because they’ve been, you know, a child really has the potential to be changed by something like that. So, yes, I’m really happy that she was curious as well. And I’m happy at what she saw because I I’m certain she would have been a different person without that experience.
Betsy: I thought it was kind of funny too, how that Christian family was the uninvited guest at his table.
Gabriela: He had to let them in! They had to take the backroom! Yeah.
Sea: How was it for you to attend?
Gabriela: I’m still there. I’m still there. I plan to stay there through the winter because I really honor those ways. And I honor those that keep vigil. I honor those that stand at the edge and understand the relationship of nature and mankind. Yeah.
Betsy: Lovely. Thank you.
Gabriela: Thank you. And who we’d like to go next? Betsy, we would love to hear your story.
Betsy: My story also happens in the North, in the far North.
I’m happy to help babies come into the world. I have slender hands and I’m really strong, which helps. I work with herbs and I know how to turn babies in the womb to help them come into the world in the easiest way. I know how to bring the baby through, and find the mother’s soul if she wanders away in the hours of labor. I also pray to the goddess and the ancient powers to keep the pathway clear for a child’s soul to come safely. I have to do this praying quietly because I never want to scare a husband or the pregnant woman herself.
My grandmother always reminded me that the spirits of the dead are hungry for life, and that precautions are needed to be made to make certain that the dead are kept at bay. This is more of a worry some times of the year than others. It’s coming on Yule, and a time of year that if the winds come, the winter goddess Hulda may be coming to sweep away with her all the souls of those who have died.
She comes when the snow comes. Early this year. It’s when the winds come from out to see, that she and her retinue of wood ladies gather up the souls. Sometimes it seems that if someone is close to death, Hulda’s winds draw them from life and away. I will try with all my might to keep this baby and mother alive.
Hours have passed. Now that the baby is born and resting safely with the mother under the pleased gaze of her husband, I want to go home to my own Yule preparations. I’m not even very sure what day or time it is, just that my own home and some rest are what I need.
The husband is half-heartedly asking me to stay. He says the winds have been building for some hours, and better to stay safely indoors. When I open the front door to see for myself, the door is wrenched out of my hand and slammed against the front wall. Windy indeed, but not continuous. Just big gusts. It’s only a few miles. And with my horse, we should make it soon enough. My mind is made up to leave, even though it’s quite dark. In the winter it’s almost always dark, but I should be able to see with the light of the snowy landscape.
My bags of herbs, my horse, and a big sheep skin wrapped around me to cut the wind, as I huddle over my horses neck. At first, it’s not too bad and we make good progress, though it’s a mighty struggle against the buffeting wind. I force my horse forward. I know she’d, like to stop and shelter, and perhaps she’s right, but I want to go home.
We must ride along the coast road for several miles, where the mountain side is steep on one side and water is on the other side. This is where things can be most dangerous if the winds pull the snow down from the steep mountain, and now it is snowing heavily. Or is it just from the mountain? The wind is so loud. It’s hard to think, but I keep my mind firm, and I try to keep my horse on the road, which is becoming almost impossible to see, there’s so much snow flowing across my path. It’s like a river of snow.
I feel as though I’m in a dream, but it’s a cold dream. It’s hard to even see the mountain side to orient myself, and when my mare becomes bewildered, she just stops. I urge her forward, but she digs in and resists. I’d be crying with frustration and fear, but the wind’s howling has sucked out all my tears. I am becoming frightened.
“Please, Silver Mane, you must keep going forward.” I plead and cajole her.
To my surprise, she answers. “No, I can smell water that way. We’re turned around.”
I’m shocked, but I also remember my grandmother telling me the old beliefs that on midnight of Yule we can talk to animals and they can talk with us for one hour only. I hope that’s what is happening and not something more terrifying. Are we no longer either one of us in the land of the living? For the land of the living, doesn’t have snow flowing like a river and winds that can push a horse to the water’s edge. That, I know.
“Which way’s home, Silver? I ask her
She starts turning and trying to determine, when three tall figures appear in front of us. They’re blocking our passage, forcing Silver to back up a little. The wind’s power and sound are terrific. Oddly, this makes the Tableau happening with these three eldritch figures, a horse, and myself, into an oddly intimate moment.
The middle figure is a bit more stout, but all three look to be female. The other two have calm, eerie, beautiful faces. The middle looks more human, but it’s hard to tell there’s so much blowing snow.
My horse has stumbled around, facing a different way. The figures disappear. We struggle on through the snow, which is as deep as the horse’s shoulder, but oddly flowing and not solid.
“The only thing we can do is keep moving.” says Silver
I agree, for my will is very strong, but we will stay on the road and keep on in the right direction. I’ll have to rely on where I think my home is because until I’m face-to-face with the door, I won’t be able to see it.
We travel on this way for another interval. Time too, seems to be endless, and the three figures appear again. Snow conceals them, wind reveals them. They will not let us pass. We stand shivering horribly. With them so close, we can see the strange light glowing from them.
“Hello!” I call out “Who are you?”
There’s no answer, and there’s no place for the horse to turn or adjust. We just have to stand frozen in fear, and nearly frozen with cold. Eventually, after what seemed forever, the figures disappeared, and we were able to proceed remaining on the same trajectory.
The wind was dying down a little. Snow seemed to be coming down, and not blown sideways. Now the mountain side was visible and we kept to where we thought the road was. Without the blowing snow, the snow has piled high and is becoming more of an obstacle. I started singing a sort of nonsense song, but one that I hope would cheer up Silver and myself. It began as a narration of events, which somehow made the events easier to bare. I sang in gratitude to the three and for the miracle, so unexpected, of being able to talk to my horse. And wondering, if I was home, what my sheep might have to say.
We struggled on. Eventually we came to an end of the mountain side and the volume of snow that we had to deal with subsided. There was a clear diminishment of the wind strength, and the howling sound receded to the side of the road.
Now, much more apparent, the three stood again. I still wondered if we were dead, and found myself asking that question aloud. The middle figure, showing herself as middle aged and womanly, though not human being, waved her hand. I saw behind her a procession of the dead appear. Some of whom I recognized as having died in the months previously, the female figures, many more of them now apparent as elven wood wives, held infants and toddlers in their arms. They were beautiful and serene, with cows tails twitching behind them, as blonde as their long hair.
I knew now that this was Hulda herself. Whom I had tried so hard to keep away from the pregnant, the injured, or the ill. She’s a lady of the wild hunt and she’s also a household goddess. She came forward as that now and blessed me, my womb, my work, my home and my horse. She somehow conveyed to me that when it was my time, many years ahead, she would come for me and I would not struggle so hard, but would come willingly. Her sweet faced ladies smiled at me encouragingly.
Another wonder occurred, for in the mountain side off to the right, a light appeared, a door opened and elven folk came out to greet Hulda and offer her gifts and their own dead. These she received graciously.
My horse Silver and I looked into the mountain side and saw big tables, laden with a feast, which the elven folk invited us to. We shook our heads as one and said we needed to get home. An elven lady looked at me with sweet inquiry and asked if ever they needed help, could they come to me for it under the watchful eye of Hulda?
I agreed, wondering what strange turn my well ordered life was taking. Hulda waved her hand again, and her procession of wood wives and the dead continued escorting us to my farm , stopping to take an early lamb with them. I watched them go, they’re fading glory evident also in the stars now shining overhead.
I hurried my horse into my shelter for livestock, rubbing Silver down, and now found myself curiously reluctant to enter into my home and to lose this enchantment. I wrapped myself up in my sheepskin and huddled against my sheep, asking them ” How was your night?” I laughed to hear a really little voice say they were glad to be out of the wind.
Gabriela: Thank you. That was absolutely delightful. And so full of magic.
Gabriela: Yet spun in a way that was so approachable and kind. I absolutely love this story.
Sea: As do I . It was delightful. I just loved the lightness of heart and the magic and the transparency. It feels very transparent to me. Everything. Very beautiful. How was it for you to be on that journey?
Betsy: I loved it, too. I’ve been on a journey like that with the snow, so the descriptions were from personal experience, though I was not on a horse. I would have loved to have a talking horse with me though! And I’ve always been so taken with the stories that I’ve heard of some of the Scandinavian and Icelandic countries who have that custom or, that knowing that on, whether it’s the solstice or Christmas Eve, that there’s that time when the animals can speak. But in Christian times, people were always in church, so they always missed it, and I always thought that’s so sad that they would miss that time. I would really have wanted to be talking to my friends. So that was what I wanted to include in this story too.
Gabriela: I So appreciate that that was there because I grew up with those stories too. And I always wanted to talk to the animals at midnight, but I always, you know, as a child, I couldn’t. I was in bed. But even my father would tell me about it. And ,you know, I come from a Catholic family, but they openly talked about this. How it was part of the way. It’s what you did. And it was to ensure that the animals were good and that they were listened to. And if you didn’t listen to your animals and you didn’t talk with them that day, they would complain to the gods.
That was, that was part of it too. So, you did it!
Betsy: I’m glad to hear that that custom and that knowing stretches that far.
Gabriela: No, this is a really beautiful story , Betsy. So full of magic. And I love Hulga. I’m sorry, I’m saying her, you say Hulda. I know she has different names in slightly different regions, but she’s like the winter goddess, right?
Betsy: She has lots of different name.
Which she’s exquisite, and I love her offering to the midwife, or blessing. And that she thanked her for her work. That really touched me.
Yeah. I could feel that they were…. that she could really have appreciation for the midwife and her attention to detail and her how hard she fought for everyone that she worked with. And it was very tender in that way, but I also loved the liminal aspect of it, in such a liminal time and the snow. And am I alive? Am I dead? what’s going on? I’m just going with it.
Sea: Yeah, I love the just going with it. This is what’s happening now.
Betsy: Yeah. Well, when did you have this special time of the night, and you have things you have to say, and your horse is willing to talk with you about it then all’s much better than it was before that. Yeah. I love the last feeling, of her being so tired after being maybe up for days helping a child be born, wanting to get home. And yet when all of this has happened, not wanting to lose that moment of enchantments and so bedding down with the animals.
Gabriela: Yes. Well, I can certainly understand that as well as. Just the desire for your own home being that sacred place and nothing else being like it. And no matter what the journey is, getting there is so important. And she would have missed that journey, her magical journey with all those magical beings, if home wasn’t calling her. So I think that’s beautiful as well. I love the story.
Thank you. And now, a story from Sea.
Sea: It’ll be warmer when the sun comes up in ,oh, about another 20 hours. Then we can hunt. The amount of derision he can pack into that gaze never ceases to amaze me. Really. It’s a talent. Or a gift. Tonight I think it’s a gift. Provisions include food and blankets. Well, overnight provision does, but provisions on its own is unclear. I suppose disbelief is better than derision.
“We could cuddle.” I suggest, shrugging as a frosty wind whips his long hai, across his face, a lock freezing to his lower lip.
His shoulders dip slightly in resignation. It’s a big action for him tonight. What will come next? A scoff? A sigh? Or will he spit? The sigh wins.
He looks about, his gaze alighting on a dim light flickering just on the other side of the grove. I probably shouldn’t get my heart set on cuddling, but I kind of do. Strengthening the grip on his horses lead, he trudges on, wrapping himself in his cloak in silent admonishment. I try skipping, in the hope that it will improve his mood. Instead it irritates my horse. His eyes smile when I slip on a snowy root, but his lips remain firmly under his control. He likes things both firm and under his control.
Eventually we ride again, out of the snowy wood, and to a small make-shift cottage at its edge. It’s light dim, even from close-up. We tie up the horses and he bangs on the door with his staff. I feign receiving the blows. He does not smile.
An elderly woman cracks the door, open and peers out, visually appraising us before to concluding that we deserve to live, and beckoning us in. We opt to go, and find we need to do so quickly, both to absorb what little warmth the place offers and to thwart the crazed chicken that is charging toward the entryway.
I swooped down and cuddle it to stave off potential cuddling disappointment. The small interior reeks of livestock, though the woman and her chicken, who I will call Hedwig, are the only occupants. I’m not sure which I prefer. Hedwig and I are certainly more intimate, but she smells foul and pecks. Still, she is warm. The woman on the other hand has saved our lives, but she is odd. I haven’t decided if her version of odd is worthy of admiration yet.
We move past the small table and toward the tiny fire. She pulls up the single stool and offers it to him. Hedwig and I crouched down at his feet. He considers smiling.
“You were out in it.” she exclaims, looking around “Might’ve been your death.”
She looks toward a half a dozen roots, wilted on a small table, and underscores them with her hand. “Might I offer you some food?”
“Do you have any?” I whispered to my companion. We haven’t actually lived through the night yet. He frowns and gives me a warning gaze.
“Thank you.” he says, magnanimously reaching out his hand and taking one, then slowly nibbling it.
She looks deeply sad. “Well, I suppose you need more.”
She slowly gets up, puts on her cloak and whistles. Hedwig leaps from my arms and charges out, as the old woman opens the door and follows. A bit later, the crone returns still plucking a few remaining feathers from the chicken thighs she’s carrying. She pulls down the single pot, fills it with snow and places it in the fire. It was a terrible way for my cuddling to end.
“You have more livestock?” he asks
“No,” she says “but I don’t need much. I can make it through on roots.”
He looks skeptical. It’s not yet Midwinter.
“Tomorrow.” she insists
I watched the crock sitting in the flames.
“You could hang that.” I say
“What?” She returns the pot.
” See?” I show her, taking the poker from the ashes, skewering the handle and lodging the contraption and the stones above the blaze. “It will cook faster and taste better. More heat, less smoke.” I add she stares in disbelief.
Half an hour later we dine. I thank Hedwig. The old woman thanks me. After dinner we tell stories and play games as the small fire dies down to embers, then she piles the straw and pulls out a blanket. One blanket. Curling up on the fragrant bedding, we cuddle and sleep the remaining 10 hours until dawn. By morning, I distinctly prefer her to Hedwig. We both do.
The moment the sun reaches the horizon we wake. He melts the hair-free from his lip with the warmth of his hand, and we leap up from our straw departing hastily to reach the Lord’s hall before the wily sun sets yet again.
The snow reflects a fantastic sky. A vivid blaze of violet, orange and gold, as we ride across the hills. A few hours later, we arrive at a lavish dwelling with large pastures and an enormous iron gate. We tie up the horses and he bangs on the entrance with his staff. What can I say? It’s a thing he likes to do. Three servants open the gates and bid us enter. Two lead the horses to the barn, while one leads us to the Lord.
“If I had a hall,” I suggest “I’d prioritize the people over their mounts.”
The purses his lips so slightly that only I would notice. The servant looks confused.
“There’s just the one of you.” I failed to clarify, giving him a grin.
He gives nothing in return.
We enter the establishment, nodding were appropriate, and are led into a dining hall where the master sits whining about his meal in deep base tones.
“The meat is over cooked. The potatoes are too mashed. The gravy is lumpy.”
It’s like listening to a toddler whose vocal chords are being treated with steroids. He sees us and gestures inarticulately. We look at each other checking to see if the other grasp the meaning. He gestures again. It’s like watching someone turn their hand into a fork and twist pasta.
Uncomprehendingly, we take a step forward.
After an awkward silence he says “Speak” Like we are the idiots here.
I quickly bark. My friend shoots me a glare.
” Sir,” he says ” we have heard of your conquest. The goats were a brilliant touch, and we have come to pay you recognition. He reaches into his bag and withdraws, a small lapis box, then approaches and hands it to the baby man, who grabs it.
Greedily looks at it a moment and hastily pushes it into a bag on the floor by his feet. He gestures again, this one resembles a mime labeling soup, and returns to his food. We look at each other. The gesture is repeated. We stand there. A moment later, a servant guides us from the hall, gathers our horses and move us out the front gate to the pasture.
My friend looks to him and disbelief. ” Excuse me,” he mutters in a voice that I know to be dangerous “but are we, or are we not, your guests?” it is not a question.
“You are not, sir.” the servant mutters
“Guests are invited. You invited us into this hall.” my friend counters
” But we did not invite you to this hall.” the attendant replies
I snort. My audience is not in attendance.
“We brought a gift.” the friend states
” Everyone brings gifts,” the servant goes on “especially since the victory.”
My companion stares, affirming that his derision is not saved exclusively for me. Our guide attempts to lead us to the road, but we do not follow. Well, my friend does not follow. I follow him in not following. The servant departs as my friend’s derision turns to rage. Having seen this before I grasped tightly to his cloak as he raises then pounds has staff, shattering the illusion of separate worlds and casting us spinning through first the realms then time itself.
Once again, I wish I’d had some warning and could have relieved myself first, but no, I clenched my pelvic floor. That’s my pro tip forfirst time spontaneous travelers. We land, me face first, in a pasture at the autumn equinox. Looking up I see… feel… see and feel him pounding his staff once more, and the shepherd on patrol gently dropping to the ground in a deep sleep.
“Now” he says, as if I think it would be fun to loiter in the pasture.
I jog toward him as he herds the sheep towards me. We clasp hands and bend down, spreading our bodies over the bleating creatures, and he taps – angles matter – his staff once more. Again, we go spinning through time and realm. Sadly the goats do not have the pro tip.
We land once more when we started, outside the now significantly less lavish hall, and swiftly tie the smaller beasts to our horses which we ride away as swiftly as goats can jog, which is not very swiftly, but nonetheless swift enough to get away unnoticed. We toil through the remainder of the day and beginning of the night and work our way back to the croan’s house.
Tying up our horses, he bangs on the door once again. She sighs as she sees us through the crack, then welcomes us, soup already prepared in the pot over the fire. This night we recite poetry and tell even more stories. My friend remains flexible in art forms, but stoic and composition.
In the morning before daybreak, they are still sleeping. I gently creeped from our shared bed out in the yard. I untied two goats and lead them into the shack, coaxing one to curl up where I had lain, and the other to curl up by my companion who wakes with a start before sneaking out of the house with me.
“Maybe,” I say when we get outside “she’ll not only eat, but have excellent company and a much more satisfying winter in every regard.”
We ride towards home swiftly, stopping at each impoverished dwelling. Waiting and watching before sneaking a goat into the home through fireplaces, windows, and fence. His countenance shunning so much as an eye glimmer. We arrive at his hall and deep into the frigid night. There, he fills my cup and toasts.
” May every midwinter be filled with goats.” and finally he laughs.
Gabriela: I love this story. I smiled pretty much the whole time. It’s so beautifully written and it’s so funny. It is so sweet and it just, the way you capture every moment and every… the the color of the sky and just a feeling of winter and the seasons. It’s exquisite. It was really beautiful.
Sea: Thank you.
Gabriela: Do you have a favorite in the story?
Gabriela: No? not even Hedwig?
Sea: Maybe, I thought about saying a goat, but I didn’t actually distinguish them from one another. So yeah, the third goat..
Betsy: I liked Hedwig too, but I liked the old man as well. Or, he seemed like an old man.
Gabriela: I like this version of hospitality. It seems that whatever somebody would offer, they would get back threefold under certain circumstances.
Sea: Great,yeah, if it’s a real offering.
Gabriela: How did this story come to you, if I may ask?
Sea: Well, I was just thinking about winter. I was just thinking about winter and the story, and the story just showed up.
Gabriela: Just, the voices are so, um, they’re so precise. The personalities are so real. The characters were so strong and I just wanted to hang out with them. I wanted to travel with them in the winter lands.
Sea: Yes, I quite love them.
Betsy: Do you think they have more adventures coming?
Sea: Very likely.
Betsy: I definitely look forward to that.
Gabriela: I think our stories together worked really beautifully. They each presented such a beautiful landscape of the backdrop of this time, in both the atmospheric and the community and how people gather together. And they each involved travel. Travel as initiation. Travel as coming upon these other magical beings or adventures. There’s a certain danger to it, but also a blessing. You’re like, do not travel on this night, but if you do, amazing things will happen. Terrible! And amazing.
Betsy: You’ll be changed. It does seem as though setting out some kind of a feast over Yule is a gracious and hospitable thing to do. So I hope that our listeners may feel inspired to make those types of offerings.
Gabriela: That would be lovely, yes.
Sea: Thank you for beautiful stories.
And special thanks to the fantastic Zoë Magik for her phenomenal editing skills.