La Befana

Here is a holiday story for you this December. Renaissance Press is creating a tour of different websites where authors can showcase their fiction and they invited me to participate and share a short story with readers.

 

This post is part of the Renaissance Holiday Blog Roll. Find out what it’s all about here and check out some other great stories!!

 

I hope that you enjoy this story and others!

 

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La Befana

By Derek Newman-Stille

My Dearest Daughter,

We witches have a long tradition and it is a tradition of magic, but also a tradition of misunderstanding. Words are our magic – they shape the world around us, change it, sing it into something new… but words have also been used to trap us, contain us, erase us.

Words of condemnation provoked the burning times. Words spoken out of fear have constantly hounded us, plagued us, and hunted us.

So it is with a heavy heart that I write these words to you, my sweet Sofia, my first and only daughter, because they are words that lay a heavy burden. And the first burden will be the loss of the name that I gave you, pronounced you into existence with.

Now, as I was for many years, you will be called La Befana.

You know what the name means. Some say it is borrowed from the Feast of the Epiphany, but it has a longer line than that. It is the name of the Yule witch, the witch who guides the depths of winter.

You know of La Befana from the ornaments on our tree, the little ones that you used to make out of felt, pounded into the shape of the Christmas witch, old and wandering like the winter itself. But, your job will be more than filling shoes with candy or lumps of coal. Your job will be one of sweeping. That is why you carry your broom. Your job will be to sweep away the cobwebs and dust of rage that settle in homes, that collect in the corners and under the beds… the bits of emotional detritus that fall off of human beings and cling to them if they are not careful.

It is a thankless job.

You will only be remembered for bringing the sweets placed in shoes, which, as you know, a mother does for her children. You may be left a small glass of wine or a plate of food as an offering, but these are only tokens and generally eaten and drunk by parents. They are empty gestures now.

Your thanks will be knowing that all of the darkness of winter is cleared away for joy – to bring something new into the houses you visit and give people a chance, even just a small one, to escape from the shadows of their past. You will be bringing chances of renewal.

Our myths have changed over time. They have shifted to fit new myths and new stories, but our traditions go back over the ages. Now they tell a story that La Befana was found by the three wise men, the magi on their way to search for Jesus. They say that the Magi asked her for directions since they had seen his star in the sky but couldn’t see it any longer. She provided them with shelter from the night, a clean place to rest because she, with her broom, was the best housekeeper in the village. They say that she would have gone with them to see the new child, but she initially told them that she had too much housekeeping to do, locked into her matronly duties as she was, but later in the night she changed her mind, overcome with a desire to see this new child and sought out to find him, but wasn’t able to. So now, she is doomed to wander the world searching for this new baby, this perceived bringer of light, and so she leaves treats for the good children that she comes across in her search. She would come to act as a caretaker for all of the good children of the world the same as she desired to do for the new infant.

Of course, that is only one of the stories about us, and one that imagines us to be immortal rather than believing that we are a sisterhood passing our traditions down from one generation to the next. We date back to before the stories of Jesus and other legends with roots in Ancient Rome, where we were given our duties by Stenia, the goddess of the new year and purification. We were her priestesses, charged with cleaning out ritual impurities and cleansing spaces to make way for new changes and create a place of magic. We would collect twigs from her sacred grove to cleanse with, forming them into a broom and sweep the floors of the temple, not just removing the dirt from the temples, but removing something more complicated, a miasma.

You will find a broom. You probably remember seeing it around our home when you were a girl. It is the dusty old one that looks like twigs held together to a branch. You will need this. It isn’t just a broom, it is a collection of trees – of new growth. It is a manifestation of bringing new growth into the home. You will eventually add your own twigs of new growth to it, contributing to the broom of the new with the broom of the old. The original twigs came from the goddess’ grove and who knows if they still remain. Twigs fall out and new twigs are added. Of course, you will not be able to bring them from the grove. You will have to add them from the trees and bushes that speak to you on your travels… and they will call out to you. You won’t be able to mistake them.

You will start to look like I did… a hag. It is part of the act of cleaning out so much of the past. You become the past that you sweep. Your wrinkles and crevices become a map of all of the histories you sweep out. You will have the permanent look of soot on your face and body that I did. Some of what you sweep away will stick to you, bringing you half into the shade.

No one tells bringers of light that they will have to walk through the shadows and that the shadows sometimes cling to us. But you will still be able to be a creature of cheer. You are the Christmas Witch.

Dear Befana,

I wish you so much luck and joy in your quest because there is so much joy to be had and you need to revel in that joy. Drink the wine that remains as offerings that parents don’t gobble away first. Take time to see the happy smiles on children’s faces as they wake to sweets left in their shoes because it isn’t the treats that matter – it is what you have done, that sweeping away of collected miasma. And remember me. We are all La Befana. When you crawl across rooftops and down chimneys to sweep houses of detritus, we are all sweeping them with you. But don’t let words define you. Don’t let even my words define you. I feel as though I have pronounced a doom upon you, and perhaps I have. We have been at risk so many times before for what we are. People see the shades that cling to us. They see the soot before they see that we are cleaning for them… and everyone seems to fear an older women. They fear that knowledge we have acquired over the course of our lives. They fear that we know something that they don’t… and, of course we do. You will know more than all of us, just as your daughter will eventually know more than you. We add our wisdom generation after generation. But there is always something lost as well. I hope that you understand why I am allowing that loss and the important role you have.

Your mother, always and forever,

La Befana

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The Watcher on the Shelf

For all that you readers have done this year to support Speculating Canada, I thought I would write a story for your enjoyment as a way to celebrate the passage into a new year. I hope that you enjoy the story. 

The Watcher On The ShelfBy Derek Newman-Stille

Staring, staring, always staring.

They made sure of it when they dipped me into the cauldron, pinned my eyes wide open with merry thorns of holly. I was meant to be a silent watcher, a judge, a surveillor. They created all of the Watcher Elves the same way. I say “they”, but i suppose i mean “we”… or more specifically “he”, since none of us really have any agency of our own. We are toys, motivated by the whims of he who pulls my strings.

He makes each of us wear red, the same colour as he, and stained through the same process. We are beaten into our smaller elvish size by his cane, reduced with each strike of the cane as our blood is struck from our bodies, and it stains his suit deep crimson. No one seems to think about this “right jolly old elf” as a redcap because they are too focused on the beneficence of his gifts, but those of us who experience his beatings know that the red he wears is the paint of victimization. 

Most seem to have forgotten the term “redcap”, so invested are they in the Disneyfied fairies of modernity. They have forgotten that the magical encounters with the fey have often been marked with tragedy. The term redcap comes from the crimson colour of their hats, dyed in the blood of humans who have strayed into their homes. They need to kill regularly to sustain their own lives, feeding their caps with new blood or their hats will dry out and so to will their vitality. I suppose i can stop saying “they” because he made each of us his kind. 

When he beat the blood out of us, we became like him, needing it to stain our own caps and coats to keep us “Watcher Elves” alive. Everyone needs blood – needs the vital fluid running through them to keep their bodies moving. We need it more than most because our bodies miss it, deprived of it for so long. We can only move at night, when the moon’s own fluidity surges through our bodies, and only for a few moments before we are frozen again at rest, motionless surveillors frozen in watchful silence, unblinking eyes wide for anything that can justify that blissful moment where we can sustain ourselves and stain our caps anew.

Unlike his mythical brothers, mostly extinct now due to human interventions of iron, this redcap is beloved, invited into human homes and fed on cookies and milk that are but dust and ash in a mouth that is sustained by crimson sap. He is so beloved that we, this new breed of redcaps, are equally invited into their homes (so like the homes we once had), stared at with glee and excitement.

And how does he achieve it? How do we all achieve it?

Admittedly, part of it is human greed – an ironic twist of fate because we punish greed at the same time as we rely on it to gain entrance into homes with the promise of gifts on a midwinter night…

But greed is not all we rely on. Greed only does so much to permit people to allow themselves to be perpetually watched. There is something that they don’t want to admit…. They like to be watched.

They feel comfort in the touch of a watchful gaze. They feel that our eyes keep order, sustain normalcy, and prevent acts of rebellion. 

And they justify the idea of punishment too. They convince themselves that punnishment will only come for the wicked… and who genuinely thinks that they are capable of wickedness? Who isn’t able to justify any actions they take as “for the better good”? Who doesn’t convince themselves that they only hurt the guilty, that their acts of harm to others are because “those people are lazy”, “it’s really their own fault”, “they had it coming to them”, “they would have done the same to me”…?

They invite us into their houses to watch their children, to become the omnipresent threat of the deprivation of presents on a midwinter morning… but we are only partially watching the children. Most of their acts of wickedness are wrought from a lack of understanding, and we generally think of them as excused from the crimes they commit because of their lack of experience… such a short number of years to learn the world around them. The people we pay the most attention to are the adults, the ones who justify bringing us into their homes as a threat to their children, using punishment to achieve control. They are the most interesting.

Children focus on the little sparkle in our eyes, seeing magic. They don’t know enough to see hunger there. Adults rarely look into our eyes, viewing them as vehicles only for a child’s imagination and therefore beneath their notice. They would be able to see the hunger in that persistent glance if they looked deep and long enough, but they justify ignoring that hungry gaze because they are too busy to look deeper. They don’t want to waste their time on frivolous things. 

The frivolous things are so often sustaining.

If any person stared at their home and their children with the intensity of our redcap eyes, they would feel threatened. They would feel a compulsion to protect what is theirs. But we are immobile things, lifeless. They have forgotten how to fear lifeless things. They have forgotten that predators freeze before they pounce on their prey, making themselves seem like just part of the scenery, part of the landscape.

And so we become part of the landscape of their home, hidden in plain sight. They even give us the perfect predatory view of their home, perching us up high so we can survey everything beneath us. Silently waiting.

It is amazing how easily we learned to be predators, we Watcher Elves. I would like to pretend that it was part of the process of being turned into a redcap, part of the abduction by the jolly man in red, the beating until his sack of toys and corrupt people turned red, the pinning of our eyes with holly, and the dip into the icy cold cauldron of the Northern Pole… I would like to believe it.

No matter how strong I imagine myself and my fellow humans to have been innocent, to be anything other than predators, I have to admit that these traits were easy to uncover and that the beatings just give us cause, justification to want the things that we are convinced were taken from us – blood. Hunger can justify a lot of actions that we pretend we aren’t capable of, and the feeling of loss, the desire for what once was, can sharpen that justification.

Without blood, so many things become hollow. I watch the children dance around in front of the fireplace, looking gleefully up at me, perched near their stockings, calling me – ironically – Holly, a name that they rhyme with “jolly” in a persistent sing-song of joy that I only hear as mockery, feeling the pain of that herb in my eyelids, holding them perpetually open in staring horror. I feel only emptiness and pain, hollowed out partially by the ceremony that inducted me into this madcap menagerie of joy and pain, but more painfully hollowed out by my remove from the holiday cheer, my watchful distance, forced to re-live again and again the moments so similar to those that led up to my incarceration in this hollowed out body, my imprisonment on the shelf. 

I wonder sometimes if my children look up at me and see their daddy or if they forgive me for the horrors i subjected them to before i was taken away one Christmas Eve and stuffed in a sack, made more spacious for the gifts he left for my children. Parents buy all of the toys, but he leaves deeper gifts, gifts of learning and understanding that children unwrap through their own imaginations. 

I stare and stare and stare at the hollow thing that hatched from wrapping paper, tape, and imagination and has taken my likeness, the perfect dad that they always wanted, that they dreamed about as I struck them. 

I stare and stare and stare at what I could have been and I wait for someone else to be naughty, to bring them into my huge family of Watcher Elves. I wait and watch.

“Festivals and holidays were intended to be days when mature people could have a break and stop being mature for a little while. If someone doesn’t need to take some time off, maybe they aren’t really being all that mature during the rest of the year.”

-Shen Braun – Costumes (Tesseracts Fifteen: A Case of Quite Curious Tales)

Quote – Mature People Need to Take a Break From Being Mature Sometimes

End of the Week End of the World: SANTApocalyptic Saturdays

SANTApocalyptic Saturdays Throughout December, 2012

The Mayan calendar was written to include everything up until December 2012. There is a widespread discussion about whether this means that our world will end on December 21, 2012.

Of course, while holiday depression is setting in on people and the wild extremes of capitalism are raging as people seek to buy their way to happiness… I thought it would be a good time for an Apocalyptic narrative.

This month, stay tuned for some exciting recommendations of apocalyptic reads for the maybe-not-arriving New Year and some discussions of apocalyptic themes.

Nothing says holiday bliss like thinking this may be the last one!!

Make room in your calendar for the SANTApocaypse: Saturdays Throughout December