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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Witching Perceptions

A Review of Helen Marshall’s “Secondhand Magic” in “Gifts for the One Who Comes After” (ChiZine Publications, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover Art for Gifts For the One Who Comes After courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Cover Art for Gifts For the One Who Comes After courtesy of ChiZine Publications

Childhood and the desire for magic are something that we have constructed as intertwined in our Disneyfied society, seeing magic as a manifestation of imagination which we relegate almost exclusively to the realm of children and a few eccentric artists. Yet, Marshall illustrates her ability to play with her reader’s perceptions in “Secondhand Magic”, a tale at first illustrating the vulnerability of youth and the threat of elderly single women… the traditional expected folkloric tale. Sayer, a child with a stutter who just wanted to perform magic steals a hat from an older neighbour’s snowman, and when she comes looking for him, she pulls the hat over him, consuming him and leaving the community in mourning. The tale constructs for us an easy view of vulnerability and exploitation, creating youth as a categorical innocence, a figure to be protected. Fortunately, Marshall shifts this expectation.

The typical caricature of the witch in this narrative is uncontrollably drawn to take the actions to remove Sayer from the world, yet the boy resists any of her attempts to return him. His desire for magic creates a predatory, vampiric quality in the boy, viewing witches as sustenance for his quest for otherworldly power. Marshall inverts the expected fairy tale narrative of youthful innocence threatened by the presence of independent femininity and instead reveals the threat of a child who imagines the possibility of their own power and is willing to feed on powerful women to sustain his perception that he is entitled to power and ability without those being tempered by wisdom and the slow acquisition of skills.

To read more about Helen Marshall’s work, visit her website at http://helen-marshall.com/

To find out more about Gifts for the One Who Comes After, visit ChiZine Publications’ website at http://chizinepub.com/books/gifts-for-the-one-who-comes-after

All The World is a Stage

A Review of Welwyn Wilton Katz’s Come Like Shadows (Coteau Books, 1993)
By Derek Newman-Stille

As someone who has done stage acting, Welwyn Wilton Katz’ Come Like Shadows spoke to my experience of the stage, and added a little bit of magic in addition to the already potent magic of the theatre itself. Set at the Stratford Festival during a production of Macbeth, Come Like Shadows evokes the play between the ‘real’ and the ‘artificial’, bringing home the point to the reader that ‘truth’, ‘history’, and ‘knowledge’ are all as constructed as the stage – just sets and trappings of performance.

In theatre, naming the Scottish Play, or the Thane is taboo. Macbeth is seen as a cursed play, and speaking the name “Macbeth” in a theatre outside of the production itself is believed to bring disaster on any production. When the Stratford Festival decides to stage ‘the Scottish Play’, disaster happens – a series of unfortunate events involving the death of actors, stage fires, and general tragedies both on and offstage. Actors and performance are brought into a historical assemblage, players in a curse that was created when the historical figure of Macbeth decided to interrupt a pagan ceremony by three ‘witches’ who sought to regain their youth by entering into a mirror. When Macbeth intentionally changes their spell for youth, replacing the spell’s words “Two into one. Find through this glass a future for thy past that the name of the Goddess be remembered” into “Two into one. Find through this glass a past for thy future that the name of Macbeth be remembered” and both he and the eldest of the witches, the Hag, are pulled into the mirror and projected into the future, stuck in the glass.

The Hag, now a manifestation of rage spends centuries torturing Macbeth in the mirror, locking the two into an eternal combat. When she discovers that a bard by the name of William Shakespeare is trying to honour the memory of the Thane with a play, she changes his words, making Macbeth into a villain so that rather than fame, Macbeth’s name becomes associated with infamy. She inscribes words of magic into the play to attract her sisters, the Maiden and Mother, with the hope that the other two witches might be able to free her from the mirror. From that moment onward, the play becomes a nexus of strange, magical events.

Kincardine (Kinny) O’Neill, named after a small Scottish town that her father once visited, wants to become an actress. When she finds out that she has an internship with the Stratford Festival, she jumps at the opportunity, particularly since her mother’s friend Jeneva is directing Macbeth this year… only to become horrified when Jeneva decides to use the text of Macbeth to launch her own attack on French Canadians (whose rights Kinny had been defending).  Canadian identity, Kinny’s own coming of age, and the path of history intersect in the performance, evoking the power of performance for speaking about issues of identity nationally, personally, and historically.

Kinny meets Lucas, born French Canadian but having adopted a completely American identity for himself out of embarrassment at his French heritage and due to teasing from American children who see him as a humourous Other.

When shopping for props for the performance, Kinny and Lucas find a mirror at a local antique store that draws both of their attention. The mirror shows the two of them the past and Macbeth’s encounter with the witches. It offers Kinny power and magic, and offers Lucas a glimpse of the historical figure of Macbeth that he wishes to one day play. Both become obsessed with the mirror – Kinny out of fear of what it could offer her, and Lucas out of obsession with the ‘truth’ behind Macbeth. Both are horrified at Jeneva’s appropriation of the play for her own purposes and the distortions that she brings to the performance in order to further her own ends rather than discover some fundamental truths in the act of performing. For both youths, theatre should be an act of self-discovery, but theatre is also a place of appearances, of distortions.

The Maiden and Mother involve themselves in the play, manipulating the performance itself as well as the fates of those involved, making the world a stage for their own desires. Like the mirror itself, the play becomes a reflection not of truth but of their desires and the desires of those who gaze into it, drawing them into webs of control. Past and present, truth and falseness, reality and lies all become implicated and interwoven in the play and issues of identity are challenged and complicated. Whenever characters try to change the path of their destinies, they are brought further under the control of the three weavers of fate, losing their free will during every attempt they make to express it. Like Macbeth himself, characters are trapped into pre-ordained actions and roles, deprived of agency before Fate’s power. Like a pre-written performance, everyone is assigned to their roles, acting out their lives under the influence of a director.

Katz brings the essence of Shakespeare’s play into a modern Canadian environment and a coming of age story, exploring the way that identity becomes subsumed by choices and the perception that there is a lack of choice. Like the clashing of Scottish and English interests in the play, she writes about a time when Franco-Canadians and Anglo-Canadians battled about notions of identity and the place of French Canada within an overwhelming Anglo majority. Like Macbeth, Kinny and Lucas feel that they are trapped into hopeless fate, their identities subsumed by a fate that they see as larger than themselves. Like the Scottish Play, notions of sacrifice and suffering end up being for nothing, never allowing freedom from the restraints placed on the characters.

Katz recognises that acting can be a form of possession and that actors can lose themselves in their roles, in the performative act. It is only through the performance that Kinny and Lucas can see themselves as they perform aspects of the Other. They come of age through the act of suffering, through the act of loss and the heightened awareness that, like those of Macbeth, sometimes the best of intentions can lead to the most harm.

To find out more about the work of Welwyn Wilton Katz, you can visit her website at http://www.booksbywelwyn.ca/ .

Ch-ch-ch-changes

A review of Randy McCharles’ “The Awakening of Master March” in The Puzzle Box (Edge, 2013).

Cover Photo of The Puzzle Box courtesy of Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing

Cover Photo of The Puzzle Box courtesy of Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing

By Derek Newman-Stille

Warlock wants to be a musician. He has been a roadie for 5 years and he feels like he should step up his game and start his own band… the problem is – he has never learned to play music. Warlock has always searched for the easy path, emboldened by a sense of entitlement and unwilling to take the steps that would move toward achieving success. He feels that the world should be making itself open for him and creating his dreams out of nothingness.

When Warlock encounters a coven of witches through his desire to sleep with one of them, his perspective shifts. When they try to initiate him, he finds out that initiation is a process of self discovery, a difficult road for someone who doesn’t normally like to reflect on things. Things get difficult when he is asked to solve a riddle, and, in his attempt to cheat, ends up finding himself within a larger enigma, the puzzle box and the sphinx within that calls on him to shift and change and solve himself just as the puzzle box shifts and changes itself to reveal a mysterious inner core.

The surface nature of his identity, his unreflective desire for everything to solve itself for him is challenged when he is confronted with metaphors of his own subconscious. The witches around him base their beliefs on the metaphorical writing of Elizabeth Montgomery, the star of the 60s television show Bewitched. The devil appears to him as various characters from television. Warlock comes to realise that the life that he creates for himself is one of surfaces, of appearances, but that there are deeper meanings below these surfaces, self-revelatory experiences beneath the seeming of things.

In “The Awakening of Master March”, Randy McCharles draws the reader’s attention to the nature of reality, to the delusions that arise when one is selfish and chooses to find easy solutions to the world around them. Easy answers, surface answers, like metaphorical devils appearing as television characters, are without substance, but if one looks deeper, if one takes them as a puzzle and mystery, one can discover more about the Self and challenge the easy, unreflective answers.

Sometimes it takes an encounter with a metaphorical devil to shift someone from selfish ease to selfless reflection.

To find out more about The Puzzle Box, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/books/puzzlebox/pzbox-catalog.html . To find out more about the work of Randy McCharles, you can visit his website at http://www.randymccharles.com/ .

Poetry Reading from Sandra Kasturi – reading “Lark”

As a Canada Day gift from Sandra Kasturi, hear her reading of her beautiful poem “Lark” from her poetry collection Come Late to the Love of Birds (Tightrope Books, 2012).

Explore Trent Radio at www.trentradio.ca

Explore Trent Radio at http://www.trentradio.ca

 

Thank you to Sandra Kasturi for doing this reading and to Trent Radio and Alissa Paxton in particular for facilitating this reading in the Trent Radio studio

Fantasy Fridays Throughout June!!

Fantasy Fridays Throughout June

Fantastic realms provide us with new ways of looking at the world. Creating new worlds gives us a chance to look at our own world in a new light, questioning our preconceptions, and allowing us to see our own world as unusual, fantastic, and as much of a creation as those that are created by fiction authors.

From urban fantasy to high fantasy – fairies, elves, dragons, wizards, and monsters – this month will be time for a fantastic adventure.

Check out Speculating Canada every Friday in June for fantasy adventures.

 Spec Can Dragon post

Rejected by Magic

A Review of Erin Bow’s Plain Kate (Scholastic Inc., 2012)

Cover photo of Plain Kate courtesy of the publisher.

Cover photo of Plain Kate courtesy of the publisher.

By Derek Newman-Stille

In a world where magic is real and witches are hunted, Erin Bow’s Plain Kate explores society’s trend of scapegoating people who are different, making villains out of people who don’t fit the ideas of normal behaviour. Plain Kate is a woman whose appearance is plain, but who has two different coloured eyes, marking her as a social target. She is made even more of a target because she is clever and talented. Others can’t accept that her skills are natural or due to incredible effort on her part, they automatically attribute her skills to witchcraft and persecute her, driving her out of her home and away from her community.

In her desire to find a place for herself, and escape from the hate around her, Plain Kate makes a deal with a witch who has come to town: she trades her own shadow for a way to survive on her own… and in the process unintentionally expresses her secret wish for a companion. Her cat is suddenly gifted with the ability to speak and becomes something in-between human and cat as Plain Kate becomes something between living and dead, a woman without a shadow who feels herself fading away.

Kate takes on the name “Plain Kate”, trying to mark herself as plain in appearance, not noticeable and easily missed. Giftedness is dangerous in her community, so Plain Kate finds other social outcasts, outsiders and those who have been expelled from their societies. Plain Kate finds a group of people called Roamers, other people who are persecuted who live on the fringes. She learns their customs and finds a new place for herself, a family.

Plain Kate is not left alone with her new community, she is followed by a sleeping sickness, a monster in the fog, and a witch bent of vengeance for his sister’s death.  Plain Kate’s shadow has been shared with a rusalka, a figure from myth: a drowned woman who haunts the edges of life. Kate’s compassion compels her to sacrifice herself for the very community that had rejected and outcast her.

Plain Kate is a novel steeped in magic, where the mysteries flow off of the page and into your imagination.

To find out more about Erin Bow, you can explore her website at http://www.erinbow.com/ . To find out more about Plain Kate, you can check out Scholastic’s website at http://www.scholastic.ca/titles/plainkate/