Short fiction from Emma Brooks
“The blessings of Aradia and Cernunnos be upon this creature of salt.”
There’s an itch on my arse. I try to wriggle, rub it without being obvious, but my hands are bound too tightly to my chest.
The smell of sandalwood and cinnamon warms the room, and the radiators click and creak. The heat only makes the itch worse.
What if it’s a spot? I should have checked.
I should have skipped that pasta yesterday too. I must have the biggest belly here.
Under the blindfold, I can see the pebbles they used to lay out the circle, and I prod one of them with my big toe.
Should I have painted my nails? Would that have looked a bit shallow?
Dave finishes his speech, and the room is silent, except for the scuffle of naked feet on the carpet, and the occasional small cough.
Stop it. You’re not supposed to be self-conscious, it’s meant to be spiritual.
There’s a clink, and a shuffle, another short speech, and it’s ready.
The circle is open.
I met Dave and Yolanda at work. They seemed a lot more exotic than your average phone monkeys, Yolanda with her dangling pentagrams and loose long hair, and Dave, who wore a rune carved from an antler around his neck, and made awkward Lovecraft jokes on Facebook. They reminded me of some of my mum’s friends, who all had perms and read tarot and tea leaves, and told people that their grandmothers had taught them how.
Dave and Yolanda introduced me to their group; Dave and Yolanda introduced me to the clearing in the woods, where you could sit on a moss-cloaked sarsen and watch the red kites glide in wheels overhead, and get that strange feeling of ease, the feeling that ordinary things might have magic of their own.
Dave takes my shoulder and I flinch. Shit. Pay attention, they’re going to think you’re a right idiot.
The cold point of a knife is pressed against my forehead. I can see his feet now, wide, with dry skin cracking on the joints, and a couple of grey hairs on each toe. He touches the knife to my throat, and down to my chest. Then my belly button. Then another spot, the place just above my bits, where the hair starts. He bends down to lay it on my feet, and I catch a glimpse of the top of his head.
He asks me the password.
“Perfect love and perfect trust.”
It’s cheesy as hell, and my voice cracks like a teenager made to read something out in a classroom.
He puts his hand on the rope and pulls me in.
The first time I realised they weren’t just hippies, born out of their time, was in the office, when I heard one of the managers complaining that they’d taken time off.
“I mean I’m here late every day,” he said, leaning into the supervisor’s cubicle behind mine, “But I can’t just make up some shit about being a jedi or a witch or whatever and get a long weekend, head office’d laugh me out of the building. But it’s alright for them, just ‘cos they’ve got away with it every year.”
“Careful though,’ the supervisor chuckled. ‘She’’ll put a curse on you.”
“Someone already has. That’s why I still work here.”
That was the first day I googled ‘Paganism.’
Not because I wanted to learn how to curse people, or a spell for a less pointless job, not because I wanted to dedicate my life to new-found deities or the powers of nature.
I just really needed a day off.
He uses another length of rope to attach my wrists to the cord around my neck. I am taken around the circle, slowly, like a goat on a lead. I worry I might trip and so keep my eyes down, focusing on the carpet, and the new set of feet I’m brought to at each quarter point, as Dave continues, in a sing-song voice,
“Take heed, watchtowers of the east”
-that must be Julie, no-one else would own nail polish that pink. I bet her boobs are still amazing even without a bra.
I’m tugged around three times, enough to feel lost when we stop. He says something else, but my head is spinning, and I can’t remember from the training which bit this is.
Gently, barely touching my skin at all, he brushes my forehead with his lips.
Oh. It’s this bit. Just stand still. He’s the high priest. It’s meant to be spiritual.
The kisses follow the same points as the knife, lower, lower towards my feet but not without a quick stop at the more intimate places first don’t laugh don’t laugh don’t laugh.
When he reaches my ankles he ties them together. He taps my shoulder and I remember I’m supposed to kneel. Dave turns to the side slightly so that I don’t end up with a face full of unmentionables, and pushes my head down until it meets the carpet.
If there was anything I didn’t want them to see, it’s too late now.
Less light sneaks under the blindfold and I feel strange, dizzy, a bit cold, wondering whose idea this was, waiting with my arse in the air like a child getting a spank.
Which is pretty much what’s happening.
“Are you,” Dave proclaims, “Willing to be purified?”
I’d had enough, one lunchtime. An elderly woman had been confused on the phone, and my supervisor had told me to press ahead with the sale anyway, despite it being pretty bloody obvious that the silly old woman didn’t even know what she was buying. There was a decent commission on that one, but it didn’t feel good.
There was a park behind the estate, where retired people walked dogs, and office workers came to eat sandwiches on the old concrete seats. I left the path, and trampled between the trees, trying not to care about the mud rising up my trouser legs.
I stopped at a friendly–looking beech, took out my little plastic tub stuffed with salad, and looked around, making sure that nobody could see as I shuffled half the salad down onto a root. I kept checking that no-one was there, feeling watched, exposed, as if any minute now somebody normal was going to walk around the corner and find me giving half my lunch to a tree.
It didn’t seem to notice. It whispered it’s silver-green leaves, unconcerned to find itself the centre of attention.
Should I say something? What if someone heard?
I stood there for a minute, failing to remember the various phrases I’d seen online, overblown poetry from rituals I didn’t have the equipment for. Instead I just stared at the tree, hoping it would know what to do.
A line of ants climbed between patches of moss, tracing their route around the trunk. Up in the branches, a pigeon rustled, and began to warble. The sun was on my face, and my mood dissolved into the spring air, as if weeds could inhale thoughts and puff them out clean.
On the way back I clung tightly to that feeling, that little green peace, and when I got to my desk I noticed, for the first time, that I had a view; I could see the tops of the beeches from the office window.
Dave slaps me across the back again with the leather scourge, not half as gently as I expected. Isn’t the ordeal bit supposed to be metaphorical? This isn’t bloody metaphorical.
Another slap, closer to my buttocks this time.
Do I really want this? I just wanted to learn more.
I should have just bought a book.
My skin is getting sore, and I’m losing count. I’ve no idea if he’s still sticking to the forty slaps in the plan or if he’s just going for it.
Is he enjoying this? Is this the sort of thing they get up to on their own?
My back starts to tingle. After each hit, he strokes the scourge’s tips softly across it, and the heat in my skin and the dark of the blindfold and the feel of my weight on my elbows and knees all make me feel bolder, like I’ve had one glass of wine too many. My hips begin to rock in time with the beating of the scourge on my back.
It’s over almost as soon as I start to enjoy it.
Dave stops, comes back to stand in front of me, and speaks my new name, the one I’m supposed to keep secret.
The blindfold is removed. Yolanda pounds on a bongo drum, and Dave, Julie, Gareth, and Paige are all there, inside the circle of tea lights and beach pebbles, swaying to the simple beat, not a scrap of clothing in sight.
Dave holds up his horn and offers it to the gods before passing it round. I drink more than I mean to; sipping from a giant horn is harder than it looks, and I have to gulp it down to stop it ending up all over my chin.
A few more passes of the wine, and I’m pulled from side to side by the rhythm as it speeds up. My skin is still flushed. On the table are small brass statues of the horned god, his erection poking out towards the circle, and Aradia, a tacky moon-shaped mirror stuck to the back of her head like a halo.
They watch me as I dance as if the dance itself could be something to offer.
I don’t question if my dancing is good or bad or if the others think I look stupid. I’m celebrating, I don’t need their approval, I am nature, newly-named, dancing in honour of itself.
I worry about tripping on the candles and burning down Dave’s house.
In the week after my initiation I leave the office.
I walk out with a file full of numbers for clients, customers, people I know have been overcharged or talked into buying some shit they’ll never need.
It isn’t much of a resistance; no walls are being torn down, no fires lit. Nobody will lose their jobs except for me. It’s a small thing, but it’s my thing, bigger than salad, bigger than dance. I am nature, living in honour of itself.
I’m 33, living in Wiltshire, in the UK, with my husband and daughter, where we write, cook, and attempt to grow vegetables before the slugs get them. I have a blog at ironwood.blog for short fiction and heathen ramblings, inspired by magic, paganism, and folklore.