The oak grove was a good distance from a road that was itself only a set of rutted tracks through half-abandoned Hudson Valley farmland. Golden, red and brown leaves covered the path and also covered the endemic rabbit and gopher holes. Arthur Andrews walked in silent, intense concentration. He had reached that age where he was a distinguished gentleman, but one fall would transform him into a crippled old man.
Steel clouds banked up from the western horizon to provide high-contrast light for the few remaining leaves on the tree branches. The clouds had gathered since he had left the car. He glanced at them occasionally, wishing he'd brought a raincoat, or at least his cane.
His concentration on the half-hidden network of roots and fallen branches had been so complete that the grove, its trees still golden-clad, took him by surprise. Though it was late October and the cloudy rawness could easily mean snow, Arthur paused before entering the oak circle. He patted a linen handkerchief across his brow and removed his shapeless tweed hat. The breeze caught wisps of his white hair and lifted them into a wild halo. Unmindful of the grinding stiffness in his back and legs, Arthur walked forward and swept the leaves from a granite boulder at the center of the grove, revealing its polished, carved surface.
“Ah, Gwen, is it still peaceful here, or have the skiers and hikers come through to disturb you? I couldn't get here all summer. Arthritis. Dr. Court would have the car keys if he thought I'd walked this far without his permission, which, of course, he'd never give me. I've fretted all year, my love,” he paused in his soliloquy to his dead wife, crumpling the hat from one hand to the other. “At home it was so different. Traditions were stronger. There were always children; none of us here ever had children.” His voice softened. “Perhaps we could have known that was a sign long ago; we were not the ones to hold this place forever. Today I mean to give it back. I shall count myself fortunate if They listen and I make it back to the car without disaster.
“You understand, don't you? You always understood things before I did. Have you been expecting me?”
He sat on the stone then looked up to the treetops. He slowed his breathing, letting his eyes focus themselves where they would, and waited. Breezes riffled through his hair, blew the hat to the ground and brought a shower of leaves to flutter against him.
“Do you hear me?” he asked and the breezes stilled. “For fifty years I've come here to hear Your counsels. I've given my life to guard this world from the Other. Only one life, one lifetime but let it end? My Morwedd, my Gwen, is gone and I'm tired. I've failed, I know there're none in the coven to take up our responsibilities. For five years I've pushed one without her. I've tried to bring new blood into the circle but they have no strength. I fear for them, and You.”-
A wind started in the treetops, spiraled down clattering among the branches and raising a pillar of leaves momentarily from the ground. Arthur, who called himself Anerien when he spoke to the Gods, hesitated. The wind died as suddenly as it had sprung up. He knew Their ways well enough to know it was time to rest his case. If They heard, They would answer. If They hadn't heard, he should not have asked, and that was an answer as well.
His mind wandered. In the final quarter of the twentieth century it was more than slightly ludicrous to stand bare-headed in an oak grove expecting Gods or Goddesses who had been worshipped when man still lived in caves to answer his questions. It was ludicrous to have lived a double life: Arthur Andrews, corporate lawyer of impeccable connections and Anerien, High Priest of a coven that traced itself back to those same caves. It was ludicrous to be seventy-eight, but at seventy-eight he at least no longer had to worry about being ludicrous.
He had no cause for complaint with the life that had fallen to him. The grimoires promised that those who served the Gods as Guardians of the Rifts between life and death would not go unrewarded. His life had been comfortable, though never ostentatious. Luck usually travelled with him and Gwen. There had been disappointments, major ones sometimes, but everything had fallen within the limits of understanding. The Gods had never abandoned them.
The maelstrom of thought died away and he waited, confident that there would be a sign: a tailor-made sign that would cut through his doubts to reveal the wishes of his deities. The wind picked up again. A pair of crows wheeled over the grove and took position in the trees. He felt comfort; there were witnesses. One of the crows hopped through the branches stopping before a cluster of bright gold leaves. The bird snapped the twig with its beak and lifted off from the branch. It dropped the leaves as it flew. Arthur stood firm when the twig struck his cheek and fell to his feet.
The Gods were, and yet were not, subtle. They could produce a talisman so innocuous that one could tuck it in one's lapel, which Arthur did, but also swat him in the face with it. A tiny drop of blood marked his handkerchief where he had daubed it against his cheek.
A few drops of rain splattered to the leaf-covered ground. The crows took noisy flight. The dark grey clouds had spread until they left only a narrow band of yellowish light on the eastern horizon. He tossed the question: what do I do with it? to his unconscious mind and tugged the hat over his wild hair. Finding a twisted branch of a walking stick hidden in the leaves, he started back to the car.
He was drenched. His feet were stiff and numb. His fingers had knotted around the staff like lichen by the time the ancient Mercedes appeared through the trees and shrubs. The last few hundred feet were the steepest of the trek. He resisted the impulse to hurry and reached the car with the same methodical slowness that had marked the entire journey.
The warn leather seats sill released the aroma of freshly cured leather when they got wet. Arthur inhaled the narcotic smell and let the tension drain from his body into the car and out to the mud-channeled road beneath.
The answer to his question rose out of the depth of his mind once the muscles in his neck had relaxed enough to release it. With the words came the semblance of a ritual. He would burn the twig at the altar, consign its vapors to the currents of the air and enjoin them to find another coven gathering on the most sacred of the old pagan festivals. Let Riverside be dissolved. Let the burden settle on some native circle. Let it settle on some priest more worthy than he was.
His smile became a chilled shudder. Premonition or simply the dampness? A thousand, maybe only five hundred years before, he would not have let the doubts settle. He would have ignored the storm and gone straight back to the grove for clarification. As it was, Arthur concluded in favor of dampness. He started the engine and set the defroster for full blast.
Behind the wheel of the car twenty years of arthritic timidity dropped away. He was sixty again, retiring from Wall Street with a generous pension, planning vacations with Gwen and looking forward to a freedom not allowed to pagans since Constantine had seen ``in hoc signe vincet'' written in the clouds. Even the emptiness of her death was easier to bear on the little country roads. She was easier to imagine sitting beside him seeing beauty in the dreary landscape, than by her memorial in the grove.
Arthur conversed with her memory until they reached Yonkers and there was no more beauty to be wrung out of the wet cement. The traffic had become a stream of angry, aggressive drives. He gripped the wheel with both hands and gently cursed his growing forgetfulness. He had remembered Samhain, but he'd completely forgotten that it was also Sunday. The Thruway was a crush of weekenders hurrying home, their manners unimproved by the miserable weather.
The car crept along, eating up the time Arthur had allotted for ceremonial preparations. His stomach churned fitfully, reminding him that he had left the chops in the freezer and would have to brave the crowds at the delicatessen if he wished to eat. But good luck did not desert him completely; the Monday parking space right in front of the building was being vacated as he approached it. A woman in a sub-compact thought to out-maneuver him, darting in from behind while he set the Mercedes into reverse, but plastic and aluminum were outclassed by German steel. What the Gods have granted, let no man, woman nor automobile deny.
Sam, the doorman of the Riverside building and master of the mahogany doors since V-J day, held the door open for him.
“Evening, Mr. Andrews. Bad night out, isn't it?”
“Oh, not so bad, Sam. Keeps the hooligans off the streets.”
The lobby was a clanking, hissing chamber of radiator pipes whose activity spelled the certain end of Indian Summer.
“Now that's true enough, Mr. Andrews. Is your car set for the morning, or would you like Sam Junior to move it for you?”
Sam Junior was the soft-spoken son of the doorman, now on scholarship at nearby Columbia University. The young man braved the rigors of alternate-side-parking, undercutting the services offered by the management's dark and vermin-infested garage.
“No, Sam, it's good until Tuesday.”
“Tuesday's Election Day, Mr. Andrews. You're set until Thursday.”
“Ah, I'd forgotten that holiday, too.”
They nodded to each other. Arthur, his cane tapping in rhythm with the pipes, headed for the closet-sized elevator. The old steel cables whined and shook as if each upward foot might be their last, but they had sounded the same on the day they were installed fifty years before. Rent-control had kept a stable, but aging, community within the building until the last few years when many had died or finally moved away. Arthur wouldn't move out, but the new, young, status-conscious residents were a colder, less neighborly lot.
He'd lost count of the times in the past year when the management had received anonymous letters about the parties he gave. Copies of the letters had been slipped under the door. He suspected the young couple across the hall who openly envied his river view, but unless the smoke from the talisman settled around their shoulders they would never occupy number 647. The letters always arrived after the Great Pagan festivals, but the couple had never detected the pattern; somehow they had concluded he was running a drug ring. Arthur was alternately amused and confused.
The kitchen, which branched off the apartment's pullman corridor, was still very much Gwen. Her plants still wound around the window, the ceramics she had collected on their vacations sat on the sill and the three enormous canisters she used to store loose tea that Edith, her sister, sent them from Cornwall still sat on the counter. The canisters were kept full, reminding him of his hunger and the hours since his last cup and of the letter he had yet to write to Edith.
He put the kettle on and went down to the bedroom to change out of his damp clothes. Attired in a proper cashmere dressing robe and with a cup of fragrant dark tea steaming at the corner of his writing table, Arthur sat back to compose the letter. He was immediately caught up in a demon's dance being broadcast in a concert tribute to Halloween. The point of his pen conducted the frantic music and did not settle back to the paper, unmoving, until well after the next piece had started.
“Edith,” he wrote, embellishing her name with absent-minded swirls.
Edith had been a child when he and Gwen had left England for America, and a more unlikely candidate for High Priestess of the Great Coven of Caer Maen had never been spawned in all that group's history. Gwen, the eldest, had been the logical choice to take over, but when the Rift had broken across the ocean, everyone's future had been altered. Ravenna had married off her daughter and sent the resulting pair to America. She then set about the thankless task of readying the wild and stubborn Edith for the responsibilities almost certain to fall to her.
That the transformation had been successful was another potent of the Gods' abiding power. Edith had matured into a High Priestess uniquely suited to the task of guiding Caer Maen through World War II and all that had come after it.
“I've delayed the better part of six months in writing this,” Arthur wrote. “If you'd gotten phone lines in, my word I'd have called and gotten this out at once the day after I'd made up my mind. As it is, well, I've waited until there's no time left at all.
“I've gone back to the grove and gotten a token from Them. This can only mean that, after five years, They've heard and agreed to release me from this responsibility. If ever there were a place fit for the Otherworldly Ones to blast their way into our world it has got to be this accursed city. Half a century we've guarded this place and done our duties, but for these last few years, especially, we much just as well stayed in Cornwall.
“You said it was just my bitterness when Gwen died, and that I'd get over it in time. But, you see, I haven't. And neither has anyone else in the coven what's left of it. I lost two more this past June. They moved out West for the climate and to get away from here. I might have gone with them. And the newer people well, the less said the better. Aside from Rowen and Glasfryn there'll only be three others here tonight who've parted the curtain before.
“Maybe I've grown careless. I've certainly grown fearful. It seems half the people I meet in the shops think they're witches, pagans and the Gods know what all else. They'll dance around a jar of peanut butter and call it Beltaine! I shall not mind at all if my own name is called from beyond the Rift tonight; I certainly don't belong here anymore. If the Curtain is properly sealed behind me and the Otherworld contained for yet one more year, I'll be content. At any road, it's to be my last Samhain at Riverside.''
He stopped again and stared at the unevenly scrawled lined, written in haste and scarcely legible. His hand trembled. Putting down the pen he shook the blood back to his suddenly numbed fingertips. Sudden loss of feeling in the extremities: a danger sign for any of the numerous slings and arrows the aged were particularly susceptible to, but more likely the result of holding the pen too tight for too long. He missed Gwen, longed to join her in the idyllic Summerland where the Wiccans believed the soul rested and awaited rebirth, but he would have to die first, and despite what he had written, that thought did not sit lightly within him.
No occult cartographer had learned what perils lay between this world and the next, but they deemed it likely, because of the Others who held sway in the limbo between all worlds and touched each soul in its journey, that the first moment would be terrifying. For someone like Arthur, who had felt the obscene and malignant lust of those evil, nonhuman spirits in every Samhain ritual, the journey across the Hellish limbo would be conscious, exquisite terror.
Edith would know of the terrors. She might even understand the longing he had to be done with this life. True, when he had been in his fifties, himself, such thoughts had been far from his mind, but at Caer Maen there was always death and rebirth. Edith would have to understand, there was nothing more he could say. He signed his name adding the runic form of Anerien beneath it and the intricate sigil of the High Coven of Riverside beneath that. He had gotten the proper number of stamps from the half-round table in the hall when Sam buzzed up from the lobby to announce that he had visitors.
“They're early,” Arthur grumbled in reply, not caring if they heard him downstairs or not. “Send them up. I suppose.”
He looked at his watch seven-thirty, a full hour before Rowen was due to help him prepare the livingroom, an hour and a half before any of the others were expected. Another sign of his coven's failure to adopt proper attitudes and traditions. Unlatching the door, he hurried back to the bedroom to change again.