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Spirit Night
by Elaine J. Habermehl

The scent of ripe apples traveled with the October breeze threading its way through the open window of Agatha's bedroom. She listened to the hum of a tractor engine in the distant field. Hay was being cut and baled for winter.

This house belonged to her two sisters who seemingly had been born without the spiritual gifts of their mother, compounded by a lack of tolerance. She felt their negativity seeping up through the gaps in the floorboards. Agatha touched the wicks of the black candles with the tips of her fingers and brought them to flame. They had been white once, but she had charmed them to attract negativity and this had turned the wax black.

It had been three months since her cottage burned down. On sleepless nights she relived the nightmare, felt the heat of flames, smelled the stench of gasoline. Her heart hammered against her ribs as she remembered the panicked shriek of her pet blackbird and once again saw herself running through the woods. Then her sisters were there to collect her. Despite their different lifestyles they took her home and gave her the attic room.

The firemen had done their best to save the cottage, but there was little more than a brick foundation left. In the days after the fire she made daily trips to the site looking for the cherished family rings, but all Agatha brought out of the ashes were a few white dinner plates and a singed wooden stool her father made. Still, using these small treasures gave her a sense of home as she remembered the cottage and thought about rebuilding. The income from her Lotions and Potions shop would not bring enough money for that, but still she hoped.

In years past, attic rooms were set aside for half crazed aunts or the big and small heirlooms that were sure to be useful to someone, someday. Agatha's room was different. Herbs that she attended all summer were tied in neat bunches and hung from the rafters. A wall of shelves held earth medicine books and her stock of soap and lotions she sold in the shop downtown.

Agatha frequently passed the minister on her way into town. She offered him the mugwort salve to heal his adult acne, but he would shake his well thumbed black book at her and sneer. Once he waved a pamphlet in her face asking her to read it. She had politely declined. He was infuriated that her shop rested directly across the street from the church. It wasn't as if she could turn him into a toad, but she did cause the wind to blow pebbles under his shoes and turn his ankle, which she did on a regular basis. When he passed by her eyes burned from his horrid cologne. She had a soap and a solution for that cologne but she would not impose. In general the townspeople were friendly, but there were some who with downcast eyes stepped to the opposite side of the street when she was around.

She thought about the rings each one of her aunts passed down as their time in this life came to a close. There was the bloodstone used for healing from Aunt Mattie. Aunt Alice left the cats eye she used for protection. A diamond ring for strength from Lillian and the emerald from her mother for psychic ability. Meghan's jade ring used to anticipate the needs of others was prized above all the others. These she kept in a cloth bag behind a bookshelf, but the fire had claimed that wall and the shelf of books.

There had been only time to pick up the screaming blackbird's cage on her run through the house. When she was a safe distance from the flames she unlocked his cage door. The bird paced Agatha's shoulders nervously tugging strands of her red hair through his beak. She stroked his long black feathers with trembling fingers. Agatha spoke softly to him as together they stood in the dark woods and watched the cottage blaze.

It was the dawning of the new year that inspired Agatha to call the women. They would come from all points of the compass if she asked them to. Much to her sister's chagrin they arrived by train, car, and airplane, without a broom in sight.

There was a feast for the gathered thirteen, a toast to the ancestors, the new year and a plea that the hiding place of Agatha's family rings be revealed. As the sun set Agatha led the way through the woods to the fire-scarred foundation of the cottage.

The moon shone full on the women as they formed a circle and held hands. Softly spoken prayers called for wisdom and the intervention of the long dead aunts. Their chanting became rhythmic. Pine boughs stirred, sending dry leaves whirling around their feet. Each woman became aware of a new and powerful energy seizing the group.

The aunts, Megan, Mattie, Lillian, Alice, Myrtle and Agatha's mother Helen joined the circle. They were ghostly shadows of themselves but their voices were strong. Each held the hand of another and for a moment there was a calming silence. Aunt Mattie whispered the chant in her native Gaelic this time, repeating the words until it was understood by the circle of women. Their voices soared as the words became effortless. It was All Hallows Eve, the night when the veil between worlds thins allowing the aunts return. When the circle was broken the gauzy forms of the aunts disappeared. Agatha bid the women farewell with new found hope that the rings would be found.

Late that night there was a knock on the door. The sisters called up the stairs for Agatha to come down. The minister stood in the doorway. She wondered if he was calling for the mugwort salve since his skin looked worse than ever. His eyes did not meet hers. Her heart fluttered as he pulled a cloth bag from his jacket. Her cloth bag. He pressed it to her palm, its weight familiar. Opening the bag even in the dim light of the hallway the stones shimmered brilliantly. "Please forgive me," he said. "My name is John Hawthorne." Agatha felt her skin prickle. "My ancestors were the Hawthorne's from Massachusetts. Sixteen ninety two Salem to be exact," he held his hands out in surrender. "This way is all I have ever known." With that he turned and limped out into the dark street.

Agatha leaned on the front door. She tried to close it, but the wind pushed it open. His cologne traveled on that air. Her eyes felt the familiar burn. The top notes of the scent were spicy, but its undertones were of a combustible substance.

Elaine Habermehl is a writer of mystical and magical short stories. She likes to take an ordinary situation and inject a little mystery or magic into it. Fond of a suprise ending, one that will cause a lump in your throat, a laugh, or just an "I didn't see that coming" reaction. Her creativity comes from the natural world, music, and the antics of her fellow humans.

A member of the National League of American Pen Women, she has been published in literary magazines in the United States and Canada. Her short story "The Skirt" appears in the short story collection "In Good Company." She reads her work in a monthly literary salon and to groups at the local library.

Elaine is a maker of soap, lotions and potions in Maryland, USA.

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