The Importance of Ritual

Apropos of the mild kerfluffel over advertising the availability of a more traditional Latin mass or not advertising (Roman Catholic – Latin or vernacular), I got to thinking about ritual, and how important it is, even for non-religious people. Many cultures have certain patterns and behaviors that must be observed, even if they are informal. They serve as markers, as ways to glue society together, to provide a bit of stability in a chaotic world.

Latin mass and ritual in worship, political rituals, “propriety must be observed” and so on. Animals too. Day job – felt odd when something got moved, so daily invocation is back “where it should be.” Lunch is always at X time. Administrative notices are posted at Y locations around the building, this teacher always parks in that slot (even though we do not have assigned slots). Athena cat sleeps in the front chair in spring and summer, and the library chair in fall and winter. Unless it is after a certain hour, in which case she moves to the sunny patch in my bedroom, migrating with the sun across the floor. She gets fed at certain times, and woe betide anyone who is late. The larger US society has rituals, although they vary across region and culture. The opening days of dove and deer season. Christmas. July 4 however commemorated, the opening day of baseball (college or professional) or basketball or football season. Some businesses have rituals, and people have rituals in commerce. You go to the same coffee shop, at about the same time of day, or visit a tea emporium and get eight ounces of your favorites, then see what else might be available. You get dressed in a certain order, make the bed in a set way . . .

We all have our daily rituals, good-luck acts, however we consider them. Society too has had rituals going back as far as anthropologists and archaeologists can determine. We don’t always know exactly what was done, by whom, but we know that all over the world, people have performed certain actions as groups at certain times of the year. Evidence for the ending of long-practiced rituals suggests major social changed, or problems, or both. The end of ritual and pattern often signals the end of social order, of a new governing group, or the coming of a new ideology. We humans are creatures of habit, and prefer that those habits not change. A few years ago, when I was on one of my forays to Central Europe, I had a giggle fit at the news that an openly Communist French trade union was protesting the suggestion that the Corpus Christi holiday be eliminated. Communists fussing about losing a very Roman Catholic feast! Now, granted, it was because of the day off of work more than any religious sense, but still. “We don’t believe in that god, but we want to keep all the holidays associated with that opiate of the masses!”

I’ve been watching people dig in recently. “This we might tolerate changing a little, but not that. No, you may not claim this for something it has never been. No, we are going to keep the religious aspects of that. Thanksgiving is not about what you claim, but what it has always been.” When you try to change a harvest festival into a day of penance, um, well, you deserve to be smote with a still-frozen bit of poultry or a casserole dish, in my opinion. I do agree about the wreched excesses of “Christmas shopping starts in August!”, however.

Tuesday Tidbit: Fathers, Sons, and Deities

Halwende faces his father . . . with a little back-up.

Halwende heard the sound of leaves in the wind, of the forest in full summer, smelled soil and lightly-crushed plants. His vision shifted, he looked down on the chapel and those in it. He opened his mouth. “I choose whom I choose,” he heard his voice—yet not his voice—say. “Halwende is mine, priest and pathfinder. He is not the first noble chosen, nor the last. My sisters and brothers and I choose our hands as we will.” Green like sunlight through spring’s leaves filled his sight. He swayed, drained for a moment. Sight and strength returned between heart beats. He breathed. That at least he could control.

“The Lady of the Forest has spoken,” Valdher’s Daughter said. “I see no need to question Her choice. A noble who can see Her will in the raw land makes good sense.”

His father stared at Halwende, fists still clenched. “This . . . is not what I had planned for the Valke lands.” He hissed, “Priest, yet heir? He must prove himself.” Duke Hal bowed to the Daughter and departed the chapel.

That did not sound— Later. Halwende turned to the altar and finished his duties. Duty before aught else. That did not vary, be he priest, hunter, or duke. Only when he and the others completed worship and finished cleaning the chapel did he let himself sag. He followed the priests into the room behind the chapel.

“Sit, brother,” the Daughter said.

He didn’t look for a stool. Instead he leaned against the wall, then slid down into a heap on the floor. He rested his head in his hands and inhaled, then exhaled. In and out, his shoulders lost their tautness and the pain in his jaws and temple eased. The others spoke quietly. Maltaria sounded resigned, if irked. The Daughter’s voice held tension and frustration.

“Can he— Aye, he can, and might.” Maltaria made an irritated sound. “He doesn’t see his son as a man, only as a possession and a tool.”

“A flawed tool, ma’am,” Halwende said. “I’m not my brothers, I killed my mother with my birth and cost his grace half her dower lands, I didn’t die in the ambush to protect Edwacer.” The recitation no longer caused pain, only fatigue. He leaned his head against the cold stone of the wall, eyes still closed. “His grace finds my person lacking in strength and appealing features.”

“In short, you are not an exact copy of him,” the Daughter snapped. “Lady’s leaves, I am so tired of people like your sire.” She extended her hand to him. “Get off the floor, brother, and put away your robes of office.” He took the hand and heaved himself to his feet.

“I doubt Duke Hal could have carried that einar from the forest to the keep, even in his prime,” Maltaria said. She sounded thoughtful. “He certainly can’t now.” She frowned and rubbed under his nose. “Has Pol thanked you for stopping the einar?”

He blinked at her as he removed and folded the long vest, then put the gloves with it. “Ah, no, ma’am.” Why should he? It was my duty, nothing more. A mug of cider appeared. “Thank you.” He lifted it off of the table and held the mug with both hands. The heat felt good in his fingers, and even better inside him as he drank.

The Daughter removed her gloves a well and rubbed her forehead. “Oh, cervi scat. You’re right. Someone should chase his grace around the keep a few times, Maltaria, beating sense into him. Even old Otakar down on the Comb isn’t that blind.” She knocked back half her cider. “Halwende, brother, you have a hard trail ahead until his grace sees more clearly, or goes to the Scavenger’s realm.”

Those were not the words he wanted to hear. Halwende drank more slowly, savoring the tart and sweet together, and the warmth. “Yes, ma’am.” Anything else he said would cause more problems. He swallowed anger along with the cider.

Thunk. The Daughter set her mug down on the table. “Halwende, should Maltaria not be able to preside at worship—ordinary worship—I give you leave to do so. Don’t worry,” she smiled. “Not every day, because you are a noble called to be a priest, not a priest who happened to have been born noble. Someone senior must still preside at great feasts and at the vigils.”

“Thank you.” He stared at the remains of his cider. He would assist, and gladly. Duke Hal wouldn’t dare stop that.

Friendly quiet filled the tiring room, and he relaxed, sagging on the bench. Maltaria poured all of them more cider.

“Speaking of gossip and news, sir,” the junior priest who had come with the Daughter began. “Is it true, sir, that it grows warmer in the north?”

Halwende straightened. “Perhaps? That is, when I’ve hunted past the ridge, to the edge of the hills, I see more plants like those here and south of the Valke lands.” Something else, something about harvest and crops . . . “Oh, and the records hold that the first snow now comes after Gember’s harvest festival, instead of around Yoorst’s late-summer vigil, as when my father was young.”

Both the junior priest and the Daughter stared, then blinked several times. The young man said, “A full three eight-days later at least?” He blinked again, then ventured, “Ah . . . does anyone move north yet? Um, besides hunters?”

“No, not—”

The Daughter sat straight, eyes unfocusing. Halwende bowed where he sat.

Her voice wilder and deeper, eyes wilder as well, the Daughter said, “I have not lifted My hand. My pathfinder will know when and where.”

Halwende gulped. The junior priest steadied the Daughter. She shook a little and blinked again, eyes normal. “Halwende Valke, I do not know why the Lady is so much with you, but I do not envy you.”

He finished the cider and thought, hard. “Ma’am, perhaps, if all goes well, come spring it would be, ah, wise to venture north, in order to better discern the Lady’s desires for the land and for Her service.” The words jumbled up, coming faster and faster.

“Ha!” Maltaria slapped the table, but lightly. “And it will require you to leave the keep and be away for an eight-day at least, past the settled Valke lands. No one has claimed anything in that direction, there are no contested borders.”

“Not yet,” he muttered well under his breath. He’d become heir because of the western edge of the Valke lands. “Should the winter continue as it has begun, looking to the north might be wise.”

“Speaking of north, south and the Comb,” Maltaria said, leaning forward, voice lower. “Is there any truth to that rumor about the lands to the south?”

“That the prince wants to go to war to claim the northern lands?” The Daughter shook her head. “No. No, he’s asked if his imperial majesty needs someone to watch the Comb and the lands south of the Moahne, but he’s not willing to push.” She set her mug down. “He’s got so many problems of his own down there that he’d be a fool to extend his claims right now.” She folded her arms and smiled. “However, I can tell you that yes, they really are trying to breed big birds to use to pull wagons.”

Halwende stared, then caught himself. “Ah, big birds?” He set the mug down and made flapping wings with his hands. “To pull a wagon?”

“Ah, not like that.” The Daughter tipped her head to the side. “Do you have eigris this far north?”

He nodded.

“So think of an eigris, long legs, top of the legs chest high on me, with a heavier body. These birds never flew, and no, Yoorst has not told anyone why He made them that way. So they are long-legged, heavy body, really thick upper legs, and they hiss and bite.” She shrugged. “They don’t have enough kine in the south to pull wagons with, not after the plague three generations ago. The air has grown too warm for ovsta and ovstrala.” She made a face, nose wrinkled. “Even clipping their hair doesn’t help. They just fall over dead after pulling the wagon or cart a few leagues, hot to the touch and dry. They don’t sweat, not like we do.”

Halwende didn’t try to hide his dismay at the thought of an eight-ovstrala hitch all dropping dead. “That’s a lot of beast to get out of the road, and unharness, and ah, dispose of properly, ma’am.”

She nodded, and her assistant sighed. “Yes, and you can’t eat the meat. Dying of heat does something to them, and even soaking the meat and making sausage, well.” He wrinkled his nose and stuck out his tongue. “It won’t kill you, but you’ll know what you are eating, and not in a good, gamy way, sir.”

“Like the eigris at the spring feast last year,” Maltaria sighed. Halwende made a face in turn. “It wasn’t that bad, brother. Just . . . fishy.”

Very fishy. The meat had tasted like a pond in mid-summer smelled. Whatever the bird had been eating in the south, it had been strong flavored. He’d rather eat that thing like a schaef that lived in the high hills and tasted of needle-leaf tar. “Fishy, yes, ma’am.”

The Daughter planted her hand firmly on the table top. “So. Halwende. Continue as you have begun. You are noble first, priest second, unless the Lady shows otherwise. I think your planning to go north is a good idea, if only so we know what’s up there, and where the limits of Valdher’s lands are in this area. With that in mind, you need to learn about way-marking and making claims to raw land. When was the last claim, do you recall?”

“Five generations, ma’am, Lord Tarvo’s day, and we claimed to the ridge west of here. The claim is disputed past that ridge, between us and the Wilteer lords’ claims.” He looked down at the table. “It may reach the point of blood feud, ma’am, but I hope not.” It should be, since Lord  Ruthard bragged about killing Edwacer. Except he didn’t want to have to hunt and kill people, not without very, very good cause and proof.

“Hmm.” The Daughter gave Maltaria a hard look. “Tell me what you know, please, later. It may be time to ask for others to intervene, if blood has been shed.”

“It has, it probably is, but proof?” Maltaria turned one hand palm up. “Our brother’s scars and the death of his half-brother are not considered sufficient yet.” She tipped her head toward the door. “Go in peace, brother.”

He got the message and stood, bowing, and took the now-empty pitcher with him. He left it in the place for such things, near the kitchen, then hurried to his quarters to attend to other business.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Vienna 1: “Old Stones”

A re-post from 2014. It is based on a visit in the 1990s.

Paris is the city of light, the city of romance, the heart of all culture and art. And it sprawls, has too much traffic, and do not get me started on the crowds in the Southern European side of the Louvre. Or how “wonderful” and “romantic” it is to walk from the Louvre to your hotel on a 100 degree F afternoon in June when you can’t find a cab. I’ve seen what I wanted to see: the Musee de Cluny and the Northern European art at the Louvre. Send me back to Vienna, please.

Ah, Vienna. It’s a little too trite to talk about “faded splendors” and “an air of nostalgia, wistful yearning for past glories, like a faded beauty,” and all those other things people say about the city. Once you take off the Empress Elizabeth-tinted glasses, there’s a  great deal more to Vienna, which may explain why I enjoy spending time there.  I am aware of the dark side, Karl Luger and the anti-Semitism of the 1900s-1940s. I’ve seen the soldiers patrolling Judengaße and Salztorgaße, protecting the synagogue and Simon Wiesenthal’s offices. The century or so between 1848 and 1955 were not happy years in south central Europe for a number of reasons. But Vienna’s history goes back much farther than the unhappy postcard painter and the sad story of Empress Elizabeth.

Here’s a little piece I wrote some twenty-eight years ago, after my first visit. At the time I had no idea I would end up making what would be eight trips to the city.

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StephansDom on the Feast of Stephen

Everyone else went to an art museum, a private collection that was being opened for a short while to the public. Me? I went to mass. Because how often do you get to visit a cathedral on the feast of the patron saint, during the Twelve Days of Christmas, when the mass-setting is Josef Hayden’s “Lord Nelson Mass”? Not often. Plus I’d not gotten what I wanted out of Christmas Day mass, for various reasons.

December 26th is Boxing Day in Britain and the Commonwealth. It is “hit the sales day” in the US [alas]. It is also the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr. If many people in the US even think about the day, it might be in connection with the song/carol “Good King Wenceslas” who went out “on the feast of Stephen.” Wenceslas, or Vaclav, or Wetzel, was one of the early Christian princes (kings) of Bohemia, and he was murdered by his half-brother for politics as much as for faith. Not that it stopped his being named a saint. Just for confusion there’s also St. Stephen king of Hungary, who really was a king . . . But my digression is digressing.

So, it was colder than a well-digger’s hip-pocket in Vienna that year. As in single digit Fahrenheit cold, which caused problems for public transportation because the power was diverted to heating houses. Things started thawing a little on Christmas Eve, but not much. I went to mass at St. Michael Archangel, the parish church in the Hofburg palace, and it was wonderful – small, devout, and worshipful. At midnight, all the bells in Vienna rang, led by Pummerin. On Christmas I went to mass, learned how panic-crushes happen, and then visited a Cistercian abbey out in the middle of nowhere (the Wienerwald). Come St. Stephan’s Day, I wanted something different. So I went to mass at the cathedral once more.

Stephansdom after a rain. Author Photo, June, 2019.

I got there early, genuflected, and opted to sit. I found myself in with some elderly folks and a group of Benedictine nuns and novices. I settled in for a long sit-stand-bow-kneel-bow-sit. The church didn’t completely fill, but it was close. I didn’t see many obvious tourists, and I was dressed to blend in. The wait gave time for meditation and prayer, and thinking about how long people have been worshiping on this site. At least two thousand years, because below the crypt, Roman ruins have been found. And those are on what seems to have been a pagan, probably Celtic, worship site. St. Stephan’s itself has very old bones, going back to 1137. An older, mortuary church existed before then, predating St. Rupert’s*, but there are no records thus far that name that chapel. The large open area around the church shows where the cemetery was, and the Roman cemetery before that. In 1258, a fire did in the older church, and the Gothic version we see today was started. (Fire is/was the bane of medieval churches.)

Note the rainbow at the base of the tower. Author photo, June, 2019.

Mass began with bells, and a procession led by the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, in crimson and white, with lace trim and a very elaborate pattern on his miter. Just behind him followed the relics of St. Stephan the Martyr, including part of his arm. The music, as I said above, was what most of us call the “Lord Nelson Mass,” a festival mass. It was the end of the Hayden Year, and a fitting end it was too. I’d never heard a mass “at work,” so to speak. The language of the mass was German, with some Latin and Greek (the Kyrie) and I followed it easily. I freely confess that I was glad to have a wooden kneeler instead of kneeling on the stone floor like the novices and younger nuns were doing. The homily was about the persecuted church, a topic that raised my eyebrows a little, given the attitude of the EU at the time. Looking back, I wonder of the Archbishop was poking someone (December 2009). Either way, it fit the day. It was a very uplifting, worshipful service.

Having learned my lesson the day before, I eased out the door of the transept, staying well away from the main doors.

I met the group that afternoon and spent the day packing and then enjoying a very nice supper. We had to be at the airport at five AM the next day.

*Rupert’s Church, on Salzgasse, is the oldest church in Vienna. St. Rupert of Salzburg is the patron of salt makers and salt traders. More about that church tomorrow.

Merry (Western Calendar) Christmas!

Tunes in order: “On Christmas Night all Christians Sing,” “We Three Kings,” “What Child is This,” “Noel Nouvelet.” It is A Christmas Fantasy for Orchestra by Dan Goeller.

The first tune comes from a song-family that includes a version of “I Saw Three Ships.” “What Child is This” is often attributed to Henry VIII of England, although it may be a folk tune, or composed by someone in his court and then ascribed to him. He did compose a few songs that are documented, such as “Green Growth the Holly.”

Christmas and Advent are the one period on the church calendar that I truly cannot imagine without music. Lent and Easter? Maybe, especially Lent, but not Advent and Christmas.

I hope all of you who celebrate Christmas have a wonderful, blessed, quiet, and contented day. And I hope that all my readers share in the peace, joy, and hope of the season.

Friday Finale: Christmas Part Four

Another Christmas rush breaks over Belle, Book, and Blacklight.

The next week and three days passed in the usual blur of sales, restocking, returns, gift wrap and sleep. Arthur stayed quiet, even for Arthur definitions of quiet. Should I worry or be relieved? Lelia wrinkled her nose on Christmas Even afternoon as she added the last of this year’s limited-edition sweet Shoshana Langtree Christmas print to the folder. It wasn’t the elegant unicorn in the snow watching a slightly-chubby, blue-white dragon decorating the tree that sucked away her goth points. Oh no. The ring of oh-so-cute fairies dancing around the tree dang near gave her sugar overload just glancing at them. Now, the ferocious black unicorn with crimson eyes and a silver star gleaming on the tip of its horn as it stood beside a holly tree at night? Much more to her tastes! A Christmas murder ballad, “Candlemas Eve” by Valentine Wolfe, sang down from the speakers mounted on the ornate, pressed-tin ceiling. 

“Excellent! I’d hoped there might be one left,” a gentleman exclaimed from over her shoulder. She sidestepped, clearing the way for him. He took one of each of the sweet and spooky limited edition prints and hurried to the counter. She heard the back door alert chime, and ignored it for the moment. The gent’s comment had attracted other shoppers to look at the prints, and she quickly restocked what she had in the box, then ducked into the workroom.

“Ahem.” Lelia dang near jumped to the ceiling as André cleared his throat. “You need better situational awareness, and food. Come and partake.” The implied “or else,” and her boss’s pointed frown, suggested that sitting and dining would be a good idea. That and her shaking hands and headache.

“I will as soon as—”

Four male growls stopped the words. Her Familiar, husband, husband’s Familiar, and suflit talshu all glared at her.

“As I wash my hands?” she squeaked.

Something filling, hot, and Italian appeared as soon as she emerged from the washroom. André leaned against the wall and watched her eat. “Yes, your Familiar ratted on you. Not to me, however.” She looked to Tay. A shaky illusion of a halo appeared between his ears, matching the faint halo over Rodney’s head. “When you finish for the night, we are getting supper at that new steak place before going to St. Margaret’s.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “I don’t know how Kit Wilmington got my e-mail address, but he asks the most forensicly esoteric questions. Even some of Art’s queries aren’t that strange.”

“Strange, or wyrd, boss?” Rodney snickered.

Lelia finished her food. “Have you suggested that he try holding a séance and asking Patrick Lee’s ghost?”

“Dark my lady, I shudder to think what Patrick Lee’s ghost would say. Eloquent, vehement, colorful, colloquial, polyglot, and arcane to begin with, and then downhill.” He scowled. “Worse, can you imagine what would be required to summon Patrick Lee’s ghost? Any summoning spell that starts with ‘pluck two hairs from the chin of a napping Cape Buffalo, after excavating—at midnight on the southern hemisphere winter solstice—a moa femur from under the council house of the Rotorua Maori, and then adding one hind claw from a left-pawed Amur leopard’ is going to be far too interesting for my peace of mind, thank you.”

He’s got a point. She disposed of the take-out tray, visited the washroom once more, and took the large soda to the counter as Arthur and André ducked into Arthur’s office. Corava was helping customers, so Lelia handled sales and caught up the ledger between gusts, so to speak. A soft click sounded from over her head, and the dark music shifted to the Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge. Yeah, the end is in sight! She liked the business. However, the last minute rush wore more and more each year.

At seven, Arthur gently ushered the last customers out, locked the door and turned off the first row of lights as Corava lowered the shades over the windows and Lelia finished entering sales and turning off the computer. Was he going to come with her and André? Lelia didn’t have the nerve to inquire. Arthur nodded to her. “Thank you, Mrs. Lestrang. Master Lestrang awaits in the alley. Have a good Christmas.”

She curtsied. “Thank you, sir. You likewise.” She nodded to Corava and hurried to the back. She clocked out, helped Tay into his hard-sided carrier, and opened the door as little as possible. Very cold arctic air had settled into Riverton that afternoon, cold with hard edges to it. No wonder André’s pickup lurked at the end of the alley, bespelled to look like a sheriff’s department pickup. “He’s playing,” she murmured to Tay.

“Yeah, he’s been experimenting.” A long sigh. “His Familiar needs to have a word with him about that.”

His Familiar, a voice of reason?”

Another sigh, “Hey, I can hope, OK? Miracles happen.”

She bit her tongue to keep from laughing, and then having to explain why.

As usual, finding parking in Riverton, even on Christmas Eve at eight-fifteen PM, required far more effort than seemed reasonable. Lelia fed the meter, then tucked her hands as deep into her sable-fur muff as she could fit them. The matching fur collar around her throat helped, as did her wonderful, faux Victorian coat with modern insulation, but cold was cold. She was glad of André’s presence beside her. He took her arm and they walked quickly to the church. Her imagination and memory smelled smoke and something fouler. She told her imagination to take the night off.

She and André stopped clear of the doors, allowing two other couples and a large family to depart from the family service. The lights visible through the stained glass dimmed. The last of the worshipers had departed, and the ushers would start seating people for the Lessons and Carols. André took her arm once more. As he did, he murmured, “We have an escort.”

A figure of shadow detached itself from the pool of darkness in front of the now-locked side door. Arthur nodded, then took her left arm just as André held her right. Together they entered the dim stillness of the church. Arthur released her and genuflected. She and André continued until they reached André’s preferred pew, beside the emergency exit door, halfway to the altar rail. He bowed, then followed Rodney into the polished wooden pew. She genuflected in turn to the Presence lamp flickering, gem-like, to the side of the high altar. She did not jump or act surprised when Arthur sat on her right. She let Tay out of his carrier. He eased to the ground, reappearing on the pew beside Rodney.

As before, following the Lessons and Carols, the choir left the loft and moved to stand around the nave. Only candles, emergency lights, and the light filtering in through the blue, gold, and white stained-glass windows dispelled any darkness. André eased his arm around her shoulders and whispered, “A light shone in the darkness.”

“And the darkness overcame it not,” she murmured back. Oh, how hard it was to remember some days. She, her husband, and her suflit talshu spent so much time in the darkness that it seemed to stain everything around her. A soft series of fluty notes came from the organ, then faded as the choir echoed the instrument. “Requiem aeternum dona eis Domine,” the choir half-chanted. Lelia relaxed into the ebb and flow of the music, following the ancient Latin prayer. André pulled her closer for a moment, then let go.

“O nata Lux de lumine,” O birth of the Light of light, Jesus redeemer of the world. As the words filled the shadows, washing up against the stones of the walls, a hand took hers. Arthur held her right hand, his grip firm but gentle. She risked glancing at him. A tear rolled down the prominent cheekbone and dropped onto the blackness of his coat. He might have been a statue, save for the slight rise and fall of his chest, the tear, and the warm hand around hers. The music shifted and he let go.

A few minutes later, the “Agnus Dei” filled the church, voices chasing each other ever higher and richer until golden beauty resounded over and over from glass and stone and the very candles seemed to dance. A callused hand encircled hers once more. Half holding her breath, Lelia leaned a tiny bit to the right and rested her head against Arthur’s shoulder. He started to stiffen, then relaxed, accepting her touch. She let her eyes close part way, heart soaring with the soft, rich prayer rising gently around her as the choir repeated the opening plea. Give his spirit rest, oh Lord, please? Whatever hurts him so terribly, please grant him peace this night, please, Sir? Both Arthur and André, please? Miserere nobis, Domine. Have mercy on us, please, o Lord.

As the last organ note faded, the choir began the dark, hushed invocation of Mystery, the greatest mystery of all. “O magnum mysterium,” floated around them. The hand holding hers tightened its grip. André took her other hand and the three Hunters sat, surrounded by shadows and beauty. The choir concluded with the haunting, mighty hymn, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” Lelia straightened up. A quick look at her husband revealed tears on his face, and a joy she longed to share. What did he see, did he know that she couldn’t fully understand? She didn’t dare glance at her suflit talshu. Only when the final notes whispered into silence and the choirmaster lowered his arms did the men release her hands.

Arthur rose, genuflected, and disappeared. Lelia genuflected and waited for André and Tay. Once she got Tay in his carrier and both situated, André took her arm and they walked slowly into the soft, chill air of Christmas Eve. He tensed for half a breath, then relaxed, not breaking stride, his cane making soft taps against the frozen ground as they walked out the side yard of the church toward where they had parked. Rodney trotted along behind. Arthur joined them once more, the hood of his coat pulled up against the bitter night air.

They stopped in the last shadow of the parish hall. Arthur turned. “Child. Thank you.” He faded into the night without further word or sound. She hid her shiver by pure force of will.

After they got home, let the Familiars out and back in, Lelia checked the house shields as André triple-checked that the doors remained locked. When he finished, she took his hands and pulled him close. “Thank you for sharing our night,” she said.

He brushed her forehead with his lips. “Dark my lady, you are welcome. I hope he found what he sought.”

As the stars turned to the midnight hour, Pisicagheara dismissed the Hunter on watch. “Go to the vigil,” he ordered. Ladislu bowed and departed. Pisicagheara watched the night, alert for movement or sound. “Gloria in excelcis Deo,” the stars sang from the heavens. “Et in terra, pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.” Peace unbidden remained within him, a peace he had yearned for yet dared not request. Again, through the child the Lady had given him a blessing unsought. He moved without sound through the darkness, listening, tasting the wind for hints of any uncleanliness that dared try to defile this most holy of nights. “O nata Lux,” he whispered.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

Thursday Tidbit: Christmas Part 3

An Invitation is tendered.

On Wednesday afternoon, once Corava arrived, Lelia mustered enough courage to approach her boss. He had stayed in the office most of the day thus far, and one dish had hit the wall just after opening, but between customers. “He found the tax assessment update,” she’d guessed.

“Probably,” Tay had agreed from the end of the sales counter. “The invoice for the Valentines’ stuff isn’t that bad, actually.”

“No, it isn’t.” Now she wiped her hands on her skirt and eased through the bead curtain separating the workroom from the main shop. Why was she so nervous? Because this is Arthur, and December. She rubbed her hands on the fabric once more, then tapped on the door frame.

“Yes?” the growl did not ease her nerves. Arthur frowned at her over his reading glasses.

“Ah, sir, that is,” she inhaled, then blurted, “Master Lestrang and I are going to the Lessons and Carols and choral music on Christmas Eve at St. Margaret of Scotland and thought you might, that is— If you want to come with us, you’re welcome.”

The frown deepened, then disappeared. He took off the glasses and set them on the blotter. He flowed to his feet. She shifted her weight, ready to run, not that it would do any good. Confusion replaced irritation, and he said, “Child, suflit fica, do not fear.”

“Yes, sir.” She tried not to gulp aloud.

He rested one hand very lightly on her shoulder. For a hint of a moment, she saw pain and exhaustion in equal measure in his eyes, soul-deep pain. Then the mask slid back into place. “What time, child?”

“Nine, sir. We, that is, André and I, get there early so he can sit near a door. Eight-thirty. Talshu?”

The hand moved, and she put her arms around him, being steady and quiet for him. Strong, weary arms closed around her. A few words whispered over her head, then he let go. “Thank you, Mrs. Lestrang. I will, perhaps, attend.”

Creak-thud, thumpity thumpity thud. A pause, then thump. She spun and sprinted to the shop. Books lay all over the floor! A quick glance showed that the middle shelf had failed. One end rested on the next-to-bottom shelf. Tay and Raj stood at the far end of the sales counter. “We didn’t do it!” they chorused in unison.

Corava looked from the prints in her hands to the book-slide and back. With an eloquent shrug and sigh she resumed sorting and stocking. Lelia rested on hand on her forehead, just above her cosmetics, and sighed as well. “I knew things were too quiet.” She crouched, picked up as many books as she could, and stacked them on the counter. The shop door opened, and Arthur went to meet the black-clad young man who eased in. After he finished ringing up the sale and the gent departed, Arthur lifted the heavy composite shelf off the remaining two brackets. He studied the wall. Lelia saw a bit of metal on the floor. She picked up the remains of the third bracket and handed it to her boss.

Master Saldovado considered the jagged, torn metal, the rest of the bracket still wedged into the wall mount, and growled an especially pungent phrase. Wow. The string of maledictions continued. Lelia glanced at the Familiars. Both now crouched, paws over ears. Very wow! Whatever Arthur was saying must be especially nasty, or creative, or both. As wide as Tay’s eyes had opened, probably all of the above.

” . . . I don’t know what he said, but Corava set down enough prints to make some really interesting warding-off gestures at the wall. I did catch the general sense,” Lelia told André that night when he picked her up at the shop. “He found a shorter shelf piece in the back, so we could do a half-shelf. Removing the remains of the bracket from the wall-mount needs power tools.”

“Ugh. I can see why he’d resort to intemperate language.” André glanced at her, then turned his attention back to the road. “Collin was one Rodney-hair’s width from summoning an infernal entity to take the big laser printer back where it came from.”

Rodney snorted from behind the driver’s seat. “Yeah, except the entity would probably run screaming and throw itself into a holy-water font to get away from the copier.”

“Duuuuude,” Tay intoned. “I’d pay all the money I don’t have to see that.”

“What the lemur said,” Lelia half-chanted. She leaned her head against the pickup’s headrest and closed her eyes. Quiet. No one grumbling, brooding, or snarling at her, just road sounds and—

Hoooooonk. HOOOONKKK Screeeeech! No crunch followed the spate of sound.

“May you get what you deserve,” André snarled.

Rodney sniffed, “She probably will, boss. There’s a big hole in the street two blocks that way, remember?”

Lelia wrinkled her nose. A lesser abyssal imp had probably inspired the city wait to start sanitary sewer and utility work until late November.  “Is the Good Idea Fairy abyssal or infernal? I can never remember.”

“Abyssal,” Tay replied. “Although there’s still some debate about that.”

“Emperor Mong is infernal.” The certainty in her husband’s voice gave her pause. “He may claim abyssal or even heavenly origins, but noooo, he’s infernal.”

“Yes, dear.”

Large, wet flakes of snow danced down from low dark clouds as she hurried from the bus stop to the shop the next day. So big as to look like feathers or tufts of fur, the snow seemed to land with silent thuds. She unlocked the shop door, raced to the back and turned off the alarm, then returned and re-locked the front. “We’re going to be busy.”

“Yes, you are.” Once out of his carrier, Tay marched to the heat vent in the workroom and arranged himself to hog the warm air.

Lelia rolled her eyes, then clocked in. She saw the pull list for “at-store” orders. “Nyyyaaaaathhpppth.” Once she turned on Arthur’s computer and logged into the internet dark music station, she flipped through the list. Ah, of course. She’d do books first. Nox Arcana’s dark winter music sang down from the speakers as she worked. She made good progress. All the morning pick-up orders were finished before anyone else arrived. She let Tay out, then in, and drank some water before restocking. The steampunk Christmas prints sold very well indeed this year. She danced a few steps to a waltz as she worked.

The alert on the alley door chimed. He’s baaaaaaack she giggled to herself. Corava wasn’t due in until after three, but all three of them would stay until closing. Indeed, the office door clicked, and the music grew louder. She turned on the main shop lights, then  unlocked the door.

“Hi! I need these.” A college student announced ten minutes later, waving her phone so fast Lelia couldn’t read the screen.

“Yes, ma’am. Which titles?”

The flow of customers eased around one. The alley door chimed, and soon the smell of food from the workroom made Lelia’s stomach growl as she tried to catch up the big sales ledger. She giggled. Black items now tied brown items in terms of numbers sold. “And that acrylic is gone,” she cheered, very far under her breath. The excessively perky, big-eyed white tigers and unicorns among lush, brilliant green trees and painfully happy flowers had drained her of Goth-points every time she glanced at it. Now it belonged to an appreciative home. She did a tiny happy-dance in place. Erasure’s version of “Gaudete” filled the air, followed by “Il est né” by Souxie and the Banshees.

A soft clatter from the bead curtain announced Arthur’s presence. She turned. He stopped just past the doorway, listening. “Normally I do not approve of ‘updating’ sacred music, but perhaps I shall make and exception.” As she closed the ledger and added the entered receipts to the proper stack, he approached the counter, moving so smoothly that he seemed to glide rather than walk. “Go eat, Mrs. Lestrang, before your Familiar consumes your dinner.”

“Yes, sir.” She bobbed a curtsy and eased past him. Whatever it was smelled soooo good.

She found Tay’s back half emerging from a large brown delivery bag. Much rustling and muttering also emerged from the bag. She slid both hands under his aft end and middle, then hoisted. His front end appeared, a thick-cut potato wedge in one paw and the remains of a second wedge disappearing into his maw. “You are a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad lemur.” She deposited him on the door mat inside the alley door.

“Whaaaat? Fat’s good for my fur, yes?” At least, that’s what she thought came from his muzzle.

She rolled her eyes as she ducked into the washroom. Now I know where the kids got it from.  The bag contained a prime-rib sandwich, home-made fried potato wedges, a salad with fancy ham and cheeses in it, and still-steaming pear cobbler. She devoured it all, then nursed a small, rich coffee with her initials on the cup. She’d cut way back since joining the church, but . . . I’m trying, Sir, I really am.

Lelia washed her hands and tidied a now sulking—and burping—Tay. She got the box of Winter-Christmas jewelry and returned to the main shop. Arthur was assisting a gentleman with vests. At least a 2X, probably a 3X or special order in that Slovak line unless he really wants a trim fit. A nicely-dressed lady in a bright blue wool car-coat perused the window-end of the jewelry wall, glancing at what looked like a list in her right hand. She had one of the fashionable bucket bags, in a tasteful dark red leather. Lelia studied some of the earring pegs. Dangling winter-trees had been popular today. She added more to those pegs, put a necklace of linked black roses onto the proper spot, and frowned at the Christmas cats. The front brooch’s pin lay in the bottom of the baggie, so she pulled that one, put it in the box, and turned a little to see if the lady needed any assistance.

Wait, what’s she— “Stop that!” Lelia threw a hard physical shield over the fine jewelry case. The big carpenter’s hammer in the woman’s right hand swung down, then bounced off the shield and rebounded.

Thunkrunch. The woman dropped the tool and clutched her mouth and jaw with both hands.

“Hold the barrier,” Arthur commanded from behind the counter, reaching for the phone.

“Yes, sir.” Lelia flipped the shield, re-forming it around the would-be thief. Blood seeped from between the woman’s hands. She swayed, then sat hard, moaning, hunched over.

Lelia set the re-stocking box under the print shelves and stood guard until an ambulance rumbled up, followed by a cop car. Tay emerged from the back and leaned against her shins. She managed not to panic much when the policewoman entered the shop. Much. “Here sir, ma’am,” Lelia pointed down at the woman and lifted the shield. “She suffered an injury to her face when—” The woman’s left hand moved, and a flash of power flared. Lelia caught the charm, held it, and heard a predatory growl from her boss. 

“Break it, Silver, don’t hold it,” Rings commanded. She drew power from him and threaded magic into the charm, unmaking it, then grounding the power.

“Strong intention, pre-set spells, sir. A look-away and fire illusion.”

The woman’s face had turned green under the blood. Lelia grabbed Tay and moved well clear of the medics, and of any bodily emissions. The metal of the fine-jewelry case had been dented through the spell. At least, it seemed dented. The case swayed, as did she. She felt warmth under one arm, Arthur’s hand closing on her elbow, steadying her.

“You all right?” the police officer asked.

“Yes, ma’am. Working spells back-to-back makes me light-headed,” Lelia fibbed. Well, not quite fibbed. She hadn’t pulled from Tay until she’d broken the charm. She could feel his irked look.

“Go sit, then I’ll get your statement.” The policewoman sounded sympathetic, or at least not angry. That was good.

“Thank you, ma’am.” More quietly, she said, “I’m fine now, thank you, sir.”

She felt her boss’ irked look as well. “Perhaps.” He guided her to the counter, and only then let go. She eased Tay onto the top of the counter, then sat on the stool. Arthur spoke to the police as Lelia got a cup of Tay’s sugar-gel out of her belt pouch and opened the top, then gave it to him. Enthusiastic licking sounds ensued. The tubes had been better, but the company didn’t make those anymore. Once he’d been cared for, she pulled the baggie of nuts and chocolate out of a different pouch and ate half, then stowed it again.

Twenty minutes later, perhaps a little longer, one of the medics spoke quietly with the police officer. The other had escorted the injured woman to the ambulance and was in the back with her. Officer Meecham nodded. “I’ll call the hospital so security will be ready,” she told the medic. The slender brunette turned to Lelia and Tay. “If your story is corroborated by the video, there probably will not be charges filed against you, ma’am.”

Oh, I’m glad Arthur didn’t hear that. He was burning the video from the cameras onto a DVD as well as sending a copy to the department’s e-mail. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“How long have you been a reserve officer?”

“Twenty-six years, ma’am, I think. My husband was one in Phoenix, and when his credentials transferred to Riverton, the then police chief was encouraged by my former parole officer and Sergeant Jamie Macbeth to swear me in as well.” The shaking in her hands had nothing to do with the memories of that visit, nothing at all. Tay eased closer, and she rested one hand on his back. It helped.

“Huh. That explains the strange badge number. Good to know, ma’am.” Officer Meecham returned her licenses and ID. Arthur pushed through the curtain, DVD case in hand. “Thank you, sir. Have a quiet rest of the day.”

“Thank you, Officer, and I hope the same for you,” Arthur said. After the woman departed, he turned to Lelia. He studied her as she petted Tay. “Silver, go get something more to eat, and see to Master Tay. I will clean the floor.” The medics had sprayed disinfectant on the floor and wiped up the blood, but the surface looked as if it was a little tacky yet.

“Yes, sir.” She stood, carefully. The world didn’t sway. Tay eased down to the floor from the counter, and they retreated with slow steps to the workroom.

How long had it been since they’d had a shoplifter? At least five years, not counting the small things like the cheap earrings that walked off on occasion. Word got around, especially after Arthur had bodily heaved the guy into the side of the cop car. Lelia smiled despite herself as she finished the nuts and drank some water. Her boss had needed the stress release, and the guy had deserved it.

Not ten minutes later, the rush picked up. Lelia, Arthur, and Corava all sagged with relief when Arthur locked the front door at ten that night and flipped the sign to “Closed. Come back Tomorrow—If there Is One.” Raj and Tay had made themselves scarce in the workroom. The Pallas cat had grumbled mightily about her mage was working too hard and was ignoring her, that being Raj’s, needs and desires. Lelia suspect that desires outweighed needs. Raj was pure, double-distilled feline and it showed.

(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved