by Lida Broadhurst
Heedless of the dust speckling their silk slippers, Sydelle and her best friend Beatrice ran over the bridge, throwing themselves down on the grass near the old mill. This was their first meeting since the Ceremony.
Sydelle sighed when she caught Beatrice’s envious glance at the ribbon threaded through her dark hair. Oh well, maybe next year Trixie would spill her First Blood, and even her anxious mama would admit she was old enough to join the Circle of Women.
Hoping to console her friend, she said, “Oh come on, you know that this cherry-red string will clash with your pretty pink and white skin.”
Trixie smiled, although Syddie saw the shine of tears in her eyes. She said quickly, “Anyway, it’s not so great to be in the Circle. Ma wanted me to stay in on this beautiful day just to practice chanting. Even now that the silly Ceremony’s over, Ma insists I have more to learn.” She flung her arms over her head. “But I know every spell from soothing a baby to shape-changing.” A sly glance at her friend. “Though I wouldn’t want to change anything about Culver Pembroke’s shape.”
Trixie didn’t respond to this remark. She was gazing fearfully into the trees. “Shh,” she muttered. “Your mama might hear us and come screaming. She is a high priestess of…but I must not say Her Name.”
Syddie caressed the silken spill of ribbon dangling over her shoulder. “Stop fretting. Ma’s busy with bread-rising spells. Anyway, I’m not impressed with those women dancing in the Circle. Playing flutes with notes so sharp they cut your ears. Or mumbling gibberish supposedly to make vegetables grow. No wonder Pa says ribbons of gold would make them break the Circle in a hurry.” Another sly smile. “Though men act just as silly at the old ruins.”
Trixie pouted. “You went without me. ”
Syddie shrugged. She’d never intended to cast pebbles at her friend’s bedroom window when the moon rolled swollen in the sky. Trixie was such a baby, and her mother was so protective. Imagine peeking into every cranny to be sure Trixie wasn’t listening when the women began whispering. Aloud she murmured, “Oh, it was the night you said your Mama was taking you to the Gathering.”
Trixie still looked unhappy. “She decided I was too young to learn about the effects of some plants the Circle uses.” She smiled shyly. “But at least you’ll tell me what men do when they get together.”
Syddie shrugged again. “Nothing worth my sneaking about in the dark. Just a bunch of men jumping around, beating their chests and yelling. It’s a wonder that God of theirs –Masho, Basho, whatever—doesn’t strike them dead for disturbing His rest.”
Trixie laughed, then held up her hands, thumbs crossed. She bowed to the north, long blonde hair flowing like sheaves of wheat on the altar after Ripening. “All the same we should not mock Him.” She jumped at a sudden creaking of the mill wheel.
Syddie frowned. “Stupid of Culver to waste money restoring it.”
Trixie looked perplexed. “But you told Culver how pleasant it would be on a hot day hearing the wheel churn the pond. He’d do anything for you now you’ve agreed to wed him.”
Syddie squirmed as a thistle stem pricked her skin. “But the noise is so eerie. I should have told him to have his people uproot these plants. Besides, any man will do anything for you if you fulfill his desires.”
Again Syddie saw that same envious glance on her friend’s face. Oh drat, the poor girl was still so undeveloped. She was probably comparing her boyish figure with the curves of Syddie’s breasts and hips. And it would be tiresome to have to worry about poor Trixie’s feelings every time she spoke.
She was grateful when Trixie said, “Culver Pembroke is so besotted, he’ll always want to please you.”
“But for how long? A husband, even a besotted one, may tire of me, cast looks at another. Perhaps even at you.”
“The heat has gone to your head. Me? So pale and skinny?” Trixie sighed, her small breasts barely disturbing the thin fabric of her dress.
The dark girl hugged her. “You are not pale, but shining, and as graceful as a reed in the breeze. Any man would be lucky to win you.”
The blond girl sighed again. “That’s what Mama and Papa say, but I don’t want any man.” She gazed across the parkland where the chimney of a stone house thrust into the sky.
Sydelle frowned. “By any man, I don’t mean Kerr Bayard.”
“Oh, I know people say it’s that fiery hair of his that attracts the women. But to me, all of him blazes forth so you could warm yourself at his side and find life good and glowing. And I love it when he shares stories of his travels with me.”
Syddie poked her in the ribs. “Surely he does not tell everything. I’m sorry, dear one. You must know he does not often go alone to the city and even his family puts a brave face on the goings-on when he’s at home.”
Trixie said earnestly as if she were revealing some great truth. “He’s young and can’t see himself as Culver’s steward forever. He has his way to make. I’m sure it’s tiring being polite to all the heiresses who make eyes at him.”
Syddie laughed. “Kerr Bayard is never too weary to tumble any girl he fancies.”
“Some day he’ll tire of those who only want to dance and bed him, and I’ll be waiting to make his meals and mend his clothes.” Tears pearled her eyes. “Oh, can you not cast a love spell to help me?”
“Thera forbid. Anyway, here’s a bit of news to cheer you. Spencer Leigh is coming to visit.”
“So? He’ll want someone like you.”
Sydelle ran her fingers through her curls. “He probably does. But dear Culver has told him you’re a quiet, good girl. Just like me…”
The blond girl giggled. “Culver is besotted if that’s how he sees you.”
“Well, I’m moody, but I’ve tried to behave as he wishes.”
“How wonderful love is,” Trixie breathed.
Sydelle’s response spilled out fiercely. “Stupid, I said I try. But I know once we’re wed, somebody’s words—perhaps even his— will start me screaming to the rafters and throwing myself about like the women in the Circle. He’ll be disgusted and look at me like I was a dirty snake or a frog.”
With a plop a fat green frog jumped out of the pond just at that moment to sun himself on a nearby rock. He squatted, eyes closed, throat turned toward the warmth.
“How contented he looks,” Trixie whispered.
The dark girl pursed her lips. “Not for long, if a heron flaps down for a meal.”
Trixie shuddered, saying, “Oh no; he’ll leap on those long legs back into the water to hide in the reeds. Then he’ll make a home among the pebbles with a lady frog.”
Sydelle threw up her hands. “I won’t introduce you to Spencer, if you talk like that. Thinking frogs are happy when boys throw rocks at them and our families catch them for food or bait. Besides having nasty slimy skin and bulging eyes.”
Trixie frowned, and Syddie thought, I sound like Ma, like I know everything since I’ve been through the Ceremony.
She wasn’t surprised when Trixie said, “The Book says we shouldn’t look down on any creature. Probably frogs think we’re the ugly ones, with arms and legs sticking out from long pale bodies patched with rough hair. So what if their lives are short? A lady frog doesn’t care if a gentleman frog stays out late….”
Syddie thought, It’s not her fault, she seems such a baby, worrying what the Book says about silly frogs. I’m so uncomfortable with Trixie today, like finding my favorite sweater is too small. Still, we’ve have good times together. And it’ll be okay after her own Ceremony.
She took a deep breath. She said, “You’re right, Trixie. I shouldn’t have said what I did about the Book. And probably laying eggs isn’t as painful as giving birth. Besides, tadpoles don’t have to be carried about and fed and comforted at odd hours.”
But again Trixie wasn’t listening to her. She was staring into the setting sun, and Syddie knew that it was not the pinks and purples of the sky which caused her friend to smooth her hair and skirt.
Two men strode towards them. One was blond and slight, yet other men would always know him for their master. But it was the other, tall and bulky with fiery red hair, whom women would know for theirs.
The blond man, Culver Pembroke, bent to kiss Sydelle full on the lips. “You look enchanting.”
She clutched his hand, tried to pull him down beside her.
He remained standing. “We are not alone.”
“Such old friends would rejoice to see us happy,” Sydelle said.
The red-haired man threw his arm around Trixie’s neck. “Indeed I would and join the game myself.”
How like a shackle that arm appears, Syddie thought. But as she watched Trixie tremble, she said, “Perhaps not everyone cares to play. So tell us of your brave doings.”
Culver began to talk of a hen house repaired and a cottage newly thatched, but Kerr interrupted. “Save such stuff for your friend Spencer. Your bride will be bored. Now I could tell why Granny Fiddle was in such a hurry to pack her daughter off to the city.”
Syddie forgot such talk would upset Trixie and said, “To you she’s just a body to paw, another conquest. You didn’t see her weeping and dragging her feet down the lane as her brother led her away.”
Culver reddened, but Kerr jeered, “And you didn’t see her laughing as I led her into the hayloft.”
“Did you?” Syddie shot back, before a gasp from Trixie silenced her.
Culver too had seen Trixie’s stricken look. “Well no one knows where the blame should lie.” He hugged his betrothed. “Men cannot help it if their smiles beguile a girl. Indeed I am very glad that mine did you, but,” he cast a worried glance at Trixie, “Girls send secret messages of their own which are hard to resist.”
Kerr interrupted. “And why should we even try? No, Culver, I’ll not be still when even an engaged man as staid as you admits that women are glad to fling themselves on their backs and…”
Trixie buried her face in her hands. Sydelle felt annoyance rising in her. She wanted to feel close to Trixie again, but honestly, that mama of hers should have told Trixie what men were like by now. The Laws didn’t say that such education had to wait until after the Ceremony. Syddie had heard Trixie’s mama tell ma it was early days for her daughter to choose a man, but now the simplest thing seemed to have become complicated.
The silence lengthened like the rays of the setting sun. Syddie yawned, “You men must have more important things to do. We’ve known about Fildean Fiddle for some time. Nothing interesting there.”
Culver glared as if a thistle had poked him. “Lord, nothing pleases you women. I indulge you in some silly gossip, try to talk about something besides sheepfolds, and you’re bored. As if I care what happens to some servant’s slut…”
“She is a girl whose family has worked that land for generations, Culver Pembroke. And you are wrong to think I care nothing for sheepfolds and roof thatch.” Syddie’s voice rose to a screech. “Although how you’d know that when all you ever say is that my eyes are like stars and my mouth like a flower—just like all the other men.”
Culver stiffened, like a pillar holding up the Temple. His eyes darkened to storm clouds. Syddie had never dreamed Culver could look so angry. Maybe Trixie would see he’s not so different from Kerr. She was surprised when he said in his usual mild tones, “Forgive me, madam. I did not mean to bore you. Come, Kerr, we need to talk about the Rowbart roof.”
The red-haired man nodded. “Good. I’m sick of that family complaining about rain in their food.” He stretched. “Well, ladies, time is wasting and we’ve more pressing matters than a girl’s…”
Culver grabbed Kerr’s arm, said, “Be silent,” and walked off without a backward glance.
Trixie said, glancing at Syddie, “You look so angry, with rage making red lines in your face.”
Syddie knew she probably looked ghastly. Her eyes felt like fruit pits sucked dry. “Come on,” she teased Trixie. “You make me feel as if I’m attending the ceremony of the Crone. “
But Trixie begged, “Please, Syddie, forget this quarrel.”
Sydelle smiled. “Goose, you know my moods mean little. Even if Culver Pembroke does not.” Her face crumpled. “Oh, what a dragon’s nest I’ve made, Trixie. Ma, and Pa warned me not to be disagreeable to Culver.”
Trixie shrugged. ”It’ll be all right. At the dance tomorrow, a smile and a kiss will caress him into loving you.”
Syddie flung herself to the ground. “What if I can’t?”
Trixie’s answer surprised her. “So caress someone else. Barrington Fields has often leered at you.”
Syddie’s brows drew together. “Idiot. You seem to have forgotten I love Culver. Just as you love Kerr.”
“And we’ve seen that Kerr is madly, passionately in love with me.” Trixie’s voice became almost spiteful. “You’ve been through the Ceremony. Surely you learned to tighten your lips so truth can’t escape.”
Syddie nodded, grateful Trixie had a bit of knowledge. It would make what she had decided to do easier. She closed her eyes, seeing behind the darkness of her lids a future of baking bread and preserving fruit, comforting children, pretending that whatever Culver said was right and good.
But he is good, her mind insisted; he would never boast as Kerr does about bedding stray women. But what else might he boast about?
Even if they made up this quarrel, another one would arise, then another. She knew now she could not control her tongue. They would live as strangers. Even the marriage bed would grow moldy and distasteful. Oh, she could cast a love spell upon him, but she wanted him to love her despite knowing her true nature. She said, “Trixie, will joining the Circle, finding a man, raising children be enough to make you happy?”
Trixie’s hands were clasped loosely in her lap. “Probably not. But women are bound in the Circle of Thera and men with Masho, and we must move to their commands.”
Syddie leaped up. “And waste our lifetimes as uncomplaining chickens to their strutting roosters.”
Trixie breathed, “What else can we do?”
“I’ll show you; I’ll show them. Watch.”
Culver and Kerr had almost reached the bridge. Syddie stood on tiptoe. She held her arms out straight, fingers on the right hand pointing like arrows, those on her left curled tightly like unopened flowers. Pleased, she regarded them for a moment. “Now watch how the Paths of Life cross, then come together.”
Quickly she pointed the fingers of her left hand, closing her right one into a fist. Over and over, she repeated the movements, creating the patterns of a different world.
Sharp as knives, her fingers thrust toward the men, then at Trixie and finally toward her own breast. She chanted “Rana, rana, rana rana,” amazed to hear her words blend into a sound like the buzz of insects and the rush of water, just as the Book promised.
For the second it took for a tongue to curl and catch a mayfly, she hoped she had made a mistake with the spell. But Ma was wrong; Syddie had learned her lessons well.
Four new frogs hopped toward the pond, their home for the few months of life that remained to them.
From the visions of cats, vampires, insane trees, and family antics jumbled in her head, Lida shapes her prose and poetry. When it is too hot, too cold, or too rainy in Oakland, CA, these visions are weirder than usual.
Her work has appeared in “Mythic Delirium,” “Nemonymous #1,” “Star*Line,” “GUD,” and many other publications. One of her poems has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Rhysling Award.