Marcia Russell and Morgan Fox

Marcia Russell

Little Rituals
By Morgan Fox

Inspiration piece

That night the old woman told me to hug her and then we went to bed and woke up without any recollection of sleeping or time passing.

In the grey light of morning, a cloudy and possibly rainy day, a new woman, maybe only a couple years older than myself, had appeared sometime during the night without warning or introduction. She kept solely to the hearth and the long wooden table, where she prepared the tea for the four cast iron cauldrons outside, a pretty round face ringed by soft light brown hair pulled into a loose bun, bright green eyes smiling at me as she stoked the fire. The old woman didn’t acknowledge her, only passed through the center of the hut and straight out to the fire pit. I lingered a moment, but other than smiling the green-eyed woman said nothing, simply went about her work, and so I followed the old woman. My shoes had disappeared from beside the door, as if somehow related to the appearance of the new woman, as if maybe they couldn’t occupy the same space or time, so I strapped two saucepans to my feet and walked outside.

A small retaining wall encapsulated the planet of the hut and yard in the midst of a hazy grey cosmos. Beyond the knee-high piles of stones and broken rocks and crumbling brick, whirling wisps of fog obscured first that tree, next that rock, and smoke blew in lazy curls over the gravel path that dead-ended at the fire pit. Whatever existed beyond that wall could not actually be called a forest, instead the hint of what once could have been called a forest, trees hacked down or straightforward gone, as if they’d walked off like my shoes, and what remained now a mostly barren moor with a few scraggly sticks jutting into the air at odd angles, grey grass in clumps, phantom landscape destroyed in the memory of what once might have been.

Sitting on her accustomed stump, the old woman puffed life into her pipe. I circled the cauldrons and sat on the other log. Without looking at me she spoke, clouds of smoke drifting from her mouth, “You give terrible hugs.”

The statement took me by surprise. Everyone has always told me that I give good hugs.

She shook her head slowly, one two and a puff on the pipe. “No. Terrible.” I asked her what she meant, how so, but she said no more, a closed matter. Smoke rings. I gazed off too.

She wasn’t really all that old; she couldn’t have been much more than sixty, her hair worn in a long white braid with shorter wisps about her face like wings, while the crows had once danced waltzes beside her eyes and mouth. Despite her bony build she was not frail, not at all: instead her lank and lean gave her a weathered, ancient aura, and her long thin arms and legs drifting graceful as the fog’s tendrils when she moved. Above a hawkish nose, peculiar in its size and easily her most prominent feature, grey eyes perched, fixed on a point lost somewhere in the aether. In the brief moments those eyes descended upon me, their stare brought a chill, the cold weight of eternity embracing me within the lonely grey orbs, the same color as the mists. I wondered if maybe she might blow away with the fog, take the whole world with her. I wondered if maybe that had already happened.

After an indefinite period of time the younger woman emerged from the cottage, hefting a copper kettle and the first tea satchel, trail of steam blowing puffs in her wake. I stood to help her but she merely smiled and brushed past, so I returned to my log and watched her place the satchel in the first cauldron and pour the water. I watched her fill all four in her silent ritual. Finished, she curled up on the ground and fed the fire sticks until the flames licked the cauldrons and the heat blasted my face, then she sifted her fingers through the ash that had accumulated around the pit. Raised a cupped handful up to the sky, then smeared it on her face, then tossed her hands in the air. The ash settled in the cauldrons a shimmer of mica and swirled dizzily in the steam. The tea ceremony accomplished, the young woman looked at me and smiled through the smudge on her face.

For a moment I am reminded of the sight of a young man spreading salt on his eggs, sloppily dumping the shaker over his upturned palm for a half-dollar’s amount, which in turn he deposits on his potatoes, then continues liberally with the shaker. He eats. I finish my coffee.

When I blink again the young woman had served the tea in two small, lumpy, earthenware jars. She held mine out to me and I took it, looked in to see the ash glitter at the bottom. A lost treasure, submerged at the bottom of the sea. Some might call it Atlantis, some might call it home. The old woman drank; I drank. Hibiscus. The young woman took the now empty jars and reentered the cottage with them.


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