The late afternoon summer heat hangs like a blanket around us. It’s a steep walk up the hill made more difficult by having to lug a sack between us.
“Slow down Maura,” my younger sister grumbles, wiping beads of sweat away from her forehead, her long golden hair glimmers in the sun.
“The quicker we get there, the quicker we can rest Anne. We’re almost at the top.”
“Oh come on,” Anne says in a hushed tone, “there’ll be no resting, they’ll just send us back down for more.”
I realise she’s right. My eyes dart around to make sure we are away from prying eyes and we stop in the shadow of a tree and drop the sack to our feet.
I take the water bottle from my belt and offer it to her. She accepts.
“I’ll be glad to see the back of this, no more ‘pack horse’ for me,” she gloats in a whisper handing the bottle back to me.
I roll my eyes, take a swig, replace the bottle and match her quiet tone.
“Yes, because working the fields will be much easier going. At least here we get time on our own.”
“At least I’ll have other people to talk to.”
“Talk to about what? Your exciting lives? With ‘them’ listening all the time I expect there’s not much talking going on Anne.” I bend and pick my end of the sack up off the ground.
“I don’t care. I’ll get to be around Sarah again.”
Sarah is our neighbour and Anne’s best friend, not that she gets to see her anymore, we are not allowed to mix outside of packs. She would help us carry before she came of age and was designated a harvester, one of the red-haired women who work the fields. Anne is due to join her. Tomorrow, her beautiful blonde hair will be dyed red in keeping with her pack just as mine was bleached and stripped of its colour when I joined the transporters.
“Are you all set for your hair transformation?” I nod at her to pick up her end of the sack. She reluctantly grabs the corners with a sigh and we continue on.
“It makes no sense to me at all. Why should our hair be red? It would be easier to spot us in the wheat with dark hair.”
“But probably not in the vegetable patches,” I laugh, “although it would be hard to blend in anywhere in these clothes,” I say nodding down at my white floor length dress, compulsory dress for all women.
“Completely impractical,” she scoffs kicking up the skirt of her own white dress.
“We’re literal beacons on the landscape, so practical to them.”
Anne pauses for a second before blurting, “I need to tell Sarah about Lughnasadh.”
I forget myself and with voice raised, “are you mad? You can’t be talking about that.”
Anne shushes me and I stare at her in disbelief. How could she be so stupid?
“Her Mother is fever bound Maura.”
“It’s forbidden,” I say firmly. “Please Anne, you need to stay safe. No talk of the old ways.”
“I can help her. Gran taught me,” she pleads.
“Stop it Anne!” I hear the desperation in my voice. “Enough. Please. You mustn’t speak of it.”
We continue in silence lugging the heavy sack up and over on to the uneven rock-face of the top of the hill. There’s a welcome breeze at the top and I catch site of the golden stretch of crops that run out to meet the glittering sea in the distance. Mounds of rubble are scattered about, a reminder of life long before our time. Our Gran would tell us tales of life before The Great Struggle, of the huge estates full of people, of choices, of equality. Her Grandmother had climbed the steps of the white lighthouse in the distance as a child for fun. Strange to think of that freedom now.
We continue on along the top of the hill towards the windmill.
Distracted by the view we slow our pace and look across the river at the once great city of Liverpool now lying-in ruins beneath the clear blue sky.
“Gran said that when the Liver birds fell, the city followed,” Anne whispers.
I look across, the rubble of the skyline dominated by the dark and foreboding Northern headquarters towering on the hill. A huge sandstone fortress rising from the debris. Once a house of God now home to something much darker. A cold shiver runs down my spine.
“Do you know anyone who has returned from there Maura?”
“No, they’re never seen again Anne. That’s why we have to stick to the rules.”
We speed up along the top.
“Stupid rules that have us carrying sacks when there are perfectly good trucks to do it?”
“Yes, even the stupid ones.”
We drop the sack on the pile of others by the windmill, patting and smoothing the top down to make it even. I notice official paper pinned to the door.
“You are to return home immediately.” I read aloud.
Anne and I look at each other, puzzled.
“What do you think is going on Maura?”
“I don’t know. Checks maybe?”
“Have you ever been sent home early before?”
“No, never. Something isn’t right.”
As we near home, we hear chaos in the lane, we cautiously turn the corner to see Sarah’s mother being dragged into a black van. It was ‘them’. I grab Anne and pull her into some bushes. We watch as ‘they’ throw bundles of smoking sage around the perimeter. The air is pungent as the thick smoke bellows into the sky. Sarah is there pleading for her mother, ‘they’ raise a wooden staff to her and she backs away, collapsing in a heap on the floor as the van leaves.
“They’ve took her.” Sarah sobs, “they knew about the fever.”
“I’ll get Mother,” I offer unsure of how to console her.
“No Maura, wait,” she replies suddenly calming herself but it was too late as I was already racing down the lane and into our house.
“Mother!” I yell moving from room to room. Strange she isn’t in the kitchen preparing the evening meal. I run up the stairs, the thuds on the bare wooden steps as loud as my heart beating in my chest.
“Mother!” I scream a little more desperate now and then I see her lying on her bed. Face flushed red, hair soaked through. I dash over, kneel beside her and place the back of my hand on her forehead and around her face.
“You’re burning up Mother.” My throat becomes tight.
Anne appears beside me and clutches our Mother’s hand.
“Fever bound,” she says quietly.
“Yes, we must try to lower her temperature, Anne.” I leap to my feet and head to the bathroom pulling a flannel from the drawer and holding it beneath the cold running tap.
“How will we do that without medication?” Anne cries.
Women are banned from using medicines. If we are ill for longer than three days, ‘they’ whisk us away. No one knows where or why, we only know not to get sick. I squeeze the excess water from the flannel and return to the bedside carefully placing the flannel on Mother’s forehead.
“Maybe this will work.”
“Oh don’t be ridiculous Maura, that’s not going to work. She needs help. She’ll end up like Sarah’s Mother.” She puts her head in her hands, “and Gran.”
“Anne calm down. This is all we can do.”
“Maura please we have to do something.” She screams at me.
“I’ll make some soup. That might help, she needs energy.”
“She needs more than soup.”
I look at Mother, the usually strong woman now weak and fragile. It’s difficult to imagine her shaking this fever off, especially after seeing my Gran suffer the same.
“Let’s get her through the night Anne. If she’s no better in the morning, we’ll have to think of something else.”
The night is long and stressful. Morning arrives and the fever shows no sign of breaking. I chew on my nails, pacing nervously, trying to think of something, anything that will help.
“She’s no better, we’re running out of time Maura.”
“Don’t you think I know that,” I snap angrily at her.
“Tomorrow is Lughnasadh Maura. If that isn’t a sign, I don’t know what is. We can do a ritual, use the old ways. We have to try. What have we got to lose?”
“Our lives Anne?”
“Only if they catch us.” Her huge eyes glisten as she pleads with me to at least try. We should have tried with Gran, I wanted to but Mother had forbidden it and look how that turned out. I feel the grief of losing my Gran rising from my core and I immediately shut it down.
“If it will save Mother, I’ll do it,” I whisper.
I find it hard to concentrate through the day and rush back after Transporting to check on Mother. Anne is already home, her hair now bright red. She is pulling handfuls of wheat from within the sleeve of her dress.
“How is she?”
“Still the same.”
I watch as she cuts a long strand of Mother’s hair and hands it to me with the wheat. I nod in acceptance and begin plaiting and weaving the hair through the sheaves of wheat as I pace the room. Twisting it and wrapping the wheat to form a doll shape, an offering, just as Gran had shown me as a child.
“We best collect the bits before it gets dark.”
She nods and we head out to the back garden. Gran had loved to garden so we have a huge herb patch, flower beds, a selection of roses. It is truly beautiful. We gather our supplies, carefully snipping what’s needed, and take them into the kitchen.
“Give me your dress Anne,” I say taking off my own and I head down to the piles of ash left behind in the lane around Sarah’s house. I quickly check that no one is watching and rub our dresses and a pillowcase in the ash.
I smile triumphantly, waving the dresses as I return to the kitchen, “Not such beacons now.”
“Urgh, they will smell us coming though,” she laughs.
I pack our supplies in the pillowcase ready for the night ahead.
“We must start before sunrise,” I state.
We kiss Mother goodbye and, pillowcase in hand, we creep out into the night in our camouflaged dresses. The lanes seem quiet and empty but we must still be vigilant. I’ve never been outside in the dark before as it is strictly forbidden. The night is full of strange sounds and I am incredibly jumpy. My shoulders are tight and I feel myself shaking, my body already cold with sweat despite the summer warmth. We continue on, in the shadows until finally we reach the hill.
“She’s by the ruins of that old cottage,” Anne whispers gesturing up to the right. This part of the hill is overgrown, full of bushes and nettles. I feel a bit safer under the canopy of trees and shrubs and allow myself to relax a little. We continue on wading through the undergrowth, I wince as my dress and skin are torn and poked by the waist high brambles. Thankfully the brambles give way to kinder shrubs and once again we can relax a little.
Suddenly a blood curdling noise fills the quiet night. Drums; loud and fierce are above us. My insides liquify. We both fall to the ground to hide, frozen at first. Minutes feel like hours until finally I build up the courage to take a peek. I can just make out a large gathering in the old car park at the top of the hill. It’s ‘them’. I gasp and sink my head to the floor. Sinister, rhythmic jingling bells ring out across the hill punctuated by the clacking sound of wood meeting wood and ‘them’, whooping loud and obnoxiously. I look at Anne, she is lying paralysed with her hand clamped over her mouth. My heart is racing but I know we must continue. I place a hand on Anne’s shoulder to reassure her and I spot something glinting in the light beside her, a tiny, shiny gemstone. I pull the greenery away from it and uncover two feet cut deep into the rock.
“She’s here,” I whisper, “we’ve found her.”
We pull ourselves along on our bellies, tugging away the plants to reveal her, our ancient Goddess, arms outstretched, sun at her feet. I’ve heard tales of how she’d helped women in the past, and looking at her now, I believe them.
We begin our ritual in silence, fearful of what is happening above. I unpack the pillowcase and carefully bind rosemary, lavender, sage and mint into a flower crown for her. Anne places some honey and a seashell into her womb cavity. I split the rose and, being careful not to raise our heads too high, we scatter the red velvet petals around her. Candle lit, Anne places the flower crown on our goddess while I scatter blueberries, the remaining herbs and place the wheat dolly on the moss filled sun at her feet. Together we hold the apple.
“Think of Mother being well again,” I instruct as I chop the apple in half exposing the star heart at its centre. I place one half on the Goddess’s heart and the other in my pocket.
“Ready?” I say holding Anne’s hands. We close our eyes and concentrate hard.
“It is done,” we say in unison.
“Shush!” She hisses while indicating for us to hide.
“They’re coming!” She whispers, barely audible, the colour draining from her face. I hear the soft jingle before I see them, two of ‘them’ crossing above. As they near I see their torches held aloft, flames licking the sky and illuminating the true terror of their animal skull faces, bleached white, pointy and razor sharp. Their naked bodies decorated with greasy dark symbols. The clusters of bells strapped around their legs and waist jingle as they move. It is a chilling noise. We wait, hips rooted to the ground, scared to breathe. I can’t bare it anymore; I hide my eyes and wait for the bells to pass.
Eventually the bells fade into the distance and we seize the opportunity to escape, my heart beating out of my chest, even more afraid of being caught than before. We race home in blind panic and head straight to Mother’s room.
“Mother,” I say as I place the apple half on her chest. “It is done.” And as the sun rises on Lughnasadh, we watch as our Mother opens her eyes and rises too.