by Carolyn Lee Boyd
I was reborn on the mountain whose seasons I had loved for the fifty years of life I had lived so long ago. I knelt on its breast and breathed in the black, musky, fertile soil, tasted its bitter groundwater and sweet stream nectar, rubbed its skin into mine. Then, when I was ready, I washed it off my body, but not my soul, and walked into the village square whose sights and sounds I still remembered from 500 years before.
During my centuries as a spirit I had chosen to stay near where I had lived, still surrounded by those I had loved. The people had since turned to dust, but I could see their features in the faces of their great-great-grandchildren’s great-great-grandchildren. I sat with them, unseen, under the same trees, turned their eyes with my thoughts to the same herbs I had given their ancestors so many years ago to make them well, witnessed the wars and movements that came and went in the outside world and saw how they touched the village, and mourned and rejoiced with each new generation.
In time, when I found myself as a wraith not in the heaven or hell, but walking the same stony paths as I had before, I understood that I had to wait to finish my life. Most people live all in one time, all at once. For reasons I know not, I had a half-millennium interlude and then it was simply time to return. And I was flesh again, and I walked down into the village, having fashioned my 16th century garments into something like the women of your time wear. Near the end of my old life, I had buried some of our family treasures in the woods to protect them from the law and law-breakers. I sold them for enough to feed, clothe and shelter myself for a time, and took up my life anew.
Still, I was not sure what I was to do with this miraculous second chance. So, I began to do what I had done before, gathering and selling herbs and remedies, counseling and consoling, with word of my services spreading by word of mouth. Soon, one woman after another came to my tiny two rented rooms and we would sit and talk, and listen deeply, just as my friends in the old times and I had done over our daily tasks or when one of us gave birth or attended a death. Seven of us began to come together weekly and one evening one of the women brought a drum. In my other life, women never played drums, but I came to see how it was the perfect voice for women, a heartbeat beyond words when the language we had been taught so often oppressed us.
We began to meet in the village square and simply drum together each Saturday, being witnesses for ourselves and any woman who needed to hear the universal pulse that no one can perceive with her ears, but which is underneath every moment of each day. Sometimes other women would join us, bringing instruments or just singing. Many people would simply stare but, in time, we became an expected part of the square’s daily life, like the fruit and vegetable sellers and the school buses. I would never have been so bold in my old life, but having died once already I found myself almost fearless.
Always I wondered whether I was alone in being reborn in this strange time. Once I began to read the village’s weekly newspaper, a pastiche of global, national and local news, I knew I had my answer. A flock of extinct birds was photographed flying over a wasteland abandoned as too polluted to be saved. A geyser erupted in the middle of an African nation devastated by drought. A group of new planets appeared rotating in orbits that had no explanation, upending astrophysics. Women from the past were returning not just as humans, but as birds, fish, plants, animals, elements, and cosmic bodies. The more my circle and I drummed, the more oddities appeared all over the world, or perhaps we were simply one of them but not the first.
Then, one afternoon a woman began watching us from the edge of the square, a tear coursing down her face. She was the mother of a small family, newly arrived in the village as part of a refugee resettlement program. She and her family had kept to themselves, busily remaking their lives, finding work and enrolling the children in school. We had been drumming, dancing and singing for about a half hour, when we noticed her as she held her daughter’s hand tighter and tighter. I motioned for her to come over, to let her know that she was welcome to join us. First she shook her head, but then began to walk slowly towards us. When she came within the circle we stopped for now she was weeping.
We waited silently with her until she began to speak. “We used to drum and sing and dance like this in the village where I grew up, a long long time ago. I was just a child the last time the women gathered, just as things were beginning to change. My mother and my grandmother danced. My grandmother led the women around the circle and taught the younger women what to do. If someone made a mistake, or was a little slow, it didn’t matter. What was important was that everyone danced. I knew it would be years before I would dance, too, before I would be old enough to join the women. That time never came, but watching you, I remember or the first time in years how I felt then.”
“Will you teach us what you remember of your village’s dance?” I asked her. She began to slowly move, trying to focus her memories. One of the women matched her movements with the drum. She had to stop and begin again three times, but finally she said “That’s it! These are the steps.” We all stood and took her hand and her daughter’s and learned the steps as two or three women stayed out to drum.
The square began to fill with people watching. The mother noticed the crowd gathering and stopped, remembering other, more menacing, crowds from her homeland.
“We must go home,” she said. “Life isn’t like what I remember. It’s dangerous to pretend it is.”
Her daughter stood firm on the ground. “I want to learn the dance,” she said. “If I don’t, who will teach it to my daughters?” She nodded to the drummers, who again beat their drums. She began to dance, and we joined her, moving slowly until her mother again took up the steps.
At that moment, I, too, began to weep. My mind could not conjure up the images, but my body knew that I had done this before. My feet were swept up in the movement and I was rounding the circle as if I could not stop. I remembered that I and my friends had been doing this at the end of our lives centuries ago. One evening we were walking home in the forest and the joy of being together in such beauty overflowed and we had danced. We were observed by the minister and others walking home from some late night meeting. They described this at our trials, but made it into something evil when it was not.
And I then remembered how I had joined with women in dancing in times and places long since forgotten in this century. Over thousands of years we had all danced together so often that it had indeed become part of us, part of the lives we used to live when we were not afraid, when we did not always look over our shoulders to see who was judging us, when we did not know how quickly judgements turn to accusations and persecutions. The daughter was right. If not us, right now, then who? When?
The next day we were again drumming in the square when the mother approached us with a gift. “A broom!” I exclaimed, for it looked almost like the small whisk brooms I had used so often in my old life and that the witches had been accused of using to fly to their gatherings. However, the handle was decorated with beautiful beads in a traditional pattern. “One just like it was used by the healer of the village where I grew up in her rituals,” the mother said. “With it, she whisks away the evil, the illness, and brings wholeness, love, and peace to the village. Now I make them as decorations to sell to support my family, but this one is for you, as thanks.”
Today I again walked up to the mountain and fell on my knees to breathe her into me in gratitude for being alive in this century. We witches of so long ago, we remember so much from so many centuries, and now I knew why we had to come back at this time, why it had to be us.
The extinct birds flying over the wasteland give hope that nature can heal herself if we would only stop ravaging her. The geyser offered one last opportunity for humans to provide life for one another by bringing water back to the ecosystem in a way that slakes everyone’s thirst. The planets changing their course caused all the Earth to gaze in wonderment together towards the same night sky, one planet in unity.
I had waited 500 years for this moment to happen, for this woman to come to the village square where so much had happened to me so long ago, so that I could remember and invite her to dance, so that her daughter could learn to dance and teach women of the future. I waited 500 years because I, like so many other women, had through our hardships and sacrificed decades of life come to love the Earth and all those who dwelled on her so much that we were willing to give up our places in heaven and roam as spirits for centuries so that we could be present here when we were needed.
I lay down upon the mountain’s skin. Now that I have done what was meant to do, will I turn to dust and disappear into the soil, as my body did where it was flung in a hole in the sacred ground so long ago? Will I live out my years as if I had been born into the 21st century? What will happen to all of us who have come back? Love is eternal, love for that woman and her daughter and her great-granddaughters, love for the land, love of my friends in this time and so long ago. So perhaps it does not really matter. Are you one of us? Do you know?
For many years I’ve wondered at the sudden resurgence of women’s spirituality at just the moment in history, and thought of the nine million women who perished in the Burning Times and said to myself “hmmm…” Then I heard Julie Felix’s The Burning Times, with its line “She is the weaver, we are the web, we are the witches back from the dead” and decided maybe it was time for a story… so, this story comes with grateful thanks to Julie and her song.