By Jhenah Telyndru
And at her keen the fairy-grass
Trembles on dun and barrow;
Around the foot of her ancient crosses
The grave-grass shakes and the nettle swings;
In haunted glens the meadow-sweet
Flings to the night wind
Her mystic mournful perfume;
The sad spearmint by holy wells
Breathes melancholy balm.
Sometimes she lifts her head,
With blue eyes tearless,
And gazes athwart the reek of night
Upon things long past,
Upon things to come.
– The Banshee, John Todhunte
Piercing the winter woods, the eerie wail was enough to make anyone believe in banshees. Rising and falling like the cruel February winds, the sound traveled over the frozen ground, passing unhindered through the branches of the leafless trees. It was a shattered sound… a broken sound… a sound that seemed to emanate from all places at once with an otherworldly strangeness.
It was a sound that was coming from my own throat.
What had brought me to the point where I found myself shivering in the darkness, the deep soul-pain ripping its way out of my body and into the startled night? Spending a night pouring through journal entries from that time, my almost illegible script wounding the yellowing pages with angry angles and deep black ink furrows, I am shocked into remembrance. The words rush across the paper, tumbling upon themselves in a torrent of agony, all the while desperately seeking to a-fix themselves to the page. Line after undulating line scream accusingly to me across the distance of time, “How could you have forgotten us!?! Once, we were all you had!”
The pages reek of musty storage and ancient incense smoke. I turn each sheet of impassioned witness and imagine them still damp from absorbing so many of my tears. Here, a sprig of mugwort – harvested at moon bright — is pressed between two pages, its spindly leaves as sharp as its still-strong sent, evoking deep memory. There — folded and protected by rice paper, a charcoal drawing of dark cloaked women silhouetted against a tangle of apple branches – returning me in spirit to a much loved ritual site, and sisters loved much more. Symbols call to me from every page, rendered in tentative pencil strokes, seeming to shift and change under my renewed gaze.
Such questions I had asked myself! Such longing and heartbreak and yearning to break free! Reading the words now, I feel like someone who has started the novel at its conclusion– I know now the full tapestry of what was then just unfolding – and it is almost painful to relive the stumbling steps toward understanding. One cannot fully appreciate all that goes into learning how to walk unless, by some happenstance, that ability is taken away. Hard-won, the ground I have covered between then and now, and I know I have farther still to go. Yet, this revisiting of my personal dark night of the soul has reinforced the direction of my journey, and I am thankful for the courage of the old me to have walked through that most difficult door.
Reading through strained stanzas of free-form poetry, I see how hard I struggled to release the burden my heart had been carrying. I had created talismans and projects… done fasts and elemental disciplines, and though I had made great progress, I could not unroot that great pain. Drained and frustrated, I must have worn my discouragement plainly, for at last a dear friend and sister sat down with me, and fixed me with her piercing blue eyes. “It is time,” Rebecca said, “to go into the woods.”
A long-time circle sister, Rebecca had recently become a roommate as well. I knew her well … loved and trusted her. Yet I distinctly remember feeling panicked at her suggestion, much like Snow White being propositioned by the Evil Queen’s woodsman. It was not the prospect of going into the forest which frightened me – we did it every Full Moon without a second thought. Rather, I think that the very something which had such an unyielding grip on my soul knew that whatever was to happen amid the Imbolc frozen trees would forever alter its poisoned hold on me. Whatever my fear, I agreed to go with her, my heavy heart sure that things could not possibly get any worse than where I currently stood.
The waning moon was with us, and we planned to go out the next night. Purposefully not telling me much of what to expect, Rebecca simply instructed me to dress warmly, pack some cleansing herbs to burn in my cauldron, and to bring an offering for the area. We got into her car and drove out to the nature preserve where we did our moon work. Parking along side the road, we slung our packs onto our backs, slipped through the gate and disappeared into the darkness. We found our familiar trail, but turned down a different side-path, deep into the wild overgrowth.
Pricker bushes tore at my clothes, resisting my passage through the heart of the forest. The sounds of the night bore down upon us, and my mist-marked breathing quickened as an unnamed fear engulfed me. Only Rebecca’s meaningful stride as she lead me through the maze of naked shrubs and stark bony trees kept me moving on my increasingly leaden feet. An owl jeered at me from overhead, its mocking tones sapping away the last of my resolve. What where we doing here? What did I think I would accomplish this night that months of work had failed to do?
Just as I was about to give in to my doubts and misgivings, Rebecca finally came to a stop and pulled her woolen cloak out of her pack. Doing the same, I looked at where she had taken us, and found that we were standing on the rim of circular indentation in the ground, carpeted with rotting brown and yellow leaves. One side of the depression was bounded by an enormous fallen tree that was covered with fungus and overgrowth; the forest had already begun to reclaim it.
Rebecca placed her hand on the largest of a copse of brooding birch trees, communing with those ghostly guardians of the area while I kindled the charcoal in my little cauldron. She motioned for me to give my offering, and I poured a libation of apple cider over the roots of the silvery birches. Jumping down into the sunken-in area, Rebecca held her hand up to help me slide down the incline to join her in the center of the natural circle. We set the cauldron in the middle, and burned some resinous poplar buds on the hot ember of the charcoal disk within. The sickly-sweet smoke swirled around us, as we took turns over the rim of the cauldron, cleansing and centering. We walked the perimeter of the depression, casting a circle of light around us.
When we were done with these familiar aspects of the ritual dance, Rebecca lead me back into the center of the circle. My heart was pounding fiercely in my chest as the whole of my world became focused in the now of this moment. She took my hands, trembling with cold and a little bit of fear, into her own and looked deeply into my eyes once more. “We’ve talked about all that is going on with you for a very long time. I see you trying to resolve this, to heal it, but it isn’t working. There is only one thing left for you to do. LET IT GO.”
“Let it go?” I repeated incredulously. “But that’s what I’ve been trying to do all of this time!” My lip began to tremble, and I knew I was going to start to cry.
“No. You’ve been trying to fix it… to make it all better. To do anything but have to close the door – to acknowledge that there is no way to change all that has happened. You cannot heal this because of how hard you are holding on. You can’t heal, you can’t change, you cannot even see this situation for what it truly is. You must let go… and you must do it now!”
Tears slid down my cheeks as I recognized the truth of what she was saying. “How?” I whispered desperately.
“Just give it voice. Just find it inside of you, and let it out with all the power of your voice.”
“Name it, you mean.”
“No… more basic even that that. You need to release the energy of it… all that is bottled up inside of you. Don’t get stuck in your mind with this – that’s been part of the problem. Reach down into your root and find it there. Don’t think — just do it”
I closed my eyes and tried to do as she said. A low and tentative tone vibrated in my throat, dying down into a self-conscious giggle.
“Come on, there’s much more in there than that! Let me help you to begin…” She raised her voice in full tone, holding the note long and clear. Emboldened, my voice jumped to meet hers. We toned together for some time, weaving the sounds into powerful dissonances and beautiful harmonies… opening our energy centers and breaking through hindrances. When we were done, we could still hear the sounds of our voices echoing through the forest, joined by the distant hooting of an owl.
Rebecca placed more herbs on the charcoal and stood to face me once more. “Now, take a few minutes to really connect with all that you have been carrying around with you. Fill yourself with the feeling and let it overtake you.” I closed my eyes and pulled up as much of the energy connected to my pain as I could. Rebecca quietly watched my breathing as I dug deeper and deeper into the dark well within me, spilling out over my cheeks and onto the ground.
After some time, she whispered, “Okay, let’s try this again. Repeat after me.” She let out a soft yet mournful sound, extending it into the darkness. Still feeling somewhat foolish, I mimicked the sound she had made. Over and over again she sighed and moaned, and I followed suit, slowly forgetting my discomfort and losing myself into the sounds. Her pitch changed and the sounds started to come faster, building one upon the other, sounding for all the world like a frenzied weeping. By this time, though, I didn’t need to follow her lead. Somehow, the sympathetic energies of what she was doing had triggered a resonance in me, and soon I was sounding out alone.
Rebecca stood in silent witness and grounded support as I was overcome by the moment. The wails of deepest sorrow… the railing screams of rage… the howls of grief and pain… I know not how long they lasted, but they drove me to knees, wracking my body with the power of their torrent. I rocked back and forth in time with my strange and inhuman keening, rising often to a crescendo of ear-splitting screaming. All the tears I had already shed were just runoff compared to the deep sea of despair that ebbed out of me that night. I had never cried so much or screamed so loud or rendered myself so completely vulnerable before another in my entire life.
When finally the last sobs subsided, I opened my swollen eyes to see Rebecca standing over me, her own eyes brimming full with tears. She extended a hand to help me to my feet, and encircled me in her arms. We hugged and wept softly for a few moments, before breaking away to face each other. I wiped my cold, wet face and took a deep cleansing breath. I felt so light… so clear and open! “Rebecca,” I breathed incredulously, “its gone! I’m…. I’m free!”
And I was.
“I know,” Rebecca said softly, “all of the darkness around your eyes is gone.”
I tried to thank her for holding the space for me, for accompanying me into the darkness of the woods and the deepest heart of my shadow. Yet, she would have none of it. “I could only do this for you because someone else once cared enough to do it for me.” Again, we wrapped ourselves in a sister’s embrace…
Gathering our things together, we headed back to the main path, but not before I thanked the area for receiving the energy of my release. In the still darkness, my only reply was the hooting of the owl which seemed to follow us back out of the black void of the overgrowth and into the edge of the preserve.
How incredible is the power of keening, that primal soul-cry releasing grief and guiding the shades of those that have passed into the next world! This ancient Celtic tradition has survived into modern times from its primeval Pagan origins, its magick in helping not only the departed souls, but those left behind with their loss. I had no doubt of the regenerative ability of keening, for that night a dead part of me was released into the Otherworld, carried by the unconscious shrieking torn unbidden from my raw throat.
My body was sore for several days afterwards; the corners of my mouth were cracked and bleeding, my abdominal muscles were stretched and achy, and my voice harsh and raspy. Yet the most startling after-effect became apparent that very night, when I was washing my face — a face made tight and blotchy from all of my weeping. I looked into the mirror and saw two rings of small red dots around the perimeter of my eye sockets; a path of pinpricked broken blood vessels attesting to the violence of my screams. Perhaps I should have been horrified, thinking of all of the questions I would have to answer about the reason for my appearance. Instead I smiled, seeing in my reflection the unmistakable mark of the eyes of the owl. Indeed, I had looked into the darkness that night, and emerged with my vision sharpened and my perspective widened. I wore those wounds with pride, for to me they were a hard-earned badge of great growth.
I close my journal, lost in remembering. I have not seen Rebecca in many years; she left for the West Coast, studying – appropriately enough – to become a midwife. I will never forget the gift she gave to me that night, chaperoning my progression through woundedness into wholeness. That one night was a turning point in my life, and in many ways, paved the way to my becoming the woman I am today. I learned to have faith in my process, to have courage in the face of my darkness, and to seek healing in the source of my deepest pain. But most importantly, I found strength in the power of Sisterhood – that bond of unconditional support which sees us through to the other side.
Wail no more, lonely one, mother of exiles, wail no more,
Banshee of the world–no more!
Thy sorrows are the world’s, thou art no more alone;
Thy wrongs, the world’s.
– The Banshee, John Todhunte
© 2005 Jhenah Telyndru
First published in Circle Magazine, Issue 43 Fall/Winter 2005