The Passing of the Hat: A Halloween Story
By J. L. Thurston
THE HARVEST MOON HANGS HEAVY in the velvet embrace of the sky. Near the curled shoes of Bella Baker, a toad jumps into taller grass. The song of crickets rises and falls. The crisp air of Samhain finds all exposed flesh and gives it a little nip, just enough to remember that one is alive.
Using her broomstick as a cane, Bella’s tired legs shuffle forward step by step through the gloom and the mist. A nearby stream babbles steadily. The toad’s home, no doubt. He croaks a quick farewell though he is already out of sight. Bella cannot help but send him off with an echoing croak. She has always been fond of toads.
The road ends at the heavy wooden door of a stone cottage. A masterfully crafted wreath dons the wood and kisses the air with warm cinnamon, vibrant lavender, and fresh lemon. It encircles the brass knocker and nearly conceals the lamb’s blood beneath it. All steps had been made the morning before to banish evil from this place. The moment Mary announced her baby was coming.
Bella uncurls her fingers and they reach for the door handle, resembling closely the gnarled and bare branches of the old oak that looms over the cottage. It is painful for her to turn her wrist, but she does so without complaint. The last five years had been difficult, and her spells have suffered as much as her health.
As the door groans open, she is greeted with many sensations. The first, and most noticeable of which, is the strained screams from the corner. She feels the heat of the fireplace and hears it pop and sizzle, hissing away the remnants of the autumn chill. Supper is gone, but the baked bread and roast lamb lingers in the air like ghosts.
Bella searches for Mary, but her cloudy vision is obscured by three of her sisters, who envelope her with warm and shaking embraces. Tonight has been long-coming, but still feels too sudden. Bella is the last of the coven to arrive, it seems. She musters a gentle smile for every sister she can see. Her eyes are watering, and it isn’t from the mist that drifts up from the large pot and hovers around the wood beams of the ceiling.
Two of her sisters take her broomstick from her and lean it against the wall, allowing it to join the neat row of others similar to it. Bella’s eyes linger on her broomstick. Goodbye, old friend. She knows the new owner, who seems determined to come late, will treat it well.
After the blessing of white sage and salt, Bella receives her gifts. Encircled on the star painted on the round table are five tokens. A sachet for luck, rose quartz to know the love her sisters feel for her, a rose branch to keep evil away, a purple candle to see through the veil, and a white feather dipped in magnolia oil for peace. She accepts them all, one by one, and carefully places them into the pockets of her robe. She allows a single tear to fall.
Ginger, her oldest sister by blood and pact, takes her hand and walks her to the corner of the cottage. There, on all fours, dressed only in a hanging white smock, is Mary, the second-to-youngest sister. Sweat covers her body, running rivers down her face. Sara and Juliette attend her closely. Poor Sara’s hands must be numb from the constant wringing.
Ginger explains quietly to Bella that Mary has been laboring beyond her strength, and time is running out. She’s already lost more blood than usual, and the baby is not progressing. Bella listens with a calm expression. She has seen many of her sisters deliver, some are difficult, but with the right knowledge they all can be successful.
Bella leaves her gathered sisters to examine the cupboard on the wall. Her hands, moments ago nearly too stiff to turn the door handle, nimbly select what she needs. Cradling her items like a newborn, she shuffles to Mary and painfully descends to her brittle knees. She plucks a purple stone and presses it into Mary’s hand.
Sweat covers her body, running rivers down her face. Sara and Juliette attend her closely. Poor Sara’s hands must be numb from the constant wringing.
“Amethyst dear,” she says. “Now let it take your weakness away.”
Mary’s eyes close and her breathing slows. She leans back into a more settled position, pressing her hot back on the cool stone wall of the cottage. She continues to push, but it is controlled, her fingers wrapped around the stone and pressing her fists to her forehead. She is strong once more.
Bella lifts the damp smock and exposes the taught skin of Mary’s belly. As the burden inside her heaves and shifts, Bella empties a vial of sandalwood oil onto her flesh and spends some time massaging it in.
“For new life, for healing, for strength.”
Then she carefully puts her feet beneath her and rises, straightening her back to much painful protesting of bones. She forces her feet toward the nearby table and the water basin that was waiting. The last item resting in the crook of her arm is a sack of sea salt. She pours it into the water and submerges her hand, feeling the crystals float around her fingertips. She slowly stirs the water clockwise under the gaze of all her sisters and chants.
“Tree of Life,
Earth and water,
Come now to us,
Blessed coven daughter.”
Mary’s abdomen contracts, she pushes with the might only a mother can possess, and a tiny cry shatters the world.
The relief is tangible. The sisters at once pass the babe around before resting her on her mother’s chest. Tears are falling, blessings are underway.
Bella rests all her weight on the table for a moment. She could feel it happening. A new life has come to the coven, and an old one moves on. The basin of sea salt leaves space on the table for only one more item. She reaches up and removes her hat, placing it gently on the table beside the bowl. She plucks a single gray hair from her head and tucks it into the purple ribbon, just as all the previous owners of the hat had done.
Mary allows Sara to take the baby to be cleaned and swaddled. She places the baby inside Bella’s hat and returns her to her mother’s breast. The hat has been passed.
The coven turns to face the empty space of the cottage. All that remains of their old, departed sister is her broomstick and hat, and a small pile of dust where she once stood.