Caredig by Katie Bennett-Davies

It’s Samhain. An important time of celebrations for the village, marking the harvest’s end and arrival of darker months. The village buzzed with bonfire and feast preparations. Everyone was excited. Everyone except Gwenni. 
     Gwenni rolled a conker against the wall. It bounced back as though the corn doll leaning against the wall was part of the game. Finally, she had someone to play with. She’d picked a corn sheaf to make into the doll, as was traditional. Mami allowed her a piece of precious red material to wrap Caredig in.
     ‘Caredig?’ Her mother frowned. ‘You’re not supposed to name the doll, Gwenni. We’ll be burning that at the ceremony tonight to set the spirit free.’
     Mami faffed about with unimportant table decorations, adjusting a pinecone or an acorn among the table's seven settings. Six for the family, the seventh left empty for any spirits wishing to join them.
     ‘What if I didn’t burn her?’ 
     ‘We always burn the dolls to release the spirits at harvest’s end,’ Mami replied in the tone reserved only for Gwenni’s questions.  Having finished the table, she moved straight onto the turnip lanterns. Using a sharp knife, she carved into the vegetable’s tough flesh, creating a pretty pattern. 
     Making the lantern was the one task Gwenni wouldn’t have minded doing, but she was only allowed to offer design ideas. ‘But just say if we didn’t…’ If she had to be stuck indoors, she was at least going to get some answers. 
     ‘You do ask such odd questions. It’s never happened, but I can’t imagine the spirits would take well to that. We must all play our part. They have helped us in growing our crops, and now it’s time for us to thank and release them. It’s the order of things. It’s tradition.’
     Gwenni screwed up her face, blending her many freckles together. Her brothers teased that one day her freckles would merge into one giant smear. Mami pleaded with her to wear a hat to protect her fair skin, but Gwenni hated how the hat blocked her view. She loved the outside, getting away from the adults and boys. Several times she had tried to join in the boys’ games, but they told her to go away, insisting she was just a girl.  
     Gwenni was used to being by herself. Other girls, uninterested in climbing trees nor being her friend, had nice sleek hair. Every morning Mami roughly pulled Gwenni’s straggly chestnut hair into a tight plait that hurt her head, but she returned home in the evening with most of it broken free. As Mami soaked stains out of Gwenni’s dresses, she questioned what on earth she got up to. 
     Mami was busy with yet another task, no longer paying attention to Gwenni. Perhaps she could sneak out of the house and escape to the woods. She’d show Caredig the birds, the trees, the flowers, even the moss. 
     It was better to be alone in the woods than inside, but the feeling that it would be nice to share this with someone tugged at her heart. Someone just as fascinated by the scurry of the wildlife and who wouldn’t recoil at bugs.
     Grabbing her coat from the hook, she placed Caredig in the pocket. Mami made no attempt to stop her, not even turning around. Whether because she wanted the girl out of her way or she didn’t notice, Gwenni didn’t mind. Now was her chance. With only a few hours until the bonfire, she’d better hurry.

#
That evening, bonfire flames danced, orange hues grew as more of the wood caught. Surrounded by the hum of other people’s chatter, Gwenni was preoccupied with the joy of her own day. Her secret day with Caredig. In the seclusion of the forest, hours had flown by as they climbed trees and crunched the fallen leaves under their feet. Gwenni had shown Caredig her favourite things, including her favourite tree. Not so much a tree anymore as a collapsed trunk – but was covered in life. The trunk was felted in moss, white mushrooms dotted between the ivy winding itself around the dead wood. They sat on its cushioned surface, a bench made just for them, and listened to the forest’s chorus. ‘Good evening, all,’ boomed a man’s voice. Gwenni jumped, pulled from her own thoughts. The crowd cheered in response, but Gwenni remained in sombre silence. The crackle and pops of the fire reminded her what would soon happen to Caredig. Looking at the doll, tears pricked at the corner of her eyes. She’d only had a few hours with her new friend. Would it be so terrible to keep Caredig? But, what if it angered the spirits and the whole village starved? ‘What a wonderful harvest we’ve had,’ the man continued, his cheeks red and words slurring from mead. ‘The spirits have been good to us and we must now set them free.’ Time’s up. It’s now or never. Gwenni pulled her shawl tighter, concealing Caredig in the warmth of her chest as she did so. People broke away from their individual groups and moved towards the fire, ushering children to the front. The other children brandished their dolls, ready to burn. Gwenni kept Caredig concealed under her shawl as those struggling to the front jostled her. Her heart thumped faster and faster. Resisting the urge to run, she slowly retreated into the darkness. When she reached a clearing, Gwenni pulled Caredig out. With only the moon for light, she could hardly see her friend. Gwenni shivered, away from the fire she was now fully exposed to night’s chill and sober to the gravity of her actions. If Mami knew she’d say, consequences, Gwenni. Always consequences for our actions. She buried her face into her shawl and sobbed. Why couldn’t she be like the other girls? Her tears streamed into the rough wool. Taking a deep breath, she wiped her tears away. A whisper in the wind. Be brave. When her eyes cleared, a woman stood before her. Despite the dark night, the woman shone brightly, as though she was herself a source of light. Her long-burnt orange hair like the leaves that fell from the trees and carpeted the forest floor. Her cape was holly berry red, just like the material Gwenni had picked out for her doll. Where was her doll? It had disappeared from her hands. Had she dropped it? ‘Hello, Gwenni.’ The woman’s kind emerald eyes sparkled when she smiled. Her voice was soft but not timid. Gwenni knew the voice, but she couldn’t quite place it.’...Caredig?’ The woman’s eyes pinched together as her generous smile widened to reach them. She nodded. ‘That’s right. Shall we take a walk in the woods again?’ They walked in silence, as they had earlier in the day. This time Gwenni wasn’t at peace, her thoughts whirled as she tried to understand what was happening. Was she dreaming? Caredig’s cape swept along the floor with her graceful steps, and yet it didn’t move the leaf debris, nor did it become dirty in the wet mud. A fox appeared from behind a tree. Gwenni stopped still. Unlike the other villagers, she loved foxes. The fox moved closer to them, majestic with its upturned nose and measured strut. Gwenni stared, open mouthed as Caredig reached out to touch its ginger fur. ‘Would you like to touch him, too?’ Taking light, cautious steps so as not to startle the animal, Gwenni held her breath as she touched the fox’s velvet fur. ‘You are beautiful.’ Satisfied, the fox trotted off back into the shadows of the trees. Gwenni watched its snow-tipped bushy tail disappear into the night. ‘He knew we weren’t a threat,’ Caredig replied, reading Gwenni’s thoughts. ‘I’m not a threat, but they usually run away from me.’ ‘Keep practising your gifting and they won’t.’ ‘My gifting?’ She was more confused than ever. ‘Haven’t you noticed you’re not like everyone else? You’re connected with nature. You sing to the trees and talk to the animals. Most people only see the world before them, but you know much more than that.’ Hot tears pricked at Gwenni’s eyes again but not out of sadness. Caredig stopped at their special fallen tree and sat on the trunk. ‘Sit here a little while,’ she motioned for Gwenni to join her. ‘This has been the best day. I’m so glad we’re together. I don’t even care if this is a dream…But will you have to go again?’ ‘I’m not really a person,’ Caredig replied, speaking in riddles. Gwenni nodded. ‘Do you have to leave though?’ ‘Tonight on Samhain, the spirits move freely between realms so you can see me. That doesn’t mean the spirits aren’t always around though.’ ‘But you’re the only one I can talk to. No one else comes to the woods with me – they laugh at me. And, the fox. He wouldn’t come near other people, they would want to hurt him. No one else understands, Caredig. I’ll be all alone again.’ Taking Gwenni’s face in her hands, Caredig replied, ‘you’re never alone. You’re surrounded by the spirits in the woods. Don’t you feel them? Don’t you hear them sing with you?’ Gwenni closed her eyes, trying to make sense of Caredig’s words. Her mind flooded with stories about Mabon and the Ellyllon. They weren’t just stories, they were true. She was beginning to understand. Caredig wasn’t a doll she created but an ancient spirit. And she wasn’t the only spirit. ‘You’ve been here before. I didn’t introduce you to the woods,’ Gwenni said, eyes fully open now. ‘So, you’ll come back?’ ‘Yes, I and all the other spirits inhabit the unseen realm,’ Caredig said. ‘Only on Samhain can you see us, but we’re here always.’ ‘Then I didn’t need to worry about burning my doll. Will the spirits be angry with me?’ ‘No, it’s an odd ceremony that mortals have created, but it helps them understand. As you see, I didn’t need you to burn the corn to set me free. It is the order of things. The cycles of the seasons.’ ‘Yes,’ Gwenni replied. ‘Some days the forest seems busier, even though it’s only me here.’ ‘During the summer some spirits are at work on the crops and the flowers, but--’ ‘But with the harvest done, you return here,’ Gwenni finished. ‘It’s rare for mortals to enter the forest in the winter.’ ‘Except for me!’ Gwenni laughed. ‘That’s right,’ said Caredig, echoing with a gentle chuckle. ‘It’s time for you to go back to the bonfire now, but remember, what you see with your eyes isn’t the whole world.’ As she finished speaking, Caredig began to fade into the night sky. Gwenni smiled at the blank space. ‘I’m not alone.’

Katie Bennett-Davies lives in Cardiff with her husband and cat, Didi. Lockdowns were not her first experience of being housebound. But, her collection of chronic illnesses has allowed her to see the world from a different perspective. Something she uses to full advantage in her stories. She is also inspired by nature and celtic mythology. Katie is never knowingly serious. Sometimes her feet turn purple. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter as @kbennettdavies. Her non-fiction work has been published in several national magazines and websites, including Huffington Post, ITV, and Your Cat.

Twitter: @kbennettdavies

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