Friday, July 19, 2019

Jory's Grove by David W. Landrum

A powerful witch is called upon to help protect a group of young girls who are dabbling with forces they do not understand; by David W. Landrum.

As a strega, Alessia knew that there were still places in the world where the natural and the supernatural intersected. There were portals or, as she had once read in Neil Gaiman's novel, Neverwhere, places that had a lot of time, where all the time did not get used up, and so one encountered "bubbles" of it here and there. If you entered such a site you would end up in the period and era the bubble contained. Such places had always existed. And they did not just contain time.

The problem began when a group of young women in her community began going to one such place and engaging in what they thought was occult practice. A mother of one of the girls came to Alessia and told her what was going on.

"My daughter, Angela, and her friends are going out to Jory's Grove," the mother told her.

"Why are they going there?

"Oh, you know: they got into the occult - wicca and all that. They're into casting spells - the whole shebang. It's a phase and a fad, but that place... well, I've heard it's really haunted. And I don't like them going there at night."

"What do you want me to do?"

"I don't know, Alessia. Maybe you could warn them; or at least warn my daughter." She leaned in and lowered her voice (though they were in a private room at Alessia's home and there was no need to do so). "Maybe you can scare them. Maybe a story about what lurks out there would work. They'll believe you. Angela has told her friends you are a strega."

"I'll talk to her," Alessia said.

After Rosetta Drago left, Alessia found a manila folder with $10,000 cash on her dining room table. The Drago family had money.

She pondered what Rosetta had asked her to do. She could return the money. She could refuse the request. But as a strega she had an obligation to serve the community. Tradition required her to respond to the petition of one who sought her power - and this tradition had continued over a thousand years.

At first, the girls would not meet with her.

Alessia had not expected this, but then, thinking it through, she realized it was because they knew that Angela's mother was behind the proposed parley and that made it "uncool." She had to find a way to meet with them. She could not know what to do unless she talked to the girls and assessed what was going on.

After some thought, she consulted her crystal and found out this particular group of young ladies met between classes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at Deja Brew, a local coffee bar. She would meet with them there. But she would have to play the right card to get them to talk with her.

The card she decided she would play involved appearance. Alessia went shopping for new clothes, had her hair styled, wore a very short leather skirt she had recently bought, a stylish top, and harlot boots. She was slender and pretty. She could not use magic to make this group of high schools girls listen, but she could use their regard for how good a person looked as a way to interact with them. The magic, possibly, would come later.

She walked into the Deja Brew coffee bar and saw them sitting at a booth. Angela looked up. Alessia waved, went to the counter, and ordered a café miel. She heard a low buzz of conversation coming from the booth where the girls were sitting but could not make out the words. After she finished paying, she started to sit at one of the free-standing tables. Then she heard Angela.

"Alessia, do you want to sit with us?"

She turned, smiled, and said she would be delighted. Her ruse had worked. They all gave her admiring looks as she sat down.

"Angela, introduce me to your friends," she said.

The friends were Tatyana Collins and Gianna Passanetti.

The group of women sipped coffee and talked. The younger ones complimented Alessia on her appearance. She asked them about school and their plans after graduation. Tatyana was a senior, Gianna and Angela juniors. All of them had plans for college: Angelia wanted to be a doctor, Gianna a mathematician, Tatyana a business manager. The conversation continued pleasantly, then Angela changed the direction, saying "My Mom wants you to talk with us, doesn't she?"

Alessia had to tell the truth.

"Yes."

"About what? About us going to the grove?"

"That's what she wants me to talk with you about."

"Did she say we were casting spells?"

"She told me that."

"Well, it isn't true. We're trying to contact the spirits there."

Alessia tried to hide her alarm. It was worse than she or Rosetta had imagined.

"Why do you want to do that?" she asked.

At first the girls looked nonplussed. They probably had not really thought it through.

"Well, you can get power like that," Angela, who had done most of talking so far, said.

Alessia looked at the other two girls. "Gianna, Tatyana, what do you think?"

They agreed with Angela. Tatyana said it was cool to be in contact with spirits and said she was learning wicca from a friend.

Alessia was going to say it was dangerous to contact spirits, but Angela spoke first.

"Really, it's about getting laid," she said.

Alessia blinked.

"Are you a virgin?" Tatyana asked.

After a short pause, and knowing she could not seem intimidated by the girls, she replied, "I'll answer your question, Tatyana, but I want to know why you're asking me that."

"You're a strega. Strega are good witches, not bad witches, so we were wondering if you had to take a vow to get into doing what you do - you know, like a nun."

They all had their eyes fixed on Alessia.

"No, we don't take any kind of vow; and, yes, I've been around the block a few times. I'm not a virgin."

"Really?" Gianna asked.

"They can't lie," Angela put in. "They've got to tell the truth. It's one of their rules."

"Okay, then," Tatyana continued. "We go to Jory's Grove to get help from the spirits."

"What kind of help?"

"Help, so we don't get pregnant."

Now it was Alessia's turn to be nonplussed.

"Okay - but I think you girls know there are things you can do so you don't get pregnant."

"We know that, but things can go wrong. Condoms can slip or break, and because we're not adults we can't get diaphragms or the pill or IUDs."

"We've started sleeping with guys," Angela said. "Though not Gianna - she hasn't done it yet. We went into the grove to contact the spirits there and get them to help us not get pregnant. And the spirits there are women. We've seen them."

Alessia knew the spirts there were women. This was more serious than she had imagined. She pondered a long moment and decided to give the caution she had considered giving. She spread her hands on the table.

"Girls, you are treading on dangerous ground - and I'm not just trying to scare you. Contacting spirits is dangerous. There are different types of spirits, and the ones you've gotten in contact with are ancient and powerful. It's not safe to contact them."

"Why not?" Gianna asked.

"As I said, they're ancient and powerful."

"So?"

"They might decide to take you. They might want you."

"For what?"

"For their purposes. They might want you as a servant. You would go to their realm and be lost forever to your family and everything else you know. Girls, I'm laying my cards on the table - face up. Don't go into that wood anymore."

"You've been there, haven't you?" Angela asked.

She had correctly informed the other girls. A strega could not lie.

"I have been."

"Weren't you afraid they might have taken you?"

"I don't think they could have. I have power. But you don't. If one of them wants one of you, they'll take you and you'll be gone. It will be like you died. No one here - in this realm - will ever see you again."

Gianna spoke: "But if they took one of us, wouldn't it be kind of like going to heaven?"

"Not exactly."

"I think it would be cool to live in the spirit world," she said.

Angela took out her phone to look at the time. "We've got to go," she said. "We'll arrange to talk with you again, Alessia."

"I'm ready to talk anytime. Just promise me you won't go into Jory's Grove until after we talk again."

"We'll talk about it and decide what we want to do. Thanks, Alessia."

They all hugged her and thanked her for her advice. Angela and Gianna, who were Italian, kissed her and then the three of them headed out the door.

Alessia sat there and sighed. She took a sip of her miel. It had gone cold. She used a tiny spurt of magic to heat it up. There was only one thing to do. She would have to speak with the goddesses/spirits. She would have to find out if the three girls with whom she had just spoken were in any sort of danger.



Alessia dealt with the spirit world only occasionally, and she did not like to do so. Strega used their power to help, to heal, to protect. Association with the spirit world occurred rarely. But in the matter of the girls, she could not avoid it.

She consulted her crystal. Sprits were active in the grove; their power was considerable. And they had noticed the girls. Their ceremonies in the grove had attracted attention.

A strega drew upon the power accrued for a thousand years, passed on through their successors. The magic they wielded was considerable. But the girls had made themselves vulnerable. It would not be a contest of power. It would involve higher matters: will, vows, intention, the protection of souls. She sensed that when she met the goddesses it would not be a fight but a legal hearing - one of an eternal nature involving souls. This frightened her more than combat.

That night, as dusk settled, she drove to the edge of the wood, parked in a public lot, and walked into the City Park adjacent to Jory's Grove.

She wore her mantle, an ancient cloak, made in the year 997, miraculously preserved, passed from strega to strega, and worn by the 227 women in the 1000-year succession of which Alessia was the current inheritor. She wore it over a long-sleeved blouse, a short denim skirt, and boots, since the woman wearing it was required to dress in the fashion of the time in which she lived, wearing the cloak over her contemporary garments.

She passed a sign that said PARK CLOSES AT DUSK. She saw no vehicles in the lot. Alessia followed the paved walkways. Darkness deepened. After a ten-minute walk she came to a wooden post fence and a sign that said PARK ENDS. Beyond it rose the massive trees of Jory's Grove.

The locals had named it, though no one in town knew who Jory was or how the wood got its name. Alessia knew it was named for Jorth, the Norse goddess of Earth, and that the wood was sacred. She sometimes came there.

Alessia climbed the fence.

The grove was protected as a wilderness site. No one knew who owned it, but payment of the property taxes on it dutifully arrived each year with a return address in Sweden. Old growth trees rose up, massive, hundreds of years old. Their thickness shut out light so that there was hardly any undergrowth in the forest. One could easily make one's way around the trunks. In the center of the grove, a clearing sat.

People generally avoided the place. Some said it was haunted. Often such local legends brought about exploration, and its remoteness might have made it a place for people to come for romance, to build a campfire and tell ghost stories or do drugs. But Jory's Wood did not invite such activity. Remote, silent, dark, it inspired genuine fear in people. Those who had gone there said it was "creepy." It lay outside phone reception. If you left your vehicle past hours on the lot that served the park, the police would tow it away and wait for you on suspicion you were engaging in some sort of illegal activity (which was why Alessia had parked in a public lot a half mile away). For all of these reasons, people stayed away from the wood.

You stayed away, she thought, unless you were a strega. Alessia had come here before on a summer night for a special purpose.

As she moved deeper into the grove, she reflected on how easy it was to characterize the girls she with whom she had spoken as silly-headed, dazzled with the first impulses of sexuality, hormone-driven, a little hot-to-trot. But Alessia remembered herself at their age, dressing provocatively and going with Vince, her boyfriend, to a coffee house where she made it clear (though in a round-about way) that she was ready - and willing. She said the safest place for them to do it would be Jory's Grove.

He laughed. "That's kind of out-of-the-way?"

"So much the better," she said.

The two of them drove down to the public lot, parked, and walked to the municipal land, wandering past families enjoying the warm summer weather, picnicking, hiking, throwing frisbees and baseballs, the children playing on platforms. They looked like two hikers with backpacks. The backpacks contained blankets and washcloths in plastic bags so she and Vince could clean up afterwards, and a bottle of wine to drink afterwards in celebration. They slipped over the fence, wove their way through the barrier of Boy Scout-planted pines at the limit of the park, and headed into the grove.

Alessia had completed her novitiate and had been consecrated as a strega only three months earlier. Consulting her crystal, she had found out the most auspicious date for losing her virginity. She and Vince worked deeper into the wood until they came to the clearing. Properly, it was Freya's Circle, though that spirit/goddess never came there.

Vince looked around.

"Wow. This is cool."

Alessia put her arms around him.

"It's going to get cooler real soon." She kissed him and smiled. "Or maybe we should say, it's going to get quite a bit hotter."

Alessia did not use magic that day. They might have been discovered. She might have gotten pregnant (though she had gone on the pill to avoid that). She wanted the experience to be natural and not influenced by magic in any way.

Strega were required by the rules of their order to have at least one child. Paradoxically, the child, if a girl, could not inherit the position or learn magic.

Her first time was there, in the circle in the center of the grove.

None of the goddesses showed up that day. It only hurt a little at the beginning, and after a while, she did some of the things her experienced friends had told her to do. She rotated her hips and hooked her legs over his. Vince, who had had slept with other women, was considerate, kind, easy and gentle with her her first time. She smiled when she understood as much and, as she thought on the sweetness of how he was embracing her, got her joy, gasping and giving a shout of happiness as the spasm ran through her body.

Afterwards, they lay together in silence. Then they began to talk and laugh. They cleaned up, dressed, and got out the bottle of wine. Alessia remembered how happy she was that day. She knew, too, that the goddesses were watching them and had enjoyed what they saw. They would bless her in the future years.

She and Vincent had dated since then. They had continued their intimate relationship, though they had never moved in together. He was talking more and more about marriage lately. Her magic had not yet told her the most auspicious date for them to be wed.

All the more reason, Alessia thought as she moved deeper into the grove and to the circular clearing where it had happened nine years ago, not to upset the spirits now.

As Alessia walked toward the open area, she knew the real reason people said the place was "creepy" and foreboding. The numinous presence of the goddesses - Jorth, mother of Thor, the goddess who embodied earth, and Nótt, her mother, goddess of night and wealth - frightened people away.

They were present tonight - both of them. There would be a confrontation.

She also sensed the girls were somewhere near.

Alessia continued threading her way through the towering trees. She saw deer sleeping in a heap for warmth and passed racoons, feral cats, a bobcat, and a small pack of coyotes. They did not fear her because they could sense the power she bore and knew it was not malicious and that she meant them no harm. Crickets and peepers set up a din. Bats swooped. Animals she could not see scurried in the black spaces between trees and skittered in the branches above. After ten minutes of walking, she came to the clearing.

The goddesses were there.

Jorth, tall and strong, big-boned, hair the color of red earth, eyes blue as the sky, stood next to another figure who had to be her mother, Nótt. She wore a black cloak and had skin like India ink. It coruscated with sharp patterns of white light. Her long hair fell down her back. It seemed to sparkle with stars.

These were primal goddesses, from eternity, from the days of creation. She knew it would be improper for her to speak first.

"You are welcome here, mortal," Nótt said.

"Thank you, Lady Goddess."

"You have a great deal of power," Jorth observed. "Have you come here to oppose us?"

"No. I have come here to plead for the young women who have attracted your attention by visiting this spot."

"They called upon us," Jorth said, "not we upon them."

"They are children."

By this she meant they were young, foolish, and did not know the gravity of what they had done.

"Two are experienced. We don't care about these," Nótt said. "It is the virgin girl we want."

Cold fear seized on Alessia.

"You want her, my Lady?"

"My daughter wants her. She need a serving woman for her bedchamber."

Alessia's mouth was dry. She licked her lips.

"As I said -"

"The maiden has expressed her desire to serve me," Jorth said, "and given herself in pledge. We are here simply to grant her desire."

"She is a foolish girl who does not know what she is doing." Alessia began to feel desperate.

"She is a comely young woman," Nótt answered, "who is pleasing to our eyes - and a maiden who can serve in purity, as is required of a servant of the bedchamber."

"I'm here to plead for her -"

"Your plea," Jorth said, "is not in accordance with the girl's desire. She has already given herself. This conversation is pointless. We are here to grant what she has stated as her will - and you are at the point of being impudent."

Alessia saw she had come too late to rescue Gianna.

"Yes, Lady Goddess. I'm sorry if my words gave offence."

She smiled. "No offence. I like your spirit."

In the absence of their speech, the sound of insects, tree frogs, and creeping animals filled the starry night. The moon, symbol of Artemis, the chaste goddess of the wood and of the hunt, shone brightly above.

"You should go," Nótt said after a time. "My blessing upon you, young woman."

Alessia understood this was a blessing but also an order to depart. Two wolves appeared - wolves did not live in this area of Michigan. They stood on either side of her. She bowed and departed from the circle. The wolves trotted along with her, one of either side, and stopped, tails wagging and tongues lolling like friendly dogs, when they came to the limit Jory's wood.

She reached down, petted and scratched them. As dogs do, they responded with delight to her caresses. Alessia climbed through the fence and walked away from the dark, mysterious wood, the place of spirits, the portal between the world of mortals and the spirit world.



The next day, Gianna Passanetti's parents reported her missing. The authorities rolled out all the mechanisms for finding her. The city police notified the FBI. Have You Seen Me? posters went up all over town. Alessia knew she would never be found. She now lived in the house of the Goddess Jorth, a servant, consigned to perpetual virginity like a nun or a temple maiden. Her desire to "get laid" would never be fulfilled. She would live in a place "kind of like heaven," but for her it would be anything but paradise.

No one questioned Alessia about the matter. Angela and Tatyana did not mention their conversation with her in Deja Brew. She wondered if they did not want anyone to know they had been calling on spirits or if the goddess had expunged the meeting from their minds. They did say the three of them had gone to Jory's wood to tell ghost stories and "get scared." A search of the place revealed no traces of Gianna - though they did find her car in the lot of the city park.

A few weeks after Gianna's disappearance, Rosetta Rubo sent her a note saying Angela had stopped dabbling in the occult, had been faithfully attending church, and looked forward to college next fall.

"I knew you would help us out," she said when Alessia saw her at the food market where they both shopped. Her face was lit with a happy smile. Hidden in her statement was the assumption that Alessia's magic had helped. The community of people who believed in her power deemed it improper to directly refer to magic or the supernatural.

A week after, Alessia went with Vince to Traverse City for a long weekend. Swimming in Lake Michigan, seeing the sights of that beautiful part of the state, and visiting the many wineries there would be a balm to the hurt the incident with Gianna had given her. She had, she told herself, at least tried to help. She told Vince she would pay all the expenses for their trip north.

She would use the money Rosetta had given her.

3 comments:

  1. Excellent tone to the story. It came across as ominous, serious and a little spooky. Well done.

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  2. A strange mix of the modern and the arcane... dont mess with Jorth and Nott!

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  3. Nice sense of age and mystery. I was struck by the age of the strega's mantle and how often that changes hands...made me wonder why a strega only keeps the mantle for about 4.5 years on average.

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