Run to the forest, to the rivers and the rocks
You'll find a green altar, deep in the moss
You'll find Water, Fire, and Smoke
With her long skirt pulled high above her knees, Tara's legs tore along the dirt path as she raced under the canopy of green. Above her, the breeze rustled through the leaves. She veered off onto a faint trail that led to an open area that was covered with dead leaves. They crackled slightly under her as she let herself fall to the ground, dropping her bag, which was made of old quilting scraps, down with her.
She tucked her head into one arm and let her feelings loose for a moment or two before she sat back up. As she wiped away the tears, Tara's gaze darted around nervously. He'd never followed her there before, but she was afraid that, with her mother gone, that might have changed. "A woman's place is in the kitchen," her father had said. "Barefoot and pregnant," Johnny had added with a laugh, but he'd got into trouble for that. It wasn't a proper thing to say before the womenfolk. Determination settled into Tara's jaw. She was more than they thought she was; she was worth something.
Needing to feel more settled, Tara took a deep breath as she raised her arms up and then back down again. No one was there to see her movement, as graceful as the lifting of wings. She looked over at the three rocks: the two that were about as long as one of her hands acted as legs to the third, which was twice as long and laid across the other two like a table top. Gazing at the altar settled her as almost nothing else could. Reaching her thoughts down into the earth, she felt the weight of her ancestors bones, solid as a rock, grounding her so that she'd never lose herself. No matter how far she strayed from their home.
Tara's thoughts turned to the first time her mother had brought her there. "Now you remember what I told you about sacred things," she'd said. "You have to be worshipful when you approach them. We're going to stop at the stream first, to cleanse ourselves, before approaching the altar."
Tara, nestled in the comfort of her mother's arms, had held out her hands and said, "Clean." Her mother had laughed at that. "Yes, you washed them back at the house but that's not the kind of cleansing I'm talking about here."
A red-winged blackbird chirped in the tree above, breaking Tara's reminiscence. "I'm sorry," she murmured towards the altar, feeling that her tears weren't respectful enough for a sacred place. Standing, less graceful than she'd been in her calming moment, Tara carefully picked her way around the plants as she walked to the stream. The water was shallow there, with the river bottom rising to create a natural dam, but she knew, because she'd gone swimming there with her mother often enough, that it was over her head just a few feet out. Placing both hands over her heart, she whispered, "Blessed are the waters that, flowing, take us on our paths." Cupping water in her hands, she washed it over her face three times and then, dipping her hands back in, she splashed water up and out so that it sparkled over the river. Watching the sunshine glisten on the drops as they arched through the air brought a tightness to her heart. Tara cradled one arm around herself and covered her mouth with the other as she thought about how her mother had loved the joining of river water and light.
Tara stayed there, rocking back and forth over her pain, until a memory weaved its way to the front of her thoughts. She and her mother had been sitting by the fireplace, alone in the house as they so often were. They'd made a game of turning out all the lights, and the darkness had made the house seem as if it were just small enough to hold the two of them and nobody else. It had been a comforting feeling but, even so, Tara, who had been just about to turn eight, had been complaining because winter had stolen away all the colors from the trees. "I want my birthday to be a pretty day," she'd grumbled. "It's all brown and muddy and icky!"
"Shh, child." Her mother's laughter had bubbled through as she spoke, and it was a friendly, shared thing, not laughing at, but laughing with. "It's all part of the cycle. Everything needs a chance to rest. The green will be back all that more powerful in the spring. You just wait for it."
"Won't make my birthday nice," Tara had said, kicking the floor with a foot.
"Well, what if we make it snow?"
"With magic?" Tara asked, her eyes alight with wonder.
"Mmmmmhmmmm," her mother affirmed. Tara took great care with the spell, working it exactly as her mother directed. Looking back, it seemed like she'd barely breathed, being so hopeful and anxious at the same time, for the whole hour it took for the spell to work. The snowflakes were like a magic all of their own, twinkling with the light off the porch. Sitting alone by the riverbank, Tara remembered looking up at the snowflakes gathered in her mother's eyelashes and the feeling she'd had that her mother could make anything better.
Carrying that feeling gently, Tara reached back down into the river and blessed herself with the water once again. Then, with a stately and determined air, she walked back to the altar, picking up the bag she'd dropped earlier. Closing her eyes, taking in the scent of the meadow flowers that her mother her used when she'd made her last batch of incense. Kneeling, Tara placed the incense and a candle reverently on the altar. Lighting the candle, she said, "Blessed is the fire, the sacred spark that dances within us all." She lit the incense from the candle, waited until she was sure it would continue to burn, and then blew it out. Scented smoke rose, riding the air currents in lazy twirls. "Blessed is the smoke, the union of earth and fire and air, which manifests our desires in the world."
Feeling as if time had stopped, or possibly that it had stretched out so far that the moment could last forever if she wanted it to, Tara ran a finger along the ragged edges of the altar. She was amazed, each and every time, by how sturdy it was. She'd been thirteen before she'd thought to ask where it came from. "Your great-grandma, Alice Mae, made this altar when she was just about your age. She was the first of our line to study magic, learning spells and such from an old herb woman who'd lived a few hills over. Alice had just come into her womanhood and felt the need to commemorate it," her mother had told her.
Such a great gift, Tara thought, wondering how she'd have the strength to leave anything half as marvelous behind if she uprooted herself. It's not an uprooting, came to her mind, clear and certain. I'll be taking the power of this place with me. It's a part of me, like the joy that's at the center of everything. Feeling grounded in her past again, Tara felt as if she could choose her own future. While her mother had never said so, Tara knew that her great-grandmother had gone against family expectations when she'd decided to study magic. It had taken courage and determination to do what she'd done, and, in that moment, Tara felt that she, too, had those qualities. She was certain her great-grandmother had made the right choice. While Tara didn't know if her decision was right or not, she knew she had to go.
Pulling out a small box, one her grandmother had carved from the fallen branch of a butternut tree, Tara opened it and gently stroked the hair inside. She'd never told her father or Johnny but, just before her mother had died, Tara, feeling that she couldn't go through life without some tangible connection to her, had cut off a lock of her mother's hair.
After carefully closing the box back up, Tara held it to her heart as she pulled some papers out of her bag. "I haven't told Dad. I haven't told anyone, but I've been accepted to University of California at Sunnydale. There's a scholarship and everything so I can just go and not be a bother to anyone." She looked around nervously. "I know Dad wants me to stay, but I just can't. It's not the same without you." Hiding the papers back in the bag, she added, "I'm not telling them. I'm just going to go. Dad, he," she stuttered, "he wouldn't want me to leave but staying here–" Looing around the woods, she said, "I love it, but I'm too small here. I need to leave. I need to find my own life. I just wanted you to know – to understand – why I won't be able to visit anymore."
The wind wrapped itself around her in a quick hug that was gone almost as soon as she knew it was there. Giving the butternut wood a squeeze, Tara smiled and said, "I love you too."