On Saturday mornings in Summer, the young boy liked to wake Nonna up early so that they could get to the farmers’ market just as the bell was ringing and people began to sell things. Nonna always gave him some money to spend and, if they were there when the bell rang, he wouldn’t have to stand in a long line at the doughnut lady’s stall, the one with the strange little machine, rolling hot doughnuts out and plopping them into the great big bowl of cinnamon sugar. And then he and Nonna could wander around, buying peaches, scuppernong grapes, okra, watermelon, nectarines, peaches, lettuce, and corn.
“Nonna,” the young boy said, “Why are you buying so much corn? We only need four ears for supper.”
“Well, I’m buying extra to make corn bread,” Nonna said.
“You use corn meal for that, don’t you?” he asked, biting into one of the peaches they’d bought at the last stand. A little bit of the cinnamon sugar that was left on his fingers got onto the peach and he loved the way that tasted.
“You’re right,” she replied, handing her money to the farm wife and smiling. The farm wife smiled back. “But when I make it at Lughnasadah, for my coven, I like to put whole kernels in the cornbread, too.” The farm wife’s face took on a pinched look. She placed the change on the table instead of handing it to Nonna and she almost spit out her words. “You have a ‘blessed’ day, you and that little boy.”
“Thanks,” Nonna said, smiling and picking up her change. “May the work of your hands be blessed, as well.”
“Nonna, what’s Lughnasadah?” the boy asked as they loaded their bags into Nonna’s little car. Nonna didn’t seem upset by the farm woman and so he wasn’t.
“Lughnasadah is one of the eight big holidays — we call them ‘Sabbats’ — on the Wheel of the Year. It’s the first of three feasts that are mostly about the harvest: Lughnasadah, Mabon, and Samhein.”
“That’s Halloween,” the boy noted proudly, buckling his seatbelt and putting the peach seed back into the bag of peaches. Nonna was always saying that she’d love to have a peach tree, so maybe she wouldn’t mind, and he didn’t know where else to put it.
“Right. And at Lughnasadah, we celebrate all the food that is being harvested: corn, and peaches, and tomatoes . . . .”
“Yuck. I don’t like tomatoes.”
“But you like tomato sauce on your pizza and catsup on your hamburgers. Lughnasadah is an old, old holiday that goes back to the time before our ancestors came to this land. The ancient Celts celebrated it.”
“It’s a funny word, ‘Lughnasadah,’” he said. “What does it mean?”
“Well, some people say that it was named for the Great God Lugh, or that the holiday was established by Lugh to remember how his foster-Mother, Tailtiu, worked so hard to clear farmland for her people that she died of the effort.”
“But what does it have to do with us?” the boy asked.
“How about if I tell you in a story?” Nonna asked.
A story sounded like a good way to pass the time on the ride from Nonna’s town, all the way across the Potomac River bridge, and all the way to his house, where his parents were waiting to take him to the pool. Nonna’s iPad was out of ‘juice,’ as Nonna called it, so there were no video games to be played. And, so, the boy said, “OK, I’d like a story,” and Nonna began:
Do you remember the young hero, older than seven but younger than twelve? Well, despite his adventures with his Viking ancestor, and the sea gull, and despite his time at the top of the magnolia tree with the phoenix, and despite his long Winter spent staring into the well, he still wasn’t sure what had given the trolls their foothold here. And he knew, from the phoenix, that until he could name the darkness, he wouldn’t be able to heal his land.
“I remember,” the boy said. “He saw some ships and when he saw what was inside them, it frightened him. And then you said that you’d tell me that story on a warmer day. And today is warm.”
And, it was. So warm that he was wearing shorts, and a light Pokemon t-shirt, and flip flops. So warm that Nonna had bought, at the last stall, some iced tea to put into her Mason jar cup, so warm that she had the air conditioning on instead of the windows rolled down, so warm that he was going to go swimming when he got home. So today was a good day for Nonna to tell him the tale she had said was for a warmer day.
“Well,” Nonna continued,
the hero was frightened, but by now he’d learned to look deeply at frightening things. And so, after a moment, he looked again into the well. He saw people chained up like cargo, down in the hold of the boat. He saw one starving woman, in particular, pregnant and due, in a month or so, to give birth to a child. He watched them herd her and the other people off the boat, into a warehouse, and onto an auction block. He watched a tall man buy the woman and take her back to his farm to work in his corn fields.
He watched her drop to her knees the next day in the field, a heavy basket of corn in her arms, and saw her give birth to a dead baby, born too soon because of her mother’s exhausting work to bring food from the land — and to her own lack of good food. But there wasn’t time to stop and morn; the farmer quickly had the woman back on her feet, gathering up the spilled ears of corn and again reaching up to break the ripe ears off from the tall stalks.
The hero watched through the years as the woman planted corn, weeded corn rows with a short, little hoe, picked corn, shucked corn, ground corn into corn meal, sewed the corn meal into bags, and then planted corn again. Finally, he watched her die: old before her time, hungry, cold, and with no medicine, her body broken and exhausted from her continual work in the corn fields.
He turned away from the well and wiped bitter tears from his eyes. Then, he remembered the Lady, and how she had said that she had to know if he could work for the land without being touched by greed, and how she had told him to look into the well and tell her what he saw. He wiped more tears from his eyes and, because he was a true hero, he wasn’t ashamed to have cried, so he turned to where the Lady had been holding her light over the well for him.
Where she had stood, he saw a light as bright as all Summertime. Inside that light was afternoon baseball, and watermelon seed spitting contests, and quickly-melting popsicles, and afternoons spent fishing on the river bank. Inside that light was photosynthesis, and the scent of freshly-cut grass, and the hunger-making spell of french fries on a boardwalk that was so hot it would burn your feet, and, also inside that light, were lazy, sunlit breakfasts on the screen porch, playing Uno. Our hero squinted and shielded his eyes with his hand and there, in the midst of all the light, he could make out the shape of a strong, tall man. Where the Lady had held a small flame, this man held a giant spear and it gleamed with the light of a hundred Summer suns.
The hero bowed, as he had been taught courtesy, and said, “Lord, who are you? And where is the Lady who was here?” The Lord smiled, and when he smiled, the hero had to remove his knitted hat and the mittens he had worn all Winter, and he had to take off his jacket and wipe his brow.
Then, the Lord said, “Oh, I have many names. Many, many. I have almost as many names as I have skills. In fact, I am called ‘Skilled,’ and ‘Long of Arm.’ I am called ‘The Sword Who Shouts,’ and I am called a name that you may like: ‘Boy Hero.’ Caesar thought that I was his God, Mercury, and he called me ‘Lugus.’ But most people call me ‘Lugh,’ which means ‘the Bringer of Light.’”
“Lord,” our hero said, “indeed you are well-named. But I do not think that you can help me. For I seek to see and name the darkness, not the light. You see, a phoenix told me . . . .”
“A phoenix!” interrupted the God. “An excellent bird, and one of my creatures. What did the phoenix tell you?”
“Lord, in your bright light, it is difficult to believe, but there are trolls here, in my land, and they have polluted it with foul magics. Last Autumn, up on the mountain, I vowed to save my land, and, ever since, I have followed any clue that I could find. But the phoenix told me that, to save my land, I would have to see into its heart, that I would have to find the shadowy secret that my ancestors brought here, the evil that allowed the trolls to gain their foothold. And, with the help of the Lady who was here, the one who saw me born and who suckled a lamb, I did see it.
“I saw it and it was terrible. I saw people treated as things and I saw a woman who lost her life — her life and her daughter’s life — planting and bringing forth food from this land, although she, herself, ate little enough of it. And, now, I think that I know what the evil was, but I don’t know what to do about it. Can you help me, Lord? Or have I failed? Is my land always going to to be blighted by this ancient evil?”
“No,” Lugh, said. “You haven’t failed because you haven’t finished. Your vision shows the shadow image of my own foster-mother’s life. She nurtured me and my light, did Tailtiu, even though she came from far-off Spain and bore me not herself.
“Tailtu!” said the young boy. “Like in Lughnasadah!”
“That’s right,” said Nonna, edging through the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Beltway.
“But what was Lugh doing, talking about Tailtiu, here in America?” the boy asked.
“Well, I’ll tell you,” said Nonna.
“Tailtiu, too, gave her life to bring food from the land,” said Lugh. “And I made funeral games to honor my foster mother, and she lives, yet, in the memory of the people she fed, in the games, and in the fires on the high hills that look down still on the fertile fields that she plowed. But she gave her life willingly, to feed her own people. Your vision shows a woman, and, I suspect, in truth, many women and many men, forced to give their lives to bring food from a land to which they did not choose to come. Their lives did not feed their own families. And no funeral games remember their opus.
“This was wrong!” the God of Light cried, pounding his spear upon the ground and causing light to shine forth so brightly that our hero had to close his eyes tight and cover them with his hands.
“And it did not end!” the God growled. “Even when the slavery ended, the evil continued. I see now, young man, what you must do.”
“What must I do?” our hero asked. “What can I do to uproot this evil from my land? I want to make the trolls leave, but what can I do? I am young, and tired, and powerless.”
Lugh looked appraisingly at the young man. He could tell that the young man had grown more than a few inches since last Autumn. And become more wise for all of his time spent questing, dreaming deep dreams, and scrying into the well. Lugh was a God of skill and he carefully judged this young man’s skills. Yes, he was young and not as experienced a hero as Lugh might have chosen. But he was willing and he shone forth with an inner light that Lugh recognized. And who else was there to challenge them, these exploiters of the exploiters of women’s work on the land?
“There’s nothing here, in the blazing light, that wasn’t always there, in the shadow cast by the light,” Lugh told the young man, echoing the words of the phoenix. “Your work isn’t done. You need to find out what that woman’s great-nephew made out of their stolen work. His great grandfather was in the ship beside her, but got sold far away from her. And what his grandson left behind will set you free.
“But first,” the great God said, lifting the tired young man and carrying him inside to his Nonna’s shady, shuttered, Summer rooms, “you need to rest. Sleep here, under this fan, and then wake up to a cool bath with leaves of parsley and mint. Drink rosemary lemon aide and have watermelon and iced coffee for breakfast. You’ve had as much shadow and as much light as you can take, just now. When you wake up, you’ve got a long trip down South ahead of you.”
“And here we are,” Nonna said, “home again. I see Mommy and Daddy at the window, with your inner tube and your beach towel.”
“Wait!” said the young boy. “Nonna! What did the hero find out when he went down South? What was made out of the slave’s stolen work?”
“That,” said Nonna, “is a tale for a much ‘cooler’ day.”
And that was all that she would say.