Fifth Sacred Thing Excerpts

Two excerpts from Chapter 1 (New York, Bantam, 1993)

Fifth Sacred ThingExcerpt I

In the dry time of year, the dangerous time, the risk time, an old woman climbed a hill. Like most people in the southern part of the city, she called the season El Tiempo de la Segadora, the Time of the Reaper. The hills were dry, the gardens dependent on the dwindling waters of cisterns, the rains still weeks away. A time of ripening, but not yet of harvesting, when nothing was certain.

She climbed the hill as she had once climbed mountains, one step at a time, planting her stick firmly in front of her and letting it bear her weight as she hoisted herself up. She was ninety-eight years old, born at the midpoint of the twentieth century. Two more years, and she would see the midpoint of the twenty-first. In her day she had climbed many things: Sierran peaks, pyramids, chain-link fences, the way back from despair to hope. And this hill, looming up above the southern corner of the city, rising like a pregnant belly above the green patchwork of houses and gardens and paths and the blue waters of San Francisco Bay. By Goddess, she could still make it up this hill!

Maya stopped to catch her breath. Around her was a moving throng of people, dressed in the greens and golds of the season, gossiping happily or chanting solemnly according to temperament. They carried baskets of offerings: bread and fruit and cheese, fresh vegetables from the gardens.

Below stretched a panorama of sculpted hills crowned by toy houses, cradling the aging skyscrapers that rose from the low ground beside the bay. The city was a mosaic of jewel-like colors set in green, veined by streams and dotted with gleaming ponds and pools. Seen from above, block of old row houses defined streets that no longer existed. Instead bicycles and electric carts and the occasional horse moved through a labyrinth of narrow walkways that snaked and twined through the green. Above the rooftops, gondolas like gaily painted buckets swung from cables, skimming from hilltop to hilltop, moving between high towers where windspinners turned. To the northeast, Maya could see a long train moving across the lower deck of the Bay Bridge, bringing early grain to the central market. Beyond, the blades of the wind generators atop the Golden Gate Bridge seemed suspended in midair, the supports invisible under a gray shroud of fog.

Beautiful, Maya thought. She had adored the city ever since her first glimpse of it in the Summer of Love, more than eighty years before. She had been seventeen then, enchanted by the fog concealing and revealing mysteries like the veils of an exotic dancer, delighted by the crowded streets where people seemed to be perpetually in costume: gypsies, pirates, Indians, sorceresses skipping down the sidewalks to the strains of the Beatles singing “Love, Love, Love.”

You have been my most constant love, she told the city silently. Not monogamous but never unfaithful, sometimes a bit tawdry but never boring. And you haven’t gone and died on me yet, like the others.

“Love is all you need.” The song played in her mind. But the Beatles misled us, she said to the air, thick with the ghosts of her own dead lovers. It wasn’t all we needed. We wanted to love, freely and without barriers. We had to remake the world in order to do it.

Sighing, she continued up the steep incline. The truth is, she admitted, this is a hell of a climb for an old hag like me. I could have spared my strength, let Madrone visit the shrines.

The shrines to the Four Sacred Things encircled the base of the hill at the cardinal directions. Maya had made a laborious circuit. She left seeds of rare herbs at the earth shrine, feathers of seabirds and roosters at the air shrine. At the fire shrine she gave white sage and black sage and cedar, and at the water shrine, she’d left a jar of rainwater saved from the first storms of the previous autumn.

But Madrone probably wouldn’t have time. I know how it goes, Maya grumbled. She’s probably up to her elbows in blood and vernix, lucky if she can dash up the hill at the last minute. I’m fussy in my old age. An Orthodox Pagan, I like these rituals done right: a leisurely visit to each shrine, a walk up the processional way, time to meditate, contemplate, trance out a bit….

The path wound its way above the small reservoir dug into the side of the hill. Now she could hear the little stream that tumbled down a sculpted watercourse to feed the gardens along her own street. There were so many more gardens, these days. By necessity, now that the Central Valley farmlands were baked to rock by the heat and the fires.

Look at it! Maya paused again, breathing heavily. The city was a place of riotous flowers and clambering vines and trees, whose boughs were heavy with ripening fruit.

It looks so lush. She took a long, deep breath, then another. You’d think we had plenty of everything, plenty of land, plenty of water. Whereas we’ve simply learned how not to waste, how to use and reuse every drop, how to feed chickens on weeds and ducks on snails and let worms eat the garbage. We’ve become such artists of unwaste we can almost compensate for the damage. Almost. If we don’t think about the bodies mummifying in mass graves over the East Bay hills. If we ignore the Stewards’ armies that may be gathering, for all we know, just over the border.

Well, we made our choice. She started uphill again. We chose food over weapons, and so here we sit, lovely but as unarmed as the Venus de Milo.

As she neared the crest, the path wound across the west side of the hill. In the distance, she could see Twin Peaks, poking above a patch of fog like two brown breasts sticking out of a milk bath. They reminded her of Johanna.

“You hear that, Johanna? Twin Peaks remind me of your breasts.”

Johanna, dead, did not answer, but thinking of her breasts made Maya think again of Johanna’s granddaughter. Madrone works too hard, Maya thought. All the healers do. But since Sandy’s death, she’s hardly stopped. She’ll be sick herself if she doesn’t get more rest. I wish she’d taken the day off, like she said she would, but then something always comes up… Goddess, I hope we’re not in for another epidemic! Please, Mama, you wouldn’t do that to us again? We’re on your team, remember? We’re the good guys.

Where was Madrone?

Excerpt II

The sun was hot on the nape of Madrone’s neck as she headed back to the gathering place. To the east, shimmering waves of heat rose from the sun-scorched valleys, and ribbons of dust twisted in the air. West of the hill, blue fog lay in bands along the slopes of Twin Peaks.

At the summit, a bowl-shaped amphitheater was hollowed out. It was filled with onlookers, but Madrone saw Maya down below, in the innermost ring where those who had a part in the ceremony assembled. Sam stood beside her, and Madrone sighed softly. He’d want to know how the birth went, and she’d have to talk about it again. She left the food from her basket at the feasting site, and joined the other two. They exchanged greetings as the four concheros, bearing their shells aloft, walked proudly to the center of the circle. With eerie, dissonant harmonies, they saluted the four directions and then earth, sky, and center.

The musicians began to play, and everyone sang together, as the ritual fire was lit by four masked figures, bird, fish, coyote, and deer, who symbolized the four directions and the Four Sacred Things.

Next came dances and songs and invocations, to the Four Sacred Things, to the ancestors, to Goddesses and Gods of all the different people assembled. Madrone loved to watch the dancers, especially the Miwok and Ohlone troupes in their feather capes, but she found her eyes closing and her head drooping during a lengthy poem in praise of communal spirit declaimed by a very earnest young woman from the Teachers’ Guild.

“They were supposed to have a five-minute limit on speeches,” Maya whispered to Sam. “If they don’t get on with it, my ass is going to atrophy.”

Finally the last speaker finished and beckoned to Maya. She stepped forward. A young girl, very solemn with the weight of her responsibility, handed her the Talking Stick, an oak staff beautifully carved, beaded, and feathered, carrying in its tip a small microphone. Powerful speakers were hidden in the branches of the four sacred trees that stood at the four quarters around the outskirts of the bowl. On the Signers’ platform, a man stood waiting to interpret as she spoke. All was ready.

She paused and looked at the crowd, letting her eyes roam over the brilliantly colored festival clothes and the faces of every hue and shade, eyes uplifted, heads set high and proud. This is good, Maya thought, this is what I worked for all my life, and you too, Johanna, you too, Rio. But how many more must we lose, like Consuelo, like Sandy? Like Brigid, and Marley, and Jamie, and yes, maybe Bird? What is this worth if we can’t preserve it, protect it?

The drums began to beat, a trance rhythm, steady but just slightly syncopated, to lead the mind and then shift it in unexpected directions. Maya spoke, her voice rhythmic, musical, crooning an incantation.

“Este es El Tiempo de la Segadora, the Time of the Reaper, she who is the end inherent in the beginning, scythe to the grain. The Crone, Goddess of Harvest. In this her season we celebrate the ancient feast of the Celtic sun god Lugh, his wake as he ages and descends into autumn. It is a time of sweet corn, ripening tomatoes, the bean drying on the vine. The harvest begins. We reap what we have sown.”

Madrone sat up straighter, listening attentively. She always enjoyed hearing Maya work a crowd.

“The Crone, the Reaper, is not an easy Goddess to love. She’s not the nurturing Mother. She’s not the Maiden, light and free, not pretty, not shiny like the full or crescent moon. She is the Dark Moon, what you don’t see coming at you, what you don’t get away with, the wind that whips the spark across the fire line. Chance, you could say, or, what’s scarier still: the intersection of chance with choices and actions made before. The brush that is tinder dry from decades of drought, the warming of the earth’s climate that sends the storms away north, the hole in the ozone layer. Not punishment, not even justice, but consequence.”

A deep hush fell over the crowd. Maya went on.

“This moon brings a time of hope and danger: fire season. We watch the dry hills anxiously, knowing that the rains are weeks or months away. Those of us who are old have seen fire destroy our drought-baked cities and smoke eclipse the sun. We’ve seen rich croplands shrivel into glass-hard deserts, and the earth itself collapse on its emptied water table. We have seen diseases claim our children and our lovers and our neighbors. We know it can happen again.

“We hope for a harvest, we pray for rain, but nothing is certain. We say that the harvest will only be abundant if the crops are shared, that the rains will not come unless water is conserved and shared and respected. We believe we can continue to live and thrive only if we care for one another. This is the age of the Reaper, when we inherit five thousand years of postponed results, the fruits of our callousness toward the earth and toward other human beings. But at last we have come to understand that we are part of the earth, the air, the fire, and the water, as we are part of one another.”

She paused for a moment. Her voice dropped, becoming lighter, almost conversational.

“We have had two blessed decades to remake our corner of the world, to live by what we believe. Today is the twentieth anniversary of the Uprising. I’ve been asked to tell you the story of Las Cuatro Viejas, the Four Old Women who sparked the rebellion in ’28 when the Stewards canceled the elections and declared martial law.

“On Shotwell Street, down below the slopes of this hill, which in that time was called Bernal Heights, lived a woman, Maria Elena Gomez Garcia, whose grandmother grew fruit trees in the back yard from peach pits and avocado pits, and she saved her tomato seeds. While the Stewards’ troops were massing down on the peninsula, commandeering all stockpiles of food, and the rest of us were debating what to do and trying to work up courage to do it, Maria gathered together with her neighbors, Alice Black, Lily Fong, and Greta Jeanne Margolis, four old women with nothing to lose. On the morning of the first of August, they marched out in the dawn with pickaxes over their shoulders, straight out into the middle of Army Street, and all the traffic stopped, such cars as a few people could still afford to drive.

“Some of them were honking their horns, some were shouting threats, but when Maria raised the pickax above her head, there came a silence like a great, shared, indrawn breath. Then she let it fall, with a thud that shuddered through the street, and the four old women began to dig.

“They tore up the pavement, blow by blow, and filled the holes with compost from a sack Greta carried, and planted them with seeds. By then a crowd had gathered, the word was carried through the streets, and we rushed from our houses to join them, bringing tools or only our bare hands, eager to build something new. And many of us were crying, with joy or with fear, tears streaming enough to water the seeds.

“But Alice raised her hand, and she called out in a loud voice. ‘Don’t you cry,’ she told us. ‘This is not a time to cry. This is a time to rejoice and praise the earth, because today we have planted our freedom!’

“Then we joined them, tearing up the streets as the cars backed away from us, piling up barricades on the freeways, smashing the doors of the locked warehouses. And those who supported the Stewards fled south with all the good they could steal. And we who remained planted seeds, and we guarded the sources of our water in the valleys and the mountains, and the Stewards withdrew to starve us out.

“We were hungry, so very hungry, for a long time while we waited for the seeds to grow, and prayed for rain, and danced for rain. It was a long dry season. But we had pledged to feed one another’s children first, with what food we had, and to share what we had. And so the food we shared became sacred to us, and the water and the air and the earth became sacred.

“When something is sacred, it can’t be bought or sold. It is beyond price, and nothing that might harm it is worth doing. What is sacred becomes the measure by which everything is judged. And this is our measure, and our vow to the life-renewing rain: we will not be wasters but healers.

“Remember this story. Remember that one act can change the world. When you turn the moist earth over, and return your wastes to the cycles of decay, and place the seed in the furrow, remember that you are planting your freedom with your own hands. May we never hunger. ¡Que nunca tengamos hambre!”

“May we never thirst! ¡Que nunca tengamos sed!” the united voices of the listeners chorused.

“One act, and about a thousand hours of meetings,” Sam whispered.

“Cynic,” Madrone said. “Don’t you know a good story when you hear one?”

“It’s a great story. It’s just that it bears so little resemblance to the actual history I remember.”

“Quiet. It’s my turn now.”

Madrone and several others, representatives of various guilds and councils and work groups, stepped forward into the center of the circle. The same solemn child held the Talking Stick for each of them.

“We have come here to give an accounting of ourselves, calling on the Four Sacred Things to witness what we have made of this city in twenty years,” said Salal from the Central Council. “This is how we have kept our pledges. This is what we have harvested.”

As the stick passed around the circle, each person spoke, in turn, from the Gardeners’ Guild, and the Water Council, and the Healers, and the Teachers, and all the interlocking circles that provided for the needs of the City.

“No one in this city goes hungry.”

“No one lacks shelter.”

“No child lacks a home.”

When the stick came to Madrone, she hesitated for a long moment. “There is sickness here,” she said finally, “but no one lacks care.”

The stick moved on.

“See, the fruit hangs heavy on the bough, ready to feed the stranger.”

“We have guarded our waters well, our cisterns will not run dry, no one thirsts, and our streams run clear.”

“All the gifts of the earth are shared,” they said in unison.

“May we never hunger!” the people responded. “¡Que nunca tengamos hambre! ¡Que nunca tengamos sed!”

The drums beat a hypnotic, insistent rhythm. The music rose and the drums pounded, and suddenly everyone was dancing, in the central space, up in the ringed tiers that climbed the hill, on the ridges. The sky gleamed indigo with streaks of pink and gold in the west, and against its glowing light loomed giant figures, La Segadora herself, fifteen feet high, with serpent head and serpent skirt and a basket strapped to her back in which she carried a machete. And Lugh, the gleaming paint of his solar disc set on fire by the dying rays of the sun, and others: ancestors, spirits, visions. Maya knew, looking up, that they were only cloth or paper, but in the twilight they came alive. The musicians were playing one of Bird’s tunes, and Maya was suddenly shot through with pain like a ringing bell, the pain of missing him. The people sang:

Free the heart, let it go,
What we reap is what we sow.

The chant rose to a roar, subsided to a single harmonic tone, and ended abruptly, as if sung by a single voice. Everyone touched the earth. Silence swelled to consume all the echoes and the overtones.

“May we never hunger!” the people cried again.

Offerings of fruit and grain and cooked foods were piled in the central circle. A young child was blessing the food and drink, while others thanked the ancestors and spirits and the Four Sacred Things to end the formal part of the ritual. But the feasting would go on for a long time.

“Are you staying?” Sam asked Madrone, coming over to them. “I can walk Maya home.” In his voice was a hopeful note.

Maya could feel the spark stretching like a thread between her and Sam. He was hoping for something, an invitation, a sign from her. She could feel his loneliness as she could feel her own. It was too much. She was too old, too tired, to take on the burden of it.

“I’ve got to get some sleep,” Madrone said. “I was up all night.”

“Good night, Sam,” Maya said firmly, taking Madrone’s arm. “It was good seeing you. Que nunca tengas and all that.”

“Kay noonka,” Sam said. “Get some rest, Madrone.”

In the dark, spirits fluttered like memories, like birds. Fog lay on the city like the silver fingers of a gloved hand, as the moon lit their way down the hill.

Copyright © 1993 by Starhawk. The foregoing is excerpted from The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from the publishers: Bantam Books, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036