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Ardath Mayhar is a Texas writer whose stories have appeared in many, many publications. This poem was originally published in the 1984 anthology Masques I (Macleay & Co.) and won the Balrog Award for Poetry that year.


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Samhain, Full Moon

by Ardath Mayhar

She sat, hands busy with a homely task,
and watched a cold white moon trail wisps of cloud
across the east. The last light died away,
leaving the meadows shadowed, ghostly trees
lurking about her house, and crawling mist
in chilly layers between hill and hill.
She shuddered -- it's not good to be along
by night at any time, but at Samhain --
oh, infinitely worse!

A rasping breeze
rattled its fingers in the frost-killed vines.
She put away her sewing, took a plate
of bread, a cup of milk, and set them out
upon the doorstone, keeping her eyes turned
up to the stone-crowned hilltop.
"Let them stay!"
she whispered. "Let them keep their place tonight,
but if they come, let me not be aware!"

She barred the door, but still the mocking moon
peered through a crevice with its frozen eye,
reminding her of gravestones slipped aside,
of tattered flesh, stark bone, and flapping rags
that might come down the hill, scratch at her door,
plead for a place beside her tiny fire.
A year ago her man had barred the door,
made up the fire, poured spirits in the tea,
and they had huddled, warm and comforted,
against the pleas and mewlings in the night:
but now he lay above -- up there with them --
and all the children made their lives afar.
She pulled her shawl about her scrawny arms,
drawn to the window, staring up the hill
at all those stones, stark black against the moon
...they moved in eery dance!

A strangled cry
squeezed from her throat; her hands clenched at her breast
until the ancient fabric of her gown
was crushed by frantic fingers, and it tore.
Dark shapes moved there, above, to turn their steps
down to the foot-worn path; she moved away,
knelt by her bed, pulled pillows to her ears,
and waited, pulses hammering with fear.

Cloud crossed the moon; a sleepy raven croaked
a protest as the shuffling footsteps passed
its roosting place. A file of misty shapes
drifted across the path, borne on the wind,
but not one face was turned to watch them go,
not one looked up to see the flying cloud,
or bat-shapes wheeling over mouldy skulls.
They stalked, the ancient dead, the newly dead,
to find a warmth that, dimly, they recalled
one time a year to send them striding down
to find a hearthfire and the smell of food,
a homely comfort, lost among the stones;
just once a year some power called them home.

They crossed the frosted garden. Nora's cat
hissed curses and retreated up a tree,
sat staring, moon-eyed, after that strange band
upon the brittle grass.

They saw the milk,
the bread beside the door; the bone-white heads
bent, grinning, over plate and cup, inhaled
the scents of life into their rotten lungs,
but didn't linger long. One claw-nailed hand
reached out to touch the door; the fingers moves
mouse-quiet, but the scritching filled the night,
sent Nora trembling on her aching knees.

She would not rise, unbar that door, admit
the grisly crew, all family perhaps,
but terrifying, changed.

And one her man!
That was the hardest fact: the face she knew
would be a fleshless blur, the well-loved hands
reduced to bone.
Her tears came freely now:
both loss and pain were standing at her door,
returned tonight to something like a life;
how could she leave him there amid the chill,
locked from his home, rejected by his spouse,
to plead the night away?
There was his voice,
hoarser, perhaps, but welcome to her ear:
"Nora! Oh, let us in, for Pity's sake,
to warm our bones once more before your hearth,
remembering we once were living men!"

She rose and dried her eyes, took down the bar,
and opened wide the door; her chamber filled
with scents of earth, decay, and harsher things,
but Kevin came the last. She stared at him
and saw, through shrunken skin, the face she knew.
Reaching to take his bony hand, she led
him over to the fire, to join the rest
and sit in his old chair.

It was a night
of strangeness; dryest whispers passed among
that group, but there was little they could tell
save tales of cold and darkness, damp and stone
that chilled her spirit, set a seal of fear
upon her heart.

And yet she knew one thing,
incredible, perverse. When dawn drew near
she straightened up the room and quenched the fire,
looked once about her long familiar home,
then followed as her guests moved up the hill.
The gravestones shifted, and they all were gone
to rest again, and yet they left no track
on path or turf.
One set of footprints marked
the earth: a woman's, leading to a stone
unweathered, new ... and ending at its base.

All Hallows dawned, and darkness drew away.