St. John’s Night

Issue 40 by Nathan Mears

St. John’s Night

On the night of St. John, atop the flattest peak of the tallest mountain, three Witches danced in decomposed unison around a bonfire made of the flesh and bones of followers to a god unknown.

The first was light of skin with hair of fire. Over her sisters she danced in balance and harmony, writhing her arms as the winds overtook both arm and finger within their hook. Poor fool.

The second's skin was the color of dirt. Her hair: the sun upon a Robin's Egg. For her Lord's approval she danced the harshest, each fingernail dug into the earth, feeding the flames for their Lord's rebirth. Poor Thing.

The third's skin was born of white and brown. Her hair green—and in between—three strokes of buzzards striking down. Through pride and joy she danced ecstatically, clutched in her hand an elderwood cane, for striking the ground to summon their Bane. Poor Life.

The Red Hair fluttered her wings, the Blue Hair dug her claws, and the Green Hair struck her cane. Round and round the Witches flew with each venomous crash of dirt and stone through the starless sky. Screaming shrieks and howls of praise and love while chanting tongues from pasts beyond:

Wolfbane whiskers, rat's intestine,

Skulls of moles once sick and blind,

The cords of condors who once sang,

And dipped in venom a rattler's fang,

From in the shadows our Vengeful Bane

We sing to you—Ladies of Fire, Nature, Water—we sing to you

From ash and smoke to skies of darkened blue.

Rise, rise. Rise our vicious Bane. Rise and see your Witches three again. Rise, rise...Rise our Immortal Bane.

From their voice a crack of thunder struck the bonfire, and the flames erupted and tore through the sky in a ferocious vigor like a heavy rain in spring. Then the fire returned through its portal, and all that remained was the charcoaled smoke and embers feeding off cracked bones and burnt flesh. Through this a great Figure took shape. Shrouded within the smoked crater, gazing upon them with deathless yellow eyes and a chill as cold as the grave. It hovered over the Witches with its strong arms crossed. It spoke naught, moved nowhere, and listened.

The Witches ceased their dances but continued to bow and wave their hands in praise and worship towards their Lord. The Red Hair, with grace and gratitude, approached first:

Master, we have awoken you—myself and these two—to grant us blessings for our favors. With your blessed stroke to my heart, I ask you this: tear me apart. Replace my soul for one great of whole, so I will speak of your coming to those hollowed fools. For their god shall burn away and you will rule one day. Grant me this, my master thee, and my devout body shall be yours at ease.

The Red Hair stepped back, and the Blue Hair, with terror in her eyes and chills up her spine, approached next:

Master, we have awoken you—myself and these two—to grant us blessings for our favors. With your blessed stroke to my heart, I ask you this: shade my body. Replace my soul for one whom hides under the shadows of the land. To dig within your earthly ground away from mankind and their worlds abound. For they know not what strife shall awaken in their life. Grant me this, my master, thee, and my devout body shall be yours at ease.

The Blue Hair stepped back, and the Green Hair, with excitement and delight in her stance, approached last:

Master, we have awoken you—myself and these two—to grant us blessing for our favors. With your blessed stroke to my heart, I ask you this: sharpen my fangs. Replace my soul for one that bring a venomous justice under your supervision. To drink the blood of whom continue to do naught but discreet and villainize you. Grant me this, my master thee, and my devout body shall be yours at ease.

The Green Hair stepped back. The Figure looked upon them, exhaling sinful chills to winds of the north. He raised his arms and pointed towards the Witches who worshiped him as their protector, giver and father.

The flames returned to the pit and they danced and sang once more. Mindless, obedient, unaware of a rain of ash tearing their skin and smoke bleeding from their veins, hearing him speak in their minds.

Fight. Fight. Spill upon this mud your sister's blood. Be vile and proud, whom among you deserves my special gift? Fight. Fight...

Over and over they repeated until it became law in their souls. The Red Hair writhed and flapped her arms until they stretched to the edges of the mountain with feathers growing on her skin, and her face stretched into a silver beak. And from out of her body with grand shrieks in her cords, a Condor was born.

The Blue Hair dug upon the mountain, scraping the grounds more prominent than before. Her sight faded to nothing but the dimmest sight, and her hands sharpened into paws fit for a tunnel. And from out of her body with no direction in her eyes, a Mole was born.

The Green Hair struck and waved her cane until it became one with her arm, crawling on her stomach next to the pleasures of the flame as her skin turned to gray and golden scales, and her tongue forked in two. And from out of her body with pure venom to spread, a Rattlesnake was born.

Through the Figure's voice sister turned on sister. They gnashed and swiped and clawed throughout the night, bringing one another towards their own demise, all the while the Figure looked down at them with much amusement. Upon every final strike he brought them back, encouraging them to fulfill their desires for his own entertainment. After some time when all three lay on the ground, he prepared them for another fight but was taken aback from a strange burn in his arm, and recoiled in terror from the light of early dawn.

The light now comes, and I must leave. Return my children upon your knees. From blood that's spilt you shalt survive, till come next Sabbath when I'll arrive.

The Figure's ashen form faded into the wind as the fire died out, and the three returned as Witches, scarred and mangled, sleeping through the return of the holy light.

As the sun began its descent below the mountain and the evening magic hour arrived, they awoke from their slumber with tears and scratches and a deceased firepit as remnants of the night before.

All three stood up, eyes shifting from one to another. The Red Hair, with cuts on her arms and bite marks on her legs, spoke first.

Va, va, to the winds I go.

As prophet to the fools below.

For our great Lord their screams will cry

Through pain as their alibi.

She took flight off the mountaintop and began the long journey to lands unknown. Wings abound, heralding the templet of many prophets and rumors waiting to be preached. The Blue Hair, tattered the most with claw and bite marks on face and stomach, was next.

Sha, sha, from all this I flee,

And hide in a monastery.

No more this foulness shall I speak.

To a god unknown I'll seek.

She crawled down the mountaintop, looking away from her sister. Attempting prayers without knowledge on how to start. The Green Hair, with fewer scars and marks to show, crooked her head and screamed to the sky.

Ha, ha, it's here that I stay.

To crack the grounds until the day

Our Lord returns and blesses me

Once more with my true body.

She circled the remains of the fire and struck the pit with her cane until nothing remained. Continuing the call until befuddlement arose in her mind.

Day and night came and went in a microcosmic blend, until the night of the Sabbath returned once more. Through starlight and shadows the Figure came to a barren mountaintop. To the East and to the West he searched for his blessed three and found only a cane and the bones of a mindless woman. He picked one up and saw upon it marks of both talon and claw, and great pride came upon him.

Bones bridled before this crafted shrine. Good Life. So be it. For your devotion, go. A soul for a hundred souls. On your stomach, no more shall you run. And my voice shall carry your tongue.

Upon this command the skeleton bore serpents of varying malice, slithering down the mountaintop into distant lands far below. Then a cry through the wind caught the Figure's attention. It sang of much gossip and whispers to many names, all of which resembled him in nature. And once more great pleasure came to him.

Voices herald through winds of the West. Good Fool. So be it. For playing prophet, go. A soul for a hundred souls. To distant lands through the wind you'll spread. Bring my shadow into their dread.

Upon this command the wind bore birds of varying ferocities, soaring from the mountaintop into distant lands far beyond. Then a sound of bells befuddled the Figure. He looked down the mountain upon a village no smaller than a star. To the rhythm of the bells came voices singing hymns to a god unknown. Hidden within was a familiar woman's voice, and the Figure's pleasure eroded into great anger.

Hymns I hear in holy light for one so false. Poor Thing. So be it. The blind be bound to thine idol's crown. Be fruitful and frail, for in your soul, in secret I prevail. Upon this light you shall not see, and wince death arrives, you'll return to me.

A vail of darkness went down the mountaintop and into the village, and the voices of many broke into a discorded harmony. Only then was he pleased. Before he took his leave, one more commandment was brought before the world.

Tonight, may all voices whom carry my name

Myself be blessed.

Shall grow and craft a massive flame.

Myself be blessed.

Let grow my shadow in song and prayer, as smoke and fire be one to tear such falsehood god.

May he be blessed with false symmetry.

Let rise, Daughters and Sons of Fire, Nature, Water.

Let rise year and year again of your true name. Let Rise your Immortal Bane.

From his voice a crack of thunder struck the mountain and a spiral flame made of vile spirits arose to the Figure's eye, and with his command they spread far off into lands unknown, enlightening the sky in a Hell as red as dawn. When enough spirits were spilt into the world, the Figure took his leave upon the coming dawn, his mark established.

In lands unknown the sunlight was blinded by ashen clouds led by condors and locus, the soils reaped of life by cassowary feet and serpent scale, pestilence poisoned both skin and stone, and feverish kings dwindled in rusted lies, turning solder onto family for the sake of their lord. In this time of plagues all either strived for survival or succumbed to the weakness, and though knowing it or not, in praise or fear cast many names granted to the Figure and his word. Soon the lands were soiled by rivers of blood, and both man and beast feasted upon the sick and the dead with famined hunger, until all were one solitary unit.

It lasted for many a century and none remembered the days of stepping out in peace. Yet, through all sickness and strife, a song of hope arose from the village below the mountain. From it came a gathering of men and women cloaked in robes, their faces hidden and walking out to welcome a new dawn to the world, carrying a flame as white as snow in their palms, singing praises and incantations for health and prosperity to a god known. Leading them was the Witch, whose hair now bore a shade of Easter's light. More than anyone else she sang and prayed the loudest, her mantle bound by chains of guilt, and for all that had arisen she refused to look upon what she and her sisters had brought.

But in her prayers and songs did the light glow stronger, and it proved to be the loudest and brightest of all. Though it was slow, it carried to those seeking shelter in the dark.

Once I walked barefoot and plain,

Once in vengeful speech I sang.

Once I had thought myself be tamed.

No more.

Still the shadow be found in me,

Still I walk and pray to thee,

Still I ask in evil you see

No more.

To wilderness wild I go.

To asean shores I flow.

To light the beacons of his glow

Evermore.

Guide me, spirit, and rejoice.

Guild this soul in sacred choice.

My name to you, Fiona's voice

Evermore.

And the song of the Blue Hair carried to the sky and tore the ashen clouds like dust in the wind, and the dawn was laced with a comfort too strange for anyone to remember. Upon both water and soil she led those that heeded the call, and a vail of spring followed her feet, carrying beasts and birds of life, each holding the spirit of a god unknown. Many struck her and those from the village, but while some turned away and joined the fight for survival, the Blue Hair remained faithful.

Through her weakened bones she held her flame in solace and peace, and it welcomed both wild man and beast into its light. Turning vulture into blue jay, viper into earthworm, and in time the dawn arose to pastures still hurt from the past, but had begun to heal. Even if none had known where this aid came from, still it was beautiful. Until, of their own volition or not, both man and beast stood in an iron will of family and brotherhood the likes of which hadn't been felt in some time.

The Blue Hair continued to pass this light until it was her time, and she rejoined her sisters on the other side. They refused her acceptance and open arms, bathing in their rewards from the Figure, striking both each other and the helpless for their own amusement. The Red Hair, a harpy baring cords to pierce the sky. The Green Hair, a naga baring scales of all that died.

The Blue Hair played mole and stayed hidden, bringing songs of comfort to the innocent and suffering in the kingdom of the Figure. Though knowing how they would accept this, still she prayed for her sisters to be well. Day and night blended together, and not once did the Blue Hair forgo the flame, until a great light broke through, averting the eyes of the Figure and his followers, and a voice as warm as milk commanded her to bring the innocent and the sinful, the sick and the damned, into the light. Many refused the offer and many more accepted the call, and before the journey began she gave one last prayer to her sisters.

Reap what you've sown, you have earned it. Yet in your breast my heart will rest. For tomorrow, may guilt inside you arise to find these horrors in your eyes. Till then be fruitful and frail in believing you've prevailed.

Her prayer complete, she led the willing through the light, and they came to the home of a god unknown, welcomed by a being within an enchanted flame. They bathed in streams of clear water and lay upon meadowed hills, and comfort and solace returned to their minds and bodies.

The Blue Hair looked away from her lord, and he placed his hand upon her forehead, bringing comfort and warmth into her soul.

Be free, sinful chains shall no more be bound to thine feet. Rest and sing, you have fought with fire and won. Though time will not heal all wounds instantaneously, you have rekindled the spark once more. For this, a Saint you will be known.

She fell to her knees and thanked him, then joined her brothers and sisters to rest and be well.

Author's Note: The History of St. John's Night

By all accounts “St. John’s Night" really shouldn't have been picked up. In fact I should have kept it locked away as just another thing I did when I was young, but it's like what Hemingway said about his favorite short stories, "If you did not like them you would not publish them." And looking at the story now and how it's grown, I'm happy I stood by it, and even happier I rediscovered it before forgetting it completely.

Sometime between 2011/2012 I was in college talking with a student in my art class about the kinds of stories I write for my creative writing classes, and I casually mentioned that I liked writing fantasy stories. It was the only kind of fiction that I knew how to write at the time. I was in the computer lab waiting for the bus to arrive, and for some reason, I was watching the Fantasia segment on Modest Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain. When listening to it I thought, "Wouldn't it be fun to try and write a story based around this song? Not for the class, just something offhanded and on my own time."

So I looked into everything I could about this song, from the composer to its history and what it was written for. I then decided to try my hand at writing a literary tone poem based entirely around Night on Bald Mountain and what I had learned from my research, with help from a poem by Goethe to find the right kind of language. Two weeks later, I finished the ritual scene, and for the longest time that was it. I shared it with some people but didn't do anything with it. I sent it to critiquecircle.com for advice on how to improve it, and then I sent it to one place where it got rejected. So I hung it up as just another thing I did in college.

Flash forward to the middle of 2019. I was looking through some of my old writing to see if there was anything that might be worth revisiting, and I rediscovered “St. John’s Night" on critiquecircle.com. After rereading it I thought, "I still remember this. Tidy it up and it might be good." Some sites gave some feedback, but once again, it was too weird for any publication.

I didn’t give up on the story, though. I sent it to a new magazine called Ember Chasm Review and thought, "After this, I'm done." They passed on it, but their insight was impactful: The story needed more of a plot and an ending, and they compared it to a roller coaster with no plunge. All I could think was, "You're kidding. This could have made it?” This insight pushed me to look at “St. John’s Night" from a new angle and try to expand on it while keeping it within the realm of what I wrote in the past, and here we are.

I would like to thank the following people for helping this story get to its destination. First, to the editor of The Write Launch, Sandra Fluck, for taking a chance on this story and encouraging me to look at it from a different point of view. Second, to Nathan Buckingham and Miranda Williams of Ember Chasm Review for encouraging me and giving me suggestions to improve it. Third, to my friends Jamie, Miguel, and Jess and to the people at critiquecircle.com years ago who gave me helpful advice. Thank you all for your help in finding a home for this very weird story.

About the Author

Nathan Mears

I graduated from my town's community college with an associate of arts and transfers degree, majoring in psychology, with a minor in creative writing. I live by myself, and work at a grocery store full time. I don't go out, but when I do, it's usually for small stuff like performing karaoke at the bar, or going to an out of town convention. My short story, A Light In The Atlantic, will be published by Czykmate Productions for HauntedMTL's first anthology.