Cailleach’s Ride

by Katharyn Privett-Duren

“Stay cozy,” the postwoman said to me as I unburdened her mitted hands in the driveway. “It’s going to be a hard freeze.” 

Here in Central Alabama, those are fighting words. I grimaced against the wind and nodded to our makeshift greenhouse, already glowing in 250-watt red, and shooed her away with a fair and equitable wish. After all, everyone that I knew had already alerted social media, their grandma, and the local restaurant signs that Mother Nature had threatened to go rogue. It wasn’t our first rodeo—but we still were lacking the right boots for the show.

Of course, Little Halawakee Farm is an anomaly even here in zone 8b. Our chickens are Seramas (small, tropical birds), our fields are embedded in turmeric and ginger, and our hothouse is bracketed by lime and lemon trees. Anything under 32 degrees is a threat, including to the small country house that primarily garners heat from a woodburning stove. Our powerlines are high above us, hovering precariously between swaths of pines that are unaccustomed to the rudeness of ice along their stretch. And, perhaps most notable of all Southern quandaries in winter, our country roads have never felt a chained tire—nor salt—slide along their asphalt skin when rain freezes black and slick. The path to town can become impassable, its promise of bread and medicine broken. And so, the postwoman scurried to her car while she still could, leaving a visible waft of exhaust in the already chilling air. 

I watched it linger for a moment, then broke into a hard run for the porch. It was December 21st, the longest night of the year, and time was of the essence. 

While Christmas music had already taken over the local dollar store (and to be fair, my own living room), tonight was something made of time and magic, legend and fire: it was Yule. Cailleach, the Queen of Winter, had taken flight, quieting the green and snuggling the creatures of the woods into their burrows. But tonight, oh this very night, the light would wrangle the sky back. An epic battle between oak and holly would once again commence, even as the victor was already firmly assured. There was something about that struggle that had always promised catharsis for me.

It still does.

Perhaps, I need to pop the lid of Mason jars and celebrate the sun that ripened figs and peppers in a hearty, decided coup against the gray of winter. It is an act of faith, after all, to relish in my harvest stores. In that act, I am thumbing my nose at the brittle and brack of January, daring it to starve me and drawing my line in the frigid soil of this farm. Come at me, then, I whisper—sinking into the cold and holding my breath. I’m not alone. Under my feet are the earthworms and the acorns, the swallowtails and the half-buried native bees, humming and waiting and bidding their time. Perhaps, it’s not so brave, after all. Winter cannot hold, and although I crave this battle cry against the darkest night to spill along the barren beds and rows, something inside of me knows the truth of it. It was critical, this forced rest. Cailleach had spread her cloak of blue across the things that she loved the most, driving them into the dark to crack open their nuts and nurture their fires. It’s for the best. 

 I get it. 

Yet, on Winter Solstice, there is reprieve. On that eve, we pierce oranges with clove, adorn oak logs in holly and flour, and gather to boast the victory of what will come. There will be candles, bonfires, and songs crackling against December winds. We will share gifts, those treasures we have crafted with our hands and imaginations as our farms withered, and sip mulled wine until the last embers give way to coal. It will be the ultimate pièce de resistance of our little farm, this embarrassment of joy and harvest riches. Winter may hold us yet, but we already know the end of the story. It’s the only one that we are sure of: the dog lives, love wins, the girl becomes the hero. It is, at the end of it all, the only story that matters.

And so, I ran back to my porch as the postwoman made her way back down our dirt driveway. I painted that evening in green and gold and, long before midnight, I found the strength to weather the cold that remained. Christmas came a few days later, as it always does, with its wrappings and taxes, carols and fruitcakes. Stockings were hung by the chimney with care, and price tags were carefully cut away from the tinsel of it all. It was nice, in the way that it always has been and in the way that we need it to be. 

But Yule was fire.

photo credit: Matt Callamer, Unsplash