A special celebration from 1,428 years ago
The Bones of the Earth, Part 1: Initiation Rites
For the first day of summer, the summer solstice, here is a sample from another summer solstice, which I described in The Bones of the Earth, Part 1: Initiation Rites. This scene takes place on the night before the longest day, which in the year I write about, was even more special: a full moon.
Chapter 1: Mystery and ecstasy
Wait. Wait. Wait.
Wait until the full moon is high, Vorona chanted. Wait until magic fills the night.
They waited as Vorona’s steady drumbeat pulled the full moon over the trees.
“Mysyach,” she repeated with every drum beat. No one else spoke or even moved. They waited as Mysyach, the moon goddess, slowly revealed her face. On this warm night, they felt a promise being fulfilled: “A full moon the night before the summer solstice is a very rare event,” Vorona had said one full moon ago in this same clearing. “It is the time for young men and women to worship, to celebrate their own fertility.” They had danced naked to Vorona’s beating drum and returned home, exhausted and expectant.
Now, one month later, the night before the summer solstice, they gathered again in the clearing. Vorona’s moonlight ceremonies were irresistible, and open only to the unmarried young adults—no children or married people allowed. Twenty such came to the clearing just before moonrise, speaking low and fast in small groups. In the middle were the most popular couple, Mrost the bully and his girlfriend Grat; the others laughed at all their jokes and never dared interrupt them.
As always, Javor was the last to arrive and stood a little apart, wondering what to do. What if they tell me to leave? he thought. He shifted his weight from foot to foot until he spotted Hrech, his only friend. Then he saw Elli talking with her two girlfriends at the side of the clearing. She is prettier than Grat, and nicer, too,he thought as usual. Why does everyone like Grat better? He wondered whether he should go to Hrech or Elli.
No one noticed Vorona arrive; she seemed to appear in the centre of the clearing. Vorona had set herself up as the village’s witch: the woman who knew about herbs and remedies, who knew who was too closely related to marry, who dispensed potions and advice about finding a lover or getting a baby. But she was no crone. Perhaps twenty years old, she had long, rich brown hair and curves that Javor had started to notice when he had turned 13. She had big, widely-spaced eyes that she accented by painting dark outlines around them, and they flashed green in daylight and strangely silver by firelight. She had high cheekbones, a delicate face, wide lips and a delicate dimple like a tiny furrow in the end of her nose.
Tonight, she wore a metal necklace and a silvery bracelet. A single piece of amber hung in the centre of her forehead, suspended from a leather band around her head. A long robe of yellow and red, woven in a fiery pattern, hung from her shoulders. The front was cut very low and Javor took a good look at the curve of her breasts in the moonlight. As she turned he could see that the robe’s skirts parted at the side, revealing not only her leg but her whole hip. His heart started to beat faster.
The moon’s lower edge cleared the tallest tree and Vorona startled them all by crying “Worship, young people!” She lifted her hands. “Mistress of the night, Mysyach, bless us tonight as we pay homage to thee!” A pyramid of wood at her feet burst into flame all at once, quickly building into a bonfire. How did she do that? Javor wondered.
“It is time, young worshippers! Join hands in a circle around the fire and begin the ceremony!” Vorona commanded, then bent her head down and crooned words Javor didn’t understand.
“What’s she saying?” someone whispered.
“She does this every gathering,” Hrech whispered back. “It’s some ancient language for speaking to the gods and spirits.”
Javor suspected she made it up as she went along.
The young people joined hands around Vorona and the fire. And now came that familiar fear, that empty space below his ribs as Javor wondered whether the others would let him into the circle. Hrech had already taken the hand of Elli’s friend, Teshla. Teshla’s other hand held Elli’s, but Javor pulled them apart and stepped between them. Elli looked startled, but then smiled nervously as her eyes met Javor’s.
Teshla clicked her tongue—she didn’t like Javor.
But tonight, they could not exclude him. Vorona had commanded them all to dance beneath the full moon. They had to obey their village shaman, even if she was a woman.
They started an awkward, slow dance around the fire as Vorona continued her keening chant. Suddenly, she threw her hands skyward. “Dance, young lovers, dance! Tonight Mysyach, goddess of the moon is full and ripe! This night is filled with power, with the energy of youth, of life, of strength!” She beat on her small drum, crooning wordlessly. The beat went on and on, faster and faster. The dancers moved frantically to keep up but Vorona was relentless, beating and singing faster and faster.
With a final beat, she stopped. The dancers stopped, too, puffing. “Sit, my children,” said Vorona. So now we’re her children, are we? The dancers dropped onto the grass. Javor made certain he was lying on his elbows close to Elli. He noticed she didn’t move away.
“Tonight, the moon goddess reaches the height of her power. Tonight is a night for youth, for new lives to begin. Tonight the moon goddess breathes life into our crops, begins transforming flowers into fruit. Tonight babies are conceived.” The girls giggled nervously.
It’s been a long time since a baby was born alive in our village, Javor thought.
“Tonight, my children, the moon goddess’s power reaches into our bodies and souls and kindles a fire, an irresistible hunger that can only be satisfied in one way … ”
“How’s that, Vorona?” It was Mrost, leering from across the fire.
Vorona glared at Mrost until he lost his smile and looked down. She passed around two wineskins. Javor had drunk sweet, thick undiluted wine before, but this stuff was different. One sip made every sense hard-edged. Javor could hear Elli whispering to Teshla: “… kiss him …” He could see the fire bright and hot against the black night, could see each of the young people in the ring around it. But the forest beyond vanished, the stars faded. Even the crickets and owls fell silent.
Vorona sang again in her weird language, and Javor thought he could understand her in some roundabout way. All the young people understood. They rose to their feet, joined hands and danced again. Vorona’s drum drove them. She threw her head back and sang, voice rising and falling. The dance went on and on, around and around the fire until there was nothing else but the motion and the fire and Vorona’s voice.
All at once, the dancers pulled off their rough tunics. Javor felt a moment’s panic when Elli let go of his hand to pull her tunic off, and he gasped at the sight of her long neck, her breasts, her belly and hips and thighs in the firelight. He pulled off his own tunic and dropped his trousers, stumbling over them. He and Elli grasped hands again and Elli looked at him with wide eyes, her mouth slightly open, hair over her face as they danced.
He breathed fast and could feel sweat coming between his hand and Elli’s. On and on they went, naked before the fire that jumped higher and higher. How does it keep growing if no one is adding fuel?Javor wondered once, and then the beat of the drum and Vorona’s voice and the motion of dancing filled his mind and Javor didn’t think anymore.
Did you like that? You can read the rest of it in Initiation Rites, which is available for free from
Initiation Rites is a stand-alone e-book that also is Part 1 of the full novel, The Bones of the Earth. It’s available free, as well, until the pandemic ends.