Note: This is an excerpt from the first chapter in Mary Saracino’s novel, The Singing of Swans (Pearlsong Press 2006). Used by permission from the publisher. For more information, visit http://www.pearlsong.com/thesingingofswans.htm
Chapter 1 continued. Read part 1.
Four times a year, on the Ember Days this benevolent tribe took leave of their mortal bodies to do battle with their archenemies — the Malandanti — the ones who had perverted their supernatural gifts in the pursuit of power and greed. Theirs was a battle as ancient as time. Every three months these opposing forces engaged in ritual combat. The livelihood and protection of their townsfolk lay in the hands of Ziza and her band of Benandanti warriors. This night they would affect the outcome of the grain, the vineyards, the livestock. Would there be enough wheat to reap and store? Enough grain to grind into flour to make bread and pasta? Would it be enough to see their village through the long winter? Would the grapes ripen and yield exquisite wine? Would the sheep and cattle give birth to healthy offspring, provide sufficient milk, supply ample meat when it came time for slaughter? It was yet to be determined.
Would these Benandanti be brave enough, strong enough to overcome the Malandanti? Health and harmony ruled when the Benandanti were victorious. Empty storage bins, sparse larders, inadequate libation, even starvation held sway when the Malandanti triumphed. This night of nights it would be decided. On a stretch of stony field, at the stroke of midnight, on the night before the new moon, the battle would be waged. In the darkness the factions would fight until one side overcame the other, driving them to the riverbed in defeat. Matters of life and death hung in the balance.
For centuries it had been this way. And the score was far from even.
Ziza and her compatriots slipped through the coal-black silence like night geese, joined by others en route to their farmland battleground. Paolo the eldest of their town’s Streghe, placed the Benandanti banner in Ziza’s right hand. Its white silk fabric, embroidered with a golden lion, instilled courage in the hearts of these soldiers of good. In her left hand, Ziza gripped a stalk of fennel. As was the custom, this herb was to be her warrior’s saber, for fennel was sacred to St. Lucy, the patron of the blind and of deeper ways of seeing. Streghe, such as Ziza and her Benandanti companions, revered Lucy, not as a Catholic saint — although they made pretense to do so to assuage those in the Church who would condemn them as heretics. No, Ziza and her kind cherished an earlier, lesser known manifestation of Santa Lucia, the Mighty Goddess, Isis, one of the many pre-Christian manifestations of the Divine Mother. They honored the time before God dwelt solely in the realms of the masculine, a time before the female voice of spirit was silenced and forgotten. With a furious wave, the Benandanti shook their fennel stalks at the air, invoking their Protector. They beseeched St. Lucy, imploring her to shed light on their endeavors and guide their battle through the waning, moonless night.
Across the field, the Malandanti hovered behind their banner of red silk and raven-colored wolves. Ready with their sabers of sorghum stalks they chanted to rouse their courage. The wind howled and the leaves swirled around them. Stands of oak and olive trees witnessed the impending struggle. Night creatures big and small gathered to watch. The Benandanti sounded a collective whoop and charged over the wheat field at their enemy. Fennel slashed through the night sky; sorghum tore at the air. Stalk chafed against stalk as the wind moaned. Banners waved and spirits cried out, wounded and weary. The air was foggy with groans and dusty with plant residue. Benandanti clashed with Malandanti. All were swift and brave, strong and determined.
The clashing of voices reverberated through the countryside, sounding like a cauldron of rushing water to the uninitiated, for no merely human eye could behold these spirit warriors at battle. A passerby would mistake the stirring of wheaten tassels as merely the wind dancing over the fields; the roar of battle cry he would understand simply as the howling of the wind racing through the countryside. He would not perceive the fervor of flailing arms, the slap of fennel swords, the smack of sorghum that roused the armies of these invisible soldiers. Still, beneath the seeing layers, in the cold night the enemies fought on, fennel overtaking sorghum, then sorghum reasserting its power. For hours the spirits clashed, the advantage switching back and forth.
In the nearby forest, a coven of owls kept score, counting the fallen, determining the balance of survivors. As the night wore on, the battle worsened. Just before three, the fatigue of fighting took its toll on the Malandanti. With white banner in hand, Ziza led a final assault, driving their enemies to the riverbank. The Benandanti cheered as the Malandanti first cowered by the water’s edge then fled into the night sky from whence they had come.
Ziza triumphantly raised her fennel stalk toward the heavens and rejoiced. A bountiful harvest was assured. The victory tasted sweet and they danced and sang a song of jubilation before returning to their homes, their families, and their human forms. Joyful, yet weary from the battle, the soldiers of good would soon re-enter their comatose bodies before the stroke of five and rejoin the living. Their work was completed for another season.
The Benandanti flew back to their village, singing songs of praise to St. Lucy and the Great Dark Mother. When at last Ziza spied her home, she slipped through the rooftop and came upon her mother still resting by the hearth. Ziza smiled and flicked what remained of her stalk of fennel to indicate the battle’s outcome. Her mother nodded and muttered, “Bene. Bene.”
Ziza entered her bedroom and rejoined her slumbering body as the first light of dawn brushed against the windowsill. In the courtyard, the cock crowed and Aldo stirred. Ziza’s eyes opened as if waking from a long dream. She turned toward Aldo and kissed the back of his head.
“Time to rise,” she told him.
“Yes,” he answered. “Time to tend the wheat fields.”
“The harvest will be a good one this year,” she said.
“I hope you are right,” he responded.
She stood, pulled her tangle of hair into a tight bun and smiled. The thick scent of fennel hung in the air, blessing their endeavors.
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