Beltane is an ancient Celtic festival that comes to English from the Gaelic word bealltainn which literally means “May 1st.” To celebrate this transition from spring to summer, large bonfires are lit in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.
The modern day celebration in Edinburgh, Scotland, is called the Beltane Fire Festival. It is a cultural and modern arts festival associated with the art of fire dancing. The bonfires are thought to represent the power of the sun.
Beltane is also considered a time when the Otherworld/underworld is particularly close at hand; similar to All Hallows’ Eve, All Souls’ Day, Dia De Los Muertos, or Samhain. Beltane puts me in mind for a short story loosely based on a couple of family tales.
The Foreign Wife
Just after midnight on the first day of May, Elia awoke from a dead sleep. An unusual light outside her bedroom window had her stumbling in the dark to get a better look. A ball of fire hovered at eye level and quickly disappeared. Across the field, another fire burned.
After calling the fire department, Elia slid her feet into her boots, grabbed a sweater and ran into the cool night toward her nearest neighbor’s house. Living in the country didn’t have many drawbacks but emergency response time was one of them. The house was afire and though Elia had never cared for the old man who lived there, she might have to be the one to run into the burning house and save him if she could.
One of the reasons she disliked her neighbor was that most of the people in her small town believed that he murdered his wife and got away with it. The rumor was that he put rat poisoning in her food. Because the coroner owed the man a gambling debt, the autopsy report said she died of natural causes.
The other reason Elia didn’t want to pee on the man if he was on fire, was that he was cruel to his wife when she was alive. He’d gone to a foreign country to get her and she didn’t speak much English. He liked it that way.
The man had money but he never gave his wife any and he kept his valuables locked up tight after she gave away a family heirloom as a gift to another neighbor who’d had a baby. He’d nearly put her in the hospital after that incident. The woman probably gladly ate poisoned food because her husband starved her most of the time.
Elia rushed onto the front porch of the wood siding house. The roof was completely engulfed in flames. She kicked the front door open and jumped back in case the fire rushed out in search of oxygen.
She called the man’s name but received no answer. About the time she gathered enough courage to cross the threshold, she heard a siren in the distance. She hesitated, wondering if she should wait for the professionals but decided that if she didn’t take action, it might be too late.
She entered the house and before she took three steps, the ceiling in the front room collapsed, leaving her nowhere to go but backwards out the door. The experience also left her covered in soot and extremely warm as sweat broke out all over her body. She had to retreat.
The firemen arrived and so did a few other neighbors. Elia stood with them near the road to watch the firemen work. Once the flames were out, they went in to recover the remains of the old man. No one seemed very sad at the loss and Elia felt a stab of guilt until she remembered his foreign wife. Maybe the old guy got what was coming to him.
When the excitement waned, Elia started walking home and glanced over her shoulder when she was halfway there. A ball of fire appeared from thin air and in the flame, Elia saw the face of the foreign wife. The face smiled before the fireball disappeared. Remembering the date, Elia thought that perhaps the veil between the living and the dead really was thin on Beltane.
People of Celtic descent light fires to celebrate the arrival of summer. At the White house, we have the A/C units checked, dust the pollen off the patio furniture, and buy extra sunscreen. How do you welcome summer where you live?