The Old Farmers’ Almanac calls this moon cycle the Hunter’s Moon, but for me the Falling Leaves Moon is full today at 4:54pm. They seem to think this moon is named for the hunting season. This is neither temporally nor mythically correct. It is not yet hunting season, if by hunt you mean “pursuing and killing animals for food”. Ruminant hunting season does not begin until after the fall rut, the breeding season — otherwise you’d be wiping out the potential for future prey. You may be able to hunt turkey and other wild fowl in the weeks between the Harvest Moon and Halloween in some areas, though this is rare and somewhat foolish because again, killing in the growing season severely limits what will be around next year.
However, more importantly, this moon was not named for the actual hunting of animals. Our ancestors named it for the Wild Hunt, a metaphysical culling that paralleled the culling of domestic herds and flocks which sees peak activity around Martinmas — 11 November. For those reasons, I reserve the Hunter’s Moon for the 13th moon of the year, the special cycle that begins in the latter half of October and culminates in a full moon in the first half of November.
The Wild Hunt is an anthropomorphism of endings and death. These stories merge the wild weather at the end of autumn, the death and dormancy of plant and animal life, and the increase in human mortality as the weather turns cold into tales of both horror and comfort. The Hunt is the gathering of souls, all souls that have died in the last year. The Hunters do not often deal out death but serve, instead, as psychopomps, shepherding the newly dead into the afterlife. There are stories of ferries in the fog and hell hounds in the heavens. There are dark huntsmen, cloaked gods in broad-brimmed hats, and stern old crones, all of whom have scary sides. But when analyzed in bulk, most of the tales reveal kindness and compassion and a great love of the hapless newly dead. Yes, you may have to pay the ferryman, but he is almost always a gentle being under a gruff exterior. Perhaps this is how humans want to be seen themselves.
The Hunters are, however, universally upholders of the law, keepers of the ways and means. They do not abide rule breaking, though they seem amenable to bending quite a bit, if by doing so they can calm fears and salve the pain. As rule keepers, they do not look kindly on those who flaunt wrong-doing, and sometimes the wrong seems rather arbitrary. If you don’t have your spinning done by Midwinter, you risk cold and chaos dealt out by Perchta in the coming months. If you don’t get your harvest in before All Souls’ Day, you will go hungry because the pooka spits on the brambles, fields and orchards on Halloween. If you are abroad in the dark when the Cailleach is about her business, you may well find yourself on the paths of the dead. If these punishments seem harsh relative to the infractions, remember that these stories come from the days of consequences — days that we are experiencing again — when to not complete life-supporting tasks when they need to be completed — like having warm cloth for winter, putting by food in the pantry before the frost, making your way home before the trackless dark and howling storms of late autumn nights claim the paths and highways — you risk losing your life. And you risk the lives of those who are bound up with your life. These stories are guides to practical living as well as reassurance that death is not exclusively to be feared. You may find yourself accidentally in the land of the dead, but if it’s not your time, that is if you followed the rules, you generally stand a pretty fair chance of being returned to your bed by the Hunters.
So that moon is next. This is the Falling Leaves Moon. Many years do not see a Falling Leaves moon cycle, as this or the Nutting Moon are dropped to make room for the Harvest Moon, which is always the full moon closest to the autumn equinox. And for reasons I’m not inclined to science out, it seems like the 12th moon is more often Harvest than Falling Leaves. This may be a false statistic, the result of incomplete record-keeping. It may be that I have kept better accounts in the parts of the 19-year lunar cycle that mate the solar year to the moon’s cycle with the equinox falling after the closest full moon. Perhaps, now we’re heading into the years of fewer Nutting Moons. I don’t know that it matters all that much except to say that there is an odd synchronicity between years that we have a Nutting Moon and heavy-bearing mast and nut harvests. And it’s also true that Falling Leaves years are often colorful late in the autumn when the 12th moon is at its fullest. This, too, may be false data… but it’s just something I’ve noticed while living here in New England. And it’s true this year.
In this year without a Nutting Moon, we have not had a spectacular mast year here in New England. There are fewer acorns underfoot and the airs were notably empty of flying maple samaras during the growing season. There are many reasons for this, from the stresses of the last bearing season to the stresses of this year’s drought. I don’t have much reason to track these things, not needing to feed animals on woodland mast, so this is not a rigorous observation. Only, I do notice when I get a break from tending to the millions of sprouting maple and oak seedlings. The cedars behind my house are not carpeted in tiny maples this year, and I’m not wracked with guilt in cutting the grass and mowing down future oak trees.
We have, however, had a year of very late leaf color to go with the Falling Leaves Moon. Normally, the maples will begin showing color on the top edges around Lammas, with peak color around the equinox. And that did begin to happen… a little. There were a very few trees that began to color in early August, but then the leaf color just stopped. For most of August and September, leaves were shriveling and turning dark brown, and this is still true in the driest areas — on south-facing slopes and uplands. But around the equinox, we started to see more moisture, and with that came more color.
This is, I should add, quite the opposite of the conditions that are usually thought to produce a vibrant forest canopy. It’s well-known that trees need lots of warm sunshine paired with cool night temperatures to make a slow and colorful transition to winter dormancy. Instead, we got many days of rain for a while there, paired with very cool temperatures. But this, along with the usual season’s fast-dwindling day length, seems to have convinced all those trees that were still stubbornly green — perhaps trying to get in as much food-production as they could after an abysmal growing season — to finally go to sleep. And those trees that had desiccated to brown husks also seem to have found something in them to keep them going. The browns are not as dead-looking, more the rusty chestnut of dried oak leaves. Which is odd on maples and birches, but not as scary as a lot of dead leaves.
The end result is that we are painted in glorious color this week for the Falling Leaves Full Moon. The hills are orange and gold and vermillion. The riverbeds are awash in flames. The lifting of morning mist transforms a dark grey world into vibrancy. And there are leaves swirling through the skies when we get the least puff of air. I have bright maple leaves from my neighbor’s tree on my blue-painted front porch and sweep them off the back path every evening — along with the cedar droppings. (Has anyone else noticed just now much needle arborvitaes drop in a dry year! How did I not know this?) Most wonderfully, the mystery viburnum out front, that which was falling down until I drastically pruned it, is now blood red. I don’t recall this happening last year. I hope it doesn’t take a horrible growing season to produce this lovely color. I suspect that might be the case though… I guess Nature has its rewards for even such things as drought.
As I’m talking things calendrical I should note that for me, this is the season of Samhaine. This is the last season of the year. The new year in my Celtic-inflected, New England cycle begins on All Saints Day, 1 November, making All Saints Eve — All Hallows Eve, Hallowe’en — my New Year’s Eve. I’m slow to the decorating this year because of work and illness and so on, but I’ve dug out some of the black and orange, the spice-scented candles, and the symbols of ancestry and death, sufficiently setting a reverent and mysterious mood to match the cooling nights and blustery storms of the season of dwindling and dormancy. And there’s been an increase in fantasy movie-soundtrack music, too, particularly the wonderful Harry Potter music. I should also note that my neighbors, who are notably not witches, have beaten me to the punch as far as Halloween spirit goes. There are zealous spider webs and skulls and pumpkins all around me. So I need to get on my game here… Will be tending to that now… right after I watch Hocus Pocus 2…
In the spirit of Samhaine (and for the Zoetrope All-Story Short Fiction Contest this year), I’ve written a very short nouveau folktale based on the Russian rusalki, the water spirits who haunt rivers and streams and lure the unwary to their death. These spirits are not Hunters. They are the remnants of women who have died a violent death in the waters. Many took their own lives. Most died at the hand of those who claimed to love them. They are a bitter lot. And misery does love company…
She sat on the smooth granite at the water’s edge and idly finger-combed her hair, admiring the glints of light on the water, on the tiny quartz crystals, on her red-gold tresses. She liked presenting such an admirable picture to the world. Girl. Water. Stone. Sunlight. All just being, with no intent or ulterior motive. No past. No future. Only this beautiful now. She felt that beauty was ever only beautiful when arrested in time. No origin story. No unfulfilled needs. A placid picture with no context. That was what she wanted to be.
But memory would dart in and out of her consciousness. Even as she shooed the ghosts away, there came a remembrance of another time and another picture. Another lovely day in the sun. So long ago. But what is time when you linger in the now? Still… The echoes of other nows would come to call. She felt a grimace pulling at her full lips and the smooth skin between her eyes wrinkled unbecomingly.
He had like how she looked. Had told her as much, effusively. There she was, sparkling in the sun like a tropical lagoon. Just as inviting, just as luscious. He wanted to dive into her and let her coruscating light wash over his naked flesh. In the moment, she liked his desire, wanted more of it, wanted to wrap it around her lithe body like a mink coat. Gloating in it for all the world to see. I am… because I am wanted.
But want is never as ephemeral as the objects we desire. She lost his gaze when she stepped into the river of time and asked him to take her hand. She became living flesh, too bodily real to be light and lovely. She was good enough to grab his greedy eyes, but not good enough to hold his attention in time. He was gone back to his heights and she remained in the shallows. She was not good enough for him. Not of his class. Not the marrying kind, as his mother so succinctly put it.
And the baby… her fingers caught in her hair as the horrid memory surfaced. The baby. Taking over her body. Making life gravid and heavy. And dark. So many harsh words. Harsh surfaces. Hard light. No beauty in the aching back and swollen ankles. He did not want a child. Did not want her child. Accused her of so many nasty machinations. As if she would make this hideous transformation of herself simply to entrap him. As if she wanted motherhood and its too solid fleshly need. As if she wanted to be beholden to time.
Though, yes, she did miss her child. This was confusing. She was not witness to her daughter’s becoming. Did not watch those tiny, pudgy limbs grow long and lissom. Did not know the color of her hair. Did not place photos in leather-bound books to remember fleeting infancy. Did not give away a child to womanhood. So how could she miss what she never knew? How could the memory of what never was mar her perfect now?
No. She tossed the thought into the water with an impatient flick of her delicate wrist. That was all over. She was here now.
There had been many since him. Drawn to the honey of her hair and the impermanence in her eyes. She fed on them, taking their need for self-assurance and mastery, and drowning them in her voracious appetite for delight, for now. She murmured the meaningless words that she found in their eyes. And she destroyed them. She acknowledged one truth: now is a sucking hole that never lets the light escape.
Just sit on this smooth stone by the water. Caress her own satin skin. Appear lovely. And never examine the slimy underbelly of time or history or fate.
As the years flowed by she remained monstrously unchanged under the sun. Lovely. Red-gold hair and water and crystalline reflection. Being present. Never needing anything but this. And they never knew that this freedom that she embodied, this pleasure cut loose of all responsibility, they never knew that they would drown in it as surely as she had. That this timelessness would unravel their sinews and unmake their minds. That they could not be eternal as long as they wanted. That desire is a rushing onwards toward death. Their want became her as they lay rotting in time’s river.
She did savor that moment of power when the awareness came into their eyes… She smiled at the many memories. And then banished those thoughts. She did not need them. She did not need.
Sitting on the smooth stone in the sunlight, finger-combing her red-gold hair.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022