She closes the door behind her, leaves her wrap on the bar, and takes the bag to a space by the fireplace. She sets it on the floor, opens it, and from its depths takes out three candles, a silken cloth, a bottle, two chalices, a soda bread and her blade.
She moves a chair closer, and spreads the silk on the floor before it.
With measured steps, she cuts a circle with her blade, a look of concentration on her face, her eyes burning and her brow furrowed. She blows a kiss to each of the four winds, pondering the nymph, the salamander, the undine and the gnome, and how she needs all of them, and the gifts they bring.
She sits on the floor, opposite the chair, and places her gifts on the cloth, the blade by the bread, the bottle opened and ready by the cups, the candles, two white and one pink, set in a triangle around the centerpiece of flowers, heavily fragrant with their cool, sweet smell. She reaches into her pocket and murmuring a bit, lights the candles, smelling sweetly of their consecration--the two white first, and then the pink, her candle, last.
In the firelight, she closes her eyes, and her tears begin to flow.
"Mother...?" she calls softly. "Mother?"
At once, the chair opposite her is occupied by a woman dressed in black cloak and shift. Belle looks up into Her face, and sees Her hair, the glowing color of moonlight, and Her eyes, blue as midnight, and the comforting, delicate wrinkles of the skin, still firm with life, still warm and ruddy. Her hands are folded gently in Her lap, adorned with silver and moonstone, and they are sturdy and strong, laced with vein and sinew, and yet...
Folded in that way, they give the appearance of calm, perfect gentleness.
The voice is low and steady, inviting and intimidating all at once. "Yes, child. I'm here."
By now Belle's tears are streaming, and she looks almost pleadingly into her Mother's face.
"Mother, I'm heartsick, and hurt. I feel broken and weak. I feel tired and despairing...."
The Woman listens, and when Belle's sobs are quieted, She speaks. "It's the woman, isn't it? The woman who crossed over today."
Belle nods wordlessly, unable to speak, so choked she is with sadness and anger, her mind whirling with pictures of that face...that face...
"Child," The Woman says quietly, "hush, child, and dry your tears, because I have something to show you..."
From the folds of her cloak, soft as shadow, she brings forth a huge crystal, spotlessly clear and full of rainbows. It is a giant chunk of a thing, covered with mirrored facets, windows to other worlds...
She sees herself, ages before, in a different life, and she remembers this place. She remembers her bare feet, cold and bitten by stone, on an evening much like this. She remembers the sting of the scourge across her shoulders, and the ache in her joints from the wheel. She remembers the bruising, from fists that hit and feet that kicked away at her flesh. She looks, and sees that her eyes are blackened with bruises, and swollen so that they were nearly shut, but looking ahead as she is driven, chained, to The Place.
And suddenly, before her, she sees the rough stake driven into the ground, with prickled brush piled all around, and she begins to tremble.
Her feet are further torn by thorns as she ascends the bier, and rough hands bind her tightly to the post, pulling her dislocated shoulders until they scream with pain, and she can't help but whimper.
Belle watches, and the memory is so clear, so powerful that she becomes unhinged in time, and she no longer knows whether now is now or then is now or now is then...
She hears a crackle, and through her swollen eyes, she sees the flames begin to devour the dry brush, and smells the ironic sweetness of the burning wood as the smoke begins to rise.
And suddenly, she is warm.
Suddenly, her muscles relax in response to the rising heat and the comfort of the drug in her own veins. The ravening pain is lulled to sleep, and there is nothing but the drowsy lick of smoke around her face.
She looks out over the gathered crowd, and hears their jeering drowned out by the crackle of tinder and roar of flame, growing and leaping ever higher, growling like a large animal that is somehow menacing and tender all at once. She sees the pale face of her daughter, the eyes like clear pools of water suddenly overflowing down the face, still childish, but becoming more of her adult self--the tears not only for what is happening, but also what could be...
Until that face is no longer visible behind the sleek and supple body of the flame.
And it occurs to her that this is no evil or tragic end, but it is the giving over of oneself to the elements. And as her flesh chars and melts off her bones, she knows the ecstacy of becoming one again with her old familiar friends, and her Universe, and her Mother. She is fearless in her burning, because it is an end to pain and the torments of the flesh, and she is being released, freed to become one with the All yet again, as she has so many times before. She blesses those who brought her here, and who lit the fire beneath her, because they have given her her freedom, yet again.
She wonders, as she breathes her last hot breath, why she is born to the fear of death in every lifetime, only to come to this place, in every lifetime, when it is finally embraced with joy and relief and understanding...
The crystal's image vanishes, and when Belle looks up again, she sees that, standing by the woman, watching, smiling, is a dark haired woman with large eyes like obsidian, and a smile so rich, so completely unfettered, that Belle nearly loses her breath.
The woman smiles, and then sits at the feet of the Mother, her fine rose colored gown billowing around her, the color and shape of cloud in the dawn sky. She lays her head against the Mother's knee, and reaches out to Belle, holding both her hands in both of her own...
And in that touch, she is made a sister to this fey soul, and her mind opens to the gentleness and joy that is within this creature.
After a long and lingering look, Belle suddenly starts as if awakened from a dream, and says, "Oh, my dear, I've brought food and drink. Here..."
Her hands flutter over the glasses and she lifts the blade to cut the sweet bread...
And as she watches, this lovely and perfect and eternal creature savors the wine and the cake, smiling like she has never tasted anything this good, with a crumb or two on her lovely lips, and Belle remembers that it is only in the Summerland that food is so delicious, and so nourishing, and that the intoxication of wine is in the taste alone...
Belle's tears spill again as she observes this perfect joy, and lets the creature eat and drink her fill, knowing that she herself could never savor, with her imperfect human tongue, as this girl before her is savoring, and she thrills with the rememberance of this perfect happiness and satisfaction. She looks up into the Mother's face, and the two of them smile at one another in understanding.
Hours later, Belle finds herself awakening on the floor of the bar, the sun coming up through the window, the candles burned to their quicks and the purple silk scattered with crumbs.
She stands, and stretches herself awake, and goes to put on the coffee and the muffins, preparing for another day in which she will find herself feeding her patrons...
Because this is what she longs to do, and what she has, through the grace of her Good Mother, been allowed to do....