"Mine were an old people, and were old even when this land was settled. And now they were scattered, and shared only the rituals of mysteries that none living could understand. I was the only one who came back that night to the old town as legend bade, for only the poor and the lonely remember."
-H.P. Lovecraft, "The Festival"
I have only one memory of my extended family, and that's of a tall man with a grey face, who I believe was my grandfather, bending down to give me a hug. I would have been four or five years old, as that's the last time I or my father had contact with any relations beyond the immediate. Except for that one memory, I know nothing of them.
I never knew what led my father to cut himself off from everyone so completely, but we never saw them and the few times I asked about it he remained stolid. He never said anything about my mother either, except that she had died when I was young and left no relations to speak of on her side, and so when he died in the accident I became resigned to making my way through life alone. I was just nineteen.
Imagine my surprise, then, when an invitation to a family reunion arrived in the mail. The letter was handwritten and addressed me by name, coming from someone who claimed to be my grandfather. It said that the family had heard about my father's death and wanted me to attend "the Festival" this year. I wrote back immediately to say I would be there, so excited that I could scarcely hold the pen straight.
I had never been to New England before, and it was not what I expected. I guess before I arrived I imagined a kind of rolling Normal Rockwell scene, but the landscape I found instead was spare and quiet, and though beautiful in its way it left me anxious and troubled by unquiet thoughts about what might be just past those hills, or that field, or just outside my range of vision.
My alleged grandparents had a great old house on the outskirts of Kingsport, Massachusetts, and I arrived on their doorstep in the early afternoon of a brisk winter day, suitcase in one hand and invitation in the other. It was the Yuletide, near the solstice, the time of the year when old customs invade our modern world, bringing with them the lingering ghosts of our ancient pagan ways. Christmas, of course, is just our name for it today; there are older names, and older ways, forgotten now by everything human.
I worried at first that I might have come to the wrong place, as the house I approached did not appear inhabited. It was a secluded place, the only landmark at the end of an isolated dirt road, built near a sprawling (but rundown) orchard and some dramatic cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. The house seemed to slumber under a dusting of the previous night's snow.
There was not a soul in sight, but when I knocked on the door it was answered by a woman a few years older than me, a green-eyed and auburn-haired beauty in a unseasonal white sundress. My heart gave a little flutter at the sight of her; she might have been an angel for all I knew in the moment. She peered through the screen door and asked, very politely, what I wanted.
I held up the letter. "I got this in the mail. I'm, that is to say, my name is Charles and-"
"Charles?" said the woman, pushing the screen open. "Is that you?"
I was unsure what to say, and shrugged. "Well, I am me. Always have been."
She threw her arms around my neck and hugged me as tightly as she could, and I swooned a bit. I was shocked to find that she was crying, and I did my best to comfort her.
"I can't believe it's you!" she said.
"Ah, yes, I am often in disbelief myself," I said.
She wiped her tears and smiled. "Oh, of course you don't recognize me. I'm Celia, do you remember? We're cousins."
My heart rolled over and died at this pronouncement, but I did my best to smile back. "Celia? The name is almost familiar."
"Well, you would have been very young the last time we met. Four or five years old, at the last Festival that your father attended."
She was holding my hand, and her touch felt very warm in the winter air. I had to chide myself not to enjoy it too much. "I'm sorry for getting so emotional," she said. "It's just wonderful, wonderful that you're here, so that the family can really be together again."
"Yes," I said, "I'm sure it is."
She took me inside. The house was dark, and looked in need of a good dusting.
"I was so sorry to hear about your father," she said. "Of course, I barely remember him either, but even so."
"Thank you," I said. "It's been difficult."
"I lost my parents too, when I was a teenager," she said. "Grandma and Grandpa have been all I've had for years." She squeezed my hand again. "We can't make up for what you've lost, but family is the best thing for you now. There's nothing more important than family, that's what Grandpa always says."
She pulled me along and I went with her, dazed and only half hearing what she was saying. She was beautiful and charming and witty, and I cursed the universe that we should be related. If I'd met her on the street a week ago neither of us would ever have known the difference, I thought. But of course, I hadn't.
Half of the rooms in the house seemed shut up, and there was an air of disuse about even the ones we entered. Knowing what I know now, it wouldn't surprise me if they'd only recently reinhabited it for my sake, to keep up appearances when I met them. Celia and I found Grandpa on the back deck where he was, for some reason, looking through stacks of decades-old periodicals.
He looked up once, nodded, then did a double take upon seeing me. He came forward, shaking my hand and smiling ear to ear, for the moment unable to say anything. Tears welled in his eyes. For my part I was startled. He looked exactly as I remembered him, unchanged by a decade and a half; still a tall, wizened, grey man with spectacles. When he stood up he reminded me so much of that one fragmented memory that I felt a moment of vertigo, and only Celia's hand on mine kept me upright.
"My boy!" said Grandpa, still smiling. "Let me look at you! I can't believe you're here, I just can't believe it." He kept saying this over and over, and would not stop shaking my hand.
Celia laughed. "Grandpa, give Charles a seat."
I sat across the table from him, and Celia sat next to me, her legs crossed. I enjoyed our proximity in a way that made me uncomfortable. The deck appeared rundown, paint peeling and wood splintered, but it was enclosed and insulated from the cold, and the furniture was comfortable. Through the glass enclosure there was a beautiful view of the old, dark oak trees that peopled the property.
"I'm sorry about that," said Grandpa. "I got carried away. You don't know what it means for all of us that you're here. Your parents, your poor father, when we heard the news-"
He began to tear up again, and so did I, but when Celia patted my knee I managed to say, "Thank you. I'm sure they would be happy to know how much they meant to you still after all these years."
Grandpa wiped his eyes and cleaned his spectacles. "It was a damned fool thing, the argument that sent your father out of here. So much time lost. Every year at Festival, I think of him."
"What's this I keep hearing about a festival?" I said.
Celia laughed, a little too loud. "Oh Charles, you didn't know? I'm afraid the entire family are a bunch of wicked pagans."
I must have looked confused, because Grandpa chuckled. "It's a family tradition of sorts," he said. "It goes back, oh, to long before I was born. Something we've done every year, for always."
"What exactly is it?" I said.
"It's just as bad as you think," said Celia, leaning in close and talking in a loud whisper. "It's all masks and bonfires and chanting and wicked idolatry!"
Grandpa waved a hand. "It's a lark, of course," he said. "In the old days, in the Old Country, it was taken very seriously, but now it's just a tradition. You'll see what we mean."
I was about to ask about the mention of the old country, because my father had never talked about our heritage or history and I was very interested to know where the family line originated, but I was interrupted by the arrival of Grandma, who burst in from the kitchen and smothered me with hugs and kisses on the cheek. She was a short, rotund woman who barely came up to my chest. She fawned over me and repeated what I'd already heard about how good it was to have the family together for the Festival. That word came up so often that the back of my neck started to prickle at the mention of it.
Grandma and Grandpa (even now it feels strange to use those names) sat me down and interviewed me about my life. Celia, meanwhile, watched us with a detached expression, nodding now and then and once winking at me (which made me jump). When I was finished I was finally able to ask the question I'd always wanted answered; why did my father leave?
Grandma frowned. "I guess it's just that he didn't want you growing up with our...customs," she said.
"Like the Festival," said Grandpa.
"Right," said Grandma. "He felt like we were, oh, backward and arcane. Didn't want you being in that environment. Thought it would turn you strange."
I mulled this over. "Are you sure? That doesn't sound like a big enough thing to warrant being so upset about?"
"Your father was a stubborn man," said Grandpa, and that was true enough. "And so was I, then. If I'd known what it would cost us, the years we'd lose, I wouldn't have gotten so angry. But at the time I told him that if he wasn't willing to act like a part of this family then he shouldn't be a part of this family. That was the last time we spoke. I never saw my son again. And now I never will."
He began to lose his composure again, and Grandma took him inside to lie down before the others arrived, leaving Celia and I to get acquainted. I wondered at the story of my family's departure; what was it about these traditions that would cause such a schism? I felt an unnamable dread in my heart, but Celia put me at ease.
She took me for a walk around the grounds, showing me the orchard where everyone would gather that night, and then we went to admire the view from the sea cliffs together. We stood, hand in hand, watching the ocean and smelling the salt breeze. I snuck glances at her out of the corner of my eye; God she was beautiful. She leaned on me, her head on my shoulder, and said, "Isn't it gorgeous here?"
"It is," I said, as the surf crashed below. She hugged me and I leaned into her harder than I should have.
"I've missed you so much," she said. "It's strange, because we were both so young the last time you were here, but I've never forgotten about you. When we were children we stood right on this same spot, looking at the ocean just like this, and then you kissed my cheek. It was the sweetest thing. I think about it every year."
I felt my blood rise and I wasn't sure what to say, so I opted to say nothing. We stood there for longer even than I realized, and for perhaps the first time in my life I felt a real and profound sense of belonging, of being with people who loved me. For although my father must have loved me, our relationship had always been one of tension. Only now, with Celia, did I feel the first hints of real affection.
The sun was going down by the time we went back to the house. Our feet crunched in the shallow layer of frozen snow. There were lights on in the old place, and cars arriving on the road. In twos and threes and fours, they were coming. It was time to meet the family.
There they all were, the aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins I never knew I had, and the great relatives and the great, great relatives too. Children five and six and seven years old scampered and played in the snow while the older ones, teens and preteens, congregated in bunches, talking amongst themselves and holding their own private family congress while the older crowd spread throughout the house. Grandma and Grandpa beamed at everyone and Celia shadowed me, never far away, as I was put through the paces by a hundred grinning cognates who wanted to hug me and look at me and tell me how sad they were about my parents, and how happy they were that I was here.
I noticed something strange as the evening wore on, and I wanted to ask Celia about it but found no opportunity; I met many uncles and aunts and more distant relations, and almost everyone was accompanied by at least one child, but none of them seemed to be married. There were no husbands, no wives, and no in-laws of any kind. The teenagers and young people brought no boyfriends or girlfriends along, and talked of none. There were only blood relations.
But I had no time to consider the matter then. We all talked and laughed through dinner, and then it was time for the Festival. Celia had explained a bit of it to me already, but I still didn't really understand what was going to happen. They all assured me, though, that it was in good fun, and in keeping with our heritage (ambiguous though that seemed to be). I assembled with everyone else outside the house as the sun went down, and a dozen of us went on ahead to the orchard to prepare a bonfire from the dry kindling collected earlier in the week.
Grandma went among everyone, passing out certain ceremonial garments (robes of coarse brown cloth, of the same sort worn at such gatherings for millennia, as I understood it) and masks that the younger children had crafted. These masks were crude paper-mache constructions in the likeness of certain animals or fantastical creatures. I felt foolish wearing one, but Celia declared that I looked "adorable." Mine was a fox, and hers some manner of wood nymph or dryad, with features painted by a particularly diligent little artisan to resemble the grain of wood bark. Only her luminous green eyes and tiny, rosebud mouth were visible under it.
Soon the whole lot of us were dressed and masked and we walked, side by side in pairs, to the appointed site, some pairs carrying lit torches, and along the way we sang, though I cannot now remember the words or the tune to those hymns.
Our delegation formed a circle around the sticks and brambles that had been piled high in the old orchard, and one by one the torchbearers threw their burning brands onto the stack, setting it ablaze, and the flames danced and cavorted and sent gouts of foul black smoke into the night sky to greet the waning moon. By the light of the fire our crude masks, at first so childish, took on a ghoulish quality, flickering orange flames painting the exaggerated features of animals and fairies and satyrs and making them appear a host of devils as the shadows of the trees swirled around us.
Thus far I was confused and unsettled, but not yet frightened. Backward though they may be, these people were the family I'd searched for all my life, and they had taken me in and accepted me as one of them. I did not understand these rites and mysteries, but I understood their importance to the assemblage. In spite of the lurid trappings, I felt a sense of belonging, and that sense wrestled with my primal revulsion. But it was when the songs ended and the next vocalizations were uttered that I became truly horrified.
I am reluctant to call these invocations "prayers", as they were surely as blasphemous as any words spoken by any creature on this earth, but they were, at least, a manner of address to some higher power, some nameless, faceless godhead, some setebos or demogorgon buried in the detritus of time save for those words, spoken by my grandfather and repeated by the masses of my kin. One passage in particular will remain forever engraved on my memory:
"Ia, Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!"
I had no idea what such a ghastly orison could mean, but it chilled me to the marrow. Indeed, the phrase seemed so obscene that, as I mumbled it alongside the others, I felt its vile toxicity pollute my flesh. The mask and the robe began to feel restrictive and claustrophobic. And what were they doing now, what was this thing they were bringing forth, this strange idol twice as tall as a man, ancient and fetid in appearance, hammered together from the bones and antlers of animals, what grotesque figure was it meant to encharacter, and why did they show such obeisance to it?
It was too much. I pushed through the crowd, ignoring their alarmed stares and muttered questions, and when I was outside the circle I ran. I ran from the clearing, and the orchard, and those strange words that filled my head with thoughts of unknowable, squamous things, and vestigial powers lying long dead in Cyclopean mausoleums. I ran, in a sense, from myself, for as much as I loathed these thoughts and the words that engendered them I could not, even now, wholly disassociate from my sense of kinship with them.
I didn't stop running until I came back to the house. Looking as it did now, empty and dark, the peeling whitewash on the walls faintly reflecting the distant flames of the revelry fires, it seemed all the more a crypt, though the crypt of what manner of thing I dared not imagine. I discarded my robe and mask at the door and went in alone, wandering the isolated halls and lonely, unkempt rooms, searching for some lingering resonance of the sense of belonging I'd experienced here only a few short hours ago. I felt like a ghost wandering the walk of its dreary inhabitance, haunting myself.
It was Celia who found me, of course, Celia who followed me back from the Festival. She caught up with me as I explored the third floor bedroom, the loneliest and most misbegotten place in the house. I sat on the edge of an old bed with faded sheets, looking at the wallpaper print. This room had windows on two sides, one facing east, toward the ocean, and the other facing west, toward the orchard. It seemed to me that the bonfire must have grown to a conflagration, judging from the intensity of the glow through the lace curtains on that side. I wanted to go look but something, perhaps my better judgment, kept me where I was.
Celia still wore her Festival costume, and in the dark of that little room she seemed the grim specter of death, pale face and hooded robe and all, come to collect me. She sat down and leaned against me, taking her mask off and setting it on my lap. Up close it seemed again nothing more than a child's handicraft, and I felt foolish for the intensity of my fear, foolish for leaving and making a spectacle of myself. Celia, seeming to read my thoughts, rubbed my shoulders and said, "It's all right. No one is mad."
"I'm sorry," I said anyway. "I don't know what came over me. No, that's not true, I know exactly what it was."
"The Festival must seem strange if you're not used to it," she said. "Especially if you didn't grow up with it like we all did."
"I wouldn't mind if it was just strange," I said. "But I didn't expect to feel so...alien. I came here wanting to belong."
"Poor Charles," she said. "You've never really known where you belong. Grandpa always says that the real meaning of the Festival is family, teaching us that we all belong together. That's why we do it still, strange and old and frightening as it seems. It reminds us of how important we are to each other."
I wanted to believe her. I wanted to feel what she felt. She made it easy to believe. But something held me back still.
"Don't worry about it, Charles," said Celia, massaging my shoulders harder. "You'll feel it when you're ready. Your body will tell you. It's in our blood, and our flesh, and our hearts, the feeling that lets us know when we belong. And look at you, never comfortable in your own skin. Let me help you, darling, let me show you the way."
And then she kissed me. Not a chaste, affectionate kiss between family, but an encompassing, penetrating kiss, a kiss that consummated our afternoon's courtship. I would like to say that I objected right away, but in truth I allowed it go on for--well, for less time than I would have liked, because in truth I would have liked for it to go on forever. I did, eventually, break away and object, and Celia asked, with the stark naiveté of a child, "Why?"