"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 never knew what led my parents to cut themselves off from the rest of our family, but for my entire life prior to the events I'm about to disclose I knew nothing of them. On the few occasions I broached the topic both my mother and father said nothing, which suggested to me some particularly painful secret for which the only salve was silence. They would have had me believe that the three of us were alone in the world. If only that had been true.
I was nineteen years old the day everything changed. Both my parents were gone by then, lost in an accident, and their secrets with them. Imagine my surprise 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 maternal grandfather. It said that the family had heard about the accident and wanted me to attend "the Festival" this year, whatever that means. Astonished, I wrote back immediately and said I would be there. I was almost giddy, not only from knowing that I'd soon meet the family I thought lost, but also from the possibility that any number of mysteries might soon be resolved.
I had never been to New England before, and it was not what I expected. I guess I imagined a kind of rolling Normal Rockwell scene, but the landscape I discovered from the window of the train was spare and quiet. It left me unnerved, troubled with thoughts about what might be just past those hills, or that field. My alleged grandparents had a great old house on the outskirts of Kingsport, 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 the lingering ghosts of ancient pagan ways.
The house was a secluded place, the only landmark at the end of an isolated dirt road near a sprawling (but rundown) orchard and some dramatic cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. There was not a soul in sight, but when I knocked a woman a few years older than me, a green-eyed and auburn-haired beauty in a unseasonal white sundress, answered the door. My heart gave a little flutter at the sight of her; she might as well have been an angel. She peered through the screen and asked, very politely, what I wanted. I held up the letter. "I got this in the mail. My name is Charles, and—"
"Charles?" She pushed the screen open. "Is that you?"
I was unsure what to say. "Well, I am me. Always have been."
She threw her arms around my neck and hugged me as tightly as she could. 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.
I am often in disbelief myself," I said.
She pulled back, wiping her tears. "Oh, of course you don't recognize me. I'm Celia. We're cousins."
My heart rolled over and died. I put on a brave face. "Celia? The name is almost familiar, but I don't think that I remember."
"You would have been very young the last time we met: Four or five years old, at the last Festival that your parents attended. I'm sorry for getting so emotiona. It's just wonderful that you're here."
"I'm sure it is," I said, sounding perhaps not as enthusiastic as I should. I was still longing to somehow turn back the clock on her use of the word "cousin." 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 we hadn't.
She took me inside. The house was dark, and looked in need of a good dusting. Knowing what I know now, it wouldn't surprise me if they'd only recently re-inhabited it for my sake, to keep up appearances when I met them. "I was so sorry to hear about your parents," she said. "Of course, I barely remember them either, but even so."
"Thank you," I said. "It's been difficult."
"I lost my parents too, when I was just a teenager," she said. "Grandma and Grandpa have been all I've had for years. We can't make up for what you've lost, but family is still the best thing for you now."
We met 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 an actual double take upon seeing me. He took me by the hand, for the moment unable to say anything. Tears welled in his eyes. For my part I was startled. He was a tall, wizened, gray man with spectacles, the lines of his face so deep and hard they look as if they'd been painted on. It was startling. "My boy!" said Grandpa, when he could talk. "Let me look at you." He kept saying this over and over, and would not stop shaking my hand.
"Grandpa, give Charles a seat," Celia said, breaking us up. I sat across the table from him, and Celia sat next to me, her legs crossed. I enjoyed our proximity in a way I shouldn't have. The deck appeared rundown, paint peeling and wood splintering around us, but it was enclosed and insulated from the cold, and the furniture was comfortable and free of wear. Through the glass enclosure there was a beautiful view of the old, dark oak trees that peopled the property.
"I'm sorry," Grandpa said, sitting again. "I got carried away. You don't know what it means for all of us that you're here. Your poor mother and father! We hadn't seen them in so long, and when we heard the news—"
"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 parents out of here. So much time lost. Every year at Festival, I think of them."
There was that word again. "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 is 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, talking in a loud whisper. "It's all masks and bonfires and chanting and wicked idolatry. We might as well sacrifice an ox on an altar while we're at it."
Grandpa waved a hand. "It's all a lark, of course," he said. Back 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 parents 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 rotund woman who barely came up to my chest. She fawned over me and repeated what I expected was to become a common refrain about how good it was that I was here so that the whole family can finally be together again 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) interviewed me about my life for an hour. I didn't think anything I had to say was that intriguing, but they swooned over every detail. Celia, meanwhile, watched us with a detached expression, occasionally touching my hand, which made me jump. Grandma echoed the sentiment of how good it was to see me and how much she regretted the falling out with my parents. When I asked whatever had happened, she frowned and did not reply for some time.
"I guess it's just that your parents didn't want you growing up with our...customs," said Grandma.
"Like the Festival," said Grandpa.
"Right," said Grandma. "They felt like we were, oh, backward and arcane. They didn't want you being in that environment. They thought it would turn you strange."
I mulled this over. "That doesn't sound like something serious enough that you'd never speak to each other again?"
"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 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. I never saw my son again. And now I never will."
He began to lose his composure once more, and Grandma took him inside to lie down before the others arrived, leaving Celia and I to get acquainted. I wondered at the story. What was it about these traditions that would cause such a schism? I felt an unnamable dread, but Celia's face and voice and affection 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 admiring the view together 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.
"Celia?" I said.
"Grandpa called my father his son, but the invitation said he was Mom's father?"
Celia paused. "They were very close, your dad and Grandpa. They knew each other for a long time, even before he married your mom. And, you know, he's getting older now, and he doesn't remember things as clearly as he used to. I think he'll be having his last Festival soon. Not this year, but soon." And then she leaned on me, her head on my shoulde. "Isn't it beautiful here?"
"It is," I said, as the surf crashed below. She hugged me and I leaned into her harder than I should have. She didn't notice.
"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 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. For 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 mother and father had never denied me anything and I'm sure that, deep down, they 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, the family was coming. It was time to meet everyone.
They were all here, 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 felt like an awkward celebrity who never wanted fame.
I noticed something strange as the evening wore on. 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 blood relations, but only blood relations. Perhaps, if I had been more discerning, I would have noticed that although each child acknowledged one parent at the gathering, they also each seemed to have a particular affection for one other person of the opposite sex as that parent, an aunt or uncle or cousin with whom they seemed to have a particular rapport. But I had no time to consider the matter then.
We all talked and laughed through dinner, and then it was time to prepare for the Festival. Celia had explained a bit of it to me already, but I was still unclear on most of the concept. Everyone assembled outside and a dozen or so went on ahead to the orchard to prepare a bonfire from the dry kindling collected earlier in the week. Grandma went among the rest of us, passing out certain ceremonial garments (robes of coarse brown cloth, of the same sort worn at such gatherings for millennia, as I understood it). When the whole lot of us were dressed 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 of those hymns.
I was bewildered by all this, but had been warned by Celia and our grandparents to expect strange things and assured that it was all in good fun, and in keeping with our heritage (ambiguous though that seemed to be). We formed a circle around the sticks and brambles piled high in the old orchard, and one by one the torchbearers threw their burning brands onto the stack, setting it ablaze. Flames danced and sent gouts of foul black smoke into the night sky, to greet the waning moon. The light of the fire lent the faces around me a ghoulish quality, almost as if we were a host of devils.
Thus far I was confused and unsettle but not yet frightened or wholly alarmed. 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 that they mattered to everyone here. 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. 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 in reply with the others, its toxicity polluted my flesh. The robe felt 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?
Unlacing my fingers from Celia's I pushed through the crowd, ignoring their alarmed stares, and when I was outside the circle 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 of the wall 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 at the door and went in alone, wandering the isolated halls and lonely, unkempt rooms, searching for some lingering sense of intimacy and 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. 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, yellowed sheets, looking at the wallpaper print and asking myself what I was doing here. 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 based on the intensity of the through the lace curtains on that side. 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. I felt immediately foolish for the intensity of my and for leaving and making a spectacle of myself. Celia, seeming to read my thoughts, rubbed my shoulders and said, "No one is mad."
"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 because your parents never told you. But you really are one of us. Grandpa always says that the real meaning of the Festival is family. Those who take part in the rites all belong together. 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," said Celia, massaging my shoulders again. "You'll feel it when you're ready. Your body will tell you. Belonging is in your flesh and your blood. And look at you, never comfortable in your own skin. It's no wonder you can't hear what your body is telling you. Let me show you the way."
And then she kissed me. Not a chaste, affectionate kiss between family members, but an encompassing, penetrating 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. I would have liked for it to go on forever. I did, however, eventually break away and object. Celia asked, with the stark naiveté of a child, "Why?"
"Because we're cousins! First cousins!"
"What does that matter?"
"It matters because—" and I stopped. What higher power could I invoke? God? The law? These things seemed trivial. I could cite only my own nameless fear, insubstantial and unarticulated.
"We never knew we were cousins until today," said Celia. "If we had met on the street a week ago, we would never have known the difference." These were, of course, my own thoughts from mere hours ago, and when confronted with them my resolve crumbled. I let her kiss me again. the feeling of her trembling lips on mine, the ambrosial scent of her hair and her breath, and the promise of her body, the promise of the of unity and communion that I craved, lulled my better judgment into a dreamless sleep from which it would not awake until it was too late.
I let her lay me down and give me kisses one by one, tiny, teasing kisses that filled me with the most remarkable sense of calm and unreason. I imagine that it must have been like the state of being one of those happy, simple animals who have no concept of the world around them except for the immediate gratification of their most simple needs. She kissed me with her soft, coral-colored lips and I felt her tender tongue dart against mine. I lay back on the old bed and she was next to me, rolled half on top, stroking my cheeks (I winced when I thought about her soft hands touching the roughness of my five o'clock shadow, but she didn't seem to mind), letting her gentle fingers glide over my features and down my neck. "I've been waiting for you all my life. I was so lonely without you, Charles. We were meant for each other."