By Carrie Donovan
© 2022 by the author
It was a cool spring evening as the tour bus began its lumbering journey up the mountain. Bess hadn’t been to Germany in ages, but the sights and sounds of the forest stirred her memory. Leaning against the window, she took in the scenery: great swaths of larches and chestnuts, many brown from drought; waist-high nettles lining the road as if to greet her; a carpet of cheerful, white-blossomed woodruff spreading under the deciduous trees.
The window was tilted open, blessedly. She peeled down her mask for a moment to steal a whiff of the perfumed mountain air. What was that smell? Elderberry? A bit of moss and mold? The sweet, just-out-of reach smell brought to mind fuzzy images of good old times, traipsing through woods like these.
Perhaps her memory fog would clear with a little more exposure to the sights and smells of places she had been. That’s what the doctor had said after the accident, so here she was — a tourist in a place she used to know.
The bus was half-full. Most of the passengers sported long, flowing dresses and robes and black plague doctor masks with long, crow-like beaks. Some of the women wore witch hats; the men, devil horns. Bess herself had forgotten that there might be some dress code for the event and had boarded in a simple black cotton dress and her ever-present FFP2 mask, a standby since the pandemic. Two seats away, a young man (college student by the looks of him) had also apparently not considered the dress code. He looked like a typical American backpack tourist: dirty white baseball cap, shaggy brown hair, hoody, cargo shorts and sneakers.
The American saw her looking and winked.
“Jack Hart,” he said, holding out a hand.
Bess shook it, making a mental note to disinfect later.
“Bess Walburg. How do you do?”
“Nice name. Like Mark Wahlberg?”
“Sorry. Mark who?”
The fellow looked stunned for a moment, then looked like he had solved a puzzle.
“Oh, you’re English, aren’t you?”
And with that, Jack Hart launched into a lengthy explanation of both the celebrity and the fact that the mountain they were about to dance on was associated with an English witch and there might even be a bonfire called a “witch burning” to cleanse the air of contagion.
“Yes, that explains the witch costumes,” said Bess, gesturing around the bus. The other passengers were in great spirits, chatting in German and passing around bottles of sweet wine spritzer.
As they bustled up to the broad mountaintop, a strange structure appeared on the left. What looked like a giant red and white rocket squatted there, ringed with four railing-less balconies. Behind it, a low-slung L-shaped structure gave way to what resembled a prison guard tower topped with a giant golf ball.
“Weather station,” announced Jack. “They once did an experiment to search for witches here, but didn’t find any.”
“Rats,” smiled Bess. The confinement of the seat was becoming agony; her seatmate’s mansplaining even moreso.
At first glance, she had sized Jack up as attractive. His sharp, dark features delivered a flirtatious smile. But his apparent habit of speaking without listening had already turned her off. She knew about the English witch. She knew about the weather station experiments. Did he think she had boarded a tour bus without knowing where it was going? That she had no idea about the event transpiring that evening on top of the Brocken, the tallest mountain in the Harz?
The bus parked next to several others in the lot near the weather station and everyone shuffled off. Bess stepped lightly to the group gathering near a pile of wood around a tall stake to which a scarecrow was tethered.
“I was right!” came a gleeful whisper in her ear. “There will be a witch burning! Look, there! That’s the witch. See?” Jack pointed to the dummy, whose dress rather resembled Bess’s own plain cotton gown.
From a small speaker near the door, “Flight of the Valkyries” began. A few of the witches and devils gave howls and yips of pleasure. A cloud of fog emanated from a smoke machine nearby and the bus driver, given away by his great gut, waddled out in a robe and devil mask.
Pulling down his mask for a moment as introduction, the driver waved down the music and spoke in a loud voice, translating into English every now and then.
“Welcome to the Blocksberg, also called Brocken. Bus Bayern is happy to present the ultimate Tanz in den Mai event for your pleasure. Please keep a lookout in the sky for flying brooms,” he chuckled, gesturing first in a wide arc to the sky, “and help yourself to pilsner, soft drinks, wurst and potato salad,” ending in a wave toward the low-slung building, where a wrinkled woman in a purple dress and FFP2 waved from an open service window at a snack bar.
“For those of you unfamiliar with this dance,” he smiled, “it is a welcoming of the month May. And we burn the bad air and the witch which makes the bad air.”
As the driver spoke, Jack excitedly overrode the narrative in whispers to Bess’s ear. Bess sighed and politely listened.
“Did you know tonight is Walpurgisnacht? The night when witches are said to fly over this mountain right here? The dance is just the part everyone still does all over Germany. Only the weirdos celebrate it for what it really is,” he said excitedly, dark eyes flashing.
Bess took the bait.
“So why do witches gather here, then?”
“To meet the devil!”
This time Jack didn’t seem to understand why that was even a question. “To get power to do magic, I guess.”
Of course, thought Bess with an inner eye roll. Of course the women could only have magic power with the help of a magic man.
As night fell, the air grew cold. The crowd hugged the fireside, casting unearthly shadows with their drunken revelry. Five witchy women who had been chatting together on the bus had become wild, shrieking with laughter and losing their hats as they emptied tankards into their gaping mouths. They had been joined by a handful of devil-men. One, who had slathered his face in red paint, was whooping and beating some hand drum in time to Helene Fischer’s “Atemlos” on the loudspeaker. A few couples had snuck away to the relative privacy of the buses; others to the scrubby pines behind the weather station.
Bess felt at once an outsider and at home. Some of the music was new, but fire and dancing? Primal. She whirled around, smiling, clutching her beer. Narrowly missing one couple, navigating around and between revelers, she circled the fire for what seemed like hours. Around and around until she became dizzy.
All of a sudden, someone was trying to get her attention urgently.
“Du da! Du brennst!”
Slowly, Bess followed the imaginary line from a devil man’s finger to her thigh, which felt hotter than a moment ago. Her dress was, indeed, on fire.
A nearby witch beat the flame climbing Bess’ dress with a cloak, suffocating it. A bit more leg showed than before, but the charred outline at least matched her black dress.
“Alles klar?” asked the witch, with a motherly pat. “No witches burning tonight,” she laughed.
Bess thanked the woman and searched for a place to take a break. A log a few meters from the fire beckoned.
Still reeling, she hunkered down and gazed at the scene. A crowd of about 200 had arrived on the Bus Bayern fleet blocking the view of the road to her left. She sat with her back to the buildings, facing the bonfire. The revelers had become crazed. Some had peeled off their robes, frolicking in the moonlight in their plague doctor masks.
It was hard to say how many were naked now, as the dancers were in constant motion around the fire, four rows deep. Oversized, sweaty men flickered red in the firelight and white-haired grannies raised their arms to the effigy, whose dress had finally caught fire with a whoosh.
Bess couldn’t help but focus on the naked ones, who were easier to pick out. A man built like the bus driver and a woman resembling the bartender. Scarcely would they disappear behind the fire before returning on the other side, as if the journey around the back of the fire had only lasted a single step.
No. Of course not. Surely a trick of the eyes.
Squinting, she compared the bodies before her. There must be more than one nude couple circling that fire. Could it be that all the naked men looked like her bus driver and all the naked women looked like the bartender? She turned around looked over to the bar. A figure stood there in the shadows. The same old woman she had seen earlier, pouring a pilsner from the tap for a witch in green rags.
Bess closed her eyes. The heat reached her even this far from the fire and was making her sweat. She pulled off her cardigan.
Above, the moon shone full and bright. Embers drifted up to the head of the effigy and higher still, to the heavens.
Suddenly, a hand clapped her on the back and a low, warm voice rang out.
“There you are!”
The maskless American scooted next to her on the log bench and held out a beer. He smelled of fire, alcohol and cologne.
“No, thanks. Just taking a break,” Bess murmured.
“You look like you need it,” Jack smiled, eyeing her. “Hey, I know where there’s a real couch.”
He led her by the hand. Away from the fire, past the food and drinks, away from the people. Up to the rocket tower, up a set of cool, metal steps. A wicker-imitation couch with durable outdoor cushions welcomed her on the lowest balcony facing the bonfire. She toppled onto it, appreciating the texture of the moldy-smelling cushion against her face even as the world began to spin.
Miles away, a hand was examining the hole in her dress and the leg beneath it.
Even more miles away, the moon was laughing down at the revelers as they continued to circle the fire. She heard some chanting from below and watched as the fire licked the effigy helplessly tied to the stake.
Now her view was blocked. Jack was on her, crushing her with his full weight, saying something about Walpurgisnacht and fertility. About how he had read that it was customary for couples to spill seed on the rocky ground.
Bess struggled to get free, but he pinned her wrists. Ignoring her interruptions, he went on about fertility rites and rituals.
Below, the chanting reached a fever pitch and the fire engulfed the effigy totally.
Jack pulled Bess’ mask off. He seemed intent on intruding upon her mouth, but Bess screamed.
Perhaps it was the volume of her command that froze him at first. Or perhaps it was an outpouring of infectious microbes carried from her lungs on the word like a fine spray of dust, choking him into silence at last.
“Halt,” she whispered again, lifting herself off the couch.
Bess felt her blurry thoughts swirling and spinning in her head. She wasn’t sick. No. But from somewhere deep within she knew she had unleashed a swarm of pestilent microbes at the man now lying, confused, before her. Like thread on a spindle, the loose strands of awareness began to take form as layer upon layer fell into place.
Clear-headed now, she regarded Jack. He labored for breath, squinting up at her.
“You may undress now,” Bess instructed. She nodded and lifted her own burned rag of a black dress over her head.
Jack hesitated for a beat, then undid his belt and unzipped his pants.
“All of it,” urged Bess.
Between coughs, Jack managed to strip completely. Grinning sheepishly, he crossed his legs in case someone from below was looking. He looked smaller.
“Now put this on.” Bess threw her dress at him.
“Whoa, kinky! Okayyy…”
Apparently grateful to be covered again, Jack donned the garment.
A strong wind stirred the embers up and sent them eddying into the air. The fire hissed and popped.
Skin shining white in the moonlight; long, black hair whipping in the wind, Bess stood like a queen. She held out one graceful hand to her suitor. He took it and joined her in an embrace although his breath was coming in short bursts now. She led in a slow dance, gently guiding him along the balcony.
It was easy to pull him to the edge and over, dizzy as he surely was from the pneumonia. At the tipping point, Bess whispered, “Goats make the best sacrifices.”
They treaded air together for an adrenaline-filled moment.
For a fraction of a second, the man appeared to understand he was a goat. And for a fraction of a second, the goat appeared to understood he was falling.
Before hitting the ground, however, Bess shifted onto his back and grabbed his new horns like a pair of reins. She jerked up and steered out of the fall. They rose in a wide arc over the parking lot, buoyed by the wind, still unseen in the shadows. Bess held her prey tightly with her hands on his horns and heels digging into his underbelly. He gave a bleat of surprise, then obeyed her pushes and pulls.
As they rode the wind current to the fire, the revelers finally noticed and roared with excitement.
“Wal-bur-ga! Wal-bur-ga!” they chanted.
“Bless our farms! Bless our health!” they cried.
And Bess dropped the goat, dress and all, into the fire and touched down lightly on her bare feet.
At the hotel the next morning, Abbess Walburga took her morning tea in the dining hall at the head of a banquet table. She was joined by the innkeepers (the corpulent bus driver and wrinkled barmaid from the night before), and a good 30 hungover revelers.
The bergamot tea tasted delicious. Johannes, the host, reminded her it was that new blend, Earl Grey. She’d had it the morning after the first Walpurgisnacht celebration in 1896. She made a mental note to ask for it again next time she visited.
She had gladly accepted an old-fashioned blue and white gown and head covering from the barmaid, Hildegard, who had tailored it to match a bust of her from 780, the year of her death. Although she now looked like the one in costume, Walburga felt dressed for work.
“My dears,” she said, grasping Johannes and Hildegard by the hands and looking each in the eye in turn. “So good to break bread with you both again. Many thanks for your praise and hospitality. I do apologize for not recognizing you immediately last night… I wasn’t entirely myself until rather late in the evening, when that dreadful man attempted to have his way with my new body,” she said.
“And speaking of male dominance,” she continued thoughtfully, “Johannes, will you please stop telling that twisted story about witches causing pestilence and deserving to be burned? I’m the patron saint of epidemics and famine, for Heaven’s sake!”
“Sorry, Reverend Mother,” Johannes agreed with a quick bow. “It’s only— You see, men of the past few centuries have become a bit squeamish about women as powerful as yourself. We thought it best to keep the tradition alive by allowing them to believe they were burning witches instead of calling upon your blessings.”
“Think of it as a rebranding for modern times,” interjected Hildegard with a knowing smile.
Down the banquet table, the diners seemed unconcerned to be dining with a 1300-year-old holy woman.
“Do they know?” asked Walburga, taking in the assorted group, now dressed in a jumble of styles, but none wearing a mask now.
Johannes nodded. “Your most devoted followers, these are. Some of the others at the fire had no idea, of course. Had to let the looky-loos attend or there would be nobody to sacrifice, would there?” he chuckled.
“Good choice with that fellow, Reverend Mother,” added Hildegard. “He was most definitely not one of the true believers.”
Walpurga furrowed her brow and made a stopping gesture. “My dears. Do you think a saint calls for human sacrifices?”
“I would have solved these Covid and climate change problems for free, you idiots! All you had to do was ask!”
The room hushed. Johannes and Hildegard exchanged nervous glances.
“But— The man you dropped into the fire…”
“Wasn’t that on purpose?”
Walpurga rose and addressed the room, spreading her arms wide.
“Those of you seeking my blessing, have it. You may dispense with the mask-wearing forever. You may grow your crops without fear of drought or flood. Pestilence and famine will never again darken your doors.” She walked around the table, gently touching the shoulders of her worshippers as she passed.
“In the future, however, you will restore to me my rightful place in the tradition of Walpurgisnacht. You will fear no witch, nor worship them, either. For no witch was I. I was an abbess and a miracle-worker. I was one of the most powerful women in Europe! I will be praised as a powerful Christian woman and bless those who seek my blessings.”
Timidly, Hildegard raised her hand.
“Reverend Mother, what— What about the American, then?”
The abbess stopped and looked her in the eyes, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth.
“Yes, Hildegard,” she whispered. “That was personal.”