BY PEG ALOI
There were two sisters, November, the older, and her younger and lovelier sister, October. November was born when the trees were nearly bare of leaves and the fields were sere and still. October was born while the colors of the countryside were glowing and the air was perfumed with ripening grapes. It was not necessarily a known truth that October was lovelier, simply a widely-shared opinion among the people who thought of things in such terms. Some days, this seemed to include everyone.
October was the sort of girl one wished to bring to the harvest dance: she would wear a bright dress of some rich fabric like velvet or brocade, and lace the bodice tightly so that her full breasts spilled out like luscious fruits. She would wear her rippling auburn hair gathered into a thick bun with loose tendrils falling onto her shoulders. She’d wear her best dancing shoes, with heels of stacked leather that hit the wood floors with a satisfyingly firm but delicate thump. Her pale face, like a white autumn rose blushed with pink, would glow luminous beside her full, carmine lips, innocent of any cosmetics. All the better, since her kisses, sweet and soft, would leave no trace on a young man’s collar or cheek. She danced with many, and even kissed more than was perhaps her share. The scent of woodsmoke and pear cider would linger on her breast, and the heat of her body caused that heady perfume to swirl around her dancing partner’s head, and he’d be lost. But the man she arrived with was always the man she left with, and he was the toast of the town, to have such a beauty on his arm.
November was fine-looking (even beautiful, if you asked some folks who were not prone to flights of fancy). She was simply not as likely to garner the stares and whistles her younger and lovelier sister got. She was slightly taller, her hips narrower: where her sister had curves, like fruit, November was straight and solid, like a young tree. Her hair was the color of charred wood, but shiny, like a raven who has just preened its feathers. She was kind and thoughtful, more serious than her younger sister. She turned the heads of plenty of young suitors, but these young men still helplessly fell in thrall with October.
This grew tiresome for the town, and certainly for the sisters, who knew they should not let such a thing erode their love or loyalty for one another. And yet it did, it did. Their parents were old, and doting, and did not pay much mind to what had been happening since their daughters came of age. But the strange obsession of the townsfolk over which of these beautiful girls was the most desirable seemed to be causing unpleasantness, and cast a shadow over the usually lighthearted ways of courting.
One day, tired of the rivalry, it was decided, by townsfolk who thought they should be making such decisions, that it should be made clear once and for all who was the prettiest girl in the town. The festival day of Harvest Home was chosen: the day where October turns into November on the calendar, and a day when it was believed the worlds of earth and spirit merged more closely for a day. Surely such a time would yield truth and wisdom. One could take a vote, with slips of paper or an impartial judge counting raised hands (with neither girl looking on, naturally, so as not to make hurt feelings any worse). As talk of this contest spread, people chattered and whispered, knowing who they would vote for.
As Harvest Home drew near, and crops were gathered, and cider was pressed, and pies were baked, and suits were brushed, and dresses were trimmed with ribbons of gold and orange and red, an idea occurred to the townsfolk overseeing the contest: to have a person of integrity choose the winner, instead of having a wider vote. And this person could be none other than Sam Hain, the Lord of the Hallows, something of a god but really only a man, who nevertheless could only be seen in the flesh for a very limited time each year. Or was it a local man chosen for this role? He wore a mask made of corn husks, and a robe the color of mosses. No one ever seemed to know his true identity. In any case, his authority on this day was absolute, as ordained by custom.
The night before Harvest Home, just before dusk, October went to the edge of the forest, seeking to call the fey folk to ask their help so that she might prevail in the contest the next day. She felt a bit guilty for thinking it was important, but part of her believed that once the matter was settled, she and her sister could simply go back to being sisters, and not constant rivals. She found an old weathered stump and sat upon it, pouring out some sweet cider as an offering. She sat, listening to the crows squawking as they gathered to roost in trees, hearing owls in the near distance, watching the sky fade from blue to rose to pale yellow and then darken back to blue. Dim stars began to glisten and she felt cold. Wrapping her shawl more tightly around her shoulders, she stared into the gloaming, wondering if she saw fairies on the move, or if it was a trick of the light. Was that faint, high-pitched laughter, or the breeze through a hollow tree? Were those fey folk dancing in the gorse hedgerow, or field mice rustling in search of a warm nesting spot?
October heard a faint crackling sound and felt a small blow to the top of her head. A hickory nut had fallen. She bent to pick it up from the ground, looking at its rough but smooth surface, its symmetrical shape, its soft grey brown color. And just like that, October didn’t know what to ask for, or even what she wanted. This made her feel anxious and confused, and then she felt a tickle of laughter behind her lips, and then, as quick as rain dousing a flame, she felt calmer than she’d felt in weeks. So she simply sat, listening to the sounds of nature around her, and after a time, made her way home carefully in the dark, the hickory nut tucked into the pocket of her skirt.
Arriving at the cottage, October could smell nutmeg and apples, and knew her sister must be making pies for the celebration tomorrow. Candles and lamps were glowing, and she yearned to be inside the warmth. She opened the door to find November reading a book by lamplight. There were two large pies cooling on the counter, and one small pie beside them. She looked up as her sister entered, and smiled.
“Mother and father have gone to bed. I left some stew to warm for you. It’s so cold tonight.”
October hung her shawl on the hook and smoothed her hair. “Yes it is,” she said, relishing the cozy warmth. “It’s cold but the stars are out. No moon tonight.” She spooned some stew into a bowl and poured a mug of cider and sat at the table, still not really looking at November. She ate, and the two sat in silence for a little while.
November got up from her chair by the fireside and walked to the counter. “I remember Mrs. Leeds saying that on the night of the dark moon, all things begin again.” She turned towards where October was seated, and was holding the small pie. “I made this with pears and molasses.”
October finished her stew, daintily wiping her lips with her finger, and sipping the cold cider. After the savory stew, the taste of apples was tangy and refreshing. “Thank you for warming the stew, I was hungry.” November set the small pie down on the table. October could smell the spice and fruit, and saw the careful pattern of leaves her sister had molded from the pastry. It was a beautiful pie. “It’s small, but look how finely made it is. I am sure it will please some fine suitor tomorrow--? October ventured, wondering what to say as the anticipation of the next day’s events swirled in the space between them.
November sat down across the table. “I made it for you. With the last of the pears.” October stared at November. Her sister knew she loved pears, even more than apples. November shrugged and a small smile crinkled her face. “It was a small crop this year.”
October felt a slow flush of heat move across her face, and turned to look at the fire, where embers were glowing. “You should have made brandy for Papa, not a pie for me.”
November tilted her head. “But it’s your birthday.” This was true.
October blinked. “That’s right. But it’s also your birthday.” This was also true.
For these daughters had been born on the same day, one year apart. It was the day that October ended, so that November might begin, when the color and fragrance and fecundity of summer gives way to the darkness and silence and depth of winter, the middle point of autumn that feels like a peak and a valley at the same time, on the cusp of a crystal-sharp moment of joy and sadness, beauty and decay, whimsy and wisdom.
October pulled the hickory nut from her pocket and held it out to her sister. “This is for you. It is not a pie. But I know where the tree is, and the nuts are beginning to fall.”
November took the hickory nut from October’s cold, trembling hand and looked at her sister’s sad and serious face. “Hickory nut pie will be a wonderful treat for midwinter. Shall we go and gather them, when the moon turns full?”
October’s eyes were brimming with tears as she nodded and smiled. “Yes,” she said. “Yes.”
Night fell around the cottage, and the sisters sat by the fire, listening to the wood cracking and popping, watching the dancing flames, as the moments passed and starlight sparkled on the orchard and the few remaining apples slowly froze on the bough, the cold turning them sweeter than they had been only hours before.
Peg Aloi is a witch and a warrior and a poet and a singer and a gardener and baker and a film critic and a scholar and a lover and a fighter and a badass bundle of sweet, sweet heirloom apple-scented righteousness.