I double checked the calendar on my phone. New Moon tonight. Right, I thought. I’d already had my dinner and was waiting for the sun to set before going out to the Shrine. I put the kettle on and stared out the kitchen window as I cleaned up the dishes, dried them, and put them on their shelves. Picking up the basket near the door, I examined it to make sure I had all I needed for the Shrine. Everything was in order, except for a bottle of water. I took one down from a shelf, filled it, and added it to the basket.
The kettle whistled, and I poured myself a mug of tea. I took it, and the basket, to the patio behind my small cottage. It was late dusk, so once I put everything down on the table, I lit the electric lantern I kept by the back door. It wasn’t bright enough to ruin my night vision, but it was enough so I wouldn’t trip on the path to the Shrine. I sat and drank my tea as the sky turned from gold to red to blue. I’m glad I decided to wear my sweater, I thought as the temperature dropped. I let my eyes adjust to the growing darkness, staring at the stars as they winked into existence. I smiled. The beauty of the night sky in the country never got old.
I finished the tea as the sun fully set, stood up slowly give my old legs, then picked up the lantern and basket. I set out for the path to the Shrine. I’d taken it so many times that I really didn’t need the lantern anymore, but I also didn’t want to break a bone then have to get taken to the nearest city-state for treatment. I frowned. City-states! More like cults, I grumbled in my head. So many people trying to tell other people what do to and how to be. They barely tolerated anyone who lived outside their borders, let alone crusty old hermits who worshiped the Old Spirits. No, better to have the lantern than to be taken there.
The Shrine wasn’t very far, only a couple hundred meters as the crow flies. Maybe about three hundred because the path twisted a little. Memories when others walked this path with me came into my mind. People who were long converted or long dead. I pushed those memories away. Focus on the task at hand, witch, I told myself, shaking my head. Witch. Such a loaded term for some, even though there were many words for those who worked with Spirits: Witches. Shamans. Magick workers. Mediums. Empaths. Root Workers. Bruja. Strega. Santero. Babalawo. So many words. So many lost now. I sighed and continued walking.
Soon, the path opened up into a large circle of Earth surrounded by trees and bushes. The center of the circle had a pit in the middle that was large enough to hold a decent size fire. In three directions were stone pedestals that had the wax of years of candles dripped down the sides. In the north stood a lean to with a large, stepped, stone altar inside. It, too, was old, and nearly every centimeter of it’s surface was covered with statues of Spirits. Some were native to the land that my little cottage occupied, but other were from far distant lands. Many were brought by students or friends as gifts. A few were ones I made myself when the Spirit in question made itself known to me and wanted to be added. These days, I rarely had new visitors of either kind, but every now and again a statue would appear near my front door. When it did, I would take it in, clean it up, then bring it out to the Shrine to find it’s rightful place. I would honor them with the others, whether I knew who they were or not.
Since it was the New Moon, I didn’t light candles on the stone pillars. I took my basket to the altar, replaced the candles on the middle step of the altar, and lit them. I poured water in the offering bowl, then added the fruit and flowers that I had brought for the offering. I added a fresh charcoal to the incense bowl, lit it, and inspected the statuary while I waited for it to turn red. Satisfied that nothing had been disturbed since my morning offerings, I dragged the old wooden chair out from behind the altar and sat down to begin my prayers, closing my eyes.
A bright flash of light and a loud booming sound interrupted me mid-prayer. I turned towards it, but then a strong gust of wind blew through the trees, nearly knocking me off my chair. I managed to stand up, holding on to the chair to steady myself, as the wind died down. “What in the world?” I said out loud, taking up the lantern and heading down the path that lead to the open fields that were used for the industrial farms. I moved as quickly as I was able or dared to in the darkness, and when I got to the treeline, I heard the sounds of helicopters above me. I only saw them as blank spots in the sky that blotted out the stars. I turned off the lantern and backed into the trees as the searchlight moved over the fields. I wonder what they’re looking for? Maybe it was an experimental aircraft that crashed? I watched as they circled around, then finally land at the end of the field.
I stood, transfixed and curious, watching people get out of the helicopters and disappear in the lighted area for a bit. I heard voices yelling, but they were too far away to know what they were saying. I wasn’t sure how long they took, but after a while, the people appeared again and went back into the helicopters. They then all lifted off at the same time, carefully maintaining space and distance. I wonder what they’re doing? I thought, but then stared in wonder as they pulled up the remains of what was once a saucer-like craft. Half of it was sparking and dented in, as if something took a huge bite out of it, while the other half was smooth and reflected the spotlights like a mirror.
I stared at it until I realized what direction they were heading. Shit! I thought and ran as fast I could down the trail back to the Shrine. I blew out the candles on the altar and huddled in the back of the lean-to, hoping that they hadn’t seen me. Or, at the very least, if they saw the circle, they’d ignore it, assuming I was in my cottage. I was registered with the city-state as a hermit, so they wouldn’t bother with me. Or so I hoped.
I stayed in the lean-to, praying silently to the Spirits, trying to keep my breathing steady, until I could no longer hear the sounds of the helicopters. When it was quiet again, except for the usual forest sounds, I let out a sigh of relief, relit the altar candles, and a new charcoal, as the one I’d lit previously had burnt out. I gave up my regular New Moon prayers as a lost cause. I took the box of incense out of the basket, opened it and added it to the charcoal once it was red, then took some deep breaths, thinking I’d just go back to the cottage and have some tea.
A branch broke, making me jump. I turned to face the middle of the circle, but couldn’t see anything. I picked up the lantern and turned it back on, illuminating the circle, but not much else. Another branch broke, as if someone was walking towards the circle, but with a really long stride. I froze, wishing I had my hunting rifle, but I never brought weapons to the Shrine. Another broken branch sounded, then a rustle. One of the bushes lining the circle shook. I couldn’t move. Part of me was curious, but part of me was terrified. Could it be an alien from that ship? What if it wasn’t friendly?
A part of me scoffed. Humans aren’t that friendly. Could you blame it if it was running from the people in the copters? I had to admit, I’d probably do the same.
Something, or rather someone, fell out of the bushes in a heap cloth and metal. They were wearing a suit of some kind over long limbs that had a helmet. I picked up the lantern and moved slowly and cautiously around the circle until I got to a point where I could see the being clearly. I hoped I’d put myself in a spot where it could see me with whatever it had for eyes. There was a breathing sound coming from it, and when I lifted my lantern I saw that the helmet was cracked, as the top was crazed like broken glass. It reached out a limb slowly, then put it down.
“Hello?” I said.
It made sounds that were ordered and patterned like a language, but with clicks and whistles.
“Uh, I’m sorry. I don’t understand,” I said, feeling a bit silly. “Hmmm…” I touched my arm. “Are you hurt?” I touched it again and said “Ow?”
It took another breath, said something else in the tone of irritation, which I imagined was probably some sort of swear, then slowly moved one of it’s limbs to an electronic pad on the suit. It spoke again, then a few seconds later a computerized voice said, “Hu-man. Apology for surprise. Help.”
I felt my eyes go wide. “Holy shit! You have a translator?” I said, my inner science fiction nerd cackling with glee.
“Yes,” it said. “You. Not afraid?”
“Well, honestly, I am a little. But I think my curiosity is winning. To be fair, I’m more afraid of my own people, really. Oh, and there is part of me dreamed of meeting an alien one day,” I babbled.
“Good. Help. Hurt skin. Not bad. Need help. Clean and protect wounds?”
“Uh, well, sure. I have a first aid kit back in the cottage, but, we’ll have to test things. I don’t know what will work or if any of our medicine would hurt you.” I stared at the broken helmet. “Can you survive outside the suit?”
“Yes. Hu-man planet similar to [unintelligible word]. Home planet. Help. Please.”
I came closer. “Yes, I’ll help you. Can you walk? My cottage is just down the path and more comfortable than the Shrine.”
“Will attempt. Slow,” it said.
“Yes, of course,” I said, and lifted the lantern in one hand so it had more light, then moved forward and held out my arm in case it needed something to steady itself. It stared at the held out arm, but didn’t take it. Instead they slowly managed to get onto four of it’s limbs to stand, holding out two other limbs and a tail. After a moment, it lowered the top limbs and tail, then nodded to me.
“Great! Oh! My basket! One moment!” I ran over to the Shrine and picked up the basket, throwing the bottle and incense in it, then scurried back over to the alien. “Ok. Follow me!” I said, and started down the path to the cottage. I walked slowly, for the alien’s sake. They hissed in pain every few steps, but were able to keep up. It’s a good thing I’m an old human woman and have to walk this slow, I thought.
I didn’t know what was going to happen, as we reached the cottage and I let the alien in, but the Spirits led it to my Shrine. By my vows, I would do my best to help this being, one way or another.