Ausrine swallowed hard as she watched the festival procession go by. At home, she knew, they would be celebrating the early spring by praising Mara’s lifegiving aspects and begging her wintery face to turn away for another year. Somehow out here it had become something altogether different.
“Then the Mariam throws the ice witch in the fire,” her host was explaining, “though I heard in some places they throw her in a river. It’s said that allows spring to come for another year. Do you suppose it was originally about your Mara?”
She knew what the woman meant; she wanted to know if the Mariam’s role had originally been played by the spirit. But all Ausrine could see when she watched was that the spirit that had saved her life was being mocked and burnt.
“At home,” she began, and then she looked around and lowered her voice, for it was still dangerous even with the army moved west, “at home we celebrate the thaw, and offer the first flowers to Mara.”
“Is there an ice witch?”
“Mara is…” Ausrine took a deep breath. “You have this romantic ideal of what the gods are, of what it meant to live here and belong to this land and to its spirits. But the spirits we know, and that you knew, were not so simple as you want them to be. So I will tell you how the new year is welcomed in the spring.”
Her voice had grown loud again, despite her best efforts, and some of the other people in the crowd were turning to look at her and listen.
“In the summer Mara is the giving earth, generous and fertile, good to plow and good to rest on. But the earth is all things in all seasons, and after we harvest the last of her gifts she grows lonely and empty. We keep our stores full and our hearthfires warm to remind ourselves that the Mara of the Summer is always watching over us.
“But the earth is not here for our pleasure, and in the winter Mara takes down her plaited hair and sheds her cloth garments. She runs wild in furs, or even naked in the snows, as it pleases her. Even the Sun flees from her in fear, and by the Longest Night we must remind the Sun to return with our bonfires. In winter Mara reminds us that she is not ours, but that we are hers, to do with as she will. Sometimes that means we don’t see the spring, but eventually everyone will have a last winter.
“When we die we go into the earth. She welcomes us there. She takes our bodies apart as hers was taken apart once, and she does us the honor of making our bodies part of her.
“But in the spring, when the ground thaws and with it her heart, when the flowers begin to push through like hope, we celebrate that we are still here, and we remind Mara that we are grateful for all she gives us, and bid her to wash the blood from her face and plait her hair again and be the fertile fields once more. We light fires to welcome her in from the cold, and we feast to show her how well we have portioned out the gifts she gave us last year, and we tell stories of her blessings and make offerings that the hospitality will beg reciprocation from her. And she comes back to us, our Daughter of the Earth, and we open the markets in the spring in her name. But she was the icy face of the frozen earth too.”
Ausrine shook her head, feeling as if she were waking from a trance. She looked around, seeing the size of the crowd she’d attracted. Some of them were interested, but some were angry. Her host’s face was ashen.
“We should go,” her host said, and Ausrine followed quickly out of the mass of people.