The last of the mourners, black-garbed and softly-spoken, finally left the wake, still clucking and tutting to one another as they walked down the lane in twos and threes. Cissy shut the front door firmly behind them, bolting and barring it with only a little more force than absolutely necessary. She returned to the parlor and curtsied to my mother who was still sat in the best chair staring resolutely at the fire.
Mother was dressed all in black, as befitted her status as a widow, although it was many a year since my father had died. I had heard that he had been struck down in a terrible accident, felled in the prime of life by a falling tree when he was part of a group of men cutting wood in the deep forest that skirts the mountain, the lower slopes of which our little village nestles upon.
I sat in a second comfortable chair, on the other side of the smoldering logs in the fire grate, also sunk my own thoughts. The wake had been for my husband, killed only last week in another mysterious and tragic accident. I was grieving still, at least officially, although I was not as devastated as I felt I ought to have been. Besides, I had been effectively distracted by Mother, who clearly believed in the value of hard work as a cure for the distress of bereavement.
My husband had not, in truth, been a bad man, solid and sensible and hardworking, a man willing to do a good days work for a modest and reliable wage. He had also been just a little unimaginative and a shade boring, not one to step away from the bounds of convention - at least, unaided - or to put himself forward in the company of others.
With a visible effort, Mother drew her attention away from her own deep thoughts and beckoned to Cissy to sit in the third chair. She studied us both for a long minute, Cissy beginning to squirm under the intense observation.
"Abby," she said finally, addressing me, "And Cissy. Now at last we have a little time to ourselves. We have things to discuss, plans to make. It is, I think, time to think of the future, not dwell on the past."
Mother clapped her hands together, once.
"But first, Abby, make up the fire," she continued, "And Cissy, bring us fresh tea and such comestibles as our neighbors have deigned to leave us with."
Cissy and I set to, scurrying about the old house with great energy, and in short order she managed to bring together tea and bread and ham and pickles on a tray, while I applied poker and fresh logs to the fire which blazed up and soon drove away the chill of the early spring evening. Meanwhile, Mother returned to her thoughts, but she was less engrossed than before and she soon started to watch us two girls with a faint expression of wry amusement on her face. Finally, the three of us settled once again in front of the fire, now dancing merrily. Cissy poured tea for us all and passed around freshly-made sandwiches.
"Well, aren't we a collection of old crows?" Mother said, smiling suddenly, "Flapping around in our own nest, pecking and cawing to one another."
Cissy laughed aloud, and even I cracked a smile, the first in many days. Cissy too was a widow, bereaved at a young age a few years ago by an accident that left her husband crushed and broken. She still wore her widow's black, although dressing with flair and a sassy manner at odds with the dour image such garments are intended to convey. Mother had taken her in as an act of charity, after the local lord had evicted her from the tied cottage that her farm laborer husband enjoyed as part of his wage. She had started as a lowly maidservant, but soon her energy and competence, her smiling face and ready hands, had elevated her in mother's estimation. Cissy now largely ran the household, and was in truth more a trusted companion than a servant.
Mother's face now became more solemn in appearance. Cissy and I set down our teacups and put our hands in our laps, and turned our entire attention to the older woman.
"We have all known the touch of a man," she resumed, speaking carefully in the way she did when she wished us to listen carefully, "And we have all experienced the loss of a man from our lives. I hesitate to suggest that each of our losses were in any way desired, but the absence of men may actually be a blessing in disguise. This way, we women are not exploited or beaten, or made pregnant time and again with much risk to life and health."
Mother turned in her chair to face me.
"I have taught you how to avoid the necessity of becoming with child," she continued, "How to satisfy a man's base lusts with unnatural acts which both pleasure more fully and conceive most rarely."
This was quite true. In spite of the proscriptions of the church and the disapprobation of society at large, I had encouraged my husband to spill his seed on my breasts and in my mouth, allowing him the pleasures of the wet oyster between my legs only after he had climaxed at least twice. I learned to wash carefully, beforehand and afterward, inside and out, to encourage hygiene and prevent conception. I had even explored other practices - espoused by the foreign Bulgars - taking his manhood from behind in another opening.
"It seems that these practices have been entirely successful for you, my daughter," Mother continued, "And you too, our faithful companion and friend" - Cissy blushed prettily at this compliment - "have been initiated into these secrets, secrets that have failed only once for me - and that was a great many years ago."
It was true that time and seasons had favored my Mother. The neighbors had commented on it, often, hinting at its strangeness: her childless condition even while her husband was alive, and the strength and beauty that yet remained in her tall and slender body. Her hair was long and dark with not a trace of grey to be found. She retained a sharpness of eye and a degree of youthful looks that would have put a much younger woman to shame, and even now possessed a firmness of complexion that owed much to careful diet and frequent washing.
I favor my Mother - although I never knew my father - in my own appearance, being also tall and slender and dark-haired, although my locks are not quite as long as hers. Even so, in certain lights, and in the large mirror than stood behind the door in Mother's bedroom, she and I could be mistaken for sisters. By contrast, Cissy was petite and blonde and ruby-cheeked, and much more well-rounded and womanly in her bodily form.
"And so, my daughter, my companion," Mother continued, "We should form a pact, make a solemn vow" - she did not suggest it was sworn on a bible - "to look after our own interests, to rule our own lives, our own money - and our own bodies - to the best of our own abilities."
She paused dramatically, then pronounced: "What do you say? Do we all agree?"
Cissy and I glanced at each other and then we spoke as one: "I agree."
Mother leaned forward in her chair and reached out, and Cissy and I both grasped her hands warmly in our own.
"Then we have an accord," she said, a beatific smile spreading over her face.
So that's how it came into being, our little group of friends, our threesome of female companions - or the Coven of Witches according to the less favorable of the neighborhood gossip's opinions.