This story is by Mynah Marie and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Keep one in your pocket to drive greed and envy away!” my cousin Ana chuckled as she handed me a wrinkled chestnut.
“We have a funny belief around here. People say that chestnuts can absorb feelings of greed and envy directed at you. According to tradition, you should keep one in your pocket for a year, then throw it away, and find a new one to carry during springtime,” she giggled before finishing her sentence, “but I’ve had this one for 15 years already”.
“Interesting…” I pondered while examining it, yet again amazed and intrigued by Ana’s knowledge of Portuguese history and folklore. Looking around her bedroom—a picture of Jesus on her nightstand, an old glow-in-the-dark statue of Our Lady of Fatima on top of her drawer, and a wooden crucifix standing on an otherwise bare wall—you’d never think she’d be interested in these kinds of folk beliefs.
From the outside, Ana and I were polar opposites. She, a dedicated hospice nurse who still lived in the same house she grew up in. I, an adventurous artist, pagan to the core, with a past riddled with failed relationships and drug addiction.
Yet, here we were, two middle-aged women curled up on Ana’s bed, the same way we used to do when we were children.
. . .
Oddly enough, this wasn’t the first time my dear cousin had handed me a chestnut.
Ten years prior, we were walking on a narrow road winding through the forests of Sintra, both intoxicated by scents of eucalyptus and pine, and humbled by the weight of the myths and legends these woods carried. Fairies, gnomes, sorcerers, and witches all seemed to manifest here through flickers of lights between the leaves of centenarian trees, and the mysterious sounds of birds and other wildlife that made inexperienced hikers shiver, especially at nightfall.
“How old do you think it is?” I asked as we passed an ancient chestnut tree, surely as old as the legends themselves, its roots spilling from the earth in twists and odd shapes. “I don’t know… at least three or four hundred years, maybe?” We admired the eerie faces and silhouettes nature had carved in its trunk. This amount of time on Earth commanded respect, admiration, worship even.
Suddenly, Ana picked up a smooth and plump chestnut. She examined it for a few seconds, as if performing some kind of quality control to make sure it was the perfect chestnut for the occasion, then handed it to me. “Here,” she said while I stood baffled as she dropped the unusual gift in the palm of my hand. What’s the proper reaction to have when someone gives you a chestnut from an ancient mystical forest tree? But as my fingers closed in on the silky surface, any insecurities I had about proper forest etiquette faded. It was soft, pleasantly fresh, and covered with dew—how did nature create such beautiful imperfections? I smiled, grateful my cousin took it on herself to act as nature’s mediator. As we walked, every moment spent together made this chestnut special, unique, until it became, dare I say, sacred.
. . .
Back home, later that night, I added my precious chestnut to a collection of small bones and curios I was gathering to create a ‘bone throwing’ set for practicing divination, and connecting with the gods and the spirit of my ancestors. I’d chosen each piece carefully—some had traveled the world with me, a few were gifts from people I cared about, others invoked meaningful memories.
Five or six bird bones found around my house, three tumbled gemstones, a fox vertebrae, bits of wood with unusual shapes, old metal charms, a few animal teeth… and now, a chestnut. And with that, my portal to the spirit world finally felt complete.
I wrapped everything in a few scraps of leather and tied the bundle with a bright blue ribbon. Through the ribbon, I stuck three feathers—a light gray one from a pigeon, a spotted brown one from a pheasant, and a black one with dark green highlights from a rooster. Everyone knows feathers are highly magical. Have you ever seen a shaman who didn’t use feathers?
For the next couple of nights, I slept with the bundle next to me, paying attention to my dreams, aware of the possibility of receiving subtle messages from the spirit world. For a few days, I was obsessed. I watched TV while hugging it, meditated while it sat on my lap, took walks with it in my backpack. Nothing could separate me from this newly born organism I so desperately wanted to build a relationship with.
Three days later, solemn and excited, I sat in front of my altar, lit candles, burned sacred herbs, and prayed to the Norse Gods. I thought of Goddess Freyja, goddess of Love and War, first sorceress holding the keys to the mysterious art of seidr. I thought of Odin, the All-Father, who received the wisdom of the Runes directly from Freyja. I asked for their assistance in understanding these mysteries. I prayed to connect with my ancestors and develop my magical abilities. I craved guidance, connection, a sense of awakening. Moved by a state of trance, I untied the bright blue ribbon and respectfully put aside the three magical feathers. It was time. Each of those seemingly random objects would now be born anew, repurposed for diving deep into the ancient mysteries and communicating messages from the divine.
As I unfolded the leather, my eyes moved from the flickering candle flame to the pile of bones and curios. Awaiting my epiphany, I glanced over it and saw what, at first, looked like a speck of dirt. Or was it sand? Its pale color stood out from the dark brown of the leather. Perplexed, I leaned in closer, but soon let out a gasp of horror when I finally realized the unsettling truth: it was moving! I squinted to observe the tiny thing further. Examining a moving speck of dirt by candlelight isn’t an easy feat. When I understood what it was, I jolted back up, my heart racing.
It was a worm, about half the size of my pinky’s fingernail.
Disgusted, I struggled to regain enough composure to sit back down, and yes, murder the worm, its tiny squished body now a stain on the brown leather. My oh-so-sacred collection had been soiled by the presence of this tiny intruder. Where was it coming from? I picked up each piece one by one. Could it be that I hadn’t cleaned them properly?
As I was doing this, I noticed another little bugger crawling away from the pile. This time, I reacted right away and soon, there were two murdered worms laying on the leather. It’s only when I picked up the chestnut that I noticed tiny round holes, a worm still scrambling itself out of one of them. In total, there were three. Now that I’d found the worm-birthing culprit, I didn’t think twice and ran outside to throw it as far as I could. It’s only when I walked back into my house, my heart struggling to return to its normal speed, that a thought crossed my mind and I stood in the living room, ashamed of what I’d just done.
I’d asked for a sign from the gods, and I saw three worms. From death, life had come in three—three as in the three Norns, the ones weaving the threads of life, and manipulating humanity’s fate. There couldn’t have been a more auspicious sign for a collection of small objects meant to help me develop my psychic gifts. Unfortunately, I didn’t think about Skuld, Verdandi, or Urdr when I discovered the worms. Driven by my spiritual romanticism, I’d killed them without a second thought about what they represented. Had I just murdered a living manifestation of the Norns? Had I thrown away a blessing from the gods and offended them by not understanding the subtle language of faith?
It took me weeks to regain trust in my now defiled divination set. Weeks before I could confidently untie that blue ribbon without fear of finding it infested by insects or worms. I found redemption in redefining what ‘sacred’ meant to me, and accepting to commune even with the parts of nature I didn’t find pretty. Divine messages come in many forms. To hear them, I had to grow out of my spiritual naivety. I’d witnessed the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth in a micro-universe I’d created, which I held together inside an improvised leather pouch, tied with a bright blue ribbon, and infused with magic through the power of feathers.
So when my cousin handed me her 15 years-old wrinkled chestnut, I could tell from her nervous laughter she wasn’t sure why she felt compelled to give it to me. I, on the other hand, knew exactly what the perfect place for it would be.