October 22nd – The Festival of Burning the Grotto

Fire, that most human of the elements, has many meanings. Fire brings warmth on quiet winter days when rabbit prints are visible in the snow; fire is kindled, nurtured to perfection by bakers in their enormous ovens. Buentoillitants celebrate around fires on many a festival day; learning to make a fire safely is an important milestone of mid childhood. Fire is an illusive hope for campers on wet days, and yet there are those times when fire is the enemy, such as the Great Fire of 1362, when three hundred homes became charred wreckage. For the Water Brigade, fire is a respected adversary, a dance partner trying to trip you up.

Beyond these obvious meanings and associations, there are other, more spiritual aspects to fire. According to Malchard the Troubadour, the Waegstallasians stare into fire to see the past, to try and spy the ancestors who made the enormous, empty city around them. There was once a sect of Catrosondian nuns who believed that anything burned was transported to heaven; what a terrible end their sinking must have seemed. One, somewhat spiritual meaning that fire has in many societies around this corner of the world, is that of cleansing, of purification. It is a meaning that witches know all too well, and it is the most generally agreed upon reason for today’s festival.

Preparations for the festival are going on all day; readying the boats and rafts takes up most time, as they are arrayed with stacks of wood doused in tar and other flammable liquids. By low tide, there is a veritable armada in the docks, which is dragged out around the bay by tugs. At the entrance to Blackened Grotto, a low arch only visible when the tide is well out, they pause briefly, and three guns are fired into the dark depths. Presumably this is to scare out any birds that might be hiding inside, but nothing has lived in the Grotto besides anemones and the like for many many years. Some have suggested this gunfire was originally supposed to be a signal to others, or a remembered fragment of battle, echoed and distorted through time.

The tugs, with their high-powered lamps, drag and shunt the flotilla of flammable barges deep into the abyss, which extends back for quite some distance, before the stalactites, like spiny teeth in this enormous maw, block the way. They retreat out long before the tide comes back in; this is not a place you want to be trapped, especially not tonight. The rest of the festival waits until nightfall, when a convoy winds its way up to the cliffs above that fearful seaside mouth, coalescing around a black hole in the rock. If Blackened Grotto were some great toothed whale, this would be its blowhole; the cavern lies directly beneath, and on wild and stormy nights you can sometimes see a spurt of seawater rise out from this funnel, such is the pressure that builds up beneath.

By the time they reach the hole, it will be high tide once again, the cave’s mouth once again closed by the sea. Oddly enough it is a priest who heads up the congregation; the task has always fallen to the priest of the Church of Saint Pillont, though they know not why, it doesn’t pertain to any Chastise Church text or dogma, nor is it linked to their saint. There has always been something of a fearful hush around this festival, and yet it always has a sense of necessity to it. Is it guilt that drives this hush, or genuine fear? It is a festival of purification, they say, but what requires purification? Perhaps there is some clue in the words of the priest, as they drop a flaming torch into that dark hole, ‘I commend this grotto, and all its inhabitants, to fire.’ Braver, or perhaps more brazen, Buentoillitants speak darkly about these ‘inhabitants;’ what could have inspired such destructive fear? Surely whatever lived there long ago could not have been human; it is not a place for humans to live.

Nobody stays, after they ensure that the torch has done its work, and that the smoke and then flames have begun to reach out of the hole. They walk home in silence, occasionally glancing back over their shoulders at the red light on the clifftop. It will burn all night.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Festival of Quick Drinking
  • Saint Yel’s Day
  • Ron Freethy’s Night of Missed Chances