Equinox

I was the chieftain in the settlement then.

A killing winter it had been and a grasping one, reaching with frost crackling fingers to catch the young ones and the old ones and freeze the yet unknown ones in the womb. 

Not a child under three years old survived that winter. And that winter dragged and bore down on the land so that at the turning of the year, when night balances day, the signs of spring were few, and those often rimed with frost.

Since the loss of our daughter, my wife had turned me only for warmth. The long dried tears had cut her deeper than any knife and severed, it seemed, the affection between us. 

‘No,’ she’s say. ‘I couldn’t bear to catch with child again only to lose it.’

In vain I said that it was not to make a child that I wanted her, that I loved her and in that release we might find comfort together and heal, even though we couldn’t speak of the empty place under the covers where our little girl had once lain or the one under her heart where our son should had found haven. 

But she would not agree and I am not a man who would not force his wife. 

So there we lay, night after shortening night. And though the finest blade could not have separated us as we lay close for warmth, the longest bridge could not have spanned the gap between our spirits. And in the end as the nights grew a little warmer, I stopped turning towards her and dreamed of the days when we’d made love with all consuming passion and joy. And her face in my dreams stopped looking like hers and became wondrously strange and I tried to catch her but she was as elusive as a patch of light on the river wave and my longing burned.

And in the day, my wife was somehow even further away. When she’d finished listlessly grinding what little grain we had, or made my food, she’d curl back into the bed, her back turned to me, her face to the wall of the round house, curled like a babe in the womb, or a corpse in its grave.

Then when it came to the turning of the year, someone forgot to do what needed to be done, just as they had at Winter solstice. And though the winter had taken the old man who used to guard the gateway facing the stones had died, no one thought to find another to take his place.

On that day when promise of spring whispered in the chilly sunshine, the things that should have been done were left undone. The fires were not stirred up to ensure that fiery smoke filled the holes in our houses’ roofs, doors were left open, thresholds welcomed.

That day, I took my bow and went hunting alone. And in the woods, I looked into the mossy stone circle and saw nothing and no one and turned away, then turned back to see the woman from my dreams there, sitting astride a beautiful horse. And I knew that woman as if I’d known her my whole life. 

Her hair was as dark and rich as Midwinter night and yet shimmered like water in the full sun, it flowed down her back as far as her waist, in thick curls and her waist was slim and her breasts were high under her linen dress. Her face was…. I can not describe it. Whenever I looked at her eyes I found mine straying to consider the angle of her cheekbones and then the berry fullness of her mouth.

She slipped from her horse, the horse whose hooves I had not heard. It was sixteen hands at least that horse, and stood tossing its mane at her side, standing without bridle or saddle, as loyal as a dog yet as independent as a cat. Powerful yet slender, all its strength a potential in the muscles shifting under the chestnut skin. 

Will you help me? said the woman. Or I thought she said. I knew her so well that I knew what she was thinking. 

‘What ails you lady?’ I made to step in towards her. 

May I come to you instead? she said, or thought.

I beckoned. ‘Of course.’

And then… she stepped out of the circle towards me and smiled. 

I am lonely, she said or thought. Will you walk with me? And we walked, side by side, and  her hand slipped into mine and the warmth from her body warmed me and the horse followed behind without a sound, not even the crack of twigs underfoot or the swishing of young bracken as we passed. 

I cannot say how long we walked till we found a grove where soft green leaves lay fresh and inviting under the curving bough of a silver birch and no, I never once wondered why there were green leaves lain down like a cloak, nor why when she asked me to sit down with her, they were warm as a blanket held by a fire. The scent of her filled my head. It was like spiced mead and rich berry wine – heady and sweet – driving out all other thought but the need to taste her mouth and curve my hand round her breast and her waist and every secret of her body until I had given her the joy she demanded and deserved. And I don’t know how long we rolled in those leaves, only that when she pulled away, she smiled. 

I never wondered how at the turning of the year, on a day when the morning had started with frost, we could lay there naked and feel warm. My back was raked with her nails, and my own blood was salty on my lip, yet I only wanted her again and again until I died from the desire for her.  

But she smiled and dressed and stood and wordlessly, climbed onto her horse’s back and without a backward glance, they galloped soundlessly away.

Night was falling and now she was gone, the leaves looked like ones that had lain there  since Autumn, and the sweat on my skin started to chill me. I dressed, shivering, and made my way home. I made some excuse for bringing no food with me and turned from my wife’s sad eyes. And that night, I rolled myself in my cloak and lay on the other side of the fire so that I could not touch her even by accident and wondered how I could feel so empty and lost and if I would ever see the woman again.

The days drew out. The promise of green became rich foliage, the hunting was good once more and my wife now turned her face to the sky, and she bathed in the river and sat on the threshold shelling peas, the sun drying her lovely hair into waves of brown. She smiled a little. Shyly, she waited for me in our bed with the covers turned back, but though I joined her, I did not touch her. My longing for the woman was a sickness and I could feel the ribs through my skin as plain as the wheals on my back that her nails had left.

At Summer solstice someone remembered. Thresholds were closed, smoke holes filled. 

But I was the one who offered to face the stones. And I took my bow and I walked towards them and waited. And there she came, riding once more from nowhere into the centre of them. Her horse was as wild as ever, its eyes flashing and green and the woman was petulant. 

It did not work, she said, or thought. Your seed did not grow. I need you to try again. Or maybe I need a man whose children live.

‘All our children died the winter just gone,’ I said. ‘It was too bitter for them.’

The woman pursed her lips. It was too bitter for ours too.

I stared at her then, remembering my little girl fade in my arms. She had become strange in those last days of her life. And she was not the only child who changed in their final moments. Going to sleep like one person and waking as another, only to die a few days later. 

Call me out of the circle, she said, or thought. I need you to… I want you. Her petulance changed into desire. The horse stamped its silent hooves. The air shimmered.

‘Did you exchange your children for ours at midwinter?’ I said at last, bile in my throat. ‘Did you take my girl?’

Your children are stronger than ours. Ours are weak, but our powers are great. Give me another child, mix your blood with mine then…

‘Wait!’ I said. ‘Where is my little girl. Is she alive?’

If you won’t call me out of the circle, then come with me and find out. She coaxed with her mouth but her eyes were cold. She patted the horse’s neck. See what wonders could be yours.

And for a moment I stood there, the burning of desire strong in my gut, the scent of her filling my head, but it was a cold scent and a cold desire a.

‘If you can bring back our children alive, maybe I’ll come with you. Maybe I’ll do as I ask.’

The desire dropped from her face and her teeth snarled. I cannot.

‘Then go back to where you came from,’ I said. ‘I have betrayed my wife enough.’

She hesitated for only a second, then wheeled the horse round and galloped into nowhere.

And since then, I have faded in strength, though the scars on my back have not. I yearn for the woman every night though the desire is nauseating and cold. 

For I remembered who it was who was responsible for making sure we kept the gateway protected and the thresholds sealed at Winter solstice and turn of year in the Spring. 

It was the chieftain. It was I. And I lost more than my daughter with my negligence.

I lost everything.

A song called ‘Ride On‘ by Christy Moore inspired this story. One day, I might expand on it.

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/vintage-arthur-rackham-victorian-1722369/

Under the Green

It’s St Patrick’s Day today and all those pictures of leprechauns brought back a memory. You see, when I was nine, I saw a …

Well I don’t know what he was exactly. He could have been a leprechaun I suppose but that seems unlikely since I saw him sitting near a bridge in South Wales. However, he was very small and very definitely of the elven type. 

On the other hand, I lived ten miles from Banwen, where St Patrick was allegedly born, so possibly he was a leprechaun tourist doing a road-trip. 

À propos of nothing, the town and the schools I attended were named after a different saint, St Catwg, who was less worried about snakes than St Patrick. We lived off what is called the ‘Heads of the Valleys’ road, which perhaps gives you an idea of how far from the beaten track we were. Banwen was even further into the wilds and from what I recall, the Banwen kids who came to our secondary school were teased about being unsophisticated by those of us who lived closer to what we thought of as civilisation (there was a Wimpey bar three miles away). Trust me, none of the rest of us had a cosmopolitan or sophisticated leg to stand on, but that’s teenagers for you. At least the Banwen kids had a patron saint to be proud of, even if he’d emigrated. The rest of us had nothing. Even St Catwg had travelled up from Monmouthshire and thence left our place for Brittany and possibly Scotland.

Going back to my elven man – I was as I said, around nine. He was ageless. I had been communing with the river which ran along a gorge fifty yards/metres or so behind my house. This means I was troubled or unhappy or or being bullied or lonely or a mixture of all of those. I can’t remember the reasons but can remember the emotion. One of my ‘places’ was the river and I would stand on the bridge that crossed it and talk to the lights which sparkled on it under the trees. I don’t recall the sparkling ever not being there, even though I also remember it raining for months. This either means I only visited it when it was dry or there was something unusual about the place.

The path to the bridge on our side ran down the length of gardens and then a field and then there were some rather rusty railings which were designed to stop people (children) from getting to the edge of the gorge and falling into the river. Naturally, they had long since been bent so that a child could get through. It was possible to climb down to the river’s edge and stand on a sandbank. This was where I observed the river beasties, while I still had ideas of becoming a naturalist. 

That particular day however, I’d just walked down to the bridge, poured out my worries and was returning home. As I stepped from the bridge onto the path, I saw a small man, cross legged on a post, smoking a pipe. He was quite serene, saying nothing but giving me a small nod and smile as if to say ‘it’ll be all right.’

Being well brought up I said ‘hello’ and passed on. A second later, the penny dropped that this small man was actually smaller than me, smaller than my little sister, small enough to sit on a post in fact. 

I turned and he was not there. Or he was gone. Whichever one prefers to think.

I’ve never really told anyone of this, because after all, it sounds a bit bonkers. I never saw him again, nor did I ever see any other elvish type, despite feeling they were there just out of sight. Ultimately I grew out of talking to the river and trees but never quite lost the sense that there was some other world just beyond. I am an educated woman of faith but I fundamentally feel that the universe is infinitely more complex than a mere human who might live seventy years or so can ever codify. 

Those who know about Celtic mythology talk about another world which touches ours and scientists talk about alternative universes. I think of those moments under trees, I think of other moments when I clearly knew I could go one way or another and the outcome would be hugely different and I wonder. 

Of course, I could just have been bonkers. I was immensely stressed aged nine.  

On the off-chance that he really was an elf, I’ve done a bit of research into things about which I’d have known nothing then. I was an English outsider in a Welsh village but actually I doubt many of my Welsh contemporaries knew either. 

I think he was definitely Welsh. According to Wirt Sikes, ‘y Tylwyth Teg’ (Welsh for the fair folk) come in five varieties: Ellyllon (elves), Coblynau (mine fairies), Bwbachod (household fairies), Gwragedd Annwn (underwater fairies), and Gwyllion (mountain fairies).

The Ellyllon are pigmy elves who haunt the groves and valleys. They dine on poisonous toadstools and fairy butter, which they extract from deep crevices in limestone rocks. Their hands are clad in the bells of the foxglove, the leaves of which are a powerful sedative. They are sometimes kindly, sometimes menacing and almost always mischievous.’ 

So I’m going to own my elf as one of the Ellyllon – a kindly one.

It was a long, long time ago of course. I only really recall the sense of calm and an unspoken wisdom that said ‘it’ll be all right.’ So he could, depending on your view point have been an elf, an angel, a manifestation of my internal determination to win through or a manifestation of stress. 

Whichever he was, he made me feel better. I somehow knew I’d never see him again, but it didn’t matter. 

At that moment, I felt comforted.

green man

 

Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Article about British Goblins (1880) by Wirt Sikes