I. Cuckoo Pint
This is the hungry time, huddling time. Women spin by rush-light, their men bicker and drink. Mine most of all, hog-slumped in his smoke-stale furs. Walled in by winter, I am stifled by his stare.
At Candlemas the wind changes, though none speak of it. Clouds skip-scud and a kestrel quivers, taut against the up-rush. Yaffingales drum beyond the pale, unseen. At milking I watch pigeons on the roof-ridge, urgent, harrying the air. My blood tingles. This is the stirring time, surging time.
I leave the pail half-full.
Wet clay sucks and splashes as I take the forest track. Crows spiral, shrieking challenge, conquest, lust. The air tastes of frost and leaf-mould, sharp and raw. A goldcrest leads me onward, a sunburst strokes my hair.
Shoots are pushing through the soil: snakes-head, or sweet sorrel. In this season few can tell the potherb from the poison. Sometimes I see things others don’t, or seek things they disdain. I kneel beside a furled spear-spike, and name it: lords and ladies, jack-in-the-pulpit, cuckoo pint. Soon it will show its prick for the village girls to smirk at. “Don’t touch it, wicked thing!”
I tear a leaf and crush it, drawing draughts of rampant green.
They said, “Beware of Robin’s Hole, the Devil’s pit, the way to Hell.”
But I am not afraid.
I stumble through the holly, let my old shawl snag and fall. I find a maze of shadowed steeps, a haunted, hollow place. Pale catkins shiver, dandled by the wind. Damp bracken starts to steam.
Then I see him. Still and silent as a tree. Ivy in his oak-moss hair, a wild light in his eyes. I don’t know if I woke him, or if he awakened me. Only that this is my soul-thaw, my springtime.
I lie in leaf-litter. Bare branches dance against the sky, brushing, lacing and parting again. I rise rooted as sap, as stems, as stars. Earth-heat floods my branching bones. He flows in my green veins and I cry out with the crows.
I open my eyes, alone. Gold-crust lichen paints my skin, crumbles acid on my tongue. Elf-bright water runs on pebbles where the brook has overflowed.
In the village I am skittish, can only grunt when neighbours greet me. I plead sickness and hide in my home. Soon I am sick in truth. The man is pleased at my swelling, says I will earn my price at last. His hopes are stillborn when I am delivered. He calls me witch and whore, grabs the whip, but I am faster. I take nothing but my strange offspring, cradled at my breast.
I know forest paths that they will never find. I wrap my egg in the sun-warmed down of traveller’s joy. It is the flawless green of millpond ice, smooth beneath my hand. Hare-like, I curl in a form, and drink from muddy springs.
I have never felt so clean.
Cowslips bud at Robin’s Hole. This is the blossom time, blessed time. A clumsy, greedy fledgling nestles in my arms. My love, my cuckoo-child.
“You must marry your sister’s husband.”
She went into the wood one year ago. We girls are wolf-watched now, and may not say her name. Rules rack up like midden-bones. Never walk alone. Never stray from the track. Never twine flowers in your hair.
“You will soon come of age. We owe him a wife.”
Father has spoken, I dare not refuse. Silent, I step out to feel the sting of frost-sharp air. The forest is forbidden but the hills are still my own. I say I’m fetching water from the high chalk spring. Scrambling up the shadowed steep, my feet raise winter-ghosts of thyme.
Celandines circle the sweet-spilling pool. I gather some and weave a crown, singing as I fill the pails, a silly rhyme of larks and hares. A wren trills from the ivy that cloaks the gully-wall. Water trickles clear from the narrow-rifted rock. I think of deep and hidden places, things that lie beneath, unseen. Rivers running lawless in the dark. I shiver, not from cold.
Above me at the hill-brow stands a kite-haunted knoll. The Barrow. We may not go there, save for this day, the first of Soul-Month. No-one will tell me why.
People straggle up the sheep-path and I slip into the line. They leave their seed-cakes at the tomb, then turn away, for fear of wights. Father sees my flower-ring and throws it to the ground. Mother says, quiet, “Let her be. She has little time left for fooling.”
The offerings look stale. I linger when the others leave and find my fallen circlet, lay it before the knoll. A low sun breaks the storm-dark sky and wakes the petals’ gold.
In the night the rain comes hard. The field-ditch floods and takes a lamb.
By dawn the sky is pale, washed clean. I side-step up the streaming slope, holding the hem of my gown. Mother dyed it cowslip-colour. “Light as your hair,” she said, with leaden eyes. My betrothal will be sealed today.
I reach the valley-head, panting, and find the land is changed. Below the Barrow-knoll, a slab of hill has slipped away. The chalk shows raw, bone-white, where its ivy cloak is torn. The crack in the cliff is wider now, and near as tall as I am. From its foot the spring flows fast, saying something I can almost hear.
The wren is singing again. Celandines shimmer, roots tangling in the secret soil. I watch as sunrise licks the ridge. A beam bursts from the hill-brow, dances bright across the pool. Water surges round my calves as I wade towards the cave. The ray pierces the passage as if lighting my way.
The hollow hill has called me. I will not refuse.
It is bitter blackthorn winter. Cattle starve and stores run low. Unwanted and unwed, I’m a burden to my kin. “Too sallow, stubby, shy,” men say, “Not like the two who went away.”
A roving willow-woman comes, and strikes a deal for me. I will serve a year and learn her craft. She warns it is a hard life, tramping on the track, but I’ve no wish to stay. I long to find my sisters – one lost to the greenwood, one to the hollow hill. Weaver’s path may bring me word of them.
She works with deft hands, spider-light, her baskets give but do not break. My clumsy fingers bleed, and she binds them with betony.
“Carry on, Catkin, you’ve still a way to go.”
At lambing-time we load her cart and hitch a nanny goat. I’ve never been beyond the ridge. Now far from home, I feel adrift. At night I shiver in my shawl and think of wodwos, wights and wolves. My shoes break up and cut my heels. Weaver lifts the hem of her heavy hooded cloak. “Barefoot is better.”
Soon the road is in my bones, my soles as tough as hers.
She has a cuckoo and a wren who nestle at her neck. Half-wild, they come and go. But a kestrel never wanders, she stalks us shadow-true. Weaver names her: Windhover.
We take Icknield Way to Barton for the Whitsuntide Fair. Then Ermine Street to York. We trade wares with lying pilgrims, and tales with honest thieves. On the Fosse a warband passes as we crouch in a ditch.
When winter bites we travel west, to lands of marsh and mud. Bitterns boom in rushes where the white willows grow. Weaver barters with the hook-men. Their voices are rough and teasel-burred, their tongue is strange to me.
We hole up in a hut with thatch that sweeps the earth. When her hands are withy-weary, she takes up her loom and threads. Lichen yellow, moss green, rosehip red. She lets me untangle the criss-cross skeins.
Sometimes I walk on the black oak causeway. The paths are a maze through the forest of reeds. I think of roads that thread this land, the knots and nets they weave. Highways and holloways, hedge-ways and holy-ways. I could trace them all and never tire, light as pollen on the wind.
As my year is ending, we journey slowly back. At Candlemas I see ahead the ridge that once meant home. I cry for my sisters, who may be dead. Weaver shakes her head and laughs,
“They are well, silly girl, and you will meet them, in good time. Wren and Cuckoo told me so.”
I do not doubt her. I look up at the kestrel, still guarding our path.
“Is she your familiar too?”
“Oh no, my Catkin. Windhover watches, but not over me.”
From her pack she draws a cloak, red and green and gold.
“Take this gift,” Weaver says, “You’ve still a way to go.”
Sarah Royston’s writing draws inspiration from nature, folklore and the landscapes of southern England. Her short fictions and poetry are published in Popshot Quarterly, Full House Lit, Ellipsis, and The Hyacinth Review, among others. She lives in Hertfordshire, UK, and works as a researcher on sustainability issues at Anglia Ruskin University.
photo by Lisa Fotios (via pexels)