Old Gods Pt.4

Winter has visited me three times in my life.

I first saw him on my wedding night. The whole day had been a beautiful affair. My parents must have spent half their savings on me, and I could see that there was absolutely no expense spared. Dappled sunlight spilled into the courtyard where the priest, dressed in the finest silks and gold-threaded vestments, weaved the ribbon between my husband and I. Tables were laid for our meal as the festivities continued and countless well-wishers eat our food, but my love and I were blind to them all as we sat down.

Soon enough, the meal was served, and we dug into a starter of crayfish prepared in garlic and soft butter. A fresh, succulent lamb was slaughtered before the gods and roasted above an open pit, before we gorged ourselves on lemon cakes that drooled and oozed with honey. Traditional wines and biscuits were given to us by my father, and the merrymaking went on long into the dusk.

All the while, my heart burst with love, and I was entirely content when it finally got to the time where my husband lead me to my new home, and, with solemn duty, led me to bed. I was young, but not naïve. My mother had told me what to do, and I knew that the gods demanded it, but it still hurt. Eventually though, my love was finished and the uncomfortable act was done. He showered me with compliments and kisses for a while but, soon, he was asleep.

I could not join him, though. I was happy as a girl could be, of course. My handsome man had taken me to my marriage bed and I had pleased him as far as I could tell. There was no physical problem that made me stay so alert, but for the life of me I could not join him. I remember now, I was watching the moon gibbous and colossal and distant as I stood nude on the balcony, when Winter walked in.

My first thought was to cover up, but as he looked at me I knew that he had no interest in my naked form. He was dressed in fine clothes, a black ensemble broken only by the shocking white silk scarf fastened tight around his neck despite the warm spring night. His hair and beard were dark, though the silver moonlight picked and highlighted the sparse white hairs that salted his hair. Laughter lines traced a filigree of shadow across his face.

I should have been scared, or at least woken Harry, but I didn’t fear the man. In truth, he seemed kind. He simply looked at my love, draped across the bed and then looked at me. Sadness crossed his face momentarily, and I felt such compassion for this man, this stranger. All I wanted to do was to go to him, to talk to him, but as he turned and left the room, I knew that that could never be. I shivered and, suddenly, felt the true extent of my vulnerable nakedness.

Twenty years on from that night, a messenger came with news to my husband’s door. My Harry bade me dress in a grave voice, and we received the boy in our garden. He told me that day of my father’s death. In his advanced age he often went to stay with friends out in the country who owned a modest farmstead. He’d been ill for a couple of years, and the asthma he’d had since childhood worsened with time, so I naturally assumed he’d died of illness. That, however, was not the case.

According to the boy, my father had been accustomed to taking a quick walk around the farm every morning. Yesterday morning he had been on this walk when the barn had caught fire, the summer heat having dried the hay to a tinder. Without any concern for his own safety, despite his age and frailty he rushed in to help, but soon the smoke overcame him and, when the barn collapsed over him, there was no way to help. Only charred bones had been found. Later, I learned that it was difficult to tell him apart from the horses.

I still feel bad now, but I did not at once pay attention to thoughts of my father, or to the youth who had ridden night and day to tell me what had happened. Instead, my mind focused upon something I could see beyond the apple tree, past the thick hedge and across the broad, slow river. The man standing there looked at me with eyes so grey and pale that they seemed devoid of colour. The man with the shocking white scarf and the dark, heavy clothes despite the heat. The man who’s face exuded compassion and sympathy. It was only when he left that I began to scream with grief.

He left behind a huge amount, my father. I was his only child and, aside from a sizable sum he promised the priesthood, all became mine. I spent my days in black mourning clothes in the garden I had grown up in, in the sweltering heat of summer. My husband and I had never been better off.

Much later, my husband died too. It did not surprise anyone who knew him well. Over years I watched him become thin, watched the smiles become rarer and the laughs become less sincere. As the skin pinched around his jagged cheekbones and his chin, I begged him to see a doctor. Harry, though, was an old world man, stubborn and religious to the very end, and his end it did become. He didn’t even have the grace to die alone, ultimately, didn’t even say goodbye to his wife of thirty-five years. His last moments were spent at an ancient altar in the woods, surrounded by falling, copper leaves, where one last priest tried to pray him back to good health.

I hadn’t spent a night apart from Harry, excepting those dark summer nights streaked with bright, purple grief after my father’s death. That hurt perhaps more than anything else that day, when I lay down on the same bed I had thirty-five years ago, when I was young and beautiful and full of hope and, now, knew that it had come to nothing. Thirty-five years with a man I loved, and now I had nothing real to show for it. No children, no grandchildren, and I would never feel his arms around me like I did that first night.

Winter joined me in my bed that night, and I knew that what he did to me, he did for me. I lay with him time and time again, blurring into each other until dawn, when he put on his dark clothes and his white scarf, and left into the crisp autumn morning. I knew then that I was at last with child.

When you were born, my son, I knew that you were the most beautiful thing that I had ever seen. You had your father’s beautiful dark hair and pale eyes right from that first day. I have never stopped loving you.

Tomorrow, you may see him. I am old now, and my bones have seen too many springs. My skin has been warmed by summer winds and my blood chilled by the first bitter rains of autumn. Tomorrow, I will have my Winter, and he will have me.

Advertisements

Old Gods Pt. 3

When I was not yet a man, I loved to swim in the river with my friends. There were dozens of us who, nearly every day of the long, hot summers we faced in the valley, would play in the stream that ran down from the cold and distant mountains. It flowed through the fields and the hills, through chalk and over slate beds, and sparkled with the shoals of slender silver fish that leaped and splashed away from us.

One of my greatest friends at the time was a lass called Niamh, who every day came down there with her father’s sheepdog down to the riverside and played with us. Whether he was ever annoyed at our rough play or the shrill squeals of our laughter, he never showed it. Always he would fetch the sticks we threw and swim in the river with us and, when the day was done, he would sit calmly and let us tease out the knots and burrs in his fur (we had to do this after his coat had been so matted that Niamh’s father thought it warranted a lashing). Looking back, I really think that I might have been friends with the dog rather than I was with her.

Well, one day, there was a great fight among our group. The smith’s son, a chubby little lad who was far too easy to bully, had been given specially made spectacles from the town across the ridge for his seventh birthday. In his pride at being able to swim and play with the rest of us now, he refused to take off the little, gold-rimmed glasses when he plunged beneath the water. Within minutes, he’d lost them after one of the older boys held him into the current.

The smith’s son began to cry, of course. He sobbed over how they’d cost half a month of his father’s earnings, how angry he’d be when he got home, and we just laughed. We called him piggy and bat and, though I’d like to say I did this with regret and felt sympathy, I cannot. Soon he flew into a great rage as his last shred of dignity burst into inflamed and burning anger.

He started trying to punch a simple minded lad called Thomas, the only target beneath him. Someone quickly tackled him, holding his head under the stream between his legs. The smith’s son quickly bit into the tackler’s ankle, gnawing as his milk teeth fell out and the girls began to shriek. When he had been let go and stood up, blood staining his gums, he had a handful of smooth river pebbles which he started hurling at people, missing everyone.

Niamh’s sheepdog was barking his head off all the while, and when the boy took aim at her, the dog rushed in, biting firmly onto his arm. He screamed and, with his free arm, brought one of the river rocks down hard onto the dog’s heard. A crunch of bone was heard, far louder than anyone’s shouts or curses, and the animal went limp as a boned fish. We all paused and watched him drift away.

Suddenly, every boy there was yelling and abusing the boy. You could hurt each other, you could hurt the girls, but the dog was our friend, everyone’s friend. He had broken a rule and he knew it as he sat quietly under the blows and curses of the incensed crowd. By now everyone was hitting him, kicking him, everyone but me, me and Niamh. She was crying alone on the river bank, and the sight of her bright tears as they dropped into the water made me too sad, too heartbroken to be angry. I knew it was up to me. I knew that I had to get her dog back.

I swam quickly, the current at my back, pushing me onward. Ahead, I saw The Twins. Ancient willows that arched above the stream, seemingly joining into one above me. All my life I’d been told the stories of the trees there, that those who passed between them were unlikely to come back out. Those who did manage the journey, though, came out changed.

It didn’t even occur to me to slow or stop, all sense of caution had left me. I had to find him.

I gasped as I went through them, nearly swallowing the suddenly murky river water around me. I was surrounded by thick and terrible forest that, although it seemed older than time, I knew had not been there before. Tall trees that were older than all humanity stretched into the twilight and disappeared, their leaves brown and copper. A thick layer of moss covered the rocks and roots. I was so astonished by the sight that I forgot to swim, and let the current carry me, for how long I know not.

Suddenly I found myself in a secluded bay, a bend of the river with a small clearing at its edge, the humus bordered with willow saplings that gave way to darker trees beyond, too thick to walk through. The body of the dog, its black and white fur matted with blood, had also come to a rest, waves lapping against it. On the riverside was a mushroom circle, pale flesh that crowned stunted stalks.

Two figures danced in the middle, skipping and waltzing to a tune only they heard, or perhaps they danced only to the sounds of the forest, the rushing of the river, the distant chirping of strange birds. They were a boy and a girl, twins, seemingly twice my age. The girl was beautiful. Auburn hair lay lightly upon her bare shoulders. Her green eyes were framed by her high, elven cheekbones, and her skin carried the hue of a late summer’s tan. Her supple, toned body was clothed in green and fresh leaves that contrasted with the colour of her hair. She turned her emerald eyes on me, and whispered something to her brother. He looked at me then, and I him.

I cried in shock. He was dead, yet his grey, blind eyes still looked at me with a vivacity I’d never seen before. His skin was tight across his white skin, and bones jutted against the blue flesh of his elbows. His mouth was drawn into the tight grimace of someone who’d seen the force of famine, the cold of winter. He was nude save for a loincloth of brown, dead leaves at his waste. Worse than his body was the way that fungi and mushrooms sprouted around him and even up his legs. He was decay incarnate.

The girl hesitated a moment at the edge of the mushroom circle, looked back at her brother, then crossed the boundary. She calmly came to me at the riverside and, lifting my head, looked at me with those green, opal fires that were set deep in her tanned face. Never have I understood anything so clearly. Her brother was autumn, an end to the prosperity and goodness, the dying of the plants and the shortening of the days. Yet she was also autumn, and she was life. The blooming of the flowers made more beautiful by their scarcity, the shooting growth of colourful toadstools, the rutting of deer that begets dewy-eyed fawns come the spring. Lowering me gently, she waded deep into the water, the smooth skin of her naked legs prickling with its persuasive touch. With a hand as tender as a mother holding her child, she began to stroke the dog’s fur, tidying it and smoothing it away from the wound atop its head. Tears seeming to brim in her eyes dropped and soaked into his coat as she leaned down and kissed the injury. The dog’s eyes opened and the warm brown orbs gazed thankfully into her leaf green irises. She smiled shyly.

The brother was looking over at the three of us with anger. At first I thought he was angered by his sacrifice slipping away, but then I heard something as she gazed sadly at me and, dejectedly, sloped back into the circle. Deep within the woods beyond, where the trees grew thick and dark, the twisted, tangled forms that plunged deep into the word and filled me with dread to see them hid something. A predatory, hungry roar that pierced the still air like a shard of ice filled my senses, fearsome in its might and its need to be satiated. My heart chilled to hear it, yet when the twins began their dance again, it died away, echoing off mountains that I’d never know.

A sudden, calm stillness gripped me. I had floated through the Twins and seen what there was on the other side, what no human should. The willow trees where miles away, and the current too strong for me to swim, and yet I knew that there would be nothing to harm me. The girl had blessed us, and we would be safe. I closed my eyes then, praying silently to the old gods, to the new gods, to Spring and Summer and Autumn and Winter. I had saved Niamh’s dog, and it was time to go home. I opened my eyes as I felt the water cool and the bump of a river bank. It was a chill night, the end of summer. Against the starlight, I saw the Twins, the trees again now, shiver and dance with the touch of the wind. I found out, once home, that I had gone missing for four days straight.

No one remembers now what the dog’s name was before, but now we had a new name for him: Gift. In time, he died, and was given a small grave by the river, where a willow grew up out of him. Niamh said that he had always liked it there. Years later, we married and had sons of our own and they had sons of their own. Throughout all that time I have kept a shrine to the Twins in the fairy circle, and prayed to the girl that, should my sons wander, they would protect them. I still fear what would have happened had the brother come to me instead.

 

~~~~~~~~~

For Niamh, who brought Kopparberg to my barbecue one time

The Old Gods Pt. 2

The day was hot and dry. Across the bare fields, dust devils cast straw about like embers from a fire. On days like this, the children played in the woods and swam in the streams, while mothers span wool in the shade of their cottages and men slept through the noon to work in the evening. Sweat poured from glistening faces and the air was too hot for laughter.

When the week was over, most people in the village were long dead.

The food was stored well when the king’s men rode into town. Meat hung salted from hooks in the butchers, silos of grain were near untouched, and the cows were well fed, and yet the men found only starvation among the corpses. Flies buzzed around the bodies thick as the cream on fresh milk and already they had bitten through painfully thin skin, bulging ribs showing white against the tanned leather flesh. The skeletal arms of mothers still held babes, now mere bundles of bone and flesh to their emptied breasts. Worst was the local lord’s corpse, found in a circle of people. He had not lost the grotesque belly he’d carried all his life, and beneath the sickly flesh things still crawled.

The cadavers were all found in a neat circle around a thick, stout, and ancient oak that dominated the central square. No man present could recall such a loathsome tree as having been there before.

The captain vomited against the wall of the empty inn, he heard a weak call. Still someone stirred in one of the squat little farmer’s cottages that lay on the bank of the stream. With all haste the men found him, made him drink and eat and, when his stomach was painfully distended and his frail limbs had regained some vigour, they listened, and bade him tell his tale.

The boy’s name was Tom, a farm hand on the lush wheat and barley fields to the north of the village that spread across the rolling hills and drank greedily of the irrigation ditches. He told them about the harvest festival, how the moon had hung wide and honey-coloured above the merrymakers who drank greedily of the irrigation ditches. He told them about the harvest festival, how the moon had hung wide and honey-coloured over the merrymakers who drank their fill and laid with whomever they wished and set carefully down their offerings on the altar in the town square. He told them of the way Annie had looked that night, the way her dark hair spilled down onto her shoulders like the waterfalls in stories about the Western Mountains. He told them about her amber eyes and her limps as plump and full as the swelling river that coursed through the town, filled with the melting snows of the mountains that were so distant and yet so important. He told them of all this and had to stop, tears flowing freely as he realised what he had lost.

He told them then about the following morning. Most had been asleep at first, but something had nagged at him and tugged him awake. So it was that he was awake to see the sun rise bloody and terrible that morning, and the stranger that seemed to ride forth from its fiery maw.

At first he saw her as something sexless, something beyond humanity that moved with the fluidity of a force, an existence and inevitability more than an individual being. When she drew near though, her golden mount placid and kingly, he was astounded by her beauty. Golden hair reached to her waist and framed a face as noble and symmetrical as any he could imagine. Her eyes glittered like the sun on rushing waters and shone with the hidden fires of opals, and her slender figure was clad in a delicate ermine cloak. He found himself rushing to welcome her, to find her accommodation, but one glance from those achingly beautiful eyes sent him powerless to his knees as she rode on past him.

Soon the whole town was awake and gathered around her in stunned and enchanted silence. Her horse had gone now, and where the altar had been before she now sat nude and serene upon a throne of gnarled and dark wood that looked like it had grown from the very earth. He wondered aloud whether to the women she appeared as a man, for they were no less devoted than the rest, but he would never know. All he saw was the queenly disdain of her gaze, her perfect beauty. The days melted together and the nights seemed barely there, for her glory shone like the sun.

His concentration was broken and his life saved by Annie. Where she had been so perfect just (moments? days? how long?) ago, she was now wasting away. Her clothes hung off her and looked grimy with days of sweat. Her face was pinched and drawn into a grimace of pain. He felt something break in himself with sorrow and looked away in agony. his own clothes were now ill-fitting, and had his legs always been so scrawny? His ribs were jagged and painful where the skin rubbed against his scratchy wool shirt.

The stranger had changed and metamorphosed as well. In fact, he saw her not as a woman now, but as a sapling, slender and new. He saw the roots break the stones of the altar and saw what he had to do. He had to save them. He ran as fast as his exhausted legs could carry him, past the farm and the butchers, past Annie’s house and the priest’s cottage, to the house of Alex the lumberjack. Taking the axe, almost too heavy for his bones, he scrambled back to the tree and, with a great cry, swung the blade into the plant.

It left not a scratch, but he saw the stranger for what she had been. She was the heat of the sun on a farmer’s back, the tongue of fire that starts an inferno in the forest. She was the famine that bleeds a nation, that draws flesh close to the bone and kills children before they even have a chance to live. She was the dry riverbed, the empty well, the vulture that circles the lame. She was the sands of the desert and the great death that comes from the south and creeps up slowly but surely. She was summer and she was terrible.

He hadn’t the will to try again. The oak tree was stronger than him, stronger than all men. He hadn’t eaten for five days since then, and had simply watched as everyone he knew and loved simply stopped living. He cried in relief that they had not seen the horrors he had seen. At last his story was over.

No one came to the village much after then. The bodies were buried in a mass grave, and as the houses fell apart and the farms grew untended even the thieves and the squatters stayed away for fear of the tales that were told of the place. Over time, a forest grew around the oak. Blossom littered the town every summer.

14169713_597960040405331_282645529_n

Old Gods Pt. 1

I hate spring. When the ice on the lakes thaws, and the bitter chill of frost begins to falter, I know that the next few weeks and months will bring out the worst in me.

I give reasons to my friends when asked. It rains too much, the weeds grow faster than I can destroy them in my plot, the animals always seem to have far more luck finding a mate than I do. These are all lies. I have to lie, because there is no way that I can bear to remind myself of the truth. I cannot admit my fear and loathing to them, much less to myself. At no time am I more afraid than those first days where the North wind loses its ferocity as it kisses the floor of the valley. The spring brings back things to me, renews feelings and memories that I always hope should die in the winter.

When I was just a young whelp, my father took me over the crest of hills to the east, to the home of my grandparents where I was to stay a year and learn the customs and skills of my people. It was late autumn, and we hunted our way through the journey. By the time I was in the other village, we had caught and skinned five rabbits as a gift to my grandparents, and had even caught a young boar which we gave as a sign of good faith to the village’s elders as a gift from our own home.

Before we left, my father presented me with his bow, and a quiver of finely crafted arrows. I was told of how the weapon had survived countless generations of my family, its surface a myriad network of fine cracks in the willow. Bone reinforced it, strengthening the wood while retaining the flexibility. I was honoured to own such a thing, and swore to myself that before I returned I should have put it to good use.

The week my father returned home, the winter kicked in. That year, the snows fell with predatory thickness, and the cold seeped through you like water through a cracked hull. My grandparents taught me how to preserve the lot of land and safeguard what few animals we owned from the deepening cold. At last, when the ten-foot deep dunes and the razor thin ice began to melt and the trees began to live again, I was overjoyed. I’d never been so happy to see spring, and I never would be again.

There was a patch of woodland up on the slopes which everyone in the village seemed to treat with religious reverence. There were certain echoes of the old ways still in the community at the time, tradition and myth from when man was young and the wilderness was unknown. The gods of those days were not greeted in the immaculate stone tower and ringing belfry the missionaries had built three decades ago. No, they were greeted in the sky and the ground, the ocean and the lake. They had names, though seldom did anyone care to use them. These gods were Time, Air, Light, Water, Wind, all the things that make the world. They were worshipped in their element, and they required nourishment.

The woodland that I saw when the snows died down was one of those echoes. It was said that every year, when the ice melted and the moon rose for spring, gods met and danced in those trees. Spirits of the wood and champions of the world would make merry and no man was to see this sight.

My grandparents took that last point seriously, more seriously perhaps than they had taken any of my tutelage. They made me promise upon all that I held dear not to pass the saplings at its border, to stay entirely clear at least until summer. I had no choice but to accept. I held true to my word. I worked hard at the plough, making the soil ready for the years crops. I looked after the chickens, the pigs, the cow that was a year older than me. My father’s bow was hung above the hearth, but I was too busy for hunting. I was learning what it was to live in the valleys.

Then, one day, while my grandparents were at market, I saw him. His antlers shone in the spring air like burnished gold, his coat a deep russet. As he bent to nibble a cabbage, I saw the deep velvet darkness of his pupils, and knew that this was not a simple stag. This was my proving.

As quickly as possible, I grabbed the bow and its quiver from its resting place and sneaked out to where the deer had been. It’s tracks lead away a distance towards a curve of the hill, and I saw it linger a while on the precipice of the forest. I quickly followed and, readying an arrow, I prepared a shot. The arrow went wide by a large margin, splintering against the bark of a gnarled oak. The deer, startled, instantly turned and raced into the woods, its white tail mocking me in its flight. Barely thinking, I ran after it, the need to have my trophy running through my veins as palpable and real as the feeling of blood rushing in my ears.

It didn’t take me long to find the deer. Golden, late afternoon sunlight poured through the trees into a clearing, its floor too rough and full of detritus for any real vegetation to have taken root around the stone cairn dominating the centre. The stag stood fixed in place, a placid expression on its face. The hairs on my arms stood straight, and I shivered in the sunlight.

Blood trickled slowly down from the deer’s eye. His mouth began to foam.

Suddenly, thick, ancient roots reared up from the ground like threatened snakes. They did not so much stab, impale, or tear as they did grow into the deer. That was the most terrifying aspect, not the horrific injuries, just the slow, inevitable confidence of a glacier carving a valley as its way was forced into the stag, pushing patiently through the and up its legs, through the nostrils and mouth, the eyes, the anus. The deer seemed to swell in its place as the things found places within him.

Before my eyes, the deer died. Not with the quick clean grace of an arrow through the eye or a knife to the throat, but an organic, earthly sort of death. The antlers were first to go, turning brown and rancid before scattering in the light wind, just more hummus underfoot. Then the head, caving in on itself as the roots pervading it had their fill. The whole animal became soil as the root-things, sucked it apart, a skeletal deer of pure root left behind.

I hear a baby cry then. Perched atop the cairn, it began to move. His skin was pure and white as snowdrops, his form swaddled in moss and bark. The babe turned its face to me, and never have I felt so at peace with a being as I did next to that child, that newborn who was older than the hills and the stones. I felt pure love for the thing. Then it looked at me.

The eyes were spring. The melt water that flows from the mountainside and destroys bridges, floods villages. They were the thin ice that the child falls through, and the bitterly pale sun that cannot stop it reforming above him as he kicks and thrashes, helpless. They were inevitable and futile, the respite from the winter that falls every year.

I suddenly felt a sharp, stabbing pain in my left foot and, panicking, I dropped the bow and freed myself by hacking at the root that was crawling up my arteries. I could only watch with grief and dismay when the soil claimed my bow.

I was lucky to escape. Once I’d limped back to the village, my grandparents took good care of me, and didn’t ask what I’d seen in the woods. There’s a chunk missing from my foot that and a gash wide as two fingers up my leg, but I had eavesdropped on an old god, and had seen what most could not without death. By all accounts, I was living on borrowed time, and I still am. My wound pains me still, a mouldy, infected sort of pain that spikes every year in the last week of winter. My pain is nothing, nothing at all though compared to the fear of that annual horror, the thing that dwells in the forest, the god of spring.