Cradle of clay
On a moonless night in the dead of winter, an old woman made her way from the river bank to the willow grove in the heart of the woods. Black were her eyes and grey was her hair and in her pocket was a white pebble-stone.
On the naked branches of the willows, summer birds still sang.
"Have you seen my darling?" the old woman asked the black, black crow. "Have you seen my child?"
He is drowned in the river, croaked the crow.
"Have you seen my darling child?" the old woman asked brown Jenny-wren. "Are you sure you've never seen my dear?"
He is burnt in the fire, warbled the wren.
"Where O where is my sweet baby?" the old woman asked the grey mourning dove. "Where O where lies my darling son?"
He is buried in the cold clay below, sang the grey mourning dove.
The old woman called to her side wolf and brock and bear and they dug up for her the earth beneath the tallest willow tree, laying bare a baby's white bones trapped amongst the tough black roots. The old woman pulled from her pocket her white pebble-stone and lay it among the roots.
"Stones for thy bones, and a blessing on thy boughs," said the old woman, and heaped the dirt up over the pebble and roots with her own crooked hands. The bones she took back to the river's side, where she molded the mud into the baby's flesh and set two pieces of coal in his face for eyes and a rowan-berry for his mouth. The baby opened his rosy pursed mouth and began to cry.
She took him up to her withered breast and gave him suck. "Hush now," she murmured as she rocked him. "I shall weave together nettles tight and line your cradle soft with catkins and thistle-down. I'll wean you on honey and salmon's blood – you'll speak so sweet, my love, in all the tongues of beasts and men. I'll teach you all the secrets of the sun and all the lost histories of the moon and stars."
I'll carry your messages, the grey dove said.
I'll tell you secrets, whispered the wind.
I'll love you true, said the grey dove.
The children liked to play on the rocky spit in the mouth of the river where there had once been a tower. The stone circle that remained was barely taller than Charlotte, who was the tallest, and encircled most of the remaining land. William thought that perhaps the spit had been bigger before the wave that had brought the tower down, but Isaiah said, with the authority of the eldest, that this was not so: the tower had been a watchtower and the rock it was built upon barely worthy of the name. Now mosses softened the edges that had not been smoothed by water and ivy sneaked skinny roots into the chinks between the stones and osiers and raspberry bushes grew in the tower's empty heart. The bushes were shorter even than Dawn, but you could hide in them if you lay flat and were careful of the thorns, or behind the stones, and once Charlotte had hidden in the river, but afterward they had all agreed that wasn't fair, because William couldn't do it and Dawn was afraid of the water.
"I'm bored," said Charlotte.
"We could skip rope," said Dawn.
"We could tell stories," said William.
"We could play dares," said Isaiah, and dares it was, even though William and Dawn hated it because they always lost. They always lost because they were timid (said Isaiah), and Isaiah and Charlotte were willful (said Dawn) and brave (said Charlotte), which was also why they played it so often; they could not stand against Isaiah and Charlotte determined to have their way (William said nothing, because it was the only order of things he knew).
William dared Isaiah to the top of the tallest part of the tower wall, and Isaiah dared Charlotte to wade through the thorniest raspberries, and then Charlotte dared William to swim to the river's western bank, which is where it all went wrong.
The drowned boy's tale
My mother always warned me not to swim near the river's mouth. "The current there is strong, my son, and the current there is swift. It will dash your bones against the rocks or drive you down to the sea, where Old Father Ocean will swallow you down and spit out your bones on some far shore where I'll never find you." I swore I'd take care, but in my heart I did not believe there was any danger my mother could not rescue me from nor any power she could not overrule. When I struck out across the Annan's mouth, I feared my mother's displeasure far more than the water's might.
But the current it was strong, and the current it was swift. It gripped me tighter than ever had my mother's hand. I had not imagined that there was any force in the world that was so much stronger than I, and so indifferent to my will. I struggled hard and I struggled long, but I did not get so far as the rocks or the sea before the water closed o'er my head.
My lungs were bursting and my limbs were afire, and I could not tell up from down nor in from out; I could not tell whether it was the stars in the night sky that I saw, or the white pebbles gleaming on the river's bed.
What do you here, queen's son? asked the stones or the stars. Why have you come so far?
But I knew better than to answer them. The stars could not help me, and my mother had cautioned me about the treachery of the river's stones, worn smooth as skulls and slippery as liars' tongues.
It was Isaiah that took my left hand and Charlotte that took my right. "Follow us," Charlotte said. "We'll guide you home."
I was so weak I could hardly obey; I should have fallen away if they had not gripped my wrists so tight and dragged me onwards. I felt heavy as stone. The dark water pulled me and pressed me and I forgot why I should not speak. "Are we close?" I asked my friends. "Is the shore near?" But the water filled my mouth and closed my ears and I could not tell if they answered.
What next I saw was Dawn. "Am I on land?" I asked her. I could see nothing but darkness around us; I cannot tell you how I saw her, only that she seemed to glow with her own light, as if she carried her namesake inside her skin. The dark no longer frightened me, and indeed I felt strangely calm and peaceful; I thought it was because I had found my guiding moon.
"No," she said impatiently, as if I had called the wrong answer in a guessing game. "Take my hand. Quick, William!"
I reached out and clasped her hand and I followed her out of the dark. I must have swum after her, or at least floated behind her as she dragged me up from the river bed, but that is not what I remember. What I remember, clear as I remember the color of your eyes or the sound of my mother's voice, is that I stumbled after her on rocky ground, the stones smooth and slippery and cruel thorns and twigs piercing my bare feet. Once I fell and could not rise.
"Then crawl," Dawn said, stern as my mother, and so I crawled.
I woke on the brown river bank covered all in a blanket of leaves. Dawn watched over me as Isaiah and Charlotte built a fire close by. There were scratches on my palms and soles and knees, but none that had drawn blood; the worst of my injuries were the fingerprint bruises on my wrists.
Charlotte came to sit by us. "You could have stayed with us," she said sadly, and Dawn scowled at her.
"But I'm with you now," I said in bewilderment. "I never tried to leave."
The dark shape between me and the fire that was Isaiah shook its head. "You always leave."
"You leave us every day," Charlotte said.
"Stop it," Dawn told them, closing her cold hand around mine. "Drowning's a bad way to die."
Charlotte fell quiet. Isaiah muttered, "There's no good way to die."
"No drowning," Dawn said. She started out sharp as the slash of a knife, but her voice cracked in the middle, and I realized she was close to tears. I tightened my fingers around hers, and remembered when I had been the smallest of us, and how Charlotte and Isaiah had seemed like giants then and Dawn a little less frightening because she was the closest to my size.
My friends did not leave me that night. I thought I heard Charlotte whisper again, "You leave us every day," as I fell asleep, but perhaps I just mistook the crackling of the fire for words.
The hunting of the hart
Fifteen ladies went riding in a hunt and Margaret was the boldest of them all. They loosed their hounds and they loosed their hawks, but it was Margaret who the white hart espied. Well, quoth she, I have my horse and I have my horn and I have my sisters by my side; and she sounded her horn and spurred her good horse on.
Swift and hard Margaret rode, the foremost to the hunt; she led the hounds and led the hawks and lost the hunt among the woods; and still the white hart fled.
Well, quoth she, I have my horse and I have my horn and I have my good sword to hand; and she sounded her horn and spurred her good horse on.
Swift and hard Margaret rode, through the woods and among the mists and into the bracken thick. The thorns crowded so close around her that her good mare could go no farther; and still the white hart fled.
Well, quoth she, I have my horn and I have my sword and I have my own brave heart; and she dismounted and followed the white hart.
Gentle leaves, bold Margaret cried, will you not show me where hides my prey?
O do not ask, said the gentle leaves.
Clever thorns, bold Margaret cried, will you not show me where hides my prey?
O have a care, said the clever thorns.
Cruel winds, bold Margaret cried, will you not show me where hides my prey?
O he hides in the thicket close by, the cruel winds said.
And in the thicket he panting lay, his pale sides heaving and his noble head bowed; and to the sword he bared his neck.
Well, quoth she, I find I misgive this hunt; and she lowered her sword and granted him her mercy. And before her eyes the white hart changed to a man, whose beauty struck her sore. He bowed his head and bent his knee.
Well, quoth she, what a marvel this be! and bade him relate his adventures.
The hart's tale
My mother's made of bones and boughs. My mother's made of blown-out candle flames and the secret light cast by shadows. With the waning moon my mother grows old, and with each new quarter she puts another gold ring on her crooked hands. With the waxing moon my mother grows young, and with each new quarter she strings another blood-red jewel upon her breast. My mother is the most beautiful woman you ever saw; that's just when she's young. When she's old, her beauty blinds you so you can hardly see. My mother wears rags of leaf and bark, and she wears rags of moonlight spun. My mother's hair is the night sky and the stars her jewels; my mother's hair is the endless white night of winter and then she wears no jewels in her hair. My mother rules the river like the moon the tides, and me she rules like the sun the barley-corn. I have never seen her in the day.
My mother says she made me out of bone and mud and father have I none. My mother says only the river water runs in my veins, but when I am cut, I bleed red blood.
I was born in winter and in the spring my mother caressed me and kissed my eyes and bade me be her love. My mother loves me like the winter loves autumn and the wildfire loves the wood. I love my mother like the moth loves the flame and the sea loves salt. I feared she'd drink my blood and eat my marrow-bones. I feared she'd burn me alive. I feared she'd ask again and I would not say no.
I was born in winter and in the spring I spurned my mother's command.
My mother kissed me full upon the lips and cursed me to wear the shape of a white hart till death or true love should find me. My mother kissed me and cursed me and what found me was you.
The hunter's tale
I have fourteen sisters and I love them all. The forest our mother grew us from acorns and willow seeds. Annie is the wittiest and Beatrice the kindest; Cassie the merriest, Deirdre the saddest, Eliza the cleverest with books. Frances can tame any animal ever born and Giselle speaks all the languages of women and men; Hildegard can heal any illness and Isobel sing the sweetest you've ever heard; Jessamy is the strongest, Kate the most loyal, Lily the most understanding, Nan can grow the tenderest crop in the stoniest soil, and Ophelia is more patient than the years that wear away stone; and me, I am Margaret, and I am the boldest of us all. My sister Beatrice says I am the bravest, and my sister Ann says I have the least sense, which comes to the same thing.
I was born in this wood, but I don't want to die here. Neither Ophelia nor I have been able to find its borders in a year of days, and Eliza has not discovered any path recorded in any of her books. I have followed the river down to the sea and found myself turned round again; I have climbed over Offa's Wall and found myself in back in the holy willow grove. I've asked my mother why and why and when shall we ever be free, but she never answers us in words, and this question she never answers at all.
You are beautiful, and I should like to kiss your eyes and mouth and hair, but I am not convinced that is love. I know Eliza and Beatrice will tell me it is, but I know also that Annie, Lily, and Frances will not be so sure.
You are beautiful, and you need rescue. Kate and Ophelia and Isobel will tell me that that's love, or close enough; Deirdre will tell me I can expect no better, and Giselle will tell me I could do worse. Nan and Cassie will tell me love will come in time, and Hildegard and Jessamy will have no opinion at all.
You seem gentle enough, but I, I must admit, am not. I am rough and hasty and bold, all my sisters tell me so. I'm not sure you are my love, and I don't want to be your death.
Through the thick green ribbons of the willow leaves the light came drowsy and golden-green, an underwater light that would not drown them.
"If you loved me," he said, so soft she felt it in the rise and fall of his chest as much as she heard the sound.
She walked her fingers up his arm, from wrist to crook of elbow, from elbow to freckled shoulder. "If I loved you?"
"If you loved me," he whispered into the part of her hair, "it would be a vegetable love. Steadfast and strong, like the roots of a willow tree, enough to hold the banks of a river against the waters' rush."
"If I loved you," she whispered into the hollow of his throat, "it would be a vegetable love, light and far-traveling, blown on the wind, like a willow's seeds. We could go anywhere, you and our love and I."
They spoke to each other of love and secrets for a long time afterward, but I cannot tell you what they said, for they did not speak in words.
The wanting comes in waves (The queen's tale)
There came a knight to my father's hall; he courted me with gold and rings, but he loved my sister above all things. A blacksmith courted me nine months and better; he fairly won my heart, he wrote me a letter. In the ruined gardens of Carter Hall, an elfin knight did me accost, and demanded he a pledge, a ring or a mantle green or else my maidenhead. My father was poor, my cloak was grey, and the knight he took what he willed. I went a-riding on the heath, and my husband he said to me, "Light down, my love, light down, light down. Seven king's-daughters here have I slain, and you shall be the eighth." One lady whispered to another that I went with child by my own brother. He made me a grave that was long and was deep, and buried me there, with my baby at my feet. "Oh come here," I called to my love, "and rock your young son." "If you will not rock him, you may let him roar; for I have rocked my share and more." I sat down below a thorn, and there I had my sweet babe born. I dug a grave by the light of the moon, and there I buried my sweet babe in.
If I could cut out my eyes that loved men's beauty, I'd bury them in the clay. If I could cut off my arms that clasped men round, I'd drown them in the river deeps. If I could cut out my heart that believed men's lies, I'd burn it in the fire.
You think your story's different, but all stories end the same.
The thistles undone (The lost girl's tale)
I know what it means when I don't bleed, but William doesn't, and I keep the truth behind my teeth and beneath my tongue. He will see this as another reason to stay, not a time by which we must go; he's only agreed to come with me because he thinks I will leave him behind. I wasn't lying when I said I would, but I might be lying if I said it now. I cannot sleep nights when he is not at my side; I miss the warmth of his touch and the sound of his voice in my ear.
We are not much alike, William and I. He is gentle where I am rough, he is shy where I am bold, he is honey-sweet while I am sour as unripe apples. Every word he says to me is like a kiss or a song, and I have no pretty words to give back to him. Sometimes I want to burrow deep inside him, suck his blood like tick, coil inside his belly like a worm. He is a fever in my blood, the sweat on my skin, the emptiness between my legs. He is a sickness. "Love-sickness," says my sister Eliza, who is the only one who knows I creep out of my bower at night and meet a lover in the wild wood. I am not sure. This is not what I feel for my mother or my sisters, and the songs in Eliza's books speak of fevers but not of anything like my rage at his importance or the sweet hurtful clutching of my cunt. They say he should be the only thing I think about, but I think about lots of things, about escaping my mother's bounds and bonds and seeing the far strange places I know only from Isobel's songs and Eliza's books.
He does not come to our meeting place for one night, and then another, and then a week of days. I lie in our hidden bower 'gainst the cloak he left behind, but I can no longer smell the scent of his skin or hair. My breasts have grown tender and my belly has begun to swell, a firm curve beneath my hand that is not like the bulge of too many berries or the softness of forced winter idleness. I try to imagine the presence deep inside me, but I do not feel like I am inhabited. I feel like I am a house someone has broken into, all my doors flung open and all my possessions overturned, and what is wrong is not that a robber is here but that he has come and gone. There has been no robber; no one has taken what I did not willingly give. And yet I am bereft all the same.
I could stay here and wait for him; I could go home and wait for my sisters to notice the swelling and according to their natures either weep or rage. I could go home and wear my gowns loose and tie my kirtle high, and abandon the baby on a hillside like a cruel mother in a sad song. But waiting wants patience, and Ophelia is the patient one.
I am never lost, I told William once. Wherever I am is here, and that's all I need to know. But here now is someone else, and here now someone else is missing; I am no longer a single sure point, and until I find William I cannot figure myself by parallax.
I tie back my hair and put on my lover's cloak and set out upon my quest.
William sent messages to Margaret by wind and wave and wing, and all but one of them went awry. Never trust the wind: it will keep your secrets loose as it keeps everyone else's. Never trust the wave: it's the queen's dog and comes when she whistles. Birds, well, some are trustworthy and some are not, but you can say the same of women and men.
"Kind crow, kind crow, will you carry my true love a message for me?"
Is it love? asked the crow.
"Gentle wren, gentle wren, will you carry my true love a message for me?"
Is it true? asked the wren.
"Columbine, mourning dove, will you carry my true love a message for me?"
Tell me your message, said the dove, and I'll report it true.
Margaret came down to the mouth of the river where the fresh water runs into the sea and a wave-toppled tower long ago kept watch for enemies now themselves long dead. She had no hound nor horse nor hawk and her sisters she had left behind; but her heart was across the waters and her courage she had still.
"Annan Water, Annan Water," she called, "I beg you part your waves for me."
Before I give my son to you, said the river, I will bury him in the cold clay.
"O white bones of lovers dead and drowned," Margaret called to the pebbles in the river's bed, "I beg you rise up for me."
The wind whipped Margaret's hair and the water soaked Margaret to the skin, but not wind nor water could disturb the shining white path the moon made across the water. When Margaret stepped out on it, the shimmering path bore her up. The river licked at her ankles and the wind tore at her clothes and even the pebbles, river-smoothed, slid beneath her feet.
Before I give my son to you, said the river, I will burn him in the fire.
Stay on the path, warned the bones of Margarets dead and the bones of Williams drowned. If you miss your step, the river waits to pull you down.
Before I give my son to you, raged the river, I will drown him in the sea.
William stood waiting on the rocky spit. He reached out before her last step and lifted her by the waist and swung her safe to shore. William held her close a moment and whispered in her ear, where even the fickle wind could not hear him nor tear his words away: "Hold fast and fear not. My friends will guide us to the far shore." And he seized her hand and ran.
They ran stumbling, half-blinded by dark and rain and wind, but he would not let her fall behind and she would not let go his hand. They followed three will-o'-wisps over the rocks and waded into cold water that came up past up past their knees.
"Hold your breath," William shouted, and they ducked beneath the water. Ahead of them danced three stars or stones or ghostly lights; the lovers gave themselves to the hazards of trust, and the ghosts led them up from the chilly water into the chilly air, to the far shore where none of them had ever set foot.
"The waters will spill over their banks," said the boy.
"We cannot hold them back," said the elder girl.
"Run!" said the youngest child.
But Margaret shook her head. "Columbine, mourning dove, will you carry a message for me?"
Tell me your message, said the dove, and I'll report it true.
"Tell my sisters where I am gone," said Margaret, "and beg them hold back the waters that come for my love and me."
The grey dove flew into the storm, and they all five stood there, waiting for the waters to rise or to fall.
"You can still run," said the younger girl, her eyes dark and terrible as the water below.
"We can't outrun wave nor wind," said William.
"Well," said Margaret, "we could try." But she held fast to his hand and with her free hand clasped the younger girl's clammy fingers. The girl took her sister's and her sister took her brother's and they stood looking across the water and listening to it shriek threats against the softening river banks.
"Listen," said Margaret. "Look." There was a deep roar like thunder, but so low that more than they heard it they felt its pressure pushing against their eardrums and shaking their bones. Among the darkness there was a darker stirring, a writhing like nests of serpents or knots of eels.
The willows had uprooted themselves from the river bank and waded through the raging water to the far shore. Their roots crawled and their branches whipped in the wind. One by one the fourteen willows settled themselves on the shore and sent their roots plunging deep in the river banks. They broke the wave; they held together the earth. The tallest held the grey dove in her branches, safe as a flower sleeping in its bud.
Go, Margaret, said her sisters. We'll guard the path behind you.
The wind carried the words of William's mother to them.
You selfish boy, you silly girl. If ever I find you in my woods again, I'll hunt you down by light of day, I'll hunt you down by dark of night. I'll cut out Margaret's black eyes and eat William's bloody heart, and your babe I'll bury in the willow grove where no man can find it.
"She cannot reach us," Margaret said. To his friends William said good-bye and to her sisters Margaret said farewell; and hand-in-hand they made their way out into the coming dawn and the bright new world, there to seek their fortunes.
On the hottest day of summer, the power goes out. The MTA shuts down with everything else: the trains need electricity to run and the traffic is gridlocked by the dead traffic lights. I'm working as a temp in Midtown, which means I'm going to have to walk a hundred and thirty-seven blocks to get home. I'm feeling lucky that the office has a casual dress code and I wore sneakers to work today. Other people in the streets are feeling lucky because of something else. I only got here a month ago, but it seems like everyone else I see was here two years ago. When the lights went out, most of the people in my office locked down tight, like they wouldn't panic if they didn't speak, but one woman just talked in circles and circles, louder and louder and louder, until we got someone's AM radio working and found out it was just a blackout. A blackout in most of the northeastern seaboard and like a quarter of Canada, but just a blackout. I pass the news on to the people in the street when they ask or when I see the tightness in their face that means they're afraid to think, but by now it seems like almost everybody knows.
A block a minute is two hours and seventeen minutes. I cover a block in less than a minute at the beginning, but it takes me longer by the end. I'm glad my sneakers are so old. My feet are going to be sore, but I probably won't get blisters. It's past seven by the time I get home, but it's still light out; this time of year it doesn't get dark till nearly eight.
After all this way, I think of the four flights of stairs I need to climb and it shouldn't be anything but it makes me want to cry. I sit down on the front steps and roll my water bottle between my hands. The plastic isn't cool enough to even bleed water anymore, and there's only a swallow left. I know I want to drink it, but somehow I don't want it enough to make the effort.
Eventually I get up and go inside and climb upstairs. I'm out of breath by the time I get to the top of the stairs, but that happens on the days when I haven't walked a hundred and thirty-seven blocks, too.
"Hey," William calls from the bedroom when he hears the door open. The first room in the apartment is the kitchen, so right away I can see that the window's open and our soup pot and our casserole dish and our three mismatched soup bowls are on the stove pot and counters and filled with water. The casserole dish has a few slivers of ice that used to be ice cubes. I pick one out and pop it in my mouth and then think I should have used a spoon or washed my hands first.
All the windows are open in the living room and bedroom too. William's lying flat on his back with his eyes closed. "Rosa came by," he says without opening his eyes. "She says try not to use too much water, it comes from a cistern on the roof and we're in trouble if the blackout goes on for too long because there are pumps that use electricity or something."
I kiss his forehead and slip the ice on my tongue against his skin. My mom used to give me ice kisses like that when I was little, until I stopped laughing when I wriggled away from the cold. He smiles, his eyes still closed, and this bright sweet feeling fills me up, that I have someone who doesn't even have to see me for me to make him smile.
It's too hot to touch, though, he's sweaty and I'm sweaty and even with the windows open it's hotter inside than it was on the street. I pull my bra off underneath my shirt, then swab up the sweat beneath my breasts and off my face with my T-shirt. I want a shower more than anything, but instead I climb out the bedroom window onto the fire escape and look out and down at the building behind us. We're on a hill so there's a down to look even though the other building is actually two storeys taller than ours.
William comes over and pokes his head out the window. "How can you stand that? That thing looks like it's rust and wishes."
I grin and stamp my feet hard on the metal grill stairs. Rust showers down.
"Come on. Seriously, come inside."
"You come out," I say. "It's cooler here than it is there. Come on. I'll hold your hand."
He grumbles, but he comes out and sits down next to me, very carefully, one arm hooked around the windowsill like he thinks his weight will be the final thing send the fire escape plummeting down below. I weave my fingers through his, then raise his hand to my mouth to kiss its back. "Mmm, salty."
He pushes his shoulder against mine and I don't have to look at his face to know he's smiling. "I love you like salt," he says.
"Like that worked out well for Cordelia."
He laughs, and I rest my head on his shoulder. We lean against each other a while. The city isn't that much quieter than usual, really. You can't hear the hum of machinery, but there are still cars honking and people talking. Maybe tonight we'll be able to see the stars.
"I love you like water," I say.
"Like I'm seventy-eight percent of you?"
I think of how the water felt in my throat, back down on 77th Street, when I twisted off the plastic cap and gulped the water down, how that taste-no-taste was everything I ever wanted, better than I could have imagined it, even though it's just water, I drink it every day, and how the ice felt against my fingers in the kitchen, how it melted against my tongue, how my cold-numbed tongue could barely feel his skin, but the smell of his skin and hair was so familiar to me I could remember the taste beneath the layer of cold, on the tip of my tongue.
"Yeah," I say. Like you're seventy-eight percent of me. "Like that."
Twilight makes it is impossible to tell whether it is one woman speaking in two voices or two women standing close. In the light her face is the kind face of the forest queen; in the dark her voice is the cruel voice of the queen of night. She waits in the willow grove, or they meet there.
"I risked," says the bright queen.
"I lost," says the dark.
You risked little and you lost less, says the white pebble in the willow roots that once was a man who drowned for love.
The bright queen smiles sadly and the dark queen laughs cold as silver bells and sharp as knives.
I don't remember the hazards of love, says the grey dove that once was the woman who drowned with him. I remember the certainties: Someone will leave you. Someone will disappoint you. Someone will betray you. You will love someone who does not love you back. One day worms will eat you, and not for love. When death comes love will not save you or anyone else.
Once upon a time, says the stone, I loved you true.
Once upon a time, says the dove, I loved someone and maybe it was you.