Writer's retreat

Writer's retreat

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Jessica and the Bear

At Solihull Writers Workshop next Wednesday, the theme of the evening is a piece of science fiction writing. I'm not very interested in space ships and aliens, so I'm taking a piece of fantasy along with me in the hope it will provide a small diversion.


“Grandpa, how long have you had a bear living in the garden?”

Jack Robbins put down the runner beans he was planting in large pots in the greenhouse and regarded his granddaughter, Jessica, carefully. The fair-haired nine year old was not given to telling fairy stories.

“I didn’t know we had a bear living in the garden. “

“I saw him last night when I was getting a drink of water from the kitchen. I looked out of the window towards Stow church and saw him in between the plum tree blossom and the apple tree.”

“What was he doing?”

“Nothing at first. He was just a large, black shape until he rose up on his hind legs. It was definitely a bear. He was covered in long, black fur apart from his belly, which was cream. He must have seen me because I heard him growl. It was very frightening, so I put the light off and went to bed.”

“Why didn’t you call me?”

“You were out in the barn. I knew if I told someone, they’d just say I was making it up, but I’m not. I’ve found his tracks. Come and look.”

Jessica led him to the flattened grass at the base of the Victoria plum tree, then walked slowly across the lawn to the flower border.

“Can you see his prints? He must be very big. He left me a bunch of violets.” She held the fragrant bundle up to her face and breathed in the scent.

Jack shook his head. He had to admit there was something in the grass, but his brain could not accept there were bear tracks leading out of his garden. Bears didn’t live in the Cotswolds; wolves, maybe, when the hills were wooded before the Bronze Age, but not now in the 21st century and no animal left a bunch of violets as a gift.

“I shouldn’t worry about him, Jess,” he said gruffly. “Let me know if you see him again.” And he went back to finish planting beans.

Jessica did see him again, but not until she was a young woman, busy with her life in the city.

“Do you think I dreamed him?” Jess asked her friend, Mark, one day when they were sitting outside one of the small cafes they liked to frequent after work. She trusted Mark. He didn’t make fun of her when she talked about the strange things she’d seen and done as a child. The bear was not the only creature to enter her world. There was also the black unicorn she saw regularly in the bottom field when she was growing up.

Mark shrugged, “It doesn’t really matter whether you were awake or asleep, he came to you and you remember him.” He took another swallow of his drink. “They say bears help you to know yourself and give you strength to trust your intuition. Maybe he came to show you how to be wild and free?”

Suddenly the wind got up and Jess shivered, pulling her cardigan around her shoulders.

“There is maybe one more thing.” He paused, pointing to black clouds travelling across the sky, a brilliant window of sunlight streaming through their midst. “You said the bear had two colours, black and cream?”

Jess nodded.

“Maybe there is also balance to be considered. Male and female, tamed and free; there are so many things your bear could bring you.”

“Shall I see him again?”

Mark grew still, as if listening for the answer in the wind rustling leaves and stray paper along the pavement.

“I think he will come to you again. If you have courage, go with him and learn more.”

A few weeks later, Jess drove to the farm to visit her grandparents, travelling through fading, evening light. As she turned into the village, roads were wet, the sky lit by lightning rods and echoes of thunder.

“Shut the hens up for me, will you?” said her grandfather as she opened the car door. “I meant to do it earlier, but it was raining too hard and I shrink if I get wet these days.”

Jess found her boots out of the back of the car and with the ancient straw egg basket on her arm; she went up to the rickyard to fasten the henhouse door.

It was dark, the only light coming from an ancient railway lamp at the top of the drive. She could smell moisture left by the departing storm. All around her the sky crackled with electricity before being broken apart by the thunder cracks rolling overhead. Diligently, she opened the slats into the nesting boxes, searching through warm hay for fresh eggs, placing her bounty in the curved base of the basket.

When she could find no more, she made her way back to the gate, stopping for a moment to rest the basket on the sharp stone commers on the wall. She looked over to the horizon, watching another burst of lightning cross the clouds. Just as the brilliance faded, she thought she saw the familiar shape of a bear standing in the field across the road.

When she looked again, a man stood on the roadside near a young ash tree just on the edge of the lamplight. He was tall with soft, black hair framing an aquiline face. His nose was long and his lips, thick and sensuous. It was hard to judge his age. His large frame and broad shoulders spoke of maturity and strength. He smiled, his eyes crinkling as if amused by Jess’ considered gaze.

“Do you always rob your hens so late in the evening?” His voice was deep, yet soft, as if carried on the disappearing storm. Despite his sudden appearance, Jess did not feel threatened. She had the uncanny feeling she had seen him before.

“Not usually, my grandmother collects them when she feeds the hens at lunchtime, but she’s not been well.”

“Would you bring me a dozen tomorrow when you come to tea?”

“You’re Arthur Britton?” Jess held out her hand in greeting. Her grandfather mentioned they were invited to visit the next door neighbour over the weekend. “Glad to meet you.”

She felt warm, rough leather grip her palm and when she looked down; she could have sworn her hand was covered by a bear’s paw.

“We’ve met before, Jessica,” he said, his grip firm as he looked deep into her blue eyes. “You were only a child then, but I knew you would remember me."

As his hand fall back to his side, Jess saw a bunch of violets left on her palm. Without thinking, she brought the fragrant blossoms to her nose, savouring the subtle scent.

When she looked up again, he was gone, with no sound of departing footsteps along the road.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Maid and the Blacksmith : a story for Beltane

When the lilac buds thickened, the girl knew it would soon be time for the maypole dancing. The men would go to the woods and cut a straight ash pole, planting it firmly in the earth on the village green. Then they would take ribbons, red and white, blood and energy to symbolise the union of the Goddess and the God, so the earth would be blessed and the land would bear fruit in due season.

Every year the girl saw the maypole being cut and watched young men and women dancing the whirling dances on the green. She knew when the sun faded, the dancers went off to the wood, the boys with flushed faces from too much ale, the girls giggling and apprehensive. Men and women would follow along hidden pathways, for everyone wished to honour the union of the God and goddess with their own Great Rite.

No-one minded when the children came, for Beltane children were blessed. They would see light at Imbolc, Brigit's festival, when the world was still dark and quiet, but the sun was born again. These children would be called Robinson, for they were the offspring of Robin Goodfellow and many were the maids who thought to share the Great Rite with a faery lover that night.

The girl grew and it worried her that she should soon be joining her fellows around the maypole. Who would take her into the woods when the day grew cold? Who would keep her warm and light the fire in her belly? She could not know and the thought turned her stomach cold. What of the Sidhe, the faery folk? What if one of them took her? It was said that those who loved the faery folk wasted away from their desires. What could she do to escape from such a fate?

The years rolled on and the girl grew thin. She thought if she did not eat, she could delay the time of her womanhood. The wise woman saw what she was about and came to her one day when she toiled in the fields. She asked the girl to describe her fears, but the girl refused. But the wise woman saw what she did and was not alarmed. She gave the girl's mother herbs to put in her milk and soon the girl found that she was hungry again. She ate as a normal child would and she grew and blossomed. The day came when she saw her first blood and knew it would soon be time to take her place at the maypole.

But the wise woman saw everything and spoke with the village elders. The girl was not chosen for the maypole dance, not that year, nor the next, or the next, until she thought it strange all her companions had danced the ribbon dance. She watched them go laughing into the wood, returning with a new light in their eyes and a softness to their look. She wondered what it would be like to lie under the stars and feel the God enter her.

At last she went to the wise woman and asked why she could not join the ribbon dance and the wise woman told her to go to the blacksmith and ask him. So the girl went to the blacksmith at his forge and asked if she could join the ribbon dance that year.

The place was filled with the heat of the fire and steam from the water barrel where the blacksmith cooled his irons. The blacksmith looked at the girl and asked her to pick up his smallest anvil. She tugged and she pulled but she could not lift it.

"Go away," he told her. "Come back when you are stronger then perhaps you may dance the ribbon dance."

The girl was very angry she should be asked to perform such a task. She went to the wise woman and complained. The wise woman smiled and gave her strange herbs to eat and told her to swim every day in the village pond once the sun went down.

So every night when the sun had set and the light had gone from the land, the girl went down to the pond and took off all her clothes and swam in the pond as the wise woman had told her.

Now the pond was next to the smithy and the blacksmith was always late at his work. For not only did he shoe horses and cast ploughshares and other tools, he also made magical tools for those who wished to use them, for the blacksmith was beloved of Herne and cared for his people. As he heated and hammered and shaped the iron, he saw the girl swimming in the water and he smiled.

All through the summer, the girl swam in the pond. When winter came, still she swam even though ice covered the water. The blacksmith used to break it for her before she came down to swim.

Then came spring. Flowers bloomed and the hedgerows grew green again. The girl returned to the blacksmith's forge and asked to try lifting the anvil again. The blacksmith pointed to the corner of the forge and the girl went and tugged and pulled but still she could not lift it.

Then the blacksmith came behind her, silently, for though he was a big man, he could move like a cat in the night. He put his arms under her arms and around the anvil and lifted it clear from the ground.

The girl was astonished, but the blacksmith merely smiled and nodded and from his apron pocket he pulled a red ribbon.

"Tie this on the maypole," he said, "and you shall dance the ribbon dance."

On 1st May they hoisted the ash pole and bedecked it with the red and white ribbons. The girls were dressed in their finest clothes, their hair crowned in wreathes of green and flowers like the May Queens they were. Round and about and in and out they weaved the ribbons with the men and boys until there were no ribbon lengths left to weave, then they turned and danced the other way. Again and again they danced until all were tired and thirsty and thankful to sit down to the feast in honour of the marriage of the Lord and Lady.

Long did they feast and drink until the sun went down. One by one, couples began to wander together into the wood. No-one asked the girl to go with them and she was left sitting at the tables, feeling old and foolish and wishing she had never worried about the ribbon dances.

As she stared at the table top, a shadow crossed the boards. She looked up into the face of the blacksmith. He held out his hand and looked towards the wood and she knew the time had come to set aside her girlhood and become a woman.

It was cool amongst the trees. All around her the girl could hear whispers and giggles from behind bramble patches and fallen logs. The blacksmith led her deep into the wood, past oak trees and lime trees until they reached the place where a yew tree grew. Underneath the green branches was a mossy bank to lie upon and here the blacksmith led her.

"This is the tree of passage," the blacksmith said, "from this life into the next. Tonight you will set aside your girlhood and join the womenfolk. If the Goddess wills, in time you will become a mother as She does this night."

The girl looked at him, her fear showing on her face, but he took her tenderly and held her gently and whispered many sweet words as he laid her down and prepared her for what must be. This was the blacksmith's role, to offer Great Rite to those whose time had come. Skilled he was too and pleasure he brought with him. The girl hardly noticed pain as he lit the fire within her and made her what she must become - a woman.

Afterwards, she lay smiling in his arms and her eyes grew soft as he pushed tendrils of hair from off her face and kissed her.

As the days passed, the sun grew hot and the land was fertile and the people gathered in the harvest. The girl knew she had indeed been blessed, but she said nothing, visiting the wise woman, who kept her secret.

Leaves fell and winter came, the woman's belly swelling with new life. Often she would go and sit by the blacksmith's forge and watch him as he worked. He saw how she quickened and he smiled. When she slept at night, he built a cradle from the yew tree wood where they had joined in the love of the Lord and Lady.

When Imbolc came, the child was born. The blacksmith took him and showed him to the village, acknowledging his son and his wife. The woman lay and suckled her babe. She knew her fear was gone and a new life stretched before her.