All I knew was in and of the woods. The wind swept up the leaves some times, but mostly, all things seethed in the mist, seethed in the air which was the shade of dirt.
Father chopped the trees. This was for our carvings. I went with him most times to help him choose: different woods for the different statuettes, paler hues for paler idols. I went also because he did not like to leave me alone and he feared for the safety of his one so young. I did not like to be left, in any case. My working drive would slip from me; motes and dusts and specks would waft stoic, beautiful, in the shafts of green daylight through the windows, and I would sit in a corner of a room of our home, feeling that I might be decaying with the rest of it all, and I would see the frail white hairs on my arms where those shafts would stroke them, where they melded with the ratty tufts of old wicker on the chair, and I would witness flakes of my self drifting up towards the ceiling and cycling out of the just warm sunbeams, and my body I thought would free itself in decomposition; I myself would not be freed, and I myself would wilt, and my thoughts would not float adrift with sparse birdsong but remain to flicker out as only dream without coda.
So I focused, on the trees and on my wood carvings, and on weaving wicker furniture some times, and I saw the bow and still of plants that lived around us.
It could be much, and it could be very little.
Regardless of either, it was all we knew.
We did see things, some times, in the woods that we knew. Things came, and they went, as did resolution.
There was a morning in the days of growth, when, as we hauled back a load of lumber on our wooden wheeled barrow, we saw a lovely owl watching us. It was perched on its branch, not frightened, and it was not either inquisitive. It kept just an eye on its home. We had not ever seen such an owl. The patterns were brownish; they wove white around his feathered front, the front in colour not like any of the night owls we saw, which had black feathers and swept into shadow and out of shadow and were shadow, and the night owls we never saw after the sun had filtered through the hallowed air.
I was first to see the owl that day, then Father, and we did not say any thing then, though I right away could tell that we both of us had this as a moment of excitement and prospect, as some thing fresh brought deliverance of change to our endless world. Nothing remained, once we had seen it, but to walk away, eventually, and the owl did not fly off even then. The morning owl was what we named it after.
When we were home, I took my memories of the owl and spun them into one of my carvings, of ecre nut, and I powdered on some of our staining chalk to whiten those parts of him that had been back-cloth to the earthen decoration. It took some days to finish, but I was proud when I was done, and the solid incarnation of our morning owl watched me back, and I emerged from my shavings to present him to Father. Father always was overjoyed and excited with my works. He would say that they far bettered his, and I did not know about that, but I knew that I loved such carving and that Father loved me, and that he loved my love. He said when he saw our morning owl that these were holy works and impassioned.
“You are blessed, Lis,” he told me. “And it swells my heart. Blessed is the strongest of words that I use. Because this is such a beautiful thing that you do. You have not been blessed, my daughter, but, you are blessed.”
Father cried when he finished speaking, and he held me as I did too. His pride unforced and pure overcame me, such that I could not grasp at it. He did not pass the owl to Diwn to trade but instead put it on a sill near our door, so that he could see it each day and be warmed by my work.
So it made me content, happy, to do these, my works, and as I had carved it in great adoration and respect out of wood, out of my person, the morning owl had tailored anticipation and affection.
This made smallness and sensation of it all the more suppressive, when it came; when we never saw the owl again.
I had been—before I could speak, and before I could walk, and when I possessed no sense to find stifled feeling in the woods and their light—a small and laughing child, able only in that far past time to laugh, to cry out, and to bob upon the water of a small lake that was some way away from our home. Father would take me to the lake to bob, and later, when I could, I walked on my own to it to swim.
The water was lovely, and it was not only because it broke the woods. Not wide, it made instead a stretched long bowl, long enough between mouths for one to swim from end to end, which I found as I grew that I loved to do. The water was clear as the streams that rolled into it and which tricked through stone beds elsewhere in the trees, and the loveliest thing was to dive and to watch the things beneath the surface. It took some while, as I grew, but I became able to open my eyes beneath the water and take all as it was: the reeds and undermoss in the edges of the banks and the lake bed, the weeds thin, wavered, shimmering in water gusts that rippled restful through them; I would amongst these see too the minnows, none larger than a knuckle, and they went about in families, darted cohesive, to my eye sharing thoughts and intention that I did not think we ever could.
I went there some shorter time of nights and frigid suns after our morning owl and found with such warm delight that many days of visiting the water had washed the remaining veil from my underwater sight, my eyes washed clear like polished stones so that more distinct than ever I might see: my treasures, the waterhorses, the sweetest creatures I had seen. Some were more tiny than the minnows, and others were bigger but not than my finger, and I had watched, and saw now anew, their little home making down at the roots of the weeds, and I of course took care not to touch their precious eggs or disturb them; their dear magnificent tails were curled into spirals, their speckled bodies were yellow, sun, oak, and green in layers, and some times paled orange, and they rocked in place where they floated inspiring adoration. I made imaginings about their homes, and talks they might have, and what they might say to me and about me when they saw that big prying face out there peering in. I could gaze at them with the water, thick, walled, cosied up to my ears, and I could see clear life without hesitation.
Clearer each day, and clearer now. I was lightened. Their spirals curled deeper. Their eggs were sprinkled in fine bunches amongst the weeds.
My thoughts at night were sprinkled with spirals and mist.
Father paid little mind to my walking amongst the trees to the lake. It was curious that it did not bother him, when he so deplored leaving me at the house. I wondered once if he knew that hateful melancholy brought onto me by abandonment inside the little cottage. I uncommonly wondered if he felt the same when I went to swim.
We had to make wickers and figurines for Diwn, the man who came on his cart every some days. Our works were for him to send and trade, so that he could bring us good food, like bread and carrots and milk—we already had berries and nuts in plenty, and some flowers for flavouring our water—and also some times other things we needed like blankets and bowls. We did our work because we liked to, but we did it because we had to, and because Father knew we had to and that was our life to do every day.
Diwn called, “Hiyo! Hiyo!” through the near hollow spaces when he was on his way. Father would smile at the sound, of old memory, and I would run to see from which direction Diwn came. He would wave when he saw us, and Donkey would be carrying on like the most miserable soul, padding through the trees in a slow plodding pad as though really it would be best to lie down on the ground and never have to get up again, and the cart would be rumbling behind Donkey and giving worrying shakes when knobs of root caught under the wheels.
Diwn did not care to worry. He was calm, from voice to body to thought, and ever passed on niceness to Father and myself, a force of pleasantness roaming the wood in those misty mornings and on those green heated sunlit days.
“How are we treating?” Diwn always asked, as he creaked down off his cart and patted Donkey and we went to greet them. Some times he had a thin stick in his mouth which glowed and smoked from the end, and the smoke smelled not of stove or fire but of some elated and joyful fragrance swept up of cloud and petal. I was happy to breathe it, always, and I wished I could have had some sticks to burn and breathe or candles that proffered like contentment with all around.
Diwn was jolly, and he talked with Father and me for long whiles, untouched by the sunlight drawing through the woods and the nighttime slanting everything against itself. He told us of people he saw at the Market—where I had been once when a child not yet able to walk—as well as the things he saw there, and the big creatures that I had not heard of, and he showed us curious items from the rattling collection in the back of his cart. On his way to the Market he would have along with him many things. He had coloured cloths with pictures sewn into them, and long fabrics for people to wear around their necks when it was cold, and wood cuts not like ours because they were cut onto flat slabs and the cuttings showed great scenes and hills. These were the trinkets from other worlds, to me as relics, scurried up from ages and from across mists that I could not traverse. I could not imagine the places the objects came from but as other places far and hidden in the wood , only shacks and sheds and cabins, and it seemed my mind clenched tight on effort to dream up those places beyond the wood of which I had heard and of which I knew: places with long grasses and not a tree at all, and places filled with people in tents all singing, and places where the land was grainy dust and met up against lakes grown such that they faded into the clouds.
I did try to dream.
We would help Diwn pack our carvings and wickers onto his cart, and he would be off with his song, “Be well till another time, be well till I’m home!” and his stick of beautiful smoke would droop off into his tatted twig beard.
Our home though was not Diwn’s home. With him, off would sail the world, and I would careen back to my self.
So I did wood carving, and I did wicker, and I did swimming.
On an unfamiliar morning, caught as it was in some nameless place between those of the days of decay and death that were wrought by mist into sickly afternoons and those other yearly dawns when the mists would cloud away to tendrils, I walked to my lake. Where I strangely felt, as I arrived and climbed into the water, that some cold day’s mist would have dressed me and hidden those few birds singing or a hot day would have brought unfeeling glum, this day declared itself to neither.
I could swim from one end of the lake to another six times then, without stop, but was on that day curling under the water, making funny shapes with my hands and turning upside down and watching the sunlight underneath my feet, feeling it would be nothing to fall down and splash up towards the sun, crashing through the branches and up into the sky.
I began to think that Father would not like me gone so long, and so I forwent the tidings of herrings and surfaced. Over me met the tree tops that sealed in our earthy gloom and broke not to suggest greyed sky. They allowed little but the press of that overwhelming force of green light that seeped through the close woods; that haze the colour of leaves; that dark murk the colour of bark and earth; that thick light to be breathed in and choked upon.
In this dank illumination I saw, on the bank.
A man sat, quite still.
It was not my Father.
It was not Diwn.
I gasped tight. It came sharp into my nose, with it icy water sucked up in shoots, and then I was spluttering as that cold gushed back, down my throat.
The man looked at me. Filled so with unknowing I drove up my arms, pointed down my legs and descended under the water. I kept my eyes open. I kept them closed. I opened them to reeds and mud.
Some moments after, I rose, again, and the man was still there, and still he looked at me. My heart beat the water into waves.
The man looked old; more old like Diwn than Father, and his beard was long, and big, and old. Yet this man too had tones of the wood to him. He looked as though he had manifested out of the moist light that fed out of the woodland floor and trees, and it was as though he could crack back into it all if he wanted and turn back to bark and leaves.
I was stricken. I made strokes to cross and crawled out on to the bank opposite from him. I was too opposite my clothes. I made triangles on the ground with my legs and put my arms around my knees. The air was cool, its own airy slick damp cool, the rime running off my skin.
Quietly, I heard. It was distant and broken.
“There is a place.”
My fingers, rubbed anxious against my shins, stopped working. I stared at him because I was scared, and because I wanted to know what he was, and after the last quiver of his voice tripped over the water to me, there was only a sound of wood, of a vague still air, of no twigs falling or snapping.
The strange tremulous voice that had left the man was the oldest thing.
I looked at him.
He pointed at the water.
I do not know how long I looked at him, without speaking, and without leaving, and though the sight of him crushed all courage to call out, there was a time that I walked around the pitted lake, and crossed its feeding stream, and retrieved my clothes and dressed.
The man watched me all that while and did not move, and his eyes did not speak feeling. I think because they had no brows and because his face was brown and hard, like broken carapace, and things on it and about his form were not where they should quite be, and his beard was full and had in it strings of moss. A smell, unpleasant, rippled out from him in quiet ways. I did not recognise it.
“Gurthern,” he stiffly spoke, from a rigid mouth.
I did not know what he had said. I did not run home. I knew in that very small moment a great loneliness, a great selfishness, a pound of heart and beat, and these were all I could feel in the quiet wood, and the water ran some where, and birds sang prettily some where, but all I knew was me, and it was powerful, and that power brought demanding excitation to know some one else.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Gurthern.” He said it, and his mouth slung down as though his jaw were loose before it lurched back up. “You and. The water,” he said. “Nice, with, the water.”
For all my recollections, Father, and Diwn, were the only people I had known.
“What do you mean?” I whispered.
“You can, learn, to be, better. With. It. And. There is a place.” He gazed at me and out into the trees with eyes that did not see, invoking disquietude and great separation, as though he were an animal mimicking some man’s hums or tune and did not comprehend their meaning nor my presence as fellow person under the leaves; as though some unachievable vastness lay between us.
The terror he put into me sent me then running through the woods, with earth and rotted leavings sticking to my soaking feet and musted air filling my mouth with acrid moisture.
Father at home was chopping wood for smaller pieces. The wink of sunlight slied between the tree tops and was broken by the lifting of his axe.
“You were a bit long, Lis?” he said. He took respite to look at me.
“Oh,” I managed. It was a time before I decided on recitation. “It was very nice today.”
Father smiled and did not see unease. “That’s good. I’m glad.”
I was frightened, and I wanted to tell Father. I wanted him to see fright and caution all about me, and I wanted him to ask so I could tell him, but an odd calling told me not to share these darknesses and to keep the lake to myself.
I had not told Father about the killing sadness that came whenever he left me at our home. I did not tell him about Gurthern.
That very night I trembled through our reading of Songs from the Finch, and though I coddled myself with blanket, I could not cease tremblings that ran my arms and chest.
“Oh, you might be sick from all that swimming!” Father said, kind, though I knew it was not true.
In bed my mattress rattled with my shaking, and I looked at the window where the curtain did not constrict a play of still tree and shadow. The very still picture of night out of doors waited with me for a hard faced old man to appear by the house, and I could not take an eye away for fear of what the dark would press across the window’s sill.
The day that followed my first sight of the lake man, I dared not trespass there, felt worried instead all the morning and drank the soup Father gave me for the chills. Father did not ask why I did not go to the water. He told me I should never swim when I was sick. I could drown. I could faint.
Another morning on, though, I did return.
I spied him first from a distance as I snuck among the boughs and as trees shuddered at my horror and at its strength.
Gurthern was there, in the very same spot, sitting and not moving, his beard threaded through his rags and his rags dusted with dead leaves off the floor of the woods, decay that should have left the tree tops shorn but which did nothing to weaken a canopy painting us all in grubby shade.
I approached slow, so slow, slowed to balance the deep throb of my heart that thumped up the side of my neck.
He turned with aged purpose and looked past me. “How long, to breathe?”
I stared at him. He extended a cracking arm towards the lake, pointing down at the water with a messily jointed hand. He seemed to bow his head and draw it back up. It was motion like a carving played with.
“The water,” I said.
Gurthern looked onto the lake, and I thought the benign gaze cast by his drying eyes saw things that I could not. It brought a shaken state upon me. I knew, where confidence to talk to the terrifying man had been brewed: in the protection of his lack of being, his lack of care, his wooden stance as some thing without mindful process, malignancy swept aside and not possible within the horrific nonexistence of his resolve.
“You learn to be, better, with the breath, longs,” he spoke, in seeping sighing speech.
“To be under the water longer?” I asked, and panted with the strangeness of it; of all of it.
“To better, with, this water.”
I saw the weeds waving and the surface waving above them, and the wind waving across the water, and the whole world waved, and Gurthern sat and I stood near him, and the wind waved the skirts of my dress towards the water, and I wanted to swim.
When I returned home, on that day I first approached Gurthern, Father held me. He told me, “I’m glad you’re feeling better, Lis.”
I smiled, though I did not know that I was.
The swiftness with which I became accustomed to the presence of my newfound acquaintance was not sickening but was passingly peculiar to me in my moments at home. We did not see other people in the wood. We saw Diwn. People did not come past or through, because, Father said, they did not need to. We needed to stay here, to do our daily work and to live. I had wanted so long for my life to mean others and noise and talk and warmness. Whatever ungainly talk branched between myself and Gurthern did not abate my lonely sensation, because he was not what I had imagined. Other people, I imagined, were like Diwn and Father, and they would care about me and want to talk and share with me.
I did not remove my clothing when I swam with Gurthern there, though I did swim with him there all the same. He did not move from where he was bedded into the ground, and he spoke only barely his creaking speech; when I surfaced from my newly wary dives to watch the waterhorses, he some times would speak, such as to say, “Consume the air, ensure that it is, of holding qualities, and, underneath, do not bespeak panic to the chest, but. Concentration. Such. As, to hold it, till a natural thing.”
I did not understand the whole of his words. I was still nervous to ask for clarity. I thought, for the most, that I kept my breath well and that my swimming was peaceful. I was irritated some times at the mysteried presence suggesting I needed to improve what I did, and I thought he would spoil my time by sitting there, watching me, all the while, till I left.
I wove and helped Father with the wicker to make a nice stool, for children to sit on perhaps to have their dinner. We sat on the floor with our feet out of shoes and out of stocking and our legs crossed, and we spoke some times and fell silent and familial at others.
“It warm at the lake yet?” Father asked, eyes all over wicker but ears all out for me.
“Not yet, no,” I said. “But, it is best when it’s cold.”
“Ah, you’ve said that, Lis. Be careful not to catch a cold, from the cold.”
“...Those red waterhorses out?”
“Think it’s not warm enough yet. When it’s warm, warmer, maybe we’ll see them. will you come and see them?”
Father rarely came to the lake those days. I would have loved him to see the red spotted waterhorses, which came about in the days of living. I did also think that if Father came to the lakeside, he would see Gurthern, and I would not have to tell him about Gurthern myself.
“I think, Lis, I will, and I think that would be wonderful.”
I could not help but feel gladdened, and I felt that I must be grinning, for I saw that he grinned at my grin and my love.
I went back and I went back, and hard mouldy Gurthern was there each time, stuck in his place like he was rooted to it, his vision trickling out onto the twigs below, his great ripped stick-ridden rags curling into the floor and hiding his body from me. I began to fear him but in abnormal senses: I feared that he comprehended the water in some manner I did not and that he did not fully understand my own presence. In these same ways he did not enhance my life with the newness I so wished. I could not think what he did all those times I was not there at the lake, and fretfully I supposed, some nights, that I did not want to know. Perhaps he held the lake in conversation with his gaze.
Unenthused as his stilted movements and talk made him seem, Gurthern’s express purpose did seem to be making me better with the water. By this I thought he meant that I should be able to breathe under it for longer periods of time, and also to be able to swim great lengths without tiring. When it came to him, however, I could never be certain; not about a thing.
With apparent difficulty, and without ever lifting from his place, he demonstrated visually, and vocally, stiltedly, manners by which I could strengthen my chest over time and endure longer strains on my limbs whilst swimming. When swimming, for instance, I needed to remember to hold my fingers together and cup my palms, so as to have better grip on the waters I hauled myself through. Directions such as this made sense to me, and while some lessons were clearer as the days went by, others came forever foreign to my ears. “Strike the, greatest power, last gasp deception,” he told me once, and understanding of this statement bluntly given eluded me.
What I thought a great lot of it fell down to was doing what I had been doing for years before his materialisation, and doing and rehearsing these taught things many many times so that my body might become adjusted. By some aspect I was glad to be prescribed these tasks, and I seemed to work toward some thing, but by many different aspects I was very cross; Gurthern had indeed soiled my painless rests at the lake; interrupted my morning daydreams and waterhorses just with being near. He did nothing even if I ignored his words completely, but he was always, always there, watching though his eyes seemed to focus only inwardly.
I asked Gurthern outright what destination might await me, to which I some times received no response and some times got some jumble out of him. So I could not really say if it was nice, or if it was not, but I did have some thing to think about that was not the world being squeezed within a fist.
Diwn’s cart came bumping through the trees one cold time upon lunch, and his voice wrought havoc in the birdsong and the leaf silence, shouting, “Ho! HO! Who’s that! It’s Diwn, it’s Diwn!”
I hopped from my carvings and ran out to Father, and I darted down to our friend and Donkey, and I shouted back, “It’s Diwn in the wood! It’s Diwn in the wood!”
Diwn guffawed with such spells in his voice, spluttered happy smoke all about him. “Well then, Lis! Give Donkey a pat there that’s it!” I walked by the cart as it went, and Diwn said to Father and I, “Right you two, now, have I got a fine treat for you, on what a frosted morn!”
I bounced on my bare feet and I was clapping too, clapping echoes into the space, filling the calm wood with noise like Diwn’s.
“What’s it, Diwn?” Father asked. His dimples were not restrained, and they pulled into a smile.
“Right then, right then,” Diwn said, falling out of his seat and tying Donkey to a post. He rounded the cart and I followed, and he pulled off the blanket and revealed his wondrous things. “Now, then, Lis, will you just take a look here,” he said with his smug old smirk for closeness, picking out a big wooden sculpture that was, at the bottom, round but arrowed at its top. Its base had in it a hole, and strung along it were cords of metal spun to twine.
“What do you say about that then, Lis?”
Father was laughing under Diwn’s talk, and the glances between the two knew their minds and some thing I did not.
“What is it!” I said, wondering, reaching at the thing to feel it. It looked more made for function than consumption of beauty by eye.
“This—is a billystring!”
“What is that!”
“Show the poor girl!” Father said.
Diwn stood straight, performed at us a wobbly bow, and Donkey snorted, and then he held the ornament to his chest and laid a polished stick along the metal strings.
When Diwn smoothed the stick over the strings, what I heard was music. And it was there, in that first drawing, that I was stunned to silence, and the sound was like nothing we heard in the wood, and it caught me some how, pinched my dreams I knew not where, some place that I felt cloudy, and I felt the music of the Market, and of people and others I had dreamt of knowing and loving.
Diwn’s face went joyous. He drew the stick over and over. He manipulated the strings with the fingers of his free hand. I felt some thing so bright as hope, to be in all those places we were not allowed to be.
“I think that was lovely,” I said when he was done.
“Why, thank you, apple,” Diwn said. “It’s a trade to be made and be paid when I reach town, but I think they’ll not mind if we just have a quick old go to see’s all right, will they?”
We stood there, three of us, for a moment; an open moment that had no speech, only Donkey shifting, and some birds who had come to see, and some leaves quieting the place as ever they would.
“Well what about a right stomper before we get a drink on?” Diwn said. I did not know what he meant. He began to work the instrument faster than he had just done, and he stamped his foot on the ground to go with it.
And then he began to sing.
What simple tenderness the three of us shared was flown to bits, sent up into the air with the dirt that burst in springs up from our friend’s filthy feet. His voice lacked melody or impression of it, and it bounded about in croaks that fought very harshly with the music of the billystring. It was hard to catch on to the words that made the song, but some seemed to be, “O ol Messus Badger o she’s such a bother,” and, “Down at the river Diwn spotted a kipper!” These words we did hear were such nonsense that Father and I could not contain ourselves, and Diwn revelled in our enjoyment and pranced along as Father fell against the side of our home laughing and I collapsed to the floor with hot streamed tears burning down my face and my throat strained to hurt. At one moment Diwn even hopped over to Donkey, declared that he join in, and gave him a smack—Donkey brayed and finished a piece of verse that I thought told of a bird attacking a man’s behind. The song went on long after, and with mad clamour Father and I were joining in with, “Down at the river Diwn spotted an otter!” and any thing we made up. It was so far from the songs Father and I some times sang together, some that were written in the Songs from the Finch and others that Father had known before.
I had not known that I could ache with happiness. I had barely the strength to clap my appreciation.
“Thank you thank you, my finest friends,” Diwn said, sitting heavily and breathing heavily too.
“I think that’s lovely,” I repeated, secret question crafted into words.
We could not keep the billystring, though Diwn taught me some of how to use it and how to make the odd hollow noise that came out of its bowl like it resounded out of caves. Father played it too, and I saw in the movement of hand, and the tender sombre fixture of his face, that he was not holding such a thing for the first time and instead recalled placement from other times long past, times long since blown away beyond wherever the thousand thousand trees came to end.
After the jollity, which had swelled our lives and mine to sheer contentedness, lighting our home in gold it seemed, and in possibility, we took a look through the rest of Diwn’s assortments in his cart. There were nice wooden bands for wrists and some woollen hats, and Father let me look at them and try wearing them, and it was beautiful to think of wearing these works of others out at Market, though I knew that I could not.
And after that finery, and a cup of lilac water shared with the two who made my world, Diwn and Donkey left, away, and I watched them become a slow camouflage in the green and brown around, melded into that all as they did into my memories, lest they come back again and reaffirm their souls.
All I thought of, in the evening when they left, was of all the people Diwn was on his way to see, and though I could not imagine it, not clearly, the bustle of others like myself and Father, close together, talking and singing and making life and worlds. Me, I sat idly in the dead leaves fallen on top of one another slowly crumbling into dirt. I thought of what I had, and I had Father, and I had wicker, and I had birds, I had swimming, I had carving. Newly, I had that old Gurthern.
These things were not enough.
“Can’t we go to see the Market.” I had asked, a plenitude, when I was younger. Age and blunt answer had pulled it out of talk.
“Oh, Lis.” Father’s eyes made sad expression, and he saw across great space to look at me. “I’m very sorry about it, but the truth, and you know, is no, no, we can’t.”
I stirred my soup and tried to see things in the whirls. “Is it wonderful?”
“There are many people, and many colours to see.”
I gushed. I said, “I love to see Diwn’s wares, can’t we go, too, with him, to sell our carvings and wickers by ourselves? What about those other places? Not the grand rivers, the storks. The bigfish? Or the farming plains.”
“Those other places are neither for us. This is ours, Lis, our place, here, in the wood. Do you like our home?”
With effort I smiled halfly in the half light. “I do love our home, Father. Because we’re here.”
He smiled. In mutuality was birthed comfort.
I thought to have stitched things neatly with my last words, though I saw Father watching shadows before he took to bed that night. I was intensely shamed for having sown an anguish that I was worried might germinate inside of him.
In the morning there was benumbed motion, as some sensation of entrapment had subsided, but its effects on my mind had not. I stomped to the lake in a slump, waterhorse joy a remembrance dully stewed. The dead leaves were below. They were above me too. I could see beyond neither to other worlds, to excitements or loves. I did big breaths, out my nose, I stared ahead and walked, clenching my fists too at intervals when I saw myself starving strewn amongst roots and fed, in drips, knowledge of places and peoples I was not to see.
Our seclusion was such that I should, still, have been staggering from my very first sight of Gurthern. I was not. While I longed to be with others, he met none of the fancies I had put up for myself, and instead he matched more perfectly the wood, in his stillness and his decomposing frame, and his conversation with me, which, like owl hoots and the squeaks and skitterings of wood mice, reacted to my being there but conveyed thoughts most natural that seemed not for me to understand, nor did they seem properly intended to me. There was an air of stale magic about him that for ever piqued my curiosities, though really it grew difficult to see him as much more than a talking stump with a frightening posture.
“There is a place,” he crunched, again, and I thought this was his favourite saying. The fine mist gently cooled and watered the ferns and tumble trees in drifting cloud banks ushered by breezes in a most tranquil migration; us made, in perpetual fictions, giant.
“Yes. What is the place?” I asked him, heaping myself onto the bank with the leaves that always fell.
He pointed with a dying finger at the lake of our meeting. “There is a place, to have, to, realise. Transcendence.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, though for him words seemed to communicate essence of practicality, and I did not know if he knew apology. “I don’t understand.”
“To best the water,” he went on.
At times I would question him, and I would go on that way for long, long times in attempt to wrench out his meanings; for the most part I was left without answer and left worn from the trying. He spoke only in circles and drove me to madness, as the receipt of these loops sent my own head going around and around. Once, in a boredom, I did spin around in circles myself—right there, in front of him—and to my surprise his jaw dropped as it did very rarely, swinging disjointedly from his cheeks. Later I began to believe this facial oddity was smile.
“But what does that mean?” I questioned him. “When you tell me to be better with the water or you tell me to beat the water, what does that mean?”
“When it comes,” he drawled. “Transcendence.”
I was annoyed so by this that I leapt and swept down underwater till I was filled with its rumble. I found and watched my waterhorses behind the reeds and I loved the sight of them, ignoring for that while the lake man’s teachings and sorely wishing he would not be there when I rose.
He always was.
“What is transcendence, Father?”
“Hm?” He was whittling a sparrow eye, and he stopped squinting at it; stilled his minute flourishes that tricked life out of dead chunk.
“There was a word in the Songs,” I lied. Our book had many nice words that I asked about, and that I tried to speak with, so it was quite a ruse. “Transcendence.”
“Oh, oh!” Father exclaimed. “Well, transcendence is the action, of rising above some thing, of leaving it below you and gaining.”
My heart coughed excitedly. “Like flying?” I asked.
“I suppose it might mean rising in that sense.”
“So the finch transcends the tree tops?”
“In a way of speaking.” Father’s face went ruminating. “In rising to the clouds, birds seem to transcend our world all together. Don’t you think?”
I thought of finches, yes, and skies, and lakes, and too many trees.
All trees passed away in the days of dying, but they returned in the days of growth, when they fanned and colours blossomed along themselves in celebration with secret knowing.
This was not so in the dead part of the wood, where the shrivelled dewy air brought my Father and me to tightened wheeze.
“Are you sure about, you want this wood, Lis? You’ll be able to carve it?”
“Well. Well,” I said, thinking. “I haven’t tried it before. But I really would like to. I think it will make some thing nice and different.”
“Will be fragile, apple. Might snap while you’re working.”
I knew this.
“I’ll get a big lot though so you can try different ways, if the working doesn’t work.”
“Thank you, Father,” I whispered. We had come a long way.
Here it was a sight different to those we were used to. The trunks of the trees, whatever they had been, were withered and they were bare, and their pale brown flowerings of desiccated limbs matted out nearly as much sky as the trees that were living. Elsewhere were leaves on the ground; here, just smatterings of caked dirt and thick tripping tendrils of a mournful nature where deceased root broke the earth. We saw no beast, and our usual songs from the birds sounded only distant.
“What do you suppose made the trees die, Father?”
“Years past, you know. I worked some cuttings, tried to find out,” he said, retrieving his axe from our barrow. “Sliced fine twigs and had a look. I don’t know.”
There was not some mystical silence here, teasing dread out of our selves. All it was was quiet, and different. Still, I glanced away from the ill place, some what welcoming its uniqueness but sidling up to that gaping eternity of being snared to this wood. In a fit of wonder I looked about for our morning owl, believing it might nest between the carcasses. If it did, or ever had done, I did not see.
My new task gave me motion, direction, self function, for some days, and I lapsed into a condition of nearly satisfaction, each morning eager to trot back from my swimming to continue work on my carving. Some of the first wedges from the dead place split quick, but I became used to them, and by the end I held a dried and dirty wood carving the length of my fore arm, and it was a likeness of Gurthern.
I had wanted the wood because it best regaled his character. I smiled to see that, when cut out of ancient bark, old Gurthern did not look a totem but more just his old self. I rubbed and crumbled dead leaves and let them fall in a rain, pushing flakes into the cracks. Some soil I rubbed in too, and then to appearance, all was similar to Gurthern’s self. All I had not been able to evoke was the crusted hardness of his face.
“What a creation!” Father kindly said. “What an imagination! Ho, he looks a bit like Diwn!”
Father’s notice trod on nothing out of place or odd. He did not twist, uneasy, or creep words about as though nervous where I had gotten such ideas. Instead he was taken heartily.
“Will we send this to the Market, Father?” I asked.
“I’d sorely love to keep this one, wouldn’t you Lis? It is such a glory!”
“But. I spent so much time, and we need enough for Diwn to take. I can always do up another.” We did not like to, but some times we repeated our renditions of animals and their statures, when the cold days were along and we needed to burn out much work to feed ourselves in traded things.
“If you’re only certain,” said Father.
I think that Father could see the work was special, and special to me. He did not want to come down between the two of us. “I am sure, Father.”
Dearly what I wanted was to show some one my work. I wanted some one else to love what I had made, and to tell me so. I wanted to bring it to Market myself and meet the person who took it.
I knew this was some thing I could not do. And I had finished my carving. With it complete and piled amongst our other crafts ready for Diwn to net away, all mood and all feeling skewed at a horrendous angle and inside myself I eerily felt the sky coming down behind me, pressing until I would be lost in a world of mist and earth, drowning in the dirt.
Gurthern pointed at a corner of the lake with his heavy limp arm and said in a voice weathered as by scorching days of life and as stuffed with thirstful plant: “That is where.” My mystery friend, my teacher of rambling nonsenses, always began right away with circuitous instruction, but his voice came in a jolt of precision that unshackled me and made me worry.
“What is there? What is where?” I demanded.
“You, can find it.” He was slack as he mumbled. He was slack as he stared, with sullen detached underwater looks, and as he did, I looked at the webbed fissures breaking apart his cheeks, about his eyes, which were not even. His face was not like skin, nor was it like trees and barks. It was tough and smooth and cracking and near as dark as the deepest earths we dug.
Impatient, I slipped into the water and paddled to the corner he had pointed at, steaming in my head with annoyance at his difficulty of speech and thought. I noticed nothing special to eye or ear or nose, for it was the same and it always had been; so I dived to the thick reeds that flocked the corner of the basin and the piled mud that homed their roots. Parting their slick ribbons, I thought to have my eyes receive some revelatory treasure, though I caught but tangles. I pushed them back and met more thickly wound roots and weeds and reed and lily stems, dirt billowing into my face as the plants stressed their moorings. Naught but green and brown, and all I knew.
There was nothing for me at the end of this babbling path, and on a trail of old fool’s words I had been spitting and spinning and led astray. He had been an old fool and I a wretched one, to believe that an old odd fool appearing one day might be one thing to change every other thing in the never-changing place where I lived.
When I surfaced, the tree tops sunk to drink me up. I splashed from the water without care for my fish and waterhorses, pulled on my dress, and stomped away, right past Gurthern without word to his stolid old face, right away home, with no intention to revisit this place of haunting pointlessness again.
It was halfway to home that I broke my track and blundered off in a direction of no choosing but where I happened to be looking.
On my long walk, I thought to meet only this, and, abominably, I did: endlessness. The horrid dusk that slept ever throughout the wood and kept me trapped in its wearisome dream. A nice blue robin on a branch sang and flicked its head in bug motion, so fast and very very tiny, at different places in different moments as though it were a series of carvings displayed in rows and not a thing living. If I had known the words for its song I would have sang in return, but our Finch book could not teach me to make such sound.
The trees without edge. I had tried to walk out of the woods. I had walked as far as I had ever dared. There was no end. Where was Market, and where were all these lovely broad lands that slept uncovered in the cooking sun and by dwindled weak stars?
My mind filled with nowheres. Nowheres to be fabricated from what I saw, fleeting, in engravings and stray wood cuts tossed into Diwn’s cart, and nowheres to be pieced together from only what I knew, which was little. I wished to see these things, and I wished to know some one to float me with intent and joy. I did love Father and asserted this, but I so dearly wished for others, to know me and to wrap me with knowing. I could not see all my wicker weavings over and over, or my carvings again and again, or the same aspects of home as approached from mindless destinations. The black wood and ecre nut trees all were sordid and held me in vile contempt, expressive in their want to case the skies and case me away from them and sicken me with undying gloom and trails of white mist.
I was not to know more than this, not to love more than this. Gurthern and his prattling had taken me, and for days I had been lit narrowly by a shared purpose, though this had now proven itself at heart elusive.
I did not know what I was going to do, and I believed I could not live, and I believed I would live all the same, and the strain of this was very taut and it compressed me, and it was deathly impossible a fate. I thought if only I knew some thing, if only I knew some others. And then I doubted the ability of my heart to swell even at this, and that was when, far from our home, far from my lake, far from everywhere and yet still far from ways out, I screamed amongst the trees.
“Are you feeling well, Lis?”
“Yes, Father. Thank you.”
“Bit longer than you’re usual. And you’re dried.”
“Yes, I walked quickly after. I’m sorry.”
“Ah, Lis, please don’t get yourself lost—”
“I stuck to the paths we know, Father, please don’t worry.”
“That is good. Well, tell me before if you want to walk after your swim. And don’t go too far. Just so I don’t become all worried. You know be sensible.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t want you to worry. I will be all right.”
I embraced my Father quickly before he returned to the lumber, and then I wheeled inside so that he would not see my tears.
There came a warm day when Diwn brought his niece to our home. Niece meant that there was a some body like Diwn, which amused me to think of.
I first saw our friend and the girl from my window, and when I did I gasped and hid in a hunch by the wall, my heart threatening to knock me away with wanting raps at my breast. I had thought so long to meet some one new. I had not known the immediate prospect would scare me so. I heard the girl’s voice faintly as ghosted through the glass panes, and these spirit songs were such flight. Here was some one else to see and to talk to. Here was some one not Father and not Gurthern, another from brighter bigger lands. I was terrified. This, the most daunting thing bearing down on me, this thing I had always, always wished for.
Father called me out, so I ordered my feet over the boards and onto the leaves, and I was by them stood half-behind Father with my arms held crossed and gripping my shoulders. I looked out at a woman taller and older than me. A face I had not known. I did not want them to see that I was shaking.
“Lis!” called Diwn in a jest. “Where are you! We can’t see! Come out, come and meet dear Enwe!”
Father slunk a caring glance down at me and ushered me forward to the harsh and barren space in which I stood between them all.
“Hello, Lis,” said the woman Enwe. She waved and came forward. She was the sky; gripped not the ground but drifted over it in blue tired dress. How uncanny, to hear her too. To hear a voice.
“Hello,” I said, and coughed for some thing to cover it, reigning my mind’s need to fly back into bed and hibernate in worlds made by mind.
“Enwe’s coming with me to Market, then on to river towns to stay with her sister,” Diwn announced.
I faced the ground and looked at the woman, and at Diwn. “Oh.”
Father swept to rescue. “Well then, a bit of breakfast?”
“Yum, yes please,” Enwe said to that, smiling at Father and then at me, and in a worldly instant I knew she was kind as Diwn and that my reveries were growths of real seed and not wicket sproutings of untrue wishing.
We ate cold chicken and beans around our table. Diwn shouldered into the scratchy wicker of his chair because his back was itching, and I was settled on the sill of a window swinging my legs. I watched a louse on the floor and the strands of my hair that hung above it, so shy was I to steal a look at our new friend, though in those moments a look, stolen, was all I wanted.
“Lis’s fey with her carving, aren’t you little Lis?” Diwn said, looking from his niece to me.
“Are you really?” Enwe asked.
“Yes,” said Diwn. “There is a root mouse, a carving in your mother’s hall. You know it. A conjuring of this miss Lis.”
“No!” said Enwe. “That is such beautiful craft! You must be enchanted.”
I was not quick to words, and I watched my louse slope down a hole in the floor boards. I thought to follow. “I’m not enchanted. I do love to carve some times though.”
“You should show Diwn’s Enwe your other works, Lis,” said Father. I was annoyed at his push but was grateful.
“Will you?” she said.
I nodded, feeling puddled heat in my neck and cheeks. No one commented on my burning face, though I saw in Father’s eyes notice.
“You have the time, do you, Diwn?” Father asked.
Diwn smiled for the sun and pulled an unlit smoking stick from a roll of his cloak. “The day, the only day, that Diwn has not time, is the very day time itself leaves us all alone, to live for ever.”
“Well then, you will have more time,” Enwe said.
Father chuckled. Diwn sat back and folded his legs.
I showed Enwe to the room of our carving, the same room we stored our works to give to Diwn. I was unnerved by her presence in this habitual place. I looked at her face when I thought she would not know. Her hair was not long as mine, and it was up about her neck, and her nose was quite long and I thought that it was like Diwn’s. Hers was skin soft like ours and not peculiar like Gurthern’s up at the lake. I loved too the fabric of her dress, which had many folds and was thick and layered and swept without weight.
“That’s a lot of work,” Enwe said, motioning at our stock.
“Do you want to see?”
I took out some works and laid them along the carving bench, two of us now, two bright lives in the crafting room, and perhaps I was glowing through the mist sleekly laid up in stains against the window.
“There, these ones are Father’s,” I told her, showing a badger sitting on its rump and a low bird with a branch in its beak. Then I lifted my carving of Gurthern and another I had made of a waterhorse. “These are my carvings, my ones.”
Enwe leaned to inspect them. “These ones are your carvings?” she asked.
I nodded with a focus on the toe of my shoe. I footed wood curlings and saw dust into spirals on the floor.
“They are beautiful,” Enwe exclaimed, hesitating to pick up the waterhorse but turning it in its place. “How do these likenesses come to be such like life? You must pay enormous attentions to the things you see.”
“Some times,” I said. I was so happy to have impressed her, and I thought that this was the beginning, and I wanted to know her and meet others like her, and for a while the world was not the wood but everything an escapade to be had beyond the distant tree lines.
Diwn and his niece stayed a great long time that day. He had brought his Donkey and a cart full of oddities that morning, but the candle flame had been there next to him in the seat.
With Enwe I walked the wood, straying not far from the house as the cold was coming in and the wind sputtered thready bits of fog, and Diwn also said that his other niece would give him a right hitting if he came to the river towns with news that he had lost her sister but still had a Donkey.
She asked me about birds and flowers and bugs we saw, things that I knew about, and I was glad I could speak to the lives and cycles of them. It was such an oddness to me, that some one should come to the wood and not know why tumble tree roots grew all twisted or when red berries came out and were ready to be eaten before they turned soft. Enwe was interested, and excited, and while she asked me questions she spoke a lot too, about where she lived and who she knew. Her words often came to me as though under secret writing, and there were things she mentioned in passing that I did not understand. One thing was the festivale, another was all the wells.
Enwe said her words in sharp quick ways and made jests not like the ones that Diwn and Father made. Before we ate, she said that her uncle’s face looked like a bigfish hiding in a bush, and it was a cruel comparison, but I could not keep from laughing. When the four of us sat, Enwe and I snickered when Diwn spoke, and he said, “Here now what’s got you two girls rattling!” as Father sided him with a confused look. It was our secret and our joke, and it was nice.
It seemed as though this was all I had dreamt, happening right there under the trees, our trees, only to expand and grow to other plays in years not yet come. I was enthralled with what Enwe held in her mind. I wanted more, of her home, and I wanted to tell quick tales to make people laugh as she did, and perhaps most of all , I wanted her to be as enthralled of me, and some times she asked so much it seemed as though she was. In talking about the wood with her, the air of rot that had precluded me from joy for a long while dispersed, and the place stirred along with me. In sharing our knowledges, everything had not some great direction but sensation and reason. The worlds about the wood, unseen to me, were proved in her presence, and I was able to believe in them and that I would know them for my self one day.
When the leaves were opaque and the smoke of sunlight had diminished behind immeasurable trees, Diwn said that the pair of them must be off, and we helped them to load the cart. “Oh, thank you for hosting a couple of old travellers, you two!” he said, getting all his ropes onto Donkey and hoisting up to the seat.
“Good bye, Lis, it was such a nice day,” Enwe said, climbing up beside him.
I experienced an intense need in all of me, to cast myself towards the cart before it went and to hold Enwe to feel her heart and arms, warm, around me.
I did not, and I did not speak. This was all of life to me, I thought, but to her a stop on travels and I but a face among many she had known and would know. She did not mean apathy and was in fact delightful, but she smiled from another place and waved her good bye, and I waved, and with a shout from Diwn they went.
I had swung too high. And I broke upon the ground. A sun had dawned that morning, but I and we now reeled away from it, spinning through stars unseen and only ever under frost and trees and shadow and brown murk, and we were so cold.
I did hard breaths but did not exhale the restless angry lonely set of my bones. The land of trees had gotten to quiet again, and the little birds were singing, and the branches snapped without mystery. That had been it and all it could be. When Father told me I did not have to help ready dinner, I went to my bed and wreathed myself into a ball under the sheets, willing me to the realms I had made in my head, always coming back to myself and the white material falling and rising to my worried respiration.
“Will Diwn’s niece come through, again?” I asked Father when we ate.
“I shouldn’t think so, sweet,” he said. “She’s going to live in the river towns, remember. And they’re very far. Did she tell you about the mill she’s to work?”
“No. What is a mill.”
“It’s a great wooden building for flour for bread.”
“Oh. Can’t we go to the river towns?”
Father pitied me, but I had my answer, had always had it, and he knew that I knew this. “The river towns, no... Elsewhere is not for us, Lis. The woods are for us.”
All else we could speak of was the wood. And the water. We did not know more. I did not know more or any other thing. I could ask Father about another time, one in which he had not yet come to the wood, and he would tell me, some, but it was not enough. He asked about the waterhorse babies I had mentioned, and I told him. It was all of it stale, and I wanted to screech, and I detested myself and I could not help it. I was selfish, I was a horrid girl, it was not Father’s fault, and I knuckled my venoms so as not to have them spurt wantonly out at him.
That night I slept by driving my shut eyes and my face into my pillow so that I would not see those same white cupboard doors boring through the black night, that same uneven glass placing me firmly opposite the faces of those same trees living repetitiously as I would do. Through my pillow I saw instead internally underwater and became amongst waterhorses, and an unravelling string of unconscious wanderings took me no one knew where.
It was some mornings after Diwn’s and Enwe’s visit that I woke in shivers with cold and crossed to my trunk to retrieve our spare blankets. I listened for the knockings and stumbling of Father’s early presence but was met only with the silent trappings of a fraught and empty home. A spare sun fingered through the windows, and as I drifted in and out of the signs of day, I found not Father, nor trace of where he might be. Outside I went and stood, with a blanket wrapped all about me, and in this strange state I passed about the house to the cut lumber, and to the tool house, and even down to the place where we passed our water and waste. Up my back crept the knowing of the miniature space set aside for me to live in.
He tried, all of my life, not ever to leave me; it was hard to conceive that such a time had now come. The day’s time reaped onward, in the mist, in the wood, across the house boards, and Father did not return. I was nauseated with the pain of all I felt coming in. I teethed my finger joints. I went to the wicker and began to weave, fashioning who knew what, some fruitless useless tawdry runoff that I would weave again in so many years, as I perished slower and faster than the great cycles of nature all around, not in any grand stately lack of thought but in a tiring futile hope and despair that made me want to press my face into the glass of my window until it all cracked and smashed and I and my thinking became lost in a mess of shards and reflection. Formless thought came as my apprehension broke apart from separately held convictions and came again into a great mass of distressed anguish washing up against me.
I could not conceive it. I tossed aside my weaving, this great dry cushion for an unseen entity to sit upon. I went then to my wood carvings and sat, stared, an idle fool slouched back against a chair, legs sprawled without dignity under the shin-high table where I worked.
The woods were all that forested my mind and I could not bear to wander them anymore, and as I had travelled miles with Father and met nothing but great leaves, so too had thought travelled and met nothing. How could I hurt so much, just Father and me in the wood.
I went to the window sill where my Father had so proudly displayed my effigy of our morning owl, and it was my work, and I was so happy to have done it. I took the wooden owl and stormed out and tried to smash it against the maudlin vacant trees, inscrutable such that they refused to interact and do this much for me, and bits of the figure only chipped away. Then I went to the tool house and took a file and scraped it up and down against the owl, reeling bits off of it until saw dust had wholly settled upon the tracts of salted water cutting down my face, and I must have looked to weep wood, leak miserable dust, be a carving myself. This was my work and I knew all the time I was ruining irreplaceable treasure, a piece that Father cherished. Why I so wanted to destroy a heart of me and of us and it all, I could not say.
When Father did, at some loamy hour past noon, come home, and he did, he always would, his manner was devastated, and since my first remembered moments I had not seem him so afraid and full of care.
“I went to get— Lis, what happened? Did you— Why did you do that!”
And though I felt so alone and of such inescapable melancholy that all I thought I deserved was to sit in the splinters and spiders in the corner of the tool house, I fell into Father and my tears came stronger, and the warmth of his chest did not absorb the mist flowing out of me.
“Sweet you shouldn’t!” he said into the top of my head. “What’s wrong, Lis? What happened?”
I let myself be cradled and almost fell to sleep with all the energy that the terrible outpour left me wanting.
“Can’t. Can’t we be some where else. For some time...”
His fingers went through my hair and I felt them across the scalp, of my body. “Oh dear, sweet, we can’t. It’s not for us to leave, it’s not permitted of us... Is that what’s wrong? You want to leave this place?”
“I really, I want there, to be...”
There was this bare articulation of my feelings, and Father’s kindness and shock and discomposure.
I had waited a long time for such a disclosure, and though it seemed to have drained me, for a time I thought all that was accomplished was a spread of discouragement to Father, who made not his little remarks for humour but instead cleansed the home with his tender heart.
He put me to bed right away, that day, and there I lay with my shivers, sending ripples through the sheets. Afterwards he brought me sugared black berry stew to eat and read to me a beloved Song from the Finch; my favoured story in which the yellow robin flies across a sea to an isle of lovely trees. I felt great guilt, and the reiteration of this story from a younger day rapped at my forehead, though in some sort of sniffling tiredness I was numb.
When he returned to work outside, from amidst the smokes of drowse I saw Father through my window, stopping often and laying down his axe, sitting on a stump and staring out into the gloom and wood as though his thoughts he could see and as though they trudged before him. At his longest rests, though seen over distance, my own Father reminded me of Gurthern, unmoving and unfeeling and seeing things I did not know in the damp watery air.
Blameworthiness wrung his face parched dark. I did not know what to say in my daze of bed, sheets, frights, but I took his hand that evening and told him: it was all right.
I suppose it had felt, in the ultimate dissatisfaction of emptying myself, that some thing still might change and that some thing still might happen. Father wore his worry on his posture but ensured all of my comforts. The morning that followed my eruptions, he said I should stay in bed and not work with him, but I thought that I would rather be near his centre of lifeliness and pour my ailed drive into wicker and wood.
“You haven’t been up to your lake a long while,” he said.
“I did just want a rest from swimming for some while.”
“Well that’s all right. Do you think a swim might help you be better?”
“Perhaps, Father. Maybe I will go tomorrow.”
I did not mean it.
I found myself waking when the sun was higher, needing to stretch away the tension in my arms from such lengths of sleep.
It was long days later that Diwn came, while I slept, and when I did rise, I heard his murmurous tones and Father’s voice through the boards and glass, and I crept to peek out over the sill.
I did not hear what they said. Father was shouting at Diwn. His anger, though, was for others and not for his friend. His were violent tearings of the woodland quiet, and he shot his arms about and walked around. Diwn stood with the heaviest frown I had seen weigh a face and was for the moment unhooked from his usual vapour of fulfilment. He nodded importantly at some times and looked always in concentration. After that, they packed into the cart the few works we had finished in the days since Diwn’s last visit, and he left without a bit of breakfast.
Standing at the edge of a great hole; and never falling; but always looking.
It was a struggle for me to trawl the days after, each thought of mine one great reaching and one great pulling, all an agonied stretch bent back into our home in the woods where there was no escape to be had. The families of birds and bugs and rabbits; they had held life in years gone by and had tipped my interest, as too of course had my beloved waterhorses and tiny fish, but to me now it just was all death eventually, as in these days of dying I trod in crackled leaves with holes in and pressed them into the dirt, which was a great mound of decrepit passing-away that we lived upon and an immense grave of everything into which I would sink myself finally, dragged farther and farther from the sky with each passed day, moulting and drifting.
I could feel a great nothing from within the wood and the sense of some thing from outside it, some thing not to be realised, compounding all things together. I thought of people, beaded colour, ranging voices repeating phrases and speaking and laughing in ways that I invented. Were I to dream, it might populate my bedroom with things and not attune me to the silence stuck between the boards.
Drawn days passed, and Diwn did not return. It was a starved shrinking gasp of world, without rickety cart wheels clattering over mounds and the sweet smells of a fizzing stick. I missed him, and I missed Donkey, and I tried not even to think of lovely Enwe. Our friend Diwn had been sure as sun rise, so I was immensely anxious at his absence, and I thought about what might have enraged Father before.
In the nights, which were still very sure and very dark and dominating, viscous shadows filled the impossible voids between the air and the air and between the air and everything it touched, slipping up into the infinitesimal vast spaces against the frame of our home and the wind and where it hushed upon my arms and neck. I could scarcely continue to dream in the end, and after night’s frightful creep of shadow I would lie in my bed utterly removed of nerve, my desolate thoughts crawling the black wood walls until they were about the ceiling and scuttling in circles ever closer to me on the floor.
One morning I asked my Father when Diwn might return, and I was told soon, but on Father’s face was writ mournfulness and an unknowing, and by that I was chilled. Not even to see the produce of our like and of the others and of the Market, to have these pieces fallen through the cracks to us. Mornings after I asked again, and Father said some thing unsure; stroked his brows in great consternation.
Where were our few things going? Not to hear Diwn and his Donkey, just to be me and Father in the trees, whispering away until we were gone. Ill, distraught that noon, I sat bundled on the ground, leaves clung to my stockings. I thought I might be sick. And if I were sick it would be black and there would be so much of it, and there would be nothing in it and foxes sniffling and animals that ate any thing would have one lick and turn and leave, astounded by their indifference to the capacity of things to be not things. I embraced the only self I really knew, which was my own, and cried the loss of our friend’s smoke and jokes and Donkey.
“He’ll be back.” Father came to me as he always would. “He’ll be back, Lis, oh, dear, my darling, he’ll be back to us. I’m so very sorry, that we cannot leave. I’m so very sorry. I don’t know what it is that I can say. We will make it, we’ll make it. It’s us together. I’m so sorry, my Lis...”
He was sorry and I knew it. And I tried. It helped me none.
Through tearful eyes I looked up to a slow patch of thick slurred sky, and I reached with my hand for transcendence. I felt us drying and pitting into the earth, knowing no more of any thing than Gurthern could understand of me; no wondrous revelation in the company of billystring players and their followers, no talking and playing and finding and witnessing of great things, no realisation of my self in scenes of mountains and hills of which I had been told; knowing only dying and living and that I was hurtingly, strenuously, unreasonably doing both, at the same time.
We were not allowed to leave.
We were not allowed to be.
I think it was to chimes of silence I woke, earlier than my usual rising, to a morning very clouded all about. The windows were frosted and wet and I chattered, and there was little could be seen outside but all that white encroaching on the bounds of our home. Father slept in his bed, and I wondered where his dreamings took him. He was calm and close to soundless in the dead early light that declined fadedly through his window. I saw him and then I stood in the hall, momentarily knowing myself and my self as pieces and moving parts and chips of dust to detach themselves. I needed to move and not walk in circles and see the same things. I could not take this powerlessness to differentiate my existence from that of the decay beneath my feet.
Gurthern had spoken of transcendence, and I fled to him.
That same walk of many years, of many sheltered mornings. A colic song from birds was heard as though from underground, the woodland singers gone missing in the fogs. Only dew upon spiderweb, decorations jewelled and concentric, inward, twinkled in the corners of my eyes.
At the edge of my little lake I stood, asking by mind for Gurthern just to see him, but he had gone away. Where his seat had been, upon his stump, I found two slick smooth rocks that tried to stick to the bark when I pulled at them. Their skins were grey and black natural arcs that took me in, and when held to my nose I caught the essence of that odd cool unpleasant fragrance that had ribbed out from Gurthern on occasion.
I had been uncertain, but still there was an emptiness; it resounded at the vacancy of that strange thing called Gurthern, and it was old and strange to be stood again in an unseeable misted morning, alone, back to my waterhorses and underwater twirling. Perhaps he had moved on, though I could not imagine him passing through the wood on weak jilting movements. Perhaps there was another basin to be sat at, perhaps another girl of whom to dryly encourage advancement. Perhaps he stood then in the mist that bulged between the tree trunks, consuming all.
I risked cold and terrible illness yet I jumped right into the water, surfaced in an instant with gasping and coughing at the shock of frosted cold. I floated, dispersing into spray and hearing drips and laps, and all noise emanated from me. There was some bird some where, and it sounded like a robin and its song, but it was very far from here.
I dived. I dived and shaped into a ball, sank down as a family of minnows riddled around me. Morose colours melded round me and rang, and we played in greens and greys. I saw the fish and wished great imaginings, such as my old hearings of minnow talk and waterhorse adventure. I knew these things were not truths. I balled my face at the wanting and the spoiling I felt, the dying of myself and everything, and the dwelling and forceful brooding. I could not lose myself to the fish as once I had done.
Kept in glass, soulless inspiration took me to the place Gurthern had pointed at, when last he had proclaimed a place and transcendence to be had. I surfaced, let the boundless world amongst the woods, its expiry, freeze the sheets of water that slipped down my face. I knew such cold was danger for the body. I remembered the methods and words and qualities of breathing that had been divulged to me, and I sank back down to the roots and thickness of weed that had before driven me away in irritation.
Again: naught but trappings and endlessness before me. This time, in terse sadness I tore at the plants, I ripped them from the mud, I sundered them from root, I blindly blinded all with smouldering sediment clouds. I lay still as these dirts rained, and blanketed, and settled finally back onto the lake bed.
I made furious waves within the water.
There was a place.
There was a hole in the bank and in the bed, and it was large enough to pass through.
It was a place.
Had I seen such a beautiful thing.
At the surface I gripped the roots of ancients, looked about for Gurthern, frightened, enlivened, things I had not been. A wondrous thing to behold down there, a wondrous tunnel to some where. The mists dove down above in a final effort to invoke decision to swim, a last push to emphasise a despairing turn of heart. I could not know what was through the hole, lest I swim free and fast to leave bitter isolations behind.
Father would worry where I had gone, but I would come back and I would tell him. I thought the transcendence was even some thing he might love to hold.
And so with deep, clear, virtuous breath, as I might have been taught by past laboured words, I sank and hauled myself into a place terrible and stirring.
The very first was very dark. It was a great dark, and, scurried into the tight dark passage, it was an effort to hold breath. My fingers felt and saw with blunted ends; brushed walls of water grass and caressed wet enclosure. The dust wound and rolled about me and other dusts and I tried to pull, straight and forward, pull through and on, feeling some times entrance to other smaller downward paths that might hold traps for fools and death. I kept up right so as not to flood my nostrils. In my chest there was a bubble. There was a weathered alarm that crackled beneath it.
I asserted that if I neared loss of breath, I could go back.
I asserted with difficulty and without desire, and I pulled on through and through.
I swam discomfited, for there was not room or light for grace. Gurthern’s place had not ever been given other words. I had imagined for it colours and expanses, my mind ungrown to comprehending unknowns.
I pulled through the passage, and there was a time, new, that I came to another place.
It was a place beautiful and a time of foreverness broken. It was a place delivered in grand sight; it was a great natural chamber, with my self, I, held within. And the place was lit so green and clear that I could see waterhorses that flitted into holes in the rocks and swung amongst pale waterflowers I had not ever known, and at some dimmer depth beneath the swirls of my dress unremoved I saw strange crusted rocks that edged along the cavern beds on small hooked legs.
I lost my self to awe. I could not shun it or smile. The light of the cavern did not glint, shine, invoke out of things unheard qualities, but it was magical in senses that Gurthern had not been, and my heart leapt there in the cave at notions of stranger things and peoples due manifestation in this magical place.
For breath and for purpose, I could not stop and be beholden to the sights.
Transcendence is rising above, and transcendence is like flying.
So I flew.
I rose in the pale floating fogged waters, higher and then higher, and higher so as to see the world I had been brought to and at which majestic plains and lands I might arrive. I had want to gasp for air, still could hold my breath. I thought I might weep with the escape.
I rose, and as I did, I did strangely. For I rose, and kicked, and up, all without meeting surface or new brightness. I came up through complication of weed and coagulation of water shades. I wrested panic. I pulled up and through.
The natural sense of body within the water was skyward flight, and without clammed earth to pin me and with the natural upward rise of the cavern, it was not difficult to keep on fretting and transcending. I lost notice of the waterhorses, the wriggled fish, and the frilled frail things that banded delicately out from between the capricious rocks of the chamber walls like lost silks tucked in to secrecies and how they bobbed and gave the currents form. Because I believed I must come to some where, I believed that these smaller things must be risen past, just as trees and homes and Fathers. That which drew me up was unbidden blind trust in hope without creator. The untidy feeling came from years and yellow robins and was victorious over steady thought or consideration or other things that pushed my mind to silt.
Before in this continued blindness I could flail of tight airless chest and weakened limbs, and my body ready to turn wild searching for the way back home, I saw before me where the cavern had narrowed such that I could span across it five times, an arrangement of pebble and stone. It was fallen against the circled rock of the cavern sides, just a tumble in the small slice of climbing bottled cave in which my vision was gifted hard clarity.
The arrangement, down against the green furred rocks, was halting more than living little things, because it was a place, here in this place, that had weight; halting because that weight pulled inward, because it looked very much like.
There had been an owl long ago. At morning, in a place asleep in mist.
I soon would gasp for air, for my body needed it so.
I wondered what of woods and endings, and what of owls at night and dawn. What of sun-lighted nieces waving away from carts and benches. What of forlorn Fathers and their Songs and the guilt of daughters run from them. What of voice come together in scores and more. What of companied night and rest among other minds, of broken water wheels rolling their rivers, of trenches on riverbanks drawn out behind the haul of fishmen and their catch in ropes and hooks come after.
It looked a pretty made thing.
I did not dash these stones or smite or throw them. One, most loose, I picked from its place, and I held it very calm, and I looked.
I looked long for a short breathless time.
Slight piece taken, the arrangement no longer looked like an owl. It did not look like an owl or any thing.
I gazed at the rubble of rocks and stones. I believe I tried to gaze something into them, but they did not reflect this will. The rocks behind them had behind them something more. More: cavern walls, threaded through odd textures; unshining cracks and runnels; they gave the water false dream of tide.
In my paling palm, the stone that I held was bleak and nothing. The rubbles were rubbles. The cavern, the mountain, the place, was the same. It inclined to sickness and bewilderment. The place took direction and went at it straight and unbroken and compacted into strand by the halting slumped weights of crag and tree and dying above and the slow and mulch and dead beneath the earth and water. Some where under the cottage, I presumed, and Father and his assemblies of tired trees, and the other worlds awake with different things that I could not make be.
I felt it.
As there was a place, was there a feeling.
It came as though the stone felt it into me. It felt, slow, a tremble, a nervous pull as it turned into colossal pressures threatening the wrenching apart of my bones. I could not shriek through the water. It came I thought into me, from the stone, from pulsations thundered out from the enormous black dark that I began to see behind the little pile of rocks and away off above where the water went on rising into the coiled green murks. It became, the darkened mass, visible as waters do. It came in a sinking cloud and it wisped, and the great inconsistent storm and thrum within it bulged and hurt my head and made my eyes constrict.
I wanted to shriek through the water. I thought my skull was rattling, though I had not moved, and I wanted to breathe.
And I knew it all, in a single time: nowheres, eternal, boundlessness, great crushing immensities and always, all of it, coming in, pushing in, together, pulling, enacting conjoined contradiction that saw me quite large and very dead and small.
There was not breath, nor time, nor power to return. I saw no place else I might go. I saw not whether Gurthern had wanted me here; whether the waters higher brightened, raised, poured out onto waiting realms.
Before the tails of that horrid giant thing, before blind wild flailing, before whatever putrid stillness came out of any action, I took the little terrible stone in my hand and I placed it with its others, and so the arrangement looked again like a morning owl. I tried to see something there, to make something be, where if any thing had been it would have spoken, and it would have said that I could not curse my Father and I could not curse Gurthern, because while I needed to breathe and had ever possessed this wanting, I choked down only water in the throttling wood, and choked on water in the water, and had undertaken such wanting for such a time that while Gurthern could say a word or thing and disappear, only I could hear a promise.
And, perhaps, it seemed, I might have known this all along.