Flight from February

I seem to have spent most of the past few weeks either stuck in front of my computer, working, or taking the dog out for a trudge in the mud, wind and rain.  I’ve taken my imagination for a walk too (although in nicer weather). Here is a short story, a flight from February:

 

Bodhi Farm

It’s difficult to know when it began. Perhaps with the dreams that came in the heart of winter, when it was hard to rise in the morning and the water in the pigs’ troughs was frozen solid. Or with the sense of knowing, the unease that would wake me in the middle of the night; I’d put it down to the change or the usual worries. Had I shut away the hens? And, if the snow returned, would I manage to find all my sheep if they huddled under the walls and got covered by drifts? There is always something doing on a farm, anyone can tell you.

By the time the sky cracks red, I’ve usually been up for hours. The lighter mornings come as a blessing with the thaw. Even so, days are no easier. Over the years, I’ve got used to shouldering most of the work alone. When the lambing starts in earnest, I hire Graham, a lad from the village, to come help. But he wasn’t due to start for some time yet. So when I saw his Land Rover on the track leading up here, I was surprised.

The vehicle rattled over the cattle grid then stopped. When it drove on, it pulled away to reveal four slight figures picking their way. Three of them were wearing what looked like long orange and red dresses under anoraks, while the fourth was dressed head to toe in black.

Graham parked in his usual spot in the yard. When I opened the door, he was shaking his head.

‘You’ll never believe this,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘Bunch of weirdos to see you.’

‘Well then send them away.’

‘No doing.’ He pulled a face. ‘Said you wouldn’t want it, but they won’t listen. Come a long way – that’s what they say.’

‘Where’s a long way?’

‘Somewhere foreign. Only one of them as speaks any English. And then you can’t tell half of what he’s saying.’

‘Look at them, what are they doing?’

The three foreigners in robes formed a little procession. The one at the front was swinging a round, glinting object, while the one at the rear banged on a flat drum. The three of them walked slowly, despite the wind tugging at their skirts. The figure in black lingered a little ways behind, as if embarrassed. Weirdly, though, the sight of them stirred something deep in my belly.

‘Better get a brew on,’ I said.

Graham gave a snort. ‘A woman’s answer to everything.’

I gave him one of my looks and he grinned. Cheeky so-and-so.

The water was squeaking up to a boil when there was a knock at the door. I got Graham to fill the mugs while I answered it.

The man dressed in black stood in the doorway and gave a stiff little bow. He looked at me nervously, almost expectantly, then glanced over my shoulder as if hoping to find somebody else. His skin was the colour of polished wood and his features were Eastern. Unlike his fellow travellers, whose heads were shaven, he had a crown of thick black hair and seemed much younger than them. The other men reminded me of monks, the sort you see on postcards and calendars, though what they would be doing turning up at a hill farm was anybody’s guess. The younger man cleared his throat.

‘We are here for the baby,’ he said.

I laughed. ‘There’s no baby here. Not even if it’s a lamb or piglet you’re after. Not this time of year.’

He turned and spoke quickly to the others, huddled behind him. They shared some words, sounds like singing, but it seemed like they were disagreeing with him; the man in black shrugged and turned to me.

‘The child. It is important.’

‘Look, you’d better come on in. You’ll catch your death out there.’ I gestured and they filed past me, into the kitchen where they stood around looking confused. ‘Take a seat, go on.’

Once they were all sat down around the table, Graham handed out mugs of tea and a plate of biscuits, which the foreigners fell upon like birds at the grain. ‘I’ve seen it all now,’ he muttered.

I have to say they looked a bit better for having a hot drink inside them and something to eat. I folded my arms and glanced round. ‘So now, what’s this here business you’ve come about?’

The translator gave a little nod. ‘My companions have been searching for long time. They come many thousands of miles. Following signs.’

‘What’re they in search of? What signs?’ Graham wanted to know. I frowned at him so he huffed and leant back against the dresser.

‘It is difficult to explain. We are looking for a child. My brothers believe the child is born in this place.’ At this, one of the other men leant across the table, said a few words and tapped the translator’s forearm.

The translator continued, ‘Has a child been born here?’

‘Yes,’ I said, and all the men turned to me, expressions bright as if somebody had lit a candle. ‘Yes, the last child to be born here was me. Fifty-odd year ago.’

The translator relayed this fact and there was more conversation, some of it heated, and they batted away Graham’s offer of biscuits from the packet. After a few moments, they settled back down. One of the monks folded his arms, while another heaved a large bag onto the table. It was colourfully embroidered and decorated with little yellow and pink pompoms and tassels.

He carefully retrieved a number of items, reached across the table and placed them in front of me, very deliberately, as though he was performing a ceremony. The bracelet on his wrist winked in the light, and without thinking I went to touch it. His arm turned still as rock and he looked hard at me, dark eyes narrowing under beetle brows. I pulled back my hand slowly.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Don’t know what I was thinking.’

He sat back and nodded. Then, without saying a word, he removed the bracelet and placed it alongside the other objects. There was a loop of brown beads, the flat drum I had seen earlier, a little pair of patterned bronze cymbals, a flute that looked like it was made of bone, an incense burner on a long chain, a scroll of some sort, a large golden amulet and a simple wooden bowl. Those are the things I remember, there might have been more. The monk with the beetle brows spread his palms, as if inviting me to consider the display.

‘What does he want me to do?’ I asked the translator.

‘Choose.’

‘All right!’ exclaimed Graham. ‘Go on, I know what I’d pick–’ One of the monks jumped up and turned to face him, surprisingly agile for an older man. Graham puffed his cheeks. ‘Just saying.’

The monk with the beetle brows spoke. ‘Choose.’  All four of the visitors were watching me, and it felt as though I was being invited to play a game where I only half remembered the rules. Only the game was as serious as anything I had ever done.

I took a breath and found myself picking up the bracelet, then the drum and finally the bowl. I placed them close to me. There was a sense of release among the monks, as if I had passed a test. But I wasn’t finished.

‘This belongs to you.’ I gave the scroll to one of the monks, who bowed his head and accepted it. ‘This is yours.’ I handed the cymbals to the second monk. ‘And, little brother, this belongs to you.’ I reached over to the monk with the beetle brows, and poured the rosary beads into his cupped hands. His eyes were brimming with tears. He nodded.

‘These were mine,’ I gestured to the objects I had chosen, ‘and this is a trick.’  I pushed the amulet across the table. ‘The other things don’t matter. None of it truly matters.’ I realised with surprise that my own face was wet, that I was crying even though I didn’t feel sad. Not at all. I caught a glimpse my reflection in the window and laughed. It was ridiculous: a middle-aged woman with greying hair and a kitchen crammed with exotic visitors, like a pigeon perched among goldfinches. When I laughed, the men started laughing too, thumping laughter, as though we had all finally understood the punchline of a joke at the same time.

 

***

Of course I went with them when they asked. I was away for seven years in all, and now I am back on the farm, I find I miss how the mountains create stepping stones above the valley mist; the fierce blue skies and glare of sun on snow; the echo of the tonqin horns among the peaks. But these things will always stay with me. They are part of me and all that I take with me and give.

Graham has made up a bed for me in the box room. He and his partner have my old room and their two children have the others. He offered to move out but I told him no, there is no need for any of that. This farm is his now, in good hands. And I won’t be here long.

My time in the monastery has helped me remember all I need to know, and I am ready. I have changed out of my old farm clothes into my robes and I have a torch to help me pick my way through the lower pastures, up the rocky slopes, over the stone walls (in good repair, I’m pleased to see). Sheep scatter, taking one or two paces, eyes red in the torch light, before they realise that I pose no threat and stand to watch me pass. Higher up I go, up to where the wind whips and boulders balance precariously, visited only by ravens.

Behind a mound of stones, I find the pit. It has taken me three days to dig, hard labour and cracked hands, and I ease myself down carefully, sliding over the lip and in, then turn and settle, flat against the bumpy soil. The earth holds me tight, squeezing my shoulders, and the stars overhead blink white against black, constellations slowly turning through space and time.

It begins first with my fingertips and toes, the sensation that the skin is opening, that my capillaries are sprouting red to white, seeds unfurling. I am on my way, spreading into filaments, fine and hairlike, pushing into the soil, past stones and roots and waterways, along the slopes in all directions, under the farm, down roads, into villages, towns and cities; a network of knowledge, all that my lives and the lives of my others have gleaned, returning hope and wisdom and belief to this precious Earth, to nourish and nurture, to resurrect her with our love.

 

(c) Sue Belfrage, 2020

 

 

Small Treasures

I went to walk the dog at lunchtime and realised that sheep were grazing along the ridgeway where I had intended to take him. So I kept him on the lead and meandered along the lanes instead, past a clear, shallow stream and around a pond where we startled a pair of  ducks, hidden under the branches of willow.

Behind the hills, the sky was bruised blue, but the steep grassy slopes glowed in the winter sun. I paused and thought how lucky I am, to be here, in such a beautiful place.

Earlier in the week, a friend reminded me that happiness springs from gratitude, rather than the other way round – advice I intend to take with me into this new decade. I want to remember to use gratitude as an active principle, seeking out the good and then treasuring it.

In a year baptised in fire and flood, warmongering and violence, whatever else 2020 brings, I hope it brings you many small wonders to light the way through the dark.

Flakes of Gold

Last night’s half moon was a haze and today the woods seem singed, as though burnt by an exhausted, sinking sun, with faded greens and exposed boughs. Summer is passing – it’s back to work. Yet these past few months have felt like so much hard work, with juggling jobs and balancing the books. These are not comfortable times.

It sometimes seems like the easy option would be to say, Enough! Despite knowing this isn’t an option. Not really.

Instead, I’ve fallen back on looking for flakes of gold; finding the little glimmer that can light a whole day. For me, this has often meant searching for a familiar wonder: glimpses of glow worms burning like alien lights in the hedgerows. I’ve written about these beautiful bugs before, tiny neon lanterns, but this year they’ve taken on even more importance for me.

Last thing each evening after dark, I walk up the lane in the hopes of spotting a tiny green dot of light, almost talismanic. With each passing night, their numbers dwindle, like the lights going out along the front of a seaside town at the end of the season. Still I smile to see them so late on, now into September, my birthday month – a time of personal new beginnings.

I remember, many years ago, panning for gold in a water way – and the wonder at discovering tiny glints of yellow in the mud.

It comes down to feeding the heart with these scatterings. These splinters of beauty. Flakes of gold.

Wild Garlic

There can be few places more beautiful than England in the month of May. Late afternoon, I went for a walk along a meander of the River Stour, which winds its way between the market town of Sturminster Newton and the village of Hinton St Mary. The water was slick with willow pollen and a little way up from the old brick mill, a couple of boys and a girl were splashing about in the ford, laughing and screaming at the cold.

The path took me past the house that was once home to the writer Thomas Hardy and his new wife, Emma. Some years ago, I used to receive acupuncture there. The sessions took place in a downstairs room that had been repurposed as a clinic, with a black treatment couch and charts of meridians and pressure points on the walls. At the time, I found it odd to think that some 130 years earlier, Hardy might have been sat at his desk in that same room, drafting The Return of the Native. What would his ghost make of the procession of semi-dressed strangers who visited now, to be pricked and prodded with tiny needles?

Further along the path from the house, through a spinney that floods in heavy rain, stand the ruined arches of the railway bridge, dismantled as part of the Beeching cuts. Here, a sports bag, clothing and a pair of shoes hung from tree. In the river below, two heads bobbed, shiny pink against dull green, like a couple of bizarre lily buds; two men wild swimming and scaring the ducks.

Beyond the bridge and the surrounding trees lie water meadows, now dotted with sheep and chubby lambs.

After the emptiness of winter, the fields have been repopulated, which means my young dog often has to stay on the lead longer than he might like, but there’s still plenty for him to sniff and enjoy. The path crosses the meadows into the tail end of Twinwood Copse, and here I paused.

The air was rich and heady, and in the shade of the trees lay a sea of stars, a pocket handkerchief; the fading white flowers of wild garlic lit by the sun. I let the dog lap from the stream while I drank it up; a sight to fold up and store in the memory; to bring forth when the warmth has gone.

Spring Slow

‘April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of dead land’

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

 

The arrival of spring brings with it a certain exhaustion.

Days of sun followed by frost and snowfall; an hour vanishes as the clocks change. Gardens, fields and hedgerows are flecked with brilliant greens, yellows and purples; yet there’s a lingering weariness in the bones, tired from winter, not quite rested, newly unsettled by the changing season.

The contrast between all this fresh growth and life steadily progressing, one day at a time, can feel almost overwhelming.

I found myself sat in a kitchen chair, gazing at nothing, when there was a rumble of thunder and the sky broke open. Hail bounced off the road and rooftops. The kitchen skylight was pelted with pellets of ice, covering it in a layer of white. Then, as quickly as it had come, the storm passed over and the hail began to melt in the returning sunshine. Within a minute or two, only a scattering of glittering crystals remained. I watched them disappear.

When I went outside, I knew what I might find – the remnants of a rainbow, where the sun struck the dark clouds as they rolled eastwards. With all this spring busyness, an invitation to pause, look up, slow down.

The Air Sweet with Violets

This morning, I was walking along a wooded ridge when I spotted my first violets of the year, pale in the thin sun. As with the first sight of snowdrops, the discovery made me smile; spring flowers feel like a kept promise.

When I got home, I looked up the violet in The Language of Flowers; or, Flora Symbolica, by John Ingram, which lists the traditional meanings associated with plants.  I came across my copy, published in 1887, in a second-hand bookshop, and discovered that an earlier owner had pressed scores of dried flowers and leaves within its pages like fragile, antique bookmarks.

While there isn’t a pressed flower to mark it, the entry for the violet is much longer than for many of the others – somewhat ironic given that the violet is often associated with modesty, as well as faithfulness. Poets from Homer to Keats have celebrated it, and myths have been woven around it. According to The Language of Flowers, the Greek goddess Artemis transformed Ia, daughter of Midas, into a violet to conceal her from the amorous intentions of Apollo; while Jupiter caused the first sweet violets to appear as sustenance for poor, hapless Io, when she fled in the form of a white heifer from the wrath of Juno. So in this way the violet is linked to concealment, of beauty creeping beneath notice.

Yet with the arrival of spring, violets sometimes cluster in abundance on hedge banks and around the roots of trees in woodland; where one might be invisible, together they attract attention. They bloom all around the garden here – in paving cracks and flower pots, roots taking hold tenaciously; then, when the flowers are faded, their brittle pods scatter seeds far and wide. Small yet rich in colour and fragrance, they appear where it suits them; an unasked for gift.

 

Violet images (c) Sue Belfrage

On Vulnerability

Everything is stripped away. In the garden, robins and blackbirds perch on bare branches, while wrens hop in leaf litter among scrawny tangles of shrub. In the fields, the low sun picks out the horizon. There is a starkness to the land.

I find myself facing this new year cautiously. Little feels certain or secure, worries abound, things over which I can exercise little control. But with this vulnerability there has come a subtle shifting, of gratitude and appreciation, of letting go and acceptance, learning to look outwards rather than in.

Now the solstice has passed, the days are growing longer; light is returning. Primula are already brightening up the bank side by the wall. They might yet be covered by snow, but the seasons will carry on turning.

Growing from What’s Buried

The autumn rain has awoken a lingering ghost in the garden. A tuft of honey fungus has sprouted where an apple tree once stood ten years ago. The common name given to three closely related species – A. mellea, A. bulbosa and A. ostoyae, honey fungus is feared by gardeners for its ability to kill a wide range of trees and shrubs. Yet, while it doesn’t taste of honey, the young caps with their white gills are edible when well cooked.

At this time of year, fungi spring up as if by magic, here one moment and collapsed in puddles of decay the next. While walking in the woods today, I came across peeling caps of fly agaric, the poisonous, red-and-white toadstool of fairy tales. Their appearance was another reminder of what lies hidden, ready to surface when conditions are right.

Neither animal nor plant, mushrooms and toadstools are the fruiting parts of mycelium, the fibrous white bodies of fungi buried in moist soil and rotting wood. Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard has discovered how trees use underground networks of fungi to communicate with each other and send each other nutrients, likening the systems to our own neural and social networks.

The reappearance of fungi at this time of year also fits with the traditional celebrations of Samhain or Halloween, when the veil between worlds of the dead and the living is believed to become less opaque, and the past returns to haunt us. In my own dreams in recent weeks, buried memories have been resurfacing and I have found myself waking in anger at perceived wrongs.

So, what to do about returning ghosts? Folklore advises us to treat them respectfully – and then, perhaps, they might just help us, rather than harm us. Now is the season to honour the past.

Into the Gloaming

Nightfall turned me into a ghost. It had been so hot, I’d dressed in white and hadn’t thought to change into more suitable clothing for a late evening walk. Now my husband was a little unnerved as I appeared to be floating across the field towards him.

With the twilight came the dusk chorus, dark’s answer to the dawn; in the woods, owls hooted and screeched. There was rustling close by, perhaps deer or a badger stirring, as the night woke up.

I’d hoped the day’s heat would be enough to light up the hedgerows, and I wasn’t disappointed. As we started down the track, we spotted the first tiny flicker: a glow worm suspended from a blade of grass. Further along, we found another and another deep within the hedge, fragile greenish-white dots of light.

It’s no wonder folktales abound about faeries. Midsummer Eve, a painting by the English artist Edward Robert Hughes (1851-1914), captures and transforms the charm of these dabs of hedgerow brightness, which cast their own faint shadows.

Of course, in traditional tales, fairy folk or, as they are also known, the Sidhe (‘The Good People’), are much more ambiguous beings than the merry crowd depicted in Hughes’s picture, and best not crossed…

Although neither fairy folk nor indeed worms, glow worms are similarly best left undisturbed in their natural habitats. Their bioluminescence is mainly generated by the female beetle (Lampyris noctiluca) with the aim of attracting a mate. In England, the best time to see them is between June and August – and  those up the lane certainly seem to be more active on balmy nights.

All the same, while they might be firmly of this world, glow worms nevertheless seem to suggest that, on warm summer nights at least, a little magic might just be possible…

Bees in the Eaves

With dawn, the wall begins to wake and I lie listening to the sounds of stirring. Bumble bees have made a nest under the cottage eaves. In the quiet, you can hear them as they start to go about their working day.

These bees are less intrusive than our previous summer guests – a colony of hornets. While  the hornets were placid creatures, we soon learnt to shut the windows when dark fell. The insects were attracted to artificial light, and would parade outside the glass near lit lamps. Similarly, whenever I mowed the lawn, I was aware they might be disturbed by the vibrations, so kept my distance from the site of their nest above our back door. Although the hornets would occasionally emerge to take a look while I was pottering around outdoors, we left each other respectfully alone. All the same, I admit I was relieved when they moved on.

The buildings we live in are home to many more lives than our own, from solitary masonry bees who crawl into cracks between bricks and beetles under the floorboards, to summer’s swifts swooping over the roofs of rural towns. While instinct can incite us to treat some of these cohabitants as ‘pests’, the rewards to be had from controlling our impulses towards them are manifold – from pollinating gardens to caring for the planet.

The buzz of the bumble bees in the wall and the way we react to insects generally inspired me to write the following short piece; I hope you enjoy it:

 

Inside The Wall

 

The woman and the man watch the wall

A-creep with beetles, bees and ants.

When, at last, the returning queen

Docks with the insect grace of an airship,

The woman points and the man nods.

In white suit and alien helmet

He cautiously climbs a ladder,

Puffs poison into cracks

And seals the entrance with dead white:

No hornets here this year.

 

Next summer, she lets a waking queen

Out of an upstairs window,

Then stops to listen.

The bedroom wall humming like a blocked tap.

Outside she spots them circling:

Small bumblebees, black blobs of velvet,

Nesting under the eaves.

Their song is strangely comforting –

As if the stones were alive and

Nothing quite destroyed.

 

(© Sue Belfrage, 2018)

 

In other news, Bull Mill Arts near Warminster,  Wiltshire are hosting an open studio event on 7 to 8 July, where copies of the new paperback edition of my book, Down to the River and Up to the Trees, will be available as part of the event’s celebration of trees and nature.