He woke to a loud and insistent hum. External, although the constant clamour of anger and loss still shouted in his head. Garden machinery probably. It filled the room and rattled through the cavity wall behind his bed. He turned his back on the window, where sunlight was invading through the curtains, and pulled the duvet over his head. He wasn’t ready for the day yet, even though it was midmorning.
The hum settled into a buzz, deep and resonant. On, off, on, off, just irregular enough to be intrusive. Not machinery. Definitely an insect. Impossible to ignore, like his thoughts. He turned on his back to listen. It was hard to place, seemed to be above him. It sounded huge. Damn.
Wasps nest in the loft? Hornets?
He rose, cursing. Cursing the insect, cursing the day, cursing his insomnia, cursing her and the hole she had left. The pain was as persistent as the buzzing but it was easier to turn it to anger than deal with it.
That had been the problem. It was what he’d always done. She’d tried, he had to admit that. Tried to help, to understand, tried to make him happy. She’d realised though that his happiness was not her responsibility, just as her happiness was not his.
He could not pinpoint the sound, no matter how many times he paced round the room. Eventually he got dressed and ventured into the loft with a torch and some trepidation.
She’d taken responsibility for herself. She’d tried harder. Tried even, to take responsibility for him. It didn’t work; how could it? And then she’d left him.
He made coffee, took it outside in search of the continuing noise. There, trapped in a spider’s web by the bedroom window, a honey bee was fighting for its life.
He knew how it felt.
He retrieved a short ladder and carefully freed the bee from its hell. It fell onto the windowsill and lay there for a while. He was just beginning to worry when it took off and flew down the garden.
He wished he could disentangle himself from his misery that easily.
Later, as he was clearing brambles by the shed, the hum returned, much louder this time. He watched the swarm come in, settle in the cherry tree in an ordered buzzing bundle. He wondered if it was the same bee, whether she had brought her friends because she knew he wouldn’t hurt them.
He wouldn’t hurt anything, anyone, not on purpose. But that hadn’t stopped him.
They were still there the following day. The beekeeping friend who came to collect them was cheery. He captured most of them and took them away.
“There’ll be a few left,” he said, “but they’ll go within twenty four hours, probably back to where they came from.”
The little cluster still hung from the branch when he returned from work the next evening. And the next. And the one after that. He was happy to see them. He found himself talking to them, telling them about his day. His friend was surprised that they were still there a week later.
“They’ll go eventually,” he said.
But days became weeks and still the bees stayed. He found himself becoming strangely fond of them, crossing his fingers each evening as he walked up the garden, hoping they would still be there, dreading that the branch would be empty. The relief that flooded through him each time he saw them made him almost lightheaded.
He talked more and more to them about all sorts of things, from the mundane events of everyday to the sadness and guilt that he hadn’t even been able to voice to himself.
He told them about her. About how it had been wonderful. How it had gone so horribly wrong. As summer turned to autumn and then to winter he talked it out and the bees, against all that was normal, continued to buzz and cluster on the branch.
Come Christmas he started to go out a bit more. In early spring he saw her in the street and it didn’t hurt as much. At the beginning of summer he met someone new.
He told it all to the bees. He didn’t know that he was following an age old tradition. He just felt that they should know.
He told his new girlfriend about them, showed her pictures. When she came over to his house for the first time, he took her to see them so that she could speak to them too.
The next morning, they took their coffee into the garden. The bees had flown but hanging from the empty branch was a honeycomb, the cells wax plugged in the shape of a heart.
** ** ** **
Note: Last summer we ‘woke to a loud and insistent hum’ and my husband rescued a bee from a web. Later that day, it did indeed return with its friends to rest in our cherry tree for a few days. It seemed an almost mythic occurrence. How lucky were we?
See the little cottage in the clearing ahead. That is where we will take our repose tonight. We have walked for many hours; you are hungry and need to rest.
“Who lives here?” you ask.
No one now, but it is a place of welcome. You will find whatever it is you need. Food, drink, warmth. A bed to sleep in. Comfort and healing for everything from a broken heart to a wound of the flesh. See, there are lanterns lit in the windows. It is all ready for you.
How did they know you would come when you did not know yourself? Well, that is the magic; it is not to be questioned, just accepted with gratitude. Try the door. It is not locked.
The table is laid for us and the fire is dancing in the grate. Come. Sit and I will tell you how this cottage became enchanted.
Once upon a time, long ago and far away, a great king lived in a beautiful castle with his wife and their daughter. The land he ruled was peaceful and prosperous, for his greatness lay not in the battles he had won or the power and wealth he had accumulated but in his fairness, his honesty and his generosity. Merchants traded freely and fairly with the neighbouring realms. Farmers grew abundant crops and their livestock were healthy. Artisans and crafters flourished, creating both the practical and the beautiful. There was music and art, poetry and learning. People cared for each other and disputes were settled quickly and honourably.
Often the King would ride out amongst his subjects to share with them their fortunes good and bad. The Queen and the Princess rode by his side. As the Princess grew up, she learned justice and government from her father and healing from her mother. She knew herself to be truly privileged and wished only to become as good a leader as the King.
Now in that country there was a legend: that whosoever held the sacred jewels of wisdom, truth, justice and love was the true ruler of the realm, and that so long as the jewels were protected then so also was the land. The gems were kept safely within the castle. The sapphire of wisdom, the diamond of truth and the emerald of justice were set into the crown that the King wore during state business; the ruby of love was deemed so precious that it was kept in a secret hiding place.
Some had tried to take the jewels, by theft or by force, but none had ever succeeded.
Years passed. But In the shadowy forest at the northern edge of the kingdom, a dark force was growing, cloaked by malevolent magic. There lived a powerful sorceress, whose greed and hatred knew no bounds. All she saw she needed to possess; the wealth and abundance of the realm had drawn her to it and the jewels were her heart’s desire. So she plotted and planned and conjured all manner of evil to do her bidding. She sowed seeds of destruction and discord throughout the region; a fight here, a failed crop there, food spoiled in a tavern kitchen, missing coins from the notary’s pouch. Whispers of plagues and rumours of war spread and festered, making the people fearful and angry. They began to doubt the King’s integrity and to question his leadership. Into this cauldron of distrust the sorceress poured false promises of a better way, a new leader to protect them.
The King tried to reassure his subjects but he did not know what he was fighting. Turmoil and trouble grew until, at the state celebration of the Princess’s seventeenth birthday, the sorceress swept into the castle with her legions and claimed it for her own. The King was cut down instantly, and a spell cast on all present, immobilising them.
“Where are the jewels?” she demanded of the Queen, but the Queen would say nothing save “They are all here.”
So the sorceress had her minions ransack the castle and they returned triumphantly with the crown. Setting it upon her head, she seated herself upon the throne, saying “I am truly the Queen now, and you will kneel to me or die.”
With that she cast another spell; the guests knelt before her, whether or not they wished to. They found themselves back in their homes, still on their knees.
The Queen and the Princess stood, unable to fight the evil magic.
“Where is the last jewel?” the sorceress asked, but the Queen refused to speak. “Very well. You will pay for your stubbornness. Cast her into the dungeon with the brat.” She walked over to the Queen, spoke just before the guards dragged her away. “It will not stay hidden for long. You will tell me. She,” she indicated the Princess, “will make sure of it.”
The two women were bundled away by the guards and dragged down into the dungeon. It was dark and empty – it had not seen a prisoner for years. One guard lifted a set of rusty keys from a nail in the wall while the others cast them into a cell. The door clanged shut and the footsteps faded away.
Tears blurred the Princess’s vision. Her mother took her by the shoulders. “They will be back soon,” she said. “When they have searched again and failed to find the ruby. You must not be here when they return. I fear what she may do to you.” The Princess opened her mouth to speak but the Queen hurried on. “I have a charm. It will create a door for you to escape through. You will have to hide who you are but at least you will be safe. One day you will return. I know this.”
“You must come with me,” the Princess said desperately but here mother shook her head. She reached into her pocket and drew out a silver pencil. Holding it momentarily over her heart, she used it to draw a rectangle on the thick stone wall. A door appeared, light glimmering round its edges.
“Open it,” the Queen instructed and her daughter obeyed. On the other side was a room.
“I cannot come with you,” the Queen continued. “Only one may pass.” She embraced her daughter. “Be safe, my darling. May we meet again.” Then she pushed the Princess gently through the door. As soon as she was on the other side, the opening vanished and the wall became stone once more.
Thus the Princess found herself in a tiny cottage in the woods on the border of the kingdom. (This cottage). Scared and alone, she had little choice but to try and make a home there and learn to live off the land. She remembered watching farmers planting seeds and bakers baking bread, how the seamstresses sewed clothes and the maids lit the fires in the hearths. She recalled the knowledge she had gained from her parents and from all those who had lived and worked around her. Though her heart was well and truly broken, she would not give up.
As days became weeks and weeks became months, she began to carve out a new life, simple and quiet. She planted a garden and grew food and the healing herbs her mother had taught her. She collected fallen wood for her fire and water from the stream. Sometimes she would walk through the wood and onto the road, following it to the village nearby where she exchanged vegetables for bread, flowers for cloth, kindling for sugar and salt. She offered healing for those that needed it, balms, tinctures, liniments and syrups. These she gave freely.
“This is the gift my mother gave to me,” she would say. “A gift that I can pass on to you.”
But she noticed the change. A deep sadness covered the land like a blanket. The sun struggled to shine and the stars were dull in the heavens. Gales whipped the air and the rains were heavy. It was as if the very skies wept.
As one year became two and then three the people struggled more and more. There was little music or poetry. Smiles were rare, laughter rarer still. The new Queen, angry that she had not yet found the last jewel, ruled with an iron rod. Her guards searched constantly, leaving terror in their wake. She demanded tithes and tributes from everyone, even those who could not afford it. Fields became fallow, livestock sickly. Flowers would not bloom and children could not play. The Princess grieved for her parents and her beautiful country as she continued to offer healing for those in need. Her garden, somehow, seemed unaffected by the blight that cursed the rest of the land.
Word of her abilities and her kindness spread. People came from further and further away to seek her skills. One day a woman knocked at her door, hooded and cloaked. The Princess ushered her in, thinking that she must be very afraid to need to stay so hidden. Once inside, the woman lowered her hood and the Princess recognised her mother’s maid.
“I have come to bring you home,” the maid said. “For you have grown into a wise and strong woman and your kingdom needs you.”
“What can I do against the wicked magic of the sorceress,” asked the Princess. “I don’t have the power to fight her.”
“You have more power than you think,” the woman said. “You are the heart of this land. That is why your garden grows when little else will. Why you still heal others when all around you people fight and steal. You are the reason that the sorceress cannot find the last jewel.”
“I don’t understand. Please, sit. Tell me first of my mother.”
“She still languishes in the dungeon. The sorceress was furious when she realised that you had escaped. She keeps your mother prisoner to taunt her. She still believes that eventually she will gain the location of the ruby.”
“I do not know where it is. How is it that I keep her from finding it?”
The maid smiled. “Because it is in your heart. Unlike the other gems, the ruby chooses its own guardian. It chose you. That is where your healing power comes from, the strongest magic of all. Love. And that is how you will defeat the sorceress. The wicked cannot survive in the light of pure love. Come back with me now. Save your people.”
The Princess was aghast but she did as she was asked. Fearful as she felt at the prospect of facing the sorceress, she longed to see her mother again and bring harmony back to the land. She was shocked as they travelled, by the bare fields and dried up rivers where before there had been a velvet patchwork of crops and softly flowing waters. There were few people on the roads now and many of the buildings were in a state of disrepair.
The castle however was as beautiful as she remembered it. She wrapped her cloak around her and pulled up the hood as she knocked on the door and asked for an audience with the sorceress.
“On what business?”
“I have information about the missing jewel.”
That got the guard’s attention. She was shown into a small anteroom while he scuttled off to announce her. Finally she was shown into the great hall where the sorceress sat on the wooden throne, the King’s crown on her head. She walked toward her, suddenly unafraid.
“Why do you not bow to me?” the sorceress demanded. “And why have you not bared your head in my presence? I am your Queen.”
The Princess stood in front of the dais in silence.
“Your audacity astounds me. I should hang you from the tower as a snack for the buzzards. Tell me where the jewel is or that is exactly what I will do.”
The Princess calmly lowered her hood and stared at her. A shock of recognition crossed the sorceress’s face.
“The jewel is here,” said the Princess placing her hand over her heart. “It has come home but it will never be yours.”
“We’ll see about that,” the sorceress shrieked. She rose, pulling from her robe a sharp black blade. “I will cut it out myself.”
But the Princess stood fast and light began to shine from all around and within her. It grew brighter and brighter and as it did, the sorceress grew smaller and more withered until finally she was nothing more than dust. The crown fell to the floor, Truth, Justice and Wisdom glowing brightly in the light of Love. Her guards were shocked into stillness, not sure quite what to do. The Princess picked up the crown and turned to them; they bowed deeply, in awe of the gentle strength that emanated from her.
“Please free my mother.”
The two women wept with joy as they were reunited. The Princess offered the Queen the crown.
“It is yours now,” said the Queen, “but I would be honoured to help you in any way I can.”
That is how the Princess began her next adventure, rebuilding the realm into the happy and prosperous place that it had been before. And this cottage is the legacy that she left behind, a place of welcome and of refuge, where anyone may come to find food, rest and safety.
So, now we should eat and take the chance to sleep. We still have a long way ahead of us.
Come, I will show you something magical. There is a glade not far from here where wonder can be beheld. Here; let us settle on this log and observe. It’s beautiful, isn’t it, the way the moonlight plays on the leaves, turns them to mirrors. They shimmer like mercury. See how it silvers the grass that covers that mound on the other side of the clearing; how it ripples very slightly even though there’s hardly a breeze. It almost looks as though the ground is breathing.
Look up. Have you ever seen so many stars? Diamond bright, all those gems, as if some sky pirate has scattered treasure far and wide, so no one being can ever gather it up again. I see you tracing out patterns, some familiar, some less so.
different here,” you say.
Indeed. For we
are between here; between worlds, between planes, call it what you will. But we
can see many sets of stars, a myriad of constellations. I know you will
recognise Orion, Draco, Ursa Major and Minor. Others too. But some will be new.
The doe, the fox, the serpent. And some are more surprising than others. You’ll
see. Not long to wait now.
I see your eyes
widen but you are not mistaken. It seems that the stars are moving, coalescing,
taking on their true forms. And yes, here they come, tumbling and dancing,
flying down from the heavens and leaving crystalline trails behind them.
The hare is
first, silver whiskers twitching as she bounds, weightless, across the
clearing. The fox follows and a shoal of glittering minnows dart impossibly in
and out of the trees. The badger and the mouse amble across the grass and the
serpent coils luxuriously around the mound that seems to draw them to it like a
The ground is stirring. He is waking up.
A small giant, a
green man made of earth and roots, bark and leaves, sits up in his loamy bed
and stretches. His eyes are a deep bright green and he is smiling as he greets
his friends, stretching out his hand to stroke heads and backs. A flock of
birds swoop in to land on his shoulders and arms and the starry creatures whirl
around him until he too stands up and begins to dance. Faster and faster they
spin and turn until his guffaw of delighted laughter shakes the leaves on the
trees. The star creatures fall to the grass to rest.
The green man remains standing. They wait and sure enough the last visitors arrive, gently and quietly, a doe and a stag, their feet barely touching the grass as they stop in front of the man. Such a moment of peace descends; have you ever felt anything like it?
Then the man bows
to the two deer and they return the courtesy. He watches as they turn and
gallop back up into the sky, the other animals following one by one. They
become smaller and smaller until they resolve back into constellations,
sparkling in the indigo.
The green man
goes back to his earthy bed and pulls his grassy blanket over himself. He will
slumber until the next turn of the wheel.
Here’s the sister piece to my last post. I know we’re well past the Solstice, but winter goes on. The cold and the dark can seem relentless so stay warm, find some time to enjoy the stillness and remember that below ground spring is gently stirring. .
Her cry had us all running from wherever we were, the kitchen, the barn, the vegetable garden, the hen house, running up the pocked, rough track that served as a driveway to the wide wooden gate.
“Look, look,” she was calling, pointing upwards with both hands at once. “They’re really here. At last.”
I stopped and squinted into the sky, the brightness hurting my eyes after the dimness of the barn. Occasional ribbons of white cloud broke the aching blue, straggling across it with no urgency whatsoever. The tops of the trees were utterly still, not a whisper of a breeze to stir them. The grass was dry and brown, the dust heavy on the track and the road beyond. It had been like this for days. As if the world was holding its breath, just waiting for them.
It was said around these parts that if the swallows didn’t come, then the summer rains wouldn’t be able to follow them. And then the fields would be dry and the crops would fail and the land would remain fallow until they returned. Old wives’ tale? Superstition? Maybe. But no more than wassailing in the orchards at the start of winter to honour the trees and ensure the next year’s crop. No more than the elders knowing what weather brewed from the exact shade of the sunset.
We watched as they flew in, swooping and gliding low over the road then looping up over our heads and swinging away to make another pass. Their wings flittered tirelessly despite the many miles they had covered and they swirled and spun in a joyful frenzy, sometimes stopping momentarily at the stream to drink before taking off again. We watched, entranced, until they began to settle, finding the nooks and crannies around the house and barn that were their home from home. Then, as one, we breathed a collective sigh of relief as the leaves on the trees began to stir and the clouds scudded faster across the sky.
“It’ll be all right now,” Pa said. “It’ll all be all right.”
We see them. We hear them. We don’t always pay attention to them but they’re there. Those little moments of awe and wonder just waiting to be savoured before they’re gone. A whole string of them every single day, like a beautiful bead necklace, if we’d only take the time to notice. And when we do take heed, how we long to hang on to them, to store them away in that secret treasure box of memory so we can pull them out on a bad day and think “See. There is a point after all.”
But how to capture them, truly? How do you keep hold of that sudden drift of honeyed air as you pass jasmine on a summer evening, the hug your friend gave you or the eerie mist of bluebells through the trees? What about the heavy silence of pristine snow and the melting sweetness of a square of chocolate on your tongue, moonlight dancing on a calm sea, good coffee or the touch of warm sunshine on your skin after the winter cold? How about the languorous buzz of the bees in flowers and the twilight chorus as the dusk paints the sky in subtle pink and lavender.
Allow yourself to notice. Allow yourself to stop and really notice. Breathe it in, let it immerse you, settle inside you. It’s only a moment, but this moment, every moment, is all that we have.
Here’s a moment from my memory treasure box. I was on Corfu, walking back from the beach when I saw a bumble bee visiting a flower in a patch of scrub by the path. Except it wasn’t a bee, it was the tiniest hummingbird imagineable and I watched it for a good five minutes before it flew away.
The Moss Girl gazed from the outcrop of rocks into the clearing where the stream sparkled and the silver birches laughed, swinging their silky green hair over the water. The beeches stood behind them, the tree cover thickening away from the glade. She felt the old stones beneath her, skeleton to her skin, heard the soft music of the sunlit air and the quiet awe of the people who wandered through, commenting on the beauty of the water, the trees, the flowers that danced through the grass. It saddened her; she did not have the grace of the birches and their sisters, the ash or the colourful clothes of the starflowers and campion and buttercups. She lacked the musical voice of the flighted ones and the brilliance of the water which threw diamonds all around, the ancient stillness of the rocks and the old wisdom of the trees. The shimmering loveliness of the leaves beneath the radiance of the sun and moon was beyond her. She felt unseen amongst nature, unnoticed and unimportant.
She rose in the morning to join the dance with the tree sylphs, and they encouraged her, whirling around her and whispering ‘Well done, little sister.’ But they were taller and more elegant than she, light as air, and try as she might she could never keep up. She rose in the night to follow the naiads as they skipped and skated along the stream, and they called to her ‘Join us, little sister.’ But they were quicker and stronger than she, streamlined and sleek in the water, and she was always left behind.
One night, when the moon was full and the glade gleamed softly in the light, it became too much for the Moss Girl. She knelt bereft by the brook, watching the naiads leaping from the silvered surface and the sylphs gliding amongst the tree trunks, salt tears slipping down her face into the water and onto the ground. The naiads came to her and said ‘Don’t weep, little sister, for your tears will turn our stream into sea and we will have to leave.’ The sylphs came to her and said ‘Don’t weep, little sister, for your tears will salt the earth and our trees will not grow and we will have to leave.’ So the Moss Girl returned to her place and curled up into a ball and wept onto the rocks where she would cause no harm.
Eventually, she became aware of movement, a shifting and creaking and grinding behind her. She sat up quickly, unsure of what was happening. The surface of the stone rippled and tore; a figure began to emerge, pulling out of the very rock itself. Stillness fell over the glade – the naiads came to rest at the edge of the stream and the sylphs returned to stand silently beside their trees. The Moss Girl drew herself into the smallest space she could, all but disappearing into her soft green dress.
The figure shook herself loose from the outcrop and moved forward, stretching. The Moss Girl hid her face, recognising the power of a most ancient spirit. The Stone Mother rarely appeared in person – she, like the others of her kind, was usually there as a presence only. For her to corporealise indicated something of great importance and the Moss Girl wanted to stay out of the way. So she was surprised when she felt a hand on her head, stroking her soft green hair.
‘Why are you crying, little one?’ The voice was deep and resonant, felt through the bones of the earth. ‘Oh Mother, it is nothing important,’ said the Moss Girl, horrified that she had taken the Mother’s attention away from her duties. ‘It is important,’ the Stone Mother disagreed. ‘When one of us weeps as you are now, it affects us all.’ ‘But I have no worth,’ said the Moss Girl. ‘I am plain, not beautiful like the flowers, and clumsy, not graceful like the trees, and dull, not brilliant like the naiads. I help no one, I please no one. I…’ The Stone Mother took the Moss Girl’s face in her hands. ‘Everyone and everything has its worth, child, but it should not be measured against others. You look out and see the beauty in all around you, but you have forgotten how to see it in yourself. That is why I am here – to remind you of what you truly are. Look into my eyes and you’ll see what I see.’
The Moss Girl did as she was told and looked into the Stone Mother’s dark eyes. There were pictures forming and she saw herself cushioning the rocks, the sunlight illuminating her in every glorious shade of green. She saw the many tiny creatures that made their home amongst the roots that she sent down, the birds taking bits of her loose hair to line nests ready for their young and people wandering through, reaching out to touch her appreciatively or sitting to rest cocooned in her softness. The Moss Girl’s tears dried and she began to smile. ‘You see now, my daughter,’ the Stone Mother said. ‘We all have our place and our importance, from the greatest tree to the tiniest insect, from the most colourful butterfly to the plainest blade of grass. Never forget that you are a part of the great cycle; there is never a need to doubt yourself.’ ‘Thank you, Mother. I will always remember,’ the Moss Girl replied. The Stone Mother returned her smile. Then she cast that smile to all in the glade before returning to the rocks from whence she had come. Moments later, it was as if she had never been there at all. Yet the Moss Girl was forever changed. No longer feeling unworthy and second-best, she danced her own dance with the naiads and the sylphs from then on.
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