Still settling into life in Northern California. One of the coldest winters the local folks can remember - for sure i have noticed a chill in the morning - that has had me at the thrift store digging scarves out of $3 boxes. Still, i can't help but feel wistful seeing when i see the white carpet down in the west country of England at the moment. Sledges and hot chocolate!
A suggestion and a poem. I am very much enjoying "Entering the Healing Ground" by the writer Francis Weller, and include my endorsement below - so my suggestion is to check it out! There's good eatin' in there - much truth and valuable glints of how to work into the fertile ground of grief - how it can become an offering to something vaster than ourselves. A great deal of joy is threaded through the prose.
"This book rings a shivering bell of hope: that, when lifted by ritual and fellowship, the moist ground of grief actually contains a treasury of gifts that are our ancestral birthright. In other words we start to become a real human being. We are no longer rigid islands of self sufficiency, but open to the soulful wonders that the animate world offers. Insightfully written, warm and with a wonderful poetic sensibility, the deep experience of Weller shines through. The work has honed something clear and valuable in his own character, and a delightful wisdom illuminates every page of “Entering the Healing Ground”.
Being amongst all this vitamin D infused sunlight in the depths of winter is a new experience, and of course, immediately turns me back towards the inner-weather we all carry regardless of whether we walk on sand, tundra or moss. Here is a strange old Irish story - The Horned Women - that i think carries some positively archaic residue in its saddle-bags. I'm enjoying working these old stories into something like the below - all the details are the same, there's just some playful turns of language embedded in the mix.
The Horned Women
In the storm
the heavy house is resting,
places girth over migration,
resists invasion from the gailing heave,
robust with creaking,
but staying its compass,
sullen and slumbered in the epileptic rain.
Above, Orion lopes about in his black-jungled heaven,
his triple starred belt, his hunter charms
fast moving over the weather, the house, the people.
But this is not his story.
Below, children are curled pink in blankets, servants doze with their thin hounds
by the twinkling peat.
Only the Big Woman of the house is awake,
working by candle -
nailed fast to her evening task, the carding of wool *.
*‘carding’ wool is the separating of wool fibers in preparation for spinning.
She is in the hut of herself.
Something haunches through sleet to the old door,
issuing a strident clamor -
part voice, part knock - a commingling of energies - brick fisted and gallop-jawed:
Big Woman calls; “who is there?”
Comes grizzled croak, tindered with soot;
“I am the Witch of the One Horn”
Suspecting a villagers trick, no more than that,
the mistress groans open the oak,
and the weird being enters, parading a pair of wool carders in her left hand,
and truly a horn, bone-white from her forehead, as if still in growth.
She slow-hoofs to the hearthside and starts carding the wool,
granite knuckled but finger nimble.
More battery on the door, another voice, silvered with water this time
“I am the Witch of the Two Horns”
This elegant wraith enters, with a wheel for spinning, a hand sparrow-quick for the task,
double horned a-glow from her skull.
Through the juddering dark
twelve women glide in,
the last with twelve horns jutting
her brow, ornate and terrible,
Like the jaw of an Irish shark
a glinting Underworld crown.
Saying nothing to the Big Woman
they settle to their spinning and open to
a moon-vast language - a singing -
a dozen acres of cold speech
like frozen lumps cut from an icy lake
smelling of no color we could understand
each tongue-sound lubricating the human air
into new shape, sluicing the known burrs and warmth
of speech with tributaries of startling cold star-streams.
drains the mistress,
makes tender the divide between here and
the Other Place,
keeps her giddy, weak, silent.
The Witches caw for food,
for cake. They love cake.
The Big Woman
takes the black air, making her way to the well to collect water for the mixing.
Alone, in terror, groping her white arm into the well,
all she has is a sieve to collect, which of course cannot hold the water.
Her tears drop into that ancient granary of silver.
A voice speaks from the shimmering hole;
“Yellow clay and moss will bind the sieve like plaster.” So she does.
She delivers the mix to the witches, who send her outside to stand in the dark,
like a child failing in class.
They wander corridors and small rooms,
gather blood from every living thing
in the house and cherry the cake
with their findings.
All sleep on,
dank crusted with dreams.
Out by the well -
Again, the voice of the clear waters;
“When you come to the north face of the house, bellow out three times
“the mountain of the Fennian women - the Horned women - the Irish women,
and the sky over it is all on fire”.
At the northern point,
she brays hard three times the message.
From the door they burst, amok,
in terror, smeared with licks of wool
floating merry in the loose, cold air
around them, like soft sparks of light.
Active now, awakened,
the Spirit of Well
offers the Big Woman instruction
from the her ghost-hole,
this gaped slit that reaches down,
down past slippery tree roots,
the spiked pits of faithless lovers, a shingle of dragon scales,
crumbling ritual gear of the Celts,
to that smoky conscience that grinds in the very heart
of the earth.
“These are ancient, ancient forces
you have allowed into your house.
You need to re-enter right away, this moment.
You need to carry a bold shoulder of power
to block the crackling flank of their magics.
Sprinkle on the threshold the water in which you have
washed your kiddies feet - the feet-water.
Take crumbs of the cake the Horned ones made,
with blood from your dreamed family,
Break the cake and place crumbs in their sleeping mouths,
this will break evil and restore them.
Two final hexes:
take their cloth and place it half in and half out
of a chest you then bind and lock tight.
Place a great cross beam across the doors,
that no pagan muscle can shift.”
Surely the baleful coven return.
Not immediate - but just when the Big Woman is moving to forgetting.
A batter-thrash on the door, the gurgling shriek, the twelve gathered,
crow circled in the iron piss rain, cocked horns glinting and steamed,
bullies a chant with their demands.
The foot-water speaks;
“no entry for you. None.
I am scattered across this threshold. I have the power of
the loch, the river, the clouds, the dew, a women a-weep.
I will block such queer folk as you.”
The door speaks;
“a beam like iron strides my storied oak. I am a collision for
you wintery spirits with hearthfire power. I will outlast you
with this simple twig.”
The twelve send a thin keen
to the spirit of the blood bread,
their greatest power in the house.
“open this door, break beam and water,
spirit that holds the familied blood.”
“i cannot. My round shape has been brutalized,
crumbled, fed into the mouths of the children. Turning widdershins
your spell-cant, making your powers cockless.”
The shrieking ensemble
flail impudent in their bad news,
do not immediately leave the scene,
try strange persuasions,
but this island of the strong door,
carries the cut-truth of a Sligo Boars tusks,
A Dingle waves salty defiance,
and they can do nothing.
At some slow point before dawn they slip away.
In the yellowed light of morning comes safety.
the Big Woman leaves the house and twitches her nose
in the bruise-fresh air.
There is a mantle left
in the thick ruts of muddy hoofed departure -
no witching this time, just haste.
For five hundred years now the mantle has hung
on a rusty nail in the Old Place. As a reminder
of what we let in
when the house sleeps
and rain sleets the glass
and we stay anchored to our one, great task.
copyright Martin Shaw 2012