Myths in isolation alphabet – A is for Askafroa by Cara Viola

It seems appropriate to begin sharing a selection of these tales with this one. The first letter of the alphabet. Even though I started at G with my mythical Alphabet during our April lockdowns so this image was actually the 21st I drew. Folklore and myth are a long abiding passion for me and also became a refuge during those strange first weeks of uncertainty and isolation.

As I made each of these drawings I posted them to social media, people commented. Liked, made connections with stories they knew and their own stories too. A storyteller friend from Orkney, Tom Muir, suggested they could have new stories written about them. An idea was born. I have already received 11 amazing stories from 8 writers and more are on their way.

Cara and I follow each other on twitter. We have never met except in that shared online space where so many of us now dwell so much. As soon as she saw the Askafroa drawing she messaged me to ask if she could write something for her. It felt like a perfect fit to me.

From Cara:

‘Writing Askafroa was a beautiful and eerie experience. I did not know her story before I saw Katherine’s picture, and Askafroa felt uncannily relevant to our time. That is what folklore often does for you, I think, and a reason why I love incorporating it into my writing. I also could not help but see a little bit of myself in Katherine’s portrayal of Askafroa – there is a reaching out, a yearning, a wish to connect that I often feel about so many things, but especially when thinking about humans and nature’

You can find more about Cara and her work here: caraviola.com

We hope you enjoy reading Askafroa’s story. One day I hope she will live in a book. And that she will also live in the hearts and on the tongues of storytellers when we are long gone. because stories speak to us all.

Askafroa
by Cara Viola

It was late summer and the ash was in a strange mood. Askafroa stood alone on a hill with elbows as sharp as corners. She chewed on bark; she spat out leaves. In full leaf, she was completely hidden from sight. In winter, people sometimes glimpsed her from below, but they usually thought she was a particularly knobbly branch. In a way, of course, she was part of the ash, in the sense that she could not stray far. She, in contrast to her ash, spoke the language of humans. She, in contrast to her ash, was of value. ‘If, however,’ said the ash in her mind, ‘one were to chop me down, for instance, you would die too.’
‘Yes, yes.’ Askafroa turned her head from the trunk and looked over the hill. A human was coming up the grassy incline. She walked slowly as if something weighed her down, but Askafroa could not see what she was carrying. A loose scarf fluttered around her neck and mouth. Askafroa watched her and felt the familiar mixture of joy and dread in her sap. She knew what this was about. It was always the same. They came once every hundred years.
The girl stopped as she rounded the pinnacle, to catch her breath and glance at the ash with fear in her eye. Then she walked towards the tree and stood in the mossy shade.
‘Well,’ Askafroa said in the tongue of the girl. ‘What have you come for this time?’
The girl’s face twitched at the words and Askafroa saw her hands clench, and she admired the girl for not running away.
‘They say,’ the girl said in a voice that was calm and much deeper than Askafroa was expecting, ‘they say that you know how to cure all ills and that people come to you in times of trouble.’
Askafroa laughed because, a hundred years later, she was still right.
‘Well,’ said the girl, ‘is it true?’
‘Did they also tell you,’ and here Askafroa leaned forward so that the girl could see her face. And the girl stepped back as Askafroa knew she would.
‘That I require payment for each request?’
The girl nodded. ‘Nobody could remember what it was last time.’
They never can recall that part, Askafroa thought. She stared at the girl, her gaze wandering over her straggly hair, the pinched cheeks, the knees that stuck out at an angle.
‘What’s the problem?’ Askafroa asked.
‘There is a strange illness,’ the girl began.
‘Yes, yes,’ Askafroa sang out, ‘I know all about it.’
‘Can you help?’
‘Oh no, oh no no no. Not this time.’
The girl staggered as if she had been struck.
‘Why?’
But Askafroa did not answer, she was observing the way the girl ran her tongue around the corners of her mouth.
‘You hungry?’
The girl nodded.
Askafroa reached up into the bows of the ash and slid her hands into a recess in the bark.
‘Why,’ asked the girl, ‘do you look so human?’
‘Oh,’ Askafroa laughed, ‘I look the way you imagine me to.’ She extracted her hand and held it out to the girl. In her palm sat a fledgling blue tit.
‘Eat,’ Askafroa said but the girl did not move.
‘Not to your taste, is it?’ Askafroa placed the bird back into the nest and moved her fingers across the trunk, humming. Then she reached between two forking branches and when she held out her hand this time, a pear sat gleaming in the centre.
‘Is this a pear tree?’
‘No, silly. Don’t they teach you those things?’ But the girl was not listening; she had bitten into the fruit. Askafroa watched her closely, the way her mouth glistened with juice, her fingers grasping the yellow flesh. When the girl had finished eating she looked up at Askafroa for more.
So Askafroa reached up again and broke off a small twig with nine leaves. One by one, she plucked the leaves from the stem.
‘The first nine people you meet will be cured of all ills.’
‘What about the others?’
‘Oh, they will die.’
‘Is that the best you can do?’ Asked the girl with the pear’s juice still gleaming on her lips.
‘No, darling. Come here,’ Askafroa wrapped her long arms around the girl who felt sharp twigs and knots of wood dig into her skin. But the girl kept very still and she felt a warmth spread through her and then Askafroa released her.
For a final time, Askafroa reached up into the ash and picked a single leaf.
‘Make a tea with this leaf and all who drink it will be healed.’
‘But come back,’ Askafroa called after the girl, who had begun to skip down the hill, her scarf fluttering in the wind, the leaf tight in her hand.
‘That is my payment: you must come back.’
The girl turned and waved, her smile bridging the gap between them.
Perhaps this time, thought Askafroa, they would not forget.

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