We have been very quiet recently. The pandemic brought all of our planned trips and treks to a sudden halt last year and it has not been an easy time…Dar Al Fannana
This beautiful Selkie story Tom sent me for my Myths in isolation alphabet wasn’t written specifically for the image as the others were. But it fit so well I was very pleased to include it. Perhaps Tom and I walk parallel paths in our dreams somehow. One day I hope to visit him and Rhonda at their Orkney home where this drawing now also lives…
The Selkie and the moon
There was once a seal who lived in the sea – a big, round, fat seal with whiskers who loved to chase the fish that she fed on. She was like any other seal, only sometimes things are not always what they appear to be. For on the nights when the moon is magic the seal would come ashore, on the pink sands between the soaring red cliffs, and she would slip off her seal skin, just like taking off a dress, and she would become a beautiful woman. She would stand naked on the shore and thank the moon for the blessings that she had bestowed in allowing her to be the other half of her true nature. The moon would smile down on her, scattering her silver stardust over the selkie woman as a blessing. Then the selkie woman, lithe and slender in her human form, would dance for joy on the sand, bathed by the silvery light. And so it was for a long time.
One night, as the selkie woman danced, she was observed by a human man; a farmer who lived by the shore. He saw her step out of her skin, and he stole it before she knew he was there. She wept and begged him to return her skin, but all he could see was her naked perfection and his blood stirred. It wasn’t love that drove his actions, but lust and the desire to possess this beauty all for himself. He didn’t care about her pleas and tears, he wanted to own her. So, he forced her to follow him home. He locked her up while he took her skin to one of his fields and he buried it deep underground. Her fate was sealed – she had to stay and be his wife.
The farmer did not treat her well. He made her work hard for the scraps that he gave her to eat. She was naked, but he clothed her in tattered rags with an apron over the top. She looked like a beggar, although the farm was prosperous enough. At night, she would slip outside and beg the moon to help her return to the sea, but the moon no longer recognized her, dressed in rags. The moon said nothing, for she didn’t know her.
Sometimes, in bed, the farmer made her do things that she didn’t want to. That is how it happened. Life sprung forth in her womb and she carried her unlooked for burden for nine months. When the child was born she wept. The little girl, clinging to her mother, was so like her that it was hard to believe it was possible. She looked just like her, only smaller. The selkie woman loved her daughter like a wilting flower loves the rain. She showered her with love and kisses. Her father was not so loving – he had wanted a son to help him with the farm work. What was a daughter but another mouth to feed.
The years went by and it came to the time when the farmer needed to plough the field in which he had hidden the skin. One night, under the cover of darkness, the farmer slipped out of the house and took a spade to the field and dug up the seal skin. But what to do with it? Could he risk burying it again, or was that unsafe? If the skin was under the earth, or in the sea, would it rot away? If it did, what would become of his beautiful wife? Would she too wither and die? He decided to hide it under the sheaves of the barn, which were ready to be thrashed, until he could find the perfect hiding place. He placed the skin under the sheaves and then went back to his bed.
The following day, as the farmer brought out his horse to plough the field, the little girl went to play in the barn. Under the sheaves she found a treasure – a beautiful thing of silver with dark patches on it. What could it be? To the little girl there was something familiar about it, but she couldn’t think where she might have seen it before. She knew that her mother would know, so she took it to her to ask her about the strange covering. When the selkie woman saw her skin she cried out with joy. She gently took the skin from out of her daughter’s hands and she prepared to leave. She put out the fire, to protect her little girl from harm, then she kissed her and told her that she loved her. She ran out of the house and down to the shore. Leaving her little girl was hard – the hardest thing in the world, but she could not refuse the call of the sea. That was the other side of her true nature, and she longed for it. She took off her rags, standing naked on the pink sand so that the moon would recognize her once more. Although it was a spring morning, the moon was still lingering in the sky. She recognized the selkie woman once more and smiled to her. The selkie woman pulled on her skin and slipped quietly into the sea once again. The feel of the waves pushing against her round, fat body felt so good after years on land. The taste of freshly caught fish was a treat after the dry bannocks that the farmer let her eat. She was home, she was free.
When the farmer returned from the field he saw that his wife was gone and he was angry. Not understanding what had happened, the little girl told her father of the treasure that she had found under the sheaves in the barn and how she had taken it to show her mother. The farmer was furious – he grabbed the child and put her over his knee and spanked her long and hard. She cried out in pain and fear, calling to her mother to help her. Down by the shore, the selkie woman could hear her child being beaten and wept along with her little girl. The cries were too much for her to bear. She swam away – far away. She never stopped until she reached Sule Skerry, where the King of the Selkie Folk lived. She went to see him and told him about the farmer and his cruelty, and of her daughter’s suffering at his hands. The king gave her a gift, one that only he could give, and she swam away with it.
She reached the shore that night and crawled up the pink sand of the beach. She stepped out of her skin and stood naked before the moon. She asked for her blessing and was given it. The silvery beams danced around her. She carefully hid her seal skin in a place that only she would find it and then crept silently up to the house. It was all dark and quiet. The man lay asleep in his bed, while the little girl lay silently, too afraid to make a sound as the tears streamed down her face. The selkie woman was as quiet as a cat as she opened the door and slipped inside the house. She went to her daughter’s bed and put her hand over her mouth to make sure that she didn’t cry out and wake the farmer. The little girl, wide eyed with wonder and joy, made no sound as the two of them left the man sleeping and went outside. They ran down to the shore, as quickly as they could; the selkie woman carrying the child when her legs grew tired. The pink sand felt cold but soothing under their bare feet. The selkie woman slipped off her daughter’s ragged nightdress and they both stood naked on the shore. The selkie woman pointed up into the sky, and there was the moon, shining more brightly than the little girl had ever seen before. The selkie woman spoke to it:
“Mother Moon – this is my daughter. She has suffered on the land at the hands of her father. She has a grandmother and grandfather under the waves, and we will go to them now. Bless her as you have blessed me, I beseech you, oh my Mother Moon, recognize my child”
The moon smiled down on them both and scattered stardust over them, which glittered like silver on their skin. The selkie mother took her skin and the gift that she had received from the King of the Selkies – a little white seal skin. The selkie woman helped her daughter put on the skin and then slipped on her own one and the two of them slid quietly into the surge of the waves that caresses the pink sand of the beach. Weightless, they rolled and tumbled in the sea, laughing with a joy that neither of them had known before. Their new life stretched before them like an uncharted ocean. And overhead, the moon smiled a blessing on them, scattering a silver light to safely guide their way.
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The Story of Chang Er
Chang Er was an ordinary sort of woman, on an ordinary evening, in an ordinary village near Cheong Chin, on the banks of the Yangtse Chiang.
Her husband Hou Yi was an archer with the Emperor’s troop, and was often away from home, leaving her to tend the vegetable patch, wash the cotton sheets, collect firewood to take the chill off the evening mist, and sing her sorrow to the lonely moon.
She was sorrowful because she could not have children, and she knew that it would complete her husband’s happiness, if she could present him with a son. A fat, happy son. Although, to trick the gods, she would say modestly “Oh, no, he is an ugly baby … nothing to look at, scrawny and always wailing.” Just to trick the gods.
At forty-five, this gift had been denied.
But she knew how much he loved her. He had even sent her the pelt of a white fox, wrapped in thin scarlet silk, so that it looked as though the blood of the animal spilled out over her bamboo table.
“To keep you safe, and protect you from robbers, my darling wife,” said the note written by the mandarin. Chang Er knew this because she had taken the note to the market to have it read to her.
But the red silk disturbed her. Instead of peace and tranquillity, the white pelt with the hole where the arrow had pierced its heart, made her feel sad. So she laid it not around her shoulders, but outside the front door, to propitiate the gods.
That night, she heard a howling outside the door. She opened it and there, standing on the fox pelt was a large black dog. It looked hungry, and it had its front paw in the air. She looked at the dog and the dog looked back. She could see where a thorn had gone into the pad of its paw, from the blood dripping on to the white fur.
Although Chang Er had never had a dog, she was curious and she felt a stirring of compassion so she let the animal into her home. She poured cool water into a porcelain tea bow and put it down. The dog sniffed the water and then lapped it up. She put some left over rice noodles on a bamboo mat. The dog sniffed them and then delicately licked them up, one at a time. The little slivers of chicken seemed to please the dog. When the mat was empty, it turned towards her and put its paw in her lap. Gingerly, afraid of been bitten, she patted the black head and then in one swift movement, she pulled the thorn out of its paw.
The dog yelped, and hobbling to the open door, it turned and looked back at her, as if in reproach. From where she was sitting, it looked as though the dog disappeared into the moonlight. Perhaps it would have eaten the moon as well, she thought, wistfully. She closed the door.
But the next morning, when she went out into the garden, she paused. There, where the scarlet silk had lain under the pelt, there was a strange plant growing. It had heavy red fruit, smaller than plums but bigger than cherries. Chang Er felt a sudden sense of lightness in her heart. She pulled off one of the fruits, bright with dew. She licked off the dew and very carefully bit into the fruit. It was filled with tiny yellow pips. The juice was delicious. It trickled down her chin and she giggled.
And then she felt a strange sensation in her belly, not like poison, not like fear, but like life. She looked up and down the garden path her beloved Hou Yi was striding towards her, his face alight with laughter, his bow slung over his shoulders. In his arms he was carrying the white pelt. It was muddy and wet. “Look what I found in the vegetable patch!” he said to his wife. “Did it not please you, wife?”
“Oh, yes,” she said meekly. Then she patted her belly again, and felt the sensation once again. She cradled her hand around the curve. It felt full and round as a harvest moon. “And I have some news that will please you, too.”
For a moment, in the corner of her eye, she felt sure she saw the fleeting shadow of a black dog dipping behind the weeping willow tree. Tiangou, she thought. Sometimes the blackest of spirits bring the greatest of gifts in return for a simple kindness.
Suzi Clark, for Katherine Soutar. 2020.
For more info about Suzi please see http://www.shakespearesauntie.co.uk
I found myself more absorbed than ever with what lives inside me this inktober.
Inktober is a yearly 31 day drawing challenge Over the 31 days of October set up originally by Jake Parker and has mercifully few rules.
1) is that you must make works in ink based on a one word prompt each day.
2) that you must do it on that day and share it on social media with the inktober hashtag
This gives both a boundary in terms of media and one in terms of time which seem to help me tap into ideas in a way that doesn’t always happen with my more considered work. There is a list of single word prompts, some nouns, some verbs. I do not think about the days word until that morning. So I have only a few hours to roll it around and find out what it means to me. This is a good (though sometimes frustrating) thing. I don’t punish myself if I get nothing. I have skipped a word before now, it’s ok, this exercise is for me and it’s my choice not to do it too.
My relationship with the language of images, with ink and with how you can start from a single word and find yourself diving into places you had never anticipated so suddenly, seems to have moved to another level this year somehow. I think my ability to access my inner stories and some of the darker and more difficult emotions that live in me has become more focused somehow.
This strange year has made so many of us reflect on our feelings and our sense of our place in the world and wonder sometimes what we are for.
I think I am for making things appear from paper. Things that say something about me but also about the state of being a human more generally. Things that won’t exist until I make them but will hopefully have an existence beyond me and help others access some of their stories too. Because although we are all unique, our stories are entwined and travel together, wherever we are.
I managed 28 out of the 31 this year, here are my favourites
Some of these are available to buy, please contact me if interested. And wax and bleach? Well I stretched the media rules a little….
It is time to share this one I think. Hope really is the thing with feathers… if you enjoy it please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-fi. Thank you x
The Phoenix by Jane Wickenden
Where the phoenix trailed its feathers, ash stirred and embers gleamed. Where it trod, its claws burned coal so deep that the fire stayed hidden for years beyond counting. When it leaped into the sky, meteor showers followed windblown on its trail. It flew until it found the tree that had been waiting for it, whose trunk was hollow and the floor of the hollow soft with centuries of dust.
The phoenix was tired. Its pinions were the colour of molten copper and the feathers of its body the colour of molten gold, but some things lay heavier on it than any metal. Two most of all: the years, and the ways of humankind. Those creatures that used light taken from other things and heat from others still, and were of so short a time themselves.
It looked up, into the face of the moon above the open hollow. Time no longer, it whispered; and the moon smiled. Then the phoenix pulled the sky round itself like a cloak, shut out both dark and light, and nestled down in the dust of leaves, first lightly, then with a warm breathing intensity that might have been any size at all, or no size, in any place and time.
The boy’s name was Adham and the girl’s name was Noor, and they lived with their parents in a small square house of mud and breeze-blocks up against the shell of an older, larger building, on the edge of a city of tents. The old building had been a gracious home with a garden and a stream and shady trees; the stream still flowed, bridged by the trunk of a fallen cedar, and when there were no chores to do the children played here among the shadows and the long grass. For an hour, an evening, too short a time, they breathed a softer air that held no taint of burning, under a gentler sky where flew no shapes of terror, in a kinder place that did not smell of fear.
That evening, under a sky of eggshell blue, Noor crossed the stream on the fallen cedar, and Adham came to meet her. As their hands touched, the trunk crumbled, and they landed together in a laughing heap on a cushion of bark and wood. It was sunset, and clouds above them, curled red and gold, drifted like feathers. For a while they lay there, wondering at the sky’s beauty.
“I can hear music,” Noor said.
Adham listened. “I can’t hear it. But something. I can feel something.”
They sat up. For a moment they were still, then worked side by side, quiet and eager, scraping away dust and fragments, until in front of them was a hollow of scented bark. In it lay –
“An egg,” Noor said, bending low. “I thought there was music. But there isn’t; only something like music.”
“It is blue like the sky,” Adhem said.
Noor stooped, and picked it up, cupping it in her hands. “And warm like … I don’t know what.” She lifted it to her face. “It smells of cinnamon.”
“And cardamom and sandalwood,” Adhem said.
“Sunlight.” Noor caressed it. “It’s so old.”
“I think it’s new. Or at least, young.” They looked at each other. Adhem said, “All ages, then.”
“All times,” Noor agreed. “Let’s take care of it.”
“I think it can take care of itself, but it would be good to have it with us.”
They went indoors together. Between Noor’s palms the egg was heavy as gold, smooth as pearl. The music of it was on the edge of her hearing.
Adhem hunted in the chest where he kept his blankets and his treasures. “Here is the sandalwood box that our father’s grandfather carved his wife for a wedding gift.” The box was wood and mother-of-pearl and carved with feathers or fronds; they could have been either. “It was to wish her happiness.”
Noor gave him the egg, and went to her own room. “Here is the silk that our mother’s grandmother embroidered for her husband as a wedding gift.” There were palm-trees and letters in swirling calligraphy. “It was to wish him long life.”
They laid the silk in the scented box, and the egg on the silk, and set the box high on the rafter between their two rooms. “Will it hatch?” Noor said.
“Of course it will hatch,” Adhem said. “It has love and happiness and words and beauty. Sometimes they go away, but they return.”
Noor nodded. “They are always there,” she said, “even when we cannot see them. We have to give them time.”
They make time for themselves, the seed of the phoenix whispered to the scented darkness. And from love and memory they make more than time. All will be well.
Glorious sunshine again yesterday. I gathered a few red tomatoes and wondered if the ones left green would ever turn now. The daytime skies here are quiet now, the evenings starting to fill with the plaintive calls of tawny owls. I have been ill this past week, watching much of the last of the sun from my window, lacking the energy to go outside to greet it.
This is a hard season, I struggle to find the mellow in its fruitfulness. The sense so many seem to have of preparation for rest and regeneration. The dying of the light seems to spark a primal reaction in me somehow. As though at this time I am more bear, more swallow, more tree than I am human. It is also a time so closely associated now with loss and grief that its sense of endings is heavier than its promise of beginnings for me.
I yearn to leave for where the sun still warms the sand. Or find a space to sleep through this harsh and unforgiving time. But perhaps I must learn to be still. to be still and wait.
And to keep finding ways to put my feelings into images and words. To try to make some small beauty from it all. It has always been my way to find light in the darkness. I think it was Aristotle who said that you should find what you are best at and do it to the best of your ability if you want to be happy (or maybe fulfilled at least)
The giant forests of Lapland are a good place for brown bears. They are not such a good place to lose a child.
They had pulled the station-wagon to the side of the road to take a break on their way to Santa Land, through the Pyhä-Luosto National Park.
The family ate in the car, the coffee from the thermos steaming up the windows. All around them was the sound of melting snow, thudding down from the branches of the spruce and pine trees. “I don’t like the sandwich,” said the little girl in the back seat, squashed between her two brothers. “It’s reindeer.”
“Eat it,” said the mother wearily. “It’s a while before we get there. Poronkusema times ten. Anyway, the reindeer is already dead, darling.”
“I want to pee,” said the child, and clambered across her brother’s lap. He opened the door. “Look out for wolves,” he said, grinning. “Go with her,” said their father. “No way,” said the brother, frowning because he couldn’t get a signal on his gaming App. “She’ll be fine.”
“Who wants to see Santa, anyhow,” grumbled the other brother, stretching and yawning. “There’s no such thing.”
“Saila believes in Santa,” said her mother. “And don’t you spoil it for her.”
The child had already disappeared through the snow, plodding into the shadows of the towering trees. “Go with her, there might be bears,” said the mother, frowning. “No bears,” said the father. “There’s hardly any left and even if there is, they’ll be hibernating by now.”
After a few minutes, the mother sighed and climbed out of the driver’s seat. She stretched and yawned, peering towards the luminous green light of the forest, where the sun was barely filtering through the branches. “Saila?” she called, hesitantly at first and then with a sense of urgency.
There was no reply.
Deep in the forest, the little girl was following a small bird. A blue throat. It trilled and hopped from branch to branch and she followed. Under the trees, the snow was sparse and her feet crunched on the frozen pine needles. She kicked a pine cone and giggled when it hit a trunk. Then the trunk turned.
It was a brown bear. Standing taller than her father, the bear looked at Saila and she looked back. “I’m sorry, bear,” she said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Saila looked sad. Then she said, “They killed your friend and put him over the fireplace in the hotel. It made me cry. Are you sad, bear?”
The bear was very still. She was standing in a grove of silver birches. Suddenly she dropped onto all fours, never taking her eyes off the child.
She seemed to sense that there was no danger from this small human being, standing so upright, looking at her so fearlessly.
Saila dug in her pocket. “Here,” she said. She tossed the remains of her sandwich in front of her. “You have it. It’s not very nice. It’s reindeer.”
The bear didn’t move. Saila took a step backwards, just to be polite. “It’s alright, you have it,” she said, gesturing towards the sandwich.
The bear looked at the sandwich. “Are you sure?” she said, in a rumbling voice. “Yes, really,” said Saila and smiled.
“You are kind, child,” said the bear. She moved forward carefully and sniffed the sandwich. “I prefer berries,” she said in her curious growling voice. “But before the Big Sleep, all food is good.” She devoured the sandwich. “Do you have anything else to eat?” said the bear in a low voice.
“I’m so sorry,” said Saila. “Nothing else.” All around them, the silver birches shivered although there was no wind. “I must go now, bear,” said Saila. “My mother will wonder where I am.”
“Must you go?” said the bear. The silver birches shimmered and whispered. There was a strange light in the bear’s eyes. Saila was clothed in innocence. She stood, upright and fearless, her white-blonde hair sparkled silver with frost, her breath surrounding her in a cloak of mystery.
She curtseyed to the bear. “Goodbye, bear,” she said and she turned her back.
“That is not a good idea,” said the bear. “You might come to harm in this deep forest. There are wolves. I shall walk you to find your mother.”
“I’m not sure I know the way back,” Saila said.
“Then I will show you,” said the bear. “Follow your footprints and I will walk with you. You are too small to be alone.”
The great creature moved slowly towards Saila and then past her. There was a fragrance of pine and warm, wet fur. It was a strange smell but also comforting. They walked side by side, the silver child and the great bear. Soon they could hear the frantic calling of her family.
“This is where we must part,” said the bear gravely.
“What is your name?” said the little girl. “I am Saila.”
“And I am the mother of Otso, the great bear,” said the old brown bear. She turned on all fours, and then stood upright and walked into the forest. For one moment, she didn’t look much like a bear at all.
Saila watched her disappear into the shadows and then she ran out into the clearing. The car was empty, doors wide open, because her parents and her brothers were running up and down the road, calling her name into the forest.
“Here I am,” she called. The family turned disbelievingly and stared at her before they all started shouting at her, and then at one another, laughing and cheering, as if she had done something wonderful.
She had. Of course, she had. They would never believe her, she thought, just as they didn’t believe in Santa Claus. But she, Saila the brave, the fearless, the silver child. She believed in the magic and so it was.
For Katherine Soutar
26 June 2020
For more of Suzi’s writing https://www.shakespearesauntie.co.uk
And if you enjoy these stories based on my work please consider supporting me on Patreon or Ko-fi https://ko-fi.com/katherinesoutar
Each drop of water from the overhanging branches fell into the stream with a noise like stone on stone, faint but clear through the smoke of mist that drifted over the ground. For all the still night there was an odd, chill breeze blowing. Ailie had been treading carefully, the basket at her hip heavy with butter from the kine and honey from the hive, gifts from Mistress MacPherson at Cuillean. She had stayed there all evening, for the old lady had been yearning for a young thing about the house, and had given her broth to sup and spring water to drink and spun long yarns of when she was a girl.
Now Ailie quickened her pace, mindful of the late hour and the folk waiting for her at home, and came out from under the trees to a place where the stream tumbled peat-brown over granite boulders into a pool. She slithered down the slope, recovered her balance and went on across the cropped turf, dew-bleached in the moonlight. The path curved to the right here, and as she followed it, something dark bulked in the corner of her eye. She stopped. No more movement, but it was still there. Ailie set her lips together and turned toward it. Better to see it than not to know.
It was like a horse, but it was not. There was a tale Mistress MacPherson had told her.
She would have to pass between it and the water.
Kelpie. Her lips formed the word, but no sound came, only a breath of air on the cold night that drifted before her eyes and was gone.
The thing had no visible substance; it might have been drawn in strokes of pallid light on the darkness. Each wild lock of its mane moved slowly like weed underwater. A shimmer of green danced and slid on each curve and plane of its face as if it, and she too, stood waiting in the depths of the stream.
Between the shifting outlines it was darker than the dark behind it. Ailie dared not move; but she had to move. The thing was not blocking her way. It drifted beside her, no closer, as she took one step, another, along the path between it and the water’s brink. She edged away from it, and her foot slipped. She fell with the basket hugged close to her right side, and her left hand slapped down into grass that seemed coated with fine grit. She curled her head and shoulders down, for now surely the kelpie would come for her, and carry her off into the dark water.
There was no sound but her breath, and the damp shift of hooves that were not quite hooves on grass. Nothing else happened. Slowly she sat up, still hugging the basket close. The heel of her left hand stung; she licked at the graze, and tasted salt. But she was not bleeding. Wondering, she pinched a blade of grass between finger and finger, and wiped it clean.
The fine grit was salt.
Ailie looked up, and saw the kelpie pacing a curve, like a caged animal in a zoo. It must have come out of the water, and someone had bound it in a circle of salt, and now it could not return to the stream. She was safe. Quite safe. She scrambled to her feet, and kilted up her skirts in her left hand to run away.
There were voices in the distance, borne uphill on the chill breeze. Lachlan, and Jamie, and the new hand from beyond Kessock whose name she could not remember. They were arguing as usual. “A silver bullet, that will kill it and no mistake!”
“Why would we do such a thing, when we can bridle it with the sign of cross? Better a strong horse to do the heavy work that the laird lays on our backs.”
The kelpie whickered, a noise as if ice wept. Ailie could not help but turn around. It turned its head slowly and looked at her out of its left eye. Green and wild was the eye, and cold. But there was also a sadness that drew her deep in, and somewhere behind that a white figure that might have been a reflection of herself, or the ghost of a ghost or a long-ago dream; but whatever it was, it was human, or had been once. The wild and the dark water was the nature of it, and not of its choosing.
Ailie set down the basket and dropped to her knees again, scraping and tugging at the grass, leaning down to the stream to scoop up water and wash every blade clean for a space as wide across as her two arms could reach. Then she drew back, clutching the basket in front of her again, as if it would make a shield for her if need be.
She did not need it. The kelpie stepped daintily forward, head down, cautious, then found itself free, and in one leap, a surge of dark, it was gone, leaving behind it a swirl of cold air and a noise like distant thunder.
Ailie took the other path back, down the gentler slope where she would not meet the three men climbing up from the stream’s fall into the mill-pond, and as she walked towards warmth and home she wept, the tears salt on her face. Not for herself, nor because of the fear that had passed, but for the creature that had gone back alone into the darkness of deep water.
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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.
‘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.
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.
But Askafroa did not answer, she was observing the way the girl ran her tongue around the corners of her mouth.
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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It is 3 months now since I received the first story submissions for the images I made during the first difficult days of lockdown. When I started drawing mythical creatures in isolation all those weeks ago I never dreamed they would become the catalyst for so many writers to bring new stories into the world.
It’s pretty hard to articulate just how impressed I am by all of them so far. Stories of magic, of compassion, change, transformation and hope. Many in the tradition of the folktales I have loved for so much of my life but speaking to who and where we are now as well. I hope one day to hear them being told around a bonfire on a warm summer evening… The experience of having writers create for illustration rather than the other way around has been a fascinating reflection for me of the way in which I read and absorb text to try to discover the right imagery to complement it.
And I would love to see them all published together in a book, I will make it happen somehow and I am currently seeking a publisher so if anyone out there can help please get in touch.
In the meantime I have started to publish them to my Patreon account because I really feel they should be seen by those who support me most directly first. But I do want more people to read and enjoy them and for the writers to get recognition for their new tales of mythical creatures that are so reflective of our times. So I will be starting to publish selected stories here as well. With links and information about the writers.
Although most of the tales do not directly reference the pandemic, like the images they have all been created in its shadow. For most of us who create the way in which our world experience feeds into what we make is a given. And this shared trauma with all of its aspects of uncertainty, fear and isolation but also hope for the future has forged connections and collaborations that we could never have anticipated a few months ago. I am hoping the writers will be happy to share their experiences of creating at this time too and their reasons for feeling inspired to write by these images.
My deepest gratitude to the people who have written for this, and are writing still for this. And to the hope that one day we will see these images and stories in print and be able to meet up in the real world and raise a glass or two to our collaboration in the virtual one…