Myths in Isolation alphabet – P is for Phoenix by Jane Wickenden

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.

The dark time of the year approaches

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)

Myths in isolation alphabet – O is for Otso. The bear and the silver child by Suzi Clark

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.

Suzi Clark
For Katherine Soutar
26 June 2020

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Myths in Isolation alphabet – K is for Kelpie by Jane Wickenden

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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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:

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.
‘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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Myths in Isolation tales – an update

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…

On the edge of things – A story

The woman had always lived on the edge of things. Between worlds. One foot in the world of people and one in the world of earth and sky. For many years she balanced between them.

She loved people, but they could be difficult to be with and she struggled to understand so many things about them. She didn’t know the answers to any of the big questions, but she knew that she didn’t and that seemed to be something not altogether bad.
She wasn’t sure that some of them even had answers.
she walked alone each day with her thoughts and the sounds of birdsong and breezes. she was happy to be leaves and feathers, atoms and dust.

She knew the names of things and would murmur them as she passed. She knew she was utterly and wondrously insignificant in the scheme of things angd yet also a part of everything. Every tiny fly and wind blown blossom had its place and so did she.

As time went by she turned more and more to the quiet places. She pottered in her garden and watched the seasons change, the trees become misted with green, then emerald and shimmering in the wind, then flame fire bright then black bare bones against the grey sky again.. She watched the world turn and knew that change would continue. Because that is the nature of things.
She grew old in years and the birds became so bold around her she could almost touch them. She knew their names and their songs and they knew her song too.

She often stood so still in the morning air she could hear her own heart beating and feel the earths rhythm through her feet.
One day in May she stood in her wild garden, stretched out her fragile arms in the warm spring sunshine and waited. And the birds came. They sat light as feathered whispers along her arms and they perched on her wild head.
And she smiled to herself and thought, If only this moment could go on forever.
The people wondered in passing what had become of the woman who lived on the edge of things. They walked by the quiet place where she had once lived and saw nothing. Just trees. There might have been one more, but who counts trees?

Finding my light in the Lockdown – Myths in isolation.

I hope you are all getting through these weird times in ways that work for you. I hope you are able to breathe fresh air and that you can find some humour in our new obsessions. ( one of my current ones is trying to get hold of eggs. when my elderly hen Nancy finally laid her first of the year recently I could have kissed her, I nearly did to be honest, I am missing hugs from friends more than I can say)

I was close to panic at the beginning of the stay at home period of the crisis. After a couple of weeks of confusion about risk, anxiety about continuing to go into school after everything else had closed down and worry for friends and family I knew were very vulnerable, I was exhausted and stressed. I sat at my kitchen table and cried the Tuesday before they finally closed the school. My hypertension raged and I felt as though I was in fight or flight mode all of the time.
The decision, when it finally came, to ask us to stay at home came as something of a relief. Some of the constant fear subsided.

I managed to focus on work long enough to finish the book cover I was working on and send it off. I had another book cover and some colour spreads in my inbox but my publisher then emailed to say they were closed for now and my editor would be on furlough so there was now no idea when anything would go to print or be signed off/approved

For a few days I tidied cupboards, repotted plants and planted vegetable seeds to try to ground myself. It helped. I took long walks in the woods. I tried sporadically to work on my commissions, these things I now had no deadline for… without much success.
I have a piece to do for one of my Patrons but couldn’t manage to focus on that either. I felt frustrated and disconnected. I wasn’t drawing. It hurt, I could feel panic creeping back, and it made me feel rudderless.

Then I remembered my friend Su had created a drawing challenge at the beginning of February called ‘ A fortnight of fuckdoodlery’ for those of us who were feeling low and discouraged about all sorts of things. I messaged her and asked if she would consider setting up another to give us all something to focus on other than our current scary situation.

She very kindly obliged and made it an alphabetical challenge for the sake of simplicity. It was immediately a lifesaver for me. Creating for the sake of it helped me pick up a pencil again. I looked forward to curling up in a chair every day and finding something beginning with A to F

I decided to only use pastels and pencils as this was all about drawing rather than painting. Some were simple, some silly, some were from life, some were heartfelt. It gave me a chance to try to draw my Dad once more and be reminded of our last trip to Barcelona together.

This was Dad’s favourite hat, he lost it later that day, possibly in a taxi. He was sanguine about it as ever, ‘it’s just a hat‘ he said.

When I got to the Letter G I instantly thought Griffin! I need to draw a griffin… and as I started to draw him I realised he was expressing something about what I was feeling that day about this unsettling time, this strange bright spring shot through with darkness. I joked to my son that perhaps I should do a series of mythical creatures in self isolation. He raised his eyebrows in that ‘well? Sort of way he has, so the idea was born.

G is for Griffin. I didn’t finish him as I started late in the day and lack of light and tiredness got the better of me. But I am going to keep him this way. That was how that day was.

Since then it has become a sort of obsession, after doing the first few curled up in an armchair I found I was taking longer and longer over them and so finding this more and more problematic. I struggled to unfold myself afterwards my limbs grumped and groaned and the eye strain of working in the dim living room lighting started to show. I don’t know why I resisted returning to my desk to do these for so long, some strange sense of guilt that it wasn’t ‘proper’ work somehow? I am not sure. But by the time I got to R I was back at my desk.
Each day I posted the new drawing to social media and the responses were encouraging, affirming and sometimes poignant.
This also helped me more than I can say. Images are my main way of connecting with people, I can say more with them than with words.

A to F
Askafroa. Brownie. Centaur. Dragon. Fei Lian
H is for Hippocamp
I to L
Imp. Jackalope. Kelpie. Laume.

Then people started to suggest there might be a book in these pictures at some point. Maybe, I thought…maybe. Finally my friend Tom, who is a wonderful storyteller from Orkney added that perhaps people could write stories to go with the images and as I imagined giving all these isolated creatures a different voice it seemed it could be something lasting and positive to come out of these times. This has all exploded somewhat now. And I have many people wanting to contribute. This morning as I am writing this I have decided that anyone who would like to can do just that, so we can have as many voices as we like. I will need to be the final arbiter of what is published but anyone who wants to write a story or poem about any of the 26 creatures can go ahead and send them to me at katherinesoutarillustrator@gmail

M to P
Melusine. Nekomata. Otso. Phoenix.

These images are of themselves but also very much of me. They express so much about how I felt on that day. Some are unfinished, some polished. Some are dark and brooding, some thoughtful, some hopeful, even celebratory, some sad.

Q to U
Questing beast. Rainbow crow. Selkie. Tiangou. Unicorn
V to Z
Vampire. Wendigo. Xochiquetzal. Yeti. Zlatrog

I will be approaching my usual publisher about making a book of these when they are open again. I really hope they will take it up, but if not I will look elsewhere or possibly even think about crowdfunding and self publishing. This has been one of the most personal series of drawings I have ever done. I hope you find something that speaks to you in them.

Searching for the Fianna

Searching for the Fianna


Working on Daniel Allisons book ‘Finn and the Fianna’


When Daniel first approached me to ask if I would be interested in illustrating his retelling of the Finn and the Fianna stories I had several almost simultaneous reactions.

The first was excitement as I love these tales, they are epic stories full of the breadth of human emotion and experience as well as being full of adventure and strange, often terrifying magic.

The second was ‘help! This is a tight deadline! (Especially bearing in mind I would be away for a couple of weeks in the middle)

Closely followed by the third. Which was that this commission had arrived at precisely the right time, it would give me a chance to step away from the carefully considered colour work and style I use for the Folk Tales covers and explore pen and ink in a similar way as I had done during the #inktobers (#inktober is a challenge every October for illustrators to do a drawing a day in ink on a theme for that day) I had takejn part in. and if I could do a drawing a day during# inktober and make it work this deadline suddenly seemed much less formidable.

Daniels Manuscript arrived and I began to read… he had asked if I would illustrate every other story in the book, beginning with ‘The fate of Coull’ the tale of Finns parents. I was instantly absorbed and enchanted by his writing. and I can honestly say that if I have done good work on this project I feel it is a reflection in part of the excellence of the storytelling in this book.

I am not going to reproduce any part of the book here, it is not published for some months yet so I don’t feel that would be appropriate. Daniel and I are hoping for an exhibition of the work to coincide with the book launch in Scotland next year so keep an eye on the news page if you would like to be invited.

I made a list of the stories I would be illustrating at the beginning of my sketchbook. I had decided to do all the work for this project in one A4 book so I could carry it with me and make notes/sketches whenever I wanted to.

I dedicated the next 15 pages to each story. Notes, sketches and in one case even the finished piece are on these pages. I remember after reading ‘the boar hunt’ I just wrote one thing on the page

‘will come back to this one when I can read it without crying’

I am incredibly grateful for the experience in illustrating for folktales and storytelling I have built up over the past 20 years, it has taught me a few things; one of which is that you don’t always need to tell the story in an illustration, reflecting an aspect, a feeling, a moment, is often more effective, and less is very often more…

Good storytelling creates a world of images in people’s minds, I prefer to work around that and present pictures that sit alongside that inner world and whisper quietly about the feeling of the tale, and hopefully speak a little of its essence.

I hope I have achieved that here to some extent.

One of the lessons I have taken from the pieces I have made here is that I need to allow them to be a little rougher and freer, not seek to produce something that looks too ‘finished’ to my eye, lest I lose some of the raw emotion the initial drawings have. Pen and wash is a more stark and immediate media so good for expressing feelings and I need to be treat it with respect.

I would love to do more pen and wash work, working in line and tone only is a discipline that can give a great deal of expression to a simple but strong idea. So if there is anyone else out there that would like to talk about working together I am here.


And I am looking forward to the next #inktober too, I missed it this year as I was working on this book!

Cover stories – Derry folk tales. Finding Manannán Mac Lir

‘In the beginning, when Ireland was emerging from the invisible cloak of time, Manannán Mac Lír was a prince of the Tuatha de Dánann,

there was nothing he loved more than leaping over the waves and riding his big horse Enbarr of the Flowing Mane across the sea until the hooves raised the waves thirty feet high and topped them with churning white foam’ 


The stories of the ever changing moods of Manannán Mac Lir make him a fascinating character, he is both generous and capricious, protective and cruel, a trickster who can change his shape at will and an inveterate clown. The image that stuck in my mind was one of him riding the waves with his beloved horse Enbarr of the flowing mane, churning the waves into foam and sending sailors scuttling for safe harbour. I sighed inwardly a little as I realised I was going to tackle water once again, something that always makes me nervous no matter how many times I depict it.
But this time it wasn’t the water that confounded me, it was ‘Manannán himself. That contrary sea god kept eluding me. Every sketch I made just came out looking too much like just another bloke on a horse. No magic was there, no sense of a greater power. I was also experiencing a difficult time in my personal life and became increasingly convinced that I wouldn’t find the magic again, not an uncommon problem for people who do what I do and one that can lead to a sort of horrified inertia if it goes on for long… 


Then away from home at a summer school where I was in a different environment and my mind was largely on other things something cleared a little and I tried once more to wipe the foggy window of my imagination and peer through to what I hoped still lay beyond. 
I reread the tale and was struck by this passage.
‘When he took the notion to catch a glimpse of his throne on the top of Barrule on the Isle of Man, the other part of his Kingdom, sure all he had to do was fill his lungs and blow and then he’d ride the towering waves. No wonder the locals along the Lough would shake their heads and mutter, ‘Manannán is angry today.’ Sure maybe he wasn’t angry, just homesick, for as I said before, nobody likes to be stuck in the one place all the time and he probably missed his other wee island in the middle of the Irish Sea’ 

There it was. The shift of focus that I needed. The notion that perhaps he should be more a part of the sea than riding on it, this shapeshifting God/magician of the sea.

And I think it worked

Here is the extract from Derry Folk tales concerning Manannán Mac Lir. Reproduced with the kind permission of the author, Madeline McCullly. 
Manannán Mac Lír



In the beginning, when Ireland was emerging from the invisible cloak of time, Manannán Mac Lír was a prince of the Tuatha de Dánann, a race of supernaturally gifted people in Irish mythology. Sure didn’t he make places for all of the Tuatha to live in, for he was a responsible sort of being.

  Now after he’d done all that he went away out of Ireland and it was said that he died in battle at Magh Cuilenn at the hands of Uillenn Faebarderg, a son of Finn. Well, didn’t they bury him standing up on the Tonn Banks and they lived to regret it for a giant wave burst up from under his feet in the place known as the Red Bog at that time. And the brave Manannánrose again.   

  That lake got the name of Lough Foyle from one of the names of Manannán and so it’s been known ever since. And the brave Manannán was reincarnated as Manannán Mac Lír- the son of Lear- meaning the sea. But Manannán, being a decent sort went around Ireland after that,doing bits and pieces of good in his own way. He enjoyed moving about for he wasn’t one to stay for any length of time in any place.   

  Well, listening to all the myths of the Lough we hear that Manannán MacLir guards the Foyle well. He had a mighty sword called Fragarach that was forged for him by the gods. Manannán wielded it well and it was said that you couldn’t tell a lie or move with the swordat your throat and that’s how it earned the name of ‘The Answerer’ or the ‘The Retaliator’.

  Now this sword saw had some pedigree and Manannán fought many battles with it before he passed this weapon on to Lugh, his foster son. Manannán was the one who rescued Lugh from the sea at Tory when his grandfather Balor ordered him to be drowned (you see, there was a prophesy by a Druid that Balor’s grandson would kill him so he decided that he would kill Lugh first.) But Balor didn’t know that Manannán rescued Lugh and didn’t the very same Lugh kill Balor of the Evil Eye with the sword and fulfilled the prophecy? Now Balor and his shenanigans is another story for another time but let it be known that the evil man deserved it.

 After that Lugh give the sword to Cuchulainn who later gave it to Conn of the hundred battles. That was some sword, wasn’t it?  

  Sure this sword did other magical things for if you were the one using it, didn’t it place the wind at your command and it could cut through any shield or wall, and if you happened to be wounded by it, sure you’d recover without a scratch or scar.

  Some people still ask the question, “Who was Manannán MacLir?”

Now there’s a question and all I can say is that he was changeable. He could be one thing one day and a different one the next. It depended on the mood he was in. You wouldn’t know the likes of him for wasn’t he a God of disguise. He used these disguises to get his own way. One thing you can be certain of is that you don’t want to get on the wrong side of him for ‘tis a terrible temper he has when roused. All of us who live along Lough Foyle know that.

  Manannán was a trickster and a magician for couldn’t he turn himself into a three-pronged wheel in order to travel faster across the land and if that wasn’t enough didn’t he have a magic boat known as Scuabtuinne ‘Wave-sweeper’ so that he could ride hell for leather over the waves and there was no escaping him if you were the one he was chasing. 

  He must have given his poor parents, Lir and Aoib, a wild time when he was young. Sure there was nothing he loved more than leaping over the waves and riding his big horse Enbarr of the Flowing Mane across the sea until the hooves raised the waves thirty feet high and topped them with churning white foam. No wonder the poor sailors hated to see him coming but sure nothing his parents could do would stop him. He was a stubborn impudent fella.

  It was worse though, when he wrapped his invisible cloak around him and he would creep up unexpectedly and blow boats off-course and even sink some of them, for didn’t he have his kingdom under the water at the mouth of the lough, just where the sand banks are. Many an unwary boat disappeared on those banks between Magilligan and Inistrahull when Manannán played God.

  When he took the notion to catch a glimpse of his throne on the top of Barrule on the Isle of Man, the other part of his Kingdom, sure all he had to do was fill his lungs and blow and then he’d ride the towering waves. No wonder the locals along the Lough would shake their heads and mutter, ‘Manannán is angry today.’ Sure maybe he wasn’t angry, just homesick, for as I said before, no body likes to be stuck in the one place all the time and he probably missed his other wee island in the middle of the Irish Sea.

  He wasn’t invited too often to dine in any of the big palaces but once or twice he invited himself. Needless to say he always went in disguise. Sure one time he heard that the chieftain Aodh Dubh O’Donnell was having a big feast with musicians and all the local big-wigs and the bould Manannan dressed up as a bedraggled clown with water squelching in his shoes and a sword that was naked for the want of a sheath sticking out behind him. His ears were stuck through an old cloak and he carried three blackened sticks of holly wood in his hand. 

   When O’Donnell caught sight of him he wanted to know how such a dirty fella entered his house and not one of the guards on the gate stopped him. Manannán spoke up for himself and as boldly as you like, says, “I can leave as easily as I came in and none shall stop me.” It was a bit of a challenge he was throwing down, just to see what O’Donnell would do.

  Just at that moment the musicians started to play and the clown covered his ears and shouted above them, “By my word, O’Donnell, that music is worse than the noise of hammers beating on iron. T’would deafen ye. Would ye stop your people making that racket!”

  And with that he took a harp from one of the musicians and began to play on it and right away there was total silence in the banqueting hall for there never was the likes of that music heard in all of the land. It could have put a woman in labour or wounded men in battle to sleep.

  O’Donnell had a smile as wide as the ocean on his face, “I have never heard better music than your own. It is a sweet player you are.”

“Oh,” answered the clown, “one day I’m sweet and another day I’m sour.”

  “Come sit at my table,” says O’Donnell, and let me give you more fancy clothes.” But the clown would have none of it. So, afraid that he might leave, the O’Donnell put twenty men to hold him and even more outside the gate and that brought the fiercest anger on the clown. 

  “Begod,” he said, “T’is not with you I’ll be eating my supper tonight and if I find you giving one stir out of yourself or your big castle between this and morning I will knock you into a round lump on the ground.” 

  With that he took up the harp again and played music even more sweet and when the whole gathering were listening he called out,” Here I’m coming, watch me well now or you will lose me.”

  Sure they didn’t know that the clown was Manannán and he swung his invisible cloak around him and disappeared. Now the men were all watching the gate with their axes lifted up to stop him leaving but Manannán nipped each one and they swung around, thinking they were going to hit the clown, but instead they struck each other until they were all lying drenched in blood on the ground. 

  When they were all lying dead, the clown took the gatekeeper to one side and whispered, “Let you ask twenty cows and a hundred of the free lands of O’Donnell as a fee for bringing his people back to life. Take this herb and rub it in the mouth of each man and he will rise up whole and well again.”

  You might well ask why Manannán was so good to the gatekeeper. Sure didn’t he have a bit of sport and play with the mother before the child came into the world at all and who is to say that he might even be the Gatekeeper’s father. Anyway, that is how the gatekeeper got the cows and land from O’Donnell and the men were grateful to be back in the land of the living again.

  That was the sort of thing Manannán did for fun and he was known to say that a life without humour is like a tree without leaves or a spring without water.

 Manannán was always up to something when he wasn’t chasing the women for as you’ve probably gathered, he was a wild man with the ladies and always had a great liking for them,but not everything went his way for he never got the woman that he coveted above all others -the Princess Túaige.  

  It might surprise you to know that Manannán had a wife by the name of Fand and she was a goddess in her own right but sure they had an argument and three demons attacked her kingdom. And t’is here that the brave Cúchulainn enters the picture for sure didn’t he take Fand as his mistress and him had a wife of his own! 

  Now when Cúchulainn’s wife Emer heard this didn’t she come after him and Fand was looking for a way to escape Emer when she saw her own husband Manannán appearing in a ‘magic mist’ and she cleared away off back with him. Begod, it came as a great surprise that he took he back for he wasn’t known to be a forgiving god. But then, wasn’t she a bit of a poet and used it as a bit of flattery:


When Manannán the great married me

I was a wife worthy of him.

A wristband of doubly tested gold

He gave me as the price of my blushes…


So just in case Cúchulainn would follow her didn’t Manannán shake his cloak of invisibility between her and him so they might never meet again in time. And what did poor Cúchulainn do but take a draught of forgetfulness to ease his heartache at losing Fand. 

  It’s a pity when they were burying Manannán that they didn’t bury him horizontal for if you were a God, being buried upright meant that you could face and vanquish your enemies. Maybe that’s why the Tonn Banks are so beset by angry waves that they form one part of a triad known as “The Three Waves of Erin”. Many shipwrecks have occurred there and the spirit of Manannán still rides on the storm wearing his invisible cloak. I haven’t seen him myself but sure you wouldn’t catch me on a boat anywhere near the Tonns.