Myths in Isolation tales – T is for Tiangou. The story of Chang Er by Suzi Clark

Tiangou. The original drawing of this celestial body swallowing dog is now hanging on a wall somewhere, as is his right I feel.

If you enjoy this story please consider supporting me on Patreon or buying me a coffee on Ko-fi . Thank you x

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

Ink, wax, bleach and bones


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….

Fish
Wisp
Bulky
Blade
Rodent
Throw
Outpost
Storm
Sleep
Chef
Rip
Buddy
Hide
Music
Float
Crawl

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

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

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.

If you enjoyed this story please consider supporting me on Patreon or Ko-fi https://ko-fi.com/katherinesoutar

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.

if you enjoyed this please consider supporting me on Patreon or Ko-fi https://ko-fi.com/katherinesoutar

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.