By Joanna Paterson
It starts with the snap of a twig. The crackling is sudden and slight, not out of sorts for being in woodland, surely. But no breeze lifts the empty branches and as far as the human eye can make out no animals are tracking through the underbrush. No sudden flight of a bird lifts from the treetops. In fact the place is eerily quiet.
She stands still.
Woods have a way of filtering light that makes the trees seem to grow under water. Even in early spring when the haze of the birches is purple and the willows stretch out buds in whispery yellows the woods have an underwater feeling. Their weaving branches close overhead, not cleanly as in winter, but thickly, like kelp, their twigs swollen with furled leaves. The blue is far away and often the grey rolling ocean of clouds cuts visibility. Under their furious surfing waves the trunks stand upright, rooted in the calm sea bottom where creatures scuttle.
This is what she thought as she stood there.
And it was not far-fetched at all, there where the old leaves gathered brown and filleted in last-year’s colours of leather. The barren, unfruitful clay seen jutting up was exposing now and again the solid edginess of rock. Early spring is not kind; it only promises an end to winter. The crows floated overhead, their peculiar frayed wing-feathers streaming like black banners
Being alone was to be tasted like salt water on the tongue. It came with the cold air easing through the canopy of tree twigs, touching her face and bare hands. She wanted at last to be alone. Like leaving mittens behind, she wished to trust her bare hands, her stripped self. The warmth of common womanly dreams, of snuggling babies and of the manliness of a loving husband, belonged to houses. These were pictures she took down now from the walls of her remembering.
In the forest her body was washed by the cold; she dropped her fire-lit past. It sparked now far away, abandoned, where the winter sun sent streaks of orange and crimson through the thick surfaces of clouds. Amongst the oaks she was elemental.
Jenny Wren she would call herself. Not Alice or Susie. A wren is brown with a long black streak across the eye. Her song is the loudest in the woods. She shouts out the notes with her beak wide open. Her flights are short, from wood pile to wood pile where she slips like a mouse between the moss brown coatings of the logs and the dark time-telling rings of the sliced wood. The wren is quick and beholden to no one. Her nest may be under the long dead dung brown clothes of the woodland ferns. They crackle with the spirals of dead fronds like ancient skin criss-crossed with the rune marks of rain. Wrens do not feed at the bird table.
The snapping twig was to her the sign of foreboding change. Then there was the heavy surge of wind that came off the north Atlantic. The top branches clattered together. The birches on the hills caught their purpling hair in the clouds. A splatter of raindrops made loose silver and brown strands of newly wet undergrowth sound like the sea.
She metamorphosed into a bird woman, her true nature. She was now light of foot as were her hollowed bones and feathered breast.
And now she heard what she had never heard before: the snort of a horse caught above in the clouds. There in the sky. This was where she flew. It was her terrain. Impossible, she thought, here in the dense woods where she gathered her food.
But she heard it for certain.
The galloping was over the trees, among the clouds, hooves and nostrils making rasping and clapping sounds. The wind was picking up. Tatters of fog spilled in from sea and hill. Then she heard the soft thump of deer and fox, the wood’s wild ones running. The deer were tawny red and the foxes were crimson as lightning in hell. Mice spilled like waves in grey and white tidal runs. The buzzards and owls flapped and cried. On a silver horse the rider sat masked and ivory white. The face had full lips and deep black depths for eyes. The voice whistled a huntress’s song.
Then she passed by, golden flesh bright as the full moon. Her quiver was laden with silver arrows. It was the Diana of the Hunt.
Her golden hair waved in the storm. Her eyes glittered and burnt.
Jenny Wren took heart. She saw here was the goddess of all woodland creatures and all woodland life. Jenny Wren rode with the Wild Hunt.
She shivered in ecstasy. From far above the woods she envisioned the fingers of coastland oak woods dip into the wind-whipped rocky shores of sea lochs and the speckled islands hunched like prehistoric dragons.
The wild hunt’s cloudy race swirled and sheared, clipping and snatching trees hooked in the rock cliffs. Jenny Wren was air-borne as if she was a new-budded leaf floating in the equinoctial storm. She found where she was to be at home: in the nooks and crannies of dry dykes and the sea edge.
The soul of late winter swooped. The bird soul and the bird bones of the bird woman rode the white tide of incoming waves on the shoreline. The clouds massed from the North. The Hunt sped arrows into the turbulent months of early spring. It was good to be otherwise than housewife.
When early blossom ripens Jenny Wren bursts into full song.
Photo credit: rawdonfox