The Hanged Man: Part 3: Samhain: (Entire)
In which you can read without interruption ...
Part 3: Samhain
(SAH-win or SOW-in) Halloween; begins the dark half of the year and is the midpoint between autumn equinox and winter solstice. Fire festival; third of three harvest points in the cycle. Self-assessment and reflection, a time to let go of that which no longer serves. Ushers in a period of peace and rest.
The Card: The Devil
Seduction by the material world and power; authentic experience
“Now breathe, Morfran. Think of your breath as becoming sky and wind. Push it out from your center down your arms and legs. With each breath push it farther out your fingers and toes. Surround yourself with it. As you breathe, imagine black feathers stirring in wind. Imagine a light-boned wing. Imagine far-seeing eyes and a strong beak. Imagine scent of old blood and rotting flesh. You, my son, stay at the center of your breath. The shape of your soul remains unchanged, but clothed in a different form. Now breathe! Breathe and fly!”
He flew, but clumsily, six feet off the ground. One flap of wings, two, and the crow fell, a sprawl of dark wings and outstretched neck that flickered into a boy.
“Oh, well done!” said Ceridwen. She sat cross legged in the grass. Morfran grinned at her, triumphant, and untangled himself. He’d fallen awkwardly on his twisted hip.
A low hill above Bala Lake served as their classroom. From where they sat Morfran could see farm, orchard and Ceridwen’s garden. Bald Tegid, easily visible because of his giant size, worked on a stone wall and Morfran could just see the golden floss of his sister Creirwy’s hair shining in the sun.
Morfran was in his tenth year and for weeks Ceridwen had been teaching him the art of shape-shifting. They’d begun in the garden as beetles, bees and snakes. In each shape Morfran entered into new layers of experience and understanding. Today’s lesson was the hardest yet—mastering the shape of a black crow.
“My name means ‘black crow,’” he said now, “so this shape is really like a second real shape. Does my soul fly on black wings?”
“I don’t know,” said Ceridwen, smiling. “Souls are mysterious and changeable. You’ll discover for yourself the shapes of yours. What’s important is that you never shape shift without knowing who you are when you do it. You must always stay tethered to yourself so you can come home.”
After that lesson he practiced constantly, and soon he learned how to shift by himself. Ceridwen, at work cutting reeds on the lakeshore, would see him vanish on a nearby hillside and a black crow, his favorite and most effortless shape, fly up, crying harshly and triumphantly, circling above her, and then folding its wings and plummeting into thick reeds fringing the water. Seconds later a blue dragonfly would alight on her bundle of reeds and then fly up near her face, the whirr of its wings against her cheek making her smile.
Once Morfran mastered the art of shape shifting, Bald Tegid taught him how to fish. Both children had learned to swim as soon as they were old enough to walk to the lake unaided. The deep water was cold away from the shallow, reedy edges that warmed in summer sun. Morfran liked to row a mile or two into the center of the lake and then shift into fish or otter or duck.
One autumn evening when Noola was full, he rowed along a silver path of moonlight. When his arms began to ache, he let the oars rest and sat quietly, floating on the lake’s silver skin. Looking down, he saw shapes of turrets and towers in the water where he’d never seen them before, thick walls and battlements and lighted windows.
He thought of a fish, silver as moonlight, and dove into the lake. He swam down and discovered a great castle standing on the lake bottom. An open door led him into scullery and kitchen. Stone steps climbed up a tower and he swam up and found a room, furnishings rotted and decayed. He swam out the open window and, room by room, explored the castle from top to bottom. Once it had been a fine place. Although many lights shone, as if for a gathering or feast, not a living soul could be seen, but he found many human bones, especially in the lower rooms. He inspected a vast hall with long tables and chairs pulled up to them. Elaborate candelabra festooned with floating ribbons of water weed and reeds from the world above hung from the ceiling. One large room led off another with fireplaces like toothless dark mouths. In the back regions near the open door, he swam through kitchens and here, too, many people had perished in the cold lake water. A feeling of magic and evil brooded everywhere. The lights only underlined the feeling of shadow.
Disturbed and fascinated, he swam up into silvery moonlight, glad to be in clean, cold water away from the castle walls. He thought of his dark, twisted shape, his adolescent body, leapt out of the water into the boat, took up the oars and returned home.
He found his family gathered before the fire. When he appeared, breathless with what he’d seen, Bald Tegid gave him a keen look out of eyes shadowed by the fire. “You’re cold, my son,” he said. Creirwy rose from her place at her father’s side and put more fuel on the fire, smiling at her brother. He smiled back. Ceridwen sat sewing herbs into sachets near a lamp with a high flame. She too smiled at Morfran, but her face looked troubled.
“So, you’ve seen the castle,” said Bald Tegid in his deep, rough voice. “The autumn full moon has revealed it to you. Now, my children, it’s time for a new tale.”
“In a time long past and coming again soon, a fertile valley lay among these hills. In the valley stood a castle and from the castle ruled a king who oppressed the people of this region without mercy. For many long years he reigned with none to stop his cruelties, and his arrogance grew along with his power and wealth. His unfortunate wife was a stranger, with no friend or family to support her, and in due course a son was born.
This is an old country and pockets of magic and mystery are to be found everywhere if you know how to look. Somehow word passed from one to another of the miserable plight of the people under this king, eventually reaching my ears. I lived in a solitary rocky place in the high mountains. It happened I’d lately found the companion of my soul and heart, your mother, and thought of settling in some green place with her to raise a family. I thought I’d take a walk and see for myself how it was with this region and its king.
In the meantime, the king ordered a feast to celebrate the birth of his son. He invited the most powerful men in the land, and wagon after wagon of fine provisions arrived. He pressed musicians into service and ordered local people to assist in preparations. They didn’t dare disobey, in spite of their hatred and fear of the king.
I arrived in the midst of this bustle. I looked here and listened there and watched everywhere. I realized the king would destroy himself and the fine land and flocks under his rule. Indeed, not a soul within reach of his power enjoyed safety. Something certainly needed to be done.
I returned home and consulted with your mother. We sent for a silver-haired harper, who’d learned his art from the Fair Folk themselves, and he brought with him a friend who was a piper. Together we made a plan.
On the night of the feast the castle filled with the finest group of villains you could hope to find. Each was greedier and more arrogant and power hungry than the last. They ate and drank and roistered, smashed dishes and glasses, brutally used any woman who caught their fancy, cursed and shouted, spit and fought. The king’s poor wife, still white and frail from childbed, held her baby son to her in terror and hid behind the locked door of her chamber.
As she listened to the riot below in the castle, she caught a thread of beautiful music. It cut through her fear like a shaft of sunlight and beckoned to her. She wrapped the babe securely and unlocked her door, making her way quickly down a flight of stairs the servants used and into the kitchen.
Here she found an old man with long white hair and beard playing the harp, and beside him a piper. Many gathered around, for the music sounded clean and sweet and healing on that night of evil and fear.
The two musicians made their way out of the kitchen and scullery and into the quiet evening. Behind them followed the queen and her babe, servants, cooks, grooms, pot boys and all manner of other simple people who wanted only to work the land, tend their flocks and love their families in peace. They stole away from the castle, following the music under a starry sky. Soon they found themselves climbing a low hill, leaving the castle lit and noisy behind them. None hindered their going because none saw them leave.
They breasted the hill in the dark and slowly the line of following people broke up as each slid away in the direction of his field and fold and barn. Eventually, none were left with the musicians but the queen and her child. The harp and pipe played the others all the way home. When everyone was safe behind bolted doors, the music died away into peaceful darkness.
The next morning the people gathered on the crest of a low hill above the castle. Spread out below they found a wide lake, nearly five miles long. Calm and deep, it lay under morning sun. On the lakeshore, I began building a house out of blocks of stone, your mother beside me. I looked to the top of the hill and raised a hand in salute and people clapped and cheered. Ever since then we’ve made our place here and served the people as best we might, and the lake has covered over the castle and its evil.
Creirwy, nestled beside Bald Tegid, stirred and sighed. “Did you make the lake, Dada?” she asked.
“Yes, my heart,” said Bald Tegid, dropping a kiss on her head. “He was an evil man and it was best to cleanse the valley of him altogether, but no need for the innocent to be punished along with him. The castle is nothing but a ruin now. The lake keeps it safe and perhaps with time the castle will sink into the lake floor so even Morfran’s keen eyes no longer see it!” He smiled across at the youth and rose, lifting Creirwy in his arms. “Off to bed with you, now,” he said, and left the room.
Morfran did not speak. Firelight moved in the room. Ceridwen kept her eyes on the work in her hands, not meeting Morfran’s gaze.
“What happened to the queen and her child?” he asked.
Ceridwen’s hands stilled but she didn’t raise her eyes. “The queen died,” she said at last. “The fear and brutality she lived with weakened her. I wanted to know her story but there wasn’t time.” She at last looked up. “I did everything I could to save her but she was too injured.”
“And the child?” Morfran asked.
She looked away.
“Morfran,” she said, “What your father said, that I’m the companion of his soul and heart, he is that for me also, as a man and a woman might come together in such strength and love. But you, my son, my dear one, you are this to me as well, a child of my heart and a child of my soul, though I didn’t give birth to you.”
“You aren’t my mother. You and Bald Tegid aren’t my parents?”
“I am and we are,” replied Ceridwen, her voice shaking, “but not by birth.”
In the following days Morfran thought a great deal about Bald Tegid’s story of Bala Lake and his own beginnings. How did the queen—his mother—his other mother--come to be married to such a man? Where were her people and her home? He hungered to learn about her and his family. He turned away from thoughts of his father. He felt ashamed to be the son of such a man, king or not, but his mother’s spirit called to him from beyond death and he made up his mind to learn her story.
A few days later, Ceridwen and Morfran harvested the last of the herbs and put the garden to bed for the winter with deep blankets of compost from lake, barn and household. As they worked in the crisp, sunny air, Ceridwen told him about the Cauldron of the Deep.
“When I was a young woman, I drank from it. It’s the source of wisdom and magic. In due course, I became the Cauldron’s keeper. I’m going to make a brew of Inspiration and Knowledge in it now for you. The first three drops of the brew will bestow mastery of magical arts and the gift of seership on whoever takes them.”
She looked anxiously into his face. They knelt amongst the sage and thyme, and the sharp scents came to his nose.
“Mother…” he began.
“You’re worthy of this,” she said quickly. “There’s great power in you, Morfran. I’ve always known it.”
“But Creirwy,” he said weakly, seeking a gentle way to refuse so she wouldn’t be hurt.
“Creirwy’s gift is her light. I never knew such an unshadowed nature. But you know she has no interest or aptitude for magic.”
Morfran did know. Creirwy demonstrated no curiosity in the power of alchemy and enchantment. Hers was an uncomplicated nature. She welcomed whatever came with a smile and trusted everyone. Creirwy would not care about anything that came out of the Cauldron of the Deep.
Morfran assented reluctantly. Ceridwen’s face relaxed and she gave him a smile of such love he felt uncomfortable, though he didn’t try again to dissuade her.
The recipe for the brew of Inspiration and Knowledge was complex. Ceridwen marked thirteen moons from Morfran’s thirteenth year as the time for him to drink from the cauldron. She spent days and nights poring over old tomes until she’d learned under which moon and planets to gather herbs, flowers, fungi and roots, and under which stars to steep them.
At last, the ingredients were ready. Morfran watched her swing the Cauldron of the Deep over the fire and drop the ingredients into it.
The brew needed a year and a day to simmer. In order to help tend the fire and watch over the brew, Ceridwen found a young peasant boy called Gwion. The boy was hungry and cringing when he came, but Morfran’s family opened their arms to him and all that year Gwion took his turn in feeding the fire and stirring the simmering cauldron with a heavy wooden spoon.
Morfran understood Ceridwen’s love and concern for him, but he felt content with his life and not the least worried by his twisted, lurching gait or his future. A feeling of growing power sustained him, and he knew one day he’d leave Bala Lake and his family. He was determined to go into the world and find his mother’s people. As Ceridwen became absorbed in brewing the draft of Inspiration and Knowledge for him, he missed her companionship. He would rather enjoy their old easy days together tending orchard and garden, roaming mountainside and lakeshore, than have anything she could prepare in the Cauldron of the Deep. He already possessed the gift shapeshifting, and wisdom would come with years.
Morfran took his turn stirring the cauldron and watching over the fire, but disinterestedly. He wouldn’t hurt Ceridwen, but to pretend gratitude became a heavy burden. He necessarily grew even more solitary, as she could rarely be persuaded to leave the cauldron, and spent long days on his own.
He envied Bald Tegid and Creirwy. They were the least affected by the brewing.
Bald Tegid had always been the center of Creirwy’s world. In her childhood, he told her tales and taught her giant lore as they fished, built stone walls, and tramped across hills to visit remote farms and crofts together. His deep gravelly voice and her fluting sweet one became familiar to the people in the region, and the homely giant and his bright sunbeam of a daughter were welcomed with affection wherever they appeared.
During the year of brewing, Ceridwen rarely left Bala Lake, her one concern the proper preparation of the brew of Inspiration and Knowledge. Morfran noticed Bald Tegid went abroad more often by himself, leaving Creirwy to gradually take over their previously shared role of traveling to market. Morfran’s clear eyes discerned the physical shape of a woman emerging from the child’s body, but her manner continued as unspoiled and childishly happy as ever. Morfran realized, with a stirring of disquiet, that Creirwy thought of no shadow or harm in the world. Her trusting and loving nature provided no self-protection. He didn’t want to dim her innocence, but she’d no sense of self-preservation, having never conceived of danger. The idea that one day his little sister would grow up gave him a protective, tender feeling.
“You’re not a little girl any more, my heart,” said Bald Tegid. “You’re becoming a young woman. Going here and there amongst the tenants and farms was one thing when you were a dandelion floss below my knee, but now I think you’re safer here with your mother and brother sometimes.”
“But, Dada, I want to be with you! I won’t be a bother!”
“You couldn’t be a bother. It’s only that I might be distracted, or looking the other way while I’m working, and you get hurt. We’ll still roam together, you’ll see. Just not quite so often. Your mother and brother will need you here, with Ceridwen being so busy with her cauldron.”
Creirwy found time heavy on her hands. She felt the loss of her father’s companionship keenly. Unlike her brother, she was gregarious, a favorite wherever she went because of her sweet manner and easy laughter. Now at home the days were long. Ceridwen had little thought for anything but her cauldron, and Morfran and Gwion, when not taking their turns with the brewing, were off about their own business, Gwion helping with garden, orchard and animals, and Morfran wandering by himself among the hills or on the lake. Gwion was so shy as to be speechless in her presence. Creirwy loved Morfran and would have been glad to spend the days with him, but she saw how happy he was in his own company and he didn’t think to invite her to join him.
One market day Creirwy met a stranger, a man called Raoul. He was a traveling man. He’d come to explore the area, having heard much about its wild beauty and magic. The first day they met she’d told him the story of Bala Lake. He was interested, asking questions and encouraging her to talk. Hours passed like minutes. She didn’t want to leave him and go home. He assured her he’d spend some time there, basing himself in the village in order to explore the area. She wanted to invite him to Bala Lake, but, somehow, she hesitated.
After that first meeting, she spent all her time thinking of him, his smile, the way his dark, warm eyes looked into hers. She thought of the muscles in his arms and the way they swelled as he gestured. The sound of his laugh stayed in her ears. His hair was black with a sheen of blue like a raven’s wing. His skin was smooth and brown over the bones of his face. She waited, longing for her next chance to go to the village. The night before the next market she could hardly sleep for excitement and fear. What if he had gone, after all? What if he wasn’t there, but wandering on some remote hillside? What if he’d forgotten her?
But he was there. When he saw her his face lit with happiness.
“I’ve been hoping every day to see you! I was afraid you’d never come back!”
She laughed with joy. “And I was afraid you’d forget me!”
He took her hands and looked into her eyes. “I could never forget the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met,” he said seriously. “You shine, Creirwy. I never want to be away from your light.”
No one had ever called her a woman before and she was filled with confused pride. She felt a new consciousness and strength in her body. She was a woman! He’d made her so with his attention and caring. He’d called her into womanhood and her body responded, breasts and belly and thighs sensitive and aware as they’d never been before. Every chance she got she left Bala Lake to be with Raoul. Fortunately, it was the busiest social season between spring and fall, so hardly a week passed without a fair, a bonfire, a visit to the area from a musician or peddler or group of gypsies, a market or a dance. Creirwy went to them all.
Raoul spent a lot of solitary time in the hills and mountains, walking and exploring. As he grew more familiar with the area, he often met her and they walked together. She told him all of Bald Tegid’s stories and opened her whole life to him, talking artlessly of her family, Bala Lake, and the unfolding tale of the Cauldron of Inspiration and Knowledge. She was uneasy sometimes about not inviting him to come home with her and meet her family, but he didn’t seem to expect it and she couldn’t bear to reveal this secret life that filled her with so much joy and excitement.
At times, she slipped out on her own to wander in the hills around Bala Lake, remembering her last meeting with Raoul and dreaming of the next. It was a relief to not have to pretend before her family she was the same girl she’d been before Raoul.,
One summer day she unexpectedly came across his familiar figure striding across the crest of a distant hill. She cried out joyfully and raised a hand, running lightly to catch up. He turned and raised a hand in return, waiting where he was for her. As she came near, breathless and laughing with pleasure, she saw a wry smile on his face, as though he mocked himself, and the twist of his lips was framed in stubble, blue as a swallow’s wing.
She stood still, looking wonderingly into his face, so familiar yet also unfamiliar now.
He put a rueful hand against his cheek. “You caught me,” he said lightly. “I know it’s ugly. I didn’t want you to see…” He turned away, as though ashamed.
She went to him and held his face between her hands.
“Don’t look at me, Creirwy,” he said roughly and put his hands up to hold her wrists.
She’d dreamed of kissing him but never done it. She leaned forward until she could feel his breath, holding his gaze and tilting her face up to his. She didn’t touch his face—quite. She could smell him, a true smell of a man who’s been living rough for some days, overlaid with wood smoke. He stood very still, looking into her eyes, and desire leapt between them. She closed her eyes and laid her lips on his.
The texture of that kiss was the most vivid experience of her life. She’d not known lips could be so soft and seeking, and yet so hard and demanding. He bruised her mouth and still she strained toward him, wanting more. Stubble on his face rubbed against her mouth and cheeks with a friction that made her groan with desire.
When the madness of their joined mouths had passed a little, she stood trembling in his arms. She opened her eyes and saw his beard was not as blue as she’d first thought. Somehow the summer light had made it seem a shocking blue, like a jay’s feather, but no person’s hair could be that color, after all! Even so, the strange color made him somehow beautiful, more uniquely hers.
She reached up and rested the palm of her hand against his cheek.
“You’re beautiful,” she said.
Her turned his head and kissed her palm.
“I thought you’d be afraid and find it ugly. Most people do, so I’m careful to shave every day. But out here I thought there’d be no one to see.”
“Oh, Raoul! It’s not so very blue! I like it!”
He laughed aloud and held her tightly against him, his lips on her hair.
“You delight me,” he murmured, and released her.
After they parted that afternoon Creirwy went home, eyes full of dreams, mouth a little swollen with kisses, senses aroused with the memory of his blue beard against her skin.
“She misses her father, poor child,” said Ceridwen to Morfran one evening as she stirred the cauldron and inspected the brew. “Have you noticed how often she goes off on her own? As soon as this is brewed,” she tapped the spoon sharply on the rim of the cauldron, “we must try to give her a wiser understanding of the world. Her trust as a little girl was enchanting, but now it’s getting dangerous, and I worry for her.”
“She’s innocent,” said Morfran.
“She is, and I don’t want to make her afraid, but she can’t go out into the world undefended. We need to start to think of her future. In the meantime, it’s good for her to travel to market now and then, see old friends, and buy a piece of ribbon or a length of cloth for herself.”
Morfran had always been aware of a light within Creirwy. She made him think of a slim white candle. As the weeks passed, he sometimes thought her light flickered, burning not quite so steadily as it had throughout her childhood. But she grew lovelier and more loving every day, so he dismissed his impression.
In this way months passed for each member of the family and the brew gradually became thicker and harder to stir. On the last day of the year and the day, Gwion took a turn at the cauldron and the rest of the family gathered to watch Morfran receive the first three drops of the brew. It was a solemn occasion and Ceridwen looked worn out and tense. They stood around the fire, Bald Tegid, Creirwy, Morfran and Ceridwen, and watched Gwion stirring the steaming contents of the Cauldron of the Deep.
For Ceridwen’s sake, Morfran tried to appear appropriately subdued and honored. He longed to be finished with the whole unnecessary ordeal. Ceridwen beckoned to him, smiling into his eyes, and he stepped forward to stand next to Gwion, who gave one final stir and stepped back. As the boy retreated, three viscous drops flew up out of the cauldron and landed on his hand. The brew was thick and syrupy, yet Morfran distinctly saw the drops fly up, as though boiling water or broth had been splashed with a careless spoon, though the spoon Gwion had been using was already out of the cauldron. Gwion hissed as the hot liquid clung to his skin, raised his hand to his lips and sucked it off.
“I love this story,” said the Hanged Man. “Dar told it to me after he got it from Morfran. Mind you tell it properly, now, Mirmir!” He grinned, and for a moment Mirmir saw the reckless young gold and green God in the first flush of manhood after he and Mary had met and mated.
“It happened sso fasst Ceridwen had no time to sstop it. She gave Gwion a terrible look and he, realizing what he’d done, dropped the wooden spoon and ran, but she stayed close behind him. The boy ran and ran, and in his panicked thoughts he made a picture of a hare, running for safety…as Hare, he leapt away. But Ceridwen turned herself into a greyhound and Greyhound ran swifter than Hare. Hare bounded to the lake’s edge and thought of a salmon, darting down through cool water to hide. Salmon swam away through dark lake waters. But Ceridwen turned herself into an otter and Otter swam swifter than Salmon. Salmon leapt out of the water, and in his thoughts he made a picture of a bird, flying upward into freedom. As Crow, he flung himself up from the lake. But Ceridwen turned herself into a hawk, fierce and terrible with outstretched talons, ready for the kill, and Hawk flew faster than Crow.
Miles away, Crow looked in desperation down into a valley and saw a pile of wheat. He hurled himself out of the sky, exhausted, and turned himself into a grain of wheat, hiding among thousands. But Ceridwen turned herself into a black hen and searched among the wheat until she found him, and swallowed him whole.”
“Now the end,” said the Hanged Man gleefully, “go on, Mirmir, tell about the coracle and rabbit skins and what came after that …”
“Not now,” said Mirmir. “It’ss not time for the resst.”
“You’re a tease,” said the Hanged Man. “You’re just being stubborn. Very well. Tell it your way. Don’t mind me. After all, I’m a captive audience and what I want means nothing!” He crossed his arms.
Mirmir blinked a sardonic golden eye at the Hanged Man and continued.
The rest of the family watched as they flew out of sight, Ceridwen gaining fast on Gwion. Morfran could hardly take it in. He’d been prepared to drink the three drops with ceremony and gratitude to please Ceridwen and then, thankfully, this long year would be over. He felt a shameful desire to laugh at the sudden turn of events. He’d grown fond of Gwion and feared for him. Ceridwen’s passion made her formidable in anger. Would she kill the boy in her rage? He hoped Gwion eluded her long enough for her anger to cool. It seemed there were other forces at work here. The Cauldron of Inspiration and Knowledge hadn’t been meant for him, and he was glad.
“Oh, what can we do?” cried Creirwy.
Bald Tegid pulled her against him. “Nothing, my heart,” he said. “This is between Gwion and your mother. It’s a bitter disappointment for her after all her work.” He looked at Morfran. “I think you’re not too disappointed, though?”
“No,” said Morfran quietly. “I’m not disappointed. I know she gave a gift of love, but I didn’t want it or need it. She needed to give it to me.”
Bald Tegid sighed. “What will be will be, and Ceridwen will understand that when her anger cools. Let’s hope Gwion can avoid her until then, for his own sake!”
The three of them stood together, Creirwy in the curve of Bald Tegid’s arm. He laid a hand on Morfran’s shoulder and silently they watched the fire under the cauldron go out for the first time in a year and a day.
Ceridwen didn’t return until after dark. She was alone. One look at her face persuaded Morfran to ask no questions, and the family went silently to bed.
In the following days Ceridwen brooded. Her family didn’t bother her with questions or commiseration. Morfran stayed close by her in silent companionship. He brought her a clump of shy wildflowers that he knew she was fond of. They grew on a far mountainside and he dug them up carefully and put them in a basket of plaited lake reeds, bedding the roots in cool moss. Together they planted them in the garden. Gwion’s name wasn’t mentioned. No one dared ask what had become of him. Ceridwen poured the contents of the Cauldron of the Deep into the lake and scrubbed it out with sand.
Morfran recognized a disconcerting sense of anticlimax. The season turned toward the peace and rest of winter, but the family on the shores of Bala Lake seemed suspended in unease. Autumn failed to bring its usual sense of satisfied closure. Daily tasks and routines became fraught with unspoken questions and uneasy silences. Morfran, comfortable in his own self-containment, felt distressed by a sense of disconnection as his parents and even Creirwy seemed to withdraw.
The falling leaves looked like papery golden tears, Jenny thought, weightless and swirling in the restless breeze. All their green moisture had vanished, and they whirled around her feet, as rootless and inconsequent as she felt.
Her companion, the dwarve Rumpelstiltskin, seemed the only solid thing in the world. Since leaving the mill in the town she’d called home, she felt adrift, with no desire except, step by step, to leave the place where her father tried to sell her to a king with a lie that nearly cost her life. She wondered why she wasn’t more worried by her purposelessness. She’d surrendered herself completely to Rumpelstiltskin, only putting one foot in front of the other until the dwarve told her to stop, to eat, or to sleep.
Her mind was filled, not with the remarkable fact that she’d spun gold out of straw, but with her father’s betrayal.
Her mother had died when she was little more than a baby. Her father, perpetually dissatisfied with life, looked after her carelessly, but she’d never questioned his love for her, and she’d done her best to manage the meagre household and support his business at the mill.
Then, one day, her father enticed their greedy king with a lie, saying Jenny possessed the ability to spin gold out of straw. No doubt her father, never an intelligent man, failed to foresee the risk to her life, but he certainly conspired to sell her, like a good milk cow, to a man whose interest in her was limited to her supposed ability to enrich him. That she, in fact, learned to do such an unlikely thing was only due to Rumpelstiltskin’s timely intervention, which saved her life.
She faced the truth of it clearly and unflinchingly, but her heart felt numb and distant, as though it had slipped away on the night in the cell in the king’s castle where she’d first met Rumpelstiltskin and spun straw to save her life. Perhaps her heart lay there still, on the cold stone floor, and every step she took away from her father included a step away from herself. Without her heart, she had no tears, no wet comfort on her cheeks, no well of healing within herself. Perhaps, she thought as she walked, her tears floated behind her, released one by one in a dry whisper of gold, mingling with the fallen golden.
One day, in a little town, they heard gossip about a miller who’d died, alone and abandoned by his only daughter. The girl had offended the king and fled, and the father bore an unjust punishment for his daughter’s wickedness. It made an ugly story, embellished inventively by the townspeople. It hardly touched Jenny. Her father was dead and she felt the loss no more than the trees seemed to feel the loss of their bright colors.
In another town, they stopped at an inn and ordered a meal. While they ate, they overheard a conversation at the bar, punctuated by sniggers and winks, about the town baker, who sought a wife. No ordinary woman would do, however, and the baker designed a test that only a woman of good birth and breeding could pass. Not for him the ordinary trollop or unattractive wench! He’d accept only the best, the most graceful and accomplished for his wife. She’d bring him success and esteem. With such a wife, he’d live a life of ease and plenty.
Jenny listened without seeming to, watched without ever taking her gaze from her plate, and made no comment.
The next day she found the baker’s shop, Rumpelstiltskin reluctantly accompanying her.
“After all,” she said quietly to Rumpelstiltskin, “we need bread for the road.”
The baker was called Hans, and Jenny, without the slightest effort, immediately caught his eye. Ingratiating and curious, he questioned her. Jenny knew nothing of coy artifice and gave her name and the name of the inn where they stayed plainly and directly.
Unsettled weather conspired to keep Jenny and Rumpelstiltskin in town longer than they had planned. The dwarve grew restless and uneasy, wanting to be free of streets and houses and away from crowds of people. Jenny, who up to this point had taken no interest in where they went as long as they kept moving, turned suddenly stubborn.
“What does it matter?” she asked. “It’s not as though we have anything important to do, or anyone who expects us. This place is as good as another.”
She returned to the baker’s shop every day for bread.
“How are you?” Hans asked eagerly when she appeared.
Every day she replied, “I’m well, thank you.”
One day he said, “You look tired, my dear. Aren’t you resting well at night?”
“Oh yes, very well,” she said, remote as ever.
“Good, good,” he said heartily.
Rumpelstiltskin protested. “I don’t like him,” he told her. “Why are you encouraging him? He’s beneath you.”
“You’re ridiculous,” she said. “He wants a wife, doesn’t he? Why not me? It’s what young women do — get married, start a family. What else is there for me? He has a business. I’ll have a roof over my head. He doesn’t want much, just for me to take care of his house and his meals and look well on his arm. This man or another like him — what does it matter?”
A few days later, when Hans proposed, Jenny accepted him and told Rumpelstiltskin he need not stay.
After the wedding, Jenny moved into Hans’ house and began cooking his meals and doing his laundry. When she and the baker went out, she recognized envy on other men’s faces without being much interested. She lay next to Hans each night and made her body available, as though renting an empty room.
Jenny’s life became a series of choices governed by what a good wife would do. She tried not to think of spinning. She had no money to buy wool or flax or hemp, and Hans had no idea she possessed this skill. He gave her money for housekeeping and kept track of every penny. She put away thoughts of Rumpelstiltskin and the past. She told no one of her ability to spin straw into gold. Living with Hans reminded her of living with her father. Hans was a vain man who wanted an easy life. She’d have no peace if he knew what she could do, and she’d no desire to feel again what she’d felt the night in the castle cell with Rumpelstiltskin.
As weeks and then months passed, she tried to be content. She’d followed the rules. She had a husband, a home to keep. Her life was full. There would be children.
She was aware of Hans’s anger, for it fed her own. When he invaded her body, laboring over her, his hot breath in her ear, she took his anger with a kind of fierce greediness and added it to her own. She made a stone cell in her mind like the cell where she’d spun straw into gold. In this cell, she secretly stoked her rage. Here she hoarded herself, spinner, maker, creator. Here she kept the memory of a cradle song her mother had sung to her before she died.
Hans began to berate her. She was cold. She was hard. She was high and mighty. She was an imposter, with her fine speech, her manners and her dignity. What was she, after all? She was no lady. He’d heard rumors she had been the plaything of some king, and he had cast her aside. And what of her people? Who was she? Where did she come from? Why was she alone in the world?
In time, he grew incapable of using her body and he blamed her, calling her unfit to be his wife. “I knew you weren’t good enough for me! I knew it! But I let you get around me with your looks and your false pretentions! What a fool I am! You couldn’t even pass the test!”
Generally, she ignored this kind of talk, but the last thing he said caught her attention. She remembered the overheard conversation in the inn, the snickers, the nudges.
“What test, Hans?”
“The test! The test of a true lady, a great lady. The kind of lady I deserve!”
Patiently, “What kind of test?”
“The maid at the inn hid a pea in your bed! A hard pea laid under your mattress and feather bed and you never even felt it! You slept every night like the coarse peasant you are on top of that pea. Why, a true lady would be black and blue! A sensitive, fragile-skinned lady would be unable to endure such a thing!”
Jenny actually laughed. “How ridiculous you are! Who told you that? I thought you were looking for a wife, not a fairy princess!”
He struck her across her laughing mouth.
Jenny found herself on the floor. She didn’t remember falling. She’d been laughing, laughing for the first time in months, and then something had happened. Her face felt funny. She put a hand to her mouth and it came away bloody. Hans stood over her. She saw his face clearly, so clearly it almost hurt, like a too bright light. She’d never seen him so clearly before. She felt as though she’d suddenly stepped out of a numbed and foggy dream into bright daylight.
She thought, so my heart is still with me, and alive!
And then, where is Rumpelstiltskin?
And then, what am I doing?
“How dare you laugh at me, you bitch?” roared Hans. “Who do you think you are?”
I’m a woman, thought Jenny. She regained her feet and stood facing her enraged husband. I’m a spinner. I can spin straw into gold. My mother loved me. Rumpelstiltskin loves me. I’m Jenny. She wiped blood off her mouth with the back of her hand.
He raised his hand again and her own shot out like a snake and closed around his forearm, halting the blow. She looked into his eyes without speaking. He glared, and then his gaze dropped. He pulled out of her grasp and turned away, head hanging.
Jenny sponged blood off her face and gathered up a bundle of clothes. She knew exactly what to do — what to take and what to leave. She’d done it all before. She made no effort to hide her activity. Hans sat moodily in his chair in front of the empty fireplace. She took a loaf of Hans’s indifferent bread, some fruit, some dried meat, and packed them in her bundle. She took a long drink of water, dribbling some down her chin because of her swollen lower lip. Drinking made the cut open again and she tasted blood. She folded a clean handkerchief and held it against the wound.
In the doorway, she turned to the brooding figure in the chair.
“Goodbye, Hans. I did wrong to marry you. I won’t be back. Perhaps you’ll be able to find someone else.”
She left the house, left the town, chose a road and began to walk. She was alone and free. She didn’t need to try to be a good wife any more. She heard Hans’s question again in memory. “Who do you think you are?”
The old cradle song rose out of the stone cell in her memory (had it lurked in her heart all the time?), crept up her throat, lingered under her tongue, and pressed tentatively against her lips. She hummed. Her lip throbbed. She sang, releasing each word as though it was a captive bird.
Winter approached Bala Lake. One day, Morfran packed some food and set out on his own. Ceridwen needed certain roots growing wild on a distant hillside. It was a beautiful day and Morfran enjoyed himself, relaxing into solitude, walking strongly with his odd, lurching gait, keenly aware of life all around him. Now and then he stopped to more closely examine a plant or an insect. At noon, he found a sunny place in the heather and ate next to a clump of grey-violet mushrooms, listening to the bees in the purple blossoms. He shape-shifted and joined them for a time, flying from flower to flower and listening to their talk.
He reached the place where the roots grew, took out a spade and carefully lifted a few for Ceridwen, wrapping them in wet grass. That done, he turned for home.
As he walked along a ridge of rock, he spied the solitary figure of a man in the distance. It was rare to see others walking in this country. This was no shepherd or hill man, but a visitor of some kind. Something about the figure roused his curiosity and he chose a path that would bring him closer. Staying on high ground, he lengthened his stride. He wanted to see but not be seen, so when he came to an outcropping of rock, he set down the roots in the shade along with his bundle and shifted into the form of a black crow.
He flew up in clear air, feeling heat radiating from rocks and slopes below. He circled lazily, watching the man. A twisted tree grew nearby, a natural perch, and he made for it, cawing harshly, feeling no need to hide in this shape. As he landed in the tree the stranger looked up and Morfran saw, with a twist of shocked nausea, the stubble on his face was blue. Blue! The blue of a jay’s wing, the blue of the sky as a stormy night fell. It was like a deformity, although Morfran, wrenching his attention beyond it, noted otherwise a good-looking well-built man, strong and slim, with thick straight black hair falling over his forehead. He carried a pack on his back with a bedroll and had clearly been in the hills for a few days.
A crow doesn’t linger in a tree to examine a human being and Morfran, with another harsh cry, took off again, climbing back up into the sky. What did this mean? He was shaken by the wrongness of that blue beard. He emptied his mind, breathing from deep within his bird shape, being with moving wings, air combing through feathers over their framework of bones. When he felt calm again, he looked down at the walking figure, holding in his mind the shape of his own experience and breath, and letting his gaze soften and blur, soften and blur, looking beneath the form, looking within.
He peered into a dark voracious abyss. It muttered with a sound of grinding bones, demanding to be fed, and Morfran gagged on the smell of old blood. It lusted for the orgasmic pleasure of feeding, and its food was round and warm, peach fuzzed and smelling of thin skin, flushed with life.
Morfran, sickened and appalled, hurled his consciousness out of the creature below and found himself back in the crow’s form, flying with trembling wings. He flew back to the outcrop of rock, took his own form, and sat in the sun with the rock to his back, trying to calm himself.
Ceridwen had warned him of evil in the world, but he’d taken the warning lightly, thinking it a mother’s fearful caution, natural but unnecessary. As an experienced shape shifter, he’d looked into many creatures, prey and predator, clever and dull. Every creature expressed its role in life, and he accepted the instinct and experience of each without discomfort.
This thing, though, in the shape of a man, was a monster. The blue beard hinted at what lay within, but he hadn’t imagined how bad it was. How could anything live with such devouring hunger? And what could it possibly be hunting here, in the remote hills and mountains? He hadn’t been able to grasp what it hungered for, exactly—just the all-consuming, unending need to feed.
Gradually, his pulse and breathing slowed. It seemed his mother had not exaggerated. Evil did walk in the world. He’d been unprepared, but now he knew. He wouldn’t forget. Still, the creature pretending to be a man had nothing to do with him. As far as he could see, it threatened no one at the moment. He’d no right or desire to interfere with it, and it was obviously just passing through. He would leave it alone, let it go on its way. Perhaps its hunt for food would take it far away from here.
After a time, still troubled but resolved to say nothing, he picked up his bundles, and staying on the high ground, made his way back to Bala Lake.
One week passed, and then another. Word came of a peddler making his rounds in the region and as a matter of course, Creirwy made ready to go and meet him with a list of needed supplies. Bald Tegid was away helping repair some rock walls before winter and Ceridwen was pressing apples. One bright fall morning Creirwy set out on her errand, telling her family of plans to visit this croft and that farm and several villagers.
Morfran, at work on the shore of Bala Lake, saw her leave. He called to her and she came across the thick short grass, eyes alight with happiness and pleasure in the day. She was so beautiful it hurt him to look at her, but once again he noted a strange flicker within her, like a candle in a draught. The impression came and went quickly and then he forgot about it.
“Is there anything you want me to get from the peddler?” she asked, smiling at him. “I’ve a long list of winter supplies from Dada. If the peddler is well stocked, I’ll never be able to carry it all home!”
“No,” he replied. “I’ve all I need. Shall I walk with you for a bit?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “Don’t leave your work.” She gestured at the basket of fish he’d pulled from the lake at dawn. “I’ll make visits and find company along the way.”
“Creirwy…” Morfran began, troubled, but then didn’t know what to say. “Take good care of yourself,” he finished at length.
She laughed. “And you, brother! It wouldn’t hurt you to smile a bit now and then! Life is not always so serious!”
He did smile then, and she kissed his cheek and walked away along a path that cut across the flank of a low hill above the lake. He watched her until she moved out of sight and then turned back to the fish, unsheathing his sharp knife.
That night Morfran had a dream. He sat in the fishing boat on Bala Lake. Noola was full, a silvery globe high in the sky, and the huge curve of Cion loomed over Webbd, like a mother bending over her child, in the eastern sky. He looked down at the drowned turrets and towers of his father’s castle. Many windows were lit, as always, though he knew the castle contained no living soul to light them. As he floated above on the surface, the light in one window went dark. In his dream, he realized then that he did dream, for this had never happened before in his waking life. The lights in the windows were lit and stayed lit when the castle was visible. A terrible foreboding filled him as he watched other lights in other windows flicker out. As each light blinked out, he felt as though a part of himself died and became dark. He gripped the sides of the boat, praying that some windows would stay lighted, but inexorably, one by one, every light extinguished until the castle was a dark shape in dark water, moonlight tracing only the tops of towers and roofs. He groaned aloud with horror and woke himself up. He thought wildly to himself, the light has gone out! The light has gone out!
He found himself sitting on his bed with his feet on the floor. The room felt cold and utterly dark. Noola wasn’t full, as in his dream, but an eyelash that shed no light, and Cion’s silver curve was dim. He hardly dared look for stars, in case they too had been snuffed out, but no, they were there, the constellations in their familiar places. The night was quiet except for a whispering breeze. He lit a candle and the flame glowed reassuringly. The light hadn’t gone out. Not all light.
He dressed swiftly. Lamp in hand, he let himself out of the house and made his way down to the lake. He set the lantern down in the bottom of the boat and took up the oars.
It felt colder on the water. Stars glittered sharply and Noola hung like a piece of broken glass. He floated over where he knew the drowned castle stood, but the black breeze-stirred water remained impenetrable to his eye. Of course, the castle never showed itself except under a full moon, he reminded himself. The moon wasn’t full. He could go down into the dark water in the shape of a lake creature and look. He could find the ruins and swim in and out of windows and doors, but it would mean nothing if the windows weren’t lit. It would mean nothing because Noola wasn’t full.
He found he couldn’t go down. Horror gripped him at the thought of entering that cold blackness. He picked up the oars and rowed back, lying awake and chilled until dawn.
Creirwy hadn’t been expected back for three days, so it wasn’t until five days later that Morfran found her body. He was alone. He and Ceridwen had searched from the air for two days for some sign of Creirwy. Ceridwen wheeled away in the shape of a sharp-sighted hawk while he, in his favorite crow shape, flew low over the hills. The gleam of her hair revealed her. The golden color didn’t belong to autumn’s duns and heathers.
She lay in a hollow in a fold of hills. A nearby ring of stones on blackened earth showed signs of recent fire. She lay in a ring of poisonous false parasol mushrooms, easily recognizable by their flattened whitish caps and brown scales. Her clothing was thrown aside and her skin was dry and leathery, intact but empty, it seemed, of anything but bone. Animals and birds had not disturbed it. He stood looking down at her, feeling nothing. His face was cold.
Disconnected thoughts drifted in his mind like an old tattered cobweb in an air current. He couldn’t look away from the thing on the ground. It wasn’t Creirwy. It couldn’t be Creirwy. Creirwy was life, and the shape lying in the bracken was without life. Where had she gone, then? Was this cast-off remnant a joke, or a trick? It was cruel. Who had defiled the familiar hills of his home with such a twisted ruse? He had a dislocating sense of sinister and unfamiliar influences at work in the world.
Evil. His mind lingered on the word. It reminded him of something recently seen, recently discovered.
He tore his eyes away from the body and raised them to the surrounding hills, turning slowly on the spot. He began the familiar, comforting ritual of allowing his vision to blur and breathed in the scent of earth and the autumn tapestry of plants. He opened his mind until he could hear the scratch of insect steps, wing beats of birds high above in the sky, the many-voiced wind, the far away silvery song of stars.
Without haste, without effort, he saw the glowing campfire under an enormous starry night sky. Blankets and sheepskins lay on a springy patch of heather. He smelled roasting mutton. He heard laughter, rich, warm. Creirwy’s laugh. A woman’s laugh.
He saw a shadow darker than night, a shadow concealed within flesh and bone and blood. It was made of voracious, lustful hunger salivating and groaning with desire, but not for flesh. It wasn’t akin to the woman’s radiant laughing invitation. No, this was a predator of… something rosy and warm, luscious as a ripe nectarine, glowing in the sun…No! Not life, but light! Light! It craved innocence and light!
The jolt of understanding brought him back, nauseated and sweating, and he fell to his knees next to Creirwy’s body. He knew a fleeting moment of relief that she hadn’t been violated physically, but cold horror at the spiritual violation that had occurred—and it was his fault. He’d known a monster with a blue beard hunted in the hills near Bala Lake, and he’d said nothing. He’d seen the disturbance in Creirwy’s flickering light, but hadn’t been alert enough to find out more, to warn his parents, to put the pieces together and discover the truth.
Somehow, Creirwy had met this thing, formed a relationship with it, and hidden it from all of them. Somehow, Creirwy had grown up, become a young woman with desires and thoughts and dreams. She’d become a woman with a private life and the power to make choices on her own. And he’d missed it. He, with his clear sight, had failed to see what was right in front of him. In his arrogance, in his self-sufficient mastery, he’d thought of her as nothing but a helpless child, loving and pretty, but not…not…not a whole person like him!
He put his face in his hands and wept.
Her gilt hair moved in the breeze when he picked her up in his arms. She looked like a broken-jointed doll, a leather sack of bones. He found a golden feather where she’d been lying, a beautiful, perfect thing a foot long. He’d never seen or imagined any bird of that color or size. The feather glowed and immediately reminded him of Creirwy herself, not the cast-away bundle of skin and bones in his arms, but Creirwy in life, laughing, loving, vital. He shrank from touching the feather in case it burned his flesh, but it didn’t. It lay in his palm, weightless and shining. Somehow it comforted him and he carefully tucked it inside his shirt against his chest before setting out for Bala Lake with his sister’s body cradled in his arms.
They buried her on the crest of a low hill overlooking the lake. Bald Tegid laid a great flat stone over her grave to protect it. In his mind, Morfran saw the grave covered with herbs and flowers and a tree in a froth of white spring blossom at its head, but that was a sight of the future. Now there was only a flat stone, disturbed earth, heather in its fall foliage and a bleak autumn breeze whispering over the hills and shores of Bala Lake.
As the year withdrew into darkness, so did the family. In years past, winter ushered in a welcome time of rest after the harvest season, when the family gathered before the fire with story and song and talk. Morfran and Bald Tegid mended nets, repaired shoes and tools, unsnarled fishing line, sharpened hooks and knives, whittled and wove baskets from lake reeds. Creirwy and Ceridwen led the singing and games, but Bald Tegid had always been the storyteller, and they fell silent while he spun the magic of his tales. The women mended, darned, knit and sat at loom and spinning wheel during the long evenings.
Now Morfran and Bald Tegid sat silent, hands idle. A light had gone out of the house and their hearts. Morfran couldn’t comfort himself or his parents, and each retreated into a solitary bitter place.
Ceridwen spent hours at her loom, as though the orderliness of warp and weft soothed her. Her hands moved automatically while she hid behind her downcast eyes, withdrawn so far into herself even Morfran couldn’t easily follow. Sometimes he observed her hands falter on the shuttle and tears fell on the cloth. He didn’t know where his own grief began and hers ended. They wove inextricably together like the cloth on the loom.
Morfran hadn’t known grief before. It wasn’t a sharp pain but a dull, heavy feeling clogging his brain and his senses. He’d learned to move lightly between observation, intuition and knowledge, without effort or doubt, secure in connection seen only from the corner of his eye. Ceridwen and Bald Tegid had taught him to trust what he observed and heard and trust in a greater pattern in which everything belonged and made sense, even if beyond his ability to see clearly. This was Morfran’s first experience of looking over his shoulder at the past and knowing—knowing—he’d seen, yet not seen. He’d known, yet not known. He might have been able to intervene, to save her, if he’d only paid more attention. If he’d only connected her radiant joy with the strange feeling that her spirit wavered and the solitary bluebearded walker! He might have gone with her that day and his presence might have changed it all.
He remembered, over and over, watching her walk away, the graceful, joyful way she moved, the beautiful clear day around her. He remembered the knife’s handle in his hand, the smell of lake and fresh caught fish, silver scales, a pile of entrails. And all the time she walked, alone and unprotected, towards her death!
For the first time, it occurred to him seeing clearly was not enough. Making connections and seeing a pattern was not enough. Choosing what to do about what he saw was perhaps the most important thing of all. In the days following Creirwy’s death Morfran felt the loss of his own self-confidence. He rejected his clear sight, tearing at himself, hurting himself with his failure, his ignorance, his inexperience.
Morfran revealed to his foster parents what he knew of the man with the blue beard one evening in front of the fire. Bald Tegid, somber but gentle, told him none might have been able to interfere with Creirwy’s bitter destiny. For good or for ill she’d followed her own path to its end. If she’d felt love for the man with the blue beard, maybe nothing could have saved her. Ceridwen, weeping afresh, agreed, and Morfran took some comfort.
As though Morfran’s revelation bridged their isolation, Ceridwen, face drawn and eyes red rimmed, confessed that she was pregnant, and she believed the child she bore was some form of Gwion. For the first time, she told them what had happened as she chased Gwion away from Bala Lake.
“He turned into a crow, and I chased him as a hawk. I was gaining on him, and he was exhausted. He looked down and spied a pile of wheat in the valley below us. He hurled himself down and changed into a grain of wheat, thinking to hide in the pile. I turned myself into a black hen and scratched and pecked until I found him and swallowed him whole.”
“So, you thought he was gone.” said Morfran.
“Yes. I thought I’d killed him, once and for all, and I was glad at first,” said Ceridwen. “But now I keep remembering him as he was when he came to us, poor child, and that mischievous smile of his. When he took the first three drops of the brew, all I felt was rage and disappointment, but now I think deep forces were at work, and somehow Gwion was meant to drink the brew all along. I wanted to destroy him, but in trying to do so I’ve become a vessel for his rebirth.”
Bald Tegid took her hand. “It makes me feel better,” he said quietly. “It’s as though a new child balances the loss of Creirwy.”
“Perhaps,” said Ceridwen, looking down at their clasped hands. “If I must be a vessel to right my wrong, I’ll be the best one I can, but I can’t keep the child. I’ve consulted guides and oracles, and they’ve seen the child reborn from the sea when his time comes, so after the birth I’ll entrust him to Mother Ocean.”
Winter came, and ice formed on Bala Lake. The family rose in the morning and saw to animals, fire, food, daily chores. Tasks and needs of the household kept them suspended in a routine and directed their steps.
Now and then Bald Tegid departed to hunt for fresh meat. Ceridwen and Morfran sat up one night in the stable and helped their mare bring new life into the world. For a moment, watching the wet little creature try to make use of its impossibly long and spindly legs, Morfran smiled, surprised to feel his face stretch in such an unfamiliar way.
All his life Morfran had dreamed with great richness and clarity while he slept. In his dreams, he shape-shifted into new forms, found insight and guidance. He’d learned to hold a question or problem in his mind while he relaxed into sleep and often woke with new understanding.
During the winter following Creirwy’s death his dreams became more enigmatic, more shadowed and compelling than ever before. He dreamed, again and again, of a magnificent bird clothed in feathers of gold, orange and red. It flew through his darkest dreams like a beam of light, so he felt terror and hope at the same time. It didn’t speak to him or linger, though his dreaming self called after it, imploring for a message or a gesture. He hadn’t shown his parents the feather he’d found under Creirwy’s body, but kept it carefully and spent hours holding it, marveling at its color, running his fingers over it. It could only be from the bird in his dreams, but he didn’t know what it meant. He only knew he connected it with Creirwy’s joy and beauty and some feeling of hope. The bird flying through his dreams must have been near her when she died and he hoped with all his heart this meant she hadn’t died alone while the terrible voracious shadow devoured her.
He thought a great deal about his birth mother. He could form no mental image of her and he longed to know what she’d looked like, the sound of her voice, even just the color of her hair! Ceridwen remembered what she could, but her time with Morfran’s mother was brief and she’d been dying. Her death made a greater impression on Ceridwen than any physical characteristics. That, and Ceridwen’s intuition that she held something back, even in her last days, kept some important part of herself hidden and secret to the end. Ceridwen did remember she’d come from a southern seacoast. It was the only piece of identifying information he possessed.
Winter walked slowly through hills about Bala Lake. Wind blew in snow and then blew it away again. Sometimes the sun shone so that the clear, clean air and snow were blinding. The lake slept under ice. Nights grew longer and longer and then, imperceptibly, began to shorten.
One night, Morfran woke from a dream of the golden bird. In one of its clawed feet it held a key, glowing red, as though set with rubies. He woke suddenly, as though an urgent hand touched him. What happened to the man with the blue beard? In the dullness of grief, he’d thought only of the moments of Creirwy’s murder. Now, for the first time, he thought about the days and weeks and now months afterward. Where had the murderer gone? Where did he come from? And how could Morfran find him? With the question, he realized he intended to find him, to find him and destroy him. Even now, did he hunt another such as Creirwy? And then, he thought to himself, then perhaps I’ll search for my mother’s people. For my family.
At last spring approached, advancing and retreating, advancing and retreating. After a long stretch of weather too harsh to travel in, the household needed supplies, and Morfran volunteered to set out for the nearest village. Ceridwen readied herbs and salves, syrups for coughs, teas and a bundle of loomed cloth. Laden with these and a list of needed supplies, Morfran set out one cold clear day.
He stopped along the way at crofts and farms, exchanging news, providing what he could from his bundles and bags. In exchange for a meal and a warm fireside he helped with chores and animals. Everywhere he traveled he found sorrow for Creirwy’s death. He and his parents hadn’t revealed details and people assumed she’d died of an illness. They were rough spoken but they’d loved her and Morfran received their sympathy gratefully. At each hearth and table he brought up the past summer, knowing strangers were noticed and remarked upon in remote places.
In the village, they were glad to see him. Many spoke with him about Creirwy, remembering with grief her bright smile and laughter, inquiring anxiously how they did at Bala Lake. He emptied out his bags and bundles and then packed them up again with supplies. He drank cider and ale in front of a roaring fire in the inn, surrounded by farmers, shepherds and craftsmen. He casually asked a question or two and then sat listening carefully to the talk, looking into the fire.
On the fourth day, he woke and smelled snow in the wind. It was time to go back to Bala Lake. He packed up and took his leave, settling into his lurching gait that nonetheless ate up the miles. He thought about what he’d learned. Southern mountains! Again and again he’d heard talk of the handsome stranger from the southern mountains. And his mother came from the southern seacoast, too. In the spring, he resolved, I’ll go South.
In early spring, Bald Tegid turned over the ground around Creirwy’s grave and planted a garden, edged with stones and heather. Gradually, he began traveling again, checking on his people and lands, helping repair and build here and there as needed.
Ceridwen gathered supple goatskins and left the loom, sitting in the evenings sewing the skins together with heavy thread and then applying layer on layer of pitch, speaking words of power. A coracle took shape. She and Morfran chose the softest, thickest lamb skins and two rabbit skins, and these she laid out in the gentle spring sunshine to sweeten over lavender and rosemary bushes that were beginning to green back into life.
Morfran told his parents of his plans to leave Bala Lake and travel south in search of both Creirwy’s killer and his family. Somewhat to his surprise, they were supportive, blessing his journey and his need. Their acceptance and love made it all the harder for him to leave, but he knew it was the right thing to do. He’d outgrown his life at Bala Lake.
So Morfran made ready to leave, and watched as Bald Tegid regained zest and some of his healthy color, traveling here and there and coming home with stories and news. Morfran did all he could to lighten Ceridwen’s work, planting the garden, cleaning out the stable, catching and drying a great store of fish, and helping clean and air the house, hanging bedding and rugs on the line and scouring kitchen and storeroom. As soon as the child was born and he knew Ceridwen was safe he’d leave.
The child came one night after a short and easy labor. Bald Tegid and Morfran were with her, and as it was Morfran’s first birth, they taught him how to support the mother and catch the child as it slid into the world. It was a boy. He held the bloody child in his arms with awe. This, then was the beginning. Once, his own mother brought him into life in this same way.
A white light shone around the baby’s head. Neither Ceridwen nor Bald Tegid had ever seen such a thing, but clearly this child was special and Ceridwen played some part in a greater story not yet told.
Ceridwen recovered quickly, suckling the babe and resting while Bald Tegid and Morfran did the work of household and garden and brought her tea and honey, the first cheeses, bread and soup made of fat fish and spring greens. The child throve and Ceridwen was up and around within a week.
One spring day of soft mist she set out alone in the early morning and crossed the hills to the sea, the child wrapped in rabbit skins and a bundle of the coracle, sail and lamb skins under her arm. She returned well after moonrise, the hem of her dress and cloak stiff and damp with saltwater. She kissed Morfran and held him close for a moment, and then went into Bald Tegid’s arms like a child. Murmuring, he steered her into their room, leaving Morfran feeling oddly left out. But he’d seen peace in her face and knew she’d found the strength to do what she thought right.
Morfran left Bala Lake on a warm spring day of sun and high clouds. He didn’t hurry, but made his way steadily south, sometimes solitary, sometimes traveling with others. He was friendly but spoke little, preferring to listen. Now and then he rested for a day. He preferred small villages and towns and narrow, less traveled roads. He liked to stop near a village, replenish his stores, eat a good meal and sit in the local inn hearing news and talk.
One day, while scouting the way ahead as a crow, a little sparrow spoke to him. She was a pretty thing, quietly clothed in grey and brown. He knew at once she was no more a true sparrow than he was a crow. He’d never met another shapeshifter, aside from his foster mother and Gwion. He was fascinated.
She was distinctly odd. When he asked her name she fluttered away, as though panicked, looking clumsy and half demented. He flew along with steady wingbeats, seeming to ignore her distress and doing his best to project friendly acceptance. Eventually, she began to fly less erratically and circled around him in graceful swooping circles.
“I’m Cassandra,” she said.
“I’m Morfran,” he said, as though to a timid child. “I’m going to fly down to the road now and take human shape. I’d like to talk more with you.”
Without waiting for an answer, he shifted into his true form. Somewhat to his surprise, she didn’t fly off at once. He felt curious about her own true shape but she remained a sparrow, flying along beside him or just above him.
He wanted to question her, but her air of extreme fragility made him afraid even the gentlest approach would send her away. He settled into his familiar lurching pace and made himself quiet, waiting to see what she would do.
She began to swoop in circles around him, rising and falling, and he could hear her murmuring to herself. He caught snatches of words.
“Fiery key and fiery castle…he of black desert and silver fish…sea wolves chasing white horses…dancing kings bound in a golden chain…” She fell silent, flew two more circles, and fluttered to the ground as though to rest.
He was conscious of how huge he must seem from her point of view, huddled there on the dusty road. He didn’t allow himself to stop walking, but said, “If you’d like to ride on my shoulder we can talk more easily and you can rest.”
A few steps on, a soft sound of feather and wing brushed his ear and she alighted on his shoulder.
“I never met another shapeshifter before,” he said casually.
“I’m really not,” she said, sounding quite ordinary. “Do you know Minerva?”
“Commerce, wisdom, weaving, ingenuity,” said Morfran promptly, remembering Ceridwen and her lessons with a pang of affection.
Cassandra laughed with a sound like a leaf falling. Morfran relaxed.
“Yes. She loves birds, especially—“
“Owls. She’s my friend. She made me a bird so I could be free …”
She lifted off his shoulder and flew, swooping and gliding. Morfran, watching her, sensed some indefinable wrongness. She might be any other songbird in the world—almost. There was a subtle sense of something broken in her movements, as though she didn’t quite possess the proper number of feathers or some tiny fragile bone in her wing was missing.
She returned to his shoulder. “I don’t know what happened,” she continued. “Out of nowhere a hawk struck at me and I didn’t know where to go or what to do…”
Morfran made a sound of compassion in his throat, feeling any word would be too rough.
She shivered, settling her feathers.
“I broke my wing. I fell under a tree and a man came. He picked me up. I was in pain and terrified. He took me home. He cared for me, but his mind was filled with bloody thorns! Bloody thorns! They pierced and tore so cruelly!”
Once again, she lifted off his shoulder, flying erratically in and out of tree branches arching over the road. Morfran wondered if any of what she said was true. Her distress was certainly real enough, but she seemed half mad.
She returned to his shoulder. Bit by bit, she told the story, every now and then taking to the air as though to relieve her agitation.
“He bound up my wing and made a place for me inside an open window while I healed. I tried not to see the thorns. I tried not to know. But his shadow wore a crown of blood and his eyes were dark.
I got better. One morning I felt so well that as dawn came I sang a song. Birds in trees outside the window sang too, and light was born in the midst of our voices.
My friend woke. ‘No need for an alarm clock with you in the house!’ he said. ‘Today I go back to my life.’ But it wasn’t life he held his arms out to. It was death and silence, a gag of thorns that tore at his lips…and there was nothing I could do.
He left with hardly a word to me. He forgot to change my water and give me fresh food.
It was a long day. I watched and listened to the world outside the window. It was dark when my friend came home.
He looked tired and tense. He gave me food and water and made himself a meal. He ate silently and went to bed. My presence didn’t comfort him. I couldn’t help him.
The next morning, I woke at dawn. I sang, welcoming the morning, trying to give my friend hope and joy in a new day.
He made an irritable noise from the bed. ‘Be silent!’ he said. ‘It’s too early!’
I stopped singing. I hadn’t helped, only irritated. I put my head under my wing and wept. The sun rose and other birds sang, but I kept my head and face covered in the soft darkness under my wing. I felt afraid of the thorns. I didn’t want his blood to drip onto me.
That’s how it was. The man was gone all day and into the evening. Sometimes he took care of me and sometimes he didn’t. I was afraid to sing.
A day came when my wing was normal again. I flew out the window. I was back under the sky with the breeze and the sun and the trees’ heartbeat! Birds ate, preened, talked and sang around me. No tragedy or pain was in the treetops.
The man noticed my absence when he came home that evening. The next morning, he came to the window and called.
I flew to him at once, because he was my friend. I thought I could blunt the thorns or pull them out, and the bloody holes they left would stop welling with pain. I perched on his finger and spread my wings to show I was well. I sang the passion of being alive.
He frowned and shook the finger I perched on.
‘Be silent!’ he said.
I flew out the window and into a tree. That day I stayed alone in the treetop, silent and sad. I thought of leaving but I couldn’t leave him alone with the bloody thorns.
One day he called and I flew to him. He was so sad I sang a song of cages and thorns, loneliness and the slow drip of blood in a dark, hidden place no one sees. His face set like stone. His eyes went flat. He reached out the window and broke a thorn off a rose bush growing there. Before I knew what was happening, he forced open my beak and thrust the thorn through my tongue.
‘Don’t sing!’ he shouted. ‘Be silent!’”
Morfran raised a gentle hand to caress her where she perched, trembling, on his shoulder, but she flew clumsily from him, as though still in pain, and circled in the air. When she returned, she no longer trembled and allowed him to stroke her with a fingertip.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, filled with anguish and anger.
“I didn’t know my blood dripped from the thorns, too,” she whispered.
“I flew out the window into leaf shadows. I wanted to die. I stayed still.
Night came. In the dark, I began to come back to myself. The pain in my tongue was dreadful but what I felt in my heart was worse. I waited for dawn and when it came I flew away. I never went back.”
Morfran turned his head to look at her, perched there on his shoulder. She wept, tears wetting tiny brown feathers on her face.
“The thorns! The thorns!”
She rose off his shoulder and flew once more. It was a bright, breezy day and she circled for a time in the warm air and then perched in a tree beside the road some way ahead. As he drew near, he heard her singing. She flew to his shoulder again.
“What will you do now?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, sounding desolate. “His whispering lies snarled in my mind and I pick at the knots, pick and untwist, but nowhere can I find my own whisper, only everyone else’s!”
Again, she rose and this time she darted right and left, rising and falling but mostly rising, changed direction over the trees and blundered out of sight.
Morfran hoped she wouldn’t fly like that long. She was bound to catch the attention of another hawk.
All afternoon he turned Cassandra’s story over in his mind. He thought about Creirwy and her brightness, realizing for the first time much of her light came from her feeling. She was like a spring, he thought, a spring flowing out of and into life, never going dry. She laughed when she felt delighted, wept when she felt sad, demonstrated every feeling of love and affection, held nothing back. People spoke of her innocence. Perhaps what they meant was how openly she lived, how unashamedly she expressed her experience, whatever it happened to be. He thought with a grin of her infrequent but impressive fits of anger, for she hadn’t been an angel, in spite of her looks!
He wondered if he’d ever see Cassandra again. It scarcely seemed possible she’d survive long on her own in any shape, poor creature. If Minerva really did watch over her, he hoped she watched carefully.
One day, Morfran found himself in a prosperous-looking village. People gave him friendly greetings and it seemed a happy place. Morfran wandered into a thick wood nearby, hoping to find a quiet place to camp. He discovered a small house with a garden alongside a singing river. A woman worked among a few fruit trees. He drew near enough to call to her, not wanting to startle her with his sudden appearance.
“May I camp for the night here near the river?” he inquired.
She smiled. “Well, it’s not my river, you know,” she replied. “You’re welcome to camp, of course. Would you like to share a meal? As you can see, I have plenty!” She laughed. The basket beside her was heaped with carrots, cucumbers and summer squash.
Morfran set his bundle down under a tree and stretched the kinks out of his back. He knelt by the running water and splashed his face and neck and then joined the woman.
Her name was Juliana. Morfran reveled in being in a garden again, and this one was productive and well cared for. It reminded him of Ceridwen’s garden, where vegetables and fruit grew in happy companionship with herbs and flowers. As they worked, he told Juliana about Bala Lake and Ceridwen. They were easy together, like old friends. Her hands were callused and brown, hands that worked and spent time outside. Her hair was a strange mixture of gold and silver. She’d tied it in a loose knot against the back of her neck with a piece of cloth, but it curled around her face, the knot unraveling. It was beautiful hair and he wondered what it would look like loose. He realized with surprise he wanted to run his hands through it.
He helped her feed the chickens and they picked pears, gold and green, from a tree in the orchard.
An orange cat with long hair and a tail like a question mark strolled out of orchard grass, churled at Juliana and came to rub against Morfran’s ankles.
“That’s Ranger,” said Juliana. Morfran stooped to run a hand down the cat’s back and he arched against his palm. The cat accompanied them back to the house.
The house was more of a hut, consisting of a small kitchen, a larger living room with a fireplace, and a tiny room for sleeping. In the corner of the living room, opposite the fireplace, stood a loom of polished black wood. He exclaimed with pleasure at its beauty and familiarity. Here was another piece of home!
They prepared a simple meal and ate together. Morfran was hungry and enjoyed the fresh bread and salad. Juliana made an omelet with herbs and cheese and he ate enormously.
He finished telling her about Creirwy’s death and his journey. He told the little sparrow’s story as well, for it now seemed woven into his own. As he talked, they washed dishes and made themselves comfortable outside with mugs of tea and transparent yellow slices of pear. Ranger settled at Juliana’s feet, paws tucked under his chest.
She listened eagerly, asking questions and revealing a quick and sensitive understanding. She listened with marked interest to Cassandra’s story and he thought perhaps it held some special meaning for her.
He ran out of words and they were silent for a while. The river seemed to grow louder as daylight faded. The frog chorus swelled. They sat in deep fragrant grass starred with a purple flower whose name he didn’t know. As she listened, she twirled one of the small buff-colored mushrooms dotting the grass in her fingers. She wore a long skirt of wrinkled cotton in a rich rose color with an orange shirt that looked as if it had once belonged to a man. It was too large for her and she’d rolled the sleeves up. The top buttons were unfastened, showing tanned skin on her neck and chest. Thin gold bangles clinked musically together as she moved. Her feet were bare, their tops tanned, and she wore a toe ring on her second toe. It was unexpectedly exciting for some reason, the thin silver band around the toe. She sat with her knees drawn up and her arms wrapped around them, looking like a child, except her face bore lines of experience and that magnificent hair didn’t belong to a child.
“I think you’re searching for more than your sister’s killer and your family,” she said. “Perhaps you’re also searching for yourself, who you’ll allow yourself to be in the world.”
“Who I’ll allow myself to be…” Morfran repeated.
“Yes. We’re the ones who decide our limits. Many say they’ve no choice because they’re victims of circumstance, but what they mean is they lack the courage to change. I’ll tell you a story about that…”
“Once upon a time there was a woman who waited. But that’s not where the story begins.
Once upon a time there was a woman who moved. She didn’t always move fast and she didn’t always move with grace, but she moved. And then one day a prince came. Yes! A real, live prince. She knew he was a prince because he was everything she’d ever wanted and when he kissed her, she knew he was The One.
That lucky woman knew Happy Ever After had arrived and she settled down to make a home there.
Then a funny thing happened. The Prince needed to go away. He wasn’t sure how long he’d be gone.
So, the woman began to wait. She waited and she waited. She cried because her heart hurt and this wasn’t Happy Ever After, but she knew the importance of loyalty and being undemanding and not sulking, so she tried to wait with grace. She didn’t tell anyone how she felt because she didn’t want to complain about someone as wonderful as the prince.
She waited a long time and one day the prince came back. Oh, it was wonderful! He kissed her again and she remembered about Happy Ever After.
But quite soon he needed to go away again. And again. There were lots of good reasons why he couldn’t be there. He was busy. Sometimes he was confused. Sometimes he was afraid of his feelings for her. Sometimes he was tired or didn’t feel well and sometimes she disappointed him.
Waiting Woman tried hard to understand everything about what the prince needed and wanted. She tried to be perfect so he’d want to be with her and live in Happy Ever After. Sometimes she’d think she was good enough at last, but then the prince would go away again and she began to feel she’d never please him. Perhaps something was wrong with her. But maybe she just didn’t try hard enough.
So years passed, and Waiting Woman waited. And she got older. And she got sadder. And now we come back to the beginning, remember?
Once upon a time there was a woman who waited. While she waited, other people were moving and some passed by her. Some asked her to join them but of course she couldn’t do that, because how would the prince find her when he returned? But she did enjoy watching them go by. Sometimes they gave her gifts.
One day a golden woman with round breasts and hips and thick hair the color of wheat gave her a bag filled with seeds. She didn’t speak, but pressed the bag into Waiting Woman’s hand and walked on.
One joyous spring morning when Waiting Woman heard the first meadowlark of the season a young woman came by wearing a gauzy dress and a bracelet of bells around her ankle. There was something wild and fierce about her. She handed Waiting Woman a pair of soft dancing slippers and a small drum with a handle carved into the round frame and bells attached to the sides, and continued on without a word.
Then came a perfectly ordinary afternoon when a perfectly ordinary man whose face she forgot the instant he turned away handed her a bag of skeins of wool and flax and other material. Some of the skeins were dyed in rich colors. “These belong to you, I believe,” he said courteously, but without the slightest interest, and he too walked on. She stood with her arms full of hanks and skeins and her mouth open.
One afternoon, after a day when she’d felt particularly sad, so sad she’d not bothered to wash her hair and dressed in the clothes she’d taken off the night before, a pair of children came by, a boy and a girl. They laughed together as they walked, and Waiting Woman smiled, finding their joy contagious. Solemnly they handed her a stone bottle of liquid and a wooden stick with an empty carved circle on one end of it. ‘We heard you liked these,’ the little boy said, looking up at her with shining eyes. ‘We like them too.’ And they walked on.
Waiting Woman had liked bubbles once, but she remembered, a long time ago, the prince saying he didn’t like people who were too bubbly. She knew, of course, that didn’t mean this kind of bubble was wrong, but she thought, just to stay safe and get to Happy Ever After, she should stay away from bubbles of any kind. She hid the bubbles and wand away too, rather wistfully.
One day as she sat and watched the world go by, along came a strange wooden cart drawn by a horse. It stopped right in front of her in the middle of the road. A man leapt nimbly down from his seat. He wore a cloak of purple so dark it was nearly black. It swirled gracefully about him as he moved and hundreds of beads and ornaments caught the light, glittering. She saw rich embroidery in a pattern like water with leaping fish…a pattern like stars… spirals and planets and snakes. She’d never seen anything like it and longed to examine it more closely, but he carelessly slung it into the cart out of sight, raised some wooden flaps, propped some others, tethered the horse in the shade to graze, and with a sweep of his arm covered a wooden counter with a riot of clothes from inside the cart. With a flourish, he opened up a wooden box lined with velvet, revealing jewelry that sparkled and shimmered in the sun.
He came to her, bowed, smiled and took her hand. His own hand felt callused and strong. His face was lined, but the lines were from squinting in sun and smiling, not from frowning. He was attractive and she felt ashamed of herself for noticing.
“I brought some things for you to look over,” he said. “Already paid for, mind you. Perhaps you’d like to come and see?”
In fact, he seemed to carry every kind of color and clothing she most enjoyed, right down to underclothes. He remained so completely matter of fact, so objectively interested, she soon lost her shyness and began to enjoy herself.
He hung a piece of brocade over a tree branch and put down a scrap of carpet for her to stand on so she could try clothing on in privacy. Once or twice she even modeled for him to get his advice. It had been a long time since she’d enjoyed new clothes! Somehow, she hadn’t had much heart for it while waiting.
When the clothes she chose were folded between tissue paper and piled in luscious layers of color and texture, they turned to consider jewelry. She discovered bangles and earrings and toe rings and even an ankle bracelet with bells like she’d seen on the woman who gave her the dancing shoes. She found a fine gold chain with a small oval with the word “precious” engraved on it to hang around her waist. He showed her how to wear it so the charm rested just above the cleft of her buttocks.
Then the peddler put away the rejected clothes and shut up the velvet-lined box and brought out oils and sprays and lotions and scents and, somehow, they were all what she most liked. She chose from among them happily, hoping the prince would be pleased.
“Now,” the peddler said when she finished, “before I forget, there’s one more thing.” He disappeared behind the wagon and appeared again carrying a loom on his back. “This is just a small one to make friends with,” he said, and he walked straight into the house and set it down, appearing again before she could follow him in or ask any questions.
And then it was done. She watched as he hooked up the horse in the traces, neatly whisked away the bottles, took down props, put up wooden flaps and sprang into the seat. He looked down at her. “It’s an illusion, my dear,” he said, and clicked his tongue at the horse.
And so Waiting Woman waited and the world passed by and she thought new thoughts. Hope rose and fell within her like a tide. It seemed like nothing changed.
But one day she decided to move.
She didn’t move far away. She stayed within calling distance. Her heart felt so full and painful she thought she couldn’t bear to continue to wait. For something to do, she took a skein of wool and the shuttle in her hand and clumsily began to weave it onto the loom. At first, she struggled and many times she stopped, unwove everything, and restrung the loom, but she began to get the hang of it. She found when she got into a rhythm of shuttle and weave, ideas and thoughts floated up in her mind. She was astonished and ashamed of some of these, but they gave her a lot to think about.
One day she moved farther away and took some things out of hiding and played with them.
When she was sure no one could see or hear, she began to make friends with the drum. One night when no one could see her in the dark, she dressed up and danced.
Well, in the middle of all this, I bet you can guess what happened. The prince came back. Waiting Woman was glad to see him, of course. Glad, but maybe not quite as delighted as she’d been before. That night she’d planned to try dancing again and she’d looked forward to it all day.
But oh, my goodness! She thought Happy Ever After had come at last! He kissed her! He caressed her! He wanted her! He had time to spend with her!
She blossomed and bloomed and wore some of her new scent and new clothes. He noticed! He paid her compliments. She began to feel beautiful again. She didn’t think of dancing. Her loom lay hidden away. Other things lay even more hidden away.
And then, guess what? The prince needed to go again. It was her fault. She knew it. In her happiness, she had said something incautious and he didn’t like it.
Back to waiting.
One day, Waiting Woman packed up her possessions. She dug out the deeply hidden things first, and then the not so hidden things, and then the things that didn’t need to be hidden. She stopped waiting. She started moving.
That same day the prince returned, as if he sensed a change. Waiting Woman wasn’t there! He couldn’t believe it! As he searched, an old woman in a ragged cloak and hood came by with a dangerous-looking amber-eyed wolf dog at her heel.
‘Have you seen a woman on the road?’ he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he called, ‘My love, where are you?’
‘What is she like?’ the old crone inquired.
‘Oh, well, she has hair…and, you know, eyes…and she’s waiting. For me.’
Waiting Woman, peeking at him from around a tree trunk, felt grim amusement.
‘A woman with hair and eyes, waiting for you,’ said the old woman dryly. ‘I haven’t seen her. Perhaps she left.’
‘Oh, she’d never do that,’ he assured her, and then raised his voice again. ‘My sweetheart, I want you! I’m back! I can’t wait to see you! I’ve realized while I’ve been away how much I love you!’
The old woman and her dog walked on. Waiting woman stayed put behind the tree. She noticed for the first time the prince’s face looked rather pale and strained. She also noticed his clothes didn’t fit as well as formerly. He turned in a circle to look for her and she saw he was beginning to lose his hair—just a little on top. She wasn’t the only one getting older!
‘Oh, my love!’ called the prince. ‘I’ve decided I want to spend the rest of my life with you!’
The woman thought to herself, no sale. She picked up her bundles. And that gardening, dancing, drumming, weaving, bubbling, precious, beautiful, scented, giggling woman moved on!”
She looked at Morfran and laughed. He laughed with her. “And here you are!”
“And here I am,” she agreed. “But only because I finally decided to choose something different.”
“He was afraid,” said Morfran, “like the man who rescued Cassandra.”
“Yes,” she agreed sadly. “He was afraid. He didn’t want to get too close or feel too much. I think he felt happiest when he could think about me at a distance. Probably after I left he loved me the best, because then he was safe from ever actually being with me.”
“I don’t think I know much about feelings,” said Morfran slowly. “I’ve told you that was Creirwy’s role in the family—to express feeling. I’ve always been better at using my intellect. Maybe I’m afraid to feel. Maybe I’m just unskilled. How does one make friends with one’s feelings?”
“A good question,” she said.
While they’d talked the sun set. The cat departed. Looking up, Morfran saw a sky filled with stars. A fruit tree branch sheltered the place where they sat.
“Do you possess a lantern?” he asked impulsively.
“Will you light it and bring it out?”
She picked up their empty mugs and returned to the house.
Morfran took out his bedroll and laid it on thick grass. When he lay on his back looking up at the sky he felt like an animal, bedded down, safe and warm and protected. This was a good place.
A small flame of light approached. She’d thrown a wool shawl over her shoulders for warmth and carried a blanket. He hung the lantern on a slender branch, making sure it didn’t scorch the fading leaves.
She spread her blanket with his and held out her hand to him. “Come,” she said and drew him down. They lay side by side, looking at the sky. “You’ve told me about the man with the blue beard,” she said.
He remembered the shock and sense of deformity he’d felt when he realized the color of stubble on the stranger’s face.
“He felt wrong,” he said. “He felt unnatural. When I circled above him and looked down, looked into him, he was empty, a great abyss of hunger and darkness.” He shuddered, remembering.
“Were you afraid?” she asked quietly.
“I was…I was appalled. I felt horror. I wasn’t afraid for myself but it was terrible to know a human form could hide such emptiness. I was shocked. I felt sick!”
“And when you found Creirwy,” she said gently, “her body was emptied.”
“She wasn’t there,” he said, his voice desolate. “She wasn’t there. When I held her body she was absent. She was like a shed snakeskin or a worn-out piece of clothing. Her light was out.” Stars above him blurred and tears ran down his cheeks, wetting his ears. She laid her hand on his without speaking.
Morfran groped for self-control. Crying wouldn’t bring her back. Crying wouldn’t help anything, couldn’t change anything. But his grief swelled beyond his ability to restrain it and he wept.
Gradually, he calmed. Night air cooled his wet cheeks, his ears, his temples. He took a deep breath and felt eased.
“Morfran, you experience feelings. You can call them by name. You can have a physical experience with them. You’re connected to your emotional life.”
“But I tried to stop feeling just then,” he said. “I don’t want to feel that kind of pain! I don’t want to cry!”
“Why?” she asked simply.
“It hurts me,” he said, like a child.
“Does it hurt you now?”
“No. Now I feel better.”
“Isn’t Creirwy worth your grief?”
“Of course she is!”
“Well then, give your tears and pain freely to her memory. Give her life meaning. Or choose another way. Turn away from grief and pain because you’re unwilling to endure discomfort. But Morfran, if you do that you also turn away from joy, from laughter, from desire, from all the feelings that shape our world and our experience. And if you do that you’re only a step away from silencing a songbird.”
He lay there, stars filling his eyes, sound of the river in his ears, feel of her hand covering his, and he heard truth in her words. He looked up at the flickering lantern flame and shape shifted into a moth with fragile dusty wings. He joined other moths attracted by the light in a fluttering dance, but for him it wasn’t a dance of self-destruction. He danced for joy.
She gasped as he shifted and sat up to watch him, lips parted as she followed his graceful movements. He flew down to her. In his moth shape, he was acutely aware of her warmth, her aliveness. Pear juice stained her fingers and lips with their scent. He flew about her head, brushing her cheeks with delicate wings. Lamplight fell on her amazing hair, loving it into shining strands of gold and silver. She raised her chin and closed her eyes as he flew around her, exploring her ears, stirring loosened tendrils of hair against her neck, brushing her eyelashes with his moth wings. He left her head and explored the soft skin on the inner wrists below her rolled-up sleeves. He fluttered around the thin gold bangles.
He left her arms and flew to the neck of her shirt, surrounding himself with her scent of clean earth, the grasses they lay on, the smell of cotton and the unique chemical imprint of her living body. Morfran felt drunk with it. She lifted her hands and loosened buttons, letting the shirt fall open. She lay back on her elbows, offering herself to his gentle, persistent exploration. He brushed against a nipple and she gave an involuntary gasp. He explored her breasts, flying in a fluttering circle around each of them, now and then brushing a nipple.
With a soft sound, as though a great wing brushed the air, he shifted back into himself, youthful and lithe, dark, a little twisted.
“Ever since I first met you, I’ve wanted to run my hands through your hair,” he said in a low voice.
She reached up and tugged at the strip of cotton holding it in place. Loosened, it spilled over her shoulders in a river of silver and gold. He cradled her head in his hands, combing from her scalp down to the ends with his fingers. Her hair covered her breasts and he caressed them through the strands with the palm of his hand, feeling her jutting nipples. He bent his head and put his mouth to a nipple and she lay back, guiding his head with her hands.
He moved from nipple to nipple, brushing her hair aside. She arched her back, breathing unevenly as his tongue explored the sensitive tips of her breasts and surrounding areolae. She put up her hands to cup herself, offering herself to his mouth, and he ran his tongue along her fingers. They were hardened and rough with calluses and he tasted pears.
He was fiercely, achingly aroused. He wanted to prolong his exploration of scent and texture but didn’t think he’d be able to wait. He rolled aside to loosen his clothes and when he turned back, she’d raised the hem of her skirt.
Morfran put a hand on her sex. Her hair felt coarse and curly and her lips swollen and moist. He’d never touched a woman before in this most private place. He wanted to see if her hair grew silver and gold like it did on her head. He wanted to fill himself with her scent, explore the inside of her thighs and her belly… Something gold glinted in the lantern light and he felt a thin chain draping low across her hips.
For some reason this hidden chain, this secret adornment against her skin, inside her clothes, pushed him into a spiral of need and desire he couldn’t delay or deny. For a moment he hesitated, trembling, but she reached for his hand and opened her legs to him. He felt warm wetness beneath his fingers. With his knee, he nudged her legs further apart. She grasped him gently, running her hand up and down his shaft once…twice…and then guided him into her.
She closed around him, wet and warm. Blindly he thrust, overwhelmed with sensation, excitement roaring within him. She matched his rhythm, clenching around him as he pulled back to thrust again. He wanted to weep, to shout, even to bite. He heard himself groan, thought again of the hidden chain around her hips and felt the wave of climax approach. Her hands were on his buttocks, pushing him more deeply into her. He began to empty himself inside her warmth, spasm after spasm, and she tightened her muscles, milking him with each ejaculation.
They both breathed hard. He lay still for a moment and then rolled off her and gathered her against him.
“Teach me… in a minute,” he whispered and slid into light sleep.
He wakened. He smoothed a hand over her tumbled hair, over her ear, down the curve of her neck, her shoulder, her ribs, the soft indentation of her waist. He found the chain and followed it with his fingers.
He put his hand up to her face, felt wetness on her cheek.
He rolled onto his elbow and looked down at her.
“I’m all right,” she said quickly. “Only happy.”
“I wasn’t finished exploring you, but you were too exciting. I couldn’t wait. Now I want to kiss you.”
He lowered his mouth onto hers. She relaxed under him, submitting to his playful teasing with tongue and lips and teeth. He felt her smile. She began to kiss him back.
“I want to look at you,” he whispered, and slid down between her legs. “Is your hair here the color of the hair on your head? It’s too dark. I can’t see.”
“Yes,” she whispered back, “only more silver and coarser.”
She opened her legs.
“Now I know what you smell like,” he murmured.
“Now you know what we smell like,” she said, laughing. “Feel me. That’s both of us, what you feel.”
He explored gently.
“Talk to me. Teach me.”
As he moved his fingers over her body, she guided him. He put a finger inside her, then another. She gasped. He leaned over her, closely, closely, dark head just above the center of her. She groaned at the touch of his tongue.
“Here?” he whispered. “Like this?”
“Do it again,” she whispered.
He covered her with his mouth and sucked gently, moving his fingers in and out of her. She cried out. Her body moved with his fingers, tightening around them. He sucked. His fingers moved. She pushed herself against his face. He sucked. His fingers moved.
“Don’t stop! Please don’t stop!”
He sucked. His fingers moved. She cried out, arching up, tightening around his fingers in spasms, rubbing herself against his face.
He raised himself and laid on her, gentling her with his weight, caressing the side of her face, kissing her. Tears ran down her face. She caught his lower lip between her teeth and gently bit down. He kissed her fiercely, his arousal hard against her belly.
She rolled him over onto his back and covered him with her body. She let him feel the weight of her breasts, her nipples brushing against him. She supported herself on her elbows and let her hair flow down over his face and neck. She kissed him with hard lips, aggressive, dominating. She straddled him, knees on either side of his waist, and let him feel her sex against him. He reached for her and she took his wrists and held them against the ground above his shoulders. He shuddered. She ran her hands down his arms, combing through the hair at his armpits, teasing the outer edge of his nipples. She bent, making her tongue a hard point and flicked each nipple, making it stand up. She moved lower. She paused at his navel and explored its tight creases, pressing against the shallow cup of it with her tongue. She flicked the tip of his penis with her tongue and tasted him. He jerked and groaned. She moved up and let one breast fall onto his penis, rubbing his shaft with her nipple. He opened his legs and felt her breath on the soft skin beside his testicles. He pushed himself against her face but she backed away, only letting him feel her breath. His own breathing sounded harsh and excited. Gently, she cupped his testicles, soft in their sac, rolling them in her palm. She brushed between his penis and anus with her finger, then ran her tongue along the place with fleeting pressure. He groaned again.
She leaned over him, letting her breasts fall down on either side of his erection. His belly was wet. She let some of her weight down onto him, making her breasts tight around him. Reflexively, he jerked his hips, sliding between her breasts, wetting them. She moved down again and touched him with her tongue. She circled him slowly with her tongue, tasting. She took his shaft in her hand and pushed the head between her lips, her mouth warm and slick. She took him in deeper and deeper until he nudged against the back of her throat and held him there, tasting the fluid he secreted. She let him slide between her lips, swirling her tongue around his head. She reached up with both hands and found his nipples, skimming over them with her palms to make them hard and then pinching and teasing, rubbing them between her fingers. She stilled her tongue and held him in the warmth of her mouth, not moving her lips, applying no suction, breathing quietly through her nose. The muscles in his thighs and buttocks were hard and clenched. He felt suspended in the starry night. River flowed. Frogs chorused. The heavy smell of sex filled his nostrils.
He moved subtly, flexing his hips so he slid between her lips. Gently, she sucked on him, just for a moment. He moved again, more positively this time. She supported herself on her knees between his legs and cupped his testicles, massaging gently. He began to move in a slow rhythm, thrusting in and out of her mouth. She released his testicles and nestled a fingertip against his anus. When he thrust himself into her mouth, she withdrew her finger until she barely touched him. When he pulled himself out of her mouth she pressed against his anal opening. His pace quickened and he gasped, thrusting. His testicles tightened against his body and he began to climax. With every spasm, she thrust her finger deeper into him. He jerked his hips again and again, crying out, filling her mouth, and then at last he finished and she opened her lips and gently released him in a mouthful of warm salty fluid, moving up his body to lie against him and pulling blankets over them both. He gathered her against him with his right arm and she pillowed her head on his shoulder.
Morfran woke from a dream of a golden bird trailing glowing feathers. Juliana lay turned away from him onto her side, breathing deeply. The blanket had slipped down from her shoulder and her hair lay in a tangle. He pulled the blanket up over her and moved closer, pressing himself against her back. Her round bottom rested softly against him. He ran a gentle caressing hand down the delicate bones of her spine and she stirred and turned to face him. She traced the shape of his mouth with her finger. He kissed the finger. She relaxed and shut her eyes.
He woke in dim dawn. The river whispered cool, damp secrets. He held Juliana in his arms, her back warm against his chest, hair a disheveled glory of starlight and sunlight. He pressed a lock of it to his lips and kissed it. She breathed evenly, her body relaxed.
Today he’d set out again, but he’d found some part of himself here in this quiet place next to the river. He felt a new confidence, but also sadness. He could never go back to being the young man he’d been just a day before. His body, softened and still with sleep, now knew desire, given and received. He felt grateful and humbled. She’d been generous with her experience and her vulnerability. He’d take the memory of her and what she’d given with him, but he couldn’t stay with her. To build a life next to the river in the house, grow the garden and orchard and feed chickens and gather eggs seemed like a good life, a beautiful life. But it wasn’t his life.
He lay quietly, holding her, while birds sang the dawn chorus. Awareness came back into her body, but she didn’t speak. He kissed her between her shoulders and rubbed his rough cheek against her warm skin.
He didn’t know what to say, feeling shy and triumphant at once. What did one say to a woman after such a night?
In the end, he didn’t need to speak. She turned in his arms and kissed him and then rose without a word and went naked to the river, where he heard her splashing as she washed. He dressed himself and folded her blanket, taking it and the lantern into the house. He rolled his bedroll and carefully shook out her skirt and shirt, draping them over reeds at the river’s edge, where she combed damp hair with her fingers. He entered the house and put water on to heat. When she appeared with her hair smooth and plaited over her shoulder, he took his turn at the river to wash.
As they ate, they spoke of the garden, a hen that wasn’t laying, the good crop of plums coming on. She was open and affectionate and he realized she didn’t expect him to stay. He helped her tidy the kitchen and brought in an armful of wood.
When he stood before her with his bundle on his back her eyes filled with tears, but she smiled. He smoothed her beautiful hair one more time with the palm of his hand.
“Thank you,” he said simply.
“That’s what I was going to say!” she replied. “Go well, Morfran.”
He turned and left her.
Some weeks later Morfran looked for a place to spend the night. It had been a beautiful day and he’d come many miles. He was hungry and footsore. He came to a crossroad just at dusk. For a mile or so he’d been smelling wood smoke and thought perhaps he’d find company for the night. There at the crossroad stood a gaily painted wooden cart. A horse grazed peacefully and a man sat at his ease in front of a fire burning in a ring of stones.
As Morfran drew near the man sprang to his feet in a lithe movement and called out, “Come friend! Share my fire for the night!”
Morfran saw a dark-haired man wearing a long cloak, well past youth but with a lean, strong, graceful body. The cloak was decorated in swirling, flowing patterns like water. Raising its head, the horse pricked his ears, snorted and trotted to Morfran, inspecting him carefully, and then blowing a gusty warm breath down his collar. Morfran laughed and clapped it on a well-muscled chestnut shoulder.
“His name’s Gideon.”
“Gideon,” said Morfran, and then, “Thank you. I will, gladly.”
Gratefully, Morfran set down his bundle. He unstrapped his blankets and spread them in the rough grass by the fire, took from his pack a loaf of bread he’d bought that morning, a round of cheese and a skin of water.
“And I snared a rabbit!” said the peddler. “We’ll make a good meal together!”
Morfran made his way down to a stream for a cursory wash to take the road dust from his face and hands. He found oyster mushrooms growing on a willow trunk and gathered some to go with the rabbit. The first stars were coming out, and by the last daylight he gathered an armful of brush for the fire. The smell of roasting rabbit made his stomach rumble. The peddler cut up the cheese and Morfran tore a piece from the loaf, took a chunk of cheese and began to eat.
The peddler was called Dar. He was easy company, quiet but cheerful and friendly. Together they ate and drank, and for a time Morfran thought of nothing but the good food in front of him.
Dar made a tidy handful of rabbit bones and tossed them into a bush. He put more wood on the fire and rummaged in the cart for a couple of large potatoes, which he put in the coals to roast, and a handful of unfamiliar dried fruit.
“Figs and dates,” said the peddler, “from the East.”
They were sweetly sticky and delicious. Morfran eased off his boots, leaned against his bundle and felt warm, full of food and ready for talk.
“Thank you,” he said to the peddler, meaning thank you for the warm welcome, the meal and the restful companionship.
Dar laughed. “You’re welcome, friend! You were ready for a rest and a bite and I wanted a companion. Will you tell me something about yourself?”
Morfran knew food, drink, shelter and fire may be shared upon the road but the true coin of fellowship consisted of offering oneself. He found this exchange a joy and a delight. He felt enriched by other lives and experiences brushing against his and also found he drew closer and closer to himself. He often thought about Juliana’s story. He too received gifts from nearly everyone he met; gifts that helped him discover himself. If that was true, he reasoned, he himself gave gifts to others in the same way.
Once again, he told the story of Bala Lake, Creirwy’s death and the purpose of his journey. Dar proved a good listener, asking a question from time to time but mostly silent and receptive, watching Morfran in the firelight. Morfran suspected he’d be able to repeat everything he’d heard. When Morfran fell silent Dar neither commiserated nor remarked directly.
“Bala Lake,” he mused. “I’ll look out for this place. I’d like to see it. You’ve told your story with honesty and passion. I thank you for it. Now I’ll tell you a story. But first, some music!”
He brought from the cart a folded piece of black velvet and unwrapped a length of ivory or bone, pierced with holes, banded with silver and inlaid with glinting gems. He polished it lovingly with the velvet and put it to his lips.
Morfran shut his eyes. The fire’s warmth pushed gently against him. The piping seemed to retell his story in music. He saw Bald Tegid and Ceridwen and Creirwy’s joyous smile. He swam as a fish in Bala Lake, smooth, cold, graceful, the water dark and mysterious. He flew as a crow in blue air with sun warm on his black feathers, circling and floating above his home. He fished. He knelt in the garden with Ceridwen beside him. He stirred the cauldron, waiting for the day when the brew would be finished. He held the newly-born baby Ceridwen had pushed into the world, looking down at the red, wrinkled child, covered with birth slime, a radiant white light around his head. He felt tears in his throat, behind his eyelids. He thought of Juliana and let them fall down his cheeks, opening his eyes and finding the fire an orange blur. It made him think of the feather he carried with him from under Creirwy’s body. The notes died away. Morfran found himself on his feet, cheeks wet in cool night air, the fire’s warmth against his legs. He felt cold and vulnerable. He looked down at Dar.
“You’ve looked into my heart and found it all.”
“No,” said Dar. “You’ve spoken your truth and I’ve heard, that’s all.”
“Who are you?” asked Morfran.
Dar smiled. “I’m a traveler, like you. I talk to people. Sometimes I learn and sometimes I teach. I collect stories and give them where they’re needed.”
“You’re more than a peddler.”
“Yes, perhaps. I’m in search of authentic experience. Sometimes I meet someone like you, someone who reaches for truth and its expression. But more often people hide from truth. They refuse it, reject it or deny it, even in the privacy of their own thoughts.
“Why do we do that?” asked Morfran, thinking of both the little sparrow and Juliana.
“We? So, you understand this is a human thing we all fall into? Then you probably can answer that question yourself. We do it to protect ourselves or someone else from pain, don’t we? Or because we’re taught our experience is wrong or shameful. Or because we’re too proud to admit our faults.”
“But if we deny ourselves we never know who we are.”
“Yes,” said the peddler. “Denial is always destructive. That’s why I set my face against it. I do what I can to bring real experience into light.” He put his pipe to his lips and played a merry melody for a few moments. “Not everyone is delighted with my efforts, let me tell you!”
They laughed, the twisted, lean, dark young man with his serious grey far-seeing eyes and the peddler, also dark, face lined with weather and years and laughter. They might have been brothers. Morfran sat down, pulling the blanket around himself.
Dar lifted a potato out of the embers with his knife blade and Morfran accepted it on a fold of his blanket. Its warmth comforted.
“Here’s a tale I heard from a place of deep forest. People there speak of creatures of magic and power that spring from the dark hearts of the trees. They say in the fall of the year the Elf King rides, looking for playmates for his daughters. They call him the Erlkonig…
“The man looked up at the sky’s last light as the horse entered the forest shadows. He held the child, warmly wrapped, close in front of him. They’d stayed too late in town. He’d lingered too long against the friendly bar while the child played with a kitten in front of the fire. Now the way home through dark woods seemed long and night air struck chill. He turned up his collar and pulled his hat low, urging the horse on.
The child stayed silent but alert. The horse's ears pricked as though listening.
‘Father,’ the child said after a time, ‘Father, something follows!’
‘Nonsense, my son! Night falls and the forest is quiet. Soon we’ll be home with your mother. You’ll tell her about the kitten, eh?’ The child quieted but sat tense in the circle of his father's arm. They rode on.
‘Father, don’t you feel it? Something draws nearer!’
‘No, no, child. You must learn to control your imagination. Animals live in the forest, you know, and owls in the treetops. Nothing else is there.’
Once again, the child quieted, but as he turned his head his father saw his eyes gleam in the dark. The horse snorted, tossing its head, and the man gripped it more tightly with his legs. Wind rose from a murmur in the treetops to a breeze.
‘Father, look! There, between the trees! It shines like a pale light! Look! It’s a man on a horse with a crown on his head and a train behind him!’
‘That's enough, my son! You’re fanciful. There’s no one abroad tonight but ourselves. You see a wisp of fog. I tell you, all is well! Don’t you trust me?’
The child knew what he saw and was afraid, but knew his fear displeased his father. Once again, he fell silent and the horse picked its way down the dark path. Wind stirred the trees.
The horse suddenly shied violently to one side and began to tremble.
‘Father, he rides beside us! I see him so clear!’
The father tightened the reins and cursed softly. ‘Be quiet, child! See how you frighten the horse? Be calm! Be a little man! A man must give up these silly fears and fantasies! Lean against me and go to sleep!’
But the child heard another voice now, a thin voice, like a slim sharp blade in the dark. ‘Come, child, come away with me! My daughters sent me to bring them a new playmate. Come ride with the Erlkonig and you’ll possess everything you want, kittens and toys and sweetmeats. My daughters will sing to you, and dance, and tell you stories and rock you to sleep. You’ll be safe and never fear again. All will be easy and forgetful.’
‘Father, don’t you hear him speak to me? He’s the Erlkonig! He wants to take me away!’
The horse sweated and breathed hard. The father felt its desire to break into a panicked gallop. He held it in tightly.
‘Hush, child, hush! There’s no such thing as the Erlkonig! You hear branches rubbing together in the breeze and leaves whispering to one another …’
The horse let out a neigh like a scream and bolted. The father leaned over the horse's neck, clinging with all the strength in his legs and working his hands into the horse's mane. The child sheltered beneath him from whipping branches. The horse ran through the dark withered woods.
The child sobbed, ‘Father, Father, he’s reaching for me! Father, his hand is on me! Father, help me!’
‘No, he is not! No, he is not!’ The father gasped.
The horse broke out of trees into a field of stubble. Stars shone overhead. Lights burned in farmhouse windows. The horse came to a stop in the yard, head hanging in exhaustion and trembling. The man loosened his grip on the mane, ashamed of his shaking hands. His legs ached fiercely as he relaxed them. The child stayed silent in his warm wrappings. The door opened and the child's mother appeared with a lantern held high. A man came from an outbuilding and caught the reins, exclaiming in dismay at the horse’s exhausted condition. The man's wife welcomed him and he passed her the heavy burden of the child. ‘He fell asleep as we came through the forest, it was so quiet and dark.’
The man led the horse away, lame now on one leg. Warm light spilled out the open door. A smell of soup and new bread came to them. They were home.
The child's mother laid him on his bed and gently unwrapped the woolen shawl. His face appeared, stark and pale, set in a grimace of terror. The child was gone. The Erlkonig had stolen him away.”
They sat quietly for a few moments. Morfran added wood to the fire. The potato cooled, and he sliced into it with his knife.
“The child knew the truth,” he said.
“The father knew the truth,” said Dar. “But he wouldn’t admit it. The child knew the truth and spoke it. The horse knew the truth and tried to save them. But some essential part of the father had already been stolen—no one saved him, either, you see—and so he couldn’t respond, though he himself was a victim of the same danger.”
“I was lucky,” Morfran said, as though to himself.
Dar caught his meaning. “Yes,” he said. “You were. Ceridwen and Bald Tegid sound like people who live in truth. You were never told your experience or perception was wrong?”
“No,” said Morfran. “They always taught us to trust our experience, even if we couldn’t understand it. Especially when we couldn’t understand it!”
“Most children don’t learn that.” said the peddler. “Children want to please. It’s easy to silence a child. For a while they still know what they know, but if they can’t speak of it, after a time they too begin to deny what they feel. And so it goes.”
Noola rose, a thin slice. Morfran felt suddenly tired, yet reluctant to leave his talk with the peddler.
“I’m ready for sleep but I want to talk more with you,” he said.
Dar looked at him across the fire and smiled. “All ways are the same to me,” he said. “Shall I choose your way for a time, then?”
“I’d like that,” replied Morfran and his own rare smile warmed his face.
The next morning, they broke camp together. In daylight, Morfran saw letters painted on the side of the cart. “Come and be welcome. Go and be free. Harm shall not enter.” Dar buckled Gideon into the cart shafts. The morning was still cool, the sun just beginning to warm the treetops. Dar’s cloak was a marvelous thing in daylight. It looked black in firelight but in fact was a rich, dark purple. It was sewn with beads and small gems. Morfran saw sinuous embroidered shapes of fish and birds, stars and planets, waves and spirals. On the shoulder of the cloak was sewn a large golden feather. Even in sunlight it seemed to glow. Morfran stared.
“Yes,” said Dar. It’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? It was made for me when I was born.”
Morfran reached for his bundle and found the golden feather he’d found under Creirwy’s body. He silently handed it to the peddler.
“Ah!” Dar ran it through his fingers. “Yes. It’s the same. Where did you get this?”
“It lay under my sister’s body when I picked her up. I dream about a bird with a trailing tail and jeweled wings with feathers like that. Where did that one on your cloak come from?”
“The Firebird…” said the peddler, as though to himself.
“Yes. It’s a creature out of the Northeastern Forest. They say it can lead you to a priceless treasure but none can capture it and few ever see it. Some say it’s only a story, a myth.”
“Then where did the feathers come from?” asked Morfran, smiling.
“I don’t know where mine came from, or how it came to be sewn into my cloak,” said Dar. “I think many stories are sewn into this cloak. Some are mine and some belong to others. I’ve always thought the feather looks odd because it doesn’t go with the rest of the embroidery and decoration. It’s the only golden thing. And why is it placed over the back of my shoulder, as though it dreams of being a wing? How do you think yours came to be under your sister’s body?”
“I don’t know,” said Morfran. “But I wouldn’t be parted from it. It’s somehow like an echo of her spirit. It wants to speak to me but I can’t quite hear…or understand. It comforts me to think something so beautiful was near her when she was murdered. In my dreams, the creature who wears these feathers is beautiful…and joyous.” Morfran tucked it inside his shirt, against his skin, and they spoke no more of it.
That evening Dar emptied a bag of velvet brocade on the dry grass near the fire ring. The contents spilled out, clicking together.
“Marbles!” said Morfran in surprise.
“Our talk of the Firebird’s treasure made me think of them,” said Dar. “I began to carry them for sale, but I got interested and now I enjoy them just for themselves and have my own collection.”
Morfran stirred the marbles with his finger. Some were dull, not quite perfectly round, obviously made of clay. Most were shiny and smooth. He was surprised to find they were different sizes, some as large as a small bird’s egg, others the size of his fingertip, and every variation in between. He picked up a smooth one, tinted light green. A tiny black tree was painted on it, delicate as an eyelash.
“That’s a porcelain from the Far East,” said Dar. “But these are the best. Look at this one.”
Morfran looked into the marble and saw flakes of copper and gold in a sphere of champagne color.
“That’s a Lutz. And here’s an onionskin—see the streaks?”
Fascinated, Morfran looked at one after another, amazed at Dar’s knowledge of the history and language of marbles.
“Do you want to learn a game? There’s picking plums, black snakes, ducks in the pond—“
“Ducks in the pond,” said Morfran.
After that they played frequently when they could contrive a flat surface, Dar astounding Morfran with his skill.
They were happy companions, both of a quiet contemplative nature and content with silence, though each found much of interest in the other and conversation wasn’t difficult. Dar proved an able guide, being familiar with roads and towns all the way to the coast and beyond. The horse made nothing of Morfran’s slight added weight to the cart and he was glad to sit and rest, although at times he walked just for the pleasure of movement.
One warm, sleepy afternoon, as they moved dreamily through miles of farmland and fields, Morfran told Dar about his meeting with the little sparrow called Cassandra and recounted her story.
“She touched me,” said Morfran. “She was so damaged. She seemed to see truth but she also seemed half mad. I couldn’t understand a lot of what she said.”
“The paradox of truth,” said the peddler, “is how simple and at the same time how difficult it can be.”
This made Morfran think of Juliana and he told the story of Waiting Woman. Dar listened with interest and then amusement. He sat in the sun with the reins held loosely in his hands, his face falling into lines of laughter.
“It was you!” Morfran said, realizing. “Now I remember she described your cloak!”
“It was, but I had another name then! Go on, I want to hear how it ended for her!”
Morfran told the rest of the story and a little of his night with her as well. “Yes, I remember her beauty,” said Dar. “I’m glad she decided to stop waiting. She wasted herself. You gave her a great gift.”
“I gave her a gift?” said Morfran, amazed. “She gave to me!”
“You came along, a young, attractive man, and wanted her. You saw her beauty. You desired her and gave her the gift of your desire. That means everything to a woman! Don’t forget—she half believes she’s unlovable because the man she was with failed to value her!”
Morfran thought about this in silence, looking out across a field of high, thick barley, golden in afternoon sun.
They found a place to stop and peacefully went about caring for Gideon and making a fire. Not until they’d eaten and the sky was dark did they exchange words again.
The next morning dawned overcast and cool. Morfran walked beside the cart. “Soon,” said Dar, “we part ways. You’ll go east and south and I think I’ll head north and west. I want to see some of the places you’ve told me about. Before that, though, let’s speak of your errands.”
“Well,” said Morfran slowly, “I’d planned to find this man with the blue beard and then try to find out something about my mother. All I really know is they both may have come from the south. As I travel in that direction, I hope there’ll be further guidance of some kind.”
“Do you seek the blue bearded one to kill him?” asked Dar bluntly.
“I suppose I do—or did. But now I’m not so sure.” He frowned, looking down at his feet. “I told myself he must be stopped so others don’t share Creirwy’s fate, but to kill him in anger, for revenge…it won’t bring her back. I feel hatred… and I’m ashamed. I don’t know what to do with it. Will killing him soothe it or merely feed it? Perhaps it’s right he should be killed—a service to the world. If I don’t kill because my hatred seems wrong, perhaps that’s a mistake. But if I kill in hatred, can that be right? I don’t know if I can kill in cold blood.” He looked up into Dar’s face, troubled. “How do we know what’s right?”
“You feel you must go and find him?”
“Oh, yes,” said Morfran, looking ahead. The road wound through an orchard, trees calm and quiet in the grey day. “Yes. I must find him.” His face hardened and for a moment he looked much older.
“Seek him then,” said Dar. “If you find him, perhaps the next thing will be clear to you. But now I’ll tell you another story, unfinished, made of rags and tatters of rumor and gossip.
“A castle stands in the remote high mountains of the south. People say a rich and powerful mystic lives there, a handsome, lusty man in search of a wife. I haven’t spoken to many who’ve seen this man, but talk of him is everywhere. I know a widow with three daughters who lives in the countryside there. I try to travel to them every now and then to ease their isolation for an hour, exchange news, and provide household needs and such small luxuries as women appreciate. This man began to court all three daughters at once.
At first the mother felt pleased, and hoped one of the girls would make a fine marriage. They’re not in strict want but are by no means wealthy, and the man was clearly cultured and possessed great resources. He had a stable of horses and hounds and several times took the whole family out for a day of riding. After a time, however, the mother and two of the daughters began to feel uneasy. Something about this man, the mother said, didn’t seem quite right. His manners were beautiful. He was generous and witty and treated them with respect and kindness, but she was more and more uncomfortable. In sunlight, his black hair looked blue, and sometimes by the end of the day it seemed to her a blue shadow crept across his face in certain kinds of light. She laughed at herself and admitted her imagination ran away with her. She didn’t want to sound ungrateful or speak ill of such a rich and powerful man, but she became less interested in marrying one of her daughters to him. The two older girls also expressed some reluctance. They were unable to be specific about what troubled them, but they began to avoid spending time with him.
The youngest sister, however, was seduced by his charm and wealth and found him quite wonderful. She said her mother was being ridiculous; he was the handsomest man she’d ever seen, and if his hair did look blue in the sun—what of it? It made him even more exotic and special!
In the end, he proposed to the youngest sister. She accepted, feeling she had made a fine match. They married and he took her to live with him in his mountain castle.
One day, not long after the wedding, her sisters received word their brother-in-law had business elsewhere and would be away for a time. They were invited to come and stay with their sister while he traveled so she wouldn’t be lonely.
The sisters gladly accepted, relieved he wouldn’t be there and excited about the prospect of staying in the castle they’d heard so much about.
When the girls arrived, they found their youngest sister in fine spirits and as excited as a child to show them her new home. She told them the servants were theirs to command and they could explore the whole castle, as her husband had entrusted his keys to her in his absence.
The sisters made a game of exploring the castle, which stood four stories high and contained many hundreds of doors. Taking the heavy ring of keys, they found a key for every door and in this way discovered room after room filled with treasure and marvels. After a long time, they worked their way down to the cellar storerooms, exploring each room in turn until they came at last to a corridor that appeared to end in a blank wall.
The young wife looked around a corner and found a small door they hadn’t yet opened. They turned the handle but the door was locked. The only key they hadn’t used was small one with scrollwork on its top. This key the mystic had asked his wife not to use, saying it unlocked the door to a private room he didn’t wish to be disturbed. But her sisters pleaded and cajoled, saying he need never know they’d unlocked the room, and what a shame it would be to see every bit of the castle but this last chamber. Giving in, the youngest sister fit the key with the scrollwork into the lock and opened the door.
The room was so dark nothing could be seen, and smelled of wet iron. One of the sisters lit a candle.
The floor of the room was slippery and slimed with blood. Along one wall hung headless bodies of women, their fine clothes and shoes covered with gore. Heaped in a far corner they found a pile of heads.
They slammed the door shut, turned the key in the lock and fled up the stairs.
The young wife looked down at the key clutched in her hand and saw drops of blood oozing--”
Morfran gave a sudden exclamation. He put a hand on Dar’s arm. “But I’ve dreamed of that key! The Firebird held it in its claw! It looked as though it was jeweled with rubies.”
Dar raised an eyebrow. “I see. Interesting.”
“The young wife looked down at the key clutched in her hand and saw drops of blood oozing from it. She rubbed it with her skirt, but she couldn’t wipe the blood away. Each sister in turn tried to clean it, but it wouldn’t come clean.
She hid the key in her pocket and they sought the kitchen. When they got there, the skirt of the young wife’s gown was stained, for the key in her pocket wept drops of blood. They scoured the key with ashes from the oven, laid cobweb on it, and laid it in the stove to sear it with heat. Still, it continued to weep blood.
‘Oh, what shall I do?’ the young wife wailed.
‘You must hide it away,’ counseled her sisters. ‘Hide it away, and he’ll never notice one small key is gone from his ring. Pretend you never saw the inside of that room. All will be well.’ The older sisters, in haste and fear, packed their possessions and departed.
They didn’t tell their mother what happened. A few days later they heard the mystic had returned home. After that they heard nothing.”
Dar sighed. “Days passed and then weeks and one day I turned up. Winter approached and I was heading out of the mountains but I wanted to be sure they had everything they needed and all was well. They gave me a meal and told me about the youngest sister’s marriage. Later the two sisters came out to my cart, ostensibly to search for a certain color of ribbon, and told me about the room and the key.
I reassured them as best I could, though I feared the worst. That evening I set out for the castle.
It is indeed magnificent, set in a sheltered cup with high peaks around it. It rises four stories with ramparts on top that must give a mighty view. There are fine stables and outbuildings and I observed many servants moving to and fro. I saw nothing of the mystic, nor of his young wife. I stopped a servant and inquired if I might show my wares to the master and mistress of the place. He said the master was gone from home and the mistress too, but would say no more. I could do nothing more without making myself an object of suspicion, so I left and returned to the family. Taking the daughters aside, I told them what I’d found and counseled them to lay the whole story before their mother and seek help in the nearest village.
Then I continued on my way. I haven’t traveled that way again and I don’t know what, if anything, has happened. It would take an army of brave men to storm the castle and I doubt the word of a widow and two unmarried girls would be enough to muster such a company. The youngest sister’s absence is easily explained with the excuse of traveling with her husband. There’s nothing to prove she isn’t doing so, after all.”
They spoke no more. Morfran turned over what he’d heard. Towards evening the sky cleared and the sun shone for a few minutes before setting. When they stopped for the night, Morfran unbuckled Gideon and rubbed him down with a coarse sack. He gave him grain in a rough wooden bowl, standing and holding it while the horse ate, dribbling warm gobbets of half chewed oats and corn. The grinding rhythm of Gideon’s jaws and familiar smell of warm hide and dust in his nose brought memories of Bala Lake close. He wondered what Bald Tegid and Ceridwen were doing this evening. He thought of Bald Tegid’s love of justice. He remembered Ceridwen’s quiet wisdom and her ability to accept what came.
The horse finished the grain. He quested with soft lips around the bottom of the bowl and then thrust his hard head into Morfran’s chest. Morfran smiled and ran his hand down the broad forehead, around the velvety nostrils and smooth cheek.
Behind him, sitting by the newly lit fire, Dar began to play his pipe.
Gideon, having drunk from a nearby stream, cropped peacefully on the grass. Wood smoke was in Morfran’s nose. Clouds burned away with the late sun and the sky darkened to a deep somber blue with one or two bright stars beginning to show themselves. Insects sang in the grass and Morfran thought of Juliana’s riverbank and garden. He tipped his face up to the sky, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath of cool, wood-scented air. He felt powerfully, vividly alive. He imagined his bones and ligaments loosening and his skin like an old threadbare piece of cloth that lets light through. He lifted his arms, released his breath and flew up into the darkening sky as an owl.
It seemed to Morfran Dar’s silvery notes lifted him, whispered in his feathers and bones. He soared into the sky, nearly invisible in the gloaming, impossibly graceful. Far below he spied the campfire’s flame, the dark shadows of trees, the thin thread of road they’d traveled. Circling, he looked down on the sleeping orchards they’d passed through as they talked.
Somewhere, not too far ahead, was the southern coast. He circled northwest. Bala Lake lay weeks behind him in the mountains, and evening seeped among the reeds on the lakeshore. The animals were stabled and fed and watered by now. Creirwy’s grave lay in the quiet summer evening. Perhaps late flowers still bloomed there. Ceridwen’s garden would be harvested and resting. A sense of safety and peace filled him. Creirwy slept, beyond danger now. All was well at home. It occurred to him for the first time that the living bear a heavier burden than the dead.
He soared over treetops, beating strong, silent wings. Cautiously, as though touching the place where a dreadful wound had been, he searched his feelings. Sad, he thought immediately. I’m sad. I wish things could be different. But even as the thought came, he knew he was too small, too limited to see greater patterns at work. Again, he thought of Ceridwen and the Cauldron of Inspiration and Knowledge, remembering her anger and bitterness. In memory, he smelled metallic blood and fluids of birth and felt new life cradled in his hands. Perhaps wishing life was different was to miss the opportunity of finding grace in life as it was.
He flew over a field sown with grain. He swooped lower and lower, hunting among the stems and stalks. The grain smelled thick and earthy in the cooling air. The heads rippled and moved beneath his wing beats, as though the field were a giant creature with furred golden flanks lying at rest under the dark sky.
He asked himself, Do I feel hate? His mind clenched like a fist. If he did feel it, he didn’t want to know. Hate was childish and destructive. It wasn’t reasonable. He flew up from the field back into the sky.
Now many stars burned, bright and dim. A thread of Dar’s piping followed him. He flew in clean cool air, free and wild, and felt it moving in his feathers, his owl heart beating, his owl senses alive and alert. Slowly, he unclenched his mind, allowed it to fall open, to loosen, to relax. If he carried hate he would know it, after all.
Words came into his mind. “This cannot be! This cannot be!” Strong words, passionate words, giant words of justice that Bald Tegid himself might thunder. Morfran felt a cold, fierce anger, a determination to protect, to right wrong, to destroy what must be destroyed so others could live. He found himself flying along a boundary between field and forest. His keen vision noted movement in the grass and he swooped, clawed talons beneath him, and struck hard, fiercely. He felt the small warm furred thing, felt its life leave it, perched on a tree branch and devoured it with his sharp beak, blood, bones, fur and flesh.
(This post was published with this essay.)
Morfran swooped low into their camp. Dar still played his flute. Morfran dropped a couple of rabbits, landed on the ground, folded his wings, and shifted back into his true shape.
“Supper!” said Dar in a pleased voice, and nothing more. Morfran felt grateful. He left the firelight and knelt by the stream, sluicing his face and hands and rinsing his mouth in cold water. It tasted of rock and green growing things.
It was to be their last night together. They sat companionably by the fire, speaking of everyday matters. Dar told stories of exotic lands and people. They skinned, dismembered and roasted the rabbits, and then allowed the fire to gradually die down. Morfran wrapped himself in his blankets and slept deeply and peacefully.
The next day they parted with an affectionate embrace.
“Go well, friend,” said Dar. “I see peace in your face now. I think you know what your next step is.”
“Yes,” replied Morfran. “My mind is clear.”
“Morfran, when your business is finished look for a ruined castle by the sea. I’ve heard stories about a young pair who lived there but then moved to some far-away place inland.”
“Very well. I’ll remember. Do you think we’ll see each other again? I’ll surely collect new stories!”
Following Dar’s directions, Morfran moved across the landscape. At times, he traveled with a companion or two, but more often alone. People were friendly, for the most part, and he bought food or bartered his help in fields or with stock for a night’s shelter in barn or haystack. Summer waned and harvest meant an abundance of food and work.
One day he came to a village shadowed by high mountains and knew he’d found the right place. He walked through clustered houses and buildings and found a spot in the forest where a tumble of large rocks formed a rough wall near a stream. Trees sheltered it; the ground was thick with their needles. Several large, brown-capped bolete mushrooms grew among the trees. Here he made camp, spending the rest of the day gathering firewood and building a fire ring.
The next morning dawned overcast but calm. He ate breakfast and cached his bundles in a slot between rocks, out of sight and safe from weather. He stood, stretched, breathed deeply, and left the campsite as a crow.
He wasn’t in a hurry. He’d slept well and felt clear and calm. He flew high into the grey sky to get his bearings. Below him lay the village he’d passed through and the road he’d traveled. He followed it and found the house belonging to the widow and her daughters, right where Dar had described it. Smoke came from the chimney and he could see a patch of garden and chickens foraging in an enclosed yard. He circled above the place and then turned towards the mountains. They were steep and rose sharply, veins of bare rock showing between forest. A glint of running water threaded the valleys. It was stark, powerful landscape. He spied a couple of hawks far off. The clouded sky made colors seem more vivid.
He soared over a high shoulder of rock and looked down onto a sprawling castle, topped with ramparts. Several barns and outbuildings lay scattered around it. As he dropped lower and circled above it, he could see servants moving across courtyards, men at work outside stables and kennels and women moving in and out of the castle itself with armfuls of laundry, baskets of food and eggs and buckets of water. Behind an outbuilding he spied a refuse pile and he made for it, landing with a harsh “Caw!” He walked back and forth, stabbing enthusiastically with his strong beak as though searching for tidbits, and when no one remained in sight he shifted into a mouse.
In this form, he spent the day exploring outside the castle environs, listening to conversations, looking inside buildings and watching routines. From overheard talk, he understood the master was due home the following day. He heard nothing of the sorcerer’s wife.
Near the castle stood a walled garden with fruit trees. Two men picked plums, heaping them in large baskets. He found a dairy, spotlessly clean, which he didn’t venture into. He found a drying green and two wells. From the kitchen came a smell of cooking.
Morfran squeezed himself over a stone sill and under a wooden door, following the smell. The kitchen loomed large and busy. A young woman sat on a stool plucking chickens and he darted, unseen, into the pile of feathers at her feet and hid there, listening. Here too he heard talk of the master’s arrival. Morfran heard no reference to his wife. If he hadn’t known of the marriage, he would have assumed the sorcerer lived alone.
One of the cook’s assistants hefted a bucket of potato peelings and other rubbish and Morfran darted out with him into the yard when the door opened. A few moments later a crow rose up from the refuse pile, cawing hoarsely, as a servant emptied a bucket onto it.
The following morning, as a crow, he visited the refuse pile again. No one took the slightest bit of notice. Morfran, again in the form of a mouse, made his way from the kitchen deeper into the castle. He took care to keep hidden and was unable to appreciate much of his surroundings as a mouse, but his impression was of a sturdy, well-made place with beautiful tapestries and rugs and fine furniture. The stone floor felt cold but fires burned in every fireplace he passed and the floor was swept and scrubbed.
He searched for stairs.
He found an elegant curving staircase going up out of the entrance hall but he didn’t want to go up. He circled the first floor of the castle, quite a distance for a mouse, and approached the kitchen from a different angle than he’d left it. Coming around a corner, he found descending stone steps.
It was dim. The stairs ended in an area from which two halls led, left and right, both lined with doors. Ahead was a large storeroom with casks and barrels of all sizes, and Morfran smelled the earthy odor of vegetables and old apples. He turned to the left and skittered along the wall, whiskers quivering, sniffing at each door as he passed. The hall ended in a strange kink. He scurried around it and came to a door smaller and narrower than the others he’d passed. From several feet away he caught the scent of death. He stopped in front of the door, looking up at heavy wooden planks bound in iron. But a stone floor is never uniformly even and this one was no exception. Near the lowest hinge of the door a gap showed between stone threshold and door bottom. He flattened himself and squeezed through it in the bone-collapsing way of mice.
He expected the room to be in full darkness but found it lit with a warm golden light, incongruous with the heavy scent of decay and horror. Once in the room, he immediately shifted into his own form. At a glance, he took in a row of bodies hanging against a far wall, still dressed in fine clothing. There wasn’t much blood. Either the two older sisters embellished the story they told Dar, or they’d assumed its presence. Although Morfran expected something like this, the reality was horrible—and pitiful. The bodies hung empty in the same way he remembered Creirwy’s body, as though they’d been sucked dry of not only life’s vivid spark but its soft framework as well. Only bones and skin remained. His eyes were drawn to the far end of the row where a hook hung empty, waiting, he thought grimly, for the next victim. On the floor under the hook was the source of the golden light. He moved closer. A large golden feather lay there, illuminating the closed underground room of death. Morfran looked down at it in disbelief. A key rested on the feather, its shoulders shining with red gems. He picked it up. No, not gems. Drops of blood, dry now, encrusted the key like jewels. They’d not dried to a sinister black color but were smoothly rounded and red as raspberries. He thrust the key into his pocket and picked up the feather, tucking it carefully inside his shirt.
He had no way of knowing if the youngest sister Dar spoke of was one of this sad company of women. If she wasn’t, she soon would be. He’d seen enough. Evil was well concealed but it was evil nonetheless, and the feather confirmed the connection between Creirwy and this tomb.
He opened the door and took a lamp from a wall bracket. In the main storeroom, he found a stub of candle. He lit the candle with the lamp’s flame and returned to the hidden room, where he swung the lamp against the wall, shattering it. Oil spilled onto the floor and he stooped swiftly and set it afire. He retreated to the door, candle in hand, raised his arms and breathed, gathering with each breath his rage, his grief, the memory of Creirwy’s emptied body, the long grey winter of mourning. He packed it into a sullen glowing blue ball in the center of his chest and then took a deep breath and flung it with all his strength and intention into the fire. Flames blossomed in a soft roar, catching the hems of the gowns of the women who hung there.
Morfran hastened down the hallway, smashing every lamp he could find and throwing it behind him. Smoke fumed, thick and choking. He tried each door as he passed, opening those he could to help create a draught. He trod swiftly up the steps, letting the candle fall as daylight strengthened. He avoided the kitchen where servants worked, but in the entrance hall he pulled tapestries from the wall and pushed corners of them into fireplaces, smashing more lamps as he found them and splashing oil onto wooden furniture and textiles. He opened every door he came to. He found stairs going up and ascended them in his lurching gait. He didn’t take time to set fire to the floors above the main floor, but moved up the stairs, up and up, until he reached the top.
He pushed open a wooden door and found himself outside in clear air in the shadow of the rampart walls. He moved to the wall overlooking the castle entrance. Below, the mystic was returning. Morfran recognized him at once. Silver on his mount’s bridle and saddle shone in the sun. The gates opened in welcome. Morfran spread his arms wide, eyes fixed on the rider, once again focusing his will and intention. The rider looked up and Morfran clearly made out the blue beard.
For a long moment Morfran and the mystic looked at one another. Most of the servants hadn’t seen the figure on the ramparts. The large gates shut. A groom took the horse’s reins. Dogs barked from the kennels. Only Morfran and the mystic were still and silent in the midst of activity. Morfran was acutely aware of the fire beneath him, growing, burning, slowly swallowing everything behind thick stone walls.
The rider dismounted and made for the outside staircase climbing up the castle wall to the ramparts. Morfran waited calmly. He hadn’t wanted the mystic to try to enter the castle. He closed his eyes and felt the power and heat of fire, burning steadily up from the cellar and finding fresh fuel and fresh air above. Now some of the servants looked up in surprise, hands shielding eyes from the sun’s glare, oblivious of the fire, caught up in the drama of the two men. Then Morfran heard a shrill cry of “Fire!” go up from the back of the castle and felt glad, for he’d no wish for more loss of life. Some of the men ran out of sight then, while others simply stood there, watching the mystic climb toward the man waiting for him.
He came up the stairs like a big cat with cold, opaque eyes. The two men faced one another.
“I don’t tolerate trespassers,” said the mystic. “What’s your business here?”
“I’ve come on behalf of my sister, Creirwy,” Morfran replied coolly.
The mystic sneered. “That name means nothing to me.”
“It means a great deal to me, however. Creirwy was a light. I’ve come to look at the face of the one who put her light out.”
“So, you deliver yourself up to me, powerless and weak, in order to punish me? You imagine you have the power to stop me from doing exactly what I please? Then I won’t protect your sensibilities. Your sister was a slut. She teased and led me on with her precious light, and when at last I grew tired of her simpering and prattling and took what I needed, my hunger only increased! She couldn’t satisfy. She wasn’t enough, your precious sister! She was hardly worth killing, except to free me from the annoyance of her clinging fingers!” His face twisted with contempt.
Morfran regarded him expressionlessly and made no reply.
The mystic erupted into sudden and absolute fury that had something calculated about it. Morfran felt as though he witnessed a finely-tuned performance.
“Look at my face, boy! It’s the last face you’ll ever see, like her! Look, and be damned!”
The mystic reached out with clawed fingers for Morfran’s throat. Morfran raised a hand and murmured a word of command. The mystic froze, glaring.
“I’m looking,” Morfran said, deliberately keeping his voice calm, “and I see a chasm of dark hunger. It looks out of your eyes and coats your tongue. You know the chasm is filled with nothingness, and you spend all your days trying desperately to fill it with light. The horror of the emptiness that never can be filled turns your hair blue. I name you Bluebeard, and I…see…you!”
The mystic took a step back, freeing himself from paralysis, and threw up an arm, as though shielding himself from a blow. Smoke rose into the air above the castle ramparts and a finger of flame reach above the wall behind Bluebeard.
“It’s over,” Morfran said. “You’re finished.”
Bluebeard staggered, still hiding his face, and stumbled. He fell to his knees and Morfran looked down at him, feeling neither rage nor pity, but release and relief and a desire to be finished with it for once and for all.
Once more he reached deeply within himself with his breath. The memory of Dar’s pipe came to him, cool and silver and lilting, like fresh water. He saw Creirwy’s laughing face, and Ceridwen’s garden; felt the newborn child in his arms and Gideon’s hard head against his chest; tasted Juliana’s scent on his tongue; felt Cassandra’s delicate weight and heard her rippling song. He felt no rage and no despair. There was only life. Carefully, gently, he gathered it up, rolled it into a silvery ball, blessed it, feeling tears of gratitude and tenderness on his face, and spilled it onto the wretched thing in front of him. Bluebeard screamed as though in mortal agony and Morfran, with a powerful sweep of his arm and a word of command learned long ago in front of the fire during winter evenings at home, called the fire and it rolled across the ramparts and engulfed the figure swiftly and completely. Morfran stepped back, took the key from his pocket and the feather from its place against his chest, shifted into crow form, picked up the key in one clawed foot and the feather in his beak and launched himself into the sky, leaving chaos of flame, smoke and destruction behind.
Morfran turned his back on the high mountains and journeyed down to the sea. He remembered Dar’s advice to look for a ruined castle on the coast. He didn’t hurry, for he felt weary. He was satisfied he’d done what he could to seek justice for Creirwy. It was fearsome to take a life, yet he felt it was just and he’d done it with what mercy he could. The castle, he knew, had burned to ash and scorched stone, for he heard talk of the mystic far and wide, and smoke from the fire lingered for days. He was content. Fire was a cleansing thing.
He traveled slowly, taking in the countryside, now and then stopping at an inn for a night and a hot meal, comfortable alone but greeting people with a smile and lending a hand where needed with animals or broken cart wheels or harvesting. Gradually, the air grew softer and the temperature more moderate. He began to see seabirds, come inland to scavenge for food.
One day he came over a ridge on a rough track made by sheep and found below him the sweep of a stony bay and waves lapping among rocks. He stood for a long time looking out at it while tears stole silently down his face.
The sea was a revelation to Morfran. Nothing prepared him for this threshold place where land and water met. The sea was utterly unlike anything he’d ever imagined, yet in some indefinable way he felt he’d come home. Something inside him woke, stretched, and came painfully and joyfully to life. He, who had learned so well the shape of his soul in order to master the art of shapeshifting, now discovered -- or uncovered? -- new dimensions. He was awed. He was humbled. He was broken open. And like so many others, he discovered the healing, calming power of the sea’s indifference. It was mystery beyond mystery, depth beyond depth, unknowable, indefinable. It was itself and breathed and stretched to its own unfathomable rhythm. Nothing he could say or do, be or feel would ever make the slightest impression on it.
He’d wondered how to choose which direction to follow the coast in his search for a ruined castle. In the end, he didn’t choose. He merely followed the easiest way. His twisted leg made travel along the coastline challenging and, at times, dangerous. Yet it never occurred to him to turn inland and find an easier path. He didn’t want to leave the sight and smell and sound of the sea.
Until now his whole journey had consisted of steady movement towards a goal. He’d traveled through landscapes and villages, observing, listening, taking little, giving what he could, passing over mile after mile, focused and dogged. Now all that changed. He didn’t think of goals at all. He wasn’t sure he thought of anything. Part of him seemed to go to sleep while an unfamiliar part of him woke. The wash of water, the sound and rhythm of waves, filled him. He’d sit down on a bank in morning sun and suddenly realize afternoon had come and a bolster of fog hid the water, magnifying the endless sound of surf.
He cut and bruised himself climbing on slippery rocks. He explored tide pools, marveling over different kinds of life there. He watched birds. He picked up shells, bones and all manner of strange debris. He collected driftwood to burn at night and became familiar with ropes of seaweed floating in shallows or cast up on shore. His dark skin grew darker in the sun and his clothing stiffened with repeated wetting with saltwater.
One day he happened upon a sandy beach. It was a sunny day and the tide had scattered pieces of driftwood along the shore. He set down his bundles, took off his shoes and collected wood for his evening fire. He’d become familiar with tide patterns and took care now to leave his camp above the high-water marks. The sand felt warm and pleasantly rough and loose above the surf. He stood and looked out across the water, squinting in the strong light. A wave came in and he stepped back so as not to be wetted. Another came in, infinitesimally higher, and he stepped back again, smiling to himself. He predicted the apex of the next wave and stood waiting. Before he knew it, he was playing like a child, laughing, jumping back, getting splashed, trying to outrun the surf’s reach, and now and then finding himself unexpectedly up to his ankles.
At last he sat down, out of breath, smiling, wet to the knees. He’d gathered no driftwood. He couldn’t ever remember playing so lightheartedly before, but he could remember Creirwy doing so when they were children together, and the memory gave him no pain.
For many days Morfran saw no sign of another human being. One afternoon he slowly clambered his way across a rugged coastline with rocks the size of small cottages. He was bruised and tired and hungry and the wind rose, making whitecaps out in deeper water. He came to easier ground and found himself in a natural harbor with a handful of fishing boats and the welcome sight of clustered stone buildings. He’d lost count of how many days he’d been on his own with only the sea for companion. It was late in the day and fishermen made their boats fast against the coming storm. He found an inn where a good fire burned in a stone fireplace in the bar and the smell of food brought water to his mouth. He bought dark ale, a large bowl of fish chowder and half a loaf of bread. He thought he’d never eaten such a fine meal. He took his emptied bowl into the kitchen and asked for more, praising the cook extravagantly. The harsh lines of her face relaxed into a smile and she filled the bowl again and pushed into his hand the other half of the loaf, flapping her hands at him and telling him to get out from under her feet. He gave her an exaggerated bow and withdrew, chuckling, leaving her giggling like a girl behind him.
Morfran stayed for a couple of nights and let the storm pass. He was well fed and the place was comfortable. He made himself useful in keeping the fires going. A shed behind the inn housed goats and chickens, and he mended a hole in the roof where the rain came through, collected eggs and milked and cleaned out the animals, scattering fresh bedding.
He set out again on a calm, clear day. Early sun promised later warmth and he felt rested and ready to be off. He accepted with gratitude a heavy bundle of food from the cook, shook the innkeeper’s hand and set out. Beyond the harbor he found the going easier. The beach was stony but manageable and he kept a good pace, feeling energetic. He found all manner of interesting objects blown onto land by the storm. When the sun shone high in the sky, he stopped for a bite to eat and something to drink. He walked along a cliff base looking for a spot to stop in shade and relax. His eye fell on a stair.
For a moment, he simply stood and looked at it, not quite taking it in. Looking more closely, he discovered several worn and crumbling stone steps cut into the cliff face, twisting and turning to accommodate the landscape of rock. He stepped back onto firmer sand at the water’s edge and looked up. Above him, on the cliff top, stood the ruins of a castle.
As he ate, he told himself this ruin might not be the one Dar had spoken of. There was no way of knowing how many ruined castles were on this coast. He also told himself he must be careful on the steps. They looked steep and treacherous, and if he fell, he wouldn’t be found. He hadn’t shape shifted since he’d come to the sea. His sense of self had widened so unexpectedly he wasn’t absolutely certain he knew this new self all the way to the depths and edges. He might not be able to return easily to it. He also felt if he could somehow find his family or his history he wanted to come to it in his own shape, twisted and dark as it was. He wanted to be seen truly.
He made himself take time over the meal, resting his legs before climbing the stairs. He looked carefully for the high-water mark and wedged his bundle between two rocks. Then he put his foot on the bottom stair and began to ascend.
There were one hundred steps. He counted them as he climbed. For the most part, they were usable. Here and there rocks from the cliff had fallen onto them and he rolled these away. There were worn edges and in some places the stairs took sudden twists and turns, becoming steeper or narrower out of necessity. He found some hand holds. It occurred to him the journey up with one’s back to the sea might be easier than the journey back down. Perhaps this stairway constituted a short cut and there existed an easier, if longer, way down to shore from the castle. However, he wasn’t worried by heights and focused calmly on the next stair, moving steadily and without fear. The last few steps were shallow and brought him level with the cliff top. He stepped out onto short, scrubby turf, breathless and legs trembling with strain. He turned and looked out to sea. The ruins stood on a projection of land. To his left he saw the way he’d come. The cliff he stood on became less steep to his right and he could see an obvious path back down to the water in the stony slope on the other side of the castle. Around the curve of the cliff a circle of rocks protected a pool that looked deep now, as the tide flowed in.
He appeared to be in a ruined courtyard or garden. He found traces of a low stone wall and paving stones, partially covered by low-growing plants and grasses. The main body of the castle looked as though it was built to command a sea view in three directions, with part of a tower wall still thrusting into the air above the main part of the building. He moved about the ruins, trying to see the original structure’s shape. It had been large, but not as large as Bluebeard’s castle. There were traces of a main garden and perhaps some smaller ones, but those areas might once have been other buildings, fallen down or worn away. It was quiet and peaceful. The sun warmed exposed stone. He startled a wild rabbit and watched it bound away.
He sat against a stone wall. He relaxed and breathed, reaching out with his awareness for some faint sense of recognition, some lingering trace of those who’d built this place and lived here.
The sea’s sound filled his awareness. From here it sounded like the breathing of some unimaginably huge beast. For the first time, the sound wearied and irritated. If only it would stop for a minute so he could concentrate! He felt tension in his neck and shoulders and deliberately relaxed again. He mustn’t try so hard. It wasn’t a question of trying hard but of letting go of trying altogether, of softening, of opening…
The sea breathed. He wanted to go and look at it. He wanted to see how far the tide came in against the cliff. He wanted to go down to the rock pool…
He opened his eyes. If this place spoke to him, he couldn’t hear it. Perhaps this wasn’t the right place, after all. For a moment, he felt a deep sense of weariness and discouragement. He wanted to find out about his family. He’d traveled for so long and come so far. He thought, I’m alone! and felt surprised at the pain of it.
He got to his feet. The sea called to him. The ruins did not.
He made his way to the other side of the castle. The slope from here down to shore was no worse than many hillsides he’d walked at home. He wondered who cut the steps, and why. Why take such trouble when the way was so much easier on this side?
Day wore away and the tide came in high. It didn’t quite reach the cliff but he thought in stormy weather the surf might break against it, explaining some of the wear on the lower stairs. The pool filled until just the tops of the surrounding rocks showed. From the shore, it looked quite deep. It made a beautiful place to swim, with clean water entering twice a day and the protection of the rocks. He wondered if the castle owners made it or if it was a natural formation.
Morfran thought about making camp up in the relative shelter of the ruins but felt reluctant to move that far from the sea. The weather promised clear and fine. In some places, high seas had undermined the cliff, and he found a hollow under a shelf of rock. He built himself a fire of driftwood and unrolled his blankets. The stars seemed large and near, hanging over him with a golden light. The sea breathed. He felt unable to leave this place and yet it seemed pointless to stay. Perhaps in the morning he’d see his way more clearly.
He lay for a long time, somewhere between waking and sleeping, cradled between fire and water.
He woke. The sea breathed loudly in his ears. He could see golden firelight behind his closed eyelids and a piece of driftwood popped fiercely. He knew it was sending blue sparks into the air. What had awakened him? His body felt relaxed and warm. The sand underneath him molded itself to his shape… He opened his eyes and came fully awake. The fire shouldn’t be blazing. He’d slept for hours. He sat up in his blankets.
A man sat cross-legged in the sand on the other side of the fire. No, not a man, he thought immediately. The shape of a man but not a man. Morfran had an impression of age. The stranger was bare chested in the firelight, but it wasn’t the chest of a young man. Muscles in his arms and shoulders looked tough but his skin was without youth’s elasticity. Grizzled hair sprinkled his chest. Thick, twisted ropes of hair were gathered back together and bound with a thong behind his neck. His lower half was in darkness and firelight threw strange shadows onto his face. His eyes gleamed in their sockets and the blade of his cheek jutted strongly.
“Why did you come here?” he asked.
“I’m in search of my family,” replied Morfran.
“Tell me,” commanded the old man.
Morfran told him about Bala Lake, the drowned castle and his lost parents, and his search for a ruined castle by the sea, though he didn’t speak of Creirwy, the Firebird or the peddler.
The old man listened intently, never taking his eyes off Morfran’s face.
When Morfran had said everything he intended to say and fallen silent, they sat across from one another without words. Morfran was conscious of the old man reaching out silently to him, brushing against his mind. He wasn’t afraid and deliberately held himself soft and open to the gentle probing. He wished to hide nothing and felt no sense of threat or harmful intent, but rather a vivid curiosity on the part of the other. Morfran became alert to the old man’s breathing pattern, knowing aligning himself with it would help them enter into connection. He found, to his wonder and surprise, that the older man’s breathing was slow, about once a minute, much too slow for Morfran. He was certainly not a man.
“Go back to sleep now,” the stranger said. “We’ll see each other again.”
And Morfran, with no sense of danger or anxiety, rolled himself back in his blankets and lay down, sliding easily into sleep.
He awoke to the sound of drumming. The fire burned low. Dawn approached. As he drifted back into consciousness, he thought maybe he only heard the eternal heartbeat of the sea. He opened his eyes and listened. No, the sound of a drum wove with the sound of water.
He pulled on his clothes. The eastern sky held just a hint of coming light. He couldn’t see stars. It was the coldest part of the night. The air felt heavy with moisture. It would be a cloudy morning.
The drumming seemed to come from everywhere. It wasn’t loud, but it penetrated the wet air, somehow relentless. It was as though the sea itself drummed. He turned in a circle, listening.
Then singing began. Singing? It didn’t seem the right word. A voice rose and fell, threading through the drum’s rhythm. There were no words. Morfran thought if rocks gave voice to endless eons with sea washing around their roots, or if driftwood could tell of the seed it grew from and the land in which it lived before the long water, it would sound like this. It was a song of inexorable ebb and flow of light, of life, of water, of clouds. It made the hairs on his arms and neck rise. It was beautiful. It was terrible. It was absolutely wild. It made him want to run and shout, or cry, or hide his face and stop his ears. He felt overwhelmed, undone, wanting it to stop and yet wanting it never to stop. The tide flowed. The overcast sky lightened so gradually from black to grey he didn’t see it happen. As though dawn clarified his hearing, he realized the drumming came from the cliff top. It came from the castle ruins.
He walked down to meet the incoming tide and turned to look up at the cliff top. He saw nothing but the ruined tower looking out to sea. He stood listening, careless of the cold surf washing first around his feet and then his ankles.
Then both drumming and singing stopped, leaving only the restless sea. Morfran didn’t move. He couldn’t move. Something must happen and he waited for it.
A figure appeared on the cliff top, right on the furthest edge of the finger of land jutting into sea. Morfran recognized the old man. He stood there, looking out to sea, silhouetted against the low sky. The naked figure radiated power and something else… Morfran kept his eyes on the figure but softened his gaze, breathed… Grief. Had the song been a lament, then? For whom did the old man grieve so wildly?
Then, with the grace and strength of a much younger man, the old man launched himself into a dive. Morfran cried out in shock. The figure seemed to hang in the heavy grey air like a bird, graceful and confident. Then the figure plunged into the pool surrounded by rocks, cleaving the water cleanly and disappearing.
Without thinking, Morfran shifted into crow shape. He flew up from the beach and over the pool but the water’s surface foamed and surged with the incoming tide and he couldn’t see below it. He flew low over the pool, shifted into the form of a fish and splashed into the water.
It was not like Bala Lake. The water felt strange, thick and buoyant. He could see nothing. The world was green and gray, bubbles and surge and foam. He swam deeper, into less tumultuous water, but still could see nothing, and the sea roared in his ears. Bala Lake had been utterly quiet. The powerful suck and surge disoriented and exhausted. He didn’t know what he hoped to do—help the old man? Save his life? In this wild water? He wasn’t sure he could save himself. Yet he felt frantic—panicked. He must find him! He must!
Then, rising powerfully underneath him on its way to the surface, thrust a huge fish. It was ten times, nearly twenty times his own fish size. As it slid past, he glimpsed a powerful tail covered in scales. He rose up with it and saw a man’s body, bare chested, and floating ropes of grizzled hair bound together with a thong.
The shock of what he saw jerked him out of his fish shape and back into his own. The transition felt abrupt and clumsy, almost painful. He took in a mouthful of saltwater. He kicked, trying to get his head above water, and a wave broke over him. He thrashed, trying to get his bearings. The tide pulled at him, then pushed. He could see nothing but waves and they slapped at him like powerful hands, confusing his senses. He couldn’t catch his breath. He felt completely helpless. Then an arm came around his chest and held him fast. Morfran’s panic receded. He wasn’t alone. Whoever held him so closely wasn’t afraid. He remembered he was a good swimmer and loved water. He filled his lungs with air and wiped stinging saltwater out of his eyes. The other was pulling him towards one of the rocks that ringed the pool. Morfran reached up and patted the arm in signal that he wanted to swim on his own. The arm released him and together they swam the few yards to the rock.
Morfran turned and looked into old man’s face. His eyes were the color of Morfran’s own, a clear, far-seeing grey. He wore thick gold hoops in his ears and there were scars on his shoulders and the arm that anchored him to the rock. He laid a hard, callused hand tenderly against Morfran’s wet, cold cheek. He smiled but tears slid out of his eyes and mingled with drops of seawater.
Morfran came into his arms like a child. The sea lifted and sank around them. They held fast to the rock and each other, and together they wept.
It didn’t rain that morning but the sky hung sodden, thick with humidity. They built up the fire and the hollow under the cliff warmed. Morfran felt chilled through and sat wrapped in blankets. The old man left him there and returned to the sea, reappearing shortly with several fish and seaweed. Morfran pulled out his cooking pot, put in some water and cleaned the fish, cutting them up into the pot. His grandfather showed him the seaweed, made him smell it and taste it, told him how to best find it, and they added that as well. This they let simmer over the fire. The old man retrieved his drum from the ruins.
Though naked, he didn’t seem to feel the cold and refused a blanket. He was scarred all over, one of the consequences, he told Morfran, of living in the sea. Webs of skin grew between his toes but otherwise he looked like a normal man, though he wasn’t large. Around his waist he wore a chain of gold links.
Morfran felt himself to be in chaos. He wanted to ask a dozen questions but was unable to articulate a word. He was Morfran of Bala Lake. He was Morfran and the sea called something in him to life. Now he was Morfran and he was grandson. He was grandson. He’d come home at last but he couldn’t find a sense of joy or reality. All was unfamiliar.
His eyes fell on the drum and the old man, seeing the direction of his look, handed it to him. The frame looked like curved bone, finely crafted in a wave-like pattern that mingled birds and fish. Carved pegs of the same material held the drumhead taut over the frame. The skin was something he couldn’t identify, neither goatskin nor calfskin. Tentatively, he tucked it into the curve of his right arm and struck it with his left cupped hand. He liked the sound. He tightened the pegs and got a cleaner, less vibrating note. He loosened the pegs and it gave a deeper, more resonant sound. He liked this best and played a couple of different rhythms, alternating parts of his hand and the force with which he struck. For a few minutes, he was absorbed in making friends with the instrument and when he looked up again into the old man’s face, he felt calmer, more like himself.
Without thinking, he said, “I don’t know who I am anymore.”
The old man smiled. “That drum in your hands is made of bone that supported living flesh. Now that same bone is supporting a shark skin, and together they create music. When I play the drum, I play my own song intermingled with the song of the creatures from which the drum is made. The bone is still bone. The skin is still skin. But they’re transformed into something new. Nothing is lost. Last night the drum and I played the night sea’s heartbeat, the clouds, the new day and the cycle of life and death. Together, we sang. At last, I released your mother from my grief, and something new comes to take her place.”
“You didn’t know, then?” asked Morfran.
“I knew nothing. She left here and I never saw her or heard of her again. All these years I’ve waited and wondered and grieved and watched over this place because it was the last place she was. When I came upon you in the night and watched you sleeping, I wondered… I hoped… but I didn’t dare believe until you opened your eyes and I recognized my own eyes. Then you told me of Bala Lake and I knew.”
Morfran sighed. “I’m sorry. I wish I hadn’t brought you grief. “
“You bring me a great gift of release. Now I’ll no longer be in doubt and fear for her. And you bring me the gift of yourself, a greater gift than I dreamed of. Even her return wouldn’t bring me such joy.”
And then, for the first time in his independent, self-assured life, Morfran thought, Will I be good enough? Will I please him? Will he like me?
With his eyes on the fire, he said quietly, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m lame. My leg is twisted.”
For a moment, they were silent. The contents of the cooking pot simmered gently and sent a salty appetizing smell of fish and seaweed into the damp air.
“I don’t know if you realized it,” said the old man slowly, “But in the water, I possess a tail. I’m not human. I don’t live on the land. I’m of the sea people. I can change my shape.”
“But I can do that too!” said Morfran.
“I noticed,” said the old man dryly.
Morfran looked up and the grey eyes, so like his, were alight with laughter. He laughed too, though his eyes burned with tears.
“What’s your name?” asked Morfran, wiping the tears from his face and smiling, for the question sounded ridiculous to his own ears.
“Ah, yes, I haven’t properly introduced myself, have I?” laughed the old man. “I’m Marceau. Your mother’s name was Melusine. You may call me Grandfather.”
After they’d eaten the savory soup, they set out along the beach to collect more driftwood. The day continued to press down, heavy and damp. They walked in companionable silence. The ebbing tide left pools among stones. Marceau crouched over these with Morfran, pointing out sea creatures and naming them, describing something of their habits and suitability as food. They made their way back to the fire, dragging driftwood along in their wake, and settled down again.
“You would hear of your family, Grandson,” said Marceau.
“My mother. I long to know about my mother,” replied Morfran.
“Your mother is one half of your parents, but you possessed another parent with a shape and a story.
“He killed my mother with his brutality. He was an evil man. I don’t want to know about him.”
“Nevertheless, I begin with the story of your father’s parents, your grandparents. A child isn’t born evil. Didn’t you ever wonder why your father turned toward evil? Never mind. I see you haven’t. Listen.”
“Your grandparents lived far to the North, in cold water where the seals live. In this place lies a scatter of islands and on one of the larger islands a few hardy people settled. Your grandmother came from fishing and farming folk who lived in a harbor village. Wresting a life from sea and land is harsh work, but for generations your mother’s people did so. Life revolved around seasons, weather, tides and fish.
Your grandmother was fair and beautiful, like many of the people in that part of the world. She was strong and tall and used to hard work and she loved the sea. She was the only girl among brothers — I’m not sure how many, but I know at least one of her brothers was lost at sea. Naturally, the work of the household fell onto her and her mother while the men went to sea. The men of that place worked on land, growing food and tending sheep or goats, and went to sea as well with nets and lines. It was a hard life. Spring comes fleetingly so far North, and summer lasts only a few short weeks. Can you imagine how welcome those weeks were after long cold winters of storms and ice and lantern light, heavy peat smoke from fires that never stopped burning, and fear for the safety of men bobbing about on the water chasing fish?
One summer when you grandmother was a young woman, she took a lover. No one knew who he was and she wouldn’t name him, but there was evidence, you see, that couldn’t be hidden. It remained a mystery, because none of the likely young men stood up with her in her shame, and there’d been no hint or rumor, not a word of talk. In such a small place with so few people it was remarkable that no one guessed. One of the young men of that place wanted her, a lad with a reputation as a fine fisherman. He intended to ask for her hand in marriage and he’d saved money for some time so he could build her a little stone house of her own. When word of her trouble came to the town, he approached her family, declared his love and said if she’d accept him, he’d marry her immediately and give the child his name.
Well, it was the best choice the poor lass could see. She was exposed before everyone, but at least she’d be properly wed and give the child a name and family.
She was a strong woman, your grandmother, and she told me her husband was a good man who loved her true and never made her feel dirty. They spent the rest of their lives together, in spite of…well, everything.
So, they wed and hastily built a stone house on a hill above the harbor looking over the sea. They owned a handful of sheep and a bit of land. Your grandmother knew well how to make bread and ale, clean and card and spin wool, sow seed and reap corn, clean fish and help mend nets. All in all, they began married life comfortably.
Early in the spring on a night of storm a healthy son was born. Men were lost at sea that night, but not your grandmother’s husband, for he paced outside the house while the midwife attended the birth, though the child wasn’t his.
So, years passed. Your grandmother’s husband went to sea and came home, went to sea and came home. Barley, oats and corn grew in golden waves there on the hill. They sheared sheep, brewed ale, baked bread, made cheese and gathered honey. There were lean years and better years. The child, who was your father, grew strong and throve and your grandmother tried to be the best wife and mother she could and live down her youthful shame. In time people forgot the little boy’s origins. I don’t suppose your grandmother ever forgot, though.
She worked hard but now and then she’d take an afternoon or an evening to herself and walk along the shore. She loved the seals and sat quietly watching them as they lazed among rocks in the sun. They didn’t seem to fear her and sometimes allowed her to come quite close.
Now you must understand, Morfran, that fisherman and seals are not friendly. A seal will rip holes in nets and steal fish, creating much work and hardship for fisherman, and it is, as you can imagine, an unequal contest. Some fisherman, though, were quite handy with their harpoons and much admired in the village for the number of seals they killed, and the sealskins helped earn a little money. Your grandmother’s husband was one of these, and because of his skill in seal hunting they lived more comfortably than some of the others did.
But your grandmother had no quarrel with the seals and they didn’t fear a woman on land as they would a man on the sea.
This is what the village could see. But when your grandmother was an old woman we met and became friends, and now I’ll tell you what the village didn’t see.
Morfran, your grandfather was a selchie. Do you know this word? A selchie is a creature who is a man upon land and a seal in the sea. One summer day your beautiful young grandmother, in some hidden threshold place where land met water, met a selchie and gave herself to him. He was a leader of that race, a king, and he wore a chain of golden links. He possessed great dark melting eyes and smooth brown skin and black hair. He wasn’t a large man, for the selchie folk, like my people, like you yourself, Grandson, are dark and small and strong. He was young and passionate and for her he embodied the violet and green mystery of the sea. He must have seen her as a goddess embodying the opposite mystery of the earth. Her beauty was the golden fire of ale and honey, green fire of growing corn, dark fire of peat. They could no more turn from one another than the sea can draw away from land or land refuse sea’s caress. And so, your grandmother gave her wild heart to the passionate sea creature and conceived your father.
Their time together wasn’t long and when they parted, she didn’t know she carried a child. It made no difference, of course. He couldn’t live as a man on land and she couldn’t live in the sea and so that was that. She kept her secret well. Selchie don’t raid nets and lines as seal folk do, but she feared every seal in the sea would be slaughtered if anyone discovered her lover. To a fisherman a seal was a seal, whether raiding nets or not. So, your grandmother and the selchie parted.
When your grandmother found a moment to steal away from her busy life, she always made her way to the places she knew seals frequented, especially the place where she and her lover had lain together. She was respectably married and loved her good fisherman, but she never forgot what she’d shared with the selchie. That passion was a thing apart from her married, everyday life. Then, one day, they found each other again. She told him she’d born him a child, a son. Your father was a youth then, and she a married woman of several years. I suppose the selchie, too, had aged and changed. Your grandmother said little about that meeting and I respected her silence, but I hoped it was a good reunion.”
Marceau smiled sadly into the fire and Morfran, watching his face, hoped too that his grandmother and grandfather had once again found a brief hour of passion together.
“Now,” Marceau resumed, “In the meantime, of course, your father, who was called Guy, learned to fish and care for sheep and sow and reap and all the skills his adopted father could teach him, including using the harpoon. That last skill required strength, speed and accuracy and your father possessed all three. As the years passed, he began to go to sea with the fisherman and gradually took on more and more work on the land as well. He was popular, learned how to dance, competed good-naturedly with the other lads, flirted with girls and entered manhood.
The family was relatively well off with two healthy men working hard and Guy’s skill with the harpoon augmented their income with skins and fish too large to be caught with line or net. The only lack was that there were no other children. Your grandmother never conceived again, though she and her fisherman lived in respect and affection and their relationship was no barrier. She told me after the selchie no other could stir her passion or her body so deeply as to conceive new life and she felt content, but she wished she could have given her fisherman his own sons. It wasn’t to be.
Now, her family and indeed all the village knew your grandmother felt an unusual love for seals. As I’ve said, they saw something of the traitor in this preference. Her son and her husband refrained from openly boasting of their seal harvest and didn’t butcher and skin seals at home, but rather in the harbor where she wouldn’t be distressed. She’d repeatedly begged her husband to never kill a seal that wasn’t raiding nets and he’d repeatedly reassured her he wouldn’t. She trusted him, having no reason not to, and told herself her lover would be safe, as the selchie, as I’ve said before, don’t raid nets and lines.
But two men together in a boat in company of male neighbors and friends are not the same two men who sit by the kitchen fire with wife and mother. Any group of men engaged in dangerous and difficult work becomes a brotherhood and no woman, no matter how beloved, can belong to that brotherhood or indeed understand it. How much stronger is a brotherhood woven of generations of family and tradition and tragedy and loss? Every family in that place had lost a son, or a brother, or a father or a husband to the sea. Some families sacrificed a man in every generation, and some more than that. For them the sea was life and death, lover and killer, beautiful and terrible. Fish was food in their mouths and the mouths of their children. Seals stole fish and destroyed the means of catching them. Therefore, seals were enemies and to be killed on sight. It wasn’t cruelty, but a hard pragmatism learned with bitter experience.
And so it was one day, an ordinary day in spring before sowing time when birds sang of golden weeks to come, your grandmother sat outside spinning in a patch of sun. Up the hill came her husband and son. She never forgot how he looked that afternoon, your father, fine and strong and laughing, proud of his youth and his skill, dark hair shining in the sun. He came to her and tossed into her lap a chain of golden links.
“A gift for you!” he said, full of pride.
She picked up the chain in trembling hands. She remembered long after the way the gold glowed, so fine and beautiful, and the contrast of her hands, a burn on her thumb, calluses from water pails, scars from harvesting tough grain. Peat stained every crack and fissure in her skin. Her nails were broken and ridged. For the first time, she told me, she felt aged. Her youth was gone and her beauty with it and she hadn’t known until that moment.”
“It wasn’t true, of course. When I met her, she was an old woman and I fell in love with her myself. I think she was more beautiful in her last years than she’d been as a young woman. But I think she never thought of herself as beautiful again after the day her son, all unknowing, killed his father and her lover, the selchie king. Your father was nineteen years old.”
Morfran hid his face in his hands. His grandmother. His grandfather. His father. He was filled with pity.
“Now you begin to see,” said Marceau gently.
“There’s not much left to tell. Your grandmother tried to show delight and pride in her son’s skill, but the blow was too great. Some part of herself was slaughtered along with the selchie. She didn’t blame her son. He couldn’t know. She couldn’t blame them even for breaking their promise to not kill a seal unless it raided a net. She understood. Yet she couldn’t hide her terrible grief. And she dared not explain. She and the fisherman had been married in peace and contentment for years. To bring up that old disgrace again, to remind him of what happened before their life together was more than she could bear. And what of Guy? He’d no idea in the world the fisherman was not his father. To find out after all it wasn’t so, and that his true father was a creature out of myth and legend, a creature out of the sea he strove against for life and livelihood, and to find he himself had murdered the one who gave him that life? She couldn’t do it. She dared not do it.
It changed everything, of course. She aged terribly, and lost her joy. Guy turned sullen and silent, as young men do when they’re hurt. He turned away from the stone house and spent time in the harbor with the other young men and women, drinking too much, staying out too late, taking more risks at sea. The fisherman felt he’d lost them both, wife and son, and didn’t know why. Two or three years later he died. A storm blew up while he was out fishing. He’d failed to read the signs in sea and sky, though he’d always done so before. He’d gone too far out and was fairly caught. He made it home by some miracle, but he was exhausted and wet through. He went to bed and never left it again.
Guy, your father, possessed a friend who had family here on the southern coast. The two young men decided to leave the island and come here, to a new country and a new coast, and find lives for themselves. Your grandmother came with him to make sure he was settled with a roof over his head and the means to earn a living. They loved each other, Guy and your grandmother, but your grandfather’s murder stood between them like a wall.
Your grandmother had never left her island before. She loved to walk along the shore, especially at dawn and dusk. I used to see her. She made a lonely figure. She was tall and graceful, even in old age. The gold of her hair faded, but she liked to let the wind blow through it. We usually stay away from land people, but something about her compelled me, perhaps the same thing that once compelled your grandfather. At any rate, one day as she passed I made myself known to her. We became friends and she told me her story.
Guy liked the place and settled down well enough, making new friends. He was handsome and skilled and once he learned the fish and sea in this part of the world he got along well. She wasn’t worried about him but she wanted to make peace with him before she returned home. I think she feared she might not see him again, and she couldn’t bear their estrangement. She blamed herself, of course, for keeping the secret all those years, but it’s hard to see another choice she might have made.
At any rate, I counseled her to tell him. Her husband was dead and couldn’t be hurt. Guy was far away from the community where it happened and a man grown, no longer a boy. I told her every man has a right to know where he comes from and it seemed to me better to grieve over the truth than over something he didn’t understand. None of it was his fault and in time I felt certain he’d see that.
So, she told him. I think she hoped they could find their way back to their old relationship but that didn’t happen. Still, she felt relieved she’d told him the truth of it. She feared she’d lost him, but hoped when he had a chance to think it over and spend some time in the world shaping his own life as a man, perhaps loving a woman, he’d come back to her with his old affection and respect. But at the time he felt bitterly betrayed and she thought it best to go home and let him work his feelings out with the help of time.
She left, then, to go back to the island and a life alone. I never saw her again. She must be long dead now. I don’t suppose she ever saw Guy again, or knew she had a grandson.”
The sea sighed against the shore while Morfran thought about his grandmother. Somehow, in his curiosity about his true parents, he’d never considered their parents, and the parents beyond them.
“Grandson, do you realize I hunger to know about you the way you hunger for your parents?” asked Marceau. “The first chapter is told of what I can tell of your family. Will you tell me more about yourself before you sleep?”
Morfran hadn’t considered this aspect of the matter, but he stretched out next to the fire with a rolled blanket under his shoulders and head, shut his eyes, and returned in his mind to Bala Lake. Without plot or plan, he described scents and sounds and sights of home, letting memories drift across his mind as they would. He found himself telling the tale of the Cauldron of Inspiration and Knowledge and Gwion and the events of that fateful day on which he was to at last taste the first three drops of the brew. He described the long winter of Ceridwen’s pregnancy and the family’s grief. He told of her decision to give the baby to the sea and the peace that came with it, and he remembered the smell of blood, the laboring woman’s groans, the incredible miracle of watching new life emerge from the womb and of the babe in his hands, the thick twist of umbilical cord still anchoring it to the darkness from which it had emerged. Then he told of how they’d made the coracle and Ceridwen’s plan for the child. He recounted her solitary journey almost in the same words she’d used to tell her story to Bald Tegid and Morfran when she returned.
Now he’d come to Creirwy’s part of the story, but he was deeply relaxed and sleepy, warm and comfortable by the fire and comforted by revisiting his home and family in memory. He felt ready for sleep. He pushed himself up on his elbow and realized, to his surprise, Marceau was weeping.
Marceau smiled. He put up a hand and wiped his cheeks. “Your foster mother has great courage,” he said simply. “It touches me and it touches on the next part of my story about your mother and father. But that’s for tomorrow. I think tonight we’ve talked enough. It’s good to give new discoveries time to settle. This morning you possessed no grandfather and I’d only just realized I’d found a grandson!”
Morfran realized in amazement the truth of this. It felt as though several days had passed since he had watched the figure launch itself into the grey sky above the cliff and dive into the sea.
“Will you take me into the sea tomorrow?” he asked impulsively.
Marceau laughed. “Tomorrow I think the sun will shine. I’ll take you into the sea. You must make friends with it in your real shape and then, though we haven’t spoken of your gift of shape shifting yet, I think perhaps you’ll find it not so difficult to wear the shape of your people.”
Morfran’s mouth fell open. For the first time, he understood the full implications of his relationship to the man beside him. “You…” he stammered, “I…”
“Yes, Grandson,” said his grandfather, chuckling. “You’re of the sea people and the selchie people. The sea is your home as much as Bala Lake. It’s time you were introduced to it. Sleep now. I’ll come back to you in the morning and we’ll talk more.”
The old man rose to his feet and bent, taking Morfran’s face between his palms. He kissed him on the forehead. “Sleep well, Grandson. Look for me in the morning.”
He turned and stepped out of the firelight. Moments later Morfran heard a splash. Then he heard only the breathing sea and burning fire. He rolled himself in his blankets and slept.
The following dawn was clear. Morfran awoke feeling rested and well, eager for the day. He mended the fire and took a walk, gathering more firewood. He heated water and ate breakfast. He was glad to start his day in solitude, but when his grandfather stepped out of the surf, he met him eagerly, embracing him without reservation.
They approached the rock pool. The tide had peaked and was on the ebb. Morfran stripped off his clothes and dove cleanly into the water. The rocks protected the pool from currents and the surge of waves and Morfran realized fear and shock had made the waves seem more threatening and higher than they actually were the morning before. Now, understanding himself as a child of this watery world, he felt no fear, only a wish to make friends.
He floated on his back, squinting at the bright sky and letting waves rock him. He swam underwater, listening to the unending sound of water moving against land. He trod water, letting waves lift and release him, lift and release him. Then he swam, learning quickly to feel the waves’ rhythm so he didn’t get slapped in the mouth with water when he took a breath.
His grandfather stayed close or swam companionably beside him, but let him explore in his own way. Before they left the rock pool, Morfran shyly examined his grandfather’s form so he could understand how to shapeshift into it. The tail grew in proportion to the body, both in thickness and length. It was covered in scales, bronze and dull green. The tail’s end divided into two broad fins in the same way the tail of a whale finished. Morfran, passing his hands over it, felt solid muscle. Marceau propelled himself effortlessly through the water with lazy, powerful undulations.
Outside the rock pool the sea became more challenging and Morfran could feel a current. His grandfather taught him how to swim with it until he swam out of it. “The sea is like life, Grandson,” he said. “You may have a plan and a destination, but tides and currents can suddenly take hold of you and send you in an entirely different direction. If you fight against a sea current, you’ll become exhausted and if you persist, you’ll drown. Relax. Let it take you where it will.”
When Morfran felt ready to shape shift, he trod water, relaxing and breathing, letting his gaze blur across the wave tops. His grandfather stayed beside him, keeping his head out of water with lazy thrusts of his tail. Morfran reached down and clasped his hand, using the other to keep himself upright and afloat. He breathed with the sea and shifted.
With the shift, a kind of wild joy took hold of him. He let go of Marceau’s hand and dove, feeling his tail come up out of water and then slide down after his body. He felt weightless, as though he’d never tire. He dove to the sea bed, listening to the clinks and clicks and rattles the moving water made. He turned his head and found his grandfather there beside him, smiling. They swam a few feet off the bottom, Morfran exploring every feature they passed. His grandfather pointed out fish and other sea life.
All that morning they swam together through layers of water and light. Morfran’s favorite shape had always been that of a crow, but this felt even more natural to him, as familiar as his real shape. Perhaps this was also a real shape. Who could say?
Midday they stopped their play and left the sea. Morfran was hungry and thirsty and tired of water for the time being. They ate and drank under the cliff and Marceau proposed they go up to the ruins for the afternoon. They went around by the rock pool rather than using the steps. Morfran was tired and didn’t trust his twisted leg on the stairs.
They settled themselves with their backs against a stone wall in the sun. They sat in tall grass and Morfran remembered the grass under the fruit trees in Juliana’s orchard.
“Now it’s time to speak of your mother. In this place, my memories of her are strong. She and your father were happy here, for a time.”
“My people — your people -- are storytellers. When we begin a story, we say, ‘Once upon a time, before the moons and sea found one another and the silver tide ebbed and flowed with their passion…’ there was a young woman of the sea, a merwoman. The merpeople, it’s said, come from the Faery folk. Long ago, one of these entered the water and made a home among coral and pearl, storm and wave, reef and rock. That was the beginning of the merfolk.
This young merwoman possessed a special gift. She discerned the hidden hurts of heart and mind. Her mother was killed when she was a child, but she and her sisters were beloved, and their father gave them into the care of their grandmother to raise.”
Marceau’s voice wavered and he fell silent. Morfran didn’t hurry him, but waited in quiet sympathy, building in his mind’s eye a picture of his mother.
“Her name was Melusine. As a child, her greatest challenge was her recognition of suffering in others. It seemed to her if she knew of it, she was responsible to somehow heal it. I tried to teach her how to keep boundaries in place between herself and others and how to call herself home when she strayed into dark places others held within themselves. I tried to help her understand all beings make a journey and it often involves pain. She was young, though, and it’s hard to understand the gifts pain can bring when you’re young. She understood suffering as an enemy, a thing to be cured. She couldn’t perceive the value of it, or that some people prefer to suffer and choose it over healing.
Melusine grew into a lovely and compassionate young merwoman and I knew the time approached when she’d want a mate and family of her own.
Most merfolk live well away from land and avoid humans, hardly seeing one all their long lives. Others are drawn to land and fascinated by humans, watching them at work and play from behind rocks and sea walls. Many a solitary fisherman has been followed with great interest by one of the merfolk, and many a solitary walker along the shore closely observed. Melusine was curious about life on land. I occasionally go onto land and don’t fear humans, though I’m wary of being seen. She and I swam along the coastline, watching rocking lanterns in boats and lit windows of harbor buildings at night. Now and then we’d see a pair of lovers, or a group of children playing in the surf.
Your father spent hours on the stony shore, walking, exploring the tide’s leavings in rock pools, or simply sitting and gazing out to sea. We saw him often. Melusine felt his sadness, and her compassion awakened.
She became more and more drawn to him. She grew familiar with his habits and waited for him, spending patient hours in some hidden place in order to watch him. She withdrew from her own people and spent longer and longer hours at the shore, fascinated. Inevitably, she considered revealing herself to him. One night as Noola waxed, she spoke to him from her hiding place among rocks just offshore.
That began it.
Melusine, in the ecstasy and passionate trust of love, revealed herself, both in the sea and on land. She gave herself to him.
Marceau looked at Morfran. “How is it for you, to hear about your mother?” he asked.
Morfran met his gaze and let him see his tears. “I’ve imagined what she looked like,” he said. “You’ve made her real, flesh and blood, a woman who loved and lived in her body. She lived here,” he gestured around the ruins. “She swam in the water I swam in this morning. She had long dark hair. Were her eyes grey too?”
“No. Her eyes were green, the green of the cold sea. She had beautiful eyes, like jewels in her face, but you inherited my eyes. Your father’s eyes were dark, like the eyes of seals. She used to plait her hair with pearls and bits of shell.”
“What happened to them? Why did it go wrong?”
“Grandson, has love come to you in this way yet?”
“No,” said Morfran, remembering Juliana with gratitude. “I haven’t known what my parents shared.”
“You will. And when you do, you’ll discover the joy we give and receive with our bodies isn’t enough to forge a lasting union by itself. Your mother and father were young and hot blooded. Your mother believed she could help your father heal, take away his suffering with her love. I fear it’s never so easy between a man and a woman, and these two weren’t man and woman. He was half selchie and she wholly of the merfolk. There’ve been those who take lovers from other tribes and peoples. Such unions are particularly magical, I think, but they come at a high price, as your grandparents found out.
In the time since your grandmother had returned to her island and left Guy here, he’d naturally thought a great deal about what she’d revealed. It’s strange, Morfran, but some people, no matter how old in years, are never quite able to allow their parents or their children to become themselves. A healthy love between parent and child at some point adjusts away from ‘my parent’ and ‘my child’ to recognizing an independent person. Sadly, Guy was one of those who doesn’t make the adjustment. He was a man in years but he refused to accept that his mother took a selchie for a lover. It disgusted him. He didn’t want to think of her as a woman with a woman’s rich desire and capacity for love.
Your mother understood clearly how this conflict tore him in pieces. He was half selchie and half human, your father. No amount of denial could change it. He hated the selchie part of himself and hated his mother and her passion and love for the selchie man. He refused to forgive your grandmother or your grandfather, and so could not forgive himself. He spoke of his pride about killing his father, but I didn’t believe him. I think the truth was he felt stricken with guilt and horror, though it wasn’t his fault. He couldn’t possibly have known.
Because of my love for your grandmother, I’d made myself known to Guy. I’d promised her to keep an eye on him and help him if I could. He was lonely and he talked to me, out of desperation, I think, more than any sense of friendship. It eased him to talk and he had no one else.
Your father was deeply unhappy, Morfran, deeply anguished. He clung to bitterness and judgment. But Melusine loved him, and gave her life and heart into his keeping.”
“They were doomed,” said Morfran quietly.
“Yes,” said the Marceau sadly. “They were doomed. Love and hate…” he plucked a blade of grass and held it up in front of his eyes, gazing at the nearly invisible edge. “Love and hate are separated by only the thinnest eyelash. They dance together, inseparable, forever bound. We use the word passion and think only of desire, of joy, of light and laughter and a warm tropic sea. But passion is darkness, too. Passion is hatred and rage, violence of sea and storm and wind. Guy was compelled by his recognition of Melusine. He was irresistibly drawn by her passion and sensuality, fascinated by her otherness, if you will. She woke in him his own passionate nature, inherited by both parents, and his own otherness. She brought to life in him the aspects he most hated and rejected in his parents and in himself. He loved Melusine for a time, but then he hated her. In destroying her he destroyed himself. In destroying himself he destroyed her.
“How did they come to Bala Lake?” asked Morfran.
“Ah, yes. I haven’t finished, have I?”
“In the early days when love grew between them,” said Marceau, “they married in a stone church in the harbor where Guy lived. Guy wasn’t a rich man, by any means, but the sea is full of treasure. They chose this cliff, overlooking the sea, to build a castle. Some of us can go about on land like a human, as you’ve seen, but we must stay close to the sea and return home often.
We built the rock pool for Melusine and cut stairs into the cliff. Even in the beginning she was anxious to show Guy how nimbly she could use her human legs. The tide cleanses the water in the rock pool, and no matter what the weather it stays calm and safe. Melusine intended to coax Guy into the water, in hopes that the selchie half of him would heal. She knew his story, of course. She was confident the sea would reclaim him and he’d learn to embrace it. But he refused. He never once came with her, even to sit on the cliff or on the beach. She told me after a while he flew into a rage if he saw her with her tail. He called it a deformity, said it disgusted him to look at her. It broke her heart. She became ashamed of her true form. In the end, she only came into the rock pool at night, her joy in the water destroyed. Her need for her own place became a matter of shame and guilt.
They only lived in the castle for a year or so. I could see Melusine’s unhappiness. Her beauty faded and her joy vanished. She didn’t complain or speak ill of Guy. She loved him in spite of everything and remained convinced their relationship would get better if she tried hard enough. She still hadn’t accepted she couldn’t help him, all the love in the world couldn’t help him because he was determined not be helped. The more she tried the more he hated her.
After they married, Guy and I never spoke. I came to swim with Melusine and watch over her as best I could. I didn’t know she was with child. I longed for her mother in those days. I failed her, and watching her fade, day by day, filled me with fear and anger. I felt as helpless to help her as she did to help Guy. It was a terrible time.
One night in the rock pool she told me she and Guy were going far away, to a place in the Northwest. They intended to live inland and forget the sea, live as humans should. They’d build another castle and they hoped to start a family.
I protested, of course. I knew if she left the sea she’d die and I suspected the same was true for Guy. But she’d made up her mind. They’d make a fresh start and be happy, she said. There was nothing I could say or do. We parted that night and I never saw her again. For sixteen years, I’ve grieved. And then one day a young man limped along the beach, climbed the cliff steps, explored the ruins, found the rock pool, and camped here. And I came to the fire and spoke to him and found my own eyes in another face. Melusine, at last, has come back to me to say goodbye.”
Morfran reached out and clasped Marceau’s hand. They were alike in shape, strong hands, not large, with long graceful fingers. Morfran shut his eyes and leaned his head back against the stone wall so the warm sunlight fell on his face. In the shelter of the ruins there was no breeze. He felt soothed and relaxed, filled with both sadness and relief. At last, he knew the story of his beginnings.
“You were touched by Ceridwen and the unwanted child,” said Morfran.
Their hands parted. Marceau pulled his knees up and locked his hands around them.
“Your foster mother did what Guy couldn’t,” he replied. “In spite of her disappointed hopes and anger, she accepted what was. She felt her bitterness and rage and acknowledged her desire to destroy the foundling — what was his name?”
“Yes, Gwion. When she discovered the destruction she intended provided him with a new beginning and she would be the vessel allowing it to happen, she accepted and nurtured the child. This is an act of great courage, to look within oneself and acknowledge shadows. It’s so much easier to deny and refuse, turn away from what we don’t wish to admit or take responsibility for. Think how it might have been different if your father allowed himself to be who he was.”
Morfran thought. His mother might have lived to raise him and he’d have known more about his own shape sooner, perhaps. But no Bala Lake! No Bald Tegid or Ceridwen or Creirwy! The man with the blue beard, the feather, the key, the journey, Dar — all would not have been or would be different. He couldn’t truly be sorry. Except his mother might still live. He shook his head. “I can’t think about that,” he said. “It’s too big to think about. It happened the way it happened and can’t be undone now.”
“True,” said Marceau. “And I don’t carry a burden of bitterness on my shoulders about the past. We’ve found one another and that’s a matter for joy. I’m content.”
They spent several days together. Morfran told his grandfather everything about his life at Bala Lake, Creirwy’s death, his journey, Dar, and Bluebeard’s castle. He showed Marceau the golden feathers and the key.
“The Firebird!” said Marceau, as Morfran carefully unwrapped the feathers.
“That’s what Dar said, too,” replied Morfran. “Have you seen it?”
“No. Few see the Firebird, though some spend their lives seeking it. It’s a creature of mystery and power. It’s said the Firebird can lead one to infinite treasure. And you’ve dreamed of it?”
“Many times.” Morfran described the long, sweeping tail, the jeweled wings, the dark, intelligent eyes. “In my dreams, I ask it to speak or show me why it comes, but it doesn’t stop or even look at me. It showed me the key before I left Bala Lake. I didn’t know what it meant then.”
“It comes to you, shows itself to you,” Marceau mused, running his fingers through the fringe of one of the feathers. “Remarkable. I wonder…”
“I don’t want to capture it, or be given infinite treasure,” said Morfran, smiling. “I’ve no need of treasure.”
“You’re sensible. I don’t know what would happen to one who sought power over such a sacred creature, but nothing good, I’m sure. I wasn’t thinking you’d seek it for those reasons, but perhaps it has some message for you. Have you thought about where you’ll go from here? Do you want to stay and make your home here in the sea with me and our people? Do you travel north to the island of your grandparents and seek your family there? Does your heart call out for Bala Lake and your old home?”
“I’m not sure,” said Morfran slowly. “I’ve not thought ahead, really.” He ran his thumb down the shaft of a feather, turning it slowly, watching the color, now red, now orange, now golden, with a hint of blue or green, like a fire burning low. “What about the key?”
“Yes, what about it? A key implies a lock.”
“One lock it opened is destroyed. But I think there’s another lock, somewhere ahead.”
“Let me make a proposition, Grandson. I have some ideas about where you might go next, but it doesn’t seem to me it’s necessary to hurry. Suppose, now you and I are acquainted, I take you with me into the sea to meet your mother’s people — your people — and explore our home. I’ve been selfish these last days, but I thought we both needed some time alone together. I’m not your only family, though, and there will be much joy at your coming, for we loved Melusine and we’ve never forgotten her. Maybe we can guide you to your next step, or at least help you think about your choices. Then, when it’s time and you’re ready, you can decide how to proceed and we’ll help you all we can.”
Morfran considered, feeling both shy and excited. “Will they mind that I’m not quite of them?” he asked.
“Others before Melusine have loved humans,” said Marceau. “Children of such unions are special, and very precious to us. Some are lost to us forever and spend their whole lives on land as humans, never knowing they’re part of our people. It’s a hard thing to bridge two worlds but those who find a way to do it possess great strength and bring gifts to both their tribes. You’re of us. They’ll recognize you and you’ll recognize them.”
So Morfran hid his bundle carefully in the cliff rocks and he and Marceau slid into the sea, swimming out together, diving and disappearing entirely from the world above the water.
Morfran never forgot those days. Uncles, aunts and cousins gave him a warm welcome. He spent days in talk and celebration, and more days exploring. For the first time, he heard fish singing at dawn as the sun rose. He accompanied Marceau to speak with the elders about the Firebird. He felt at home among these people. Here he looked like everyone else, lithe and lean, dark, small by human standards. He even met a young cousin with a twisted hip that gave his tail an odd kink. Morfran was certain if he shifted into human form he’d lurch and limp. He saw his mother’s green eyes and his own grey eyes in many faces. The sea revealed wonders and dangers, but he learned quickly. As time passed, though, he began to miss the land, the sky, the feeling of air in his lungs. He was a creature of both land and water, he realized, and to keep himself whole and healthy he’d need both homes.
After much thought and discussion, Morfran decided to seek the Firebird. It came from a vast Eastern wilderness and Morfran gathered there were merfolk of some kind associated with it, though the talk became vague and he’d the feeling of secrets. Marceau told him a powerful forest spirit kept company with the Firebird, but he either couldn’t or wouldn’t say more. “It’s a deep mystery and I don’t know more than that,” was all he’d say, “but I think your path lies to the northeast.”
So Morfran bid his newfound family farewell and he and his grandfather swam up into air and sunlight and stepped out of the sea on two legs. They spent a last night together and parted the next morning, which was cool and cloudy. As Morfran carefully climbed the stone stairs a last time to take the road that lay behind the cliffs, he heard Marceau drumming in the still air. Long after the sound of the breathing sea fell away, he heard the drumbeat, like his own heartbeat, and it comforted him.
It was a long road. The merfolk told Morfran to travel east and for a time the way was easy, with frequent villages and farms. Harvest was in and winter approached. There were fewer travelers about. Morfran had always been quietly content with his own company, even preferring solitude to companionship in general, but now he felt lonely. In discovering kinship and family, he became aware of its absence in a new way. No longer did he understand himself as a man apart and alone. He possessed a tribe and roots, even if they were underwater roots. Now he left his family behind, going into the world to follow the sign of the golden feather. It was like a story, he thought. He didn’t know precisely what he searched for, but he trusted his way would become clear. For now, there was the lonely road, the changing landscape and much to think about.
He spent the nights under shelter when he could, even if just under a haystack. The farther east he traveled, the more sparsely populated he found the country, and the people, though not exactly unfriendly, weren’t welcoming. Colder weather and unending walking began to take a toll on his twisted hip and at night it ached fiercely, keeping him from sleep. His time with Marceau began to seem like a dream. The Firebird no longer flew through the night landscapes of his mind. He felt weary and dull and nearly always cold.
In this state of mind, he found himself, at the end of a long afternoon, in a forest of slim trees with white bark. Leaves fell, day waned, and he discovered no sign of human habitation. It was still, the trees watchful. White trunks crowded together in every direction as far as he could see. He felt no menace but the forest was aware of his presence and waited to see what he’d do. He could go no farther. He didn’t dare light a fire in such thick forest. He heaped together leaves, ate a bit of cold food, wrapped himself as warmly as he could and lay down, pulling leaves over him in another blanket against the cold.
He woke from a dream of the Firebird. It flew close to him and he reached out to stroke its warm feathers, but he couldn’t touch it. He opened his eyes and found himself lying in the midst of glowing trees, not golden but pale and unearthly. Noola rode high in a clear sky, and Cion curved close, bending over the forest, drenching the trees with light. It was cold. He pulled the arm he’d reached with in his dream back against his chest and slept again, trying to find the Firebird.
He awoke from a warm, deep sleep. Someone shook him. He didn’t want to wake. In sleep he’d felt so warm, so comfortable. Someone was trying to wake him into pain and discomfort. He shrugged away the hand that shook him, hunching his shoulder angrily. The shaking persisted. His face felt wet and cold. He opened his eyes. He wasn’t warm but cold…cold. His hip ached as though filled with broken glass. He lay on a slab of ice. Everything looked grey and white and the air was thick with snow. An old man crouched over him, shaking him, brushing snow out of his hair, trying to pull him up.
“All right,” said Morfran unsteadily. “Yes…I’m awake.” He pulled himself into a sitting position and let out an involuntary groan of pain. The old man pulled insistently at his arm, urging him to his feet. Morfran groped in the snowy leaves for blankets and bundle.
The old man’s grip on Morfran’s arm felt hard and bruising. With a mittened hand he took the bundle and blankets, tucked them under his own arm and lifted Morfran to his feet. A hood lined with grey fur hid most of his face but Morfran could see a snow-clotted beard. Morfran staggered, numb with cold. The other didn’t loosen his grip but turned, swinging Morfran with him, and began to walk through the trees. Two or three inches of snow lay on the ground and it was snowing hard. Morfran felt half blinded. White tree trunks and snow swirled together in front of his eyes. He could hardly stay on his feet, but he realized if he didn’t he’d lie down, go to sleep and freeze to death.
After a few minutes of walking, they came to a small log cabin. The door loomed up suddenly in dim light, and without the firm grip on his arm Morfran would have walked right into it. The door opened and Morfran stumbled over the threshold. It was dark inside, but warm. He smelled burning wood and other, less pleasant odors.
Morfran found himself on a stool next to an iron stove radiating heat. The old man lit a lamp, fed the stove, rummaged in a corner and produced a piece of old sacking. Without a word, he stripped off Morfran’s cloak and outer garments and then handed him the sacking. Morfran took it in hands that didn’t want to obey him and rubbed himself with the coarse thing.
It was agony. Warmth made his skin burn and tingle. Every bone in his body ached. His hands and fingers felt wooden and stiff. He rubbed fiercely at his scalp, drying his hair, feeling blood begin to course through his body again. The old man’s silence unnerved Morfran. He’d yet to speak a word. Morfran sat heavily back on the stool, holding his hands out to the stove’s warmth. The old man threw a blanket of what felt like wool across Morfran’s shoulders. It smelled as though it hadn’t been washed since it came off the sheep. An iron kettle on the stove sent up a jet of steam. The old man poured hot water into a crudely carved wooden cup, added a pinch of tea leaves and thrust it into Morfran’s hand.
“Drink,” he said.
Morfran looked into the cup, watching the tea leaves uncurl and begin to steep. The delicate smell of tea mingled with the blanket’s odor. He looked up at the old man.
“Drink,” said the other again.
He drank, comforting his hands with the cup’s warmth in between swallows. When he’d emptied the cup, the old man refilled it from the iron kettle and gave him a hunk of hard black bread, an onion and a piece of cured meat.
The onion made his eyes water and the bread was coarse. Morfran softened it in tea and gnawed at the meat. By the time he’d dealt with the food he was sipping his third cup of tea and beginning to sweat from his proximity to the stove. He swayed with weariness on the stool, though it was still morning, as far as he knew. His eyes wouldn’t stay open. He carefully set the wooden cup down on the rough plank floor lest he drop it. On the floor next to the stool lay a grey animal skin, and he clumsily let himself down onto it and fell at once into sleep.
He woke to the rhythmic familiar sound of steel sharpening on stone. Bald Tegid was sharpening tools and knives. But why was he doing it in Morfran’s room? And what was that terrible smell of unwashed wool? Morfran opened his eyes and found himself in the dim wooden hut. The old man sat at a table, sharpening an axe blade with a whetstone by lantern light. Morfran was warm, lying on the skin with a heavy blanket over him. He could see his own blankets and clothing hanging from pegs on the wall behind the stove, which glowed steadily.
The old man bent over his work. His head showed nearly bald, but his lower face was obscured in thick grey beard, unkempt and none too clean. He’d lost an eye and the empty socket looked shocking and stark, far too large for one eye. His hands were broad, callused and strong, nails short and ingrained with dirt. His clothing hung on him, baggy and shapeless. Thick socks covered his feet and reached halfway up his legs, and a piece of leather wound around his waist.
Morfran didn’t think he’d slept a long time. He judged it to be afternoon of the same day the old man had pulled him out of the snow. His body felt warm and familiar again, but his hip ached with an angry, hot pain. He stretched out his leg to ease it before trying to get to his feet.
The old man looked up when he stirred. He set down axe and whetstone, rose to his feet and extended a hand down to Morfran, hauling him up as though he were a child. Morfran caught his breath, head swimming, resting his weight on his good leg and clinging to the other’s arm. He was stiff. He found his balance and rubbed his hip.
“Thank you,” he said again. “Who are you?”
“Timor,” replied the other. “I cut the wood.”
Timor nodded briefly and returned to his axe and stone. Morfran stepped out the door. The snow had stopped but the sky hung heavy and grey. The chill air felt damp, and trees were draped with a lace of snowflakes. The forest was still and silent. Still watching me, he thought.
He returned inside, shutting the door firmly behind him.
Timor put away his axe and hung the lantern on a peg. He filled the wooden cup again with hot water from the kettle, and also a bowl. He only has one cup, thought Morfran. One cup, one bowl, one plate and one knife, probably.
“You’re hurt?” Timor asked, gesturing to Morfran’s hip.
“No. It’s twisted.”
The old man raised an eyebrow.
Morfran put the cup down and exposed his hip, running his hand over the deformity. “I’ve walked for a long time and the cold makes it ache.”
“You’re tired,” said Timor.
“Yes. I’m tired.”
“There’s a bathhouse? Can we go there?”
“No. Too late today. We mustn’t be there after dark. Tomorrow.”
“Why can’t we use it after dark?”
“It’s forbidden,” the old man muttered, and turned away.
Morfran thought philosophically that he’d found warm shelter for the night, anyway, and perhaps a good wash the next day. He wasn’t dead in a drift of leaves and snow, and for that he was grateful. He knelt on the floor next to his damp bundle. He unknotted the cloth and set it aside, laying out his possessions. The feathers and jeweled key were wrapped carefully together in a piece of cloth. He unwrapped them and the feathers came into view, glowing with a warm light, brighter than the lantern. He heard Timor exclaim in what he took for fearful amazement behind him. He rose clumsily to his feet and turned with the feathers in his hand.
“It’s all right. These feathers glow…”
Timor’s eyes hooded. “Firebird!” he said.
“You’ve seen this bird?” asked Morfran quickly.
“No. It’s forbidden!” and the old man would say no more, turning his back on Morfran until the feathers were out of sight and the hut dim again.
A little of Morfran’s food remained. He took part of a loaf of bread, some withered but still sweet apples and a rind of cheese to the table to share. The clothing and blankets on the pegs behind the stove felt quite dry and he took them down and folded them neatly. He was going to need warmer clothes to wear if he stayed in this place for long. He looked carefully at the old man’s coat, hanging on its own peg. It was shapeless, like his other clothes, made of the same kind of animal hide as lay on the floor with the hairy side turned in for warmth. His mittens were of the same material.
“Timor,” said Morfran, showing him the mittens and pointing to the skin on the floor, “Is this wolf skin?”
“Yes,” said Timor. With a jerk of his head, he indicated a dark corner of the hut. Morfran found a pair of blankets clumsily sewn together and stuffed with leaves and bracken for a mattress, a couple of odoriferous thick wool blankets and a neat pile of wolf skins, well cured, grey hair thick and warm.
They ate together, drinking tea and gnawing at hard bread and tough meat. Timor wouldn’t eat the softer brown bread but seemed to enjoy the apples. After they ate, Timor left, the door opening onto a dark, damp night, and brought in an armful of wood. Morfran rose from the stool to help but the old man shook his head at him. Timor banked the stove and shut the draft. Morfran’s blankets were dry and warm and he looked forward to his wolf skin bed, ready again for sleep. Timor blew out the lantern and made his way to his own bed, settling himself with a rustling sound and almost at once beginning to snore.
Morfran lay quietly, thinking about the bathhouse, Timor’s reaction to the Firebird feathers and what he might be able to make from one or two wolf skins. Was this where he was supposed to be? He supposed it must be. He thought of Dar and his cheerful talk, Marceau and his wisdom. This wood cutter wasn’t going to exchange stories with him, but he’d saved his life. Who forbade use of the bathhouse after dark and talk of the Firebird?
The bath house was a low wooden structure, about three times the size of Timor’s hut. Three windows looked out under a thatched roof, shielded with wooden shutters. There was a lock on the door but Timor merely lifted the handle and walked in. They stood in a small anteroom. Pegs were driven into wooden walls over a rough bench. A pleasant, astringent scent Morfran couldn’t place lingered in the air. Against an inside wall a black iron stove crouched on an apron of stone. It radiated a faint heat, as though recently used. Timor went outside and came back with an armful of wood. He adjusted the draft and put a dry piece onto the bed of ashes. At once it began to smoke and Timor gave a satisfied grunt and shut the stove door, leaving a gap for air while the fire caught. He began to remove his clothes.
The old man was only slightly larger than Morfran, with shoulders and arms hard and thick with muscle. His body looked younger than his bearded face. Morfran thought he was not as old as his grandfather. His grey beard and one eye aged him. The hair on his body was brown mixed with grey.
Morfran too began to disrobe. Timor opened the stove door, revealing fiercely burning kindling. He filled the box with wood and shut the door, firmly this time. A neatly folded pile of linen sheets lay on the bench and Timor took two of them and walked through a narrow wooden door of thin planks into the next room.
Apart from the stone wall behind the stove, this room was also entirely lined with wood with wide shelves tiered against one wall. The stove was part of the wall and Morfran saw, on this side, a reservoir full of water and several large, flat stones. A bucket sat on one of the shelves next to a bottle with a crude wooden stopper. Timor picked it up and removed the stopper, revealing the source of the astringent smell. He took Morfran’s hand, held it palm up and poured a few drops of oil into it.
“Birch oil,” he said. “Rub it in.” He gestured towards Morfran’s hip.
It smelled fresh and invigorating, reminding Morfran of peppermint. Cautiously, he rubbed it into his hip. At once it warmed him and he massaged gratefully, feeling the ache ease. The room grew warm as the stove began to radiate heat. Timor stretched himself out on a wooden shelf. Morfran, curious, opened a door opposite the one they’d come in from the antechamber. Here was a plunge pool. He wondered if the bath house was built over a spring. The water seemed to be moving gently, as if flowing at depth. He dipped his foot into it. It felt icily cold.
In the sauna, the air was thick with heat. Timor rose, took the bucket to the stove and trickled water onto the stones. They hissed fiercely. The room filled with steam and the scent of birch oil. Morfran lay down on a shelf, breathing the hot, scented air gratefully. He’d missed wearing nothing but his own skin. He began to sweat, feeling the grime and fatigue of his long travel leaving him. His hip felt numb and peaceful. They lay quietly for some minutes, soaking in the heat.
Then Timor sat up, swinging his feet onto the floor, took up the bucket and passed into the next room. Morfran followed him. Timor stooped and filled the bucket from the plunge pool, then turned, and before Morfran knew what was happening, sluiced him from head to foot with cold water. Morfran let out a yell of surprise and anger. Timor smiled beneath his beard.
“Better to do it fast,” he said. He set the empty bucket down and bent, putting a hand on the floor at the lip of the pool, and vaulted into the water. He slid all the way under and just as quickly pulled himself out, streaming. He filled the bucket, drank, gave it to Morfran to drink, and then returned to the sauna and splashed more water onto the stones.
Once again, they lay down in the steam.
The second time Morfran took charge of his own bucket of cold water and the third he sat on the edge of the plunge pool, letting his feet and legs dangle and splashing himself with icy water. He found the combination of steamy heat and cold water both energizing and cleansing. In between visits to the plunge pool, he worked birch oil into his hip and the muscles in his low back and thigh, feeling pain release him entirely.
During each immersion in the plunge pool Timor stayed longer. His skin flushed pink as a girl’s and his clean beard curled in the steamy heat. “Next time you come in the water,” he told Morfran. “Not first time. Get used to it first.”
Morfran lost count of how many times they repeated the cycle. At last, it was time to go. He watched Timor carefully bank the stove, close and latch the shutters they’d opened for light, hang up the linen they’d used and make sure the doors were firmly shut. They dressed themselves and left the bath house, stepping into sunlight and the smell of cold, damp forest.
“Tomorrow we cut wood,” said Timor.
Morfran lacked Timor’s strength and skill with an axe, but he learned to help trim branches off felled trees and cut slim white trunks into logs. Timor cut wood for the bath house, so they spent one day there, making a neat stack of logs near the door. Morfran asked who else used the bath house, but Timor pretended not to hear.
They cut wood for Timor’s stove as well, and Morfran, having watched the art of stacking carefully, patiently worked for some days to lay in a big supply. Timor, in the meantime, moved deeper into the forest to cut wood to sell.
Morfran found working with wood, though hard labor, was meditative and mentally relaxing. While his hands were busy, he let his thoughts drift and take him where they would. He considered everything he’d learned about his family and himself. He thought often of Creirwy and the doomed creature Bluebeard. He thought of Ceridwen and Bald Tegid and Bala Lake and he wondered where Dar was now. His young body recovered from the fatigue and stress of travel and he felt strong and well again. The bath house was a luxurious pleasure. Timor gave him two wolf skins to pay him for his work and Morfran pieced together a coat and mittens for himself. They were clumsy, but warm.
It was winter now. Nights were long and days of snow were interspersed with cold grey days of damp chill that sank into bones. Morfran grew to love the birch forest. It possessed a kind of delicate wild beauty. It was an uncanny place. The straight, slim white trunks marched away in every direction, but the forest seemed full of eyes and ears, as though waiting and watching, alert and expectant.
One day Timor put a round slab of wood made from a cross section of a thick tree on the floor. He rummaged in his bedclothes and withdrew a skin bag. Beckoning to Morfran, the old man knelt next to the slab and tipped out the contents of the bag.
Marbles, glowing like jewels, rolled in every direction. Morfran gasped.
Timor grinned like a boy and asked, “Can you play?”
“I can,” Morfran assured him, remembering Dar with fondness.
“Can you play Bounce Eye?”
“No, but I know Ducks in a Pond.”
Timor demonstrated the game of Bounce Eye, and after that they played often. Morfran always lost, but he was fascinated by the marbles and Timor’s delight in them. It was the only time the old man approached anything like animation.
Morfran longed to know how a solitary woodcutter without a coin came by such a collection of treasure, but every time he was at the point of asking, something about Timor silenced him.
Day followed day, and then week followed week, and Morfran cut and stacked wood, cut and stitched at the wolf skins, ate and slept and visited the bath house, feeling something drawing steadily closer.
One night he dreamt of the Firebird again. It was very close. Its glow filled the dark night like a flame and flecks of golden light scattered in its path like sparks. Dark, intelligent eyes looked into his own and it opened its beak as though to speak to him, but the sound that issued from it was a ghastly eldritch shriek that raised the hair on Morfran’s neck. Morfran couldn’t make himself believe the evidence of his eyes and ears. Either he wasn’t really seeing the Firebird or he wasn’t hearing the Firebird! It seemed impossible the beautiful golden creature could make such a sound.
The wolf skin he lay on stirred and he came fully awake, heart pounding and the shriek still ringing in his ears. Had he dreamt the Firebird or was it there, somewhere in the dark forest outside? Had he dreamt the shriek or was it real? What on Webbd or out of it could make such a sound? How real the movement under him had seemed, as though the wolf skin answered the scream in the night! Timor breathed regularly and peacefully in his corner. Morfran silently threw aside his blankets and rose, pulling on his clothes and taking his coat from its peg. Quietly, he let himself out.
Cion had set and Noola was dark. The air felt like icy water. Looking up, the glitter of starlight dazzled him, magnified and reflected by white tree trunks. It was a night of silver and ice. He turned in a slow circle, looking with wonder into the night sky. He realized suddenly it was the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. There were tears in his eyes, but he didn’t know if it was the night’s beauty or the cold that brought them there. In a blur of tears, he saw golden sparks. He blinked, clearing his vision. Golden flecks of light glowed like a fine vapor between the trees. The Firebird! He broke into a clumsy, lurching run, following the sparks. A sound overhead, a sweep of air, an eddy of warmth against his cheek, and he looked up and saw an enormous bird like a golden flame with jeweled wings and a long trailing tail. It circled around him, weaving in and out of tree trunks like a dancer.
“Oh, it’s you! It’s you! Creirwy!” he cried, his voice lost among white shining trees in the vast starry night. He felt broken open. He followed the Firebird, walking among golden flecks of light, smiling and weeping with wonder.
It flew ahead of him, circling. He didn’t think about where it led him. He didn’t care. He would gladly follow it all night, and all the rest of his nights as well. But it didn’t take him far. In its glow, he recognized the bath house ahead. Warm light seeped between the cracks of the shuttered windows, but when he put his hand to the door it was locked. His hand didn’t believe, and he lifted the handle harder, put his shoulder to the door. It didn’t move. What did it mean? He looked up at the Firebird, perched on the roof, and it looked steadily back at him. Marceau’s voice came to him, “A key implies a lock…”
He groped underneath his coat and pulled the key from a hidden pocket he’d made in his clothing. He put it in the lock and it turned easily. He lifted the handle and entered.
The air was warm. Golden light glowed from the empty sockets of a skull sitting on the bench in the antechamber. It watched the door, grinning. With a whoosh of air, the Firebird flew past his shoulder into the antechamber, filling the room for a moment of flashing wonder, and then it slipped through the door to the sauna. Morfran, following it, saw it flash through the door to the plunge pool, and as he pursued it, he saw it fold its wings against its body and dive straight into the water, leaving a shower of golden sparks behind it. Without hesitation or thought, Morfran took three steps from the narrow door and threw himself into a graceful dive behind it.
The expected shock of icy water didn’t come. He dove through dark air as though cleaving through water with the Firebird in front of him. He gasped with fearful wonder. Whatever happened, wherever they were going, it was meant. It was his path. The Firebird took him where he needed to go.
He felt his speed slacken, as though the air grew heavy and thick. He fell into dim white shine and glimmer, and still the Firebird was ahead, trailing golden flecks of light. He fell gently onto damp leaves and found around him the graceful trunks of countless slim white trees. He was in the birch forest again. He got to his feet. The Firebird was gone. For a moment, he felt utterly desolate. He’d come full circle. Was it just another dream? He turned, looking for Timor’s hut, but it wasn’t there.
A grating cackle slashed the silver night. Was it laughter? Indescribably harsh and raucous, filled with dark and terrible humor, it rent the clean night air. It made Morfran want to cover his ears and hide. As it died away in the still air, he became aware again of the forest’s tension. It vibrated around him. He could hear it humming, like a great heart beating, a great, cold, silvery, icy heart in this endless night… But wait… Morfran took a step forward, throwing back his furred hood, listening. There was a heartbeat, a sound, a rhythm! Was it a…? Yes! He heard a drum!
He followed the sound. He remembered Marceau’s drumming, filling the wet grey dawn, reverberant and sonorous as the sea. This was a cleaner, crisper sound, like sticks breaking, a sharp tapping. Now he heard a sound of something stringed, too, a silvery harp-like music.
He saw a clearing in the trees ahead. He saw movement. He saw…
He saw a circle of dancers, tall and lissome, as if trees uprooted themselves to dance. The figures wore flowing white robes with hoods cast over their heads. Their feet were bare. They swayed and revolved, seeming hardly to touch the cold ground. Under a tree at the edge of the circle was the drummer. She squatted obscenely, naked knees wide, her exposed sex a dark shadow. Between her feet sat a skull and she played upon the dome of its head with two long sticks that looked like bones. Thick claws tipped her hands. A tangle of wild hair covered her head. Her pendulous breasts swayed. She threw back her head and let out that terrible cackle again, ending in the feral shriek of his dream. Morfran, concealed behind the trunk of a tree, leaned his forehead against the cold bark, shuddering. Then the gentle sound of the stringed instrument flowed through the night, soothing his horror, and he looked again into the clearing.
One of the anonymous figures fingered a stringed instrument, the sound of it weaving in and out of the sharp tap of sticks on the skull. For a moment Morfran saw Ceridwen clearly in his mind’s eye, sitting at her loom, weaving warp and weft, and it seemed to him the birch forest itself made a loom and the dancers and music wove their own inscrutable silvery warp and weft…
He heard a sound behind him and turned, putting his back against the tree. Something moved among the tree trunks some way off, something huge, as tall as the trees. As it drew closer, he heard enormous footsteps moving in time to the music.
From behind him another shriek split the night. “Come, my chickens! Come, my blackbirds, my little fish, my poppets, my daughters!”
Twirling and dancing among pale trunks, Morfran saw a pair of huge chicken legs. Perched on top of them was a hut.
He was so stunned by this bizarre sight he didn’t even feel fear. The round-topped windows on either side of the door looked exactly like eyes and they glowed with warm light, but the legs — the hut — it— ignored him altogether and danced. Morfran stayed where he was next to the tree, seeing the legs needed to stay in open spaces between the close trunks in order to dance. The chicken legs bent and stepped and the hut with its golden eyes swayed. Stars glittered down through bare branches. Morfran turned and found the circle of dancers whirling and moving together, beckoned by drum and strings.
For a moment, he felt a wild impulse to step forward into the circle and join the dancers. The icy night, the dancing hut on chicken legs, the hooded and robed dancers and the hideous, terrifying old woman playing a hypnotic rhythm on her macabre drum stirred something deeply hidden within him, called his name in some familiar but long-forgotten way. He wanted to be part of the dance, twisted and lurching as he knew himself to be.
The figure playing the stringed instrument stilled its fingers and the notes ebbed away. The figure ran on bare feet to its place in the circle.
The tapping of the drum stopped. The old crone stood and hurled the drumsticks straight up into the air, shrieking as though to wake every creature in the forest. Morfran waited in vain to hear the sticks fall. The sounds of the dancing chicken legs, which had moved around the circle from Morfran’s vantage point, quieted. The drummer pulled another skull from beneath the shadows under a tree and squatted once more, now with both skulls in front. She held up her hands, arms extended. Morfran saw the dark shapes of long nails at the tip of each finger. She licked the palm of one hand, and then the other, and reached between her legs with each hand in turn. She began to drum on the domes of the skulls with her cupped hands.
They made a surprising deep, resonant sound, catching vibrations like skins. The drummer settled into a strong, mesmerizing rhythm. The circle of dancers moved, tentatively at first and then more strongly, more passionately.
One of the figures reached up and threw back its hood, releasing pale, flowing hair. In a single sinuous movement, she loosened the white robe and flung it away. Morfran caught his breath at the sight of a white-skinned body, proud breasts, high buttocks and strong legs.
Another hood was flung back, but a clot of grey hair fell out, and as the robe was flung aside Morfran saw leathery wings flex and stretch from the dancer’s back, saw thick membrane attaching arms to trunk and barbed hooks instead of hands. He saw a concave bony chest like that of a starving old man, another clump of dark hair over the sex, and sinewy legs.
The drumming quickened. All the figures now flung back their hoods and threw aside their robes. Flowing hair, buttock, nipple, white skin caught starlight and tree light and the figures were beasts, creatures of nightmare, violent hybrids of wild animals and women.
In the center of the circle another dancer flung aside a robe, revealing a fall of hair, shoulders of marble and milk, taut breasts and below the cup of navel, the body and tail of a snake. She raised her face to the starlit sky, tongue flicking in and out, tasting. She swayed on her coiled body, undulating with the drumbeat.
In another part of the circle a dancer dropped down onto hands and knees with a thick, proud tail, pricked ears, a furred pelt. She — it? — swung around to face Morfran’s hiding place and teeth gleamed in a snarl, blazing eyes reflecting amber light. He looked into wolf eyes in wonder and as it held his gaze it stood on hind legs and he found himself gazing into the amber eyes of a naked woman with silvery dark hair.
He realized then they were all beautiful women. Or they were all fantastic beasts. They danced. The drum beat in his blood, behind his eyes, in his groin, against the soles of his feet. They danced, shifting. He saw tusks, wings, fur, feathers, talons, tails, beaks. He saw hands trailing white sparks like stars, hair, and moonlit flesh.
He stood watching the kaleidoscopic scene as though transfixed. The night seemed infinite, endless, timeless, a deep center of power. His heart pounded and he found himself gasping for air. He felt the way he had that first morning in the sea, utterly overwhelmed and shattered.
Then, without warning, the drumming ceased. The dancers stilled and Morfran saw with dazed eyes each figure was once again robed and hooded. The forest was utterly silent and still. The sky was silver, but not with starlight. Glowing tree trunks faded into pale columns. It was dawn.
“The light returns,” said the drummer quietly, and Morfran remembered again the past night was the longest night of the year. A new cycle was beginning.
The hag stood, skulls tucked under her arm. Hairs on her chin snarled with hairs in her nose in a sticky curdle. She climbed over the edge of what looked like a gigantic iron cauldron, dropping the skulls with a clatter and taking up a thick rod as tall as herself with a round knobbed end. She gave a sound or word of command and the cauldron rose through the tree tops. The sky turned silvery pink with the coming sun. The chicken-legged hut stood some way away in the trees. The old woman flew over it and tore the new morning with her terrible scream.
“Come!” she commanded, and the chicken legs turned and carried the hut out of sight, following her. The sound of her harsh cackle died away.
Morfran, directing his attention back to the dancers, watched each take from dawn shadows a birch twig broom and sweep the clearing of every trace of their presence. When they finished, the winter carpet of leaves, twigs and damp hollows looked untouched and undisturbed. They left the clearing and made their way between the trees, moving wearily now. Morfran followed at a distance, though he was certain they knew of his presence. He’d made eye contact with more than one during the night’s dancing. He familiar shape of the bathhouse came into view.
This time the door was unlocked. The dancers filed in, the last one leaving the door open. Hesitantly, he stepped in behind them, accepting the implied invitation. One by one, they took off their robes, which Morfran now saw, by the light of a glowing skull, were made of fine white linen, and left them in a crumpled pile on the bench in the anteroom. The stove radiated heat. Morfran shut the outside door and removed his own clothing. He realized he was cold.
The last figure disappeared into the sauna room and shut the door. Morfran stood alone outside it, wondering what he would find inside. It was hard to be confident without his clothes on, but his concept of nakedness had become confused during the night. He felt he’d seen far more than bare skin beneath the dancers’ robes. Or fur. Or feathers or scales… He shook his head and pushed the door open.
The sauna was filled with bodies. After a moment, he realized there were in fact only three others in the small room, with himself a fourth, but it was enough to make him feel trapped and claustrophobic. He felt relieved to see only the human bodies of women. As he stepped in, their eyes fixed on him and he met their gaze, one at a time, with what courage he could summon. Although they didn’t shape shift, their eyes shifted from human eyes to the fierce gaze of a bird from one, the flat slit eyes of a reptile in another, and what was surely the amber gaze of a wolf in the third.
“It’s forbidden to watch the Rusalka dance,” said the one with wolf eyes.
“The Firebird showed me the way,” he replied calmly. “My name is Morfran.”
“You followed the Firebird and now you follow us back here, in spite of what you’ve seen tonight?”
He felt sweat on his face. He sat down heavily on a wooden shelf, feeling the strength suddenly go out of his legs. He was surprised to find himself weeping. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful,” he said unsteadily. “I’ve never seen anything so real.”
There was silence.
“If the Firebird showed him the way, does Ba…” began one of the others.
“Be silent!” said the wolf-eyed woman. “Morfran, you must leave this place.”
Morfran looked up, ready to protest.
“No,” she said more gently. “I only mean you must eat and rest now. We need time to talk among ourselves, and we’re weary too and want to finish our ritual. It may be you’ll persuade yourself this was a dream or decide you don’t want anything to do, after all, with such mystery and uncanniness.
“No,” said Morfran shaking his head. “I won’t forget. I want to see you… all again. I want to learn from you how to find myself.”
“Treasure…” said the bird-eyed woman quietly, as though to herself. She possessed the round golden eyes of an owl and hair so fair it seemed more silver than blonde. She watched Morfran intently.
“Yes!” he said to her. “To see clearly everything that I am, to accept everything I can be and live from that wholeness — that’s the only treasure for me. You… you know how to do this, how to dance in the different aspects of yourselves. Teach me to know myself! Please!”
The woman with owl eyes smiled but the wolf-eyed woman said sharply, “Morfran, I don’t think you know what you ask! Few are able to accept everything they are. It’s a practice without end, do you understand? We’re guardians of the wild and handmaidens to great power, not teachers! You never should have witnessed our dance. I can’t understand…”
“I’ll take him back across the threshold,” said the owl-eyed woman gently. The situation will become clearer to us after we’ve rested. Come, Morfran.”
Morfran rose to his feet and took her extended hand in his. He walked with her into the room with the plunge pool. He had a confused impression of other figures in and around the pool, including one with tusks and the small vicious eyes of a wild boar. Then he dove after the silver-haired dancer, cold water embracing him, and he watched, in a shower of golden light, her legs become a tail. Effortlessly, he shifted his shape into the skin and scales of the merfolk, and they rose to the surface together. They were alone. Her eyes, human eyes now but still golden, widened with shock. He grinned.
“I, too, wear different shapes. My grandparents were sea people.”
“We’re kin to the sea folk!”
“Then you and I are kin as well.”
They pulled themselves out of the pool.
“There are parts of this I don’t understand,” she said, “but I’m glad you’ve come.” She gestured at the closed door of the sauna. “This is the world you left last night. Rest and eat. I’ll see you again.” She turned in a graceful movement and dove. He saw the flick of a silver and green tail and she was gone.
Outside the sun rose and the longest night was over. Morfran walked wearily and thoughtfully through the woods to Timor’s hut. He found the woodcutter sitting at the table drinking tea. He eyed Morfran silently as he entered. Morfran smiled at him without speaking.
“Sleep,” Timor said briefly, and shrugged into his coat, picked up his axe and left. Morfran devoured half a loaf, chewed on some dried meat, drank a cup of tea and slept.
“On the firsst short day of the new ssycle, bare branchess and birch trunkss mingle with golden wing beat and a shower of glowing ssparkss,” murmured Mirmir.
“The day after our birthday,” said the Hanged Man, “my brother and I. You’ll tell about our birthday, won’t you?”
Mirmir undulated with amusement. “Yess. In due time. Let otherss have a turn.”
“Very funny,” said the Hanged Man. He gave Mirmir a cold look. “I didn’t say our birthday was the most important.”
“On the firsst short day of the new ssycle, an old one-eyed woodcutter wieldss his axe, hanging his shapeless wolfsskin coat on a branch when the ssun reachess itss low apex and throwss shadowss across the winter foresst floor.”
“On the first short day of the new cycle, a little house on chicken legs stands quietly within a palisade of bones. Two round-topped windows on either side of the door are shaded and dark.”
“On the first short day of the new cycle, Morfran sleeps on a wolfskin, wrapped in a blanket, and in his dreams Creirwy comes to him, laughing, arms filled with glowing flowers of red, orange and yellow, and the flowers became feathers and the Firebird flies up out of her arms in joyful flame. She spins in a circle, laughing, watching it fly up into the sky, and Morfran laughs with her. She turns to give him a shining look, and her arms, flung wide, become jeweled wings, lifting her after the Firebird, her long golden tail feathers sweeping the air, the sound of her laughter still ringing.”
“On the first short day of the new cycle, the dancing guardians of rye, poppies and birch forest eat and drink and rest, comb out their hair, embroider new white linen robes with red thread and talk. Sometimes the conversation is the playful giggling of children, and sometimes it’s the serious, wise talk of women and sometimes it’s the hoarse, bawdy talk of old grandmothers. Sometimes too it’s growl of wolf, night shriek of owl, hiss of snake, or grunt of boar.”
“At the end of the first short day of the new cycle, night returns, spreading its skirts over the birch forest, bringing the dark in which miracles happen. In and out of the long folds of night flies a hideous old woman of primordial power, Baba Yaga, hag, witch, carrion eater, blood drinker, mother of all.”
“Tell more about Morfran,” said the Hanged Man. “I wish I’d known him. Dar was fond of him. What happens to Morfran?”
Morfran awakened when Timor returned. Together they mended the fire and prepared an evening meal. After he’d eaten, Morfran put on his coat and departed into the night. The bathhouse door was locked. He turned the key in the lock and as he entered a skull sitting on the bench in the anteroom blazed into golden life.
Carefully, without haste, Morfran prepared for the ritual of cleansing. He fed the stove, adjusting the air so it burned steadily but not too hot. He hung his clothes neatly on a peg over the watching skull. He filled the bucket from the plunge pool, drinking deeply and setting it ready near the stove. He lay down, luxuriating in the heat, stretching his arms over his head, allowing the muscles in his hip to relax. After a time, he rose and splashed the hot stones with water. Steam filled the wooden room. He breathed deeply, feeling moisture on his hair and skin, drawing it into his lungs. He closed his eyes and let his mind drift. He remembered shapes he’d worn. He thought of Bald Tegid, the creature Bluebeard with his terrible emptiness, Dar, Marceau, and Timor, one-eyed and taciturn. He thought of stories he’d heard and told. Members of his family took shape before his mind’s eye as he lay in the steam. In each figure and face was something of himself, looking back at him.
He tensed and his breathing tightened and became shallow. Deliberately, he relaxed again. Yes. Even Bluebeard… filled with such terrible hunger, wouldn’t Morfran long for relief, for food, too? Wouldn’t he hunt for what he needed? Wasn’t he capable of lust and greed? He was a young man. He didn’t know what choices lay ahead, what feelings, what tests of strength and wisdom, what shapes. He didn’t know what he might become.
He’d felt content with a solitary life until he met Juliana. Now his body hungered. He hungered for another, a companion, a mate. Could he offer love to another? Could he offer it to himself? Was he worthy of love — all that he could be? Could a woman love a twisted man who harbored such a solitary soul, who was black crow, fishtailed merman, and who knew what else? He didn’t know. He didn’t know.
He rose, feeling lightheaded. He drank from the bucket and entered the plunge pool. Icy water refreshed his overheated body and cleared his head. He submerged himself, bobbed back up to tread water slowly, letting air bubble through his nose. Another glowing skull watched him from a corner, grinning a golden grin.
He pulled himself out and returned to the sauna. Gradually, he sank below his thoughts into a deeper, stiller place. Twice more he visited the plunge pool.
He was lying in the steam, deeply relaxed and more asleep than awake, when he smelled the fresh astringency of birch oil and felt a touch on his bare hip. He rolled onto his side and saw the dim shape of a woman in the steam. Moisture gleamed along curve of breast and thigh.
She started to massage his hip with strong fingers. “You’ve a twisted hip. Always? Or were you hurt?”
“I was born with it,” he replied.
“Does it pain you?”
“You’re young. You’re not a large man. You’re dark haired and olive-skinned and your hip is twisted. You’re a shapeshifter.” Her fingers pressed deeply into the muscle of his buttock. “What else are you?”
“I’m a crow, a carrion eater.”
“Crows are gossips with harsh tongues.”
He laughed. “They are! But I’m better at seeing than talking.”
She worked on the back of his thigh now, fingers kneading. He tried to relax beneath her touch, but he began to feel the tension of arousal.
“You said you were of the sea.”
“Yes. I was orphaned as an infant and raised by a foster family. I went south to search for my mother’s family and found my grandfather, who is of the merfolk, a King of the Sea. My mother was a mermaid and my father the son of a selchie.”
“Word came to us from your grandfather. He’s a respected elder of that tribe and he asked us to look for you. He calls you a seeker and says the Firebird is your guide.”
“He thought I should search for the bird here.”
“There are many stories behind this. You’ll tell them one day. For this night, what else are you?”
“Out of necessity, justice or lust?”
“Out of justice, I think. At least, that’s what I call it. Not lust. I didn’t enjoy the act.”
“So now, a harsh-tongued gossip who sees, a man of the sea and a murderer?”
Morfran winced. “Yes. All that.”
“Very well. I’m Sofiya. I’m of the Rusalka, nature spirits who guard field and forest. I’m a solitary huntress. With talons and beak, I rend flesh and spill blood. The Rusalka are kin to the merfolk and water is our threshold between one world and another, one shape and another. In winter, we live in water, but in spring we resume our human shape and come out into the birch forest, guarding fields, gathering seeds of poppy and grain, weaving fine white linen and embroidering it with red thread. We serve Baba Yaga, she of ends and beginnings. Now we know more about each other. Will you come into the pool with me and reveal yourself further?”
For answer he sat up. The smell of birch oil lay heavy in steamy air. He was erect, and his body throbbed where she’d massaged. He followed her, appreciating the delicate landscape of her spine dipping into strong buttocks. Hair flowed over her shoulders, fair and silvery. She dove into the pool, he just behind her so the sound of his splash mingled with hers. They shifted seamlessly into the tails of sea people. Facing one another, they rose and sank with effortless thrusts of their tails. Her hair floated around her head. Her breasts were proud and high and her golden eyes glowed into his.
He reached out and touched the indentation of her waist, feeling the swell where flesh became scales. She laid the palm of her right hand in the hollow beneath his left shoulder, above his heart. Her hand was warm. He shuddered at her touch and shifted into a fish. She smiled as he swam about her, circling her body, exploring with his eyes. She hung in the water, patient under his scrutiny. He shifted back into tailed form, rising behind her. He didn’t touch her but floated, suspended, feeling her close. The back of her neck was slender. Her hair touched his face gently. He was fully aroused and took care not to press himself against her.
He thought suddenly of his grandmother and knew how his grandfather must have felt, seeing her Viking beauty, the green earthy fire of her, and without thought he shifted for the first time into seal shape. Now he did touch Sofiya, rubbing his soft shoulder against her as he circled. They sank together. Her eyes were wide with wonder and she pressed her hands against his body, caressing velvety fur. He looked at her out of melting dark eyes, stiff whiskers scratching as he pressed his muzzle into her palm. He nipped the mound of flesh below her thumb gently and flowed up against her, pressing himself against her breasts and belly, nuzzling her neck and ear. She clasped him with both arms. Slowly, they rose to the pool’s surface.
Morfran shifted back into his own shape, feeling her tail move against his legs. “I’ve never worn that shape before,” he said in wonder.
She let her arms fall but he didn’t move away from her.
“Fly with me one night, Sofiya,” he whispered.
“Yes. But this night, swim with me.” Together, they sank again into the pool’s depths.