The Hanged Man: Part 9: Lughnasadh
Post #96: In which change ...
They lay together in the creaking cart and Mary, half asleep, lulled by the familiar motion, held Lugh tenderly against her shoulder. He slept, curled beside her, while the babes, who invariably woke and began to move as soon as she tried to rest, bulged and rippled under her taut flesh.
Increase and decrease. Increase and decrease. The man, the children, the wheels, the cycle. She remembered her mother-friend, another Mary, saying, “Whatever comes, Molly, dance with it and surrender.” She remembered the old man in his tattered crimson cloak making his way through the dark forest, the trees like pleading distorted hands in the dark. The cart wheels beneath her murmured in Hel’s voice, “Rest now. Rest now. Rest now.” The golden child swung from the Firebird’s feet, disappearing in a blur of glowing feathery light from the rising sun. Sun or son? Green and gold. Milk and honey. Who’d said that? Oh yes, Cassandra had, that day they’d met Rapunzel and her in the market.
Later, she sat with Dar on the seat, leaving Lugh to sleep.
It was the sort of naked day when you could see a long way ahead. There was nothing to stop the searching wind that heralded a change in the weather. The road meandered in front of them, dipping and climbing. Someone was walking on the road ahead. Perhaps they’d welcome a ride. It would be good to find someone else to talk to.
Dar drew Gideon up alongside the walking woman. She looked up at him with a smile and Mary felt Dar stiffen into immobility beside here. The woman and Dar looked at each other with wide eyes.
She recovered first. “This is the first time I’ve had the upper hand with you,” she said with amusement, “and likely the last! How are you, peddler?”
“Get up here, Briar Rose.” he said peremptorily, gesturing to the seat next to him. He clambered down over the wheel as he spoke.
“Charming as ever, I see,” she said. “You already have a passenger.” She smiled at Mary. “Hello. My name is Briar Rose.” Her look sharpened.
“Surely it’s Mary!” she exclaimed.
Mary smiled. “I’m Mary, but I don’t think I know you.”
“We met at Janus House, didn’t we, after the twins…”
Mary put a hand to her bulge. “How did you know? It is twins. But I’ve never heard of Janus House. I had a kind of foster mother called Mary. She had twins before I knew her.”
“It must be that Mary I remember. Of course, you’re too young to be her. I realize that now.”
Dar was standing next to Briar Rose, his face set in a stubborn expression Mary recognized. “I’ll just get into the back,” she said, and slid to the end of the seat.
“You will not! You stay right there!” Briar Rose protested.
“There’s plenty of room for both of you on the bench,” snapped Dar. “Get in.” He gave Briar Rose a forbidding look.
Obligingly, Mary slid to the middle of the seat, making room.
“All right! No, I don’t need help, thank you!” Briar Rose pushed Dar’s arm away and climbed nimbly up to the seat. She held a wrapped bundle in her lap. Dar resumed his seat, took up the reins, and Gideon ambled on, munching a snatched mouthful of grass.
Briar Rose had braided a section of reddish-brown hair, Mary saw, with a rawhide thong. A cream and brown feather waved jauntily from the wrapped end of the braid. Dangling earrings that looked like brass swayed in the woman’s ears.
“What on earth are you doing, out here in the middle of nowhere and alone?” Dar asked, sounding unreasonably irritable, as though the woman had no right to be walking along a road in the middle of a fall day without an escort.
“I might ask you the same.”
“I’m not alone. My brother is in the cart and this is his wife.” He jerked his head towards Mary as he talked across her.
“Don’t mind me,” Mary said to him.
“He was always rude,” Briar Rose said to Mary.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but I’ve been with friends for harvest,” she explained to Dar. “I was ready for some time alone after all the activity. I love this time of year, when you can see the true shape of things, the raw texture. I’m heading home.”
“Where is home?”
“Birch Valley. Do you know it?”
“They’ve a good market. I’ve been there.”
“That’s why I’m there, too — the market.”
“Still working, then?”
“Of course,” she said serenely. “You didn’t expect to find me playing the sleeping princess again, did you?”
“Queen, these days,” he said, with a sidelong mischievous smile.
“You’re looking a little worn yourself, peddler,” she returned. “Is that silver I see in your hair? The crow is getting frosty, isn’t it?”
“It is,” he said ruefully.
“Where are you headed?”
“I’m taking my brother and Mary to… an appointment.”
She glanced sideways at him and smiled at Mary. “Very well, keep your secrets.”
“It’s time for a meal. Will you eat with us? I’d like my brother to meet you. You’ll like him.”
“Of course. See that hill ahead? On the top, there’s a good spot to stop. Some big flattish boulders lie off the road in a clump of oak.”
For a few moments the three remained silent, while Gideon plodded patiently along.
“I never meant to hurt you,” Dar said tentatively.
“Why is it men think that’s a helpful thing to say?” Briar Rose asked. “You might not have meant too, but you didn’t care much if you did.”
“I was young,” he protested.
“Not that young,” she snapped.
He looked chagrined and Mary and Briar Rose both laughed.
“Oh, never mind,” said Briar Rose. “You broke my heart, but I expect it was good for me. You showed me the way out. It was worth getting my heart broken to find a new life. In fact, I’ve felt for a long time I owed you thanks. So, thanks. There — you can pull off there.”
Briar Rose jumped down, gave Mary a strong arm as she climbed awkwardly to the ground, and helped Dar free Gideon to graze. Mary opened the back of the cart and Lugh crawled out, looking sleepy and disheveled.
Dar introduced Lugh and Briar Rose. Mary leaned against a convenient rock face to ease her back and watched Briar Rose and Dar take a blanket and food out of the cart. Briar Rose seemed as familiar with the cart as Mary was herself. She reached in and took Dar’s cloak off the hook, laying it over her arm and examining it in the daylight.
As Lugh and Dar spread the blanket, Mary went to stand with Briar Rose, who was fanning the folds of the cloak with one hand, revealing a swirling pattern of water, fish and birds. She touched the golden feather sewn to the back.
“I’ve seen this before,” she said to Mary. “The first time was years ago, when I was married to a king and first began weaving and a peddler played a bone flute and taught me to dance under a summer moon. The second was when I arrived at Janus House with gifts for newborn twin boys, in the heart of winter, and helped make the same cloak I’d seen in my youth. And here are you, Mary, but not exactly the Mary I met the winter I made the cloak. The Mary I knew had newborn twins, Dar and Lugh …”
“We turn the wheel,” said Mary simply. “Dar and Lugh and I. We keep the deep cycles. We’re increase and decrease.”
“I suppose your Lugh has a crimson cloak,” said Briar Rose.
Briar Rose smoothed the cloak with her hand.
“It reminds me of my weaving. Animal hair, brass charms and a handful of mouse bones on a background of November-colored sky. This is a strange meeting.”
“Yes,” said Mary. “Everything is strange and waning now. I’m glad we met. You remind me the wheel continues to turn.”
Mary lay with her head in Lugh’s lap. He still chewed on a strip of dried meat. Mary noted the thin skin at his temples. He’d eaten more than anyone, but he looked gaunt. His clothes hung loose, as though he’d recently lost weight. He smoothed Mary’s rich hair tenderly.
“You said you weave,” Mary said to Briar Rose. “What do you make?”
“I’m trying to come up with a new word for what I do. It doesn’t fit into any category easily. I make textiles. Weaving is the closest descriptor.”
“You carry some with you, don’t you?” Dar inquired. “On the wagon seat?”
Without waiting for a reply, he stood and fetched her package. Calmly, he unwrapped it. Briar Rose looked annoyed.
“Dar!” said Mary.
“Oh, never mind,” said Briar Rose, resigned. “I know what he’s like. Nosy, bossy, tactless and rude!”
Dar snorted. “I want them to see.”
Briar Rose reached over and pulled the package into her own lap.
She unfolded a length of cloth. The wool was loose woven, heavy, a little oily. The fibers felt coarse. The wool was a neutral, natural color, part sand, part rock, part soil. Swatches of some kind of animal pelt, brown with cinnamon highlights, were woven into it. A small ripple of pierced animal bones wove into the design. A sunburst of long thorns, sharp as needles, made a red brown sun, or a flower, or a spiked wheel. Narrow hollow stems like wood perforated with oval holes finished the edges and made an abstract kind of frame.
“Those are from Cholla cactus,” said Briar Rose as Lugh ran a finger over one of these. “They grow in the desert.”
“It’s amazing,” said Mary, in wonder. She touched a fan of buff feathers with one bright blue one among them.
“Hawk,” I think, said Briar Rose. “And pinon jay.”
“It’s the desert, isn’t it?” asked Lugh.
“Yes,” said Briar Rose. “A long time ago I lived in high desert, and then I spent some time in another desert.”
“I didn’t know that,” said Dar.
“You don’t know everything about me,” she snapped. “Besides, you were too busy being enigmatic and attractive and causing trouble to be much interested in my past!”
Lugh laughed. Dar glared at him. Lugh grinned back.
“Will you tell us about it?” asked Mary, ignoring the men.
“It’s a bit of a story,” warned Briar Rose.
“Perfect. Our favorite thing,” said Mary.
“I want to hear about him,” said Lugh, gesturing with his chin at Dar.
“Shut up,” said Mary to both of them, without much heat.
“When I was a girl I lived in the high desert with my people,” Briar Rose began. Lugh’s caressing hand stilled and Mary lay, curled around her belly, head pillowed on his thigh, lulled already by the approach of a story.
“One fall day I left my village, alone, to glean the last pinon nuts, acorns and berries. We felt winter’s approach, but I felt a different kind of change coming. It made me restless and short-tempered. I was the oldest of five brothers and sisters and it seemed to me a child constantly tugged at my leggings. On this day, I was determined to get away from everyone, be out in the desert alone. My people used a hot spring some miles away, and I wanted to visit it before winter. Searching for food to add to our stores made a good excuse.
I took a path up out of the village and over a sheltering hill, and soon walked on a rolling plateau. I wandered from pinon to scrub oak to berry thicket, filling my baskets. The sun felt warm and the air had a clean edge. Vultures wheeled in the sky in soaring circles. Lizards basked, darting away from my step, invisible until they moved. The harsh call of jays dominated the softer talk of other birds.
I came upon a large, soft pile of bear scat, filled with pinon nuts. The ground was too stony for footprints but I followed scuff marks where the creature had passed. I found a tuft of coarse hair the same color as the hair on my body on a tough branch of scrub oak. I rubbed it between my fingers and sniffed it. In a sandy place in the shade of a rock I found a good print. A rotten tree trunk plainly showed marks of heavy claws. I picked up a piece. It was soft and light, smelling of bear musk and sweet old wood.
I followed the bear toward the spring. I walked quietly, wanting to glimpse it, relishing my freedom. I felt…excited.”
Briar Rose ran her hand over the landscape of her weaving, her face soft with remembering. It wasn’t hard to see the girl she’d been.
Mary, listening, felt her body stir at the unexpected sensuality of the bear, the smell of high desert, the torn-apart tree. Lugh’s thigh felt warm and solid under her cheek.
“Near the spring, the ground fell away into an old river bottom. Cottonwoods like golden smoke grew at the base of the bluffs guarding the spring. Far above the bluffs, vultures floated like black flakes of ash above the warm color of the trees. I still didn’t see the bear, but I knew I wasn’t far behind him.
The bluffs over the spring were pockmarked and carved into strange shapes. In spring and summer thousands of birds nested in them, but in this season, many had gone to their winter quarters. I was close enough to smell the mineral tang of the water. As I walked under the cottonwoods, the pressure of my feet released scent from their fallen leaves.
It’s actually not one spring, but many in that place. There’s a string of pools at the base of the bluff, the water in each different to taste and smell, and also different in temperature.
I set my bundle down in the shade and undressed. For my people, the spring was sacred, and I observed the proper ritual before bathing. I think that’s the most alive I’ve ever felt, naked in the fall sun, the smell of cottonwood leaves and mineral water in my nose. The feeling was beyond any word I can use. I was alive, that’s all. Alive!”
Mary opened her eyes. Dar held his bone flute in his lap, fingering its pierced holes as though practicing a new melody. Briar Rose smiled, deep in memory. In the sunlight, her hair shone with a hint of cinnamon among silver and brown.
“Smooth stones covered the bottom of my favorite pool. The water bubbled up between them. It was hot and I entered gradually, getting used to the temperature. There was a rock ledge along one side. When you sat there, you were up to your neck in water. I leaned my head back and looked up at the sky. It was the color of a clear desert day in fall — a blue like no other blue. A fallen leaf floated on the water. It felt like fingers brushing against my collar bone.
As I lay there relaxing, I felt it again — change. Something exciting. Something different. It felt… I don’t know. Inexorable? And…big. A change that would change everything forever. I wanted it to come closer, but I felt afraid of it, too.
I was drifting with my eyes closed when I smelled him. It made me shudder, that smell. It wasn’t good or bad, but strong, primitive. Other. Male.”
Mary met Briar Rose’s eyes and they smiled at one another in perfect female understanding.
“He was across the pool from me, just sitting, watching me. He was brown and red, the same color as my hair. His front legs were thick, his pelt dusty, and I could see long curved claws. I wasn’t afraid. I wanted, more than anything, to sink my fingers into that coat of coarse, thick hair, to rub my face against it and be surrounded with his smell. I could imagine the texture perfectly, like the hair on my own body. I wanted to show myself to him. I stood up on the ledge, water running down my body, so he could see we were the same color.
He made a soft sound, ‘Whuff,’ and came slowly around the edge of the pool toward me. I knew it was foolish to let him get so close, but I couldn’t help myself. He wasn’t the slightest bit threatening. He seemed as fascinated with me as I was with him.
He came all the way around, slowly, as though not to frighten me. I stepped down into the pool, feeling too exposed, but I moved slowly, too. I didn’t want to frighten him, either. He moved behind me and then I felt fear — or maybe just arousal. My heart began to pound and I trembled. The hair stood up on my arms and the back of my neck. I was afraid to move and terrified not to. I closed my eyes in order to control myself and at once his smell overcame me. I could sense his muzzle, feel his breath a fraction away from the skin of my back and shoulder. I tried not to think of what a powerful bite would do to me. I thought I would fall down if I didn’t sit down, so I sank back onto the ledge. He tasted the scent behind my ear. I felt a tug at my braid and the thong holding it slid away. My hair spread out around me like a cloak, smelling of sweet grass. I wanted him to touch me.
Before I knew what was happening, he shambled into the pool. I felt his pelt brush against me as he slid by. He moved to the other side, dipping his whole head in the water and then lifting it out with a snort, blowing water from his nose.
So, we settled down to share the pool, watching one another, but not watching, too. I even dozed, drifting in the warm water. It was like sharing the sacred spring with a stranger from another tribe, peaceful and friendly. Which, I suppose, is what was happening, now I think of it.
That afternoon is timeless in my memory. We moved from pool to pool, the red bear and I, but eventually the sun weakened and slid down the sky. When I realized the day was ending, I knew I must go back to my village, and my life. It seemed impossible, a remote story about someone else’s life. It felt like clothing long outgrown, too small and restrictive, rubbing in all the wrong places, that life. I didn’t want it. I wanted the change I could feel coming. I felt afraid of it, but I wanted it more than I feared it. It was mine, you understand? It was for me, of me.”
“You wanted what you’re made of,” said Mary. “You didn’t know what you’d do with it, but you needed to discover it.” For a moment, she was a girl on rough shingle along an inlet of frozen sea, listening to Kunik tell a selchie story.
“That’s right,” said Briar Rose.
“The bear clambered out of the last pool and shook himself like a dog. He looked at me, as though inquiring, and I stepped out too, gathering my hair in handfuls and wringing it out. I combed it with my fingers, braided it and found the thong he’d pulled away at the first pool. I dressed and gathered up my belongings while he sat patiently and watched. When I was ready, he turned and made his way parallel to the bluff. I felt drugged with heat and sun, passive and relaxed. Everything became simple. I didn’t think about where we were going. I followed him.
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