the woman

once there was a woman who lived alone

in a small beach hut painted black and blue and gold by the previous occupant
somewhere in the east where the tall cliffs are danced all day and all night
by a fierce, singing wind from the boreal regions,
and where the north sea looms heavy and glittering
beneath flashes of sunshine, racing clouds
arcing silver moons, and stars.

through spring, summer, autumn and winter, sea storms would tug at the hut’s tightly-nailed boards
and the waves would throw a crust of salt over its windows.
but inside, the fire would always glow, and the woman’s hut was always warm.

the woman did not know her age
though she guessed it was roughly between 36 and 52.

the woman did not know her name
though she imagined it was somewhere close to frida, or annwen, or cat.

one thing she did know
was that she was the daughter of travelling salesman
who (she reasoned) had misplaced her en route to the north country
and by the time he returned (if he ever had)
she had long since scarpered.

her hair was knotted and her face was lined. she wore a rough woollen dress, and saggy poly-cotton longjohns pinched, years ago, from the market in the town.

the woman had no friends
beside a mangey old dog
she’d named yaga
when it came to her door one very wild and windy morning
asking for a biscuit.

after a while, yaga came most mornings.
if the woman had a biscuit, she would give it to the dog. if she had none
yaga would yawn
curl on the hearth rug, and sleep
while the woman went about her day.

the woman did have
one other friend
and that was the fire.

each day she would keep the fire low while she went out seeking for wood to feed it.
at night, she would talk to the fire, and it would warm her hut, her kettle, and a bath to ease her bones.

one evening, the sun was going down behind the little hut, and the dark of a new night was seeping in through the salty windows, and the ever-present wind was singing its dusk song (for the wind was like a choir and would change its song at the turning of the hours and seasons and moons).

the woman was stoking up the fire just as she always did when the light began to fade. as she threw in one by one the odd twigs and branches she had gathered, she sang a low, murmuring prayer.

glowing embers
burning bright
take the gifts
i bring tonight.

send up flames
to light my home
to warm my tea
and ease my bones.

and she crouched down low and blew into the embers and the fire roared up with bright, crackling, hot new flames.

at this, yaga the dog rose from the hearth, as she did each evening. she stretched her legs and her back, and yawned loudly. the woman noticed, and rose to hold open the door of the hut. at the threshold the dog paused to sniff the wind. she turned her head and looked at the woman, and then the fire. the woman nodded. and so the old dog wandered out into the gloaming.

just then a loud, whistling burst of wind snatched the door from the woman’s hand and slammed it shut with a loud cracking sound.

when she turned back to the room, she saw that the fire had gone out. not a spark, not a glowing ember remained – only a whisp of smoke, vanishing into the air
and a song vanishing with it.

have you any dream to tell?

the woman did not understand. she crouched on the hearthrug, blowing onto the cold lumps of charred wood in the hearth.

the storm was getting up.
wind whipped the house
salt spray spattered onto the windows.
the woman shivered. the sun was all but gone
and the room was dark with no fire to light it.

have you any dream to tell?
she heard the voice again.

the woman took a long breath.

last night i dreamed i was my father,
she said to the hearth, after a moment.

then she said
i sold my daughter.

the empty hearth replied
for this dream, you must go to the forest and find a fallen branch of an old oak, with lungwort lichen growing. bring me this branch and i shall burn again for you.

the woman got to her feet. without the fire she could not light her torch, so she pulled a moth-eaten blanket around her shoulders and hurried out into the dark night.

the forest was a long way north, along the cliffs.
the song of the wind that night was a wild storm song.
the wind was fierce and it buffered her
first this way and then that
the north sea spray stung her face and ran
salty into her eyes and lips
the sea was like a giant animal
climbing the cliffs
she wrapped her blanket tighter around her and hurried on.

when she reached the place where the forest began, she found a coven of wizened hawthorn
bent double and beckoning. she ducked
between their branches
and felt the wind ease off
just a little.

she asked them
wise hawthorn, where will i find an old oak, with lungwort growing?

the smallest of the old bent trees creaked and the woman heard it point into the darkness, and she nodded, and hurried on.

it was so very dark.
the kind of deep, black dark that sent her eyes into shock
as though they were ringing with it
desperately seeking
yet seeing nothing.
and even though here in the depth of the forest she was sheltered
and the wind could not throw her around
the forest canopy roared and swayed
so it was like she was in a cave of endless stormsong. she stumbled on
one hand holding her blanket, the other groping in the darkness.

she felt the leathery smooth of beech, the hard wrinkles of sweet chestnut and the peeling paper of silver birch. above, she felt an owl lift hugely and noiselessly from its watching place. below, she felt the stretching of roots reaching downwards against the wind.

at last she came upon a grove of oaks. they were so old they had whiskers
knots and wounds
and as she stroked their lined and sinewed limbs
she found leafy lungwort.

but they were also strong
and had seen storms far worse than this.

the woman crawled on her knees, feeling every inch of the dark forest floor
yet not a single fallen branch could she find.

she peered up into the darkness, up into the branches she could not see, but could hear and smell and taste and feel all around her.
dearest oak, won’t you give up one small limb for me, for my fire has gone out, and it is dark and i am cold,
she implored the trees.

nothing came.

wondering what to do, she hitched up her skirt, pulled down her longjohns, and squatted low to piss on the soft mulch of dead leaves, listening to the roar of the wind far above. as her piss pooled on the forest floor, then vanished into the compost, she heard a creak..then another.. then a crack, and a thud, right beside her.

she reached out a hand and found the branch
brushed its fleshy wet foliage
against her lip
tucked it into her longjohns
and hurried for home.

at least she reached the door of her house, threw it open and fell out of the wind, in onto the hearthrug.

here, my friend,
she said to the empty fire.
here. i have brought you this oak and lungwort.

and with both hands she placed the branch onto the grate.

the wind-song began to change. now it was like a lament, heavy, rolling, and full of grief. she heard a soft crackle. very slowly, very very slowly, a small, green flame began to lick like a tongue from under the branch. very slowly, the flame grew, until it danced all along the small piece of wood. the walls of the hut blazed with the green of it.

another dream.
said the fire.
but the woman was asleep.