Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bridget’s Mantle and the dogs

My throat is tight from unshed tears. Something is stuck. I want to keen and howl into cold frosty air. I want my voice to bounce against the wind and be tossed away, allowing me to yell some more.

I planned to go to a high place and do this. One week after my father died and at the time he died, this felt the right thing to do. Believing it would be quiet and peaceful, my companion and I decided to go to dog doodie hill in Oxleas Wood.

What a surprise to find when I tumbled out of bed and stumped around my garden first thing to sink into soft, crisp snow! Bridget’s Mantle, like a silent white blanket had fallen across the world in the night. I stood under my Rowan Tree breathing in the sharp morning air. The snow a soft and compassionate silence.

The real implications of the weather only hit me when I skidded across the wet tiles at Charing Cross and heard my train draw out. I’d been trapped underground by delays caused by frozen points. Bang went the synchronicity of doing a working at the exact time my father died. By the time I got on a train, I was going to be an hour late. The Cailleach was having a laugh – as she is sometimes won’t to do.

The woods were beautiful. The air brisk and sharp, the snow crackling and squeaking underfoot as we made our way through heavily laden trees. And so did half the young men and their dogs of South London, all with their sledges or tea trays, bent on a morning's tobogganing down the steeply sloping runs between the trees. Like two old witches, we pulled up our black hoods and sat down on a log to work.

I called the spirits of the land. Birds began to gather on the branches around us, calling to each other brightly. The wind nudged the heavy trees and the snow groaned and grumbled as it slowly melted in the rising temperature.

I was in a cave, a dark and warm cave, with a fire. It crackled and spat, but quietly as though content and at ease. In the corner something shifted and moved.

As though from a long way, I heard a voice calling “Jack, Jaaaack”. My heart jumped – this was my father’s chosen name.

I was back in the clearing, on my log. The voice was still calling “Jack, Jaaaack, c’mon boy” and I realised that Jack was a dog.

Then I heard him, running across the snow, panting and exuberant. He tore around us, circling and exploring the space. Determinedly, he charged the steep bank behind us, but it was too much for him, for he was an old dog. Skittering and slithering, he slid back, tried again, dogged as only dogs are. His owner appearing, my companion pointed out the easier route and off man and old black Labrador went.

I returned to my reverie, conscious of the still singing birds and the distant barks of dogs, the shouts of their owners and boys on home-made toboggans. It was dark, the trees made a cave embracing the clearing. There was a bright fire and shifting shadows. What was in the shadows? I couldn’t tell.

Suddenly the peace was shattered by the sound of dog paws on packed snow. An excited, panting dog hurtled across the clearing with a joyful velocity. He shot through the alter, knocking a candle over as he headed towards me. Nose thrusting at my outstretched welcoming hand, he nudged me casually, turned to follow his tail and was gone.

I was back with the fire in the clearing – or was it a high cave? The movement in the shadows still caught my attention, but I just couldn’t make it out.

My companion quietly began to speak. She spoke about this being a time to let go, to release, to cut loose. And as she spoke, the tears began to fall and I wept with childish desolation as I cast away the pain of family bonds broken by death and the unconscious or unvoiced fears with every seed I threw onto the ground.

Softly, we made our affirmations to the listening wood. Huddled against the sharpening wind, I tried to catch and lay to rest the unfathomable complexity of feelings and family ties, resolving to find compassion in emotional disassociation, and felt better.

We opened the circle. I stiffly rose and walked carefully across the clearing. The hill rose sharply on one side and dropped steeply away on the other. For a reason I did not understand, I chose to walk up the hill backwards and soon found myself lying on my back laughing. The snow was wetter than I remembered it being and I was glad to head towards warmth and food, soon after.

Snowy woods, tobogganing young men and excitable dogs frolicking under the high winter sky, it’s like a children’s story of long ago. A children’s story that it is exhilarating to enact, but as good to witness second hand in the cosiness of a firelit room.

I remember a cole fire, crackling and snapping like the snow in the clearing. In my minds eye, I see my father bending to tend the fire, reflected in the night dark window that I press my nose to, trying to see the snow outside.

He is gone, that time is gone. I am no longer a child. I have lived more years than I have left (unless I live to be 102!). Now it’s time to grow up. Now it’s time to be compassionate in my disassociation as I return albeit reluctantly to the family to lay my father’s body in the earth.


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