A Journey With Blackbirdowl

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The slumbering worm

Sunday December 21, 2008:

“Deep down in the mud of the riverbed
The great worm sleeps, the great worm sleeps.
Beyond the round curve of the turning earth,
The gold dawn glows and the great worm stirs.

Fooled by the seemingly balmy early morning breeze I am tempted to leave the house without my hat. Standing on the riverbank at Wapping, a short while after, I begin to regret its absence.

The river is high. It gurgles and ripples as it moves busily along; slaps firmly against concrete docks and wooden pilings. Brisk little waves fling themselves purposefully on to the tiny fringe of shingle at the bottom of the steps. It whines and hums as it rushes under the platform upon which we stand. At the end of the longest night we are waiting beside the river for the light to return.

I lean over the balustrade and listen to the river singing. For once, its voice drowns the hum of the never-sleeping city. Only the early peon of a sea-gull penetrates the rush. From time to time, something plops and splashes.

I breathe deeply the slightly salty dank river smell. The rhythm of the river rocks me as I stand quietly listening and waiting.

Oh how cold the water is! My skin retreats closer to my bones as her ice-cold embrace knocks my breath from me. The grey-green silvery river is opaque and churning.

My tail flicks. Hair brushes across my face as I swim deeper. Above me, the surface of the river is silver green like a water-colour paint wash. I gaze up at the reflection of the shadow of the dark clouds against the greying sky with the moon floating in and out. From the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of green-brown eyes in a pale pointed face watching me, her mud-coloured hair streaming around her shoulders.

Under the water, great shadows shift and move. The mud-brown sand is rippled, dotted with darker jagged rocks and littered with the discarded human detritus of a city river. And there in front of me, a huge dark shape lies across my path. Cautiously, I approach for I have a feeling that whatever it is, I need to take care.

The light shifts and I see a great head, long-snouted and horned, with a huge slit mouth and bulging closed eyes. It lies peacefully resting that great head on a great gnarled claw. I see the torso of an enormous snake, scaly and ridged. My eyes follow the length of the body into the darkness beyond and back to the head. The serpent is seemingly sleeping like a baby!

And as this fact dawns on me, I feel the river pushing me inexorably towards the great beast. Any moment now and we will collide. I put out my hands to try to slow my progress but the river has another idea.

I gaze at that magnificent head. Great bubbles float up from its horny nostrils, it is still asleep. The river nudges me forward and I cannon into the great scaly flank. I close my eyes and hold my breath but nothing happens. It hasn’t stirred.

The scales are scratchy but not uncomfortable. I settle down to wait, leaning against the great body. And the shining water sky darkens. I sleep, the worm sleeps, the river dances about us.

I am rocked by the slightly moving flank as the great beast draws breath. I dream of being cradled gently in fierce sharp claws, protected and sheltered.

Something is different. The water feels warmer, the dark is thinner. I feel a change in the movement of the great side against which I lean. I open my eyes and see that the bubbles are moving faster. The snake is twitching, his eyelids faintly flickering.

I push off from against his torso and swim round to the great head. One great dark eye opens and fixes me with a bleary stare. I bow low and the eye closes again. Taking this as my dismissal, I raise my arms and kick off from the sandy bottom and begin to float back up to the silver grey surface.

Above, the sky in the east has pinked. The slightest flecks of gold dance on the water. Beneath me, I see the great dark shadow stretching and sliding away as he moves slowly out to sea.

I want to dance, oh how I want to dance! So I do. I spin round and round. Catching the mood, my companion joins in and soon, we are twirling and waiving our arms like operatic antennae, for somehow, we’ve got talking about cockroaches and decided to dance a cockroach dance. I think this is to encourage them to go away, but I can’t be sure – it might just be for the hell of dancing like a cockroach!

Whatever, it is solstice and we sing:

“Light is returning,
Although it seems the darkest hour.
Nothing can hold back the dawn.”

A varied flock of birds hoot, quack and peon their greeting to the returning light and I remember that I heard a blackbird singing in a tree by the Prospect of Whitby where I had rendezvoused with my companion some time earlier.

“Celebrate the birth of the sun
Light the way O Lucina.
Dance around on Sabbath morn,
Blessed be the greet mother.”

My companion and I sing, still twirling. Beneath our feet the river dances too. Happily it slaps against the man made constraints as though to say “I’m going to dance with you no matter what you do!” Way over in the far east the sky pinks and guilds as the earth turns.

Watching with the witch tree

Thursday December 18, 2008:

Elder is a shrub or small tree. She loves to grow wild and is found in gardens and hedgerows across the country. ledgand has it that the elder Mother dwells in the tree and that witches would turn themselves into elder trees.

The elder has many healing properties and is known as the queen of herbs. She is a diuretic, is good for chest complaints, is a mild sedative, eases inflammation, relieves pain and cools fevers. Her ruling planet is Venus. She is a feminine tree with powers of protection, healing, prosperity, exorcism, regeneration and the cauldron of rebirth. She is associated with the element of earth and the time around Samhain and the winter solstice. It is always wise to ask the permission of the Elder Mother before working with the tree.

Almost without notice, the elder tree in my front garden has grown as tall as the house. Its many trunks rise from a swollen bulb, reaching out and up, fingers twisting and pointing, stretching out to meet the sun, watching over all who walk up the garden path as though assessing their suitability.

The year has turned to its darkest and coldest, it is Elder time, the time of the crone, the ancient one, most often symbolised by the twisted and squat tree, sitting in the tangle of the hedge. This one stands against the boundary fence, reaching branches out over the pavement and up to the second floor windows.

Early in the morning, I creep out into my front garden and stand beneath the Elder. The tree watches me come. Aware of her presence always, it is the first time in years that I‘ve got up close and personal with her.

I am surprised at how big she’s grown, how her papery bark is soft like an old person’s skin and how pleasing she is to touch and admire with her unsymmetrical yet ordered trunks. I stand and feast my fingers and breathe in the chill pre dawn air, sweet with the winter’s night fragrance of the dusty, wet and softly rotting leaves.

In the night, the wind has turned. Gone is the bitter north east wind; a soft moist south-westerly breathes gently on my cheek. I inhale the somnolent rhythm of the sleeping street beyond the hedge.

All is quiet. The rhythm of the city rumbles distantly. Within the enclosing hedge and the tangled branches of the tree under which I stand, all is velvet quiet.

I stand with her on the crest of a rolling green hill. Below me, a river murmurs in the valley bottom. Neat hedges divide the meadows as they spread beyond and behind me. Nothing stirs in the greying dawn light.

Nearby, a car door slams. Someone stumps flat footed across the pavement, a key scrapes in a lock, and a door opens and closes with a snap. I breathe the night in and all is quiet.

The cave is deep and dark. Her gnarled roots its roof, disorganised clumps of bony fingers holding back the heavy earth. I kneel on the soft damp earth and peer at an orange glow in the corner of the cave. As my eyes focus, I see a twisted shadow figure passing across it as though bending to tend a fire. I move closer.

She sits by the fire, leaning across and poking it into life. I kneel at her feet and watch her lined face, her rough cheeks, and the dark hollows in which eyes gleam beneath brows furrowed with concentration. Her skin is like the bark of the tree and I want to touch it but don’t dare. I curl up at her feet.

My fingers stroke the papery bark. I lean against the tree and breathe her mustiness into me with deep long slow breaths. I feel her watching me as I stand against her, unable to move, not wanting to move, at rest for ever right now in this moment.

My fingers find the hollow of a cut off trunk, its dry roundness inside perfect. I weave my arms in and around the trunks. They lean against me insubstantial as a frail old lady. But yet, this tree is firm, alive and upright, its branches and beyond them its twigs determinedly set. I feel her watchful presence as I lean against her.

I kneel at her base. My fingers touch something smooth and hard. Fingers prize it from the soft soil in which it is half sunk. I stroke away the cloying rich damp earth and discover a humble slate roof tile and am delighted to find it in tact.

A car purrs by, tyres shush on the dry tarmac and along the street a robin bursts suddenly into song and then as suddenly stops.
Time is moving on, I think and quietly bow to her. It is such a shame that she gets so little attention because she is in the front garden. I know and want to come to her more often but am afraid to be seen. It’s not enough to sneak out in the dark. Pondering what I can do about this, I turn and move carefully across the garden and back to the house.

Later, I place the slate on the new alter under the hornbeam. I get the sense that the old-lady-tenacity of the elder tree will help the spirit of the hornbeam, should he have to leave his tree. I pick up a fat round stone I use a lot in rituals from the garden alter under the rowan tree. I carry it out to the elder tree. I set it down on the trunk and beside it; place a cheerful looking witch toy which I feel somehow that the elder tree will enjoy.

Every time I walk past her now, I bow surreptitiously. I sneak out and add other offerings as they come to me. A piece of heather tied with a red ribbon hangs from a trunk. I wrap gold tinsel around her trunks in honour of the returning sun. Tiptoeing across the garden with yet another offering, I wonder if anyone else will notice and know that they probably won’t. And I bow to her and thank her for guarding my home for the last 22 years.