Saturday, 2 February 2013

A Tale by the Fireside

In the festivals of the Pagan Wheel of the Year, the 1st of February marks the beginning of Spring, known as Imbolc. Here is a meditative piece written for Imbolc.

A Tale by the Fireside
The Clan in the Cave
The fire burns brightly in the mouth of the cave. Inside, I see the clan, in animal furs, huddled together for warmth, as the hail strikes harshly against the granite cliff face. Cold winds blow into the cave, but close to the heat, the wood crackling and sparking, the flames burning brightly.
Hunger gnaws at their bellies, but it will soon be sated; the smell of roast mammoth makes their mouths water; soon enough, taken from the spit, it is torn by stone knife, and passed around, hand to hand. Eyes shine beneath each heavy Neanderthal brow as the meat is ravenously devoured. The children look on with anticipation, and eagerly take the meat as their mothers pass it to them, and soon all are eating hungrily.
The hunt began days ago, and there was an excitement, a thrill in the chase, as they ran alongside the herd, stabbing with short spears, goading the herd into a stampede, until some mammoths came to the cliff tops, and unable to halt their headlong flight, plunged over; their carcasses to be gathered, a source of clothing and food for weeks to come.
This is a harsh life, of bitter climate, of following the herds as the great ice sheets withdraw from the land, and further and further north they travel in search of food. The old and infirm, those who fall injured in the hunt, are left; the tribe cannot carry them, and they remain, left behind, until they give up their spirit to the gods, and their flesh decays, until their bones lie bleached white and weathered on the tundra.
But the days are growing brighter, and already the land extends further to the north; soon they will leave this place and journey further north, across the great river plains, and pass out of memory and sight.
Others will came and take their place within the cave, but they will be a different kind of man, dark skinned, coming from Africa, and also moving north. For tens of thousands of years, they will live alongside their cousins, but then the older race of men will vanish from the land. There is a darkness here, and we do not know what came to pass, but there may be a stain of blood within this prehistory, as one kind of man fought against his cousins; at the end of this time, they are no more.
And the lands will warm, and the seas will rise, the great plains will be flooded, and become seas; the tides will rise, stealing forests from the shores, until they come in crashing against the granite rocks beneath the cave mouth. But all this is yet to come, and the cave will keep its secrets for over a hundred thousand years.
Marching, marching, marching over land
Now the tribe halts, coming to a stand
Find the cave mouth, settle there a while
Mammoth bones make a steady pile
Marching, marching, marching over land
Out from cave, and down to beach and sand
Eating the limpets, taken from the shore
Empty shells just fall upon the floor
Marching, marching, marching over land
Then our leader raises up his hand
There are people, strange of form and face
Are they friendly, men of other race
Marching, marching, marching over land
Now the tribe halts, coming to a stand
Lost in shadows, only bones remain
Echoes, parting, never seen again
Smoke came from the chimney stack of the small cottage on the cliff top. It was cold, and the old woman had lit a fire. Earlier in the day, a great cloak around her, she had been outside, gathering firewood for the rest of the winter. Now she was in the warm, a green shawl wrapped around her, looking out of the window, her staff left leaning against the wall. A large crow flew overhead, carrying sticks in her beak.
The wind was rising, and sleet hit the window pane; it was a foul day, and as she looked down on the beach, the waves crashed on the rocks, spray rising high. The sky was dark, heavy with storm clouds. The kettle began to whistle.
She filled the iron tub with hot water from the kettle, and with soap, began to wash her woollen cloak, her great plaid. Outside, she could hear the roar of the tempest, as the storm broke, and the waves crashed down with thunder on the craggy rocks below. In the bay, the currents swirled around, and a spiral funnel of water rose up out of the sea, curling and twisting through the air.
She listened to the wind; it whistled through the rocks, through the fractured cave below, and she heard the voices, coming up from the cracks in time. They would sing of winter, of the hunting of the mammoth. The great elders of the tribe would take bones and cast them to make magic.
The voices would fade softly away to whispers, speaking softly of the sunwards trek, the return of the light, and hinting of the promise of spring. And the wind would calm, the tornado would vanish as swiftly as it had come, and the storm would be over.
The cloak was drying before the fire. As she brewed a herbal drink, the old woman reflected on the day. It had been foul weather, but that meant the winter would be short. Every day, the darkness would retreat, and the light would shine ever more brightly, and soon the green blade would rise again.
Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Though the storm has broken, with its heavy rain
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Past time remembered, of peoples now unseen
Hunting they went out, there the mammoth slain
Old lady listening, where their bones have lain
Crows flying overhead, branches in their beak
Here are signs and wonders, Cailleach do seek
When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain,
Wash away our troubles, when she brings the rain
Dark though the land is, here her hand is seen
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
The Eternal Now
Triangle fitted to triangle, and the welding torch spat sparks as they were joined together. It had been a concept, an idea, that had come to him, unbidden, as he walked along the beach, and looked at the far cliffs.
It began years ago, when the archaeologists had first explored the cave mouth. A granite cave on a rocky headland did not seem promising at first, but as they dug deeper inside the cave, there buried deep was the story of the past. Here was the graveyard of debris, of teeth lost to old age to decay, of flint hand axes, limpet shells, of the bones of the woolly mammoth that had been hunted so very long ago.
The cave dwellers looked out at a vast cold prairie frequented by herds of woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros, and made fires to combat the glacial cold. Eventually they abandoned the site during the coldest, glacial phases, when much of the land was frozen.
Now it was there, on the podium, the finished creation, the realisation of a story told long ago; it would be but a footnote in history, a metal frame of the mammoth, shining in steel, reflecting an ancient world, so very different from our own. The voices had spoken to him across the millennia, and he had tried to capture this with his vision.
It was a bleak cold day, as he trudged back across the beach. But every winter has its spring; in ages past, the ice had retreated, receding northwards; the present day, cold though it was, would see the cycle of the seasons, as winter turned again to spring.
And as he looked towards the distant cliff tops, he could see a small shape, perhaps an old woman in a dark cloak, raising her hand in greeting. The sun was coming out from behind the clouds, and the land was slowly warming once more. Spring was coming, and soon the green blade would rise again.

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