I.Tales of Wood and Iron
The house was built of whole trees
notched into a daub and wattle frame,
eaves thatched, a hearth of creek stone
dressed to keep a fire.
Latin the old tribe left
remained long after their departure
south across the mountains, settled now
to place names and the skills of making walls
and a straight road deep into the forest.
A thousand years passing − herbs
once cultivated for a cure
grew wild beyond the old enclosures.
Near a tumbled brick course he gathered
chervil, rocket, the clove-scented pinks
craved by his wife these many months,
heavy and heavier still and soon the child.
Beyond the rubble boundary
thick with tansy and succulent rapunzel,
he sensed the old woman suddenly beside him,
knew her names, Artificer, Blood-Bake, Time Wheel,
no warning but her smell
and he felt his choices fade.
She wore a beaded cap stuck with feathers,
a cloak the colour of shadows.
She said that place was hers forever,
from the world’s dark heart
to the blind blink of heaven.
For his trespass, one life was forfeit.
She fixed him with a sign.
He told her all.
When he returned home he kept quiet,
but his wife saw through him, was afraid,
and wished he had not come back, there
to the house where fear was the first-born.
In the upstairs room a window
framed with coppice hazel, a film
of pig’s bladder stretched over – no other light
but candles by the rope-slung bed
and his wife exhausted with the birth.
Still blood-soak on the straw
when a filthy wind roared through the cracks,
blew the window from its leather hinges.
The man leaned out into the night,
shouldered back the gale
but could not stop the gaps nor the wind’s hands,
shouting to his wife the child the child.
When she looked where the babe had been
she saw a dead cat tucked stiff as toenails.
The wind dropped
and the man heard the sound
that rose in his wife’s throat, and the room
was filled with the sound, and his mind,
and his heart was filled.
Time passed without destination
and the child grew, secret in the stone surroundings
far from festivals or trade.
The old woman called her Herb Child, Tender Leaf,
a hundred pet names of taste and scent.
Days were whispers, and the girl’s hips
widened womanly, between her legs
a neat tuck of silky muff.
The old woman felt the blood banging
and the weather turn − dragged the girl
naked, deeper still into the forest
to a great oak, old before the old tribe left,
now a hollow rising high as a cock’s crow.
Up, up they climbed, to a high room
through a hole of rotted branch, a chamber
the old woman had prepared as a hatred
and a jealousy are prepared.
In the room was a seat of bound bark
and a wheel to sit at spinning.
Her hair was long and grew
like a new sun, and she spun slippers
and a gown from her own hair, head to toe.
Days are paltry things
where divine light blanks the human scale.
Day after day, down the deer path
the old woman came steady as bread,
remorseless as salt, with no word
but of climbing and hauling.
One day, looking up to the heavy height,
she called, Iron-Hair, Sable-Soft, oblige:
from the treetop, a ladder of bright ropes tumbled
to the ground.
The old woman
stepped into the mane of braids, uplifted…
Beyond a twist of briars, a young lord
rested in a clearing’s shade, the crake voice
drifting through to find him −
Iron-Hair Sable-Soft oblige
Watching the old woman
raised high through branches,
watched her leave −
he calls the name of mink and metal,
rises into the leafy canopy,
eyes meeting eyes soft as a dressed pelt,
a figure cat-slinky, languid as the moon.
If there was time it passed, root-gnarl time.
The old woman came, stood calling,
Flame-Heart, oblige, then caught the man-scent,
buckskin sweat and the spilled seed,
drew the knife ready.
She entered like a shadow, wild look
this way and that way… where where…
The girl touched her belly’s own sweet swell,
heard the whispered, One life is forfeit,
and with one quick cut
the world fell free.
Even then his voice below,
the old woman turning to it, winding the hacked hair
on a snag, let it tumble, felt the weight of it,
felt the man’s weight heaved.
She lunged as the face appeared, the blade
slicing as she fell, his eyes in blood,
still sight enough to see the hagheap
On the ladder of her own hair
the girl climbed down into the light,
gathered comfrey and witch hazel
and with the loosed braids
bound them in a poultice to the prince’s wounds.
The old woman’s corpse lay where it fell.
With a yank on the chin hair
the girl stuffed an acorn down its throat.
South beyond the mountains
she gave birth in the prince’s lands,
and there were many years and many children
and in time the prince became king.
Across his eyes the knife cut scarred
crooked as a deer path.
Each night she walked it in her dreams,
to the wood’s great sink of rotted stump
where she stood, anchored in oak shade
deeper than the world’s dark heart, older
than the cold, blind blink of heaven.