Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Love at the Roots

It is said there is no greater love than a mother's for her child. This is sadly not always the case, but fortunately in this wild and dangerous world most mothers will fight for their child. Sometimes even after death so I am told.

It seems that many centuries ago, there was a man who married a very beautiful and gentle woman. He was often called a 'handsome devil' but the poor woman did not fully understand what that meant until she was already married. He took her away to his house on the moors with fine words and such very genteel manners. The woman did not greatly like the house on the moors. It was isolated and the moors seemed endless and bleak. If life is hard, the moors seemed to want to make that especially clear. The man kept her well enough to begin with. He bought her beautiful clothes and left her alone until he wanted her. Very quickly she began to realise that he wanted her merely to obey him rather than to love him. When she disobeyed him in the very slightest way, he beat her terribly.

Her will was soon silent in her, all her vivacity laid to rest until she became a kind of tensed automaton. She lived in constant terror that she might make a mistake and that he would beat her to death. She saw too that she could not escape him. The moors were too empty and too dangerous to leave the house and walk away, which she would have to do. She was cut off from the rest of the world. But, being a woman she was not without a deep core of strength and a will to survive. If the will to enjoy life had apparently been crushed, her survival instincts flared up in her with the intensity of a star.

Before long, she found herself pregnant and her husband insisted the baby should be a boy to inherit his wealth. The poor wife dared not say anything, for she wanted her child only to be healthy and happy - boy or girl. Nor did she see anything wrong with the baby being a girl, though she knew her husband was like to beat her if it was.

Now one day in the winter, her husband must leave her to conduct business in the town some ten miles distant. He left her alone in the house, sure that she would not wander off unless she wished to die. She had wished it in those moments when she despaired of her life, but somehow she would not let herself die. She lived in spite of her cruel husband and being pregnant, she lived for the welfare of her child.

The winds howled about the house and silently the snow fell blanketing the moors, the garden and the big house. The woman put logs on the fire and threw some of her husband's brandy on them to start a fire in the grate. For a while she sat staring into the flames as if hypnotised. After a while, in her reverie she began to sing a song her mother had taught her when she was a child.

                                The snow shall fall, but do not sleep
                                So silent and so still.
                                The Winter King shall take you up
                                And with his kindness kill.
                                His touch is cold, his icy kiss
                                He means to love, your face caress;
                                But we are mere flesh and he is cold
                                As night sky and deep sea.
                                Like these he is eternal old
                                His love too cold for me.

                                Then let the snow fall, but stay by the fire
                                Flame-flickering and so warm.
                                Respect the mighty Winter King
                                Though his love is not for we.                               

So she sang, her voice delicate and sad. She drew her shawl about her and placed her hands upon her swollen belly. When she had finished her song she remembered her mother and she wept. She wished her mother there beside her to advise and protect her. All the sorrows of her poor and painful marriage rose up in her and her tears fell hot and heavy. As heavy as her heart.

Outside, against the frosted windows, the snow felt her song and sorrows. It thawed a little at the heat of them and the Winter King was aware of his name having been uttered. In a swirl of rising snow he strode across the moors until he stood by the house and listened silently. The memory of that song drifted through the snow until he heard and felt it in the icy fastness of his own cold heart. His heart melted a little in sympathy with the wife but he turned and departed deep in thought.

The following day the roads were impassable, the snow lay deep and crisp and smoothly over the earth and all upon it. Despite this, an old woman knocked at the door of the house. Her dress was brown as a horse chestnut with traces of mossy green. She had a grey apron and a green headscarf. On her feet were a pair of red shoes as red as holly berries. The wife was amazed to see such an old woman outdoors on such a bitterly cold day.

"Please do come in mistress," she said, "My husband will be back when the roads are clear and will no doubt beat me, but 'til then come in and warm yourself."

The old woman thanked her and begged her pardon but would she have any food. The wife, glad to have such kind company bid the old woman sit by the fire.

"I shall fetch you what food I may," she said.

She filled a large dish with bread, cheese and cold chicken. There was a pudding in the pantry cupboard and cream. Her husband kept only fine silver platters and gilded cutlery, so the wife served her elderly guest on these. The old woman thanked her and reaching into her bodice drew out a letter for the wife.

"From your mother my dear," the old woman said between mouthfuls.

The wife put the letter aside and served the old woman making her comfortable and talking all the while. The old woman was clearly very hungry, for she ate everything and more. She drank all the wine and the young wife let her, knowing she would likely be beaten to death when her husband arrived.

The young wife read the letter with one hand on her heart. She recognised her mother's handwriting and the tone of her voice in the words. It gave her comfort and hope. When she had read it, she placed it inside her own bodice next to her heart. After a little while, the old woman began to sing a song the wife had not heard before and she fell into a deep sleep.
When she awoke the fire had gone out and the old woman was nowhere to be found. The dishes were all clean and in their place. The wineglass too and, there was no sign of the old woman having eaten so much as a breadcrumb.

The wife busied herself rekindling the fire and halfway through, her waters broke and she fell upon the sofa groaning and struggling to breathe. Almost immediately the door of the house opened and her mother entered, coming into the large drawing room and assisting her daughter in delivering to the uncaring world a delicate little baby girl. The wife wept, both for joy at her precious little girl and at the thought of her callous husband. The baby was wrapped in the wife's shawl and put into an armchair, while the wife's mother efficiently looked after her daughter and made her comfortable.

Now the snow began to melt and a song was heard softly about the house as if everything in creation were celebrating the birth of the baby girl.

"She shall be called Bella for she is as beautiful as her mother," the young wife's mother said cradling the baby.

Tiny Bella silently gazed into her grandmother's green eyes as if she were trying to figure out what was what. Grandmother (as she now was) put Bella into her mother's arms and kissed her gently.

"Fear nothing my sweetest heart," Grandmother murmured.

Then she left her daughter and the house. At the end of that week, the young wife noticed a fine beech tree growing beside the house. When the wind blew she was almost sure she could hear her mother singing to her. On the Saturday a young gentleman rode up to the house with sad news. It seemed that her mother had died some three weeks ago. Then who was the woman who delivered me of my baby, the wife wondered?

The gentleman stayed at the house for two days explaining to the widow the legalities of her mother's will. All that time the wife knew her husband was returning and she was half glad when the young gentleman had gone. She put the baby into the nursery and cared for the tiny thing, soothing Bella when she cried, loving her daughter deeper than she had ever know love.

All that time she kept her mother's letter inside her bodice, dreading the moment when her husband should return. It was not long that she heard a horse on the road and gazing out of the window she saw her husband riding at full pelt. A flicker of fear rose up in her. Then she took a deep breath and went down to the hallway.

The minutes seemed to stretch interminably but very soon the door was flung open and her husband strode into the hall. Seeing her so calm roused his anger and he raised his riding crop to strike her. He saw it fall across her face, yet she did not move at all and there was no mark to show his viciousness. He roared and came at her, throwing his fist at her belly, but a voice whispered about him and he fell with a cry to the floor. The wife frowned, not understanding, then she walked away to her baby.

There was a strange kind of peace at first. The husband did not know what had happened, only that he had been prevented from hurting his wife. He ate and drank - and drank until he was furious with wine. He sprang up the stairs to his wife's chamber and came upon her feeding the precious child. If he could not strike his wife he would strike the child and dashing forwards he raised his fist to strike the delicate little baby. To his shock, his wife swept the child aside and his momentum carried him past her through the nursery window. He fell into the branches of the beech. The branches seemed to move quickly so that he was snapped in two.

So the young mother who protected her baby was protected by the tree that had been her mother once. For a mother will protect her child no matter what. Even after death. For the love for her child is at the roots of her being.


Moonroot said...

Lovely stuff!
I am currently reading a collection of short stories by Susanna Clarke (The Ladies of Grace Adieu), and this reminds me of it... Are you a Susanna Clarke fan, Griffin?

Griffin said...

I am. I liked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell, but The Ladies of Grace Adieu was fabulous too. Most of all, I love folk tales with their flavour of dark woods and dangerous creatures.

It was the Russian folktale Vasilisa the Beautiful/Fair that made me fall in love with stories. My mum read it to me when I was little and I've never forgotten it.

I do like short stories too - a lot!

Hope you are well in this apparent summer...of rain and sun!

Moonroot said...

I love Vasalisa too! I attended a fabulous workshop based on the tale last year.

I've only just come across Susanna Clarke so not yet got to 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell' but it's definitely now on my reading list.

madameshawshank said...

G as happy as a lark that from the imagination of the textile artist...oh why didn't I write down the name!!!! that imagination touched your imagination...let the bells of storyland ring out...the storyteller is back!!!!