I am so grateful to the women who held me this winter in my writing, and I hope to honour them by sharing it with you now.
Enjoy my season-inspired story series: Winter’s Over.
(all mushrooms drawn by me)
Silence is Also a Sound
I plod through deep, wet snow, the air all around me silent, somehow falling, the impossible quiet of winter only broken by the fear that bites into me like cold frost on my fingertips.
My heartbeat is so loud in my ears that I’m certain every predator for miles – man or beast – can hear it pulse, pounding out a rhythm that says I AM AFRAID.
Against the silence even the tramp of my foot packing slush becomes too-large—ultra-audible. Obvious.
Stupid prey animal, I think.
Snow falls but does not muffle my paranoia. I can see through the trees, and then I can’t. Think I hear a snap, but I don’t. Sound plays tricks on my ears and I’m not sure anymore how far I am from home.
I ask myself as I’ve asked many times to breathe. Breathe. To pull air into the corners of my lungs where it doesn’t seem to fill anymore. I beg the cold to cool the rush, my legs still pumping, worried that if I stop,
surely some beast will find me
sinking claw or tooth deep into the nape of my neck,
erasing me in seconds in fur and blood and silence.
I exhale. Small bursts of heat wash over my face, fogging the glasses I rely on to see in the white trudge all around.
Hints of stale coffee and blueberry tart on the air, and then I’m pulling in again, desperate for the crisp, empty cold to fill me once more. I’m thirsty for it, but each breath feels like the last before drowning.
Shhhh, I say to soothe me. There’s nothing out there. Don’t be afraid.
My heart starts to slow as my steps do. I stop in my tracks and watch the icy pacts of the last person here fill with snow. There are no human prints leading out of this place, only in. All else is just me and the quiet, falling, clinging to the earth.
I strain to listen for any sound. I see white and hear nothing. For endless miles ahead and behind, nothing. Just trees and snow and trees and snow.
Just trees and snow, trees and snow until I, too, am nothing but silence calling:
Trees and snow, trees and snow.
Then, it all fills in again. A landscape built of ONE, unfamiliar sound. A single rush made up of many.
At first, I can’t be sure it is not from within me, so close it seems. I am alone and yet it crawls to fill me; a sound-something that is only almost silence. A frost-whip before the snap.
I feel relief flood and whisper: Go ahead. Go ahead.
…and then, looking up at an impossible grey sky filled with smoke I see her: a great old huntress. A world-raven—the air so cold with ice beneath her wings that like a call across water I can hear her in my ear as if she brushed me cheek to feather. It is a sound that cuts through everything, and I feel the ground beneath me, filled with voles and winter-mice, shrink away in fear.
I want to be that sound. I want to be its whisper.
her wing-beats catch air before I watch her disappear, black into dark, snow-soft pine and birch. I can feel her black eyes hot against me. I try to find her, to see where she’s standing but she’s lost to me until her wicked call:
Here she is, the bird laughs.
A woodpecker chuckles.
A bear bristles in its sleep.
And I wonder when I’ll be taken.
Or if I really only came here for the quiet.
It comes to me waking and in dreams: both an image, and a vision. In it I lay down and watch the tilt of the trees turn upward as my head rests to soft earth. Down here it smells sweeter. The soil is rich, fills up my nose, my ears, my mouth. It smells of cranberries rotting in rain. Of egg-shells in the garden. Of crushed wheat-stalks damp underfoot.
I cross my arms against my chest and all I can see is sky. Only sky and the strange stop-motion of the folding; the crawl of mulch and rock and sand across my trunk, my stem, my stomach. It tickles as it consumes, but does not prey; this grave can only cocoon, and is not where I shall sleep forever.
I am quiet as earth enters my blood, my bones, my marrow. It is not heavy, it does not harm. I fold until it is all I’ve ever been, lower and lower into the ground, deep into the dark safety of it: a net that does not catch but cradles. I feel it from the inside, and all around. Like water it laughs. Like a pickpocket it steals me away, spreads me out, travels me along from this place to another…and for a moment it’s as if I can see it all at once. The fullness of it; all our complexity.
I am among them. We are among, and together we hum beneath the surface.
My hands have turned to earth—my wrists, my arms, my elbows. My bones are thick – tough as stone – and soon these fall away, too. It’s always the heart that lasts the longest.
That’s all of me that’s left: calcified, mineral crystals, spawned, piercing through, and growing from and into each other again and again, unnatural, the stalactites sharp, frozen, encasing… These are the meals I could never break down. Marks that I was digesting it all on the inside. I am gone now except this last thing: this pretty, silent, indigestible stone.
I watch as mould scans its vitamin surface. Here, the fear sets in. With no arms, I want to unearth myself, can feel the ghost-scratch of soil beneath fingernails long gone. If any of it comes loose, if a splinter should break, it will poison this place. Poison it with things better left alone.
And still they hum; we hum. We are here, and here, and here. We can carry it, they say.
Coaxing, patient. It all takes time. Millennia. There is no rush to soften, moisten, decompose.
Finally, a shard comes loose. Dulled fear returns full swing as from behind the first bleed, a trickle, a creek of partially digested what-things stems, unrecognizable and ugly. And then more, with forms I do know: the people and places and things I’d hidden, pouring forth and catching up the same earth that holds me dear.
Blood memories swirl and empty veins boil. All the things I struggled to take in – up there, where the wind will sweep you without warning – are here: too close. All around the soil turns black. Empty space penetrates until I cannot see, or smell, or touch…
A single, solitary beat, quickly lost again in silence. In the black chaos of it, a tug. A pull.
Soon, in the endlessness of it, our hum picks up the call.
Rise and fall, big with it, and then small:
Bah-bum, hmmmmm. Bah-bum, hmmmmmm.
Between each beat, something rises: reformed. Black mould turns to green. All of it…digested, digesting…is lost between the folds of stomach lining and acid: is broken down in the belly of the earth.
Still the beating goes on: echoes up through rock and root, displacing the earth that held us. I catch hold of it, let it pull me upward. I split the surface, new fruit. Cut me open to find the meat. Splay me alive, dig out the root, and you’ll find me here once again, far from where I started.
At the end fold me into soil.
I will become the forest you seek.
The Rootless Creatures
So many of the rootless creatures have made their home with me, within me, here and gone in the seconds between seasons, adding weight while I push to the sky, only known by the feel of their bodies against mine—by talon and finger and paw; by the brush of their swift lives against my standstill, the twists of my leaves snapping to fall, the squish of my fruit under numb tongues.
And I ask: how many rings within me? I do not know. Neighbour oak, whose roots are my roots, tells me I will never know. That only the rootless will see when they fell me.
Yes, I may be young, but the rootless are younger. The do not grow as we do. They die long before I can know them. They are unconnected. Untethered. How is it they don’t float away?
Like this one who has come each the last five season-cycles, our skins touching, the stain of my berries on its bark from collection time. I recognize this one. Have felt their weight change and shift and grow, their steps become easier from one branch to the next, their pull more familiar—more knowing.
Hidden in my hair this one likes to stay, and I like to let them. Quiet, so quiet, I forget I am not alone, the small-thing’s stillness playing tricks, so still they could be our-folk. Neighbour oak says the rootless have eyes to see, and I imagine what they must look at; wonder if Oak tells lies, or if he really knows what I will never.
This one likes to go and come back again. Goes and comes back again. Moon-rise down, sun-rise up, always the small weight pulls at my bark until it rises higher than I can, sees what I cannot. I wait. I listen in my way—feel the small wind-echo it makes with its breath, feel the flick of my seedlings spit all the way down.
Oak says they talk to each other this way, but this one doesn’t seem to have anyone to talk to. I wonder if it speaks to me—sometimes I imagine it does and try to answer back through the roots. When I do I feel their weight shift – come closer. Embrace my trunk, feel the wet drops. Only then can I almost hear them, and I answer: you can stay here.
Soon its faint whispers are lost in the world-wind voices that shake us both, swaying. But I like the company. Even though I know one day this one will not come back. They will forget. I will forget. The cold will strip my clothes and the visiting will stop. Others will come and go, will perch and stay and whisper, will eat and take part of me with them. I will grow old. Oak will grow old. We will touch the sky. Our seed-children will sprout around us.
Then one day, so Oak says, I will fall, and they will count my rings. Dig up my roots. Make me into something new.
But that is far away. For now I sit with this one. It will know me, though I cannot return the favour. It will hold on and hide and whisper, then climb down, gripping tight, somehow a little lighter than before.
Big Star breathes in the ever-black;
hunt is on the wild.
Roam-bridges I’ve marked before
at the next pass,
and the next,
the markings always changed,
from star-bite nips,
to run-wind green,
to the bloodcolours in the soft-bark.
Under Big Star I sing, sing, sing,
and listen to where the singing goes into everything.
Hither, hot thingfire,
Kindtime has moved on
And so have the young
We sway our last stand
Watch shrills fly that way
Until the water turns whole
Taking many as we drink
Leaving none left to watch
Knot. Bead. Knot. Bead.
This is the process of connecting a rosary to the cross. A prayer for each bead, and none for the knots.
We have faith they will hold tight; have faith in a knot’s strength, it’s capacity to separate, to keep the bead-prayers from colliding.
But what if we prayed on the knots? What if we spoke to those instead of the beads? What prayers would be said? And to whom would those prayers be sent?
To wizened hands, I think; aged feminine hands with knots of arthritis in the knuckles, tying red-silk-string. Working golden beads until each is strung and stoppered—kept close to their sisters on a single thread.
The voice of those old hands sings a prayer song. Sings of knots until the thread runs out. Prays for more rope, but is grateful for the length given; every mistake speaking of pause, of love, unstrung and retied.
This is the prayer: that knotted string will keep everything in place. Watch and catch and count and pray each knot between fingertips, far beyond what you can see. Far higher than is countable.
Close your eyes. Search for the knots and soothe them. Know they can hold you back, and even tangled can take you aloft. Can bring you to the surface. Can help you climb the rope.
Know that knots are loops made of loops, made of loops. Untied they are all one string. Knots upon knots, tangled and untangled by aged hands.
Then string the beads—whatever they are to you: memories, or hurts, or wishes. String them between the knots and hold them safe. Watch them ravel and spin, and smile.
Count the knots between the beads without looking. Count them out the window onto the knotted earth, the ground folding away from you into the horizon: a knotted sunset.
Feel the arcs they form. The pathways that curve and change and turn.
Take pause on the tightrope, and tie another.
Hear the bead-song and knot silence. The pause before your next breath.
And start the string again.
all stories & photographs copyright Jessica Barratt