The Wind in the Wassail Cup
She closes the heavy door behind him as he stamps the snow from his boots.
“Madam I am most grateful for your charity, though I fear I impose upon you grievously.”
“Oh don’t you go thanking me so, Sir.” The old woman waves a hand towards the rustic wooden chair by the hearth, “Sit you down…sit you down. I’ll draw your boots off for you.”
“No madam, pray leave them be. I’ll offer their soles to the fire for warming. That will suffice, I thank you.”
“Then take a drink Sir, to warm the parts the fire can’t reach.”
“That would be most welcome madam, for ‘tis a bitter wind that would shrive the soul this night.”
She stoops to the fire, and ladles out the steaming liquid from the black iron pot, then hands him the wooden cup, dark and lustrous. He cradles it in his hands to savour the heat, and delights in the wood’s burnished sheen.
“It’s a fine vessel madam; the silver rim is most pretty. From what wood is it turned?”
“Tis lignum Sir. We drink the wassail from it. There’s nothing I find, save the hot spiced apple, for such a night as this.”
“Then it is most welcome, and I thank you again for your kindness.”
“Sir, ‘tis no duty, but a pleasure to assist a gentleman on such a night. For the time’s not long, since any traveller such as yourself would fear to walk these lanes so, with no company for to warn nor save him.”
“Save him madam?”
“From Her Sir.”
“Settle back Sir, and worry not by my words, though by God’s grace I swear them to be true.” She settles, stiffly, into the old chair opposite him, drawing it a little closer to the fire, and wraps her shawl tightly. “It started in the woodland, so they say; one cold winter’s evening, a couple of days before Christmas I understand……”
* * * * *
Bleak and starlit, the woodland stands motionless, its stark branches barely stirring in the moon’s pale glow. Alder and oak, holly and ash, keep silent vigil, a sylvan community upon the ancient hill’s back. And upon the woodland floor lies a mantle of the past season’s leaves, brittle to the tread, their veins etched in silvered frost. From year to year the trees stand sentinel, brother and sister to each other, their ancient hearts pulsing to the season’s rhythms, their outstretched arms sighing in the wind’s embrace. And along the highways and alleys of this timeless place stray the creatures of both night and day. The joyful birds pipe merry tunes, and peer down upon their land-bound cousins, whose daily labours of forage and chase are played out beneath the protective canopy. And here those half spirits of the trees, bushy of tail and russet-furred, frolic and dance; to them the branches seem a wondrous nether-world caught between earth and air.
But this night draws in like no other of the year. It enfolds the woodland in a mantle of deepest shade, through which God’s grace can scarce but pass. And on this night, alone of all others, an awakening of sorts brings with it fear and trepidation. Songs cease, night calls no longer stray from timorous throats. The very ground within which some root, upon which others roam, seems to shrink and fracture, as though some devil drives a wedge through the fissures of the woodland’s soul.
And so she comes, this pale wraith, moving without sound, disturbing neither air nor leaf, leaving no imprint upon the blighted earth. No soul of substance is she, but a cruel manifestation upon the mind of man and beast, whose deathly pallor strikes sore at the most steadfast heart. The earth around her, though frosted yet, creeps over with deathly pallor, a deep encrustation of frozen breath, exhaled from the darkest spirit.
God’s creatures shrink from view, and turn their heads in fear. The badger, deep in her set, shudders. Even the lustrous leaves of holly, impervious to winter’s chill embrace, wither on the branch. The roaming fox stops in his tracks and whines. The poor stricken creature’s fur bristles; he knows not what she wants, but freezes in terror, dumb to her meaning though not to her purpose. He understands nothing of her ominous greeting, nor how he should respond, but quakes there upon the ground. She stoops before him and surveys his face with unseeing eyes. Cowed, the poor creature pines for cover, and dare not look upon her face.
“Waes haell” she breathes, the words lost to the frozen air; and damns those that do not respond, to a purgatory of despair.
She passes through the woodland to the barren fields beyond. The dry stone walls that bound them, their tops soft-laden with snow, give way to the sunken holloway. Down it she passes, along the ancient track, deep down towards the village. Above her the branches meet and mingle, and roof her silent passage; a wooded cloister of cruel despair. Behind her the woodland sighs at her passing, and dreads the night to come.
The village lies, deep-valed, upon a turn in the road, surveyed from the hill by the squat-towered church. Scarcely twelve cottages line the track, their thatch weighed heavy with snow, their chimneys sending scant plumes of smoke into the frosted sky. Each in turn bears upon its door those tokens that will ward off spirits of the night. For in their hearts each villager holds unspoken fears, and harbours hope in such homespun lore.
From door to door she makes her deathly progress, challenging those within to speak the words. And should they fail, they know full well the consequence, and would rather die than contemplate it. In time her cruel breath marks every door, the withering cold encrusted upon each board and iron stud. All save one, that is. And so to the last cottage she moves.
Inside, with St. Thomas’s Day now almost done, all stands in readiness for the celebration of Christmas. The lusty fire burns well in the hearth, and sweet smelling herbs hang nearby to dry. The woman of the house makes busy with the spit, and roasts upon it a meagre ham. Her husband is not yet returned from market, her daughter lies asleep upstairs. She turns the crank one more time, and spoons hot fat upon the sizzling joint. Little she knows what stands before her door.
Thus far, all, save dog or goose, have found the words to save their souls, and cower yet in their humble homes. Scant satisfaction the wraith takes from this, and seeks her grim vengeance still. With cruel intent she insinuates cold fingers through the crack in the iron-hard boards of the door, like slim shards of glass, gathered up from the pond’s frozen skin.
With a carved spoon the woman bastes the ham once more, then takes the iron and pokes the logs. The fire fails to draw, and wilts in fading shades of blue. A cold shiver strokes her back as she turns her gaze to the door. In terror she stumbles back and tips the pan, which crashes to the hearth, spilling sizzling grease upon the stone.
“Be gone!” she cries, to no avail, as forward still the pale shade moves.
“Waes haell” the cursed wretch exhales, and fixes her with eyes long dead.
A creak upon the stair draws both their gaze, and the woman’s heart fails upon the sight. Stepping down, the little girl knows no fear, but only fascination and wonder. She knows the tale full well, but bears no ill will in her young heart. Often her mother has taught her the response that will save their souls. As she walks slowly to the door, her mother earnestly entreats her to stay, but on she moves, closer and closer yet. With her small palm pressed against the door, she summons the words, and delivers them boldly.
“Drinc Haell” she says. And yet the kindness in her heart stirs her further, and she whispers a heartfelt “And bless you, keep you safe this night.”
At once the flames leap high within the grate. Beyond the door a wondrous moan cleaves the night, as the frozen wind draws all ill-will unto itself. Unaccustomed to such grace and favour, the wraith whirls in pitiful confusion, and dissipates with a heartfelt sigh into the frozen north wind; her bitter soul at last finds peace.
For many years the marvellous tale passes from house to house, village to village; from mother to daughter, and father to son. And when the young girl grows, and bears a daughter of her own, the tale is told once more. And on St. Thomas’s evening, when the wind tries the windows and doors once more, the child runs to her mother in great fear. A soothing hand strokes her hair, and comforting arms enclose her.
“Worry not little one, she means no harm, ‘tis but the wind in the wassail cup.”
* * * * *
He clutches the lignum cup tightly in both hands, drawing comfort from its reassuring warmth, then drains the remaining liquid in a single draught.
“But who was she” he says, “this pitiful spirit?”
“A young maid of the village Sir, out a-wassailing that night. She walked into the woodland and faded from God’s earth. They never found her, poor soul.”
“And the bold little girl….what of her?”
“My mother Sir, bless her heart.”
“And did the spirit ever return?”
“Not since that day Sir, for she found peace it would seem.”
He smiles uneasily as a log shifts in the fire, sending a dancing shower of sparks up the chimney. As the keen wind tests the ancient hinges, he looks over his shoulder anxiously, towards the door.
The old woman marks his concern, and reaches out a hand. “Have no fear Sir” she says, “…tis but the wind in the wassail cup.”
Outside the creeping frost advances inexorably over the meagre threshold and up the broad planks of the door, like frozen lichen upon the fallen log. The encrustation of ice, in myriad crystals, enfolds the door, and spreads slowly across the low stone lintel.
“Waes haell” the cruel wind whispers, as one frozen finger cleaves the narrow crack.
Copyright © Steven Hobbs 2016. All rights reserved.
The Clays of Ur
The bright silvered prow is surging, foaming; parting the wine-dark sea.
Cradled in the mother’s embrace of oiled wood and iron nail, these men pull on long-shafted oars towards the shimmering horizon – the kishar. There, stretched tight as the sun-dried skin, the city calls them from their wanderings. Long days and longer nights, torn ragged by the vengeful Ishkur, their journey is at an end. They bring oil and silver, spices and slaves. They carry too news of distant lands, whose sands and dust anoint their hair, whose women sing sorrowful laments of loss.
The city draws them into the enfolding heart of the harbour. Above it rises the great ziggurat, stepped heavenwards towards the moon. King Ur-Nammu laid its foundations and built it high. His son, the great king Shulgi, raised it higher still, in bitumen and brick, a towering jewel raised upon the city’s grateful brow.
Far below, with ropes secured against the greedy tide they step from ship to shore, and spill out their precious cargo upon the quay. Beyond them the river pours forth its votive gifts to its father the endless sea; carrying fish and fowl, and fertile silt from the mountains and plains of the distant north.
Up-stream it flows a sinuous path between broad banks of rush and willow, whose leaves bear the sighs of the sun-scorched wind. Upon its banks lithe men swarm, as termites from the nest, ankle deep in rich red clay. Naked to the wind and sun they toil, smeared thickly in the river’s gift, skin caked and cracked like the potter’s hand. Scooped up, dripping, they pack the clay into waiting sleds, slapped flat, glistening and wet. Up the banks and towards the city the asses draw the sleds; draw them to those whose thirst for clay is never slaked, the scribes.
One man stands for a moment and stretches his weary arms towards the gods. Then dropping them down he shakes the clinging clay from his hands, and flings it free. The narrow band, reed-woven, slips from his wrist and falls to the river. The samgi gifted it the night they stole an hour, and now the grateful river claims it and carries it, swirling, upon its reflective skin.
As the noble Euphrates bears its precious gift downstream, evening drapes her dark mantle upon the land. The rising moon, crescent-horned and waxing, scatters silvered motes upon the glistening clay, and looks down in wonder as the muddy surface shifts. Up it rises, up and gently writhing; the wet bank churning, birthing. She rises water-slick and shimmering, fashioned of clay from the earth’s deep crucible.
With parted lips she draws a fragrant draught and breaths in the aromatic scent of thyme and rose, of river and of mud. And as she turns to where the sun must rise, the city bathes in filtered silver light, and settles to slumber until the dawn. With eyes of burning embers she looks down upon her nakedness and sees the slick clay slip, over shoulders, breasts, her belly and her legs. There she stands, cleansed and purified; wide-eyed and fearful. Above her the blushing moon turns its face in shame.
Along the bank she strides, through swathes of sword-leaved rushes, standing tall, unmoved by her passing. The soft ground bears no imprint of her feet, nor feels her tread. On she walks, her skin caressed by the cool night-wind, delighting in its emboldened touch, its delicate kiss.
Across the muted green and golden vista she walks, through fields of ripened grain, woven through with glittering threads of waterway, fringed by date palms, willows and alders; through fallow fields cropped by flocks of full-fleeced sheep and herds of cattle grazing.
Where once grass grew high on the highways of the land, before the coming of the great King, now she walks upon the hardened earth, carriage rutted and parched. This road stretching to Nippur and beyond; this highway upon which King Shulgi ran from city to city, and back again, “as if it were only the distance of a double-hour.” She thinks upon his noble claim. “So that my name should be established for distant days … so that my praise should be spread throughout the Land.”
Earthly King she thinks, false God! For I could run twelve times your span, in the passing of your first slow step. She looks down to her feet, unblemished by dust or stone, then raises the fire of her eyes to the looming city.
The majestic gate rises before her, high towered and richly tiled. As the bronze-strapped gates part at her coming the winged bulls raise their bearded heads in homage, and bid her pass. She walks naked amongst the guards, each alert to the night-time’s wiles, and goes unseen yet scented. Each raises his head and drinks heartily of the beguiling essence, and thinks it a waking dream.
Through streets and courtyards she passes, a silent shade. And all around her the city’s people sleep, and sense less of her passing than they do the blood that courses through their veins.
With a glance up to the towering shrine of Nannar, the moon god’s house, set high upon the ziggurat’s crest, she enters the temple grounds. Over shaded walks and scented paths she passes, past fountains and shallow pools. Carved walls tell tales of men’s victories and glory, of other men’s shame and death. Tall palms reach through courtyard roofs towards the stars. The panoply of Gods looks down.
She climbs the forbidden stairs, each step a sacrilege. Her womanliness, her nakedness, suffers the walls to tremble at her coming, like the quaking earth’s tremors when the gods make war. And on she climbs, ever upwards, to where he waits.
Through doors closed and barred she passes, the incense-laden air unmoved. He stands before the altar, bronze vessel held high, eyes closed. And fear claims him; fear draws a cold wet finger down his spine, and fans the hairs that rise.
“Who enters this sacred place?”
She moves closer, though he sees her not.
He senses her, but knows it cannot be. Wine and incense draw forth visions, though not so worldly, nor so portentous. The way is barred, he knows full well. This cannot be he thinks.
“Who are you woman?” He turns to see an empty room.
“Search within yourself Eulli, you know me well.”
His soul trembles as he moves towards the table. He thrusts a shaking hand into the wide bowl and takes a fist of shimim, then hurls the offering, the mashdaria, into the brazier’s living flame. The sparks burst and rise like golden fronds of palm, and cast flickering shadows across the walls. His shadow stands alone.
“Fire purge you demon!” he cries.
She rises from the flames, fully formed in terrible beauty. As the smoke and sparks die she stands shimmering before him. In one hand rests a small clay tablet, in the other a fine reed stylus. Though his sacred office forbids it, he looks shamefully upon her dreadful splendour and wonders at the sight.
She moves yet, ever forwards, this fearful apparition in clinging beaded gossamer of wine-stained purple. Her aromatic skin is slick with shimsusa, her eyes kohl rimmed, her oiled hair as night-dark as the moonless sky. Around her neck she wears a necklace of carnelian and lapis, with liquid ringing bells of gold. Her breasts are scattered with flecks of purest gold. Her fingers deep-dipped in myrrh.
“You dress as a gashan demon, yet you hold the clay and stylus?”
“The clay is my mother. The stylus is my voice.”
She steps towards him.
“You know you will die for this girl. Are you a samgi?”
She gazes into his eyes. “I am no slave.”
“Then show me your hands.”
She stretches out slim arms of golden bronze, and turns her palms upwards to the stars. Her narrow fingers drip sweet essences in perfect pools upon the stones. He stoops to look, and trembles, as she closes her fingers around the tablet, enfolding it in her grip. The liquid clay oozes between her fingers and drops to the polished floor. With finger and thumb she holds the stylus high; he looks on in awe as it crumbles to fine dust. He steps back in fear as she spreads her fingers wide and reveals her palms. Spotless as the sun-bleached shroud; he sees no clay, no stain.
“Who are you woman?”
“I am Ninshuel…”
“I am the writing hand, the guardian of knowledge. I am born in namkuzu’s fond embrace. I am the tale on the tongue, and the thought from the heart. I am the mother of cities and empires, of wisdom and of trade. I forge the links of nations. I lay the law. I preserve the eternal tongue.”
He casts out his hands before his face. “Woman…I know you not.”
“Then false you are; and blind to me. Tear the shades from your eyes, foolish man, and see! For the tale of the Great Flood is mine. I wrote the deeds of Gods and men, of Enki’s shaming by Inanna’s charms, of the heroes Lugalbanda and Gilgamesh, and of earthly Kings and Lords.”
“No….no. It cannot be!”
“Do not deny me man! Your scribes fashion no tablet, nor hold no stylus without my guiding hand. I am within you, and around you. I cloth you and nurture you. I gift to you your living days.”
Again she holds out her hand, and upon it forms the virgin clay once more. With dexterity and grace she shapes it, flattens it, rounds its corners and marks its side. Then with stylus newly-formed she inscribes a verse of beguiling beauty, in a script unsurpassed for refinement and poise. It tells of the secrets of the stars, of the purity of the moon. It shapes both love and learning in its verse. It intoxicates, seduces, and binds the heart and eye.
She holds it out before him and he marvels at the elegance of her hand, the subtlety of her verse. In awe and reverence he looks into her eyes, and sees lit deep within them the flaming script, like the flakes of fire within the opal. In the left he reads erish, in the right he reads uanna.
“Who are you?” he says again in wonder.
“I am Zimu.”
He looks to the inscribed tablet once more, and tears flow, full-flooded down his cheek.
“Erish….girin….hili.” He sinks to his knees, his arms outstretched before him; his palms, his forehead pressed to the cool stone floor. “Uanna. Zimu. My breath of life, light of the heavens.”
His mind reels as all around him moons rise and sands shift. Silken waters cover the earth, and withdraw in mists of perfumed bliss. Upon the mountain man stands and surveys his realm; walks down to golden plains and claims them for his own. He builds many cities. He fights many wars. He rules and raises, he commands and destroys. And yet his tongue lies parched within his mouth, and no-one knows the passing of his greatness. His cries fade in the wind, and with them his coming and his time. Sons bear scant remembrance of their fathers. Greatness dissolves into the miasma of myth. Things pass, and are no more.
And then she rises amongst them, and binds the mysteries of this world. Hers is the unifying hand, hers is the lasting word. She holds wisdom in her grip, and scatters it across nations. She writes the deeds of Kings, and the mysteries of the Gods. Speechless mouths speak clear and loud. Dry clay contains all understanding
As he raises his eyes she fades beyond all comprehension. He stands and turns, his urgent eyes searching the room. “Lady” he cries, yet knows that she has gone. He runs his trembling fingers through his oil-dark beard, and feels the cool essence of her hand hold his pulsing heart in the weighing.
“I am the writing hand” she whispers.
“You are my living soul” he weeps.
Key to Sumerian Words:
Erish queen, lady
Girin pure, spotless
Namkuzu wisdom, cleverness
Samgi slave girl
Shimim aromatic substance
Uanna light of the heavens
Key to Sumerian Names:
Eulli – “the temple into distant days”, i.e. “may the temple last for a very, very long time!” (é “temple” + ul-lí “distant days”)
Ishkur – the storm god
Ninshuel – “queen clean hands” (nin “lady” + su “hand” + el “clean”)
Zimu – “my breath of life” (zi “breath of life” or “soul” + mu “my”)
For Phoebe - Copyright © Steven Hobbs 2015. All rights reserved.
Bird Man Fish
Fugol sits upon the ledge; his clawed feet gripping granite. Secure against the wind’s ravages he perches, jackdaw-black, grey hooded. His blue beaded eye looks blinking down upon the best the ocean can muster. Spray mist drifts high and salts his hard tongue, dusts his lustrous plumage with myriad droplets of finest brine. One flap of his wings and they scatter in a fluttered haze of rainbow light.
Below him the dark rocks stand firmly rooted, relishing the brutal constancy of the tide’s eternal buffeting. Breeding seasons drift back through to the time of man’s coming, and still these dark sentinels stood impervious to the sea’s cruel caress. Stark sarsons, drenched, defiant.
He cranes his neck, and looks up to the verdant fringe that overhangs the cliff-top, trailing tresses of fresh flowered thrift in the heightening breeze. He stretches coal feathered fingers to the restless air, and lets it carry him.
In a broad arc, like the sickle-moon’s crescent, he soars high and back, flexing wing tips to the buoyant draught. High over cliff edge, over valley curve, and down. Down over silvered shimmering of river light, ribboned reflection to his companion sky.
He peers down upon the craft, breaking the stillness of the river’s skin with high thrusting prow and blade swirls bright. He peers down upon the men that stride its broad planks, or sit at long oars, rhythmically straining towards the sea. Then turning west he scents the smoke, and trims his feathered sails to its blue-hazed calling. Over ancient woodland he skims, drifting effortlessly upon the eddies that guide him to the place.
From high soar to low perch he drops. Along the branch he walks, and looks out through spring oak leaves upon the burning thatch below.
Ælfric sits, soul-wracked, upon the ground; his back against the tree, eyes glazed in startled disbelief. The Gods cast down dark deeds upon him this bright day, and test his mettle beyond endurance. This morning his spirit rose with the Sunne, warmed to the stirring beasts, fed meagrely upon the earth’s stored fruit, but now it withers and slumps in bloodied shame. His beard rests upon his chest, matted in the gore of his severed cheek.
Up from the river the northern Gods guided them; led them soundlessly to his land, and spread his all before them for the taking. No trader’s welcome, no barter, no coin. But bright metal a-plenty, wrought sinuously upon buckle and strap-end, upon sword blade and axe. And now all that he reared, all that he grew; all that he treasured and all that he knew; dragged down to the river, and carried away.
Scant life is left to him nonetheless, though not through mercy but through haste. And this renewed gift of life, settled here in filth and pity, hangs heavy on him now. No rowan spirit, no beating oak’s heart can revive him, nor feed him now all is lost. What store he had, in earthen pot or tight-bound leaf, now feeds the appetites of northern men, straining sweat-and-blood-soaked at their oars. What beasts he fed lie slaughtered upon the spray spattered deck. And what remains? An iron skillet and his smouldering home; two harnesses for beasts cut down; no more.
He raises his eyes to the sky and the Gods avert their gaze. Only the piercing stare of the dark bird, this harbinger of doom, looks down upon him from the high branch and wonders.
Hæring glides in silvered shimmer amidst the eddies and currents of the surging sea. With unblinking gaze he scans the rippled sand, and slips silently through swaying kelp and weed. The shoal shifts as one, a single being bound by ties unseen, each to the other, one to another; your thought my thought, your purpose my own.
He shuns the collective course and darts away. Contra current, contra mundum, the golden disk draws up its silver dart. And to her fiery embrace he speeds, upwards, ever up. A rising foil to the plunging gannet, an aqueous arrow launched at the bright Sunne’s heart.
As he breaks free the wave crashes down, and hurls him through the half-sea of spray to the merciless shore. On the shifting shingle he lies and chokes on his first breath of waterless air. With his last glimpse upon the living world he thinks upon the brief wonder of flying, and dies proudly in self-sacrifice to Her golden beams.
Fugol drops over the cliff edge, down to the shingle shore. Scant pickings lie mingled with the weed and wood, the shells and the sand. Though he searches not for idle scraps this day, but for the catch that will raise a soul.
Hæring lies glistening on the shoreline, washed gently by the retiring tide. Scales argent-bright catch the low spring Sunne, and draw him to the spot. With deft dark beak he raises his scaled brother of the sea, and bears him aloft, high over the cliff; his second flight of the day. Down across the dale, and up the river course they glide, each aware, in life or death, of this Eorthe’s great mystery, of Her motherly compassion for the greater good.
Still Ælfric sits forlornly, caring little for life or death. The cruel Gods turn deaf ears to the churning of his gut, to the mournful lament of the starving man’s plight. As he raises his eyes in final entreaty the black bird looks down. He shudders to see him standing there upon the branch, silver jewels trailing from his dark beak, and prays one last time.
Hæring falls selflessly at his feet, and he cries for joy at the bird’s gracious gift. With iron skillet on smouldering embers he fries the miraculous fish, and thinks a while on how he will rebuild his life. The North-men stripped him of all he cherished. The bird and fish returned it with good grace. As Ælfric chews the welcome meal Fugol drops and stands proudly upon his head. He smiles and offers scraps to his new-found friend.
And from her lofty perch bright Sunne looks down upon her own, and acknowledges the perfect trinity of Bird, Man, Fish.
You can read about my inspiration for this story here: Other Ways of Seeing – The Subtle Art of John Maltby
Copyright © Steven Hobbs 2015. All rights reserved.