Yewberry: A Myth Retold
A hush. The hill is still humming with the day’s warmth, the sun sinking into the far shore of the lake. For a moment, I can see it, as though with other eyes, submerged, rippling beneath the waters in arcing liquid wings of flame and dusk, flexing, alternating, a thousand of them, wings sprouting from the round, warm body settling into the depths. Then the vision is gone.
I creep silently along the shore, my bare feet numb and rustling through the long, dried grasses of autumn. The mud is moist and rough on my soles, each step sending echoes of energy sliding up my calves. A thick cushion of warm air lingers among the brittle stalks as if radiating from deeper roots, from the earth itself, untouched by the cooling evening breeze that moves above, circling my knees and waist, wrapping my skirts around me. Already, I can feel the worlds sliding apart, the space between opening. This was a mild day, still, the kind that will come once or twice more before the snows take hold. Winter has a while yet before it’s claimed everything, even the steep citadel of noon. But I can feel it coming. The sunlight is low and long against the horizon now, sinking, slipping away; nothing in my power can hold it, nothing will hold it any longer. My body tightens, muscles contracted, but I steady myself and walk on.
Soon, the place I am seeking comes into view across the peaceful, darkening waters: the stunted crabapple tree on the sloping shore of the small island. The lake gapes away on either side of this unremarkable jut of land, a pair of dragon’s jaws poised open in perfect stillness. I turn my gaze upward for a moment, breathing deeply, calming myself to the very center of my being. Still, ripples of vibration run through me, escaping my sturdy sense of gravity. Passing over my skin in pulsing miniature bursts of light, the births of tiny stars that flare and die back into the quiet of my body. The sky rumples like a veil pushed up from the horizon in sensual folds of lazuli blues and smoky lavender, and beneath it night is climbing gently upwards. The tree, too, I can see, folds in on itself with age, slumping to brush the wild grasses with the tips of its old limbs. Most of the fruit has fallen, now, and its leaves are dry and stiff. The breeze brings with it the scent of faint, damp rot subtle within the smell of wet and chill.
I let my skirts fall, slipping the cotton blouse up over my head. A button snags on a strand of hair, tugging it free from the braid. I could be undressing for a lover; I feel my own body young and alive under my fingers, undoing each clasp, reaching, stretching to uncover myself. I shake myself loose, the clothes collapsed around my feet. For just a moment, wild fear jolts through every joint and muscle, my whole form going rigid and small under the heavy expanse of twilit sky. I am an animal again, naked and soft and pale, ears pressed flat and twitching, every limb tense. I would run, bolt from the sound of panting, that moment I can hear coming, but fear pins me as if to the air itself and I cannot move. I struggle and break, again and again, against the hot terror. I am shaking, shivering with sweat, and without even the presence of mind to move, suddenly I find myself stumbling. My knees hit spongy earth, the heels of my hands sinking beneath my weight into the bent grass, and I am leaning, wild and staring, over the edge of the water.
Almost as quickly as it began, the terror vanishes. Resolving and dissolving before me, the white face of my body looks up at me from the glassy surface of the lake, watching. Now is the time to do it, she whispers, now, when we are young and alive, when we are full of our own will and our own desire. We must do it, it must be now, tonight. I stumble again to my feet, rubbing my hands against my hips leaving smudges of earth along their curves. I am myself once more, composed and held delicately apart. The animal I am settles down inside me, hot and quivering.
Before entering the water, I search through the folds of discarded clothes, untying the small pouch from the cloth thong that had secured it. Then, I return to the shore.
The water, unlike the ground of hills that surround it, holds no lingering heat from the day. A decisive step and I am in, a shuddering gasp escaping my lips, my mind again threatening to loose itself and plunge upwards, fleeing like light and warmth and sun into the cold void of winter and open ceaseless night. I fight for control. Searching out the furry heat where it curls tightly in the dark recesses of my body. I wade through the biting pain, arms spread skyward and back arched, and then I am clambering up onto land again, the island solid beneath me, my chest heaving with hard breath, the corners of my mouth wet with sobs of involuntary tears. But I am through. The old crabapple tree looms over me, twisted and kind against the starscape, and I lie panting, ripped and rendered whole again in my own aching body.
For an hour, perhaps longer, I rest like this, unmoving. My eyes half-open, I watch my breast slowly rising and falling in lazy rhythm. The moon has risen, almost full, over the far hills in the east. Shadows like blue echoes move of their own accord, pass over the undulations of the earth and the flat, glistening surface of the lake that spreads out on all sides around me, studded with reflected stars. Beneath the crabapple tree, my body is growing numb and clumsy, one hand still clenched reflexively around the small pouch. No flint or matches, fire is impossible even if I wanted it, and there is now no way home, no way back to the safety and warmth on the opposite shore.
After a time, I pull myself up to lean against the trunk of the tree. The exposed skin stretched taut across my spine and shoulder blades rubs against the bark, but I am close to wandering now, and can barely feel the sensation. It must be now, and I am young, and I am so alive… Words stumble through my tiring mind without direction or sense. Undoing the pouch, I tug at the damp fabric, gently.
Inside, the berries are wet, full and bright; they seem to glow, radiating like perfect red embers in the darkness. One or two are smashed, their juice slick and sticky on the skin of the others and seeping through the fabric. I imagine, with that vertigo again of some other sense, that I can feel it warm and pooling in my open palm, that I can smell the vague metallic smell of blood.
I raise a berry to my lips and take it tenderly into the deep, warm cave of my mouth. I roll it with my tongue, breaking skin, sucking until I feel the flesh and juice sliding down my throat, cool and burning and stinging sweet. Then, when there is nothing left but the single, unbroken seed, I slip it out between my lips again and set it on a small stone nestled near me in the grass. I do this again, and again, slowly and carefully, until each new berry seems to break open with an unbearable softness, some scarlet slow-motion explosion that rocks my mind gently further and further from the moorings of my physical form.
When every berry is gone, and the ritual almost done, I reach for the seed-covered stone. With another rock, I grind the seeds until they are shattered and gritty, the meat of their insides exposed. They will not find my body in the morning. My clothes will lay crumpled on the far shore, ghostly pale and stiff with crystal frost. I press and grind the poisonous seeds, and lift the stone to my mouth. They will wonder, perhaps, where I have gone, but they will never find me. Now, it is at the end of autumn, I lay my body down. I run my tongue over the cold, rough stone. Fear and desire well up at once, almost overtaking my quickening heart except for the certainty, the calm knowledge: it is too late. The cold and the poison have already begun their work, have already taken hold. I feel my body slipping, sinking, my mind unwinding into the black dome of endless space. Nothing in my power can keep it now. I see myself, still and pale blue, naked in curves and passed over by the shadows of the shivering tree limbs. The worlds are parting, creaking with the sound of ancient wood, gliding farther as every breath comes more slowly, more shallow than the last, and my soul is reaching, stretching to uncover itself, sliding into the opening space between.
How could I say what happened then? That was another life, another being, darkness and wind and the beating of wings. There had been a need — that was why it was always done, really, this suicide, this little death — a need to put an end to the rules of things, to step out of skin, beyond the confines of gravity. There was, in me, a deep capacity to suffer, and no reason for it. Only the tense need to sink, to follow it down, until even obscurity and pain could have no more power over me than a stiff current of air. And I rode them, sacred winds, I rode them far to the horizon. Flattened, feathered and unfurled against the swift, unflinching line of time and season, I outflew need. It was long since I had forgotten how to desire.
Want, longing, anticipation were so long forgotten. I had followed my need down into a darkness where even need itself could not hold, but dissolved, guttering like a spent sun, and there I lingered, hovering, a white shadow blotting out the stars. Sometimes the memory of desire passed below me like a twisting ribbon of river through a shrunken landscape, but I was a spirit moving over the waters, pale mist claiming the darkness, ruling over the empty world. For how long? How could I know? What is time without desire to mark it? How could I say what existence then was like? To articulate death to the living, to carry the memory of it over. No, it is impossible to tell.
I remember a dream, only, a memory of memory. That’s all. I moved through dream, through thrumming song, murmuring pain and wind that moved in groans and echoes, the familiarity of formlessness, the arbitrary descent into form, all this I glided on, singing. And the world could not hold me, could not grasp me or keep me still.
But then, there was a touch. Like a warm, slow breath. And I seemed to hear my name on the wind, the wind that had always been empty and utterly wild. Now, there was shape to it. Air that moved through the body of some new and unknown being, carved out of noise by throat, teeth, parted lips. There was voice, and the voice grasped and held. I snagged. My body stirred.
My body stirs, though I am yet far from it, watching. Pale and wasted, it seems at first only a jumble of bones, the limp corpse of a swan, long neck kinked, pinched off awkwardly between vertebrae, feathers scattered and bedraggled with reddish mud and rain. Wrinkled folds of white and shadow turn in on themselves, a figure smashed and stranded on the shore of the tiny island hunched low in the center of the lake.
Mist rises from the hard clear water, and barely a breeze disturbs the senseless form of my body where it lies. Someone sighs, exhales. One long pinion shifts under the movement of this warm, slow breath — uncomfortable and stiff, still embedded deep in my cold skin. I can feel it. I can feel it, pulling, twisting with every turn of the air, weightless and hollow like a needle sewn into my flesh. I can feel each one, my body punctuated by hundreds, my body, that soggy vulnerable thing crumpled beneath the twisted dark limbs of the old tree. Another sigh, long, unrelenting, and each quill responds again, piercing hot and sharp in a symphony of pain, all the way to muscle, to numbing bone. A rolling, clenching nausea ripples through me. I moan, my body moans, and we breathe ourselves startled and quick together in one sudden moment.
It is dawn, or just past, and the light presses everything flat and immediate, robbed of shadow, without depth or color. My eyes barely open, I search blearily the abstract images of morning as they close in around me; the tree branches above me, the clenched pink buds that clot along every twig against a background of low, gray clouds. Every part of me aches with cold, each toe, the arches of my feet, my calves sloppy with disuse, my hipbones peaking like mountain ridges, collapsing into the starved valley of my stomach. My fingers, my brittle wrists suspended at the ends of strange, thin arms, the weight of my own chest pressing down to meet my spine, my throat caved in and retching, rattling with breath. I am sick, sickened of myself, and anger rips through me hot and resentful, disgusted with form, raging to tear open the flimsy walls of my capillaries, the limpid membrane of each shivering cell. But even anger has a body now, and I am weak with it. Too weak to sustain disgust, to feed my own wretchedness. Heat soaks out of my body and into the ground, smelling of urine, as I slip back into the rocking dark of sleep.
I was mistaken. When I awake again, someone has brushed away the last vestige of snow and rotting layer of leaves I had drawn around me as a cloak of feathers in my delirium; someone has cleaned my limbs and face with cool handfuls of water from the lake, rubbed grime and frost away until the skin beneath is flushed and slightly raw. It occurs to me that, yes, after all I’m alive. I am alive.
My body is still unfamiliar, long and hard in the grass. I test my muscles, the utter ends of each nerve, clenching and relaxing, listening for the twitch of response. Sensation trickles and slides underneath my grayed translucent skin, dark serpentine waters wearing away at an encasing of ice. The world is full of the sound of melting, the pulsing, rhythmic falling and slipping of water into the ground. My throat cracks open like an egg and fluted notes escape, drop, catch a current of air and leave me breathless. Again, someone sighs, who isn’t myself.
He crouches a few yards away, gazing out across the water. Delicate tongues of green reach up and uncurl around his firmly planted feet, new grass and the gathering liquid-pearl buds of snowdrops suspended heavy from the tips of their bent stems. He is worn and sleepless as though from long illness, but the sun is warm on his broad back and bowed head, burrowing long, light fingers into the hair along the nape of his pale neck. Even from here I seem to feel his blood rushing steadily through his veins, murmuring with a deep vitality.
At first I don’t think he sees me, but then he turns. I do not move. Perhaps I still cannot. He comes slowly to lean over me, watching intently, his breath held in suspension, strung up and utterly vulnerable. Behind him, the mid-morning sun burns dense in a wet sky, pouring thickly over his shoulders, seeping into the wispy waves of his hair. Everything smells of verdant earth and the sweetness of blossoms. He brushes a few downy feathers away where they have sprouted again around my collarbone — but no, they are the round, silky petals of the old crabapple tree. He breathes out and they scatter easily from my skin. Will he do anything but exhale? His eyes circle a darkness, each iris pitted and blue, and though mine have been open, I close them again, as if to fool him, or coax him.
Still, I do not try to move. I wait. Shut against sunlight, I move my thoughts, wandering into each extremity of my awkward body, seeking my edges, liminal where they touch against the world. Then subtly, gradually, so that I hardly know their beginning, his fingers too are tracing my consciousness, breaking open each new nerve, sensation trickling into every corner of my frame as he ventures rough hands, warm and large and solid, along each cusp and cup of my body. I lead them, those quiet hands, with the waking of my mind, shuddering sometimes at their resistance and turning then to follow.
How long do we go on? They will say for an eternity, a brief moment. For a moment, his lips climb the pale slope of my neck the way a new sun swells and bursts suddenly above the hilltops, then his tongue circling the ruddy altars of my nipples in holy prayer, his mouth drinking in light like milk from my breasts and, through me, from the earth itself beneath us. They will call him a child, a young god, a lover. I fill with shining undulations cresting and spilling over in birdsong. Sunlight pools around us, rolling in giddy tides. He pushes my heart to beat, my lungs to work, he draws the blood down to every end of me, breathing hot on the animal sleeping in me, dark and soft with fur. They will say, when I slip back again into the space between worlds slipping open, he follows me down, cleaving them and clinging one to the other, bringing aching brightness, drawing everything together, pulling my body, breath, pulling us upward into life again.
They will say, for they will not find us resting where we lay, so this is spring.
This short story was first published in Sky, Earth, Sea: A Journal of Practical Spirituality, Summer 2009.
In August 2011, it appeared in The Scribing Ibis: An Anthology of Pagan Fiction in Honor of Thoth, a collection of short stories and essays published by Bibliotheca Alexandrina. For more information about how to purchase The Scribing Ibis, visit the Bibliotheca Alexandrina website and online store.
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