Of Snowdrops, Mice and Yew, a short story by Amalova. Date added: 2008-03-01. Times viewed: 2647.
- Please SEND FEEDBACK - Writers love hearing from you. You can view the Authors profile here
- Intro: Alex moves back into the village where his family had lived for 600 years. He visits the Norman church and meets a woman there who is more than what she seems
Rooks cawed overhead. I looked up through the swaying black branches of the naked trees and watched them swirling. A thousand feet beyond them a jet speared through the clouds, its engines' rumbles chasing seconds behind it. But for the machine's intrusion this could have been the year in which the weathered gravestone I'd just passed by was cut: 1726. I looked around me, breathing in fragments of the spirits of those who had walked this way before me.
The church stood as though part of the earth itself. It had towered above this hamlet for over 900 years, ministering to the souls who had entered and endured their hard lives on this flat, fertile land. They were baptised here. If they were lucky enough to reach adulthood, this is where they were married and later christened their own children. It's where they were carried in death to be returned to the soil from which they had drawn their sustenance. Many in these parts were farmers, but all would once have grown their own food, known the subtle skills that enabled them to feed themselves and their offspring. All were necessarily in touch with and in awe of the magic and majesty of Nature, for she commanded seeds to come to life, made their shoots fight towards the light, gave them the power to split the frosty ground. Their faith in God the creator was unquestionable too, and somehow these two mutually-exclusive deities lived side by side. If God was the heavenly father, then Nature, the undeniably tangible Goddess of rebirth, was essentially his wife.
The white carpet reminded me how mystical it all must have seemed to them. They planted Snowdrops in this churchyard to contrast with the cold, faded, stone memorials: a powerful symbol of new life. Thousands of them hung their perfect, six-petaled heads, harbingers of a spring that was still a month away. The rooks, now oblivious to my presence, still argued in the unsettled air above the treetops. I reached the church door and tried the iron handle, my eyes following the curve of a stone arch of carved eagle heads that stared blankly down from above me. The black wooden door swung open slightly, and a surprised and pale face peered out of the darkness, squinting at the unexpected swathe of sunlight that momentarily chased shadows from the yard.
‘I wa' just... cleaning... are tha wantin' a look round?'
The person behind the voice was obviously female, but gave nothing else away.
‘Oh... sorry. I wasn't sure if it would be open... If it's no trouble I'd love to... there are some carvings I've been told to look out for.'
‘Ay, very famous round here, they are. Twenty-six, no, seven of ‘em in all...if tha counts him... mice, as tha's prob'bly been told... mostly carved into t' furniture... come in, I'll show thi - well, I'll show thi some of ‘em - tha'll have to find t' rest by thi sen!'
The door had been opening by degrees as she spoke and there now stood an attractive woman of indeterminate age... was she thirty? Forty? Her hair was long, and dark, covering half her face. She could have been young and just dressed older; yes, maybe it was the unflattering attire. She stepped back and welcomed me. I tiptoed over the threshold and at once imbibed the peace and solemnity that, for me, such a place always decants. I bowed my head, felt my hands clasp together in front of me, and my voice was at once hushed, respectful, reverential.
‘This is beautiful!'
‘It is that. It's a bugger to clean though!' Her voice rang out, and her laugh was like two skeletons fighting in a dustbin. She saw me cringe, apologised with her eyes and lowered her voice. ‘It is lovely. I spend a lot o' time here, even when I'm not working,' and she held up an old ragged duster as if to demonstrate what she did, ‘I just come ‘n' sit ‘n' take it in... lovely to see someone in t' week. Tha not local.'
‘No... well... I am now; just... moved into the little cottage by the canal... my family was from round here, originally... maybe not Domesday book stuff, but not much later than that... place I've bought needs a lot of work but it'll be fine.' I paused. She exhaled slowly and her eyes softened, inviting me to continue. ‘Just split up from the wife, she got the house and kids - I got the dog, but it's not well at the moment so I'm sadly on my own today ... well, even sadder: it's my birthday! Thankfully I missed the 29th by a couple of minutes, or I'd only be... er... thirteen!'
I laughed, then stopped, suddenly aware that I'd told this total stranger far more than good manners allowed; but I sensed something about her, something that seemed to draw it out of me. She was a good listener; some people are just like that. The woman smiled at me in silence and I realised she was younger than I'd first thought. The smile and silence continued and, after a moment, so did I.
‘You're local then?'
‘Me? I am. No call to go elsewhere. Everythin' I need is round ‘ere. Acorn di'n't fall far from t' tree,' and she laughed again, this time reflectively. ‘So then... er...is it?' and her look told me she needed my name to continue, almost as if she knew it but it had momentarily slipped her mind. This relaxed me even more, made me feel I knew her too.
‘Alex... Sissons,' I offered with just a second's thought.
‘Sis...sons.' She narrowed her eyes and scrutinised my face, trying out the word several times till she got the pronunciation just as I'd said it. ‘Si...ssons; Siss... ons; Sis... sons.' Her countenance brightened with each repeat till it was lit with wonder. ‘So, Henry! Tha pissed in t' brook an' I can still taste thi, even so far downstream.'
‘It's Alex...' I interjected, surprised by her coarseness, but she ignored me. A long, slender index finger wagged in my face with her every word:
‘Thar family's bin ‘ere a long time... lots of ‘em in this soil, but there's not bin a living one ‘ere for more ‘n fifty years.'
The last two words died a slow, hard death, bouncing off the cold stone of the church till silence sermonised once more. I put her earlier, rather eccentric outburst to one side and smiled appreciatively at her local knowledge. This was the sort of thing I'd come here for - to find my... roots, get some perspective, make some sense of the turmoil that was my life, before it was too late.
‘Come an' look ‘ere then, Alex Sissons,' she said after a still and silent pause. She motioned with her eyebrows, and I knew where she meant us to go, though her head had stayed very still. We set off in unison. I followed her to the back row of hardwood pews. ‘This is my favourite. Cheeky little beggar, i'n't he? I reckon he comes alive at neet, when there's nob'dy abaht.'
Her English was bordering on ‘King James', with all the thees and thous. I knew that was how they spoke around here and I understood it too because my father had brought the dialect with him when he'd moved south some fifty-five years before. He'd cherished it like a badge of honour, polished it till his death, and exaggerated it for effect when it suited him to appear a little obtuse.
The carving was a caricature of a mouse sitting up holding and eating something between its paws, but it seemed surprisingly real. It made me smile a deep smile that started somewhere in the centre of me and then radiated from me.
‘On'y twenty-six more...' She took my arm and led me into a dark corner where the dim electric lights hardly penetrated. ‘Tha needs a lucifer to see this one reight... can tha see ‘im, theer! Running up t' back!' I could just make out the tiny fellow, frozen by my gaze as he scrambled for cover.
‘I could be here all day looking for these... er... is it?' I used her way of questioning, knitting my brow as I spoke the last two words.
She looked at me a little sourly, then her smile returned. She'd thought I was taking the mickey but quickly realised I had no such intent.
‘Sarah, it's... Sarah... or Sarsi, as the young ones call me, the little flowers,' she added, once again with a smile and also a sideways tilt of the head that was very disarming. She linked my arm and with eyes fixed forwards, marched me down the aisle, over the plush crimson carpet, through the nave, between the pews, and toward the pulpit. ‘Call me either. Your choice. There's three on ‘ere... look close... just head peepin' aht... see it?'
I nodded, and ran my fingers to and fro over the carved creature's cowering face.
‘Wow! This is very kind of you. These are so good!'
Her hand joined me there as if to test the quality and we touched momentarily. I should have pulled away but I didn't. And neither did she. Her hand closed over my hand, just as mine had captured the mouse beneath it, and she kept me there. I was frozen for a moment. I didn't expect this invasion and began to feel suffocated, as if I was now the tiny rodent. My head slowly filled with whispered desultory voices: praying; pleading; crying. I touched my free hand to my temple and felt the blood pounding there. I slowly drew my hand away from her, took a long breath and the present faded back in.
‘Are you well?'
‘I... I think so.' I shook my head to cast loose the final echoes that still clung there. ‘I'd best be going anyway... er...Sarah. It'll be dark soon.'
She looked quickly to the window, almost in panic, then gushed,
‘There's still loads t' find and t' sun dun't set for an hour yet... come on with thee lad!'
I had no choice really for she grabbed my arm, but soon I was glad I'd stayed. We searched together. Well, I searched. She closed her eyes, gave me clues, pictured in her head each and every one and led me to them with her thoughts, which she spoke in little more than another whisper. Twenty-five were carved in the beautifully polished furniture that adorned the place. A banner bore a painting of one in white, among three couchant lions. She directed me to the final carving, which I would never have found alone. It scampered along the bottom of the door, the grain of the wood used perfectly to disguise it and give it its contours.
Cupping my elbow she led me carefully, respectfully over the gravestones that were laid into the floor. I paused and pulled her up so I could read. The dates were 1635, 1627,1605, the names were William, Roger, Thom... Thomas? And their wives... Jane, Eliza... S... something... and their children... Con... Constance? Jo... was it John? Some parts were worn so badly as to make the names illegible. I felt sorry for these people made anonymous by time and weather, but I was glad for the hard, honest, frugal lives I imagined they'd had. I looked around and thought of them sitting here every week of their lives, in fear of their wrathful God, and yet loving and honouring him all the same. I envied them the certainty of their faith. It made me wonder just how soon I would be a memory, then a nameless and faded photo, and eventually, once again, recycled atoms; totally dispersed, my identity erased, as if I'd never existed.
‘Taken from t' churchyard,' she said, ‘Replaced t' old floor that were breakin' up.'
First their bodies, now their headstones: more recycling.
‘No skeletons under them then?' She looked at me incredulously and laughed.
We paused in the chancel, pale light trickling down through the stained glass, and she stepped away from me, eyed me up and down.
‘So, Alex Sissons; thar on thi own then? Wife left thee?'
‘I suppose I am... I suppose she did. Kicked me out, actually. You're very blunt round here!' I laughed to cover my surprise.
It's hard to explain what happened next. She stepped close and kissed me, briefly kissed me on the lips. I didn't resist, didn't move, saw it coming but stood still; neither encouraging nor taking part, but we kissed all the same. I found myself looking down from the ceiling onto the heads of the two of us, watching her lips touch mine, yet simultaneously feeling a tongue of warm, moist breath curl inside my mouth. Her eyes were open: mine were closed. She stepped away and I was suddenly, giddyingly, back inside my head, back behind my now opening eyes.
‘Tha'll do,' she nodded slowly, as though confirming I was up to some mark she had set for me. Then she intoned, ‘I now pronounce ye man and wife,' and laughed and skipped silently back down the aisle on the thick carpet. Her motion stopped five paces away. She turned, head tilted, eyebrows raised, now a familiar expression. Hesitantly I followed her.
‘Does tha believe in fate? In God?' she unexpectedly enquired.
‘Fate?' I quickly recovered, ‘No!' as vehement as her ‘skeletons' retort. ‘I believe in free will. I know it's hard not to believe in God when you're in a place like this, but... forgive me... no, I don't. We make our own way and then we die and that's it. I don't subscribe to divine intervention or life after death - of any sort.'
‘Oh, thy ought to. Tha really did,' she interjected, but I wasn't listening...
‘If a church proves anything to me it's the futility of creating such structures, of erecting memorials. This building's been here for 900 years, but that's nothing in the grand scheme of things... less than the blink of an eye... soon it will be gone. Dust to dust. Those lovingly carved stones we just walked on... where are the people? Or their children? Or their great, great, grandchildren? All gone and forgotten, just like you and I will soon be.'
Again I said more than I expected. The vacuum of her silence sucked it out of me. There was another pause then she started her own monologue:
‘The people are here,' she replied cryptically, ‘And so are their progeny. Let me tell thee summat, Alex Sissons, summat that for all thi learnin' tha'll probably not understand. I planted a tree. In here,' she placed her hand on her stomach, ‘An' out there,' she pointed through the walls, as if I could see where she meant. ‘An they're both still thrivin'. Roots crept an' spread like t' plague; tipped t'stones, broke walls, cracked t' coffins, consumed corruption... an' they both grew stronger, wider an' taller.' She stopped and looked at me. Waves of emotion crossed her face as clearly as clouds cross the winter sun - first empathy, then pity, now a rolling contempt. ‘Tha dunt know, does tha? Four hundred years yon yew tree spread. Four hundred. And still it is little more than a child. An' my fruit spread too, Alex Sissons. Look at yourself. Look at me.'
She was agitated. I looked blankly at her and waited for the point to all this senseless talk, anxious to continue my own train of thought. Well, she had asked what I believed in and I was riding on a roller:
‘Yes, well, I've got two kids, like I said... Four hundred years? Could it be that old? If we could count the rings...' but instead she cut me down.
‘I'm the root Alex, and th'art t' fruit. Does tha understand me?' All this talk of fate, God, then trees, roots and fruit; it wasn't what I expected and it was tangential to anything we'd talked about before. For once I was lost for words. ‘Those snowdrops outside... they are restored every year. Every year, without fail. They too spread, grow stronger, like magic. They are magic - they were t' antidote to Circe spells - plant that kept Odysseus safe? I learned, studied, Alex Sissons. I gathered knowledge. An' I was born wi' knowledge. I know the secrets of moly, of yew, of mistletoe... They buried me, but I stand here before thee. They'd have kicked my charred bones around this sacred place if they'd known,' she sneered at ‘sacred', ‘But they didn't know and instead I have danced on theirs for centuries. Now tha walks in, today o' all days, four hundred years... as if to thwart me. But tha won't. He thinks he's beat me with his...his...what did tha call it? Divine intervention,' she motions to the iron crucifix bolted to the wall, ‘But I know too much. It'll be painful, but me and thee'll both see tomorrow. I'll swear on that!' and she crossed herself contemptuously.
I felt her fingertips on my cheek and my eyes closed. At first the screen was blank, then long-forgotten scenes began to loop inside my head; many of them memories of my childhood, uncomfortable events that I had buried. Others were of things I had not witnessed but were somehow still my memories: I saw the church alternately filled with joy and sorrow, christenings and mourning. I witnessed the ploughing of fields and the gathering and celebrating of the harvest. Seasons raced by. The people quickly aged and decayed, their lives tainted by sickness and pain. Babies grew to old age then died and turned to dust in a heartbeat, yet I lived their whole lives. Death was everywhere and always one step ahead of the living. As her touch left me so did the terrible images, though an ache like a bruise remained in my heart.
She glanced at the window, her eyes absorbing the gathering gloom, then turned and ran noiselessly from the building, her naked feet - why hadn't I noticed that before? - barely touching the ground. Through the ancient glass I saw a dim, contorted image of her: arms stretched out like a crucifix, she was spinning on the prone, mossy stones as if to drill through them. She seemed to cast off her clothes as she danced and threw back her head to answer the calls from the rookery. I ran out after her, drawn to her, despite my fear and confusion. She was a terrifying sight, full of madness and anarchy; her eyes were wild, and inhuman sounds emanated from her twisted mouth. She clawed at the bark of the yew, threw herself to the ground, leapt to her feet and paced around me like a predator. Again she spun and chanted and a cloud of rooks simultaneously fled their nests with deafening cries; the wind rose and buffeted the trees, and when I thought my ears could take no more she suddenly stopped her terrible terpsichore. I was thrown forward towards her as if the earth had jolted to a standstill with her.
‘My tree!' She spread her hands and motioned with raised bare arms. The yew, ancient by human counting yet still young by its own calibration, towered over us. She was naked and quite perfectly beautiful, younger than I'd ever imagined... I thought of her as angelic too, despite the images her touch visited on me, but her eyes were black, bottomless, blank, and unfathomable.
‘What? The one you planted? How can that be? But it's four hundred years old! Sarah... Sarah! What are you talking about? What is this... madness?'
‘Come to me!' I hesitated once more. ‘Come to me!' she ordered and, though she didn't touch me, again I had no choice.
The light was starting to fail and the pale yellow electric glow from inside the church splashed onto the ground around us. The sporadic dark clouds that raced across the sky were tinged with red and orange. The starry vault behind me was black and in the west a dying sun bled its last drops. As I approached her, a fresh wind whipped against us and she fell to her knees with an anguished cry as though pierced by it. Her face pressed to my belly, her breath escaping in short gasps. And as the wind blasted me another storm erupted: she tore at my clothes, drawing blood with her now broken nails till she had my trousers and pants around my knees. I was immovable, as fixed as her yew, my feet planted in the soil. Brittle skeletons of dead leaves swirled about us, and branches creaked above us. Her mouth closed around me and fingers worked to excite me. Despite the shock, I began to grow, filling her mouth, making her gasp even more for her next breath. I closed my eyes, and my head fell back and though I looked to the darkening western sky I could see her every movement in my mind. Her tongue danced just as she had first danced, elegantly twirling and swirling. Then the tune changed and she became manic and frenzied, more animal than human. The lights of another jet arced noiselessly overhead, much higher than the one I'd seen as I first arrived; its incongruity shocked me back into the present moment and I looked down.
The once raven-black hair was grey and when she looked up at me her face was that of an old woman. I felt sick with fear and revulsion yet still could not move. She took me deeper in her mouth, the lips were now dry and split yet she sucked me harder. The bones in her hands cracked like brittle twigs as she worked on me, and her breasts shrivelled. She was desiccating, leaching into the soil; the earth was taking her back. The skin on her face was thin and taut like parchment, and hair fell from her skull to the floor in clumps. Her eyes boiled and the yellow fetid liquid streaked my thighs. Some unearthly force continued to suck the life from me though she was barely more than a skeleton. I was sickened, horrified yet totally entranced. A death-black shadow passed over my heart, my guts twisted and writhed, and I began to ejaculate by the sheer power of her will. The sensation felt akin to dying, and was more frightening than anything I have ever experienced. The act of giving life was eternally corrupted. Where pleasure would normally have filled me, I felt only terrible, wrenching pain. Euphoria became the deepest, darkest depression. My soul was empty, barren, desolate. As my seed hit her cold, bony mouth she started to fill out, grow, regenerate: dry yellow-grey skin returned to smooth, fleshy pink; her hair quickly sprouted, long, sleek and black; her breasts and buttocks engorged and her lips and hands were again soft, young and feminine. The eyes were calm, still, timeless and very alive. As she revived and blossomed, I withered and knew death was near. The anguished cries of all the poor souls before me, those who had shared this harrowing fate in these hallowed grounds, echoed in my skull, and I prayed I would soon join them.
She drew hard on me one more time, took my last drops and spat them onto the bare earth at my feet.
‘That's for thee, Alex Sissons.' She stood, tilted her head, and smiled her enigmatic smile once again: ‘Alex! Heed me! Eat! Eat the blooms that grow here. They will free you Alex, flesh of mine, fruit of the yew, hear me! I will free you. Together we will beat Him.' She laughed triumphantly and then kissed me passionately, the taste of me still on her. After glancing round like a feral beast, she turned back to me, suddenly the woman behind the door: ‘We will meet again, in life and in death,' and she vanished silently into the darkness.
I was alone, terrified, breathing my last. Before my eyes, by the light that spilt from the church, green shoots pushed through the black earth where the contents of her mouth had splashed, and flowers quickly formed that hung their wimpled heads in fervent prayer. A pale ghost sailed silently by me, searching for the mice that would be her nocturnal sustenance; I cowered, fell to my knees in terror, my body and spirit drained to the dregs. Weakly reaching forward I plucked one white flower that had miraculously sprouted. Remembering what she had said I pressed it feebly to my lips and began to chew though I was parched, hollow and exhausted. Inside me was a void. I was falling deeper into a pit, plummeting beyond hope, but as I swallowed I felt a glow in the depths, like a distant candle flame. I could feel a spark of life returning to me. My strongest instinct was to survive, to feed the ember, so again I picked, chewed and managed to swallow. A tiny flame blossomed and leaped; it licked at my innards, warmed me, and then began to slowly bear me back up to the surface of my mortality.
I agonisingly crawled a couple of feet, intending to reach and rest my back against the one gravestone bathed in light. Though every muscle and joint ached I could feel that I was returning, just as Sarah had promised, from the dead. Still on my knees in that silent, holy space, I raised my leaden head and a cold iron chisel cut these words into my soul:
Here doth lie
Who departed this life March 3rd 1605
And his beloved wife
Passed February 28th 1608
A promise of life everlasting
- Use for below to send feedback to author - View the Authors profile here
- The following form will send feedback to the author about this short story, please enter your e-mail if you wish a reply (which is obviously at the authors own discretion)