Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Crow-King and Red-Bead Woman

After hearing the story of  the Crow-King and the Red-Bead Woman told by Martin Shaw, I walked around Allington Hill and found images of the story everywhere I looked...

By the edge of the hill, beyond the edge of the town, through the old gate, is a patch of waste ground – thickly covered with brambles and burdock, but recently cut to carve out a rugged meadow; revealing, and releasing, five suckering elms. Back to life from beetle-borne demise, the trees, in the first flush of restored youth, already carry within themselves their own seeds of destruction: as soon as they grow bigger, and their sap-wood thickens, the deadly disease will return. Re-birth and re-death re-cycling in a single surviving species…

I follow a trail of fallen golden leaves, hawthorn and hazel, gleaming in the dull mud, until the tantalising track leads me to the scurrilous scarlet hues of a sweet chestnut; its russet, serrated leaves quivering like nervous creatures. Without lowering my eyes, I hurry on in case a cold wind should shake the leaves from the branches and strip the beauty from the tree. 

A black springer spaniel suddenly appears on the path in front of me, materialising from the autumnal mist. It stands and stares, sniffing the air between us, as we contemplate each other’s existence with natural neutrality. A high-pitched whistle breaks the spell and the dog is recalled to its owner, leaving me to recall on my own. The shift of focus discloses the last mouldering remains of blackberries on a big bramble bush beside me. Amongst clumps of stalk-stumps, picked clean by the birds, there is one last intact drupelet. I pluck the soft piece of fruit-flesh and pop it on my tongue; its fragrant, fertile fidelity finds a haven of warm, soft sensitivity in my mouth. 

At a fork in the path I pause to listen to the blue-tits singing in the trees – the longer I stand still, they bolder they become, eventually just a few feet from my face. Then they scatter and scold as I make a move to choose my route: not the wide, grassy, uphill path, but the narrow, winding, downhill one, through the beech woods. Descending is difficult, harder than going up, the sloping terrain pushes me faster than I want to go, whilst my resistance and recalcitrance makes my legs stiffen and my feet slide uncontrolled; hard angles against the soft contours of the land. 

In the deep woods, the harts-tongues, the spirits of the place, speak in leafy green words - their own fern-acular - but I cannot comprehend their wild whisperings, nor do I heed their warnings. Suddenly my coat catches on the inch-long spines of a blackthorn bush sprawling across the path. After unhitching myself, I look closer at my barbed assailant: the dark-purple limbs have twisted together, rubbing against each other, to cause cankers and callouses in the bark. The rotting, suppurating lesions are being steadily eaten by a slowly writhing mass of glistening grey-brown slugs – feeding on the trees own wounds, its weakest, most intimate parts. Or perhaps these are the vegetation’s medicinal leeches…

From the threshold of the forest I can see and hear the village across the valley, but its vision and sounds are disturbed, disconnected, by the distant, incessant roar of the road cutting through the landscape. As I walk out from the thinly-leaved canopy of the trees, cold rain falls on my head – intentionally un-hooded I let the icy drops sting my skin, drench my hair and refresh my thoughts. At the top of the escarpment, on the oddly angular branch of a blue-green pine, is a raven: the king of the crows. His call, harsh and heavy, rolls down onto lush leafy slopes below. There, in the green court of the king, stands a holly queen: her crown of thorns threaded with strings of coruscant red beads. As I walk back to the beginning, through the meadow of broken brambles, on the edge of the hill, I notice that amongst the re/de-generating elms is an adventitious oak sapling, born from a single seed, aspiring to be old.

A link to Martin Shaw's re-telling of the tale: http://greatmotherconference.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/CROW-KING-2014.pdf