Friday, 24 May 2013

Note to self

Putting this here because every now and then reproductive health and rights will come up in conversation and I want to share this story and I have to go looking for it. Of course, I have it bookmarked but really, it's easier to go to Google and search again than to trawl through the mess that is my bookmarks folder. (I don't know why I bother with that thing at all) Evernote has developed a blockage of some sort too so I can't clip the story as I might usually do. If Evernote and Dropbox go away I'm stuffed, my physical memory doesn't work as well as those two do.

The link:

Summary: In the not-so-distant future of Virginia, the Personhood Act has outlawed abortion and chemical birth control. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, though.

Also the t-shirt link:

Excerpt from the Clever Lad and the Magpie

This is from a boy-seeks-fortune book I am attempting to write, which seems to appear in little portions. I think I have more folk tales and secondary happenings in this one than I do actual main story. Anyway.

Now they entered a prosperous kingdom, and in time they were summoned to the palace as word of their deeds had gone before them. 

They were impressed by the ordered fields and the apparent happiness of the populous who worked in them. Everyone they passed had a cheery wave for them. It was an almost eerily happy place. 

The king was middle aged, his wife of a similar age, and they were surrounded in their receiving room by their children, all handsome and healthy and of varying ages. They too looked happy.

"Adventurers, eh?" the king greeted them heartily. He asked some of the attendants to bring in food and drink and it was done. The Clever Lad noticed that the royal children helped without complaint or ceremony, even the middle-sized child who seemed to have only one arm. Despite that he still deftly handled a large carafe of sweet fruit wine, pouring the visitors a generous glassful each. 

"I used to be an adventurer like you" the king remarked when they were all settled and fed, "My greatest find was a magic lamp. Yes, such things existed, in my day! This one still had its genie inside, too."

"Remarkable. Did it grant you a wish?" asked the Magpie.

"Three, as the custom has it. Such a piteous creature though, trapped inside that little lamp bowl forever. He cried for joy when I summoned him from the lamp as he had been lost in a midden some few hundred years back and only unearthed, by happy chance, that very morning by a passing mongrel. He told me that the dog had scratched the vessel as he dug it up and that he had therefore to grant the wishes of the beast. Thankfully for the genie those were simple, amounting only to a meal, a warm place to sleep and a pack of strong brothers and sisters. Apparently this sort of thing happens often in the course of a genie's long long life."

"Well, I had escaped from a kitchen where I had been a fire boy - turning the spit for the roast, you know. My family were so very poor. As pay I received only food - scraps, really - and a spot by the fire to sleep, and I thought myself lucky enough. But when I had the chance to leave I didn't hesitate as the owner of the house didn't even pay me a coin I could send to the rest of my family. Perhaps a brother of mine would get my job and I could help in that way. In any case, I spent years after that out on the roads doing this job and that. Sometimes I fell in with less reputable people and was induced to help relieve a rich coach of its shinier contents. I am not proud of that, but I cannot change it now. I mention it for context, so you know why the genie's laments touched me so."

"I hit upon an idea from an old story - I could get myself a rich pedigree from a wish and so raise myself in the world, and then I could set the genie free. He was sceptical of this, although he did not say so outright. However, I wished myself a king with a fine kingdom and when I saw the fine saddle horse come towards me at the head of an entourage hailing me as their majesty I immediately wished that the genie was released from his prison - keeping him around might have backfired, you know, as these things sometimes do."

"Well, the creature was so pleased that he blessed my kingdom forever, without any prompting. He said to me 'You have done yourself out of a wish, noble sir, you could have wished for any other thing before setting me free. Frankly I did not expect you to do that, in any case. Others before you have spoken airily of releasing me but they have changed their minds, or I have been stolen from them before they get the chance.'"

"Indeed, I said to the genie, this is why I released you straight away! I said I would do so, and there you go - you are free."

"The genie nodded to me and said that as a reward for this he would grant me my third wish anyway, just because he wanted to. Well. To have a wish from a genie, what a gift. However I couldn't think of anything I would want and I did not want to keep the creature around or summon him from his leisure in the future. So I wished to die at an advanced age, healthy, happy and surrounded by loving friends and family. The genie nodded, waved one arm over my head, and vanished from my life forever."

"But how do you know if that wish was granted?" the Magpie asked, exchanging glances with the Clever Lad. 

The king smiled at them both "I expect I will find out in time" he replied.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

I remember when there were tigers. Great big things, they were. Lots of teeth. Very dangerous. No, not like crocodiles. They must have been about that size though, but they were cats. Yes, we used to have great big cats, twelve feet long. They'd roar instead of miaow. They lived in jungles and wild places - jungles? Oh, um, places with lots of trees, lush vegetation, very dark and mysterious and full of dangerous creatures. Like tigers, yes. They were always sort of shy though, they'd hide from people generally. Used to be tales in India, where you'd get a type called Bengal tigers you know, there would be stories that a tiger could get a taste for human blood or if it strayed into a village it had decided it wanted to die so it had to be killed. Fairly brutal, I suppose. The biggest stayed somewhere colder though, I think. What were they again? Oh yes. Siberian tigers. Huge things they were. Yes, cats would stay in cold places too. There used to be one called a snow leopard, even more shy than the tigers. Snow leopards, cloud leopards - they were the first to go. Even the people looking for them weren't sure they were gone, because they were so shy and they'd only ever see them flitting past their hidden cameras and things like that. But they didn't, not one was seen for years and years and then of course there was no snow, there weren't trees for them to hide in any more. Oh yes, I know there's those little weedy things we call trees now but they're not like the trees we used to have when I was small. They were great big leafy things, higher than houses. Yes, it's true. But there isn't enough water where the trees liked to grow, not enough to support such a huge plant anyway, so they're all tiny titchy things now. Things used to be bigger, in my day. It's all got so small. I remember when there were tigers. 

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Pub Moot

“I don’t think anyone else is going to come along this evening, May. It’s a really nice night, they’re all out in the park or eating their dinners outside or something.”

“Well it’s not like there’s a talk on or nothing, there isn’t an official start time this evening. The cuddly lion is on the table, if someone else turns up they’ll see it.”

“Must be my round by now, I’ll just nip to the bar before we all get chatting.”

“Aye, of course you will, there’s only half a dozen of us here and three times that said they’d come – skinflint! Getting the cheap round in, is that it?”

There’s some laughter at that. He sits back down when everyone ribs him that there’s almost full drinks still in front of most folk, but then says “Fuck it then, I’ll get my own pint, wait for you lot to catch up then I’ll get the round in, fair enough?” The others smile and reassure him they’re only messing, but it’s still awfy nice of him to get the next one in “I’ll have a single malt!” pipes up the resident wit, to much dutiful laughter.

The chat is general. There’s no talk, so they discuss last month’s on reading runes. They talk over the candle magic workshops held in the shop down the road. There’s plans for Conference. Baby talk, family news, general discussion. Just because it’s a collection of pagans and witches doesn’t mean there’s not family dramas and health worries, the price of gas to talk over and moans about running a car these days. Someone has brought a new set of tarot cards and is struggling between wanting to show off the pretty things and the desire to keep the pack to themselves, clean and untouched by all and sundry. It gets put away in the bag before it is properly brought out. There’s a selection of necklaces and trinkets someone’s brought to sell maybe, which get lots of admiration and a few orders. Someone loves the bird ones but “they’re all owls there – got any crows? Magpies? Could you get me a magpie one?” and the seller promises they’ll have a look.

There’s not a huge crowd, it’s the core group. A couple of stragglers arrive, late of course because “Pagan time, eh?!” and they debate moving outside into the late sunshine. They decide not to because of midges and the sun being just the right height now to strike into the eyes. Wisecracks are made about solar gods and their demands for attention.

The evening progresses. There’s the beer festival types, a pair of hearty, round-bellied men who have been processing round fields since they were lads running about in the altogether. They are practical and bluff and always drinking pints of some alarming looking dark lager or pale wheat beer, whatever is new on and out of the ordinary. They’ll compare notes on the beer and swap recommendations for varieties that some folk think they must have just made up, so daft are the names. The heckled one from earlier eventually manages to get a round in, since the new folk all went and got themselves and everyone else drinks when they arrived. Fag breaks are taken, various people sloping off outside to stand in the summer air and smoke while staring thoughtfully at nothing much.

Most of the women regulars are there, diverse in everything except for their sense of humour. They laugh wickedly at bawdy jokes, but they deny that they cackle, ever. They swap photos and recipes and crafts. One or two are in floaty velvety skirts, one or two in jeans, one or two in summer dresses. they are of all ages from grandparents to still needing ID for the bar staff to serve them. Anyone looking on would have wondered what this group of people had in common. The cuddly lion gives nothing away and the magazines on the table can only really be seen from close up.

A group of four or five younger lads come into the pub, happy and nearly full of cheap beer deals from the local pubs. One or two of the moot look askance at them, wondering if there’ll be trouble or rowdiness. They can be rowdy themselves of course but it’s still an inconvenience to have someone else be rowdier on a quiet evening.

One of the lads casually scans the room while his friends shout and laugh and mock-punch at the bar. He is clutching a pint of fizzy lager. The lion catches his eye, he squints at it and laughs in that wobbling drunk way. He sees the magazines, comes over for a read.

“Aw here, you’re some othey pagans int ye?” he says to one of the younger women from the floaty skirt group. She nods, unsure which way this will go. Some of the slightly older, more bold, women smile broadly at the newcomer, sensing a chance to spread the good news that they weren’t about to start making blood sacrifices or dance about in the altogether.

“Used to know some pagans. One. Used to know one pagan woman. Load of shite, isn’t it? Just an excuse to get dressed up weird and prance about in a field getting your feet wet at dawn instead of having to get up and go into a church of a morning.”

The beer festival types adjusted their glasses and refolded their arms, gazing out at the pub in quite a focussed way while apparently not paying any attention to the young man with the lager.

“I mean it’s pish, isn’t it?” the young man persisted. The young woman giggled nervously and the smiles from the others faded a little, looking more like gritted teeth.

“Are you a witch, then?” asked the man, looking at the youngest woman there. She coughed nervously.

“Well... I’m a beginner really, wouldn’t presume but yes, I suppose... I could be described as... some would say I’m a lone practitioner... ”

The young man swayed a bit and raised an eyebrow at her. He burped and her hesitant self-definition tailed off.

“Shite.” he said emphatically. “Pile. Of. Shite.”

“Now there’s no need for that pal, we’re only having a drink and a chat same as you” one of the less-young women said. The youngest man at the moot, sitting in the woman’s shadow, nodded although he looked less confident than he was trying to.

“And are you some sort of priestess then? A witch too maybes?” the man with the lager addressed the woman who had spoken.

“Now I don’t mind sitting talking to anyone about paganism but you’re out with your mates, maybe this evening isn’t the best time... ”

“Aye it is. I’ll tell you why, too, because I’ll not see yous again, I’ll not drink in here the same time as you lot.” he replied. 

He didn’t sound all that belligerent but one of the beer drinkers replied “Now that’s a bit rich, son, we can have a drink where we want, same as you. No call to be discriminating or anything.” There were nods and murmurs from those gathered.

“It’s nothing to do with that, that’s not it at all. I’ll tell you what it is, yous are a cult is what you are. Stole my girlfriend so yous did.”

One of his friends at the bar overheard the slightly raised voice and turned. He groaned when he realised what was happening. Grabbing his own pint, he wandered over trying to look nonchalant.

“Hi folks, what’s happening here? Having a good night? Never mind wee John here, he’s no meaning any harm, he’s had a pint is all. We’re no for causing any trouble.” He smiled at everyone, nodding slightly at them all in turn.

John wobbled slightly as he turned to look at his pal. “No I’m not causing any trouble Paul, not a bit. I’m just telling this lot of cultists about Jennifer, that’s all.”

“Aw John c’mon, they don’t want to hear that” Paul protested, attempting to steer John away by one elbow. John shook him off and turned back to the moot though.

“Yous like stories too, don’t you? Jennifer was forever telling me stories and how that folklore and stuff is dead important like. Never listened to the half of it, to be honest with you. But you like stories, don’t you? Here I’ll tell you a cracker of a tale then.”

John thumped his pint onto a spare bit of table, slightly sloshing the lager out of it. He found himself a chair and clattered it onto the floor, sitting down on it without too much trouble.

The folk at the moot sighed and gritted their teeth some more. It was a pub, after all, and John might be obnoxious but he was right that he wasn’t causing actual trouble. Paul sighed, muttered something that might have been an apology and headed back to the bar, although he kept looking over at his friend to make sure all was OK.

“Right, see, I used to go out with this lassie Jennifer, ken? Nice lassie, good looking and that, beautiful long red hair, pale, never bothered with the fake tan although she didn’t mind showing off a bit of skin. Great pair of pins on her, too. Nae kids or nothing. Couple of years younger than me, she’d a good job and everything, receptionist in some fancy place in town.”

“We’d been going out for a few years, her pals set me up with her – her mate used to go out with one of my mates, you know how it goes yeah? Anyway they set us up and we got on alright. Went to the pictures and that, we’d go to the pub but we wouldn’t get totally wellied or nothing cos that’s useless if you’ve got a bird you want to go home with, you know? You’re useless with drink in you. Used to go for walks in the country too, like a pair of old gimmers. Jennifer loved walking in the country, said she was closer to the goddess out there or shite like that. My flat was next to a park, dead handy for nipping out for a walk but you’d to watch on the weekend nights because the neds would be out having a drink there, ken. There’d be broken glass about a lot, Jennifer was one of they kind-hearted souls that would go out and clear it up in case some wee cat cuts its paw, or some wean fell over and burst its hand.”

“We talked about getting our own flat and that, somewhere a bit quieter, we were saving up for the deposit. I worked in a building site, nothing fancy, I was a joiner, but it paid alright and it was a laugh, all the lads. Jennifer used to hint it’d be good to get a place together, for when we were wanting weans ourselves. I would ignore that bit, wasn’t ready for all that pish, I liked going out for a pint or two with the lads, liked having Jennifer just to myself. Anyway we spent most of the time at my bit, since the park was there and that. She’d only a wee basement place right in the middle of town.”

“Jennifer was always into that New Age shite, she had candles all over the fucking place, joss sticks and all sorts. Used to stink to high heaven, the lads would give me some amount of stick about sitting around getting stoned all the time, just because I’d come away from Jennifer’s place smelling like joss sticks if I was over there. ‘Aye yer tryin tae hide it wi they joss sticks, but we know whit yer daein in yer spare time pal!’ they’d go. It was a laugh, ken?”

“Anyway the site I was on got stopped. Still don’t know what happened, think the developer went bust. We were all gutted, we’d been counting on that bit of work to get Christmas and that, it would have done us all well. Big office building in the town, you’ll see it if you go past in the seven bus – big building site with bits of plastic still over it and half the bricks lifted by toerags.”

“Jennifer says it was OK because we had a wee bit saved and I’d get a new job nae bother, but I didn’t want to get into the savings. Jennifer said it was alright, she’d ask those tarot cards of hers what would happen and do a wee spell to attract success. I said alright, although I thought it was a lot of pish, but you’ve got to keep them happy you know? No point causing upset.”

“So she’s doing all this divination shit in her spare time, I’m tramping all over town looking for work. Anything, you know? I’m no proud, I’ll work in a shop or with the clenny or anything you know? Not that you get a job with them, mind. But there’s nothing doing, cos this site had shut down just as all that trouble started with the economy. Place is full of unemployed builders and that, we’re all running into each other at job centres and recruitment places and offices. Nothing doing. The only thing going was some wee smiley recruiter guy wanting us all to emigrate for jobs building in Canada, Australia, the Middle East – somewhere fucking miles away from here. When we get back to my bit there’s Jennifer mucking around with her spells and all that pish, telling me she’s helping out that way. She even stays in a couple of nights she tells me are the ‘most auspicious for the working’.”

“Whatever it was she was doing it wasn’t working like she said it would. Every time I get to a supermarket that said it’d a job it had just been filled. Tried one of they call centres, full of alarms going off and folk cheering one another on if they sold something, I couldnae stick it after some snotty little shite of a supervisor shouted at me in the middle of the office. Just because I wouldn’t scare some poor old woman into buying some pish burglar alarm she didn’t need. I had to leave instead of punching him, but that was me with no money.”

“So Jennifer gets in from work and I’ve been in for a few hours. Got a carry out on the way home, as you do, because I’d a couple of quid left in my pocket that Jennifer had tapped me for my lunch, course I never got it because of walking out, and it’d been a shit day. This would be last summer, so it was a nice night like this, I’m sitting on the back green drinking my carry out and smoking, minding my own business. The upstairs neighbour had come and taken her washing in, think she didnae want it smelling of smoke but she was dead nice about it, ken? Never a bother off her, nice wee wummin. So nae harm there.”

“So Jennifer sees me out the kitchen window, she comes down to see what’s happening. I’m in a mood, right, cos I never thumped that guy at my work and I wasn’t going to get paid for the work I had done since I’d left with no notice, and I’m thinking I should have taken up that smiley fella on the job in Canada when I had a chance. That last job was shit, imagine telling wee old wummin they’ve to be feart in their own homes of burglars and rapists and all that, just sos you can sell them some piece of pish alarm.”

“But anyway, Jennifer comes down and gets stuck in to me. Where had I been, why hadn’t I checked my phone, did I not realise she’d been after trying to phone me all day to meet her in town? I wasn’t in the mood for any of this, and I said so.”

“’Oh you’ve been drinking have you’ she says to me, seeing the cans and that. Something about her tone, she sounded really preachy like. It annoyed me, anyway. So I told her that aye, I have been drinking, what’s it to her?”

“She gives me this look like she can’t believe me, then bursts out crying and storms off up the close.”

“So, the girlfriend does that kind of shit you’re thinking, arse, better follow her and make nice, right? I chased after her, but I’d just picked up a beer can and I still had it in my hand when I went up the stairs.”

“I gets in the house and she’s lying on the bed crying. I’m thinking this is a bit much for me just standing her up in town when I never even realised I was supposed to meet her, and me having lost my job and that and not having any money.”

“I’m standing in the bedroom doorway, still annoyed but feeling bad too because she’s really upset. So I ask her what’s the matter.”

“Takes her a couple of minutes to calm down, but she sits up and wipes her eyes and sniffs and that, looks at me.”

“’Donna phoned me, she told me you’d walked out on that job, I thought she was winding me up.’ she says to me. I’m cursing Donna in my head now, totally forgot she worked in that office didn’t I? ‘How could you, and then here you are getting steaming like you’ve not a care in the world!’”

“’Aw here now wait a minute, I’d a really shite day and I wanted a beer, Jennifer! You’re no going to tell me now I can’t have a can or two at the end of a day are you? Not exactly a teetotaller yourself are you?’ I says back to her.”

“’I’ve not had a great day myself’ she said, crying a bit again. ‘And I’ll be teetotal for the next few months now, no thanks to you!’”

“Now, I wasn’t wellied or anything but it took a minute til I realised what it was she was saying. I didn’t know what to do, to tell you the truth – we’d never talked about having a baby or anything and it was the worst timing in the world, you know?”

 “’You’ve never fell pregnant have you?’ is what I said – I know, I ken by your faces, I know it was a shitty thing to say. But c’mon, she’d just threw this at me all of a sudden, she was upset, I was having a bad day already... I’m no proud of saying that, I’ll tell you that much.”

“The look on her face though. Looked like I’d said I’d stabbed her favourite pet or something.”

“’Aye, I’m pregnant! Wasn’t sure how you’d react but I’d hoped it’d be better than this!’ she shouted.”

“’No, Jennifer, love, that’s not what I meant. I just meant... how? How’s this happened? You were always so careful with that sort of thing!’”

“She was wiping her eyes again, she was a total mess. ‘I know. It must have been that spell I was doing.’ I’m looking at her now like she’s fucking mad. ‘I’ve been doing this spell to encourage growth in our fortunes... I thought it would mean like job fortunes and that, but we’ve been fortunate with a growing family instead. Aw John, what are we going to do? I was going to tell you this evening, maybe get a bite to eat, I thought we’d be OK because you had a new job and we’ve a wee bit savings, we could all stay here together and it’d be fine, I never wanted to tell you like this but when you didn’t phone me back and then Donna told me what happened at your work... what will we do?’”

“I should have gone and cuddled her, told her it’d be alright. I should have been supportive, should have said I’d go back and get my job back the next day – I’d have begged them, even that snotty wee shite of a supervisor. I mean, Jennifer was something special, she was beautiful and smart and funny and she would have been such a good mum to our wean.”

“But she was sitting on that bed, scrubbing her eyes with one of the huge pile of paper hankies round her. Her face was all blotchy and her work make-up was running all over the place and she was talking, seriously, about a magic spell going wrong. I just... I couldn’t face it, I couldn’t hack it at all. I lost the plot a bit. I’m not proud of myself.”

“I’m still holding this beer can that I never opened yet. I’m trying to get my head round what she’s telling me, and I panic – having a baby together means I’m always going to be tied to this maddie with her spells and her sweeping the pavements and that, and I just couldn’t see it. I don’t know what got into me, I still don’t know now.”

“Before I realise, I’m shouting at her instead of going and giving her a wee cuddle, I’m screaming instead of being happy that someone like her would even think of being with a jobless loser like me.”

“’Stupid bitch!’ I’m shouting ‘How could you be so fucking careless? Did you plan this? Is this what all y our joss stick shite is? Trying to trap me here with a baby I don’t want in a flat I don’t like with some mad witch?’”

“She doesn’t even cry though, she just goes sheet white and sits and looks at me like I’d hit her. Then she gets up and starts gathering the clothes and that she’d left at mine. I tried to stop her, I’m saying ‘Jennifer, I’m sorry, you know I don’t mean that’ and ‘Jennifer, please, I’ve had a drink too many, of course I want you to stay, you and the baby and me, we’ll be a family’ but she’s pushing past me and throwing stuff in this bag and trying not to cry again and...”

John stops and stares into his pint glass. The folk at the moot hold their breath. The youngest woman has her hand to her mouth, dismayed.

“I’ve been over this bit most, you know? I still can’t. I don’t know what happened. I was only trying to get her to stay, to talk, but... I must have pushed her by accident, or she’s tried to get past me and I’ve stopped her... ”

“But she’s fallen over, see, she’s... she’s tripped over the bed or the chair or something, but she’s got her hand up to her eye and I’m horrified because the beer can has hit her on the side of the head. I’m looking at Jennifer picking herself up and I’m looking at my hand holding the can, I’m shocked, I didn’t take a swing for her I swear I didn’t... but when I drop the can and hold my hands out to her she backs away and flinches. She edges round me and runs out the door, and I hear the flat door slam.”

“I think she’s gone back to hers or to her pal’s or something but I sit on the bed and see her shoes on the floor, then I see her coat’s on the chair. It’s a nice night but all her stuff’s in her coat and where’s she going to go round this place with no shoes? So I’ve grabbed them and run out after her.”

“I’m looking up and down the street for her when I get outside. I never thought to shout on her, I couldn’t tell you why but maybe I was thinking I’d scared her enough so I didn’t want to be shouting in the street after her. I get lucky, I see just the top of her head as she’s making her way into the woods down the path there.”

“So I run after her into the wood, and I swear she ran faster than was natural. I should have been able to catch up dead quick, it wasn’t that big a path and she wasn’t that far in front. The wood looked different, too. It’s one of they wee scrubby bits of wood, few trees and a rope swing kind of idea. But I was running for ages and couldn’t hear the traffic any more. There were no folk out walking dogs, nothing but birds singing and me running with Jennifer always just ahead of me.”

“I charge round this corner and almost fall into a burn. Now, I’d been in and out that woodland loads of times walking with Jennifer and I never once saw a burn there. She’s stopped, or tripped, she’s kneeling at the burn, crying like her heart was breaking. I stop a wee bit away from her. I can’t just run up to her after what’s happened. So I stop and try and talk to her but she never even looks my way.”

“’Jennifer’ I’m saying ‘Sweetheart, please, please just look at me at least. Darling, I’m so sorry’. But she doesn’t move.”

“’She’ll not listen to the likes of you again, John’ this voice says from the edge of the trees. I’ve never had such a fright in my life. I looked over and here’s this mad old woman walking out the trees. But she’s no old really, what’s happened is her hair is covered in spider’s webs. She’s got bits of moss on there and lichens and that, her dress is filthy. Long brown and green dress, there’s more bits of moss on that too. I can see spiders walking about, centipedes – it was minging. Looked like she’d been buried in the wood and just got up.”

“’Who the hell are you?’ I asked her, she just smiled at me. Her teeth were all rotten too. I’ve never seen anything like it. Could have sworn there were things wriggling in her smile, her face – maybe it was just that I was so rattled by her coming out of nowhere like that. She walked over to us and she looked like some sad old woman, bit stooped, bit grubby but no as bad as I’d thought.”

“’You’ve caused harm to this girl’ she says to me, she’s leaning over and moving Jennifer’s hair out her face. Jennifer’s still lying there greeting, as if she can’t see us at all. This woman, she reaches out and touches Jennifer’s face. There’s a big red mark there where I... where the beer can must have hit her. The woman just reaches over and touches her face on the bit that was hurt, like she was brushing her fingers over Jennifer’s face or something. Then she stood up straight and did the same thing to her own face.”

“I’m standing there not knowing what to say. Jennifer’s no talking to us and there’s this weird old woman in her old coat and long skirt, really tall cos she’s standing up straight like, like some picture you’d see from way back you know? Really old fashioned looking but standing staring at me like I’m the freak that’s out of place. I’ve never believed in ghosts, never, but this woman – it was weird. She was weird. Freaked me right out. She had this long grey hair and it’s put back in one of they things, a bun, that’s the style. I’d only seen them in old films on the telly before. She’s standing there bold as brass as if she’s got every right in the world to be there and to talk to me and Jennifer. She didnae look so old and cobwebby, I mean... the longer she stood there, the more I thought she looked like one of they women out of the old world war two black and white films, you know?”

“’Who the fuck are you?’ I says to her, she just keeps looking. ‘Are you going to say anything or are you stupid or something?’ I says.”

“’You’ve caused harm to this girl’ is all she said.”

“‘She’s hardly a fucking girl, is she? Grown woman, creating a scene out of nothing and what’s it to you anyway?’ is what I says back, cos I mean who did she think she was?”

“’This girl is a child of mine and under my protection’ she said to me. And I’m looking at her and I swear to God – her face has got a mark on it now, same as Jennifer had. And I look at Jennifer and she’s not crying anymore, she’s just staring away into the burn, and there’s not a mark on her. She looks dead peaceful. If I didn’t know better I’d say that strange woman had taken the mark and hurt off her. And the woman, I don’t know how I thought she looked like one of they old fashioned women because she looked like one of you here” John waved his arm in the direction of the moot women “she’d a big floaty skirt and loads of necklaces and that, long long wavy hair.”

“’What are you talking about? I’ve never clapped eyes on you in my life!’ I tells the woman, she smiles at me. She stands there and smiles.”

“’I am Mother’ she says and waves her hand in the air ‘and I will not allow harm to come to this creature in my care’”

“I hears this scream, right next to me. Made the hairs stand on end on my neck.”

“When I look down, Jennifer’s no there anymore. There’s no a sign of her. I’m looking about, trying to figure out what’s going on, and I see this big red fox just disappearing behind the woman. ‘What have you done with her?’ I’m shouting at her, but she’s still standing there with this huge fucking smile on her face. Totally eerie it was. The fox looked out at me too, then turned and walked off into the wood.”

“’You won’t see Jennifer again, I will keep her and her children with me now’ the woman says as I’m watching the fox. So I looks round to ask what she’s on about and the woman’s gone. This wee lassie is there, she laughs at me and runs off. I looks round again where the fox was and it’s gone. Gone. I’m standing there in a muddy path surrounded by smashed Buckie bottles and there’s no one there at all. No Jennifer, no woman, no fox, no burn.”

John’s audience all look at one another or take a hissing breath. He swigs a huge mouthful from his pint, and another. He sets the glass, now mostly empty, down on the nearest table and sways slightly as he looks at all the people looking back at him.

“That’s how I says you’re a cult. I never saw Jennifer again from that day to this, and I never knew what happened to my wean. She never got in touch with me to tell me. No one did. I caught hell off her parents and that... well. I don’t want to go over that. But I’ve got no time for you bunch of fucking weirdoes and I’m not going to drink in a pub that you meet in. Just so’s you know.”

John turns, a bit unsteady, and walks off out the door. Paul at the bar swears and heads out the door after him.

The moot are silent. They look at beer mats, pints, the ceiling. They don’t yet talk over the story they heard.
They might have stayed for a few more drinks but they’re all busy or tired so they start drifting off. The beer festival men drain their glasses and murmur a goodbye as they head for the door. One of the women gathers the leaflets and the lion. In ones and twos they head off. The youngest man is left on his own, finishing his pint. He takes it outside to have a smoke and a think.

Paul walks back towards the pub, looking none too pleased. “Is he alright?” the young man asks him.

“What?” Paul says, obviously startled.

“Your friend, John, is he alright? He, well, he headed off really quickly and he’d had a few, I just wondered, I thought I’d ask... ”

Paul sighs and takes out his own packet of fags. “Aye he’ll be fine in the morning like. He’ll sleep it off, he’ll have one of his pills, he’ll be fine.”

“Pills?” the young man asks.

“You heard him, didn’t you? Do you think you can go around telling the police your missing girlfriend turned into a fox and ran off with a forest goddess without getting put on some serious pills?” said Paul.

“Oh. Er. Oh. Did that... that happened, did it?” the young man asks, his eyes wide “I thought maybe... look, no offence to your friend and that, but I thought he made it up... ”

Paul laughed, but he didn’t sound too amused. “I thought you were one of those pagans that John’s always slagging off. Isn’t that sort of thing right up your street? Christ, you know you’re far gone when the group you claim did you wrong says you’re exaggerating your claims.”

“Yeah, but, I mean I worship nature and the divine feminine in all things, but you’re saying this guy met a goddess in the wood next to his flat?”

“I’m saying no such thing, and he’s not supposed to if he wants to stay out the hospital. But aye, John says that sort of thing, mostly when he’s had a few these days. His girlfriend disappeared right enough, her mum called the police the same night because Jennifer had been on the phone to her all excited about some news she wanted to tell John first, then she never called her mother back. Of course the police wouldn’t do anything for a couple of days, they called her phone, the house phone, John, couldn’t get anyone. She hadn’t been at work, they’d been phoning her too.”

“The police went round to her flat and no one was there. They found John dead drunk in his living room, he’d been drinking for two solid days. Raving about this fox and this mad woman and some wee lassie next to a burn that’s not there. It’s barely a few trees next to his bit, there’s no way he could have been lost the way he said he was. All Jennifer’s stuff was there, even her shoes and that, but no sign of her and she’s never turned up again. The police have looked, they questioned John for hours, days, but they couldn’t find anything except that there’d been a wee scuffle in his flat and he admitted that he caught her one with a beer can. Her bank account hasn’t been touched but... well, she’s never turned up, one way or another.”

The young man suddenly shivers. Paul stubs out his cigarette.

“Anyway, best if you leave it be, pal. John won’t come back here now, you heard him – he can’t stand anything like you lot now. It’s not like he gets aggro mind you, I mean I’ve seen him cross the road to get by someone who looked even a wee bit like a hippy. John never used to have a problem with anyone, but now... I’ve known him most of his life. He’s changed.” Paul looks into the distance, shrugs. “Sorry if it upset your evening, like, but he wanted to tell someone. He does that sometimes.”

Paul claps the younger man on the shoulder. “You take care then, pal. See you after.” He turns and goes back into the pub. The young man hears the other men at the bar cheer drunkenly as Paul returns. He shivers again, stubs out his own cigarette and finishes his pint. He heads off for the bus.

The Trees

The trees colonised the old roads far quicker than anyone had anticipated. When the cars stopped working, when the people finally gave in and realised that they would not be motoring anywhere ever again, when the big supermarkets realised that their carefully hoarded profits were all going to be spent on keeping their dinosaur lorries rumbling along in their accustomed ruts, when even the Prime Minister’s incantations and repetitions became ineffective, the trees moved swiftly.

First were the sycamores. Some who took an interest in this new field of arboriculture were surprised by this, but these pioneers had always stuck enterprising roots into the cracks at the side of the roads. Now that there were no machines to poison them or council workers to sweep them away they gripped more tightly and threw their whippy little trunks skywards. Their growth outstripped even the weeds. The dandelions and mares tail thrust their concrete-cracking stems through new gaps in the road surface but they could not grow as tall as the sycamores. The hawthorns and elders sheltered a little behind the weeds, and were content to proceed in the shadow of the first trees.

Within a year the roads were becoming less distinct in their verges and cuttings. Overpasses too succumbed to the green commuters, sprouting buddleia and smaller plants to begin with. The bees became more numerous. Rabbits were sometimes seen in city centres, venturing from the undergrowth into the last remaining patches of clear tarmac. The human inhabitants of the cities suddenly began to boast of what variety of wildflowers grew on their balconies and rooftops.

After five years the roads became easy to see again, because they were corridors of youthful trees, birches and holly, enterprising bird cherry trees and some escaped apples. In ten, there were young oaks and elms, fine pine trees and fruiting plums, pears, apples and cherries. The people took to wandering along the leafy roads gathering salads of fruit for themselves. The larger junctions had colonies of bees, their upkeep paid for by the supermarkets who sold the honey and wax products. Some areas of motorway had been carefully cultivated as meadows to provide some of the other things that could no longer arrive by truck. The canals which had fallen into disuse had become commercial concerns again. There was a thriving holiday caravan trade, parked on the roadways alongside the canals and other, quieter, spots. The problem was moving the vans to the picturesque roadsides, as there were no paths wide enough and no tarmaced surfaces.

Also rumours had begun about the dangers of the roads. Some of the papers warned about faceless evil people who were living in the trees and conducting all sorts of horrible business. Most dismissed the claims as sensationalism but nonetheless children were warned not to play on the road in case the bad man got them.

The network of foothpaths that had sprung up through the woods, as they had done on disused railways in the past, began to fall into disrepair in places. Some of the motorway flyovers were condemned and demolished after an unfortunate series of accidents around the country. Thankfully no one was hurt, but it was a close thing and almost everyone agreed that it was only a matter of time before something more tragic occurred.

The avenues of trees no longer ran into one another. Conservationists and the city wildlife experts made calls to preserve overpasses where possible as invaluable wildlife corridors. The recently thriving butcher trade lent their support to the cause as well, relying as they did upon the catch of the urban hunters to supplement the rare shipments of preserved beef and pork. Every town now had a herd of some meat animal, but demand was high from a populace used to cheap chicken and air-freighted beef. They were becoming used to deer and rabbit, supplemented with homegrown chicken and the odd pig. To let the flyovers all fall down would be disastrous, the butchers argued.

All the same, after twenty years it would not be economical, the government argued, to keep trying to repair the lofty overhead forest tracks, riddled as they were with strong tree roots. Some in the relevant ministry professed the belief that the trees must have received help from their misguided predecessors in government as there was no other explanation for how quickly and how thoroughly they had colonised patches of tarmac in the sky, however the ministers stressed that they could in no way be blamed as calling an election took such a long time now that communication had slowed again.

The uncleared stretches of motorway had become uninhabited and untouched, filled as they were with rumours and vagabonds. There had been a spate, a few years back, of fugitives running to and hiding in such patches of forest as they realised that the police would not follow them into the green darkness. Even the criminals would not now venture into the woods though, as few of them seemed to emerge from the other side, and everyone had heard the noises at night or at least knew someone who had. Wicked children were told of Hansel and Gretel and were threatened with abandonment to the forests if they did not behave.
People complained that it was no longer safe to forage even at the edge of the forest but the government could only say that the town-centre routes and reclaimed car parks would do for cultivation. There were complaints for a while of travelling gardeners, living in the wrecks of motor vehicles and tending the town crops for a share of the produce or some other small consideration. The travellers were found to be more reliable with news than the mainstream media outlets and they also knew of some paths through the trees, so soon they were welcomed as a blessing on a town. There were many people who found themselves on the other side of a road from their extended families, it was always useful to know someone who had up to date knowledge of the way through the trees.

After seventy-five years the majestic groves of trees were viewed with reverence. They were properly wassailed, people would only gather fallen wood from the edges of the forests and sickly children would be passed through a tree to heal them.  The people became more insular as the phone lines and cable underground were torn apart by the trees. They worked, farmed and lived locally. The supermarkets became town markets, lots of small stalls in co-operation as the parent companies could no longer bring produce into a town. 

In a hundred years, a young lad was idling away his afternoon under the shade of a venerable chestnut tree. He alternated watching the sun flashing between the gently waving leaves with reading a very old book he had found in the library basement. It gave plans and details for something called an internal combustion engine. The boy understood from history lessons and some muddled remembrances that, once upon a time, there had been vehicles for people to use which were powered by these things. He thought that if he could build one, perhaps from the various bits and pieces still to be found under straw in the darkest reaches of the farm sheds, maybe he could power one of those vehicles and then he could bring people and supplies from the next town far more quickly than the carters did, and with less risk. Still, he thought, if he managed to build such a vehicle, it would need a smooth surface to run on...

The Winter Crone's Husband

This is the story of how the Winter Crone got her husband.

There was a handsome lad by the name of James in the village. His father was comfortably well off, with a small farm and a good herd. His mother had been a village beauty in her day. James was very nearly of an age where he would marry and set up on his own – with a generous help from his father. He was a very good prospect, all in all.

All the village lasses cast eyes at him that spring but none were good enough for him – so his mother told him. Although he would have been happy with Agnes, content with Mary, peacefully wed to Janet, his mother would complain that Agnes couldn’t bake, Mary wouldn’t sew, Janet would lose her teeth like her mother. Gradually the boy James came to agree with his mother. Wasn’t she a good woman who had raised him and fed him and clothed him, and told him all the while what a good clever lad he was and what a good marriage he would make? She must be right about this too, he thought, and soon he saw poor Agnes was not slim but skinny from lack of good bread; Mary wasn’t showing a good bit of leg but ill-clothed from her lack of skill; Janet didn’t have a modest smile as became a young maiden but she was keeping her lips pressed together to hide the gaps in her teeth. Vain James began to think himself a fancy rooster in a yard full of old crows.

“No one in this village is good enough for my son!” his mother would gloat at market. All her cronies would tut and grumble at her, and mutter to each other “There’s a boy who’s bound for a bad end: They do say pride comes before a fall.” But James’ mother pretended not to hear them. She continued to dote on her only son.

“No one in this village is good enough for my son!” she assured her husband. He, who was fed up listening to her havering, merely grunted and went out to see to the beasts in the barn.

“No one in this village is good enough for my son!” she boasted to her sister, who had also married a farmer and moved to the other side of the village.

“That’s all very well and good, but what is he to do about a wife if you’ve turned his head like that, eh?” replied her sister, who had always been more sensible.

Well! Her sister went to retort, but her brain caught up to her mouth, and she was stuck for words. She sat there, her mouth hanging, looking for all the world like a dead fish.

“Exactly. You’re causing trouble with this nonsense. Nothing good will come of filling the boy’s head up with nonsense like this. He could have been courting already, well on the way to giving you grandbairns. Instead he won’t even look at the lasses hereabouts, and goodness knows there’s no one within three days ride who would meet your  standards!”

Again the proud mother had nothing to say. She served her sister the tea and cake, she chatted about this and that, they traded gossip as they always did, but there was a tiny doubt making itself at home in her bosom.

She got no sleep that night as the doubt grew and blossomed. Eventually, her tossing and turning roused her husband. He was always grumpy when first awake, and barked “What ails you woman? If you are intending to pass on this night would do you it more peacefully please!”

Usually his wife would have been sore affronted by such a thing, but tonight she could only wail “Oh, what have I done! How will James ever make a match when I have put him off every winsome lass in the district? He’ll end up by having to marry that Margret, her that’s got the hump and the twisted arm!”

The farmer sighed deeply. He was well awake now and knew his wife well enough to realise that he’d get no more rest until her mind was put at ease.

“Don’t fret, woman,” he said, in what was supposed to be a kindly voice, “For we’ll take him to the wise woman tomorrow. Things are well in hand here, the farm won’t miss us for the day, and she’ll know what to do.”

Thus reassured, slightly, the woman managed to get to sleep, but she was plagued all night by ghastly dreams of hunchbacked grandchildren.

Come sunrise next morning she was rousing the household, rushing through the morning chores and scolding the maid to move more quickly. She even went into the barn and chased the herd boy with a broom to make him get the beasts out more quickly.  

Still yawning and stretching, chewing the last scraps of breakfast, the three set off for the abode of the wise woman. It was a good walk away, for she lived at the edge of the forest next to the hills. It would take them until mid-afternoon to reach the forest, and they would need to shelter in a hedgerow for the night. The weather was pleasant though and the spring birds were calling joyfully from every tree. The primroses peeped out at the fresh sunlight. It was warm enough not to be frosty, but not far enough into the year to be uncomfortably hot to walk in.

Presently they drew near the house of the wise woman. The mother took out the loaves she had baked that morning to give to the woman and also the jug of cream milk that she’d packed carefully in her basket with a cold cloth over it.

The father went to rap on the solid old door of the wise woman’s hut, but he seemed to be cowed by the knowledge of who was inside. Instead he tapped gently with the back of his hand.
There was a great deal of creaking from inside the cottage. After a pause, a short white-haired woman opened the door. She was neat and tidy and smiling, which did not seem to be what the mother was expecting.

“Come away in,” the wise woman said cheerily. Seeing as they’d walked most of the day and brought some of their best produce with them, the family thought they may as well.

The cottage was trim and tidy inside with a neatly raked out hearth and an impressive collection of horse brasses on their leather straps above the mantlepiece. The wise woman sat down in a huge rocking chair, which creaked and groaned like a ship under sail.

“It keeps me company” said the woman cheerily. “Now dears, what can I do for you?”

Gruffly the father explained the problem, that “No one is good enough for my son!” The mother handed over the bread and milk rather shyly. While her husband was talking, the wise woman went to her dresser and fetched a saucer. She did not take her eyes off the man, nodding at his words, as she placed a chunk of bread on the dish and poured some milk over it before setting it on the table.

A shiny raven flew in the unshuttered window and alighted next to the dish. It cawed, in an unusual quiet way, and started on the bread and milk. The mother gaped at it.

“So you see, wise one, we will be stuck with this lump of a lad if you cannot help us” finished the father.

“I do see. And you would wish my help?” the wise woman said. The two men nodded. The mother was still too busy gawping at the raven.

“Well now. I think we can find the woman of his dreams, as you have paid me well in this fine fare. Now boy. You must agree that you will abide by my words, or it will go the worse for you.” James nodded mutely.  “Good enough! Now, I will send you on a journey to meet four ladies. One will be the one for you, it is up to you which it is. They are all wonderful  in their own ways.”

James looked much cheered by this news.

“I can tell you the way to their abode and I can send you on the path – the rest is up to you.” warned the wise woman.

“Can he go now?” asked his father. The wise woman nodded.

“Yes, there is an old pony in my stable which he can borrow.”

“What if he, er, tarries with his new bride?” his father asked delicately.

The old woman laughed. “No matter,” she said, “Old Jock knows his own way home. James can see him off with a slap to the rump, he will return to me in due course. Now. James, lad, the path is not long or arduous. It is how you conduct yourself that will decide which bride you win. It is not for you to pursue these women, they must speak to you first. If you are too forward you will only scare them off. You must let the woman you desire approach you, and once she approaches you then you will have a wife, well matched, for life. You will see them on the path you take, going about their usual pursuits.”

James nodded his agreement, all eagerness to be off. The wise woman looked searchingly at him for a moment, then led the family to the small stable at the back which housed a sturdy pony with a shaggy mane. He was duly saddled and James set off on the path that was pointed out to him.

Indeed it was not a long path, for James felt he had only just ventured onto it when he saw a beautiful pale maiden collecting water from the side of the burn. She was as slender as a new sapling with long pale hair and plump fresh skin. James thought she was the most lovely creature he had seen.

“Excuse me, miss-” he began, quite forgetting the wise woman’s words.

When she heard him speak, the maiden gave a cry and dropped her water jug. She spun around, gave James one wild look then – paf! – she had vanished like the spring breeze.

James was slightly bewildered by this. However, he thought he’d better get on and meet these women the wise one had mentioned. So off he and Jock went.

As the day got later he happened across a woman sitting on a low stool under a tree. She was embroidering and singing to herself. She was an adult woman, thicker of waist than the maiden, more generous in the bosom. Her hair was a chestnut brown and caught behind her shoulders in a handsome golden clasp.
James saw her embroidery and thought it marvellous work. He decided to compliment the woman on her industry.

“Good afternoon, fair lady – “ he began. He got no further though, as the woman looked up in alarm. She met his eyes for a second before a huge cloud of something like dust blew up out of nowhere. When it settled or blew away the woman was gone, as had the stool and the embroidery.

James thought this odd. However, he had a wife to find, so he and Old Jock set off again along the path.
As the sun was making its bed for the night he happened across another woman. She was foraging among some tree roots, although what for on this spring evening James could not think. She was short and very round, as though she carried stores of food with her. Her hair was bright red and was caught up in an elaborate  braid.

James wondered what she was looking for, so he called “Good evening, good woman!”
He got no further before the woman whipped around to face him and, giving a shriek, disappeared in a pillar of flame.

James was in no doubt that this was a strange thing to happen. However, he reasoned that since there was no burning woman in front of him, and no fallen body (having dismounted from Old Jock), there was nothing he could do. And he had a quest for a wife to see to.

So he and Old Jock carried on up the path.

When the sun set the night became bright with stars. The temperature dropped as the night settled in, and soon James was rubbing his hands together and blowing on them to warm them. Old Jock plodded on unmoved by the difference in temperature. Presently a frost formed on the blades of grass along the path. James wondered how long this path was, how far he would have to go to meet these wifely prospects and why he hadn’t thought to ask that of the wise woman when he had the chance.

As he passed through a starlit clearing, a movement caught his eye. Capering around the clearing was a tiny, thin old woman, easily the oldest woman James had ever seen.  She was naked in the moonlight, her tired breasts swinging against her bony ribs and her scrawny legs leaping about in some sort of complicated jig. She was laughing to herself, a high-pitched, thready sort of sound.

James was transfixed. He reined in Old Jock and sat, mouth agape, watching the little old white-haired woman dancing around the clearing. He couldn’t think what to make of the spectacle.

Suddenly, the little old woman spied the bonny young lad sat on the stout pony. With a shriek of glee, she tottered over to James and placed one bony hand on his thigh.

“A husband!” she gloated, “A husband has come along my path, and see he has not scared me off as he did my daughters! My, isn’t fortune smiling on me this night!”

She gave a shrill laugh, and James found to his horror that where she had touched his leg he now felt as cold as the dead. He looked down and saw that there was ice on his leg. As his eyes widened in fear, Old Jock gave a shrill whinny and shied away from him.

James toppled to the ground, unable to make his leg move. The pony turned tail and fled along the path as the old woman leant in and grasped James about the head – one hand on each side of his face – and leant in for a kiss.

Too late, James found voice enough to cry out. He felt himself grow colder, water turning to ice before its time. The last thing his chilled ears heard was the thin song of triumph of the winter crone as she celebrated this new husband.

As to Old Jock and James’ parents, well, when the pony arrived home without the young lad the mother shrieked and swooned, and the father assured himself with a crafty grin that his son merely dallied in the spring wood with some fair young thing.

The wise woman merely smiled and served the raven some more bread and milk.