Misremembering a beam from a lighthouse
Mud. Alive and dead. I am large.
I have multitudes. Adair was making his way towards the sweet smell of the kitchen. Saturday morning, August and the ground was cracked with the thumbprint scar of the sun. His Dad was in the kitchen cooking pancakes and singing a song by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The hob had utensils above it, hanging like meat, shelves were piled with plates, bowls and mugs. On the four walls were four prints of paintings framed: Paul Klee’s ‘Angel of History’, a Matisse windows from the Rivera, Pierre Bonnard’s bath and Tracey Emin asking us to ‘tell her something beautiful’.
What is cookin’ good lookin’?
Morning Adair. Bit late for you this morning.
Yes. I have been watching television.
Oh yeah, what was on the box this morning?
I have been watching Elks in Sweden making their annual journey from their summer grazing spot to the foot of the mountains.
Attenborough is it?
Nope. It’s live.
Yes, apparently its gonna take 450 hours, they made good progress this morning. It’s called slow tv.
Why on earth would you want to watch that? Haven’t you got better things to be doing?
Better than watching a group of Elks making a journey they have been making once a year when the ice melts, a journey they have been making for 9,000 years.
What did you do this morning then Dad?
I made pancakes.
Better be good pancakes.
The pancakes were good, in fact they were exceptional. Fresh out of the pan, golden and warm. Flipped by a black plastic spatula onto a white ceramic plate and taken from the stove to the table.
At the table the ritual making began, piled in bowls was his childhood. Summer holidays meant pretending to be normal, discussions about footballers he didn’t know existed, equations, flags and dates which stopped him from being outside, didn’t matter. He had freedom, he had his Dad’s pancakes. Everything was in its right place. Through rising steam, billowing like smoke from a pile of pancakes, he could see fruit, yoghurt and syrup. The great triumvirate. The fruit had been picked from the August hedgerows, thick with summer’s blood, they bulged, expanded and persuaded the picker. He scooped a handful of blackberries and threw them onto his plate like an abstract expressionist; the raspberry, the blueberry, bruised and bleeding. An oozing of yoghurt, sour, creamy and melting slightly under the warmth of the pancake, the juice of the fruit swirled into the white, like a Van Gogh sky. To finish the masterpiece, Adair stands on his chair and drizzles an unholy waterfall of maple syrup over the pillowy mountain. Fork in. Eat. You’ve done it again Delia. … The day had all the hot stillness which makes August the years slowest month. The growing was nearly done, it was now time to reap the rewards. Adair grew more feral each day he didn’t have to attend school. Clothes became a thing of the past, rational sentences were unnecessary, he hardly slept and his hair had grown so long he now looked like a member of Supertramp, without the moustache. The garden had grown out of control too, plants towered over his head, spilled out of their beds and climbed exuberantly along walls and up drainpipes. Everything was exaggerated, extended, overgrown and wild. Adair ate his way through the vegetables patch, throwing peppery courgette flowers into his mouth, popping peas from their pods and crunching into radishes which had just been pulled from their cool, black home. The oaks were now dark green, the leaves had absorbed all the sun they could and now they stippled the sunlight of the garden, their shadows seemed as mighty and ancient as their trunk. They would soon turn orange, red and brown, but right now, they were green. These trees were a thing of beauty and seemed as if they would never dissolve into nothingness. Here I find something to crunch, Next to it, something to munch, It might be red, blue or green, But it will be eaten, if it can be seen. Adair looked at the opening to the woods. A bird with a black coat and dark brown chest stared at him, he was perched in front of a growing scattering of trees, a path, an invitation into a different world. The woods spoke to him. No. They really spoke to him. I am older than you can imagine. I am born out of glaciers, blue and enormous, which once covered the world. Glaciers which rose and fell, glaciers which sunk into the earth like a footprint, glaciers which thumped, swelled and constricted. Roaring ice, which moved, marched, and yelled. Then suddenly it started to melt and retreat, from the epoch of ice, water was born. The ice took on the motion of rivers and the immensity of lakes. I was still waiting. England and France broke apart, an island was formed and we, the embryonic woods began to whisper. Through chalk and clay, through the rocks and boulders, through barreness, nothingness, stillness, emerged the tree. We started to breathe. Wood which had slept under the ice. Deepwood, wood formed from darkness, birches, pines and willows grabbed hold of the earth. We found our way, spread, multiplied, until we established ourselves. Green was born. Walthus, wald, weald, wold, wild, wild wood. Fertile and feral.
Adair shook himself out of this spell, like a dog returning home after a rainy walk and walked towards his Mum who was standing, looking at the house. She spent every Saturday morning painting, it was her way of shedding the skin of the week. She was as upright as her easel, wearing white dungarees and a blue top, her hair pulled up into a bun. What is that you are painting Mum? Adair said with a mouth full of radish. Morning Adair. I am painting the house. Are you? Yes. Can’t you tell? Doesn’t look like the house from here mum. Keep at it though, remember the key is in the detail. She looked at her canvas and then at Adair and couldn’t help but feel a little offended by the critical scorn her ten-year-old son had offered. She reviewed her vision of the house, she could certainly see a likeness. A swift flash of red and the world as seen from the window of a train After offering Adair a seat beside her, she told him that art had moved on from the days of trying to create a perfect replica of the world. A photo taken on a phone can do that perfectly well. I am just trying to make an impression… or an expression of what I see, it is sometimes hard to tell which one. He looked up at the house and then back to the painting. He scrunched his face together, like his nose was a magnet and tried to understand what his Mum had told him. The strange swipes of paint made his left eye wobble a bit, he laughed and looked up at his Mum again. He prodded the earth with his index finger. Okay and can you only make an expression or impression with paint?
No. You can use all sorts. For example, words. That is what great writers do.
Oh, like the wolf you always talk to Dad about.
Yes, exactly Adair, the wolf with two o’s. Adair’s Mum thought of Virginia Woolf walking in the dark, open, fishy streets. The waves breaking one, two, one two, looking like a child’s drawing of a horse. She thought of her walking in Cornwall and the five-thousand-year old wall alongside. The walls were still used for the original purpose of construction.
She thought of the lighthouse. A deposit for
emotion, safety and danger in one tall, sturdy, impossible building. She misremembered looking out of her window as a child, seeing a lighthouse shining its beam for miles out to sea. Lighthouses don’t do this anymore, in fact they haven’t for a long time, they don’t have to, they use radio. It is a communal invention and redirection of memory.
She remembered walking along the shore, searching for those pools of water and light, attempting to find crabs and instead finding urchins, the net in her hand used for hauling in the debris. She thought of Virginia again and her intense, lonely walks. Her changed conception of the world when returning home.
She thought of how Adair, the house, the town and the woods. She was a tough woman, she walked for miles up mountains, looking for the fruit in every direction, sniffing out life. One foot in front of the other, walking herself serene. Finally, she thought of her setting off at twilight. People can at once be fantastically happy and fantastically sad. Well I hope your impression or expression of the house becomes a little more housey soon. Can I have the weekend tale now? Adair’s mum set aside time every weekend to tell Adair a story. They came from all over the world: from novels, folk tales, poetry, mythology and even her own history. The boy would take a seat and allow his Mum’s voice to transport him anywhere she wished. At the end of each tale Adair would hop back up to his feet and re-enter the world with a new story behind him. His mum called this process ‘unfurling’, a story is like raising a sail on a boat, it gives a day movement. Yes of course you can have your weekend tale. Years ago, on this island we call England, the land of angles and ruts, there lived a beautiful, intelligent and strong-willed girl named Ursilla. She spent most of her days working on her Father’s farm, lifting bales, mucking out, lambing and outperforming the boys who worked alongside her. She worked in a dress, her hair swooping down her body. When she wasn’t out in the open air, she wrote poetry; wonderful, vivacious poetry, full of bawdy humour, fantastic tales, sensuality, wit and vitality. Some nights she would perform her poems in the local tavern to a cooing audience of young men from the village, which she would scowl at. She was the talk of the village, every man wanted to marry her, but Ursilla had no interest in the backward, chauvinistic men of the village and laughed in the face of their feeble offerings. She was more than content in her own company and would not be reduced by the hands of a man or a god.
The men offered her their plumpest pigs, milkiest cows, they offered her rings made of the most beautiful rocks found on the coast, necklaces from the finest spider’s webs and jumpers of the warmest wool from the oldest breeds of sheep, but Ursilla was uninterested. If she was to marry, if she was to give up her freedom, it would have to be for love.
Throughout this period of proposal and rejection, Ursilla had the constant support of her father. He was a wise, caring and gentle man and after the loss of his beloved wife, the happiness of his daughter had become the focus of his existence, protecting his daughter from the hands of unworthy men and supporting her right to autonomy, but soon he became gravely ill. On his death bed he left his farm, his house and his minimal wealth to Ursilla.
Ursilla, now in charge of the farm worked day and night. Her back ached, her legs were sore, her skin was bronzed by the sun, but despite all her hard work the farm was quickly losing business. The men of the town, sick of rejection, made an agreement to boycott trade with Ursilla. Her meat rotted, her grain was wasted and the sheep’s wool was piled in barns like mountains of dark clouds.
It had been a long, hard and treacherous winter and at the moment of Ursilla’s greatest despair, Lord Humphrey, the richest man in the village knocked on her door with his soft hands. Lord Humphrey was pompous, he was entitled, but he had wealth. He offered to pay of all Ursilla’s debts and save the farm, but on the condition that she would agree to marry him. Against all of her natural instincts Ursilla was forced to accept the Lord’s proposal and the two were married in the Spring.
Lord Humphrey was, as you can probably guess, a terrible husband. He put the farm up for rent and kept Ursilla inside to look after the domestic duties. Ursilla despised the man, she felt trapped, broken, but had no choice but to endure the fate that had been dealt to her. The one thing she refused to lose control of was her body, she would have no children with such an odious husband and continuously fought off his lecherous advances.
Each night Ursilla would escape down to the riverside. She would sit on the bank and watch the free movement of the water and the phosphorescent shimmer of the moon on the surface of the river. Leaning down and beholding herself in the deep blue, she cried. Her tears dropped into the river in large globes of despair and were carried along the current. These tears, salty and distressed, travelling along the current were sensed and tasted by the tongue of a Selkie. A selkie is a being which is able to change from a seal to a human by shedding their skin, a transformation which can only occur during the spring tide. This selkie, tall, strong, handsome and fiercely intelligent swan upstream to the spot which Ursilla sat crying.
After many long, seemingly endless spring nights of moonlit conversation, the Selkie and Ursilla became lovers. By the winter she had given birth to two beautiful and robust children. Each child was born with a strange webbing between their fingers and their toes, but the midwives would cut these to protect the truth of the children’s origin. Ursilla did her best to hide her pregnancy, then the beautiful children she bore. The secret was bound to be discovered soon enough and it was. On discovering the secret Lord Humphrey’s rage became uncontrollable, he decided to lock Ursilla in the basement of the manor over the winter months. He vowed he wouldn’t let her out of this incarceration until he had killed the man who had insulted his honour. Ursilla laughed at her husband’s declaration and told him the only way that he could find the father of her children was by going down to the river on the coldest night of the year.
It turned out to be one of the worst winters in years and on the coldest night of all, the river froze over. Lord Humphey grabbed his gun, put on his gilet and prepared himself for a duel. When he reached the river, he surveyed the area for the man who he had vowed to kill. He searched along the bank and with no man in sight, he decided to venture out onto the ice. The ice was solid, it must have been a foot deep. Looking down at the ice, he saw a large, round, blue figure floating beneath him. It hung beneath his feet, he could hear the vast creature breathing, but before Lord Humphrey had time to shoot through the ice, a large flipper burst through the ice and grabbed the man’s ankle. The Selkie pulled the man under the ice and plunged him into freezing water which no human could survive in. The husband never returned home and was found miles down the river after the ice had thawed. Dead.
Ursilla was freed from the control of Lord Humphrey and took back control of her farm. She continued living with all the vitality and independence which she had before she had been forced to marry. Each spring, she would make her way down to the riverbank, there she would meet, talk and make love with her selkie until the summer months drifted towards autumnal coolness.
Waking from a dream he told his mum he enjoyed the week’s story, but asked if she could avoid women making love to seals next time.
You’re going to miss out on a lot of good stories.
Continuing his navigation of the garden he made his way towards the vegetable patch in which his Dad had his head buried in the ground and bum in the air; David Bowie was singing ‘The Jean Genie’ out of some portable speakers. Adair hummed along and watched his Dad in the garden for a few moments. He thought about how nice it would be to be a plant, to be covered in rain and then covered in sun, a butterfly with orange tips at the end of white wings float passed his eyes. His Dad was picking some courgettes and throwing them into a bucket, a job which he was completing with huge contentment. The vegetable patch was an extension of his brain, chaotic, but full of love. Apart from the façade of the three raised beds, there was almost no order to the planting and even the wooden perimeters of the beds where almost entirely covered by growing green. These plants were radicals, they had no leader and grew where they wanted. The bamboo poles were the only support they had and even these were pointing, like bad travel advice, in a number of different directions. Some took the form of teardrops, some miniature globes, some grew straight out of the dark soil, others hid themselves under blankets suspended in the air and a few were simply phallic. Herbs lined the borders emitting their heady aromas, dill, rosemary, basil, purple bergamot flowers, sorrel and mint, which seemed to spring up from everywhere. There was a common pulse to the garden and his Dad was part of it, Adair approached him and slapped him on the back.
Morning, how are the veggies?
Check out these beauties Adair, bit of olive oil, bit of lemon, good pinch of salt. Doesn’t get better.
Adair looked at the yellow courgettes surrounded by their flowers in his Dad’s basket. He picked one up and held it up to the sun like a Hellenistic prince, then dropped it back into the basket.
Mum told me a story about a woman escaping with her husband to have children with a big, muscular seal.
Did she now?
Yeh she was called Ursilla and I believe she had no interest in backward, chauvinistic men.
Well as I have always said, you can learn a lot from your mother’s stories.
What is your favourite stories Dad?
Well, I have always loved the stories written by a chap named Thomas Hardy.
Yeh, are they funny?
Maybe not laugh out loud, but someone does throw a pig’s genitals at someone in one of his books. Adair’s Dad had read the novels and poetry of Thomas Hardy from a young age. Starting with Tess and finishing with Jude, he called himself a ‘Wessex boy’ and had always aspired towards the gentle manliness of Gabriel Oak. His wife told him he was definitely gentle, but had some work to do on the manliness. Hardy spanned the time between the Victorian era and the Jazz age, although his words seem to spring from something more archaic, auto-didactic, born from the earth. He was supposedly a rather odd, sensitive and delicate child and one who gained his freedom as thinker from his solitary walk to school. Time and space gave him time to grow and think, boredom gave him room to create and the woman ‘riding high above’ gave his writing potency. Coercion, violence, drunkenness, murder, characters hanging off cliffs, sheep falling of cliffs, but always with the song of a bird in the background. Adair’s Dad stared down at the ground, forgetting to continue the conversation with his son, who in all honesty, had enough of parental conversation for the day anyway. I think it is time I go into the woods. He did with fervour. Numen inest. Two feet rushed him towards the door to a different world, he bid farewell to the real world and the trees engulfed him. In August, the woods start giving hints towards their inevitable sunset, a farewell to greenery and whisper of the fire of autumn, soon the leaves will be charred. Adair loved the coolness of the woods on a hot day, the sun was splintered and air felt clean, fresh and filtered. He picked up a large stick and began using it, it gave his strides extra purpose, each stride felt more prepared for some fresh magic. Usually this meant searching out new greenery and light, but he understood the woods also had darkness, a darkness which was spoken of with fear and trepidation by its inhabitants He had been warned not to be tempted, but with the protection of his new walking stick and a stomach full of pancakes, he felt nothing could harm him and headed towards the darkness.
Afternoon Adair. What a day for it ey?
Said a troll who was sunken against a tree, with a bottle of birch wine in his hand.
Good morning Troll. What is that you’re drinking?
Strong stuff Adair, they are good brewers in this wood, none of that craft beer bullshit.
I wouldn’t know Troll, can I have a sip.
Why not? Might put a few hairs on your chest.
Adair took a sip of the golden liquid, it tasted of sour bark and Adair scrunched his face.
I do not like that Troll. No wonder you look like you’re melting.
Come back and try in ten years my boy, then you might have a taste for birch wine. Adair wasn’t so sure, he thought he would stick to orange juice, if anything that made
him more upright.
What are you doing in the woods today little man?
I am heading to the dark corner!
Are you sure about that my boy? I know a Troll who once walked past the oaks and hazels towards the dark corner and he was never seen again. Terrible shame, he liked a swig of birch wine.
I’ll be fine. I might meet some interesting creatures, plus I have some homemade flapjacks to give them.
Adair pointed to his backpack which contained the syrupy oats, thanked the Troll for the disgusting drink and sootled on. He should have heeded the warning given to him and the ones he received on his journey. Birds squawked about the malevolence and cruelty which lay hidden and the squirrels told Adair that they hoarded their nuts, like stockpiling mothers, in fear of the dark corner taking over the light. Adair’s inquisitive mind felt no fear when he heard these tales, instead he felt a forceful urge to investigate. He had faced plenty of strange, fantastical creatures under the green canopy of these woods and he saw no reason to fear meeting more because they lived in bad lighting.
He knew the way, all you had to do was follow the right pathway of trees, the oaks became hazels, young and bursting out the ground and when the hazels died away you knew you were not far from the dark corner. Firs and spruces were densely packed and the light of the suns light seemed to become strangled and suffocated. Adair was enjoying the change in atmosphere, he felt as if he was being beckoned, the trees began to tower above his head, wider and densely packed. The light squeezed between the dark earth of the ground and canopy of the trees revealed an understory packed with dead and rotting branches covered in moss. Adair suddenly felt as if he had lost his way, he turned around to try and spot the hazels, to see any sign of light beyond the growing trunks of the trees, but he couldn’t. He took a deep breath through his nose and an image of his Mum’s painting appeared in his head.
Hello, my name is Adair, I am a regular in this wood. Does anyone know a way out of this dark corner? I know the Brags and the Rooks.
Adair received no response, but instead strange whispering which he could barely make out. He didn’t know whether they were in his head or from branches of the trees, the words seemed to make little sense, they felt sucked from history, echoes of the past. A refusal of the inevitable
Three black ducks floated motionless in the centre of the pond
the dead often return to the wild
buried in the woods, with acorns above my head
On top of a burial ground
Find beauty, be still Shaking his head and knocking the back of his head with his palm the voices withered away. He decided he would cry for help again. I really am not here to cause any trouble, I just followed the oaks and then the hazels… Please could someone show me the way out of here? At that point something started moving in the ground in front of him. The air started to smell intensively of mud and matter, up through the understory burst a hand. A male hand, covered in dirt grappled with the air, as the hand started moving upwards its owner was slowly revealed. A wrist with a thick, chunky bracelet and a powerful muscular arm covered in dirt and hair. A head, forged from the earth, green fluted strips of moulded twigs, grass and leaves divides its exterior it almost into panels, each containing a pattern. Beneath the green, two eyes could be seen, eyes misted with history, clear and piercing white surrounded by a swelling dark green of the iris. The eyes told a story of thousands of years of mud, of war, of engulfing clouds, of forests and woods, of death and growth, of care and destruction, of deep earth and of England, but they were also gentle. Adair gripped his walking stick a little tighter, but locked eyes with the man. He couldn’t work out if the man was smiling or grimacing, or if the greenery surrounding his face was part of him or if it was decoration. He didn’t realise who he was faced by, Adair thought he looked like a human vegetable. When the man had pulled himself up entirely from the dirt, he stood, legs wide and chest puffed looking down at Adair. Now it is my turn to speak. I am the spirit of the woods. I am the thought of all plants. My face is formed of leaves, my hair is formed of vines, I breathe vegetation, I breathe life into darkness. I have been forgotten, derided, put aside, reduced to a myth. I am beyond politics and economics, I am your roots and make the green cells grow. We are all green men, we are all chlorophyll, we are all born from the soil and will return to the soil. We are part of something bigger than you could imagine, we are not unhappy individuals, alone, we are all part of a glorious forest. That’s a nice introduction for yourself, I usually just ask how people are? Well when you have been buried under soil for one-hundred years you have some time to think of an introduction. I’ve never tried that myself, however I did to eat mud for a couple of weeks. Who are you? Strange child. You sound like Mr Cowan… I am Adair, my face is formed of skin and no myths have been written about me. Do you want a flapjack? Why Adair did you ever think it was a sensible idea to enter this corner of the forest? Could you not see the darkness? Could you not smell the decomposition? And yes, if there is a flapjack going. I don’t know what that smells like, but you smell a little like Dad’s compost patch. There you go. You’re a strange child. Shall we take a walk Adair. Yes, but not for long, Mum usually makes ginger biscuits around this time. Now that is a smell I can follow. What is your name? Well I have multiple, but you can call me Cernunnos. Cernunnos stretched out his fingers, each one shooting a sapling out its fingernail and led Adair through the darkness of the forest. Defiant shards of light found their way through the canopy, but the eerie glow of a dark forest dominated. The light seemed to hover, as if they were underwater, it was dense, compact and beautiful. Cernunnos remained silent for most of the walk, but occasionally pointed out an interesting feature for Adair to observe, like a woodland estate agent he attempted to show the boy that there were pockets of beauty in this wild corner of forest. There were ferns, unfurled, wood sage and foxgloves, boughs of trees, fallen and decomposing were covered in green shawls of moss and mushrooms twisted their way through the soil in communal clumps. They stopped for a moment and Cernunnos pointed to a small sapling growing out of the dark understory, the sapling looked frail and weak. It was tipping over slightly, its leaves drooped. The two walkers crouched down to get a closer look, before Cernunnos inhaled deeply and then exhaled a powerful breath onto the little tree. Covered in life the sapling stood up, its leaves proud again and its stalk erected like a soldier standing at attention. Looking towards Adair, Cernunnos began to tell a little poem: Think of the speed trees grow, out they come from the muck, woody stems and looping tops. Born from meaty black juice, eaten by everything underneath. When I was young I noticed something strange under a mackerel sky, unfurling, between the green, what I thought was a young seedling. This was no vegetable and it certainly wasn’t a weed, I thought to myself whilst swooping to see, That, I am sure, it is the beginning of a tree. I started checking on the tree most days, Peeping up from my book in window-light, day-light, night-haze. I became impatient, I stared, glared and thought, When will you be as tall as me? With each day came a little more time to think, and so, I learnt amongst other things, to move at the speed of a sapling. Laughing they began walking again and Adair found himself in the comfortable position of listening. Cernunnos told him tales from his life: he spoke of the Saxons arriving from the East, the Romans on the shores of Kent, the Heathens in Northumbria, the Normans in the South and even the Spanish in Cornwall.
They tasted one pasty and turned around. Nearly reaching their destination, Adair was told it was almost time for him to leave. The Green Man spoke of time through the eyes of a tree, an impassive observer, history had space, conflict was transient and humans were petulant teenagers. He told Adair about the pain felt when ancient woodlands were lost, to railways, to logging, to business developments, but he also foretold that one days the vines, weeds and trees would return, until finally, they arrived at their destination. Adair dropped his walking stick and looked up at Cernunnos.
Have you taken me all this way to see a mound?
It was true, it was mound-like, it was also in a clearing where the dark, thick trees had retreated; it was a mound and one which was also covered in stones. Piled on top of each other, covered in moss and dirt, they seemed to grow straight from the ground. Now we are not concerned with what is on the surface of this mound, but what is underneath. This Adair, is a barrow, an ancient burial ground. Built from the law that all dead men should be burned, and their belongings laid with them on the pile. Their ashes cast into the sea or buried in the earth. A barrow raises out of a memory and should be built as high as the smoke burnt from the pyre, beneath these stones are the souls of your ancestors Adair, for we are all thousand-year-old humans. I watch as we all return to the soil and become what made us.
Looking at the pile of stones Adair heard the whisperings again, he saw the vines Cernnunos’ helmet starting to grow and he felt a cool breeze move through the wood.
We are a thousand bodies combined We are organic matter We grow from the dead
A cycle of dispersal and reconstitution
Permanence and mutability We will meet again soon
Before I let you go Adair, it is worth remembering something: we are all green and you don’t need to worry about people telling you to avoid the dark, because all the light grows from it.
Before he had finished his sentence he started sinking back into the earth, Adair handed him one for flapjack for the road which he received gratefully and then, he was gone.