We Call the Treasure Knowledge (Cento)

I have been happy, tho’ in a dream,
To follow knowledge like a sinking star
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.

Last night, the moon had a golden ring
And the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,
And the flame of the blue star of twilight, hung low on the rim of the sky.
I saw pale kings, and princes too,
On a cloud I saw a child 
Clustered around by all her starry fays.

Here while I lie beneath this walnut bough,
Which is the bliss of solitude,
I am satisfied–I see, dance, laugh, sing
Oh! ’tis a quiet spirit-healing nook!
But I have promises to keep;
The fair and innocent shall still believe.

Take, if you must, this little bag of dreams
And dearer thy beam shall be.

.

.

This is my first attempt at a cento, Yeah Write’s poetry genre of choice for January. The title is a line from An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician, by Robert Browning. My friends at Yeah Write have been writing centos, too:

that cynking feeling: the stars in secret
G
raceful Press Poetry: Of the din and of the darkness

Into the Earth, Into the Sky

Into the earth
she reaches her hands,
down through the grass
and into the dirt
caressing the roots
and the sleeping bulbs
before she lays down
for a season
to sleep.

As the light
gently filters back
through the clouds,
through her lashes
she lifts up her hands
and, reaching into the
darkness above,
she moves between stars
like a song in the sky.

 

When the Orchids Bloomed

Fynbos on Table Mountain, Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

In the span of a breath, everything changed. Breath is powerful; it can transport and transform you. Sethunya had learned this lesson at an early age. But on this day, it would transform her beyond anything she had experienced. It would carry with it new life.

Early that morning, she had ventured out into the quiet scrubland surrounding the settlement, ignoring the protests from the other women. “You must rest,” they had implored her, “your time is near.”

Sethunya waved her hand to dismiss their concerns and assured them she would be fine. “It’s a lovely morning for a walk,” she said before she turned and disappeared into the sun-gilded mist that had settled across the valley.

Sethunya was young, almost a child herself, though she already possessed great wisdom. Because of this, and her kind and gentle ways, even the older women listened to her. In those days, it was common enough for one so young to be wed and on the verge of motherhood. But her situation was different, for she was not wed and the father’s identity was unknown. Stranger still, she radiated with an inner glow that inadvertent mothers usually did not possess. As her belly had grown, so too had the bewitching twinkle in her eye. And none of the menfolk gave any sign – haughty or otherwise – of having played a part in the conception. So it remained an enigma.

Usually, shaman women did not wed or bear children. Usually, they were older — often elders. And it was certainly unheard of for a shaman to practice while with child. No one could recall one before Sethunya who had been so young, or so unusual.

She was indeed as rare as the orchid for which she had been named, an orchid that blossomed only once a year and, when it did, remained scentless but for one magnificent hour. To the people of the settlement, this orchid was a wonder. And for this reason alone, they might have chosen to name her after its blossoms. But it just so happened that the orchids began to release their scent at the moment she appeared. The perfume, believed to be the most beautiful in all the world, continued to grace each step she took that day, illuminating her with its miracle until nightfall. No one could explain it, just as they could not explain the girl’s mysterious appearance. The settlement’s shaman, the oldest woman among them, proclaimedthat her coming was meant to be and invited Sethunya to live with her. It was she who named her after the orchids.

After the shaman passed on to the stars several years later, Sethunya stayed on in the hut and, despite being only 12, took over the role of shaman, applying all the lessons her mentor had taught her.

Now, at 15, Sethunya had earned the love and respect of her community, and she loved them in return. These lands were the only home she knew, these people the only family she remembered.

On this particular morning, she was following the red, earthen paths worn into the countryside by centuries of nomads, the ancestors of her adopted people. She passed the towering rocks and gnarled branches that left shadowy, mythic shapes in the mist. She breathed deeply, feeling at peace, enjoying the beauty surrounding her. Every now and then, the mist cleared and she glimpsed the sparkling blue of the distant sea.

As she paused beside a small lake to admire the stillness of the water, her child began to stir. Instinctively, she knew she had gone too far to make it home before the birth. Looking around, she saw an outcropping of rocks which shielded a patch of long grasses. It would be a soft place to lie, she thought, and would protect her from the sun when it rose higher. Small white orchids – her special flowers — poked up here and there through the grasses, their delicate starburst blooms dainty among the other plants.

People have been giving birth on this land forever, she reasoned.

She knelt down and prepared herself. Nature welcomed and enveloped her and a calm settled upon her.

Her labour did not last long. At the final moment, Sethunya took one deep breath. In the span of that breath, she smelled the scent of the orchids and was transported. She was free of pain, she was one with the Earth. As she exhaled, the next shaman was born.

Wishing Well

In 1997, I found myself in the middle of a wish-come-true. It was summer, although in Ireland that didn’t mean it was warm. Or sunny. In fact, it was 7 degrees and raining. I bought a lot of woollens on that trip.

My mother and I were there for a three-week holiday in our ancestral land – us and all the hordes of other tourists who flock to Ireland to find a bit of themselves and their family’s past.

I had been studying Celtic Studies in university so I had a rather long list of places and things I was desperate to see. My mother, a perpetual student of art, literature and design and a professional interior designer, had a rather different, more architectural list of things she wanted to see. At least we both agreed on some destinations, including Trinity College, the windswept wilderness, and the sea.

I’m sorry to say that I may have gotten the better end of the deal. We certainly saw a lot of ancient sites: beehive huts, ogham stones, ring forts and seaside duns. My mother was a brave and patient partner-in-crime, though, at times driving back and forth and up and down narrow bohereens with me perched on the open window frame, hands on the roof,  craning my neck to see over the flourishing fuschia that grow so tall along the hedgerows they practically block out the sun.

I was looking for relics of Ireland’s past, now often forgotten, hidden in farmers’ fields and barely accessible (unless you’re willing to pay a small fee, that is).

Earlier this week, in the name of St. Patrick, I dragged out the photo albums from that trip and had a wander down memory lane (memory bohereen? Ok, that’s really a very bad, unfunny joke. Apologies).

There, among the pictures of all the other ancient and archeologically important sites was one of a small well, surrounded by grass so green it was almost fluorescent.

Brigid’s well.

As I looked at the well, the pictures of the pale calves grazing nearby, and my explanatory notes, I remembered how important seeing Brigid’s well had been to me at the time.

Brigid, before she was subsumed into Christianity to become Saint Brigid, was an important Celtic goddess. One of my favourites.

Her name meant “fiery arrow.”

She was the goddess of poetry, smithing, medicine, arts and crafts, cattle and other livestock (she was often accompanied by a sacred white cow with red ears), and spring. She was also associated with fire.

And she was the goddess of all things that are “high”, both literally and figuratively. So, high-rising flames, highlands, hill-forts and upland areas, but also wisdom, excellence, perfection, high intelligence, poetic eloquence, craftsmanship, healing, druidic knowledge and skill in warfare.

What’s not to admire?

This was why we (well, I) had included her well in our meandering pilgrimage.

It is said that this well was a sacred site to the goddess in ancient times, and it remains so today.

It was a place people came to make wishes, generally related to health and healing. They would write their wish on a pebble and throw it into the well. They still do this today.

I recalled at the the time that, according to the legends, there was a sacred hazel tree hanging over the well – a wishing tree. Not being very good with trees, unfortunately, I had no idea as I stood there whether or not I was looking at hazel.

But there were trees, and there was the well, and the calves, and the green, and a soft, quiet rain falling.

It was magical.

I wrote a wish on a pebble and dropped it into the water.

I have no idea now what that wish was. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter.

I often make wishes – wishes when the clock reads 11:11 or 22:22 or some other auspicious time, wishes on wishbones every time I cook a chicken, wishes on stars.

Every time I throw a penny into a fountain, though, I think of the ancient wishing wells that dot much of Europe, and all the little pebbles that lie deep inside them, pebbles that once held people’s innermost hopes and desires.

What did they wish for?

Did their wishes come true?

My brain insists that a wish coming true is just a coincidence, or the effect of a person concentrating their energy on ensuring something they want to happen, happens.

But there are inexplicable things. People being cured. The impossible becoming possible.

Beyond what my brain tells me, I’d rather believe that there is a little inexplicable magic in between all the scientific explanations.

That wishes do come true.

Though I may never again stand at Brigid’s well, I will keep making wishes.

The Apple Tree

Avond (Evening): The Red Tree, by Piet Mondrian

Looks can be deceiving. Things aren’t always what they seem.

That apple tree, for instance. It had a life all its own, growing out there in the forest, stubbornly; a strange place for an apple tree in the first place.

No one even knew it was an apple tree until the year it bore fruit. And it did that just the once and then never again.

People said that it was because of where it grew, in the forest rather than in an orchard, that there wasn’t enough light. They said the one year of apples was an aberration. That it had been bewitched. Touched by evil.

It wasn’t any of their business. The tree was on our land. But they made it their business, because we were different. Because we didn’t go to church. Because it was just us three girls and Mama. Because she was strong and independent and her own person.

People often aren’t what they seem, either.

I don’t blame Mama for what happened, just as I don’t blame the tree, no matter what those townsfolk said. But I do agree with them on one thing. I blame the evil that resides in the human heart.

Back then, when my two sisters and I were kids, we used to run out of the house and across the meadow toward the forest, our bare feet slap-slapping the sandy ground, sending up clouds of dust with each step.

We were drawn to that old, gnarled, twisted and boney tree – it was perfect for climbing adventures and hanging upside down.

One spring day, we were surprised to notice its branches budding. Soon, it was dusted with snowy blossoms that eventually blew down in a smothering blizzard, leaving the ground carpeted, white and fragrant.

Mama smiled when we told her, and she promised to make something with the coming fruit. As autumn approached, the three of us watched with anticipation as the apples swelled and turned the whole tree red. Almost daily we reported their progress to Mama.

Finally, the day came that Mama walked out with us to check the fruit. We waited impatiently as she circled the tree three times, then approached it and placed her hand gently on its trunk. Closing her eyes, she whispered the necessary request to the tree.

“May I pick an apple?”

When she opened her eyes, she reached out her hand toward the closest, reddest apple. It seemed to let go of its branch all on its own to land softly in her hand.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

She turned to face us and, smiling serenely, announced, “They’re ready to be picked, girls!”

We returned to the forest after supper with two baskets and Mama’s instructions.

It was twilight and the sun, just setting in the West, hovered beyond the tree, shining red and gold through the leaves, as though it, too, was an apple.

We set our baskets on the ground and performed the required rites. I don’t know what my sisters felt but I know that when we murmured our request to the tree, I felt a yielding, a giving way. I never questioned it; it was part of the harvest.

As we worked, the sun set and the moon rose, coming to rest above the tree, bathing us in cool, blue light. The stars seemed to swirl around us, as though the tree had a gravitational pull all its own.

When we had picked all that we needed, we thanked the goddess and returned home.

We hadn’t noticed Prue Mondrian hiding in the trees.  Good, obedient Prue. But she had seen us, and heard us and she carried her news home with her as fast as her legs could carry her. Her parents spread it the next morning in church.

The townsfolk stopped at the tree on their way to question Mama. They wanted to see the apples for themselves.  But the tree was bare and the apples were rotting on the ground.

Like the tree, we thwarted their plans. We were out when they came, but they marched right in anyway and saw the two apple pies cooling on the counter and Mama’s pots of apple jelly sitting beside them. When we returned home, we found the pies and jams smashed and trampled on the kitchen floor.

We managed to leave town undetected.

I am an old woman now. Lately, everywhere I look I see that apple tree. But looks can be deceiving.

Word count: 746

Written for the Speakeasy #153 at Yeah Write. The prompts this week were the line “Looks can be deceiving,” and the painting, Avond (Evening): The Red Tree, by Piet Mondrian. Please click on the icon above for full details of the writing challenge and to check out the other submissions.