Under the Willow – A Green Lake tale


(Image found here – Weeping willow )

Grandmother Ida watched Kai run; watched her blunder out of the house, stumble through the rose arch and hitch handfuls of skirt as she hurdled the brook beyond.

“Don’t let those tears blind you long, girl.” Grandmother Ida murmured, turning from the window and contemplating the faded fawn leather of the book in her hand. She riffled the pages, ran a yellowing nail over the achingly familiar script and battened down a wave of sorrow. Life happened to the living. She could do nothing for Marli, dead three weeks; that was for the Goddess now. No, her care had to be for Kai.

Kai flattened by loss, Kai with a tear-stained smile, brandishing a book, the diary, confessions never meant for other eyes. Grandmother Ida had been too slow, her grief too raw for speed of thought. Now Kai was running. Grandmother Ida had watched the girl’s smile turn from pleasure, a chance to connect with one gone too soon, through puzzled frown, to the anguished, angry, tear-filled glare of a wounded animal. She’d flung the diary at the fire, Ida too slow again, and then fled the house, blinded by those tears.

Grandmother Ida placed a hand over her heart, closed her eyes and murmured softly,

“Watch over her. This much only I ask for she must find her way home alone.”

Kai ran. Disappearing into the cool, dim maze of ancient trees and silent carpets of moss, she had no awareness of her flight, her mind whirling, alternating between anger and despair. Occasionally, unconsciously, her body swerved out of danger from fallen boughs and jutting rocks, her hands periodically swiping her eyes clear, but the tears refused to dry. How could she not have known? Twenty years under the same roof and never a hint. Would she ever have been told if Marli hadn’t died? Why had they not told her she was no relation, they were not family? That each had been chosen to be the Grandmother to Green Lake, successors one after the other, she raised to think they were family? What was she supposed to do now? How was she to know who she was? How could she live under the same roof; the roof under which her whole life had been lived inside a lie!

Kai screamed, a throng of birds lifting out of the trees, screeching their indignation at her. Looking up, startled by their flight, Kai caught her foot in a root and ended on hands and knees, fingers and toes digging deep into the drift of yellowing finger-like leaves littering her landing spot. She crawled forward; suddenly aware her flying feet had brought her to the willow. She scurried further, a frightened child once more, curling against the bark, listening to the minute ticks and cracks inside the living heart of her tree, to the gentle whispers as the protective drape of branches and leaves enclosed her, shut out the world. She slept and dreamed.

She walked through woods which were at once familiar and yet changed. Paths she had known since childhood now led to unexpected ends, or forked into new ways. Ancient, revered oaks and willows rustled, whispered, leaned and beckoned with playful pokes of hanging branches or swirls of dancing leaves in bars of golden sunlight. It felt like summer but she knew it was Beltane by a slight coolness to the air, a profusion of new green, yet to attain the richer hues of warm and sunlit days. Water babbled and sparkled in a brook to her side and she paused for a while, paddling her feet in the delicious coolness, connecting with her world, the rushing ripples and miniature waves washing some of the weight from her heart.

A sound murmured across the air, borne on the lightest of breezes, a breath with which it whispered. Laughter, light and carefree, voices back and forth, a patter of feet, and snatches of music, voice and instrument raised in joyous abandon. She stepped across the brook, felt an encouraging caress from the drooping branches of a young willow, content as yet to remain with its roots soaking in clear, sustaining water, but urging her gently on with a branch to her arm, her back. She followed the barely visible path, perhaps no more than a rabbit run, edged with pale yellow primroses and overhung with hazel. Up ahead she saw a thinning of the plants, dapples of light and shade as the breeze danced shifting boughs and stems. She caught flashes of red amongst the green, laced with white, perhaps a flicking skirt hem, a streamer of ribbons.

She stepped off the path and into a clearing. A maypole stood tall and proud, festooned with intricately wound ribbons in a myriad of colours, crowned with a circlet of fresh blooms. The glade was filled with dancing, singing, laughing figures, each holding a ribbon end and whirling about the pole. A woman looked over, smiled, held out a hand and pulled Kai in beside her. She grasped for a stray ribbon, pushed it into Kai’s fingers and set her to dancing. It seemed not to matter that she knew no-one, that the intricate weaving dance was unfamiliar; within moments Kai was bobbing and reaching, ducking and rising, in an ever faster circle, the figures crowding in with her as they came closer to the pole.

Kai realised she was at the centre. Somehow, the whirling, laughing, singing throng had surged her against the maypole and the last ribbons were binding her to it. Each face came close, kissed her cheek and placed a ribbon end into her fingers. Finally she stood, bound lightly to the pole with the swaying, chanting forms all about her, a flute trilling above the low hum of voices, a harp cascading around and through the wordless song. The chant swelled, a pair loosed their hands allowing a new figure to step through and enter the circle. He, and there could be no doubt that muscle and power and masculinity rippled under the hooded cloak of green leaves, walked slowly to the pole. Sparkling green eyes, alight with dancing golden flecks, stared into hers. He held out a hand, tilting his head slightly to one side; a question.

Kai looked at her hands, at the ribbon ends and understood. She offered them to him. His hands closed about hers and her body shivered, heat and strength streaming into her blood. He began to pace around her, the chanting figures matching their rhythm to his, building with agonising slowness as he circled, unwinding, but with each turn she felt herself pulled closer to him, her heart and soul reaching for everything he offered each time their eyes met. The moment she was loose she stepped into him, fitted herself to him, laying her hands gently on his hips, beneath the rustling cloak. He stood a head taller than her and her injured heart craved his protection as his arms came up, slipping the cloak to reveal bronzed skin, well-muscled arms. She pulled the woollen cord securing the cloak and he shook free of it, letting it fall to the floor forgotten as the chanting hit a crescendo, pairs formed and wild, abandoned dancing spread across the glade.

Fires sprang up, food and drink appeared, but Kai questioned nothing, lost in the healing laughter and touch of this woodsman. She plucked twigs from his beard, his dark curls, he playfully considering each one, naming it and weaving it into her locks with deft brown fingers. She saw nothing of the dirt under his nails, the green-stained soles of his feet, the homely weave of his woollen trousers. It seemed natural that he wore no shirt, seemed not to speak, only to laugh and lend his voice to the constant chant which raised and lowered throughout the glade. A part of her, some sensible part which tried to prick her with needles of sorrow, anger, and guilt, spoke of enchantment, bewitchment but Kai found she could ignore the voice with ease, especially when she looked into those dancing eyes and felt his hard but gentle hands lifting her in swirling, giggling dances. She had no desire to be sorrowful, to think of the anger which had driven her into the wood; she wanted only to be lost in him.

Darkness surrounded them, the trees filling with mischievous little whispers and nudges, branches lifting and drooping before and behind couples who turned and stepped and leaped away from the light of the fires into sheltered, mossy dells round about. The chant was being replaced by low whispers, giggles and squirms in crackling leaves, by the muted sounds of love. Kai felt his hand tug, allowed herself to be pulled to a fire which bowed its leaping flames at their approach. Together they leapt over and then they were running. An ancient willow parted its curtain, scooped them inside and let the branches fall over them as they lay in the dry, sandy soil at its feet, naked bodies cocooned in a blanket of pale yellow fallen leaves from years gone by, beds from other lovers they now shared in quiet, powerful, entwined joy.

At some point Kai woke, primrose yellow morning light dripping through the willow fronds. The man beside her, caught in natural form seemed both ancient and achingly young to her loving gaze. A shadow of antlers curled about his head and she knew him. His eyes flickered open, his smile soft, yearning. When she went to his arms once more she knew it was for the last time. Clasped against him she caught a flicker of movement over his shoulder. A branch moved slightly to one side revealing a pair standing there. He could be none but the Green Man, older, wiser than he in her arms, his antlers broad and many branched. At his side was Marli,  tall and strong and beautiful, no sign of the ravaged figure disease had made of her at the end, a crown of willow fronds in her hair. They nodded, smiled and were gone.

She understood now, lying in his arms, their bodies refreshing their commitment and respect for the earth beneath them, and she smiled up into the sunshine flooding over them, blinding her enough that his fading presence was gentle, leaving only a mild wash of longing in her blood. She whispered into the breeze, under the willow:

“You are and always will be my mother for you chose me to be yours, to be your heir and know that I will honour that, always.”

She rose and walked softly away, knowing Grandmother Ida would be waiting.

Ida looked out of the window, saw the dervish of willow leaves dance across her lawn, the shadow of antlers pass through a patch of sunlight and went to put the kettle on the fire. Kai would be home soon.


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