Day 9: The Hearth-Fire

The hearth-fire carries the heart of all fires within: lightning strike and wild fire and church candle and rage and love. It burns in the pub in the middle of town, devours the wood carved from old fence posts piled up in the pub garden. It crackles and hisses and sings. It listens. It listens to apocryphal tales of sexual encounters and the regaling of lost youth, to flirtations both gentle and dangerous, to arguments, silences, promises and rants.

It feeds on oxygen and wood and on stories.

It flickers in a house across the way and listens to mundane talk of work days, in a gas hob and listens to new lovers flirt, in a match lighting a cigarette and listens to its smoker wax on about philosophy with only half the understanding. And it leaps to life in a candle lit and listens to a young woman recount her encounter with a woman on the pavement outside to her best friend.

“It was horrible mate, it was almost like she wasn’t her anymore. Really freaked me out.” She did not want to use the word ‘curse’ or mention the strange tinnitus she’d been experiencing of late, or the certainty she had that she was being followed.

Day 8: The Witch

The witch does not live in an old cottage passed down for generations, she has not known this land in her veins, she cannot walk cunning ways or cures ills or give balm to the grieving or weave love spells. The witch is not the inheritor of a tradition, neither has she stumbled across one. She has no crystals, cannot cook at a hearth fire or a stove, does not forage and never shall. She dislikes the smell of incense, has no interest in occult practises, has never heard of Gerald Gardner, and only checks her horoscope when she’s forgotten her headphones on the train and takes a free newspaper instead.

She was never disposed towards magic and it was never disposed towards her.

But the threads of old stories run deep, and there is the capacity for witchcraft in all people for it is a thing of the people first. Magic in its truest form cannot be taught, and anyone telling you different is trying to tell you something. It can be learned yes, but any witch knows there are no conclusive answers.

The witch is only the witch in this story because of a curse: her tongue stumbled across it when a young woman accidentally bumped into her on the pavement in town, spilling the coffee she had just bought onto the icy ground. Usually meek and understanding, now stressed and over-wrought, dreading the impending festivities, instead of reassuring the young woman (apologising profusely, failing to clean anything up) she scowled and spat in precise tones, “Oh just fuck off and die.”

She regretted it later, the words had felt heavy as they fell between them. The look on the young woman’s face had been wounded and then confused, as if the witch was mad. She had the strangest feeling, as if they had more power than she’d initially intended.

Day 7: The Village

The village was built out of stubbornness more than practicality: a farmer who refused to part with his children settled there around a cool, clear river, halfway up the moor, and so – as it was a beautiful landscape, and the farmer’s family knew how to work it – suitors came to them, and slowly, a family amassed, and amassed others until after a few centuries, a bustling, if remote, settlement was there, boasting their own church but only a curate.

Through the centuries it became prosperous and then declined into a shabbier affair, many moving away to the city or going to war or simply leaving, until eventually it was swallowed whole by a local suburb, which wove a spell of its own, a tarmac trap, a brick labyrinth to be walked by its residents unceasingly.

All its remoteness was forgotten on the surface, though it crackled beneath like embers of a hearth fire, its previous life only hinted at by the squat little church, the facades of older buildings, and the old bridge, perfectly preserved within the foundations of the main bridge, now an a-road.

The hills however remained unpopulated, an unconquered land against the tides of the industrial revolution, defiant in their indifference. They watched, with only mild interest, the progress of the small, strange village in their shadow and wondered if and when it would ever return to its true state as soil. And they knew, deep in their chalk bones, that beneath it the hunt still stirred, the hounds still howled, and that witches were not so much abroad as they were just popping out for errands and would be back within the hour.

Day 6: The Hunt Themselves

The hunt, the hunt are wild, they are feral, they are seething with existence because it should not be in them: they are dead, or they are not-alive, or they never were. Their mounts are woven into them, their purpose is one single thing: chase. Chase the hounds, chasing the quarry, over the hills, follow the siren call of their Master and his brutality.

Once, many of them might have been village boys or local lords bubbling with their own potential for killing, their own desires for destruction; or many were mycelium not content with rot, but wanting feasting; or they spilled out of the fearful minds of men and foxes and deer. They are the manifestation of a hundred hidden hungers, none of them kind.

They are a frightful sight, tearing across the moor, through the woods, as if the woods themselves have been possessed by rage and evil, by bloodlust and cruelty. Their shrieking and snarling is no longer a language to be understood by thinking things.

They only want to chase, and eventually devour.

Day 5: The Hills

The Hills have seen all things before and they will see them all again, they are crouched over the village, scowling, as if trying to discern something about its residents: they feel the hunt beginning to stir, the hounds begin to run, the Master of the Hunt decide on his quarry, the girl tramp the old paths unknowingly tempting her fate. They feel the hero turn away. They do not care, but they are interested, in the way a distant, well-meaning relative is interested; in the way somehow who has not had good entertainment in a long time is interested.

And so they watch, wondering if things will go differently and knowing they won’t. Remembering when it-was-all-marsh-here, and no roads existed, and no church bells rang, and the air tasted different, and no one had dug into their bones and rummaged around and taken what they wanted.

The Hills are steeped in blood, and they know more is to come. Having no hunger, they are indifferent.

Day 4: The Hero

There he is, gleaming, proverbial armour shining in the low winter sun. He ascends the hunched shoulders of the moor and looks down into the valley. He has been tracking demons for days now, but he cannot quite find their nest. The woods bathe him in a sense of unease. They are too old.

There are stories that were made for him, woven for his deeds, spun out for his many merits. This is not one of those. There are maidens he has saved from perilous fates, monster he has battled, dragons he has mercilessly slain. This is not such a tale.

Once, perhaps, in a time long gone, he might have challenged the Master of the Hunt, thrown him down and defeated him, dismembered his pack, made love to the quarry he chased. But those times are gone, and so is he, blond and beautiful and a lie, trotting back into the soup of the subconscious.

He will not save her, or any of us. He no longer knows how.

Day 3: The Quarry

She always knew she was born to run away, she’d felt flight coiled within herself her entire life, waiting, biding its time before it let loose and her feet carried her far far away. It was not neglect or hardship or pain that drove her, indeed, her life was comfortable and largely kind. No, it was an instinct utterly known and understood but never yet acted upon: run away, get away from here, build a new life, be someone different. Run. Run.

She swallowed it down, even when the desire turned to an ache, a need in her limbs to bolt. She repressed it until her sinews knew it only as normal that they might feel so taut and tense. Only when she walked did she find peace from it, only the meandering hikes she took alone gave her respite.

Sometimes she even forgot about it.

That day, dreich and dark and grim, as she walked to work, something distant changed, as if something in the world had shifted: a strange, melancholy tinnitus wormed its way into the back of her brain, and it occurred to her – for the first time – that she wanted to run not for the joy of it, but because she was being hunted.

Day 2: The Master of the Hunt

The Master of the Hunt walks the moors alone, searching. He is in the silver eyes of birch skin, the great webs of mycelium, he is in all rot and each carrion bird call. He is old as the bones of the hills, young as a new spring leaf. He is cunning in all senses of the word, and appears as bark and moss and lichen and woven flesh, crowned with antlers, as he is a sort of king. In some traditions he is Arthur, or Gwyn Ap Nudd, or the King of the Fairies, or the King of the Dead. His hounds are fierce loyal, his huntsmen bound to his will.

He misses the arrow times, the times of slow sudden death on the hills. He is not comfortable with the creeping death of the Industrial Age. It does not settle on his bones well. But then, he was not born in this age – why should he understand it? Perhaps, he believes distantly, his successor will.

It is a cold crisp day, the sun bright as a new forged blade on the smattering of snow – there used to be such snows! he thinks, great evil drifts of snow swallowing all life!

He breathes in, and scents it, distant and yet clamouring, the stink of his quarry. He can even, if he tries, hear her heartbeat full and strong. He raises his horn – carved from the head of a four-horned ram in hell – to his ancient lips, and calls his hounds to him.

Day 1: The Hounds

The Hounds are in the trees or they are the trees, or perhaps they were, or they were men who strayed too far from the path in the woods that are all woods. Between the trees they hunt: they prowl, they stalk, they tread carefully – they are cleverer than the hounds of men, they know the value of silence and of watchfulness.

What they know deepest though, and most truly, is the high, sorrowful call (like a lone gull) of their Master’s horn peeling out over the dark and scowling hills, felt in the bones of all things, even the trees, even the rot shivers at the sound of it. The Hounds know it will always bring them blood.

It is at it’s cry they begin to bay, throw off their silence, yip and growl and snarl and howl, and as they ready themselves for a feast, those in the valley below know somewhen soon, the spilling of blood is inevitable.

May Day

May 1st 2019

Doing errands for my father in the morning, getting the bus from Betchworth home, wondering if I should walk the downs instead. I had plans to go to Chanctonbury, take the bus from Crawley down to Washington, but I was beginning to wonder if it was too late in the day (only noon). Thankfully, I swallowed down my often anxious nature, and decided on the adventure. Made the long journey. Cissbury first, I walked a wan path from the bus stop to the ring, keeping out of the way of traffic. I talked to a local woman, told her that her home was beautiful and she welcomed me into the landscape, as I gazed at the age old hill fort. I noticed chalk paths, the undulations of farmland, the rolling body of the hills, I sat on the edge of Cissbury for a moment, saw a pony far off, took a swig of water and began the trek to Chanctonbury.

It was a pilgrimage, a long put off journey. I’d initially intended to camp the night before, and one day I will, welcome in May with the morris. In the distance I saw the looming body of it and my heart lifted like a hawk buoyed up on the wind.

The air was fragile, aching, the day hot and hollow and sticky. A buzzing, humming haze of a day, all pressure, all blur.

Half way between the two, on the bright, white path – headache inducing – I met a mole, upstairs if you will. Using my coat to shade it I directed them to a less exposed position, their small cries echoing in my skull. Their grey velvet so soft to look upon. I wanted to pick them up and place them in my pocket, keep them always, a tender beast. But that is not the way of wild things. I carried on.

I couldn’t stop grinning, pure elation singing in me. I eked out my scant water and laughed to myself, truly jubilant: I had finally made my journey, finally taken the time for myself. I vowed I’d take May Day for myself each year, for pilgrimage.

There are not the words to explain my love for Chanctonbury. I bowed my head at my approach, entered the grove as a worshipper, tore down a crudely made cross from a tree, angry that anyone could try to pin their gods to this place. This place that was all gods and no gods and old and new gods all at once.

That year was spent in a haze, burned out and numb, disassociated from my own body, my own life, my heart abandoned on a south downs hillside.

May 1st 2020

I wanted to revisit, but there is a pandemic. So many plans, big and little, good and ill, stunted by this global sickness. By the collective global sicknesses: covid, capitalism, consumerism, greed… Nevertheless, I wanted to be a pilgrim of the ancient, and so I went to my favourite woods, my only consolation in a time of plague and emotional turmoil.

I found a tree that resembled a hearth and asked it what was in my future.

As I walked away, the smell of him, so potent, I called out his name, wondering if he was there, in the woods he never visited, on the paths he barely knew.

The weather was changeable, lush sunlight and heady warmth punctuated by frantic squalls: the year ahead played the same pattern. Highs and lows, no respite.

That evening, unexpectedly, he was in my house, and I wondered if the hearth tree had been laughing at me, giving me the certainty only of that evening’s future.

May 1st 2021

I have to work, three weeks back after months of furlough, and I am too obliging to ask for holiday. It’s been a long day, a difficult one, with interminable hours of boredom and fraught, tense periods of pandemic retail. There have been very kind customers, and very cruel ones. The novelty of being back has worn off, my manager and I are both tired and a little frayed.

The day is bright and brisk, but there’s a mounting pressure: a storm should be on its way, it presses down on us, weighs on us, but does not appear. I worry over what to get for supper.

I read the tarot, what to expect: work hard, be your own self, stop stubbornly investing time in unhealthy habits. The usual, I’ve heard this all before. One day, I might even listen.

I order thai food, I have vague plans to walk up the common, make a small pilgrimage to the barrow and talk with the scots pine there who is my friend. There is the possibility that he may turn up, and we might all play dungeons and dragons, or we might not, and my heart sickens a little at it all, but not so much as it once did.

The rain comes, finally, deliciously, and I watch it make a watercolour of the landscape, the north downs so different, so infinitely populated with people and trees compared to the south. There are raindrops jewelling the windows like diamonds, like constellations in the milky way. I wonder what this year will bring, what may happen next, when I might see Chanctonbury again.

I wonder when the storm will come, and long for the peace it will bring.