The White Girl

The White Girl

(for Emrys and Conor)

She had tried to drown herself when she was a young woman in this lake, despoiled her own innocence, violated her spirituality, ridiculed her passion and driven herself almost too close to the borderlands of insanity and then she had made of this, in her own blood, an offering to the womb of black water. In return the deities that ruled here had bound her, both acolyte and heretic, and knowing nothing of mercy the lake had kept the mirror of her young soul all the days since. A place of strangeness, it was alien and implacable when the oldest people were young in the land, long before the cruel white ghosts had come in their ghost ships to unleash death and pestilence. She sighs as the wind sifts through the reedy marsh and the faint stench of rotting mulch sharpens the memory of that mad night long ago, a night where serpents still coil and slide through the underbelly of her life; she has been careful to keep it outside the stone keep where she harbours sanity. Where was such rage and self-hatred born in the young woman she had been? There are places on the edges of the self where truth and deception are forced to co-exist and it is perhaps the gift of age to blur those distinctions, or so she likes to think.

But it was here that she had finally accepted the marred gift of her own creativity, on these peculiar shores she had first shaped the clay that was to dominate her life, this haunted place had driven her to the wheel, to the kiln, her hands had never been clean since. Only the stately passage of time had enabled her to encompass herself and her perverse gift, to grow through the winter ice of experience to a mastery of her craft and herself. Time and the lake had been her mentors. So she was drawn to return, on any number of occasions. Today is the eve of her sixtieth birthday and the summer solstice swings on the hinges of the world-year, time is as liquid as the glimmer of water and glides into the lacunae of old memories, half-forgotten gods, ancient pilgrimages. She feels indisputably alive. In another age they would have sought to drown her for the temerity of such an inauspicious birth, such children haunt the boundaries of the world, unable to claim citizenship in the domains of reality or of the spirit. This idea still amuses her for she has never felt as if she truly belonged to the community of humans; it is only with children and animals or when working the clay that she has ever been able to forget the invisible stigma of her sense of difference. She remembers a grave young man once telling her that he believed that she had never quite completed her incarnation into this life cycle, that part of her had been left somewhere else. Just where it had been left he did not feel qualified to say and she had roared with laughter.

Now as she struggles through this impossibly alien landscape constructed in shadows cast by sunset, the ethereal drift of colour across the lake in the distance, she senses that some old Minotaur is waiting for her, that the lake will speak again, its murmuring, watery language will rise up in her, the utterance of seerdom, and from its unknowable depths some force may erupt and wrest what hard-won peace she has gained and lay her careful life in ruins again. Above all the lake was a place of truth. But then again she has not come here to be careful. She has come, as she has so often, in defiance.

Sunset, at the time of merging everything that is not fixed is vulnerable. Yet her blood is singing and light, gold and red, whirls through the flatland grasses in the wind. The surface of the lake breaks like glass splintering where minutes before all had been tranquil; it is always like this she muses, difficult, intractable. The trees shudder in the wind, the black swans race the cresting troughs for home, birds tumble through the air, somewhere the sheep bleat and chaos rules again. But she is undeceived, she knows all its tricks, its caprice so like her own temperament and this volatile air of tempest will pass, within half an hour an almost unbearable peace will settle and a quality of light will suffuse the landscape, a light that would blind Gods. Until night comes to settle its yoke of darkness on the water.

But before that there are hours of light and memories to be honoured, a gift to be bestowed. It is time to move, her brittle bones must do battle with the wind until she reaches the old grove of trees that has become her personal shrine but the wind should keep strangers away and the fishermen will lay low ’til the wind drops. Over the years she has become as inconsequential to them as a passing ghost. Fishermen understand the needs of the solitary, they respect privacy, it is one of the codes of their profession. She stumbles forward though her arms ache and her balance is uneasy until she reaches the fragile shelter of the trees and settles gratefully on the ground to watch the lake unfold its madness, it is as if some giant seethes and roils beneath its surface, some force that can never be truly appeased. She remembers one evening she sat here in an unearthly quiet and watched a mist rise as if from nowhere and drape the land and water in grey and suddenly she was as cold as the novitiates who stood waiting to pass through the waters into the sanctuary of Avalon. A boatman rowed soundlessly towards her. Another world sat on the axis of this place, a shift of light could reveal the shadow of the Tor, a monastery, a garden full of apple trees, the delicate scent of blossom on the air, across the water sounds drifted of young women singing, laughing, the mellow notes of the eventide bell. But that was a gift of the lake when it was gentle. On other nights she had seen men in shapeless black with hearts full of venom and hatred come riding through the shore, wild with the smell of blood on them, black with purpose, murder in their hands, babies with their skulls cleaved open. She will not think too much on that, the lake had often beguiled her close to this madness, she is older now, she can resist some of its more dangerous lures. She does not know if she can resist her own.

She remembers the summer she came here heavy and languid with pregnancy and lay upon the earth plunging her hands into the pungency of soil, the child stirring in the cradle of her body and of how she slept all afternoon long as the air drifted through the sough of pines, waking to the raucous noise of wild cockatoos. The black swans gliding through her dreams and the lake, in sunset, turning all the colours of a butterfly’s wing. A time of promise, a promise broken so bitterly that she had never recovered, nor ever surrendered to hope again. The next winter she had hunted these shores like an animal, found the desiccated bones of birds and pebbles and shaped them into the tiny skeleton of the dead baby, whose name she would never utter aloud again. She made nothing with the clay, it was if the very substance of the earth mocked her, reviled her for her failure. The doctors maundered on about the rarity of his disease as if that might ease her and the child’s father withered slowly before the ice in her heart, love dying a death of little things. She chose not to love again. For years she drifted in this wasteland bruising the ground she trod upon, unforgiving, unforgivable. Even now she turns her mind deliberately from that time and listens as the wind changes, calms a little, launches another assault, but it is over, the tempest, the rest is all games. Quiet is coming again.

The light is dying behind the hills, hills that have always reminded her of a dragon sleeping, in the clefts and hollows she sees the long elegant drift of a scaled wing, claws gripping the stone outcrops, a brutal, regal head. She has watched it for over forty years waiting for it to wake from its lethal slumber and take flight.

It was the spirit of this earth bound dragon that had dragged her, black-hearted and unwilling, back to the clay, but it had became an infection in her blood, she had to set it free. She had always understood what lived beneath the formlessness of the clay, her hands intuited the heart of some sleeping force that woke to her touch and then she would sculpt it into life. She had begun as a potter and she still loved to make simple things, bowls, cups, the earthly requirements of daily life. Almost unconsciously she had moved from potting to sculpting, her spirit drew her deeper into mystery, into the excavation of more subtle forms, her hands plundering her material, a force apart, driven to find the viscera, the nerve and muscle in each creation. In New York they had christened her the Georgia O’Keefe of her craft. She smiles bitterly, over forty years in the making of self and art and now her hands had betrayed her. She strips off her gloves and looks at them, as gnarled and twisted as ancient wisteria trunks, riven with arthritis, they will no longer obey her. Her work has become clumsy where once her hands had roamed freely over chromatic scales of texture like a master pianist now she can barely play a simple tune. And still she forces herself to work, each piece a travesty of her gift and then she lays them at the altar of the Gods who had so created her.

The balance of the day shifts into evening and she has prevaricated long enough, it is time to fulfil her birthday promise. Over the past months she has been crafting one of the last of her masterpieces; she knows it is good, perhaps even very good, for she feels the energy spiralling within it as she works it, carefully, painstakingly each movement a battle with her strengthless hands. But she has won and as she unwraps it she marvels that she has made it at all for in the refracted light of the water it shines with its own light, lit within by an older wisdom than hers. A small triumphant Ariadne standing within the bowels of the Labyrinth as the Minotaur bows before her undimmed courage. And she has made it for both herself and the lake, as an act of restitution to the outcast young woman of her psyche, as a tribute to her own endurance and as an act of pure faith. Rising stiffly she curses her wayward body and cradling Ariadne she walks slowly to the lake’s shore; it is an effort but she has set her will to this event and nothing can gainsay her. She has always been unreasonably stubborn. The water is so cold it seems to burn her, her bare feet stumble a little and she stops, careful of her balance. She must go further out, for Ariadne can only rest in the heartland of these impenetrable waters, only at the very matrix of the lake will creator and created meld. Then perhaps in the purple light of late sunset and the rising young moon she will glimpse the girl she had been and ask her to come home.

The water is thigh deep now and she can feel her bones, a sudden sharp cry of a bird and she flings her head up realising she has come far enough, perhaps too far. With her heart’s strength she hurls the figure deep out into the uncharted depths and hears it shatter the still surface, lovingly she imagines its dark journey down, down to rest in ancient, secret caves. She can no longer move at all, the water seems warmer she could crumble here as easily as the clay figure will dissolve in its watery grave. Far out across the lake she glimpses a boat moving all in shadow, the hypnotic dip and fall of the oars lulls her like watching the swathe of wings of some gigantic bird. She can discern a figure standing, motionless, a figure carved all in chiaroscuro. She cannot take her eyes from it. Across a long distance she hears a voice calling, as piercing and insistent as a young magpie. Turning with infinite reluctance she sees in the uncertain flux of light a wild gesticulating figure on the shore and for a time she cannot decide which is real: the creature on the lake shore or the majestic approach of the boat of darkness. Her mind is full of cobwebs but the voice is imperious with youth and a quality of desperation haunts it. So she turns and as she moves sluggishly towards it she realises it is a young boy. Sensing her own peril, at last, she clings to his voice like a lifeline. As she drags herself toward the shore he runs heedless in to the water to help her.

‘Thank you’ she gasps as they stand at last on dry land

‘I thought you were a goner, lady, what that lake takes it doesn’t give back. You have to be careful here.’

She considers this odd statement as she assesses him. He is about twelve she guesses, nut-brown and vigorous, a tangle of dark hair, both man and boy and not fitting into the skin of either. His eyes are really quite extraordinary, luminous, the colour of birch leaves. She is shaking too much to say anything very coherent.

‘Come on’ he says with absolute authority ‘You must be freezing, you have to keep walking’

‘I have some warm things up there’ she stammers, pointing to the grove ‘And a thermos’

‘Good thinking’ he replies flashing her a smile that transforms him into all of five years old. ‘I’ll get it ready.’ He strides off and she staggers behind him her blood aching in her veins. When she arrives he is pouring out tea and she sits carefully on a log more exhausted than she thought possible. With something like chivalry he brings her blankets and tea then settles opposite her.

‘Thank you, again, I am greatly in your debt.’

He appears vastly impressed with this courtly statement.

‘I thought you we’re the White Girl at first.’

‘The White Girl’ she echoes.

His eyes move back to the lake, considering something, she senses that he is not all made of confidence and light, there is something broken in him.

‘I’ve seen her three times now, the last time she waved back to me just before she went in too deep. Old Jake the fisherman says its very bad luck to see her more than three times. She’s not real, of course, Jake says she’s one of the lake’s children. He’s a bit mad.’

‘So am I. I didn’t mean to frighten you. What’s your name?’

‘Rowan, Mum named me after a tree’

‘Mine is Glynna, its Welsh, my mother named me after a forest pool.’

‘Are you alright now?’ She is aware of the unspoken implication in the question.

‘I think so. The lake is always unpredictable, it was stupid of me to go out so far, but I had something to do. I have been coming here for a very long time and I should have known better.’

He smiles suddenly ‘I bet you’re the old woman that Jake calls the Lady of the Lake, he says you’re always a bloody good omen for the fishing.’

‘An omen for fishes? My God just wait ’til I catch up with this Jake, I’ll give him omens for fishing.’ And then she breaks as laughter wells up in her like sweet spring water. Their laughter disturbs a flock of Currawongs who rush up to the sky in outrage.

‘Shit’ He is suddenly as tense as a startled animal ‘It’s almost dark, I promised Mum I’d be home before sundown, she goes crazy..’

‘I can come with you if you like, I could explain what kept you.’

‘No, she doesn’t like strangers’ he pauses, uncertainly ‘She doesn’t talk to anyone…not since my brother died.’ He looks out to the lake again watching it dissolve into the shadow, the shape of night.

‘Yes’ she says quietly ‘I can understand that. When you are very sad it’s hard to deal with other people, they can’t help it, they want you to get better, to be normal again, whatever that means.’

‘Yes’ he says dismissing the subject totally, his pain is too raw for anything as sophisticated as words. ‘You’re O.K. now?’

‘Fine, thank you again, it was a pleasure to meet you, I had not expected to meet anyone here, ever.’

‘See you later.’

And then she watches him take flight, running as if his life depended on it, overpowered by the sheer joy of it, as sure-footed as a hunting cat, hair flying, arms pumping. He leaps over the rough terrain as if he was born on it, so utterly at ease in the landscape that the evening takes him into itself as if he had never been. She is moving beyond him already shaping the energy of his limbs in the clay, his eyes like a Kestrel hawk’s, a fierce, relentless joy and at the centre of his being the alloy of pain and love that makes him absolutely himself. She has forgotten her imperfect hands for she is not seeking detail but purity, the elements that will forge his soul as he journeys the mapless interior of himself and the lake. She has almost forgotten this feeling for her work, this quality of alchemy in her blood, the magic waiting for her. On this night of inexplicable benediction she turns one last time back to the lake and watches it tremble slowly into the unbecoming of night, stars suspended in its hoary depths and the thin trail of silver as the new moon dissolves. It is then she remembers that she really should have told him that he need not worry about the White Girl again.

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