The Old Woman’s Advice
Calpurnia woke up screaming. Breathless, she gasped into consciousness, her panicked bosom heaving until the Oneiroi demon dislodged and shuffled off with a sneer. Clutching her husband’s arm as he rose, she told him of her dream and begged him – do not leave. And, laughing, he dressed in his gold and finery and went out into the burning streets of Rome.
Morning breaks in a golden green land of sunlit shafts, bridged by Bifrost from grey, snow-heaped mountains. Balder awoke gulping, haggard and head-wrought. His dreams were poisoned and choked with gore; he swam in horror nightly. He dreamt of the end of the world, but it serves no warning as Ragnarok is carved in runes by the Nornir. What shall be.
And yet… Long ago, Odin drank the spiced mead of poesy under Hnitbjorg and brought it back to Asgard on eagle wings. He whispers sonnets and villanelles into the cinnamon sleep of women and men; thus dreams are singing messages from the Gods.
I saw these things across ages. I whisper them to children to sooth them when they wake up in the night.
A young child dreamt. Her night terrors shattered the castle on its mountain-girt waveless green plain. Running weeping to her mother, she wailed that she was being chased by a huge nameless thing; a dragon, a great snake, a dreadful grey formless thing. Her dread kept her from her sleep and marked her skin with dark circles of worry. After three successive nights, her mother summoned the wise woman who had helped her through her time and asked for her sage and un-minced advice.
‘Well?’ exacted the old woman. She had settled her shapeless grey and brown form on a fine couch by the fire and begun spinning with her distaff. The young child sat tense on a stool at her mother’s feet, swaddled by her mother’s silks. Muted grey mist gathered at the spike of the old woman’s spindle and the young girl gaped at how this stuff of clouds and air became silvered strands, like hair from the moon.
The Queen did not flinch at the brusque demand. Her inflexible eyes held the wrinkled gaze with which burned back like black fire.
‘The child is sick.’ She gestured her daughter at her feet.
The child blushed and her eyes flickered away from the fascinating spinning thread and fixed on the floor.
‘Are you, child?’ The croaking voice startled her, and she looked up at her mother for reassurance; she was never addressed so familiarly. Her mother nodded, and she took a deep breath.
‘Mistress, I cannot sleep.’
The old woman looked back to the distaff and flicked it again. ‘It is midwinter. The rain drips mournfully from the grey dead trees and you are restless. You long to run through the wildflowered meadows of your kingdom and race your horse along the mountain passes where the young shepherd boy hands you rosebay and smiles.’
The young girl’s eyes grew wide and she stole a furtive look at her mother’s disapproving, yet amused expression. The Queen addressed the old woman.
‘You are always right, in part, Mistress. She is a keen horsewoman, despite her age and her father’s displeasure. She is adventurous in spirit and the curtailing winter often casts her mood into a black pit. But it passes. This is different.’
The girl met the old woman’s eyes. ‘Please Mistress. I have bad dreams.’
‘Ay? Tell me.’
And the young princess explained her strange dreams, entrapments, paralysis, monsters, snakes and dragons, evil forests and some other, dark thing she could not explain and did not understand, but loomed in the corner of her mind, sharp and horrid.
‘Are you afraid child?’ The old woman asked. Accepting the girl’s mute nod, she turned her attention back to her spinning. ‘You have guessed at your own fate. I see it woven out for you.’
Silence while she spun and spun. Shattered by the spindle-sharp voice again. ‘See these?’ She gestured at her spinning, the sharp point at the top. ‘Be careful of them. Watch.’ And here she cut herself on the needle. The princess stared in horror as dark blood swelled in rosary beads and dripped onto her rough skirt. The old woman did not even recoil as they stained the fabric.
‘As you bloom to your woman hood, you will learn to spin. You will make soft linen for your father, and one day a prince. But before that day, you will prick yourself on a spindle, as I have done, and your blood will not bead and dry as mine does, but flood in tides and you will die.’
The queen paled, swelling her skirts and arms before her daughter, like spreading wings to shelter a nest. ‘Fie, Mistress!’ she spat. ‘My child shall not die!’ Her anger kindled the coals of fear. ‘She will know now never to touch them. Why would she now, when they mean her harm? I will collect each one in the kingdom and burn them all!’
Here she lunged at the old woman’s distaff. But the old one had risen, the distaff held across her like a barrier and both women seized it. They struggled. The queen’s knuckles were white from wrenching. Then with a contortion of disgust on her fair face, she snatched the long thread between spindle and distaff and snapped it. She turned to the fire and leaned against the mantle.
The old woman watched her, motionless. Disdain worked in around the bridge of her nose and suddenly the princess hated this old hag who had predicted her own death and humiliated her mother, whose stately back was heaving misery against its silk and lace casings. The old woman watched, then slowly unwound the ripped thread from the distaff.
‘Well Majesty, you’re as like to pay for that. But the threads of life can be short or long. One is not so much broken as put to different use.’
The queen turned back to the old woman and slumped, defeated, into her chair. The old woman spoke.
‘Come here, child.’
The princess stepped forward, her jaw high and her little eyebrows arched.
‘You order me, peasant?’
The old woman fixed her with a long stare. The child glared back with all the audacity of regal youth until the natural authority of age outweighed it. She capitulated. If only she could not hear her mother’s crumpled tears crushed under corseted breaths, she could have held that gaze longer. Who was this woman to speak so?
The woman took the princess’s hands and held them out in front of her, the palms facing each other. She took her finished thread and began to wind it around the outstretched hands. ‘I am no monster, child.’ The woman looped and looped the thread. Her voice was low and with shame, the princess noticed its crack that split the word ‘monster.’
‘I do what I can. This is your thread. It has been woven for you, like your mother’s was woven for her, and her mother’s. Even a princess cannot choose of what it is made or how it is spun. It is made for you, and then binds you up. Away from those meadows and mountain ridges.’
The princess felt her throat constrict.
‘When a father fears his daughter’s energy, his restraint is woven in, and he will get his wish. The King’s own law will visit severely upon him.’
The princess whispered; ‘Will I really die, Mistress?’
The old woman continued wrapping the grey thread around. The princess counted the silence, broken only by the fire hisses, her mother’s short breaths and the tension of the answer, which weighed down like heavy sacking on their arms and shoulders. Eventually the old woman dragged her eyes up out of it and looked at the child.
‘Nay. You will not die, but sleep. You will sleep for a hundred years. But this, I can weave in for you. Those dreams that have plagued you lately, will come again. But you will learn to govern them. You will make the world in them to your liking and come and go as freely as you please. Here, you will be mistress of your own kingdom.’
The princess stared in wonder; in horror. A life or a death? Dream or nightmare? Or something liminal; the thin white places between.
‘And the dark thing?’ here she blushed; she did not know what it was to name it, but shame was there, and disgust as well as horror.
‘Do you know what it is, child?’ The old woman looked grave. The princess shook her head and began to cry. ‘Beware it.’ She spoke gently. ‘For that spindle comes in human form. It is a man who will seek to rescue you from sleep. If he does, you will make linen for him. And there will be no more dreams.’
Here the old woman leaned forward, her breath puffing the golden curls away from the royal face. She whispered: ‘And certainly, no more riding.’
In the thick silence before the fire, there was a rustle of iridescence from the Queen.
‘And what will happen when he comes?’
‘Well that,’ the old woman conceded with a smile at the Princess, ‘is up to you.’
In another kingdom, another Queen rocks her cradle and sings. As her son grows, she kneels before him buttoning his doublet, brushing his coat. She walks behind him in the gardens and applauds when he runs, fights, rides his horse and kills a hare. Soon he leaves his nursery and joins his father on the hunt; at jousting; at drinking. From the love of his mother’s kisses and his father’s smiles, all he has ever known is that ‘one day, all this will be yours.’
My father is old; my rights manifest. A new age is beginning, my age, and I will extend my kingdom at its borders and strengthen it. I will be the most powerful king from sea to mountain, championing new pastures and new cities for my swelling subjects. And the sower will reap their eternal gratitude in tithes and taxes. It begins with my destiny – my first enrichment. A powerful spell smothers a princess in the next kingdom and my salvation of her augments my lands, my bed and the posterity of my home. It has been foretold that my defeat of the guarding dragon and the rescue of this maiden brings me rich reward and I will distinguish myself in skill and courage to take her. She is all states. All princes I.
I awake in the grey-blue morning and am dressed in my armour. I stare out of the casement at the lands I will soon liberate from sleep; help breathe again through clearing the choking forest and briars. I have known all my life of that strange place, and its princess that was cursed by a witch. The pettiness of women. I gaze at the mountain pass, still topped with the fading winter’s snow and feel a shudder of fear in my heart. I force it down and think of that unknown girl laid out like her kingdom’s offering. Strengthened, I breathe again. It is cold enough to see my breath, but my furred cloak is thick. I smell dew and adventure in the morning. My buckles are strapped at last, and I stride from the chamber to my stables.
Her early dreams were of that first horror. Childhood night terrors were re-lived and were all of that first piercing; the sharp shock, the blood pooling and seeping up the hem of her gown like litmus paper; dizziness then tumbling blackness. Twenty years twitching in the satin sheeted, brocade hung bed with roses growing in through the window.
Thorns in the forest grew so thick and fast they pierced the breasts of robins as they sang. Serpents rippled through roots and stems and streams, so the very ground seethed. And something monstrous, far off, always watching; always waiting. In her dreams the princess felt it there, biding time and staring at the vulnerability of open-faced sleep.
For the first twenty years she screamed aloud in her sleep. But who was there to comfort her, stroke her hair and soothe her to pleasant dreams? Her sleep outlived her mother and ended the despairing royalty’s line. Servants left for service in more lively kingdoms. The castle was empty, the kingdom thought cursed and slowly abandoned; the pruned gardens overgrown and the gorgeous chambers dusty and cobwebbed; rich tapestries holed and jewelled goblets dulled. Clouds seemed to gather over the place where the sun nevermore shone, and woodcutters warned their children of the castle that screamed and its briars that would gobble them up.
Then one year – light.
If shepherd or woodcutter had seen it, they would have called hurriedly to their neighbours to gaze upon the lonely tower gulping for air above the forest roof; a grey stone blending with the grey sky that had always been there, since they were children, and now, for the first time in their lives, was struck by glorious golden shafts of light. But no one was there. No one to see the great struts of light, vast sails of it, like a galleon floating on a cloudy sea above the forest kraken.
Into her own dreams, the princess had woken. Through fitful swirling images and phrases, through the battery of armoured visions assailing her dreams, she had suddenly heard herself saying; ‘I don’t like this one.’ And a thorn of lucid light had pierced through the purple bruises of dreams and thrown them down.
A woman who has a hundred years to sleep has time to learn how to lucid dream.
She cried so much. Tore at my robe and wailed as I tried to leave. They haunt me, those screams as I mounted Apollo and turned my back on my kingdom, they itch at me; aggravate. Has my mother no faith in my courage? Such a rage of despair! Each time my gaze blurs at these monotonous moors I must traverse, they come again. Fie, it is a mother’s love. It is a woman’s part – a woman’s weakness to cry and it shows my blessing. My father showed no such regret, just stoic pride. He has taught me everything; strength, power, valour. Our shared look at departure showed the promise, his time is waning and mine waxes. On my return he shall be dead or dying and I’ll have the throne.
This path demands concentration. My horse could lose its footing in this great thaw that turns this track to a mudslide. Curse this misty rain that blurs the vision and soaks my mantle! All is mire and mud; grey and brown across this border. When it is mine, I will rip out its sodden heather and build a solid road to tame this mountain. It’s no place for horses! Let’s see where else needs clearing and building when I get up to that pass and can look about. Damn this wind!
Shadows had receded under the pull of the moon at low tide. Twenty years of screaming dreams and now peace. The night was calm and warm. And the dreams got interesting.
It was experimental at first. Twitching in her sleep, the Princess kept practising that first declaration of power over her domain, the flicker of realisation where she changed her dream. She switched between them; here was her mother, sunshine, here was blood – peace, no – here were flowers and flying. Now here, she summoned her long dead grandmother, and when she had finished weeping for disbelief and joy; she talked with her, remembering to dream of tea and cushions. She dreamt of the shepherd boy with the rosebay and practised giving him cowslips and being brave enough to look him in the eye when she smiled and kissed him. She dreamt of kittens and played with them endlessly, tangling an old distaff with curious claws and enjoying their softness that purred and clustered to her.
And like the stories of Calpurnia and Balder she read as a child, she dreamt her dark prophecy. She saw it swell and grow and not kiss its mother when it ran to play and claim the brightest toys, mindless of its little brother’s tears. She saw it kill deer and laugh and then knock down beggars at the castle gate; leer at women with a red meat mouth and eyes so blank they did not see that what they took was not their birth right, but lives. Old women with distaffs. Shepherd boys. Girls whose fathers forbade them ride.
Then one night in her dream, the Princess sat up in bed. Looking around into the grey silence, she felt the emptiness of the castle. Her castle. Empty of kings and servants, it was hers now. She stretched her legs out of bed and crept hesitantly to the window. Through the thorns and roses around the casement, she gazed out.
Spread out beneath: what tender beauty! Around her was a land forged in silver and crystal. To her west, moors stretched out in the purple night, soft with heather, broken by boulders and tors. Over the trial of time, the once cropped grass of sheep and goat pasture had grown wild and thick; dry stone walls had crumbled and wildflowers spread. To her east, forest swelled in rich pine, firs, beech, willow, oak, birch, chestnut; a chaotic tangle of thick trunks and canopy hung with silver, gold and diamond leaves. The south held the great lake like a tin mirror, struck with moonlight and throwing it back so the whole kingdom glowed in white. And in the valley like a silk ribbon, wove the river, its roots tracing back to the waterfall pillared heights of the northern mountains, their teeth edges forming a shield wall of protection. All hers to dream-ramble in.
She fled out with the instant fluidness of dreams and was standing by the lake. Hawthorn flung its scent over the ripples and abundant fish skipped in and out of the waves. Further along the shore, a doe had lowered its slender neck to the water with decision, after staring at the princess with steady and then trusting eyes.
Beckoned by the silver carpeted ground, the princess was drawn on and walked through her forests on bare feet. Surprised by the night sounds, she snapped her head up to catch owls, then badgers; otters, mink, then wolves treading the lush damp ground between the trees. And in that strangeness of dreams, nothing frightened the Princess and she watched the wolf pack pad softly by as the largest and greyest threw its head up in salute in her direction.
As a child, she often thought being a Princess could be lonely. With no siblings, she had played alone in the gardens while servant children shrieked the giddiness of their games on the other side of the garden walls. But here in the forest under the call of the nightjar and idle prattle of nightingales she revelled in company and the unwalled beauty of her kingdom and she crumpled on her knees and wept. With her hair, grown metres long with sleep, wiping though leaf mulch and the green moss smearing her embroidered nightgown, she swore she would love and protect this silver place whose wildness welcomed life in such profusion.
Back in the palace, she set upon her entertainment with glee. She skipped and raced shoeless through the rooms and galleries, and with the magic of dreams she rebuilt the fallen walls of her castle, cleared weeds and cobwebs and reordered its splendour. She arranged everything to her desire, so all was beautiful and happy. Her dream poem from the Gods.
Then she turned to her Kingdom walls. She made the forests grow thicker and darker, with briars and bracken to make the ways impassable. She sharpened mountain edges with sheer drops that could not be descended. She bid the wolves call louder to set chills down the spines of children to last generations. She rode through her Kingdom at night and inspected the thickness of forest, the heights of mountains and the depth of rivers.
Because now, after years of sleeping and dreaming, she could feel that dark thing that had watched her sleep and waited. It had grown; left its family and she felt it coming. Now she felt strong enough. She was ready.
I have ridden nine hours through the quagmire only to find its source now. This river rushes hard; my horse shies at fording it, but I must get across. If only I could see better, this infernal night unsteadies the vision and my heart. But soft, or I unman myself. These salmon here leaping up the staggered heights are fat. This land is rich; which is heartening – think of my purpose. The beautiful virgin and this land are why I drag my horse through the dark over the mountains. At least the moon is full. Yonder forest is silver, and that lake is like a burnished shield. Like a mirror in which the princess will admire herself inside her chambers. My eyes must needs be mirrors to look at every line and curve of her! My passion rises! But there are no pretty souls to sooth my ardour in this deserted land. I must make haste. Now to descend this wet precipice.
The princess felt the dark thing coming. She felt it curse her soft mountain passes, gravelly and untamed; she felt it interpret deer as game, wildflower as fallow land. In her dreams, she watched, and winced. Thorns quickened in the forest and above the castle turrets. She dreamt of a boy whirling and muttering on his horse, pausing at streams, waiting. She saw the hardness in his mouth and greed in his eyes; eyes that were accustomed to owning all they looked on. It chilled her. The dark eyes, the cold look. She watched him flick his reins and use his whip to urge the terrified horse on, cursing and shouting.
But these were her dreams, and she had a mind to avenge that horse. The waxing moon called her menses and she opened and closed her legs to stem the flow of blood. In her dream, she played with a stream that flowed out of her and she cut it off to a trickle, then opened it to a torrent. The prince, at the mountain river seven hundred metres up shouted as the sudden gush knocked him off his horse and doused his gorgeous riding cloak. In her sleep, the princess smiled.
The prince edged on. The princess dream-watched and bided her time, dreaming of mountains and cunning landslides.
Respite! That cursed mountain! At least I have fire and can dry off. I hope the cloak is dry soon to blanket me. Ha, that a prince must sleep on the ground with just stars to cover him! Like a filthy rustic! But all princes must quest. This attests to my skill and bravery and will horrify my enemies! Then my prize. All this will be mine, mountain pasture, timber forests, lakes of fish. They will be my hunting grounds. Even my supper; this colossal pheasant – so big I’ll have to leave half here, lest it rot in my bag. But I can kill another and another; the game here is endless!
Soft! What is this at the water’s edge? Fie, for shame, this tameness will not serve you, doe, you make no sport. I must teach your kind caution or there is no chase. Here my arrow, now hold my breath while I aim… a hit! Bless my hand; a good shot! Straight between her eyes! I’ll liven up these deer, teach them fear so they run. What sweet thoughts to sleep on!
The Princess dreamed his sleeping was filled with nightmares.
The feckless murder of her doe had been a warning. She had protected her land for so long and this piercing must be limited. She resolved to lure him a safe path through to her. There she would deal with the dark thing herself. She dreamt him walking the lake, receding the water so a causeway revealed itself, shimmering and wide, straight across; and always the fish tantalisingly out of reach. She dreamt his three day walk across the vast length of lake, and his slicing through her cringing forest. In her sleep she coughed on rage as he butchered ancient trees, silenced the birds and killed a wolf, and the carnage stained his heels and smeared the tree roots. Carefully, she dreamt that no more animals came near him; that the leaves and branches curled away and cupped a corridor through their tensed backs. And she dreamt his fear; fear of dragons he believed were real; dragons he believed must be vanquished as the ultimate trial of strength; always a dragon haunting him since childhood that one day he would kill and take its place as king. If only he had learned to read his dreams and call his fears by their real names instead of ‘dragon,’ different things may have been dreamt about him.
Dreams of Dark Dragons
A rustle in the leaves. Just now when I think of dragons! What was that behind me? My sword! The leaves and branches seem to move, seem to swell – tighten around me; I cannot breathe; what is there? Come forth I command you! The trees close in. Branches spear forth; left and right, Gods! Still they come, great spikes of forest growing before my very eyes, stabbing at me, trying to pierce me! Damn them, I will burn this forest when ‘tis mine! Do you hear? I will burn you down! And as your game flees the flames I will be waiting with my arrows!
The princess watched him roar at the surging trees and duck the spikes and thorns. One spindle for another. Then enough, she had played too long, and the forest once more retreated and his path was clear. He followed it to the end.
The castle slumbered. The princess saw it in a mirrored dream, her dream of her castle in which she slept, endlessly repeated. The prince outside, breathing heavily. In the strangeness of dream horrors, she could see how beautifully the moonlight speckled the moat waters, calm with lilies, and roses climbing the castle walls in moonlight purple gowns. The out of body feeling of seeing something beautiful while something terrible is happening. The dark thing had come at last. Lips moist and teeth sharp, it had come at last. The old woman’s eyes hovered in her dreams and she heard her words again. ‘That will be up to you.’
She dreamt him beating through the door. She dreamt him running through her castle, her gorgeous and hand ornamented rooms. She dreamt that mirrors and glasses shivered and shattered as he slammed doors and ripped down hangings to find his prize, his destiny, his reward for a prince’s journey, his piece of new kingdom. He found the staircase.
I have broken through, I am inside. Where is she? The highest tower. My legs tremble, but I am here at last. Here is the door – within she sleeps; here!
In this moment, I hardly dare believe it. All my life I have dreamt of this. Her beauty. Her readiness. My kingdom. How becomingly her gown slips! How tousled her hair. It sets a dragon’s fire in me!
In her dream, the princess saw the boy standing over her prone body, watching. She could not breathe. Now she would see the face of the thing that had always haunted her and would know why, and how it would harm. She heard his breath, quickened by the steps he’d raced up, and as he fought to control it, sucked it sharply through his nose. She saw his mouth and fists clench; the meat red mouth and sharp teeth that did not seek to call her or wake her up. Panic laid its claws upon her bosom.
He approached slowly at first, then began to undress with increasing carelessness, discarding doublet and shield in a clang. He reached the bed and seized a sheet, dragging it away and pushing her legs apart. He mounted the bed. All of her stiffened; the tumbling bruises of nightmares fell in and choked; and in the terror for a moment, she forgot what the old woman had said to her over a hundred years ago.
It was up to her. And in a breathless catch, her dreams flickered and rotated – the turret stairs – the night mountain streams – the thorns – and here now, a hole – a black tunnel opening senselessly below and the lurching, falling feeling of dreams, after a hundred years, woke her up.
The princess watched the boy fall into the bottomless dragon’s lair of his own nightmare. She shook her head, to clear the fug of dreams and looked around. The doublet and shield were on the floor. But the black tunnel was gone. There was no one and nothing, only the roses pushing in through the window and the call of owls in the night.
The princess stood up, dragged the sheets off the bed and wrapped them round her. She descended the stairs and went out into her night forest to find somewhere else to sleep and keep dreaming, in the moonlight.
Chris Collins use to write on a narrowboat in the English canals in between marking essays and Morris dancing. Now she writes in a burning room in Australia between kangaroo spotting, and Morris dancing. Her stories have been published this year in Enchanted Conversation, Cephalopress, and Dusk and Shiver.