APPLE AND ROWAN
With Jo Waterworth, January/February 1995.
Queen of the mountains,
she tells of the quickening and growing in health.
Succumb to her charms
and she will protect you in all things.
– Isle of Apples, Celebration of Trees
The rowan tree stood by the entrance to a small field, half way up the mountain. It was the oldest and largest rowan tree around. Nearby there was a small house, built of the same grey stone that walled the field.
In spring the heady scent of the tree’s blossom wafted all over the hillside. The woman of the house would stand by her open door breathing in the perfume.
In autumn the tree was heavy with clusters of bright red berries. She would collect in her basket all she could reach from the lower branches, leaving the higher ones to the flocks of small birds which flew up from the valley each autumn. They pleased her with their ceaseless movement and clamour.
The tree had another visitor from the valley.
Each year a man would climb the steep hillside to pluck just one sprig of yellowing leaves and ripe berries, leaving in exchange one perfect large apple nestling in the moss by the tree’s roots.
The woman always waited until this ritual had been performed before she went to collect her own harvest. And every year, she claimed the apple for herself. A rare treat.
When she was younger she had dreamed through the long cold winter of living in the valley, where apples could be plucked from a tree, and where the wind did not howl and whine round her door for weeks on end. But she was a woman of the hills, dark and silent. She had married a hillman who lived for his herds, and she raised a brood of wild silent children, alone on the hillside. People she saw seldom.
Her world was bounded by dry stone walls, bracken and bog.
She remembered the first time she had seen him come. How she stood in the shadows of her doorway, small children clutching at her skirts. She was wary, unwelcoming.
He paused in his stride by the tree and looked up into its branches. She caught her breath. The tree was hers, she felt, her very own magic, her own to harvest. Fear and anger rose up in her as she watched him reach up and break off a twig. He had taken a part of her own being, somehow.
Then he stooped, knelt on the ground before the tree with his head to the earth, and stayed motionless for some minutes. When he stood he turned towards her house, seemed to bow in her direction, before returning down the same track he had climbed.
She was intrigued.
She shut the children in the house with the half-door and went hesitantly over to the tree. There was a big red apple, where his head had touched the moss. A gift for a gift. She felt a weight lift from her heart.
Slowly, she reached to pick up the apple, turned it around in her grasp to examine its every facet. Lifted it to her nose and sniffed the faint sweet aroma. Finally, brought it to her teeth, and bit.
It was a fine apple, juicy, perfectly ripe and crisp. She ate it to the core and wiped her mouth on her sleeve before turning to look back down the hill. He was a small speck in the distance, and she thought of calling to him – but there were no words, and it was too late. He could never hear her now.
She went back to her children.
She thought of him sometimes in the winter that followed, when she poured the rowan ale for her man, or spooned rowan jelly onto her children’s porridge. He puzzled her. Who was this valley man who strode so boldly into her world and left with a piece of her magic? It was not a man’s place to know these things.
The men’s magic was of the flocks, their increase and protection. It was her place to protect the homestead and heal the children’s ailments, aye and the men’s too, when needed.
Perhaps this man had no woman to do such things. And the apple … She knew nothing of valley ways, but an apple was surely a woman’s thing?
As the days lengthened, and in the mid less sleepless mayhem of lambing, she learned to forget him. Her days filled with the normal routines, the sun brought its brief warmth to the hillside and the summer passed as it had always done. She was surprised when one day she saw the same figure toiling up the same path, and realised that autumn had arrived too soon, again.
Once more she stayed in the shadow of her doorway, holding the children behind her as she watched him go through the selfsame motions as the previous year. When he left, with a bow in her general direction, she hurried down to the tree, looking for the glint of red at its foot.
But this time she turned her attention to the tree itself. She found the call wound where he had broken a twig, felt for the purpose, for the perpetrator, concentrating on the flow of sap and the connection with the place where he had stood. Only when she was satisfied he had caused no harm did she turn to the apple and allow herself to enjoy it.
The winter that followed was mild and wet.
There was much illness and she was kept busy walking among her scattered community dispensing remedies. Sometimes it was too late for her to return and she would sit quietly by the fireside, watching and listening to other folk’s lives. Talk turned to the summer fair held down in the valley. More than once she was asked why she did not sell her remedies there, as others sold winter crafts and cheeses.
But she had no desire for crowds and the company of strangers, preferring the voices of the wind, the birds, the flocks. They at least told no lies, and were easy to understand for one who kept silence to listen. She heard no talk of apples or of a man who walked alone on the hills in the autumn. She did not attend the fair that year.
She found herself watching for him, and wondered at it. He was becoming like the first blossom of blackthorn, the first wild rose, an indicator of the season’s turning. When he came she was glad for no reason, and though she still hid her face from him, she studied him carefully from her doorway, noting his height, his stance and bearing, his colours.
Her own magic was deepening with experience and she could begin to reach out, feel for his presence from a distance. He felt alien, and yet not uncomfortable. She was more cautious about the apple now, fearing he had imbued it with some charm of his own, but the sweetness owed everything to nature and nothing to man, and she ate.
As the years passed and her children grew, so they too came to accept this annual ritual. It came at a time when the men were away, gathering in the flocks from the far pastures and bringing them closer to home for the winter. Her man knew nothing of the stranger’s visits, it was unspoken among her family except for a nod from her eldest daughter should she catch sight of him first.
“He’s come.” The only words between them on the subject.
Her sons began to follow the flocks with their father, learning all the paths of the mountain, and the ways of the mountain men. The younger children needed her less as they grew long legs to run, often they were away all day in the summer.
So it happened that one year she set off early with her basket for the midsummer fair.
She had not left her own hillside for many years. She covered over the rising panic by noting each small change in the vegetation, here the trees grew larger, there a flower strange to her eyes, and the river flowing deeper and wider and so much slower than the streams and brooks of her home. Soon she forgot to be afraid and was only entranced by the gentleness, the fertility of this rolling valley landscape.
She saw cattle, and orchards, and fields full of crops, and she saw many people in holiday mood singing as they walked. When at last she came to the fair the sight was overwhelming, so many moving colours, so much noise, new smells. She was glad to see some of her own people there and sat with them, afraid to call out her wares as seemed the custom. She kept her face hidden with a light shawl and found a quieter spot to lay her bundles in neat rows on the grass.
She waited as the sun rose higher, watching the forest of legs grow thicker before her. Around midday she began to feel dizzy with the heat and noise, and looked around for a shady place to eat and drink. She thought she might leave the fair for an hour or two and sit under a tree by the river.
She gathered up her unsold herbs and stood, and turned, and saw him. He was looking at her.
She stared back. After a time he gave her a small bow, as on the hillside, and walked off into the crowds. She wanted to run off after him, catch his arm, ask him, oh so many questions that were unformed.
Who, what, why?
She went to the river, and forced herself to eat. She was unused to this turmoil that was unleashed within her. She lay on the grass, letting the willow leaves sprinkle the sunlight across her, calming her body and mind with the river’s flowing and the unseen skylark’s song. She stayed there the whole afternoon, and walked home with the dusk, a different person.
She had no need to speak of her experiences. Her daughter saw the change in her, noted her agitation when the rowan was ripe.
One morning she knew he would come and she fled, off across the slopes like a deer fleeing the hunter. She sat high above her homestead, blending into the bracken, and watched the man’s visit from afar. She wanted to sing her heart to the hills, battling the breezes to ascend in triumph, dropping like a stone to her nest and wishing he was there to look at her, to bow like that, to make her feel special.
When she returned her daughter said only, “He looked for you.”
She would not eat the apple.
She sat by her door spinning and took no notice of the younger children’s return, her own hunger, the fading light. Eventually her oldest daughter took the spindle from her hands and led her inside to a place by the fire, put a bowl of stew before her and watched anxiously until she ate.
It was her daughter who harvested and preserved the berries that year. And her silence went unremarked by the men when they returned with the flocks.
She had always kept thoughts and opinions to herself. She saw no reason to disrupt her family with the wild notions that kept her awake all night and made the brief daylight hours into a distant dream.
With the spring she seemed to revive, taking over her duties silently as before, and there was no talk of attending the fair again. The children went, in twos and threes, clad in their brightest clothes and returning full of wonder. The daughter sold her mother’s remedies and returned with cloth, or a new tool or saucepan, or salt and flour.
Once it seemed she was going to speak of other things, but her mother abruptly stood up and walked off into the bracken, not returning until twilight.
The man continued to visit her rowan tree each year, and she ate the apple as before, but made no attempt to reach for him, or to communicate in any way.
Her longing for him was a dull ache always present in her body, migrating over the months and years between her womb and her heart, forming lumps at times, or stitches in her side, and odd little leaps of her heartbeat.
She remembered when the longing had risen to her throat, almost at her lips, yet she could not let it out. It blocked speech for days.
She walked the wild hills in the wind, crying out silently her anguish, letting it blow around her in gusts and eddies, to tangle on every bramble and hawthorn tree. When she returned she cut off all her hair in handfuls, fearing the pain had lodged itself there, and threw it all on the fire.
That was when she began to sing.
Her song was wordless.
It rose with her in the morning and followed her around all day as she collected herbs or spun and wove her thread. She gave it voice but no meaning, it was a song like the ripple of mountain streams or the whispering of wind through the leaves. Her song was a spell that flowed through her mouth without ceasing. It was as much a part of her as the clothes she wore, the food she ate between breaths.
Her song matched the moods of the hillside, anticipated changes in weather, maybe even made them so.
She sang the arrival of the valley man that autumn, standing a little way from her house but not close enough for him to speak. When he turned to bow their eyes met, and held their gaze until she turned from him and went inside.
She sat beneath the tree after he had left, hearing the birdsong with one ear and her own song with the other, and holding the apple close to her heart.
One day as winter was beginning she stopped singing with a cry of pain, and stood mute, staring into a distance that did not lie in the walls of her house.
When she stood she began to gather cloths and heat water and steep herbs, and all the children knew there was great disaster in the world. As night fell she lit many lamps in the windows, and sent her remaining sons to watch the path down from the high slopes.
It was many hours before the men arrived, carrying with them the broken body of her man. He was alive still, and he clung to life through the dark winter months as she used all her healing skills battling to save him.
The mountain men would come to sit with him, shaking their heads as they left the house, seeing what she would not see herself. When he had slipped on a cliff path and fallen, they had known he could not survive long. He lasted until the hawthorn blossomed, but all knew he would not have lingered except for her will.
Her sons took over his work with the flocks, her daughters kept the household going, and she sat by her doorway with eyes that looked at nothing, and ears that did not hear the lark’s song, and lips that moved wordlessly.
The scent of the rowan blossom blew all around her, to no effect. The summer passed before her but she paid it no heed.
The berries ripened on the tree. The flocks of birds arrived and something in their chatter seemed to rouse her one morning. She stood up and walked over to the tree, sat by its roots and gazed down towards the valley. She was waiting, but he didn’t come.
The next day too, she sat beneath the tree listening to the birdsong, watching the first leaves fall, and he did not come.
On the third day her daughter came to her with a bundle. It was her clothes, wrapped around a bag containing her most precious medicines. They looked at each other with love and pain unspoken still, and held for a minute while tears passed between them, and then her daughter said, “Go to him now”.
She reached up and broke off a twig from the tree, her tree, a part of herself, and then she walked down the hillside for ever.
Jo Waterworth, January 1995
She will tempt you to her orchards and whisper in your ear,
of love and beauty.
Taste her fruit and know life’s sharp sweetness to the full.
– Isle of Apples, Celebration of Trees
His orchard was so very old that it had only one apple tree left standing. Had he been interested in making cider, he’d have cleared the land and replanted the trees years ago; but he wasn’t. He let it become one overgrown garden with brambles, wild flowers, thick tufts of grass and strange fungi growing on the rotting tree stumps. And the one apple tree, ancient but strong, still producing sweet bright apples year after year after year.
Many a wassail had taken place here in days now well gone by. His great great grandfather’s cider press had been famous through half the county; his grandfather had brought down the business through his own unlimited drunkenness. His father had gone to seek work elsewhere and had never ever returned; his mother became strange, and told him things about apples which had nothing to do with cider making.
She cut him an apple cross-wise, and showed him the star-shaped pattern. He grew up with a peculiar deep knowledge that he was different from everyone else in the town; and the townsfolk thought he was mad, to let a good orchard fall into total disrepair. When his mother died, he was completely on his own.
A young man with no trade, he grew a few vegetables in his mother’s garden patch and ate the apples from the one tree in the orchard; otherwise he had nothing. One by one he sold his family’s belongings, the drapes, the clothes, the furniture, the ornaments, and the few old books. He kept one book, an ancient text on herblore which he couldn’t bear to part with, though he couldn’t read. His ambition was that one day he would learn to read.
Finally there was nothing left at all. He slept on a crude straw mattress and spent most of his time at home, afraid to go out and face the world any longer. It was autumn, and his little store of food would not last through the winter. Even the apple tree had fewer apples this year, with the late frost and gales in the spring.
At twilight he sat outside his house, and looked up into the mountains which towered above the town, criss-crossed with grey and green in stripes. It was perhaps some trick of the sunset, but he fancied he saw a misty golden light, settling over a rocky outcrop half way up the massive slope.
He would go there.
In the morning he rose early; he took an apple and put it in his pocket, but he didn’t eat it during all the long hours’ hiking up steep hills. He didn’t stop. He walked as if he knew where he was going; though if anyone had asked him he’d have been unable to explain. He walked till he got to the rowan tree.
It was a feeling that stopped him there; a feeling that had the same quality as the golden light he’d seen the night before. He walked up to the tree, and stood still. He remembered stories his mother had told him, of goddesses in the hills. He snapped off a sprig of the rowan, with its bright red berries. He was aware of a cottage over to his left, and a woman standing in the doorway; and he thought he heard some children. But he looked straight forward at the tree, and knelt before it.
With his head touching the earth, he felt there was a great priestess standing above him, with the strength of the mountain and the smile of the sunset. And the priestess, and the rowan tree, and the woman in the cottage – all were one, all were part of that same feeling.
When he looked up, all he could see was the tree, its branches, and a little bit of mountaintop beyond. He took out the apple, from his ancestors’ orchard, and laid it on the ground where he had knelt. As he stood he turned towards the cottage, not meaning to let the woman know he’d noticed her, but nevertheless acknowledging her with a slight tilt of his head. Then he turned and went.
The trek back down the mountainside was so much quicker than the climb had been coming up. He seemed to gain in energy as he went, and felt like he was sailing on the wind for part of the wy. He gt back to the town at sunset, and remembered the priestess’s smile; he smiled it to himself. One or two neighbours noticed him, this strange, hidden young man who lived at the end of the street with all that ramshackle land out the back, and they thought maybe there was something different about him that night.
There was. He soon started going out looking for work, doing odd jobs where he could, making himself useful in a way that he’d never believed that he was before. Winter and summer went by, and his life was beginning to take some sort of shape. His house and his garden were better cared for, and the old book of herblore was dusted and placed on a special shelf. In the autumn, when he knew the rowan berries would be once more growing on the mountain, he set off where he’d been the year before, and took with him once again an apple from his tree.
He left it as an offering, as before; and took with him a sprig of rowan. A brief bolt of excitement shot through him as he turned and saw the woman, in her doorway, watching. He bowed his head quickly and left. The rowan he fixed above his front door, as he’d known his mother do sometimes, for protection from all things dreadful. Its presence there soon made him feel like painting the whole door, which he did; and then what he wanted to do was paint a sign with the name of his house.
He asked around for someone who could help him learn to read, and write out a sign. Most people laughed, though the priest promised he would teach him to read the Bible if only he would come to church on Sundays. He took up this arrangement for a while, but it was some time more before he eventually discovered how to make his sign, “Apple Tree Cottage”.
That year he went once again to the mountain, and knew now that this was a part of his life that would continue; it had become part of himself. He gave his apple gladly, and took his sprig of rowan. He turned towards the cottage, and caught just a glimpse of the woman. Though her face was in shadow and her body was half hidden, there was still something about her shape and movement which he would be able to recognise anywhere. He nodded his greeting and left, cheerfully down the mountainside.
Other women did not appear in his life. He was of an age to marry, but he was an odd-ball, not the sort of person to attract a wife, and anyway his energy went into learning to read and write, which he’d started to do with a fluency. He learnt well enough that he was offered some clerical work to try his hand at. When he showed promise he was provided with professional tuition.
He became well enough liked, and one year the lads of his neighbourhood persuaded him to come to the midsummer fair, for surely it was time he found himself a woman, and that was the place to meet one – what was he doing after all these years, without a wife to help him out? And what was he doing shutting himself away with all that book learning? Come to the summer fair …
He went, half curious and half anxious, not looking for a woman but examining in awe the endless changing passing-by of people and shapes and colours and sounds that made his weekly local market seem tiny by comparison. He wandered, half dazed by the welter of impressions. And then he saw her: she was just standing up, collecting her bundle of things together. It was the movement of her shoulder that he knew, unmistakably. Seeing her there he stared, panic-stricken, as she turned and looked at him full in the face.
He knew what she looked like now.
Unable to hold the gaze for long, he gave her a little bow of his head, just as he had done on the hillside, then made off into the crowd. He found his way home as soon as he could, and returned to his books. He just looked forward to next autumn, when he would go once again up the mountainside.
This time she was not there. The feeling was the same, she was not missing in some awful way, but she wasn’t there in the doorway. The person that he saw was standing out in the open, unafraid; she was smaller, younger; she must have been her daughter. He heard the words in his head, with startling clarity: “She has not gone far. She will be here again next time.” He took his sprig of rowan, and left for home.
All that winter he spent the long dark evenings turning her image over in his mind, and following the thoughts that came up. She was married, with children, a husband; she lived her life up on the hillside whole and complete, the centre of a family and a homestead. His own life was so much different. Since his mother died, he had scarcely spoken to women. They were beyond his understanding, otherworldly; the woman on the mountainside fitted this role to perfection. He wrote, strange verses that had no meaning but praised dark goddesses who inhabited mountain caves. The rain and the mud turned to ice covered with snow, and he watched candles drip and fizzle as he followed her image on the mountain, unreal, a dream, a way to keep his soul caught in a cave of its own, even whilst his outer person had taken on the challenges of everyday life.
He started seeking out books that would teach him of the rowan tree. His book of herblore told him that it was a tree sacred to the goddess, that it ensures healthy growth and quickening; and also mentioned that butter churns are made out of rowan wood. Books were not so numerous in those days, but whenever he came across one with a reference to the rowan he would carefully copy out the page. He gradually collected a large box full of such papers, a heap of knowledge and mythology that quietly obsessed him for years on end.
Each autumn he would visit the mountainside, a yearly ritual that was maybe more real than the ‘real’ world that he left behind for a day; but insubstantial, fleeting; he could not speak to her, as to a real woman. He did not know how. He returned to his books, and another winter of dreams.
He found himself in the far future. Great works of stone construction were taking place in the little town where he lived. There was a plot of land near the edge of the town, marked on old maps as an orchard – but only one apple tree grew there, and that nearly rotted away; and next to it, the old black trunk of a rowan tree. Strange, since there were no others in the area, and these the only two trees left in the orchard. They were uprooted and crushed to make way for the works of construction.
He woke up in a sweat, fevered and confused by the images that nudged at him day and night, asleep and awake. As the years went by and his hair grew greyer he developed a wild haunted look, one that frightened some people who didn’t know that his ways had always been strange.
He watched the hedgerows for signs of the season’s turning, and then for one day in the year he was himself, he had a purpose, a destiny; and each time he reached it, he turned back, back to the town; but much of the time he was off in his own world, wandering on bleak mountainsides where the wind howls and the trees cling to the ground with talons for roots.
One year she was out on the hillside, singing; a wordless melody that twisted in the wind and tiptoed over branches of the tree. He was aware that something was changing; in him, and on the mountainside. The song followed the line of the rough stone wall and then danced across the field before being taken up by the wind; it floated up and circled slowly down around the rowan tree. He stayed longer than before, and when he turned to see the source of the song she was standing outside her cottage with her eyes fixed on him. She held one long note and then turned to go indoors. He walked home very slowly, arrived back past nightfall, and disappeared for days into a reverie that left him speechless. When he returned to life his body ached and his mind was half distracted. He plummeted into winter, fell ill, dreamed of birds flying on mountain peaks and blood red sunsets over the snow. Lost in an inner blizzard, he sometimes caught echoes of a voice within his head. He emerged in the spring haggard and worn, and only gradually came to strength with the sunshine. People nodded to one another after he had passed, and did not expect him to last for many more winters. He was strong enough through the summer, but as the nights drew in once again great groping shadows plucked at him from distant apertures, and a wordless melody circled around in his mind and worked its way into his veins. The time was come for him to make his way up the mountain; but not just yet, he couldn’t go yet. Something in his fibres rippled with fear and anticipation in the knowledge that this time, he would meet her; he would talk to her; he would know her as a person and communicate with her; he would touch her, look her in the face and know her, and she would know him. But not today. He put it off till tomorrow; opened up his box full of notes and quotations and attempted to prepare himself by gathering all this learning into his mind. He stayed up all night, re-reading everything he had collected, poring over it, looking for clues and cross-references, drawing maps in his mind and following them to the edges of the world. By morning he was confounded. All of this meant nothing. It did not tell him who she was. He took out all his notes, years and years of research, and burned it page by page to a pile of ashes. Then he cast all the ashes to the winds, and sat still as the sun got lower and then very slowly went down. Another day was gone. He looked for a golden light and he saw none.
He rose early in the morning. He would meet her today. He had waited all his life. He must not delay any longer. He walked out of his house. A mist was over the hills. The mountains rose higher than mist. The sun came out as he made his way up the slopes, birds chattered in the treetops as he passed by; his soul was ready to come out from its cave.
– Bruce Garrard, February 1995