Cynthia Mac Pherson

Once in a blue moon

In a long silver-gray dress, she sat tall and unmoving in the flickering firelight. Strong featured, her mouth down-turned, pale-faced, her short hair like silver shoots. Her arthritic hands held a pen, beside her sandaled feet, lay a book and on her shoulder an owl was perched, its beak hooked. Onions hung from the rafters and, on the dying fire, a pot of curry filled the room with spice. The owl turned its head, its yellow eyes staring into the night. The woman’s eyes too were gold and unblinking.

Sparse, far out of town, on the edge of civilization, the cottage sat at the foot of the mountain. Visible through the window was the light of a blue moon – the second full moon of June. Midwinter. 30th – the date of her birth.

The owl flew through the open door and the woman followed, feet whispering across the bare floor. Outside she breathed in air fresh with the smell of buchu. The mountain loomed dark and she gazed up at the moon, its face encircled in a halo of moist air. A tree quivered in the slight breeze.

In the silence, she heard a rustling and the grass moved, flattening to reveal a path that lay between and stretched beyond. The owl hooted as it glided ahead, beckoning to her. Hitching her skirts into her girdle, she limped along the path, bright in the moonlight. Looking back at the cottage, she saw the vegetables she’d planted, gone to seed – rocket, lettuce, chillies- and she remembered her book of stories, left by the fire, for her daughters and their children. Stories of past and future, of forgetting and remembering, darkness and light, sadness and joy, of holding and releasing.

The path rose and then crept between sandstone boulders, tumbled, half-human, half-animal, to an altar in the centre of an amphitheatre. Then the path disappeared and the woman could find no way to turn. A circle of rocks enclosed her, moving closer and closer until she was held in a vice grip. Captured. The owl called from a rock-imprisoned fig-tree, its yellow eyes searching the darkness for her. The woman struggled but her limbs seemed turned to stone.

Above the mountain, the moon hung, inscrutable. Then in the light of a moonbeam, she saw, in the rock face, a door carved with hieroglyphics – five signs : an owl, an eye, a book, crossroads, a tree. Symbols of what? Then the owl was at her back clawing at the stone bracelets holding her hands. The woman breathed deeply, straining to touch the hieroglyphics, and felt them hot beneath her fingertips, drawing blood into her cramped joints. She stretched the fingers of one hand onto the five signs simultaneously and the shock knocked her back, releasing her from the bonds of stone. The door opened and beyond bright light glimmered.

As she drew herself out of the rock, her tunic fell from her and she stood naked, scarred and gnarled, in the brilliant light. She held out her arms and they were branches and her hands were pale leaves, covered in silver hairs. Long body and limbs luminous against the indigo sky, she was a silver tree, standing mysterious on the slope of the mountain.

Now in the midwinter blue moon, her children and their children gather around the silver tree on the mountain slope to dance and chant an incantation to her and often they see the dark shape of an owl perched in her topmost branches, silver in the indigo sky. And sometimes a child catches sight of golden yellow eyes.

Loved and forgiven, she’s remembered in the stories she left. Stories of past and future, of forgetting. and remembering, darkness and light, sadness and joy, of holding and releasing.

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