The dark silhouettes of the bare willows were a stark contrast against the warm glowing orange of the winter solstice sunset. The barren fenland landscape had come alive with the burning, golden tones of burnt sienna and yellow ochre and the cool dark waterway slicing its way through the ancient land was suddenly transformed into an underwater fire. It was cold though, yet I hardly noticed the teasing chilling winds on my face, hardly paid heed to the cold icy soil beneath my feet.
I had come to this silent lonely place beside the waters, surrounded by the willows, as I always do at this time of year; the time of the winter solstice. I had silently walked along the winding riverbank for three or four miles to reach the place of my choosing, the place where I would cast my circle to celebrate the solstice and to pay homage to my gods. The day had been stunning, so warm and sunny for this time of year. The winter sunshine had uplifted my soul and warmed my heart with thoughts of brighter days to come. I had bought with me warm homemade soup and a flask of freshly made black coffee. It would be a welcome treat after the ritual, a treat I would relish.
When I had arrived at my chosen spot I had sat and meditated on this special time of year and on the ritual I was about to perform and where I now was, on my own inner, intimate journey through life. The mood had started to build; the energies usually well hidden in the fens had started to rise and to fill my soul with expectation and wonder. I gazed around me, wanting to remember the scene, to etch it on my memory for all time.
In front of me was the grassy riverbank, still fresh and green and verdant, sloping gently down to meet the hypnotic lap lapping of the water’s edge. Behind me grew a line of three fully mature willows, old and craggy, gnarled with age. Behind them the land dipped slightly onto a freshly furrowed field. On the grassy bank in front of me two sapling willows had grown up and together with the mature willows behind, had formed a natural circle, enclosing me, encasing me in their world. And of course the river itself, serene, dark and mysterious; the lifeblood of the fens, providing sanctuary to numerous species of ducks, swans, dragonflies, herons, water voles and many other creatures.
I sat in silence, meditating for several minutes, breathing deeply, and gradually letting go of my everyday life, soaking up the energies and tuning into the atmosphere around me. I had sat like that for some time before noticing a slight breeze, the wind rustling on my face; reeds and grasses whispering, calling. The voice of the wind I thought, till suddenly, another sound came to my ears, a sound from another place; of voices not know to me. I shivered involuntary and startled I opened my eyes and looked around me.
Eerie otherworldly sounds seemed to echo in the breeze, calling to me on the song of the wind; sounds that came to me from afar, from another realm, from a strange and different world, filling my head with dark whisperings and shadowy illusion. Or was it just my imagination intoxicating me with wondrous fantasies?
I wanted to get back to my rite, wanted to re-focus, wanted to drink in the full beauty of the scene, wanted to remember it, wanted to be there forever, wanted to become part of the magic itself. I never really wanted to leave this place, I thought and I thought it time and time again.
And “They” listened….
I had cast my circle, had called the directions and welcomed the Elementals into my world. I felt at peace, felt at one with the world and with nature itself. Water was part of my nature; I had always been drawn to its ever-changing fluid form, always wanting to dive deep into its hidden depths, to unlock the mysteries to be found there. Now here I sat in the middle of my circle in a trance like state slowly going deeper and deeper in – into the depths.
The bare willow branches creaked in the wind and from further up the river a swan flapped its huge snowy white wings and called out to its mate. I felt small and insignificant, a tiny part of a vast ancient landscape. I felt mesmerized by the energies here, gradually becoming a part of this watery world. Then suddenly from somewhere afar, another whisper on the wind; surely not my imagination this time, surely no disguising those whispering voices now. But how could it be? No one else was here and certainly no one from my world knew that I was here.
The Elementals knew…. hadn’t they joined me in my rite; hadn’t I invited them in?
I instinctly felt alarm bells ringing in my head and although I wasn’t really too concerned at this time but I knew it was time to leave. The sky was darkening now and I realised it would be nightfall before I reached home. I concluded my rite, dismissing the directions and closing down. I did not hurry but I was aware of the rapidly glooming sky overhead, the closing in of the landscape and of the night-time spirits dwelling just out of my vision.
But still something wasn’t quite right…a voice…a whisper.…a chill…a cold hand laid on my shoulder? I tried hard to take no notice as I made to leave, picking up all that I had bought with me, ready to depart. As I started to move to the edge of the circle, a realisation was slowly taking shape in my mind. I felt trapped, sluggish, paralyzed, was totally unable to move an inch. I glanced down and to my utmost horror my feet were somehow sunken into and embedded in that cold, dark earth, they were heavy, leaden, were a part of this dark landscape.
What was happening? It was getting dark and very cold and panic was starting to set in. Then, those voices again, nearer now. Whisperings on the breeze and in my ears.
“Listen… listen… listen to the voice of the breeze and to the sound of the waters, listen to the song of the Sylphs and see the dance of the Undines. Do you not remember, have you forgotten how your wish was granted?”
I looked down at the ground, looked to where my feet should have been and saw roots, gnarled, woody, thick roots. I felt my arms outstretched over and around my head, falling gracefully around my body as bare winter branches. My body, heart and soul were now the heartwood of the willow.
It was then and only then that I started to remember. Started to recall what really happened on that riverbank, on that winter solstice all those years ago. Yes, I do remember now, oh so well; my memory lost upon that riverbank, when I once belonged to another world, is starting to clear again…
….and so I had finished my rite, had packed up in readiness for my journey home along the towpath, along the riverbank. Looking upwards I noticed that the skies were already darkening and a chilly wind was starting to rise. As I went over towards the grassy slope leading down to the waters edge, to say my farewells to the water creatures, I somehow tripped, skidded in a furrow and twisted my ankle. Acting quickly and instinctly I plunged my foot into the icy waters hoping that the coldness would keep any swelling at bay until after I had safely made my journey home.
Suddenly, from out of nowhere and taking me completely by surprise, cold, icy, waiting, wanting hands reached out from below the water’s surface and grasped me, oh so firmly around the ankles, hands I knew belonged to beings far older, far more ancient than any I had ever known before. They wanted me for their own; they desired their offering. Wanted what was rightly theirs.
They held me tight, they hurt me, their muddy, filthy talons dug deep into my flesh, ripping and tearing. Faces confronted me from below the icy waters; faces belonging to other worldly beings that no human would ever wish to encounter, let alone see. “Be careful what you wish for” echoed inside my head as I struggled for survival, for my very own life. I had summoned the Elementals and they had come, I had wished to stay there forever, hadn’t I and they had listened. They were not kindly, not protective; definitely not what I had previously envisioned calling to in my rites. They were ancient, dark and fearsome. They felt and stank of damp, decaying death; they had, over the centuries consumed the hapless souls of all who they had ever caused to drown in these cold lonely waters. Their darksome faces wore the expression of a greed, a hunger, a desperate need born from an eternity of luring and feeding on human souls. They were the Undines, the elementals of water and I was theirs and take me they would. Of that I had no doubt.
I struggled, but to no avail until a kind of tranquillity started to engulf me, that kind of drowsiness that comes before the moment of falling asleep when one is still just awake. Sleep, how I wanted to sleep, to rest, to dream and then to awaken safely at home, for this surely is just a dream, a trick, a nightmare. Mortal consciousness started to slip away from my body. In that dark, cold, lonely place, I started to accept my fate, I knew this was it, knew this was the end. Knew that what would be would be. I would be found in the morning, bloated and lifeless in the river, tangled in the reeds.
Then suddenly just as my mortal life was slipping away, just as I had given in to those ancient beings of the fens, a wind, a breeze began to play on the watery surface of that loathsome river. Sharpe, biting razor blades of icy air slashed into my body. Malicious whisperings of the Sylphs who should have been beautiful, should have been graceful, should have been inspiring, but in reality were loathsome and nasty, they spat out lies with hot rasping breath, they rid the lungs of its very life force and they fed tirelessly on the thoughts, the souls and on the minds of humans, of mortals. Our thoughts, our ideas had fed and inspired them over the centuries. They had caused the demise of hundreds and thousands of lost and lonely souls. They had ripped out the minds, stolen the ideas of those folk who had dared to enter their domain, dared to wish for the breeze on their face or for the wind in their hair, dared to wish for freedom, dared to let their spirit fly on the winds.
Now they had me, were tossing me between them, were having fun with my limp lifeless body. They were cutting me to pieces, were inside my mind, had hold of my intellect, had filled my lungs till they wanted to explode…
….until… until from somewhere deep inside or maybe from a long way away, at this point I really did not know, did not even care, but questions, I heard questions, a bargain from beneath the icy depths, from out of the frenzied winds. I was being offered an alternative, a way out
“Stay here they said, become immortal, become one with the willows. Dare to enter our realm, dare to enter our domain, you will pay the mortal price, you will become the Willow. But for one day a year we will set you free to live as you did on the day you came to us, the day you wished for your never-ending life with us. That is our bargain and in return you will serve us, you will become the guardian of the Willow Grove. Real nature is cruel, we are cruel. We have no conscience. Take it or leave it, the choice is entirely yours”
………and so my friends that is how I became destined never to leave the willow grove, destined to spend eternity by the riverside, encaptured for all time by the soulless elementals who dwell there, upon that river bank, playing out my last day as a mortal every winter solstice, until the setting sun, the darkening skies and those whispering voices claim me once more as their own.
Darkwillow April 2005