Beltane

By Chris Collins


He coughs oak leaves and stands up. He is taller than the forest: he is the forest. The antlers of a deer twist like branches out from his head – they run through his leaves and branches. He stretches towards the sun, his sapling sinews crackling and pulsing – life beats on thundering hooves and paws through the forest.

The sun rises red gold over the cowslips. The green man shakes out his yellow green coat and walks into the year.

As crocuses wither and daffodils droop, hawthorn blooms. Children from the village wearing flower crowns bring offerings to the stone circle on the hillside.

The green man stands forest vast in the centre and ribbons are tied to him, bells waved, and all the people dance. He is wreathed in tumbling badgers, cubs and singing birds. To him will come his queen, his Beltane Bride, the hawthorn queen. And they will fruit summer together.

* * * *

Maya was the loveliest girl in her hillside hamlet. The last winter snows cleared to reveal her body taller in the spring, her hair laburnum yellow and her bluebell eyes shone. This would be her first year to dance with the older girls for the Beltane festival. 

She was ready for it. The spring had swelled in her breast over the April weeks as the weather gentled and she found she had not stopped smiling in a fortnight and went to bed with aching cheeks. Her mother would call her impatiently as she stood by the stream, gazing at the sunlight on its rushing ripples that hurt her eyes with their dazzle. Getting the sheep in, she would pause on the hillside and glut her eyes on the bluebell copse’s fragrance and the soft way hawthorn threw its white blossoms on the field edge. But most of all was that feeling in her breast, that swelling, alive feeling, of something beating that caught her throat, held her imagination and made her stomach tickle. Like something was about to happen. Something incredibly beautiful.

This feeling called Maya from her bed before dawn. The silvery moonlight tapped on her eyelids and she unconsciously registered the change and woke up. She slithered out of bed and went to the window. As she struggled to lift the old sash, her sister stirred.

‘Maya, what are you doing?’

Maya winced and froze. ‘Sorry Freya. Go back to sleep love.’ 

Freya cleared her throat of bleariness and groggily sat up.  ‘Are you trying to get out the window?’

‘No!’ Maya laughed. ‘Maybe; I don’t know! It’s so lovely isn’t it? Everything’s silver, it feels magic.’

Freya stumbled over to the window and leaned on her sister’s shoulder, resting her arm round Maya’s waist. She stared a while, then rubbed her eyes with the back of her wrist.

‘Beautiful,’ she confirmed, turning around. ‘Now go back to bed.’

‘I’m going out,’ announced Maya.

Freya turned again. ‘Really? What if you fall in the stream? Or knock your ankle on something? You’ll be no good in the morning for the sheep.’

‘It’s so light Freya – it’s like day! You can see everything! I’m going now.’

Freya was crawling back into bed. ‘Fine,’ she resigned. ‘But put some shoes on’

Maya runs into the horned silver night. She stops on the slope of the hill and looks down to the lake and forest and back up the hill towards her home. Her lips part in wonder as she sees the hills reflected ivory in the lake waters and her heart beats fast. She runs down to the forest.

The green man hears her coming and turns. Squirrels swarm down his arms and the buds on his brow flower into opulent green as he sees her run. A silver, hawthorn white girl. She stops, stunned, when she sees him, high as the green canopy above her. Tall, strong as summer, green as oak and beautiful. She goes to him. She is dazzled.

* * * * 

‘Maya, really, that lamb was nearly left behind!’ her mother scolded. ‘You just stood there in a daze, then tranced down without even noticing her.’

Maya hung her head and mumbled her apologies, urging the lamb down the hillside with her crook under her mother’s thunder. 

‘What’s the matter with you today?’ she continued. ‘You’re normally so alert. Did you not sleep well?’

‘Maybe that’s it,’ Maya admitted, stumbling on.

* * * * 

The moon was suspended full and hovered swollen as if time stood still. That night it called Maya out to her green lover again and they stretched themselves out by the stream on its moss. His bark muscled arms crooked to cradle her, and his green finger leaves cushioned her sharp bones. When they kissed, the air was the fragrance of honey and hawthorn and the deep green freshness of moistened peridot moss.

He leaned toward the stream and scooped out a palmful of water. It wreathed itself into a silver ring and its patterns were the rushing currents and soft eddies of mountain streams, bound in silver threads of droplets and the shimmer of moonbeams. Displaying it to her first on a bed of leaves, the green man slipped it on Maya’s finger.

* * * * 

‘That’s pretty!’ Freya exclaimed, her eyes widening over breakfast. ‘Where did you get it?’

Maya came to herself again and followed her sister’s eye. She fiddled the ring idly, then covered it with her other hand and put both on her lap under the table.

‘I found it,’ she said, then cleared her hoarse voice. ‘By the lake.’

Freya’s eyes narrowed and she leaned in over her bread and honey. ‘Did you go out again last night?’

Maya chanced a quick glance over at their mother whose back was busily moving to the rhythm of the mangle and nodded.

‘Well tonight it’s the green gathering,’ Freya whispered. ‘So I’ll be with you. You can show me where.’

Maya smiled. Freya pushed the last of her bread into her mouth and stood up, brushing crumbs off her skirt. ‘Doesn’t matter what we find – so long as you look as lovely as possible, little May queen!’

Under the moon before dawn, the sisters easily woke themselves. They cast aside the rough, course materials of their shepherdessing and dressed in Sunday-fine muslin. Laughing together and whispering, they left the house for the forest.

At the edge, they waited still and silent. Then a set of badger cubs came running across the worn path and carried on down the hill. Freya turned to Maya, eyes shining. Every year. The girls carried on to a good spot and began collecting ivy. They worked for a solid hour with their hunting knives, filling their baskets. Then anemones, bluebells, clover, cow parsley and early dog rose. Running home with it all, they heaved it upon the scrubbed table in the kitchen and Freya and her mother set about crowning their May queen.

* * * * 

The green man waits as dawn reddens the edge of the forest. His wedding day. Song thrushes sing the bridal march and he watches the village bedecking windows and door jambs. All the village and all the land to celebrate his marriage.

* * * * 

Smiling Maya took her place behind two long columns of girls. They all wore white and ribbons decorated their dresses and flowers wreathed their hair. Freya turned and winked at Maya. The drums started to set the rhythm, then the fiddles joined and all the girls as one began the processional dance up the hillside towards the stone circle.

The sun is so blinding bright in Maya’s eyes and she has only the impression through the ache, of green, green; blue in the sky and the dizzying whiteness of the dresses and the stones above, the dazzling grey-white of horses. It is all sensation, the warmth of the sun on her face and arms, the squeeze of the silver ring and the fluttering breathlessness in her chest. Her head is light and there are no thoughts now – they are diffusing out like pollen and mixing with the dew in the air and the wings of bees; and the scents of flowers drift in and mingle there. She feels herself slip and become the forest, the movement of ants, the grains of earth, the colours of smells, the very May itself.

They reach the stone circle. The girls stretch their arms into an arch while others scatter petals. Maya dances down the arch and enters the circle. She sees nothing now, but green and brown and the arms of her lover open, then enfold her deep to him. She dances into the heart of the oak.

In the stone circle, the village watch a girl and a tree, then a man and blossom, then in the confusion of the brilliant light and the sound of fiddles and birdsong and petals and cheers, all lifts and slips.

Then stepping back, the revellers see an oak tree, its leaves fragily small but irrepressibly green and ready, and the wind dandles the branches so there is almost a face of a man high up that comes and goes. There is no girl, but a beautiful white hawthorn bursting with white lace frothing flowers, and the branches of both are twined sweetly.

The children step forth and tie ribbons to oak and hawthorn and sing. And bees fly out in their ponderous progress and pollinate the blossoms and the flowers. 

Summer begins.

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