TRAVELLER'S REST by Janian Richardson
Old Lilah Heron awoke with a start, as though something light as a leaf blown from the woods had brushed her cheek. She had fallen asleep while carving chrysanthemums with long, curling petals from the sticks she had gathered that morning. Now the wood in her little stove had fallen apart into a mass of grey ash, without warmth or light, and the long shadows of early evening filled her caravan. She would have to move quickly to gather more wood before it grew dark.
She wrapped her brown woollen shawl around her thin shoulders and pushed her feet into ancient, awkward-looking boots. Though old, she was straight and tall yet, and her grey hair still carried streaks of raven black. Taking her basket and hazel stick, Lilah climbed down the three little steps outside her front door and made her way towards the woods behind the caravan. Solitude held no terrors for Lilah: she had been alone for fifteen years since Nathaniel had died, and the high-speed way of life that most of the travelling folk had adoped, whirling around in caravans harsh with chrome and drawn by cars instead of the proud horses of yesterday, was not for her. She much preferred to stay here, on the border of the great forest, in the little wooden caravan Nathaniel had built with his own hands.
In the soft grey light the woods looked magnificant, reaching high into the air and blazing like a great fire with the reds and golds of October's end. As she picked her way across the pitted surface of the field, Lilah smiled to herself. She was remembering Octobers long past, when all her relations would be gathered on country farms. Hopping was ended, and most of the fruit safely in, and it would soon be time to forage for potatoes in the rich damp Earth. The hedges, then as now, were entwined with travellers' joy, its fragrance like woodsmoke and smoky, too, its delicate grey fronds. And there were spindleberries, clear and pink, and rose hips for jam, and a thousand gossamer webs strung with jewels in the sunrise. Then stars at night, and a snap of frost, and the comfort of a fire shared with her loved ones under the glittering sky.
Lilah felt a lump of pain rise in her breast. Those Autumn evenings had never been the same since Jasper-John, her dearest brother only two years older than herself, had drowned in the weir at Nettlestead. Cold that evening had been, and raw, flayed by grey thongs of mist . . She would not think of that now. But as Lilah skirted the forest, ever watchful for dry wood, and as she stooped to gather sticks, or paused to admire a slender tree shimmering with golden leaves, she felt as though she had company, and could imagine Jasper-John, with his black curly hair and eyes alight with mischief, running beside her. Once, the sensation was so strong that she swung round - and started a large hare, who cocked his ears at her and lolloped off into the shelter of a thorn bush.
Now Lilah was within the great woods, treading bracken and pine needles, and fallen leaves like a store of treasure all about her. The light was very dim, and Lilah's eyes were not as keen as in years gone by, so now and again she would seize a swatch of dead fern or an old puffball, powdering between her fingers, in mistake for the wood she sought. However, on she foraged until her rush basket was heavy with wood and she was quite out of breath. Panting, Lilah leaned against a tree. High it loomed into the darkening sky, seeming almost to penetrate it; around its trunk coiled a thick rope of ivy. How strong it felt to Lilah, almost comforting, and her old eyes became moist. Nathaniel had reminded her, many a time, of a tree, sturdy and sheltering in times of trouble. Now he, too, was gone: a fall from a ladder had damaged his back and his strength had never returned. In the thickening darkness, with her arms tight around the trunk of the tree, it was easy to envisage him striding through the woods towards her, brown as a hazel nut and love gleaming in his dark eyes. Lilah spent several minutes in bittersweet dreaming, until she suddenly realised how cold it had grown. She opened her eyes. It was completely dark: a thin mist was threading between the trees, which showed as strange black clusters against the night. Some had lost all their leaves, and pointed stark horns and bony fingers towards a sky unbroken my moon or stars. Lilah, who had spent a lifetime among the woods, now felt afraid. She had ventured far deeper into the forest than she had meant to, and it was many years since she had been alone in the woods by night. She breathed deeply, and gradually became calmer. Swathes of the love of the forest returned to her. She would not be able to retrace her steps by sight, so perhaps, if she could hear the stream that ran through the forest, she could follow that? And sure enough, as she let her mind relax and wander along the woodland paths, Lilah heard a very faint trickling away to her left. Step by step, her hazel stick seeking the pathway, and clutching her basket of wood, she came to the stream. She was trembling now: her age was heavy upon her and the cold ate into her bones. Each step seemed to last for an hour. As she picked her way along the bank of the stream, twigs and thorn tore spitefully at her limbs and her feet sank deep into oozing mud, which slithered icily into the tops of her boots. The mist had thickened to a dense pall and not even the tree-shapes were visible. Owls cried like frightened children, and once, when Lilah walked full into a prickly bush and was blindly struggling to disengage herself, she heard a thick grunting and crackling, as of a large animal pushing through undergrowth, close behind her. In a surge of panic she stumbled forward and fell headlong into the mud. She had not released her stick, and it aided her in rising, but her basket of wood was lost and a jagged pain tore at her chest.
A few more steps, weaker now, and at last Lilah could see an opening in the wood's dark curtains. Now she stood outside, shivering with pain and cold, and a strange slapping sound carried across the field. Lilah knew it well: it was the sound of someone washing in the stream, slapping the clothes against the stones as she had done so often herself, and her mother before her, and her grandmother before either of them. Who on Earth would be washing at the darkest hour of a cold October night? Then the Moon showed pale and wan through a tear in the clouds, and Lilah saw that she was beside the little brook that crossed the fields about a mile from her caravan. And there, by the side of the stream, crouched a figure, and in the moonlight her hair flowed down her back like a midnight waterfall, and it was Rebecca, Lilah's own daughter who had been taken from her at the age of fourteen, burning with a fever on the coldest night of the year.
"Rebecca! Oh, my own!" Forgetting the pain in her chest, Lilah stumbled across the field, tripping and tearing her ankles in the long grass whose edges were as sharp as knives. At the edge of the stream she fell on her knees, weeping, her frail arms flung wide in welcome. The figure raised her head from her task with a terrible laugh, and it was not Rebecca at all, and it was not long black hair that hung down her back, but garments as shapeless and murky as Fear itself. She raised her eyes to meet Lilah's, and they were black pits like the spaces between the stars in a face no more than bone, a face of bottomless sorrow and desolation that had been ancient when Lilah was yet a child. Her bony fingers loosed the white, clammy thing that she was washing, and she seized the old gipsy woman to her shrunken breast in an embrace of iron. Lilah felt the pain bubble up from her chest, filling her throat with its red, salty taste, and she fell down, deep down into the chasm of the other's gaze.
How long Lilah had lain there beside the stream she could not tell, but it was upon the Moon that she opened her eyes, riding high in a sea of tattered clouds. She felt warm, and the pain in her chest had gone. A deep peace was upon her then, and she lay quietly until the sound of hoof-beats, coming from the wood, aroused her. She sat up, and saw a magnificent stallion, pale and shining as the Moon herself, and a great star of midnight black on his forehead. And Nathaniel was leading him by the reins, tall and brown and supple as the larch, and on his back sat Jasper-John and Rebecca, with room for one more besides. "Come, my Lilah," said Nathaniel, "to the green and secret places, and learn the mysteries of Mother Earth. And we will dance in the circles of the Sun, and in the Moon's silver avenues, until the time comes for us to begin travelling once more." So Lilah got to her feet, as easily as if she had been a young maid, and behold, she was as naked and lithe, with long black hair free-flowing. She joined her loved ones upon the back of the great horse who shone like the stars, and together they galloped into the windy night, and what remained on the bank of the stream held no more meaning for Lilah than a heap of dry sticks and withered leaves.