Owl's Moon

Never had there been a time when villagers could journey through the forest without fear of the wild beasts, lurking men, the dark spirits that hid in its tangled thickness. Even those hardy souls who dared live at the edge of its grim and frightful presence were careful, for not a few had been known to leave home in the dawn, no more to be seen.

Sometimes a mighty crashing was heard all the way to the river, and the hardy huntsmen who dared seek the cause would return with tales of some huge unseen beast (it must have been) that ripped a path the length of a long stonethrow through the big trees ‑‑ a slash that just started, and stopped, leading nowhere ‑‑ no path at all really, but a crushed and broken place in the woods. Sometimes weird cries and calls rose up and drifted to their ears, the sort of noise a boy makes into a well, trying to frighten his playmates. Sometimes a woodcutter would come upon piles of flesh and bone and fur ‑‑ fresh and bloodless, like feathers of a bird left after a cat and the ants were done with it.

Why then the old woman had chosen to remove herself into the woods was a strange thing that the village women talked about. Most of the men hardly noticed, but even some of them took note that smoke rose no longer from the hut of the little grandmother who had given them sweets when they were children. The old woman was known to sometimes tarry at the forest’s edge, milking her trees as she said, and return toward sundown with a cup or a bucket of clear, thick sap. The next day the children could be heard squealing with delight, dancing gleefully, eyes gleaming greedily as they sucked their fingers of the last sweetness from the candy she had given them. The girls too received sweets from her, and as they grew, other things, that only women know about.

But some time in the early days of spring, the old woman had disappeared into the wide dark expanse of trees that surrounded the village and perhaps the whole world. How long she had been gone no one could say, whether days or weeks. But when a young woman went to call on her, seeking a remedy for some lingering winter ailment, the hut was found open, cold, empty. Soon the old wives were bending their necks together, clucking out their speculations, and the men stared grimly into the fire or smiled crookedly or furrowed their brows.

Time passed and no sign was found, and the moon rolled through the seasons until autumn softened the forest and muted the sky. Then a woodsman came breathless into the village, telling how he had spied an ancient shack in a mottled clearing far into the woods. There he saw the missing old woman, pecking about in a small herb garden, chirping out a tuneless whistle.

“Old mother,” he had blurted, “what are you doing here?”

Without raising herself or even turning her head, she said, “Why, I know this little one, come far into the deep woods. Run along home, my young pup, or darkness and her children will overtake you. You would not wish to hear them sing.” A dull foreboding seized him then, rose into panic and so he ran, crashing over the dim animal trails until he found the village path, dashing until he finally reached home to tell his tale.

There was a young girl who found need of the old woman’s skills, and glad she was to hear it might be found upon seeking. A lovely girl, her skin as fair as pale flowers in the shade, her cheeks the hue of hot modesty, and trailing down her slender back, adorned with buds and blossoms, hair that shone the untamed russet of the shy, sly fox. By no means went she unnoticed, and when of an evening the firelight danced in her tresses, the boys were swept up and transported in their minds and blood to other places more suited to the solitary pursuits of lads and their lasses.

One tall, laughing youth ‑‑ his teeth so strong and white, his head tangled with wild, dark and careless curls, his shoulders broad, his hips that met the rope of his britches like a finger through a ring ‑‑ was seen to leave the dancing and music, the pipes and drums, the swinging skirts and stomping boots. He left to follow this lithe miss, out into the encircling darkness. Who is there to say a word on this, without thinking first of his own youth, her own memories, their own blood and breath and sleepless nights.

Outside the orb of firelight, the cluster of the village homes, the meadows and fields, into the trees and touching the forest proper, they might have met, these two young things. Oh, ah, my pretty pretty lass, my meadow rose, my love as sweet as plum wine and clover honey, fair and dear as pearls, more precious than gold, your lips the color that rubies must be, your cheeks so hot and cold, your lips your neck your ears your eyes neck lips, I will hold you have you hold you know you always be my love for I am yours. Tongues, and teeth.

If he pushed himself upon her, she might have refused. Perhaps she did.

Tongues and teeth.

But he paid her no more mind after that night, and she wept herself to sleep unceasingly.

That was summer, though, and now it was fall. The heat of those bonfire nights had cooled, and though some embers still burned, buried in the ashbanks, the short, stocky horses of the fields were growing wooly for the winter, and leaves lay a deep bedding for the coming snows.

In the biting morning mist, frost cracking like brittle sap beneath her feet, and cloaked from the rimed air in the faded folds of a cape colored by cinnabar and madder bloom, the girl hurried from her home toward the forest’s edge. The sunrise lay before her, unseen for the towering trees that loomed ominous as black warriors sheathed in midnight stone. Through the serpent-hole of a road and she was in the gloom and thickness of the old trees while yet the full dew trembled on the grass.

The cold air grew cool but never warmed, even when the sun was at its height. So she walked, carrying a woven-bark basket of goods she would gift and trade for what she needed from the old village grandmother who had been lost and was now found.

The day drifted by as a tiresome progress of small steps and snapping twigs. Gaps between the trees led to false trails, and narrow paths splayed and forked and multiplied beyond her memory or experience.

She was lost.

She turned and hoped to make her way back, but how many ways there were, and all the same, so narrow, so faint, so vague in their direction.

The sun grew low, and shadow lay upon shadow beneath the thickly woven branches. She scurried along, not slowing as she wrapped her slender shoulders tightly in her cape, its loose ruddy cowl flat as an empty sack upon her back. Her full tresses, a second mantle upon the first, draped her back like a crimson beetle-shell too short to cover wings.

Just where dusk and twilight meet, the sky cast in hues of hollyhock and mallow, a chill wind cut through the trees and from behind tossed her hair off the cowl and into her face. Hastily she covered her head, anonymous as a distant friar now with her cloaked breast and linen hood. Clutching tight the basket before her in both hands, she hurried with quick short steps, careless, urgent.

The trees closed in. The tunnel of her sight was a world of darkness. Her arms were snared in thorns, hands snatched by the hag fingers of the undergrowth. Lost, lost she wandered, terror and noise panting in her nostrils, breathing sharp and fast as a heartbeat.

What sound is that? ‑‑ the padding paws, the dragging claws of wild dogs or hunting wolves? What shadow there that moves then disappears behind her stare, what bear what beast that hides to feast on young girls’ flesh? Is it wind that howls so like wailing souls and shakes the leaves like rattled bones? Is that moonlight glancing off a shiny leaf, or glowing eyes of some fell beast crouching in her way and set to tear her neck?

And then she has broken into an open place.


She stands on the brink of a cluttered clearing, and the swollen, yellow, owl’s moon has risen and grown silver, splashing over her like bright surprise. Gray and silver like water and smoke surround her, and she is drawn inward, moth to moonbeam.

Hunched low as a stump and heaped like forgotten firewood slumps the old woman’s mud-dull hut.

This is the place.

“Hallo,” she cries. Silence answers. “Old grandmother? Are you there?”

Is it some reply that rises from before her, or the grudging forest whispering its tricks ‑‑ back go back come back.

“Hallo,” she calls again, and this time it is a voice that echoes back from within the shack.

“Ah, my little one. I heard you coming. Come to me, for I am old and cannot make my way.

At the threshold, a tattered door of ancient planks drags on oak hinges.

Inside, darkness is held off by an oily fire that flickers in a stone hearth at the farthest wall, throwing sullen shadows with a flame too shallow to be gold. Sitting by the fireplace, covered to her neck in a broad animal-skin blanket of shaggy gray fur, the old woman emerges from the gloom as a dance of shadowed features.

The hut is rank with the stink of singed hair and burning flesh. Fire cracks in the hearth, demanding the girl’s eyes, and she sees twisting in the flame the fur and fat, the sinew and bone of some disjointed beast.

“Close the door, my dear. My body is old and winter is near.” Yellow flame glints off the old woman’s eye, bright beyond reason. “Lower your hood and let me look at you, my silly cherry. And put your basket down, your tasty treats.

“I have come,” the lass begins ‑‑

“Yes, yes, my nose is still below my eyes. I know why young girls come to old women in the woods.

Now the weeks and months flare up and burn the girl’s face with shame and fear. She sobs, a soft and keening wail like distant wolves baying in the rain. She cannot speak. Her face twists ugly and mad. Tears streak her cheeks like rolling quicksilver. Only her shoulders move, jerking to the stifled shudders of her breath.

The old woman sits, still, rocking perhaps, although the wild pelt muffles any motion, covers over her legs and distorts her feet.

At length the girl has quieted herself, unmoved from where she stands. No feminine instinct draws her to the old woman’s arms, her lap, the presumed comfort of her thin breast. The stench of meat, of blood, of rotting tissue suffuses the air, and fire cannot purge it.

The girl, the old woman, are silent, weirdly, one at the center, one on the wall, the flames cracking off the moments like clacking fangs on crunching bones.

Overhead, the shattered thatch of the roof slices moonlight into scattered patches across the floor, and by that light ‑‑ the fire is useless ‑‑ the girl takes in the face of the old woman and is possessed by a sense of otherness. The crone's wet gaze seems to flare like fire and shine like stars. The girl's eyes grow wide, fixed hard upon the old woman. She feels a distant shock, like catching important lies, like the death of a child, like hearing the knife drawn that will cut your throat.

“So large and glowing in the moonbeam, your eye,” she breathes.

Sighs an aged voice, “I see the shadow of falling dust, the air that hisses through your nose.

A sound of stretching leather issues past the hearth.

“Your ears ‑‑”

“I hear the creeping of the worms beneath your feet, my sweet, my sweet,” the old voice rattles. “I hear the heartbeat in your belly.

Shadows play across the walls, hinting at creatures God chose not to make.

A smell of musk and loam and sweat pervades the air.

“How oddly twisted your head appears.

“I remember the hour of your birth, the splashing of your waters, the blood of your cord, the blood” ‑‑ a sound like falling rocks and mountain thunder.

“Your teeth gleam so white in the moon’s clear light,” whispers the girl. “Your teeth, your tongue ‑‑”

But what she might reply or taste or tear is lost or claimed by the silent woods, the scudding clouds, the swollen moon, and the old woman makes no human sound, for present now is some accursed monster rising from a place within the shack to take possession of its gloomy walls.

A cry a scream a growl a snarl a howl that mars the silvered moon with blood, and blood there is, for in through the flimsy door a woodsman crashes, hearing the roars and terror and screaming girl within. His boots his arms his flashing ax that catches the moonlight slipping past the thatch, and there after the madness of an evil moment the old woman lies, naked, dead, grandmother, midwife, lover of children, giver of candy, inducer of miscarriage.

No sign is there of the wild brute that must have torn her, the wild beast the woodsman has hacked and chopped and slain with his ax. That monstrous thing has disappeared, it seems, dragged itself away in the darkness and confusion, somehow leaving no trail of blood, only the severed limbs and parts of the harmless, lost old woman who had secreted herself away in the hard, gnarled womb of the forest.


In the village, girls and young women will wake and walk and gather mint and gold currants, berries of holly and yew. They will wash their flaxen hair, or raven’s wing, or red as rust, with mare’s milk and new wine. They will weave garlands with deft fingers and skip in circles holding hands.

In the village, the boys, the young men dream of lightless waters flowing under sheets of ice, of black earth layered with leaves, of barley grass sweeping at the hot sky, of wildflowers ringed around maidens’ hair. And stretching out from the village, its valley, the wooded hills around ‑‑ beyond, the vast and wild, the endless forest extends farther than eye can see or dreaming mind envision.



At 2:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's nicely done !

At 7:41 AM, Blogger Jack H said...



At 9:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hozier - In the Woods Somewhere | Lyrics

At 1:42 AM, Blogger Jack H said...

Very good, Anonymous. Almost redemption.

It might fit as well here, though:



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