In my end is my beginning … Eliot again, now at Imbolc as at Samhain. And now again, the story ends and the story begins, turning and cycling round the seasons.
Hiding in the bushes beside the clearing where the well stands, I watched. Fingers blue with cold, teeth beginning to chatter, the snow cold and dank, sending its freezing tendrils up through my boots. But I wasn’t going anywhere, not yet. They would come, along with the dusk, and I was going to watch them.
The sun slid down the sky, sometimes hiding his face in the clouds. The cold became bitter then, so even the robin’s song would stop for a moment at a time. The blackbirds would hush in the bushes, watching the dying of the light. It must be four o’clock, the dusk was beginning and the sun clipping the horizon, soon to go down into the womb of darkness. I shivered.
‘Have ‘y come to see the snake then, boy?’ The voice cackled, croaked like an old crow. Somehow, despite being near frozen to the spot with both cold and fear, I turned. Black she was, hooded and with beak of a nose on her very like to a crow. The dark cloak covered most all of her bar her face. She cackled again. I watched the black and yellow teeth behind the blue lips and gums. ‘Yere, then,’ and she put out her claws to catch my arm, pull me along with her into the glade.
There was nought I could do, old she might be but she was strong. And, anyway, it was where I wanted to go despite my entrails’ protests, my gut roiled like a seething whirlpool. ‘Come ‘y yere, boy. I needs the cup. Will’ee get un for me?’
She let go of me. I was free, I could run. Except I could not. I tried putting a foot away from the well but nothing happened, the foot wouldn’t move. I tried the other way and the foot would go, towards the well. Leaning over the edge, the rank, dank breath came up from the depths almost choking me with its bitterness and cold. The rope on the bucket was already skimmed with ice, and the iron handle of the winch burned as I gripped it but I hung on, began winding. The winch creaked and groaned like an old man, or a donkey, as I lowered the bucket down into the dark. On and on it went, the grating sounds of pain, and then there was the sudden splash, the bucket had arrived at the water.
‘Hold un still!’ the old crone said sharply. ‘Wait!’ I clutched the burning iron handle, pulling it to a halt, feeling my hands must be frozen into it, stuck to it, never to come off again. And then I heard it, a soft whooshing noise followed by a brief whinny. The kelpie had come, up out of the depths. Then there was a clunk as something metal was dropped into the bucket. ‘Now! Quick!’ she commanded, ‘afore he climbs aboard! Ye dinna want a see him, laddie, indeedy not!’
I wound the winch the other way, winding the rope back onto the winch. It was heavier work now, fighting gravity, but also it was more than the bucket that I was pulling up, it felt like much more, much more than just a cup.
He came with a roar and a growl, shifting all the while, one moment a pretty black pony, the next a huge writhing serpent breathing fire. Then he leapt from the bucket straight at me.
‘No!’ she said. Quiet almost, but with such power. The twisting black shape stopped, hung in the air between the well and me. Its eyes moved, red and with long lashes of black flame, they looked at her. She moved past me, came close to it and began to stroke its ears and face. ‘He’s mine,’ she told it, ‘doing my work, fetching my cup. You leave him be.’ Slowly the kelpie transformed, becoming again the pretty black pony. Except his eyes were red. ‘Get my cup,’ she commanded me, and I could move again. Dipping my hand into the bucket, I touched the cold hard thing and drew it out. Dark, black silver so it seemed.
The daylight was all gone now, exchanged for the dimming light of the waning moon, risen high now over the treetops and shining down into the glade. How long had we been there? It seemed only a moment ago that it was dusk, before the old woman came, and now the moon was high and already setting her path down into the west. I shook my head, what did it matter? Time was, time is. I am where I am, and when. And I was holding the cup in my hands.
The moon was lighting a trackway through the trees on the other side of the well and, it seemed, there was flickering movement on the track. I peered at it, a soft chuckle sounded behind me. ‘Y can see ‘er then? Can’ee boy?’ I could indeed.
As the old one behind me was dark like a crow, so the one coming down the track was bright like a star. Despite she walked the moon-track it was like she made her own light too. Somehow I was afeared, I crept backwards towards the well, still holding the cup.
‘Good even, sister’ said the bright one as she came out into the glade. ‘Good even, indeed,’ croaked the old one. They stood there, the dark one in the east, heading west; the bright one in the west and heading east. The kelpie slithered away from the crone, round to the edge of the glade to stand opposite me so he now held the north. Step by careful step the two women came towards each other, both of them smiling. The old one stood straighter now and the hood slipped back to show her pale silver hair. The young one looked older, a woman now and not a girl, her black hair shining like a crow’s wing in the moonlight. Together and together so they came, until their fingers touched.
And somehow, I knew what to do. I turned and dipped the cup into the bucket, filled it with water. As I leaned over the well it smelled sweet, like spring flowers, all the rankness gone. Slowly, my heart beating like I’d just run a mile, I stepped towards them, holding out the cup. They took it, both together, and gave each other to drink from it, then they turned and held it out to the kelpie. He snorted, then hoof by careful hoof, he stepped towards them. The women dipped their fingers in the water and stroked his ears, down his neck and shoulders, down his back, and then they let him drink.
It was like smoke, white smoke. It began to curl from his nostrils, then his ears, it steamed up from his shoulders and his hooves, all down his back until even his tail was a shimmering fall of smoke. And he shrank, down and down and down, into nothingness.
The women went down on their knees beside where he had been. ‘The snake is here,’ said the bright one, ‘just poking his head out of his hole.’
I came to watch. There was nothing there … but then … yes, there was. The tiniest glimmer of white was pushing its way up out of the black soil, I bent with the women to watch. It was a snowdrop, its white budding head resembling as snake’s head, a tiny snakeling birthing itself out of the ground. Its green body followed until it stood proud and upright, the head opened up, sending the three white sepals outwards and uncovering the three green and white petals, which opened in their turn to show the golden, pollen-covered stamens.
Suddenly I saw it, the black serpent becomes the white snake who puts his head out of his hole at the turning of the seasons when the Winter crone gives way to the Spring maiden.
I had come to see them, to see the snake put its head out its hole as the signal that spring was come, but I hadn’t expected the kelpie, nor the transformation, nor what the snake would be. The two women had stood up, were looking down at me, kindly-like and smiling. Clumsily, I got to my feet. They gave me the cup, ’Take it back’ they said, ‘put it back. We won’t need it again for a year.’ It was different now, the silver bright and shining, and the darkness shining too. I took it back to the well, dropped it into the bucket and let the bucket down again into the water. When I drew the bucket back up, this time it was light, easy, only water in it. I was thirsty, so I drank. I turned in time to see the women kiss and, as they did so, the moonlight shifted and became a dazzling, sparkling whirlwind that encompassed them both and took them out of my sight.
The moon was sinking fast now, only a little light coming down between the branches. I scurried back down the path to the village, like a rabbit with the fox after it, but nothing was chasing me but my own fears. A candle stood still in the window, no-one had yet barred the door. I slipped inside, the warmth hitting me, pulled off coat and boots and went to sit in the ashes of the fire.
It was done … the end had happened and the beginning had come, as it ever does, turn on turn of the wheel. The crone had given the cup of winter to the maiden of spring; the dark kelpie had transformed into the white snake, and had put his head out of its hole to tell us all that spring was here. Bridey’s flower had come, yet again.
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