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The Barley Mother

by Liadan

The following story grew out of a poem which grew out of the experience of dancing the Demeter role in the Eleusinian Mysteries. I watch her carefully now. She is pale and thin, and spends long hours gazing deep into the pool by my dwelling . She is changed, my child, my sweeting, and I miss her laughter.

The shaggy little horses that she tamed and petted no longer come from the mountain. I have seen them watching on the crags, waiting for her to whistle them down to take the sweet fallen pears from her hands.

She does not talk to me, except to ask after the next meal; she is always hungry, and eats my salads, my coarse bread, as if she were hollow.

I have tried to interest her in the garden, always solace to me, but she drifts away. No, she does not dig with joy, and shows no interest in the balance of air and water, blossom and decay, poison and sustenance that is a living garden. Much of mine was desiccated by the heat, but with careful reseeding and simple irrigation I have restored its green and bloom. I have planted silver thistle, three scented mints and a heliotrope near the stone where she sits, to draw the butterflies. She loved them as a little one, and I thought to cheer her.

Does she see the pool at all? There are dragonflies, and little speckled fingerlings, and an ancient red-eared turtle that hides among the roots where the willows trail. She trances, looks far deeper than the play of leaf and light, fish and fly upon my pond.

I cannot know her thoughts now. She has seen far more than I, despite my years. Yet I am glad of her company, my mute and dreaming daughter, and I cherish this time, knowing that I must again lose her to the Mystery.

She was a wild barefoot girl. Dark mane all a-tangle and eyes like asters. Her legs were always scratched from climbing trees and mountains, her hands square and strong. I could control her no more than I could a feral cat, but I fed and petted her when she allowed, and taught her at her demand. I watched as she ranged and grew, that I might divine her talent. I knew that it would out eventually, because there is power in my line, and I thought her well-nurtured, full of strength and promise, and yes, beauty. She was not like me, and I did not demand that. I though myself wise enough to let her discover her own true nature, rather than try to sculpt her character like river clay. She, however, did not match that wisdom, and was often impatient with my slow thoughtful ways, and frustrated with my lack of understanding. O, I have not forgotten what it is to be young, but the world was a younger place then, and there was not so much trouble to be found.

Sometimes she would go missing for one night or two, and I would go calling into the hills. She would show, in her own time, stinking of horse or playing a pipe stolen from an unwary goatherd. How could I scold her? As a thrush will feed a fallen fledgling until it finds wing and voice, I fluttered about her. I could not alter the course she had chosen, wit or no.

I did find her once, in a sea-cave some distance from my valley. I followed her narrow footprints into a briny gleaming dark, where sea creatures winked on the walls. She was drawing patterns in the sand, lines that mazed me, that set images drifting on the inside of my eyelids. When I asked her what she did, she said, “Listening, Mother...”, in a voice as hollow as a shell, and I did not query her further.

She spent more time near the sea, responding to some inner tide, and her eyes seemed always focused on a distant thing. She took great whips of kelp and coiled them into leafy spirals centered with jellyfish. She cast starfish discus-style in a high arc into the surf, calling “Look, Mother, falling stars!”. My mad godling. Shells, feathers and stones lashed together with sweet grass made barnacle-eyed fetishes to mark her sand circles. I would trudge after her, uncomprehending and more than a little frightened. She caught the winds in delicate mobiles, and their songs on her whistle, burned my good herbs in aromatic combination, and muttered to herself in the voices of the dead as she painted her face in a mask most strange. I remembered how by body had swelled like a melon to contain her as she grew, and bade my heart do the same; she was still my daughter. I watched her body bud and bloom; she poured menstrual blood blended with sea water upon a sigil of burning driftwood.

When first I missed her I went to the old haunts of goats and horses, the high pastures of the world. I went to the shadowed groves, where laurel grows in sister-circles and they come to dance by moonlight. I went then to the towns of men, but my child was not among them, and none knew me there. For nine days I sought her. With torches I walked by night, calling, but the shadows bound her. My heart became a stone, a weight I could barely carry.

I went again to the beach where she played. I then saw the chariot tracks, the gouts tossed by the feet of running horses. I found her altar smashed, the flowers crushed - hyacinth, lilies, narcissus, and the sand seamless beyond...

There did I go mad.

The stone in my heart grew crackling cold, and a black frost fell upon my garden. My very breath roared white-hot as I screamed, and all the world withered. I would not be consoled.

Then came the emissary, a winged voice into my desolation, and I heard of her fast among the shades.

She came back to me hanging naked to the neck of a wild brown mare. The juice ran red from her mouth, but crusted dry upon her thighs. As my tears rained down on her white face, she smiled a smile both sweet and wicked, and so forestalled my wrath at her injury.

In this green and peaceful place, she is my own child, wounded. I tend her with my callused hands, with hyssop and dark ale, with the fumes of sweet bay, with pears blushing from the bough and wreaths of summer flowers for her hair. Look, she smiles a little, there, in a coiling drift of butterflies orange and sapphire, gold and black.

In his house she is worshipped as the Queen of Hell, the Red Orb in her hand. The hungry dead gather about her, for her arts are deep and binding. She reads their hearts, and spins each a final justice; rest or rebirth. She dances awe and the fire of life into that dark palace, and even he who answered her strange summons treads warily.

I scythe the scarlet poppies down with the grain, bless the spirit that sleeps within the seed, and I grow no pomegranates.

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This work is copyright The Witches Trine, 1996 and the author, 1992. All rights reserved.

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