The Clootie Tree

there is a sacred spring
	down the lane
yea, truly, though abandoned by utility
	desecrated by profanity
there is a tiny bit of the elysian
	just down the lane
a spring bedight
	in candles, coins, rags, riches
	scraps of superstition
	alms and oblation
just down the lane
and surreptitiously they come
	seeking lucidity
	seeking succor
	seeking salvation
yea, truly, they are drawn down the lane
	by the aroma of fecundity
just down the lane
and so, to the spring they come
	where life is swelling and essence is streaming
	maidens are laughing and lambs are bleating
	sparrows are singing and spirits are speaking
	and white blossoms ever are teeming
or so they say
	just down the lane
		is a sacred spring

She crept down the lane, keeping to the shadows which danced in the afternoon wind. Leaves circled her like hunting cats, taking her scent, then passed on, no doubt intent on getting caught up in the thatch in the lee-sides of the village chimneys. Tears sprang to her eyes as she realized her brother would never again be up his ladder, cleaning out the damp rot before it spread through the roof. Liam was the fifth to fall this month and the youngest claimed by the plague so far. 

Maeve stopped and leaned against an oak bole. When would it stop surprising her, this sudden sharp pain? When would the wounds in her heart begin to scab over? When would she be able to breathe again? Mother dead, father dead, her sister, and both of her towheaded nephews. Now her brother. She and her sister’s husband moved through the desolate house, avoiding the wide emptiness in each other’s eyes. So much loss in each glance, one look into those depths could cripple.

She didn’t understand why she was still alive. She felt both abandoned by her mounting dead and ashamed by her continuing good health. Why were they gone and she here? Why couldn’t she follow? She’d sat by enough deathbeds; surely Death had her name and number by now. Yet he did not come for her with his bloody cough, florid rash, and blue, bloodless lips — a cold kiss of no awakening. The graveyard was full, yet she still walked the waking world. For how much longer? How much longer?

She walked on.

As she neared the spring, she fingered the slip of ribbon in her pocket. Nine months ago she’d torn off this bit of binding from her mother’s pale blue nightgown. Her mother had died first — before the village was aware of the monster that had crept into their midst. Her mother had died of a flu virus; by the time her father died a fortnight later, it was The Plague. Maeve had taken the ribbon and kept it in her pocket, waiting for something she could not name.

She turned off the lane, following a well-worn footpath into the woods. The path threaded its way through tall boulders that looked like so many drunken trolls caught by the rising sun. The leaves were still green here and mosses furred every surface. Woodland asters nodded in grave assent as she passed. Her sense of unease grew with every step.

This was dangerous ground, sacred ground. What warrant had she to tread this path with her petition? She was inconsequential, just a motherless child lost in the woods. What right had she to ask for aid? She almost turned back. But then suddenly, a whirling torrent of leaves leapt up around her, and the wind carried the sharp scent of snow in distant pinewoods.

Maeve froze.

But in the blink of an eye, the leaves swirled away leaving nothing behind but a hint of disquiet. She hesitated for a bit longer. Should she go home? Or now that she’d come this far, should she just go on with it? She could not read the leaves. And false steps were deadly. At that thought, she realized that there was no hold on her. She had nothing to lose. Death already stalked her world. What worse thing could happen? She did not care if he came for her now. It might be a relief. She went on.

Not many more steps and she came upon the standing stones that marked the spring. Rowan berries and oak leaves blazed russet and copper. A spreading hawthorn stood sentinel over the pool, glowing gold and vermillion in contrast with the emerald mosses and sedges that limned the water in verdant summer. Bright-hued ribbons fluttered in the autumn wind, remnants of past supplicants, delicate embodiments of grief and want, falsely cheery in their pageantry of color.

Maeve pulled the pale blue ribbon from her pocket. Even now fear made her body heavy. She moved as though resisted by deep water flowing in fast currents. She treaded the marshy banks carefully, making her way to the Clootie Tree. A silver coin for the pool and a ribbon for the silver branch. She dropped the coin into the waters and watched it sink into the depths. It vanished into the mud with nary a glint remaining. She then reached up with the ribbon and tied it to the hawthorn.

Another gust of wind swirled leaves and ribbons and set the light dancing around her, but this time it took the fear from her limbs. She stepped back and bowed her head, whispering her heartfelt prayer. She felt a presence, an awareness, terrible but compassionate, turning her supplication over in slow regard. She felt her words heard and accepted. She felt a great weight lifted from her shoulders. She saw water droplets rippling the surface of the spring at her feet and realized these were her tears, mingling with the spring water.

She bent and dipped her hands into the pool, brought the water to her lips, and drank. Grief and supplication in those waters. And relief. Gratitude swelled in her heart.

She rose and turned away. Her prayer was answered. She need not linger.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021

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