Trees aways fascinate me – almost as if they possess different personalities. This short story concerns a man who falls under the influence of a malign willow tree containing the spirit of Ceridwen, and the blowhole which is her cauldron. If you missed your geography lessons, a blowhole is a sea cave where waves can explode upwards through a hole in the roof…
Crumbling granite scrunched under his boots as Gavin climbed hard. He kept his head down to protect his face from the stinging spray, spitting out the saltiness. Briefly, he glanced down the windswept hillside to where the sea bellowed furiously through the blowhole. He could feel it hammering into the cave below his feet and the ground heaving in protest. The blowhole was an ancient cauldron trapped below molten lava now cooled and worn away. And this cauldron was filled with many secrets. lost in his thoughts, Gavin kept walking, until the rhythms of effort and breathing calmed his troubled mind. After a while, the angry voice of the blowhole faded to a grumble.
The cliff-top wind whipped at him viciously, awaking buried memories. Janine tanding in front of the fire, the brightness making her fair hair glow red, shining through her short dress. He recalled how her eyes had been filled with love, but not for him. And he’d wanted her badly at that moment, misreading her parted lips and flushed skin, until she spoke.
“I’ve been seeing someone else. For over two months – he works at the hotel. I think I’m in love with him – he says he loves me, so I’m leaving you. He’s picking me up tonight.”
With hindsight, he should have exploded with passion, seized her roughly, told her that she was his world, that he couldn’t live without her, made love to her, anything. Instead, he had somehow ended on the path he was now climbing. Heading up past the blowhole’s evil eye. Hearing the eternal pulsing of the waves as they shattered against the rocks, the roar of seas plunging into the cave below. Even the ground beneath his feet was alive.
And on the way, he’d called in the see the old willow.
But something else happened before you left the cottage. Can’t you remember? Won’t you remember?
He pressed his hands to his ears and shook his head, shutting out the old willow’s laughter. No! She left me, that’s all.
A little while later, Gavin made his way back to the willow tree, walking in a dream. The old tree was massive and gnarled, but able to out-dance the youngsters when storm-music played. It felt like time stopped as he talked to the old tree and touched the age-roughened bark. Later, he returned to the cottage long past dark, his problems shared and his heart at peace for a little while. That evening, he toyed some more with his half-finished novel, writing the same page over endlessly in search for the perfect sentence. The whisky did not help – each time he closed his eyes for inspiration, he heard the old willow and this time, it was laughing.
“Henry? Where the fuck are you?” Rebecca Hudson was more worried than angry as she searched for her dog. It had been well over an hour and she did not know the woods. Eventually, she caught a glimpse of a cottage through the trees, and decided she needed help. When she finally arrived, the animal was lying down in the doorway, being pampered by a gaunt weather-beaten man with long silver hair. His clothes were work-worn, the waxed cotton jacket the colour of damp autumn leaves. He glanced up at her approach and smiled shyly.
“Your dog, I assume.”
“Thank God you found him. I don’t know how to thank you.” She tried to keep the wobble out of her voice.
“He found me. He’s had a drink and he’s fine. Red Setters are such beautiful dogs.” He stroked its head gently.
She liked his slow voice and the clear Welsh accent, and he seemed kind. “They look nice – but they’re a bit brainless, aren’t they? Come on, Henry.”
The dog glanced at her but remained. Gavin caught her eye then and they laughed together.
“I’m Gavin Longfellow. You have leaves in your hair, by the way.”
Rebecca combed her fingers through the tangle, aware of her shapeless anorak. She smoothed it against herself instinctively.
“What an unusual name. I’m Rebecca. Rebecca Hudson.”
His reached up and his handshake was firm and confident. He seemed shy.
“Are you – do you live in this area?” he said awkwardly.
She nodded. “I’m moving into the village. I’m an artist. I sell paintings on the web – or try to – so I can live anywhere as long as there’s WIFI, and it’s cheap. Somewhere I like.”
He kicked off his mud-encrusted boots and stepped into the cottage. “Why don’t you stay for tea? I’m not doing anything else and it looks like rain’s coming. And I do have WIFI.”
Rebecca paused. The place was isolated. Thunder rumbled on cue. There was something about him – an air of secrecy. She got the impression it had been an effort for him to ask.
He was smiling at her. “I don’t bite – unless it’s full moon.”
She paused. “Okay – but I can’t stay long. I’m not even sure where I am.”
Inside, the cottage was simplicity. Oak floorboards, white walls and ceiling. Water from the well, candlelight. The rough walls were a metre thick and the blackened fireplace must have seen five hundred winters. The man and the old house belonged to the wild landscape. Rebecca handed him her coat and pushed back her long dark hair before sitting at the table. He hung her coat next to his on the back of the door. Henry lay down beneath the table and stretched out.
“What do you do out here?”
As he filled the kettle, he explained. “I mostly write bland magazine articles, but I’m also working on a novel.”
She studied him. “What about?”
He sat down opposite, and she saw something in his face momentarily. Sadness? Or wariness. He seemed to find it difficult to explain.
“It’s set here, in Devon – and it’s about a group of people re-living a Celtic myth about Ceridwen and her magical cauldron. Anyway – towards the end, the main characters understand what’s happening to them and they try to change their fate, but of course they can’t. It’s supposed to be romantic, exciting and a little sad.”
“So, do they live happily ever after?”
He got up to make the tea, and served it with scones, jam and cream. The cream smelled off. “I haven’t decided. Can people change their fate, do you think?”
“They must be able to. I have to beleive that.”
After tea, Gavin took her to see his willow, tree and she was touched by his affection for it. Yet at the same time, the old tree disturbed her. She could almost imagine a face etched into the crevices and whorls, and it was not a pleasant one. “What’s the deal with the willow – if you don’t mind me asking?”
“This old woman’s my friend. I come here to share my problems. She listens and accepts who I am. We usually find the answer, between us.”
“I imagine the willow tree is Ceridwen, from an old Welsh legend. She was mother to a hideous son, Morfran, and a beautiful daughter called Creirwy. Her cauldron created life. “
She said, “Ceridwen’s a long way from home, then.”
He gave her a curious look. These are all Celtic lands, Rebecca. Maybe the tale came from here. There’s something else you should see. I like to think it’s her cauldron.”
Rebecca found the blowhole awe-inspiring and evil. A vast, grass-lined funnel narrowing to a small black orifice that breathed in and out as the waves pulsed underneath. To her, it was a pursed wet mouth inhaling the living world, rather than creating. She held his arm as she peered into it.
“What is it?”
“Under the blowhole there’s a big cave. It was made by waves throwing boulders and stones. Sometimes, you can see waves jet through the blowhole – like a whale spouting. You can enter the cave from the bottom of the cliff, but it’s really dangerous. No one goes near it.”
She shivered and crossed her arms. “Why, what would happen?”
“You’d most likely be pounded to bits. The boulders get tossed around like a grinding machine. You can even feel the vibrations through the ground.”
“It’s horrible. I think it’s alive and wants to eat me.”
He laughed, although she had not been entirely joking. “They used to sacrifice people, in times gone by. Usually virgins, according to the local vicar.”
He almost seemed angry as he spoke. She moved back from the danger, but the blowhole seemed to pull at her. They walked on further, finding a place to watch the sun slide into the smooth red ocean before heading back together to the cottage, and she stayed much longer than she had intended.
After a few weeks, Gavin invited Rebecca to move in until she found a place of her own and she duly agreed. Later, when she was unpacking her few things, she had a surprise.
“Gavin, whose are these clothes, in the wardrobe?”
When he came into the room, she was holding a leather miniskirt against herself. “Look at these boots, too. Red stilettos. Not my style.”
He seemed confused. “I forgot all about those. They were Janine’s. She liked to wear that kind of thing. Her clubbing gear, she called it. I should take it to a charity shop – thanks for reminding me.”
“Not much clubbing around here, is there? Were you, was she…”
“My girlfriend. She left over a year ago. We weren’t compatible. Actually, she found someone younger and more exciting. Someone who liked clubbing.”
She laughed to hide her embarassment. “She must have left in a hurry then. How long was she with you?”
“About six months – look, she just took everything she needed and went off with him. Spain or somewhere. She was like that, impulsive, crazy. Look – I don’t want to talk about her, now that you’re here. But you can wear the clothes if you want.” He grinned.
As the months passed, Rebecca grew accustomed to Gavin. She appreciated his small signals of affection and decided she was comfortable with understatement. One evening they sat on the beach, talking, watching the gentle waves suck and nudge the pebbles. He gazed out to sea and sighed. It was the sound of a heavy burden.
“Penny for them?”
“I’m not someone who can show his emotions easily – sometimes I feel so tight, like nothing can get out. Like the old willow tree.”
She stroked his hand. “Some people are like that. Your feelings swim deep and surface rarely – like a whale. That doesn’t mean that you feel any less. Others are like the Flying Fish, skimming along, letting off little bursts of emotion for everyone to see. Does that mean that they feel more than you?”
“I don’t know. I hope not. Whale, eh? I suppose that’s better than a Flying Fish.” He attempted a smile.
Only then, finally, did she understand. “You loved Janine, didn’t you?”
He cast a stone into the sea. “I can’t remember. It’s like she was never here.”
“But she was.”
He turned to her. “I love you, Rebecca.” The words struggled out. “And the past doesn’t matter.”
She said quietly, “I love you too.” But she suspected he was wrong about the past.
A few weeks later, Rebecca opened a small art studio down by the harbour, but it was her new friends that visited the cottage, not his. He told her he was content simply to watch her paint. He said he liked the way her neck curved. The way that the light caught the transparent blueness of her eyes and turned them the colour of the sea. Rebecca was increasingly unsettled, and could not tell him why. Once, Gavin found her weeping but they were tears of anger. After, she mused how Janine was still there in so many ways. Not just the clothes. His sad glances, and the small, personal things a woman would not leave behind. Eventually, Rebecca could bear no more. She had to know, even if it killed her.
Gavin was with the search party when they found Rebecca on the shore at first light, spat from the cave in the cliffs by the retreating tide. Henry was by her side, whining anxiously. For days afterwards, Gavin sat by her hospital bed, holding her unfeeling hand and watching the respirator puff in and out, sighing like the willow tree.
“She will wake up, won’t she?” Gavin asked her mother, a brusque, stocky woman.
She looked at him curiously and for a moment, he felt he was looking back in time. He caught a glimpse of long black hair, her face a pale oval, her eyes commanding.
She said, “Only the power of love can save her now. Call to her, Gavin.”
Gavin found himself studying the monitors with detached interest, sometimes almost unaware of Rebecca lying in front of him. He told her that he needed her, he begged her to come back, but his heart felt dead. But when the wind blew, he heard the sighing of the willow tree and within, a woman’s voice and warmth grew within his heart. He reached for Rebecca’s hand and his skin was burning.
“Come back to me,” he whispered, at first so quietly that the words were invisible. “I love you. I need you. Please come back.”
Nothing changed. When Gavin finally returned to the cottage, he found her letter and it was a hammer blow. It read, ‘I know you killed Janine. I think you put her body down the blowhole. I have to know.’
All the terrible memories he had hidden flooded back. He felt he could not breathe. He staggered outside and took gasping breaths, even tried beating his fists on his chest. A little while later, he found himself walking through the aspen groves once more until he found the old willow tree. It alone seemed to listen and understand. Gavin stood for hours, moving backwards and forwards in time with the swaying branches, until the singing wind soothed away his pain. He worked his bare feet into the cool soil, letting it ooze between his toes and the smell of the decaying leaves was sweet. Then he rubbed his hands over the cracked bark and then laid his face against its coolness. Slowly, he fell to his knees.
“Ceridwen, I know you can hear me. I hear you talking to the others when the air is quiet. Ceridwen make her well, give her life and I will do what you want..”
He didn’t remember going back to the cottage, and the next two days passed in high fever. On the third day he awoke clear-headed. He managed to walk barefoot to the clearing in the woods, and he did not return.
When spring finally broke, the aspens burst into silvery leaf.
“Find him, Henry. Find him for me.”
Rebecca walked between the trees whilst the red setter jogged and zigzagged, snuffling the ground. It was as if the very land had swallowed Gavin up, but she had to find him, she had to. All the time she had lain in the coma, he had been in her dreams. Sometimes she heard his voice, and felt the hot wetness of his tears. The day she awoke seemed as only yesterday, but later, she learned that two years had passed in a second as she lay in the hospital bed.
Now, Gavin’s cottage was a dusty ruin and her love long gone, although she had seen him only a little while ago in her mind. Gavin the lover, Gavin the murderer. She did not believe he could kill. She walked into the aspen grove, finding her way to the old willow tree. When she touched it, she knew the tree did not want her there.
The police had found two shattered skeletons in the cave below the blowhole, belonging to a man and a woman. They told her the man was Gavin, but she had refused to accept it. Standing beside the ancient tree, she wondered if she had somehow deserved what came to pass. Finally, she wiped her eyes and called to Henry. He remained where he was, pawing at the base of a small new willow tree and whining. The young tree swayed and whispered with the aspens, sharing its feelings with earth, sea and sky. Only then did she believe she would not see him again.