Back in June I had the great good fortune to go on an Arvon course in queer fiction, which was run at Lumb Bank. I had a wonderfully productive week – working on my novel and getting lots of useful input from the excellent tutors – Jonathan Kemp and Kerry Hudson. I wrote this story to read to my fellow course attendees at the end of the week. It’s a fairytale inspired by the beautiful countryside around Lumb Bank and the abandoned mill chimneys in the valley.
Ursula Moon and the witch
In this story is a witch. I don’t know her name because witches don’t have to say. But we need a name for the telling of the story, so let’s call her Arvon. Also in the story is Ursula Moon and I know that’s her name for sure, for reasons I am not at liberty to share. But you can trust me. She’s Ursula Moon and here, in this Yorkshire valley, she is about to have an encounter that will change her somewhat. An encounter with the witch – the witch we’re going to call Arvon.
There she is, Arvon, all six foot nine of her, sitting on the chimney rim, kicking her boots against the rough blocks of stone and sipping her morning coffee as she watches Ursula Moon taking somewhat over-confident steps down the damp, woodland path. The witch isn’t what you’d call benevolent. Witches aren’t angels, after all. But she doesn’t want Ursula Moon to skid and turn an ankle. So she re-arranges some of the stones on the path ahead to make the route easier. She can see, at a glance, that this woman is somewhat distracted.
Making perfect coffee at the top of a discarded mill chimney is a rather witchly and impressive thing to do, you might think. But it’s nothing to her. Four hundred years of living in out of the way spots – ruined cottages and abandoned stables – has made Arvon resourceful beyond your imagination. So a latte up a mill chimney, it’s nothing to her.
Of course, it’s harder and harder to find spots to escape human gaze. They’re everywhere – laying their tarmac roads through the lost spots. Eating crisps and drinking beer and fucking all over the country. Arvon likes the chimney because, though they do look up, it’s so tall that they generally take her to be a crow – which actually, sometimes, she is.
Yes, shape-shifting, that’s a piece of cake. Conjuring sustenance, taming the weather, combusting the occasional irritating pheasant – that’s easy stuff and it’s all she usually bothers with. She’s long since got bored of meddling in the human world. Their desiccated brains and hungry little bodies are tedious to her now.
But there’s something rather tempting about Ursula Moon. It’s the way she keeps stopping to investigate the ferns. She seems to like the way the new fronds form in curls at the heart of the plant and then roll out, all fresh, green and finished. Arvon likes a human who bothers to notice the world. Quite often they don’t bother. Quite often now they seem to have been enchanted by the little glassy beasts they carry in their pockets. This one is bothering with ferns, noticing buff-tailed bumble bees and even bending down to rub the sphagnum moss.
‘Oh, little Ursula Moon, look at you and your attempts at gratification…’
Arvon feels tender for a moment. She can see that the human is trying to soothe herself.
Arvon reaches into the pocket of her leather jacket and takes out her cigs. She lights one and blows the smoke out as streams of tortoiseshell butterflies. Meanwhile, Ursula Moon is crouching on a smooth grey stone that sits in the middle of a pool, at the edge of the busy river. She’s watching the light jumping on the ripples. She isn’t crying. Arvon wonders if she should be. Sometimes the little humans are very bad at knowing what it is they need to do. Arvon sends her a dragonfly.
It’s a proper, stripy, bright blue wonder of a thing and Ursula watches it dipping and chasing after the tiny black specks that are its prey. She gets so carried away watching that she almost loses her balance and falls into the water.
‘Aha! Ursula Moon, be steady!’ thinks Arvon. ‘Keep your trousers dry at the very least.’
Arvon has seen this sort of human before – this sort that gets distracted and falls in rivers. There really isn’t any sort of person you can be that a witch won’t have the measure of. Because witches have known them all – Napoleon, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marlow Moss, Ghandi – diverse, humans might be, but they flatter themselves if they think they’re unique. That’s what Arvon reckons anyway.
Ursula has stepped back onto the loose, chippy edge of the river now and is looking up at Arvon’s chimney. Arvon plays it safe and shrinks down to a black beetle. Ursula blinks at the light casting the top of the chimney as a silhouette. She doesn’t know that Arvon is watching her. She wraps her arms around the stone curve and hugs its sun-warmed roughness for a while. She’s very tired. Then she settles down on another boulder, takes out her pen and starts to write.
Beetle Arvon opens her wings and buzzes down to hover over Ursula’s notebook. It’s rather pitiful, what she’s writing. Arvon reads the words as Ursula Moon scratches down her thoughts in the form of a shaky-handed wish list. The list looks like this:
Running in the woods
Ursula thinks it’s a list of needs. She has put question marks here and there though. Arvon thinks it’s more a rather self-indulgent set of wants. But not unattainable if you know how to articulate and plan and then do just the right sort of magic. Witches know how to do that, of course. Trust me, I’ve seen witches sort the most contradictory nonsense into achievement. But Ursula Moon is getting rather close to despair.
Arvon feels hot watching this scribbly little human in a state. She untucks her wings from her black beetly back and buzzes down the river for a bit. She could help. She could stick her glorious, long-boned witch fingers into Ursula Moon’s head and provide what is needed. But she’s not sure Ursula is worth the effort.
The afternoon is starting to cool and the sun has dipped behind the hill. Arvon flies to the crest of it and gives herself a breather, looking across the Yorkshire countryside. Witches could have been so useful to this lot of jokers. Arvon can remember her mother, whom she only ever saw in the form of a barn owl, ripping mice apart with talons and beak and pushing the sticky strips of flesh to her baby.
‘They, my little witchling, can’t even identify the mouse of their itch, let alone have the wit to scratch it.’
This Ursula Moon is all itch, Arvon decides. And she’s not any nearer to scratching it. If she’s going to manage any of it then she needs help. Intervention. In the form of a witch who lives at top of an abandoned mill chimney.
It’s dark now. Ursula Moon lost the nerve to stay by the river as the sky turned from light blue to sapphire. She plodded back up the path with a notebook full of doubt and a slightly soggy bum from the mossy rocks.
Arvon pops in at her chimney – conjures a bowl of pasta, which she eats as a woman again – six foot nine – dreadlocks – tattoos that look like they were etched with a silver pen. It’s a nice form. She cracks a can of lager, gulps. Then she throws her empty bowl and can into the air. As they hit the ground they are brown rats, off to tidy up human detritus on the valley floor.
It’s a snap decision. Arvon decides that she’s hardly meddled much in recent years. This won’t hurt. She stretches her arms and becomes a bat, flits through the trees with her sonar pulsing, finding her way to Ursula’s bedroom window. It’s open. Like an invitation. She ducks in and folds herself, tidily, on the chest of drawers.
Ursula is asleep. The duvet has slipped off her shoulder and she’s bare underneath. Arvon is tempted. Six foot nine of woman in leathers would be one solution for Ursula, she thinks. But only a temporary fix. No, she decides that what Ursula needs is a slight, significant variation. She perches on the foot of the bed and intones the spell in fierce high bat squeaks.
Ursula wakes on stone. It’s flat and cool and she can hear the river close by. Beside her, the rock is running wet and she licks it for its salts and metals. Then she bounds to the river and, leaping in, traps a fish in her jaws. Chews, spits, swallows. Then she catches sight of herself in the surface of the water. She has a snout. She has thick, brown fur and paws tipped with needle claws. She has long, slender teeth and round, black eyes. She is a bear.
Ursula Moon runs in the woods all that day. She makes dens among the ferns – jumps, just for the sake of it, over every foxglove she can find. She pisses, hot and pungent up the rocks and scratches marks in the moss with her claws. She sleeps when she tires and rolls in the water – making fat waves – when she wakes again. She is a bear running in the woods.
Arvon is reading on top of her tower. She glances up from her paperback from time to time and looks down to see how Ursula Moon is getting on. It’s a Will Self, she likes him. He speaks to the witch demographic without knowing it. As night falls again she watches Ursula curl on the flat rock and fall asleep.
At dawn, Ursula wakes cold. She’s juddering with it – her skin a mottled blue-grey like some sort of fancy marble. She looks down at her naked, human self – mystified. Above her, Arvon is picking muesli from between her teeth with a piece of card torn from her cigarette packet. She worries for a moment,
‘No panicking now, Ursula Moon. Keep it calm.’
And Ursula keeps it calm. She walks, watchful, slow, rubbing at her arms and torso, back to her house. Inside she makes tea and a slice of marmite toast – but when she burps there’s a taste of raw fish.
She finds a book lying on the corner of the bath when she goes to brush her teeth. It’s a gift from Arvon to help with the transition. It’s called ‘Changelings, vary-forms and the cycles of the moon.’
Lying amidst the peaks of white bubble bath mountains, letting her shoulders relax in the heat, Ursula Moon finds herself in the pages. She reads:
Ursula –Latin – Meaning: Little Bear
A common form of changeling – usually transforms in the classic, monthly ‘werewolfesque pattern,’ determined by the waxing and waning of the moon. Typically takes the form of a small brown bear. Requires freedom to run in the woods. Will revert by dawn.
Ursula Moon washes her hair and then gets dressed. She has to get to work. On the bus she looks out the window in a vague, human, unfocussed way. So, she’s Ursula Moon, she thinks – a Little Bear Changeling. What on earth will that be like?
At the top of her chimney, Arvon is knitting a new scarf with hazel twigs as needles and strands of toads spawn for the yarn. It’s just to keep her hands busy really because she’s trying to give up smoking. When the night comes again, she looks to the sky and counts days. It won’t be long. Ursula Moon will be back. It’s quite satisfying, the witch thinks, when you can help out one of these human creatures.
© Allie Rogers 2014