Your daughter stands knee deep in the brook, sunburst ringlets hang damp from her bowed head, sleeves soaked to elbow and hems billowing behind. Her bare toes curl around moss slick stones. She is intent upon the water, hands submerged half-cupped in the swift coolness.
Then with a splash she clap-cups her hands around a stickleback and lifts it towards you.
“Look mama! See what I caught!”
His mark is upon her, as it is on you. The oak leaf brand that spans brow and cheek. It’s veins tracking the future grooves of her face. Just as your mark follows the lines of past laughter and sorrow.
Hers is a child’s mark, green as spring, soon red with youthful blush. Yours is dun-gold. One day it will fade to brown, then black, like your mothers did. Black as the loam she lay upon, deep in the forest, when she gave herself back to Him.
You live at the forest’s edge, from where the brook flows. A part of the village, but apart from it. Your hut is a living thing, rowan branches entwine the thatch and in spring it blooms. It sits concealed among bramble and nettle, but the women know the way. They come each month and bind tokens to the birches; animal bones wrapped in ribbon, dolls of woven straw. Or leave gaily painted eggs at the roots.
You take the offerings and burn them, joining your magic to His. In the days to come, you feel new life bloom. His dominion is the forest, His power bound and only through you made manifest. You teach your daughter the spells she will one day recite in your stead.
Sometimes the men seek you out, sneaking from their marriage beds when the moon is new. But He is a jealous lover. Brambles snare and nettles sting and in the darkness branches writhe with cruel intent, snagging and tripping. Defeated and unsated, they return to the village, bearing cuts and bruises to their wives as testaments of shame.
You will have only one. Lord Oak. Grandfather, father, lover. More ancient than the nailed God the villagers adore. You see him now, in the dapple of sunlight through the leaves, in the knots and whorls of trunk and branch. He serenades you in birdsong. His musk is leaf litter and spoor.
One day he will tire of you. His visits will grow infrequent, your mark will dull and your power fade. You will walk ever deeper within the woods, to the dark and shadowed places seeking Him out, calling His name. Just as your mother did.
But you will not find Him.
And you will lay down in the black loam. And He will come to you a final time to bid you sleep.
And he will lie with your daughter, her mark now burnished gold.
But for now, He smiles at you from the darkness while your daughter catches fish.
Ben teaches in Malaysia. He lives with his wife, son and dog and writes when he can.
Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash
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