Root & Flower by Sophie Snow
Since moving here, my body has become a stranger to me. Perhaps it is something in the rushing snow-melt waters carving gullies between the trees after the long, silent winters that spreads such growth; I have never seen a forest so impossibly tall. Perhaps these changes that overtook me are housed in the trees themselves, the pine-needles I brew into vitamin-rich tea to ward off chills throughout the frozen months. There is a clearing I like to visit when gathering the dark green needles, my snow-shoes crunching into the snow-crust as I walk the narrow path through the towering trees, so tall that no sunbeam ever filters down to my level; it is a constant twilight, summer or winter. That is what makes the clearing so special – more so in the winter, when stepping out of the grey-green wood world is like entering a cathedral of light, white snow and white sky, walled with the dark, creaking pines.
I have been here only three winters, but already after the first it had begun; my hair, never especially well-kempt, started growing with all the vigor of the greenery returning to the valley. For years I had kept it roughly shoulder-length – sometimes closer to my chin, sometimes my shoulder-blades – but never longer. Then, in the first week of the first spring, it had grown to my hips. By the second week it reached my knees, and the third it was past my heels. I took to cutting it every day in the field around my house, enjoying seeing it find its way into birds’ nests all around and snagging on the tall grass and branches, sandy yellow flashes among the blue-green needles.
The next year it was not only my hair that grew with the arrival of the thaw, but my belly too. The change in it was more gradual, sometimes marked only by a mild uneasiness below my navel, but by the time summer’s warmth was in the valley there could be no question: it was growing, slowly, steadily growing. And as slow as my belly grew, so rapidly increased the growth of my hair; now I was cutting it two or three times throughout the day, and still having to pause to wind it into long braids as it grew out and caught on twigs and branches. These braids I wrapped around my expanding waist to keep them out of the way, and the hair I had cut was so abundant that it could hardly be left to blow away any more; I started to bind it into bales that later I would use as I could, woven into rope or fabric, and stuffed into every corner of my house as insulation.
I stopped brewing my pine-needle tea in the hope that all this growth might slow down, and, perhaps as a result of this, or perhaps simply by coincidence, caught a summer cold that saw me in my bed for a few days. Dawn comes early in the valley, and so it was at around three-thirty in the morning of the fourth day that I woke, feeling well enough to start moving again. I got up, taking my little scissors in my coat pocket, and walked out to the well for some water. My theory that the tea would prove to be the cause of all of this unexpected growth had turned out to be false, and though there were still braids tied around my waist from a few days before, the new hair looped down from them in a long train behind me and back up to my head. I unwound the braids, letting my hair drag out after me as I walked, but even as I reached the edge of the trees the end of it had yet to clear the doorstep. I walked further down the narrow path, almost as far as my cathedral clearing, and reached into my pocket for the scissors. I never got so far as taking them out however, because at that moment I saw something entirely new in the murky forest; a light, flitting through the trees.
Curious, I moved towards it, suddenly aware of all the sounds I made in the quiet woods, the rustle of the dead, brown needles covering the forest floor, the cracking of a twig, the crunch of a pine-cone. The light was still as I moved, blinking in and out of sight as I passed between tree-trunks, until at last I came to it, sitting in the center of my clearing – I stopped, marveling, afraid to frighten it away.
A bird, like nothing I’d ever seen before, tilted its head to look at me. Its wings were patterned with light and dark brown stripes, and on its head was a small crest in the same colors; but what was remarkable, and the reason I had stopped in wonder, was the golden light gently shining from it breast.
I don’t know how long we stayed that way, the bird and I, quietly observing each other in the dawn light, but eventually it rose, fluttered to a low branch on the other side of the clearing, and stopped again. It waited, looking back at me, and, acting on an impulse that felt at the same time absolutely natural, and utterly bewildering, I followed. It flew on, alighting on branches every few yards as if to make sure I was still there, and moving again, soft golden light dancing through the pines. I am not sure exactly in what frame of mind I hurried after it in the dense forest, the path having by now dwindled to nothing and the resulting twilight all the darker, making the bird’s light appear more brilliant. Certainly curiosity and amazement pulled me to follow it, but there was a deeper sense also, of it’s being there only for me. The bird always waited for me to find it, waited the many brief stops I made to disentangle my hair from the twigs and needles as we passed; when I looked back the end of it was out of sight, snaking out behind us through the forest.
Gradually, after what must have been many hours of walking, the trees began to change, the forest floor soft and damp with a covering of oak leaves, of birch, beech, horse chestnut, and sycamore; my dark pines fewer and further between, I had no sense of where we were any more. The shift to deciduous woods had done nothing to reduce the incredible height of the trees however, and the canopy was so thick and so far above that the faint dappling of light only made it about half-way down through the branches before being lost entirely to us on the ground. In this dim world I had no real idea of what amount of time might have passed since the first appearance of the shining bird, but the faint gold tinge to the light I could see high in the branches made me think it might be close to sunset, and still I didn’t dare stop, afraid to lose the gleaming bird.
It was moving faster now, so that sometimes all I could see was the faint glimmering of the golden light as it passed between the trees ahead, and I began to feel a little frantic as I hurried to keep up. Then, as I turned once more to disentangle myself from a low branch, I realized I had lost it. At first I ran forward, hoping to catch a glimpse of light through the branches, but I slowed again as it became clear it was gone. I felt heavy with disappointment, and suddenly all too aware that I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since the dawn, lost in unfamiliar woods far from home.
To my relief I caught the gurgle of a spring not too far off, and without too much difficulty I found it, sinking gratefully to my knees at its side. Bending forwards had become uncomfortable with the growth in my belly, and I used my hands to scoop the fresh water into my mouth. This activity held my full attention for some moments, and it was as I looked up from it that I caught sight of the golden light again, shining with more intensity some way off through the trees. I struggled to my feet and crept towards it, suddenly uncertain of what I would find. The light filled the forest ahead, seeming to constantly shift and settle again, and I stopped as I came to the great twinned trunk of an ash that had grown in two parts down low enough that I could clamber into the crook between them and rest, leaning on the body of the tree.
I had stopped a little short of a clearing, hedged by seven circling yew trees. They weren’t so tall as the rest of the woods but the way they twisted and twined with each other, their boughs arching all the way to the ground in some places, was equally as impressive. The circle they formed was thick and dark, but inside it was the rippling glow of hundreds of birds, just like the one I had followed to that place, golden illumination shining from their breasts. The birds, too, formed a circle, at the center of which was a figure that I knew. It’s easy to recognize your mother, no matter how unexpected the circumstance.
She had her back to me, crouched on one knee on the forest floor, and her hands were concentrated in working on something in front of her. I leaned forward a little to see what it was. Although it might have seemed natural simply to go to her, intuition told me that, though she would have welcomed me, what she was doing was for her alone and my presence would somehow alter it. So I leaned, and saw the few remaining willow branches by her side, and the long basket she had almost finished weaving, and the birds, now and again fluttering to perch on its edge, tilting their heads to watch as she worked.
It was not long before she straightened up to look at her work, now finished. It must have taken many hours to make, a long, oval basket, a little taller than a person, and she now began to fill it with dry leaves to make a kind of bed. I shrank back into my tree-trunk feeling that the time to announce myself had passed, and whatever happened now I should witness in silence.
My mother walked around the yews, touching each branch, each trunk she passed, her expression set in a peaceful concentration, illuminated golden by the little birds. Then without looking back she climbed into the basket she had woven, into the willow-bed, and closed her eyes. I left my perch and crept forward, unable to keep away, until I stood with my hand on the trunk of the biggest yew-tree. I stayed in its shadow still, so as not to disturb whatever it might be that I was witness to, and watched as her own chest began to glow just like the hundred birds all around. Brighter and brighter it glowed, and the birds, all of them, started to sing.
They flocked to her, singing, each bird lighting on some part of the basket and flying upwards so that all at once the whole bed rose, carried by the glowing birds into the air. Higher and higher they carried it, up between the yew branches and beyond, through the oak and the ash, the sycamore and horse chestnut, and their song was bright, discordant and harmonious all at the same time, and purely joyful.
As she passed out of my sight through the canopy I rushed forwards, straining my eyes upward to follow the flight. But within moments all that I could see were the leaves that had been disturbed by her shining journey, gently falling all around me.
I stared after her for a long time, watching as the little window of sky above the clearing turned pink and gold and fiery red before darkening, so that I couldn’t see any more. I felt heavy with her absence, not hollow or empty, but full of a sadness whose weight I could feel in every part of my body, and I curled into the same spot that the basket had lain, my belly big and uncomfortable on the firm ground. I wondered for a moment whether sleep could ever come to a body so full of grief, but it slipped in quietly, wrapped me up and took me before I could wonder any more.
I slept undisturbed until the white morning sky was visible above the yew-clearing, bright enough to wake me. There was no question of where I was, the previous day’s events being burned into my mind in shining golden detail. More troubling was the question of how to get home – except that, as I looked back through the trees, I realized there was indeed a marker stretched out behind me – a twisting and twining path of sandy hair, dully shining in the morning light. I reached into my pocket for the scissors and cut my hair close to the base of my skull, letting it fall to the ground.
The swelling in my belly had begun to make it difficult to keep my footing through the gloomy woods, as I couldn’t always see past it to the ground; and without the distraction of the glowing bird the homeward journey felt long and thankless, but my options were either to stay or to go, and I knew I wasn’t going to stay. I paused once more at the little spring, thirstily scooping as much water as I could drink because I knew it would be a long time before I came to any again. A slow ache crept from my feet to my hips and my back as I walked, increasingly breathless, I followed the hair that ran out in front of me like a stream though the forest.
Eventually the deciduous trees began to dwindle, replaced by the familiar tall pines of my own woods; and I was glad because the light, never bright, was leaving. I bent and picked up a handful of the hair, running it through my palms as I walked to make sure I stayed on the right path. With the coming darkness the going was slower and I received many small scratches from unseen twigs, losing my footing more than once among the roots. It was as I stumbled once again that it happened for the first time, a tightening in my belly, hard and unexpected, it seemed to take all the strength from my legs. I rested on my knees where I had fallen for a few breaths until the sensation passed, then hurried to my feet again, anxiety taking root just below my heart.
Every so often the tightness would come again, forcing me to stop and steady myself until it was over. The darkness now complete, I moved by feel, one hand outstretched to navigate the thick pines, the other holding the strands of hair that were my guide. At last I stumbled out into brightness, the moon shone high over my cathedral clearing, and, filled with gratitude, I sank to the ground. The hardness was overtaking my belly too frequently now for me to be able to get up again, and as I rested there on all fours I heard a low, guttural sound that it took some time for me to identify as coming from deep within myself.
I don’t know how long I was there, it seemed to me that I had become part of the forest, my mind spreading out among the trees so that it was unrecognizable to me, so that there was hardly anything left that was ‘me’, my whole being wrapped into the being of the forest; I slept. When I woke again, it was as though my mind was gathering, twining back into myself from the far reaches of the trees, and into my awareness came the great emptiness in my belly.
As I came more to myself I saw, standing tall in the center of the clearing next to where I had slept, a young tree that had not been there the day before. Its bark was light and papery like a silver birch, but instead of silver it was golden; the leaves were delicate and fragrant, the palest green, they trembled in the breeze; and wrapped all through the tree, woven in the branches of the tree as though they were part of the fabric of the tree, were the ends of the fallen hair that I had followed home, the rest still sweeping out into the forest to show the path I had taken. My body shook. My belly was hollow and hungry, and progress along the narrow way that led to my home was slow.
My hair has never grown in the same way since I cut it in the yew clearing; these days it grows the same as everyone else’s, nothing strange or unusual. I still collect the pine-needles to brew into tea, and in the winter when the white snow and the white sky shine brightest in my cathedral clearing, the golden tree in the center seems to glow with its own gentle light, its leaves surrendered and fallen, hidden beneath the snow. In the spring it blooms with sweet-smelling yellow flowers, releasing their fragrance into the air every time that I or a breeze brush past them. The sand-colored hair that twines up through the branches still marks the path between the cathedral clearing and the yew clearing, but it has never occurred to me to take it again.