In a distant land, far beyond the time we know now, there lived an ancient people who knew in their bones of a past outside memory. Things happened over and over; as day became night night became day, spring followed winter, summer followed spring, autumn followed summer and then, and then as autumn came, at least the well-known ordered days passed full of preparation for the transhumance, that great movement of flocks and herds from the summer mountains to the winter pastures. But in the great oak woods of this region the leaves seemed reluctant to fall. Even after the first frosts when the trees glimmered with rime as the sun rose. Even when winter’s cousin, the great wind from the west, ravaged the conical roofs of the shepherds’ huts. The leaves did not fall.
For Lucila, searching for leaves as she climbed each day higher and higher through the parched undergrowth under the most ancient oaks, there were only acorns, slews of acorns at her feet. There were no leaves, or rather no leaves that might be gathered as newly fallen. Only the faint husks of leaves of the previous autumn, leaves of provenance already gathered before she left the mountains last year for the winter plains, leaves she had placed into her deep sleeves, into her voluminous apron, into the large pockets of her vlaterz, the ornate felt jacket of the married woman.
Since her childhood she had picked and pocketed these oaken leaves, felt their thin, veined, patterned forms, felt, followed, caressed them between her finger tips. It was as though her pockets were full of the hands of children, seven-fingered hands, stroking her fingers with their pointed tips when her fingers were pocketed.
She would find private places to lay out her gathered leaves. She wanted none to know or touch or speak of these her children of the oak forest. She had waited all summer, as she had done since a child, watching them bud and grow on the branch, and then, with the frosts and winds of autumn, fall, fall, fall to the ground, but best of all fall into her small hands, every leaf there to be caught, fallen into the bowl of her cupped hands. And for every leaf caught, a wish.
Her autumn days became full of wishes. She would lie awake on her straw mattress after Mikas had risen for the night milking, that time when the rustling bells of the goats had no accompaniment from the birds. She would assemble her lists of wishes, wishes ready for leaves not yet fallen into the bowl of her cupped hands. May the toes of my baby be perfectly formed? May his hair fall straight without a single curl? May I know only the pain I can bear when he comes? May the mother of Mikas love this child?
As the fine autumn days moved towards the feast day of St Anolysius, the traditional day of departure of the winter transhumance, there was, this season, an unspoken tension present in the still, dry air. Already preparations were being made for the long journey to the winter plains. There was soon to be a wedding now three days away, of the Phatos boy to the Tamosel girl. The boy was from an adjoining summer pasture and had travelled during the summer months with an itinerant uncle, a pedlar of sorts and beggar of repute. So he had seen something of the world beyond those of the herds and flocks can expect to see. He was rightly-made and fit to marry, although, of course, the girl was to be well-kept secret until the day itself.
Lucila remembered those wedding days, her wedding days, those anxious days of waiting when encased in her finery, in her seemingly impenetrable and voluminous wedding clothes she had remained all but hidden from view. While around her the revelling came and went, the drunkenness, the feasting, the riotous eruptions of noise and movement, the sudden visitations of relatives she did not know, the fierce instructions of women who spoke to her now as a woman no longer a young girl or a dear child, women she knew as silent, shy and respectful who were now loud and lewd, who told her things she could hardly believe, what a man might do, what a man might be, what a woman had to suffer - all these things happening at the same time. And then her soon-to-be husband’s drunk-beyond-reason friends had carried off the basket with her trousseau and dressed themselves riotously in her finest embroidered blouses, her intricate layered skirts, her petticoats, even the nightdress deemed the one to be worn when eventually, after three days revelry, she would be visited by a man, now more goat than man, sodden with drink, insensible to what little she understood as human passion beyond the coupling of goats. Of course Semisar had prepared the bright blood for the bridesbed sheet, the necessary evidence, and as Mikas lay sprawled unconscious at the foot of the marriage bed she had allowed herself to be dishevelled, to feign the aftermath of the act he was supposed to have committed upon her. That would, she knew, come later . . .
It was then, in those terrible days and after, she took comfort from her silent, private stitching into leaves, the darning of acorns, the spinning of skeins of goats’ wool she would walnut-dye and weave around stones and pieces of glass. She would bring together leaves bound into tiny books, volumes containing for her a language of leaves, the signs and symbols of nature she had named, that only she knew. She could not read the words of the priest’s book but was fluent in the script of veins and ribs and patterning that every leaf owned. When autumn came she could hardly move a step for picking up a fallen leaf, reading its story, learning of its history. But this autumn now, at the time of leaf fall, the fall of the leaf did not happen and those leaves of last year at her feet were ready to disintegrate at her touch. She was filled with dread. She knew she could not leave the mountains without a collection of leaves to stitch and weave through the shorter days and long, long winter nights. She had imagined sharing with her infant child this language she had learnt, had stitched into her daily life.
It was Semisar of course, who voiced it first. Semisar, the self-appointed weather ears and horizon eyes of the community, who followed her into the woods, who had forced Lucila against a tree holding one broad arm and her body’s weight like a bar from which Lucila could not escape, and with the other arm and hand rifled the broad pockets of Lucila’s apron. Semisar tossed the delicate chicken bone needles to the ground, unravelled the bobbins of walnut-stained yarn, crumpled the delicately folded and stitched, but yet to be finished, constructions of leaves . . . And spewed forth a torrent of terrible words. Already the men knew that the lack of leaf fall was peculiar only to the woods above and around their village. Over the other side of the mountain Telgatho had said this was not so. Was Lucila a Magnelz? Perhaps a Cutvlael? This baby she carried, a girl of course, was already making evil. Semisar placed her hand over and around the ripe hard form of the unborn child, feeling for its shape, its elbows and knees, the spine. And from there, with a vicelike grip on the wrist, Semisar dragged Lucila up and far into the woods to where the mountain with its caves and rocks touched the last trees, and from there to the cave where she seemed to know Lucila’s treasures lay, her treasures from childhood. Semisar would destroy everything, then the leaves would surely fall.
When Lucila did not return to prepare the evening meal Mikas was to learn all. Should he leave her be? He had been told women had these times of strange behaviour before childbirth. The wedding of the Phatos boy was almost upon them and the young men were already behaving like goats before the rut. The festive candles and tinselled wedding crowns had been fetched from the nearest town two days ride distant, the decoration of the tiny mountain basilica and the accommodation for the priest was in hand. The women were busy with the making of sweets and treats to be thrown at the wedding pair by guests and well-wishers. Later, the same women would prepare the dough for the millstones of bread that would be baked in the stone ovens. The men had already chosen the finest lambs to spit-roast for the feast.
She will return, Semisar had said after waiting by the fold where Mikas flocks, now gathered from the heights, awaited their journey south. All will be well, Mikas, never fear. The infant, a girl, may not last its birth, Semisar warned, but seeing the shocked face of Mikas, explained a still-birth might be providential for all. Know this time will pass, she said, and you can still be blessed with many sons. We are forever in the hands of the spirit, she said, leaving without the customary salutation of farewell.
However different the lives of man and woman may by tradition and circumstance become, those who share the ways and rites of marriage are inextricably linked by fate’s own hand and purpose. Mikas has come to know his once-bride, the child become woman in his clumsy embrace, the girl of perhaps fifteen summers fulfilling now his mother’s previous role, who speaks little but watches and listens, is unfailingly attentive to his needs and demands, and who now carries his child ( it can only be a boy), carries this boy high in her womb and with a confidence his family has already remarked upon.
After their wedding he had often returned home to Lucila at the time of the sun’s zenith when it is customary for the village women to seek the shade of their huts and sleep. It was an unwritten rite due to a newly-wed husband to feign the sudden need for a forgotten tool or seek to examine a sick animal in the home fold. After several fruitless visits when he found their hut empty he timed his visit earlier to see her black-scarfed figure disappear into the oak woods. He followed her secretively, and had observed her seated beneath an ancient warrior of a tree, had watched over her intricate making. Furthermore and later he came to know where she hid the results of this often fevered stitching of things from nature’s store and stash, though an supernatural fear forbade him to enter the cleft between rocks into which she would disappear. He began to know how times and turns of the days affected her actions, but had left her be. She would usually return bright-eyed and with a quiet wonder, of what he did not know, but she carried something back within her that gave her a peculiar peace and beauty. It seemed akin to the well-being Mikas knew from handling a fine ewe from his flock . . .
And she would sometimes allow herself to be handled thus. She let him place his hands over her in that joyful ownership and command of a man whose life is wholly bound up with flocks and herds and the well-being of the female species. He would come from the evening watch with the ever-constant count of his flock still on his lips, and by a mixture of accident and stealth touch her wholly-clothed body, sometimes needing his fingers into the thick wool of her stockings, stroking the chestnut silken hairs that he found above her bare wrists, marvelling at her small hands with their perfect nails. He knew from the ribaldry of men that women were trained from childhood to display to men as little as possible of their intimate selves. But alone and apart all day on a remote hillside, alone save for several hundred sheep, brought to Mikas in his solitary state wild and conjured thoughts of feminine spirits, unencumbered by clothes, brighter and more various than any night-time dream. And he had succumbed to the pleasure of such thoughts times beyond reason, finding himself imagining Lucila as he knew she was unlikely ever to allow herself to be. But even in the single winter and summer of their life together there had been moments of surprise and revelation, and accompanied by these precious thoughts he went in search of her in the darkness of a three-quarter moon, into the stillness of the night-time wood.
Ah Lucilla. We might think that after the scourge of Semisar, the physical outrage of her baby’s forced examination, and finally the destruction of her treasures, this child-wife herself with child would be desolate with grief at what had come about. She had not been forced to follow Semisar into the small cave where wrapped in woven blankets her treasures lay between the thinnest sheets of impure and rejected parchment gleaned surreptitiously after shearing, but holding each and every treasure distinct and detached. There was enough light for Semisar to pause in wonder at the intricate constructions, bright with the aura of extreme fragility owned by many of the smaller makings. And not just the leaves of the oak were here, but of the mastic, the walnut, the flaky-barked strawberry and its smoothed barked cousin. There were leaves and sheaves of bark from lowland trees of the winter sojourn, there were dried fruits mysteriously arranged, constructions of acorns threaded with the dark madder-red yarn, even acorns cracked and damaged from their tree fall had been ‘mended’ with thread.
Semisar was to open some of the tiny books of leaved pages where she witnessed a form of writing she did not recognise (she could not read but had seen the priest’s writing and the print of the holy books). This she wondered at, as surely Lucila had only the education of the home? Such symbols must belong to the spirit world. Another sign that Lucila had infringed order and disturbed custom. It would take but a matter of minutes to turn such makings into little more than a layer of dust on the floor.
With her bare hands Semisar ground together these elaborate confections, these lovingly-made conjunctions of needle’s art with nature’s purpose and accidental beauty. She ground them together until they were dust.
When Semisar returned into the pale afternoon light it seemed Lucila had remained as she had been left: motionless, and without expression. If Semisar had known the phenomenon of shock, Lucila was in that condition. But, in the manner of a woman preparing to grieve for the dead she had removed her black scarf and unwound the long dark chestnut plaits that flowed down her back. But there were no tears. only a dumb silence but for the heavy exhalation of breath. It seemed that she looked beyond Semisar into the world of spirits invoking perhaps their aid, their comfort.
What happened had neither invoked sadness nor grief. It was as if it had been ordained in the elusive pattern of things. It felt like the clearing of the summer hut before the final departure for the long journey to the winter world. The hut, Lucila had been taught, was to be left spotless, every item put in its rightful place ready to be taken up again on the return to the summer life, exactly as if it had been undisturbed by absence . Not a crumb would remain before the rugs and coverings were rolled and removed, summer clothes hard washed and tightly mended, to be folded then wrapped between sprigs of aromatic herbs.
Lucila would go now and collect her precious but scattered needles from beneath the ancient oak. She would begin again - only to make and embroider garments for her daughter. It was as though, despite this ‘loss’, she had retained within her physical self the memory of every stitch driven into nature’s fabric.
Suddenly Lucila remembered that saints’ day which had sanctioned a winter’s walk with her mother, a day when her eyes had been drawn to a world of patterns and objects at her feet: the damaged acorn, the fractured leaf, the broken berried branch, the wisp of wool left impaled upon a stub of thorns. She had been five, maybe six summers old. She had already known the comforting action of the needle’s press again the felted cloth, but then, as if impelled by some force quite outside herself, had ‘borrowed’ one of her mother’s needles and begun her odyssey of darning, mending, stitching, enduring her mother’s censure - a waste of good thread, little one - until her skill became obvious and one of delight, but a private delight her mother hid from all and sundry, and then pressed upon her ‘proper’ work with needle and thread. But the damage had been done, the dye cast. She became nature’s needle slave and quartered those personal but often invisible