I

We sit in our circle of twelve, working on our dolls, the dinky central fire doing its best against the April damp. Then Greta puts on her robe and leaves the tent to do her holy things, and as always, Phil follows. We stretch, look at each other, and scurry down to the illicit realm of chat.

We determine that a) today must be Tuesday; b) everyone has a battering headache (except Jeanette, who never touches caffeine); and c) no, it’s not our imagination: the rain hasn’t stopped since Sunday night. It was soothing at first, coming in waves, cycles, but its failure to stop—ever—has begun to feel personal. It’s pittered, pattered, petered out only to peter back in. It’s settled and softened to a radio fuzz, lulling us into stepping outside, soaking us through before we realise. At other times it’s hardened suddenly, becoming a pelting, hammering harbinger on the put-upon canvas, and we’ve had to shout.

We’ve been on this camp since Saturday. We dream of hot showers, our own pillows, food you don’t eat with a spoon. Our breath is sour, and our clothes release wafts we’re not happy about. We sit cross-legged ten hours a day, and when we climb from the stream to the lodge on its hillock, our knees throb horribly. And all thoughts lead back to this headache.

‘Even if it stops today, I still don’t know how we’re going to manage on Friday,’ says Doreen, who has one of those downturned faces. She’s brought a little foldaway fishing seat we both scorn and covet. Primping the doll in her lap, she semi-sings, ‘Mud, mud, drowning in mud.’

Friday’s climactic festivities are to take place on the riverside paddock, which we can see if we stand on tiptoes at the firewood shelter behind the lodge and peer downstream. It’s already a steaming swamp. We don’t know exactly what we’ll be doing—it’s been trailed only as a celebration of femininity: fecundity, friendship, general non-penile things—but we do know we will have to take the risk of expressing ourselves, perhaps through dance, or spontaneous poetry. We might have to take our clothes off. We’re already referring to it as The Big One, and it looms like a bear.

Even the prep is daunting. We are weaving, carving, decorating. Forming, with our artless 21st-century hands, tiny symbolic objects made of wood, little stones, coloured thread, bits of leather: materials we’ve brought with us, saturated with private meaning. The objects are to help us expose what we hide, and since we’re all doing it we tell ourselves that’s fine.

This afternoon we have to make dolls, about eight inches tall, out of “whatever feels right”. We’re not sure anything feels right; nevertheless, our hands are busy. Apart from the odd tut of frustration, we’ve been silent. Now, with the leaders gone, it’s a relief to check in with the others.

‘My problem is I don’t know what this is for, so I don’t know what to make it look like,’ says Jeanette, dangling her doll by the wool of its hair. She’s a moon-pale woman with two thatchy plaits who keeps bursting into folk song.

‘I think they’re supposed to represent our younger selves,’ one of us says.

‘I think we’re going to stick pins in them,’ says another.

‘Both,’ say two of us at once.

Maggie thrusts at a scrap of scarlet velvet with an embroidery needle. ‘Isn’t this lovely, though? Being together? No men?’

We think of our husbands and partners and fathers and brothers and sons: those we’ve had; those we have; those we might have. Their bodies and beards, their clear, defined gestures. Their specific scents. We sigh, thinking we can’t be heard over the rain.

We have each paid £500 for this week, and there’ve been mutterings about fortnights in Fuerteventura, but the grumbling is just a reflex. In fact it’s been an agonising kind of wonderful to spend a few days really away, with no mobile signal, without all the nagging screens. We’re embarrassed at how 3D the world turns out to be: full of scents and sensations, and stuff we didn’t know we were missing. The un-switch-offable shufflings of insects and birds. The mist hanging paleolithic in the trees when we’ve stepped outside at dawn to pee. The cool stone of the carved goddess, weighty and voluptuous in our hands, signifying our turn to speak in a sharing circle.

Outside a circle, talking is tolerated but chat is forbidden. Now, after three days of relative discipline, we’re weak with headache and have lapsed into three separate conversations: our offspring’s career hopes, online air fares and their deceits, the use of arnica on pets.

‘Daughters, PLEASE!’

Greta bursts through the lodge doorway. ‘Ask of yourself, what you are saying RIGHT NOW, is it worthwhile of your breath? Does it HELP us? Are you even HERE? Tell me, you want to LEAVE?’

Oh, yes please, we think.

Greta is our leader. Light bends towards her. She pierces the truth like she’s spearing a fish. From the grit in her voice and the funny syntax we think she may be German, by birth—but even thinking of her birth seems wrong; Greta was never, surely, some helpless, mewling baby. Every day she’s gone off in her cedarwood-smelling robe to pray, coming back after a couple of hours somehow dry and un-dishevelled. While we fret and whine about our lives, our children, our jobs, mowing back and forth over our troubles, Greta stands over a problem and simply cuffs it away with a great paw.

And she is so, so, good to us.

‘My sweet ones,’ she says—gentle now, beaming now—‘if you like to leave, you may of course leave.’

Wha—? No! We wouldn’t dream.

Greta’s shouts have scorched the ground and left it clean. It’s fair. We settle back to our dolls, so innocent with their blank faces. Then Phil shuffles through the doorway and talks for fifteen minutes about the value of silence.

Chubby, ruddy, stubby, Phil is Greta’s right-hand woman. The side dish none of us ordered. In spite of her name, she proclaims her womanhood often, to the sky, wielding a twisted rod of white hazel carved at its tip with what turned out to be an owl, though more than one of us had thought it was a penguin. On the first day we smirked, but something about her soon made us stop.

The silence lasts until Jeanette is moved to sing again. We wonder why Greta and Phil let her go on, when the rest of us are being such good girls, but they must know best.

II

Evening. We have spooned up bowls of grey barley broth and rinsed them in the stream, and are back in the sharing circle, shouldering blankets and dark robes, our hair left to fall free, hands hushed in our laps. 

Nerinda is the oldest. She doesn’t say much; we notice her because she pulls a glorious new outfit every day from an undersized hessian bag. She is seventh to speak. Our listening heads all tip at the same angle, lit only by the evermoving fire and the stubs of loyal candle waxed onto its stone surround. Wet eyes glittering in soft ovals of face.

In her delicate accent Nerinda tells a story about two mute swans in the Himalayas who, for thirty years, made circles on an enchanted lake. In their pair these two made solid the rippling water-world of swan. They hatched seventy-seven chicks and every chick was named, and as the seasons turned they fledged. Every year the parent swans were left to become two again, together with each other. The family opening and closing like a fan.

Then one winter the cold bit too hard, and as mist rose from the lake on a sunless day the female swan nudged with her beak the motionless body of her mate. As spring came silently in, she swam on the lake alone, her reflection halved, lost into the water below.

We see, as we listen, the swan of the widow Nerinda. When she has finished and passed the goddess to Bernice, we sit for a time and watch the candlewax brim and spill.

Bernice is in her beautiful late teens and thin, and her skin is such a dark brown it’s nearly black. The few times we’ve left the lodge and processed up through the village, she’s the one the villagers are most agog at. We feel like lumps of putty next to her, but the way she thinks and moves and talks fills us with joy. We, who harbour horrors at who we were when we were young, listen to Bernice play the harp of her unbroken heart, and it makes us cry, hoping against hope that she’ll stay this way forever.

Maggie takes the goddess. In the daytime Maggie asks us, are you all right, lovey? Cup of tea? She braves the rain to wash pots in the stream, tucks herself deep in the lodge with her arms round the latest weeper. Now she explains she wants to travel the world, but her two younger sisters have some incurable condition that demands all her care and money. They will outlive her and her resources unless she helps them die. Then she takes a very, very long pause.

It’s just us and the rain.

We come to the end of the circle, stretch, sigh, desperate to pee. We push our heads through the lodge door flaps, pull faces of disgust at the collapsing skies. But what can we do. We shuffle into our boots and dash out, squat on the hillockside with our blankets tucked up, wait for our reluctant bladders to obey. Doreen’s heels slip out from under her and her cheeks slap into the mud and when she tries to get up she slips again, and her night-stark buttocks leave a groove in the muck as she skids down the slope and from the bottom she shouts OH, BUGGER IT ALL, and we laugh, laugh, laugh.

III

‘Guys! Guys!’

It seems we’ve been asleep only a few moments. We blink into the torchlight of pyjama-wrapped Bernice. The sheepskins beneath us are sodden, squeaking as we sit up in our bags and blankets. We scramble for torches, more of us waking, becoming indignant at the ruination. On one side we are sloshing ankle-deep in brown water.

‘How can we be flooded, up here?’ we say.

‘The stream?’

‘But the stream’s miles down.’

‘Makes no sense,’ we mumble.

‘God, the mess.’

‘All my stuff… Everything’s ruined,’ says Maggie, hands aflutter.

‘You can complain like little children,’ smiles Greta, ‘if your complaining will dry your cloths and put us back snuggling in our sleepy bags.’ She is wringing out her things already, packing her bag. ‘It is a not-lovely situation, but it’s all we have, to be dealing with, to accept it.’

We pipe down, focus on getting our things out of the puddles.

‘Well, we’re a bit stuck,’ Phil mutters, to Greta. ‘We could try the village hall in the morning?’

‘We go now. I have keys.’

‘Ooh! How did you manage that?’

Greta lifts a casual shoulder. ‘I have keys.’

We leave the dank tent, the rain still mocking us, actually laughing as it falls. Little ducklings following Greta through the streetlit village.

IV 

The village hall is a real building, with right angles; it has plumbing, radiators, ceiling tiles, and we feel as if we’ve stepped aboard a spaceship. There are health and safety posters, rumours of hot water in the kitchen. There’s an actual toilet. We are so glad of these comforts, and yet… The technoplast toilet seat is hard and unwelcome under us. So quick, this wilding. We are surprised when we glance in the rusted mirror under the fluoro tube. We peck our hands at our hair, rub a finger under our eyes, then give up.   

We are marooned a second day. Yesterday’s chard soup has improved overnight, and someone finds some butter for our slice of bread. Jeanette starts up an endless round: something about a junior blacksmith and his sweetheart’s grave, and we all end up joining in, even those of us who are not joiner-inners. Our headache, we notice, has gone.

Greta and Phil swoop in. The way they stand makes our singing stutter to a halt. We put down our work. Phil announces an emergency circle: five minutes. Nerves drive us to the loo, and we exchange shrugs as we wait our turn. We settle back into a circle with a cloud over it. Greta palms the goddess.

‘Someone—someone here—has been…’

She waits.

‘“Tweeting”.’

Her eyes sweep the circle. Minutes crackle by. The implications are hefty: not only does one of us have her mobile or other electronic device switched on and receiving, but she is narrating our private week to the wide world. The account is anonymous, Greta says, the worst sort of cowardice: the tweeter hiding while betraying her sisters, betraying everything that has depended on safety, confidentiality.

‘So I offer an opportunity to this “@shewolf65”. Tell us, tell your trusting sisters who you are, and explain why you have NO RESPECT for the sacred. NO RESPECT for the circle.’

In the silence we are all thinking of school assemblies, class detentions. We pretend we don’t know you can get a mobile signal up here in the village—because we haven’t thought to look, oh no, and absolutely definitely haven’t checked for wifi.

Then we come to wonder how the betrayal was discovered. After all, to even read tweets, to know they’re there, you have to—It must mean that either Greta or Phil—

Phil, it can’t be denied, looks pale, and uncharacteristically hunched. We straighten up, let indignance flare. Then we douse it with shame, for who are we to question Phil and Greta, and the rules of our retreat? So much depends on the rules. Our lives depend on these women, these mothers, being strong and wise.

#

The rain stops overnight, and we wake to an odd quiet. Someone has placed a mug of camomile next to each of us. It’s time for us to return, and we pack again, eager, speaking of the lodge as home. We have missed the dependable hardships of damp and draught.

Down the hill, we retake our abandoned camp. Water stains the flapping canvas skirt of the walls, as if the lodge has wandered, waded; the ground beneath our feet is springy and uncertain. But the flood has gone, the fire pit and the groundsheet are dry. We sweep, hammer pegs back into place, relight the candles. Rolling our bedding out again is like painting a wheel of colour radiating from the centre pit, re-illuminating a darkened scrap of the world. It’s a good distraction from the way we’re not looking each other in the eye.

V

On Friday morning Nerinda has gone. Phil makes the announcement plainly, saying she was called home for an emergency. Something doesn’t seem right in Phil’s face. We keep noticing her and Greta exchanging long looks.

While they are on their holy walk, we whisper, stoking up the rumour that in fact our quiet, elegant widow friend has been sent away. Was Nerinda @shewolf65? We can’t let it drop. Then there’s a thud, and a hiss of exasperation from the other side of the canvas. We shush and fix alarmed eyes on each other. There’s the half-sound, half-sight of someone moving off, a lightening of shadows we didn’t know were there. Doreen mouths: Phil.

We carry on with our preparations, sombre now, thinking of Nerinda, knowing it couldn’t be her. We contemplate the dolls in our hands. What else do they need, our sweet little ones? Of course. Eyes. We blithely sew them on. As one, we freeze. We hurry to zip the dreadful things away and hope they will never look at us again.

Half an hour later Phil and Greta come back and tell us there’s been a change to tonight’s celebration plans. We’re not going down to the paddock, and the format will be different. We will still be focusing on such concepts of the feminine as woman’s strength and capacity for suffering, her deep-rooted relationship with the soil, the endless expansion of the fertile universe and so on, but they now feel ceremonial purposes would be better served by our facing these concepts alone, each on an individual journey to the underworld.

The Big One is now much Bigger. We look down at our pitiful collection of objects, which have taken on a sudden and terrible value. Somehow we know our survival may depend on them, and we note how badly they are lacking.

Under grey skies Greta and Phil lead us out into the woods, and we spend the day collecting a heap of rain-blackened branches and twigs, which we bend and snap and gradually build into tiny cabins: one each. We pack the gaps in the walls with moss and spore-scented humus. Our objects, and the dolls, are to be left inside. We work in silence, and when we return, none of us eats much of our chickpea stew.

VI

Dusk comes. We stand on spongy ground among beech and oak, spread out in a ring that keeps us six feet apart. We have been told not to speak, or turn around. Our backs feel open to whatever might come up behind us. The wind seems to raise anger in the leaves; it has a bite that gets through our clothes.

A long time passes. We get thirsty. Our legs ache from standing.

Then steps approach, a type we don’t know, and a tall shape hovers among the black trunks. It’s holding something. The shape moves toward the circle. Some of us can see it coming, and others can only hear it. We want to be sick.

The shape closes in, and seems to absorb one of us, one of us standing on that far side of the circle; we think it’s Maggie. Maggie and the shape become part of the darkness. She goes with no sound, but someone else seems to whimper.

Another long portion of time passes, marked with the shuffling of leaves and night creatures, the odd human sniff. We think about drinking water, a lot.

Cloud continues to thin and finally a cold half-moon silvers the forest floor. In the lifted light we can now see four gaps in the circle.

We are not sure who is gone.

It was a mistake to come here. We’ve been tricked. Everything is wrong. The trees reel and lurch. The next thing we know the steps are coming behind us, and something grabs our shoulders and we are blindfolded and led stumbling away. Hands push us to our knees on the wet ground. Our faces are scratched as we crawl forward, the wind is cut, the sound muffled, and the enveloping smell of damp forest debris tells us we are in our cabins. We tell ourselves we recognise the heavy, shuffling figures building up the door behind us, sealing us in, and then we are alone.

How quickly and completely fear overcomes us is a surprise. We rip off our blindfolds and there’s still no light. The jagged twig-walls and ceiling are so close, we learn it’s better not to reach out for them.

Though sitting, unmoving, we seem to contract and expand. We go down to a place we can’t name, shrinking to the very seed of ourselves. The seed splits and something swims out; it’s us, darting in a realm of shadow, flashes of threat on all sides: hey you, you, you!

Our heads get smaller while our bodies swell to fill the cabin, and our own flesh starts to crush us, and for a second, it stops when we realise it’s not real, only to begin again when we ask what we mean by real. Even in the dark our dolls eye us. But without them we are truly alone, so we have to trust them. We grope for them, snatch them up and clutch them to us.

We are freezing. Someone is crying. If only there was some water. Time fails to pass: time upon time.

We think we can smell cigarettes, coffee. At one point we are sure we hear a Nokia ringtone. We think of Greta and Phil somewhere out there and think we hear them laughing. We think of our mothers, and whether we have any idea who they really are.

This is all wrong. But that’s us. We are wrong all over. We are too selfish, too wild, too quiet, too pretty, too hairy, too different. We are too ugly, too boring, too chaotic, too lazy, too stupid, too clever, too rich, too common. Too manly, too girlish, too gangly, too weak, too gauche, too straight, too disorganised, too ambitious, too shrill, too needy. Too far away, irredeemably so, from what was expected of us.

To survive, we disembody, float up and look down and laugh at what’s being done to us, but then there’s vertigo and terror, and we scuttle back to our bodies and tough it out, and at last we are crying too, thinking only if I get through this; if I just get through this.

VII

Then Greta and Phil are ripping a hole of freedom in our cabin walls, and it’s over. The dawn air rushes in so delicious, and we love them, of course we love them: they are the most beautiful sight we have ever seen.

We help each other back to the lodge and gulp water. We are exhausted and alert, open as empty clams. We don’t know who we are any more, only that we are part of this. Sweetness in the incensed air. Jeanette is paler than ever. Bernice can’t stop shivering. Maggie hasn’t spoken, or touched anyone.

It seems to be daytime, but the light is dim and the draughts coming under the skirt of the lodge are not benign. Someone has cleaned out the fire pit, scrunched up balls of paper and wigwammed clean kindling on top, like laid-out ingredients for a feast. We fixate on it, hungry.

The goddess takes many hours to go round, and no-one uses the words forest, dark, scared, desperate, wet, endless time, thirst, or cold, because to do so would be to make small the big things that have happened. It would mean we didn’t really survive anything. It would mean we really had been tricked.

One of us speaks, passes the goddess.

The next speaks, passes the goddess.

Doreen speaks next. We hear her, shrugging deeper into blankets and shawls, and gaze to the middle with our listening faces. Then, as she is speaking of her children, yet not of her children, and of her death, yet not of her death, a flame woofs into life under the pointed kindling. We blink, imagining it. But no, it’s fire, real fire: crawling sparks are blackening the paper, and it builds to a tigery triangle, and then it’s real heat we feel on our doubt-filled chests.

Mutters crescendo. Who did this? Who lit this? We look at Phil, at Greta, at each other, for signs of trickery.

Our thought-gears click back in and start to turn, and we remember the village hall, the stark accusations of a breach of trust. No-one has admitted to being @shewolf65. It wasn’t Nerinda: come on, we know this now. But our hearts won’t go any further down the path of accusation, even though our minds do. Even though we know Greta has covered up her deputy’s indiscretion at the cost of us. We steal glances at our two mothers, trying to see beneath what they show, hoping not to.

Why would they want to fool us? Everyone was gazing into the middle, watching all the time, and no-one’s been near that fire. It just happened. But there’s no such thing as magic.

On the other hand.

We have seen so much that can’t have been real. Maggie, among others, has seen age come over her: her skin growing too large, her hair becoming spiderweb, her knuckles Halloween frights. Doreen, among others, has seen a child, an actual person, sliding out of her own body. Jeanette, among others, has seen her father struggle for his last breath. All we agreed to in our contract with life was for time to slip quietly forward, and instead we’ve collected a heap of stuff too big to deal with, too unacceptable to accept, the weight of it often too much.

Now we’re expected to believe in a fire that has come from nothing. Well, a week ago we had never met, and now we love each other.

The fire grows and the small pile collapses onto itself. The fire is real.

Maybe the joke is on us, but we’ll take it, we’ll add it to the heap, like our mothers’ fallibility, like an ugly doll made from scraps that saved our lives in the dark.

We realise this miracle must be fed. Each of us leaps to a task, scrambling out to the shelter for dry wood, or lying on our fronts blowing pokers of air. Candles are replaced. Water is fetched; tea is made. Drops start to fall again, then quicken, and with the rain back it’s as if we’re really home.

It’s all a paradox, this week of metaphors that were in fact literal things: the impossible fire, the strangers who became our mothers. We put ourselves in their hands, and they probably weren’t who they claimed; we trusted and were betrayed, and we kept trusting anyway, and it turned out okay. It was unacceptable, and we accepted it, because our lives are already stacked with the literally unacceptable. We just stagger on, beneath. As we go on, we have no choice but to let ourselves fall: to fall for each other and for the fine, fine mess of it all.

 

© Ruby Cowling
[This piece was selected by Sara Crowley. Read Ruby’s interview]