On the distant hill

Years past remembering she had lived there in that simple house – free, but not free; alone, but not lonely. It hadn’t always been just her, but she’d never married, never had children; although she would happily have done the one without the other and still had the temerity to hold her head high, even there, even then.

The house was clapboard: unpainted, with a wide verandah where she would sit a while when the day was fine and sometimes when it blustered. Unsheltered from the elements, it sat alone in the corner of a large meadow, which itself nestled snugly in the crook of a deciduous wood: sweet chestnut and oak and beech. Like those trees, she was lean and lithe and strong, kept the house in good repair and could pass for a woman twenty, even thirty years her junior. In the nearby town, most of those who had been there when she was young were either dead or moved to a kinder climate. She went in but occasionally, always arriving either on foot, or riding an ancient, black bicycle fitted with panniers, basket and bell. There, as she bought those necessities which she could not grow or gather or butcher or sew herself, she was greeted with their piqued curiosity borne out of the apparent mystery that shrouded her existence there – among them, but not of them.

In spite of her years, her days began and ended much as they ever had, so that it seemed to the town’s people that she lived in the bubble of a sometime-day. From sunrise to sundown her toil was constant and steady. She didn’t rush or fret the days to end, rather taking time to acknowledge every moment – giving every task, however small, the fullness of her attention. She was at all times, had always been, surrounded by lives in the meadow. She never sought them but they found her all the same. They would stay with her as long as they could before she released them to the distant hills without attachment or heartache, as she knew she would herself be released upon a day. Until that time, she was mindful to arise each dawn with eyes wide, to revel in the newness of the world. In this way, her every day was fresh and vibrant, though to those outside the bubble, it may have seemed repetitive, monotonous. To them it seemed unnatural for one, a woman, of her advanced years to lead a life of such vigour and independence; rather than lauding her vitality, they considered it suspect, unnatural. Those ones saw only her iron grey hair, not the lustre of it; her translucent skin, not the straightness of her back or the clarity of her gaze. They saw in her only what they themselves expected to become.

The children of the town were admonished not to trespass on her meadow, and of course there were whispered stories, but the truth was that she welcomed the sight of them, the more because it was rare. And so when she would hear them scattering hens on their wild dash through a corner of her meadow, she would stop what she was doing and go out on to the porch to catch a breath of their exuberance before their laughter disappeared into the sunlit coppice beyond the house. On those days she could see the shimmer of them long after they had skipped home, and it seemed to her that the meadow held on to the life that it had touched as though it recognised its ephemeral nature in a way that people rarely did. She knew as well as the grass that their time as draiads would be over as soon as selfconsciousness and conformity pulled them into that world which she gently refused to join.

There was one child among them, a boy, whose light was more diffuse than the others’. His connection to the world had not begun to dissipate and in him she recognised her end and her beginning. From the moment when she first saw his light reaching calmly into the world, the old woman knew that he would never lose his spark. She didn’t grieve in her knowledge for she knew that the shortness of time was subjective and in youth the summers are long. Although they never exchanged more than a look, they were inextricably linked, bound by their common fate as two eternal creatures being stalked by cool, impassive death. Only she and the meadow knew to whom it would catch up first. Only she and the meadow could confront that moment with calm acceptance.

The boy died of a slow-creeping illness one day, one summer. As his body drew its last breath, the fractal field vibrated and shivered and was permeated with a glow that lingered on and on, immersing the woman and her surroundings, allowing them to breathe it in. The town’s people were oblivious to it, even as the old woman welcomed and absorbed it. Their only desire was to cling to the body that was no more, to shape and contain it within a cage made of words. Although she had long since relinquished personal desire, the woman knew that if she wanted to find the boy, she need only split a piece of wood, or lift a stone. She only had to breathe.

 *

With the ebb and flow of her companions in the meadow, the woman’s life went on, more the same than ever. Their being together was neither symbiotic nor parasitic; it simply was, until it wasn’t. The townspeople talked, the children ran and the world around her shimmered and hummed in a state of joyous flux. Her eyes were as bright as any bird’s who has denied the bars of his cage and flown instead to the distant hill, the better to silently sing.

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