Owl Woman and the Cailleach

Owl Woman ~ Graphite and Gold Foil

Tahirih Goffic, 2022

  This night seems the season of everlasting night. How long has she been here? It feels like a lifetime. Was there a battle? She can’t remember, but her body aches as if there had been.  There is no moon to light the way. Frost covers the landscape in a thin, cold shimmer of icy sharp shards. It’s dark, so dark that the tangle in front of her is almost imperceptible from the darkness of the sky. The only difference is the pinprick lights of the stars, glowing out of the midnight blue, that allow the twisted leafless branches to show an even blacker black against the eerie backdrop. No matter which direction she turns, it is only this.

  Tangled limbs, bracken, and thorns obstruct her way forward. She doesn’t know which way to turn. Tears stream down her face. She is covered in dirt and her hair is a snarled mess of dead sticks and leaves. Her clothes are threadbare and torn, and her hands are scraped and dirty. Her ragged breath puffs clouds of steam in the chill air. She wants nothing more than to sleep.

  And then through the gloom, Aífe hears a soft sound and feels a soft breeze on her cheek. A white owl swoops past, its wings almost grazing the top of her head. Rising wearily to her feet, she follows it with her gaze. It swoops and dips through the branches, but in a westerly direction and she staggers after it. Soon, she begins to smell the unmistakable pungent smell of smoke and can see a thin stream, rising grey through the dark sky above the treetops. The owl seems to be leading her, so she continues to follow. Beneath her feet, the ground becomes yielding and soft, and she hazards a glance down to see a thick sponge of moss lining an almost imperceptible path. A soft light glows through the still thick maze of trees, and finally, as she ducks to avoid a low-hanging branch, a cottage comes into view.

  Its immaculate whitewashed walls seem to emanate light from the stars and it sports a tidy thatch roof, topped with a rabbit, the signature of its thatcher. Its traditional split door is painted a merry red, both halves closed against the chill of the night. Even the shuttered windows with their deep sills are painted red, and Aífe can see that flowers must have been planted in the red flower boxes that hang hopefully waiting for spring. But it is winter now, and chill. Nothing is in them but cold soil and a few scattered nasturtium seed heads.

  The owl has come to perch on a curved piece of driftwood, sunk deep into the earth beside the front door. Handmade decorations of stone and shell, feathers and branches hang from the driftwood like wind chimes in the dark. The owl blinks its huge yellow eyes at her as if taking her measure. Aífe stands shuffling her feet, unsure if she should approach, wary of strangers, and struggling to make a decision but is made for her. The owl turns its head, hearing a sound she can’t, and the door slowly opens on ancient hinges in need of oil. A face as old as the world greets Aífe with a raised eyebrow and a knowing smile.

Something about her is familiar and tickles Aífe’s memory, a story told by her grandmothers across a dimly lit kitchen or perhaps in the dark around a campfire, of the old woman of winter, An Cailleach, and suddenly Aífe is certain that this is who stands before her.

  The woman has long, white, wavy hair, which cascades loosely over her bony shoulders, which are draped in a light blue and cream plaid shawl. Her skin is so pale, it almost appears blue, and one eye is a foggy greyish-green like the sea in the spring, the other, clear and bright. Her wizened hands are covered in snaking veins and accentuated by bird-thin bones. One grips a smooth walking stick made of a twisted piece of yew, its’ top a big natural knot worn smooth and gleaming over decades, and the other clutches a lamp which she now holds up, all the better to see. As the light shifts across her face she seems to change: ancient, mature, then youthful then back to old. She smiles a kind smile, and beckons Aífe forward, inviting her in with a wave of her hand. Aífe has to duck to enter but the old woman does not, her slight frame fits easily through the small opening. Inside the smell is winter: cinnamon, cloves, and ginger, with the scent of cooking food overlaying it all. The Cailleach, for indeed it is she, gestures for Aífe to sit at the long slab that serves as a table, and as if she was expecting her, takes down two beautiful blue stoneware bowls off a shelf. There is a large cast iron cauldron hanging by a hook over the open fire, and a rich stew filled with carrots and root vegetables bubbles merrily, making Aífe’s empty stomach churn in hunger. She goes to the stew and gives it a stir, tests it for flavor, and selects a jar from the rows of herbs lining the countertop. She pulls out a pinch, sprinkles it over the stew, and tastes it again. This time, satisfied, she dishes up both bowls and sits down to eat.

Uneasy with such silence between people, Aífe hesitates, unused to eating without the customary chatter of family. But the Cailleach seems to read her mind and with another quiet smile begins to eat her soup. Aífe can’t think of a single thing to say, except a mumbled ‘Thank you”, and turns her attention to her own bowl. It is as delicious as it smells; the fresh vegetables and herbs need no other accompaniment. With her belly now full, and her body finally warm, her eyelids begin to droop and blink. The merry crackle of the fire seems to be telling her to take her leave and find her own bed, but she has no idea where to go. Still, after a few mumbled words of gratitude, she stands to leave. Words still do not seem appropriate or necessary, but she offers the old woman her hand in gratitude. She rises and follows Aífe to the door, where outside, the owl waits patiently on its perch.

  Once outside she slips her feet into some soft boots and steps out into the night. The owl launches itself into the air and disappears ahead, into the gloom.

  Dumbfounded, Aífe follows. The dark only gets darker and she struggles to keep up. Despite the old woman’s age and small size, she moves easily through the bracken and interwoven branches. It seems as if they move aside to assist her, whereas Aífe’s hair keeps getting caught and the tree limbs themselves seem to be trying to hamper her way, catching at her clothes and limbs, tripping her up so that she falls to her knees again and again. It is all she can do just to keep the white of the Cailleach’s hair and the yellow glow of her lantern in her line of sight, for it is the only thing visible in the gloom. After what seems like hours, the old woman stops and finally, Aífe can catch up. New mud streaks her legs and her knees are raw from crawling under fallen trees and low branches. Dirt-stained tears streak her face from frustration and fear of being lost in this dark endless forest forever.

  But there the Cailleach stands now, in a small clearing, the bracken worn down by circling feet.  Beside her is a huge standing stone, its surface incised with spirals and swirls, starbursts, and slashes. Her face shows a glint of humor as she catches sight of Aífe, her mouth turned up slightly in a smirk. And then, turning to her right, she places a hand on the stone and begins to walk in a clockwise direction, muttering something quiet under her breath, her brow set in concentration, as if she’s trying very hard to hear something. She stops after the third spiral, closing her eyes for a moment. Turning to face Aífe, she begins to speak, as if in a trance.

“Lean mé tríd na coillte bhfostú, go dtí an taobh eile.

San imréitigh, gheobhaidh tú do chuid draíochta féin.

Ag trasnú ar ais go dtí an domhan atá ar eolas agat, lig do do chuid trioblóidí cur le do spiorad.”

A shudder ripples through her thin frame, and for a moment she seems to grow taller, brighter. Then she opens her eyes and she is once more a tiny, very old woman. She fixes Aífe with her twinkling blue eyes and a beatific smile cracks her wrinkled face. The foreign words ring in Aífe’s ears, and she feels a distinct hum of energy, a slight pulsing in the air between them.

When the Cailleach speaks again it is in English. Her voice is husky and low but somehow penetrating. “Don’t ye know lass, it’s been awhile since I’ve spoken to anyone but me’self. People of your land have forgotten me, and the language of the Gods is different than your own, still, what I said is this:

Follow me through the gnarly woods, to the other side.

In the clearing you will find, the magic that’s inside.

Crossing back to the world you know,

Plant those seeds and watch your spirit grow.

  What have you learned from your struggles here in the dark forest? What can you share with others like yourself? What are the treasures you have found in the darkness? Those are the seeds you must plant.”

  Once again she takes my hands in hers. She gives them a light squeeze and to my surprise plants a kiss on my forehead.

  “Go find your true home now, my dear. It is waiting for you beyond your wildest dreams. What you long for also longs for you. Don’t disappoint it. You have struggled and fought for your entire life. There is no need. Fight for only that which is truly you, and home will be on the other side.”  She gives Aífe a slight nudge on the shoulder as a signal to leave.

  Aífe turns, afraid to face the dark forest again on her own, but then sees that the darkness has begun to lift and indeed she can see in the distance a faint glow of dawn on the horizon. With a deep breath and a shudder, she takes her first steps back into the maze but this time the briars and brambles seem to move for her as well.  She still doesn’t know where she will find her home, but she knows that now she is going in the right direction. With every step, her fear dissolves, and soon she can feel the warmth of the sun on her face. Her heart swells with hope and somehow she knows that everything will be just fine.

~Tahirih Camelle Goffic, December 9, 2022

The Angels and the Furies ~ May Sarton

Have you not wounded yourself
And battered those you love
By sudden motions of evil,
Black rage in the blood
When the soul, premier danseur,
Springs toward a murderous fall?
The furies possess you.


Have you not surprised yourself
Sometimes by sudden motions
Or intimations of goodness,
When the soul, premier danseur,
Perfectly poised,
Could shower blessings
With a graceful turn of the head?
The angels are there.


The angels, the furies
Are never far away
While we dance, we dance,
Trying to keep a balance
To be perfectly human
(Not perfect, never perfect,
Never an end to growth and peril),
Able to bless and forgive
This is what is asked of us.


It is light that matters,
The light of understanding.
Who has ever reached it
Who has not met the furies again and again?
Who has reached it without
Those sudden acts of grace?

Published by Tahirih Goffic

After a tumultuous past as a goat milker, laundress, fine art major, waitress and restaurant owner, I've now downscaled to running my own Cafe/Gallery in an effort to maintain a social life and make a few bucks. I live a ridiculously idyllic existence in a fairytale village called Bella Coola on the West Coast of British Columbia with my charming musician husband, two amazingly creative children, and a dog whose favourite past time is eating rotten dead fish and rolling in poo. In my not so spare time I love to invent healthy whole food recipes, write YA fiction, play guitar, or curl up in my favourite chair with a great book and a gigantic mug of strong black coffee, all while daydreaming of living in Ireland...

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