A feminist reimagining of the Welsh tale of Blodeuwedd
I wake with a start, thrown from slumber by the familiar knitting together of my insides, a twisting, yearning ache. Rolling to my side, I watch the lace curtains breathe in and out, a gentle tide at the window’s ledge. I listen to the nightly chatter of wild animals, the thrum of small creatures who sing out from the surrounding woodland. A soft breeze sighs into the bedroom, carrying the low call of an owl.
When I can lie in bed no longer, I make my way downstairs. Wrapping a thick woollen blanket around my shoulders, I head for the small conservatory at the back of the house. The thin panes of glass glisten, the creeping frost signalling the chill of the morning to come. I curl into the old wicker chair and look out. From here, my eyes reach beyond the garden outside the window and into the wild border of the forest. The tree line spills messily towards our garden as it shrinks from the ancient, sprawling crowns of oak trees to the heady, almond-scented meadowsweet – the scattered handfuls frothing creamy and white along the river at the foot of the garden.
I wring my hands in my lap, feel the coarseness around my knuckles. The dry cracks between my fingers map the landscape of a woman worn out by a life that never truly belonged to her. It’s the same old tale; like many women who have come before me, I have learned to care for everyone but myself. My heart sits heavy with the weight of the life that’s wound itself around me like ivy, wrapping tighter and tighter until I cannot see the light.
My husband, Lleu, is a distracted partner at best. He is always busy with work, his mind swirling with a torrent of ideas. His pharmaceutical company is home to the kind of alchemy I could never get my head around. I used to ask questions about the projects he was working on, but over time he lost interest in explaining, and I stopped asking.
He comes home late every night, barely says two words to me. His attention, once so firmly moored to my body, has slowly drifted further from the shore. Now, he notices only my absence, the things I have not done: a thin layer of dust in the hallway, an unprepared meal in the pantry. I’ve started abandoning tasks just to see if he notices, the calculated neglect like a beam from a distant lighthouse. I call for him, but the light refracts in the gloom, filters to a dull flicker. Blink and you’d miss it.
The insomnia crept in slowly. At first, it was the odd night here and there. Then it was monthly. Then weekly. Now it’s every night. I toss and turn for hours, and when I do eventually fall asleep, I dream about killing my husband.
I hunt high above the ground, the amber orbs of my eyes trained on the slightest movements below. I soar through the night sky, come crashing down into the dewy grass. Talons rip and thrash, tearing his body to pieces. In other dreams, I see my husband trapped in a net, his body twisting back and forth, writhing around next to the riverbank. He’s calling my name. His wails get louder, longer until they’re a piercing howl. When I look down, my hands are grasped firmly around a long wooden stick, its tip adorned with the head of a spear. The forged bronze glints in the moonlight, feels cold to the touch. I do not stand alone. Looking down, I see the curled, pointed horns of a goat, its black coat thick and glossy.
This scene haunted me day and night. I tried all kinds of remedies to clear my mind, to rid myself of these violent hallucinations, but nothing worked. Valerian root tea, warm salt baths, sprigs of lavender around the bed frame, but still, as night fell heavy over me, so did the dreams.
After months of disturbed sleep, and more disturbing dreams, I tried giving up on sleep altogether. The relief was short lived. Day and night, I would fall into untethered places as my mind navigated the space between dreaming and wakefulness.
I would find myself wandering barefoot in the furthest reaches of the forest, a place I have yet to find in consciousness, try as I might. The green wash of landscape pulsed rhythmically as a steady dance of inhalations rumbled deep below ground, and exhalations sent soft tremors rippling through the air. I swayed gently with the tendrils of grass, bathed in the sun’s milky glow.
The last time this happened I awoke with a sinking feeling, returning to my body. My clenched fists unfurled into handfuls of clumped petals. A constellation of scattered mud and debris lay between the bedsheets. The world came back to me slowly, but I could not find a plausible explanation for the halo of flowers around me, the conservatory door swung open into the garden.
The untamed spaces in my dreams have started growing out of the cracks, reaching out into the light of day. As I sit, bundled against the coming dawn, I feel it begin again. The unmistakable pull from inside me. It calls me to the forest.
Lowering my feet to the cold slate floor, I rise from the chair, dropping the blanket behind me. I step quietly through the back door, slowly securing the latch so as not to disturb Lleu. He sleeps on upstairs, blissfully unaware of the change taking place.
I pad barefoot and soft as a cat down the stone path of the garden. The tall grass brushes my legs, catching on the hem of my nightdress. Pulling open the creaky wooden gate, I skip out of the garden and wander down the length of the river. Pausing, I try to map a route across. It’s a little too far to safely jump and the water is flowing too deep to step across its pebbled bed without soaking the lower half of my nightdress. I dismiss thoughts of running to grab the wellies sat thick with a layer of dry mud, right outside the back door. It’s too late to turn back now.
Grabbing handfuls of linen, I bunch my nightdress up around my waist and before I can talk myself out of it, I plunge straight into the river. The sharp, icy water explodes around my thighs and I let out a breathless yelp. The water is near freezing, and my skin prickles with an intensity that could be mistaken for burning. I rush across to the other side, slipping on the smooth, moss-covered stones of the riverbed. Reaching the opposite side, I dig my fingers deep into the muddy embankment and heave myself out.
I collapse, shivering, on the wet ground. My body trembles as much from the cold that grasps at my skin as it does at the sudden fire I feel spreading like a fever across my chest. For the first time in what feels like an eternity, I am alive.
Scrambling to my feet, I wring the water from my dress and let it drop lank around my calves. I clamber forwards, pushing through the rough brush. The thick tangle of branches bristles under my touch. Moving deeper into the forest, the trees grow taller until they tower above me, like giants in the wilderness. As I walk on, I lose track of time, of my proximity to the place I once called home. The landscape morphs from oak, to birch, to ash, until I break through into an open clearing. The circular glade, a dense grassy patch of the forest that’s grown in on itself, has formed a canopy – the shimmering dome of a snow globe in summer.
The ground is flush with wildflowers: red campion, foxglove, ghost orchid. Their vibrancy is enchanting, a whimsical swirl of colours like I’ve never seen before. Purples, yellows and greens dashed against white. The flowers hum along as a charming tune dances erratically around the forest like pixies, giddy and playful.
The glade is filled with a scent thick and sweet like molten honey. It sits heavy in the afternoon air, drips like amber around my shoulders. I extend my palms out in opposite directions. Looping my arms above my head, I tug at my nightdress and pull it overhead in one sweeping motion. I throw it away from me, and it floats down in a crumpled heap in the grass.
The flowers stretch out, their soft petals reaching up like tiny fingers as they take hold. Crawling slowly, the foliage binds itself to me, wrapping tightly around my feet, climbing my legs. Steady with purpose, the wilderness reclaims what was once its own.
My bare skin glistens in the sunlight, illuminating the creeping venation along my forearms. Dewy exhales from my chest radiate around me, a lingering mist of phosphorescent green. I crouch down around my knees like an unopened bud, before unfurling, wild and sprawling in the grass.
The sun begins to mute, becoming muddier, darker until totally eclipsed from view. Roots wrap around my fingertips and down my arms, crawl through the warm clasp of my armpit and weave themselves around each rib. Tighter they grip as the vascular lengths reach like veins towards the open space around my heart. I forget the difference between spine and stalk, feel euphoria bloom uncontrollably in the space that was once my body.
The fractured ground breathes me in deeper, and deeper still, cradles me in the earth’s gentle lull. Warmth spreads across my tangled form. Cracking, an owl lands on a branch somewhere nearby.
I hear an echo throughout the forest, and feel sure it calls my name.