TERRACOTTA

Some days you find yourself in the woods, wandering the banks of a shallow lake. There is a great old willow on the island that breaks the surface in the heart of the lake, surrounded by king cups and gunnera. The water is clear and shimmers with the movements of tadpoles and carp and tiny killifish below the surface. The cedar trees that ring the lake bank whisper secrets to the wind as it blows through their needles, weaving stories into the very air of the forest.
There is a woman here, in the forest, that you have known for a long time. She drinks from the water of the lake, built her home from cedar wood. She cultivates a garden of lettuce and kitchen herbs, but most days she is out among the trees, harvesting from the land. Once, when you were younger, you stumbled upon her moulding a small figure from clay and lake water. It had fascinated you, but you could not explain why. You ran to the other side of the lake, where she could not see you, and made your own figure. It was ugly, a deformed rendition of a human – you were young, your artistic skill was only just developing – but you were delighted, you loved the figure. You left it to bake in the sun. When you returned, as the sun was setting, you marvelled at your creation, golden in the dying light. It was heavier than you remembered making it, and you lifted it with care, but a sound deep in the forest startled you, and you dropped the figure. You remember the fear as it slipped from your fingers. You remember the sound of it shattering on the rocks, you could’ve sworn you heard it scream, you are certain you saw it bleed.
Today the woman is on the island in the lake. A rowing boat bobs gently on the water where it is tied to a tree among the reeds. A kingfisher perches on an oar, a jewel among the earth tones of the woods. The woman is on her knees, digging at the foot of the willow tree. She pushes the earth aside with her hands, gently, slowly, rocking on the balls of her feet as she does so. You think about calling to her, but something inside you makes you wait. Your breath catches in your throat. The feeling warms you, like the heat over burning coals, up through your bones, through the very essence of you, shivering and tingling up through your elbows, and round your shoulder blades. You feel everything, the blood pumping through your lungs, the leaves whistling in the breeze, the sound of the water, a frog slipping off from the rocks. Then the feeling was gone, and the woman was burying something, pushing the soft damp earth down with her flattened palms. The soil, replaced, formed a mound, in which she planted a single iris. It transfixes you. The heavy alien head drooping solemnly on its thin green neck.
The woman steps down into her rowing boat and casts off. You know this only from the sounds it makes. You are drawn to that iris, it seems to turn its head and look at you, but this is only an illusion of the wind. You watch the woman row, slowly, across the lake. When she nears the shore, you wander out from the treeline, towards the narrow wooden jetty she ties her boat up at. You have seen her cross the lake many times. Once, you crossed with her, but this was long ago, and those were different times.
Something in the air stops you. You had intended to speak with her, but now, you find it impossible to take another step towards that jetty. Every fibre of your being screams to turn back, to run, and you do not know why. She has not seen you yet. You are sure of this. Something in your gut tells you this is not the woman you know, something has changed in her. The forest knows it, the winds know it, now, you know it too. You creep back to the cover of the trees, and watch her tie up her boat, alight, leave. You can still feel the iris watching you.
You wait for the sun to set, for the gold and pinks to fade to star spattered aubergine. You hear the squeak of bats, the soft woosh of owls skimming the cedar branches. The woods buzz in the night-time, the iris watches you all the while.
You walk out to the jetty, the wood creaks under your weight, the lake is silver in the moonlight. You take hold of the side of the little boat, steadying it as you step down. You stand there for a while, one foot on the jetty, one foot in the boat, both hands teasing out the knots that hold the boat to the mooring. The rope is thick and coarse in your hands, the knots are unfamiliar, but not complicated. When the boat is free you step down entirely and take up the single oar.
There, in the boat, on the lake, the night falls silent. The trees hold their breath, the iris watches. You row. The journey seems long, impossibly so. The only sounds are that of the water, dripping from your oar as you pull it from the surface of the lake and swap it to the other side, pushing yourself closer to the willow island. To the mound, to the iris.
You tie up the boat at the same tree that she did and step out onto the shore. As soon as your toes hit the cold, soft ground you feel it again – the warmth. You feel the leaves rustle, the water ripple, you feel the life in the earth shift and pulse and twist, you feel the energy shivering up through you. The iris bobs its head on the wind as you scoop it from the earth. You sit it against the exposed roots of the willow, and you dig.
You claw at the earth of the mound, pushing it aside. It is cold, colder than the air, and the earth beneath your feet. You feel the energy in your shoulder blades, in the back of your neck. You feel the dirt pushing itself up under your fingernails. Your hand hits something hard. You recognise the texture, terracotta. The iris watches.

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