BY F.E. CLARK
I wrap myself in layers the colour of the season, a light waistcoat with many pockets in summer, wool and coats in winter. When I am on the Path I carry with me only my spirit, matches, a little food and water, and the tools I might need. It is my job to keep the Path open—I do this by walking it at dawn, dusk, and noon. It had started with an offer, a place to go away from it all. It came at a time when I felt as if all that was left for me was to lie down on the earth and let the grass grow up through me. It was somewhere to live for free, save the task of walking the Path every day and keeping it clear and open. An anonymous beneficiary: a miracle.
The fire always burns in my dwelling. Today the smoke from the chimney rises up gently, a perfect plume up above the trees, not even a smudge from the distance. The Path I walk is in an area that has been forgotten by most, a cut in the landscape hidden between a bypass and the river. In this place neglected by human interference, nature has bloomed.
What began as a way through has become, over the years, a circular route. For the mid-day walk I go clockwise but my preferred way is widdershins. Yes, I am contrary. My first pair of boots was provided for me when my residence began, for I am a Pathwalker. But that was a long time ago, when things were different. My feet are now clad in a pair of boots that I bartered for herbs from a town-woman. That was years ago, and that woman’s ghost now walks with me.
I am happy and proud to do my job. I love the changing seasons and that the Path is different each time I walk. I know it as I know myself—as if it has become part of my own body, and I know when the swallows return, when the hares dance under the moon, when the gorse flowers bloom and when they do not. I am a woman alone, save for the shades of the humans and creatures long passed who walked with me. If I could show you the procession it would raise the hair on the back of your neck; I striding out, with the straggling crowd behind me.
Today the air has a kindness to it. I’ve dressed myself in the rust and greens of spring. One blue-faced borage flower smiles–sapphire-lavender-impossible-blue–a five point star in a nest of last season’s blackened leaves. It grows from between the lichen covered stones of the top dyke. The flower is tiny and yet it glows like a beacon. All around the top eastern corner, in the flattened ochre of the bracken, there are clumps of this plant. Nondescript in waiting until the flowers come. It is not a native to these parts but one from warmer lands further south, and yet somehow here it is, just as I am. This is the first borage flower of the season.
The coconut smell from the gorse flowers, the wood smoke from my fire on the breeze, and the smiling blue star make my heart sing. I breathe deeply and hold my face up to the sun. My years of walking the Path have made me nimble and I walk with ease and carefulness. I know this place, and yet the path is never the same, it has a nap to it. Depending on the light, the time, the season, it can change on the turn of the wind. In the spring and summer when the bracken grows up over my head, I know I am only a day or so away from the way being lost and the Path being swallowed up. Of failing in my task. Of losing my way.
Over the dyke is the field with the standing stone. This is where the man who walked with the dog each day used to climb over and trespass on a small part of the Path. He was clumsy and tread indiscriminately on and off the path, but caused no real harm. Many a time I’d merged into the side of the path and allowed him to lumber by, he was asleep on his walk—oblivious. His dog knew me though. I came to expect this man, but only as I might a certain bird or creature that passed through my day, though I’d felt an ache when I realised that he had stopped his forays into my territory. I’d had no inclination to befriend him or show myself but sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I had taken that chance. Then I’d remind myself of his bumbling clumsiness and that Pathwalking is all I have room for in my life.
On round to the south and past the starling-tree which becomes musical in the pre-roost of dusk. I am alert for tracks and clues. The path goes down here. There are skid marks in the mud, fox’s claws, boot prints—but only my own from earlier today. Once there had been a dry and crumpled Tate and Lyle sugar packet—fluttering in the grass. Once a dropped glove, but mostly the signs I find are feathers, scat, and hoof and claw marks.
Down through the wet patch where inside the fallen tree a fossilised drip of resin has set. Here, the trees where the pigeons flap and the magpie screeches. Here a clump of feathers torn from a wing, gristle still attached. Here, a rowan tree, protection against witches it is said. It is in bud, still part dormant, but like the rest of the trees—brewing. Then the birches, silver and shushing in the breeze, their fallen twigs good for brooms.
Suddenly, a flash of red – it shines unnaturally in the buff of the dead grass – metal and plastic. Heart thundering, I squat, poking at it. It’s a discharged cartridge. Someone with a gun has been here. I straighten up quickly, scanning all around me. I last walked at dawn. They must have come after that.
I bend to pick up the evidence. It’s only then I notice the scraped dry grass and moss from under the bracken. A wave of dizzy relief floods through me. I ram the casing into my pocket. A deer has been here since I walked, scraping at the undergrowth to get to the juicy shoots forming below, unearthing the cartridge case. The one with the gun must have been from another time.
I hasten on, boots stomping, skirts whapping against my legs. My heart still hammering, I clutch at the plastic in my pocket. The Path has a way of giving up things in its own time. I keep a diary of my walks but there is no-one to report to anymore; even radio contact has failed, there is too much static now. The drops of supplies have become less frequent, though I still check the drop point by the oak tree most days. I’ve become almost self-sufficient, just as well as there has been nothing for months. I assumed that there is a network of others such as me but I’ve never had any contact with them. By my reckoning my beneficiary is five years late in sending me my promised apprentice.
I worry sometimes about the ache in my bones, about becoming ill, of dying alone, but more and more now this seems preferable to walking out to find news or help. Perhaps I will be torn apart by wild creatures, or set still in resin, or perhaps I will just lie down one night and not awake the next day. I have come to fear this less and less. The band of shades who walk with me are a comfort. They know me and I them. Though on a day like today, with spring in the air, I am so glad to be alive and will fight to stay on this side of the divide for as long as I can.
I can smell my own sweat as the Path changes direction round the final turn on the way back to my cabin. An unruly arrow of geese gaggles across the cerulean blue sky and the purple hills look so far away. The caw of crows welcomes me when I enter the grove of trees that protects my home. Here, a lost place, a place left to itself to grow in and out—just as I grow ever in. This is a secret place, it holds magic and truth. I live to protect it and I am content that I will quietly die here—but not today.
I exist under the forgotten satellites that circle above and the stars beyond that smile down unseen until dark when they can shine. I know that my presence is but the weight and time of a feather falling.
F. E. Clark lives in the North East of Scotland. She writes and paints, and walks the perimeter of her days looking for colour and texture to inspire her work. In 2016, she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and had a Sma Buik published by Poems For All. Her words can be found at: Molotov Cocktail Literary Magazine, Planet Paragraph, Occulum, Moonchild, Magazine, Poems for All, Folded Word, Ellipsis, and Luna Luna Magazine. Twitter @feclarkart.