October 2006


You think it doesn’t happen, not to people you know, not to friends, or family.
And then it does.

In many ways, this shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was. He was only in his forties, always the same, sometimes ill, but always there, more or less. Never dying.

But we are all mortal. And some of us die alone in a filthy room with nobody to say goodbye. A little tear or two in the aftermath doesn’t seem to cut it, somehow. And this isn’t much of a tribute but, in what feels like fake grief, it is all I can manage.

When my grandmother was no older than I am now, she lived in a cottage in a remote hillside village. She shared the cottage with her mother (my great-grandmother) and her mother’s brother, his wife and their four children, with three rooms for all eight of them. The children slept together in one bed, except my grandmother, who shared the tiny loft room with her mother. Uncle Jan and his wife slept in the kitchen by the fire.

One night, Hilda (that was my grandmother’s name) was woken by a nightmare. Three cackling old witches of the forest had been chasing her, trying to pluck out her kidneys for their wicked spells, just like in the stories that Uncle Jan had been telling the little children before bedtime. She had felt them clawing at her as she struggled to escape.

Hilda listened, wondering why her mother had not yet come to bed, and seemed to hear an eerie sound from outside the shuttered window. She rolled over, shaking her head to get rid of the lingering horror of the dream, holding tightly onto her thin blanket. She told herself that there were no witches, that it was just a tale told to frighten the little ones. But the sound grew louder and more distinct. A wordless, tuneless ululation resolved itself into voices, into something like a fierce, wild song.

“Come, join us! Come little girl-children, young women and old! Come, free-women and slaves! Come wives, come mothers! Come widows, and childless, and lonely! Join us, sisters! Come and celebrate our strength tonight! The wind is blowing and we call you, sisters and daughters. Join us! Join us!”

The voices seemed to fill the room. Hilda was really frightened now. She even felt under the blanket in the place where she thought her kidneys should be, as though to reassure herself. She no longer had any doubt that there were witches, outside her window, and that they were after her. Not in a dream or some silly story, but really after her.

“One night! One night is all we have and we shall dance in the sky, we shall sing, we shall celebrate! Join the dance, join the light and the dark, open your soul and lift your body into the night! Reach out! Claim your freedom! The wind is blowing and we call you, sisters and daughters. Join us! Join us!”

And, although Hilda knew that this was not a dream, she felt strange and light-headed. Perhaps it was the cold, or the fear, or perhaps it was an ancient magic. Against her will, her trembling limbs drew back the blanket and took her to the window, and her fingers cautiously edged the shutter open, just a little.

“Leave the ground behind, sisters! Drop your shackles and fly! Come with us, daughters! Lift your selves into the night and give wings and legs and arms to your joy! Tonight is a night to celebrate and be free! The wind is blowing and we call you, sisters and daughters. Join us! Join us!”

Hilda drew in an icy gasp. She was so astonished by what she saw that she did not stop to wonder who had unbolted the shutters. For outside was what seemed to Hilda a host of women (afterwards, she told me that there were perhaps twenty) and all of them, every one of them, was flying! They were gliding and swimming through the air, effortlessly weaving an ecstatic dance. They were not the frightful hags of her uncle’s stories. They were women: transfigured, glowing with power and joy, utterly themselves. For a moment, Hilda wondered if they might even be angels.

“Celebrate and dance! Tomorrow we may be earth again, tomorrow we may be ashes. But tonight we are air and fire! Blaze forth, join the Celebration! Tonight, the weak are powerful, the fearful have courage, the hidden is revealed! The wind is blowing and we call you, sisters and daughters. Join us! Join us!”

Then Hilda noticed that one of the women was Mrs Gorsson, the blacksmith’s wife. And there was little Annie Smit, engaged to Hilda’s cousin Peter! Amazed, Hilda saw that old Mrs Amundsen, the innkeeper’s widowed mother, was there too and that she was stark naked! She was swooping around, singing at the top of her voice and it was the most beautiful sight that Hilda had ever seen. Everybody was joyful.

By this time, my grandmother’s shutter was wide open and she was leaning dangerously out, caught up in what was happening, no longer cold or afraid. As the women sang again: “Tonight we are air and fire! Reach out!” she found herself raising her arms towards the dance and becoming light as air herself, the world beginning to feel insubstantial as her feet left the bare planks of her bedroom floor and she floated right out of the window.

“Welcome sister! Welcome daughter! Join us, dance in the night and celebrate your power! You are with us, sister, and our love will support you. We called you, daughter, and you have joined us! Dance! Dance! Celebrate our night!”

And Hilda danced. She drifted, dived and cart-wheeled, somersaulted and flew, racing from one end of the street to the other with a bubbling joy at her new power. She felt her mind and body entirely attuned and free: real and warm and vibrant.

And Hilda sang. She knew, instinctively, the witches’ song. She sang out of tune, and lustily, and wonderfully, and more women joined, sisters and daughters.

“To the woods! To the woods! Sisters, it is time! Daughters, it is time! Follow us, fly streaming through the night to the place of the Celebration! Dance and fly! Dance and fly! The wind is blowing and we call you, sisters and daughters. Join us! Join us!”

And soon all the women were flying together, singing together. They reached the forest and, then, a clearing where there was a still pool of water.

Now, the witches themselves became still, and settled on the ground like snow. The clearing was lit only by the half-moon and the stars, and the light of the celebrant women. In the centre of the pool was a woman in soft grey who was seated, cross-legged on the water. She was old, wrinkled with time and motherhood. The last echoes of the witches’ song faded to nothing as she rose to standing, and Hilda heard whispers – the old one! the wise one! Aballa! – and then a respectful silence.

“Daughters! Welcome!” she cried. And then, after a quiet moment, “Celebrate!”

She began to approach the women and talk to them individually. They, taking their cue from her, soon broke up into groups: some sitting together and sharing their stories, others flying together in dramatic dances, and a few just staring, spellbound by all they saw. As for Hilda, she could not take her eyes from the ancient witch: Aballa, the old one, the wise one. And it was not long before Aballa came to her.

“Hilda,” she said, gently.

Hilda was not surprised, after all that she had already seen and felt, that the witch knew her name. Aballa’s calmness soothed her and, awed as she was, she was able to answer.

“I never could have dreamed of this,” she began.
“You have dreamed,” said the old one. “I have seen you in your dreams. You are a powerful one.”
“Everyone here is powerful, aren’t they?”
“You are right. But some are still afraid.”
“What will happen next?” Hilda asked.
“Now is a time for joy and sisterhood. Soon will come the time for choosing.”
“Choosing?”
“Surely your mother has explained?” Aballa looked around. “Where is your mother?”
Hilda was taken aback. “My mother? I don’t understand.”
“Your mother is not here?”

Hilda shook her head, confused. What did her mother have to do with this? Why was Aballa speaking of Hilda’s mother? What was it that her mother should have explained to her?

“Goodness, child! Do you know nothing? Has your mother not prepared you for the choosing?” Aballa seemed angry now, and her eyes were suddenly – blank. Hilda became frightened again. Everything was strange.

At last, Aballa softened. “No, I see not,” she said. “I am sorry. It is not your fault. Do you know where your mother is tonight?” Hilda again shook her head. “Then,” sighed the old one, “I must begin from the beginning.”

The wise one took Hilda in her arms and, in the warmth of this embrace, began to tell my grandmother of another night of Celebration.

It happened every year, on the one night when the witches could be truly free: when those who feared would not leave their homes, and the witches could fly together and call their sisters. One night, seven years before, Hilda’s own mother had been called. Just like Hilda, she had been drawn from her bed by the wild song, and flown with the others to the very same clearing. She had been especially powerful, Aballa said, just like Hilda.

Every year, as dawn approached, came the choosing. The women of the villages, those who had answered the witches’ song, were free to stay, to learn their ways, to enjoy their freedom and their fierce life; and equally they were free to return to the hearth.

“Your mother chose to return. Some do, but many do not.”
“My mother returned?” echoed Hilda.
“Yes,” said Aballa. “She was your mother. She was to come again, when you were old enough to choose. She has not come, but she has sent you.”
“She returned, because of me?”

Hilda fell silent . She thought of her mother’s lined face, her reddened hands. She thought of her impatience with Hilda‘s foolishness or ingratitude, her laziness or clumsiness, grumbling that the girl ate so much and helped so little. She wondered whether her mother regretted the choosing.
Aballa seemed to know what Hilda was thinking and repeated: “She was your mother.”

“But she didn’t send me,” Hilda said. “She was somewhere else, she hadn’t come to bed. I came by myself.”
“She is in the cellar of your uncle’s cottage,” said the old one.
“The cellar!”
“Your uncle fears that his sister might become a witch,” said Aballa. She was smiling a little, but there was pain too. Again, Hilda was silent. She felt very small. Aballa continued: “But she made sure that you would come. It was your mother who drew back the shutter bolts.”
“She wanted me to come?”
“Yes,” said the old one.
“Why?”
But Aballa only whispered: “She is your mother.”

Aballa tightened her embrace and kissed Hilda. Then she stood. “I must speak to some of the others.” Kissing Hilda again, she glided away to where three women were holding hands and smiling like young lovers. One of them was Mrs Gorsson.

My grandmother never saw Aballa again. At the time of the next Celebration, she slept in the tiny, stinking cellar of her uncle’s cottage, with her mother. She embraced her mother as Aballa had embraced Hilda and, when they awoke, they wept silently together.

Today was Ariel’s first official day in the Red Room at nursery!

Until now she has been a Blue Room girl, with all the babies, but now she is getting all grown up she has moved into Red Room with all the toddlers.

Sniff.

She had a lovely time, thanks to the careful and sensitive settling in process that the wonderful carers at our nursery have followed over the last couple of weeks, and was as happy as anything when I picked her up.

My little girl. All big!

I’m not sure quite where it came from but I have always had a sort of unreasoned horror about the idea of putting your kid on a leash, as if it (i.e. s/he) were a dog. I think it just struck me as horribly undignified and frankly rather lazy.

And then I saw a girl of at least six, pottering around the supermarket with her mother, wearing brightly coloured fun-reins as if it were the most normal thing in the world, and it made me think – yes, that’s why I hate those things. Because a harness is a thing, a control mechanism, an inanimate object used to restrict freedom, a set of cheerfully plastic chains.

In restricting freedom, the leash reduces the child’s choices and risks, and limits her or his opportunity for learning and exercising responsibility and judgement, for learning (inevitably the hard way, to some degree) how not to get in trouble, and for gaining self-confidence and independence. It also limits the parents’ opportunity for developing trust in their child’s ability to look after her- or himself.

So a child of six or so is still “on the lead” because her mother does not and cannot trust her to walk unfettered without running off or causing some other mayhem, or simply becoming frightened without the lead as a sort of crutch; and the child herself has had such limited opportunity for developing common sense that, in a way, the mother is right. These things are self-perpetuating, in the sense that the need for which the reins cater is a need arising from (overuse of) the reins themselves… a sort of vicious circle.

I’m not suggesting that occasional use of reins has any of these bad effects. Indeed, there have been a few times recently when I have questioned this prejudice myself. In airports, for example, when you have a million things to worry about and you really wish that keeping your excited toddler under constant active supervision did not have to be one of them… When children are too small to really be reasoned with, or to have any hope of understanding an explanation of WHY they absolutely must not wander off right now…

Nevertheless, I will not be using reins. I am prepared to put up with a bit of ARGH! now, because I know that in the long term it will make Ariel more sensible, and my life easier.

…but the news keeps rolling in.

Nicaragua has just banned – by 52 parliamentary votes to nil – all forms of abortion, even in the cases of rape, incest, and medical emergency. Even ectopic pregnancies. The ban has been passed within days of forthcoming elections, with even those Sandinistas who oppose it too scared to say no in case it alienates the church or the voters.

See here and here.

And for those of you who think that Muslims get outraged at trifles, think on this:

“In 2003, Sandinista-backed women’s groups helped a 9-year-old Nicaraguan girl who had been raped in Costa Rica return to her homeland to get an abortion, outraging the Roman Catholic Church.”

Yes – Catholic Church outraged at nine-year-old rape victim who became pregnant and was enabled by women’s groups to get an abortion.

I really can’t bring myself to comment on this at length, but World Service Have Your Say has been featuring large in my shouting-at-inanimate-objects* quota again today.

[* Beats shouting at Ariel**]

[** I would like it known that although I have been raising my voice to Ariel as part of a get-tough-at-bedtime policy, I am in fact not normally a shouty person at all. My shouting at the radio, for example, is almost always purely metaphorical.]

Today, the discussion continued from yesterday’s “Are women meat?” controversy (see here and here for an indication of what I am talking about). Apparently yesterday some chap called Rick called from Australia to comment that – even putting religion wholly to one side – women should dress more modestly if they don’t want to get raped. He actually used the words “asking for it”.

So the first 40 minutes or so of tonight’s Have Your Say was on the subject: “should women dress more modestly? and if they don’t are they in some degree responsible for the consequences if a man attacks them?”

I’m glad to say that most callers were duly outraged by the suggestion, and made pretty much all the points you would want to hear being made. But some of the comments made me quite ill.

Disappointingly, if not surprisingly, several people, women and men, either stated or implied that (whether or not they nominally agreed that women are to blame if men attack them) if women don’t want to be attacked then they are best off dressing modestly.

Apart from anything else, this is just factually incorrect. Most rapes and sex attacks are committed by husbands, partners, boyfriends, acquaintances; and they are about power not sex. They are about taking a woman’s power away from her.

Very few rapes are commited by strangers who thought she was asking for it. Very few women get raped, no matter what they are wearing, by strangers who are “provoked” into a frenzy of lust as a result of skimpy attire. It just does not happen often enough for any woman to justify changing her behaviour as a protection against such an attack. To insist that it does is to try to control women’s behaviour (one woman even used the phrase “self-regulate”) by inducing in them, in us, a crippling fear of the unlikely; and it is to distract women from the real rapists and abusers.

I say again, Gah!

If you want to hear the programme, it is here.

Take: one small onion; 1-2 garlic cloves; 1-2 tsp turmeric; a double-handful or so of risotto rice (can use any short grain rice actually, even pudding rice); 2 cold sausages and the knob-end* of some chorizo; some black pepper, chopped fresh basil and a splash of worcestershire sauce; the remains of a carton of passata (tinned chopped tomatoes will do); and some hot water.

[*It occurs to me to wonder: is that a rude word?]

1. Peel and chop the onion and garlic and fry gently, adding the turmeric and mixing thoroughly.
2. When the onions are soft, and it all smells yummy, bung in the rice and stir that for a minute or so.
3. Pour in a little water and stir well until it has all more or less disappeared, then pour in a little more and stir occasionally while you add the pepper, basil and worcestershire sauce.
4. Pour in a little more water and stir occasionally while you chop the sausages and chorizo, then pour in a little more water as you add the chopped sausage / chorizo. Keep stirring.
5. When the water has more or less disappeared, pour in the passata.
6. Keep stirring and adding water at intervals until the rice is cooked.
7. Serve in ginormous winter-warming portions.

Would probably be enough for two, unless you are a greedyguts like me…

COOK’S TIP
If you bung in all the water at once and stir periodically it doesn’t come out quite the same, and also you have to be careful not to put too much water in and mess the whole thing up completely. However, it does give you more of a chance to play with the Cute Little Ankle Biter.

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