Silver Branch series
Christmas & New Year 2022-23
After many migrations for jobs and inclinations, Mary has landed in Southport where she finds inspiration – sometimes – in the endless moods of the beach and sea, the pine trees, the dunes, the people and the town itself.
Her poetry, creative non-fiction and short fiction can be found in various print publications, from Black Bough’s own Deep Time I and II, Duet of Ghosts and Christmas anthologies 2 and 3, to Orbis, Dream Catcher, Broken Spine, Spelt and Present Tense. In 2021 she was shortlisted for the Bridport Poetry Prize and the Julian Lennon Poetry Prize. Also in 2021, Mary and three other Southport poets joined forces to win publication by Dreich of a pamphlet, Belisama, inspired by their town, in a ‘new alliances’ competition.
Her experiences in Zambia, ‘helping’ on archaeological expeditions over many years, fed into a crime fiction novel, A Wake of Vultures published by Cosi and Veyn in 2012. Many other forays into crime are languishing in dusty folders. An interest in typesetting and print resulted in her two pamphlets Three Winter Tales of Darkness and Light and A Little Match Girl, also published by Cosi and Veyn (confession: Cosi and Veyn is Mary’s alter ego). She is currently working on a rather ambitious work of creative non-fiction with the ‘help’ of her late father.
Mary Earnshaw's 'Three Winter Tales of Darkness and Light' was 'Book of Christmas and New Year' (2021/22) with Black Bough
Ghosts? No, there are no ghosts.
Not even in this place of death.
Birds. You are all birds, now.
Stones, records of oblivion,
mark each cadaver’s hiding place.
But, ghosts? No, there are no ghosts.
Dandelions breathe out time,
brambles fruit for carrion crows -
birds. You are all birds now.
Sibling empty spaces wait,
for boxes empty but of death.
Ghosts? No, there are no ghosts.
From well-fed turf pines arise,
arms spread wide for resting
birds. You are all birds now -
fly! Shake off the bone dust
and the ashes. Live on the wing.
Ghosts? There are no ghosts here.
Birds. You are all birds.
Approaching the Eve of All Hallows
Day wanes early now. Invisible hands unlatch the daylight gate. It moves, soundless on its ancient hinges letting out day, letting in night.
It will be some time before a fertile Moon births a new darkness. She is only halfway through her term and her cool light dapples pale clouds, scattered against the black arc of the universe.
Under her gaze, one hill dominates. Its bald brow looms over field and road, river and home. No shelter is there for hurrying voles, for slinking cats, for followers of the old religion. Pendle is not a place of sanctuary.
At the hill’s feet, a reservoir glints in the moonlight. To the other side of the valley rises a lesser hill which, halfway up, begins to bristle with trees. It is a young wood. Little is left of the old Forest that was Bowland, but still, it is a place of trees. Planted with good intentions.
Needles, brown and old, layers of many seasons, mat the floor. Stubborn to decay, soft and resilient underfoot. Sculptures made by humans have settled between the trees. One, a frieze of thin, rusting metal makes a mockery of witches. Others, like bats, cling to trunks or branches. Some are of the trees. One great pine, though severed in vertebral sections, arches like a vast, scrawny cat, articulated by a spinal cord of metal.
A dry stone wall tumbles into accidental art. Beyond it, in summer, a froth of cotton grass trembles out of sight of casual day-out walkers. In autumn the froth vanishes and stands of marshy reeds, like clumps of unruly hair on clichéd witches’ warts, tell their tale of rain.
But autumn does not impinge on this wood over much, ever-green as it mostly is, just gently fringes her, like a scarf. And tonight it is alive.
The valley is bright, too bright for the comfort of tiny creeping creatures, for new witches’ familiars. And so, in the paltry shelter of carefully planted pines, they skulk in shadows, while owl soars and fox roams.
Do spirits fly?
The valley remembers.
At the edge of the woods
Day seeps into December’s morning sky,
pine-hung dewdrops turn to fairy lights.
Holly, strung with bright berry baubles,
punctures a dun sky pregnant with snow.
In dawn-soft focus, a deer cups her ears.
Doe-eyes hesitate on mine before,
silent but for a rustle, she disappears
under cover of tall trees and falling rain.
From Black Bough's Christmas Edition 2
A stock of small sadnesses is hidden in our loft, in boxes inside boxes. Some contain old glass balls of silver, crimson, gold. Some, fragile bells that ring, birds forever perched on clips. A mandolin with broken strings. A strangely life-like fish.
Tiny plastic animals, playtimes long forgotten, lie silent in a skinny box that once contained a xylophone. Child-sized Christmas stocking gifts, left by Father Christmas on my sister’s floral eiderdown. Silent nights, holy nights, before ever I was born.
One box has a lid that flips, unleashing airborne memories: the scent of a new doll’s plump pink legs, a tube of chocolate buttons. Fragrant soap ‘for mummy’, wrapped with bath cubes and talc.
This trove of little sadnesses remains in our loft. Guarded by the ghost of how Christmas used to feel. Ready to be unpacked come some future time of need. For now it rests in peace. Its lessons, well learned. I have graduated. With distinction.
May the Force be … wanting rid of me?
There is no day of the week associated with this deity, because it has no name.
I call the god ‘it’ rather than the ‘he’ customarily applied to a somewhat aggressive supernatural being because – who knows? And there really isn’t much to know about this one, except where it lives.
The journey to meet this entity – let’s call it Force – begins in a deep valley in the north of England. Fed by a narrow road. There, nestled at the road’s edge, amid scattered farms, lies an old Temperance Inn, hard by a river. A slim wooden bridge carries walkers across into common land under towering hills, part of the Howgill range of fells in Cumbria.
Ponies graze in the bright grass fed by the confluence of a stream descending the hills and a river snaking through the valley. Ahead, bracken – lushly green in summer, brown as cut tobacco in winter – is freckled with sheep. A rocky path, often wet in summer, pocked with treacherous puddles that crack and freeze in winter, leads slowly through the gap between the hills, upwards towards a distant waterfall.
Part way along, before the climb becomes strenuous, the ground to one side appears dishevelled, lumpen, plainly humanly disturbed. Here Iron Age people dwelled. An intrepid band of folk, I imagine, but well provisioned with nature’s necessities: water nearby for drinking and plenty more vegetation for foraging than in today’s landscape made bare by sheep.
Striding on, two jutting rocks frame the path, like carelessly crafted small pyramids. This is where Force rouses from tortured sleep to greet me. It roars, buffets, moans. Sighs, cajoles, wails. Willing me to turn back.
Quite why this spirit is so keen to deter a small human creature toiling up steep flanks toward Cautley Spout is a mystery. Perhaps it is angry. An anger that has smouldered through many ages. Fuelled, perhaps, by the prior claim of Iron Age creatures on its would-be Nordic landscape.
Perhaps it’s merely upset it has no day of the week to call its own. Or that it’s missed out on the vogue for lustful, brutal, vindictive former colleagues, never having featured in a Neil Gaiman novel or Game of Thrones.
Perhaps – and I can sympathise with this – it’s tired of boots trampling up and down its haunts, messing with its moods. Storm, calm, howling gales, lashing rain, desiccated, dusty, dry. Still they walk.
And today I press onwards. Braving the growing wrath.
The climb becomes so steep it threatens to tumble me backwards and I have to strain my muscles, hunching forward to keep my balance.
At last I am in sight and sound of the real force, the waterfall.
The rhythmic percussion of water on rock, erratic fluting of spray, composes a fitting score to accompany such a wild spirit.
Breathing deep of the scene, I turn to enjoy the view.
Norse clouds descend. Green becomes grey. Brown chars to charcoal. The deity’s resentment settles. It still holds the threat of rain in reserve and broods over my return.
Next morning sun floods the valley, water trickles and babbles, sheep bleat and frisk.
I think this god knows - I am going home.
Why do I write?
"I’m not sure there’s an answer to that. I don’t feel as if I write because I have to, but simply because I do. I write what comes, what inspires, what moves me. I don’t consciously write for the reader, but I’m still communicating, even if I’m talking to the wind, singing with the breeze, shouting at the storm. If my work goes into print, I hope a reader will relate or respond. Find food for thought. Or smile. Or cry.
Whatever I write, prose or poetry, I hear it, there is always a rhythm underlying it. The words, their sounds, have to work with that rhythm as well as carrying the right meanings.
I’m the product of decades of prose writing. I set out as a journalist writing about telecommunications and electronic defense (they were American magazines), acquiring skills such as editing and being accurate. From my years in business I learned how to target my market – whoever or whatever that was – which definitely meant writing for the reader. Blogging, while I ran a small academic press, allowed me to write what I wanted as well as honing my creative urges, fanning sparks into sharp little flames.
Whatever I write, imagination is involved, but it has to be true to something – even if it’s true to fiction (if you see what I mean). I often find creative writing exercises spawn perfect-seeming pieces which lack soul. Mine, that is. I can’t write poetry without that spark, that ‘go on, here it is’ gift from the muse. Which is why it is so frustrating when it won’t happen, but so joyously liberating when it does."
Mary Earnshaw, December 2022.
[This is a short extract from the story of a young boy, Tom, born at the cost of his mother’s life, to a woodcutter in ‘A Middling Time, of Fire and Frost,’ the second of ‘Three Winter Tales’]
Tom’s green eyes are wide, staring from his doorway perch out into the forest.
It is the shortest day. His birthday, though none will celebrate that birth.
As inky twilight seeps through the sky he snuggles up to the doorpost.
Tom is entranced by the stars. Perhaps he knows his mother is with them, keeping a mother’s watch.
Or perhaps he senses the magic abroad in tonight’s chill air.
The cousins return. The fire is lit. In the busy-ness of the cottage, no-one notices as Tom leaves his vantage point and walks to the edge of the forest.
It is raw cold. Icy cold.
He imagines frost as a winged creature, leaping from air to ground. From tree to grass, from grass to berry. Wizening fruits that cling to branches already gnarled and blackened.
All wondering, he wanders into the forest. Sits at the foot of a lofty tree. And dreams.
But to dream in the forest’s cold embrace on the night the sun stops is not for mortals to dare.
And as Tom sleeps, stealthy forces creep round him, seeking warm breath to steal.
But deep in the ancient heart of the woods a band of small forest folk feels that stealthy presence.
Like fireflies they wend their way to the place where young Tom sleeps. With baskets of jewel-bright lights they banish the sprites who would steal Tom’s breath.
[Extract from A Tale of Old Mistress Winter, one of 'Four Seasonal Tales' ]
[Old Mistress Winter is living in Tierra del Fuego on the slopes of a mountain where she can see a beautiful glacier]
High up in the stratosphere soared the ever-changing form of Mother Nature. Sometimes singing, sometimes sighing, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, there she kept her restless watch on the world.
As her gaze fell on Tierra del Fuego, it was drawn by something odd. A curl of white smoke rising from the snow on the mountain nearest the end of the Earth.
‘Smoke? But snow can’t burn, it’s against my laws,’ frowned Mother Nature, causing a minor storm in the Atlantic. ‘Hmmm. I’d better take a closer look.’
Slipping on her midwinter dress of ice-blue sequins, her frosted-silver slippers and her long, icicle earrings, she pirouetted down to Earth. Delicately as a swan’s feather she landed on the moonlit snow. Tiptoed over to where the smoke was emerging and peered down. A glimmer rose from the hearth, but the fire was no longer roaring.
Pulling a dark cloak studded with stars from the cold night sky, she wrapped it around her midwinter dress and – whoosh – slid down the chimney. Sparks flew from the smouldering logs. Droplets of water from tiny melted comets fell on the rug in front of the fireplace.
Mother Nature unwrapped her celestial cape and the room sparkled and glittered.
Mistress Winter, who’d been drinking hot broth, put down her tea-bowl and gasped.
‘My goodness, who are you?’
‘I’m Mother Nature. But who on my Earth are you that can set my snow on fire?’
‘It’s not the snow, it’s just the smoke from my log fire, rising through the chimney. And I’m only Mistress Winter, not anywhere near as important as you, Your Highness.’
Mother Nature preened a little at that and a smile played around her violet lips. Even the guardian of the world likes to be flattered now and then.
‘Well, I am pleased to hear that,’ she said. ‘And I have an idea. But you’ll have to listen closely, I don’t have long – some of the shooting stars are getting restless. I have to release them from the sky while it’s still night. It would be awful if they missed their last chance to show off by falling to Earth in the daylight.’
Mistress Winter tried not to look impressed, but she was – and also a little anxious, as you might expect.
Mother Nature’s pale face – almost white but almost blue, the hue of that instant when, as night falls, or the sun rises, colour flees the sky – looked thoughtful.
‘I’ve been thinking, for ages,’ she said, in a voice like a warm summer wind, ‘for several million years in fact. About the snowflakes that fall in winter. You do know they’re all different, don’t you?’
Mistress Winter nodded, wondering where this was going. Mother Nature plainly had a very interesting mind.
‘I thought it might be a good idea to keep an archive of every one that’s ever fallen. I started to do it ages ago – I mean many ages ago, when you were still living at the North Pole. I didn’t meet you then, did I?’
Mistress Winter shook her head.
‘I knew you were there of course, always have done. But you’ve always behaved yourself, so I left you to your own devices.’
‘You didn’t mind the great Ice Ages?’
Mother Nature shrugged.
‘Not really. They were very pretty. And the furry animals loved them – everyone needs their turn to be top species, you know. But getting back to the snowflake collection. I was keeping it up at the top of the world, then that annoying man came along and spoiled it.’
‘You mean the one in the red suit? Who used to wear white, then green, but changed it when he got sponsorship from—’*
‘A myth. He’s been flirting with red suits since eighteen-sixty-something. And I don’t like that drink. Me, I sip the juice of the best Swedish lingonberries, picked after the first frost. But yes, that’s the man. He lives in the far-thest north.’
‘I know him.’ Mistress Winter pursed her lips. ‘He has all those little elves working for him and pays them next to nothing.’
‘I know, it’s dreadful–’
But Mistress Winter was angry and interrupted Mother Nature in her haste to speak.
‘He even convinced human beings that he delivers the presents the elves make, all by himself, all in one night, while they’re fast asleep. From a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. I mean, seriously. They’re so gullible, humans.’
‘I know. Just imagine.’ Mother Nature looked a little uncomfortable and wriggled in her ice-blue gown.
She wasn’t about to tell Mistress Winter, but that man, the one in the red-formerly-green-formerly-white suit, had worn her down with his nagging. So much so that she’d given a few of his cleverest reindeer the power of flight. Just for one night every year.
But that was enough to make him even more pompous than he’d been before. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, she’d agreed to slow down time. So the man in the red-formerly-green-etcetera-suit could reach all the children in the world in just a few hours.
She did it for the children’s sakes, of course. She had rather a fondness for the young of all living things. But Mother Nature said nothing about all this to Mistress Winter. Just coughed a dainty cough and changed the subject.
‘So, this snowflake repository. Will you do it?’
‘Do what?’ Mistress Winter was puzzled.
‘Look after it. Curate it, as the humans like to say. Arrange them all by size and type and angles and spiky bits and so on. I’ve found exactly the right place.’
Mistress Winter beamed. She loved snowflakes.
Her sheets were made of a precious warm thread, crocheted into the tiniest snowflake design. Her pillow was filled with down from a magical bird whose feathers resembled snowflakes.
And before you could say Jack Frost …
* The man in the white/green/red suit is of course Father Christmas/Santa Claus whose outfit had been red since the middle of the 19th century in some illustrations – but popular opinion has it that it was because in the 20th century American soft drinks companies, including the one that makes a fizzy brown soft drink, adopted him to help them sell their wares world-wide that it has become perennial.
Water flows through malachite,
makes green of her feet
as she threads herself
through skin-tight passages,
head a finger’s breadth
below the rock;
until, face feathered
by chill fresh air,
she steps into echoing space.
A glimmer of daylight falls
She stands alone, in awe,
raising a silent hymn
to the almighty goddess, Earth.
Originally published in Black Bough's Deep Time I
(Inspired by Mary’s journey in Alan Garner’s 1976 story, The Stone Book, from The Stone Book Quartet)
She is the one
who sees in darkness,
hears in silence,
conjures stone to life.
Sparks fly, flame flickers,
With swift strokes of ochre
magic charged fingers
birth from swollen rock
a vaulting aurochs.
Extinct, now, millennia gone;
still it leaps
from a dark womb.
From Black Bough Poetry's Deep Time II
The path leads down,
rock arching, heat growing,
bare feet leaving warm impressions
in moist clay
until I reach the lower level where
I fill my mouth with colour
lay my hand on the wall
spit my other life around it
leaving my mark
until the world’s end.
From Black Bough Poetry's Deep Time II
I’ll never marry
I spend my days in hell
among spitting men, coughing up
black gold scorched by the devil
when he fell in flames.
basket on my back,
I toil steep slopes with
my burden of darkness,
unload at the pithead where
anyone who sees me,
muscles strong as navvies’
can tell by a look,
she’ll never marry.
From Black Bough Poetry's Deep Time II
This Summer Day
In eddies of early heat,
Speckled Woods rise
in a double-helix pas de deux,
scenting tree-top honeydew.
A lazy gust of west wind
needles dormant pines,
reluctant arms wave awake,
only to sleep again.
Curtains drawn, blinds pulled,
suburban life subdued,
anxiety turns tepid. Life
goes on. The world burns.
From Black Bough's 'Duet of Ghosts' edition
About the illustrator:
Siân Bailey is an illustrator working in the field of children’s books, with a particular interest in fairy tales and mythology. She was born in Cardiff, went to Newport College of Art at the age of sixteen, then to Brighton College of Art.
Most of her full colour work is in gouache or watercolour. Line illustrations are pen and ink or scraper board – like the illustrations for Three Winter Tales of Darkness and Light – from which digital prints are made and hand coloured.
Siân has worked for many publishers including Random House; Puffin Books; Orchard Books; Scholastic Children’s Books; Barefoot Books; Pan Macmillan Children’s Books; Oxford University Press; The Welsh Books Council.