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The Heroine


Once upon a time there was a heroine. She was clever, brave, resourceful. She could save a life with a flower. She could charm a heart with her beautiful face. Having fallen out of her life into a dark and wild place, she became embroiled in battles not her own that soon became all about her, because she of course was the heroine. Despite these travails, she survived to rise up another day with a witticism in her mouth and the world (certainly most of the men in it) at her feet.

There are some things they don't tell you about her, though. Such as the fact she can't easily get to sleep without reading first, even just half a page. Her jaw aches when she's stressed. Inevitably she will become weak and unwell trying to survive on a bit of bread and a few scraps of flame-cooked hare which someone snatches away from her before she's finished eating. She'd never ridden a horse prior to her adventure, and so gets saddle sores. Often when she's staring solemnly into the middle distance it is because she loves the smell of wet grass, or misses her friends left behind, or has grown mute, heavy-hearted, from fear and weariness. She looks at that beautiful face of hers through a lens of insecurities, regardless of how many people love her. Oh, and the dark forest scares her, sleeping beneath the stars is cold and uncomfortable, and all she really wants is clean underwear.

They also don't tell you that, after experiencing assault, kidnapping, ripped bodices, betrayal, and the loss of all she holds dear, she develops skills to cope, even as tender parts of her spirit stiffen or break away. But she finds it harder every day to face the light. Her beautiful face becomes drawn from tiredness, hurt, and hunger. She feels homesick. 

And yet, she watches the sun rise, looking for hope in it. She holds herself tight, wanting comfort. And she goes on with incredible courage until the world slowly, carefully, becomes steady again beneath her feet.

Once upon a time there was a heroine who was a real woman, but you probably won't hear that any time soon.

My response to having watched and read certain stories lately.
With apologies for being the kind of wet-blanket humourless feminist who believes 
women should be portrayed with more than one dimension. 
Illustration by Frank Cheyne

The Woman With a Monster on Her Back

Once there was a woman who woke with a monster on her back. A heavy, clammy monster whose claws dug into her skin and teeth chewed on her hair. She tried to fight it off. She tried to shake it off. She tried and tried but the monster held fast, unrelenting. It breathed bad memories into her ear. It weighed her down so she could barely climb out of bed.

For weeks, the woman limped through her life with this monster on her back. No one else could see it, although she was asked once or twice if she was feeling quite all right. She only smiled. What could she say? I am monster-plagued. No one believed in monsters. Or if they did, they would say, just shrug it off. Pretend it isn't there. The woman had tried these solutions along with everything else, so she said nothing, and suffered.

One day, she could not bear another moment sitting hunched on her sofa, listening to the monster breathe. So she went to the local public garden. The sunshine felt nice on her face. The flowers smelled sweet. She could not forget the monster, but she could look at what was infront of her and enjoy it at least. She sat on the grass gathering daisies, and wove them into a chained crown like she used to do when she was a child.

Then she set the crown on the monster's head.

Its breath shook, as if it was startled. The woman went home and slept. But the next day she took herself and her monster to a teahouse, and ordered her favourite cake. She left a piece for the monster. It made a strange noise behind its teeth. The woman took the long way home and slept. And the next day she went to the beach. She brought out an old poetry book and read poems to the monster, and then danced with it along the beach. The monster wept.

It wept. And as the woman whispered soothing words, it crept around to curl in her lap, hugging her tight with fear and grief.

The woman wept along with the monster. They shared a sorrow. They shared a heartbeat. After a long while, the woman carried the monster home and fed it ice cream. She wrapped it in a blanket with her, and together they watched a favourite movie.

If you met the woman a year later, you would be enchanted by her smile. Such an authentic smile, reflected in her eyes. She stood tall, although her shadow seemed a little crooked, as if it had been dragged along rough roads and would always be somewhat broken.

She wore a small black badge of a monster on her coat lapel.

illustrator unknown, found on pinterest
if this is your art please let me know & I will 
credit or remove it as you wish

The Legacy of An Ordinary Woman

There was a woman who lived quietly in the world. She won no awards, saved no lives. Mostly, she did the best she could to get by.

But she loved. People, trees, skies, animals, moments, promises, roads, words. She took the time as much as she could for wonder, enchantment, and appreciation.

She did nothing great with this love. Her art was small, simple, like her life. She would never be famous. She would probably be forgotten.

But love needs no fame to thrive. Each smile she gave to a stranger, each flower she pressed in a library book, each hug for an unhappy child, each moment in which her love shone out, would not die. It would echo on down through time. The books she wrote would be those quiet words of encouragement someone got stuck in the back of their mind. The art she painted would be memories someone could look back upon always to make them smile. The healing she did would be taught on through the generations - how to bandage a little scrape, how to sing a lullaby. She was making a legacy, even in the quiet, getting by.

illustration errol le cain

The Woman Mystic

There once was a woman who wanted spiritual enlightenment, so she went out from her house, out from her city, into the wild. And she found a tree and sat beneath it. Crossing her legs, closing her eyes, she began to meditate.

But a butterfly came by and persisted in distracting her with its flapping golden wings and hungry presence. After a while, the woman opened her eyes and sighed. She looked about. She saw how nothing grew thereabouts but the tree and the long grass. So she walked back to the city and, after a while, returned to the tree with a basketful of flowering plants. Milkweed, rosemary, black-eyed daisies : she planted them, and smiled to watch the butterfly come. And a score more butterflies come. And bees.

Then she closed her eyes and meditated.

But a feral cat came crying by, distracting her from her peace. She sighed. Opening her eyes, she saw the despair in the cat's stare. So she walked back to the city and, after a while, returned to the tree with fishes and water bottles. These she set in bowls nearby, then smiled to watch the feral cat come to feast. And more cats come. And after them, mice. And little birds she had not noticed in the high branches of the tree. Afterwards, the birds sang, and she sighed, for how could she meditate with such music all about?

She closed her eyes and concentrated.

But a young man came by, supporting himself heavily with a stick. He looked for a moment like he would seek rest beneath the tree, but then noticed the woman meditating and limped on. She sighed. Calling him over, she welcomed him to sit awhile with her amongst the tree roots, the flowers. She gave him a bottle of water, some food, and they talked. He had been in the wars, in more ways than one, and society had turned away from him, unable to bear the scars across his youth. He told her many stories, and some were even beautiful, but there was a deep sorrow of loneliness in his eyes.

When he left, refreshed by water and conversation, the woman was very tired. She wanted to meditate but instead found herself falling asleep.

She was woken by birdsong. As she roused, a butterfly alighted from her hair. The cats were back, waiting to be fed. The flowers she had planted needed watering. The young man would be alone in his small room in the city, and she knew just the community group that would best serve him.

The woman sighed. There was no time today for meditating. She moved on with her work.

illustrator unknown. (incase you are wondering, i found the picture after i wrote the story.)

The Forager in the Wild Wood

Once (or twice) there was a farmer's daughter whose task it was, at least once the dishes were washed and the laundry hung out, to forage in the woods. She had a knack for finding treasures there - wild blackberries, truffles, an ancient magician's heart in an acorn, apples. And so in she went, curious and full of star-bright wonder.

But after a long while of this, the ways she took became paths, tramped down by her own feet. And once she got on a path it was hard to get off it again, to go wading through undergrowth, to ramble freely. Her efforts consequently began to dwindle. She brought home less of value. And yet, each time an unpathed part of the woods beckoned, the farmer's daughter remembered how tiring and time-consuming it could be to rummage in the weeds, looking for something tasty, something interesting. She feared that, after all her work, whatever she might find - a misshapen nut, a strangely beautiful bone, small mushrooms, always so random - would not be wanted by those at home.

So she took her old paths, and brought back only apples. "A great treasure awaits somewhere in there, I know it," she told herself. And walked round and round the paths, waiting for it to fall on her head or rise up out of roots to trip her suddenly, wonderfully.

She took too paths others had tread through the woods, but returned only with stones that looked like apples. "They're beautiful jewels," she said. And everyone at home was pleased. But to her the jewels were not berries staining her hands with dreams. They were not acorns full of secrets.

And so she began avoiding the woods, for worry and grief. Her family survived - they had jewels, after all. But her own heart began to starve.

There was a way back into the wild wood, but she had to wild herself again in order to find it. Not so easy to do, rewilding feet that have become accustomed to paths. Rewilding a heart that has become frightened. The way back went only one direction : through the worry, through the fear, into the tameless dark beyond herself, where magic whispered like oak leaves.

The farmer's daughter sat in the kitchen, peeling apples, waiting on her courage.

illustration by annie french

Songlines of the Heart

Some dozen years ago, I learned about the Native Australian songlines, the dreaming tracks that range across the long red land. They are a beautiful way for people to travel, but they are also a sacred gift and duty. The Creators first walked the world, singing it and all its life forms into existence, and now people must sing them on without ceasing in order to keep the world alive.

A songline maps the way ahead, but as such it is also inherently the way that has been. It is future and past interwoven. I have been thinking lately about how each of us must surely have private songlines through our own hearts. The ways we have been guide us to the ways we might move within ourselves, through the dreaming and the wishing, both remembering and creating as we go.

I've long believed that our names can encapsulate our heart-songs, except that we have the strange custom of letting others name us before they even know us, and then abiding by those names whether we like them or not. If I had my way, I'd be like the Kesh in Ursula le Guin's Always Coming Home, changing my name like a change in the rhythm of a song, to echo where I was within myself at a particular time. Only my name wouldn't just be a sound but a movement also - perhaps a swaying hand, a pointing of the foot.

These days, I am not Sarah. I am travelling a way I have gone before, a richer and more quiet way through bark-shadow and leaf-stained light - a way I first walked as a child in the forest, on the breast of an old hill. My name, my songline, for now is slow and it meanders around trees, like a bunyip's ancient, sad dream. It has fairytales in its consonants and owl feathers between words. I am a woman walking; I am a shadow on a hill where I never step again; I am a treeshadow and what the trees saw of me.

And another day I might take a different way. There is a song for that too. Always, our hearts are singing, and the world is singing of us.

Feeling The Way Backwards

I write between the broken pieces of unwanted sentences. I take it slowly, searching always for the perfect note of quiet. When the great ones talk of their passionate drafts, their weeks of beautiful madness giving way at last to the scrupulousness of editing, I know I will never be great myself, because I'm obviously doing it wrong. It's hard to believe in yourself when you're small in a world of overflow.

I wonder, how many women never go beyond private pages of small, fine-boned stories, because literature is strong imagery, powerful phrases, emphatic plots? I wonder too, how many artists, surrounded by brazen displays and technicolours, believe their delicate visions are not art?

It feels to me when I write that I'm not putting the story word by word onto the screen, but instead drawing the words out of the white. Feeling for story, rather than composing. And so the sentences get typed then backspaced then retyped, coming slowly into their own shape. It's a backwards way to do it, apparently.

I wonder, how many people in this world are doing things backwards and never say so, for fear of being called wrong? For that matter, I wonder who decided what was the right direction at all?

illustration by ethel jackson morris

Whispering to Monsters

The sky was full of stars like jasmine flowers. It smelled of summer peace. The woman sat on her threshold, drinking tea. The tea was full of moonlight. She sipped that old, wrinkled moonlight and the gleanings of hedgerows - roses, nettles, elderberry leaves. And in her heart was peace.

Behind her, indoors, the television murmured something about someone who had done wrong. Something about people who were roaring for truth. She knew about that. She knew it decades ago. She had done her roaring; she had spent years with an open, aching throat. Still people needed to be roaring. Still truth seemed like a silent thing. The woman wondered how long people would go on roaring before they gained the strength to speak directly, when it counted the most. How much roaring would it take to make society kind, safe, supportive? How many arguments, how many swords?

Truth was a moon, she thought, drinking it down. Truth was a million flowering stars. Truth was that the monsters in the world were really only people, and mostly needed to be taught not to bite. Taught from the cradle up. Taught in school along with their times tables. Taught by example. Taught love by loving. Taught how to feed their monster voices with song.

The woman did not roar these days. She whispered instead to monsters when she met them, told them when their biting hurt - surprised them, more often than not, for they had never understood. She gathered leaves from hedgerows and peace from the moon to make herself strong enough to be quiet, gentle. She would never change the world with her whispers, maybe only a monster or two - but then again the whole world was in each heart of each monster, and if she could give one or two the moon, the fragrant stars, the truth in her skin and her eyes, that felt more powerful than roaring on into the electric light.

The woman smiled out nightward, even while the television blathered on. She chose where she looked, these days. Her choice may have been wrong (or not), but it was her own.

illustration by dorothy lathrop

The Wild Child

Her feet were stained with the dreams of what earth she had walked across. Her eyes were full of stars. She might have been a queen's daughter or a crofter from some old, soaked shore; he could never tell, and never did ask. He went with her into the fields of lost forest and peat. He learned to dance with her the way skies danced, circling round the oldest truth.

She had rings on every finger and tin bells in her voice. She had hair redder than his heart beating fast for her. And when she was gone, she was gone. And she never came back again.

But three times three months later a child's cry woke him from a dream of ravens over white tides. He found the infant lying swaddled in a rowan cradle on his doorstep and an old woman walking away towards the dawn. She dragged a shadow like it was a sack of dreams unlit by moons or promises. She did not listen to him calling, calling, his voice and the child's mingling, both of them lost this side of wild love.

The child only grew up to be yet another farmer. But oh, his eyes.

A Path of Roses

I have been giving new names to old places lately, Anne-like. I find it draws me into a closer and more empathic relationship with them. And so my neighbourhood has become to me Three Waters, due to its being situated, yes, between three bodies of water. Walking through Three Waters is very different from walking through the officially named neighbourhood. I could almost believe people here are charming and friendly (infact, some are) and that I happily belong here (I never will). Some days I even imagine a castle over the hill to the north, and that I might see a gallant knight riding the long road, taking roses to his lady, or patrolling against dragons.

I wonder if there are any other people in this country who dream their days into quiet magic. Probably not - especially not adults. Once we grow up, we must change our dreams from knights and roses to houses and cars and overseas holidays. But even children these days are asked to take on a new Anne spirit, bold and shrew and darkened by inescapable realities. It hurts my heart to know there are children growing up in New Zealand who will never hear about King Arthur, or how violets might be pieces of the sky, or that they even can imagine a castle over the hill, despite suburbia.

How To Be A Witch

Many wise women (and men) on the internet these days are witches. You may look at them and admire their skill with potions, herbs, and community building. Well, you won't get anything like that here. I am not a kitchen witch, hedge witch, herbal witch, or coven witch. I no longer write about being a witch, nor do I participate in witch communities - probably because I feel no space of belonging for me there, since I couldn't make a healing tea if you paid me, I don't do rituals, and I don't smudge anything. But I am a witch, and have been one my entire life. So this is what I believe you have to do in order to be one too:


You don't have to do any particular thing. Witchiness is about how you are with the world.

You can be a Catholic witch if you want. Or an atheist. You can believe and do whatever is best for you. There are no witch creeds. No dress codes. And yet a witch is a very specific kind of person.

That old cynical atheist Terry Pratchett had the best insight into witchiness, and I fall back on it often when trying to explain what it has always meant to me. Witches dwell in the edge places. What they choose to do from those places is up to them. Witchiness is not about the doing. It is simply about how you are with the world. Witches have a relationship with both now and forever ... home and wild ... faery and human ... hurt and hope ... spoken and unspoken ... need and cure ... life and afterlife ... skin and soul ... tree and sky ... seed and fruit.

Generally, they will feel compelled to do something from this position in the between. And so witches tend to be healers, helpers, writers, justice seekers. It's hard to look into two worlds and not want to bring them together with love. But the wisest and most able witches I know would rather use a kitchen utensil, or a trowel, or the great power of listening quietly, to do an "ordinary" kind of magic. They may like tarot cards, but they know all they really need is to pay attention.

Not everyone might be a witch, partly because not everyone believes in the other worlds, other ways, but also because not everyone is willing to bear the discomfort of it. The longing, the energy, the feeling of conflict that is really a wish for togetherness, the sense of being outside others' experiences, the tension between is and could be. Then again, many witches will probably tell you they have no choice. Once you know you can choose love, it's hard to go with anything different.

I know the word witch is an unhelpful one, as most words are. Not only does it create difficult images in many people's minds, but it also is used widely for things that aren't true witchness. I can not think of another word that would do, however. Shaman is perhaps too esoteric, too masculine.

And besides, a witch knows what to do with an unhelpful word. She gets in between the word and its meaning, and finds ways to bring out the beautiful magic which can be found in any wild, deep space between things, the secret heart of the world.

illustration by ida rentoul outhwaite

Tea Date With Baba Yaga

She did not take sugar. It was bad for the teeth, she said, and clacked them together with an old Ural smile - all stone and strange weather. She put sweetly fragranced flowers instead in the kettle, and hopefully they weren't poisonous. Mashka watched tiny blue and purple petals rise to the surface of her tea, petals the colour of bruises, pieces of the ancient forest. She swallowed anyway. Her teacup was bone china. The tea tasted exquisite. Afterwards, Baba Yaga read the petals and the tea leaves and promised her good fortune. That smile reared up again. Mashka thought of all the secrets buried inside Ural mountains, and took a soothing mouthful of cake. It was the colour of the hearthfire smoke, and eggs from Baba Yaga's hens, and the walls of her house - white as the leavings of a ghost. It tasted of walnuts and really was delicious; have another, said Baba Yaga, so of course she did.

They talked about gardening and the care of pigs. Mashka's father was a pig farmer, and his herd was a little sick, coming out of the recent hard winter. Baba Yaga bottled a tincture of herbs that he could use with them. She wrapped the remaining tea cakes for Mashka to take home. Mashka left the soup her mother had sent. She did not run all the way out of the forest, but almost.

After she was gone, Baba Yaga counted the spoons, just incase.

The Old Forest

She was born to a house amongst the trees. Her first language was the language of the forest, a medley of slater and leaf and hummus and rain and more. Her first friends were faeries that lived behind bark and beneath ferns. From childhood, she was taught by her elders - humans, birds, storms - to weave forest shadows, dreaming winds, leaves and lost rivers, and to listen to the sun. Never did she think of skill, for this was a way of being rather than doing. It had no emblems, no poems. It was in the smoke she breathed, the tea she drank, the wild wise silence of mornings when she sat gathering story out of dirt and thresholds and insect tread and dusty books.

But when she was older, others discovered the forest. They came with love and wonder amongst the trees. They saw her and her family and spoke of them - the ones who came before, they called them. And yet they never spoke to her. Enchanted by their personal wonder, they cared only for self-discovery and making the forest their own.

They paved the shy, ferny paths that she had loved to converse with, feet and dirt sharing wisdom, way and walker in communion; they tramped from here to there and catalogued what they came across. They learned all the human names for trees. And she had no catalogues, no names, so she thought they must be wise indeed. She watched them build houses in the pines, write books about the root-pulse, announce new ideas she had known for decades. Slowly, she began to edge out of the forest.

They had every right to be there, to love and to teach what they learned. The forest was not her sole property. Nevertheless, she felt like she was losing her home, her language, a deep layer of herself. How foolish, she thought. The people were making a community which loved the forest and wanted to care for it, understand it. This was a beautiful thing. And their songs for the trees, their discoveries about mushrooms and bird wings, resonated with her own heart. So she approached them, wanting to share her inherited wisdoms and be drawn into the community of Those Who Loved The Forest.

But they looked down on her. She did not wear forester clothes, despite having been born there. She did not dance the sunbeams. No matter that she had long known things of which they were now claiming mastery. It was their path that mattered, their growth. So she retreated again, until one day she discovered herself outside the forest, looking out over meadows instead.

For many years she walked the long grass under raw blue skies, feeling homeless. But whenever she returned to the rim of the forest, she heard the people's drumbeat, listened to their lectures on earthmother-smokesong-treeheart, and she ran away again. The people belonged in the forest just as she did, but they did not welcome her to belong with them.

And yet, pineshadow lay in her footsteps where ever she went. The scent of dirt freckled her dreams. When she wept it was riverwater overflowing; when she laughed it sounded of acorns falling onto stones. She had left the forest, but it came with her. It always would. Her heartbeat was its language. Her skin carried its long memory. This, then, was where she belonged: where she ever had. In her birthright, in intimacy, with the only conversation that mattered being the one between her and the trees.

A Heart of Roses

Once there lived a woman who might have been beautiful or might have not. These determinations always change, depending on who you ask. Certainly though she was quiet and shy. In her heart, she surrounded herself with a lovely garden, and the garden with a high stone wall. In reality, she lived alone in a simple cottage at the edge of a village, and her days were filled with neighbours and shopping and sweeping floors. She helped Old Kate with firewood. She talked politely to the lame tinker when he came to her open gate - buying this or that little thing from him so that he had pennies for food or new shoes. And she made pies for the summer fete every year.

Never did the woman imagine herself as beautiful. But she did imagine roses. She dreamed one day they would grow all over her cottage, wild and gentle, brambled with magic. She dreamed a wall to hide the village. And no more gate. Then the world would become small, fragrant, lovely. It would not matter how she looked, for she would be surrounded by a private beauty. It would not matter that no one helped her with firewood or understood that the noise of the fete was exhausting. And it would not matter that she was alone, because a woman in a secret garden was naturally alone.

What would you do with her story? Would you build a wall and grow a tangle of roses, softness and quiet, because that's what she wants and it sounds so beautiful? Maybe you'd add a few shelves of books, and throw away all mirrors as being irrelevant. Or does it seem to you that she has surrendered to unhappiness, and so you'd have Old Kate, the tinker, the villagers, celebrate her kindness, to make her smile and realise she is not alone after all ... or perhaps send a prince walking through her gate, holding a rose in return for her heart? Would you call her beautiful?

I think perhaps the fulfillment of her story might tell us something about ourselves.

illustration by john william waterhouse

Gathering Acorns

Some days it felt like there was nothing she could do. Her strength did not hold up the light, her softness did not withstand the storm. So she went to the forest.

And there she walked, and there she bowed to collect acorns from the ground. Not too many, for the tree needed them - just enough to fill a pocket and rattle around inside her heart. She had collected acorns as a child, back when the woods were only woods and not a sanctuary from the world.

She had no intention. No expectation of healing in the forest. She only went because she felt like there was nothing she could do. But see, the bowing, the plucking of shine from dirt, the old-fashioned tumble of acorn against acorn in her cardigan pocket, brought her the simplicity of childhood. Not peace. Just a reminder in all the complexities that simplicity could still be found if she needed it. Simplicity like a mother's wordless hug, a warm glass of milk, the light going gold before dark, the bandaid over a bruise.

She brought that back with her along with acorns. And she tried to remember how some times nothing needed to be done more than a quiet keeping of simplicity to make life feel safe even without peace. 

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