Behind the Book with Penny Reilly
This week I bring the absolutely magical (and not to mention crazy talented!) Penny Reilly!
Liz - Tell us about your part of the world.
Penny - My part of the world is in the high country of the Central Highlands near Daylesford. I am blessed to live on 20 pristine acres of rolling green, surrounded by the Wombat State Forest on three sides and a view forever across the Great Dividing Range to Mount Wilson.
Our region is predominantly farmland and we live, my hubby and I, on the edge of a diverse farming community. We are striving for self-sufficiency as an ongoing way of life and there are several small holdings around the area doing same and at all ages and stages of life. The diversity of the region spreads into all aspects of wellbeing because of the spa country and the nature of the mineral springs that dot the countryside. Our land is at the spring source of three rivers and the soil is rich in both volcanic matter and minerals.
Artists and alternative life stylers, flock here to experience either a retreat or to settle and work towards a simpler way of being. The closest township of Daylesford is a hive of activity most of the time and is fed by tourism, retreating from their city lives for time out, great food and wines, produced across our region. Covid has brought even more people flocking to find some time out after the horrors of lockdown and the confinement of city living.
Liz - You’re originally from Dulwich – what was it like there and how long did you live there?
Penny - I was born in the last little surviving village Dulwich, Surry, UK, on the edge of the Greater London sprawl but we didn’t live there. I went to school there later, to Kingsdale Foundation College, but before I reached my teens and college years, we lived in West Sussex on the border of Hampshire, in Trotton, a tiny dot on the map… again a farming community, about five miles from Midhurst, where I went to primary school. These were the happiest days of my growing years as my siblings and I could run free at weekends and through school holidays on our thirty-acre farm, which is why where I live now is so dear to me too… it has the same feeling to the landscape and although I live in this glorious region in Australia, it is full of European trees and hawthorn/elder hedgerows and holly grows abundantly through the landscape. It’s what drew me here, albeit unconsciously and I didn’t realise this until I revisited my old home in 2016, and saw again the rolling Southdowns.
Today, my old college in Dulwich village, is a thriving and popular school, specialising in the arts, music, languages, history and agriculture. It’s an historic wee village still and holds the story of the district written in the stone buildings.
Liz - As an author, a poet and an artist, does your creative process differ for each aspect?
Penny - It’s hard to pin point how the creative process differs because with all the modalities I work in, I ma visual… words come in visuals for both books and poetry and for my art. Often it can begin with one image that I see or dream about and this spreads out, so to speak to become something to write about or to paint… often music will accompany poetry but always it’s the imagery first that sparks the creative juices.
Liz - Which medium would you say was your first creative outlet?
Penny - All my life I have painted and written copiously… beginning as a child when I would tell myself stories… lovely fantasies about denizens of the otherworld. Every flower, tree or stone had its own history to tell. Even a tree or a bird song could trigger this odd feeling that comes over me when something is moving from inside me to be expressed outwardly in poetry, prose or visual art. Photography is my other love and this too holds triggers for storytelling.
Liz - You’re heavily inspired by nature – has this always been the case and are there other forms of inspiration?
Penny - Not really… I love every element of nature and see it as the source of all life and thus all creativity.
Liz - Can you tell us about your books, the Silver’s Thread series?
Penny - The Silver’s Threads series, is an urban fantasy, split between Australia and the UK. I dreamed the story, book by book, and all the rituals, poetry and songs were simply there in my head when I woke in the morning. It wasn’t even planned out really but I knew what part fitted where… it also travels back and forth in time and into the worlds between. It’s a history of magick, both dark and light and how the kindest person can be twisted into practising blood magick and the nastiest person can come good, given the opportunity.
It is a tale of ancestry that bridges other aspects of self, even different species we may/can be, including shapeshiftters, Elven, magickal beings and memories of other times and lives. I use the analogy of a web of coloured threads… all threads interweave and all are happening now, so when we drift in and out of sleep and find ourselves in familiar places but not of where the current persona lives consciously and yet each has an effect on the other lives they have lived, together and apart.
Four friends who have known each other over many years are basically set a task to find their friend and mentor/teacher, who vanishes without a trace. Their journey is individual but each are an aspect of the wounded healer, artist, herbalist, author and each have abilities brought to light by the person they must find.
Liz - Do you have a favourite book in the series?
Penny - Probably Books 1, 3 and 5… the others set the scenes between and span the same number of years it took to write them, between 2012 and 2015.
Liz - Are there more books to come?
Penny - After finishing the series of five, I wrote and published a little nature poetry and prose book, entitled Unfurled in 2016.
In 2017, I wrote a short story volume, Scraps and Wild Gatherings… (I attach a copy of a couple of stories for you). It is again urban fantasy with a few twists and they are all based on ancient stories of the Cornwall and Somerset.
In 2018, when our eldest daughter died very suddenly and unexpectedly I wrote a huge volume of poetry and painted the same number of art works to accompany each. This volume and the paintings were my first public show, six months after her passing and the book In Stillness, the same title as the exhibition was published simultaneously in February 2019 when I open Beyond the Gate Gallery in Daylesford, in her honour.
Liz - What are your favourite mediums to use in your art?
Penny - I work predominately with inks and watercolours but recently have started some textured mixed media pieces for commissioned work. I love including pieces from nature in these too… a leaf, seeds, flower or seedpods, feathers and tiny bones.
Liz - Does your Druid path play a role in your creativity?
Penny - Druidry is the philosophy that brough me to my work today. It is a philosophy of seeing everything as equal… different too, rather than better than of separate to. Everything in nature is as alive as we ae… just because we cannot communicate verbally, doesn’t mean we are not heard or responded to. I believe I am a part of all and also, all is me.
Liz - What are you currently working on?
Penny - Having finished an exhibition, through Covid Water, Stone, Spirit and Bone and small exhibition, Avalon Vistas… I have now completed three pieces from a new body of work Walks Between, for an exhibition early 2022, which will have as many as 35 piece… so I’m flat out with this.
I’m currently working on an oracle book and deck, Wild Spirits (a huge task; I must be insane)!
Several novels are at varying stages and I float between them.
Next up is a non-fiction book that is also Wild Spirits Beyond the Gate… my life in words and images, the cycles of the season and the land, my philosophy of communicating in and with nature and it will include a herbal compendium of all the wild and cultivar herbs I grow. I guess it’s a kind of seasonal journal really.
Liz - Can you tell us about Beyond the Gate Gallery?
Penny - As told in my list of published works, the gallery came about through grief and loss and I ran it for nearly three years, until we decided to sell the building in town and through Covid we worked from home and continue to do so.
Beyond the Gate Gallery, is now Beyond the Gate Farm Studio and is soon to be a little bricks and mortar studio for me to work and for people to come by appointment to see and hopefully, buy my work.
It’s been a huge year for everyone and this is the coming together of a dream for me as I currently use half of our big dining room as a studio, which as my work increases, becomes a bit squishy!
Liz – Where can our readers find your work or follow you?
Penny - I have a website pennyreillyatbeyondthegate.art with a store front and portfolio.
I am active daily on both Instagram and face book at beyondthegatefarmstudio and pennyatbeyondthegateart… the first is work only and the second a more personal interaction with myself and the farm, alongside my authorship and art.
The Music of Padarn Woods
Oliver Prior woke at sunrise, a headache drumming his skull mercilessly. Emergency had kept him under observation overnight and then sent him home, but only with his promise to call if he felt nauseous or dizzy.
A medic, called to the scene, successfully revived him. If someone hadn’t called an ambulance, he would have died alone in the woods. Oliver didn’t remember anything except a woman helping him. No one else saw her and he could only assume she’d called 999 and left, civic duty done. Both ambulance officers were off duty the day they released him. He would have liked to speak with them but how could he ask about a woody scent that remained a subtle memory or the depths he’d swum in, in her fathomless, seawater coloured eyes.
He’d planned to meet the owner of a small gallery about exhibiting his work alongside hers. He hadn’t made it and left a message apologising, there was no reply. It would be lucrative and sustain his choice for a simpler lifestyle. Oliver was smart enough to know he couldn’t hide from the world. His dreams, sometimes of nightmare proportions, made contact with other people tantamount to therapy.
Ailm Cottage appeared remote due to its veiled location among ancient Ash groves but the village was only a walk away. He leased and eventually bought, without meeting its owner, who the chatty estate agent informed him, inherited it from a relative but didn’t want to live there alone. She’d paused, waiting for him to ask for more details but he wasn’t inclined to. Oliver had seen enough personal grief and loss.
Later, he did try to imagine who’d owned Ailm Cottage, definitely female by the scent of lemony wax polish on the furnishings. With the choice of lovely honey coloured chests and armoire, modern and whimsical he built an image of the previous owner, letting go the puzzle of where the woody fragrance came from but the music’s origin was impossible to gauge.
Feeling better after his enforced rest, he gingerly rubbed the tender bump, testimony to his hallucination of the lovely woman. He could still feel her touch on his neck, seeking his pulse. Why no one remembered her was a mystery. For now, feeling the irrefutable urge for a strong, heart-starter coffee, Oliver let it go.
Each morning, coming downstairs to his kitchen gave him a jolt of pleasure. It was something of which he was unabashedly proud, fashioned with his own hands. Ancient flagstone floors sandblasted to smoothness, all but one immovable mark about the size of an umbrella tip, which made no sense, since it was situated in the centre of an open space near French doors.
He installed benches of local granite, polished to a sheen. His favourite gadget, a stainless steel coffee machine held pride of place. It revved to life as he flicked the switch, rich aromas filled the room. A gleaming red-enamelled stove already installed when he bought Ailm and large enough to cook for an army, had him sighing with pleasure. Opening valves, he grinned at the instant, fiery response to a handful of dry kindling.
He lived a simple life and having seen how people survived in war-torn countries, made himself the promise, his home would be comfortable and uncluttered.
Sipping his morning coffee, Oliver stood at the French doors, listening. It was a cold autumnal morning. Mist licked at the windows, water streamed into gutters and tanks. He could hear mice in the wainscot, branches tapping on windows as wind soughed from the northwest summoning rains to come. He heard strains of a violin. No piece he recognised but then his tastes were eclectic, favouring Middle Eastern rhythms or Irish fiddles.
As if by request the violin in his head switched to a haunting piece that was familiar. He couldn’t believe his ears. “What the …” he muttered opening the doors to hear from which direction it came. It stopped abruptly. Closing them, music soared through the room before fading on a sobbing note. Then there were only the sounds of burning wood crackling and the gurgling coffee machine.
Perhaps I should get myself checked out, he thought. First, I collapse in a heap, rescued by a woman no one else saw and now I’m hearing music! He switched on the radio to fill the suddenly empty house. He considered working on the renovations but winced again as pain knifed through his skull. Not today.
Breakfasted, he took his second coffee to his studio upstairs to begin selecting photographs for the rescheduled gallery meeting. A breeze rustled the pages of a book on his desk, opening them to a photo of a girl with sea-green eyes.
He heard a door slam and one word, echoed in the room, “Enough!”
Bree felt strange walking downstairs, hardly able to feel her feet on the treads. Everything seemed darker. “I must be coming down with something.” She reached for her violin, which felt solid in her grip. By habit, she went through a series of limbering exercises for her fingers. Relaxing into an effortless pose, she began with a prelude by Grieg. Classically trained, she honed her skills until her day of freedom from all regimented study arrived. Now she let only the music swirling through her senses lead.
Her cottage in Padarn Woods was her haven. She craved solitude for music and her own company, not understood by anybody except Arianna, her older sister. Their parents never condoned her choice for a simple life and music, over the acclaim and glamour they imagined a concert violinist of her calibre could achieve. They’d no idea the torturous discipline required for such an ambition and now they were gone, killed in a freak accident.
For Bree, music needed to be spontaneous so she formed a band of similar-minded people. They played together across the British Isles, finding fame and no little fortune, through the music of their hearts.
With a new piece drifting through her head, she prepared and ate a simple breakfast. Arianna would be visiting later and they’d promised themselves an evening of chic-flicks, wine and pizza. What better than a fuel stove for creating pizza? She loved the sound of fire-hot metal ticking away in the background the full-throttled roar when, valves wide open, it fired up.
Later, deciding to walk, she paused to ram on her favourite, jaunty red cap, before striding out happily through the woods to the village. Sprawling haphazardly down steep cobblestone streets to a green-tinted sea, she often wondered whether some stronger force than gravity existed to stop the little pastel painted cottages from hurtling into the churning sea below.
Water dripped from the leafy canopy overhead. Swirling mists cleared. She hummed as she walked, face lifted to the weak sunlight. Warmed moisture droplets collected on jewel-coloured leaves. Vaporous steam rose and a pungent smell of musk came to her on the breeze, along with the warning chitter of a blackbird. Twigs snapped nearby. She stopped, wary of the fierce little wild boar native to the woods. Snuffling noises accompanied a squeal. Silence, the sun hid its face as the mist regathered. Nothing stirred, not a leaf …everything went dark.
Bree woke in her bed, head throbbing. She couldn’t remember anything after the world faded to black. She rubbed bleary eyes. There was a strange fragmented nimbus around everything, a child’s kaleidoscope of colour.
Rolling out of bed, she went through the motions of showering, feeling refreshed and energised. She couldn’t remember any appointments for that week, relieved she could spend time practicing on the emerging piece. When she did try calling anyone, his or her phones rang out.
She remembered about the man unconscious in the woods. No one could tell her about him, which was curious. Perhaps he had amnesia after his head trauma. Still his striking face haunted her, imagining him in the garden or when she sat to play. Dream on, she giggled.
While practising, Bree noticed the mark the Cello’s spike left in the flagstones. Unable to find a pad to prevent more damage, she swapped to violin and began a haunting air. Engrossed in the music, one of the doors opened and closed itself. “I thought I’d fixed that,” she said continuing to play. Footsteps echoed across the flagstones. She saw a shadowy outline for a moment and smelled the tantalising aroma of coffee. Her headache had eased but her sight remained unclear and she wondered if she needed glasses. Irritated, she paused. Shadows dispersed and the footsteps moved upstairs.
“Enough,” she yelled, tired of the disturbance in her home. Her voice echoed.
Arianna stopped on her drive to work to buy wine to take that evening. Bree may need the solitude of her cottage where she wrote and played her extraordinary music, Arianna had the benefit of spending weekends to chill with her favourite person. As the elder sibling, Arianna encouraged her sister to follow her dreams. Bree had the courage to do so.
Her own life had taken her on a tangent, her creative urgings led toward photography. She enjoyed simultaneously exhibiting other’s work, especially those holding a distinct contrast to her own. Beginning her career in the glitzy world of fashion, she produced misty, etheric images of otherwise jaded, sunken-cheeked girls whose addictions were clearly etched on young-old faces. She created a new look in a world oblivious to the truth behind the images and fell from grace, refusing to cover the lies with make-up, revealing the horror of emaciated, addicted girls. Arianna didn’t care, building a name with her raw versions of beauty in human form and helped establish a rehab centre for girls caught in the beauty trap.
On arrival at her sister’s she was surprised to find the cottage unlit. Grabbing her offerings and a flashlight, she walked to the door. It was unlocked but the house lay in silent darkness. Bree’s stove, fondly named ‘The Beast’ was out, the kitchen chill. “Well,” she huffed. It was unusual for Bree not to leave a note if called away. “Hello!” Arianna called into what she knew was an empty house.
Kneeling at the hearth, she scrunched newspaper and placing kindling on top, set it alight. She’d done it many times to warm the house for Bree when she was on her way home from a tour.
Sighing, she lit candles and lamps, fixed a solitary meal of cheese omelette and toast, surprised to find fresh produce in the fridge, if Bree had planned to go away.
“How odd,” she said to the room, then spotting Bree’s fiddle and cello on their stands. sheet music on every surface she froze. With a glance, she saw it was Bree’s latest score. There was no way she’d leave behind either instruments or music.
A chill settled in Arianna’s gut. Every possible scenario flashed behind her eyes. Bree had forgotten …was stuck in traffic …called away …her phone was dead or lost… a million possibilities. Wait! A thought struck her. She ran to the garage. Bree’s car and bicycle were there. Panic seeped, turning her legs to jelly. She grasped the doorframe for support. Recovering strength born of fear, she collected her torch. Racing out again, adrenaline coursed through her. “The woods.” Knowing the area was too big to cover alone, she head to Bree’s nearest neighbours. Banging frantically on the door she all but fell inside when it opened. Bonnie listened as Arianna explained, words tumbling out, asking for their help to check the woods.
“Yes of course!” Turning to her husband Paul, she said, “If you take Arianna along the stream, I’ll call a few people and the hospital to see if anyone’s been brought in.” Seeing Arianna pale at her words, she took her hand. “It’s just to be sure dear …they’ll tell us if she’s there. I’m sure she’s fine…”
Taking another torch and handing Arianna a warm coat against the night chill, Paul guided her outside into haloed moonlight. There would be frost that night. They walked, calling Bree’s name. A fox dashed away from the torchlight and other, small creatures, fled. Covering the ground carefully they searched Bree’s favourite walk by the stream, full now after the recent rain. Silence, other than rushing water. No sign anyone had walked that way.
“Come on,” said Paul, “let’s check back with Bonnie, see if she’s heard anything.”
Bonnie drew Arianna inside, sitting her down with a mug of hot tea laced with brandy. “Well the hospital has no one answering Bree’s description. I took the liberty of calling the police. They’re sending someone over although usually they wait twenty-four hours before lodging anyone as missing. They agree what you reported is odd and with the cold weather …so…” Bonnie trailed off. “…Ah, here they are now.” Powerful headlights split the dark open.
Arianna thought she’d be sick. Her stomach roiled. Bonnie sat beside her, rubbing her shoulder in comfort. “Drink that tea now. It’s the best thing for shock, love.”
Two constables asked routine questions. Something in Arianna’s manner brought home the ambiguity of Bree’s absence. PC John Michaels, exchanging glances with his female colleague, PC Diane Milne, left the room to call in a report. Diane sat next to Arianna and asked for phone numbers for all Bree’s band members and closest friends, explaining that PC Michaels would speak with the duty sergeant and after calling all the contacts supplied, he would decide whether to wait for first light or start a search.
“We’ll drive you home, Ms North.”
“I’ll wait with her,” Bonnie said. “She can’t be waiting alone.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Stone. Mr. Stone. We’ll keep you informed and let you know when you can collect your wife,” PC Milne said earnestly.
Arianna and Bonnie sat by the fire, more tea brewing. Bonnie gave up attempts at cheery small talk and there was no word from either Bree or the police. At first light, a plain-clothes detective arrived to say they had started the search, having drawn a blank with any of the contacts. As hours passed, Bree’s band members arrived to sit in silence or whisper in hushed tones.
Behind closed eyelids, Arianna would vividly recall, every nightmare hour that rolled hopelessly into a year. Bree’s disappearance remained a mystery. She became numb, a walking, still breathing shadow of herself, tending Bree’s home and garden, waiting for the day Bree would walk out of the woods with, “Hi sis, I’m home.” She jumped at every call and listened to Bree’s sunny message on voice mail.
After the year passed, the police said apologetically, there was nothing to do but wait, all evidence had led to dead ends. Arianna was the beneficiary to Bree’s cottage, but decided she couldn’t stay. Not that she’d given up hope but she had to get on with some semblance of her life. Haunted by Bree’s music, Arianna North would never feel the same again.
Eighteen months later, with Ailm Cottage on the market, Arianna put all Bree’s personal effects, instruments and music, into storage, leaving some of the bulkier furnishings as an option for a buyer. There was no going back she realised. Bree was not coming home. She had already earmarked a building in Padarn village. As a gallery, it would work well, and had a small cottage behind it. She would have new space to work and live, and still be in Padarn, should Bree ever… she let the thought trail off. What was the point in dreaming? She gave herself a mental shake as she called into the real estate agency with a set of keys for viewers to Ailm cottage. Waiting in reception, she spotted a magazine lying open on the counter.
“He’s a honey, isn’t he?” the young, broad-accented Cornishwoman said, with an equally broad grin.
Arianna laughed. “Yes, but what interests me more is his work. Look at these photos, they’re larger than life.”
“Well personally, I find them too aggressive. I’d rather look at him, mmm….”
Arianna looked away from the stark photographs reluctantly. This man had a true gift. Her eyes, drawn to where the agent’s scarlet fingernail pointed, met the intense gaze of the man in the photo and drew in her breath. It was a black and white shot of a man used to getting his own way yet compassion and sadness combined, looked out of dark eyes.
She almost shook herself, forcing her eyes away. “Can I keep this, I’m happy to pay for it?”
“No, go right ahead. I’ve had my look at it and it’s a year old or more.”
Arianna rolled it up, secreting it in her huge bag. “Thanks. Now, how’s the deal on the gallery building going? Any progress?”
“Yes, if you have a thousand or two more to offer the deal’s done I think.” A modulated voice said from behind her, his accent rich with London strains.
She turned, clasping the outthrust hand of Steven Thorpe, owner and chief agent of Thorpe and Braden, almost recoiling at his rather clammy touch. “Hello Mr Thorpe. We finally meet.”
“Apologies for that, we just haven’t been able to get it together, have we?” His accusatory tone made it sound as if she were the cause he’d cancelled numerous appointments. He has as much charm as a skunk with its tail up, she thought, barely resisting the urge to wipe her hand.
“Joanna has been more than proficient in showing me the property and following through.” She saw Joanna smother a grin at her barely concealed sarcasm but in truth, there, was no need for anyone else to be part of the equation. Although she knew, now the sale was good as done, he would muscle in, taking the kudos for all Joanna’s work
“If we’re ready to go on my last offer,” she directed her words to Joanna, not liking Thorpe’s pseudo charm, “my solicitor can view the contract and we can make a quick settlement.”
“Right you are, Ms North…”
“Oh please call me Arianna,” she said, addressing Joanna, this time ignoring Thorpe’s outstretched hand.
“Thank you Ms… Arianna, I’ll speak to the vendor this evening and let you know. Will you be at home?”
Arianna paused before replying, “I’ll be at my sister’s cottage tonight; you can reach me there. Here are a set of keys. I can’t stay there all the time. I’ve been neglecting my Cardiff gallery and now there’ll be the new one but I’ll be back and forward to Bree’s until it’s sold.”
Immediately Thorpe’s eyes swung to her with renewed interest. “So you aren’t planning to stay there indefinitely, Arian…” Her look made him backtrack. “Erm, sorry …Ms North.”
“Thank you, Mr Thorpe, I’m more than satisfied for Joanna to continue helping me. We work well together.”
This time Joanna, barely managing to smother a giggle, coughed to cover it. Thorpe slammed his office door in ungracious retreat and the two young women exchanged a grin.
“I’ll talk to you later, Joanna. Call in. If it’s good news, we’ll crack open a bottle of bubbles.”
“Ooh, thanks. That would be lovely and thanks for the way you handled…” she jerked her head toward Thorpe’s closed door.
“No problem. I can’t stand bullies.” Smiling she left, wiping her hands on her skirt.
Music greeted her as she walked in the door and habitually she said hello to Bree. Sometimes she’d wait until a whole piece played to the last haunting chord, other times, she’d hear her sister practicing. ‘Limbering fingering,’ Bree would joke.
She often saw her sister in the garden amongst her flowers, sorely neglected now as Arianna ran out of energy keeping everything afloat. Sometimes she felt she lived two lives. Grieving the thought of leaving the cottage, she realised she didn’t have to sell it. Joanna could find a tenant and then …if …when …Bree returned, she’d still have her precious home. Despite everything, Arianna refused to give up on her sister returning.
Her phone played a favourite piece by Bree, heralding a call and, glancing at the display, saw it was Joanna. “Hi Joanna, good news I hope?”
“Yes, the deal’s done for you to buy your gallery,” Joanna babbled with delight.
“Great! Come on over. We’ll open those bubbles and I have another question for you.”
“I’ll be there in twenty,” Joanna replied.
Arianna prepared a platter of food, polished champagne flutes and, taking everything to the living room, set a fire roaring in the grate.
Joanna arrived promptly. They settled to look through the contracts and Arianna posed the suggestion of leasing the cottage instead of selling, explaining she wasn’t ready to let go but couldn’t maintain it. It was too full of her sister to live there longer.
“Why that’s brilliant. I understand you’re not ready to let go yet. It’s been, what …eighteen months, but there’s always hope, Arianna. We shouldn’t have trouble finding a lessee and perhaps eventually give them first option to buy when you’re ready.”
With this agreed they focused on the evening. Sipping a glass of bubbles and nibbling on cheese and olives, they bantered like old friends. Arianna needed a friend more than ever in her life. Old friends had drifted away when Arianna’s grief kept her in Padarn.
Later that evening, as Joanna was leaving, strains of music came from nowhere. “Oookay,” she said, “We won’t tell any likely tenant about that, will we?”
Weeks later, papers signed and her things packed into the car, Arianna was ready to move to her new, but lonely little flat above the gallery. She never felt lonely at the cottage. Now there was a tenant. Joanna had called her earlier to say everything was ready for the mysterious client who’d searched for a special place in the country. He was happy to rent and wanted first option to buy when Arianna was ready. Recently, Arianna had stayed most nights, loath to make the move that would sever ties with her sister’s home.
One evening, she searched through her bag for a piece of paper with a hastily crawled number of a possible date, something she’d not indulged in, in a long while. A matchmaking friend said he was unattached, uncomplicated, vet-checked and eager to go, which had her giggling, so now she’d return his call from earlier. Search all she would. the note wasn’t there. Frustrated, she upended the contents of her bag on the couch. Nothing. “Bugger!”
Hunting through the detritus, she came across the magazine Joanne let her take weeks before. Her eyes met those on the cover, Oliver Prior. Dates forgotten, she started reading the article announcing his retirement from being the photojournalist of his age. He specialised in the shock factor. Raw, war-torn countries. Faces of agonizing beauty amidst personal pain. They were unforgettable and she wanted to snap him up before someone else saw the opportunity to exhibit his work or he fell into obscurity. It wasn’t for money, she earned enough, but perhaps, shock people into action with the horror of the barren landscapes, people caught in moments of horror, grief or bittersweet joy, if they were the lucky ones.
Laughing, ignoring her own naivety, she reached for her phone among the spilled things to call the London based journal, then realised it was too late at night. Her sister’s music filled the room, not her achingly poignant sound but discords, sharps and flats. She looked around. Feeling a heart-lurching jolt, she glimpsed a face at the window.
“Enough!” This was the decider. Shaken, she grabbed her overnight things, but thinking better of it, locked doors and windows only locked when she went away and waited for daylight to head for her flat above the new gallery. She would rough it until it was finished. In fact, living there meant she’d get ahead with renovations, no more procrastinating. She left a message for Joanna, saying where she was and that she wouldn’t spend another night at the cottage. She had to move on with her life.
Pale sunlight filtered through the canopy of leaves, drawing tenebrific patterns on a man’s body sprawled on the ground in an ash grove. He appeared hewn from rock or fashioned from rich brown soil and leaf litter, His face, even in sleep, angular with jutting chin and slashing cheekbones. Only the full lips on an otherwise stern mouth saved his face from hardness.
When Bree found him on her morning walk, she thought him dead, he was so still. Leaning over, fingers instinctually searching for a pulse, her cap fell off. Hair brushed his face and Oliver thought he'd died and gone to the Summerlands. All his senses stirred at the fragrance from her hair and skin. His eyelids fluttered. Bree watched, struck by eyelash length and thickness. Relieved to see the impalpable, flicker of life, she berated herself for noticing eyelashes, when he lay unconscious in her woods, thankfully, not dead.
A musical voice urged him to wake but his brain wouldn’t obey. Just for a moment, managing to pry open heavy lids, he fell into pellucid pools of blue-green. Her eyes held warmth and concern. Her face, mature for all its fresh-skinned youth, almond shaped eyes, an elegant slant of cheekbone and red lips, needing no artifice to colour their fullness. Straight, night-dark hair fell forward again to brush his cheek and while he struggled to maintain awareness, her lips moved asking questions, telling him to stay awake, but something else pulled him, he couldn’t maintain focus. It was the eyes he thought, unaware he spoke aloud. “I’ve seen those eyes before.”
Bree, startled by his words, continued encouraging him to stay awake but he slipped away, pulse ragged, breathe barely there, until it stilled. Hands clammy, fingers numb, she reached for her phone, punched in 999 and told the emergency operator where to find them. The operator’s professional, encouraging voice instructed her to monitor the man’s vital signs and led her through her first attempt at CPR.
After, what seemed like hours, the ambulance arrived, a medic took over gently but firmly without breaking the rhythm of her administrations. She felt one of the crew wrap her in a thermal blanket. Her skin and clothes were damp, wet hair dripped on the unconscious man's face, along with the tears that fell, unchecked.
“It's okay, lovey,” he said gently. “We'll do the best we can by your man, Don't fret. You did well.” He exchanged puzzled glances with his colleague.
“He's not my …I don't know …he was just lying there…” Her words slurred and the world slowed to a snail’s pace. She fainted. Bree woke with the tang of hospital carbolic in her nose and crisp white sheets against her skin.
“There you are then.” A statement more than a question, brought her to full awareness and struggling to sit up, her first thoughts were for the man she’d found in her woods.
“How is he?” she asked, only to receive a blank look from the nurse in attendance.
“The man I found in Padarn Woods,” she said.
“No one’s been brought in who’s asked for you, love. Have you been dreaming?”
“No …I was out walking in Padarn Woods and I found a man lying in the ash grove. He was unconscious…” she trailed off as she saw the wary look in the woman’s eyes.
“I’ll go check for you then, shall I?”
“Yes, please, could you?”
“She’s back,” the nurse muttered to her colleague. “How does she know about him?” They saw her on occasion, spoke to her and they wondered at the mystery of life and death.
Bree slept again and when she woke, the world was dim. Inhaling the fragrance of the woods after rain, a window must be open, she thought, before drifting off again. In the grove, trees wept their leaves over the place where the man had lain. Weeping, she walked her woods.
Intuitively, Oliver felt drawn back to the grove, as the music played. He came to the place where he’d almost died. Golden ash leaves covered the ground. Standing on the very spot was the woman he’d seen in his semi-conscious state …her, and yet not, but ghosting just beside her was the one he knew had helped him. Bree was pale and sad but her music continued all around them. A corporeal shape, her twin perhaps, turned and walked toward him as he stood shocked to the core. Her eyes? Of course Arianna North, rebel photographer of the truth behind the fashion industry. He remembered those eyes.
“Hello, my name’s Arianna and I’m Bree’s sister …she owned Ailm Cottage before she vanished and you’re …” she paused, “…Oliver Prior?”
Oliver told her the story of Bree saving his life, Arianna of her disappearance this day three years ago.
They stood together looking at the place Oliver had lain months before. It was cool and damp, leaves slippery underfoot. Moving around the grove Arianna could feel Bree close. “It was here,” she exclaimed. “I can feel her here. I’ve been here so many times but never picked it. What can we do? The police will never believe me if I tell them that. They’ll think I’m mad!”
She continued wandering the grove, scuffing at leaves with her boot. Wet soil stuck, her foot sank into loamy ground. Managing to free her foot, something came away that clung to her boot. Plastic wrapped, the content was soft and still brightly coloured. A red cap.
Music sobbed; Arianna fell to her knees.
Wordlessly, Oliver tapped in 999.
News flash: Life sentence for Steven Thorpe. Body hidden until search over. Victim buried later at scene of crime in Padarn Woods.
Oliver Prior, and victim’s sister, Arianna North, discover evidence leading to Thorpe’s arrest.
Steven Thorpe found guilty of the murder of musician-genius Bree North and attempted murder of journalist and author Oliver Prior.
Birth notice: Arianna and Oliver Prior are happy to announce the birth of their daughter, Brianna Prior.
Brianna responded to music from her first breathe. At six she mastered a vibrant, unfinished piece.
Quote: “My Auntie Bree plays it to me at night from Padarn Woods.”
An Byhan Gwrannen – The Little Wren
I am old, my wind spent. Wandering the woods and dales, I search for sticks and fir cones for my hearth. I feel cold to my bones. Once I was bonny and fair – a changeling, a Fae. My light brown hair and dark hazel eyes,betray my ancestry. A strange sight amongst the dark, swarthy-skinned, blue-eyed people of these hills. Small I have always been but now, bent like a wind-struck Willow, age curves my spine, spreading my feet wide. I am strong still, but it takes me longer to do what I once would in moments.
Mam never told me who my Da might be; she has no words, not since the day she quickened with me. They say he was a fair-faced tinker but that would not explain my colouring. Rom are swarthy just as the kernewek gwerin, the common folk of Cornwall are. A tinker he was, I often thought, for he tinkered with more than pots and pans to beget such as I. Besides my Mam's heart, he stole her words.
My bundle of faggots heavy, I lug them to my thatch-roofed croft and find a pottery churn of milk, still warm from the goat. A slab of fine cheese besides, wrapped in blackberry leaves to keep it fresh. I will bake oatcakes to have with the cheese for my supper. Perhaps an egg if my hens give freely, with the last of this year’s wild greens.
The crofters are wary of me and yet kind as long as nothing goes wrong with their flocks or children, for then I would bear the blame. For now, the goats are happy and healthy, judging by the milk and curd left me; trees laden with fruit throughout the hedgerows.
I help where I can; a birth, a fever, a nasty wound. All fall in my hands soon enough, else ways I’m left alone until they have need of my skills. Payment is made in all that nature provides.
Wyche, some whisper. Most believe I am one of the Good Folk, the Spyrys, and let me go my way, perhaps with a hand sign, a ward against the dark ones, of which I have no dealings. They only seek to protect their children when the moon rides high, for children are their future.
Days shorten; leaves turn amber and red. Hazelnuts are aplenty in the woods and elder, blackberry, rowan and hawthorn berries, ready in abundance as the wheel turns. Dark falls and, sated from my repast, I doze to dream of younger days, when on a bright Beltane morning, I gathered Hawthorn for a wreath for my hair, as is the custom in these parts. Transported, I find myself on a morning when I did not wake with aching bones and a sullen need for sleep if disturbed too soon.
Dew is wet and icy underfoot, squelching between my naked toes and tangling the hem of my dress in a sodden mass. I pick up my heavy skirts and run through the early dawn, laughing as I think of the lad whose eye I was determined to catch for the coming celebrations.
Beltane morning, preparation is already afoot for the feast. I smell the juices of the wild suckling pigs snared just a day ago, slow roasting over a pit of apple wood and acorns.
Other girls join me in the morning sunshine. Dew steams off, leaving vapoury trails in the grass. Tiny spiders fling themselves with fearless abandon from stem to stem, covering the ground with silken webs that glisten with water droplets.
A hush falls, all but the faint sound of laughter and fleet steps as they dance toward the village again. Rapt in this moment, I wander a little further toward the forest rim. Breezes bring the scent of spring. Crab-apple blossoms burst open in dappled sunlight. I hurry to capture some of the moisture, honey-scented from their pollen, for bathing my face. Tiny wrens, Gwrannen, my namesake, scold me from their nesting grounds, low in the thicket.
Life is good on this May Day, for I am young. My body, supple from hard work in the gardens of the croft, trembles anticipating the coming day. A shiver of excitement raises goose bumps on my skin. This is the spring of my first moon-blood and I am the chosen, to lead the Beltane Circle Dance, around the Hawthorn, bedecked with ribbons fair.
I run to her, my arms, filled with May and Crab-apple Blossom. I collected only enough for my needs; nature teaches never to take more. Mam is fetching water and espying me, she smiles and beckons. Taking the blossom from me, she points to the bucket by the door in which to put the May, for we never bring it inside, lest the Lady be angered. The Druids say she likes not to be confined nor will she allow her wood to burn no matter the cold. She is our Elder Mother, who protects us from lightning storm and gifts us flower and berry for our health.
A trilling song from the apple tree at the gate has my Mam spinning around; a scowl lines her face as she makes a sign of warding. I am curious but she silences me and with a curt motion, bundles me inside. She has drawn a tub of water, to which she adds the blossoms and hot water from the kettle that is always set to simmer on the hob. Steam rises, redolent with their fragrance; she helps me from my heavy wet skirts and into the warmth that takes the chill from my icy feet and hands, in a painful instant. Mam puts a warm posset of something that smells other than our ordinary dandelion brew, in my hand. I drink.
Words Mam may not have but she can hum and trill in the sweetest tones, her voice is so pure. Now she croons and somehow her notes become pictures in my mind that come to life, to float before my eyes in coloured streams.
I doze in the perfumed water and see her, young and beautiful and it is Beltane. Like me, she is readying for the Rite but appears sullen and afraid. She walks the pathway strewn with blossom and the crofters chant, their words strange to me. A different energy is awake on that day, I sense it and fear lifts from belly to throat as thrashing in the now cooled water I struggle to sit. The croft is silent and Mam is nowhere about. She reappears in an instant as my sight clears, the fear in her eyes a mirror to my own.
I know not how she readied me, dressing me in a robe of fine white, May blossom and soft ribbons, green and white in my hair. A ruckus at the door brings awareness that I must walk to the ancient Hawthorn alone. Mam fusses, twitching the fabric and pulling on my locks, which is the same as a hug from her. Crude horns blare and the light is bright in my eyes as Mam throws open the door. There is an audible gasp as they see me in my May Queen robe. One fool lets out a whistle of appreciation before falling on one knee in a jocund bow, but the boy I longed for and him for me, is not there. My belly plummets. Have the Elders chosen then?
I walk in silence to the hill where the priestesses wait. Girls and boys gather, holding ribbons. Girls look outward, the boys inward, to face Old Mother Hawthorn. One red ribbon hangs limp in the still air, one cloud passes over the sun in an otherwise clear blue sky. The Priestesses move among us, offering blessingswith salt, water and smoke. I shiver as I take the ribbon end one of the acolyte hands me. She gives me a curious, compassionate smile and my hand grows clammy, my mouth dry.
Drums beat, quickening our intent. We move as one in the weaving dance, dedicated to the blossoming Hawthorn. How many stories has she to tell, I wonder, before the trance takes me away and the red ribbon radiates. A stream of blood among the white blossom and unfurling buds of green. The the world spins. I hear laughter as lasses toss their Hawthorn wreaths over their shoulders, and friendly tussling as the boys fight for the wreath of their chosen ones. Footfalls thump around me as the girls run for the woods; the boy must follow and, finding her, woo her from hiding with honeyed words.
Only I am alone, all sight gone, but I sense another. A subtle musk, but not of a human body, rather more that of bird feathers and loamy ground-cover. I cannot see him but I know he is the one to take my offering this day. His light fingers roam over my bodice, delving within to stir my small buds. The other lifts my skirts as if I may not notice their transit to the place none have touched or seen. My senses flood with his essence.
Drumming begins again from afar. Strange feelings overwhelm me. Sharp protrusions grow from my skin, my hair changes to feathers, my nails to claws. My arms spread, morphing into wings; small and light I shrink to the size of a tiny bird. “Gwrannen,” he whispers and is gone. I am left, spent, a small naked girl on the hillside. I am alone.
One day just after Yule, Mam disappears and I know in my heart she is away to the Summerland. I grieve her, missing her silence and her sudden bursts of trilling, wordless song, to which I am now prone. A song can burst free from me as I watch birds fly above, uninhibited by human sorrows.
Many years have passed but none has ever approached me for Handfasting nor even for a friendly tumble. Thank the Goddess it seems I was barren, for what would I have born to the Fae creature on the Tor? Scorned as a woman through no fault of my own, the priestesses call on me, for my inner sight is strong, though my eyesight remains dim. The world I see is through floating orbs, a veil of colour and my vision a place where things dance on a periphery wider than human sight. My hearing is sharp and keen.
The Wheel turns on. I am old and tired. Alone in my little croft away from the village, I hear the drums beating. Yule has passed; it is the day after. St Stephens Day, they call it since the White Christ left his influence on the Isles, but the ancient rite of Hunting the Wren begins, despite him. Strange fears enfold me like a dark cloak as wings ache to grow …to fly, to flee from the taunting song of the Wren Hunt.
To where in the world
does the wren disappear
when the hunters are about
…in that special time of year
When sweet pickings fall
beneath sticks and stones
and the hunt gathers round
...a tiny pile of bones
She may try to hide
from the men of the moor
but her time is short
...if the pickings are poor
Is it greed not hunger
that drives the hunter then?
For if a changer they find
…she will rue the likes of men
I can contain my fear no longer. As they approach the door, I bolt for the woods through the back ways. My body finds forgotten youth and speed wrought by fear. I flicker in and out of shape; half woman, half bird. My clothing falls away. Shadows chase me dressed in what I know to be mummer's costumes, but they appear huge shapes, grotesque in the light of the waning day. Something whistles past my ear, a stone from a slingshot. An arrow finds its way, an elf bolt to my side. It rips away a strip of flesh and burrows deep between my ribs; blood gushes, my breath wheezes.
I hide, terrified of the hunters who seek more than meat; my heart beats in my throat. They do not see me for I am slight, but even my diminutive size seems large and clumsy as I try to make myself invisible to their leering gaze. The noise of their laughter as they seek me and the stench of their sour, unwashed bodies, is repellent. I let out a long-held breath of relief. They move away from where I hide, shivering, curled naked in the thicket of water sedge and ferns on the edge of the tarn. Frozen in fear and yet damp with the sweat of it, I dare not move.
After what seems like forever, I lapse into a state of being where all sound fades. My breath and pulse create a rhythm, slowing everything to a mere whisper of sound. Shadows lengthen and I drift on a coracle of pain from the wound in my side. Still seeping blood in sullen pools of gore, it further soaks the wet silt beneath me. An offering.
I thank the nameless spirit of this place there are no hounds. The stench of me is ripe enough in my nose of all that leaks from my body as from a frightened child. My senses float deeper and the dark claims me. When I wake, I could not move if I wanted to, so stiff have my limbs become. I cringe, panic eats at me. Hearing the hunters return, freezes what is left of the blood in my veins.
In my weakness and terror, my sight dims. My tiny familiar spirit appears. Her song is shrill, high, liquid notes of warning, bright eyes mirroring my fear. My anguish is replaced with the subtler torment of shape-change as feathers sprout, bones twist, and I shrink smaller still. The musky scent of quills drenches the air, soft feathers caress me, covering me with whispered words of promise and sunlight.
All that remains is An Byhan Gwrannen, The Little Wren and I fly free from my cage of rib and skin.
Recent bio for exhibitions.
Multi-media artist, photographer and published author of eight books, Penny’s has participated in five gallery exhibitions, the first being, In Stillness in February 2018, when she launched her own, small gallery, Beyond the Gate… the second was 20’s, the third Water, Stone, Spirit and Bone and May 202 Vistas… diving into the landscape of myths and dreams.
Her three more recent completed pieces (photos attached)are for the exhibition in 2022, Walks Between.
Penny lives near Daylesford, where she works from her home studio on a rural, 20-acre property.
A full-time artist, she works with multi-media, (digital painting non-photographic and partially photographic), ink, water colour, charcoal and mixed-media/fine art, combined.
She studied art and art history in the UK, completed a visual arts and professional photography course in Ballarat and produces a seamless palette of multi-media pieces that has the viewer wondering how they were rendered. All her work is inspired by her natural surrounds and by nature. Her current collection, Water, Stone, Spirit and Bone, speaks to the fragility of our planet and the rapid loss of species and natural habitats. Seven pieces, Avalon Vistas, were shown in a small collection in April – May this year at The Old Auction House in Kyneton.
In Stillness was more recently released as a full-colour art book with accompanying poetry and will be for sale at the exhibit.
Alongside her original canvases or cotton rag paintings, she produces limited edition prints and note cards and is available for commissions. Her next project, an oracle deck and book, entitled Wild Spirits, will be published later this year, 2021.