I didn’t know where I was going, but I tried to convince myself that I did. I walked and walked, into the hills, as far away from human habitation as possible. I wanted, above all, not to be seen. I had never been much more than plain, but now I was ugly, and I wanted to hide from inquisitive people who would point and stare and perhaps even fear me.
I was a freak of nature, and nature was my only home now, but I didn’t yet feel welcomed. I was moving through a grey world that I didn’t recognise and could hardly see.
The first night I slept under a hedge and woke the next morning covered in dew, my hair matted and messy with leaves and twigs. I was cold and shivering and hungry, but there was nothing I could do but get up and continue on my way. I stopped every now and then to clumsily pick some berries or leaves to eat, peering at them with my one poor eye and hoping that they were not poisonous.
I walked each day until my legs could go no further and then I would sit and watch until the sun set, in all the shades of grey, before I curled up under my blanket, under the protective branches of a tree or against an old crumbling wall. Some days I dimly saw buildings in the distance, barns and farm houses, and I was careful not to get too close. I wanted solitude and hills and empty roads ahead of me.
I walked many, many miles through a grey landscape, barely seen, but after about a week something strange began to take place. I started to feel giddy, lightheaded. I thought at first that it was caused by a lack of food, or just a symptom of my insanity, but it seemed to be something more than that. I started to smell things, to hear things and feel things intensely. It was as if ripening fruit was being held right under my nose, or newly cut grass, or winds from exotic lands scented with spices. I heard birdsong that was more beautiful than I had ever heard before. I was aware of the buzz of bees and other tiny insects, and the sunshine felt golden, though it just looked flat and white to me. I started to feel a certain pleasure in being alone, in walking through the world. It didn’t seem to matter that I couldn’t see it well, for I could smell it and hear it and feel it, and the berries I ate tasted sweet. I even thought that I saw a faint pinkish glow as the sun rose, as if my coloured sight was returning.
One morning as I walked I came across a crow with an injured wing, lying on the path in front of me, half-dead, with her left wing stretched out, limp and useless, and I felt a flutter of wings in my hollow chest. I had never known what to do with animals in the past, how to approach them, and I was wary, but it was clear I could not leave her there to die. So I gingerly lifted her and cradled her in my claw-hands as I walked. She didn’t seem to be afraid of me at all, perhaps because she recognised in me a fellow damaged creature. Her body warmed my hands as she nestled down, making them feel less stiff than usual, and over the day the bird seemed to revive, becoming more alert. In the late afternoon I stopped to rest and the crow leapt from my hands and started to peck about on the ground for insects and grubs, her black jewel eyes uncannily bright in the fading light of approaching evening. I was relieved that she could at least feed herself. She slept by my side that night, staying close to my warmth, and occasionally uttering a small sound of contentment.
The next day the crow seemed stronger, though she still couldn’t fly, and she perched on my shoulder as I travelled. I felt less alone now, happy that I had managed to find a nonhuman friend to be my companion, as I was still intent on avoiding the human world. The crow helped me to identify what berries and leaves were good to eat, and hopped about playfully on the ground, making me soundlessly laugh. And over time I began to see shadows taking shape and moving around me, which I eventually realised were animals: a hare watching me curiously, a fox skulking away, and many birds flying overhead. It was as if my crow friend made the animals less wary of my humanness, and they came closer, unafraid.
But, even with the help of the crow, as the days passed I realised that I was becoming weaker and more exhausted, and unless I wanted to collapse and die, I would have to find help. It was as I thought this that I saw some smoke rising ahead of me, in the corner of a field. As I approached I saw a wagon, no doubt the home of some gypsy, and a dog began to bark. I was frightened, and wanted to turn back and hide, but an old woman appeared from behind the wagon who silenced the dog with a word and beckoned to me.
“I’ve been expecting you. I’ve made some soup. Come and sit down.”
The smell of the soup which simmered over the fire was potent and my mouth watered in expectation. I had not realised how starving I was.
“Your bird is welcome too,” she said as she looked me up and down, peering slowly at my silver eye, and then my lame hands. I had the feeling that she was looking straight through me, into the heartless hollow inside, appraising me, seeing what I was made of. Her eyes were grey and kind, but I thought they flashed green in the light of the setting sun. She was familiar, somehow.
I sat down by the fire and tried to motion with my hands to communicate that I was unable to speak, but she told me she already knew, she was expecting me after all. How? I wanted to ask, but it was as though she could read my mind.
“I knew your grandmother. I was at the funeral. Don’t you remember? Many years ago she told me this day would come, told me to wait for you. I know you think you’ve lost your mind, but believe me, girl, you’re more sane now than you have ever been in your life.”
I looked at her again. I vaguely remembered an old woman at my gran’s funeral, someone who had kept their distance, who had been on the edge of vision. A mysterious presence who came and went and was immediately forgotten.
The dog came and sat beside me, looking up at me with a bemused look on his face, as if he knew more than I knew, and he was probably right about that. The woman handed me a bowl full of steaming soup and a hand-carved wooden spoon, and I ate, awkwardly but greedily. The taste reminded me of Gran’s soups that she made throughout the winter months, warming and hearty—and no doubt filled with love, and I couldn’t help shedding a tear at the memory.
When I had had my fill the woman spoke:
“My name is Ruth. I knew your grandmother since we were girls and a wiser and wilder woman I have never known. Ah, the stories I could tell you. We used to travel together, until her path took her to one patch of land that became her own, that she could never leave, and that is good and wise, putting down roots, though I’ve never had a taste for it myself. It was when we travelled together that she met your grandfather. They had a passionate affair but he left before your mother was born, as travellers are wont to do, and she never begrudged him that. A little bit of love, if it’s the right kind, can last a lifetime. But she wanted to settle down, once she had the baby, and the cottage on the edge of town called to her, so that is where she spent the rest of her life, getting to know every inch of ground, every blade of grass there, until she could dream the garden in her sleep.
“As for your mother, she grew up loving that garden, but she had her own life to live, once she found your father. I suppose you want to know about them too? It was a case of star-crossed love. His family didn’t approve, thought she was beneath him being the daughter of a former traveller, as everyone knew your grandmother had been, for she never hid from her past, but he loved her so much he didn’t care. That’s what made the tragedy so much harder to bear, them dying so young, broken-hearted as much for having to leave you as they were about each other.
“So, you’re the granddaughter of an old gypsy who stopped rambling to tend a garden, and the daughter of parents who loved each other so much they couldn’t ever be apart. There’s tragedy and heartache, to be sure, but they followed their paths and lived and loved deeply, and that’s where you have gone wrong, my dear.” Ruth stopped and looked me in the eye. “Your grandmother knew this, from the time you started to become obsessed with reading, she knew. You were living a shallow life in stories rather than diving deeply into your own. She didn’t know where she had gone wrong, for she tried her best to guide you, but sometimes tragedy has a habit of setting the future in motion, for better or worse, putting kinks and bends into your path, until you take a wrong turn and there is no way back. No way back until it is time to change though, and then the lessons come thick and fast. The dreams come, as they do for all who lose their way, though many ignore them, and now you just have to keep walking until you find your way again.”
By this time the sun had set and the fire flickered warmly. I looked at Ruth and I thought that her eyes flashed amber in the firelight, but I couldn’t be sure.
“Anyhow, it’s time you got some rest,” she said, and she led me into the wagon and onto a narrow bed. It was so soft after all my nights on the hard ground I felt like I was floating in a cloud. But though my mind was whirling with everything she had told me, I was suddenly concerned about the crow, who had settled on the ground beside the dog, as if they were old friends. I started to point out the door, anxiously, but she just smiled and said, “Your friend is safe with me.” Within minutes I was asleep …