Wednesday, 29 December 2010

A Clowder of Cats for Christmas

   Since before Christmas we have been making nightly rounds to visit the houses of some cats whose families have gone back to France for the holidays.  This has meant lots of midnight walks in the empty snow filled streets of Aberdeen.  Yesterday, the snow and icicles turned to fog and mist, and we had to walk in the middle of the road, so that sheets of ice would not clamber and rumble down the roofs to land on us, sweeping arm-length icicles along with them.

    Despite how it looks in the pictures (which we took on a damp night of half-melted snow, when the orange city lights bounced back at us from the clouds), the skies have been clear mostly, and it has felt like just us and the moon passing through all the streets of crouching, old granite houses.  On the snowiest nights, when we have to walk in single file, my husband tends to walk in front, his little clouds of breath thrown back over his shoulder like a second scarf.  I have been happiest on nights where it was too cold for slush to come up into the holes in my boots.  The houses here often have big, bay windows in front, so that they look like display cases at this time of year, each filled with its own Christmas tree and decorations.

    On still nights like these, winding our way through the city as it sleeps or celebrates quietly indoors, I feel that we are blessed to be outside in the cold air, passing the warmly lit windows, breathing the wind that blows off the ocean and picks up the coal smoke from all the Christmas fires.

   On Christmas night, not Christmas eve, but the night of the 25th, the lights at the first house we visited were not working.  We had to feel around in the dark to feed the little black cat that lives there, who seemed to be only a pair of lonesome green eyes that night.  As we were playing and talking with her a little, it sounded as if someone was trying to force their way into the house, and we went to investigate with our hearts leaping and ears prickling.  In the end it turned out to be another cat, a giant black cat, who was trying to break into the house.

   After leaving that house we made our way to the next house, where another black cat, the brother of the first cat lives.  He seemed a little on edge that night, so we sat with him a little while.  But after we left there, for whatever reason, the streets seemed full of cats, and all of them completely black.  It was just an odd happening I suppose, but normally we don't really come across any cats on our walks, so it did seem somewhat strange to be surrounded by so many black cats all on one night.

   It put me in mind of some stories that Henry Glassie collected in his book Irish Folktales, which tell of cats and the mysterious meetings they have to choose kings, to conduct trials where they may determine guilt or innocence, and so on.  In one such tale, a Mr. Buckley of Co. Cork describes how, as he was returning home from an unsuccessful day at a market in a far off town, a cat jumped out of a cemetery he passed along the way and said, "Tell Balgeary that Balgury is dead".  The man was dozing in his cart as his horse pulled him home, and so discounted what he had heard.  Upon reaching home, his wife was anxious to have news from the market.  But, as he had had a particularly bad day and not done much talking to anyone, he had no news for her.  Noticing she was getting annoyed by his lack of news, he told her of the only bit of news he had heard, the news from the cat in the graveyard.  As soon as the words were out of his mouth, their cat, which had been sitting by the fire jumped up and said "The Devil fire you! Why didn't you tell me before? I'll be late for the funeral." And then the cat ran out and was never seen again.
    The story is, of course, much better read in full than in the quick description of it that I have given you here.  And I would really recommend the book, which is full of lots of wonderful stories, collected with care.

    The other thing I thought of with seeing all of those black cats that night was the Japanese story of Schippeitaro with its band of dancing, screaming phantom cats.  I think it's possible that the illustrations of this story had more of an impression on me than the actual story itself though.  In fact, one of my favourite things I brought back from Japan is an apron with these ghostly cats dancing across it, though I have a hard time recalling the ending of the story (but perhaps I just don't like the end).

   But I suppose it's getting to the time that I should soon be getting ready to go and look in on the cats and bring them their dinners for tonight.  While writing this entry I reread those stories in the Henry Glassie collection, and I came across a bit of advice that relates to these posts about talking animals and things: "never ask a cat a question.  She might answer back.  And, troth, if she did, it is seven years of cruel luck you will have brought on your shoulders.  Aye, indeed."  - Malachi Horan

   Just like that.  Perhaps I should be more careful with all of my 'ça va?' and  't'as faim?' sorts of queries!

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Wells running with wine, trees growing indoors, animals telling stories.

   On Christmas Eve, according to Breton tradition, only man and serpents sleep.  Man, because he is forgetful and ungrateful, and the serpent because no evil can take place on this night, so there's nothing to do.  On this night no ghosts or witches roam the earth, the fires of hell stop burning, and the wells and fountains run with the finest wine during midnight mass.  And also, at midnight animals can speak the language of man.  Cows especially are said to take this night to address all of their issues from the past year, to talk to each other of things they've seen and travels they've made, recount stories they've heard, and to discuss things to come. 


   A few years ago my husband and I came across François-Marie Luzel's Nouvelles Veillées Bretonnes, a book full of folktales from Brittany.  Luzel grew up in Brittany in the early 1800s, and spent many long, winter evenings listening to neighbours and visiting storytellers in the glow of the hearth.  In his books of veillées (evenings of visiting and stories) he strives to keep the stories he later collected as a folklorist in their original context, as much as is possible in written form, by including the conversations that prompted the stories, trying to sort of transcribe the evenings, rather than just the individual tales.  It is in this book that we found the transcriptions of two Christmas Eves, as people sat around their big, oak yule logs talking before going off to midnight mass.
   On one of these evenings someone told the story of Arzur, a man who does not believe the tales he has been told of talking animals, and decides to prove everyone wrong by sneaking into a barn on Christmas Eve and spending the night there.
   So off Arzur goes, and hides himself away in the hayloft.  At first there is nothing out of the ordinary, and he begins to feel quite smug.  But as midnight strikes the cows begin to talk.  They do not seem to have noticed his presence and start discussing the humble birth of Jesus "between a cow and a donkey", then one cow reproaches another for disobeying the farmer on the previous day, and so on.
   By this point Arzur's heart is pounding, he's distraught, he can't believe what he is hearing.  But it gets worse for him, and what he next hears makes his blood run cold.  One cow asks her brother what they will do on the following day, and he responds: "Tomorrow we will have to pull the hearse so that we can bring the body of Arzur to the parish cemetery to be buried -- poor curious, indiscreet, unbelieving and impious Arzur who is even now in this very barn, listening to us".  All of the other cows repeat in a sort of ghastly chorus: "We will draw the body of Arzur to the cemetery!"
   Arzur, dying of fright, and thinking that the cows plan to murder him for having spied on them, jumps up from his hiding place and runs home.  The cows do nothing to stop him going, acting as if he were never there at all.  Shaking with fear, Arzur takes to his bed, and never leaves it again, except to go to the cemetery the following day, his hearse drawn by the very cows that he had heard talking on Christmas Eve.

   When I started thinking about Christmas cards this year, this story came back to me.  It's not that I am afraid of my loved ones missing church.  I have come across other Breton stories about the importance of not skipping out on midnight mass (like the one about a hard-working shoe-maker whose wife warns him to be careful not to lose track of time and miss mass, but he, nevertheless, gets carried away with his work and ends up getting a visit from Ankou, the Breton personification of death).  But what I love about this story is not its religious bent, but rather the portrait it paints of a vivid, mysterious world where miracles happen all the time, though it is better not to test them.

   So, even though I have been working long hours in the cold recently, and coming home tired, hungry, and frozen every evening, I have forced myself on, filling this apartment with printed card after printed card, until all the tabletops were covered, and strings of cards were hung up like prayer flags.  The cards should be flying out into the world on Monday, late I know, but my best wishes for a magical Christmas will be going on ahead of them, and on to you reading this.  May your Christmas be full of wonder and stories around flickering fires!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Of coldness and loss of feeling in toes...

Some visitors managed their way from France, over snow clouds and ice-jammed streets, to be with us these past few days.  Today, at work, people seem strange again, accents sound thicker, as if I had been away to someplace much farther than the local sights.

    Yesterday before planes and goodbyes, we took ourselves a little down the road, out to the ruins of Dunnottar Castle.  No one else was around, so we were free to wander all the dark and empty rooms, using the clouds of our breath to transform stray sun beams into columns of light.  We wound our ways up spiral staircases, wailed ghostly at lost members of our group, listened to the pigeons coo and hum inside the tower they had taken for their own, wrote snowy messages and left giant bird footprints across clear patches of snow.

   The day was full up with the pleasure of exploring a wild and windblown place, and it was surprising to look at the photos later.  With all of the emotion and chatter stripped away, only the bones of the day were left.

The land looked only bare and cold, the buildings only geometric and broken, a collection of surfaces in sun or shadow.  I felt as if I had not been to this place at all.

The bleakness of lost hours seemed to be mirrored back on me from these bits of captured light.  Though still visible, the places I had stood would no longer hold my feet. 

I've never before felt so estranged from photos that I couldn't remember for certain the act of having taken them.

Looking long enough, I start to wonder...

... are they the ghosts or am I?

Sunday, 28 November 2010

The sun swam up from the bottom of the sky and winked.

    Winter has looked in on us these past few days.  It has been snowing since Wednesday.
First there were big, slow, feather-like snowflakes, then hail, then the small fast snowflakes that once gave me a fright as a child.  Sitting in the passenger seat of the car, I watched them coming towards us as we passed under streetlights on the way to my grandparents' house one evening.  In some half dreamy state they looked to me like the clawed, bewitching hands of a malevolent, frosty man.  Once seen, it was impossible to unsee, and I still think of it on nights when flurries run past a light too quickly. 

   Still, I love snow and ice and the weird and lovely tricks they play on the landscape.  I grew up in a place that could be radically altered in a short time when the weather picked up.  One winter I had a small ice palace to myself, made on the surface of a lake when bitter winds threw the waves up high and froze them one on top of another before they fell, leaving a long wall standing on the frozen lake, about a kilometre from the shore.  If you walked for a while on the wall, before long you would find little round rooms at your feet and you could sometimes crawl in through a hole in the ceiling and enter them.  Then you could sit in the calm, round coldness of the place and listen to the wind roar overhead, waiting to see if some marvel would appear.  If you had your skates you could try your luck on the bumpy lake ice on the way home.  But if you weren't able to roam about on icy lakes, similar places could be built in the yard of snow.

    For all the beauty of winter, it is an eerie time I think.  The snowy sky that is white and luminescent in the middle of the night, while some days never seems to lighten up at all, especially here in Scotland.  The times when things fall so silent that you can hear the snow falling, or when a blizzard is thick enough that you can't see your own hands in front of you.  The strange feeling when you look around you and realize the world has turned odd and blue and spirited, that the sun has set faster than expected and you have unwittingly entered a wonderland not meant for you.

   Last night, just after midnight, there were three weirdly bright flashes of lightning, punctuated by two rumbles of thunder, and then nothing.  I didn't think it ever stormed in that way in winter, but the season has so many oddities, who knows.

   Oh, but now I think it's time for the tall night to sit on my eyelids, while the trees dance their roots across the sky at the window.  Time for dreaming.

Monday, 22 November 2010

In a letter, I would send the sound and smell of rain on wood.

   Hello to you on a rainy Monday.  Over here this morning, the sky is pulling the wooly greyness of her winter blankets across the sky.  I am told that there is snow on the mountains already, and soon there will be some in town as well.  The small plastic radio babbles on the floor in the corner and our eyes peer at this or that thing in the dimness.  I count the shoddy day light hours, never exacting from them all that I plan to.  But, I am trying to teach myself not even to notice them at all, that supper is not eaten around nightfall, days of painting can curl themselves around lamplight any time, and a working-day tiredness comes only from work and not absence of sunlit hours.
   The clothes horse stands well-dressed and waiting, a lone magpie passes at the window.  Assemblies of folklore books gather on the tabletops, on the floor.  If the rain stops for a moment I will buy us milk for our tea, and the wind can sweep up from the sea and over the rooftops to push me back up the hill as I walk down it towards home.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Wintery Woods and a Haunted Castle

    This weekend the local landscape painters were let loose again, and I along with them.  But the day was not meant for plein air painting; rain came, went, and came again, so they set up in the ballroom of Delgatie Castle and painted out through the windows.

    I sat in a bay window that no one had taken and looked down on the grounds where little, short-legged Shetland ponies jumped at each other and ate wet grass.  Behind me easels were set up, sketches done, backgrounds blocked in.  A castle, woods, and a pond stared in on me through the window.  A few lines in my notebook tried to get down the shifting ponies before they passed out of sight behind the bushes.

   I seem to lack the sageness of the other painters who can just set up anyplace and paint at the drop of a hat.  As much as I love these painting days out, at heart I am only a hermit painter, I suppose, better at working when I've shut myself away from everything else.  Looking outside, the glow of the heater did not warm me, the velvety cushions did not comfort me, I wanted to be off down the curve of the lane or winding my way up the great spiral staircase at the centre of the castle.  So, it was not long before I was out with the snorting ponies.

   A moment before this picture was taken they were all lined up in the opening of the gate, looking out at me, in the most photogenic way, but in the time it took to get my camera out of my bag they'd gotten bored with me and moved on.  I'm not sure if it's possible to tell from the photo, but they are not quite like regular ponies.  They are extremely hairy and are only about waist-high. 

   First I wandered around near the castle, finding the well, a big stone cheese press, a dovecote (or dookit, as people around here say)...

... and this remorseful looking, lichen-spotted lion, way up high.  Doesn't he look as if he just might turn to you and say something when no one else is around?  He looks like he needs a friend, I think.

The castle is said to be haunted by two ghosts: a red-haired woman called Rohaise who only appears to men, and a monk who was buried in a wall of the castle.  I didn't run into either of the ghosts as I made my way up and around the staircase that all of the rooms open on to, peering into the dark, but I did find beautifully painted medieval ceilings.

   With all my exploring I only managed to get a drawing of a tree, which was kind enough to stay still for me as I sat in the window studying it.  The watercolours were added in later, at home by lamplight, since the sun was not as willing a model as that sweet tree.

   I'm not quite sure how I feel about this little painting.  I think perhaps I should have left it as a drawing; the moss and blanket of spent leaves I saw made me want colour, but painting conditions were not ideal.

   When bellies started rumbling we all came winding down the staircase to lunch in the castle's kitchen, around a big wooden table while the woman who acts as a volunteer caretaker of the castle (seven days a week, 50 weeks a year!) took our orders and cooked (and, as I was leaving, she served me in the shop).  After a nice big slice of carrot cake for dessert it only seemed right to go off for a little stroll. 

    Behind the castle, through the garden, down and into the mossy woods.

   Though it doesn't show, it was a little too rainy to take many pictures there... but it was completely gorgeous at every step. 

The woods ran down to a little pond with a few small white rowboats sitting ready by the shore.  When I was young my grandfather used to read to me at night from a book of Norwegian tales about trolls illustrated by Theodor Kittelsen.  It had a story about a troll that could take on the appearance of a white horse or a white rowboat sitting at the water's edge.  Nothing would happen to you if you just passed by, but if you should get on the horse or in the boat, you would be dragged under the water to your death.  So I passed on by.

   Back up the lane, past the ponies...

...into the castle, and in the ballroom again, it seemed that all of the good light had gone.  Things were packed up, others' finished canvases made ready for a journey home.  The night fell on me and my pencils.

   It fell on the mountains we passed by blindly in the car on the way back home, where a warm fire had been lit to welcome me back.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

This world is laying out splendours for you, even now.

   A rainy morning, a few hours of window box living.  Looking up from drawing to pass through the jungle of herbs on the windowsill.  Drawing and watching the red creeping plants on the roofs of the sheds behind the house.  Laundry twists and wreathes on the line caught in the rain and gales.  The wind comes in for a visit, using the chimney like a door, and wiping sooty feet on the hearth.
    Another cup of tea.  A cloud of birds sweeps in and stands on every bit of roof and antenna, all facing the same direction, not moving at all.  Then they are up as one, and swinging through the sky in skewed directions, all reddish wings and crested heads, eyes fiercely hunting the reddest of berries.

    Steam curling up from the poured out kettle, little ghost dances in the dull day's light.  Little gasps of fresh air sneaking in around the windows.  I count the hours in pencil scratch rhythms, sometimes even then laying out plans on still un-bought paper.  I try not to let my mind wander to people far away.  No, just up, up with the whirring and whirling of wind and feathers and tiny fisted claws.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Ink and Paper and Time

    The hours don't seem to add up somehow, and these weeks may come to nothing.  Maybe it is just a matter of not holding on to anything so tightly.

       But then, the other night I heard the sort of music that makes everything else in the world disappear.  Shetland tunes, Swedish  tunes, and old time American tunes whirling around one another and each one embroidering the others. Aly Bain, Ale Möller, Bruce Molsky.   There was talk of troll tuning for fiddles, and even a shawm, tunes to play on the first day of the year, at breakfast on the day of an island wedding, wild polskas, and tunes to change your luck.  How many times is it possible to rediscover that magic of experiencing brilliant music in person?  How is it possible to be shocked by it anew each time?
   It is all a dance of stepping forward and then quickly backward over here lately.  It seems like nothing has quite been turning out like I would have hoped or expected, but somehow I feel as if things are on the right track in a larger sense, even if there are some tiny disappointments hidden here and there.  I like to think of a man I met once, for a few days time, who was always saying over and over again, "isn't life grand?" with real sincerity, until it became impossible to forget or ignore how very good it is.
       A very nice thing happened a week or so ago.  I was excited and told my mother I had important news to share with her.  In retrospect, I suppose she thought she was going to be a grandmother, but, of course, what I meant is that I found a tiny, little printing press that I could afford.  It's lucky I tend to work on a small scale!

    So far, I've had some trouble getting rich black tones out of copperplates that I made using another press.  I am hoping that if I adapt my future plates to this press I will still be able to get a velvety black when I want to, hoping that it is possible on such a small press.  If I could manage that, the only problem would be how to manage older plates I've made, but still need to pull prints from.
   I thought the solution would be simple enough: find a bigger press. So, I spent the whole of yesterday in a printing studio, but for all my trouble, and even with the huge size of the presses there, I couldn't seem to get what's on the plate to show up on paper the way I could on the press I used in Paris.  I tried to isolate every variable, and I used up the whole day doing that, not getting anywhere on any of the things I had planned to do.  It seems like I will have a lot of work ahead of me reworking old copperplates if I can't find any other solution.  Still, it wasn't a complete waste, because it was very nice being out in a studio again, with other people working nearby to chat with.

   In addition to the printing problems, there was a varnishing mishap last week, which means that I have a painting in need of restoration, as well.  It was rather gut wrenching seeing a painting of mine that I was happy with and considered to be finished have to have its varnish stripped, and lose some paint in the process.  So there is lots of catch up work, in addition to some new projects I have been trying to work on, and no chance of getting bored with the longer evenings.  My grandfather would have told me "roll with the punches", that was always his answer. 

Monday, 1 November 2010

Of Embers and Novembers

    The cold and dark have landed!  Last night after walking out in the Halloween strangeness, we curled ourselves around the open fire, bellies full of roasted herbs and vegetables, like bears in our winter caves.  Jack-o-lanterns leered out on the street from our window, and then there came an almost unearthly screaming and screeching from outside.  We looked down to the street to see two bare-chested, blue-painted bodies go tearing down the street, howling their hardest and most frightening at all the windows they could reach.  Happy Halloween! There was music and flickering firelight and the first long night of winter.  The sun sets earlier than 4:30 in the afternoon now, and the wind blows incessantly.

    The days though, have been like stained-glass representations of days.  The honey light and the way the coloured leaves float 'just so' around wet, dark-coloured branches, the way they sweep through the streets like confetti tornadoes, resting in the corners of doorsteps along with little red berries. The bright, high feeling of a blue sky and cool air.

The forests are at that fine moment of the year where they become golden-domed cathedrals.

   Colours hang about the air like bird songs that froze at the start of a frosty morning.

     And perhaps everything will shine brighter in the days from now on, as the dark frame of nighttime stretches farther and darker across our clocks.

   I am wondering about what winter will bring, wrapping myself in extra sweaters and piling on blankets, drawing people wrapped in even more layers than I, and turning old pumpkins into pies.