Old Woman Achan goes out to the woods before dawn and sits amid the undergrowth and fills her ears with the song of the bluebells. To a stranger it would look like a pleasure-jaunt, and an ill-advised one too, but Achan chooses her place carefully. She listens with intent. When she closes her eyes, she imagines she hears the bluebells move, craning their bright heads toward her. Of course, when she opens them again, nothing has changed. The flowers hang delicate as raindrops from their stems. Looking at them, Achan thinks a single touch might send them tumbling to the ground. Each petal curls back neatly from the mouth of the flower, leaving them open in endless song.
When her daughter Tiwan was young, she was careful to caution the girl against getting too close to the flowers. All parents did. There was a reason bluebells had once been thought to belong to the fair folk. To listen to their song was to succumb to a slow madness, drawn back to hear them again and again until you wasted away, wandering the woods like a wraith, neither sleeping nor eating, only listening. To fill your mouth with that music, though—to trap it and drink it down like nectar—was to be healed of sickness and injury and sorrow, to feel the blood thrum like sap in your veins, to shine. To enchant all around you as the bluebells did, and be loved and heard always.
That was a problem, of course. Who would wish to be as the bluebell to her loved ones? But in any case, the flowers did not sing for those who stopped up their ears, and so it was futile to try. The risk was too great. Nobody knew the woods better than Achan, but even she had only ever told her daughter, Carry wax with you to stop up your ears. Tread carefully, and whatever you do, don’t listen.
But now she nestles amid the bluebells and lets their song fill her up until she feels her head will float from her shoulders; until she dreams she sees a golden door in the woods and the song is the shining thread that will lead her to it. It hums beneath her skin and warms her bones, the arthritic ache in her knuckles fading. Though it is dark, she feels warm as a cat in the sun. The warmth is deceptive, she knows, but it’s hard to resist sinking into it, harder than getting out of a cosy bed on a winter’s morning.
A small voice sounds near the edge of the wood. “Grandmother! Grandmother, come quickly! Mama’s worse again.”
The golden door fades from view, the warmth dissipating. Achan gathers up her skirts and picks her way through the bluebells, making for the treeline as briskly as her legs will carry her. Not as fast as they used to, that’s for sure.
Sichen waits at the edge of the wood, tugging nervously at a tall fern. Achan takes his hand. “Did you bring wax with you? For your ears? We’re close to the bluebells here.”
The boy looks down guiltily. “I didn’t think. I was scared.”
Achan shakes her head. “Didn’t your mother remind you?”
“She’s busy looking after Mama.” Sichen chews his lip. “I think she’s scared, too.”
* * *
Tiwan is coughing hard when they reach the house. She sleeps on the couch on the ground floor now, for she wheezes like an old woman when she climbs the stairs. The once-warm brown of her complexion is ashen, her strong arms wasted almost to the bone. She still wears the silver bracelet Mira, her wife, gave her on their wedding day, but it hangs off her skinny wrist as though she is a child again, playing dress-up with Achan’s own wedding jewellery, parading around the house and calling, “Look, Mama, I’m the queen of the world!” At the time, Achan barely spared her a glance, a distracted smile. She didn’t have the temperament to laugh and play along with a child’s games, so she left all that to Twm—though if she had the time again, she’d try.
Time trickles away so fast when you’re not paying attention, and Tiwan has little left. Achan has tried everything she knows. None of it has worked.
Mira fusses over the stove, heating water for sage tea. Her movements are more practised these days, but she’s neither a healer nor a cook by nature. Her skills have always been in teaching, and the local children learn their letters far more slowly without her guidance. Learning to play the nurse has been hard on her: there are deep shadows beneath her eyes and her wispy yellow hair looks like it’s seen neither brush nor water in weeks. Sichen goes to her and she squeezes him tight, his face buried against her side. “Tell me there’s something else we can try,” she says, looking at Achan with desperate eyes. “Tell me you’ve got something.”
Silent, Achan goes to her daughter’s bedside. Tiwan blinks up at her in surprise when Achan reaches for her hand. They clasp and hold on, neither as strong as she would wish to be.
“Nothing yet,” she tells Mira.
Then she kisses Tiwan’s forehead and returns to the forest.
* * *
Old Woman Achan goes out to the woods before dawn; and in the golden mid-morning and the heat of midday and at twilight; and some of the neighbours say they hear the door of her cottage opening even in the dead of night. Her grief has driven her to the bluebells, they whisper. Even her skill cannot save her daughter now, and, having given up hope, she seeks only escape.
It’s not entirely a lie. She’s always found it easier to entangle herself in the quiet life of plants. The closeness of people is noisier, more demanding, and she struggles to say the right words and make the right faces. But identifying a herb by the shape of its leaves, harvesting the right amount, mixing up a remedy—that’s a different matter. Achan may not be able to charm people into friendship or make them laugh with witty remarks, but she can take pleasure in accomplishing a healing, in the silent interactions of leaf and flesh, sap and blood.
When Twm was alive, things were easier. They each had their own domains, she the forest and he the town. Without him, she feels half-in, half-out of both, unmoored and drifting.
She sits very still on the ground and listens well. A beetle crawls over her foot as though it is a tree root. A curious squirrel picks acorns from the dirt at the hem of her skirts. Achan does not move.
The bright door floats before her eyes, sketched in glowing lines of bluebellsong. She does not know what’s on the other side—only that it is beautiful, and terrible. Her heart beats hard at the thought of seeing it, but the song gentles it again.
The song puts down roots in her, digs up long-buried childhood imaginings of treetrunk doors that lead to other worlds. Achan feels the living wood around and above her, the slow movement of sap and the unfurling of leaves. She sways with the breeze that moves the bluebells and rustles the canopy. She creeps through the earth with the roots of all vegetal things. The lines between what is Achan and what is the forest begin to blur.
She never quite reaches the door; but she gets a little closer every time. And when the song ends and she is surfeited with it, there is a faint hint of something left over. A silvery tone in the air, perhaps, the last echo of some unknown verse.
Then—then—Old Woman Achan recovers herself. With whatever small hard core of will she has left, she forces herself to turn from the golden door and to sink ever so gently back to earth. She plucks from the folds of her skirt a small glass vial and uncorks it, and the last note of the song fades from hearing. Achan breathes in deeply, burying her fingers in the grass to anchor herself before she can climb to her feet.
The vial is almost a third of the way full, now. Tiwan grows paler every day, her lucid moments less frequent. This morning she coughed up blood and Mira sent Sichen down to the river until lunchtime so he wouldn’t hear her crying. Through the window, Achan watched him dawdling by the water, apart from the games and races of his friends, looking homeward, where once he’d been first into the water, his voice the loudest in the joyful din. A boy his age ought not to be so solitary, so drawn in on himself; but then a boy his age ought not to watch his mother fade like light in autumn.
Achan held Mira’s hand while she cried, remembering how she’d held it on the day of the wedding, welcoming her to the family. Twm had still been alive then, his own brilliant smile the original of Tiwan’s, father and daughter beaming side by side as he walked her to the altar. Now, Tiwan lies with her eyes closed in the sleep of pure exhaustion, no expression on her face at all.
* * *
Old Woman Achan goes out to the woods and she does not come home.
The evening darkens, and her daughter wakes briefly from fitful sleep to ask for her. Mira wipes her brow and gentles her, and then tells Sichen to stop his ears up with wax and go searching.
The boy’s heart beats fast, made louder by the plugs in his ears, as he passes the treeline. He wants to hurry but finds himself creeping carefully through the trees, holding his breath when he sees the misty carpet of bluebells and the dark form crumpled in their midst.
His grandmother is not moving. Her eyes gaze sightlessly up at him, and the fingers of her right hand dig root-like into the soil. Clutched in her left is a glass vial, with something inside it that moves like oil and shines like the moon.
Sichan runs weeping home to his mothers, the vial held tight in his fist. When he shows it to Mira her breath hitches in her throat and she sends him from the room.
He listens hard at the door. For a moment golden light creeps through the crack beneath it and there is a sound like a heavy old door opening, and a snatch of strange music. And, for a moment, Sichan imagines he hears his grandmother’s voice.
It fades as quickly as it came. When Mira calls him back inside, Tiwan is sitting up in bed, and for the first time in many weeks there is colour in her cheeks. The glass vial sits empty on the nightstand.
* * *
Old Woman Achan is buried at the edge of the woods. Tiwan has to sit down for most of the service, and when she stands she leans heavily on Mira, but day by day she grows stronger. At last she is well enough to roam the woods as her mother once did, picking herbs to treat the illnesses of neighbours and friends, pointing out the plants good to eat and the ones that are poison to her son, who shadows her so closely they seem almost one figure. People listen to her. She seems to speak with her mother’s old authority now.
Mira begins to laugh again, and if there is something distant and dreamy in her eyes when she regards her wife, well, it looks like a happy dream. Sichan grows in confidence again, running around with the other children, no longer afraid something terrible will happen if he is away from home too long. If he still seems a little more eager than the others to return home to his mother at dusk, well, it’s hardly a surprise after all he’s been through. Things are good.
And if sometimes Tiwan leaves the house before dawn and returns with her skirts soaked to the knee—well, she always returns smiling. When Mira stirs in bed and asks her where she’s been she only says, “There’s nothing to worry about.” When she speaks there is a silvery echo in the air, fading like the final note of a half-heard song.