Cerridwen’s Daughter

My name is Craerwy. Have you never heard of me? No, of course you haven’t. I’ll wager that you’ll have heard of my mother though. Cerridwen the sorceress, her power and wisdom subsumed by her obsession to have a son as wise and handsome as herself. In those times of legend, daughters were bright and beautiful, but that’s where their tales ended.

My name, in the old tongue, means sacred egg, a harbinger of the beginning of all things, so the Druids say. Yet here I sit on the shores of this blessed isle listening to the end of all things, or rather, to the silence at the end of all things.

I have lived here for centuries uncounted. The gift of sorcery, which I inherited from my mother, has granted me a long life and a peace of sorts. She was ruled by her ambition and anger, but my needs are few and I want for nothing, almost nothing.  My family is long dead, even my half-brother, Taliesin the Bard, who was born of magic but died as a mortal. His honeyed words blazed on the tongues of men and in the hearts of women long after, but now they too have passed into silence.

I have not always been alone. This island was once a mountain, lofty and fair. Pilgrims from the mortal world would come here to dally with immortals, finding wisdom through love and loss. I remember the joy of dancing between the worlds, farsighted enough to weave a prudent path between futures.

The mountain was a hallowed place. Young couples made their vows in the sacred groves of pine trees. The dead were laid to rest in solemn ceremonies, their tombs hewed from the rock and marked with granite menhirs. Three stones stand for my family. The first, tall and mighty like my giant father; the second gnarled and ugly for my benighted brother, Morfran. The last a chunk of granite for my mother, unyielding and stern.

I remember binding her body for burial, wondering how a face so serene in death had masked such a furious life. My brother, Morfran, was born ugly and stupid. How our mother pitied him. Her baneful love drove her to brew him a potion of all-knowing, that he might become wise, if not handsome. When our boy-servant accidentally consumed the potion, stealing my brother’s birthright, he little guessed how swift and harsh my mother’s pursuit would be. In a frenzy of transformations, the thief became a hare, a fish, a bird—each swift and powerful in their elements. But Cerridwen was a predator, becoming a greyhound, an otter, a hawk. Her obsession seemed ridiculous to me; the potion’s effects could not be reversed or transferred to my poor, dullard brother, for whom she had brewed it. The climax of her vengeance was absurd. The thief transformed into a grain of wheat hidden in a granary. She transformed into a hen and ate every last grain, literally consuming her enemy. I remember her coming home, human, crowing like a dawn-lit rooster about her success. But my brother and I were no better off for her endeavours.

Taliesin, my half-brother, came to the island for our mother’s funeral rites. He led the procession of Druids to her mountain tomb, singing songs of loss and forgiveness on his golden harp. After she was laid to rest, we sat near the mountain’s summit and chewed the fat, having had few opportunities for conversation while my mother was alive. She had despised him, body and spirit. The thief’s seed had swelled in her womb, and she gave birth to Taliesin, the fairest child ever born. Crazed with wrath, she stuffed the baby into a leather sack and hurled him into the sea. But my little half-brother did not die. He was saved from the waters and his miraculous voice inflamed the world with his songs and prophecies.

With my mother tranquil in her tomb, I could finally tell Taliesin how afraid I’d been when she’d thrown him into the water; how I never forgave her for trying to rob the world of his grace and wisdom. We were reconciled then, though he would not stay. He preferred to move the hearts of men in the mortal world. However, he left me the gift of a prophecy:

As did Cerridwen throw her treasure into the sea, so one day the sea shall return it to her daughter. 

Then he strode down the mountain and rowed his coracle across the deep lake that filled the valley below. A lake where old heroes and their legends had come to die beneath its mirrored surface, only to rise and drown again in an endless cycle of heroism and tragedy.

But no more.

The change started in the mortal world. The waters rose slowly, oh so slowly; the oceans drawing their fresh brethren into their saline embrace as a mother gathers her children. Rushing rivers and giggling brooks were silenced by high tides, undulating round the earth. The lake, which the Druids believed to be the source of all magic, was diluted, polluted with salt. I witnessed the Lady of the Lake’s final salute as she lifted Excalibur to the sky for the last time, the sword’s edge dulled and pitted with rust. My mountain became an island.

I sensed approaching oblivion and used my dwindling powers to draw what remained of the mountain into the shadows between worlds. Desperate mortals seeking refuge saw only impenetrable mist; those immortals who had once been my friends, faded away as the source of their magic was submerged.

Behind the veil, I was protected from the inundation. But nothing could protect me from the sounds of the dying world. I sat on the green shore and heard the pleas of mortals looking for dry land upon which to set their feet. I heard the last breaths of animals, exhausted from swimming; the small splashes of wing-weary birds falling from sky to sea. Barren cliffs were submerged, and the wide-winged gulls despaired, their eggs plunging, unhatched, into the hungry waters. There was nothing I could do, so I did nothing, paralysed by the keening of the dying and the stench of the dead. For a while, the seas thundered against the ramparts of my magic. But that too stopped. The sea was sombre without its playful shores and the wind lost heart–what use is a hurricane without a civilisation to devastate?

When I dropped the veil, my island emerged into a world of muffled senses. Only colour remained, a blue sea under a cerulean sky; the verdant grass under my feet; the pine trees motionless as paintings on a lifeless canvas. There was nothing to be heard or smelt or tasted.

I endured for a while. The loneliness I could bear; I had always been alone. I wanted for nothing, or almost nothing. The silence was insufferable. I longed for Taliesin’s music to renew hope and understanding to the world. I sang the old songs. I made a harp from the bones and sinews of skeletons washed onto my island’s shores, but the very air quenched the noise. The universe, it seemed, was waiting, listening only for a sound that would bring the world back to life. My voice was stilled by its sense of expectation. I yearned to know what the universe wanted of me, but I dared not waste my remaining magic in a futile search for meaning. Yet every day I felt compelled to walk three times around my island before returning each night to the sacred grove on the summit, where sweet grass lined a bower for my exhausted body.

I wonder now why I never despaired. Every morning I woke refreshed, driven by the unspoken need of the silent world. I pondered the answer, though the question was unspoken. Three times around my island I walked, every day, for a hundred years, answering questions with questions.

All things have a purpose. What is mine?

Creirwy, blessed egg, yet how may I be the beginning of all things when the world is dead? 

How can magic help me? Even if I could transform as my mother did, I would still be just the one soul left in the world.

My mother, fecund in every form, quickened with new life when she ate the seed that was the thief disguised. I eat, but I am barren. How may the world be reborn when there is no man to disturb my virginity?

How may I be the beginning of all things?

What does this maddening silence demand of me?

Thrice more around the island, every day the stillness of the world unstirred by the maelstrom of my thoughts.

I awoke on the hundredth day of the hundredth year—spring, as it had been back in the days when seasons still turned.

Once more I rose from the sward of soft grass in the centre of the sacred grove. The blades sprang up, as though they had not borne my weight all night. Truly, that morning I felt insubstantial as I set out on my journey, three times around the island.

Although the day was windless, tiny wavelets troubled the shores of my island. Then I saw it, a leather sack, salt-hardened and heavy, lying on the shingle. I knew not how it came to be there, but the world seemed to hold its breath as I dragged it back to my bower and picked at the tangled knots that held it closed. As I pulled the drawstring, the sack slipped and spilled its contents into my lap. A multitude of seeds cascaded over my skirts. Many I recognised—corn, sunflower, wheat, pumpkin, dandelion—and many more that I did not. I ran my fingers through them, marvelling at their varied textures, from the black sand of tiny forget-me-not seeds to the smooth pebbles of wild cherry pits. In the senseless nothing at the end of all things, their vitality made my fingertips tingle. I swept the seeds back into the sack, intent on resuming my journey around the island in case more treasure had been swept onto my shores. But I was overwhelmed by weariness and lay down to sleep, my head pillowed on the sack.

I have always been an ascetic, untroubled by the appetites of my mortal body. My thoughts had sustained me for a hundred years, yet the following morning I awoke with a desperate hunger. I reached into the precious sack of seed and drew out a grain of corn. I swallowed it greedily and was immediately satiated. I had thought to scatter the seeds during my pilgrimage round the island, but I felt little urge to walk, and spent the day in reflection.

The following morning I awoke refreshed but overtaken by a fierce compulsion. Leaving the sack in my bower, I scurried around the island, gathering supple fronds from the trees, springy bracken from the heaths and pillowed moss from the shaded faces of boulders. All day I foraged, and when I returned to the grove, I found that the grass had grown waist high and was ripening into golden hay. As the sun set, I built a vast nest between the encircling pines of the sacred grove, weaving the fronds and bracken into a sturdy basket lined with soft mosses and fragrant meadow grass. I was consumed with joy and lay in my nest, contented, and fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning I awoke refreshed but overtaken by curiosity. I looked around. There, nestled in the hay, was a large white egg.  My curiosity was swept away by love, this egg was mine to nurture. I spread my skirts over the precious shell and sat there all day until the sun set, and I fell again into a deep sleep.

The morning after, I awoke refreshed but overtaken by a sense of wonder. I brushed my skirts aside. As the dawn light filled my nest, the egg I had laid but a day before cracked and split in two. A fully-grown dove, its pearlescent feathers shimmering in shades of white and grey, sprang from the shards and cooed melodiously. At first, my ears, so starved of sound, did not recognise the dove’s blessing. It cooed again, raising its head high, throat vibrating, as the sun sprang to its zenith. I heard the whisper of a breeze through the pines as the dove took flight and rested in the branches.

I listened to my dove sing until the sun set and I was overtaken by a ravenous appetite. I reached for the sack and this time drew out a dandelion seed. I devoured it greedily. Immediately satiated, I lay in my nest and fell asleep to the dove’s wondrous lullaby.

I woke before sunrise the next day, refreshed and excited to tend to the cluster of tiny, speckled eggs I had laid overnight. I covered them tenderly with my skirt while the dove serenaded me.

Those tiny eggs hatched into vivid goldfinches. Their twittering song was like a harp arpeggio to accompany the dove’s velvet fluting. I laughed, delighting in the joy of their music and the sheer pleasure of hearing.

The need to circumnavigate my island no longer consumed me. My eggs needed all my care as I ate the seeds one by one, and each day gave life to more birds. Soon the dreary silence of the end of all things transformed into a symphony of song as wrens and robins and bluetits and jays and jackdaws and birds I could not even name followed my first child into the trees.

After a week, I was assailed by the first pangs of a mother’s anxiety. My magic had seemingly kept me sustained during my long vigil, but what of my children? My appetite had barely touched the vast number of seeds in the sack; but if I brought forth a multitude of children, what would they eat in this drowned and pitiful world? The dove cooed, its song soothing my anxieties. Far away, I heard the sea moving and the rush of waves breaking on the shore. Lulled by sounds I had not heard for a hundred years, I curled up in my nest and consumed another seed.

My answer came the following morning when my first child fluttered back to my nest on velvet wings. My dove tugged at the sack’s drawstring and spilled the seeds into a large heap. She delicately dipped her beak into the mound and rummaged until she found another grain of corn. She swallowed it quickly and flew back to the trees. I watched as she built a nest of her own and settled onto her newly laid eggs. Two weeks later, the eggs cracked, and her nest was filled with hatchlings, unfeathered and gaping. I watched them grow, nourished by the corn that always seemed to rise to the top of the sack whenever the dove came to feed.

I realised then that the enchanted sack had all that we needed to sustain our island. Every day I would eat a new seed and bring forth a new species; thenceforth the sack would provide the grains that the birds needed to grow their own families.

Still I worried. Taliesin’s prophecy had come true. As my mother had thrown her treasure into the sea, so the sea had returned a treasure to me. But like all wealthy folk, I fretted about how best to invest my riches so that I would never know poverty again. Every morning I awoke to the full sensory spectrum of a living world. I was never without birdsong and the appalling silence of the nothingness at the end of all things was banished. Yet my fear of a silence renewed plagued my thoughts.

As I, first born, was the wisest of my mother’s children, so was my firstborn. One fine spring morning, a year and a day after the sea returned its treasure to me, I awoke to a dawn chorus louder than any since the beginning of time. I felt a compulsion to walk and strode round my island three times. But instead of my usual this time I strode in an ever-increasing spiral as the waters receded before my feet. I looked out across the wide sea and there, in the distance, a dot growing ever larger. I sat on the green shore and waited. Slowly, oh so slowly, the dot became a bird, my firstborn, my dove, carrying a sprig of cherry blossom in her lovely beak.

I was filled with a restless energy, feeling the future waiting to burst forth. I walked down the mountain, the sea falling away before me until I reached the shores of the lake. The salt drained away until I felt the magic rise from the depths and turn the lake’s deep waters into a mirror.

I called for my children. My dove laid the cherry blossom in my hand and brushed my cheek with her subtle feathers. Her children perched briefly on my shoulders before taking wing, spiralling in the breeze, away to find other shores. The goldfinches came next, bouncing lightly onto the curls of my long hair. They chirruped their love for me, and I blessed them as they took to the sky. The wrens perched on my outstretched fingers, their trumpeting farewells louder than any clarion call. Species after species, my birds came for my blessing then swirled skywards, striving forth to explore the new world emerging from the depths. My spirit soared with them. I knew, in that moment, that I would bear many more children and their voices would never be hushed while I lived to love them.

I sang and danced on the lake’s edge, my tongue no longer tied by the universe. The birds carried my merriment around the globe, the force of my laughter renewing the winds and the tides and the great cycle of nature.

I, Craerwy, sacred egg, sacred mother, stand here at the beginning of all things, and bless this world to be.