I am learning to read the winds and sky: to check the temperature, wind speed, and cloud cover to see whether it is warm and still enough to walk the cliffs, or whether I should stick to the sheltered woods. I know now that any wind above 15ish mph is too chilly for studying in a grassy meadow if the temperature is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit; that rain here is light and usually doesn’t last more than a few minutes; that the sea turns shades of royal blue, marine green, and blue-gray depending on the tides and rain patterns.
Spring comes earlier in Scotland, thank God. The white snowdrops are fading now, giving way to daffodils of bright yellow or cream; green buds pop up on the prickly beach roses and hedges; flocks of honking geese make Vs in the sky. You can smell thawing earth now (one of my favorite smells). It is warm enough for adventures again: stargazing on the pier under a golden crescent moon surrounded by haze; study sessions on grassy clifftops thick with gorse; wanders through a green park beside a huge brick mansion with boarded-up windows and KEEP OUT signs.
These past few weeks have been like treading water amidst huge waves; I have managed to keep track of everything, I think, but spring break came just in time. Classes have continued to be fascinating, so good that I can only drink in the richness: the Incarnation and Passion of Christ, our suffering and triumphant Messiah; Resurrection, transhumanism, and artificial intelligence; ecclesiology (theology of the Church), religious syncretism, and graphic novels/comics as a medium of theological insight; Henry Ossawa Tanner’s mesmerizing painting of the Annunciation; love and theatricality in Shakespeare’s “A Winter’s Tale”; oaths and love and power in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. I am reading George MacDonald, James Hogg, C.S. Lewis, and others for various papers and presentations. I am inundated and enthralled, joyful and very tired.
The Transept artists’ group, which is connected with ITIA (my program, the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts) is also hosting an online exhibition that just started on Friday. Putting it together has required much more emailing, scheduling, Google Drive manipulation, spreadsheets, and checklists than I realized, but we are starting to see the fruits of our labor. We chose “In/break” for the theme (thinking of God breaking into human history and the world breaking out of the COVID pandemic, among other things) and artists have taken it in such fascinating directions. Barbara Davey’s set of five poems, “Interruptions and Intrusions,” has some sections that haunted me:
There are some real treasures coming over the next two weeks: a meditation on walking the Fife Pilgrim Trail, dramatic sketches of each of the four Gospels, a modern retelling of the birth of Samuel, and many more. The artworks will be posted on the Transpositions blog here.
On Saturday, I celebrated the freedom of spring break by hiking down the Fife Coastal Path to the Cambo Gardens, an estate with a walled garden full of blooming purple and white and green, glasshouses, woodlands full of daffodils and snowdrops, and a very large ginger pig named Lawrence. (Ginger in color, to be clear.) The coastal path is alive with tiny yellow flowers, dark green seaweed, rocks for scrambling, stone steps carved with crisscrosses to give walkers more traction. We broke our mileage record for one day: about 17 miles, give or take. We traded sore joints and tired muscles for glorious views of the royal blue sea, gray-blue mountains, and St. Andrews shining like a jewel in its cove.
How do you live a good life? I’m surprised that that question continues to haunt me over the years; it began just after finishing my undergrad. Sitting in traffic on my commute, counting up savings paycheck by paycheck, scheduling coffee dates, trying to fill up lonely Saturdays, I kept thinking: am I doing this right? How is everyone else choosing to live? How do I live for the kingdom of God in this time, this place, with this soul and these gifts? This adventure-year in Scotland was supposed to solve that question, somewhat. I saved, planned, strategized, dreamed, and prayed, and God gave me a way to incarnate hope into reality. But I still wonder now, as I read poetry and fantasy and plan hikes and picnics through lockdown, how to choose where to spend time, money, and energy in the light of Genesis and the Gospels, Ecclesiastes and Paul’s letters . . . and Revelation.
The wheel of the year turns again toward Easter. I have written before about how this holy feast feels different from Christmas because it has the grief of Good Friday, which is not the full story, but cannot be ignored. Waiting, feasting, lamenting, rejoicing, and hoping all belong in the divine narrative. I want to live well in the shadow of the cross and the sunrise of the empty tomb: in studies, adventures, art, work, and fellowship. In this silver-blue citadel, in the remaining months I have left, I hope I can continue to figure out how.
One of my favorite findings in this Summer of Faerie project was an essay by George MacDonald in which he argues (in a lyrical, wandering way that doesn’t really feel like an argument) that the purpose of a fairy tale is, like music, to awaken readers instead of convincing them.
He says (speaking of the author):
… where his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an aeolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it. Let fairytale of mine go for a firefly that now flashes, now is dark, but may flash again. Caught in a hand which does not love its kind, it will turn to an insignificant ugly thing, that can neither flash nor fly.
This week’s Summer of Faerie post, a haunting poem by William Stark, honors MacDonald’s vision of a work of art as an aeolian harp or firefly. Reading it rewakened my memories of the stormy, brooding Anglo-Saxon poetry of my freshman “Intro to British Literature” course; the misty, musical words of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion; to the green hills and rainy skies of England’s Lake District. Enjoy!
Threnody: The Fallen Kingdom
by William Stark
Along the twilit road I trudged, yet seeming scarce to tire, as round about the raindrops muddied field and path to mire. No gleam of sun glanced through the gloom, no fire from hearth did flame, and all about was dark and cold, yet in that moment came a spark forth from my musings grim. that set my mind afire.
A dwindling, flick’ring, dying coal that gleamed with memory’s gold, recalling all the former days, those radiant years of old, when hearth and heart were warmed and filled, when singing never ceased, when friendship fair bound man to man, by doom nor foe released, and holy honor ruled the realms, as men of yore have told.
Castles and strongholds stout they raised, untouched by storm nor siege, whence warriors errant sought afar the kingdom’s furthest reach; and seven towers watched their strands, above the harbors still, and pillared halls they made themselves, and a city on a hill. For love and honor were their lords, and loyalty their liege.
These all shine clear before my eye, from flashing, noble past: the seven guarding towers pale, the ancient strongholds fast, the city white on verdant hill, that stoops to azure sea, awash in sunset’s golden rays from pinnacle to quay. But weep, for it could not endure, could not forever last.
The vision past, the towers fall, dissolving into rain; the sun-washed city on the hill gives way to gloom and pain. Its warriors sleep beneath the hills; their loyalty is dead, And only chill and dark endure, yet still I trudge ahead To wander on until at last my city I regain.
William Stark is a rising high school senior from Georgia; an avid reader of epic, myth, and fantasy; and a writer of both poetry and prose. His poetry primarily follows formal structures such as the sonnet and blank verse and has been featured at the Foundling House website. His prose work combines elements of high fantasy and science fiction, and most recently produced the first draft of his first novel. William also maintains a website for reviews of lesser-known children’s books, which may be found at www.realmofbooks.com.
My research methods for this Summer of Faerie project have been quick, messy plunges instead of the careful, methodical, deep dives of a professional scholar. However, I am finding treasures. J.R.R. Tolkien, George MacDonald, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alan Jacobs, Madeleine L’Engle, and many others have explored the mysteries of Faerie, including memory, imagination, wonder, and beauty. My latest pleasure was finally reading George MacDonald’s The Golden Key, which I had heard about but not read – a sparkling, mesmerizing tale with echoes of dreams, death, and eternity.
The other writers who have joined me in this quest of celebrating and adding to the Faerie canon continue to delight. Rachel Donahue returns with another poem that “strips the veil of familiarity from the world” to expose “its sleeping beauty” (stole that from Shelley). Rachel also contributed a story that reminded me of a hearthfire on a cool, misty day – atmospherically, somewhere between the Shire and the Misty Mountains. Enjoy!
King Midas Chased Me This Morning
King Midas chased me this morning.
I saw him coming in the rear view glass, his broad reach spreading o’er field and tree and man alike, gilding everything in sight until he reached my pane, besmirched with dust, and I could see no more through the aurous wash.
As I fled, I turned to spy him rising there behind a tree, and when I least expected him, his fingers reached deliberately and touched my eyes till all I saw was gold.
Summer of Invisible Dragons
by Rachel Donahue
Plowed the back pasture today. Tom Shepherd came down the lane with his flock and brought word that dragons have descended from the top of Mt. Summit. Strange news. He’s not one to believe in fairy tales. I’m afraid he may have the dropsy mind.
Successful day at market. Folks love Mae Ella’s rhubarb jam. Stopped by the inn for a brew and heard a traveler saying that Dunn Castle is under siege by invisible dragons. The other patrons laughed at his strange tale, but his story gave me a bad feeling. I told Mae Ella about it and what old Tom said the other day.
Helped Mae Ella prep her flower beds. Sowed the back pasture.
Cut hay in the meadow.
Figured out where the story of invisible dragons came from. They aren’t invisible at all—you just can’t see them. A messenger from Allendale said the eternal cloud at the top of Mt. Summit has descended upon Dunn Castle where it sits at the foot of the mountain. The castle is completely hidden from view. Said he could see flashes of fire inside the cloud all the way from Allendale.
Baled hay. Mae Ella helped.
Went to a meeting in the square this afternoon at Mae Ella’s urging. Rumor reached us this morning that the dragons have spread from Dunn Castle to Allendale. Some believe the dragons can smell crowds, so they refuse to go outside. That explains why the market was so slow. Wish I could’ve stayed home myself. There’s talk of canceling the lantern festival next week, though I don’t see the reason for such fuss. We’re a long way from Allendale.
Smithy says there’s an inventor coming to Redfield to teach all the smiths from surrounding villages how to make his contraption—a kind of metal parasol. Says it’ll protect from dragon fire. Smithy’s already asking folks to give up their swords and shields and any other scrap metal they can afford. Says once the dragons get here we won’t have much use for them anyway. Not sure that I’m ready to give up my weapons on a hunch. But I did check the roof over and patch a couple places.
Mended the fence in the south meadow.
Word came that the dragons seem to have a taste for elders and are sparing the children. Maybe they’re attracted to the smell of menthol and camphor, I don’t know. But there’s a cloud over Sweetdale now, so they’re one step closer. There’s another meeting in the square tomorrow morning—only one representative from each family. Guess it’s up to me to go.
We canceled the lantern festival. Who could have imagined. We’ve celebrated this festival on the same day for hundreds of years. But we can’t risk attracting the dragons with large crowds. Our elders are too valuable.
Planted the garden. Feels strange to be sowing with the threat of dragons. Wondering if we’ll even be here to harvest.
I took my shield and extra swords to Smithy today. Never thought I’d be protecting my family by surrendering my weapons. Nothing makes sense any more now that there are dragons. They’ve moved on to Birchwood, so it’s just a matter of time before they get here. People are celebrating the lantern festival by placing their lanterns in windows. It’s not the same, but it’s a mighty nice view from our end of town to see so many little lights aglow.
A traveling merchant in the market today was selling what he called “dragon repellent”—a stink cream guaranteed to keep them away. He made some sales, but I didn’t buy it. Mae Ella asked around and found it was something she could make herself. Now the kitchen stinks to high heaven. I sure hope she don’t expect me to smear that stuff on when I go out.
Yep, she did. I smell so bad I can hardly stand myself. But I sure do love that woman. She makes so few demands of me, if she feels better with me stinking, I reckon I’ll do it. Good thing is, I’m not the only one. There’s enough of us wearing the stink that you can’t tell who it is that smells so bad. It might or might not keep the dragons away, but it’ll sure work on everything else. Even Bo and Bess won’t come near me. Glad the planting’s all done.
Well I never. I’m so cross I can’t see straight. Heard that our neighbors over in Greenfield are pushing their elders out of town, sending them out as a kind of offering to the dragons. Said they won’t be caught stinking or using funny parasols—they have the right to go about their lives like normal. Said if the dragons want the elders they can have ‘em, that way they’ll leave the rest of the village alone. Folks tried to tell ‘em it don’t work that way, but they won’t listen. We here in Redfield been taking those elders in for safekeeping. It may put us at higher risk, but with the stink cream and the parasols and everyone staying indoors, we suspect to be OK.
Got a nasty splinter while making stakes for the tomatoes. Mae Ella got most of it, but couldn’t get the last sliver. Elder Roy made up a paste to draw it out. I wonder what other useful things he’s got stored up in that head of his.
No market this week. Working the land with my parasol contraption close by. It’s a bit unnerving, having to watch and listen so close while I work, but I got to keep the farm going.
Folks is growing restless, what with being cooped up with the stink and all. The inn’s closed, and the taverns, too, and no one’s meeting in the square. I only leave to tend to my animals, and poor Mae Ella hardly leaves at all. It’s hard to see that sweet blossom withering on the vine, but she’s determined to take good care of the three elders we got staying with us. To pass the time we all tell stories of an evening. I’ve been amazed to hear what they’ve seen in their day, but it’s nothing like the dragons. They’ve never lived anything like this.
The dragons are at Greenfield. Maker have mercy. Some from town went to see if they could help, to carry them some cream and a few extra parasols, but it was too late. The cloud had already covered the village. We could see flashes of fire out west in the early morning hours before the sun was up. It’s eerily quiet here—no birds or chitterin, no wagons or talking. Everyone’s locked up tight now, just waiting.
The dragons passed us by. I’ve never been so scared in my life. We been spread out in the house, not more than two together, and all of us under parasols as much as possible. Only sound I heard for two days was a baby crying down the street and the animals restless in the barn. No one knows when they’ll be back or exactly why they kept going, but we’re all breathing careful tonight.
Still no sign of dragons here, but no one goes outside unless they need to. Taking every precaution. Got word from Greenfield today—the whole village is in mourning, hardly a family untouched. Some dead, some suffering burns, a couple houses charred to a crisp. Someone sent word thanking us for saving their elders from such a fate. The elders are mourning, though. They’ve lost more than most.
Been at Greenfield for two days, helping to clean up the remains. Mae Ella sent me off with baskets of food and all the extra stink cream she could spare. Only seven of us made the trip from Redfield, but we didn’t walk together for fear of drawing the dragons back. It was a lonely journey. I’ve worked so hard the last two days I ache in places I’d forgotten about, but I was determined to get home to my sweet Mae Ella soon as I could.
The elders have decided to return home. Greenfielders are staying indoors now and using all the stink cream and parasols they can get, and they’re in sore need of their elders. I’m mighty proud of the folks from our village who are stepping up to help and donating what they can. A few old misers in town are more interested in being right and teaching them a lesson, but I say that that poor village has suffered their folly enough without anybody else heaping coal on the fire. The ones of us who went to help the other day saw that plain enough.
Weeded the garden. Caught a glimpse of the firstfruits.
There’s a new normal around here. We live every day with the threat of dragons (word still comes of villages hit near and far) but we’ve been fortunate. Hard not to let our guard down when the skies are so clear. But we all care about each other too much to be careless. Even the ones that was skeptical are taking up parasols now that it’s hit so close to home. Some of the ladies done gone to painting theirs, making it a new kind of fashionable thing. I got to say I don’t mind it so much. Those little spots of color—like the zinnias that popped up in Mae Ella’s flower bed—just brighten up the place and help it not to feel so dark and dreary. Eventually the dragons will come—I can feel it in my bones—but that don’t mean we can’t take care of what’s here right now. If Mae Ella’s taught me anything in all my years with her, it’s that. We got work to do.
Rachel S. Donahue holds a B.A. in English and Bible from Welch College in Nashville, TN, and has more than eleven years’ experience changing diapers. She and her husband, Mick, previously lived and worked in Spain serving people groups at risk of marginalization. They now live near Charlotte, North Carolina, where they’re both involved in the family greenhouse business while raising three sprightly boys and a sweet-as-pie little girl.Visit her website/blog at www.thedonahuedaily.com. Her book, Real Poems for Real Moms: from a Mother in the Trenches to Another, can also be found on Amazon or bookshop.org.