By Molly Murfee
There was a moment, mostly based on the perceptions of others; a vague whiff of a story established in time before I arrived; found in threads picked up from pronouns and implications - that winter was decidedly male. Üller, Father Winter, Old Man Winter and the like, blowing in all mad with icicles, snow and frost.
At least not in some tales.
The Cailleach is the oldest of the old. Older than any god. Older than the oceans. Older than the earth. It is said all goddesses sprung from her. Screeching gusts of stories remain of her in the Scottish Highland mountains of Ross-Shire between the 50 and 60th parallel, a latitude that also holds places like the Canadian Rockies, Russia’s Ural, Alaska’s Kenai. She is the old woman of the mountains, the high searing ridgetops, the gale force winds.
She formed Càrn na Caillich when stones fell from her creel, a profound furrow from sliding down Beinn na Caillich. She is the wild Outer Hebrides of Scotland, the tattered fringes of the Beara Peninsula in Ireland. Her haunts are rocky and wind-swept, full of cliffs, and air.
It is she who brings the winter weather and winds, blizzards, frost and hail. There, the snow flies when the giantess Cailleach is washing her plaid in the Corryvreken Whirlpool of the North Atlantic Sea; hurricanes are whipped up when she milks her goats, and froth-crested waves batter the cliffs. Daughter of the pale winter sun, her skin is blue, and she scrutinizes the actions of humans through a single, piercing eye as open and wide as the January full moon. She is the very spirit of the wilderness, the embodiment of the forces humans cannot domesticate. She is fierce protectress of all wild creatures and the untamed. She herself is unpredictable, uncontrollable, often feared.
I feel her deep in the recesses of my genetic code of ancestors, detect her stowing away in secret folds of tartans that crossed that cold sea hundreds of years ago.
I see her emerge, a wreath of naked willow woven about her head of copper, rust and heather, her hair trailing gray and white streamers of clouds, her face the fissures of rock. Hawks on one shoulder. Ravens on another. Bones clang about her waist.
Here I imagine Cailleach conjures the molten rock from the heart of the earth, like a cauldron just almost boiling over, into buttressed peaks; casually shoves tectonic plates as if rearranging the furniture, mountain ranges rumpling like rugs. She is the screaming snow flag from the summits, the ice-clad breath that pushes you indoors. Her moods thrash, her ripping indifference expressed in avalanches, and floods, and earthquakes. The destroyer, the one who washes her plaid clean, clearing the slate for the snows to fall and winter to come, for newness to begin. The crone, the wise one, the learned.
But even she gets tired. “It’s time to just sit and think anyway,” she says to no one but herself, looking forward to the soon-to-be moments when all she must do is contemplate the candles of starlight sprinkled through the unfathomable depths. She eyes the larger picture, through pages of geologic epochs, the forces needed to keep the balance. Truth be told, she’s become a bit intolerant of humans, just plain had it with their foolishness and short-sighted nature.
I see her retreating inside, stoking the fire a bit, stirring the contents in the iron pot licked by the flames. She pulls her plaid up around her chin and sighs, sips a cup of strong root tea, props her feet up a bit, allows her fingers to trail through the musky fur of the bear sleeping at her side. She’ll go still for a while, sometime in the middle of January, in the dark of night when it’s too cold to snow, when water flutters through the air in tiny sparkles of ice and the rivers halt to solid. She folds her arms underneath her belly, as if cupping a secret seed, of flowing streams and meadow grass and the chartreuse shock of newborn leaves. It is the blankness, she knows, that grows the strongest roots. Some fermenting and fertilizing that only the dark can do.
“Silly humans,” she thinks, winter is supposed to be a time of rest, to let the earth rest, the animals rest, from their constant meddling. But with their factories and false daylight, their incessant digging and building, winter has ceased to be the time when everything stands still. She shakes her head, outside the winds wail against the windows, shakes the bones of aspen, while inside spiders knit webs in the shadowy nooks of their corners.
She has some more howling to do, to be sure, she yawns, thinking, perhaps sometime in February, cut some electricity, pile snow so high they can’t get in their cars. Make ‘em stay put for a bit. As she drifts asleep she flashes of rain-snow in April and May, chuckling inwardly at her crafty naughtiness, and what fun it is to taunt the silly humans. “Keeps ‘em on their toes,” she nods, before falling into the deepest of dreams.
Creative non-fiction and place-based author Molly Murfee specializes in nature and environmental writing cut with cultural and societal critique. Sign up for the Earth Muffin Memos Blog & Newsletter for more on her ongoing book project; field-based Writing & Connection Workshops; online advertising and syndicate column opportunities; and freelance writing services at www.mollymurfee.com.