Read Cloud and Ashes: Three Winter's Tales Online

Authors: Greer Gilman

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Cloud and Ashes: Three Winter's Tales

BOOK: Cloud and Ashes: Three Winter's Tales
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Small Beer Press

Copyright ©2009 by Small Beer Press

First published in 2009, 2009

NOTICE: This work is copyrighted. It is licensed only for use by the original purchaser. Making copies of this work or distributing it to any unauthorized person by any means, including without limit email, floppy disk, file transfer, paper print out, or any other method constitutes a violation of International copyright law and subjects the violator to severe fines or imprisonment.

one: jack daw's pack

two: a crowd of bone

three: unleaving


About the Author

* * * *
Cloud & Ashes
Three Winter's Tales

This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are either fictitious or used fictitiously.

Cloud & Ashes: Three Winter's Tales
copyright 2009 by Greer Gilman. All rights reserved.

"Jack Daw's Pack” copyright 2000 by Greer Gilman. First published in

"A Crowd of Bone” copyright 2003 by Greer Gilman. First published in

"Unleaving” copyright 2009 by Greer Gilman.

Small Beer Press

150 Pleasant Street #306

Easthampton, MA 01027 [email protected]

Distributed to the trade by Consortium.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Gilman, Greer Ilene

Cloud & ashes : three winter's tales / by Greer Gilman.—1st ed.

p. cm.

ISBN 978-1-931520-55-3 (hardcover : alk. paper)

I. Title. II. Title: Cloud and ashes.

PS3557.I453C56 2009



First edition 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Printed on 50# Natures Book Natural (30% PCR) by Thomson-Shore, Dexter, MI.

Text set in Centaur MT 11 pt. Titles set in Aquiline.

Cover art 2009 by Kathleen Jennings (

one: jack daw's pack
The Crow

He is met at a crossroads on a windy night, the moon in tatters and the mist unclothing stars, the way from Ask to Owlerdale: a man in black, whiteheaded, with a three-string fiddle in his pack. Or in a corner of an ale house, querulous among the cups, untallied; somehow never there for the reckoning, though you, or Hodge, or any traveller has drunk the night with him. A marish man: he speaks with a reedy lowland wauling, through his beak, as they say. He calls Cloud crowland. How you squall, he says, you moorland ravens; how you peck and pilfer. He speaks like a hoodie crow himself, all hoarse with rain, with bawling ballads in the street. Jack Daw, they call him. A witty angry man, a bitter melancholy man. He will barter; he will gull. In his pack are bacca pipes, new ones, white as bones, and snuff and coney-skins and cards. He plays for nothing, or for gold; packs, shuffles. In a game, triumphant, he plucks out the Crowd of Bone, or Brock with her leathern cap and anvil, hammering at a fiery heart, a fallen star. (It brock, but I mended it.) Death's doxy, he calls her, thief and tinker, for she walks the moon's road with her bag, between the hedges white with souls; she takes. Here's a lap, he says, in his shawm's voice, sharp with yelling out for ale. Here's a blaze needs no bellows. Here's a bush catches birds. He mocks at fortune. The traveller in the inn forgets what cards he held, face down, discarded in the rings of ale; he forgets what gold he lost. He'd none in his pockets, yet he played it away, laid it round and shining on the sanded board, a bright array. On each is stamped a sun.

And elsewhere on that very night, late travelling the road between Cold Law and Soulsgrave Hag, no road at all but white stones glimmering, the sold sheep heavy in his purse, another Tib or Tom or Bartlemy will meet Jack Daw. He will stand at the crossroads, bawling in his windy voice, a broadside in his hand. There'll be a woodcut at the head: a hanged man on the gallantry, crows rising from the corn. Or this: a pretty drummer boy, sword drawn against the wood, and flaunting in her plumy cap. Two lovers’ graves, entwined. A shipwreck, and no grave at all. You must take what he gives. Yet he will barter for his wares, and leave the heavy purse still crammed with coppers, for his fee is light. He takes only silver, the clipped coin of the moon: an hour of the night, a dream of owls. Afterwards, the traveller remembers that the three-string fiddle had a carven head, the face his own. With a cold touch at his heart, he knows that Jack Daw's fiddle wakes the dead; he sees their bones, unclad and rising, clothing with the tune. They dance. He sees his girl, left sleeping as he thought; Joan's Jack, gone for a soldier; his youngest child. Himself. They call him to the dance. He sees the sinews of the music string them, the old tunes, “Cross the Water to Babylon,” “The Crowd of Bone.” Longways, for as many as will, as must, they dance: clad in music, in the flowers and the flesh.

* * * *
What The Crowd Of Bone Sang

She is silent, Ashes, and she dances, odd one out. In the guisers’ play, she bears a bag of ashes of the old year's crown to sain the hearths of the living, the hallows of the earth. The children hide from her, behind the door and in the shadow of the kist; not laughing, as they fear the Sun. Click! Clack! He knocks the old man dead, that headed him before. And tumbled by the knot of swords, he rises, flaunting in their gaze. The girl who put on Ashes with her coat of skins, who stalks them, bites her cheek and grimaces so not to laugh; she feels her power. She looks sidelong at the Sun.

They say that Ashes’ mother got her gazing in her glass.
, the raven said, and so she did, undid, and saw her likeness in the stony mirror, naked as a branch of thorn. The old witch took it for herself; she cracked the glass, she broke the tree. They bled. Devouring, she bore her daughter, as the old moon bears the new, itself again; yet left hand to its right. And they do say the old one, Annis, locks her daughter in the dark of moon, winterlong and waning, and that Ashes’ birth, rebirth, is spring. They say the sun is Ashes’ lightborn brat. She is the shadow of the candle, the old moon's daughter and her mirror; she is tarnished with our breath and death. She's winter's runaway.

They are old who tell this.

But the girl who put on Ashes with her tattered coat walks silent, flown with night and firelight and masking. She is giddy with the wheel of stars. She sees the brands whirled upward, sees the flash of teeth, of eyes. The guisers shout and jostle. They are sharp as foxes in her nostrils: smoke and ale and eager sweat. She moves among them, nameless; she wears her silence like a cloak of night. Ah, but she can feel the power in her marrow, like a vein of stars. Her feet are nightfall. She could tuck a sleeping hare within her jacket, take a hawk's eggs from its breast. Her hand could beckon like the moon and bid a crone come dancing from the chimneynook to sweep about her and about; could call the sun to hawk at shadows, or a young man to her lap, and what he will.

And in the morning, she will lay by Ashes with her rags, and wash her face, and comb the witchknots from her hair; but Ashes in the tale goes on.

In spring, she rises from her mother Annis’ dark; they call the snowdrops Ashes’ Steps. The rainbow is her scarf. She dances, whirling in the April storm; she fills her hands with hailstones, green as souls. And there are some have met her, walking backward on the Lyke Road, that they call the white hare's trod, away from death; she leaps within the cold spring, falling, filling up the traveller's hands. She is drunken and she eats.

At May, the riddlecake, as round as the wheeling sun, is broken into shards, one marked with ashes; he that draws her share is Sun. But he was sown long since, and he's forgotten harrowing. He rises and he lies. Light work. He breaks the hallows knot of thorn; he eats the old year's bones for bread. Sun calls the stalk from the seeded earth, draws forth the green blade and the beard to swell his train. He gives the meadows green gowns. And flowers falling to his scythe lie tossed and tumbled, ah, they wither at his fiery kiss. They fall in swathes, in sweet confusion, to his company of rakes, his rade of scythesmen all in green. The hay's his dance. Vaunting, he calls the witchstone, Annis, to the dance, for mastery of the year, and wagers all his reckless gold. But he has spent his glory and must die. The barley is himself.

Ashes reaps him. By harvesting, she's sunburnt, big with light. She wears a wreath of poppyheads; her palms are gashed, they're red with garnering. They open like a cry. Her sickle fells the standing corn, the hare's last hallows, and he's gathered in her sheaf. She's three then, each and all the moon, his end: her sickle shearing and her millstone trundling round, her old black cauldron gaping for his bones.

* * * *
The Harper's Lad

His hair was yellow as the broom, as ragged as the sun. A ranting lad, a spark for kindling of the year. His name was Ash. It was Unhallows, in the grey between May Eve and morning. On the hills, the fires died. He'd leapt the nine hills in a turning wheel, from dusk to dusk, and rode rantipole with witches. Ah, they'd raged, howking at the earth with long blue nails. When they shook their tangled hair, the soulstones clattered, red as blood, and eyestones, milky white and black; and birdskulls, braided through the orbits, in their nightlong hair. He was drunk with dancing. He'd another girl to meet; had lingered, waking with his blue-eyed witch.
The owl flew out, the raven in,
sang mocking in his head, like Ashes in the old play. As he slouched along the moor, he heard a hoarse voice, in windy snatches, singing. Some belantered rantsman, he thought.

"Oh, my name it is Jack Hall, chimney sweep, chimney sweep ... “
A crow's voice, chanting, hoarded iron in a hinge.

There were some had sung all night, thought Ash; he'd gone to other games. It was lightward, neither sun nor moon, but the grey cock's hour. He was late. He hastened toward the beck.

"And I've candles lily white, oh, I stole them in the night, for to light me to the place where I must lie."

They met by the trey stone, back of Law. A fiddler from a dance, it seemed, in a broad hat and battered jacket, with his face like the back of a spade. His hair was white as barley. “Out,” he cries. “D'ye call this a road?"

"Flap ower it then, awd corbie. D'ye call that a voice?"

"Called thee."

A glance at the three-string fiddle. “Canst play us a dance on thy crowdy, catgut? Light our heels, then."

"What, is thy candle out?"

"I've a lantern to light it at."

"Of horn?"

But Ash was thinking of the blue-eyed witch, as rough as juniper, as fierce. She'd scratched him. Ash thought of the fire, how it whirled and crackled when they burned the bush; the sparks flew up like birds. The fire was embers: for a coal of juniper will burn a winter's night. Would burn a nine month at the heather's roots. Closing his eyes, he saw late-risen stars whirl round, the Flaycraw all one side afire, and rising, naked to his bones. The hanged lad in the sky. He played for the dancers in the starry hey. He played the sun to rise. But that was Hallows; they were winter stars, another turning of the wheel, and other witches. Vixens in a cage of straw. Hey up, he must be giddy drunk. Were all yon ale and randy turned his wits. But he'd a spark in him yet. And Ash thought of the dark-eyed lass who waited, like a sloethorn and a clear gold sky. A raveler. Whin. He'd best be going on. He tossed a coin to the fiddler. “Here's to thy bitch."

"And for thy pains."

They found the broadside in his jacket, after. Some said the woodcut was a high green gallows, and the harper's boy hanged dead. And others, it were nothing like: the white hare running and the hag behind. The black hare's bonny, but the white is death, they say: the moon's prey and her shadow.

Ash thrust the broadside in his pocket and went on down the road. His tousled head was bare, as yellow as the weeds called chimneysweepers, that are gold and come to dust.

* * * *
Scythes and Cup

Poor Tom o Cloud, and so he died?

His husk,
an old wife says, and drinks.
Scarce bearded when he's threshed and sown.
Another, brown as autumn, broad-lapped, takes the cup; she kneads the cake.
Wha's dead? He's for thy belly, when he's risen, girl. He's drunken and he sleeps; his dreams are hallows, all a maze of light, of leaves. When's time, he'll wake wood.
And says the third, as thrawn as frost, the youngest of the three:
At dusk, at Hallows Eve, he rises, starry wi’ a ceint o light: t'Sheaf, Awd Flaycraw, clapping shadows frae th’ fields of night. Yon hanged lad i’ th’ sky.

And Ashes?

Ah, she mourns and she searches. And rounding wi’ his child, she spins. D'ye see yon arain webs ont moor? Tom's shrouds, they call

em. Bastards’ clouts. And she may rive at Mally's thorn for shelter; owl's flown, there's none within. No hallows. So she walks barefoot and bloodfoot, and she lives on haws and rain. And moon's her coverlid, her ragged sheet.

BOOK: Cloud and Ashes: Three Winter's Tales
6.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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