The new forest
By Claudia Vulliamy
My sister drives me out of our borough. She drives me past the Co-op, past some hipster cafes with fake plants on the shelves, past blocks of flats and children’s parks and chemists, past many, many people. Then further out in the city, where the buildings are tall and grey and glassy and the clothes are smart and the shops are huge. She drives me further, and further – through the suburbs and onto the motorway, an endless concrete streak between acres of autumnal land. She has hooked up to the speaker and put on an album by a woman with a very deep voice.
‘What?’ she says.
‘I saw a horse.’
She is in her hooded woollen coat and black boots, her tote bag stained with ink and wine. We are talking less than usual; the music is slow and dark, and we are beginning to bask in eeriness, watching the muted landscape rush past.
When we step out of the car and wrap ourselves in scarves, I can see why she took me to Burley. It is an empty little town with crisp brown leaves all over the pavements. I warm my hands in the pockets of my puffer coat and look around at the buildings, small and crooked with low black roofs. Strolling down the main street, we see little pagan shops with kitsch ornaments and witchcraft paraphernalia in the windows. We enter a food shop – heads turn to us when the door creaks – and there are lots of things in jars. We browse the local drinks, smile back at the old women walking past us, and buy a purple bottle of elderberry wine.
On our way up the hill towards the heathland, the wind begins to bite, and we slip into an empty church for a break. Our footsteps echo under grand arched ceilings and velvet curtains; we walk up to the candle stand at the side and, for some reason, stare at the chorus of flames for a while. My sister drops a pound coin into the slot and picks a candle up from its holder.
‘Why are you buying a candle?’
‘For some witchcraft.’
I pause. ‘Wow, ok. I mean, we haven’t done that since we were, like…’ I was probably six or seven when we were sitting round candles and making flower crowns.
‘We should do it again, though. This is the perfect place for it.’
The heathland is barren and deserted under the thick grey sky. The ground has no grass, but ferns of washed-out orange, and dry heather, grey and prickly with sinister violet undertones, clinging to their roots. Nothing here grows taller than up to our knees. The air is hollow; the cold earth bellows and growls beneath our feet and in the back of my skull. Quietly we stroll, mesmerised, up to a row of leafless, spider-black dead bushes. We sit down beside them, and I realise that they are charred.
‘My god, was there a fire?’ she says. ‘I wonder what happened.’
I tell her about farmers lighting up bushes to get rid of unwanted something-or-others. She seems disappointed. ‘They’re beautiful though,’ I add.
Soon we are quiet again; I have my journal on my lap and am sketching the bushes, using one of their twigs as a charcoal pencil, and she’s reading her Ted Hughes book about a crow. With her long dark hair and thin face, she is almost one of the bushes. At times she makes no sense at all, and nothing she could do would shock me. I can imagine her sitting here in silence for days on end without moving until she blends into the bushes entirely. After a long period of silence, I look over her shoulder at her book and read out, in a strong Northern accent, the line, ‘O do not chop his winkle off His Mammy cried with horror’ and we start laughing and pack our things away.
We hike even further from the town, up to the faint cluster of trees on the hill, and eventually reach a sparse forest carpeted with leaves. At this point we are as if possessed in a nature-high, drifting between trees – thick hulking homely trees that clasp the soil, grandmotherly trees that twist up from the ground and arch over us; trees that curve subtly, black and wet like snakes; trees whose gnarled branches creak and wriggle, knobbly and hoarse; trees of bizarre shape, with holes and knots in their wandering roots. We approach each one submissively, in a deep state of wonder, and stare in silent greeting.
There is more and more life as the forest gets deeper, thicker, wetter, and soon we are pushing down tall grass with our shoes and mud is creeping up our legs. Occasionally the sun peeks through so that the leaves are orange and light-soaked. My sister walks ahead of me, crossing side-streams in her long brown coat, and I stumble. My trainers are glossy and fat, out of place. Blasphemous. Looking down at my skinny jeans I feel as trivial as ever.
‘Do you think I could ever become a vagabond? Or live in a cave or something?’ I say.
‘Hmm, maybe. I mean,’ – she looks back at me – ‘probably not.’
No. I am dependent. My lighter hair would get greasy and my bright clothes would become dated and ridiculous. I could never make grittiness beautiful like she does, welcoming the greenflies that crawl on her. I love the forest, but it is too powerful for me. I hear thorns scratch against my synthetic sleeve.
And then, quite suddenly, we reach a clearing. It is windless. ‘There we go,’ says my sister. ‘Shall we do it here?’
‘Yeah, this is good. It feels like the centre of everything. I know that sounds really weird.’
We are sitting cross-legged on the ground, which makes my legs and bum cold. The skinny white candle from the church is lodged into the earth and I watch her keep clicking her lighter until it starts a flame.
It is like when we were children – holding hands, closing eyes, thinking of the ground and the sky. I’d forgotten that this meditation makes warmth creep up your toes. I can still see the flicker of the candle through my eyelids.
My sister draws in a deep breath; I hear it and can picture her nostrils flaring. My limbs are oddly warm and light. The flame dances on. She lets out a breath and, now, though my eyes are closed, I see her.
I see her clearer than I’ve ever seen a person. I see this:
Her outer crust is black and white, a mixture of charcoal and pearl. Beneath that is a deep intellectual blue and rich brown. As you get deeper you find secret after secret, black rocks between paper-thin layers, wounds that spread to the core like the bruises of a plum. As you venture deeper you find the burning heart of her, a deep terracotta colour, so fine-tuned in appetite, slightly salty, and it courses through her veins with great earthy sensitivity, with raw and irrefutable persistence. It flares when she feels the sun on her face. It is not always beautiful. It is, perhaps, the ultimate truth.