First section

The Cailleach

Hannah Cutmore

There is a word that is the hiss of campfire ash meeting snow or the groan of solid ice shifting. It is the sharp intake of breath when you step into cold water, the shock of a chill that startles your bones. The word is a name that is cold, sharp, and quiet. It belongs to a sleeping world and can only be voiced as a whisper.  

A single name—a single story—giving birth to a thousand tellings.  

I will show you three.

1

Step softly through the shadows  

“Step softly on the snow,” the Story Hunter says, “and go quietly into the dawn.”  

His eyes track life. The sleepy murmurings of a bird, the soft-pawed wanderings of a forest rat. His hands bring death. Don’t look at them if you find that disquieting. Just listen. The Story Hunter wants to teach you how to catch a story, how to skewer it on the tip of a spear.  

“You must be wary here, in this hour of hushed breaths and frozen dreams. Stay clear of the deer – they nibble at weeds that can’t remember the taste of the sun. Listen to the moans of the listless earth. Its bedsores are white and bloodless.”

The Story Hunter looks at you, his face gleaming silver in the starlight, and tells you to climb the hill to the old woman’s house.  

“Do it carefully. You don’t want to go sliding into the slush of yesterday’s snow. It is a long climb. Arduous. But exercise is good; it thaws your blood.”

He pauses, then, to ensure you are following him, to see that your footsteps match his on this meandering path through the snow.

“Skirt around the edges of the house when you reach it. Dodge the tin bucket of frosted water and that snow shovel propped against the wall. There is a fire in the old woman’s hearth that makes the air smell like ash. Hear the flames cackle as they grind wood into dust. Taste the lost promise of warmth. It is the afterthought of the breeze, the afterbirth of a dream. The crumbling fantasy of a world that waits for its heart to slowly freeze.”

The Story Hunter begins assembling a fire of his own. Branches crack and splinter beneath his fists. Twigs are transformed into kindling.  

“This is the old woman’s house and the old woman’s fire. You cannot go inside. Her flames are not for you. Perhaps you shouldn’t have looked. You can’t stand there forever, watching an icy window catch your breath.”

The Story Hunter looks up from his infant fire and leans closer to you, speaking with fierce intensity.  

“Go. Survey the snow at the back of the house. Find the old woman’s tracks. They will be shallow, like those of a child. Tiny indents made by a being who is not fully grounded in this world. Follow them. If you’re fast, you might catch her. You might glimpse the back of the old woman’s cloak.”  

The Story Hunter’s fire splutters on mouthfuls of vivid, smoky life. As you stare into the flames, ask yourself if you see her. A hooded figure with hunched shoulders ambling towards the dawn.  

2

Listen for a lost lullaby

The Story Teller likes drama. She relishes the stifling weight of tension, the sour tang of fear. That is why she is here, on a stage of dead leaves before a crowd of old trees. That is why she has chosen a costume. A muddy dress, wild hair, pet cat coiled around her neck. That is why she talks to you.  

“It was winter,” she says in a voice that makes the cool air tremble. “Deep winter, when everything is dark and cold, and the world curls itself into a ball to hide its face from the snow.”  

She strokes the cat, whose head is tucked in the tender dimple of her throat. It breathes in time with her words.  

“The sun was huddled in a thumbprint of grey sky, hounded by dull clouds. A stranger surveying the cold world below. I wondered, briefly, if it could see me. I wondered, briefly, if it cared.”  

The Story Teller smiles sadly and shakes her head. The cat hisses.  

“It did not. I was alone.”  

She wants to ensure you understand the extent of her solitude, so she is silent for one breath, and then two.  

“The cold was sly. Subtle. It crept beneath my coat and rubbed its head against my shirt. It seeped onto my skin. When I shifted, it shrieked. When I stomped to wake my blood, the ice within me shattered and I was cut by the shards.”  

Her hands flutter, helping to mould her sentences and shape her thoughts.

“I gasped. It was a small cry, a whisper, but still it startled the trees. They groaned and murmured, roused from a dreamless slumber. A branch fell from high above and the powdery thump of wood meeting snow was met with silence. Not the kind of silence you’re thinking of –” The Story Teller hesitates as she wonders exactly what kind of silence haunts your mind. “–but something thicker. Heavier. More demanding. A despotic silence that reverberated through the trees, settling into the cracks in the bark, the crevices in the snow. For a moment that endured for a dozen lifetimes I listened and heard nothing.”  

For a moment there is nothing except the drowsy purring of the cat.  

“And then a wind woke and slipped past the silence. It carried with it a note that sounded faintly human. The longer I listened, the more certain I became. I could hear a woman’s voice crooning an eerie lullaby.”

She shivers and draws her coat closer to her chest. She wraps herself in a robe of woven words but even that won’t keep out the chill.  

“The sky grew petulant. Grey-faced. It gathered fistfuls of clouds to its breast and sent a droplet of icy water tumbling onto my tongue. That single droplet was a herald that announced the arrival of the legion that followed. Amidst the whirl of water and wind, I could still hear that song. It spoke of frost and slumber, of the dying and the dead. I saw the one who was singing: a pale-skinned spirit in a white dress. The old woman herself, dancing in the rain.”

3

Do not let yourself dream  

 

The Story Keeper’s desk is thick with pages. Great, teetering mounds of yellowed paper scrawled back and front with dark ink. It is a whirl of loopy ‘f’s and conservative vowels, elaborate ‘w’s and misplaced commas – a swirling mess of letters tucked so tightly together they must feel claustrophobic. Yet one cluster stands out. It is a word, a name that sounds like a curse. Brigid.  

The fire woman, the spring spirit. A physical manifestation of all that is chaotic, loud, and warm. The wind shivers as the Story Keeper writes her name again.  

“Brigid can be heard in the earth, in the restless patches that dream of the thaw. Hers are the new shoots that push up through the snow and the tame fires that warm each hearth.”

A piece of paper flutters, caught by a wandering breeze. The Story Keeper doesn’t notice. He is absorbed by his pen and its spawn of infant words.  

“But there are places where the promise of spring is missing. Frosty valleys of age-old rock. Shadowy forests half buried in snow. That is the domain of the old woman, the one they call Beira. They say that where Beira wanders, Brigid’s voice is stifled. And Beira is making her yearly pilgrimage across the earth.

“The birds are the first to announce her coming. The geese scrawl her name in the sky when they flee south to escape her. The swans flutter in the old woman’s wake. And then the deer begin to assemble, drawn to her presence by an instinct they cannot name.  

“Frost spews from each thump of the old woman’s cane. It spreads like crystalline fire, latching its teeth into the earth until Brigid’s tomb is painted glossy white. Beira sings an eldritch lullaby as she marches. ‘Close your eyes,’ she croons, ‘but do not let yourself dream.’  

“This is the old woman with snow-white hair and skin that carries the weight of innumerable years. The deer-friend, the frost-queen, the lone pilgrim wandering the woods. She reigns where Brigid slumbers. And the cold is hypnotic. It lulls lost deities into stasis; it draws them into dreams.”

The Story Keeper hesitates, his pen tasting air instead of paper. He records stories. So many stories that sometimes he feels lost, sinking beneath the weight of countless words, countless differently shaped dreams.  

“The old woman has many names. Beira. Digdi. Cailleach. None of them are true. The old woman is a fiction. A fantasy. A meeting place for wintery hopes and icy fears. Don’t let her fool you.”  

***

Cailleach. That is the name that must be whispered, the word encrusted with frost. It tells of silent, snow-drenched landscapes and dark nights overlooked by distant moons. It is the name of the winter woman. If you listened to Hunter, Teller, or Keeper you would think her callous and cold, but I am not.  

A single story.  

A thousand tellings.  

None of them capture me.  

I stopped sleeping at my gandfather’s house after t

First section

The Cailleach

Hannah Cutmore

There is a word that is the hiss of campfire ash meeting snow or the groan of solid ice shifting. It is the sharp intake of breath when you step into cold water, the shock of a chill that startles your bones. The word is a name that is cold, sharp, and quiet. It belongs to a sleeping world and can only be voiced as a whisper.  

A single name—a single story—giving birth to a thousand tellings.  

I will show you three.

1

Step softly through the shadows  

“Step softly on the snow,” the Story Hunter says, “and go quietly into the dawn.”  

His eyes track life. The sleepy murmurings of a bird, the soft-pawed wanderings of a forest rat. His hands bring death. Don’t look at them if you find that disquieting. Just listen. The Story Hunter wants to teach you how to catch a story, how to skewer it on the tip of a spear.  

“You must be wary here, in this hour of hushed breaths and frozen dreams. Stay clear of the deer – they nibble at weeds that can’t remember the taste of the sun. Listen to the moans of the listless earth. Its bedsores are white and bloodless.”

The Story Hunter looks at you, his face gleaming silver in the starlight, and tells you to climb the hill to the old woman’s house.  

“Do it carefully. You don’t want to go sliding into the slush of yesterday’s snow. It is a long climb. Arduous. But exercise is good; it thaws your blood.”

He pauses, then, to ensure you are following him, to see that your footsteps match his on this meandering path through the snow.

“Skirt around the edges of the house when you reach it. Dodge the tin bucket of frosted water and that snow shovel propped against the wall. There is a fire in the old woman’s hearth that makes the air smell like ash. Hear the flames cackle as they grind wood into dust. Taste the lost promise of warmth. It is the afterthought of the breeze, the afterbirth of a dream. The crumbling fantasy of a world that waits for its heart to slowly freeze.”

The Story Hunter begins assembling a fire of his own. Branches crack and splinter beneath his fists. Twigs are transformed into kindling.  

“This is the old woman’s house and the old woman’s fire. You cannot go inside. Her flames are not for you. Perhaps you shouldn’t have looked. You can’t stand there forever, watching an icy window catch your breath.”

The Story Hunter looks up from his infant fire and leans closer to you, speaking with fierce intensity.  

“Go. Survey the snow at the back of the house. Find the old woman’s tracks. They will be shallow, like those of a child. Tiny indents made by a being who is not fully grounded in this world. Follow them. If you’re fast, you might catch her. You might glimpse the back of the old woman’s cloak.”  

The Story Hunter’s fire splutters on mouthfuls of vivid, smoky life. As you stare into the flames, ask yourself if you see her. A hooded figure with hunched shoulders ambling towards the dawn.  

2

Listen for a lost lullaby

The Story Teller likes drama. She relishes the stifling weight of tension, the sour tang of fear. That is why she is here, on a stage of dead leaves before a crowd of old trees. That is why she has chosen a costume. A muddy dress, wild hair, pet cat coiled around her neck. That is why she talks to you.  

“It was winter,” she says in a voice that makes the cool air tremble. “Deep winter, when everything is dark and cold, and the world curls itself into a ball to hide its face from the snow.”  

She strokes the cat, whose head is tucked in the tender dimple of her throat. It breathes in time with her words.  

“The sun was huddled in a thumbprint of grey sky, hounded by dull clouds. A stranger surveying the cold world below. I wondered, briefly, if it could see me. I wondered, briefly, if it cared.”  

The Story Teller smiles sadly and shakes her head. The cat hisses.  

“It did not. I was alone.”  

She wants to ensure you understand the extent of her solitude, so she is silent for one breath, and then two.  

“The cold was sly. Subtle. It crept beneath my coat and rubbed its head against my shirt. It seeped onto my skin. When I shifted, it shrieked. When I stomped to wake my blood, the ice within me shattered and I was cut by the shards.”  

Her hands flutter, helping to mould her sentences and shape her thoughts.

“I gasped. It was a small cry, a whisper, but still it startled the trees. They groaned and murmured, roused from a dreamless slumber. A branch fell from high above and the powdery thump of wood meeting snow was met with silence. Not the kind of silence you’re thinking of –” The Story Teller hesitates as she wonders exactly what kind of silence haunts your mind. “–but something thicker. Heavier. More demanding. A despotic silence that reverberated through the trees, settling into the cracks in the bark, the crevices in the snow. For a moment that endured for a dozen lifetimes I listened and heard nothing.”  

For a moment there is nothing except the drowsy purring of the cat.  

“And then a wind woke and slipped past the silence. It carried with it a note that sounded faintly human. The longer I listened, the more certain I became. I could hear a woman’s voice crooning an eerie lullaby.”

She shivers and draws her coat closer to her chest. She wraps herself in a robe of woven words but even that won’t keep out the chill.  

“The sky grew petulant. Grey-faced. It gathered fistfuls of clouds to its breast and sent a droplet of icy water tumbling onto my tongue. That single droplet was a herald that announced the arrival of the legion that followed. Amidst the whirl of water and wind, I could still hear that song. It spoke of frost and slumber, of the dying and the dead. I saw the one who was singing: a pale-skinned spirit in a white dress. The old woman herself, dancing in the rain.”

3

Do not let yourself dream  

 

The Story Keeper’s desk is thick with pages. Great, teetering mounds of yellowed paper scrawled back and front with dark ink. It is a whirl of loopy ‘f’s and conservative vowels, elaborate ‘w’s and misplaced commas – a swirling mess of letters tucked so tightly together they must feel claustrophobic. Yet one cluster stands out. It is a word, a name that sounds like a curse. Brigid.  

The fire woman, the spring spirit. A physical manifestation of all that is chaotic, loud, and warm. The wind shivers as the Story Keeper writes her name again.  

“Brigid can be heard in the earth, in the restless patches that dream of the thaw. Hers are the new shoots that push up through the snow and the tame fires that warm each hearth.”

A piece of paper flutters, caught by a wandering breeze. The Story Keeper doesn’t notice. He is absorbed by his pen and its spawn of infant words.  

“But there are places where the promise of spring is missing. Frosty valleys of age-old rock. Shadowy forests half buried in snow. That is the domain of the old woman, the one they call Beira. They say that where Beira wanders, Brigid’s voice is stifled. And Beira is making her yearly pilgrimage across the earth.

“The birds are the first to announce her coming. The geese scrawl her name in the sky when they flee south to escape her. The swans flutter in the old woman’s wake. And then the deer begin to assemble, drawn to her presence by an instinct they cannot name.  

“Frost spews from each thump of the old woman’s cane. It spreads like crystalline fire, latching its teeth into the earth until Brigid’s tomb is painted glossy white. Beira sings an eldritch lullaby as she marches. ‘Close your eyes,’ she croons, ‘but do not let yourself dream.’  

“This is the old woman with snow-white hair and skin that carries the weight of innumerable years. The deer-friend, the frost-queen, the lone pilgrim wandering the woods. She reigns where Brigid slumbers. And the cold is hypnotic. It lulls lost deities into stasis; it draws them into dreams.”

The Story Keeper hesitates, his pen tasting air instead of paper. He records stories. So many stories that sometimes he feels lost, sinking beneath the weight of countless words, countless differently shaped dreams.  

“The old woman has many names. Beira. Digdi. Cailleach. None of them are true. The old woman is a fiction. A fantasy. A meeting place for wintery hopes and icy fears. Don’t let her fool you.”  

***

Cailleach. That is the name that must be whispered, the word encrusted with frost. It tells of silent, snow-drenched landscapes and dark nights overlooked by distant moons. It is the name of the winter woman. If you listened to Hunter, Teller, or Keeper you would think her callous and cold, but I am not.  

A single story.  

A thousand tellings.  

None of them capture me.