Ah, rain. Finally. It’s been coming for days. The plants have been quivering for it. If there are gods, they’re in the rain, I think, and in the long days without it. I used to dread the dead days of summer, when the ground was so hard it cracked near the riverbeds. All the creatures in the trees get a little warier, parched, scuttling, an eye on one another. Their blood flows thick and hot under their skin. Dead things stink faster in the sun.
Rain, though, it is the great ablution. Crisp leaves unfurl and green shoots peer out of the earth. Worms writhe in facile delight in it. Rain. Bringer of life. There are gods in every drop.
Sorry, how rude of me.
It rained a lot, where I grew up, you see, and the cover of rainclouds has always made me feel a little more secure. My memories of then are so muddy with remembering I can barely tell which parts of them are real. We lived near the coast, the thrash of waves was a rhythm I played and worked to. There are gods in the sea, too, I’m sure. That great vast thing. We spoke to it, our endless master. Some elders from the village would go out in it, but their boats were not made for seafaring, not then. It would be a long time until someone made boats that suited for that, and it had been a long time since anyone had made any.
It was at the beach I first saw her, the woman in woad. It was a grey day, grey sky, grey sea. The filtered sun washed the warmth out of the sand and made it grey, too. There was a cave back then, at the edge of the beach, though it’s long gone now, just a shallow alcove in a small jut of cliff. It had been a good hide, its mouth littered with smoothed out stones. I would run off and sit there sometimes when there was nothing more important to do and sort through the stones, looking for faces.
I never found any. I didn’t know it, as a child, but the faces on the stones we kept around our huts were carved. It was part of their power, the making of them, but when I was small, though I had seen my father cut the stone with a sharp flint blade until he pulled free a nose and two eyes, I was possessed of the idea that they grew out of the ground, rising up like worms in rain and thunderstorms.
I can’t recall anymore what the stone faces meant, their purpose in their place around the fires. The stones they were cut from were soft and often held close in the oily palms of children, their features worn smooth just as they had once been cut into relief. There would be no trace of them now, or at least hardly a trace at all. It’s funny. Stone seems like such a permanent thing, even to me, but it, too, becomes dust in time.
That day I was sorting through the stones in the mouth of the cave, listening to the splatter crack of rain that ran down the jutting cliff above. I had found no faces, of course, because there were none there for me to find, but I had discovered a stone just smaller than my palm, flat and round, perfect for skipping, though the sea was far too rough for that.
I was turning it about, admiring a line of white through it’s charcoal splendour, when I saw her. I don’t recall where she had come from, but in now in my muddy remembering I think I thought she had formed straight out of the foam of the sea, standing right there, where the sand met the water, a shock of violent, lustrous blue against the grey, grey, grey of the day.
She was covered in woad paint, head to her ankles, where they disappeared into the sand like a statue that had stood there for millennia. Her hair was stuck in thick tails out of it, hanging heavy around her smudged out face. Her eyes were black as the darkest cave and when she moved the woad, mixed with clay so it was thick, fell from the curves of her body in crumbs and flakes.
I stood up, not knowing what else to do. The blue woad that covered her mouth cracked and split into a mouth, and as it did, a line of red drew fast down her chin, like her lips had been cut into the flesh of her face with a harsh flint knife.
Otherwise, she did not move.
I remember, I think, that I thought about rabbits. How the dart and run and scream but in those last moments before you grab them by the throat, they freeze. I felt every drop of fear I’d smelled in those rabbits’ hides beading in the sweat on my skin.
Fear like that is primal, all body, no mind. But you know that. You know how it feels to be speared upon a gaze. You know the way the fear wriggles in your sinews and your bones, how it rises in your throat, how it bursts out of your skin and makes you slick and rancid. Fear. Pure and carnal. The only thing more ancient is hunger.
The woad woman’s smile grew wider, more violent red oozing from the gash of her mouth.
This, I recall clearly, how I understood right then what she was. I felt so quivering, so afraid, it was surely the only thing that could make me feel that way, a god made out of the rain and the sea right there on the beach.
Is that what you saw, too, when I caught your eye in that near-dark room? Flashing lights in place of cloud-parched sun. The thunder of music instead of rain across the rocks. Is that what I seemed to you, then? As a god?
I doubt it. I’ve never commanded such presence as that. My own art is subtler. And I do think its an art. The skill of the hunt. I look vulnerable, don’t I? Small. Someone told me once they felt they had to protect me. As if their fleshy bones could withstand more than a light blow to the head. I’m made of stone. I’m made of sand. I’m made of the rain and the sea. But unlike caves in cliff faces and faces carved in pebbles around fires no touch, of palm or sky, can wear me into dust.
You’re scared, aren’t you? I can smell it. Don’t be shy.
That’s what she said to me, the woad woman, but the language she spoke is dead. Even then I didn’t know it, though somehow I understood her anyway. I held my smooth pebble tight in my hand and stepped out into the rain. It was cold in my scalp. In seconds I was shivering, though whether from cold or fear it was impossible to know.
Every slow step I took, her face beneath the paint became clearer. First I saw red-stained teeth, then the curve of a nose, then the line of her jaw. Her jet black eyes flashed and twinkled as though catching the sun, though it was muffled by clouds and she had her back to it.
I was a few steps from her, a long train of footprints between me and the cave, when I saw the thing in the sea.
It was bobbing slightly in the water, coming close to the shore and then darting away with the push and pull of the waves, like it was hesitant. I wondered if it was a seal, dark brown as it was, but there, a few steps from the woad woman, a few steps more from the sea, I saw red in the water, too. Red that matched the red on the woad woman’s teeth and chin. The dark, lustrous red of just spilt blood.
I stared at the thing in the sea. It was not a seal. The dark brown was cloth soaked through with sea water. There was a rough head of strawberry hair. A pale hand bobbing next to it. It was a man from the village. A dead man.
It was not the first dead man I had seen but it was the first time I’d seen anything as dead as he was. Usually the dead were swaddled and cared for, if they were human. If they were animals they were skinned and cooked and delicious. Dead humans held something in them before we set their flesh alight. Dead animals did too, there for us to take ourselves in honour when we consumed them.
But that man was so dead.
I stopped where I stood.
The woad woman’s smile grew wider and she told me not to be scared. She reached out and touched my arm, her fingers smearing clay-thickened woad and blood onto my skin. Her hand was cold. Colder than the rain. Colder than the steely sand, than the wind, than the clouds.
I bowed to her then, falling to my knees, my fingers gouging into the sand. Barely speaking words I babbled at her, praises and gratitudes, things I’d seen shining in the eyes of rabbits confronted with by a sharp flint knife.
That’s what you did, too. The hurried tongues of the desperate and the damned. But you don’t have the strength for that now.
Don’t worry, it won’t hurt, not for long.
Not for long…
[RAIN SOUND INTENSIFIES]