Here in the Sangre de Christos, the wind is pelting ice against the old planks of my cabin. Since late September the snow has not melted, the creek is frozen silent. The tiny winter birds seem to speak out of another world – their survival is nothing short of miraculous. My valiant Subaru cannot surmount the heaps of snow, so I sink further into dwelling. Thank goodness for a full woodshed, an ample root cellar, and neighbors to visit on foot.
If you can find a time to cozy yourself into a snug corner, I would like to share a tale with you, a gift from this Forest to yours. It is a fairy tale from Europe which I have heard from a few tellers and which came whispering to me again through the rustle of autumn’s drying grass. The tale called me to sit in a certain gathering of scrub oaks I call ‘The Queen’s Dancers.’ They taught me again this old tale of silence, reverie in repetition, branching arms, shirts of stars …
There was a time when a King became lost in a dense wood. Imagine that? As he was searching for the familiar path, which had suddenly vanished, a crooked old woman appeared from behind a juniper bush smiling a crooked old smile. She promised him a path of speedy return to his kingdom…if only he could fulfill one condition: He would take with him and marry this old woman’s daughter. The sun was setting, and the king was not prepared for a night outdoors, so he agreed. He took the woman with him and found himself on a clear wide path, already nearly home.
The king has at home 7 children—six boys and one girl from a previous marriage. As he approaches home, his gut twists at the thought of bringing this new mistress into their household.. But he has promised. He decides he will take the children away to an old garrison tower hidden in the woods. There they can live, and he will go to visit them.
Yet his new mistress is not long finding out the way to this secret tower nor much longer going there -disguised as the King. The children run eagerly through the woods to meet her, when one after the next she places enchanted shirts upon them, which turn them into swans. Only the daughter has not run out to greet the disguised stranger, and she watches from the tower as her brothers fly away.
The girl races after the swans, running deep into the pathless forest. Finding them, she learns that for a few minutes each day they regain their human shape. Thus they tell her the cure to their bewitchment: They will become human again only if she can remain silent for six years and sew them six shirts from star flowers. She says she would rather die than not free them of this enchantment. So she starts right away-- she gathers the materials, climbs a tree and begins the task. For a long time, she lives in this tree, working on her sewing. The creatures in the forest help and protect her, so her task goes well.
One day, the hunting dogs of another King whose castle is on this edge of the wood come surrounding her tree. The King seeks to know why she is up in the tree but she will not answer. When he asks if she will please come down the tree, she shakes her head. When the King and the hunters persist in questioning her, she drops down her gold necklace, hoping this will appease them. They persist. She drops down her embroidered jacket, her outer dress, her wool stockings…but they are not content. They climb the tree and carry her off to the castle.
In the castle she has a comfortable area to work and continues to make progress on her sewing, still never speaking a word. Years pass and the young woman comes to appreciate the generous King and they are married.
After a time the Queen gives birth to a child. But alas…there are many in the kingdom for who the Queen’s unusual silence is suspicious, particularly those who had once hoped for themselves or their sister or daughter to be Queen. These detractors steal the child away in the night and spread the rumor that the Queen has not the wits to keep track of a child. Though she had seen the thieves running off in the night, the Queen continues in her silence and her sewing.
Time passes and another child is born. This one too is stolen away and more malicious rumors are whispered. The Queen says nothing and returns to the star shirts. But when a third child is born and is again lost, the whispers turn to accusations: The Queen is a Witch! And now the exasperated King sides with the conspirators and condemns the Queen.
Six years have passed in the time since the swan brothers came under their enchantment, and the Queen has kept her silence. She carries the six shirts with her to the place where she is to be jailed. As the procession moves along, six white swans are seen flying over the crowd. They land in a circle about the Queen.
One after the other she places the shirts over the swan brothers and they regain their human form. With one exception: the youngest brother retains one swan wing, for the sleeve of his shirt was not finished. Standing with her brothers, the Queen speaks up, pointing out those who had stolen her children. In awe of what they have witnessed, these plotters beg forgiveness and return the children from hiding.
So the King and Queen are reunited with their children, and together with the restored brothers, they all live in merriment and love. And now and then, the Queen’s children hide out in the deep woods, climb trees and throw down their clothes…just for the sake of the old story. The other day I heard wild laughter rain down from the hills, and I knew they were out again playing.
Out of the Woods and back again, back and forth the path of the needle, following the forlorn call of swans…As we reflect on the story, please notice those moments that most called to you. This is a simple way to give back to the story: by appreciating and noticing its impact on you. To further discipline the imagination, you can put yourself inside those moments of the story, have a choose-your-own-adventure experience… this is a deeper step in reciprocating. Reverie is foundational to the life of the soul, to our relationship with the unseen layers of our being. Please share your reflections with me by email or in the comments below. It is sufficient and nourishing to simply share what image popped out for you.
….As this story wrapped its arms around me this fall. I was listening intently to silence. Again and again, I returned to the scrub oak at the bottom of the valley. Many gather there — birds, coyotes, foxes and even bears. With these presences I mulled over the plight of the bewitched brothers. In the forest’s silence each voice is given a place. Each belongs to someone — to the creek, the wind, the stellar jay… Just so, each being has a place where it belongs within this cosmos and between these places is also the land in-between, the silence. The brothers in-betweenness amplified the silence as a pathway toward unknown possibility.
Our heroine faces In-Betweenness in an ancient way — she meets it on its terms: She climbs a tree, heads ‘away with the fairies.’ Only by accepting this in-between space for what it is, does she come again to the center of things. The hair stands on my arms in the presence of this girl on the cusp of womanhood with a lap full of flowers, a vanished mother, a father who has abandoned her, brothers in a woeful plight. Out of this, she intends to change worlds, break enchantments, wake up. Here perhaps is an image of an old route of initiation….what beloved Isadora meant by ‘every dancer must find her own first movement.’ This is the discovery of the unitary force of soul that forges our diversities of being.
In myth, the Woods is never a literal place.
The Queen-to-be makes a transformative initiation happen for herself by following her soul’s longing to see her brothers again. Then the Forest rises up to meet her. The knowledge she gains in the Tree later returns with her to the Kingdom. In myth the Woods is never a literal place, but instead a traveling companion, a regained Belonging. The cruelty the Queen faces arises because she carries a Wood-like quiet, because her roots run down to the stars. The existence of this story indicates that finding a sense of Belonging in a place beyond human definition has been a desire for Western culture for several hundred years. This is a love story about our return to the Earth.
We each face a challenge on a daily basis in moving around the distractions and judgments, outward or inward, blocking the way to the clear well of our soul’s belonging. Do we take the fast route offered by the crooked woman? Look where that led! It is the daughter who comes later to forge the way through In-Betweenness: She runs after an enchantment into territory unknown. From her beloved brothers in the beyond, she learns her task. What a boon! These swans speak straight from the Otherworld. Such are the messages we receive from the land and body guided by daydream, desire, upheaval, night dream, creative urge... The swans draw us beyond familiar language, beyond human pattern,..
The work of the soul is done petal by crumbling petal.
To the voices rising from the Otherworld the dayworld mind will say, ‘Why should I trust this?’ It is typical of the mind, before its schooling in the soul to say things like ‘How can anyone interpret a dream or myth? It’s all just random.’ How can one dance for those who find no value in swan feathers? The story seems to say that we hear soul messages only when we have taken risks, been pushed around a bit and stepped over a bit into the Otherworld; These 7 children have lost their mother and been abandoned by their father. When heart-broken, ill, or just confused — we let go, fall down, get pulled by dreams that make no sense to the ego — we go In-between. And this way we may come then to a revelation of a first step back toward Belonging again within the slow unfolding of things; Once we step into this Belonging, the six shirts begin forming, the garment of soul that clothes us within being. This formative work of the soul is done petal by crumbling petal.
In these days when the voices of the dominant culture travel everywhere, on endless waves on newspeak, to choose the dried flowers of a personal devotion requires very skilled use of the stitching needle — to stay threaded to swan song is difficult in rush-hour traffic. The story says that if we fail in this task, part of our humanity remains cut off, in the Otherworld — poetically beautiful or psychologically exciting perhaps, but not central to our belonging in the Kingdom. And what’s more, the Queen is to be put in prison. The Tree-Mother has no place in our world if we do not find a way to enact the Otherworldly message.
Materialism condemns the soulful task as not only pointless, but unacceptable.
It is wise here to remember the Witch who offered the first King a familiar route home, a detour around the Woodland way. The daughter completes the task by separating the King from his children too, who would also have taught him of the forest of Belonging. As the false feminine, these Witches build the everyday traps of materialism. Materialism (from the root word mater, meaning mother) will reign if the feminine does not take up the soul task and accepts cheap, quick alternatives instead. The Witches condemn the soulful task as not only pointless, but unacceptable. This voice may whisper, ‘‘Oh sweetie, what a waste of time. You could use your talents on something practical.’' All the conspirators function to keep the children in the story separated from their parents — this blocks them from connecting with such gifts as materialism never provides. Falling for the Witch is an easy mistake. She provokes our fear and then offers instant solutions. In her trap, we momentarily believe emotional reactivity or physical addiction to be the answer to our soul conundrum. But our heroine knows better and sticks with her singular task.
As my grandmother used to say, ‘Things have a way of working themselves out.’ Our heroine succeeds: her task complete, the brothers regained, children and parents reunited, joy resurfaces. If we are lucky, when we turn away from the newspeak, from the blather inside and out, we end up back in branching arms, hearing murmurs from the Otherworld. Though all glorious beasts speak unusual languages, with some practice we may make out a message. And, no longer seeking a straight path, we may even choose to take up the impossible tasks they suggest. If the King cannot say ‘'No’ to the crooked one, who comes smiling her crooked smile, offering a fast way out of the unknown… then the task is given to his daughter. We are with her whenever we bravely go our own peculiar way of In-between….to arrive again in our Belonging.