June 9, 2019

THE PEOPLE OF THE SOIL by Judy Darley

What rises from water
can't live on land forever...
I stirred as I heard the river move beneath the crops, its murmurs rejoicing. My brothers lay intertwined beside me. “Fam’s leaving,” I whispered, and their eyes snapped open. We crept outside, leaving Dad asleep. We’d known this day would come, even before he struck her for the third time.

What rises from water can’t live on land forever.

Outside, our mother was already a distant glimmer, her milk-white cattle streaming behind. We rushed after her, silenced by the dawn and the river and the intentness with which she strode.

At the lake’s edge she turned, her fist-blackened eyes shadows in her face.

“Fam!” cried the youngest of us, Brychan, unable to keep his fear inside. “Fam, take me too.”

He ran to her and we saw her place her water-cold fingers on his half-human cheeks.

“You stay here, son, you and your brothers. You stay here and tend to the people of the soil.”

My elder brother Mab and I took our sobbing sibling between us, each with an arm over his shoulder. We thought comfort into him, and strength, performing our first act of healing.


Our mother waded into the water. Her cornflower-eyed, ash-freckled herd trailed in her wake, losing themselves to ripples and reflections of clouds.
She called me son, but I was always a daughter. She looked at how the men of the soil behaved towards women and feared for my future. She named me Eillian, meaning moment in time, and a name that does as well for a boy as a girl. She dressed me as she did my brothers, and gave me the same freedoms, so my actions were as rough and voice as loud as theirs.

People believe what their eyes tell them, and no one could have guessed I betrayed expectations beneath my clothes.

I was the middle child, and far from the most delicate of us three. In the hours after our mother left, our younger brother took a fever, and it was my elder brother Mab and I who cared for him with heat and herbs and the uncommon energy within us.

When our mother had wed our father she promised to leave if he raised a hand to her three times. We knew he’d struck her, but we didn’t know why. Local gossips said he raised his hand when she cried at a wedding, when she refused to attend a baptism and when she laughed during a funeral. But those seemed little more than myth, and we knew not what to trust.

It didn’t help that our father never spoke a word once he’d lost his wife. In the evenings, he sat by the hearth and I watched his hands winding around each other, each palm pitying each fist.

Mab was the first of his offspring to change, growing suddenly taller, jaw roughened with hair.

He showed Brychan and me the fur sprouting around his penis. “I’m as much beast now as man,” he boasted. His voice became a raven, hacking and screeching in rhythm with the wind.

By rights I should have been next, but Brychan followed after, his pied cheeks losing their childish curve as his shoulders broadened and his voice mimicked a crow’s.

My voice remained a sparrow, my flesh softening treacherously around me. Blood arrived, like a declaration of guilt.

“What now?” I asked our dad, and he fetched sacking to flatten my chest and wool to soak up my blood. He showed me how to dip a thumb in ash to mask my softness.

“How do you know this?” I asked, and he shook his head, silenced still by sorrow.

My brothers and I each took our time at the lakeside. Mab would go at dusk, his cornflower eyes searching the gloaming for what we’d lost. Brychan would go by moonlight, his freckles dark stars on his skin. I chose dawn, slipping from my clothes and bindings at the water’s edge and wading in until I could almost touch her beside me in the chill, clear depths.

Mab was the son who saw her, with whom she shared her wisdom of healing roots and leaves so he could pass them on to us. And Brychan said he heard her in the rustle of rushes and lap of the water; the soft breath of the air on its surface.

I felt her skin next to mine, and as my body reformed itself to what must be disguised, she pressed against the pains that came and washed the blood from my flesh, her cheek cool at my temple in sympathy and warning.
Cledwyn was one of the village boys who helped us at the farm. I watched him collect eggs with a gentleness that made my insides curl until I needed to turn from him and hide my flushed cheeks. He watched me watching him and held a hand out. I reached mine out in mirror to his and accepted the dusk-blue egg he offered.

It was still warm.

“A duck must have got in without us seeing, Eil,” he said, as though that meant something.

I noticed him often then, noticed his calm quiet staring down the farm’s fierce cockerel or the worst of the drunks in the pub courtyard.

My brothers cautioned me to be careful.

Mab was almost wed by that point. We bid his days in our shared bed farewell with ale and laughter. His bride blushed crimson from her corner of the courtyard, hearing our lewd talk of the marriage night. I was the worst; I know that, with my empty talk of penetration. I could only conjure what my brothers instinctively understood. I was the worst with the ale also, the stars swaying above me as a confusion of emotions sank in my veins like silt, like grain.

Not man, not woman, not human nor fey, not water nor land, not happy nor sad, but somehow built up of all these things.

Cledwyn accompanied me halfway home.

“I’ve seen you, Eil,” he said suddenly. “I know the truth of your mother, and I know about you.”

He confessed to walking early to gather moorhen eggs by the lake, to spying me wading from the water unclothed.

I stared at him, mind stumbling. “Who would believe you?”

“Everyone,” he said simply, and touched the heel of his hand to my chin. “But I’ll tell none.”

He moved into the farm before the moon passed through its cycle, moved into my bed as Brychan made his by the hearth where our dad sat all night. We told the villagers Cledwyn had bought the farm; that he allowed us to remain as a mark of compassion.

At Mab’s wedding I gazed at his bride with flowers wound in her long hair and ran my fingers over my own shorn scalp. She looked aglow in my brother’s love and I found myself choking on snot from my tears.

Cledwyn knocked a fist to my chin, hissing, “Get it together, Eil.”

His arms around me at night filled me with such contentment that it became a chore to rise before daybreak. When I confessed my reluctance to leave his embrace, he smiled.

“I’ll come with you.”

We crept together through the dew, and he showed me the beauty of grebes’ floating nests; the stippled moorhen eggs; toads’ pearled strings of spawn, and damselflies born one thing to become another.

In the water, my mother’s approval swam beside me, but even through her gladness for my newfound joy I felt her fret about sadness to come.

Before the morning of my niece’s baptism, I bled through the cloths I’d slept in and stained our sheets with my foolish hopes for a child. However much I scrubbed, the emptiness would not fade.

In front of the local gossips, Cledwyn knocked his fist to my temple. “Clumsy clot, to spill my wine over the laundry.”
I could not loosen my wish for a babe of our own, and at last that want took root. Cledwyn’s love beamed over me like firelight. I gave up rising early to go to the lake for fear of my mother’s dread blighting our happiness.

For the last few months I stayed indoors. When my son bucked within me, my brothers held me between them, thinking comfort and strength into me until he was born.

I named our child Eirian, meaning bright, meaning beautiful. Our boy had his younger uncle’s ash-freckled skin and his elder uncle’s cornflower eyes, but it was my spirit I felt blaze from him as I let him suckle on the fullness of my chest one last time.

To keep my secrets safe, Eirian went to live with Mab and his family. Devoted uncle that I was, I visited as often as the farm could spare me, and whispered my truth to him at every chance.

Sickness reached the village. However my brothers and I strived to undo its grasp, it bore the old and the young with it, sweeping my father and child into its embrace.

At the funeral, the village gathered to comfort my brother’s wife, as he and his children sobbed around the grave. I thought of all my brother had, and the parentage I’d never master. A great, harrumphing laugh burst out of me, grief-laced and skewered with pain.

Cledwyn knocked his fist to my eye. “This life is not for you,” he said, and then whispered soft, “This love is not for us.”

The lake was waiting. I could feel it in my heart, my bones, my guts, my lungs. I rose at dawn and kissed my brothers goodbye.

Together they trailed me down to the water’s edge: cornflower-eyed, ash-freckled behind me.

Stepping into the cloud-flooded lake, I felt my mother’s touch and knew Cledwyn had done me right.


Judy Darley is a British writer who can't stop writing about the fallibilities and strengths of the human mind, and has a minor obsession with trees.Her second short fiction collection, Sky Light Rain, is due out in late 2019. Judy has shared her stories on BBC radio, as well as in caf├ęs, caves, an artist’s studio and a disused church.
and on Twitter @JudyDarley

Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff

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