Saturday, 29 December 2012

Marsh Priestess - a Personal Story

But all I remember 
Are the dreams in the mist... 
There's something out there 
I can't resist

In my last blog post I wrote a bit about the mysterious feeling of sentience one senses sometimes from trees in the forest. It put me in mind of a short story I wrote last year, which was based on my own experiences in the bushland at the bottom of my mountain garden. 

Most of the garden is cultivated, with roses, bulbs and other flowers, deciduous and fruitful trees, little paths and birdbaths... It is a lovely garden, with a magic of its own. But about a hundred metres from the bottom of the garden stand two giant pines, marking the transition from the garden to the wild. Beyond is bushland, often mist-shrouded, where all the colours are different, mysterious and strange and where the eucalypts stand like pale gods with their proud heads crowned by cloud. And at the very bottom is a valley with a grassy, gurgling marsh, full of humming things and secretive trickles. Perhaps the mythic nature of trees is what calls to me, or I sense the borders to otherland fade when I am by a marsh. For sometimes I feel a call to I wander there alone, and at these times I feel a sense of kinship with the forest. 

I hope you enjoy the story.

Photograph credit, Stephen Hayden Photography

Marsh Priestess

I am the priestess of the scorned and wild forest. Afternoons, the softly falling chill brings with it the mists, which, clinging, frost the eucalypts with tiny jewels. I stand on the track my constant pilgrimage has worn, while the borders of reality are shrouded; first the garden, green and tame beyond the furthest pine; the straggling wire fence; the bleached rope swing; all fade. The bush has reclaimed the land from civilisation, and I am enclosed by the pale trees, their stringy bark hanging in rags off white and virgin limbs; initiates disrobing for an ancient ritual. I tread carefully, hesitant to disturb the soft and steady dripping of condensation from the myriad leaves. The track is soft and spongy; new-speckled with tiny ferns I weave around, unwilling to crush.

As I descend, I briefly pay homage to the matriarch, the huge red-bark whose maternal roots shelter and protect the forest’s treasure: the waratah I discovered with my brothers last summer. The red and sticky sap has crusted carnelian, and it beads my forehead as I lean against the trunk. I feel the soil’s moisture soak my knees and watch it slowly darken my skirt. Further down, the grasses have starred themselves in pale blossoms that glow amidst the slate and khaki of the dimming mist. In the half-light my merino cardigan fades to muted steel, until an intruder, stumbling from the end of the road, (hidden a scant thirty metres to my left), would find it hard to see me, my goose-pebbled arms around my wild sister; my wet and darkened hair sticking to my face like sheeted bark.

I near the end of the track, averting my eyes from the plastic teeth of a rake, which leers drunkenly from its precarious position in the fork of a banksia, where my father must have propped it. The rake is a blasphemy to the untamed sanctity of the forest. Angrily, I push it over and watch in satisfaction as it is swallowed by the eager shrubs. A cluster of ferns ends the path, damp fronds caressing a weathered piece of sandstone. Many years ago, the rock was engraved with plain, sensible English, marking the boundary between our property and the next. Now, the crumbled inscription is illegible, translated by the endless dripping of the mists into an arcane script. Here, I too can go no further. The track breaks off at the edge of a sharp depression. Beneath me lies the fertile green of the marsh, waiting silently for nightfall.

The ceremony will not be marked by sunset. My family’s cottage, sitting smugly at the top of the hillside beyond the bushland’s boundaries, regularly catches the last rays of the setting sun. Here, however, obscured in the mist, the marsh is enveloped in mystery. A little to my right, a scribbly-gum has split itself into three, extending over the swamp like the hand of a druid over a cauldron. Gingerly I walk along the middle finger, uncomfortably aware of my sneakers’ tentative friction on the wet wood. Convulsively I grip the twigs then straighten, poised above the morass. As the mist dims and the pale, scented stars light the long grass, I await the invocation, my sacrifice clutched in my hand.

 Sonorously, the bullfrogs give the signal. Symbolically, I sacrifice a piece of my body, heart and soul to the wild spirits of the marsh; a bead from my childhood necklace; a twist of my hair moistened in spit; a name scribbled furtively on a scrap of paper… They slip from my fingers and vanish into the dark trickling of the swamp. On the other side, two foxes perform their mating ritual unconcerned before my gaze. For a few moments, I am one with the forest. But a few moments are all I am granted. The carrying deep voice of my father, floating down the valley, calls me back to humanity. Reluctantly I force myself to turn away from the marsh; to walk slowly back up the path in the chilling fog, feeling the damp cling to my skin; back to reality.

At the border I pause, my hand on the solid trunk of the vast pine marking the end of the forest. Up the hill, past the new-mown lawn and the rose garden, the kitchen light gleams warmly and my father’s shadow moves industriously against the glow. Solemnly, reverently, I turn and make obeisance to the silent eucalypts and they toss their crowns in acknowledgement. Then I cross the border, and make my way up to the house, out of the mist.


  1. Laura, this is beautiful! You have a real gift with words!