Fractal Myth

The Magic Circle

[Michelle Whitehead ©2009]

The Magic Circle
Painting by J.W. Waterhouse
The Magic Circle
Date: 1886
Medium: Oil on canvas
Size: 183 x 127 cm
Location: Tate Britain, London, UK

All winter they searched... a desperate, barren winter and a desperate quest with no end in sight. Frozen grass crackled under hoof and the only other sound outside themselves was the harsh cry of ravens, lurking in the neverending rows of cypress trees that bordered the empty paddocks. Then came the rain. Bitter, unrelenting rain, scouring the rocks, rutting the path so that they stumbled and fell in the mud, blinding them with stinging sleet. Still they travelled and at last, blinking in disbelief, they emerged from a dark forest into the gentle warmth of a sunlit meadow. The air was fragrant with crushed herbs, and wherever the two travellers looked, tiny fairy-rings of red and white spotted mushrooms were sprouting.

In the middle of the meadow stood a cloaked and hooded figure, harvesting herbs with a golden sickle. She moved amongst the flowers on bare feet, flitting like a butterfly from plant to plant, tucking little bunches into the brown girdle tied at her waist. Glancing up at the weary travellers, she smiled.

"I've been expecting you," she said.

"We have come that you may perform what you have promised." Looking into her dark eyes, the travellers felt ashamed to disturb such a peaceful existence, but she was now their only hope. They blurted out their story, their words tumbling over each other, hardly knowing who spoke what. "The old king is dying; the prince has no wife and is tortured by self doubt; day and night his stepmother whispers to him that he is unlovable, that no maiden would want him for anything other than his wealth and power; she tempts him constantly to come to her bed for she has long lusted after him and nothing means more to her than retaining her position as queen; he resists, clinging to the vision his mother gave him on her deathbed - the vision of you; he fears you to be no more than fantasy, Columbine Iceshimmer. He fears that, even if you are real, the sacrifice required of you is too great. He fears that his stepmother speaks the truth and his head swims with the effort of resisting her enticements. She overwhelms his senses with perfumed incense and rich food, hoping to trick him into succumbing but while he languishes in that luxury, the people suffer. The queen is greedy, she strips the land to supply her table and furnish her palace. She insists that nobody laugh or sing or dance on pain of death, for always she suspects that they are laughing at her. The walls of the city are festooned with the heads of merrimakers, many of them children."

Here they broke off. One sobbed, and the other comforted him with a firm hand on his shoulder.

"Once we were parents. Once we delighted in the joy of our children, but the queen has stolen them from us. Our only hope is the prince and his dream, and so we come to you, Columbine Iceshimmer. We ask of you an impossible task. The old queen trusted us. Before she died, she asked us to protect her son, to give everything we had to keep him safe. We have done that, we have nothing left. But she also told us of you. She said: "When all else is gone, when all hope is fled, when joy no longer dares to sing, find Columbine Iceshimmer and tell her of your need. She will know what to do."

The young woman listened in silence, then she turned, eyeing the raven who flew cawing overhead. With a finger on her lips she led them through the meadow which ended abruptly in a steep cliff. She vanished over the edge, following a narrow path that wound along a perilous ledge. The travellers hobbled their horses in a patch of lush grass and followed her, helping each other over the rough ground. When they reached the bottom, Columbine ushered them into a dry, comfortable cave, furnished with a little wooden chair and table, and a simple wooden platform for a bed. The walls were hung with drying herbs. Speaking softly, she bid them hide themselves and no matter what they saw, not to interrupt her.

"The ravens are spies for the queen," she whispered. "They will not be able to see once I complete the magic circle. You must remain here. Only approach when the coals of my fire are cold and nothing but ash remains. Dig through the ash and carry what you find, unopened, to the prince. Tell him it is a gift for his wife from his mother, but do not delay on your journey. The old king is dead and the prince has agreed to marry his stepmother in one month's time. He must give her the gift on their wedding night or else all is lost. Now rest. We must start at dawn."

At first light, Columbine walked alone into the clearing. Ignoring the cries of the ravens gathering along the edge of the rocks, she carefully built a fire of elder and hazelwood, throwing in bunches of basil, thyme, and honeysuckle. On a tripod over the coals she placed a golden cauldron that had been polished until it blazed. Drawing a glowing stick from the embers she carved a protective circle in the dust, starting from the east, with her eyes fixed on the rising sun. Ravens circled in the clear dawn air, landed, clustering along the rim of the circle, cawing and rubbing their beaks in the dust as though blinded by the smoke.

Chanting under her breath, Columbine removed her cloak of heavy purple wool. The travellers gasped to see icy blue butterfly wings unfolding from her shoulders. She pulled from her girdle the golden sickle, curved like the new moon which still hung in the brightening sky, and with one swift motion she severed her wings and cast them into the heated cauldron. A pillar of white smoke billowed up as they burnt; she threw her sickle in too, and bunches of lavender, dandelion and clover, as she walked around and around the fire constantly tracing and renewing the circle with her smoking stick. They could hear her chanting as her tears dripped and sizzled on the nearly molten metal. Then she bent and grasped the glowing bowl in her hands, shaping it into a square casket, without removing it from the flames. Suddenly dropping the stick, she leapt inside and the lid of the casket clicked down to cover her.

As soon as the smoke from the circle died down, the ravens moved in, but the wind from their wings fanned the coals and they were driven back again and again by the heat. Eventually evening fell and the huge black birds flew off to their roosts in the cypress trees.

The next morning, the travellers emerged from the cave in the chilly predawn. They stepped around an ancient human skull, buried up to its eyesockets just outside the circle and with trembling hands they sifted through the cold ashes, listening intently for the sound of the ravens returning. Finding the small golden casket, one hid it under his cloak and together they ran up the narrow path to their patiently waiting horses.

Day and night they galloped, stopping only to change their steeds at the waystations, eating in the saddle, fighting the urge to sleep. After a week they reached the coast where the prince's ship was docked. It took three weeks for the ship to reach the city, and the whole time they paced the decks, trying to fill the sails with an endless effort of will; when the sailors managed to convince them to lie down, their restless sleep was haunted by the cry of ravens.

At last they arrived, to find the city preparing for the prince's wedding, but with no rejoicing or celebration. Everywhere there were signs of mourning for the old king, and a black bunting of ravens clustered on the soaring turrets of the palace. Inside the palace, however, the rooms were overflowing with priceless tapestries and jewelled dishes; a riot of colour that contrasted sadly with the grey faces of those that moved amongst the treasure.

The travellers followed the dawdling servants and found the queen and her cronies drinking golden liquor from crystal goblets, clothed in sumptuous silks, with painted faces and nails, their hair piled in elaborate curls... but the prince was nowhere in sight. Finally they located him, alone in the chapel, lying naked on the stone floor near his mother's memorial, his gaudy wedding clothes folded neatly on a pew. They handed him the casket and repeated Columbine's instructions. He rose as if in a dream and donned the clothes laid out for him. Making no other acknowledgment of their presence or the successful completion of their mission, he carried the casket to the queen. She looked up in surprise, but spying the gold in his hands she bit off her sarcastic comment and her eyes gleamed. She grabbed the casket from him, greedily tearing it open. Inside she found a golden chain suspending an ice-blue shimmering star. She eagerly insisted the prince place it around her neck. His fingers were clumsy and she tugged at the necklace impatiently as she yearned towards the full length mirror that spanned the wall.

The moment the jewel touched her throat, the chain began to shrink. It pulled tighter and tighter, choking the queen, until her elaborately coiffured head rolled off and landed at the feet of her shrieking friends. Within moments the room was empty, except for the prince. Still moving like a sleepwalker, he lifted the delicate chain from the dead queen's body and returned it to the casket. As he did so, he noticed a tiny cocoon attached to one side of the golden box. His brow wrinkled as he stroked the cocoon gently with his fingertip. Instantly it split and a pale blue smoke emerged, filling the room with the sweet scent of herbs and banishing the queen's overpowering perfume.

When the smoke cleared, the prince saw first that the queen's body had vanished. Then he noticed a young maiden standing by the window. She was not beautiful. Her dusky lilac dress was crushed, its embroidered hem tattered and stained. Her feet, bare, dusty and coated in ash, her long black hair wild and tangled. But she looked the prince in the eye and smiled. Blinking, and shaking his head, he smiled back. With quick steps he crossed the room and looped the shining star jewel around her neck. She touched it fondly and tucked his arm around her waist. Together they stood by the window, talking in low voices. As they watched, they could see the ravens feasting on something brightly coloured, in the distance, beyond the city walls.

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