“She’s back,” said Annie, without looking up from her laptop. From the far side of the room Moira raised her head, frowned thoughtfully and sniffed the air. Norma nodded to herself and smiled.
The harsh January wind almost lifted Chrissie off her feet. It grabbed at her scarf and hair with sharp cold fingers until she was bullied into finding refuge down a narrow side street. It was dark between the high old buildings, but a short way down she could see the inviting glow of golden yellow light from an open doorway. It lay out across the icy cobblestones like a welcome mat of forgotten summer sunshine. Her stomach tightened slightly as memories flooded back. It had been almost three months since she had last been at the Black Boar. For a moment she hesitated… unsure, but the wind that was blowing from down the great glen had other plans. It ripped and gnawed at her back, forcing her forward. Once again she stood in front of the café with its ancient stone archway, where a blackboard declared the “Specials of the Day”.
She stood… still uncertain and more than a little afraid. The last time she had been here her life had changed forever. What would happen if she crossed this threshold a second time? Her mind raced back to that day in late October when she had last been here. It had been a crisp and golden end-of-autumn day…
…and Chrissie was in a hurry. She had less than an hour for lunch before her appointment. She walked briskly down the street, oblivious to the shop windows with their garish and gory Halloween decorations. At the corner she went to turn left… and almost tripped over an enormous cat that seemed to appear from nowhere. Swearing softly, she stopped to check her shoe heel, which had made a rather ominous click as she’d dodged the cursed cat. As she balanced on one foot, twisting to check the heel of the other, strange flickering lights caught her eye. Further down the narrow side lane a row of carved-out swedes grinned at her out of the shadows. Amused and intrigued she went closer, for a better look. The neeps were set along the edge of a bay window. Above an arched stone doorway a sign declared, “Samhainn specials – Come dine with the Dark Boar”, below that was painted a big black pig dancing under a full moon. From deep within the blended scent of real coffee and fresh-baking floated out and wrapped around her, like the arms of a lover. She decided to give this unusual place a try.
The entrance led to a surprisingly chic café. Muted lighting showed round glass tables on long metal pedestals and high-backed dark leather chairs. In the soft warm glow the tables seemed to float, like crystal lotus leaves on a dark pool. Mirrored panels, set at subtle angles, created the illusion of a room flowing out into infinity. A bit disorientated she stood for a moment trying to decide where to sit. The room was quiet, virtually empty. With a salad and tea on its way she headed for a table and pulled out her phone. She was just about to text her boss a reminder that she wouldn’t be back until two when a woman’s voice interrupted her concentration.
“Sugar?” the woman asked, smiling slightly. She was holding out a small silver dish full of sugar sachets… something Chrissie’s own table was lacking.
“Thank you. I don’t take sugar actually.”
The woman put the dish down anyway, “I always take sugar. Not much point in life if you can’t enjoy the sweet moments.” Chrissie glanced at the woman, quickly assessing and dismissing her fidgety plain face, untidy hair and equally non-descript clothing.
“My name is Norma,” Chrissie gave a loud deliberate sigh and stared pointedly at the woman, but Norma went on talking, quite oblivious, “I heard you order the salad special. Good choice. We do an excellent salad.” The last sentence was not expected.
“You own this place?”
The woman nodded, “Actually we all do,” she waved a hand vaguely towards the back of the shop where two other women were sharing a table. A very tall dark woman hunched over a laptop and a slim elegant woman with sleek ginger-brown hair. They seemed to realise they were being spoken about. Both looked across; the slim woman smiled. She gave a polite nod-and-smile back.
Norma waved to them, “Come here and say hello.” The two women started to make their way over to her table.
Chrissie gave another deep sigh, “I don’t have time…” she started to say, but Norma was already making introductions.
The tall woman spoke in a gravel rough voice, “I’m Annie.”
“Black Annie,” the small slim woman added with a dry smile. Annie pulled a face and gave a small mock bow as everyone laughed at the joke. In her tailored charcoal suit and long black coat, and with her crow black hair feathering her bony face, she was very black indeed.
“I’m Moira,” the slender woman smiled again, holding out her hand. Chrissie smiled back, noticing the small details that spoke of prosperity and prestige. Her hand was soft and her long perfectly manicured nails picked up the sparkles from the gold and diamond bracelet around her wrist. Her rich brown hair had stylish streaked copper highlights that reminded Chrissie of stripes on a tabby cat.
The three women seemed an interesting trio, but she really wasn’t in the mood for small talk. She deliberately glanced at her watch, “I should be going soon. I have an appointment.” The three women nodded understandingly, but kept their places at her table. Feeling strangely powerless she ate her salad while Norma prattled on, explaining how the three of them had started as friends before becoming business partners in the Black Boar.
“Why didn’t you change the name?” she asked. Annie frowned and Norma looked confused. She tried to explain, “I mean, obviously the place was named the Black Boar when you bought it?” The women looked at each other in amusement.
“Oh, we picked the name,” said Norma.
“You chose the name… deliberately?” They all nodded. “But it’s so…” she struggled for a tactful description, “old fashioned.” All three women burst out laughing at that, even dark dour Annie.
Moira patted her hand, “My dear,” she said, chuckling, “you have no idea how old.” Once again all three burst into mirth as if at some private joke.
She changed the subject. “So… what brought you together as friends in the first place?”
Norma smiled, “We’re weavers.”
“Oh!” she was surprised, “Craftwork.”
All three laughed. “You could call it that,” replied Moira.
She could imagine Norma doing something as mundane as needlework, but the other two? Androgynous Annie with her laptop and frown… Moira with her inch long pearly nails and chic little clutch purse… She simply could not imagine the three of them sitting together at some rural women’s social club drinking tea out of mugs and sharing gossip as they worked on their mutual hobby. She was so completely lost in trying to visualise the three women weaving together that she didn’t realise that Norma was holding out her hand as well. A little embarrassed, she shook the woman’s hand. As their fingers touched she gave a jerk.
“Static,” Norma giggled, but Chrissie wasn’t so sure. What she’d felt as their hands touched was more like a ripple of water going through her entire body. This time when she looked into Norma’s face she looked without preconceptions. What she saw was a quivering energy that she had completely missed before. And her eyes! How had she not noticed Norma’s eyes? They were almost abnormally large and such a light bright brown, almost golden; held within their gaze she felt stripped to the bone and spirit.
Flustered, she checked her watch again, “I should go.”
As she went to rise Annie reached out and grabbed her arm tightly, “Remember to ask him about the little thing.”
Norma nodded, “He needs to know.”
Her mind raced madly for some sensible logical answer as to how these three complete strangers could know about the ‘little thing’. There was no way they could know. No-one knew, not even her mother. Not even her boss. He thought it was a regular check up and it was… or at least that was what she kept telling herself. Except the little thing had been growing into the Big Fear that left her awake and ice cold in the early mornings. She turned to Annie to demand her release, but something in the woman’s face made the words shrivel like dead leaves in her mouth. Up this close Annie’s angular features were made grotesque by the shadows and light reflections. What had first seemed sombre stylishness now looked jagged and ghoulish. Annie stared down her enormous beak of a nose with eyes as darkly bright as the ice-covered cobbles outside. She recoiled and looked away only to realise her right shoulder was being held by another strange hand. Moira’s sharp pearly claws were digging into her skin through coat and clothing. Her face was so close that Chrissie could see the long coarse whiskery hairs on her lip and chin, and notice the sharp little teeth behind her painted coral lips.
The three stared at her with unrelenting intensity as she crouched back in her seat, panting with sudden fear. Her own rasping breath was the only sound in the room, but she could barely hear it beneath the overwhelming drumming of her heart. Her need to escape was almost primal. She wrenched her arm out of Annie’s hard grasp and almost sprinted for the door. As she paid her bill she looked into the mirror behind the counter to see if the three women were still watching her. For one mad moment she could have sworn that she saw a huge rabbitty thing standing beside the table she’d been sitting at, but when she glanced back it was only drab Norma.
Once outside she took three long shivering breaths of the autumn air before walking as fast as she could back to the main street with its hurly burly of lunchtime shoppers. She giggled at her own silliness, but still leapt like a shot deer when a crow cawed loudly from a rooftop. Mad, insane, pure coincidence, she told herself…
…but deep inside her a persistent whisper echoed in the voices of three.
Now once again she stood at the door of the Black Boar, but this time her feet refused to move. A soft voice startled her out of her reverie.
“Goodness child, you’re frozen!” It was the sleek gingery woman, Moira, elegant in fur and Italian leather. Her face showed concern and a genuine compassion. She put her arm around Chrissie and drew her indoors. Inside the café tall Annie, smiling gently, helped her with her coat as Norma came dashing from the kitchen with a large mug of steaming tea. She was completely unprepared for such gentle mothering. A large tear fought its way free and rolled down her cheek. Moira pulled a crisp white tissue from her tiny leather purse and handed it to her. It was too much to bear. Chrissie put her face in her hands and sobbed like a lost child. Not even the pressure of six hands on her arms and shoulders could stop the flood of emotion that was sweeping through her.
After what felt like a lifetime of weeping, she blotted her eyes and looked about her. Once again all three women had her encircled, but this time she felt held in love rather than held by fear. Feeling calmer than she had in weeks, she sipped her tea and began to tell what she knew they had known before she even knew them - that the ‘little thing’ had been a Big Thing after all. They nodded when she related how she had gone to the doctor and, spurred by their terrifying words, had told him about the little thing. How he had sent her for tests… and back again for more tests. She told them how she had spent her Christmas in hospital corridors with machines and syringes and seen in the New Year wailing like a wild woman, refusing to believe or accept. She told them about test results and statistics, the pamphlets and admission slips, how her life was a blasted heath…
“Rubbish,” said Annie, “Your life is whatever you choose to make it.”
Moira reached across and took her hand. “Sooner or later we all dance with the dark boar,” she said.
Seeing her confusion Norma explained, “In the old times the Dark Boar was the devourer.”
“Death,” Annie added bluntly.
Chrissie looked away... watched the snow falling outside the window. Silence, as perfect as snowflakes, fell around her. Cool unfathomable peace…“Is this the end then?” she asked.
Moira shook her head, gently, “There are no endings, only seasons.”
“…and seasons,” continued Norma, “Always circle back to the beginning once again.”
Annie nodded, “Winter isn’t death, winter is the pause between breathes.”
“Hibernation… gestation,” added Norma, “The waiting time.”
Chrissie wiped away another tear, “I’m not sure I can wait.”
“Nonsense,” said Annie, “Of course you can wait. It isn’t a science. Even mould knows how to wait.”
Moira smiled, “and beyond winter there is always the promise of spring.”
“The dance,” said Norma, and they all nodded.
Annie leant forward and touched Chrissie’s cheek lightly with one finger. “The dance you weave is up to you now.” She pointed to the mirrors behind her and Chrissie looked… and looked…
In the dark mirror reflections the café’s tall-backed chairs were mountaintops and the ceiling lights became stars. She felt herself drawn into this otherworld horizon. Across the boundaries of imagination and reality a dark plain came into focus between the mountains and the stars. There were people here, men and women, and a bonfire that hissed and crackled. It was hard to see clearly and at first she thought they were dancing around a maypole. She thought they were holding ribbons, but as they came closer she realised they weren't swapping over ribbons as they danced in a circle - they were throwing and catching spindles of silvery yarn. As everyone turned and spiralled, threw and caught, the threads were criss-crossing. They were dancing and weaving a net of light. Fire-bright stars and embers swirled around her as she stood and watched. Beyond them, amongst them she saw three familiar figures. They never really joined the dance and yet they were a part of the weaving. Here in this place they seemed so tall, Moira and Norma towered above the others and Annie’s dark head was up amongst the stars themselves.
With a blink and a heartbeat she was back in her seat in the café as before. She looked at the three women who encircled her at the table and felt her soul shiver at what she could now see before her. Three sets of eyes watched her watching, and in their deep and gentle gaze she saw a hundred thousand dances and more winters than any human mind could comprehend. She got to her feet, slowly this time. There was no more need to panic or rush. Outside in the alley the shoppers were long gone and the newly fallen snow lay unmarked, perfect and pure. Her footsteps would be the first to leave their mark. Chrissie smiled, pulled her scarf a little tighter, and walked out into the hushed winter white.
Inside the café Annie went back to her beloved laptop and clicked on her appointment diary.
“Now,” she said, scrolling down to the next week “when shall we three meet again?”
copyright the author ~ Michelle Frost
first published in 2009