Yakuyoke

Keep my safe

In this stranger’s room

Now my own

I arrived in the gloom

When rain was falling

Over the rice fields

When my body was tired

From nights on mountains

And all I had healed

 

A Japanese country house
Image my own

 

No locks on the doors

No light in the halls

Paper cranes on the table

Handprints on the walls

What happens here

Will never leave

Old feelings linger

Spirits in eaves

 

Image my own

 

Keep me safe

As the rain falls

As I sleep

When the moon is hidden

And my dreams are weak

No locks on the doors

Yet I will not fear

We have told the thresholds

Only good may enter here

 

yakuyoke shrine charm from Japan
Image my own

A yakuyoke is a type of omamori (charm) which you can purchase from shrines and temples in Japan. There are many kinds of omamori. Maybe you need help finding love, or nurturing your current relationship. Or some support for coping with a health condition. If you’re going on a trip, get a travel safety omamori and tie it to your bag. Looking to attract positivity? Get a luck or happiness charm. Whatever your needs, there will be an omamori suitable for you. Put it somewhere you can see it every day, and never open it. As it becomes old and worn, you will see the harm it has saved you from in its fraying edges and loosened knots.

The above image is of a yakuyoke charm I took at house I stayed in in Kamikawa-cho, a rural part of Hyōgo Prefecture. A yakuyoke is for protection against evil spirits. This one hung above my bed. It was an old, mysterious house. Over a century old, made of wood, glass, and paper, with no locks. The washroom was a tiny cupboard with a stool and a cold tap in it. I boiled saucepans of water and took them in with me to wash with. There was a dusty parasol hanging from the ceiling, between the kitchen and a side room with a sunken area which I guess used to hold an irori (Japanese fire pit). My friends and I sat there wrapped in blankets, eating combini cookies & listening to the rain, and singing to mask our nerves at being alone in this peculiar place. I was as scared as I should have been, arriving in the dark to somewhere so isolated. But I soon felt at peace. The walls were happy. They held memories. The yakuyoke would let me sleep. The mountains would watch over us.

Read more about omamori on #FolkloreThursday in this article by Kim McGreal.

 

Solstice in the City

It’s Solstice in the city

my heart is not still

I climbed a mountain

and let my hair down

in the wind’s chill.

I walked very far

on streets I know well

I was tired but smiling

so no-one could tell.

 

View of Edinburgh from Salisbury Crags
Edinburgh, taken from Salisbury Crags. Image my own.

 

I’m wearing a crown

of sunflowers and straw

It doesn’t mean much, really

but I couldn’t ignore

this glowing, this summer

beginning today

in the colour of stones

wherever I stray.

 

Image my own.

 

When later I wonder

where all the light went

I’ll look at the flowers,

memories have such strength,

when your heart is not still,

and needs reminding

of what it loves,

of how to be filled.

 

 

Not Mine: A Scottish Changeling Story

In preparation for a field trip, I was browsing through the Statistical Accounts of Scotland to learn about some of the towns I would be passing through. On the whole, statistical accounts do not make the most exciting reading material. They’re mostly overviews of the state of each place in terms of things like population, education, local industries, public health, and climate. I soon gave up hope of finding any juicy folklore. But then I came across a small former fisher town on the Moray Coast. The old account was very short, but it included a story about a nearby stone marking the spot where a chief had been slain during an argument over a round of cheese. By far the most drama I had yet come across, so I was instantly invested and then had to look at the later account to see if the mysterious cheese fight was mentioned further. It was, and with a whole lot more besides…

Welcome to 18th century Ardersier, where the beaches are either flat and sandy or overgrown with ridges of heather. If you can clearly see the Ross-shire hills in the morning, rain will come later in the day. If they are hazy, it will remain dry. In winter, you can hear the cries of visiting seabirds, and there is a small loch where white water lilies grown in such abundance that you can barely see the surface of the water.

The stories of the elderly are heard, and savoured. Old words are always true, when the young are too young to know different. Maybe this is why the belief in faeries remains strong beyond credence. They are said to revel in the moonlight around a nearby knoll, and everyone knows that a sickly child is a changeling. Frayed, desperate parents, trying anything to get back their loves and their lives…

 

TRIGGER WARNING: Post-natal depression and child death

 

changeling illustration
Changeling image from Copenhagen National Museum. Image in the public domain – source

Not Mine

My love would not have loved this. It was the fae’s child, not hers. Her gentle smile would not have graced her lips if she had looked upon it, I am sure. Those lips which tasted of all the blood in the room when I last touched them. After her screams ceased, and the screams of this creature began. Screaming, screaming. The midwife took it away, and I held her, who had left me for this.

It screamed. Every day, and every night. I tried everything a father could. I bathed it, and kept it warm. I soaked rags in milk for it to suck on, and nestled it in my arms as I stumbled through delirious lullabies. Nothing soothed it. It refused sleep, and denied me the same. She wouldn’t have wanted to hold it, either. Nasty, writhing thing. Not a child, but a demon.

It was the midwife who said it first.

Changeling.

The word slithered through the village, house to house. Changeling, changeling, changeling.

“Oh, aye,” said my neighbours. They heard its screams as well as I did, in the night, keeping their own children awake.

I took it to the healer. She rubbed it with salves, and burned St John’s Wort. It screamed more. Back home, it was sick. Then it ate everything, so I stopped feeding it. All the milk in the village turned sour overnight. I laid mistletoe and iron shears in the cradle. It shrank away from them, glaring at me between unearthly shrieks, with brown eyes that were like her’s but also not. They held no warmth, and reflected none of the hearth’s soft light. Slitted, weepy things, all dark and empty.

Weeks passed. A cow died. A crop spoiled. It rained. Changeling, changeling.

When my neighbour’s daughter fell ill, a knock came at my door.

“Take it. You know where. Take it now, before anything happens to my Elspeth.” Other faces peered out of doorways, nodding and murmuring in agreement. “The knoll, only way…” I shut my door.

It was a bright autumn twilight. No clouds, just an endless, sharp sky, pale blue fringed with red and orange. A twilight before a frost, when a waning moon would rise, and ice and silver would leach all life from the countryside. A night to carry away what was no longer desired.

I swaddled it in a blanket and left the house. The faces watched me go. Some cast their eyes down as I passed, others bore into me to make sure that I went. I felt them on my back long after I was beyond their sight.

To the knoll. Where the fae gathered and revelled in the moonlight. Where the chime of bells could be heard, and our cattle refused to graze. Small and unassuming, but a portal to Elfhame if ever there was one. Everyone knew it, and pretended they didn’t.

As I crouched and laid it on the grass, I could almost feel their unseen eyes watching me. They were in the stirring breeze, tugging at the blanket as I settled it around the creature. I paused for a moment, gazing at it, wondering. Thoughts drifting, as they do when you have not slept for so long, and you cannot tell right from wrong. Holding her. Holding her body. Tears. My tears, falling on its skin. Faces, on thresholds. Only way. The fae were watching. They must want it back. It was their fault, not mine.

I left it there. I left it screaming. I walked home. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, I would hold my child. Her child. A real child. I slept.

In the morning, I buried a frosted corpse.

 

University of Aberdeen Creative Writing Society anthology 2019

‘Not Mine’ is based on events recorded in Ardersier’s 1845 Statistical Account. There was a father with a sick child, which he and his neighbours believed to be a changeling. To rectify this, he took them to Tom Eanraic (Henry’s Knoll), a local hill said to be where faeries gathered, and left them there overnight. It was believed that when he returned in the morning, he would find the faeries would have reclaimed the changeling and returned his real child. However, in actuality he returned to find the child had perished. The other characters and details given here are my own creation, speculating about how this tragic situation may have unfolded. ‘Not Mine’ was also published in Ex Libris, the University of Aberdeen’s Creative Writing Society Anthology 2019.

 

Nowhere // Now Here: An Update

Two years ago, I returned home from work to my ancient, dust-ridden Japanese apartment. I shuffled out of my shoes and dropped my bags on the floor, & stepped out of the genkan into my kitchen. In front of me was the table. It was a good-sized rectangular dining table, pressed against the wall between the doors to my tatami rooms. It had a pale yellow cloth on it, which was always slipping. The left-hand side was occupied by my toaster oven, bought soon after I moved in in haste to experiment with baking Kit Kats. The right-hand side was covered by paper. At the bottom of the pile were important documents – payslips, city registration forms, the earthquake safety leaflet I never got around to filling out. The rest was all stories.

Amelia Starling Sanrio notepads

Half-finished journal entries, scribbled on post-it notes when I didn’t have my actual journal with me but needed to write. Torn pages with novel notes, story ideas, and snippets of song lyrics. Thin B5 notepads adorned with Sanrio characters, all full of garbled English and Japanese poetry, folktales, and musings about how the ocean looked whenever I sat beside it. Ink smudges, where I’d cried unexpectedly, when I hadn’t realised how upset I was until I’d picked up a pen and everything had come out. When I’d written about missing my family, and the wind running away from me, and things I’d lost. My stories, from both my life and my imagination, scattered.

I looked at them. For the first time in a while, I smiled for myself. It was like looking in a mirror, and reminding myself that I still existed. That after so much wondering who and where I was and should be, I finally got it.

“Words,” I said. “Words are my home.”

Here I am

Today I am writing this blog post whilst sitting on the floor of my room in Scotland. I am still surrounded by scattered paper. This time it’s on my yoga mat, which is annoying because I really want to stretch, but the squishy foam is so comfortable to spread my work out & flop onto.

I’ve moved around a lot over the past few years. Even before Japan, when I had papers all over the walls of my childhood bedroom, and in folders and on desks of various student houses in Winchester. I’ve loved and left many homes, and sometimes my heart feels heavy from it all. It took everything I had left to uproot myself and get here, to this grey city by the sea which sparkles in the sunlight and the rain. And I’m glad I did, because it is definitely the right place for me for now.

Amelia Starling

I’ve been thinking recently about where home is. Can I call this place home yet? When I am so happy here already, but have so little claim to it and it’s just another city on my list? And what is home, anyway? I always say it’s where you love, not where you live. But I’ve said ‘I’m home’ so many times in so many different houses and apartments, and it was true of all of them at the time. Now when I travel and people ask me where I’m from I say ‘Aberdeen’ because that’s where my journeys begin these days, but it’s not where I’m really from. And if they’d asked me a few years ago they would have received a different answer…

I look back at the papers on my yoga mat. Assignment drafts. Poems. Field notes. Journal scraps. I remember my Japanese kitchen table. I smile.

Over the years, I have changed. The Willow Web has changed with me, and doubtless we will change again. I’m not the same person I was in the past, and I’m thankful for all the opportunities I’ve had to grow and become who I am now. Writing has always been the one constant thing, which I’ve been able to take everywhere. It doesn’t matter where I am, so long as I have a notepad and pen in my hands.

Amelia Starling polaroids

The past year or so has been difficult. I’ve been shy, and scared. I don’t like to say much about my personal life online, so I’ve hidden my words away; kept them for myself, in these messy piles. I’ve felt ashamed to call myself a writer, because I have so little credentials to show for it. It’s time to change that. I’m working on getting my words off of those pages and into the world, so they can find their own homes.

So far…

I have kept a journal for over a decade, and have started sharing snippets from them on here and on Twitter with the hashtag #ameliajournals. I may eventually post some longer excerpts, if I find some which I’d like to share. These are just for fun, and to remind me of all the madness which led me to where I am now. Hopefully they make you smile, or ponder something you might not have done before.

Recently I have also been writing quite a bit of poetry, which is a surprise. Not sure how that happened, but it keeps happening and I like it so I will continue to post my poems on here, too.

Stories will appear as and when they are finished and/or edited. I have so many stories to share, from so many places. Brave, withering stories, as much a part of me as my own skin. Some which I wrote to heal myself, or change things I cannot in real life, some just for fun. Maybe readers will never tell the difference. There are also new stories, beginning here, now. About the North Sea, and rowan berries, and feeling lost and found.

I will be keeping some stories back to use as parts of bigger projects or to submit to other places. I’d also like to put together some collections of stories and poems in booklets, too. Probably PDF or some other digital format to begin with, but hopefully some physical ones as well eventually.

Amelia Starling journals

Support Me

Thank you for staying with me. Over the years I’ve watched my followers grow, and it’s been a pleasure to meet so many lovely people and learn from and be inspired by them. I am so thankful for all the friends which writing, blogging, and folklore have brought into my life. You are what reminds me to not give up, and that what I’m doing is worth it.

If you like my writing, then there are a few things you can do to help…

  • Follow me on Twitter @amyelize. This is the only public social media I use for writing and folklore-related things.
  • If you like my posts, please share them. I don’t mind how. Retweet, or share on other social media, or print them off & send them with a carrier pigeon to your faraway grandma in the forest (she’s a witch too, you know. She needs words to help her spell!)
  • Follow The Willow Web, either on WordPress or via email by filling in the box on the right-hand side.
  • If you have any feedback or comments, feel free to tweet or email me. I have disabled comments for old posts because of spam, and also because I am editing and adding to them. So please don’t let that deter you from getting in touch. I love chatting, and have met some beautiful people through the magic of the internet. Long may it continue!
  • I have also set up a Ko-fi page. No pressure, but if you like my writing, or find any of my articles useful, and you can donate something, I would be very grateful.

That’s all for now. On I go…

Love, light, & all brightest blessings ♥

Amelia.

 

Scottish Witchcraft: Grissell Jaffray

Grissell Jaffrey memorial mosaic
Grissell Jaffray memorial mosaic, Dundee. Image my own.

 

Three centuries, yet still binding

She isn’t here anymore

At the plaque

Or on the patterned floor

Binding which need not have been done before.

 

A spirit restrained

Sent to the flames

The spirit of a woman, a mother, a crone

In this city she made her home

Names and confessions, freely given

Knowing there was nothing left worth living.

 

Bind the demon

Which was never present

And remains not

Nevertheless, ink stains

Mark the spot

A cross for a witch is no crime at all

When alleys are dark, and minds are small

When you ask for God to rest a soul

Which is already resting

In its own way

After all.

 

Grissell Jaffrey memorial mosaic
Grissell Jaffray memorial mosaic, Dundee. Image my own.

Grissell Jaffray was the last woman executed for witchcraft in Dundee in 1669. Originally from Aberdeen, she moved to Dundee and married a burgess. They were respectable, prosperous people, and had a son who was a successful seafarer. Few details of Grissell’s trial were kept, so it is unclear why she was accused of witchcraft and what her supposed crimes were. According to legend, on the day of her execution, her son’s ship arrived in the harbour at Dundee. He saw the smoke from the fire, and sailed back out of the city never to return.

The mosaics of torches and a plaque with her name, year of death, and the word ‘spaewife’ (Scots word for a female seer, and perhaps a softer way of saying ‘witch’) can be found on Peter Street in Dundee’s town centre. When I saw the plaque, it had been defaced with graffiti which inspired me to write the above poem. There is also a stone in The Howff, a cemetery in Dundee, which allegedly marks the spot where Grissell is buried. People often visit it to leave her small offerings for good luck.

 

The One That Got Away

This story was the first assignment I wrote for my undergraduate degree in autumn 2012. It was published in Vortex, the University of Winchester’s creative writing journal, just before I graduated in 2015.

Yuki-Onna Toriyama Sekien
Yuki-Onna by Toriyama Sekien. Image in the public domain – source

The One That Got Away

Each day you can admire the moon, the snow and the flowers.

Yet, flowers seldom bloom when it snows, and what if it’s the time of the dark moon? There is no beauty in winter. Once the sunlight and sakura leave, the countryside is rendered drab and austere. I am sure the trees watch us as our car passes; glaring into our wake, envious of our freedom to move. Our tyres grind their amber-coloured leaves into the road, a forced burial without ceremony.

Ryota insisted that we visit his okaasan. Apparently we need some ‘family time,’ which only ever seems to happen when it suits him. If we were at home, I would be hanging omamori from the lamps and on the thresholds. Kaori would be watching, and pestering Hisao to lift her up to get a closer look. I would be standing by, envying the innocence of my children.

One omamori never gets hung up. It stays with me, in my purse, or tied onto my keys or the zip of my bag. Now it sits in my lap, and I twine the frayed string around my fingers as my head rolls towards the car window. This one is a yakuyoke, for protection. Yes, winter can be charming. And we all know to be afraid of charm. I learned that when I met her.

She has many names. Some say she is a goddess, or a spirit. Others describe her as a hag. Many names, many faces. It’s all the same. To me, she will always be a demon. Yuki-Onna, who brings death with the snowfall. I remember her pallid complexion, that seemed to be made of mist. There but also not, obsidian hair the only fully visible part in the white landscape. She hummed a lullaby as she scooped me up from the frozen ground. I can still hear it…

I don’t remember falling asleep, but then I am waking as tyres jolt over the ramp covering the little irrigation canal and the car stops on okaasan’s drive. I shove the omamori into my bag and climb out, steadying myself against the door as a wave of nausea overtakes me and my legs shake.

Breathe. Calm down.

I smile at Ryota over the roof in an attempt to hide my uneasiness. He will be displeased if he sees me like this; I am supposed to be getting better.

We all trudge into the house where okaasan fusses over Ryota and clicks her tongue at how much Kaori and Hisao have grown. If my own mother were still alive she would probably do the same. We sit around the kotatsu and share tea and senbei. I let Ryota do the talking.

The afternoon passes in this way, and when darkness arrives I rise to help okaasan arrange our futons. She waves me away.

“Spend some time with Ryota. Make the most of him, while he’s not at work.”

So I go back to the kotatsu and we sit there, the children between us. After a moment, Kaori rises and goes to the window; presses her chubby palms against the glass.

“Look!” she calls, so the rest of us get up and join her. Outside, the sky is growing dark both from dusk and the heavy clouds. The air has that translucent glow it gets before… before it snows. Then I see it. A speck of white floating down, down. Kaori watches it, enchanted.

When I see the first snowflake fall, I do not just see a snowflake. I see blood, and the stiff corpse of my father staring up at me with glassy eyes. My mother’s lips, cracked and rimmed with frost. I smell their blood as the wind stirred it, and see my messy footprints as I run away. I escaped. I am sure the demon has not forgotten. Back then, I was too young to be afraid of beautiful strangers. Now I know better. Watching that first feathery snowflake drift down from the portentous clouds and hit the windowsill, I turn to Ryota and tell him we have to leave. Irritation flutters across his eyes, eyes I once lost myself in.

“It’s just snow, Hanako.”

His tone is weary; he doesn’t believe in Yuki-Onna. I am shaking again.

Stop shaking!

I order the children to go with okaasan and get ready for bed. They obey, to my relief and regret. Okaasan frowns at me as she ushers them to the bedroom. She will probably tell me later what I already know, that I should look after them myself. But sometimes I just need them out of the way.

My hands flit between my scraggy ponytail and the omamori, now in my pocket, as I check the window locks. Two presses on each catch until I am satisfied. Curtains drawn, because too many times I have gazed out into the night and seen her face staring back.

Ryota goes to retrieve our bags from the genkan. I want to help, but it’s so near the front door, and the front door is so near the snow… I cannot get the image of Yuki-Onna out of my head. A thread of the omamori comes loose. Ryota returns, as if he read my thoughts. I force another smile; it feels as worn and frayed as an old blanket. He drops the luggage and places a hand on my arm.

“You can get past this. You’ve been doing so well recently, even your therapist said so.”

“I know. I just… had a moment. I’m fine now.” I smile at him again, because it’s all I can think of to do.

“Good. Don’t push me away again, Hanako.”

I nod and pick up my bag.

*

Sleep evades me. I lie on my back, staring at the ceiling, whispering to the malignant shadows in the corners of the room. They don’t listen. They never listen. Eventually, I tumble into delirium. Of course, Yuki-Onna is there. Waiting. Always waiting.

When I find my way back to reality, it is morning. The bedroom is empty. Ghostly daylight creeps through the shoji, leeching all the colour from the room. I get up and go to the living room, where I find okaasan sitting.

“Hello, Hanako,” she says, handing me a cup of tea.

“He’s good with the children. You shouldn’t worry so much.” She sweeps her thin arm towards the window. “Take a look.”

Slowly, I turn to face the snowy world.

You’re okay, there’s nothing there.

Ryota, Hisao, and Kaori are outside, their booted feet making untidy dents in the white dusting on okaasan’s garden. I watch them scoop up handfuls of it and toss them at one another,  and try not to imagine an ivory-skinned woman watching them, too. Ryota laughs when a snowball catches his leg; a wondrous sound my ears cannot remember hearing for a long time. Kaori throws herself down on her back, moving her arms and legs from side to side to make the shape of an angel. Hisao beckons to me…

I don’t bother to put my coat on, or fully lace up my boots. This way I won’t be able to stay outside for too long. They all turn to look as I slip around the front door.

“Morning,” Ryota calls. I wave, and Hisao takes advantage of the distraction and tosses another snowball at his father. Kaori laughs and pushes herself to her feet to join in. I hover beside the house, arms folded, toes brushing against the snow but not quite touching it. The white ground makes the trees at the edge of okaasan’s garden look dark and insidious; a perfect hiding place for a demon…

“The children will get cold, I’m taking them inside,” I tell Ryota, lunging forward to grab Hisao. Kaori evades me, though. She is already running towards the trees, giggling. Before I know what I’m doing, I have let go of Hisao and I am running as well. With each step, my boots make a crunching noise that seems too loud. Kaori keeps running until the trees swallow her. By the time I reach them, my feet ache and my face and arms are numb. I call her name, a frantic warble and wisp of breath, which both dissipate immediately as if I have not spoken. Branches snag at my clothes, like frozen fingers. Leaves rustle like the swish of ebony hair.

She’ll catch you, keep going!

I part my lips to call again, but then I catch sight of Kaori’s purple coat bobbing around a tree trunk. I hurry towards it, and find her crouched in a small clearing, patting handfuls of snow into tiny balls. And there is Yuki-Onna. Every bit as wickedly beautiful as I remember. Standing over Kaori, my snow angel. I shake my head, trying to eliminate the demon. Maybe she’s not real. Ryota doesn’t think so. I trust Ryota.

Then why can you still see her?

Kaori remains huddled on the ground, unaware of the danger. Yuki-Onna bends towards her.

No, she’s not real!

“You’re not real!”

I throw myself at Kaori, crushing her pile of snowballs and encircling her in my arms.

“Leave us alone!” I scream. “Leave, leave…” I clutch Kaori tighter, burying my face in her coat as she wriggles in my arms. I know I must take my daughter indoors, get her warm, but I cannot move. If I close my eyes then maybe the demon will disappear. Failing that, I won’t see her strike. I begin to shake from the cold.

Frozen bodies, found in the woods. A young girl, found wandering…

“No! It’s okay, we’re safe. She’s not real.”

“Who’s not real, mama?”

“Shhhhh, my angel.”

Blood, and snow. A young girl, found wandering…

I barely notice when a warm figure presses against my back and a hand starts stroking my hair. Ryota. He pulls us close, and I lean against him.

“She’s not real,” I whisper.

“I know, Hanako. Come inside.”

He pulls me to my feet and keeps hold of my hand. I grab Kaori’s with my free one, and she reaches for Hisao who was watching from the edge of the trees. I glance over my shoulder; the woods are empty. As we cross the garden, we create four sets of footprints in neat lines.

I glance over my shoulder. I have admired the snow, but there are still no flowers and no moon. There is also no fifth set of footprints heading back into the trees. Only my own as I ran after Kaori. No flash of a porcelain face. Just my own skin, pale from the cold.

 

Seventeen

Amelia Starling Seventeen
October 2010. Image my own.

 

Dressing up

As someone I don’t quite understand

Parts of me, parts that are other

Figuring them out

Not telling my mother.

Stitching up holes in tights

On park benches

Thinking I look wild, and edgy

Hoping a guy will see me and think ‘she’s cool’

Because apparently I wanted a boyfriend who appreciated

My horrendous sewing skills.

 

Wearing a costume, to feel more like myself

To be a photograph

To not look like everyone else

Foundation and Photoshop

Fix me up, be pretty

Make my skin who I am, who I want to be

Feed what’s growing inside of me

That can only come out on Halloween.

 

Prop up the camera

On hardback spell books

Bought from the market, where no-one ever looks

To see how old you are

Or why you want to make potions.

Be still and pose

Look dramatic, look sexy

Autumn wind blows

Shiver in your shabby clothes

Don’t smile

In the lens, confide

Only your measly MySpace followers will see

But be sure to greyscale

To hide your acne.

 

The camera can lie

And so can your mind

Let them play their tricks

Whilst you’re living your life.

Parts of you, parts that are other

One day you’ll know which ones to smother.

 

I’ve learned since

That you don’t need a pointy hat

To be a witch

And that it’s better

To leave your tights ripped

And holy

So you have at least one decent thing to wear

On Sundays.

 

Sixteen

Amelia Starling sixteen
October 2009. Image my own.

 

Habits

Amethyst in pockets

Oracle cards as bookmarks

Pentagrams, etched into the margins of maths books

A cheap golden necklace, cleansed in the sun on a Thursday lunchtime,

Still able to turn my neck green.

A bowl of salt water, on my bedroom floor

Not sure what for

But I like it there

With the dust and the hair

The makeshift altar where

I sit

Staring at the wall.

 

Cast

A book of spells for teenage dramas

Too impatient to wait for karma

Casting,

With a name, a plait of ribbon,

A vanilla pod, bought from Sainsbury’s, in a glass jar

What a star

What an empty sky

Grey at best,

Blackness behest.

Casting,

With purple felt bags,

Stuffed full of scented tissue paper

And wishes scribbled in blue cartridge pen

Tied with scraps of ribbon

To hooks, laden with the fae,

Where I can see them, every day,

And remember

What I am missing.

 

Shadows

Wishes to be better, to be happier,

To be more

To not barricade myself in the bathroom and cry on the floor

When they won’t let me go

Out

When it’s dark, when the moon is full,

When its light ripples on the ocean and it calls me,

When I need to get away

Because words cannot live in this world, where I sit on the roof,

Wondering if anything has truth,

And what each teen will be like

One more year, one more secret tarot reading, one more candle lit

One more journal, full and placed on a shelf,

Maybe someday to be read by someone else,

Who will see what it was like to be a girl,

In the wrong place,

Making her own magic.

 

Come, Tie Your Life Away

Munlochy Clootie Well
Munlochy Clootie Well. Image my own.

Come, tie your life away with me

At the Clootie Well

We’ll wander through the forest

Leaving no footprints to trace our spell

Bring that frayed ribbon from your hair,

And the expensive dresses you never wear

Soak them in the water, slow and dark

All the better to pierce a tender heart.

 

If the well is dry, we can cry instead

All that salt is cleansing, or so it is said

Am I your sorrow?

Will you speak my name as you tie the knot?

Am I your ghost?

If so, is that the best you’ve got?

 

There’s cloths for Cancer, strokes, and suicide

Sad thoughts, where daylight cannot abide

For all the ones that never got to meet

For last goodbyes, and shoes empty of feet

These fabric demons, suffocating the trees.

 

Come, tie your life away with me

It will never wither, we will never be free

Two dripping rags, intertwined

Our love, our curse, too late to mind

We’ll be forever, amongst nature’s rot

Am I the best heartbreak that you’ve got?

 

Meinichi: Remembering and Loving, Forever

August 26th. From 2009 onwards, I am able to tell you what I was doing on this day every year. Every summer, for those twenty-four hours, I’m sixteen again and wondering how life can be so cruel.

In my hometown, the summer after high school is all about exam results, first jobs in beach shops, firework displays, and long walks home by the sea because you missed the last bus. Usual teenage stuff. What’s not on the list is to lose one of your close friends forever.

‘Cancer.’ Only six letters. Two syllables. Just another word in the English language, nothing more. But that is enough to destroy. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what Cancer was. I knew it was an illness and that it could be fatal, but I didn’t know what causes it or how it is treated. And why should I have known? I was young and healthy, and no-one I knew had been chronically ill before. It wasn’t part of my world. When Laura was diagnosed, I just assumed she would get better. Okay, it might take a long time, and she would have to go to hospital a lot so I wouldn’t see her in school as often, but then eventually she would be okay and things would return to normal.

I sent her letters, and messages on Bebo with pixelated hearts. We talked about all the things we would do when she recovered – sleepovers, day trips to London, and what colleges we wanted to go to. This Cancer business was just a blip; a mark on the present which would soon go away.

When I got the phone call, I didn’t answer it because it was a private number. Laura’s mum left a message and asked my mum to call her back. I thought that was strange, but didn’t worry too much. Parents talk to each other all the time, right? So I gave mum my phone and went back to Photoshopping pictures for dA and singing along to anime soundtracks. Then I got the second call to come downstairs.

When mum told me the news, I didn’t know how to respond. Is there even a correct way? I didn’t cry, or say anything. I just stood there in the kitchen, trying to make sense of what I had heard. Mum hugged me, and was stroking my back and saying ‘oh darling, it’s okay’ but it never is, is it? I think I was in shock. Mum told me I didn’t have to go to work that evening, that I should stay home and give myself ‘time.’ But I felt okay. I felt nothing. If I stayed at home, what good would that do? The shop was busy, & my colleagues needed me. So off I went.

Two hours later, it hit me. I locked myself in the staff toilets, then curled up on the floor and cried.

Melted candle

Six Augusts have passed since then. For every one, I have lit a candle for Laura and sat for a few moments to remember her, and tell the universe how much I love and miss her. For this seventh year, I’m in Japan. Here, death anniversaries are called ‘meinichi,’ which literally translates as ‘life date.’ It is customary to mark meinichi by visiting graves, temples, or shrines to pray and burn incense for the deceased. Shinto shrines are some of the most serene, inviting places I have ever come across, so finding one to do my annual reflection seemed like a wonderful idea.

At the weekend I was visiting Okayama, a calm, peach-filled city in southern Japan. I had a bike and a fabulous tour guide, who led me to Munetada Shrine. The entrance was on a bustling main road, but inside the peace I’ve come to associate with shrines was there nonetheless. I’m sure that torii gates are portals, because every time I pass through one it’s as though the outside world ceases to exist. Even the sticky summer heat seemed to relent.

Munetada Shrine Okayama
Torii gate at the entrance of Munetada Shrine. Image my own.

Firstly, I went to the fountain and performed the cleansing ritual, tearai, which involves using a small bowl on a stick to wash your hands and face. From there, walked to the front of the shrine and tossed a coin into the donation box. Then I shook the rope to ring the bell, bowed twice and clapped twice to greet the deities, then sent them my thoughts. Please, send my best wishes to Laura. Let her know that I’m thinking of her still. Carry my love to her.

Munetada Shrine Okayama
The fountain with the wash bowls at Munetada Shrine. Image my own.

Another bow, and then I sat on a bench beneath a tree. I remembered her smile, and us singing to Hannah Montana songs. It struck me how much things change. Exactly seven years ago, I was just out of high school and unsure of my future. In the time since then, I’ve been through college, university, and moved to a foreign country. Before I moved, I met up with most of my other friends from high school; renewing bonds after years of growth and change. They’re all doing their own amazing things – studying, working, travelling. Some even have children of their own. We’re all women now, twenty-somethings taking on the world. But Laura will always be sixteen. I couldn’t help wondering what she would be doing, if she were still here. What would the last seven years have given her? Maybe we would also have sat in Starbucks, exchanging gossip over fruit coolers and Nutella cookies, before I boarded my plane.

Munetada Shrine Okayama
Donation box and bell ropes. Image my own.

Because of Laura, I have learned to not to be complacent, to be wary of any and all illnesses, and to live life to the full regardless. There are so many things she never got the chance to do, but in a way, we’re all doing them for her. I know I’m not the only one of my high school friends who keeps memories of her close by.

I don’t know where I’ll be for Laura’s future meinichis, but I know for certain that I will continue to mark them somehow for the rest of my life. Remembering her is an integral part of my summer. Maybe, if I have children, when I’m gone too each August 26th they will light a candle and say ‘mum used to do this every year. It’s a tradition.’ And so, like that we remember and are remembered. With flames and thoughts, bells and bows, and most importantly, with love.

Laura with her poodle, London

Goodnight, Goodbye: Why I’m Travelling Thousands of Miles for a Band

A couple of months ago, I phoned my mum to tell her I’m going away just before for Christmas. The first thing she asked was “where are you going?” When I replied with “Chicago,” she knew. There could only be one reason for me to go to Chicago in December. She started listing reasons why this is a bad idea, and I could see her points. Yes, it’s very irresponsible and spontaneous. Yes, I might be ill from the exertion of such a big trip, and yes I hate flying. No, I don’t have a lot of money. I know it’s already snowing in Chicago right now, so there is a chance our flight home may be delayed. Sorry, but I’ll have to see grandma and my niece and nephew for new year instead of Christmas.

But despite her reservations, mum gave me her blessing. Because she knows what this trip means to me.

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When I was 15, I discovered a band called Kill Hannah. One of my friends sent me Crazy Angel, and I hated it. But I was feeling adventurous with music at the time, so I looked them up on YouTube and found Lips Like Morphine. I liked that one, and burned it to a CD to play in mum’s car. She liked it, too.

‘All the nights when I was scared, and when it got too weird, it was the songs that saved me’

A few weeks later, I found Scream. I don’t know what it is about this song, but I became obsessed with it. I played it in the car as well. Mum and I turned it up loud and sang. I knew that I had to listen to this band more, and so I bought my first Kill Hannah CD: Until There’s Nothing Left of Us. I imported the American version, because the UK one did not include Scream. That album went in a car as well, on repeat for weeks. I scrawled its lyrics over all my journals.

Some of my journals from the past few years. There’s some Kill Hannah in every one.

 

At 16, my life changed in several ways. By the end of the year, I felt like I had been hollowed out and didn’t know what to fill myself back up with. During this year, Kill Hannah released their third studio album, Wake Up the Sleepers. This joined all their other music to become my soundtrack. Kill Hannah were there when I left high school, they kept me feeling cheerful through a summer spent working nights in a gift shop, and they were there when fate stepped in and did the last thing I expected by taking one of my friends away. She was one of the strongest, brightest people I have ever known, and the thought that I would lose her had never once crossed my mind until it happened. That night, I cried through my shift as I served customers then went home and buried myself under my duvet with my iPod.

I started sixth form the day after her funeral as a sad, anxious mess. Kill Hannah were there then, too. Keeping me awake at 7am when I got the bus each morning. Keeping me sane through the times when I just couldn’t stop crying, when I couldn’t sleep, and when I pulled all-nighters to finish essays. Wake Up the Sleepers went in the car, too. On shopping trips, when I missed the bus and needed a lift, on spontaneous drives along the coast road.

‘Let’s slow dance to our own heartbeats’

Kill Hannah: 2010 tour poster

 

In 2010, I went to my first Kill Hannah show. When I saw them announce a UK tour, I had to go. My older brother made this possible by offering to drive me and a friend to Birmingham and back. From my hometown, it’s a 6 hour round trip. I will never stop being grateful to my brother for volunteering for that journey! We plied him with food and petrol money and off we went.

We queued outside the venue for two hours. Despite being May, it was freezing. We had no coats, because we are hardcore gig-goers. 

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Lead singer, Mat Devine, wore feathers on his head, and Doc Martens. And he held a panda, because why not.

They played Scream. I screamed. Then a crowd surfer went past and kicked me in the head. It was awesome. They also played a cover of Just Like Heaven by The Cure, a song I didn’t know at the time but I will never forget the atmosphere when that acoustic guitar music began.

I bought American Jet Set from the merchandise stall. It went in the car on the way home. We didn’t get back until 3am.

‘And I’m not running anymore, I’ll stand and face it all, I’ll fight for every breath until there’s nothing left of us’

After Birmingham, I joined Kill Hannah’s street team, the Kill Hannah Kollective. I logged on to their website, and instantly received messages from other members. These messages quickly grew into friendships. For the first time in my life, I was part of something. I was astonished how so many people from all over the world had come together just because of a band, and how much love and support we were able to give each other. Apart from a group to promote Kill Hannah, we are a support network, a little corner of the internet where no-one is ever alone. The KHK never give up on anything, ever. When things got tough, I repeated that to myself. Although small, the KHK are an army. I received a KHK wristband in the post as a gift from one of the Generals (yes, we had military rankings! I was the Lt. Colonel for UK East) in 2011 and never took it off. I’m still wearing it now.

This video for the song Home was made by a KHK member, and it says so much more about the strength of the KHK than I ever could. Also, the last clip? That’s me!

I also started reading the lead singer, Mat Devine’s, blog, the Raccoon Society. Not all the posts are live anymore, but it was a community where you could write in and chat to other people and Mat would answer questions and give advice. I loved his style of writing, and how he was able to help so many people. It inspired me to start blogging, in the hope that maybe I could someday do the same. Recently, Mat published a book called Weird War One: The Antiheroes Guide to Surviving Everyday Life which has the best of the Raccoon Society in it. If you’re looking for something to cheer you up, sort you out, and make you smile, then go ahead and read it. You’re not the only lonely heart out there.

I bought For Never and Ever, their first studio album, from eBay. It went in the car. On Christmas day in 2010, mum and I played New Heart for Christmas. By now I knew about New Heart, the Christmas gig Kill Hannah do every year at the Metro in Chicago. I was desperate to go, but when you’re 17, have little money, no confidence, and have never travelled alone before, just going to the next town is a big enough deal never mind a whole other continent. But I consoled myself with the thought that one day I would be able to make it. I put it on my bucket list.

New Heart 9 at Chicago Metro, 2012

‘It looked like the perfect day, in photos we were smiling’

In 2012, I returned to Birmingham to attend another Kill Hannah show (this time driven by my parents, who then drove straight to London afterwards and booked into a travel lodge so I could go to the show in Islington the following night. More eternal gratitude!) This time, I got to meet my online friends and together we paraded through the streets with a banner. I remember how we each held the edge as we walked, so the design could be seen by all. We wanted everyone to know who Kill Hannah were, and what we stood for. I held my head up and smiled at onlookers, fearless, unbreakable.

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Kill Hannah, the KHK, a toga banner, and a lot of Skittles. Birmingham 2012.

Before the show, I got to attend a meet and greet. Pretty much all I remember of this is giggling and my brain going ‘rhgfuigsj dh wdh dkjdhbkjsx’ because I was meeting this band, these people who had produced this music that had become such a huge part of my life. I remember giving Mat a paper raccoon, and lots of Skittles. Then we had group photos, before we were whisked away to queue for the show. We got spots at the barrier, and the sound of our combined voices singing Nerve Gas was enchanting.

I bought The Beauty in Sinking Ships and The Curse of Kill Hannah afterwards. They went in the car on our late night drive.

In Islington, I attended their sound check and felt all tingly when they played Hummingbirds the Size of Bullets. Such beautiful, allegorical lyrics. That concert was one of the best nights of my life. Mum got to go, too. And we managed to drag dad along, even though it really wasn’t his thing! We stood at the back and danced, before I reclaimed my spot at the barrier with the KHK.

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Sound check in Islington, London 2012

Later in 2012, I started university. On my last night in my hometown, I sat on the beach with my dog wearing my brand new purple Doc Martens. I took a photo, and captioned it with a Kill Hannah song.

Kill Hannah Last Night Here
Last Night Here

Kill Hannah were played when my new housemates and I made dinner. They went on my wall when my American friend sent me a signed poster from New Heart. When I moved house and was afraid to sleep in a strange, dark room, I put their songs on shuffle beside my new bed.

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‘Universe, wrap your arms around me. Make me strong, so I can take on anyone.’ Lyrics from Why I Have my Grandma’s Sad Eyes

‘Be my love, and race the dream together’

Also at university, I met someone. He had never heard of Kill Hannah, and as you can imagine I soon changed that. I lent him all my CDs, and he fell in love with their music at the same time as he fell in love with me.

When I saw the announcement for this year’s New Heart, I figured it was no big deal. It was just like any other year – again I didn’t have to means to go, but perhaps next year I could when I’d found a job and some stability. Then I saw it said ‘final show,’ and the last 7 years of my life crashed in on me. All those moments, memories, and lyrics. All that time daydreaming and thinking ‘one day.’ The thought that I wouldn’t ever be at New Heart made me feel ill. Even more, that my partner and I would never get to see them together, I’d never get to be with my American KHK friends, and that I wouldn’t get to say goodbye.

My partner took one look at me said ‘we’re booking a flight.’ And then we did. And this is one of the most insane things I have ever done. ‘You’re going all that way just to see a band?’ people keep asking. Yes, yes I am. But not just a band. I’m going because teenage Amelia needs to. The dream of attending New Heart kept her sane, and I can’t rip that away from her. I’m going for my partner, so he can see them and we can sing to Crazy Angel together. It’s one of my favourites now. Also, I get to visit a new place and talk to online friends in the flesh instead of through a screen for the first time. Two of the most important things to me are travelling and people to travel with. Because of Kill Hannah, I have both of those. This is about so much more than music.

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I’m not going to get all dramatic and be like ‘this band saved my life.’ Maybe when I was a teenage emo kid I would have said that, but now I just want to say thank you. Kill Hannah gave me a purpose, an escape route when I had nothing. Without them, life would have been harder, and I would have missed out so many wonderful experiences.

‘Stick to the dream and don’t ever give in, even when you’ve got nothing to lose and no way to win’

Saying goodbye to Kill Hannah will be saying goodbye to a big part of my life. But I still have their music, and I am sure that no matter what I end up doing it will be a part of my future. Even after the band have gone, I can’t stop being KHK. We’ll fight for our dreams, until there’s nothing left of us.

Believer
 
(WUTS tour poster from Midlands Rocks, New Heart image from Alex Savage, Kill Hannah image from Metro Lyrics)

Writing With Trichotillomania

Image you’re doing something you love. A project, hobby, reading a book, playing a game, anything. But then there’s something in your eye. Or, you think there is. Your hand automatically tries to remove it, prodding around in the sticky tear duct. You blink and find that it’s gone. But you can’t move your hand away. Your brain screams ‘no! no! no!’ But you can’t hear it. You stand up, pace the room, hands shaking. Tell yourself to calm down, that everything is fine, that you’re strong, and you can beat this. Sometimes you do.

The other times…

The merciless desire to grab your hair becomes uncontrollable. You have no choice. Just one. One won’t make a difference. The sharp tug and twinge of pain is satisfying. The eyelash falls to the ground. You don’t make a wish on it; you spent your allowance many years ago. You watch it land and feel better, but now there’s another. Next to the space created by one you pulled out. It feels odd now; exposed. Two won’t make a difference… Oh, oops. You missed it, got a different one instead. Better try again…

Trichotillomania
A rare kind of selfie. Image my own.

Later, you drag yourself over to a mirror and force yourself to look at the damage. The ugly, swollen gap on your eyelid. Feeling that you’re a disappointment, and that everyone will notice and think so as well. You look back at the thing you were doing and don’t have the courage to carry on, in case another attack comes. What once brought you joy, now you hate. You’re a failure. You feel sick. And you know that tomorrow you will have to steel yourself to face this same fight.

This is my reality.

I have a compulsive behaviour disorder known as Trichotillomania. I’ve struggled with it for as long as I can remember; hair pulling is just something I’ve always done. I don’t know when or why it started happening. I didn’t even discover the name ‘Trichotillomania’ until I was 17. When I was a child, my parents didn’t think of it as anything more than a habit I would grow out of. As a teenager, I grew weary of everyone telling me to ‘just stop it!’ or ‘you really need to grow some eyelashes’ as though lacking them was an immense flaw in my character. Like I needed them to be normal and accepted. No-one, myself included, understood why I pulled my hair out in the first place and why I couldn’t stop doing it. Reaching my wit’s end and turning to Google, it didn’t take me long to discover that I wasn’t alone and that I had an genuine medical condition. I burst into tears of relief. I wasn’t a freak. I wasn’t the only person in the world who suffered like this. I could FINALLY give people a reason. There wasn’t anything wrong with me, I just had Trichotillomania.

Trichotillomania
Artwork by Sharp Pencil Studio, for the Trichotillomania awareness campaign HelpMe2Stop.

The liberation which came with learning this improved my confidence. I began to talk more about my hair pulling, and slowly become less ashamed of it. Even so, many people still didn’t understand it. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to recognise situations which may trigger an attack. I can go for days, sometimes weeks, without pulling, as opposed to when I was younger and would pull every day. But the urge always returns eventually, and all the progress I’ve made can be destroyed in an instant. I’ve accepted that I will never be free of it. Trich is so integral to my life, I can almost get defensive about it. I hate it, but at the same time, it’s a defining part of who I am. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have hair pulling attacks.

Of course I was bullied at school. Other kids would ask me why I didn’t have eyelashes, and I’d shrug and pretend I didn’t know. If they caught me pulling they would laugh and whisper behind my back. One time in class I heard a boy behind me murmuring to a new pupil about the girl over there who pulls out her own hair. The new guy sneered in disbelief, but then later on he saw the evidence. Another face watching me like I was a circus attraction. Those bullies used to upset me, but now I pity them. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be so narrow-minded. To not even think to ask someone if they’re okay, to just automatically decide to taunt them because they’re different.

Trichotillomania notebook
Messages I write to myself on the inside covers of my notebooks. Image my own.

When writing, if I pause I’m always courting an imminent attack. Sometimes Trich makes me feel worthless, like I’m never going to get anywhere because I physically do anything. By its very nature, Trichotillomania erodes your self confidence. Its makes you believe you’re ugly and that no-one will want you. On bad days, I find myself avoiding peoples’ eyes during conversations for fear that they will notice. I can’t bear to look into someone else’s eyes, because then I can see them seeing me. But I love writing, and I will keep fighting for it no matter how many times I lose. Eyelashes are now my currency. They’re the price I pay for each article I complete, all the positive feedback I get on this blog, and all the stories I tell. All of those things are worth the cost. At university, I steeled myself enough to walk into seminars after Trich-y days and share my work with my classmates. None of them laughed or judged me—they just wanted to see what I had brought to workshop! Those wonderful people taught me that what I have to say, my words I continue to write, are more important than how much hair I have. Every. Single. Time.

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Another note. Image my own.

If you have just discovered Trichotillomania, then I’m going to ask you a favour. If you notice someone you know pulling out their hair, go up to them. Speak kind words. Ask them how they are. Compliment them. There is enough pain in this world. We do not need to create more by judging each other, or feeding the misery our own minds can already give us.

If you also have Trichotillomania, then fair greetings to you, my fellow comrade. Look in the mirror. Smile. Write ‘don’t pull!’ on your hand every morning to remind yourself. Be brave. Keep fighting. Keep being you.