Imbolc represents a moment of change and transition, a movement from the cold stasis of winter to the promise of spring. Its relation to Brighid underlines Imbolc’s place as a moment to meditate the many transitions we go through in our lives: from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to marriage, etc. Transitions can be familiar or transgressive — what is revolution but a transition? ‘Beneath the Dane Hills’ is a story about forward progress. It is a story that captures the hopeful spirit of change Imbolc brings, and transgressive strength it takes to live a queer life.
Beneath the Dane Hills
I lived with my grandmother in Liecester when I was young for a year or so. It was one of the times Ma was in a bad way. She was lying low, hiding from creditors or a bad boyfriend or maybe both, and she’d foisted me off to Gran until she got things ‘sorted.’ I was eight or nine. I don’t remember all that much besides Gran being a very thin and very stern old bitch. Mean as a snake and twice as like to strike you. I’d not been watched much, you know? Ma was always out. Any other time she’d pawned me off on someone they’d kept me fed, kept a roof over my head and mostly wanted me to keep out of the way in return. But Gran…Gran watched me like a hawk and all I ever seemed able to do was fuck up. Each and every time she did, she’d look at me with her eyes, these cold little beads pocketed in her taut, leathery brown skin, and she’d hiss at me. “Another one like Meera, you’ll be. Would that Black Annis would snatch you both to her bower I’d have some peace of mind.”
“Who’s Black Annis?” I asked her the first time she said that. I knew who Meera was; Meera was my disappointing Ma.
“Black Annis,” she said, “is a witch. Black Annis is a hag. Black Annis sleeps in a cave in the Dale Hills just outside of town, real as anything, and snatches good-for-nothing sass-mouths like you so the rest of us don’t have to deal with them. And you know what she does with the likes of you? She eats you. Strips your flesh from your bones and devours you, leaving not a trace of you anywhere on this green earth.”
I knew Black Annis wasn’t real, but the fervor with which Gran repeated those stories about her chilled me to my bones. I could see, suddenly, why my Ma turned out like she did. I didn’t fear Black Annis; I feared this woman who so loved scaring the shit out of eight-year-old me. The first and only time I’ve ever been glad to see my Ma was when she appeared on Gran’s doorstep to whisk me away to her new boyfriend’s place in London.
Gran always gave the impression she would never die but the rotten old bitch did eventually kick the bucket. And when she did, she left her house on the outskirts of Leicester to Ma. She died timely, too: me and Ma were hopping shelters, trying to stay one ahead of her most recently enraged ex-boyfriend. We moved into that dank little one-story house with nothing but a backpack each. The house was still furnished with all of Gran’s things. Settled over every inch of the place, thick as the dust, was her meanness. Both Ma and I winced when we crossed the threshold. “I fucking hate this place,” Ma said.
“Me, too,” I said. Ma dropped her bag by the door and switched on the lights. Chasing off the shadows only brought Gran’s things into the harsh light, brought the lingering ghost of her to sharp focus. “Maybe Black Annis got her,” I said.
Ma looked over at me and laughed. She was still beautiful, no matter what life threw her way. Her shiny black hair never went gray; her brown skin never wrinkled. Her beauty was always what got her in trouble and back out of it. I don’t have her beauty. I look like my dad, a man I’ve only ever seen two photographs of. Never met him, but I’ve got his broad shoulders and square jaw and bushy eyebrows. “How do you know about Black Annis?” she asked.
“Gran told me. When I lived here when I was little.”
“That’s all I ever heard about growing up. Black Annis this, Black Annis that. I don’t know why she got so stuck on it; the bitch was born in Kollankandu. It’s a white woman’s way to scare kids in line. Anyway, she was far to bitter. Black Annis would’ve spat her back out. No one ever could stomach her.”
I had one year left of high school to go. Ma got me into the local school and talked her way into a job at a hair salon. Then she talked her way into a brand new relationship with some big bloke with a wicked scar across his face. I joined track at school. Wasn’t the first time—whenever I have to live with Ma there’s reason to find some legitimate reason to keep out of the way. Track meant I could show up to school and leave late. Being a half-Indian athlete with a transcript full of bad marks meant the teachers didn’t expect much of me. All of that was good by me.
I’m a good runner, you know. Wasn’t hard to get a spot. I’m a good sprinter, even better in middle distance. Good at cross-country, have the endurance for long distance. Got a lot of practice. You get a ma like mine who don’t watch you none and it makes you reckless. You get reckless and still scrape by it’s either because you can sweet talk your way out of trouble (like Ma) or you can outrun your trouble (like me). It all went alright for the first few weeks, but then what always happens everywhere happened there in Leicester, too. I’d been trying to play straight, but it didn’t do no good. Everyone can tell. Bunch of boys from school called me, called me a dyke, I threw some punches, then I ran. And then I was off the track team. And then I was skipping school most days because who wants to put up with that kind of shit?
It’s not that it’s not true. It is. I like girls. Girls are pretty. It’s that they don’t get to lob names at me. They don’t get to decide if it’s bad, and they don’t get to jeer at me and then go back to their stupid lives like no harm’s done. After the fight I snuck into Ma’s salon and used the clippers to cut my hair again. If everyone can tell anyway might as well wear it like I like it. She wasn’t pleased. She caught me skulking in late that night and rolled her eyes. “Pooja, fucking hell.”
“Your fucking hair.”
“It’s just hair, Ma.”
“It’s the only pretty thing you got. Why you got to cut it off like that? You’ll never get a boyfriend.”
I glared at her. She didn’t care. I raised my chin up and crossed my arms over my chest. “I don’t want a boyfriend. I’m gay, Ma.”
Ma rolled her eyes at me again. “You’re just at it for the attention. You’ll grow out of it.” Which is what she always says.
It wasn’t so bad after that. Ma didn’t care much that I wasn’t making it to school so long as I stayed out of her way. She wasn’t home that many nights anyway. I had to pretend to go—she’d give me hell if I didn’t at least pretend to go to school—but she didn’t do anything when the school told her I was absent day after day. I got up early and made it out the door, and then I ran. Good long-distance runs around the Dane Hills. Whole swaths of them are empty. There’s twisty-turny trails all through them, changes in elevation to keep you from getting bored. I ran in the mornings, then circled back to Gran’s house for a shower. I spent the afternoons reading in the woods. I got a library card. Library cards are education enough if you ask me. Read a bit about the hills I ran through. Read a bit about Black Annis. The stories in the fairy books I checked out were more grisly than the hissing whispers of my Gran. Lucky I don’t scare easy, eh?
So, I said I was reckless. One reckless thing I’ve always done is tempt fate. You know, you get bored one night and chant ‘Bloody Mary’ in the mirror three times. Nothing happens. That sort of thing. I kept reading all these stories about Black Annis, and I was forever running through her backyard, so it just sort of made sense to start looking for her hiding place on my daily runs. The books said she’s staked out a cave; Black Annis’ Bower, it’s called. I went looking for it. Partly I went looking ‘cause that way if anyone ever asked I’d have boasting rights. Partly I went looking ‘cause I was curious. Curious if it existed, curious if she existed. I knew she didn’t. Mostly I believed she didn’t. Part there was some sliver of me that thought maybe she did. In that case either I’d stumble onto her and get eaten and that wouldn’t be that bad because who in the great wide world would miss me? Or I’d stumble onto her and live to tell about it. But then I’d just sound mad, like Gran. It’s not like I was doing anything else with my life, right? So I ran to the Dane Hills day after day, now carrying a lunch with me and some water and some maps, and I’d spend the afternoon exploring.
I met Agnes on one of my explorations. I’d found a cave. Every time I found a cave my heart beat a little faster, giddy like I’d found the Bower. Usually they were just shallow caves, nondescript and full of rocks. This one was a bit deeper. I skulked into it, shining my torch this way and that. Nothing much to see. And when I came out again there was this girl curled up under an ancient oak tree at the mouth of the cave. She sat all hunched up, her knees drawn to her chest, her arms crossed and resting on them. She was smoking a cigarette. She was looked like a throwback to those goth girls in the 1990s—dressed in raggedy black mesh, hair died that inky fake blue-black. Black nail polish. She heard me before I had the chance to say anything. She looked over her shoulder, eyes narrowed, cigarette in the corner of her mouth. She’d done her eyes up with black eyeliner, all pointed in that cat-eye look. She wore turquoise lipstick. I smiled, because she looked so odd, there in her big woolen black shawl like someone’s cadaverous grandma. She frowned a little when I smiled and pulled the cigarette from her mouth. “What are you doing in that cave?” she asked. Had a local accent, quite thick.
“What are you doing under that tree?” I asked.
She took an old-Hollywood glamour drag on the cigarette and arched her eyebrows. “Just living,” she said. “Just passing the time.”
I laughed. She frowned again. “Come on,” I said. “Just living? Come on.”
“You sound like a prat.”
“I…” She knocked the ash from her cigarette and shrugged. “Alright. Yeah. I do. What else am I supposed to say? That I’m just sitting here blank-eyed and thinking about sandwiches?”
“Hey, you don’t have to listen to me,” I said.
“I know I don’t,” she said. “Anyway, what were you doing in that cave?”
“Just looking at it.”
“It’s a cave.”
“I know what it is.”
“Tons of caves around these hills.”
“Yeah, seems like.”
“Why this one?”
It was my turn to shrug. “I don’t know. I found this one.” We stared at each other for an awkward few seconds. I shouldered my backpack. “Yeah, well, cave seen,” I said, stepping past her.
“Hey, wait!” she said. I turned and looked at her. “You hungry?”
“Always hungry,” I said, and it was true since I ran all those miles every day instead of sitting in classrooms.
She shot me a half smile. She pulled a picnic basket out from behind her. I swear it was like magic—she pulled it from nowhere as far as I could tell. And it was a real live picnic basket, the woven wicker kind with hinged lids and a handle and everything. “I was thinking about sandwiches,” she said. She slipped one hand inside the mouth of the basket and held one out for me. It was a small square wrapped in opaque butcher paper. “Want one?”
“It’s not pork is it?”
“No,” she said. “Chicken salad.”
I took it. She slid off the boulder and sat next to me on the scrubby wild ground, the pair of us still strangers but now eating chicken salad sandwiches side by side. She said her name was Agnes. I told her mine was Pooja. She mostly looked out at the hills when she talked, which was alright by me because that way I could look her over without her quite noticing. She wasn’t pretty. Not pretty in that girly-pretty way like Ma, anyway. But she had this face, this sharp, icy face, that I just wanted to look at all day. Something wild in it. Something feral about it, like when she opened her mouth she should have fangs instead of rows of pearly white teeth.
I left when I finished the sandwich. I cited some overdue library books that weren’t actually overdue. She seemed a little lonely, and a little curious, so I bolted. I tread careful, you know. Right now all they do is yell slurs, but if they caught me mouth to mouth with a girl they might do more than that. Didn’t want to risk it.
Well, I didn’t want to risk it at first. I ran into Agnes again at the mouth of another cave a month or so later. I ate another of her sandwiches, let her ask me more questions. Asked her a few questions, standard things like where are you from? You finish school yet? Where’d you get the blue lipstick? This time when she sat next to me she sat so close our arms touched, and each brush of her skin against mine sent a stab of curious electricity right through me, up my spine and right to my nipples. I had to eat with my arms crossed against my chest to hide it. Awkward way to eat a sandwich, just so you know. I still wanted to touch her face, to run my hands over the planes of it, but mostly as she talked and I laughed and she laughed I wanted the company. Had been a while since I’d had a friend, you know? What with the moving and the fighting and the running. So when Agnes asked if I wanted to meet up the next day I said sure, why not. She marked a spot on my map and wrote a time and told me if I didn’t show she’d eat my sandwich.
I showed. She was already there, this time with a big plaid blanket laid out just in front of the mouth of a cave. She was lying on her stomach, reading a magazine featuring tattooed girls with dyed orange hair. She smiled when I walked up. “You ever think about getting a tattoo?” she asked.
“They’re expensive,” I said.
“I mean if you had the money for it.”
“Don’t know. Never thought much about it.”
She sat up and flicked the magazine away. She ran a hand along my arm. “You could get a map done,” she said, “of these hills maybe.”
I let out a nervous giggle and coiled up against myself, trying not to notice the flick of her tongue as she spoke. The risk still didn’t seem worth taking, but I kept edging closer and closer to taking it anyway.
Agnes fingered the sleeve of my shirt. “You always dress like you’re at a track meet, Pooja? Or is this just when you run out here?”
“Eh, I’m always running. I always dress like this.”
The edge of her mouth quirked up. “I like it.”
“Yeah?” I preened a little.
“Yeah. You’re just you. Just exactly you. Bet you get all kinds of shit for it.”
“I do, yeah.”
“But you’re still just you.” She leaned towards me, and I grinned like an idiot. “Hey, Pooja?”
And then she kissed me. And then I took that risk.
I let myself fall for her real quick. It was easy. It was simple. Since it was always the two of out in the hills it was private. When it was me and her in the Dane Hills it felt like it was just me and her in the entire world. All these weights lifted from my shoulders. Everything we did together happened right there in broad daylight on a plaid blanket, plain as day. I loved that because it felt like if we weren’t hiding anything that there was nothing to hide. Agnes was the first person who’d ever made me feel like anything but a freak or an outsider or weird or wrong. Months we were at it, and in that time we built up a closeness and a trust. She was my first and I did that thing baby ducks do to the first person they meet out of the shell. I imprinted. Still, the conversations stayed normal and mindless and about nothing serious. Until they weren’t anymore.
She started asking me about the future. I deflected for awhile, but she pressed it, and then I rolled over and looked her in the eye. “What future, Agnes? I’m poor. I’m Pakistani. I got no education. I’m a dyke. People like me don’t have futures.”
“Yes, they do,” she said.
I flopped over onto my back and stared up at the clouds. “The only futures people like me have are bad ones.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said.
And we didn’t for awhile, but then she brought it back up. Again and again she brought it up more and more often until we were fighting most times we were together. She kept wanting to help. I kept telling her there was nothing to help. I tried turning the questions back on her, asking her what she wanted, but she’d only ever smile and shrug and stare out at the hills. “Asked you first, Pooja,” she’d say. Meanwhile, my ma’s latest relationship was fraying at the edges. I could read the signs—we’d be running from Leicester in a few months, back to hopping shelters and scrambling by. I just wanted this thing with Agnes to be good until I had to split. I told her as much one day when she kept pressing and pressing and pressing. She let her questions of the future go unasked after that, which was a mercy, but things got…stranger instead of more normal.
She marked my map. I found her perched again beneath that same ancient oak tree where I’d first met her. She looked somber. There was no grin when I approached, no canny smile and offer of a sandwich. I felt a knot in my stomach. We were breaking up; I just knew it. It felt inevitable. I squared my shoulder and held up my chin. No hard feelings.
“Hey, Pooja,” she said.
“Hey, Agnes.” I wanted to reach out and touch her. That knot in my stomach worked it’s way up to my throat and stuck there. “No sandwiches today?”
Agnes cracked a sly sideways smile. “No sandwiches today,” she said. “But there is something I’ve wanted to show you.” She laughed. “You know, it’s funny how a person can come to know you but know so little about you in the process. You don’t know hardly anything about me.”
“Sure I do,” I said. “I know you’re smart. And funny. And you’re favorite color’s blue. And you make a great sandwich. And you’re from around here.”
“I am from around here.”
“See? I know all about you, Agnes.”
“Agnes,” she repeated, her eyes cast down at the roots of the oak tree beside the mouth of the cave. “Not so many call me that anymore. Look, when I show you then you’ll understand. Come into the cave with me. Remember you know me, alright? When I’m telling you about me remember that you know the sort of person I am, alright?”
That knot in my throat twisted, grew spiny and sharp. Ma makes breakups look easy, you know, and this wasn’t. I had a vain and stupid hope that maybe this wasn’t the end after all, that maybe if I listened to her and let her tell me what she wanted to tell me that we would make it through the afternoon still together, in one piece. “Alright,” I said. “Yeah. Of course I’ll remember.”
Agnes smiled a brighter smile, then, a warm and friendly smile. She held out her hand, and I took it. She gave me a candle and a book of matches. I was about to ask her why, but she pressed them into my free hand. “Just trust me,” she said. And I did.
This was a cave I’d been in before. I remembered it as shallow, just maybe ten feet deep. Nothing but a pocket in the side of a hill. It was the kind of place, I thought, that would have just barely enough room for both of us inside it. Agnes went first, tugging me along behind her. I took one step into the cave, another, then five more, like suddenly that pocket had transformed itself into a tunnel. I followed her for a handful of long minutes, walking behind her as the darkness grew around me. The path sloped down, sending us beneath the Dane Hills, beneath Leicester. The air grew cool. Her hand seemed to grow hotter in mine. “Agnes—”
“Wait. Just wait.”
I waited. I let myself be led down into the belly of the hills. The rocky ground beneath my feet levelled out. Agnes dropped my hand. It scared me to be alone beneath the surface of the earth, there where it was so perfectly dark that I couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face. I reached for her, sweeping the hand she’d let go in wide arcs, blindly looking for her. “Agnes?”
“I’m here. Right here. Light the candle, Pooja.”
My hands shook as I struck the match. The tiny flame wobbled in the darkness, twitching and trembling until it met the wick of the candle. The light bloomed, sauntered outward. The light fell over Agnes, my Agnes. She looked taller. Her face looked thinner. Something in the shadows, I thought. She leaned closer, and her hair fell in thick black clumps on either side of her face; they looked, now, to be made of feathers. They cast shadows around me like a pair of wide wings which threatened to swallow me whole. Her face stopped an inch from mine, and Agnes was…she was herself and not herself.
Her face had grown long and pointed, sharp as broken glass. Her skin was the deep gray-blue of the hours just before the break of dawn. Her eyes were large black balls set in angled sockets; they reminded me of the impenetrable eyes of birds. She smiled, and her mouth was full of fangs.
“Black Annis,” I whispered. I shook; the light of the candle shook with me.
“Black Agnes,” she said. “It started Black Agnes, anyway, but now it’s become Black Annis.”
“This is your bower.”
“You found it.” She smiled wider and cocked her head to the side with a brisk, staccato movement. “You found me.”
“Fuck, Agnes, are you going to eat me?”
She laughed. She sounded like herself, like my throwback goth girlfriend, when she laughed. While her laughter rang through her bower I could see beneath the new strangeness of her face the old familiar lines of my Agnes. I relaxed ever so slightly. “You wish,” she said.
“Agnes, what’s going on?”
“Pooja, before there was you, there was me and mine. We remain. Some of us, anyway, in the few places still untouched by your…industry.”
I wanted to ask her what she was, but it struck me as rude. It also struck me as irrelevant. Whatever she was, she was stronger and stranger than me. She had a changeling power totally out of my reach. Some little things began to fall into place: the sandwiches she appeared to conjure were, perhaps, actually conjured. I’d never seen her in town. Any question I asked about her she turned around on me. It’s never been all that hard to get me talking about myself, I guess.
“I have a talent, Pooja,” my Agnes, Black Agnes, said. “I’m good at luck. It’s hard to survive without it. I can pull luck, raw luck, from the trees and stones and flowers of these hills. I eat that luck, and that keeps me going year after year after year. Sometimes, to someone who seems worth the effort, I can even take that raw luck and give it to someone else.”
“Are you…you are going to eat me, aren’t you? Pull the luck from my bones and eat it,” I said.
Black Agnes laughed again. Again, I heard my Agnes in her voice. “No, stupid. I’m giving you some luck. I’ve got luck for you to eat, Pooja. It’s just repayment: you stumbling on my bower that first day was a bit of luck, eh? Look, all those stories of girls stumbling into my bower and getting eaten, they’re not true. What happens is a girl stumbles into my bower, like you did. And sometimes we get on, like me and you did. And sometimes I get to really, really liking them, like I did with you. And sometimes I like them so much that it seems worth it to set them free, full of luck, out into the great wide world. I love you, Pooja, and I want you to have a future. Those other girls of mine who’ve disappeared? I didn’t eat them. I gave them futures. I’m giving you one, too. Here.” In her blue-gray claws she clutched a rough bowl hewn from the stones of the Dane Hills. It was filled with a thick, shimmering liquid, something oily that glowed a rainbow of colors when it came into the light.
“What is it?”
“What will it do to me?”
“It’ll cut you a break, Pooja. Finally, something will go your way.”
I frowned at it. I looked into her face. I couldn’t be sure, but it felt like there was a warmth in her bird-black eyes. “How does it work?”
“How does anything work? It just…works. It’s luck, Pooja, and I’ve strained it from the Dane Hills just for you. It’ll be decades, maybe another century or two before I can get this much luck from the land again. And it’s all for you.”
“I…” I wanted to push the bowl away. I still wasn’t entirely sure this was happening, but if it was, if all this was real, then I felt like her gift was a waste on me. Me, who’d done nothing but get myself in trouble time and time again. Me, who’d squandered any chance I’d ever had at an education. Ungainly, unacceptable, underwhelming me. “Agnes, I—”
What she did next happened so fast I couldn’t have stopped it. She thrust the bowl into my hands, and forced my hands to hold the bowl up to my mouth. The luck poured down my throat, thick and cool and smooth. I had to swallow it to keep from drowning in it. I’d swallowed all of it in just two or three seconds. It left me dazed in its wake. I heard the stone bowl clatter to the floor of the cave. I felt Black Agnes’ arms around me, her cool lips against mine. I kissed her, my Agnes, who it turned out was some strange and ancient creature. I kissed her with a bellyful of luck, and I felt a spark of something spring to life. I felt, for the first time in my whole life, maybe, hopeful. “Thank you, Agnes,” I said.
B R Sanders
lives in Denver, CO with their family. By day they work as an analyst in K-12 public education. By night they craft speculative fiction stories with a decidedly queer bent. They blog at brsanderswrites.com.