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Shortlist Saturdays: Rites of Blossom and Thorn by Sarah Royston

They call it blackthorn winter, this spring that isn’t spring. I brave the bitter sleet and go to the Common. By day, it belongs to dogs and bobble-hatted kids. I come every evening to make my rounds. I don’t like stares; I prefer to work unseen.

I begin my gathering at the gate. No flowers bloom here; the frost nipped every bud. Instead, shards of plastic gleam among the fallen leaves. At least there are lichens; those odd, neglected things. Miniature forests of fairy-cups, slow empires of dust.

The stagnant stream is litter-choked; I fill my bag in minutes. It’s senseless, of course. The planet is dying – why fuss over a few cans? I don’t know, yet I keep coming back. Two summers ago, I saw a muntjac deer with her fawn. Perhaps something survives of the wild.

The Biker roars past in a haze of fumes. The only other who comes so late, and in such cruel weather. Blazing in yellow gear like Phaeton in the story, reckless and radiant, driving the Sun. I should be angry; motorbikes are forbidden. But I saw him once in daylight, laughing with some girls. Blond hair falling in his eyes. I used to smile like that, before my world turned grey.


Hail is falling hard, but I need to breathe real air. Shed the stale city smog that clings to my clothes. Perhaps the storm can wash me clean. I head for the stream’s source: the deepest woods. From a heap of ashes, I lift lighters, tobacco papers, three soup tins. The cold creeps in my bones. Is this what I wanted: to be frozen, to be numb? Then I see the crow. Pure white, with bright black eyes. It flies down a narrow path, a holloway of thorns. The tunnel offers shelter, despite the dagger-spines. It seems a kind of summoning. Shivering, I follow.

A twisted blackthorn stands, dead, beside a shallow pool. Two boughs reach out like arms, clothed in lichen-lace. A rime of silver-scale limns her filigree face. I stare a long time, rooted. At last, the spell is broken by an engine’s whine.

Turning to the path, I see a branch hangs from an oak tree, heavy and half-torn by the gale. I should make it safe. But as I lift my hand, the crow lands on the bough. The bird’s stare pierces like a question, like a thorn. I hesitate, then back away.


The next day is bright, with a sweetness in the air. At dusk, I run to the tanglewood, and find her there, but changed. Every branch is laden with milk-white blossom. In the crook of her elbow, the crow has built a nest. Her lichen-dappled face seems to bear a silver smile. Celandines rise, sun-yellow, from the churned mud at her feet.

I don’t hear the news until later. By the time I arrive, the bike has been removed. The Biker will never be found. Amnesia, perhaps, from a blow to the head. They will pray for his return. I will remember a crow’s egg, whiter than the moon. A nest woven of dark moss and pale strands of hair.

I watch the water bubbling, tree-buds bursting into bloom. I feel as if I stood at the heart-root of spring. White petals whirl around my head. A blackthorn blessing; a memory of snow.

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