The Cailleach is a Celtic Ancestor-Goddess, a Divine Hag, a Crone who controls the winter winds in the far reaches of remote places. Living in the still-wild mountains of Western North Carolina, I’ve found it is easy to conjure up the Cailleach rising up through a rhododendron “hell.” She certainly took my breath away, and captured my consciousness, when I wrote this poem in 1995. Some years later, Lisa Sturz of the Red Herring Puppets created for me the eight-foot tall, wearable Grandmother puppet you see here. She has appeared in a number of my theater productions to the Goddess, while the poem was being dramatically read, with improvised music on the psaltery. Grandmother is happy to be coming out of my basement once more, for the Samhain service at our Unitarian church here in Black Mountain.
The Appalachian Cailleach Speaks
Tourists buying postcards on Craggy Mountain never suspect me.
It’s always, “Time to get back in the car!”
just before my long, wild winds come up the hollow.
My winds always precede me.
Folks who have lived here long look for haints and boogers
when they feel me coming near.
But few have seen me. Maybe it’s my hair!
The chokecherry vines that form sort of a bouffant…
I love it when the berries ripen in autumn!
But few have seen me when I creep through rhododendron,
chokecherry and laurel for ornament.
I breathe the dark bass tones of the rhododendron thicket,
my skin like her bark, ancient, enduring.
My breath is in sync with her, unfathomable, unconquerable.
When you step into the dark places of the thicket,
your breath stops.
You’re whirled back to your own birthplace, before time began.
All over my hands are tiny red mushrooms,
rising from moss like a Mardi Gras village!
When you see my hands, you feel as though
you have swum up the bank of a rushing creek,
holding your breath until you emerge.
When you gaze into my eyes, my pupils fade into trillium,
blood-red blooms dangling at the rims, speaking in tongues.
My eyebrows are slow-creeping woolly worms, orange and black.
I float over the hills in a cape of Appalachian flowers:
Jack-in-the-pulpit, butterfly weed, flame azalea, bloodroot,
Indian pipe, chicory, pokeberry, cohosh.
My scent is of millennia of these green beings,
composting, seeding, bursting forth, decaying once more.
When you inhale my scent, you will remember your family.
Generations will array before you
in the distinct garb of your ancestors.
When you breathe my essence, you will fall and weep
at the millennia of lives willing to help you,
sponsor you, give you life.
I carry a staff of mountain ash. Don’t be afraid!
I won’t harm you! though my laughter alone
could squash you into the earth, mere compost,
cousin to the road kills, just another woolly worm.
My staff speaks of power, and that is what you fear,
citizens, tourists, quick-leavers, loud-builders, e-mail talkers.
In the landfills where I wander are your rusted bodies:
freezers, microwaves, smartphones, last year’s computer.
Decades they require to rust or fade,
the plastic, the alloys, the silicon chips.
And I float to your door. I beckon you and your children’s children
when they wander too far from the flickering screen.
I speak of spice bush, yarrow, ginseng, jewelweed,
sassafras, Solomon’s Seal.
I pull you to the dark where you speak with your soul,
where life takes your breath away.
I make you pine for life, reach for it, scream for it.
I hold a mirror to this desire until all else is forgotten,
until you reach for life, until you’ll never give up,
until there on the forest floor we cry, together,
tears of joy.
September 5, 1995
BIO: Annelinde Metzner honors the Divine Feminine with her poetry and music. She has composed many praise songs included in her songbook, “Lady of Ten Thousand Names,” and has created and produced concerts for the Goddess including most recently, “Feminine Faces of God.” She directs the choir at the UUCSV in Black Mountain, NC, and founded the women’s choirs Womansong and Sahara Peace Choir in Asheville NC. http://annelindesworld.blogspot.com