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The Insightful Woodcut

Caerdrith expected to see the wavering of a distant torch as its bearer fought their way through the wild, tempestuous night in search of his cottage in the woods. He wiped an accumulation of dust and cobwebs from a window pane with the sleeve of his heavy cloak, peering out into the turbulent darkness within which the wind howled and the rain pummelled. Nothing yet.

He returned to his chair and ran his hands over the oak table appreciating its ageless beauty. Its surface was ingrained with countless residues spilt from the experimentation with, and creation of, numerous infusions, potions, medicines and other concoctions. In the centre stood a single candle in an earthenware bottle, the sides of which were streaked with wax accumulations from the burning of countless wicks. A rogue draught circled the room, annoying the flame and causing shadows to come alive – dancing among the shelves, glass cabinets and cupboards hiding in the background. These held hundreds of jars, bottles and assorted containers. Some immaculately labelled, others hiding unknown secrets.

Caerdrith brushed the last tiny wood shavings from the surface of a flat wood block, four inches square, resting on a small leather sandbag. The woodcut had taken all day to do, his inner guide telling him this would somehow help the person who, at this moment, was fighting their way though clawing branches ensnaring any casual passers by. He laid out some other items beside it and shivered. Perhaps he should have lit the fire. No, it was good to be cold. People didn’t hang around when they were made to feel uncomfortable. 

The bell jangled outside the front door. Caerdrith gathered his cloak around him and drew the oversized hood over his head, merging his face into the dark. He opened the door with a bowed head and, without a word, motioned his client inside with a simple hand gesture. A man entered, accompanied by a brusque flurry of wet, turbulent leaves. Caerdrith hurriedly closed the door, leaving the outside wind to hammer against it in frustration. He directed the man to a chair and they sat opposite each other at the table. Caerdrith waited, saying nothing. The other man took a while to settle, analysing his surroundings and restraining his anxiety as best as he could.

Minutes passed. The man then spoke.

‘I have these stomach pains.’ He paused. ‘I’ve tried everything. Nothing and no-one can help me . So I’ve come to you. They said you’d be able to do something.’

Silence. Caerdrith was in no hurry.

‘Please?’ The voice was pleading.

Caerdrith sat motionless. He was happy to wait and see his client get nervous, cold and, perhaps, apprehensive of what might follow. Some of his treatments were rumoured to be rather unpleasant – the price paid for success. The wind grew restless. The room groaned as beams ached with age. Caerdrith drew the wood block towards him. He reached in turn to the other objects on the table. First, with a slow, precise movement he squeezed a line of thick black printing ink from a tube onto a sheet of glass. Then he ran a small ink-roller to and fro through the ink and applied it evenly over the woodcut. After placing a sheet of paper onto the inked surface and rubbing it hard with a flat wooden spoon, he passed the wood block to his guest.

The man hesitated. He took a corner of the paper and slowly lifted it to reveal the printed image.

‘I know this place. It’s the house where I grew up. Did you know that? What does it mean?’ His eyes tried to find those hidden beneath the cloak, but failed.

‘You are grieving for the place you have left behind,’ Caerdrith said after a protracted pause. 

‘What do you mean?’

‘Grief can be an unwelcome companion. You need to befriend it and give it a home.’

‘But, can’t you give me something for it – one of your medicines or whatever you call them?’

‘It is for you... to heed what I have just said,’ Caerdrith finished. He held out an upturned hand to the man, a sign that payment was now expected and the meeting was over. The man handed over a brown envelope and, with some reluctance, followed Caerdrith to the door where he was bade farewell.

Caerdrith watched from the window as torch light disappeared into the distant night. He returned to the table, sat down and blew out the candle.

Copyright Matthew Slater 2022. No reproduction allowed in any form without permission.

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