Monday, 12 March 2012

The Elf with the Upside-Down Heart

OUR DEAR FRIEND THOMAS died a month ago. His thirty year old dragon-knot of a heart stopped its unique, time-borrowed beating one morning in January where, at home beside his beloved wife Lunar, he fell through. Too soon this was, too soon; and we are all left standing holding this loss that is too big and too sore to look at. Though his heart was configured back to front, it was one of the finest I've known. And now his wife and his small daughter must keep walking through their days with this absence shouting louder and bigger than I can begin to imagine.

Thomas was one of those wonderful people who are happy and awake to their every moment; an artist and archaeologist, a folklorist and craftsman, he dwelt a good deal of the time in a land alongside ours, and his way through was an intricately carved Dark Age gateway, woven from thirteen magical trees. 

Drawing by Thomas Hine - Galmearian Elder

Drawing by Thomas Hine - Elvish Globe

Drawing by Thomas Hine - Thread Spruce

I never actually had this conversation with him, but I know that our worlds were kin. His realm was peopled with peasants and magicians, who dwelt in smoke-filled thatched roundhouses, wore green and brown and had true hearts. His imagination was edged with Celtic knotwork which trailed, spell-like into his everyday, though spelling of the other sort was strangely quite unfathomable to him, and his handwriting could easily be mistaken for an untranslated prehistoric inscription.

Drawing by Thomas Hine - Elvish Map
Tom & Thomas at the Sticklepath Fireshow watching the puppets (made by Thomas) burn

Thomas teaches me archery

Thomas was tall and gentle, with a shock of wiry hair, and a quietness of manner that sheltered endless interesting thoughts. He would make artefacts from wood and hang them in the forest where folk may or may not find them and moss would certainly take them, he collected folk songs and children's playground rhymes, he delighted in making fires, he wrote repeatedly to his MP in support of Travellers, he made elf doors and conjured ancient tribes, he only told the truth, he was writing a book of local folklore, he taught me to shoot a bow and arrow, he played the fiddle, and knew more than almost anyone about the three hares. But of all things, he loved best his family, whom he treasured and honoured and cared for with a gentle and determined fierceness which was wonderful to see. 

Since Thomas died, I have got to know strands of him I didn't know before, as this wonderful community of ours weaves itself around his death and darns the wound with arms. I am astonished and proud of our village on the edge of the moor – I can see that it does well these hard hard things, and I can see that here those whose pain is the sharpest will continue to be cared for well and will be caught again and again when they stumble. I have valued enormously being able to share a grief with others who knew and loved our friend too, but each in a different way, so that in comforting we can exchange our versions of Thomas, and continue to get to know him from many different angles, even though he has gone. 

Thomas holds one of his elf doors

And I've valued the story of him, and found comfort in myth, as I so often do. That he is spoken of perhaps now on some kingly grey road by his Middle-Earth-inclined friends honours him and comforts me in an odd way, though I don't know whether it's true, and indeed I think Thomas himself believed death led to compost. The elf doors he made are dotted all over the village; there's one half way up our stairs which he made for us as a house warming gift and which we pass every night on the way to bed. I don't think we can say what death is, but I like the fact that Thomas left small doorways in hedges before stepping through.

And for a funeral, he had the most heartfelt and earthy handmade ceremony and celebration I've ever experienced. We gathered forest-coloured in our hundreds accompanied by at least two morris sides, Thomas laying amongst us in a handmade felt leaf cocoon as the children ran about him. 

The ceremony was made by those who loved him (and there were many, many), with words and music and art. We made our way through the village to the top of the hill carrying Thomas between us, as overhead flew birds made by the children, in honour of the sky burial he had wished for. 

On the hilltop, overlooking the land he loved so much, beside the hill where he and Lunar married, our friend was laid in the earth. I was supposed to play music at this point but failed miserably to summon any coherent tunes through my tears. The children sat and watched and placed earth and gifts in the grave along with the rest of us, and we walked back down the hill to share food and memories and music and art. 

It was an intense and real and moving day, and the days since have held our sadness which morphs as grief does, neither lessening nor leaving, just moving like water through the shapes of us.

Spring has been pushing up through these days too, and Thomas's daughter has turned two. I made a book which is currently being passed from household to household... in it we'll write and paint our memories of Thomas, we'll stick photos and tales, and create a treasure chest of this man for his girl when she grows and wants to weave the strands of her father which are hard to catch hold of into her hair.

Lunar now has a hard hill to climb, but not alone, and I am already inspired and staggered at the grace and strength and wisdom with which she has stepped out on this stony path. Artful wordsmith that she is, she has told beautifully and strongly of their loss. There was great truth in words she spoke at a gathering we had the day after Thomas died: she said that though his heart did not last many years, it seemed wiser to measure a heart in love rather than in time, and going by that measure, he was an ancient, ancient man.

I leave you with Thomas's words about himself, which I always liked, written for his emporium of elf doors:

Qualified in Archaeology, obsessed with folklore, in love with the land, besotted by my family. Devon my soul, Cymru my dreams, Gaia my love, twisted my heart.
This hill on which I live is alive with possibilities... 
Which path should I take?
The road compacted with footfalls does not grab me. I have never worn those heavy boots for long.
The road less traveled looks appealing - artists, musicians, storytellers. And yet...
And yet much more so than either is the glade between the paths, the ambling place, the twisted knot of flowers striving for the sun. 
Maybe I shall sit here a while, and dip my pen into the inkwell of the earth, doodle my dreams on the canvas of the sky...
I am here to live strong and real. 
So far I have done it.