London Folklore: Dryad, N4

The spriggan is inaccurate. The half-abandoned railway line wends through North London- the tracks long removed and the stations deserted, a forgotten artery clogged with sclerosis of green and brown vegetation. Joggers, now; dog-walkers; lovers; children. The spriggan is a gnarled thing, overlarge. It emerges from red brick, not wood. The expression on its face is uncertain- perhaps hunger? It is gorgeous, but Zainab knows it is inaccurate.

After the rails were ripped up but before the path was maintained, the place grew feral. Stories spread of a green man, a brown beast, a… shamble of something in the thickets and trees that line the causeway. Children would not stay there after dark. The creature would always be spotted in the liminal hours where night and day overlap. Dogs would howl. Yards away are brick and road and city but this path is a shadow of an older ideal. It throngs with green. First-hand stories became local legend, and then an artist called Marilyn Collins was commissioned and the spriggan sculpture was installed. Zainab researched this- she runs past the spriggan, past the disused platforms of Crouch End station, and she is thoughtful.

Every morning Zainab runs from Finsbury Park to Highgate and back- she runs early, and she runs alone. Sometimes there are other runners, dog-walkers, but Zainab is running alone. She runs early enough to catch the sunrise over London- there are breaks in the screen of vegetation, bridges along the pathway where she can stop and let her eyes lose focus across the city- it goes forever. Zainab offers a prayer to her home as she looks across the city and then she runs and runs.

Halfway to Highgate, the abandoned railway line cuts through the high ground of Crouch End and is suddenly a valley cosseted on all sides by towering trees- their upmost branches reach across the path to each other and tenderly caress. In summer it is green beyond anything she has known, and vibrant with insect life and movement. Here, from a red-brick arch, the spriggan sculpture looms. When she looks directly at it, two seams of emotion split inside her heart.

The first is love, for this place, for the artist and the council and the community and the dog-walkers and the lovers and the children and the runners. She marvels at the passions of those who would take story and turn it to sculpture. It is an inarticulate love, a yearning.

The second seam weeps with white light. It is a memory. The spriggan looks at her and then she is running not in North London, but over pale baked earth. The sound of running water and the buzz of wasps fill her and she is running over sparse grass with bare feet through an endless sea of fig trees. The sky is circumscribed by distant mountains and she is running and she is alone and then she falls. Her knee tears. She begins to panic, to fill her little lungs too fast- she is alone, and she is lost, and forever in every direction there are the trees.

When her mother finds her, later, she is asleep amongst the roots of a gnarled and ancient tree, shaded from the sun. Her mother wakes her and Zainab tells her mother about the lady, the sweet lady with eyes like water and skin like bark who told her to rest easy. Her knee is unscathed.

The spriggan is inaccurate- Zainab knows this, because in her heart she knows that the spirits of the trees are female. Of course this is not something to be said aloud- rather it is a quiet certainty in her heart. She likes the spriggan, but she knows it is not truth. She thinks it may be cultural bias- if she had been lost in an orchard in Somerset rather than amongst her fig trees, would it have been a sweet lady who took her by the hand? Zainab runs and runs and runs and tastes cold mountain air in the heart of London.

Zainab runs and runs and when she is not running she is at work, or at home. She reads romance novels. She works hard and is tired. She cooks bamieh and kubah and soup and shepherd’s pie and shares her meals with her neighbour Michael, and they play gin-rummy (he cheats), and he tells her about the places he visited throughout his life. Zainab does not talk about where she is from, about fig-trees- but then, all of a sudden, she must.

Familiar landscapes and skylines and cities are suddenly everywhere- every newspaper, every television screen. Co-workers ask her. Michael asks her. The cat she does not own, but feeds daily, asks her silently. Strangers ask her with a quiet glance on the street.

She does not want to talk about it, about fig-trees or hot earth or cold mountain air or any of it. Zainab runs and runs. It is colder now- leaves are brown and red and gold. Before work, Zainab runs the same predictable route and stops to gaze at the city from the same bridge. The questions do not stop. As the leaves begin to fall, the coverage intensifies and the questions alter in tone and Zainab runs.

One day she is running, concentrating on the visceral impact of her feet against the dirt path, asking and answering no questions. The sun is late in rising and the sky is painted grey and black in violent strokes. The rain starts but Zainab ignores it, she moves forward and forward, faster than usual, faster than ever before. The running intensifies and the rain intensifies and she is alone.

She doesn’t stop at the bridge to look at the city; she runs and runs until she stands before the spriggan, her breath coming in staccato bursts. She is soaked. She is crying. She is shaking. She stands in the mud below the spriggan and looks at it and she shakes her fists at it and yells it her question, “Why?” she yells, again and again. Her voice is as nothing to the wind and the rain. Soon enough she is standing silent and small against the storm.

A figure emerges from the trees, nimbly stepping past mud and fallen branches- Zainab starts and recoils. It is a woman, her skin wrinkled and sun-beaten, and her hair ash. She is old but deep-rooted, strong. Her eyes are the colour of cold water. The woman is swamped in a wax jacket and an old fisherman’s hat. The woman approaches and takes Zainab’s hand and the world smells of rain and wet earth and Zainab lets the old woman pull her close, hold her.

“It’s okay my love,” the woman says.

“It’ll all be okay.”

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