Snakeskin & Moon-shadow

January 4

Over hill, over byre

Through brush, through briar

Through marsh, through mire

Over stile and barbed wire

—A Midwinter’s Daydream, Shakespeare & I

With Puck plucking at my bootlaces, I set off from Skenfrith following a signpost for Grosmont, the 13th century home of another Marcher Lord. The sky is scalloped in seashell-clouds, in shades of nacre, mussel, and mother-of-pearl. A thin rinse of birdsong tints the underpainting of this living watercolor as I cross pastures of glaring sheep who keep the grass trim on this pastoral canvas. On the paths that run by farmhouses, the air is dusty with smoke. As I crest the rise above Grosmont’s valley, the sun shears through the clouds, slashing the fields into Kelly and emerald ribbons.

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Grosmont Castle brims over with streams of champagne ivy in Chardonnay green and Veuve Clicquot gold. Ivy froths from the windows, fermenting the spilling sunbeams into an amber cordial. Milky lichen pools between mortared stones stained in hues of green tea and merlot.

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A ring of oaks compasses the moat, dug in the Norman days when ring-mailed Lords stacked the Welsh Marches—the borderlands—with castles to suffocate rebellion. As I clatter over the drawbridge, two crows startle from the gatehouse, splashing black across the sky before disappearing like invisible ink. The southwestern watchtower is a kaleidoscope of windows. I climb a spiral stair to a parapet on the western wall. My boots sound as solemn as a lone watchman’s as I pace and stare out across Grosmont’s glass conservatories and slate-roofed cottages to the Black Mountains.

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In the northwestern tower, waterfalls of ferns and moss-cascades slough down the stone walls. From the northern wing sprouts a sprigged chimney, an exotic survivor from the rule of the Earls of Lancaster. When I step into the eastern wing, where the Great Hall and Lord’s chamber once lit the night, fitful echoes chase my steps, as if I walk through spectral halls instead of gutted ruins.

I am waiting for the walls to whisper again when a dog gambols by, followed by his man.

‘Desirable property, isn’t it?’ he quips, noting my fixation on the shredded ruin.

‘Just needs a bit of fixing up,’ I reply.

‘Only the roof really,’ he calls back as he follows the dog into the village.

I have always wanted to lock myself away in a tower with a year’s supply of books, tea, and sunsets.

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As I walk back to Skenfrith, I slip in and out of the almond oil light. For a moment it slicks this hillside hollow, then it drains away to irrigate valley pastures. Couched on the western horizon, the Black Mountains slumber, dreaming of heather and height. From the low mountains, the fields unfurl like snakeskin. The rippled scales are leas and meadows, fringed by hedges, color fanning from viper to python as sunlight spills down from fleeing clouds.

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After nightfall, when Orion strides out across the dusty galaxy, I see my first moon-shadow. In the oceanic dark of a nameless lane, the squinting moon winks at someone behind me. I turn around. Wearing a skin of bruised moonlight, my thin twin sways under winter stars.

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