For Rob

Not Ryhope or England
but these ancient woods
record history.
They delve deep,
roots spearing ribs
of farmers, kings and mystics
to absorb magic and folly.
Their weighty boughs
are Nature’s styluses;
sometimes they skip grooves
as the breeze shakes
the oak and rowan,
to carry…

the chant of old songs;
the sigh of lovers’ lies;
the bright clang of battle.

I struggle through
soaked foliage,
thick, soupy earth –
wet from winter’s deluge –
chasing a ghost.

A splash; a horse’s neigh.
A woman –
her face masked,
her eyes pitiless with mercy –
knees her horse toward me
through tendrils of ivy.

“Where is he?” I ask

Her tanned, calloused hand
chops to the gateway
between pillars of stone,
beyond a still, silvered pool.

The trees sway.
They fan the echo of a hearty laugh,
as familiar as breath.

I surge forward,
but she urges her horse
between me
and the way.
I glare threats;
she, implacable,
flicks mud from her thigh.

Above, a hawk shrieks,
and we both squint up
at its shadow crossing the sun,
ecstatic with prey.

The Rider salutes, turns,
crests through the gate,
and a mist gathers after.

When it thins out
from the promise of sunlight,
the passage is gone.

I sit and listen.
The branches sweep
and play the past.

In the woods
I will remember him,
until the Rider returns.

Maura McHugh
In memoriam: Rob Holdstock (1948 – 2009)