Dancing with the fay on May Day morning

Brother Walter kept me company on my journey to Bethlehem this morning. The brethren at the farm have the cough and I took them a caudle to sooth their sore throats and chests. The hob was more than usually fidgety as he rode behind me on Joseph the donkey's back. He twitched and muttered until my patience wore thin. Joseph rolled his eyes and bared his teeth at the fuss.

'Perhaps you should walk, Brother,' I told him, 'before Joseph throws us both to the ground. What is the matter with you today?'

'I am listening for the bells,' the hob said.

'The abbey bells? Why?'

'Nonono, the Seelie queen's bells, on her horse's harness,' he said. 'It's Beltane, the time of the Seelie fays,' he added. He must have seen my puzzled look, and explained what he meant. 'The Unseelie fay hunt and ride in the forest and the fields from Samhain to Beltane, because they are winter fays. The Seelie court are Summer fays. This is the beginning of their time and the queen likes to come to the forest when the trees are coming into leaf and blossom.' He held up a paw and his ears twitched. 'Listen!'

I sat quite still on Joseph's back but could only hear birdsong and the first cuckoo of the year, calling from Foxwist Wood.

The hob smiled broadly. 'The queen's bells,' he whispered, but the magic was his alone to hear and I felt an odd regret not to have heard the bells for myself.

'Well, we call this May Day,' I told the hob as we rode on. 'When I was a boy, my mother would gather may blossom, rowan branches and marsh marigolds and hang them over the windows and doors. She said they would please the fair folk, but the rowan was there to stop anyone with mischievous intent from coming into the house and stealing the freshly churned butter.'

The hob smacked his lips at this. 'Mmm, butter! Your mother was a wise woman,' he said, nodding.

We passed the lane leading to the holy well in Framlinghoe wood.

'People from Yagleah still go to the well and leave offerings on May Day,' I said. 'They have been doing so for hundreds of years and show no signs of stopping, in spite of the warnings on Sundays in church against such a heathen practise.'

The hob nodded again. 'I have seen them, washing their faces in the water. Some drink it too.'

'They believe the water will make them handsome to look at.'

The hob snorted and patted his hairy little face. 'It might make them cleaner!'

'I often used to wonder what I would see, if ever I went into the forest on May Day morning,' I said, gazing along the path through the blackthorn thicket.

'Fays,' the hob said. 'All shapes and sizes, some uglier than others and all dancing and singing, happy that summer is here at last.' 

We rode on, along the track to Yagleah and the grange at Bethlehem. As we left the forest behind, I looked back and just for a moment, I thought I caught the last snatch of someone singing sweetly and the faint ting of a harness bell.


A time of new life


Now the world’s fresh dawn of birth
Teems with new rejoicing rife;
Christ is rising and on earth
All things with Him rise to life.
People have celebrated the coming of spring for longer than anyone can remember. Long ago, the new moon closest to the spring equinox was the time of Eostre, the goddess of the radiant dawn, the bringer of spring and new life. It was thought that her sacred animal, the hare, could be seen in the full moon.


A March day by the riverside

Early March and the first hint of spring is in the air. On a day of blue sky and mild breezes, I walked the riverside path to Bethlehem, the abbey's grange near Yagleah. Another world, beneath the water and upside down, rippled in the current.

I reached the old fishing place near the Sheep Brook and stood for a while. The winter floods had pulled some of the timbers down into that world below the water.

The Sheep Brook has recently been cleared of the flood detritus that has clogged its course this winter. The banks are free of  dead weeds and scrub, and the bare earth will be green and lush again by midsummer. Brother John says the waters of the brook are the colour of wild magic. When I look down into their depths, I think I understand what he means.

Bethlehem grange farm is still bare and bleak after the long, cold months of winter, but here and there are touches of early spring. Clumps of Candlemas Bells brighten Broken Heart Spinney and grow against the wall of the hay barn.

As dusk settled, I made my way home. The fragile touches of spring were lost in the cold March evening and winter trailed its cloak of frost across the meadows beside the track once more.


Patterns underfoot

Brother Walter the hob asked me why the abbey floors are patterned when all we do is walk on them. I was not sure what to tell him, but seeing the tiles though his eyes made me realise the skill that went into their making.

Countless feet over the years have left them worn and faded but they are still beautiful.

Brother Walter was delighted to find a tile decorated with a hob in a corner of the cloister. I think the tiler meant it to be a very different creature, but I did not say this to him.


The stone people

The abbey has many carvings; flowers and leaves, animals, birds and strange creatures for whom I have no names. Perhaps the strangest amongst this stone host are the heads decorating windows and doorways.

Who are they? Kings and queens, perhaps? Angels? I do not know. They watch the comings and goings of all those who live in the abbey, and sometimes, at dusk, I sense their stone-eyed stares following me as I pass by. It can be unsettling, and I will admit, there is one head I do not care to look at too closely. He - for I think it it a man, though the weathered features hide their origins well - is known as the Owl Man. It is a curiously fitting name, and I am not alone in finding him a sinister presence. It is not unusual to see my fellow monks bless themselves as they hurry past.

Time and the weather has not been kind to the Owl Man, nor to some of the other heads at the abbey. Shaped by wind and rain to nightmare creatures, they are strange companions as we go about our daily work.


The Washer at the Spring

The hob came to find me this morning as I was busy in my workshop. His fur was wet and pond weed clung to it in places. He had been feeding breadcrumbs to Methuselah, the huge old carp who lives in the abbey fishpond, and the two had passed a companionable time, in the way that old friends do. 
'The old fish overheard two men from Yagleah talking about the Washer at the Spring,' Brother Walter said with a worried frown. I frowned too, for the men were stealing abbey fish. Not Methuselah, though, he was too clever to be caught. 'They saw the Washer a day or two ago, scrubbing shrouds in the spring water. They said that means there will be a death soon.'

I sighed and felt a weariness of spirit. In truth, there have been too many deaths these last few years, from hunger and from the Great Pestilence. If anyone had troubled to walk through the marshy ground by the Washer's spring, the water of which feeds the fishponds, then they probably would have seen the strange grey figure washing shrouds for all it was worth.

The Washer is lonely,' Brother Walter continued as he settled himself by the fire to pick the weed from his fur. 'Nobody visits it. They are too frightened to go near the spring. People go to Eadred's well in the forest instead and drop flowers and pins into the water there, as gifts for the fay who guards it.'
'I can understand why the washer might feel slighted,' I said. 'Does it mind not having offerings of its own, do you think?'
The hob nodded. 'The old fish thinks so. He sometimes sees the Washer staring into the fishpond, trailing its fingers in the water, its face withered with sadness, like the last leaf in autumn. The fish nibbles its fingers and the Washer smiles at him. Once he saw the Washer lift a blackthorn flower from the water and hold it against its chest.'
'That is indeed sad,' I agreed. 'Perhaps somebody should visit the spring one of these days.'
The hob grinned and looked pleased with himself. 'I already have. I took a hazelnut and some pins and dropped them in the water this morning.'
'Did you see the Washer?' I asked, a little worried by this.
The hob shook his head. 'No, but I know he was pleased.'
'Because the thorn tree by the spring suddenly started to flower. Just a few branches, full of white blossom, as if the tree was smiling.'
I patted the hob's shoulder and handed him a comb for his fur. 'That was kindly done, Brother Walter. And maybe the next time you visit the spring, I will come with you.'