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Once Upon A Yule

A Yule Story for you…..

Mair, sat in her armchair next to the fire and watched as the flames licked and danced around the last log. Sometimes, they were fairy-like wisps, bobbing between the logs, twirling and jumping, like some flame fairy performance of Swan Lake. Other nights, like tonight, they were the Morwynion, the dancing dragon maidens, breathing their fiery breath on each glowing log as if it were a piece of Cerridwen’s broken cauldron.

“Only my wife can turn a log fire into a tale of wonder.” Mair, fondly remembered her husband’s words and warm chuckle as she told him what she could see in the flames.

It had been 30 years since he died, but she could still hear his voice clear in her mind. They were childhood sweethearts, married at 17. He worked the coal mine for almost 40 years until it closed, leaving him with ‘black lung’ and a death sentence. He died five years later, aged only 61. He was known to the locals as “Daf y Glo” (Dafydd the coal) and was well liked by all. He was a quiet, gentle man with a dry sense of humour, always helping people in the village and always in Chapel every Sunday. 

The whole village turned out for the funeral. Everyone expressing their grief and condolences to Mair y Goedwig Ddu (Mair of the black forest). She, who was asked in whispered tones, for tinctures and herb teas by the ladies of the Chapel in their Sunday best. She, who as the years passed, became known to the local children as “Gwrach y Coed” the witch of the woods, the old lady who talked to the trees as if they were old friends and picked plants and mushrooms for her potions. The children would dare each other to go up the path to the Witch’s cottage nestled at the edge of the woods, to the tiny cottage which was slowly disappearing into the green arms of Mother Nature with each passing year. Those brave enough to knock her door on Samhain, would be greeted with warm cinnamon and ginger biscuits, each one, carefully iced with a pumpkin or spider or bat and then a quiet chuckle as they mumbled “Diolch” (Thanks) and ran away quickly back to the safety of costumed ghosts and teens dressed as Dracula.

For a few weeks after his death, Mair continued to attend the Chapel, but the sermons which she had endured for the love of her husband, gave her no solace and she found little sense in the constant talk of “sins” and “Hell”. She disliked the awkward silences and stilted small talk, as people tried to carefully avoid the subject of her recent widowhood, afraid of the emotions and reactions it might evoke in her. They had children and grandchildren to talk about with each other, whilst her only pregnancy resulted in a stillborn at 7 months, the damage from which had left her barren. Dafydd had been her rock through it all, his strength and love put her back together again, she wanted,.. No, she NEEDED to talk about him still and not ignore the fact he ever existed!

So, it was the trees who were her friends, stoic, silent oaks, lending their strength to her as she sat and cried in their roots. Gentle, loving willows, their leaves brushing away her tears as she wept by the river and wise and ancient yews, who held her in their sacred space, patient and comforting as she talked and cried and laughed and screamed…

She blinked and stared unbelieving at the glowing red embers of the last log.

“Bugger!” She muttered out loud, realising that she’d napped. It was now 3:45, and it would be getting dark very soon. She needed to bring in more wood the fire was the sole source of heat for her little cottage, and it was going to be a bitterly cold night.

“Ok then, get to it Mair” she said to herself and then groaned as her arthritic joints objected, her worn bones responding to weather and temperature like unpainted wood. “Definitely not getting any younger, that’s the truth!” She grimaced and pulled her cardigan tight around her as she stepped outside. Oh, it was a cold one all right!! The slippery crunch of frozen leaves under her shoes and the frozen sheen of the bird bath told her that today’s weak sunshine had done nothing to help this wintry landscape. There was a soft, cold kiss on her cheek, then another, she looked up to see tiny feathery stars of snow floating down from a quickly darkening sky. She reached the wood store only to remember that she hadn’t foraged for wood for over a week, she’d been fighting a winter bug and she’d been too tired to go out. There were only a few old twigs left.

“Bugger!” She muttered again and thought, well, it is, what it is, time to ‘suck it up buttercup’ and go grab some before it gets too dark, estimating that she had maybe forty minutes of poor light left. She reached for the little flat bed trolley that she used to carry her twigs and sticks, felt for the small torch on the shelf and set off, walking carefully on the slippery mulch. After ten minutes, she began to shiver, regretting not taking the time to quickly grab her coat for an extra layer against the freezing air, her hands were bluish and painful, as for her feet, she had to keep checking that they were still on the ends of her legs! Mair knew these woods well, she had lived in that little cottage for 74 years. She loved the quiet and the noise that was nature. She named and exchanged pleasantries with numerous feathered and furred creatures, she chatted away to the trees and sang to the river, so when a large eared hare stood in front of her, bold as brass, blocking her path, she laughed out loud and said, “Noswaith da Cariad!” (Good evening love). 

The hare regarded Mair as it sat back on its powerful hind legs, nose twitching, large dark eyes reflecting stars, when there were none to be seen in the sky. It huffed loudly and then stamped its back feet hard against the frozen ground before trotting off the path to the side of a large oak. It looked back at Mair and stopped as if to say “Well, are you coming or what?” 

Confused and still amused, Mair found herself stepping off the path to follow the hare, the compulsion to follow could not be ignored. Mair recognised where she was despite the gloom of nightfall and knew the river was a little way ahead. She switched on her torch, the little flat bed trolley, was catching and bouncing over the roots and the uneven ground, pulling at her shoulder, so she decided to leave it for the moment until she fathomed out what this hare was about. She suddenly realised that the hare had vanished. Shining the little torch into the trees ahead she was rewarded with the silvery reflection of two eyes and a dark wolf-like shape between the trees. Taking a deep breath and reminding herself that the majestic wolf no longer wandered the woodlands of Wales and it was probably just a stray dog, she clucked her tongue and made soft encouraging noises at it, ‘poor thing shouldn’t be out on a night like this’ she thought, whilst another part of her mind thought ‘neither should you Mair’.

Mair was shivering head to toe now, it was getting hard to think, so when the large black hound took two steps towards her and whined softly before turning around and walking slowly away, she just followed it. ‘In for a penny, in for a pound’ she thought, getting vaguely irritated by her own idiom as she tripped and slid on the mulch, only just stopping before she ended up in the icy river water. 

Sitting on the wet grass, she mused to herself that the only consolation about being a block of ice was that she couldn’t feel the very impressive bruise which was undoubtedly forming on her right buttock. Then, the river surface exploded, as a large salmon leapt up into the air, it’s silvery scales glittering briefly before it plunged back into the water. Amazed at the sight, Mair reached for the torch, which was no longer in her hand or anywhere close by.

“Bugger!” Mair muttered again under her breath as she rolled over onto her knees to try and get up and found herself staring straight into the cheeky whiskery face of an otter. “Uhmm, ok, hello you” Mair whispered, half afraid her voice would scare the little mammal away. She slowly and carefully got to her feet, whilst the little creature watched her and had a quick scratch behind it’s ear. Then, after treating her to it’s flute-like whistle call, it bounded off along the riverbank, stopping every few paces to see if she was following.

Mair sighed, she was so very, very tired now and so cold, that she was no longer shivering….which somewhere in her mind, she knew was a bad thing, something to do with advanced hypothermia, but she couldn’t really think straight at all and she still had to follow the otter……but now, the otter had vanished and it was too dark to see….. but then she heard it, the short rapid fire staccato chirping of a wren, it was in the trees to her right. She loved birds, all birds…. ‘Listen to the wren Mair, follow the sound’, why was it so hard to think? 

Mair stumbled again, she couldn’t feel her feet, her hands, her face……She couldn’t hear the wren anymore, perhaps she could just rest here for a while ……

A blood-curdling screech jolted her awake! Mair knew, even in her confusion, that sleep, however welcoming, meant death for her now……There was another screech from the branch above her head, looking up, Mair could make out the outline of a bird of prey, a hawk perhaps? 

“All right, ahwight nahhww” Mair slurred at the bird, her speech and thoughts muddy and tangled, as she struggled to stand and slowly stumbled after it, as it flew ahead from branch to branch……. Until it seemed to be glowing? How could it be glowing? She thought, just as the soft glow of a nearby fire caught her eye, it was just inside the mouth of a cave and Mair could see the shape of a tall woman, dressed in a floor length cape, tending to the fire upon which rested a very large cauldron.

‘Well, this is a turn up for the books! It would appear that I am, in fact, dead!’ Mair thought to herself and then began to giggle, she knew this woodland intimately, she knew, without a doubt that there was no cave within twenty miles of her cottage, but then, she was insanely old, suffering from advanced hypothermia and probably either hallucinating or dead, so at this point, what did it matter? She never expected dying to be this entertaining! She looked down to see a big black hen with a blood red comb fussing and clucking around her feet pecking at a sizable ear of grain. When she looked up again, the woman was standing right in front of her, long dark hair, salted with grey, her nose strong, almost aquiline, her milky skin had a subtle glow and her eyes……. Oh, her eyes! They swirled like the mist on a moonlit pool, reflecting a silvery light that seemed both dark and bright. Mair felt those eyes look deep inside her soul and lay bare every thought, every shadow, every feeling she had ever felt in her 91 years on this Earth, she felt seen and most importantly, she felt loved.

“Come sit by the fire, child.” Her voice was soft and somehow inside Mair’s head, her lips didn’t move as she spoke, they only smiled gently as she pressed a cup of warm liquid into Mair’s freezing cold hands and then she turned back to the cauldron and continued stirring the contents slowly. She tapped the ladle 3 times against the cauldron side, “Ting, ting, ting”. 

“You can’t stay here Mair” said the soft voice in her head, “You’re not finished with this life.”

Mair looked up at the figure stirring the cauldron, the hand on the ladle looked old now as it tapped the ladle against the cauldron again. “Ting, ting, ting.”

Mair wanted to speak, wanted to say how bone weary she was, how very, very cold she was, how lonely she was, but she knew it wasn’t necessary, the Lady of the Cauldron already knew this and everything else about her, yet she still wouldn’t let her stay?

“Not yet, child, you have stories to tell and songs to sing, in your blood there’s the magic of the wise woman and in your bones, lie the words of the bard, were you planning on taking them with you when you leave this world?”

Mair watched Cerridwen (for she now realised this Lady could be no-one else) and thought carefully about her words before replying.

“Oh my Lady, who would listen to an old witch like me? I wouldn’t even know where to begin…”“Ting, ting, TING” Cerridwen tapped the ladle again, a little harder and said “Well, if I were you, I would start with this” she gestured to the cave and the cauldron, before hitting the bubbling pot with the ladle again, very hard and very loud “TING, TING, TING!” Then she turned quickly around and shouted, “WAKE UP!”

“Ting, ting, ting,” Bobby tapped lightly on Mair’s kitchen window, as he did early every morning. She was always up early and would greet him with a wave and a cheery smile, then, they would have breakfast together, usually some hot buttered toast with a little scrambled egg and possibly a crumbly digestive biscuit or some fruited Welsh cakes, delicately spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg. Today, however, Bobby couldn’t see Mair in the kitchen, so he went to the sitting room window and peered in through the small squares of leaded glass. He thought he could see her, sitting in her chair, he tapped on the glass, “Ting, ting, ting,” he waited for her to turn around, to see him and wave and give him that cheery smile, but she wasn’t moving.

He tapped again, harder, more insistent, “Ting, Ting, TING.” He watched in fascination, as a long crack split the dusty glass of the window, he knew what it meant, he’d seen it before on the frozen pond…Mair still wasn’t moving…. “TING, TING, TING!” The glass shattered into fragments on the windowsill….

Mair jerked suddenly awake, the crash of the ladle against the cauldron now sounding like breaking glass, Cerridwen’s voice fading with a gust of icy air through the broken pane. So very tired, so very, very cold…. She struggled to stay awake, her limbs felt like lead, she couldn’t understand how she was back in her chair at the cottage, she tried hard to focus and turned her head and exclaimed, “Bobby? Is that you?” 

The little robin, perched on the arm of her chair, tilted his head to one side and looked at her with his bright black eyes, as if to say, “Do you have a lot of Robins around for breakfast then?” He chirped loudly and flew to the kitchen door, his message clear.

Mair, her breath, billowing out in steamy clouds, looked at the fireplace, which was cold and dark, the last log lay in grey ashes and slowly realised that she hadn’t left the cottage at all, she hadn’t woken from her nap, she very nearly hadn’t woken at all. 

Bobby chirped again and flew back to her armchair, pooped and then flew back to the kitchen door.

“Ok, ok young man, keep your feathers on, I’m coming,” Mair said slowly, so slowly climbing to her feet, her blood felt like icy slush in her veins. She needed food and a hot drink.

She prepared a pot of tea and some toast on her old gas cooker, leaving the burners going for a bit to take the chill off the freezing kitchen. She crumbled up some toast and a digestive biscuit on another plate for the little robin, who hopped onto the table and tucked in with relish. Mair wrapped a shawl around her shoulders and draped her coat over her knees as she sat down to sip her hot tea. 

“She sent you, didn’t she?” Mair asked the little bird, who chirped happily and began pecking at the biscuit. “You probably saved my life you know,” Bobby fluffed up his feathers and looked suitably pleased with himself, whilst eyeing up Mair’s biscuit too.

“In view of this, I have decided not to bill you for the window, but I would appreciate it in future, if you could wait for me to open it first.”

Bobby chirped again and flew to the kitchen window, looking expectantly at Mair, who leant over and opened it for the little robin to continue about his day.

An hour later, Thomas the postman made his way to Mair’s door, his boots crunching through the light dusting of snow.

“Bore da, Mair! What happened to your window?” Thomas was a cheery and ruddy faced man who Mair had known since he was a boy, he burst out laughing when Mair explained about the robin. “Well, I never!” Still laughing, he assured Mair that his son-in-law would pop around lunchtime and fix it for her. Worried about her lack of heating, he promised to drop off some wood for her as soon as he finished his rounds, and he gently admonished her for not asking for help. He then handed her a letter from his bag, and clearly excited he proclaimed, “That one’s from our local library, my sister’s second cousin is starting a story telling club for the kids and well, I mentioned you and all the history you must know.”

Mair laughed and said, “Well I suppose I have been around a while, but honestly I wouldn’t know where to start.”

Thomas turned back to Mair, his voice softer now as he gestured to the window and said, “Well if I were you, I would start with this.” 

Mair sat back at her kitchen table, picked up a pen and her notepad, closing her eyes briefly she saw the cauldron and the cave again, she heard the words of Cerridwen soft and clear in her head as she began to write the words,

“Once Upon a Yule”…..

Tina Morgan Sister of Cerridwen.