Once Upon a Yule: A Winter Tale for the Fire Side

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


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