JACQUES. Not far from our door was a pond with a stream that wound through an enchanted meadow. They said the meadow was cursed because Moma had picked peas on the Sabbath. No corn would ever grow there and any attempt to mow it always brought hail and storms. The abbot tried to build a church there, but no matter how many stones were laid, they always vanished at night and were found in a far field the next day.
In the middle of the meadow was a standing stone, laid by a giant of old. I spied le Lutins there – dancing and singing under moon. ’Twas the time when the cuckoo laid her eggs and the ash was putting forth her leaves – that was the chief time for their revels. They dined on grassy hillocks, dressed in green coats and caps, with boots of finest leather. But some wore silver shoes and vestments of copper and gold. I esteemed them greatly, for they were very pretty with regal faces, not cankered and deformed like mine. And I wondered if the other world lived without laws or sorrows, because they seemed so happy, eating, drinking and flying about according to their pleasure.
At first I thought them benevolent enough, with their banquets, gladness and mirth, lighting the hollows with their elfin fires. But they dwelt beyond a profound abyss, and would oft’ leave me desolate and hideously affrighted. For their powers were beyond the highest magic and their enchantments deadly. They haunted the marsh with mysterious orbs of light and disembodied voices. Many who ventured there after dark were never heard of again. Others returned with strange wounds, and fell sick with rashes, palsy and vomiting. A shepherd who crossed the meadow at night lost a flock of sixty sheep; his beard and hair turned white and he spoke of tall shadows with cold green eyes.
Les Fées. Margot always warned me of their tricks but how I longed to meet them! Oft’ they remained invisible, but would whisper in my ears like a gentle wind.[i] Yet other times they appeared as ghostly spectres or wisps of smoke. I saw them as shadows in the corner of my eye, darting this way and that, like fish in the shallows. When they called my name, the hairs of my flesh stood up; and even though I could not discern their proper shape, I always followed like a fool, deep into the thickets.
They prayed on our grain with the mice, and stole milk from our pail with the stoats. Oft’ their bodies were transparent as glass and so subtle they seemed congealed of air.[ii] They would consort with animals of all kinds – owls, bats, moles, bees – even dogs and cats, but most of all frogs…
The marsh frogs kept strange company – with Spinning Grazide. I first spied her sitting on a lily, eating curds from a nutshell bowl. A fine lady she was, dressed in a dazzling smock; and all about her were spinning wheels, resplendent with rubies, emeralds and pearls. She would come and go as she pleased – just like a damsel fly, sometimes big, but oft’ very small. I always knew when she drew near for the frogs stopped croaking. Oft’ I tried to catch her, but she would pass in the blink of an eye.
Then one night, when the moon was full, I spied her in the rushes sitting on a pail. So I crept along the banks and stole up beside her. She smiled politely and offered me a sparkling cup: “Come and drink,” says she. But when I drank, all my flesh went numb and I glimpsed a terrible void. There appeared two moons in the sky, one below the other, and both with a pale green hue; but these were soon eclipsed by many stars that seemed to fall from the heavens – fiery darts of fluttering wings, like swarms of burning butterflies. Then a brilliant object like a glowing shield rose above the pond, glistening with all the colours of the rainbow; there came two golden serpents, twisting in spirals and spitting wriggling worms of fire that squirmed in the water. Then Grazide fizzed her wings and vanished into thin air. Gone.
One night when I was sleeping, Grazide came to me in a dream and said:
‘Wake up Jacques, and you shall see the sun and moon on the rafters!’
Immediately I awoke and saw the heavenly orbs suspended above my head: two spheres, one glowing green, the other yellow and orange. They shone with such a lovely light that I could not look away. I became very drowsy and Grazide whispered:
‘Cette fille a la bouche belle et les yeux bleus… Mais voici un homme de trop. Que la terre est petite en comparison avec le soleil!’ [This girl has a beautiful mouth and blue eyes. But here is a man too many. How small is the earth, compared with the sun!]
I fell into a blissful sleep. At cockcrow the orbs had gone, but their likeness was still imprinted on a sooty beam. When I showed Margot, she got very angry and quickly rubbed them out.
There were other folk in the meadow. For I once met Jumping Jean – an elf with big black eyes, who haunted the mugwort; but he chirped like a cricket and I couldn’t understand. He was very vexed, shaking his fists and jumping up and down. What he wore on his head was a mystery, but it had bright lamps about it.
I was not afraid to venture in the meadow after dark until something black with a candle chased after me – an apish thing, that moved with great swiftness between the trees. So I ran across the stream and hid amongst the willows. I watched as the phantom terrorised a bull and bit him on the neck; whereupon the poor creature withered up, as if it were a piece of leather scorched in a fire, or a purse drawn together with a string. And I feared I might suffer the same fate, for the malevolent beast sapped my strength and paralysed my limbs. But then the apish devil seemed to die a painful death as it changed into a fiery orb that dripped like molten glass; it conjured a howling wind that ripped the rushes and plucked great stones from the ground. The wrathful spirit began to make a dismal groan as it spun like a wheel, whizzing, whistling and cracking; its centre brightened like a white hot iron, then a tongue of light, pale and silvery, shot out and speared me in the loins. I fell back amongst the willows and knocked my head on a stump. When I looked up, the orb shot like an arrow, high into the stars.
I was so much disturbed by this apparition that I did not venture out for two moons. Moma said les fées could steal you away, but as long as you kept some iron about, you would never be troubled; so six horseshoes hung above our pallet to protect us in our sleep.
But the iron was no protection, for one night I was visited by a stinking red thing that crept out the heartwood like wolf; it reared at the foot of the bed and purred:
‘Why do you pray to Him? He cannot help you. He is an imposter. Only I can help you. If you continue to pray to Him, I will reduce your body to a hoary pulp! Do you think I could not do this? I will tear you limb from limb!’[iii]
Two owlish eyes stared in the darkness. I yelled for Margot but when she awoke, the phantom flew out the smoke hole.
Copyright © Nicholas Shea 2004
i. Job, 4:16.
ii. “The siths or fairies … are said to be of a middle nature betwixt man and angel, as were demons thought to be of old; of intelligent fluidious spirits, and light changeable bodies, (like those called astral), somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud, and best seen in twilight. These bodies be so pliable through the subtlety of the spirits that agitate them that they can make them appear or disappear at pleasure.” The Secret Commonwealth by Robert Kirk, 1691.
iii. e.g., The Devil to Alexandrina Maria da Costa (1904-1955).
Unus Mundus Faeries image montage© Nicholas Shea 2019 (from public domain images).