Writer's retreat

Writer's retreat

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Maid and the Blacksmith : a story for Beltane

When the lilac buds thickened, the girl knew it would soon be time for the maypole dancing. The men would go to the woods and cut a straight ash pole, planting it firmly in the earth on the village green. Then they would take ribbons, red and white, blood and energy to symbolise the union of the Goddess and the God, so the earth would be blessed and the land would bear fruit in due season.

Every year the girl saw the maypole being cut and watched young men and women dancing the whirling dances on the green. She knew when the sun faded, the dancers went off to the wood, the boys with flushed faces from too much ale, the girls giggling and apprehensive. Men and women would follow along hidden pathways, for everyone wished to honour the union of the God and goddess with their own Great Rite.

No-one minded when the children came, for Beltane children were blessed. They would see light at Imbolc, Brigit's festival, when the world was still dark and quiet, but the sun was born again. These children would be called Robinson, for they were the offspring of Robin Goodfellow and many were the maids who thought to share the Great Rite with a faery lover that night.

The girl grew and it worried her that she should soon be joining her fellows around the maypole. Who would take her into the woods when the day grew cold? Who would keep her warm and light the fire in her belly? She could not know and the thought turned her stomach cold. What of the Sidhe, the faery folk? What if one of them took her? It was said that those who loved the faery folk wasted away from their desires. What could she do to escape from such a fate?

The years rolled on and the girl grew thin. She thought if she did not eat, she could delay the time of her womanhood. The wise woman saw what she was about and came to her one day when she toiled in the fields. She asked the girl to describe her fears, but the girl refused. But the wise woman saw what she did and was not alarmed. She gave the girl's mother herbs to put in her milk and soon the girl found that she was hungry again. She ate as a normal child would and she grew and blossomed. The day came when she saw her first blood and knew it would soon be time to take her place at the maypole.

But the wise woman saw everything and spoke with the village elders. The girl was not chosen for the maypole dance, not that year, nor the next, or the next, until she thought it strange all her companions had danced the ribbon dance. She watched them go laughing into the wood, returning with a new light in their eyes and a softness to their look. She wondered what it would be like to lie under the stars and feel the God enter her.

At last she went to the wise woman and asked why she could not join the ribbon dance and the wise woman told her to go to the blacksmith and ask him. So the girl went to the blacksmith at his forge and asked if she could join the ribbon dance that year.

The place was filled with the heat of the fire and steam from the water barrel where the blacksmith cooled his irons. The blacksmith looked at the girl and asked her to pick up his smallest anvil. She tugged and she pulled but she could not lift it.

"Go away," he told her. "Come back when you are stronger then perhaps you may dance the ribbon dance."

The girl was very angry she should be asked to perform such a task. She went to the wise woman and complained. The wise woman smiled and gave her strange herbs to eat and told her to swim every day in the village pond once the sun went down.

So every night when the sun had set and the light had gone from the land, the girl went down to the pond and took off all her clothes and swam in the pond as the wise woman had told her.

Now the pond was next to the smithy and the blacksmith was always late at his work. For not only did he shoe horses and cast ploughshares and other tools, he also made magical tools for those who wished to use them, for the blacksmith was beloved of Herne and cared for his people. As he heated and hammered and shaped the iron, he saw the girl swimming in the water and he smiled.

All through the summer, the girl swam in the pond. When winter came, still she swam even though ice covered the water. The blacksmith used to break it for her before she came down to swim.

Then came spring. Flowers bloomed and the hedgerows grew green again. The girl returned to the blacksmith's forge and asked to try lifting the anvil again. The blacksmith pointed to the corner of the forge and the girl went and tugged and pulled but still she could not lift it.

Then the blacksmith came behind her, silently, for though he was a big man, he could move like a cat in the night. He put his arms under her arms and around the anvil and lifted it clear from the ground.

The girl was astonished, but the blacksmith merely smiled and nodded and from his apron pocket he pulled a red ribbon.

"Tie this on the maypole," he said, "and you shall dance the ribbon dance."

On 1st May they hoisted the ash pole and bedecked it with the red and white ribbons. The girls were dressed in their finest clothes, their hair crowned in wreathes of green and flowers like the May Queens they were. Round and about and in and out they weaved the ribbons with the men and boys until there were no ribbon lengths left to weave, then they turned and danced the other way. Again and again they danced until all were tired and thirsty and thankful to sit down to the feast in honour of the marriage of the Lord and Lady.

Long did they feast and drink until the sun went down. One by one, couples began to wander together into the wood. No-one asked the girl to go with them and she was left sitting at the tables, feeling old and foolish and wishing she had never worried about the ribbon dances.

As she stared at the table top, a shadow crossed the boards. She looked up into the face of the blacksmith. He held out his hand and looked towards the wood and she knew the time had come to set aside her girlhood and become a woman.

It was cool amongst the trees. All around her the girl could hear whispers and giggles from behind bramble patches and fallen logs. The blacksmith led her deep into the wood, past oak trees and lime trees until they reached the place where a yew tree grew. Underneath the green branches was a mossy bank to lie upon and here the blacksmith led her.

"This is the tree of passage," the blacksmith said, "from this life into the next. Tonight you will set aside your girlhood and join the womenfolk. If the Goddess wills, in time you will become a mother as She does this night."

The girl looked at him, her fear showing on her face, but he took her tenderly and held her gently and whispered many sweet words as he laid her down and prepared her for what must be. This was the blacksmith's role, to offer Great Rite to those whose time had come. Skilled he was too and pleasure he brought with him. The girl hardly noticed pain as he lit the fire within her and made her what she must become - a woman.

Afterwards, she lay smiling in his arms and her eyes grew soft as he pushed tendrils of hair from off her face and kissed her.

As the days passed, the sun grew hot and the land was fertile and the people gathered in the harvest. The girl knew she had indeed been blessed, but she said nothing, visiting the wise woman, who kept her secret.

Leaves fell and winter came, the woman's belly swelling with new life. Often she would go and sit by the blacksmith's forge and watch him as he worked. He saw how she quickened and he smiled. When she slept at night, he built a cradle from the yew tree wood where they had joined in the love of the Lord and Lady.

When Imbolc came, the child was born. The blacksmith took him and showed him to the village, acknowledging his son and his wife. The woman lay and suckled her babe. She knew her fear was gone and a new life stretched before her.

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