Nobody believes me, though I swear to you it happened.
When I was nine years old, my aunt Agnes had another baby. There were complications, so my mum went to visit her. It happened to be the same week that my dad had an important meeting in Brighton, to prepare for the Party Conference. He was an events manager, very good at what he did, but it meant that he was constantly travelling around the country arranging functions.
There wasn’t really an option. The only person who was free to look after me was my Uncle Cormach. He lived on a farm just outside Weobley, near Hereford. The saying goes: ‘Woe betide those who call it Woe-bley,’ because you’re supposed to pronounce it Web-ley. Most people didn’t call it anything, though. They were simply left speechless when they saw it. It’s a tumbledown village of Tudor cottages. Black timber contrasting starkly against white daub; houses toppling between the streets like old women craning to hear the latest gossip.
Even at that age I could appreciate the architecture of the place. In summer, tourists would come from miles around – mostly Germans and Japanese – photographing each little detail, preserving it from the corrosion of years to come.
I hadn’t seen Uncle Cormach in a while. He wasn’t renowned for his love of children. He spent most of the annual family gathering in front of the fire with a tumbler of Laphroaig and an unlit cigar. I’d come to associate his breath with the medical smell of TCP.
Uncle Cormach had never had any children of his own. He’d never even been married. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters, but I did have an extended family to rival the Waltons. It was mostly Mum’s side who had populated prolifically. Uncle Cormach was her youngest brother, which still made him old in my estimation.
I say he lived on a farm. That’s not entirely true. It had been a farm once, many years ago. But when he took over the lease, he had no intention of keeping livestock. He just liked the privacy that living in the hills afforded him, and the hills around Weobley were great indeed. Herefordshire sits on the border of England and Wales. It’s dragon country, where folklore and legend never entirely died out.
My parents stayed for a cup of tea, but as I waved them off and watched our car disappear up the never-ending driveway, it felt as though they were driving off with my soul. It was all I could do not to cry. I wasn’t going to do that, because I was a big girl. And, as we all know from singing aloud countless times, big girls don’t cry.
So as not to show how upset I was, I told Uncle Cormach that I was going for a walk around the yard. He grunted from beneath his giant ginger beard and mumbled something about dinner being at six.
The ‘yard’ was a euphemism for the vast, rolling space between the horizon and the sky. What walls there had ever been were dry stone, and lay crumbling in the ditches. Wherever my feet cared to take me, my body followed.
Soon, I found myself at the edge of a small coppice. It’s what my Aunt Jessica used to call a “witches’ copse” – a perfectly circular mound within a field, rimmed with hedges and dense with trees. She used to frighten me with stories when I went for sleep-overs with my cousins. I vividly remembered her holding a torch beneath her chin whilst recounting tales of wild women dressed in black, holding hands and dancing the sabbat jigs. They cackled as flames grew high beneath the winter-barren trees, which clawed the sky like empty fists, full of their own lost promises. As they danced, they sang – hexing all mortals, especially men.
Aunt Jess and Uncle Tony got divorced the next year.
As I stood before the enclosure, I wondered whether she might be in there, dancing and cackling at the centre – cursing Uncle Tony and his new wife. It was almost too enticing not to go and see, but the sun was fainting on the horizon and Uncle Cormach might wonder where I was if I didn’t head home.
The next morning, I set out prepared. I packed my school satchel with a plastic bottle of water, cheese and Branston pickle sandwiches – which Uncle Cormach had left out for me, unaccustomed to cooking at lunch time – and Amber Leaf, my dolly.
As I passed the fruit bowl on the way out of the door, I lifted a shiny Red Delicious and tucked it into my coat pocket.
By the time that I reached the copse, the weather had greyed, and thick clouds obscured the sun. I waited for a while by the tree line, peering in between the trunks, certain that I could make out the middle. Uncle Cormach’s house was hidden in a dip in the land, but a faint trail of smoke rose from his wood-burning stove. As I watched it curl to the sky, I reached for the apple in my pocket. I nipped at its waxy skin with my front teeth, tearing it off and spitting it to the ground so that I could bite into the crisp, sticky flesh beneath.
With child-stubborn resolve, I took my first steps into the thick of it. Although the fields around were green with spring and fresh-sprung grass, the trees remained strangely barren. Last autumn’s leaves slipped and peeled beneath my plimsolls.
After a minute or so, I arrived in a clearing at the centre. The clouds broke for a moment and a thin shaft of sunlight reached down as if to shake my hand.
Remembering the core in my hand, I threw it to the earth and watched it roll to a stand-still just as the clouds sheathed the sky once more.
Curious to know what was on the other side, I continued. Through the woven branches I was sure that I could see the other half of the field, leading to a hill with a small cottage nestled in its midst. Yet, as I pushed my arms forward to part my way, it never seemed to get any closer.
Frustrated, I doubled my pace. I could feel the heels of my shoes start to rub against my tights with the effort. There was the field ahead of me, yet I couldn’t seem to reach it no matter how hard I tried. There was always another tree before me, another web of tangled branches with a continuous carpet of sodden leaves beneath.
Exhausted, I stopped and turned back the way I had come. It was as though I hadn’t moved an inch. There was the clearing, right behind me.
I became frightened.
With an urgent desire to go home, I took a step forward. As I did so, all of the trees began to bud. Thin leaves poked their way through, unfurling like flags. Shoots started to push their way up amongst the rotting mulch; crocuses and snowdrops blossomed. Before my very eyes, a hundred springs happened all at once.
In the centre, my apple core started to grow. Slowly at first – slower than the activity around it. But soon it caught up. It reached towards the sky like paint blown across paper with a straw. Each branch forking into another and another.
Only, it wasn’t an apple tree that grew. It fruited bright Red Delicious, dangling like hearts, but its bark was silver as moonlight. A silver birch.
As everything settled to stillness, I took a few tentative steps towards the tree, running my fingers across its silk-like surface in wonder.
A soft breeze caressed my cheek and I felt as though I were floating from the forest floor.
Before me appeared a tiny creature, naked and sparking like diamond dust. Its chin was pinched, its face sharply angled. Huge black eyes, dichroic as an oil spill. Its teeth were chips of sharpened ivory, its whole form held aloft on wings of silvery birch bark.
I held out my hand to touch it, but it flitted back, digging its miniature claws into the trunk, twisting its little head to look at me.
“Hello,” I said, for lack of a better introduction.
It smiled – an impish grin, like a fox before a hen coop.
“Are you a fairy?” I asked.
It licked its tiny hand and dragged it across the back of its pointed ear, as though washing itself. Sunlight glinted from its bald head as an astral wind tugged my own long locks across my face. I reached up to brush them away.
That is when it spoke. A voice as thick as honey, that seemed to appear in my mind without ever entering my ears.
Do not fear the Darkness child,
For Darkness grows within.
Surrender to the Witching Wild
And let the Fairies in.
I wanted so very much to touch the little creature – to stroke its glittering skin.
“What is your name?” I asked.
My name is older than the Tide
A secret of the fens
Listen to the waters sing
Thou my name shalt ken.
I didn’t really understand these words. They sounded as though they came from a different language, in another time. I reached out my finger again, and this time it allowed me to rub the side of its cheek. In its pleasure it chattered like a chaffinch, wings aquiver.
“Do you want to come home with me?”
Listen to me, sweet child of May
Heed the words of which I say
Tonight the full moon rises high
To reign above the star-lit sky
Before your head the pillow meets
Op’ thy window just a peek;
Upon the West’ly wind I’ll blow
From the forest, to your home.
“Why not come with me now?”
The little creature cocked its head as though contemplating, then gave a quick shake to decline. I wanted to put it in my pocket and take it home to play in my room. But if I had to wait until the morning, that is exactly what I would do.
Our exchange over, I felt my feet return to solid ground. The earthen damp returned to fill my nostrils, all that was green and alive before disintegrated to loam and death. I felt very cold, and tucked my coat tighter around me. A simple apple core was all that remained of the once tall tree.
As I plunged through the back door of Uncle Cormach’s cottage, he shouted out from the yard.
“Stop right there!” his thick voice boomed.
I froze on the spot.
“I hope you’re going to take those off,” he said, nodding down at my mud-caked shoes.
“I was,” I lied. There wasn’t a thought in my head except to get to my room and open my window, just in case I forgot before falling asleep.
“Where have you been?”
“Out in the woods.”
“Have you, indeed,” he growled through his bushy ginger beard. “And what’s caused such excitement?”
“I saw a fairy!” I blurted, unable to contain my excitement, desperate to share my find with somebody – anybody – even Uncle Cormach.
“Did you now!” he snorted.
“Yes,” I said. “I did.”
“And what did it look like, this fairy?”
“It was small, and silver. And it laughed like a bird.”
“Hah!” He shook his head. “What an imagination you have.”
“It’s not imagination. I really did see a fairy.”
Even at that age I could recognise scepticism. He leaned forward, hands resting on his knees so that he could look me in the eyes.
“Well,” he said, ruffling my hair. “You be careful now.”
“Don’t you know? Fairies are terrible tricksters.”
He laughed and dusted his hands together as he turned away from me.
I stepped inside and slid off my shoes, coating my first sock in mud as I used it to push down on the heel of the second shoe. Removing both socks, I ran up to my room and threw myself on my bed.
What had he meant: Fairies are terrible tricksters? Nobody had ever told me that before. My mother had never warned me about this. What kind of tricks did fairies play?
Slowly, it started to dawn on me that I had already been tricked by the fairy. Hadn’t it used magic to trap me in the forest? Hadn’t it spoken to me in riddles and rhymes? Played on my desire to touch it in order to get what it wanted? I had agreed so willingly to do its bidding. What would it do next – once it was inside my home?
With a deep frown on my face, I went to the window and made sure that the catch was tightly locked.
That night, after tea, I went to bed and found it difficult to fall asleep. The moon was very full, and very high. It bathed my room in cold light and I shivered beneath the sheets. I didn’t think that I would ever fall asleep, but eventually I did. I slept restlessly and awoke with the faint memory of something scratching against my windowpane.
Washing myself down with a flannel and warm water, I packed my bag with yesterday’s pickle sandwiches – now partly squashed – and changed the liquid in my bottle. I didn’t bother to take fruit from the bowl this time.
As I approached the copse, a flash caused me to look out across the fields. In the far distance a dry lightning storm took possession of the sky. It lit the grotesque faces of the clouds like they were turnip lanterns.
Unperturbed, I forged forward into the forest. It took less time than I remembered to reach the centre. Just as before, there was mud, mulch and broken branches. There in the middle sat my apple core, brown and decomposing.
“Little fairy,” I whispered. “Little fairy – are you here?”
I walked to the other side and peered through the trees. I could see the field, and the hills, but I couldn’t see the cottage that I had thought I’d seen the day before. Turning back, I peered up at the sky. A splash of water hit the side of my nose. A single prelude to the ensuing deluge. The heavens opened, and I had to cower against an ash in order to avoid getting soaked to the skin. It barely worked, the tree had no leaves and the water fell so heavy and hard that it began to pool around my shoes.
The shower passed almost as soon as it had started, and a single shaft of sunlight illuminated the apple core, just as it had the day before.
“Are you there, fairy?” I tried again. “I’m sorry that I didn’t leave my window open last night. I forgot. Please fairy, can you ever forgive me?”
It felt as though the air tingled.
A single bluebell uncurled itself from the earth and burst into bloom.
I held my breath.
Within the count of ten, the entire clearing swathed itself in green and butterfly-blue as a carpet of wild hyacinths covered all trace of winter. The beautiful birch also reappeared, red apples glistening in the post rain sun-smile.
I took a step towards it, and saw the familiar flit of silver wings.
“There you are!”
The creature didn’t look impressed. Its pitch-black eyes narrowed as they came to rest on me.
A promise is a promise, child.
Never tempt the Fay
We live into eternity,
Whilst you grow old and grey.
“I understand you are angry with me. I’m sorry I forgot.”
It shrugged and cleaned behind its ear again with its hand.
“I want to make it up to you. Really, I want you to come home with me. I’m sorry I forgot to open the window. Here, look.” I reached into my bag and produced a jam jar. “I hope it’s not too late? I thought you could climb inside and then I can come and fetch you this evening. I will take you to my home.”
The fairy considered it cautiously.
I am a creature of the wild,
I cannot be entrapped
I will not get inside there, child.
It will not come to pass.
“I do not wish to trap you,” I assured. “I will leave the lid off. You can come and go as you please. This evening I will come and collect you. That is what you want, isn’t it?”
Its wings flapped thoughtfully. I reached out my finger and stroked it as I had done last time. Its little mouth split into a pin-toothed smile and it gurgled like a fast-running brook.
Gently, it clasped hold of my finger and allowed me to bring it closer to the jar. When it was within reach, it let go of me and held on to the rim, peering over the edge to look through the bottom.
Before it could look up, I used my free hand to catch it, squeezing my fingers tightly around its body.
It squealed like a frightened rabbit and I gripped harder. Terrified that it would tear my flesh with its little fangs, I dropped the jar to the ground and tore its wings from its body. I tried not to think about what I was doing. The pop of bone that accompanied my action was sickening.
Quick as I could, I picked up the jar and stuffed the squirming creature into it, twisting the lid tight shut upon it. It was difficult because my hand was covered in blue slime. Fairy blood.
Not wishing to look at the agony on its face, I stuffed the jar into my bag and ran for home.
I had won. I had not been tricked by the fairy.
I had tricked it.
I barely ate my tea. Uncle Cormach asked me whether I was feeling alright, and I assured him that I was fine. I couldn’t bring myself to look in my bag that evening. I didn’t want to see it in pain, but I couldn’t think what to do about it now. I didn’t want it to escape, either.
The next morning, I took my bag down to the breakfast table.
“You’re up early,” Uncle Cormach said, drinking Bovril for breakfast.
“I want to show you something,” I told him.
“What is it?”
“I caught a fairy yesterday.”
He scratched his beard and laughed at me.
“Did you indeed.”
“Yes,” I said seriously.
“Okay. Well, let’s see it then.”
I brought the bag to the table and placed it carefully in front of him. Drawing open the strings, I felt inside until my fingers closed around the familiar glass shape.
“Here,” I said, pulling the jar out.
We stared at it for a moment.
“Think you might need your eyes testing,” he eventually smiled.
I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
There, inside the jar, was nothing but a silver birch twig and an apple seed.
“I – but,” I tried.
He looked at me until I eased the jar back into my bag and left the room. Pulling on my plimsolls, still damp from the day before, I ran as fast as my legs would carry me to the field where the copse stood.
The field was there.
The trees were gone.
To this day, I still have that twig. I keep it above the mantelpiece in my home. I waited all my adult life for my own children to tell me that they had seen a fairy, but they never did. I’m not sure what I would have told them if they had.
I often wonder what would have happened had I given myself up to the Witching Wild and let him come inside.