I spoke some yesterday of how singing She Weeps Over Rahoon, by James Joyce, set to music by Eric Whitacre, inspired the atmosphere and setting of this retelling. Today I'd like to talk about the strange, queer little songs that inspired the plot.
The Anglo-Scottish Border Ballads.
You have likely heard of them, either in their retold or original forms. The most famous include Tam Lin (my favorite version here), Lord Randall (favorite version here), and The Twa Sisters (favorite version here), as well as Thomas the Rhymer (I don't have a favorite version of this one). Their retellings include Chime, by Franny Billingsley; Fire and Hemlock, by Diana Wynne Jones; and Tam Lin, by Pamela Dean, fabulous books all.
Historically speaking, they're popular folk songs of the English-Scottish border, compiled by Sir Francis James Child. Artistically speaking, they're a different kettle of fish entirely. They're strange, freakily-paced, frequently gruesome tales of jealous mothers, poisonous sweethearts, hideous murder, and true love. I absolutely adore them.
And at Governor's School, with the first draft of Of the Wood shoved to the back of my computer and a dream of fairy bogs running through my head, I found a book of them in the library.
These ballads shaped my narrative in many ways, both overtly and subtly. Overtly, the story kicks off with a direct quote from Lord Randall: "O where have you been, Lord Randall my son? / O where have you been, my handsome young man?"
I hope, however, that as you continue to read, you see the more subtle side of it. Two feuding sisters. The woods where we dare not tread. An interrupted wedding. The rich, constant presence of stories and their power. And most importantly, a missing young man, who cannot answer the question, "O where have you been?"
What I wanted, in the end, was a story that was equally rooted in fairytales and border ballads, both grim and dark, but both with their accompanying flickers of light.
(Note: It's not an official border ballad, but I must mention that Canto V of Sir Walter Scott's "Marmion," about the dashing hero Lochinvar, heavily inspired the character Abelard and is even mentioned by name later on. Look for the reference!)
Enjoy, dear friends.
There was one among the Faire called Anaïs, and she was the daughter of Maelӱs’s and a mortal man. She wandered before the court, into the dark, wild places where even the Faire feared to tread. Until one day she met something older than the Faire. Whatever passed between them, only Anaïs could say. And she never did.
She returned to the Faire Court, but she was changed. She saw hints of the future in the movement of air and the turn of seasons, and they drove her mad with wonder.
The Faire seemed to think, well, if she can’t sew, paint, or weave, we might as well give her something unimportant, like a human child. So they sent her to the Lord of the Wood to raise his wayward daughter.
Elizabeth, pulled away from Flavie, the sheep, and the wild freedom of the moors, had determined to hate her. She deliberately put on her oldest leggings and thickest rural accent and ate tea smugly with her mouth open.
She half-expected Anaïs to lose her human visage, possibly sprouting tentacles. But Anaïs was not at all what she expected. She looked like any dairymaid, with her fair hair plaited in a crown, bright green eyes demurely downcast.
“So,” Elizabeth said, squinting at her. Anaïs didn’t say anything. Elizabeth cocked her head to one side, studying her. If she could get the right angle, perhaps the human guise would drop, and Elizabeth could see her as she was. “What do you—“
Anaïs smiled. Inexplicably, Elizabeth’s stomach prickled with fear, and she leapt to her feet with a strangled yell. Anaïs was pretty, apple-cheeked, harmless—but she looked empty. Like the girl she saw was a screen, and now the light shone through, and she caught glimpses of the figure beyond.
She suddenly did not want to know what it was.
As soon as she thought this, Anaïs was sitting in her chair again, demure. But she didn’t look down now. She watched Elizabeth, a smile in her shrewd eyes.
Elizabeth didn’t sit back down.
“What do you want to know?” Anaïs asked. “Ask me anything.”
Elizabeth squinted at her, but she couldn’t read her face. She said guardedly, “The Faire Court. What’s it like?”
“Pleasant.” Anaïs shrugged. “I liked it a lot when I was young. It’s harder when you’re old and tired.”
“Where is it exactly?” Elizabeth asked. “In the bog?”
“No. It’s—you could say—“ She stopped. “Come here.”
Elizabeth followed cautiously as they left the cool, manicured hallways into the gusty warmth of a northern spring. A breeze carried the scent of bog and heather, with a stiff undertone of sheep. The town was lively with spring cleaning; Elizabeth had to duck beneath clothes-lines, although Anaïs never seemed to need to.
“Think of it like this,” she said, stopping before the old well, so suddenly that Elizabeth walked into her. “Look at the tree.”
Elizabeth studied the oak tree shading the forgotten well. Tucked away from the busy town, it was still and peaceful. The leaves swayed in quiet, shimmering rustles, shadowed on the ground.
“Now,” Anaïs said, “look at the tree in the well.”
And there was the reflection of the tree—grey and glassy in the still water.
“You can see it,” Anaïs said. “You can move the water or shake the branches and change it. But you can’t touch it. It’s not real to you, not exactly.”
The tree swayed. The reflection shimmered. Anaïs stared at it blindly, every muscle in her neck pronounced.
Elizabeth shifted her weight, rubbing the back of her prickling neck. Anaïs watched the reflection. She didn’t breathe.
Then she sighed, a tired but welcome sound. Her chin dropped to her chest. She murmured something that sounded like, I’m sorry.
“What-- are you all—“ Elizabeth bit down on the question. She knew what she had seen; she’d heard too many tales of Anaïs to be unsure. She had seen a sliver of the future, broken off and presented, for some reason, to Anaïs. “What did you say?”
Anaïs didn’t answer. She stared at the well like she’d seen her doom. Now, years later, Elizabeth wondered if she had.
“You know,” she said timidly, “dinner will be ready soon. If you’re hungry.”
Anaïs blinked like a sleeper waking. “I would like that,” she said finally. “I am hungry.”
They walked home through the grey clouds of dusk. Anaïs shuffled like an invalid, and Elizabeth matched her pace. Shepherding had made her rangy and lean; she longed to run.
It wasn’t until after the mutton had been served, the plates cleared away, and they sat before the fire, listening to Anthea practice the harpsichord in the other room, that the forgotten well felt far enough away and sufficiently dreamlike for Elizabeth to speak.
“Anaïs,” she said timidly, “do you mean that the Faire are like trees?”
Anaïs’s face was blank for a moment. Then it cleared, and she laughed.
“No, lamb,” she said. “You’re the trees.” She smiled, and Elizabeth shuddered. “We’re the woodcutters.”
She touched Elizabeth’s shoulder. Her hand was as cold as the grave.
“I’m sorry,” she said simply. “But you will understand someday.”
And she cursed her. On the eve of her wedding, Elizabeth would prick her finger on a spindle, and she and her household would sleep for a hundred years. The air swam with the taste of magic, and Elizabeth fainted.
Her parents had been understandably dismayed when Anaïs disappeared, never to be seen again, never to answer their questions. Leaving Papa alone to try to solve his daughter’s curse. She would sleep for a hundred years. No matter how far she ran, as long as magic could reach her, the curse could, too.
Another man might’ve sought to destroy the spinning wheels. But instead, Papa decided to destroy the magic.
He used the Spinning Jeannies.
It started to rain on Elizabeth’s way home. A cold, crying sort of rain.
Elizabeth paused in the ballroom to hang up her coat. Faint conversation stirred the air, but it came from the kitchen, so Elizabeth hesitantly stepped toward the great clock. Sunlight caught on its face, peering down at her. It was a sphere of glass, edged with flashing bronze, and its ticking crept through the ballroom, counting down the minutes to tonight.
If she hunted through her oldest memories, Elizabeth could remember Maelӱs assembling the clock, fitting the gears together with her many-knuckled fingers. She had seen little Elizabeth watching and paused to smile at her. She had a nice smile, Elizabeth remembered, and she looked nearly human. How could someone with such a nice smile, who had spoken so kindly to a little girl and showed her the turning gears, have wrought such evil?
On the day the clock first ticked, a scullery maid died. And that was when Papa wondered precisely how the Faire made their lovely art.
There came from beneath the door the gentle chuffing of the Spinning Jeannies, and Elizabeth slipped through it, into the low-lit room full of the quiet swish of wool skirts and wool thread. And there were the Spinning Jeannies, standing proudly shoulder-to-shoulder, heads held high. Each had eight of the deadly spindles that could sever her existence with this time, assuming she managed to prick herself on one.
“Good afternoon, my lady,” a spinster said.
“Good afternoon, madam,” Elizabeth said absently. Soon they wouldn’t call her lady.
And here, she thought, was where the rest of the ballad took place.
Four years ago, when Elizabeth was Papa’s assistant and not the lady, she had been engaged to marry the shepherd Abelard. Abelard, whom she had loved. Abelard, who had known about the curse, about the Faire, about her family, and still, impossibly, wanted to marry her, and she him.
Elizabeth did not particularly believe in fate or predestination. But even she would admit that it was rather unlikely that she and Abelard would meet. She was the lord’s daughter, he a shepherd. She only met him because of Flavie.
No one had been overly concerned when Abelard was lost in the bog. Of course it was dangerous; of course Maelӱs had stolen him. But it always worked out: at least, it had for Mama and Papa, another couple who’d been as doomed as Margaret and Geordie. Surely it would work out for Elizabeth and Abelard.
They were more concerned when Abelard stayed lost, though. Janet had boldly rescued her beloved. But Elizabeth, the new lady of the tower, stayed in her office. She was a more than capable administrator. But the townsmen wanted a heroine. And that, in the end, proved not to be Elizabeth.
The night Abelard went missing, the night Maelӱs stole and presumably drowned, was the last night the townsmen could taste magic in the bog. And when they crashed through its dark, hungry shadows, the luminous reflections of faraway worlds had faded to nothing. Papa had done his work too well. The Faire were gone, and they had stolen Abelard with them.
When the townsmen had tried to destroy the Spinning Jeannies, to bring back the Faire long enough to rescue Abelard, the Lady of the Wood had held them back at sword-point. It wasn’t enough that she couldn’t save him. She wouldn’t let anyone else, either.
They might’ve forgiven her. They were, after all, ridiculously fond of flawed heroines. Janet, Margaret, and Isobel had certainly made mistakes. They would’ve forgiven her if she hadn’t come down twice a week to the town to see the mayor and buy milk. They would’ve forgiven her if she’d obligingly died or been boiled in lead or some other awful punishment. But the ballad finished and Elizabeth didn’t, and they could never forgive her for that.
I’m sorry! Elizabeth thought. I’m sorry I don’t pine away in my tower by day and haunt the moors at night, calling out in broken tones for my lover. I loved him, and he’s dead. But I’m not. You’re not. Someone has to keep the numbers turning and the economy going and the sheep moving from pasture to pasture. I’m sad. I’m beyond sad. But I won’t let that sadness dictate my life.
The Spinning Jeannies rattled and hummed. The yarn—so important in a thriving textile town like Lawley-under-Wychwood—churned into white waves. It was soft beneath Elizabeth’s fingers.
It occurred to her that this room could solve all her problems. Eight spindles a Spinning Jeannie, and who knew how many of those? She could sleep. For a hundred years…
Her finger tightened.
“No,” she said aloud. “Not yet.”
“Pardon me, Lady Lawley?” the spinster asked.
“Nothing,” the lady said.
He found Anaïs just beyond the town, where the roads faded into paths and trees erupted from the moorland. He struggled through the thorny underbrush, crashing where he could not creep. Fine, rusted chains trailed across his face like spider webs; but they were old now. It had been years since Maelӱs had dwelt in these woods.
He slowed to a walk, panting. He could only remember snatches of his time in the Faire Court. He remembered music, and dancing until he thought he would die from weariness, and dancing still. But the nearer the memory was, the more it blurred, until something happened and it was gone.
Something had happened in the Faire Court. He was sure of it. But he could not remember what.
The Faire had left Wychwood because Lord Lawley had driven them out. And he had done that because they had cursed his daughter.
A Faire cursed her. Her Faire godmother.
No sooner had he thought that when there she was, perched in the curve of a low-flung limb, idly picking at the bark with her silver fingers. She spent all morning making them, nudging the parts into place with her forearms, until the little silver pieces clicked together. They should not have been able to move so dexterously, he thought. No machinery was that clever.
Soundlessly, she joined him. They walked side-by-side, out of the reaching shadows into the town.
“Believe it or not, I’m not really in the mood to talk right now,” Abelard said.
A grey rain fell. It soaked his heavy wool collar and seeped against his neck. The moors would be lovely and still today, the colors clear and muted. He wished he were out with his sheep. He wished he were anywhere but here.
“It’s not so bad,” Anaïs said.
“She’s getting married. Tonight.”
“She doesn’t care a fig for Fulgence. She’s mourning you.”
“Funny way of showing it.” His voice echoed through the town, silent in the rain. A corbie leapt off the fence in a flurry of dark wings.
Anaïs said nothing. Her hair was plastered damply to her face. She looked young and human, not like the otherworldly Faire.
“I… I thought she would wait,” he said at last. “I thought she would always be here.”
“She’s worn black for years,” Anaïs said gently. “She buried herself in work and barely left her tower. How long would you have her grieve?”
Abelard was embarrassed to realize the answer was forever. He slumped against the fence and watched the rain fall.
“I don’t know why I trust you,” he said quietly. “You betrayed her.”
She was watching the rain.
“Anaïs?” he said, suddenly afraid. “Why did you curse her?”
She looked down at her hands. They weren’t there. Strange, lovely silver things were in their place, but they weren’t the same. Not at all.
“You know that Maelӱs is my mother,” she said to the rain. “I’m… different from the other Faire, but I still must obey her. She told me to curse Elizabeth. I did. I gave her a curse that could never come true.”
“You can’t prick yourself on a spindle,” Abelard whispered. “It doesn’t have any sharp edges.” He looked at her. “She loved you. You betrayed her.”
“So did you,” Anaïs said coldly.
He stopped, because it felt as though someone had ground his bones to powder.
“I’m sorry?” he managed to say.
On the surface, Anaïs resembled a small woman. But sometimes, when she was angry, he could see things swimming beneath, like the drowned sheep in the bog, and they frightened him just as surely as the water did.
“You left her,” Anaïs said. “She loved you, and you disappeared for years and years, and then you’re hurt when she tries to pull her life back together.”
“That doesn’t—I didn’t mean to go,” he said weakly. “I would’ve given anything to stay. But I didn’t have a choice. I was taken.”
“Were you, Abelard?” Her eyes were greener than grass, greener than envy. “Can you remember that night in the bog, when you were taken and Elizabeth nearly drowned? Do you remember why she did not save you when she had the chance?”
He shook his head, not trusting himself to speak.
“No one can,” she said.
Elizabeth walked up the stairs to her study slowly. She hated the bit on the stairs, at the landing with the sea-blue wallpaper Mama had brought from Brittany with her, where the staircase jumped to one side to accommodate some unseen beam of the house and there was a small room, tucked away. It had previously been the second sitting room, but now it was nothing so much as Anthea’s lair, where she’d dragged the harpsichord and her guitars and stewed all day, doing something with music.
She was halfway up the steps, black skirts gathered in both hands, when she noticed something awry. The door to the second smallest sitting room was cracked open. A sliver of lamplight shone through, and the coppery tapping of guitar strings. A page turned, a papery rustle.
Elizabeth stood in an agony of indecision on the landing. She raised one hand, buried it deeply into her skirts, and turned as if to go. But still she lingered.
Her hand moved, almost without her volition. Treacherously, it knocked on the doorframe.
The music stopped.
“Come in,” Anthea said.
Elizabeth had never set foot in the study. She had seen it, fleetingly, when Anthea came out for meals, in the instant before she closed the door behind her. She knew that it was covered with papers, the drapes drawn to block out the light, lit only by the tawny glow of lamps.
It felt wrong to step in here. Like she was treading on sacred ground, where mortals were not meant to pass.
A shiver ran down her spine.
Don’t be ridiculous, she told herself. Anthea’s as mortal as they come. You were there when she was born, so stop gaping at her like that.
But it was hard to deny that she could pass as a nymph or a goddess, lit from behind with a golden glow, her soft black hair hanging around her face. She did not put down guitar but raised an eyebrow at Elizabeth’s stare.
“What?” she said, jangling her hand on the strings.
“Um—well.” Elizabeth cleared her throat. “I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“We are never going to live in the same town again,” Elizabeth hedged. “We’ll hardly see each other.”
And finally, the last dregs of Elizabeth’s temper ran out. She wanted to scream. She wanted to slap Anthea. She wanted to leap up, grab the guitar, and club her sister with it until she either passed out or gave a polysyllabic reply.
She compromised by bursting into tears.
Anthea did not offer her a handkerchief. She didn’t ask, “What’s wrong?” She shifted her weight on the stool and glanced back at the sheet music, like she wished to return to it.
Elizabeth went on determinedly bawling for several minutes. Finally, finally she would shake Anthea out of her coolness!
Her tears ran out long before Anthea’s will. They sat across from each other, one swabbing her face with a grubby handkerchief, the other clacking the strings of her guitar worriedly.
“So I suppose you came in here to talk?” Anthea said, with a glimmer of understanding.
Anthea sighed. “All right, then. We’re sisters. We’re never going to live together again.” She struck a harsh, dissonant chord on the guitar, suddenly losing her temper. “Buck up, Elle! Worse things happen.”
“It’s not just that,” Elizabeth said, finding herself sniveling again. “Everything is changing, and I don’t know what to do.”
“Um. Get married?”
Elizabeth didn’t answer.
She stared. It was rare for Anthea to call her by her full name.
“Tell me this means you are contemplating pulling off your wedding to this pompous brat.”
“I don’t know,” Elizabeth said unhappily. “I don’t know what happened to Abelard. I don’t know if they stole him, or if he left me, or if he drowned. It’s not like our parents; I know they’re dead, because Maelӱs left a message. I don’t know if I can marry someone without knowing that he’s dead. But I’m afraid to cancel a wedding, and I don’t know what to do now, and I don’t know if—“
“Anthea,” Elizabeth whispered. “Did you write the ballad about me?”
She knew the answer as soon as she saw the worried crease in Anthea’s brow, identical to her own. As soon as she heard the faint exhalation. And suddenly Elizabeth, who wanted to know everything, did not want to know the answer.
She jerked away. “Never mind—I—“
“Elizabeth,” Anthea said tiredly.
“—stupid question, and it’s all water over the—under the—“
“Elizabeth, come back and sit down.”
She did. She was trembling faintly, like a fawn startled into flight.
Anthea stared intently down at her hands, cupping the guitar. She didn’t speak for a long time, so long that Elizabeth feared she would change her mind and not answer. But at last she said, “You’ve never written anything, have you?”
“Yes, I have,” Elizabeth said indignantly. “I write pages and pages of reports. Every day.”
“Not like that,” Anthea said, but without animosity. “Writing creatively, I mean.”
Elizabeth thought that some of her reports portrayed bad numbers in inventively positive ways, but she did not presume that Anthea meant that. “No.”
“Then you don’t understand the power stories have,” Anthea said, eyes blazing. “It’s… it’s hard to explain. There are times when the story takes over, and I’m not writing it anymore—it’s writing me. Like the force of the story is so great it can tell itself. It only needs me to hold a pen.”
“Is… that a yes?” Elizabeth said, heart thudding. “You wrote it?”
Anthea met her gaze levelly. “Yes. I did.”
“But it’s terrible!” Elizabeth cried. “It makes me look awful, and everyone hates me because of it. How—how dare you!” Her eyes were brimming again. “You’re my sister! You’re supposed to stand by me no matter what!”
“Was it untrue?”
“It was—“ Elizabeth jerked to a stop. “I beg your pardon?”
“Was it untrue? Did I lie?”
“No,” Elizabeth whispered. Her eyes were pricking, and she could hear her heartbeat. She felt cold. “No, you didn’t lie. But you did not know the full truth. And you colored it so darkly that you can barely see for all the—all the fog, and moonlight, and rhymed couplets and—and not lies, but things that pulled the truth so far it stretched the meaning out of it. You didn’t lie. But you did me no favors, sister.”
Anthea bowed her head. For a long moment, Elizabeth thought she would not say more, and she was almost relieved. Then she said, “Your story isn’t over yet.”
“But I wish it were,” Elizabeth whispered. “I’m ready for my happily ever after.”
She stood up. Tears were leaking into her hair. She had thought that today couldn’t get any more awful. But that was the thing about stories. It could always get worse. It did always get worse, on and on until the day you died.
She wanted to say something that rang with truth, so true that it seared itself into Anthea’s bones, and she would remember it until the day she died. If she were in a proper story, it would spring to her lips; she would not have to search for it.
Her life was many things. But it had never been a story.
No words came. She turned on her heel and left.