Here, it is May Day 1989. Where was I four hundred years ago?
Today is May first, 1589.The winter has been harsh in
this season past, in the thirty first year of the reign of Queen Bess. Spring
comes as a blessing, a respite. Finally we are freed of the oppressive snow and
gnawing cold. The leaves are again green and streams leap and dance, full to
the brink. Valleys and glens in the low-lying areas are briefly flooded as the
mild weather melts the snow from the highlands.
As a fosterling in a western hold on the Welsh border, I do not have high expectations. I know I shall not be May Queen nor even have a truly new dress, but I can still welcome spring and the Mayfest. I know there are those who scorn it as a pagan day, a sinful flaunting of the proper sobriety of good Christian folk…the May Queen, the Jack ‘o the Green and the rest. They term sin the licentiousness, the Balefires; even perhaps the May Pole and the Morries Dancers are frowned upon. But here, where the lady of the manor is Welsh and not too taken with the new religions, be they Papish, Knoxist or even the New Church of King Hal…we turn a blind eye to such grim rules.
So it is Margery, her ladyship’s youngest daughter, who will be clad in the May Queen’s white with flowers crowning her bright head, ridden in the blossom-decked cart pulled by several of the village’s sturdy lads who deem it a great honor to be her team. There are even flowers for my mouse brown hair and a dress of green, handed down from Margery’s elder sister, wed the summer past and gone south and east with her groom. And I, with the other young folk, can dance a ribband around the peeled log set in the Commons. There are no duties this day. As I join the gathering throng, I see it is Tam, the miller’s half-wild son, who will be Jack, clad in tatters and leaves, spikes and ringlets of his dark auburn hair thrusting out through his leafy cap.
Tam capers around the cart that the other youths draw, carrying Margery. Most of the time he is jut Tam, stern faced and solitary, the miller’s half-mad boy. But today, this one day, he is like one possessed, fey of eye and madly gay, flirting a tail of green-dyed horse hair as he leaps and cavorts. Even his eyes seem green… Are they not usually gray or at the most hazel? He stops and looks at me, peering into my face as if he had never seen me before. I want to draw back, to vanish into the crowd but after a moment he moves on.
“It’s just Tam,” I tell myself. “Only weird, wild Tam, playing a foolish Mayday game.” But as I hurry on, I stay as close as I can to Margery’s cart even though we are nothing like friends. She never lets me forget that I am poor kin, dependent upon the charity of her parents.
It has been nigh two years now that I have been here with them. Uncle Geoff and Aunt Mattie and their two youngest, Margery and little Jeff’ry now twelve and fostered away as the nobility tends to do. I am fifteen, tall for a girl. Margery is but a month younger, shorter than I but more full bodied with golden hair and blue eyes. My mother was Aunt Mattie’s baby sister. They say she married beneath her station and my da died at sea, leaving her with almost nothing. She went back to her old home in the Welsh hills, there to die three years later, leaving me alone. Two of the old family retainers brought me to Aunt Mattie, the nearest kin they knew. Since then I have been something more than a lady’s maid to Margery but much, much less than an equal.
I fell to thinking as we went along, winding about the village lanes, how different it was here. I could vaguely recall our home on the coast, a stone house in a fishing village of which da’s father was the head man. Then there was the crumbling manor of stone and timber, once the Big House on the Hill but even when we came to it, a crumbling ruin of all it might once have been. Here the Keep was mostly timber and stood at the head of the valley, well kept and proud still. Yes, it was different here, hard to learn to be nobody of any note or importance.
With my mind’s eyes turned inward I had not realized we’d reached the Commons. There was a scramble for the ribbands and then as the village band struck up the Maying tune, the dance began. Tam darted in and out among us, ducking the ribbands, twisting as agily as a hare fleeing the hounds. For a moment he danced backwards, keeping pace and facing me. This time he did not so much frighten me as strike a spark of matching wildness which I had not known I harbored. He was whistling, a thin wild wail of counterpoint to the band’s tune. He stopped for breath and smiled at me, teeth flashing bright in his mud-daubed face, nearly as vivid as his eyes. Then he winked and danced away.
I nearly missed a turn, ducked quickly under a ribband held by the baillie’s stout son. Then I had to arch out and reach high to take my strand over one held by tall Jaime, one of the laird’s squires. Usually just being near him made my heart skip a beat and saw me go pink in confusion, but this time, all I could think of was Tam while Jaime seemed over-tall and awkward as a scarecrow.
I could not fathom what was happening, so I danced blindly on until the ribbands were woven almost to the ground, encasing the pole. The rest of the day passed in a blur and I cannot really remember anything until after sunset, when we gathered again to await the lighting of the Balefire. This rite was even more ancient than the Maypole dance, and here the May Queen had no role. This night belonged to Jack o’ the Green. It was his command that set the first spark alight on the heap of last season' straw and gathered wood. He was the first dancer to leap, up, through and over the flames. This was a dance for only the men and for only the boldest, strongest and youngest ones.
Margery still wore her white gown, a fresh crown of flowers about her brow and there were still many who paid court to her, but the fire was now the center of attention. The fire and Jack. I was no exception, watching Tam’s every move in total fascination.
Gradually the blaze sank and as gradually, the leaping youths chose a maid and slipped away. Suddenly there was hardly anyone left and the light of the wild red flames turned dusky. I blinked in the darkness, saw that Margery was gone, and then felt a hand catch mine. Strong masculine fingers entwined with mine and a callused palm rasped against my softer skin. Out of the dark a voice said, “Come.” It seemed a voice I did not know yet it also seemed I had waited all my life to hear it. Although I could not see at all, as if in the dark at the bottom of a deep well, that hand led me steadily and my feet found sure purchase for each step. We went up a steep path the wound as it went.
“Wait,” a caution said within me. “There is no such path as this so close to the village. You know not where you go or who is leading you thence!”
But my new wild self laughed in abandon and paid no heed. “I will go where I am led this night.”
A wind sprang up and the air turned cooler, scented with a salt-sea flavor. The leaves rustled in a manner more of autumn than spring. At least we came down a short way into a little dell. Then I could again see—my gaze discerned the outlines of tall, rough hills, dark against the star-strewn sky. Even the stars did not look familiar.
I stared upward, puzzled, and then in a moment found myself on my back, bedded in a sweet softness of grass and leaves that cushioned me well even as an unfamiliar weight bore me down against the earth. The wind sang wild in the trees nearby but that cry did not reach me, though I felt its stir as the air caressed my damp, bare skin. Somehow the green gown was off and laid aside.
A burning pain lanced through my body briefly but it was followed and replaced by a thousand shapes and shades of delight that finally melded into a crescendo of trembling, twisting power. It was if I was torn apart and remade in a second. My lover did not speak nor could I see him as more than a dim shape but I think he hummed a faint air, a harmony with the wind’s song, combining Greensleeves with Tam’s whistle.
In the darkest lateness of the night I slept at last, wrapped in a heavy cloak that was mossy and warm. Perhaps I dreamed. Perhaps it was all a dream...
When morning came, I awoke and found myself lying on my regular pallet in the anteroom of Margery’s chamber. I lay angled across it, still in yesterday’s gown and there were leaves in my hair. At first it seemed an unfamiliar tenderness lingered on and in my body but it faded as I rose and went about my tasks. May second was no holiday. If I thought of the night, it seemed as if it had been a dream. In my mind a shadow of a shadow lingered but I could never get closer to a true memory than that. Still, by midsummer I knew I was with child.
Out here in the western borders, it is no shame to bear a May Eve babe. Such a child needed no father, only a mother, and would never bear the brand of bastard or hedge-baby. Indeed they were honored as gifted and fey. Despite that, I was not left to birth my babe alone, for at harvest I was wed to Jamie and soon became the chatelaine or housekeeper under Aunt Mattie’s direction.
It was not until that first child, a girl, was old enough to herself go a-Maying having past fourteen winters that I chanced to learn Tam was also a May eve babe, born to the miller’s daughter who died in childbirth, leaving a son for her parents to raise. There was now nothing wild about Tam. He’d became the miller in the old man’s stead, a bit heavy in the middle as his gamper had been, and wed to a rosy-cheeked Welsh girl who bore him a half dozen dark and lively children. My Mary May was dark of hair but otherwise as fair faced as blonde Margery’s daughters. Mary May had gray eyes.
Aunt Mattie seemed old now, and after Uncle Geoff died, she quickly went stooped and gray, finally going off to a priory to end her days with the nuns. Jeff’ry is the new laird, wed to a thin, pale slip of a girl from far to the east. They say the old ways are dying out, but surely they will have a Maypole and later the Bale fires. My Jaime is grounded now after a young horse fell and crushed his leg. It grew back too crooked for the stirrup but he serves as Baillie while I am now housekeeper for Jeff’ry’s lady.
I sit this late April day making a May gown for Mary, hurried in my stitching since it is but two nights away. Below she is playing in the courtyard with Marjory’s two younger girls and the laird’s little daughter, Guinevere. Mary calls to her little sister Johanna, drawing the child into the game, Ring Around the Rosy. They are all laughing, sweet and innocent, until Mary feels my eyes on her and looks up, smiling. She waves a slim white hand and tosses a kiss. Soon some lad will be the target of that gesture.
“No,” I pray silently, not sure if I call on the ancient Lady of our people or the other Mary, mother of Jesus. “Not yet, not this year!” I suspect it is a vain prayer. Time will not stand still. My daughter’s shape in her outgrown dress is no longer that of a child and as her ladyship’s brother, visiting for the season, walks by carefully ignoring her, she sighs. He is older, at least sixteen, and rumor has it he was banished from court for gambling and wenching, even beyond the extent expected of a young nobleman in these wicked days. He has the face of a petulant child but also a glamour the girls see, the reflected glory of the court and the capitol.
Ah, better Jack than a lecherous lout like that, and it will be someone soon. Someone for my daughter… I shake off my fey mood and resume my stitching. It may be small of me, but I am glad that Margery’s eldest girl is fostered along with her brother while the younger ones are barely out of swaddlings, and little Gwinnie is still small as well. Mary will be alone to represent the lasses of the manor.
I remember back fifteen years and wonder who will wear the Jack’s green and tail this Mayday. There’s a tinker who has come through, trading horses and he has a son, a canny black-eyed lad, too old seeming for his apparent years…but that would probably be too obvious. It may be one of our own, an ordinary lad you hardly see in an everyday way.
There will be a May Queen too, some girl from the village. It won’t be Mary but she will not be out-shown, clad in a new gown and well decked with flowers. After all, Jack never chooses the May Queen. Will he recognize a kinship with my Mary and lead her away into some distant hills after the fire dies?
In many ways I dread it. The experience left me forever with a dim longing and melancholy for what can never happen again. But I would not have missed it for the world. I have my daughter… And after all that, I think I made Jaime a good wife. I have given him two sturdy sons and a little daughter with his rusty-colored hair; I have mended his clothes and healed his injuries, seen him well fed and bedded, and sent him off twice to battles from which, saints be praised, he returned hale and whole.
Still, sometimes when the wind blows just so, my feet itch for a hilly path and I hum under my breath, a wild nameless tune. For a day or two I cannot abide Jaime’s touch and chafe sorely at the tedious sameness of my days.