Day 20 must mean time for another story about the summer solstice. Last year, I wrote a story involving Robin Goodfellow (or Puck as he is known in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). This year, I’ve taken a character I created for one of last year’s briefs, Saint Aidan, an Irish holy man, and imagined what would happen were he to be called to an English village not far from Stonehenge on Midsummer’s Eve…
Saint Aidan and the Summer Solstice
It so happened that Saint Aidan was called to England – there were rumours of hobgoblins teasing a small village and the local priest was his wits’ end. Never a one to turn down a plea for help, Aidan sought the services of Padraig, a local boy with a boat, and the two set off from Wexford and rowed across the Irish sea, landing on the Welsh shore for they were heading for the south west of England and a village not far from Salisbury. Saint Aidan was pleased to know they would pass through Salisbury for it had a fine cathedral which had recently been completed, and he thought how grand it would be to see the edifice that had been built to the glory of God.
It took several days for them to reach Salisbury, some of walking on their own two legs and some of it riding with farmers in their carts. Padraig was a little in awe of the saint for as they walked along, Aidan stopped and listened to the birds, talking to them as if he could understand their twitterings, and several times along the way, foxes crept out of their holes and trotted along beside them or squirrels scampered down trees and leaped onto his shoulder.
They had expected to sleep under the hedgerows, for it was almost midsummer and the nights were mild, but somehow, they always seemed to find a farmhouse that was willing to offer them shelter – and it was always somewhere that needed Aidan’s help. “The Lord provides what is needed,” Aidan said, smiling serenely when Padraig commented how strange it was that things always turned out so.
At length, they came to Salisbury and spent half a day wondering at the magnificence of the cathedral and kneeling in the nave for prayer and contemplation. Padraig thought there would be plenty of offers of hospitality for them both, but Aidan said no, they were aiming to reach Amesbury that evening for how could he deal with spirits that played tricks at night if they were tucked up here in Salisbury?
It was still light when they approached Amesbury despite the fact that the cathedral clock had struck seven before they left and they had been walking briskly for at least two hours. Padraig noticed that most of the houses had their shutters closed and many of them had bunches of St John’s-wort nailed to the doors.
“It’s to ward off evil,” Aidan explained. “Superstition and faith go hand in hand with a lot of these people,” and he strode towards the most imposing house of all and knocked loudly on the door.
Padraig saw the shutter being drawn back and a face peeping out, and then the door opened slightly and a voice whispered, “Are you the man who’s come to help us?”
When Aidan replied that he was, a hand beckoned him inside and Padraig went too.
“They’ll be here soon,” the man said. He was wild eyed and frightened and Padraig felt sorry for him.
“What makes you think it’s hobgoblins?” Aidan asked.
The man began to stammer out a litany of all the things that had happened in the village recently: milk turning sour in the cows, blighted crops, babies born with twisted limbs and a dog with two tails and three legs. Aidan listened patiently. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said as the list came to a halt; then striding towards the door, he disappeared into the half-light of Midsummer’s Eve.
The sky was a strange colour when he stepped outside. It was not yet night but it was not day either. Aidan looked about him, sensing the presence of faerie folk. “Show yourselves,” he called for he knew that Midsummer’s Eve is the night on which the veil between the world of spirits and the world of men shimmers and divides, and that the faerie folk then walk among us, and – if we are unlucky – we might stumble into their world too.
Some of the shadows shifted and become small, pointy-eared creatures, having the shape of men but with a wildness about them. They rubbed their long-fingered hands together, grinning maliciously as they wondered what sport they would have with this foolish human.
“Have you been tormenting the people of this village?” Aidan asked sternly, and the goblins shook their heads and grinned all the more.
“Their cows give sour milk,” one whined, “but that is the fault of the stream from which they drink. A man killed his brother by drowning him in the stream, and now the water is bitter.”
“The crops are blighted,” added another, “but that is because the farmers refused to help an old woman in need and she cursed them.”
“And babies are born with twisted limbs,” said a third, “but the mothers have all eaten berries that cause birth defects. What need have we of mischief here when the villagers have created trouble for themselves?”
Aidan listened gravely and then nodded his head. “I shall put things right tomorrow,” he said, “but tell me, you who are kin to the faerie folk, why is it that you walk abroad tonight?”
“The Great Hunt!” one of them cried out and the others took up the refrain.
“The Great Hunt!”
“Robin Goodfellow comes! And Merlin himself!”
The air swirled and it was night and not night, the world taking on an otherworldly gleam. The moon rose, pale and fat over the horizon, and a sound was heard like the tinkling of bells and the laughter of children and the murmur of the wind all at the same time; and a tall figure stepped out of the shadows of Faerie and into the village of Amesbury, and Aidan knew without being told that this was Robin Goodfellow, the mischievous sprite of legends.
“Ill met by moonlight, man of the Church,” said Puck (for that is one of Robin Goodfellow’s names). “What business have you being abroad on such a night as this when the Old Religion is strong?”
“Your pardon, Goodfellow,” said Aidan humbly. “I mean no disrespect to you or the Old Religion. I ask simply that the people of this village might not be harmed as you go about your revels tonight.”
“Then run with us,” Puck said, letting an impish grin spread across his face. “Join us tonight in the Great Hunt – and if you can keep pace with us, I will grant your request.”
And putting a horn to his lips, he blew a note so clear and strong and beautiful that it would have charmed the birds from the trees – had they been still awake – and so terrible that it would make the bravest man hide under his bed (as indeed many of them were doing at this point). The sound reverberated in the strange half-light and Robin leapt high in the air, shouting, “The hunt has begun! Tally ho!”
And as he did so, hundreds upon hundreds of faerie folk streamed through the gap between the worlds: elves and pixies, leprechauns and kobolds, dryads and naiads, trolls and hobgoblins. Thick and fast they came, caught up in the mad whirl – half-dance, half-chase. And Aidan picked up the skirts of his robe and ran with them, faster and faster, over hill and dale, through streams and rivers, forests and dells. The wind tugged at him as he ran and the night-time moths fluttered round his head, but on he went – never once losing sight of Puck and keeping pace with him and the others.
Finally, just as dawn began to break, Puck came to a halt and Aidan realised that they must have circled the world or at least England for they were standing on an area of grassland less than a league from Amesbury and two circles of standing stones looked down at them.
“Well run, man of the Church,” Puck said mockingly. “You have earned the right to converse with Merlin.”
And Aidan looked and saw a man standing by the stones. His beard was long and white and yet it was impossible to tell what age he was, for he was young and old at the same time and his eyes held the wisdom of maturity yet there was not a wrinkle upon his face.
“Salutations, Aidan,” Merlin said. And Aidan bowed his head and returned the greeting.
Then Merlin said, “You have kept pace with my people tonight and no man has done that in more than a hundred years. Thus will I reward you by granting you a boon. What is it that your heart desires?”
“Truly,” Aidan replied, “I am grateful for your offer, but I want nothing for myself, only that the people of Amesbury might be left alone tonight and all other nights.”
A golden glow began to creep across the sky as the sun rose, and Merlin noticed that a nimbus of light encircled Aidan’s head.
“It will be done,” Merlin said, “and now, man of the Church, you have leave to go. For we have gathered to perform the summer solstice rituals, but you do not follow the Old Religion and your presence would besmirch our rites.”
So saying, he tapped his yew staff three times upon the ground and Aidan found himself back in the village of Amesbury without the inconvenience of needing to use his two legs to get there, and though he would have been pleased to lie down and rest a while, he thought of the hobgoblins’ words the night before and knew that he must right the wrongs of which they had spoken.
First he went to the stream and tasted the water and it was indeed bitter, so he dipped his finger in it and stirred the water around until it sparkled in the sunlight and he knew it was pure once more. Then, he returned to the house he had visited when he and Padraig arrived and knocked on the door, and the anxious man opened it, still in his nightshirt and nightcap, blinking in surprise at Aiden.
“Call the villagers together,” Aidan said, and the man did as he was told.
Then Aidan looked at the men and women of Amesbury and he spoke of love and forgiveness and of how God blessed some people that they might share with others; and he noticed three men in farmer’s smocks who stood at the back of the crowd and looked at each other when he said this; and by the expression on their faces, he knew his words had reached their hearts and that they would not be so selfish again; and so he walked to the barley field and the rye field and the field of oats and then he walked through each field in turn, and as his feet passed, the crops ripened suddenly and there was not a sign of blight or mildew anywhere.
Finally, he asked one of the women where the berries grew that were craved during pregnancy, and she led him into the nearby wood and showed him bushes that bore a yellow-red fruit and he sighed for he recognised them as solanum pseudocapsicum, or Jerusalem cherries as they are better known, and he knew too that it is a species of nightshade and that the berries cause sickness; and so he placed his hands above the bushes and let daylight fill him and the villagers blinked in surprise for they had been sure that the berries were yellow-red and yet now they looked, they could see that these bushes produced blueberries.
By this time. Saint Aidan was beginning to feel tired, so as the sun continued to rise to its highest point, Aidan stretched out under an oak tree and promptly went to sleep.