Part 2 A middling time, of fire and frost
The thudding of hoofs echoes through woodland glades. A horn blows, a shout goes up.
A deer falls and the huntsmen rejoice with cheers and laughter.
The forest that once, in a time before time, stretched from shore to shore, is dwindling now as the years pass. But still there are hills and wolds and vales clothed in its woodland green. Alive with strange diversions, with oddities and enchantments.
That dwindled forest is now the king’s demesne, to do with as he will. No men may sport in its bounds without his say. But the local lord has the royal favour and so may make free use of it.
These huntsmen, then, are King Edward’s men, all loyal and true. Hungry for sport – and venison. And the deer’s haunches will, in the course of time, be roasted over the great kitchen fire to grace the lord’s high table.
There are many great fires burning this day in the lord’s fine house – a house more castle than manor. And fires are greedy for wood this time of year, as nights grow long and the weather steadily colder with each short passing day.
It is hard toil for those who needs must chop that wood. Men who still see deer dart, hares run, rabbits jump and game birds fly, but may never have one for the pot. No, the woodland’s riches are not for them – and those caught poaching are wickedly punished.
In a clearing made by human hands, one such man, a woodcutter, is busy making firewood.
His home is a tumbledown place, which we might name a hovel. But there, at least, he may keep himself warm, with wood the lord rejects and the woodcutter keeps from season to season to warm his aching limbs.
He lives alone, this toiling man, named William.
Three years since, on this feast-day of St Thomas, his only child was born. A small boy, with much labour.
That night – the night the sun stopped – Will’s own bright star stopped shining. For on that night his wife was taken to join the throng of heavenly hosts.
The boy, named Thomas for the day, was delivered a fragile child. He is so still. But a child whom everyone loves.
His legs may not be strong, but they hold him up well enough. His arms may be delicate, but hold his aunt’s hands well enough.
And his aunt loves him. Raises him as her own. For with that aunt young Thomas has his home. His father cannot care for him and still work the woods each long hard day.
But Thomas – Tom, as we may call him, though he himself cannot – has never spoken a word.
It seems he hears what others say, but has never uttered a sound – except as a babe, to cry when he was hungry.
Now his green eyes follow the world, follow his cousins and uncles and aunts, follow the robins and mice and weather, but what he thinks, no one knows.
Tom’s aunt is busy cooking. Boiling suet pudding for the family feast.
Tom’s youngest cousins are out, playing games where they may on the common land.
But Tom’s green eyes are wide, staring from his doorway perch out into the forest.
It is the shortest day. His birthday, though none will celebrate that birth.
As inky twilight seeps through the sky he snuggles up to the doorpost.
Tom is entranced by the stars. Perhaps he knows his mother is with them, keeping a mother’s watch.
Or perhaps he senses the magic abroad in tonight’s chill air?
The cousins return. The fire is lit. In the busy-ness of the cottage, no-one notices as Tom leaves his vantage point and walks to the edge of the forest.
It is raw cold. Icy cold.
He imagines frost as a winged creature, leaping from air to ground. From tree to grass, from grass to berry. Wizening fruits that cling to branches already gnarled and blackened.
All wondering, he wanders into the forest. Sits at the foot of a lofty tree. And dreams.
But to dream in the forest’s cold embrace on the night the sun stops is not for mortals to dare.
As Tom sleeps stealthy forces creep round him, seeking warm breath to steal.
But deep in the ancient heart of the woods a band of small folk feels that stealthy presence.
Like fireflies they wend their way to the place where young Tom sleeps. With baskets of jewel-bright lights they banish the sprites who would steal Tom’s breath. And with their magic they carry the child back home.
There they dress the rude cottage door with those same jewel-bright lights. Hang them upon the branch of holly draped above its lintel. From the curl of ivy that coils under its poor thatch.
Before they leave, they sing a song of awakening.
And Tom awakes.
Of a sudden his aunt cries out, seeing he is not home. She runs to the door and finds the child. Espies the lights. But not the little folk.
Tom, though, sees them, waving goodbye as they tiptoe back to their forest home. His eyes as emeralds, bright in the glow of their fairy lights (for to him, of course, these are fairies).
He raises his hand to wave. And calls, ‘farewell’.
And though the fairy’s lights fade with each rising sun, they twinkle anew each night until Candlemas day in this long ago, middling time.
To this day the miraculous story is told far and wide, of the boy who spoke when the little folk came on the feast of ‘St Thomas grey’.*
And many years hence, a time will come when fairy lights —
… but that is a tale for another day.
*From an old rhyme for the solstice and that saint’s day:
St Thomas grey,
St Thomas grey,
The longest night and shortest day.’
Cited in Nick Groom’s book, ‘The Seasons, A Celebration of the English Year’