Wednesday, 4 February 2015

elfrida of the flowers

As some of you will know, i've taken up the staff and have been walking the myth lines of old stories on Dartmoor again since early January. One of the tales is below. It doesn't exactly fit any modern polemic, it's rather sad really, but hits a certain true note. Few really win in this one. How do we experience consequence? What brings out the hoarder in us? "Don't fib to women or kings" could be the initial strap line. The commentary's lengthy - i will add a small chunk here sometime. Looking forward to the first gathering of the year this saturday; "When Words Were" Like Magic: The Shaman and the Storyteller", Dartington Village Hall, 10-5, £50. We are expecting very healthy numbers, so get in touch today - now - if you plan to come and forgot to drop us a line - that's Tina at


Wintering trees are always fairy tale trees, you get to witness a skeleton: thin, bony fingers beckon and poke as you pick your way through the half light of the woods. It’s winter, and its the rooster comb of spindle branch that brings the old world that bit closer. A place of ghostly huts and thin trails of blue smoke, old ladies with bobbing heads leading you into enchantments, crows that a second later are elegant men glimpsed with fine black cloaks and a smokers cackle. Magics close.

I’m wandering through the boreal forest on the way to the shepherd’s hut. Dawn. Grasses glitter, frozen with dew. I’m laden down with extra blankets and a tweed jacket who’s pockets are stuffed with twigs. The temperature has dropped yet again over night, and the radio promises snow for those of us a hundred foot above sea level.

The key turns the latch and i’m in. I don’t waste time. My own breath steams out before me. My kindling’s lobbed into a stack of twigs gathered back in late summer by the door, and i kneel by the small wood burner and start to scrunch news paper. I glance up as i hear rain start its tap dance on the barrelled tin roof, in fact that’s more emphatic than rain - that’s sleet. Only one move away from the mooted snow.

The fire, bless it, plays no tricks today, and is soon furnacing the burner; i hear the pops and crackle of the wood and little flicks of burgundy and orange through the small air opening in the door.

There’s heaps of books, a stack of lanterns and a raised bed with a space underneath for any passing sheepdogs or lost lambs. Praise allah there’s no internet signal and a distinctly erratic phone connection.

As i write, i have a curly sheepskin wrapped over my legs, two scarves round my neck, defiantly battered trilby on head, and still the cold is resident in my hips. I get up and push a large log into the grate of the burner. If this keeps up, i’ll soon be up on that bed, where much of the warmth is gathering.

But i only have a little while; i will be following the trail of this gem of a local story for much of the day, so my dawn time must be spent singing it out into the hut. Otherwise, how will i track? I close my eyes and begin.



Far to the west lived a woman. There is always a woman far to the west.
Elfrida was her name. She had strong family. Her father was a big man, Earl of Devon, her brother a giant, who some say built the original Tavistock abbey.

In the east, King Edgar, the Saxon king, brooded for a wife. When word reached him of Elfrida, he sent his courtier Ethelwold to meet the woman. A dangerous journey, hoofing many miles. As he wearily arrived, Elfrida met him in the doorway.

Her hair hung in two long black plaits over a tight green bodice, her eyes calm like speedwell flowers. All memory of his king's enquiry grew dim, the desire to even mention his lord became ashes on the tongue. Entranced with her swan-white skin, he was a-fever with desire for the lovers wrestle. A sophisticated courting took place, and she, dazzled by the exotic stranger, agreed to be his wife. Finally, he was to have something that even the King didn’t have! His chest became puffed, and his gestures inflated, his tongue positively loquacious.

East courts the West,
and cardinal directions
get dizzy, just
for the thought of
one other.

The evening star
cannot help
but pour the wine,
when geese with
their bales of dawn

But this eastern king
does not rove the lanes,
but sends a ferret
as his eye.

He should have let
his own fur
rustle the bracken.

On return to the King, the servant thought quickly: “Sire, it appears that travellers have over praised this woman – she is fair to be sure, but lacking the rapture that a man of your stature would befit. But, she is wealthy, and for a plain man like myself, she would suit. So, the journey was not.. entirely.. wasted.” His hands were sticky as he thinned out the truth. The King swallowed the whole story, rose and gave his blessing for his courtier to head out and live on remote Dartmoor with his new wife.

Having made his bed, Ethelwold knew a large part of lying on it would require keeping Elfrida out of sight, and making sure no one saw her true beauty. So in the castle she remained. Ethelwold have traded anything for the comfort he now enjoyed.

Occasionally a passing traveller would catch a glimpse of her gazing out from behind the turrets, or even turning her horse in the meadow. Even in such brief glimpses she was so staggering in her beauty that word cantered up through the rugged country and finally got to the Kings ear. Shocked and angered, the King proposed a hunting trip to the Forest of Dartmoor, and sent word on to Ethelwold. Cornered, the husband tearily confessed all to a stunned Elfrida, and begged her to disguise her beauty – twigs in hair, a bruised and muddy face, rough clothes – or the life they had shared together would be utterly lost.

This was the first she had heard of a King. She looked at him with a cool expression: “Oh, I will change my face, certainly.”

Courtly knights
Provencal villages
just for word
of her.

Fish wives
weave cloaks
to cover
grey puddles.

But she is a

A lover to Saturn
and all those other
Old Men of the Night.

And all council a reckoning.

Rather than dirtying her body, she slow bathed it in milk and herbs. She washed her face with elderflowers. She wore her costliest gown, a necklace of delicate shells. Her skin like cream, eyes as deep as a moorland gully. Her hair was unbound and laced with Hexworthy wild flowers. Just as dawn was breaking she rode out ahead to meet the King. When he beheld her, he loved her, this utterly untamed thing. A hunt was arranged in a desolate stretch of the moor, and Ethelwold did not return that evening. Another union was arranged, and the two married. Their son Ethelred, became a king of England.

The woman from the far west lived a long time next to her husband in the east. But I cannot tell you that on long autumn nights she did not look up from the hearth and gaze wistfully homewards, or carried a hurt in her heart for that first husband. Such confusion.
But so it is when you marry a king.

Woman, you
to the big life.

Acres of sorrow
squeeze their mud
between your toes.

And that is just:
the hem of sovereignty
is blade and bone,
dog-rose and penny-royal.

Close your gate, and light the wick.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2015



Anne said...

Just so lovely. I wish I could add more words to that thought, but yours are exactly the ones and the number that are needed here.

rosierabbit said...

told as close to the bone as ever...can't wait for the commentary x