Earlier this year, I wrote, very quickly, a long short story or short novella. I gift it now as the evenings draw in; it is an early draft, but not something I plan to develop now or which would be publishable.
(Please note all text copyright, Anna Vaught, 2022)
A tale of terrible things, lost hearts, ghosts, immortals and White Horses for The Winter Solstice and Christmas
Below the White Horse of Whitebury lies Briddle or Bridewell Spring. According to the tale, when the clock (in – ) strikes midnight, the White Horse comes down to drink from the spring.
Mysterious Britain, Janet and Colin Bord
Come taste my fire
And drink, drink this all
As the spirit of solstice
Will you all enthral.
Drink, drink my darling
Of life and of heart
Here is sweet feasting
And you shall be part.
The following account was found in 2020 as the round barrow near the White Horse above the village of Stowton was excavated following research begun by the late Professor Richard Stourbridge, of St John’s College, Cambridge. It was wrapped and placed there by someone known only as The Man, who had identified it as a record of the place and what happened there.
I do not apologise for what I have done
All this happened a long time ago. I do not set down the story, my story, to make you understand my motivation or absolve me of the awful sins you are sure I have committed, but merely to set down a record, as in former days I would have done in the driest of my academic research.
You might have done the same, you who is reading this, uncovering it in years to come if our village is terribly disturbed and the Winter Song comes to an end. In the county of Wiltshire, there are thirteen White Horses, carved on the chalk uplands. Eight are visible. Once upon a time, these were all connected and so much more. But not only that. I live in a beautiful village; I am inordinately proud of it, but it is not where I am from – which I scarcely remember. I do not remember much of my earlier life, which seems so insubstantial now that I live in something so rich and strange and always, always will. I had an old life, when I was a fellow in Archaeology at St John’s College, Cambridge, but how pale that seems now. How very pale: the taupe of the Cam, the flatlands of The Backs, the fens. I look back and see a man, in the summer term, in a punt. In charge, the Dean of the college and off we go, Clare College, Kings and onward until, heaving the boat onto an upper reach, we are at Grantchester Meadows. I tell you this now: a memory of a summer’s day and it is a dream. Only that: a paltry dream.
The Winter Solstice approaches: a fine time. You could tell this story now or save it for Christmas. We do not light our village for Christmas and the old church has other purposes now. Stowton, in the county of Wiltshire, nearly enveloped by The Plain, is abundantly populated and brighter than you could imagine.
Let us begin. Forgive me, or not. I do not care and that I do not makes me happy.
I saw The Man again today.
On previous days he had avoided my gaze but now he looked at me
As before, I was walking on the Downs above the village of Stowton, along chalk paths by the White Horse. My curiosity got the better of me. I asked him if this was a place he often sat and he told me yes. I told him I was in the area to rest – Wiltshire was a county, with its plains, handsome downs, and of course sites of interest – which I had always admired – and furthermore to begin writing a book about the iron age fort here, segueing in some way into an account of the White Horse cut into the hillside in this area on the edge of Salisbury Plain. I had not been confident about what I was doing; any outline was ridiculously vague and an insult to academic pride, but my spirits had been revived in the last few days by recent and unusual discoveries that had been excavated in the area by my former colleague in the Anthropology Department of Cambridge University. I had just read some papers which had come to light at my college.
Let me offer you a sketch of this place. The original Iron Age hillfort defences were built at Stowton Camp over 2000 years ago. These earthworks protected a settlement containing round houses, granaries, stores, and workshops. The design and construction showed the effectiveness of the hillfort to its enemies. The site was excavated in the 18th century. However, three thousand years earlier a Neolithic long barrow existed on this hill, and later excavations in the 19th century uncovered human skeletons and cremations. Today, this extensive chalk grassland supports herb and grass species that provide a habitat for a diverse range of insects, including the rare Adonis Blue butterfly and the scarce forester moth. The White Horse is visible from afar and is a famous local landscape and yet for many years local people avoid the area. Local records suggest that the horse was originally cut in the late 1600s, probably to commemorate the supposed Battle of Ethandun, thought to have taken place at Stowton Camp in AD 878. Bones had been found in a previously unexcavated area near the horse and while they were not recent, neither were they iron age, as the original inhabitants of the camp on the top of these plains. However, Professor Ruchard Stourbridge, this colleague at the university, a fellow archeologist with an interest in fields of Biology Anthropology, had discussed in detail his beliefs – dismissed by most scholars – that not all the structures and marks in this area were iron age, but connected with the White Horse and pagan festivity. He also contested that the White Horse was much, much older, suggesting further that many of the horses in the area were also more ancient than previous research had suggested, because Wiltshire is rich in these designs: there are thirteen in the county although eight are fully or partially grown over. The last significant excavations within the fort had taken place in the 18th century by Jeffrey Whitaker, a local schoolmaster, uncovered quern stones, pottery, and Roman and Saxon coins. Also found were ‘nearly a cartload’ of large pebbles, probably sling stones kept ready on the ramparts to throw at any attackers. More recent were those by this former colleague of mine at Cambridge, Professor Richard Stourbridge. He had not finished his work, but he had written to friends in the Senior Common Room about the bones and two bracelets he had found, however, and then shortly afterwards, left the university summarily. As I say, the paper he had partially written had now come into my hands and stimulated my interest.
Stourbridge had written, then, to say that he had had an epiphany out there on the plain, looking back across the green swards of Wiltshire, that university life was constraining him; he saw it now; admitted it to himself and he was sorry. It must have been a great loss to at least one department because he had been a brilliant man and had never been afraid of censure from his colleagues for his interests in what some of them derided as simple folklore. Whether he took up further academic positions elsewhere I did not know, but I had wondered if he retreated into a new life just as I had sometimes longed to do myself. I might have been described as a fine scholar, but there was little time to travel or see things beyond the university, I had few I would call close friends – or even friends – and I had no talent for teaching. That autumn, as I walked along The Backs in front of Clare College, I had been consumed by these thoughts, found myself unexpectedly in tears, and it was then I had decided to apply for a short sabbatical, a leave of absence really. I had recently finished a book, my two graduate students could be supervised by someone else, and I had no teaching until the Lent term.
So here I was. I was jaded, tired of life. Getting old and having failed to marry. The one time I thought I might, I did not have the courage to ask her to marry me and we grew apart. Or rather, she married someone else, and quickly. Now, I was in the area to rest, take a short holiday but as I said, my interest had also been piqued by Stourbridge’s investigations. I knew that I was depressed and sometimes terribly ill at ease; I could not force my rational mind to free my imagination of images and ideas I did not want in my head. I asked for a short sabbatical from the university on the grounds of health – and it was granted.
As I said, now here I was. I had asked in the village pub, a singularly unfriendly though civil place with carved vine leaves on the lintels – it was called The White Horse you will not be surprised to learn – and been told that they had met Stourbridge, that he told them he had decided his excavations were, after all, fruitless, and that they had, as a courtesy, gone up to the hillside and covered up the areas where he had dug to preserve the land; there was a fine show of rare fritallaries and harebells and he had seemed oblivious to such delicacies. The men at the bar laughed about that and outside heard someone spit onto the ground. He had never mentioned if he had seen the scarce forester moth or the Adonis blue butterfly which populated the uplands. I wondered if this had been true – I would have assumed, from what I knew of him, that he’d have been sensitive to landscape and all it contained, but assumptions are often wrong, of course. Because, of course, Stourbridge had suddenly quit the university, leaving a research paper incomplete and colleagues and students in the lurch, so perhaps he had been in ill health, but further along than I had been. It was odd. Odd but I decided to take it as a warning, or rather, one warning: the wrong one, as you will come to know. Back then, I thought the men at the bar were uncouth; rough and uneducated, but I was wrong about that too.
But I was telling you about The Man, looking out across the plain by the White Horse.I was already less sure than I used to be – of myself and of everything – and I confess, I was rattled by The Man’s eyes; flaming. In my younger days I would have walked on. But there are things I had seen from the corner of my eye; perhaps even shadows in the recess of my mind which I did not invite in.
The Man told me he came here often. I am socially extremely gauche, so it was my inclination to start talking in the deep silences; he held me in his gaze and said nothing. I fully embarrassed myself as he might have known all of this anyway. I spoke about how local records from 1742 suggest that the horse was originally cut in the late 17th century, probably to commemorate the supposed Battle of Ethandun, thought to have taken place at Stowton Camp in AD 878. In the 17th century it had become popular to commemorate these supposed Saxon battle victories over the pagan Danes with White Horses, in celebration of the belief that the Saxons had brought Christianity to Britain. The last recorded scouring took place in 1853. In the late 1950s, the horse was preserved by covering it in white-painted concrete and…I was trotting out details and perhaps you, as reader, are being lost and then…
Here he cut me off.
He said, ‘You have a story you want to tell, but everyone has a story they do not wish to tell. Here is mine. But if you hear the strike of the farrier’s hammer but know there is none in the village, or the blacksmith’s hammer, when one is long-gone, leave here quickly. And if you hear hoof taps and see no horse sounding out those taps. I am sorry for your loss: it is too late, and you must stay here with me in this perpetual dusk. Soon, though your heart will no longer beat, you will live on. You will be in . You hear The Winter Song. As I said, I am sorry for your loss and that you are…’
Here he tailed off and looked over to the White Horse; it was quite dark by this time, and I remember that spots of rain hit the pulse on my wrist and made me jump. I said, ‘I am still listening, so do continue if you can?’
The Man took a deep breath: ‘I am sorry. You should leave.’ But as he said this, I saw a smile play around his lips.
Then, I should have got up and walked away. I ought to have left the village.
I tell you now that I used to be a sceptical man, a scholar. I did not believe in spectres and the uncanny of the sort he seemed to be describing. There was much else I did not believe in – I confess that I did not believe in love – not of the sort that could sway you and turn your mind about. I am not sure that I was particularly kind and I know I was not happy. Now, I am different. I made him tell his story
The Man began to talk again, for a long time, and, this time, I fell silent and allowed him the rhythms and hollows of his story. It was the 1st of December and, as I recall, there were Christmas trees already lit even though Advent had just begun. I was a traditionalist and always remembered that my mother told me it was vulgar to put up a Christmas tree so early, but I rather liked it and had always felt sad about the rigid traditions in our family home. On the journey from Bath to Whitebury, I enjoyed seeing the lit trees and there had been a particularly fine one at Broadstone on Avon Station, not long before I pulled into Whitebury Station. I saw them in front rooms on the taxi ride from Whitebury to Stowton, but in the village there were none and no lights in the windows. The silence was eerie and the dark, falling now as we pulled into the village, deeply dark and suddenly into my mind came these lines of Milton’s Comus. I had had the fortune to see it performed in Ludlow Castle its original venue some years previously, but now I shivered as the words came to my lips:
Come, let us our rights begin;
‘T is only daylight that makes sin,
Which these dun shades will ne’er report.
Hail, goddess of nocturnal sport,
Dark-veiled Cotytto, to whom the secret flame
Of midnight torches burns! mysterious dame,
That ne’er art called but when the dragon womb
Of Stygian darkness spets her thickest gloom,
And makes one blot of all the air!
Stay thy cloudy ebon chair,
Wherein thou ridest with Hecat’
The next part of this story is about The Man. We will return to my part in this later. The man had shivered too, and do you know, though I was fascinated by him, I could not tell if it was fear or pleasure, or cold. Or all.
Before the gods that made the gods
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass
G.K. Chesterton, from The Ballad of the White Horse, 1911.
An account of Stowton
‘I came,’ began The Man, ‘from a village near here, Brattes Tun. People talked about Stowtun and said it was odd, never went there unless it was essential – and really, it was not – but I was headstrong and just thought I was more imaginative and less judgmental than the people around me in this part of the county. There’s something about these dips and hollows below the plain which makes people sour and jealous of their neighbours. I have never understood it. People went into the village, of course; tradesmen, others. The village school had closed down because of numbers and, anyway, many preferred to educate their children at home and in small groups in the village hall. My father had been a headteacher and I remember him saying that when the inspectors went in, as they did occasionally, they found the children to be extraordinarily astute and wise beyond their years. The pristine curriculum material handed over from a cupboard had been well prepared and really beyond the expectations of home education.
My father is gone now.’ He smirked. It was repellent. I did not love my own father particularly, but I should not then have smiled at his demise.
He saw me looking at him and altered his expression.
‘I had come in to work on kitchens because there was a particular fashion for cupboards with many shelves and built-in racks. That was the odd thing: they all wanted their kitchens to be the same and not really in a style that was fashionable, but it was good and reliable work. Here was another strange thing: I liked the village, its oddity – you could feel it. But it was quiet. There was a steep and up and down walk to Stowton Church, which I liked and sometimes I would go there in my dinner hour or after work. To tell the truth, it was mostly after work because I didn’t want to go home. There was a rushing stream next to you as you climbed down and below you as you went up. And there was a spring I saw. I asked about it, when I was in the houses or mending other things in their gardens, the similar fences, or a last job: the fire pits they liked in their gardens. I did not ask about that. I know now. The spring, which the villagers called The Bride’s Spring, was dedicated to St. Bridget. Now, I asked my father about that because he was interested in local history. He said St. Brigid’s Day is linked to the Celtic festival of Imbolc, heralding the return of spring on the first of February and he told me that the Celtic Goddess Bríd was regarded as a goddess of healing and the ancient Celts acknowledged her on this day as the day that signaled renewal, new growth, and escape from darkness.
But I was telling you that I used to walk there, alongside, and above it. Grace, my wife…I. I had known her a long time and I loved her but…I had not been faithful to her. I am ashamed to tell you, but it is part of the story. I found our home life constraining and dull. Now, she was ill and at first, I tried hard to look after her, but in this I had lapsed. I know I must sound like a dreadful person to you, but I have paid for it repeatedly. She would cry and say I was dreadful, and I had not ever cared for her. She’d say I was not looking after her now and, in those moments, I would detest her, though I knew it was true and so, as she became more and more ill, I would renew my efforts to help her get better.’
‘It was a belief very strongly and generally held by the ancients — of
whose wisdom in these matters I have had such experience as induces
me to place confidence in their assertions — that by enacting certain
processes, which to us moderns have something of a barbaric
complexion, a very remarkable enlightenment of the spiritual faculties in
man may be attained: that, for example, by absorbing the personalities of
a certain number of his fellow-creatures, an individual may gain a
complete ascendancy over those orders of spiritual beings which control
the elemental forces of our universe’
M.R. James. ‘Lost Hearts’, 1895
But, would you be missed, Sir?
The Man paused for a while, and he asked me if I would be staying in the village long; if I would be there for The Winter Solstice. At that stage, I was unsure.
‘I can tell you are curious,’ he said. ‘I think you will stay and then you will stay some more.’
I told him I had responsibilities at the university, and he asked a strange thing. ‘But truly, will they miss you, Sir? I do not think they will. And I wonder who you will meet in the village. Things will change your mind and she will make you feel so important.’
‘Can’t you hear her now? Her Song comes up from the valley. Her winter Song and she is making it stronger and stronger. We are not far off the old solstice, I mean St Lucy’s Day. Sir, the thirteenth, and the new of the twenty first. On your Christmas Day – that is presuming you are a Christian, Sir’ – and here a wan and faintly unpleasant smile played on The Man’s lips – we love the darkness here, too. She likes to acknowledge the old and the new ways; says she is generous in remembering the old times.’ Again, the strange smile.
‘Who – you say she and her as if I might know who she is?’
‘The Woman. I hear her in my head all the time, and I hear them around me whispering because of what we have done.’
Here he began to cry, and I rifled in my pockets for a handkerchief.
He was right: I was curious. And whether you think it’s not to my credit, my desire to know more was greater than my sympathy for The Man; if it should distress him to carry on. Perhaps it was just an academic reserve I had cultivated over the years; something to which I defaulted and made me cold: I was detached when collating evidence or being presented with facts – or even a story. More accurately, I had come to care less about my fellow human beings. I told you, I was not particularly kind and I know I was not, then, particularly happy. I encouraged him to wipe his eyes and nose and invited him to keep my handkerchief. After a while, The Man continued.
‘In the darkest times of Grace’s illness, I was working in Stowtun and off the centre of the village, where the lane heads to the church, was a red-brick cottage. It had, like the others, an immaculate garden, with an extensive herb patch and a fire pit, which I mentioned before. This was where The Woman lived. Her clothes were odd. I am not well travelled like people I have met – perhaps like you, Sir, butI could see she was old fashioned with a long skirt and a lace collar. Some would have said, if I had told you about her prim shoes, that she sounded dowdy. But you should have seen her.’
Here he paused and breathed deeply, and I saw his eyes glitter though the sky was so darkened. He said again, ‘But you should have seen her.’
I am not very experienced with women, and, after heartbreak, I decided I would just stay a bachelor, but I could imagine. Even me: there are those people – and you do not meet them very often – who could light your way, confuse you, dazzle you. There is something in their eye and the confidence of their walk, their sway. I asked him, surprised at my boldness, if this was how it had been.
‘Yes,’ he said and down came the tears.
When he had settled, I encouraged him to talk more.
‘She had long hair like autumn – the colour of a copper beech leaf, it was extraordinary, and from time to time she twisted it behind her neck so it it fell like rope behind her. Her skin was pale and her eyes – I am not sure, even now. Violet, I think, though…not always so, as you will see from people in this place.’
‘What do you mean – about their eyes?’
‘That…there is change; instability’ – and as he said this, I thought I felt something at my elbow, but dismissed it. This was a good yarn from a troubled man, and I told myself just to remember that. He continued, brushing tenderly at his sleeve as if he, too, felt something at his elbow. I remember that then, I shivered, as I had done when I had come into the darkness of the village a few days before.
He continued his story.
‘She led me into her house, her strange kitchen, cramped but vital, and this was where I would be doing further carpentry work. They were, as I told you, very particular about their kitchens. Here was a little different, though, because she had a wall of cupboards and these were divided up into many sections and there were two long shelves which struck me as particularly strange – they were like those of a ship’s galley, with slots and holders for cups and bottles. It was this which had become unsteady with frequent use – for what, I thought? – and I was to remake. People in the village were very impressed by my skill. It was not often you saw such a fine craftsman and one so amenable to particular needs. I confess, I was flattered. She smiled and those eyes glittered again. But I was not fine. I – forgive me – I wanted her. She kept looking at me so that I was uncomfortable and, because she knew it, that she was making me restless and uncomfortable, I wanted her more. She knew that too. I imagined others had stood in this place. I knew I had been unhappy; that I was bored and tired. I wanted to love Grace, I had always wanted to truly desire her and my duty to her depressed me, despite myself and knowing I should not, I smiled back at The Woman and held her gaze: I cannot say how long it was but I recall – at least I think I do – that the light outside shifted slightly; that blue became more navy.
I worked all morning on the galley shelves, planing wood and routing. Then she asked me to paint them, although that was not usually part of my job, and I did. There was more work. Deep drawers and repairs to doors; all on the ground floor of the red-bricked house.
The following day, and the day after that, planing, adjusting, and fitting until it was all done.
Often while I worked, The Woman watched me and sometimes talked about the village and what a fine, fine place it was. How she had been there a long time. At one point, I recall I felt dizzy and that she fanned me with something. It is hard to recall…but I do know that it smelled of something sweet. The Woman said, ‘Oh, that is Orris root. Some say it is used against evil spirits – for personal protection. But that is not why I am using it now, of course not’ and she looked away and on her beautiful face there was a grand smirk, and here was the awful, awful irony of it: her expression was repellent. And yet I wanted her more and found it delightful. I was ashamed.
Grace asked me about the day and before I knew it and because I felt guilty, I said, ‘Come with me and meet her. I mean, The Woman I’m working for. I think you will like her,’
She said, ‘Oh no, I don’t think I want to go out to Stowton’ but later – because I encouraged her; it was all because I felt guilty: she was ill and I had been thinking about what The Woman would be like in bed. With Grace, and I might as well say this aloud now and if you don’t mind, Sir…’
Here I interrupted him and told him he did not need to call me Sir. I was an old-fashioned and not very worldly man, but even to me this was stiff and too formal. ‘You may call me Michael’ and he said, ‘But I hardly know you and you seem…just from your vocabulary much better educated and a different class from me so I would feel uncomfortable, Sir’ and I thought this was odder, but dropped the matter. So, The Man continued,
‘I was talking about Grace. She was a plain woman, Sir, but I thought her face didn’t curdle milk, as my father used to say. But she did not have much to say or, I had thought, much to do. You must be a man of the world so…I mean she was cold in bed. She was not interested in that side of things whereas, although I tried to push the feelings down, I was. I found other women. I didn’t think she would realise. But I felt guilty about that, too, though not guilty enough to stop and when she was ill I was prompted by that guilt to always do better by her. So, I thought a trip out to Stowton, strange as it was, and meeting this unusual woman might be interesting for her.
Unfortunately for me, I was right.’ Again, a smile, so oddly out of place, played about his lips.
The Man had a pipe with him which he lit and sucked hard on now. It reminded me of my great grandfather, whom I had known only briefly. His clothes reminded me of him, too. Next to me was, I thought, a man out of time.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky.
And an old White Horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
T.S.Eliot Journey of the Magi, 1927
A new and dangerous softness
The Man took up his story after a time of sucking hard on his pipe, and looking across the valley, east to Salisbury Plain and west towards Bath and the lovely valley that contained the River Avon and the Kennet and Avon canal, travelling side by side into Bristol, where it ended its journey from Reading. I recalled that Stourbridge had walked its length during the Long Vac.
‘Grace continued her treatment at the big hospital in the city. Poor thing, but I confess to you now, Sir, that when she was being given treatments and I waited outside on the hard bench, I felt, sometimes, in a new softness – like I was sitting on a soft pillow. It is hard to explain quite what it was like.
When Grace came to find me in the waiting room she said, ‘Oh did you miss me?’ but her eyes were cold. I had not been thinking of her.
She had to rest that day, but I had work in the village to continue for The Woman and for other villagers, so I left her. Before I did so, I asked her, as I had before, if she would like to come and walk by the White Horse with me and I also told her that there was a person in the village she might enjoy meeting; an unusual woman for whom I was working. She did not agree. Grace had few friends because she was so rigid in how she wanted people to be, and this had always been a problem for me.’
I was becoming bored with his tales of marriage. There was a bigger, deeper story here. I said, ‘But as you told me, she agreed to come to the village. I think that is the next part of the story.’
He paused. ‘Will you walk with me, Sir. It’s surely getting too cold for you and the paths are difficult in the dark. I had not expected to come so long, and I did not bring my lamp.’
I agreed but had noted the word ‘lamp’ thinking how stiff and old-fashioned he was. I had thought he was younger than me, but now he seemed so much older and like my late father, perhaps, stubborn and wedded to old words, I didn’t know. As we walked between the ridges of the earthworks, past the barrow that Stourbridge had been excavating, he asked me if I knew why the village got its name. I said I did not. Then he told me that it had perhaps not always been called Stowton, though he could not say when it might have changed. Perhaps it had been, then, a different place. He told me he had problems with his memory so that, sometimes, he forgot where he had come from or where he had been born or, in fact, if the village had once been called something else though he thought it might have been.
I found this all so strange, and I was feeling very tired. I remember that this night in December was particularly cold and, as we accessed the lane from the ridgeway down into the village, I tried to rouse myself by running my fingers along the plants in the hedgerows as we walked; at one point, there was a ditch and the beginning of frost on the tall yarrow spikes caught my eye: white and silver; opalescent, suddenly, even in this darkness – and strangely jagged on my fingertips. He said, ‘Stowtun means a holy enclosed place’ and I thought about this. I knew that Stow was often associated with the name of a Saint. Why would the place name not contain Bridget, which was the name of the church here – and a well-known saint, you might have thought? I had seen this in Stourbridge’s notes plus his query on the oddity of there not being a sign outside this place and its always being locked. Stourbridge was a church man, of course. I thought of the more general ‘enclosure’ and then how, in a more specialized and extended sense, it meant (Christian) burial-ground – a church-site. Tun was less interesting, just a place, a settlement. I felt the frost prick at my fingers and then felt the blood as I caught the fingers of a dog rose. The Man stopped and breathed heavily, and I had come out of my ruminations on place names and their meanings. He said, ‘Be careful’ and quickly handed me the handkerchief I had already passed to him, winding it round my fingers, a little too forward for me. ‘Keep it well stanched,’ he said firmly.
It was strange of course. Then he said, ‘Stowton means to us a holy enclosed place and this lane we are on is called The Drag. You said you were at a university, so I imagine you are interested in these things.’
‘From the Old Norse meaning to drag. It referred originally to boats being dragged and I wondered if this is something to do with Viking occupation in this area, a boat burning for victory as here there was no river or isthmus to pull boats across – I realised how little I actually knew about this area – and The Man said this, the hairs on the back of my neck, my arms, standing up straight and I heard my blood pulsing and him saying, ‘Shhh Sir’ and it must have been to that because I was not speaking then; he said: ‘On no: it comes from ghost Sir. A spirit, or not so much a ghost but a revenant – such as the reanimated of the deceased inside the burial mound. You saw one near us, by the White Horse. I think you did, Sir? But it is not only that, not only that at all.’
I was silent. I pulled the handkerchief tightly around my fingers.
He accompanied me to my lodging in the village and said he was likely to be near the White Horse any night that week if I would enjoy talking more.
As I lay in bed, unable to sleep, I heard midnight from the clock tower of St Bridget’s and tapping and in my dream that night I heard a Song like buzzing about my ears and saw a cloud of red hair – like Rossetti’s Proserpine, she who was the goddess of the underworld.
And I saw, and behold a White Horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer. … And I looked, and beheld a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.
Revelation, 6, from verses 1-8
I had made love to a woman once
The next day, at first, I had felt exceedingly tired, perhaps unwell. Having read through Stourbridge’s notes in the morning, over an unappetising breakfast at the guest house where I was the only guest, I returned to my room. I could not be sure, but it seemed as though someone had been there. I had nothing to steal, nothing of any value and nothing was in disarray. Only this: when I opened the drawers where I had stored my clothes and the wardrobe where I’d hung up a rain jacket and a smart jacket – for what reason I do not know; also, I had brought my college gown such as I’d have worn in Hall – as if it were needed here. I had been so tired when I left, too. Distracted. I looked at these things now and ran my fingers over them and felt, I did not know how then, a warm and barely perceptible press of fingers had been there, feeling, noting.
I sat on the bed and though I would have been deeply embarrassed, ashamed, ever to share this with anyone, now, as I look back, I am not. I am the opposite of ashamed. I was aroused and this was new. I had always thought of myself as lukewarm. I had made love to a woman once, but after a while she drifted away and told me I was cold and so I was too nervous to try again and, after all, she was right. But now, as I sat on the bed in my lodging, thinking of that imperceptible and warm press on my clothes, I was different. I should have thought that I had been invaded. No-one should have entered the room or touched my things, but if I had taken it up with the couple who ran this guest house, how could I have proved it? I said nothing.
I felt pleasure and something dark that was beguiling me.
Later that day, I walked down towards the church and looked at the Bridewell springs bubbling. I dipped my hand in. As I did so, I caught sight of something; someone. The flap of a dress, a long dress, in the trees to one side of the church. Of red. It was gone. Now, I climbed up a footpath behind the church that was narrow and muddy. I stumbled and now the flap of the dress and the red came into view. A woman in the churchyard called good morning and told me to be careful because people fell on that narrow path. Flame hair. I knew who she was, and I felt that she knew I did, too.
‘You are welcome. I hope you are enjoying your stay in Stowton and please, as I said, be careful on that path and as you go up to meet your friend.’
‘He’s not -’ I began, but she turned her back and somehow, I knew she was smiling.
From a ledger in the Parish Church. Repairs to the steps to Bridewell Springs have been completed but a note has been placed in the parish circular advising parishioners to take care. The church will remain locked other than for festivities and will be open for 24 hours on The Winter Solstice
It was not signed by a priest, as you might usually expect; the handwriting was beautiful copperplate.
They saw a lady upon a beautiful White Horse, of steady and stately pace; and she was clothed in a garment of gold brocade.
From, The Mabinogion, Geraint the Son of Erbim, 11th and 12 centuries
6. A dream
I had another dream that night I saw a lady. And she was Rhiannon of The Mabinogion; she was La Belle Dame Sans Merci: she was unknown and familiar all at once, and sometimes she was of extraordinary beauty and sometimes vicious and at the corners of her mouth there was blood. She rode a white horse towards the sea and islands, and then I saw the islands were not islands but raised areas and round and long barrows in the county of Wiltshire. I knew it was Wiltshire because I saw the Stowton White Horse, Stonehenge, The Avenue, Avebury in autumn as the long tree roots snaked round the stones and in winter when the snowdrops first pushed up. Then there was blood on the stones and the snowdrops were streaked with carmine, a hideous hybrid plant. Now, the lady, The Woman, emerged from West Kennet Long Barrow and danced a dance to The Winter Solstice and sang her Winter Song and she was on top of Silbury Hill looking out across the county.
Then, I woke, shouting, in a fever: something soft on my brow. It might have been fingers or my down comforter.
The Italian Renaissance scholar, Marsilio Ficino (himself the son of a physician) had recommended that human blood could act not just as a specific curative, but as a kind of elixir of life. The elderly might, he suggested, restore their vitality by sucking directly from a vein in the arm of some healthy youth. Towards the end of the 17th century, we find a Franciscan monk making a kind of jam or marmalade from human blood (“stir it to a batter with a knife…pound it…through a sieve of finest silk”). From The Lancet, 2008
The specifications clearly imply a desire to use the human body as a kind of elixir of life…
The Lancet, 2008, on German chemist Johann Schroeder
The Man spoke on. I was making notes, though not successful ones, as I surveyed the area around The White Horse. He began to tell me how he felt sorry for Grace, felt guilty and he had brought her to Stowton to meet The Woman. Disconcertingly for him, The Woman embraced Grace warmly and he saw his wife respond in kind. She had never been so for him. The two walked out and his wife looked back at him.
‘In her eyes something new. In the face of The Woman, satisfaction. I attended to my work and then…well I became curious about the house. I saw picture frames full of Blue Adonis butterflies and rare moths and artfully pressed harebells and fritillaries – all the delicate and special things of our home, Sir. But then a horrible curiosity came over me. It felt forbidden, but I couldn’t help it. Sir, I looked in the drawers and those cupboards I was not mending, and I found things. I found knives and old books of arcane text and surgeons’ knives. I could not help myself, I turned about, could not resist it. There were books of spells and incantations and powders in little vials and I walked outside and was wild. I thought about the fire pits in the garden and the braziers up on the lower ridge, above the Bridewell spring near the church and suddenly it was like I was in a trance. I whirled about and as I did so, I saw I was not alone. The Woman had not come back and neither had Grace and there was no body near me, but instead presences of those who had gone; and as I looked up I saw a face of one in the parlour door, grey with hands stretched out in a mode of abject terror, desperate for help and I whirled about again and there was another at the window, and I felt them all around me, crying for witness, people through time, Sir, even before mine. I balled my fists as hard as I could and pressed them into my eyes and even then they could see me and they extolled me to bear witness. I did not know then who they were and suddenly, everything was gone and The Woman was back with Grace, who looked as well as I had seen her in a long time.
Grace looked at me: ‘We had a lovely walk and I have been shown the springs, the pretty church and we walked on a ridge below the White Horse. I have seen that so many times from my house, looked across the valley, but you never brought me to see it,’ said my wife.
‘You never said you wanted to.’
‘Oh did she not?’ said The Woman and smiled. ‘You seem flustered’
‘Did something bother you while you were working?’
‘No, of course not. I am just tired. Not feeling so well today.’
‘Well, ha!’ said my wife, too sharply, I thought.
‘Oh dear man, dear man. You should not bother about disturbances. I myself do not care for them at all’ and her lovely face lit up with a radiant smile of the purest evil.
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
Edwin Muir, ‘The Horses’, 1956
Oddities. Wonderful oddities, but a warning to the curious
I am sure you want to know about the oddities in the village. Are you curious? I should warn you. Remember that! I learned first of many of these things from The Man, but most unfolded as I explored myself. I began to feel my tiredness lifting. It was the 13th of December. A clear and frosty day and I looked up at the downs in first light and it was amethyst behind The White Horse and the ridges along the hillsides held their hollows in a rosy glow. I recall that this day, I walked along the back lanes of the village, to the church and back and I noticed, not for the first time, that everyone knew one another. That is not so odd in a village, even in the most modern times, but I felt a ready intimacy between them. I could see that fires were lit in the houses and what is more that I could see and smell smoke rising from gardens at the back of the house and I knew then it was the fire pits that the villagers had.
The firepits kept them warm, you see and kept them happy. Nourished them. Ha!
Then I walked up the horse, after a plain but satisfying breakfast at my lodgings. Once more, I sensed that someone had been in my room and once more I was filled not with threat but a sense of languorous pleasure that was new to me.
From somewhere I heard a cry, and I should have run to it. Was someone hurt and no-one else had heard? But I did not run. Instead, I sat on the bed and watched the lovely amethyst and rosy glow. At my leisure I walked towards the hill and up I went, pausing to look at the old terraces, made by farmers thousands of years ago and then, up at the horse. Until I smelled pipe smoke and saw The Man. Today was St Lucy’s Day, The Winter Solstice in the old Julian calendar. Now, I could see that the smoke was not just from The Man’s pipe, but from small braziers placed in the ditches around the horse and the barrow. Coals and scraps of wood were smoldering and looked to have been all night. As I watched, I saw that next to The Man was a sack of wood and a barrow and that he was responsible for the braziers. As I approached, he said, ‘They have had me here all night and will again for the bigger celebrations. It is part of my work, my punishment and my privilege.’
At this something brushed past me, and I heard a sound in my ear then a tapping at the braziers. The Man said, ‘Don’t mind them, Sir. It is a consequence of what we do.’
‘For if a ghost may send a foot or an arm or a leg to harry one person, he can dispatch his back-bone or his liver or his heart to upset other human beings simultaneously in a sectional haunting at once economically efficient and terrifying.’
The Imperishable Ghost, Dorothy Scarborough, 1921
The Man now fell silent as he moved about between the braziers keeping them alive but burning low. He must have struggled with the heavy wood, up the long lane, The Drag, to the hill fort, the horse. He began to speak about Grace, his wife; he said, ‘She was becoming more distant; alone in her illness: I was feeling lonely. Although Grace and I did not have that sort of relationship, I was still glad of her body next to mine in the morning and I wanted her to get better and to talk to me, but then sometimes I had a dreadful thought – and I can say it to you know because what does it matter – I thought it would not be so bad if I lost her because I could begin again and there would be no shame.
I went to Stowton, lost in these thoughts of how it might be. I had been making and mending some of the strange additions to their cabinetry. The dips and hollows and places for little vials. In The White Horse, I drank some beer and they brought me bread and cheese; it was all made in the village – their food was simple because they wished to bring nothing in. The Woman came in and spoke in a low voice to the landlord and the three men at the bar who pressed in and smiled and then she crossed the room to me. She smiled at me, Sir. She brushed my cheek and I reddened. She said nothing but held my eye.
Work finished, I walked to her house; she knew I would.
She was sitting there mending butterflies. I see you pause. Perhaps you have seen the lovely Blue Adonis butterfly near the horse? It is rare, but thrives here and when they die, she preserves them, with other precious specimens from the chalklands. You could see them in her house. I sat, watched, then began to join in. I thought I heard a stifled sob from somewhere about the house, or perhaps a laugh, something low and feral. It was not a happy laugh. There are lots of laughs in the village that are not happy; desperate; hysterical, but always held in check, I didn’t know how then, but then I came to notice the inhabitants of Stowton shh them or gently bat them away with a hand.
Well. She certainly smiled and looked up at me, handing me pins to pierce the Blue Adonis specimens and mount them in their box frames. Then she pierced my thumb with a pin and drew me towards her, rubbing the drops of blood into the table and smiling. She licked her fingers, then she pulled me towards her and kissed me deeply. Her body was warm, her fingers a lovely warm and strong press’ – as he told me this I remembered the lingering presences on my clothes in my lodging – ‘but Oh Sir, I kissed her back and her kiss was as cold as the winter water in the Bridewell spring and she knew it and laughed as I responded and she also knew that I could taste the metallic tang of my own blood on her lips, her tongue. I could not have resisted her; I could not. And when I left Stowton, The Woman said, ‘Give my love to your wife. Won’t you’ and it was a command.
Whilst the girl stood still, half smiling, with her hands clasped over her heart, the boy, a thin shape, with black hair and ragged clothing, raised his arms in the air with an appearance of menace and of unappeasable hunger and longing.warm as sunlit earth and as cold as the tomb. I realised I was scared and drew back
M.R James, ‘Lost Hearts’, 1895
Heat and cold and parti-coloured things
‘The guilt I felt’ said The Man, ‘as heat and cold and voices and touches from elsewhere, well it was tremendous, but nothing could stop it.’
I went home; my wife was there. She looked a little better, I thought. She knew what I had done. And my wife; she had done the same thing. She sat there, some colour in her face and told me she knew about the other woman and she knew about The Woman and regretted to inform me that she had made love to her first.
Grace said, ‘My dear, her kiss was as warm as sunlit earth and as cold as the tomb: I have been frightened by so much all my life, but then I was not afraid and will never be again. And I will be both warm and cold and I can live in Stowton. The Woman has promised me all this.’
But then she turned a glare on me and said, ‘But when I live in Stowton, I will not live with you.’
There was a cackle and a cry; an indigo shadow passing the window of our home, a modest one storey dwelling. I had always hated it it plainness. I had hated my wife hers. Now I was paying for it all.
Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare;
Ofte I sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoght
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.
BL Harley MS. 2253
Church services and devotions
I had felt embarrassed by The Man at this point and, to be honest, I felt it distasteful that he had told me this story. I returned to my room and wrote up some notes, then scratched them out because they were insubstantial. I read Stourbridge’s: human remains; a femur; most definitely not iron age; evidence of burning near the round barrow and further back, the same; there were braziers placed at one end of the level plain behind the escarpment.’ He had added, in a most unscholarly way, ‘The atmosphere was chilling, and I had the distinct impression I was being watched, which I attributed to some local simpleton. These villages are frequently suspicious of the outside world and I did not get the impression that many left to make better for themselves or that they were well educated.’
My mind was now whirling from the decadence of The Man’s story, though you may say I was not blameless in the thoughts I had had. I walked to The White Horse and they were more vocal than usual, the landlord telling me they enjoyed this warm-up to the solstice and some of them would be going to the church. ‘For Compline, Sir’ – to which there was much guffawing. I smiled, to be polite, but did not laugh too. They began telling stories- when people visit and move away again, that is odd that they do not stay in touch. Laughing about putting flowers in the church, attending to the mysterious fire pits The Man had spoken of. I felt it began to get ugly.
The laughter stopped. ‘Been listening to the stories from The Man? He’s an odd one. We give him lots of jobs to see him straight.’
‘Oh yes, He set off early with all the wood from Wilkins’ Farm and will be sweating by The Solstice.’
‘Don’t you love winter, Sir. Its beauty. Nothing can compare. We want it always to be winter here and maybe some time it will always be, but regretfully we need the warmth for the crops.’
‘Yes we like to be self-sufficient.’
The Woman came in and everyone fell silent as her beautiful and cold face broke into a dreadful smirk and she turned the headlamp gaze on me.’ Something rang in my ears and brushed my hands and I heard the people shh and a couple swat with their hands as if they were swatting wasps in the height of summer on a day better and cleaner and truer than this, all this I thought. Now, the people in The White Horse smiled and laughed; they shook hands, though not with me, and some kissed languorously. It was wretched. Slowly they licked their lips. Something rose in me. I screeched at them, ‘You wretches, you beasts’ but of course they were these things and happily so and what could I do.
Once, early in the morning, Beelzebub arose,
With care his sweet person adorning,
He put on his Sunday clothes.
‘The Devil’s Walk’, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1812
I walked out with them laughing behind me, climbed up although it was dark, feeling hands brushing about my ankles. I truly thought of them as hands now. They were desperate but somehow, I did not feel sorry for them. I have already begun to show you that though I felt disgust at the lecherous and unbroken behaviour of the people in The White Horse, I am not sure I ever cared greatly for others’ suffering. Perhaps I was always a good, a practical and ready fit for the village of Stowton. I walked sideways and up and stumbled. Below me, I saw that the church had been opened and could see some people going to it, lights on, but dimly twinkling. It was late now. I knew I was not alone.
She was there. Walking, but she only looked at me. She walked ahead, behind, to one side: I was not sure. Sometimes I thought she was in all places at once. Wild eyes and a broad smile. Still things wreathed, swirled around my ankles, calves and she said something in strange words, then I heard her call, from somewhere, ‘Go away. Stop complaining. Go your rest. You are wretches. This is not your world now. ‘
She was suddenly beside me, rubbing my arms. I was shivering. Stupidly, I had left my overcoat in the pub. Her hands were colder than my cold flesh as she rubbed me deliciously warm. She was wearing a long coat, soft fur, old fashioned, white, and from a deep pocket she brought out a narrow flask and said, ‘Dear Sir. You are so cold, and I am worried you could fall; please drink this. The wind whips up here and we are used to it, so we are prepared.’
I cannot remember exactly the order in which it happened, but I know that the lights in the church below grew brighter, seeming to be right in front of me, dazzling, I felt her batting her hands behind her and, once, it was as if she was peelings things off me that coiled around my ankles, my calves, thighs. Long and flexible fingers. Cold, cold fingers. Blue; cyanotic. I don’t know how I knew they were blue. The lip of the warm flask was on my mouth and I drank, before I knew what I was doing. It was a rich wine, an unusual taste, and spiced. Glorious. There was a bitter aftertaste, but even this had a velvet depth on my palate, in my throat, my chest, if such a paradox can be imagined. Now, my head was befuddled; for a while I did not know where I was and thought that I might be dreaming, back in the lodgings; clawing to come away or crying to dream again, I did not know. Again, she was behind, around, holding me, pulling that cloud of red hair, refulgent even in the darkness, its own fire. Then I knew that we were walking up the hill, above the ancient crop terraces, the spits of chalk and, below, the crop fields were rippling, just visible.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘You will learn to see things, tiny things, movements, even in the darkness. I love the winter. I wish that it would always be winter. Suddenly I was aware of a prickling at my fingertips: the edges of yarrow, seed pods, haws, and hips, piqued by the settling frost: hard edges, soft textures. We were on the escarpment, then by the horse and she was pulling me along and telling me the horse would soon run, ‘Won’t you my darling, my sweetheart’ and she smoothed the chalk brow of that still horse and pulled me to her. I craved more of that rich sweet wine, and she laughed and filled my mouth, chanting, and singing, I did not know what. She said, ‘Too late, too late’ and we made love, or she made love to me, the greatest loving of my life so I carry it with me now, on the chalk path, with the expansive views of the valley and where the trefoil shines in summer though I could feel its dormant strands and tendrils and I knew not how that could be, either. She said, ‘Ah,’ and we ran down The Drag as if we were flying and crossed to the church, taking a drink at the Bridewell Springs. ‘It is,’ she laughed, ‘As if I am your bride, now.’
We paused outside the church.
She took me inside. On the altar, sat two of the villagers from the pub. They were drinking and I smelled the delicious, sweet wine. There was nothing of Jesus in that church.
The Man was there, strewing the aisles with weeds. He said, ‘You drank then? And did you feel?’ He said, ‘I hate it, but I also love it. She made me drink the wine and I so wanted it. It was punishment, in part, for betraying Grace, my wife. They may all be evil here, but they have respect for some things.’ They all laughed.
‘Will you’ whispered the woman in my ear, ‘join me in song and drink some more wine?’ I wished to say not but could not. ‘It is my Winter Song’
Come taste my fire
And drink, drink this all
As the spirit of solstice
Will you enthral.
Drink drink my darling
Of life and of heart
And you shall be part
Oh reader, it was dangerous and glorious. We desecrated that church. While we did, there was scratching at the door and scraping at lower windows and then, in the nave, above the font I saw something entirely terrible. Faces at the window above. Above Jesus and his disciples, the lamb, there were awful faces, rising from the gloom outside and, like in an old story which was once read by the Praelector by the fire at Christmas in Senior Common Room at St John’s College, I could now see their horrible hands across their chests as they mouthed unintelligible things at me, at The Woman, at the people brightly gallivanting in the church.
‘They cannot come in,’ she said and laughed. ‘This is a holy place!’
‘Who are they?’
‘Poor fool, have you not guessed?’
Now I saw The Man. ‘They want their hearts back. They want to be alive. I am sure you felt them, on the escarpment and while you walked. Writhing around your legs. They are an irritation but sometimes I feel sorry for them. Look in the font.’
The church had been warm, oddly so on this winter night. The stone of the font carved all around with dragons and now, I saw, decorated with seed pods and small dead things and all the natural vestiges of winter, well it was warm, impossibly so. ‘Ah, that is , too,’ she laughed. ‘I hold it in me. I hold everything in me and, as I begin my Winter Song on St Lucy’s Day, The Winter Song becomes louder and louder as more of us sing it and as I add more verses. On the twenty first we shall sing all night. You have helped me; helped us all. In those pretty cabinets you made and repaired, with all their compartments, we place the things we need to make this delicious wine. Herbs; dead desiccant things; spices. The villagers roast portions in their fire pits which, through delicacy, they would not mix indoors with their food. We may be monsters, Sir, but we have our standards and we are epicures. Before that, though, we drink from their veins while they are quick but nearly dead – when The Woman has command of them. It is the elixir of life. Its own fine wine.’
At this, there was much laughing…
The figures at the windows scratched louder and one reared up and released his hands and now I recognised the figure. It was old Stourbridge. He looked directly at me, his hands above his head. There was a gaping and awful hole where his heart had been and parts of his body that looked misshapen, as if he were without scaffolding: a body made of ragged silk and a melting face with an expression of abject fear upon it. He tried to call my name, but no sound ensued and what was odd was this. When The Woman told me how they killed him, over-curious, and arrogant, and took his heart and some bonds to heat and grind and put into the sweet wine of which I had just drunk, I was not horrified. I have already told you; I have been proud of my honesty in this respect, that I had never cared much about others at the best of times, but now I did not care at all. I felt The Woman stroked my back, I understood that The Man, though punished for his infidelities to which Grace his wife was not a willing accomplice – in the village it scarcely mattered as lechery and a luxuriant life were part of its beating and callous heart, even The Man though he felt cursed and had warned me to stay away, and hated this life, still loved it and was drawn forever to The Woman. She who had smelled my blood when I caught my hand in the prickly winter plants, she who had made love to me and who now gave me more rich sweet wine from the font which with She controlled and I knew it was full of the spices and herbs which the villagers collected and of ground bones and roasted hearts: from those who had strayed into the village and been lost. It took just a little, I somehow understood, and the wine gave me knowledge. It told me that Stourbridge had been right: there were bones and old entrails – had he dug further – under the round barrow on the plain by the horse: this was where they secreted the parts they did not want. Because they were clever, they could always make a case for why people had disappeared and took care to make it people about whom few cared, for such is the state of the human race.
Well now, I tell you. The human race. Pitiful things. There was one more thing I learned. was gathering for the solstice and then they would worship by the White Horse among the ditches and terraces and encircle the burial chamber and every feature of this beautiful, and blasted land. The Winter Song got longer and stronger and, through the wine, and the imbibing of the dried hearts of others, we cheated death, and were made immortal. A dark and syncretic power overarching: call her Epona, Earth, Mother Goddess or just call her the very devil, it does not matter She was ours; I now understood and was thrilled. She had made us all immortal. The Man had been made immortal against his will, which was why he suffered his melancholy and brooded, looking out across the long plain from the White Horse. There was something else and, that night, as I looked at myself, the same but so radically different, in the mirror at my guesthouse, I saw it in myself too. The eyes. I had hazel eyes, but as I watched their colour darkened and shifted. I knew this was because of those whom I had imbibed; I had eaten them, and I might in future drink, too. To be true, I found the instability alluring and, of course, before I lay down to a sleep of pleasurable and horrific dreams – the last pulses of my conscience, I suppose – I looked at myself again. Now they were blue. The same had been true of the people in the church; of the villagers; within them the last vestiges of the , consumed and lost-hearted.
It indeed appeared to Reason as if desire was cast out, but the Devil’s account is, that the Messiah fell, and formed a heaven of what he stole from the abyss.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The Voice of the Devil, William Blake, 1790.
I said to her, ‘How many have you killed and eaten?’ and she kissed me hard. There was one more thing. The church clock struck midnight and she said, ‘Listen’. I heard rustling, a kind of tearing noise and then the sound of hoof taps, galloping at first, then a trot. Splashing. She led me into the churchyard, standing on a grave and dancing and showed me the White Horse drinking at the Bridewell springs. ‘Every night, at midnight he hears the church clock strike and uncouples himself from the hill. He is thirsty, and especially so at this time of year. He is my darling and very old, as I am, as many of us are here and you have noticed the language, the odd formality of The Man. Ah a Victorian. He will never lose his upright character and his deference, and you will always be Sir to him. The time slips and loops make this village so extraordinary, don’t you think?’
I had to agree. She led me to the White Horse, kissed him and climbed on his back, rode him about the fields and bridleways and back up to the top of the hill, red and white in the early hours. Do you know that when the Winter Song is at its zenith, all the horses that can, in the county of Wiltshire, so uncouple and come to drink at the Bridewell springs?
The Man was there. ‘I would,’ he said, ‘have told you this part of the story, but it is yours now.
Wynter Wakeneth al my Care
[MS. Harl. 2253. f. 49r]
Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare.
Ofte y sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.
Anonymous, c. 1300
Approaching a wonderful short day
Oh these days.
Delirious short days and long, long nights. That is the exquisite irony of all this, for as The Winter Solstice tells us of nights shortening and days lengthening, what we pray for is darkness.
Rich aphotic pools of it. Oh.
As we approached the solstice, more wine was made, braziers smoldered day and night, our festivity. I ate little but drank and loved most and the psychic portions of those we consumed writhed around my legs, the things The Man had once been frightened of, I batted my hands behind me to push them away and once I said, ‘Boo’ to poor old Stourbridge. We all hear Her Winter Song lengthening. Many are buried under the barrow, but not only there. In the full graves of those no-one misses and in the deepest ridges of the escarpment. Tidily and resolutely done after a bloody butchering, a drink – then beautiful housekeeping and sweet wine.
Come taste my fire
And drink, drink this all
As spirit of solstice
Will you now enthral.
Drink drink my darling
Of life and of heart
And you shall be part
Imbibe it my sweet ones
And drink from a vein,
Take deepest pleasure
From others’ small pain.
Grow in the winter
The best of the year
Grow in your foulness
Your goddess is here.
And as it grew dark, by four o’clock in the afternoon and we had made love all day, each with each, we ascended to the top together and sat and sang quietly in the darkness, held hands, pinched thumbs and as we walked up The Drag, embraced the beautiful forms of nature on the shortest day and in the sharp cold. We licked leaves, touched the feathers of yarrow, felt the texture of bark and, when our fingers were pricked by the briars, we let one another sip the precious drops. I remembered The Man binding my hand and thought that perhaps it was, as with all else, an awakening in him of some wretched conscience. He was never, in the years after this in which I knew him, quite without it and was the least popular person in the village. I was, myself, extremely popular and enjoyed the vanity of this. In The White Horse I would enact grotesque parodies of my teaching days and the villagers would play along, pretending to be my colleagues, or particularly stupid students. It had always been a fetish of mine to have my college gown with me when I travelled and so I wore it then and entertained them.
But as I was saying, up we went. On the way we had drunk from the Bridewell spring which seemed to be its own enchantment. Revived, we sat and listened to The Woman speak in a language or languages I did not know and yet I understood everything she said. And then we would sing. There were many verses now
Come taste my fire
And drink, drink this all
As spirit of solstice
Will you now enthral.
Drink drink my darling
Of life and of heart
And you shall be part
Imbibe it my sweet ones
And drink from a vein,
Take deepest pleasure
From others’ small pain.
Grow in the winter
The best of the year
Grow in your foulness
Your goddess is here.
Be still my children
And then we shall ride
Ride on forever
And never have died.
Warmth in our bodies
From sugared dark wine
A Winter Song lengthens
And shall you entwine
And on it went, countless verses, evolving, growing stronger. At midnight in the longest night, we would hear the rustle of the horse and run with it to the Bridewell Spring, and, on this night, it was not alone: the other horses in the county, far, far more ancient than you realise and before that I knew, gathered together. They are solid, glowing white. We ride them throughout the night and we are strong, so strong.
Now I fele hit is þe fende, in my fyue wytte3,
Þat hat3 stoken me þis steuen, to strye me here;
It is most cursed kirk that ever I entered.”
Þis is a chapel of meschaunce, þat chekke hit by-tyde,
Hit is þe corsedest kyrk, þat euer i com inne!
(Now I feel it is the fiend -the devil -in my five wits that has covenanted with me so that he may destroy me. This is a chapel of misfortune—evil betide it! It is the most cursed church that ever I came in)
Gawain and the Green Knight, late 14th-century
I am happy
I am a devil, and I am happy
Perhaps you thought, as you began to read, that this was, above all, the tale of The Man, but now you see it is not. It is just as much my own story. This is where I now live, in Stowton, beneath the hill, the White Horse and the plains which tower above me. I walk on them and love them, and I have little need of anything else. Sometimes I meet The Man there. Occasionally, something in my heart allows me to feel sorry for him and recollect the day when I first met him, but generally I do not. My eternal heart is happy, and it is cold. I do not care to see his pangs of conscience, while I greet the clouds of gregarious Adonis butterflies with joy. The Man and I pass the time of day, I sometimes doff my hat at the place where my old colleague’s guts and bones are buried and sometimes I smile at that. Would he have taken professional pride to know that, rather than just worm food, he was part of the spell and story of something beautiful and everlasting? Would knowing that it was so dreadful have quelled any pride? He must have been frightened in his last moments, but so be it. What a fitting burial for an archeologist and one interested in this place that he should be interred in the site below the iron age tumulus and near our gorgeous loci of worship in the deep night. How glorious.
I shall ask him, when I see him holding his hands across his chest again. Perhaps he is even part of me. I recall that he had piercing blue eyes and sometimes these are my eyes, too.
And how glorious for me, too. I believe in the love that twists and turns your mind. As I told you, I used to be a sceptical man, but now I am changed.
The village looks up at the old settlement and has turned its back on the world as The Woman begins her Winter Song and the fading light of solstice glances off the horse, before the light is gone and the horse stretches, ready for its daily refreshment.. A laugh rises up, perhaps a cry, then the smell of sweet and heated wine fills the street. How delicious! Someone new and I must ask from where. At midnight, as the clock at Stowton church strikes, the horse will uncouple itself from the hill and come down to the spring to drink. I will never leave here and, like Stowtun, I have turned my back on the world and my cold eternal heart is glad.
Before I left my post at Cambridge University, I handed in no further information to complete the research work of the missing Stourbridge; instead, I wrote a paper on the thirteen White Horses carved on the glorious uplands in the county of Wiltshire. It was my firm hope that something might, in future years, come of it. Of those thirteen horses, only eight are visible and I impressed on my former department the importance of having a complete record of these horses and for undergrowth to be cleared and the horses recut and scoured. They are a vital part of England’s history, I said. It seemed wrong that such a superb job was done of retaining earthworks in the county, yet the horses were neglected or entirely forgotten; I amassed the evidence for early dates for these creatures and explained how some of the horses were originally beaked and likely dragons. My paper was not innocent and not only of scholarship. I wanted to know what might, one day, ensue if all the horses could be free and if other villages could have the tremendous opportunity, irritations of the psychic portions of those necessary to their nourishment notwithstanding, to live a life as we do here. But most of all, it felt right, moral even – when looked at from a certain point of view – that each horse should be free and, like our Stowton beast, be able to drink at the local spring or water course. How parched they must be!
Oh, how fine our Magick. How beautiful is the Winter Song above all? How evil and yet how terribly beautiful.
The sky is red tonight. It is late. I hear hoof taps and I am replete. Look into my eyes if you like. They are cold but even in this darkness, do you see their changing colour? Is it not fine?