It was a little after dawn on a damp and chilly May morning. The air had not yet been warmed by the sun, which laboured weakly through the heavy grey cloud. A lone figure strode along an overgrown pathway at the edge of a ploughed field. The elderly woman was retracing the pilgrimage she made four times every year on the days she considered sacred: Candlemas, May Day, Lammas and All Hallows. This was May Day, the beginning of summer,even though it still felt like March.
Her walking stick thrust determinedly into the ground with each step as she continued her journey towards a gate in the corner of the field. In her other hand she carried a garland of may blossoms and yew greenery.
This was to be her offering on this May Day, the symbolic transition between spring and summer.
To the younger members of the village she was known unkindly as ‘addled Olwyn’. Her weather beaten face etched with as many lines as the ninety years of her life. Although short in stature she was wiry and filled with a sprightly energy, the only concession to age being the wooden walking stick she was never seen without. Her diminutive frame was topped by a shock of mostly white hair which echoed with the memory of the fiery red it once possessed.
The gate stood in the corner of the meadow, between two verdant green hedgerows. May Field lay beyond it, sloping downwards towards a small copse within which lay Olwyn’s destination, Little Ash Spring. Arriving at the gate, Olwyn was surprised to see a wooden board attached to it with ‘Private Land, Keep Out’ painted on it in large red letters.
‘We’ll see about that’, Olwyn said to herself as she rested her walking stick against the hedge and placed the garland over the gate post. Her bony fingers then set to work on a knotted piece of string tied to keep the gate locked. With a successful flourish she pulled the string loose and, ignoring the sign, opened the gate. She strode through resolutely before stopping briefly to carefully close the gate behind her and retie the string. Retrieving her garland and stick she marched onwards towards the clump of trees in the distance.
Arriving at the copse she discovered a thin piece of barbed wire strung between the tree trunks with another ‘Keep Out’ sign attached. She pressed the wire to the ground with her stick and carefully stepped over it.
After a few footsteps Olwyn found herself at Little Ash Spring. This was so named due to the trees that predominantly made up the copse. The spring itself was about two metres across surrounded by a low earthen bank covered in lush grass.
Growing out of the bank and overhanging the pool was a lone hawthorn, its branches adorned with multicoloured ribbons and pieces of cloth. These strips of cloth represented decade upon decade of veneration at the pool as locals and wayfarers alike dipped their votive offerings into the water before clothing the hawthorn with them. Hawthorns had ancient associations with healing and worship, similar properties were believed to reside in the pure water that arose at springs. The faded pieces of cloth embodied the hope that long held wishes would be granted as they slowly disintegrated into the air.
Her white hair glowing in the dappled light, Olwyn carefully lowered the garland into the water and offered a silent prayer. However, this prayer was not to a saint or martyr, but to the spirit of the place instead. She believed this location was a gateway between the natural world and the one beyond. This was a sacred place to her that should be treated with respect, and where the ancient traditions should be fulfilled with offerings made at set times through the year.
She settled herself down onto a moss velveted fallen log that lay just in front of the pool. She closed her eyes and listened to the sounds of nature surrounding her. Bird song floated merrily down through the branches arching above her head. This was such a calm and happy spot she thought to herself as she let the contented feeling wash over her.
Minutes turned into an hour until her reverie was interrupted by the harsh sound of a tractor drawing closer. Undeterred, she picked up her walking stick from the low bank, raised herself to her feet, and retraced her steps through the small huddle of trees. A tractor with a chemical tank and spraying arms extended lumbered its way across the field like some giant alien insect. It stopped as Olwyn emerged from the cover of the trees.
‘How’re you young George?’ she called, as the large man climbed laboriously down from the tractor. She always referred to the middle aged George Hunt as young George despite his grey flecked hair and increasing girth revealing his true age. She knew he never seemed to have an interest in farming whilst his father was alive but had recently inherited the land. He now seemed set on making his own mark on the farm in a vigorous manner, attacking the land as if it had to be beaten into submission.
‘What are you doing here?’ he asked accusingly.
Ignoring his question, Olwyn asked one of her own. ‘What’re you doing with all these signs and barbed wire?’
‘You do know you’re trespassing on my land again Olwyn?’ he replied.
‘Trespassing!’ she exclaimed pulling herself up to her full four feet six inches of height. ‘You know very well this all used to be common land ‘til your pa swindled it off the village’. A map at the local council office that had shown a different boundary had strangely gone missing in the sixties, coincidentally, at the same time that George Hunt Senior had been a councillor and was rumoured to be dating one of the young female assistants who worked at the office.
‘That’s slander Olwyn and that kind of talk can land you in court if you’re not careful,’ he warned.
‘What do you think you’re doing with all these signs of yours?’ she repeated.
‘This land’s mine and I’ll do what I want with it,’ he said stubbornly.
‘You know that’s not the straight truth now don’t you George?’ she said.
‘Got to be wary of tree diseases Olwyn,’ he explained, ‘there’s that Ash disease, these trees may be infected. I’m thinking they may have to come down,’ he continued.
‘Those trees are healthier than you and me put together, and you know it!’ she retorted.
‘I’m also sick and tired of nutters walking across my land, churning up my fields,’ Hunt said, emphasising the word nutters and taking a step closer towards Olwyn.
‘Nobody churns up your land, we always stay at the edges whenever we pay our respects to the Goddess’.
‘I’m going to drain this field and fill in that damned spring,’ he said with an edge of anger creeping into his voice, ‘this copse will be gone and so will that spring, that’ll stop you cranks coming up here.’
Olwyn looked at him incredulously. ‘The water in that spring’s been revered by our village for generations, we’ve always visited it, even yer Ma used to ‘tip she got sick of your ol’ man’s wandering eye and left.’
‘Leave my family out of this!’ he said flushing red faced.
‘This village has every right to come up here, we do no harm. It’s been done for generations back, it’s our tradition,’ Olwyn stated firmly.
‘Well it won’t be when I’ve had it drained,’ Hunt snorted, ‘you won’t have much to come up here for when the land’s been cleared and sold to developers! Now get lost, as I’ve told you countless times before, you’re trespassing.’
Raising her stick, Olwyn continued, ‘Make sure you don’t bring any harm to that spring’ she stated firmly, more as an order than a request.
Before Hunt could reply, she had spun around on her heels remarkably quickly for someone of her age and marched back across the field.
‘That’s it, get lost you old witch!’ Hunt shouted at her retreating back as she disappeared through the gate and out of sight.
Two days later, Olwyn watched from behind the hedge as George Hunt choreographed a tractor and JCB into the field. They stopped next to the copse and set to work. The shovel of the digger looked like some giant metal maw biting into the earth. When the man in the mud covered overalls lifted down a chainsaw from the tractor Olwyn lowered her gaze and walked away. Simultaneously, a small bubble rose to the surface of the spring, followed rapidly by several more turning the water effervescent. The tumult began to subside slowly as the water began to drain away and a muddy puddle was all that remained. The spring was dry for the first time in centuries.
Olwyn felt a shudder run through her ancient body. She stopped and looked back towards the copse. A single tear ran down her leathery cheek; she closed her eyes and mouthed some whispered words. Slowly she continued her walk away from the field without looking back again.
Hunt’s dreams started that night. The water was everywhere, forcing its way into his mouth and nostrils, pressing relentlessly against his eyes until he was totally subsumed. He woke up drenched, not from the water of his nightmare, but from his terror induced sweat. Hunt dressed quickly and stumbled downstairs for a coffee to try and dispel the previous night with a hit of caffeine. He settled down in his favourite chair, balancing the steaming coffee on one of its leathered arms. He lay back and lit a cigarette, casually flipping the used match into the empty grate of his stone fireplace.
A large ‘drip’ echoed around Hunt’s silent living room.
He looked down as it seemed to originate from the fireplace and caught a glimpse of a second drop of water descending towards the old stone tiles that lined the hearth.
‘What the…’ He heaved himself from his chair and went down onto his knees in front of the fireplace. He watched as the mysterious trickle increased in front of his eyes. He bent closer, lowering his head under the heavy lintel of the fire to try and see where the water was coming from. As he turned his head upwards the drops hit his forehead and ran over his brow into his eyes. He was about to let out an expletive, but it was drowned in a sudden flood of water cascading down the chimney. He instinctively pulled backwards, painfully cracking his head on the stonework as he did so.
The water surged out from the fireplace in a wave that lapped around Hunt as he sat stunned on his cold flag stoned floor. He lurched upright as the water rippled around him. Pain shot through his head and he stumbled sideways into his chair. He tentatively touched the back of his head with his hand and was surprised at the smear of blood that coated his fingers. His head throbbed and the room began to spin around him as the unreal scene played out before his eyes. The entire floor of the room had disappeared under the deluge and Hunt realised he was ankle deep in the cold, dark liquid. He attempted to wade away from his chair, but another stab of pain wracked his head and the room faded away. Darkness descended as he lapsed into unconsciousness, falling backwards into his chair.
He awoke with the bitter tang of blood in his mouth and a dull ache at the back of his head. He gingerly touched the matted clump of hair on his head and immediately swore loudly as a sharp pain erupted from the spot. Wiping his eyes, he blinked and looked around the room.
He couldn’t see a drop of water. He leaned down and touched the floor and was astonished to find it was dry.
He slowly rose from his chair and stumbled to the kitchen and pulled open his freezer door. He grabbed some ice cubes and then wrapped them in a tea towel before applying them gently to his head. After holding the cold compress to his head and quickly gulping down some pain killers, Hunt glanced at his watch and swore to himself. He was supposed to be meeting the contractor in less than ten minutes to discuss the next stage of the copse clearance. He still could not understand what had happened, but would have to solve the mystery later.
Steering his tractor across the field, Hunt let out an involuntary shudder. The air in the tractor’s cabin felt thicker and the steering wheel seemed slick beneath his hands. He felt a drop of water strike his head and dribble down his face. His eyes instinctively flicked upwards and he was momentarily mesmerised by the glistening dampness on the cab ceiling.
The spell was broken as several swollen drops fell directly into his eyes. He blinked to clear the moisture away before returning his gaze to the windscreen. The outside world was a blur. The windscreen was streaming with water. Large rivulets were flowing down and over the dashboard, soaking his legs and feet.
Hunt started to panic and reached to turn off the ignition just as the tractor lurched and then pitched downwards. Hunt scrambled through the broken windscreen and collapsed onto the ground. From his prone position he surveyed the mangled remains of the tractor, its engine sputtering to a stop. The tractor had struck a pile of timber cut from the copse and then tumbled downwards, blocking the new drainage ditch.
The contractor who had been busy starting to cut back the trees in the copse had dropped his chain saw and rushed over to Hunt in disbelief.
‘Are you all right?’ he shouted helping the mud covered Hunt up out of the ditch.
‘Stop,’ Hunt mumbled in reply, still seemingly dazed.
‘Stop what?’ asked the contractor, confused. ‘Shall I call an ambulance?’ he continued, thinking Hunt must be concussed.
‘This is that damned old witch Olwyn’s doing,’ Hunt spat. He was now resigned to what he had to do. ‘Stop the felling. I won’t have peace until she’s got what she wants … we have to leave that damned copse and spring alone.’
A short distance away amongst the trees there was a sound like the ground itself was exhaling. This was followed by a trickle of water deep within the spring as it began to seep from beneath the ground, slowly rising to the surface once more.
In the field, George Hunt thought he saw a small figure disappearing behind the hedge. At that moment the sun broke through the lowering cloud, with shafts of sunlight illuminating the copse in a golden embrace. It looked like summer was finally on its way.
[M Buffrey has always had a love of mythology and the ancient world. He has a particular interest in early British traditions. He has had work published in Beyond the Pillars: An Anthology of Pagan Fantasy; Darker Times volumes 1 & 2; and Fast Forward Fiction ezine issue 13.]