This story was written for Christmas 2002
The Mistletoe Bride
It’s the custom in these parts to play Hide and Seek on Christmas Eve. My new husband wishes to prolong the chase. I am his caught thing, but he has not had me yet. He says that after dinner, when we have eaten our fill, and before supper, when we shall sit round and tell a wintry tale, all the ladies present shall hide, and all the gentlemen present shall seek them.
It is a moment for a stolen kiss. It is a moment outside of time. We wear our masks. We hide.
It is my wedding night. The custom of these parts is for the new bride to marry on Christmas Eve. It is an holy time, but glowing with strange lights. It is not yet Christ’s day; it is still the day of unexpected visits and mummery.
My dress is white, with a tiny red stain; stain of berries, stain of robin red breast, stain of my maidenhead. My husband chooses where the stain shall be. Mine is over my heart.
I come from wild country though I am gentle born. My husband is double my age at thirty-four. He tells me I am as near an animal as humankind can be. He means it well, thinking only that I travel without trace and fall without a mark. I am light-boned.
He loves my waist, slender as a rope. He says my hands and feet are as delicate as a web. He calls me his spun thing, and one morning he gently unwound my hair and kissed me.
I am my father’s youngest daughter, and had been warned of a convent life. My dowry is small, but my husband is rich, and cares nothing for his wife’s jewels. He would rather I shine beside him, than glint dully behind the Church walls.
I was glad to travel this way, though I came on horseback and not by coach. The land is white- covered, bedded down under the snow. My horse’s bridle was traced with frost.
My breath was thick from the riding; it steamed the air in evaporating cones. I fancied I could read sentences in the white breath of my mouth. It was as though I was talking to myself in a vaporous language no one else understood. My breath formed words – LOVE.
BEWARE. The game amused me through the long icicle of our journey. As we rode, my husband stood up in his stirrups, and cut a low bunch of mistletoe from an oak tree, as we passed through the Bowland forest. He fashioned it into a crown and hung it on the pommel of his saddle. He said it was for me, when we married. He called me his mistletoe bride.
I looked sideways at him, so confident and happy. I was shy and gentle, and I liked his certainties and his easy manners. He made me feel safe, though I am nervous by nature.
Nervous as a hare after harvest. I need cover. My husband said he would cover me. All his men laughed and I blushed. But he is not unkind.
As we rode, my childhood self rode with me for part of the way. Then at a crossroads, she turned her horse, and waved goodbye. I had thought of my life at home, and nothing else, for miles and miles. I knew that I was leaving a house and a family, but I was leaving myself too. I wept a little when she had gone, and my maid thought I was tired, and held my hand.
There were other selves who disappeared on that bleak road: My free, careless, unconsidered self – the one I am when alone, could not come with me, though she tried.
The more my soon-husband talked amiably of my duties as his lady, the more I felt myself caught in a long day of orders to give, and visits to receive. It would not be fitting for the Lord’s wife to throw a cloak over her shoulders and run out into the rain.
But this was growing up, and surely nothing to fear. A new self was waiting to meet me. The person I would become was standing at the castle gate.
Is that her – looking older, graver, darker? She nodded to me as I rode over the tongue of the drawbridge. She did not smile.
I loved the music and the dancing. My new husband held my hand and whispered to me that he would always find me, wherever I hid, He told me he could scent me. He said he was my gentle hunter. He said I should have run of the house where I pleased. It was my house. No harm could fall to me there.
Then the music stopped and he clapped his hands. Laughing, the men covered their faces and began to count out loud, while we ladies ran giggling and chattering down corridors long as sleep.
I did not know any of the ways. The heavy candles in the mullions stood like servants, but they hardly lit the dark stone. I chased alongside a girl of my own age, who seemed to map every twist and stair. We came to a quiet landing, where a pair of doors was stood open onto a deep room. I hesitated and looked in. She called me, but still I hesitated and looked in.
The bed was carved and turned back. There were petals thrown over the pillow, the last of the roses, kept white and fresh for tonight. On the identical tables at each side of the bed, was a copper holder and a fresh taper. The tapers were not lit, only the light of the fire showed me the scene.
I walked in shyly, on tiptoe, because I knew without knowing, that this was the bridal chamber. This is where he would bring me when he found me. This was where we could begin our life together.
Laid on the turned back sheets, like sleeping knights, were two garments, both white, though his had embroidery of leopards and hinds. It made me smile to see us already at peace and asleep, and I wondered how many years we would lie side by side, until time claimed us. On the pillow, resting on my shift, was the circle of mistletoe – mysterious, poisonous, white as death, green as hope.
Impulsively, I took the pendant from my neck – it had been my father’s gift as I left his house. I put the pendant on my husband’s garment, and kissed it before I turned away.
I was trying to tell him that I was his. There would be no need for him to claim me.
Full of happiness, I ran out of the room, quick as a shadow. No one was near by, but I felt that if he came anywhere, he would come here. I would hide in a cupboard or a chest, not far away.
There was an old oak trunk at the end of the passage. I had to struggle to lift the lid, I could barely see what I as doing, then, as if to help me, the moon slanted through the mullion, as pale as my skin, as clear as my happiness.
I looked out. The strange figure was still at the tongue of the drawbridge. I saw the fast moving clouds and the frozen smile of the moat. This was my home. I would never leave.
As I stood, I heard voices spiralling towards me. Someone was coming round and round the turret stair. With all my strength I heaved open the lid and jumped in. It was deeper than I though, almost three feet down, and I could sit quite comfortably while I waited.
Yes, it was husband’s voice. He was talking to a woman, but I did not recognise her tones. He said ‘No, not in there,’ and I guessed he must have searched for me in our chamber. With a note of peevishness, she said ‘Where then? Where? Haven’t we come far enough?’ There were footsteps coming towards me. Soon he would lift the lid.
‘Here’ he said. ‘Here, out of the light.’
There was silence, or something like silence, if kisses and touches are silence. I pushed as hard and as quietly as I could and put my eyes to the slit I made under the lid of the chest. The moon showed me everything.
My husband had his hands on the breasts of a lady I had seen at the feast. He was pressing them, and lowering his head to kiss the nipples. Her hands were round his thighs, anxiously, eagerly. unbuttoning him to where he sprang.
I wanted to stop looking. I had seen this before, in daylight and in my dreams. I had seen the rough hands of grooms on the soft bodies of our servants. I watched him and I wanted him. He was my husband, I was in the second of throwing back the lid and confronting them, when he turned her round and pushed her front-down onto the box. My hands flew away, and I heard a click, and then the sound of him above me.
The heavy box withstood the assault. I put my hand up, right under her belly. I ran my hand along the lid to the place where he must have entered her. I breathed with them both, and waited.
This was my wedding night.
I was beginning to feel hot and faint. There was too little air. I had to get out. I heard them moving away, and I turned on all fours and pushed up at the lid with my back.
My body sweated in terror. I took a deep breath of what air was left, air as dry and old as my happiness had become, and then I painfully rolled over and used both my feet to attack the lid.
It was yielding, it was yielding, but it wouldn’t give. The little click I had heard, so innocent and brief, had been the lock, unused for who knows how many years?
I started to shout. Surely he would hear me? Surely someone would come? But why would he come to his bridal chamber without his bride? I remembered what he said – that he would always find me. Always could wait until tomorrow. I needed him now.
I must have fainted, because when I woke I was sitting with my dolls in the schoolroom at home, and I hadn’t lost my childhood self at all, I had become her. I was singing a little song about the sun rising over the river, and suddenly I realised, with a terror I had never known, that I would never see the sun rising again. Behind my eyes was a glowing red ball, and my body was like mist evaporating.
LOVE. BEWARE. The words filled the smaller and smaller space of the chest, the smaller and smaller space of my chest. With my last breath I … With my last breath I…
Didn’t die. I do not know what final power aided me. I hardly know what happened, but the lid opened for me like an Aladdin, and I crawled out and lay on the dark stone.
When I found my strength, a single purpose filled me; to get away. I unfastened my wedding dress, and threw it into the chest and closed the lid tight. I went into the bridal chamber, where our effigies still slept, and took warm clothes of my husband’s from his closet.
The clothes were too big, but my body was my own. I dressed quickly, and stole some precious gold and silver stuff, and a necklace, to sell. Some instinct took me back down the passage past my emptied coffin, and I found a narrow staircase, leading down, and down.
This staircase brought me down the side of the castle to an underground route that led beyond the drawbridge. As I came out into the light, I saw the dark and hooded figure turn to me. I shook my head. Not here, not you, not death They say that no one can choose the day of their death, but perhaps there is a day when we can choose life. In the white, still frost, that hardened the stars and brightened the ground, I wanted to live at least one more day. Cold or hunger might kill me, but I would not die of suffocation. I would have suffocated in his bed as surely as in his box.
There was a star straight above me. I followed it in a swoon of cold, until the dawn bells rang Christmas Day.
Years later I heard the story. I had become a legend. Yes, me, the Brewer at the Convent of the First Miracle. It is my work to turn water into wine.
The nuns took me in, washed me and dressed me, and called me their Christmas gift.
Every year, they said, there is some mystery that cannot be explained. They asked for no explanation, and I gave none.
I am happy here, not enclosed at all, because if my daily round is limited, my spirit roams where it will.
Then one snowy day, just at the shortest day of the year, a man came by to wheel and deal for barrels of my winter Meade. While he was eating with me, he mentioned that the Lord of the Hall was to be married, after three years of mourning for his lost bride.
She is often to be seen on a frosty night, haunting the battlements of the castle where she fell. She fell into the moat, and the cold covered her over again, before anyone could find the place.
Then he leaned forward confidentially, and whispered to me that there was another story too, told by servants, amongst themselves; Her wedding dress had been found in an old chest, her body utterly decayed. ‘When they lifted out the dress, her body was nothing but dust. Dust!’ As he was going on his way, I asked him to deliver a gift from the nuns to the Lord, in honour of his wedding day. It was a barrel of my best wine, but before he took it, I went out into the woods and cut down a mistletoe bough.
Carefully, I pinned it to the barrel. Let the Lord of the Hall make of it what he will
. Mistletoe; the ancient plant of winter life. The green amongst the white. Green as hope, white as death. Mysterious. Poisonous. Self -renewing.
In a few days it would be Christmas; the day of birth and beginning. I had lost one life and found another.
Nothing is as it seems. That had been bitter to me once. But isn’t it the meaning of the story of a stable and a star?
In the cry of a baby, in the course of a star, in the trust of strangers, in the telling of a tale, there is hope.
Like others, I had found it.