My job as surveyor took me far and wide across the county, and was not so demanding that I was unable to use this opportunity to listen to and record a diverse range of old tales and local legends. One such tale offered an interesting reflection of the relationship between people and the fae, or so-called fair folk.
It happened that I was performing a preliminary survey for a spur of the Leeds-Settle railway line and decided to spend the night in a small village that was then well off the beaten track, although as a result of my surveying that status was not to last long. It was tucked away, deep into one of the lesser-known dales, and just the sort of place where you might expect stories to roll down the surrounding hillsides and collect around the village pump, to be told and re-told, perhaps around a cheery hearth, whether at home or inside the local inn.
Which, fortunately for me, had a bed for the night and served decent food and even better beer. Upon entering the public bar, I spotted an old dear sat by herself near the fire. Introducing myself, I asked if I might sit across from her, whereupon she agreed, grudgingly, although less so when I signalled to the barmaid to top up her flagon.
My habit on these occasions is to begin with some general questions about local history, perhaps focusing on some memorable event, although in this particular case there was precious little to work with. But I had noticed, on riding in, the epitome of a tumble-down cottage at the very edge of the hamlet that was notable for the quantity of iron horseshoes nailed all about its front door. So, I began with that observation and the old woman told me, with some pride, that the place was hers and had belonged to her mother before her and her mother before that. Indeed, she said, the cottage was already old when her grandmother lived in it but it was she who fixed it up and made it more than merely habitable. Evidently her grandmother was a formidable lady and it seemed my drinking companion was more than happy to wax lyrical on her numerous virtues, as well as her foibles. But my ears were pricked in particular when, at the end of this litany, she informed me that her grandmother had ‘beat the fae at their own game’.
I shall attempt to reproduce the story she told me, but shall make no effort to capture her country accent, one that I had become attuned to in my travels but which has since been lost to the pace of modern life.
“She was also known far and wide as a Wise Woman was my grandmother. Someone that people could go to, not only for whatever ailed them but also for help and advice on more general problems. Some people might wonder that she was so open, given what this country has passed through but no witchfinder ever came up this way and likely would have been given short shrift and no mistake. Anyway, one day one of the local elders came to see her and after the usual cup of tea and a slice of something tasty he told her people were getting really concerned about the number of changelings that had appeared in the village over the past few years.”
Here dear reader I interjected, for clarity’ sake: ‘By ‘changeling’ you mean, or rather they meant, fairies substituted for people’s infants?’ ‘Yes of course!’ She replied, a little snappily, as if it were obvious. And indeed, perhaps it was to her and her neighbours, still living as they were in times past, or so I assumed.
“She herself had noticed the same, although she kept her own counsel as to the reason. But it did seem as if each year, more and more of the children born around those parts, and we’re not talking that many to begin with, were little changelings. And although she did her best to stop the villagers ‘testing’ them to see if they really were, in all sorts of horrible ways, or even leaving them out in the fields for the cold or whatever to take, she could see how difficult it was for families who were already barely scraping by to have to look after a child who was forever mooning off across the fields, or stopping in their chores to count the number of oat flakes spilled on a table top ... So, she promised to do what she could to help.
And so, a week or so later, she got all the villagers together and laid out her plan “For Dealing A Surprise Blow to the Fae”, as she put it. She explained that it was a plan that would be long in the undertaking but that had to be followed to the letter if it were to succeed. First, she told Billy Thackroyd, a local farmer’s lad, that he was to go to the next village over and start wooing Amy Wainwright, the daughter of the innkeeper there. Now she knew that Amy was looking for a husband and hadn’t been much impressed by those local lads who had tried to press their suit ... Whereas Billy was not only sturdy as you’d expect from someone working the fields all day, he was also kind and could entertain a decent thought or two. Billy himself wasn’t so keen as he’d not given much thought to settling down but he could see that something needed to be done so he resolved to help his people. And of course, once he walked over the hills and down into the next dale and been served a pint for his troubles by Amy herself, he was pretty much smitten.
Anyway, he did that every week as he was told, even taking her posies and small gifts, much to the amusement of the local lads. But Amy was quite taken in return and soon enough they were plighted. Now, at this point, things got a little tricksy as my Gran would say, because as long term a plan as it already was they couldn’t really wait for things to take their natural course. So, Amy was persuaded to start filling out her clothes at the front and eventually was walking about with an old cushion shoved up her dress. Now some nasty mouths cast aspersions and some even spread it about that Amy must’ve been impregnated before she even met Billy, who was seen to be a fool then, so both took some of the mud that was thrown at them. But folk around here knew what was happening and went along with it, so that soon enough, when Gran gave the word, everyone started fussing about and fetching water and rags for mopping when Amy started clutching her belly and moaning.
Here came the really clever bit but that was also when the whole plan was balanced on a sharp ridge. Gran took Amy into her house and firmly shut the door and drew all the curtains. Then to spare Amy, since dealing with the fae could be seriously dangerous, Gran gave her a draft to send her to sleep, after she’d made a great show of pretending to give birth, with cries and wails and all sorts of imprecations against Billy. Which at least gave him fair warning!
Once Amy was slumbering, Gran whipped out the cushion and laid in Amy’s arms a dolly she had fashioned out of corn stalks and old bits of cloth. Then she sat back in her old chair by the bedside to wait, pretending to be asleep herself. Before too long she heard a rustling and a skittering in the chimney and from under her bonnet which she’d pulled down over her face she could see two fae walking out of the fireplace, bold as you please and not a speck of soot on ‘em. Both went over to the bed but while one snatched the corn dolly out of Amy’s arms and ran back up the chimney, the other took its place and as Gran watched, peeking from under her bonnet, it changed and moulded itself into the form of a human baby.
Well, Gran waited until the scrabbling noise from the chimney had stopped and then she waited some more, but knew she had to act before Amy woke up. So, she jumped up out of her chair, tipped her bonnet back and, pointing a finger at the little fae changeling, cried ‘Fae, fae! I see smoke over the hill! Your houses are burning, your people are running ...!!’ At that, the fae changed back, jumped out of Amy’s arms, shouting ‘What will become of my wife and children?’ And then it ran over to the fireplace and was up the chimney and gone in a trice.
Now, that would be just a slight trick and no more were it not for what else Gran had done. Inside the dolly, tightly bound up in the cloth and cornstalks, she had placed what she called a ‘device’ and covered the whole thing in one of her spells, so the fae would think they had a human child. And once the dolly was taken into their domain, Gran’s device was triggered as it were and started acting up in all kinds of horrible ways so instead of the pretty human child that the fae thought they’d stolen, they had this little dolly running around, tearing up their beautiful dresses and clothes, stamping in their food and generally ruining things. Apparently some of the fae tried to lay hold of it and make it stop all it’s destruction but Gran had placed some really strong spells on it and it rampaged even through their fairy palaces, to the consternation of their king and queen.
Gran heard about all of this when, after a short while, a prince of the fae, sent to represent his people, appeared in her cottage and begged her to end the spells and put a stop to the dolly’s trouble-making. In return Gran made them promise not to bother the village any longer and especially, not to snatch any more human babies and put changelings in their place. And so the prince of the fae swore on all they held dear and Gran snapped her fingers and said the words and the dolly flew apart in a puff of smoke and cornstalks.
It seems then that the fae kept their word, as over the years that followed, there was no more talk of changelings or even any fairy sightings. Billy and Amy got married of course and soon had a child for real. And Billy’s cousin, seeing how happy the pair were, decided to make his own way over the hills, looking for a wife and before too long, young folk from a number of the villages round about started mixing and marrying and having children.
All this Gran told me, not long before she passed away. And when I asked her if she would tell me the spells she had used or how she had made her device that had caused so much trouble for the fae, she just tapped the side of her nose and smiled and asked me about my own young man, who was from even further afield.”
At that point, the old woman, as she now was, broke off her narrative and fixed me with a steely look before continuing,
“So no doubt you came here expecting some resistance to this new railway line of yours, from a bunch of narrow minded folk locked away in their little dales village ... But I’ll tell you, we’re not so closed off that we can’t see the virtue of connecting with the rest of the world. My Gran knew that but she also knew that you can’t just instruct these folk on what they should or shouldn’t do. You have to tell a story that they can understand and if you tell it right, well, you’ll get to where you wanted to go in the end without any fuss.”
And with that she swallowed down the last of her beer, nodded at me and left. As I sat and pondered her tale, fixing it in my mind so I could write it all down in the privacy of my room later, I asked myself whether her grandmother’s duplicity and manipulation had been justified. Perhaps so, I concluded. After all, if certain terrible practices come about because of fairy tales, then maybe they can only be stopped with a story of similar ilk. And on that thought, I too finished my drink and made for my bed.
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Steven French (Twitter) is semi-retired and lives in West Yorkshire. He had a couple of stories appear at eastoftheweb, another in Bewildering Stories and a piece of flash fiction will shortly be published in Literally Stories.