What I am about to tell you happened a long, long time ago in a country far across the sea. That country is still there and there are still people in it. Some of them might even know this story, although they would not tell it the same way I am telling it today. But do not look for that place, for you would never find it. The face of the land is changed.
It was a hard, beautiful land of high purple crags and deep green valleys, bogs that would swallow a man who strayed from the hidden path and shadowed forests where the red deer ran in secret. Between forest and bog lay a wide, flat stretch of rock-dotted grass, crossed by a rutted wagon track and sprinkled with half a dozen stone and thatch cottages. The farmers who lived there eked out a meager living raising sheep for the wool that the women spun and wove into cloth, which they sold at market in the village a mile or three to the south. They scratched gardens in the poor soil, where they grew turnips and carrots and cabbages for their suppers. It was a hard life, yet no one thought of leaving, for it was their home.
East and west of this place rose two hills. The hill in the west was round and grey, bare as a skull except for a single rowan tree that grew at its very top, in the center of a small patch of grass. No one went there, for they said it was haunted. The hill in the east was green and lush, with a paved road winding up across its face from base to summit. On the top of this hill was a grand stone house, with stables and barns, fountains and gardens, and everything else that a grand house should have. It belonged to the lord of the land, yet he did not live there. He was old and found the country bleak and tiresome, and he lived in the city, far away, where things were more to his liking. Four times a year, on quarter day, his steward rode from cottage to cottage collecting rents. Whatever he got—cabbages and eggs, like as not, or perhaps a lamb or two—he took to the village and changed into money, which he sent to the city on the coach that brought the mail. So no one missed the lord or thought much about him in his absence.
Then one day a cart rolled through the village and up the rutted track. It was followed by another and yet another, and each cart was packed with foreigners, all sitting shoulder to shoulder on the slat seats, close as herring packed in a box of salt. There was a sour-faced dame with a ring of keys at her waist, and half a dozen apple-cheeked housemaids with their hair all braided up under starched caps, and a grey-haired man with muddy boots who seemed to be a gardener, and three gardener’s lads, and many more. They rolled across the land between the hills and up the paved road leading to the grand house, where the carts stopped and they all spilled out. The dame unlocked the door with one of her keys and in they went. Before long, windows were opened and linens were brought out to air, and there was such a hullabaloo of cleaning and carrying on that the farmers in the valley couldn’t help but take notice and wonder what would happen next.
Next came a horse van loaded with furniture and carpets, and silver candlesticks and all manner of beautiful things, all of which were unloaded at the grand house and brought inside by six burly footmen in livery of red and gold. Not long after that, drovers came, herding before them a flock of sheep. Everyone agreed that prettier, daintier sheep had never been seen; their fleeces were so fluffy and white that the clouds themselves could have been no fluffier and no whiter. Last of all, after about a month had passed, a magnificent black carriage with red and gold arms on the doors, drawn by a pair of matched bays, rolled through the village and up the hill. Inside the carriage was a young man in a brocade coat and a powdered wig. He carried a silver-tipped walking stick in one hand and a lace handkerchief up his sleeve, and no finer young man had been seen in those parts for many a year. It was not the lord. It was the lord’s son who, for reasons no one could fathom, had decided to come and make his home in the country among the poor folk. It was something of a surprise, but not unheard of—certainly not a cause for concern. If anything, folk thought it might be a welcome change to have a lord in residence, to look into their affairs and judge disputes that the village council could not resolve, and to do all the things a lord was supposed to do.
But soon after the young lord’s arrival, the steward came down the hill on his sway-backed mare, and it was not quarter day. From house to house he rode, and the message he brought was not good news. For the lord was giving notice, he said, that all the families in the valley were to quit their homes by the end of the month and go, he knew not where and did not care, so long as they were off his lands by the next new moon. He wanted the valley for his own sheep and the fields for his own crops. He wanted to hunt the red deer in the forest and the grey geese in the fens without let or hindrance from any other person, and he did not want to share.
So the farmers in the valley were sore in their hearts and had nowhere to turn. Some talked of moving into the village, but the village was cramped and crowded, and there was little work for people who had few skills but the weaving of wool and the tilling of soil. And how were they to do either, with the houses crammed up one by the other as they were, and nowhere to plant a garden or keep the sheep? Some had kin in distant parts and talked of going there. But it was a long, hard journey over the mountains for families carrying all they had on their backs, for who among them had so much as a cart? Or an ox to pull it, even if he had one?
Now, in one of those cottages in the land between the hills dwelt a young woman. Brenda Maddox was her name, and she lived alone, her mother and father being dead. She was a lovely girl, just nineteen, with hair as black as a raven’s wing and skin like the cream from the top of the jar, and her eyes were the deep, dark blue of the midnight sky, flecked with silver like distant stars. She worked hard all the day, as all of them did, digging in her garden patch and tending the few sheep her parents had left her. As she worked, she sang, and her voice was so sweet that people passing by would stop outside her cottage for minutes at a time, just in the hopes of hearing her. Her voice was magic, they said; and it was true that her cabbages grew bigger than most people’s, and the fleeces of her sheep were thicker, though the soil in her garden was no richer and her sheep no better fed than anyone else’s.
She was a lovely girl, supple and clean-limbed as a wild doe, and when they all gathered in the village to dance around the pole in May or light the bonfires when the harvest was brought in, all the young men would watch her dancing and wonder what it would be like if she danced the oldest dance with them. But she chose no partner, and, as it happened, no one chose her, for truth to tell they were a little afraid of her. She had a temper, did Brenda, and was free with her tongue. So did many girls, but they did not have Brenda’s magic voice. And though the magic voice was very well turned towards cabbages and sheep, no one wanted to find out what would happen if she spoke to him in anger.
When the steward came to Brenda’s cottage with his message, her eyes flashed, but she said nothing. And when the folk around her started to talk of leaving, her eyes flashed, but she held her tongue. But when the family who lived down the track from her, whose children she had seen grow from infants to stout girls and boys, began to pack up their household goods and prepare to leave their home behind, then she spoke, but it was to herself.
“Why should I leave my home,” she said, “where I was born and where my parents died, and travel a long, weary way to no one knows where, all to satisfy the whim of a man who has not seen what I have seen and does not know what I know, and cares nothing for this land or the people in it, save what he can take from it?” And she made up her mind that, lord though he was, she would confront him on this and do everything in her power to change his mind.
So Brenda brushed out her hair and put on her best shawl, the one with the long fringe in many colours, which she had bought at the market last May. And she trudged up the hill to the grand house and demanded to speak with the lord.
He saw her in a room full of beautiful things, and he was himself beautifully dressed, as if he had just come from a ball. But his eyes were hard.
And Brenda said, “This is a wicked thing you are doing, and I won’t have it.”
The lord smiled and said, “What will you give me to change my mind?”
Well, Brenda was prepared for this. She knew how men looked at her and she had already decided to do what she could, no matter the cost to herself. So she said, “Let the folk in the valley be, and I will come to your house and be your mistress, and you may treat me as you will, even though you dress me in rags and give me but scraps to eat, and make me sleep in the stables with your dogs.” For all her temper, she was a virtuous girl and the offer came hard, but she knew what a man of his sort was likely to want.
But the lord scorned her and laughed in her face and said, “Am I to take a wretched peasant into my home and into my bed, for the sake of a few others like herself? What pleasure could there be in that? Let the folk in the valley find some other dirt to scratch in, for I tell you true, as long as I live they will not scratch in mine.”
And he threw her out of the house.
But Brenda stood before the door, and she felt the earth beneath her feet and the sky above her head, and she felt her voice rise up in her, and with it she cursed him three times, saying:
“Cursed be you and cursed be your works and cursed be all that has brought you here. By my blood and my body and all that is mine, let it be so.”
And she turned and walked away from the grand house.
That night, she went to the fens and cut herself staves of willow. These she fashioned into a harp, and into it she rubbed as varnish her sweat and spit and blood, and she strung it with her own hair. Up the haunted hill she carried it. She caught down a branch of the rowan tree and bound a white ribbon ‘round it, and then she sat beneath the tree and played on her harp and sang:My heart is breaking, My soul is aching, My heart is breaking, For I have lost my home.
The moon broke through the clouds and shone down on the rowan tree, and on the thin green grass beneath it, and on the grey rock of the crags at its back. A door opened up in the rock and a man came out, kingly and tall, with hair like the sun in shadow and a face as pale as the moon above, and his eyes were not a man’s eyes. He looked at the ribbon on the branch, and he looked at Brenda with her harp.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“That the works of my enemy vanish from the earth,” she replied.
“You shall have it,” he said, “but there will be a price.”
And up from the haunted hill there rose a mist, grey and noisome, and in the mist were the shapes of foul creatures: cats with the wings of bats, and headless dogs dripping blood, and hags with long teeth. The mist went out across the valley and settled on the opposite hill, all around the grand house where the young lord lay sleeping.
“It is done,” said the kingly man, and he went back into the hill. And Brenda went home.
And the next day, when the young lord woke, all his beautiful sheep with the fleeces like clouds were lying dead in heaps, and the maggots were already at them.
Brenda brushed out her hair and put on her shawl and trudged back up the hill to the grand house.
“Have you changed your mind?” she asked. But the young lord laughed.
“What are a few sheep? I can get more,” he said.
“We’ll see about that,” said Brenda. And she went away again.
That night Brenda took her harp back up the haunted hill. She tied a red ribbon around a branch of the rowan tree and sat beneath it, looking out across the valley at the grand house. As she looked, she played upon her harp, and as she harped she sang:My heart is breaking, My soul is aching, My heart is breaking, For I have lost my home.
The door in the hill opened up and the kingly man came out.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“That the people of my enemy shall vanish from the earth, and he to be left alone.”
“Well, you shall have it,” said the kingly man. “But there will be a price.”
The noisome mist rose up from the haunted hill and crawled across the valley and settled around the grand house. And more: a storm rose up with a crash of thunder and a flash of lightning and a pouring of rain so hard it seemed no one could look up at the sky without drowning. The storm flew across the valley after the mist and settled about the grand house as the mist had done, and even as far off as she was, Brenda could hear the voices in the storm: voices hollow and cold, voices of creatures that were dead and creatures that had never been and voices of other unearthly things. But what the voices said, she could not tell.
“It is done,” said the kingly man, and he went back into the hill. And Brenda went home, not without a look or two back over her shoulder, or a shudder when she thought what she had done and what she had still to do, unless the young lord changed his mind.
The next day when the young lord woke, his house was in a shambles as if a giant had picked it up and shaken it, and in his beautiful gardens the petals had been ripped off all the flowers and the trees and shrubs had been torn up by the roots. He went from room to room calling for the servants to set things right, but no servant came. The sour dame, the apple-cheeked maids, the footmen, the gardener and his boys had all vanished and no one could say where they had gone. Perhaps they took fright in the storm and ran off, or perhaps something else had happened. Nor did anyone ever see them in the world again.
Brenda brushed out her hair and put on her shawl and trudged up the hill to the grand house.
“Have you changed your mind?”
The young lord laughed. “What are a few servants? I can get more.”
It seemed to Brenda that his voice quavered, but her heart was hard.
“We’ll see about that,” she said, and she went away.
That night, Brenda once again took her harp up the haunted hill. She tied a black ribbon around the rowan branch and sat beneath the tree gazing across the valley at the grand house, all dark and still. She played upon her harp and as she harped she sang:My heart is breaking, My soul is aching, My heart is breaking, For I have lost my home.
The door in the hill opened and the kingly man came out.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“That my enemy shall vanish from the earth and trouble me no more.”
“Well, you shall have it,” said the kingly man.
This time no mist rose from the hill, neither was there any storm. There was only a terrible stillness that settled on the ground like a killing frost. Inch by slow inch it crept down into the valley, across the rutted wagon track, and up the opposite hill where the grand house lay. In that stillness, nothing moved and no voice sounded. Even the constant trickle of the water in the stream was halted, and even the tiny voice of the beetle on the branch above Brenda’s head ceased to click and hum. All was silent and all was held fast. On the haunted hill, Brenda felt the stillness rise up in her chest and wind iron bands around her voice, so that, try as she might, she could utter not a word. Her eyes grew wide and afraid, and she looked up at the kingly man, and thought about running away. But the stillness had her and she could not move so much as a fingertip.
“It is done,” the kingly man said. “And now it’s time for the price.”
He laid a hand on Brenda’s arm and led her away into the haunted hill. She had to go with him, will she or nill she, and she could neither struggle nor call out. And no one saw Brenda Maddox in the valley again for many a long year.
And in the morning, the young lord did not wake. It took a while, but eventually his absence was noted and remarked upon, and the people in the valley and in the village recalled how strange the night had been for three days running, with the strangeness all centered on the great, grand house. And they sent a brave man up the hill to check. First he found the piles of dead sheep all left to rot. Then he found the house and grounds all laid to waste and no one there. And, last of all, he found the young lord lying in his bed, all still and dead. And his face was something that brave man never described, nor could anyone get more of a tale from him.
So the farmers did not quit the valley, then or in years after. And no one came again to live in the grand house, and when the old lord died it fell into disrepair, and eventually into ruin. Sometimes, on a dare, the village boys would go up that hill where it had been. But they soon came running down again, and none would say what had happened there to frighten him.
Brenda’s cottage also stood vacant for a good long while. Though no one knew what she had done or how she had done it, they all remembered that she had last been seen going up the haunted hill on the very night the young lord died. So no one moved in there, although there were several girls and boys who had grown to maidens and youths, married and started families, and were looking for snug cottages in which to raise them. No one even liked to pass by it too closely, and the rutted track, which had once gone right by the front door and where people had once lingered to hear Brenda sing, took a wide turn just there and cut across the fields to the next house on.
But one day, when the young lord had been dead seven years, a passerby saw smoke coming out of the chimney. He was a curious man, if not a brave one, so he left the rutted track and went over to Brenda’s cottage where the door was standing open, as if expecting him. He peered inside and what should he see but Brenda herself, sitting by the fireside and stirring a copper pot with a wooden spoon, and her far gone with child.
She looked up and saw him standing there, and beckoned him inside, but she did not speak. He went to her, and afterward he was not ashamed to admit that he trembled a little with fear. But all that happened was that she handed him a slip of paper from her apron pocket. There was writing on the paper, but the man couldn’t read. He looked at Brenda, who only motioned him out the door again. So he took the paper to the next house, but no one there could read, either, nor could any of the farmers in the valley. So finally they took the paper to the schoolmaster in the village, and he could read right well, and he told them that the paper had on it three words only, and those were: “Fetch a priest.”
So they fetched the priest, and the whole crowd of them trooped back up the rutted track to Brenda’s house. She was still sitting by the fire, stirring the copper pot with the wooden spoon, and it must be said that most were quite surprised to see her so. For, above the pure shock of her return they thought she must want a priest to give the last rites, and her dying. But her health was apparent to all who saw her.
The priest went up to her, and Brenda put down the wooden spoon. But when the priest would have blessed her, she opened her mouth and spoke, saying:
“I have no need of your blessing, Father, nor would it do me any good. For I have done a wicked thing, and it has taken me to a place where few have gone and returned to tell about it.” And she proceeded to relate the story of how she had gone to the young lord and spoken with him, and how he had not listened and how she had cursed him, just as I have told it to you here. And then she said:
“Seven years have I dwelt in the haunted hill, from that day to this, and I have given the kingly man three sons, one for each of the favours he did me. And that was not all the price I must pay. For now that I have told my story I shall not speak again, or utter any word in this world. And even now I feel the stillness creeping up in me.”
And the priest said, “But why have you returned? For surely even an unearthly man would not cast out a woman who had given him three fine sons.”
And Brenda replied, “That place under the hill is a finer place than any here above and gladly would I have stayed. But there is no room there for anyone who has done the wickedness I have done, and contrived at murder, however just. But this last babe was left me as consolation.”
And she shut her mouth and did not speak again, or utter any word in this world. And eventually the priest and all the people went away.
In a few weeks Brenda had her child, and it was a girl with hair like the sun in shadow and eyes the deep, dark blue of the midnight sky, flecked with silver like distant stars. But neither Brenda nor the child stayed in that cottage for long. The way of their going was this: a man paid court to her, and he was the same man who had passed the cottage the first day of her return and to whom she had given the message asking for the priest. In the spring they were married, and by the summer they were gone. The valley between the hills had become an uncomfortable place. For everyone knew Brenda’s story, and when she came to the village they whispered behind their hands, and when she went to church the priest preached mighty sermons on the wages of sin, his eyes on Brenda’s face all the while. Besides, there was no longer any joy for her in that land, where every rock and tree reproached her.
So Brenda and her man and the child took ship, and they came to America, where they settled and prospered. And Brenda had more children, boys and girls both, but they were small and dark of hair and eye, and did not resemble their sister, who had her blood from the kingly man of the haunted hill.
And I had this story from my grandmother, and she from hers, and so all the way back to that child, who was the grandmother of us all. And she was your grandmother, too. I can see her in your hair like the sun in shadow and in your eyes the deep, dark blue of a midnight sky, flecked with silver like distant stars. Never forget that you have the blood of that kingly man, and of Brenda Maddox, who called him from the hill with her song. And when you sing, take care that you do so with a pure heart and no evil in your thoughts, lest you find yourself, one day, forever silent.