Fairie Victuals and Drink:
Anne Jefferies, the Fairy Doctor –
Veiled Women Series
There was an old woman, and what do you think?
She lived upon nothing but victuals and drink:
Victuals and drink were the chief of her diet;
And yet this old woman could never be quiet.
Tis a wrong thing, to speak out about things you don’t fully understand. And to meddle with things you have no comprehension of. Tisn’t right. So I did learn my bitter lesson in my days of youth. And mine is an odd tale, I tell you that for nothing. Scandalous, some have said. And I will throw this in for nothing too: if my own dear father was alive right now and not in heaven with the Almighty, I’d not even discover to him those things which did happen then to me. No I would not! But come closer. Now closer still, for I would not have everyone hearing this! Not every John, Dick or Tom will hear my tale for I cannot bear to think of my name spread about the country in books or ballads of such things, if I might have five hundred pounds for it! But I like your face and I’m partial to a bit of company. And I don’t half enjoy spinning a yarn or two in exchange for a bit of conversation. Tis why I used to call to the airy folk.
‘Fairy fair and fairy bright;
Come and be my chosen sprite.’
I’d call them with my words but they did not come – least not for a long time. No, they just watched and they waited. They did bide their time. And when they did, ah well, you shall see! So, come closer and bide a while with me. And tell me what you see, when you look at me. Can you guess my age? For I am fair proud of my ripe old age and I reckon my age is due in part to the small airy folk who fed me. Can you believe I am the Bible age of four score and twenty! And though I am as old as the I hills, my head and heart never have been.
But I was nineteen once. Ah, I know you will find it hard to believe twasn’t always this way. You look at me now, my skin all folded up and creased like stiff old leather and my hair white and almost as scarce as hen’s teeth. And I know you will find it hard to see me as anything but a crone, bent almost double with time’s weight on my back. Ha, see? My eyes may not be what they once were but your face tells me that you are taken aback for I speak the truth. I know you! For I was young and carefree once, and I remember keenly that youth has such limited fancies and so cannot imagine anything but itself as possessing youthfulness. Can you see me, though? If you try, hard enough I wager you could. Anne Jefferies all young, hoyden and as bold as brass; back straight as a reed in fine weather and face as plump and smooth as a freshly laid egg. Just think of that! In the year of 1645 I was but nineteen years old and I was as fair and as fresh-faced as a girl could wish to be!
Back then I knew what hard work was, for I worked for the Pitt family of St Teath. Their boy Moses was a handful, make no mistake. But he was a dear boy for all that and I was partial to him. Partial enough to feed him on some of my very own fairie bread…but you must excuse me. I have jumped ahead, so I shall take you to the morning it all begun. I had done my morning chores and had a moment to sit within the garden arbour, my knitting needles busying my hands. I could hear nothing but the cheep-peep, cheep-apeep-cheep of the birds a-singing in the trees above me and the snackery-snick, flackery-flick of my needles a-knitting. My mind was upon my work and no place else, so don’t you be thinking my head was anywhere it shouldn’t have been! But I fancied I heard someone in the bushes, pushing aside the branches there. And you will never in a month of Mondays guess what happened next.
Why, a troupe of fairies did gallop over the hedge and straight into the garden! The leader with a red feather in his cap. Judas, Mary and Joseph !
Now, you may think that would be a fine sight for anyone to see. And you would be right; when you’re all a-comfy in your bed or all a-cosy by the fireside, tis a very pretty story. When you are as safe and sound as an acorn in its cup – well then tis a fine story indeed, there’s no denying it! For when it is nothing but a story, what harm can it do you? But now can you take a moment to imagine how it would be for a young snippet of a girl, minding her own business and knitting away when a whole troupe of fairie folk descended down all dressed in green (and by that I mean six if the truth be told). Can you imagine that? And I don’t mind admitting that some of them fairies ain’t a pretty sight! You would think they are, wouldn’t you? But I will tell you this: some are wizened things with sharp black eyes. Some are canny looking creatures with tufts of hair like grass and long, twisted fingernails. Some look like old men with wickedly pointed teeth! Not all are beauties. And so my poor young eyes could barely understand what they were seeing. I have to admit a was sore afraid!
It was then that my knitting did fly from my hands, for my mind was overwhelmed and my body could not hold me any longer upon my feet. I did froth at the mouth and my eyeballs spun right into the back of my head. My limbs did twitch and spasm. My throat a-gargling and a-gasping and my teeth all a-clittering and a-clackering. In short, I fell into convulsions. And as soon as I recovered out of my fit, I cried out:
‘They are just gone out of the window–they are just gone out of the window. Do you not see them?” But it seems that no-one else could!
And I tell you what’s more – those fits did not get better. Months, they lasted. Months or more. Right until harvest time, if my memory does serve me right. In one afternoon (and all because of them fairie folk) I went from being as strong as an ox to being as weak as a newborn kitten. Pale and wan, I was. A poor tree sapling that was being slowly strangled by weeds; easy to bend and always on the edge of snapping. The slightest of things would send my nerves a-jangling and a-jiggling – the smallest of annoyances would set my seizures into full swing. Ah, and didn’t I feel sorry for myself! But I knew who was doing it, though I dare not say it aloud. Oh! I knew who was making my limbs quiver and my lips bubble away like a pot on the fire. It was them fairies what done it! You mark my words. And the oddest thing you may ever have heard, they stayed with me from that fateful first day and no matter how many or how few were with me, they were always in even numbers. Two or four. Twenty or ninety-six. Always an even amount of them.
Though I must say that every day I thank the Lord alive that the Pitt family was happy to care for me all that time, even though I was nothing but their maid. Ol’ Mrs Pitt would not leave me a day alone! Save once. For there was a day when she must run an errand and leave me on my lonesome. But she daren’t leave me in the house, for she was a-feared that in my state of weakness I may accidentally set her house ablaze (though God alone knows why). So she did set me a place within the garden – against my will I must say! She did slip her key into her apron pocket and without another thought in her head, she went on her merry way. That is…until the fairie’s got to her. For my small and airy people were not impressed that she would force me outside the house. So six of them decided she must be taught a lesson. And what do you suppose they did?
Why, they did make her trip and fall! She tripped and fell so badly that she all but broke her leg. And they made sure she thought it no more than an accident. Canny creatures! Oh how she cried and she howled out in pain. Poor thing. And she was in such conniptions that she could neither walk nor ride, so a neighbour had to ride off eight whole miles to fetch the doctor. But you see, my fairies were neither all good nor all bad. They may have caused the accident but also they did let me go to her and stroke her leg with my fingertips. They did lend me their powers of healing. See these gnarled old hands? They don’t look much, do they? Least, not nowadays. All brown and knotted up like tree roots. But even now – if I should choose it – I could use the power the fairie gave me to heal and to soothe or worse things if they chose it. Not that I would, for I learned my own lesson. I do know never to use what I don’t understand. It comes at its price and the price is too high for my liking.
But after I cured Mrs Pitt, then I come into a bit of fame. People did come from far and wide and not just from this side of the Tamar! Can you believe it, that some did come from as far away as London? People of all distempers, sicknesses, sores, and ages came. They travelled a long way for my cures, balms and salves. I was fairie touched, it was well-known. And people would come and take just a little of my fairie medicine. Alas, it was not my gift, so I could take no payment for it, (though my airy folk saw to it that I was never out of coin). For that is the way it works. My fingers healed but the power was the fairie’s power and not my own. And they also lent me the power of foresight – so I knew if someone was coming and sometimes I could disappear at will! So they gifted me and worked through me and I was willing to help.
And all this time my airy people did attend me. They did vie for my favour amongst themselves and gave me a silver cup and fed me upon their choicest victuals. I ate nothing but fairie food, day in and day out. You hear me right; I forsook eating mortal victuals, and was fed by my fairies from that harvest time to the next Christmas day; upon which day I came to the table and said (because it was that day, of all days), that I would eat some roast beef with the Pitt family. At least six months or more with nothing but victuals and drink of the fairie kind. Have you tasted the food of a fairie, my dearie? Few have. You have tasted nothing like it, I promise you that! And that little lad Moses Pitt had a sup or two of it. He pulled such a face at me all round eyes and sweet little smile that I could not resist him and did give him a piece of my fairie bread, which he did eat. He grinned from ear to ear and it was gone in a flash or quicker!
And I will tell you what’s more, my small airy people were a joy to me. Them fairies would come and dance with me in the orchard. Light-footed and full of delightful mischief, they did take my hand and step hither and thither to the music of the birdsong and the morning rain. To the songs that the wind sings. What fun we did have!
But fame is a fickle thing, so they say. And there is no truer word, I know it first hand. Tis as fickle as the fair Cornish weather! The men of God did not like it. A mere woman – and she nothing more than a daughter of a labourer – with the same powers as the Son of the Almighty Himself? They didn’t much like that now, did they dearie? Nothing more than a servant, at that! Oh-ho how they click-clacked their wagging tongues and pointed their fine-fingers at me! None said the word Witch but they thought it. I knew that they did and they did mutter about devils and evil spirits. But I was a God a-fearing girl and am a God a-fearing woman to this very day. I knew my fairie were neither evil spirits nor the Old Artful himself. But one day I felt drawn to my bible, when seated with the family I was called three times to it. And my fairies, they said to me:
“What ! has there been some magistrates and ministers’ with you, and dissuaded you from coming any more to us, saying, we are evil spirits, and that it was all a delusion of the devil? Pray, desire them to read that place of Scripture, in the First Epistle of Saint John, chapter four, verse one, “Dearly beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits, whether they are of God;” and this place of Scripture was turned down so in the said Bible.”
I know they did lead me to it and spoke it to me for I cannot read a word. Not one word! So you see? All they need do was test my fairie and they were doing nothing but good. Healing can not be done in anything but His holy name, surely? For it is good and right and proper to heal the sick. Like our Saviour did. Tis not the mark of a Devil to heal and make good those who have been ill.
But there was a certain man who did not like it. He did not like it at all. He was a magistrate at Bodmin by the name of Jan Tregeagle. He was a wicked piece, I don’t mind telling you that! If any spirit be an evil one, it was his and not my fairies. I’ve heard tell since that he was in cahoots with the Old Scorcher. I also heard tell that he murdered his own wife! And I would not be surprised on either account, for his dealings with me were nothing if not vile and vicious. What did he do? Well now, he shackled me up and kept me locked away for my dealings with the fairie folk and I have no doubt for his own mean pleasure.
But, you see, my fairies did give me notice that I would be apprehended. I did ask them if I should hide myself away. They answered me, no; I should fear nothing, and they bid me to go with the constable. So I knew that they would make sure I was safe enough. Though twas unpleasant amongst the filth and the rats. And Jan Tregeagle made sure I spent many a-night behind the bars of Bodmin jail, the ol’ rascal that he was. And he would tempt me with his mortal food and drink. He would eat a sup before me and not give me even one crumb, for he said I had not eaten of victuals for so long that no harm would come to me if I waited longer.
“It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.‘ ” I said and didn’t that make him fume! He would give a black smile as he saw how weak I was, with such a glint of delight in his eyes, knowing I starved while he filled his belly. He did all he was able to get the Pitts to testify against me in a trial and did all he could to blacken my name. And yet he could not find one thing to convict me. Not one wrong-doing. Not one! So I was not tried at all and I was set free.
He got his comeuppance years later, mind. Ol’ Jan Tregeagle. For though he did amass a great deal of wealth by all manner of evil underhand deeds in his life, there is always a payment to be made. You cannot be in cahoots with the Devil without paying a price. I heard tell that his soul is now wandering the mortal realm never to rest; the hell-hound always nipping at his heel and hell’s demons close at his back. Some say he has been set to task – emptying Dozmary Pool (which we all know has no bottom to it) with a limpet shell until the Day of Judgement. Other’s say he was set to task – weaving a truss of sand and spinning a sand rope to bind it with to take to Carn Olva until the trumpets of Judgement blow. Still other’s say he was set to the task carrying all the sand from the beach below Berepper across River Cober to Porthleven, until only rock remains – an endless and futile task because with every tide the sand sweeps the sand back again. And yet others speak of his being put to task, endeavouring to sweep the sand from Porthcurno Cove round the headland and into Mill Bay. It is said that on many a winter night you can hear the wicked olds spirit of his howling and roaring at the hopelessness of his task.
Maybe my fairies had something to do with his punishment? Perhaps they put in a word with Saint Petroc on my behalf? Perhaps not… but I like to think they did. Or if not that they at least laugh and snigger behind their airy hands at him. I know I do, dearie. I do!
Perhaps you can now understand why I don’t like to speak this tale to all-and-sundry. For I was punished for my dealings with my fairie folk and all I yet did was to sup their food and heal and to do good. And many have tried to bait confessions from out of me. Why, not long back a the Lord Bishop of Gloucester came to me and quizzed me about my airy people and my cures. Oh-ho! I did keep my lips as tightly buttoned as I was able to, for he would be getting no confessions from me. I will have no church-man tell me that I am not a devout and Godly woman. For it is long hence that I have used my fairie gift and performed fairie miracles. I have since been both married and widowed – my dear husband William Warden would have me despite the scandal that would always cling about my name like a fractious babe does to its mothers skirts. Years have slipped me by, dropping like pebbles into a well and though my fairies did never forsake me, I did stop using their powers for the good, though twas not for a good long time. Twas not worth the bother. Twas not worth the fuss. For who wants the word ‘Witch’ to cling to them like a rotten stench? Not me, dearie. Not me!
You will excuse me now. My tongue has been a-wagging for far too long and nowadays when my tongue and lips are a-flipping and a-flapping overly much, they whip up a yawn. And when I yawn, my eye-lids grow as heavy as rocks. And when my eye-lids grow heavy, then I must take twenty winks or more. It’s the curse of us old-folk! But take my story and place it in your pocket. Take it home with you and put it in a safe place. Take it out sometimes and tell it to yourself, if it pleases you but I ask that you speak of it to nobody else. Not a soul! And maybe my fairies will always be at your back. Listening. Watching. Keeping their eye close upon you, as they did me so long ago. And now you know the fate of Ol’ Tregeagle you will think twice about whether or not you will dare to tell my story on, for I cannot bear to think of the name Anne Jefferies and her airy, fairy folk spread about the country in books or in ballads. Fame is a fickle thing and I’ve had quite enough for one lifetime!