A young man in Scotland – sides broken with yearning – sent a letter to the young woman who was both his sickness and his balm. No human messenger was swift enough so he sent his trusted goshawk with the letter pinned under its wing.
‘Of all England’s flowers, she is the fairest,’ he blushed.
With this precise instruction, the dapple-breasted goshawk sped. He found the branch of an ash tree hanging over his master’s true love’s door, and sang.
He sang first a spiralling jig and then a lovelorn croon – both with exceptional ease and skill. A young lady passed with gold ribbon in her hair and gold lace in her skirt, and her heart leapt for she knew the goshawk well. She untied the ribbon from her hair and tied it to the goshawk’s sun-bright claw. She then took the letter and read:
‘I waste in your absence. Please send word.’
She would send a lot more than that. She sent instruction, also via the hawk, to brew bridal ale and bake the bridal bread and meet her in the fourth church in Scotland nine night’s time.
She then approached her father with a request that must have seemed to him premature.
‘Father, I wish you to know how I would like to be buried. Should you live to see me die, bury me in the fourth church of Scotland. Have the bells rung in the first church, sing mass in the second, dispense gold to the poor in the third and bury me in the fourth.’
Troubled as much by the detail as the request itself, her father agreed.
She then retired to her room. She took a potion hidden in the bookcase, one brewed over many months. As soon as it touched her lips, she fell to the ground.
The household flew into panic. A coffin was prepared and stood in hall. An old woman, warming herself by the fire amid all the scurrying, then piped up. ‘To make sure she’s really dead you must drop hot lead on her cheeks.’ This brutal suggestion was carried out to the letter. But the girl did not move.
A forlorn procession travelled north. The dead girl’s brothers escorted her coffin. At the first church, they rang the bells. At the second church, they held mass. At the third, purses of gold were given to the poor. And at the fourth, the coffin lid flew open. A young woman stood in it with scorch marks on her cheeks and a smile as wide as all heaven. She leaped over the gaping mouths of her brothers, into the waiting arms of her beloved.
‘Now give me that bread. After nine days in that thing, I am starving!’ She ate her bridal bread and drank her bridal ale and that same day they were married.
I’m told, they are married still.
Taken from Child Ballad 96: The Gay Goshawk.
My impressions after hearing the story
Two years ago, I downed tools as a storyteller. I was happier with my storytelling than ever before, but it no longer came so easily. Performances took ever more energy before and after. With a young family, this meant energy taken away from them. The situation began to feel critical. I had left Amsterdam, I had begun storytelling as a younger man. The motor that carried me through high and low, between performances in the Netherlands, and courses in England, through different fields of study had come to a stop.
“The responsibility of a creative life … is both a curse and a blessing. You can never separate them until the day you die. It’s the thing that feeds you and eats away at you; gives you life and is killing you at the same time.”
At the time, I found these words from Daniel Day-Lewis on his retirement from acting comforting rather than bleak. The uprush of ideas involves cost. The digging down to find original expression requires us to experience some of the ground we’re digging in. The more we ignore the ground, the more we find we’re flapping in mid air, the harder the bump that comes later. Why care about this? Because the digital age is proving so demanding to so many psyches. As we produce and emote seemingly without end, we stack up increasing debt. This debt lies in feeling what we don’t want to feel, and ignoring what we don’t want to see. Life finds corrects us, it’s true. But the skill of getting older is to hug the curves a little tighter, to see into the distance a little further, to avoid some the less inevitable impacts.
A hawk that flies up signifies any high-scaling ambition. This could be career-based, family-based, art-based, relationship-based. Anything that gives you a sense of wide-eyed thrill before undertaking it. You simply have to do it. I see it in the eyes of people announcing their new start ups. I know it when an idea for some new writing enters my head. Someone lying in a coffin for nine days is movement down. It’s less leaping onward than confronting what is already there. The more we move, the more builds up in our underground chamber. Daniel Day Lewis spoke of an all-pervading sadness that rose in him during the filming of Phantom Thread. I knew it was a kind of fog that gave way to aching disappointment about what I hadn’t achieved over ten years of artistic reaching. If I wanted to rise again, I needed time to let the disappointment be, and unwind on its own terms. This was my nine days in the coffin. As it unwound, a natural creativity started to return.
The heart at first burns fierce and bright then clings – to the extent of cloying – with the object of its desire. James Hillman calls this the heart’s sulphuric aspect. Sulphur burns bright and warm to begin with, then as it cools it turns sticky – it coagulates. What we love, after a time, we start to stick to. It then takes the bravery of the young girl in this story to see through all our different kinds of clinging: often sadness, often stories we’ve told ourselves to get through challenging times that have now outworn their purpose. I’ll do anything to keep this job is a powerful statement that five years later burns us out. We keep these kind of statements underground. For me, the statement was: If I don’t excel, I will fail.
Some have a knack for pre-emptive movement down. Those of us less adept need an elder to see into less comfortable corners of our psyche for us. The old woman in this story appears with a kind of magic – out of nowhere and back into nowhere, offering harsh medicine that seals credibility of the young woman’s trick. The hot lead is ballast for the youth to undergo the journey necessary to experience her beloved’s embrace. In our own life, this is whatever we usually don’t want to see. As we age, the higher rise, the more lead we need for the journey.
But if in your fear you would seek only
love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover
your nakedness and pass out of love’s
Into the seasonless world where you
shall laugh, but not all of your laughter,
and weep, but not all of your tears.
Kahlil Gibran The Prophet
To live a life of seasons, to live a life that is unflat, to marry what truly calls us is the invitation in this story. Then to have the courage to go through whatever we come across on the way. There are a thousand and one things to see in this story. This is some of what I have found while spending time with it.
What grabs or move you in the story? Where do your thoughts travel in when reading it. Let’s keep the story moving, and pop your thoughts in the comments below.
This is lovely. Who is that old woman rocking by the fire who proposes the test to see if the girl is dead? It’s such a beautifully odd detail, this melted lead, an inversion or weird echo of the idea of lovers tested by fate to measure the temper of their dedication. This test is only of the efficacy of the girl’s subterfuge, requiring no real choice or heroic effort on her part, and since she passes the test, if feels like it sits in the story a bit ghostly, having no impact on the storyline. But from the father’s point of view, the old woman’s test can be seen as sealing his grief, and perhaps the certainty of her death sends him further down into his underground journey, if only to make his own return all the more joyous when she bursts back into the light from her coffin. In this sense, the old woman is somehow allied with the girl in ensuring her subterfuge succeeds, and perhaps propelling the father’s joy to such a state that he could only be happy to see her married instead of dead. It surely wouldn’t seem the time to be asking after the boy’s prospects. In that sense then the old woman is an agent in the girl’s plans to marry, an ally helping her to transform from the state of daughterhood — where her father provides the bread — to wifehood, and the eating of the marriage loaf baked by our Scottish lad.
I love that Brian! The ally dosing unconventional medicine, appearing out of nowhere and then, having turned the tide of the story, disappearing without trace. I love your reflections on the father’s emotions. I hadn’t seen into his world very far, so loved your take on how he experienced the saga.