A leveret to lie in wait for you before the plague village church’s door. A wreath of bitter cress and mallow for it to bide upon. A cold grey bundle on the silent stone to greet you on your marriage day.
You’ve named the day in the calendar, sent forth your invitation; half the village is coming. You barely remember which half. And who is it you’re pledged to? A stranger. Flaunting an outsider before those who watched you grow, stayed your secrets, smothered your cries.
Why would you hunt out one not born of the Chalk? One who never wandered the wide shoulders of flinted farmland or climbed the tight-throated gullies where water bites and rowan reigns?
You once found love in the village. Or it found you, one March beneath the sallow sun, among the ransomes, wood sorrel and proud lent lilies. You learnt then the truth of love, brittle and unrelenting. You found it, you lost it, and you buried it… deep in the ground, deep in yourself.
You let it lie and you fled, and you found another. It cannot be the same. Each night the whispers come, ‘it will never be as true as what you had’.
And yet, still your marriage day is writ in the book. Writ in the priest’s scratchy script to be seen by any who open the plague village church’s book.
You return and it is the talk of the new up-wood village. Wed in March they say, repent in April, lament by May.
For March the omens are ‘ready set. Cruel winds to barrel in from the east, to carry the rooks’ warnings from the thinnest tallest branches, to harry the first-born lambs. You know this; you can hear the white bryony scream of death and false love when you pluck it from the ground. You have seen the devil’s parsley dancing on the margins of the gravestones, murmuring of mothers broken-hearted.
You will return with black mustard, chickweed, crow garlic, dandelion root, dried chanterelle and sweet cicely for the feast. But there will also be hemlock, yew berry, nightshade, fool’s mushroom and fox’s finger.
You fled the pain but the Chalk is in your marrow. It is pulling you back, to the village, to the church that could not save its flock, to the place where you left your fallen love. Left it to grow cold and rot.
Cold and rotten like the gift that awaits you on the plague village church’s step.
* * two * *
He steps around the limestone memorials. He’s busy with his phone, clicking on the black birds hanging in the sky, chased from precarious perches in the towering trees beyond the church by the chill breeze. An ancient inscription on a nearby headstone demands his camera’s attention, etched as much by lichens as by mason.
The church, he knows, survives from the 1300s. It has been engaged in a war with the ivy ever since. His phone’s camera captures earlier battles where old ivy trails write unknowable scriptures on the building’s pale stone.
Moving from the oldest part of the churchyard where plague victims lie, unknown and commemorated only by raised tussocks, he comes to a tamed patch of gravestones. Its even grass, twee pots of tended blooms, and sharp-cut granite headstones are too municipal; out of place and character with the twisted old church and wooded tangle of suffocating hills.
Recent graves have been crammed into regimented order here. One lies vacant, awaiting its tenant, its attendant mound of brown chalk-flecked clay and flinty earth spilling over the edges of the path. Hardly a fortuitous omen for the bride to pass, he thinks.
Stumbling over an uncared-for grave, he stoops to read the inscription. It dates from nine years ago and he works out the occupant would have been only 19 when they died. ‘Dear sweet Jen’ he reads, ‘taken too soon. Missed by all those that loved you.’
Others are filling up the churchyard now, quietened by the long walk down from the up-wood village, where they have parked in the community centre car park. There’s no parking closer. The ancient church predates carriages, never mind cars, and the plague village has long since succumbed to dereliction, slipping into its own tomb, mourned only by ash and elder.
Straddling the grave, he lines up the swelling bustle of wedding guests. Click, he catches them hanging onto hats, hauling skirts, jackets and dresses back against the wind’s kleptomania, preventing disgruntled children from straying into the long grass. They huddle in embattled groups, away from the open grave, away from the church door, where, he hears tell, a small animal corpse was found laid out upon the stones.
A few turn in his direction, but smiles are rare and those he sees are forced onto nipped cheeks and pinched jaws. Click; one older youth stares at him with dark misted eyes that tell of the deep chill. He is close to several groups but separate from any. The boy hasn’t even bothered with any finery, dressed in dated shabby farm-workers’ clothes. He’s only an onlooker, not invited to the wedding.
Groups are now being chivvied to the church. He re-checks his invitation, fashionably personalised, rustic in design. His stomach reminds him how much he’s looking forward to the promised reception meal of foraged food that waits back in the community centre.
He looks up to see the same boy hard-staring at him again. Feeling uncomfortable he steps away from the grave and towards the church. He flicks through his phone images to disguise his discomfort. He is surprised, but thankful, that the cold-eyed youth is to be found in none of his pictures.
* * three * *
Just so grateful that we were spared – me and mine.
The village was literally decimated. One in ten dead, twice that number hospitalised, stomach-pumped, coaxed back from the tenacious embrace of the poisons they had consumed. It was as if the plague had returned for one cursed March day, afflicting the new village, born out of the one it had destroyed in the 17th Century.
‘Twas lucky that I had never been close to Hester. She had ever been a singular girl, inhabiting the ravines and ridges, woods and hedgerows, more than she did the village.
‘Walking with hares’ was how mam described her. ‘Witch’ was how we described her in our classrooms, but never (ever!) in her hearing, never to her face. We had too much respect for her lore, for her knowledge of things that grew, for the grudges you could see taking root within her.
And where did it get her, her lore? They say that she will be locked up forever for this devil-deed – in the madhouse most like.
That’s where ‘walking with hares’ got her.
All her potions and spells couldn’t save young Jensen when he was taken from her. Hester died as much as Jen that March day nine years ago. Yet back she came, her shade, blaming us all.
The police have released extracts from her journal. The newspapers say it was where she wrote-up her recipes, detailed her foraging trips, and where she wrote down her thoughts and plans, the ingredients for her evil infamous wedding day.
Wrote them all out like a recipe.