meaton Abbey was a quiet village. Its people were honest, modest folk. Wholesome. Worked hard, dressed plainly, attended church on Sunday. People had their roots firmly planted in the earth here: like-minded families who kept their language clean and their houses cleaner. No-one sang too loudly, dressed too brightly, or ate to excess. Live thy life in temperance and ye shall know no trouble.
It was therefore, quite unexpected when a travelling man arrived one day, setting up stall under the single great ash tree in the market square with offerings of cure-all poultices for a threepenny bit and magic tricks for a ha’penny. At first, people observed cautiously from a distance. Travellers were not unheard of, though they usually kept themselves to themselves, stopping only to rest their horses, take a meal at the hostelry, and continue on their way. This travelling man was different, for the offering up of conjuring tricks and pagan remedies was not something the good people of Smeaton Abbey were used to. And when one of the more daring young boys ventured close enough to speak to him and, for his amusement, the man conjured a bird as though from thin air, the parishioners suspected black doings. No honest, God-fearing man could perform such magic and so it was that cautious observation turned to fear and avoidance. Nobody neared that side of the market square – the children were strictly forbidden – and those who needed access to that part of the village were forced to take an altogether circuitous route in order to arrive at their destination.
On the second day, fear and avoidance became contempt. The man showed no sign of continuing on his way, despite his lack of trade. People began to question his intentions and motivation for being there. Ever-darkening whispers blew about amongst the village like a gathering wind. Rumours circulated; gossip scattered on the air like seed. And when it rained, no one offered shelter. They hoped instead that he might simply move on.
But the travelling man did not move on. And whenever someone’s distrustful gaze met his eye, they were greeted by return with a smile; an open hand that bade them come join him at his little stall and stand with him under their great ash. The very act was brazen; the insinuation that they might be of like-mind, insulting. Men baulked and women blushed and on the third day, rumour and gossip fermented into superstition and myth. Hearsay crystalized into once-forgotten memories: individuals recollected hearing of this travelling man before. Was he not a child-snatcher? A rapist and murderer who used black-magic to lure the innocent to his lair? Was he not a monster? The very devil in disguise?
On the fourth day, the travelling man, who had appeared to bear the village’s growing hostility toward him with calm disinterest, grew hungry. He’d all but finished his canteens of water and his food, he’d eaten up by lunchtime the day before. Having made no money plying his trade, he had nothing with which to buy something from the market to eat. So, when a fellow market trader drew near enough to hear him, he asked politely for alms – an over-ripened apple perhaps or carrot past its best.
The trader seethed with anger and reddened with embarrassment. ‘Address me, would you?’ he spat, as the rest of the parishioners turned to watch, ‘humiliate me a front of friends and neighbours? You’ll not have a thing from me, not one bean. I know the likes o’ you and I heard o’ what been told, you devil.’
The travelling man kept his counsel until the trader was done talking. Finally, he nodded as though arriving at a decision. ‘It would appear I am found guilty. Though, I confess, I was not aware of the charge.’ He met the eyes of the assembled crowd, who looked away in turn. ‘I see the rest of the jury agree.’
‘We know what you are,’ spoke the trader, emboldened by the reaction from his gathered neighbours, ‘and we know the witchery you trade in. You’d do well to consider your actions more carefully, for we’ll brook no ill-deeds round here.’
Again, the travelling man nodded. ‘That’s sage advice,’ he said, packing his things into his sack, ‘and they are certainly words worthy of reflection.’ With that, he turned on his heel and continued on his way along the cobbled thoroughfare that led north out of the village and further into the hills beyond.
‘A good riddance,’ people muttered as they took up their day’s work once more. ‘God’s blessing, and there’s an end to it.’
And to the parishioners’ relief, they were right. For the days that followed were uneventful. The travelling man did not return again and in his place came life as usual. Preferring not to dwell on such unpleasant and unwelcome experiences, they consigned his memory to some dusty recess of their minds and within a year he was all but forgotten.
ut the good people of Smeaton Abbey were only right until they were wrong and late into the night one cold January morning, an enormous rookery appeared all at once. The birds perched like a collection of cloaked apparitions, in the single vast ash that stood in the village square. And the parishioners woke in shock and jumped from their beds in fear at the immediate and raucous call of the countless creatures that bounced between twig and nest, disrupting the holy peace with their bawdy song. The people spilled from their houses and stood agape and aghast at the unsightly vision of the seething mass of black smudges marring the delicate filigree of leafless branches.
Nobody knew how they’d got there so suddenly or the reason why, and as they looked up at the clamour rising from the canopy, nobody noticed the single figure, who slunk from the shadows in the opposite direction.
An emergency meeting was held in the church hall. This disturbance of the peace would not be borne.
‘Shoot ‘em,’ one of the farmers suggested. ‘That’s all can be done with pests. Vermin. It’s a necessary evil, I’m afraid. Have to do it in the fields to protect the harvest; ain’t no difference in doing it here so’s we can protect the peace.’ He pointed a crooked finger at the ash through the window, repeatedly firing off shot with a vicious flick. ‘Shoot ‘em where they nest is the only way.’
‘You do that, you’ll destroy the tree,’ remarked the village baker. ‘That there ash been growing hundred, two hundred, three hundred years past. Ain’t no-one firing shot up there.’
‘You think it my choice, Baker?’ The farmer drew himself up at this inferred slander. ‘Tis the only way. We do what we must do. I won’t have insinuations I’m some disturber of the peace.’
And with that, the parishioners began to row; voices grew heated; the clamour rose to match that of the rooks.
The vicar banged his gavel. ‘Everybody please. We forget ourselves. Lower your voices, pray silence; we’re no better than the birds for whom we have assembled this morning. Never before have I witnessed such discord. Look what this circumstance brings to our door! Anger and ill manner. Verbally smiting our neighbour. What next? Physical violence? Let us consider the options calmly.’
Resentment brewed between the different parties but they observed the vicar’s call for silence, nonetheless. Time passed. The rough crowing of the rooks orchestrated the mood. And finally, the farmer spoke again.
‘I’d be interested to know of the baker’s better suggestion,’ he said. ‘Only, I don’t hear of anything else being offered up that might deal with this never-ending din.’
The baker pursed his lips. The vicar raised his brow. ‘A fair request,’ he mediated, turning to the baker in expectation, ‘what would you propose, instead?’
The parishioners’ eyes fell upon him, joining with the vicar in anticipation of an alternative solution.
‘Poison,’ he said simply. ‘Bake a batch of cob-rolls, pack ‘em with poison, leave ‘em under the tree for the pests to scavenge from. Bag ‘em and bury ‘em and be done with it.’
The vicar appraised the situation with a knowing nod. ‘That sounds entirely reasonable. Would that be agreeable to you?’ he said, turning his head again toward the farmer.
‘Shootin’s quicker,’ he said with a shrug.
‘Poisonin’s quieter.’ the baker countered. ‘There’s enough noise as it is.’
Again the vicar nodded. ‘That’s true enough,’ he surmised, ‘let us begin with the poisoning and should that option fail, we’ll move on to the alternative.’
The farmer sneered; the baker cocked a snook. But the course of action was agreed and an hour later the rolls were cooked and laced through with arsenic and ready to plant beneath the tree. The bread was scattered, the bait was set, and everyone waited, watching in anticipation of the first bird’s descent to the ground.
When ten minutes had gone by, the farmer shook his head. ‘We’re too close,’ he chided, ‘get back, get back all of you. Stand at your front doors if you must but they’ll ne’er come a scavenging with us standing and gawping up at ’em. Birds are suspicious creatures.’
So, the parishioners retreated to their doorsteps and looked on from a distance. Yet, still no rook journeyed downward, enticed by the offering.
When an hour had gone by, the baker nodded. ‘We must all retreat inside. Let us to our work. They won’t be tempted down with us here, even at this distance. Birds are mistrusting animals.’
Everyone agreed, turning with last bitter looks at the calamity that continued to ruin the peace from the treetop, and moved inside to find work for idle hands.
When two more hours had gone by, people returned to their doorsteps to look out once more. For try as they might to concentrate on their daily tasks, sore heads and angered minds had brought them back to see what else might be done.
The vicar took up a roll and held it aloft. ‘Not one peck have they had,’ he cried to his congregation. ‘For birds,’ he continued with a knowing wag of his finger, ‘have low cunning. They sense our anticipation and think we mean to be at their throats the moment they land on the ground. We must away to our afternoon tasks, take a meal as normal, and be at our beds in the usual fashion. They’ll wait to the dead of night, I should warrant. They’ll have their fill when they think we least expect it. Birds are treacherous beasts.’
For a moment, people looked unsure. Would they get a wink of sleep with this incessant din?
‘Away with you all,’ shooed the vicar. ‘Have faith, be at your prayers this bedtime and wait to see what greets us in the morning. Come daybreak, we’ll see who has won; patience, as we all know, is a virtue we must exercise. It costs nothing but rewards one a plenty.’
he parishioners of Smeaton Abbey didn’t need to look out their windows the next morning to know the baker’s plan had not worked.
‘If it were possible,’ raged the farmer. ‘I’d swear blind their numbers have doubled since the day before. Look at this,’ he said, picking a roll from the ground and tossing it to the baker. ‘Bread rolls indeed!’ ‘Bag ‘em and bury ‘em? You’ll have to sprout wings and catch ‘em first!’
Again the baker cocked a snook. ‘’Twas still a better plan than yours,’ he sulked. ‘Your way and we’d be left with nothing but a ruined stump.’
The vicar stepped between the two men to interrupt the promise of another argument. ‘Nevertheless,’ he replied to the baker, ‘I’d still have it we’d prefer this cacophony done with. Such an incessant rumpus brews nothing but disharmony between us and within our souls too. ‘Tis devilish loud and must be ceased forthwith.’
But before the men could set to arguing again, a young smithy ventured forward. ‘We could knock the nests from their perches,’ he offered. ‘I’ve a good number of sturdy pokes most suited to such a task. Without their nests, they have no homes, nowhere to keep warm their eggs or raise their young. They’ll be gone in a trice, I shouldn’t wonder.’
Neither the farmer nor the baker found cause to argue with this plan and the smithy had soon ventured home and returned with a hefty rod of iron.
‘Come,’ called the vicar, ‘make a stirrup of your hands and help him to the first branch. Can you climb upwards from there?’
‘I can climb from there, be assured,’ the smithy replied, brandishing the fire poke. And no sooner said than done, for he was up the great ash like a cat. But as he neared the top branches where the rookery perched amidst the bare ash limbs, the birds themselves continued to bounce and crow, as though unbothered by the intruder. ‘They’ve no care for me,’ he called to the parishioners below, ‘no care at all.’
‘You wait!’ the farmer called back. ‘One good thwack o’ that rod o’ yours, that’ll give ’em something to care about!’
And the smithy edged closer to the nearest nest. ‘I can barely hear you, such is the din. The nest’s full of youngsters; sounds to me as though they all are. This row ain’t no wonder with mamas and papas and babes all at it. We’ll soon have our peace back, don’t you worry.’
With that, the smithy struck out at the branch with his pole. But as iron met nest, the entire flock of rooks took off into the air in one great deafening black cloud that plumed upward and outward. Their obsidian wings spiralled into the morning sky, turning it black as far as the parishioners could see and plunging them into a darkness as deep as their nightmares.
The smithy fell from the ash, slamming into the baker underneath him who did him the courtesy of breaking his fall. Men cried; women wailed; infants screamed, and the travelling man strode from behind the tree to greet them. The crowd hushed into a stunned silence as he spoke.
‘Whilst you live your lives with modesty and temperance you lack tolerance and generosity. You counselled me to consider my actions and I have done as you have asked. Are you willing to turn the mirror on yourselves?’
The travelling man was met with more silence for a time until a small child pulled loose of their mother and approached him with an outstretched hand.
‘My child!’ cried the woman who was too scared to move.
All watched in horror as the travelling man reached for the little boy’s hand who, in turn, matched his smile with his own and let something drop into his palm. Between finger and thumb, the travelling man held up a small shiny pebble for everyone to see. It glittered despite the darkness. The little boy turned and walked back to his mother who met him with a clap around his head and a wail.
‘He’ll bewitch us all,’ someone said.
‘Get thee gone,’ called another.
‘What new evil is this?’ said the market trader, stepping toward him with the farmer at his side. ‘Didn’t you do enough, the first time you came a visiting?’
‘Don’t you come back here again,’ spat the farmer, cocking his rifle at a tilt, ‘or God help me, I will.’
The travelling man put the shining pebble in his pocket and gave the boy a wink before turning to the rest of the parish. ‘Even after all that’s happened here, still you shun the outsider. Have you learnt nothing of the perils of your intolerant habits? Your blinkered views may well kill you yet.’
At this, the parishioners gave a collective gasp and the farmer pulled back the hammer on his rifle. ‘Get you gone, devil,’ he said.
‘If that is your wish, then you shall have it,’ replied the travelling man and once more he turned on his heel and ambled back along the cobbled street in the direction of the hills.
‘Wait!’ somebody screamed. ‘What about the darkness you leave us with? What will happen to our harvest this year, if we are to have no sun?’
‘You reap what you sow,’ called the travelling man in reply, without turning back.
‘Are we to be blinded by darkness forever?’ someone else cried.
The travelling man had reached the very edge of the village by now and his next step took him out into the twinkling light of a crisp January sun. ‘That,’ he called again in response, ‘is entirely up to you.’
But nobody heard him and nor could they see him. For the darkness that draped like a mourning veil over the village was of their own making, and their eyes failed to see how the pale sun beat down its delicate warmth just a hundred feet from the farthest building of the parish. Most failed to see, in fact, further than the ends of their noses. Though they turned to each other and tutted and shrugged and turned for their homes to light candles and see to their daily chores as best they could.
‘At least we have our peace back,’ the mother of the small boy said. ‘Would you listen to that? Not a dicky bird, let alone a great hulking rook. Come boy, away home with you too.’
But the boy lingered just a moment more, staring in the direction the travelling man had gone. Perhaps he did see the sunlight glittering at the boundary of the parish; perhaps it was only idle curiosity. Either way, the tug at his ear, told of his mother’s disinterest as he was pulled along homeward to help with the housework in the dark.
As for the travelling man, he continued on his way, cure-all poultices and conjuring tricks collected up into his hessian sack at his shoulder. And as he entered the square of the neighbouring village and began to set up his stall, he was observed at a distance and with caution.