Fairies often seem to be blamed or held in suspicion in folklore. The Surrey tale of Matthew Trigg and the Pharisees (the county’s word for fairies) is no exception. But what if these magical creatures are simply misunderstood? I wanted to see how this tale might have been told from their perspective.
Nettle lounged on the tree branch. Her leg swung back and forth like the pendulum of a clock. She was meant to be planting seeds before the last of the daylight faded. But the work was boring and she had something better to do: she was on watch.
Below her, she heard the voices of her friends heading back to the grove with their baskets. Their melodious tunes circled her like a soft breeze, enticing her to join them. She waved the sensation away and pulled up her leg but it was too late; she had been spotted.
‘Hi! Nettle!’ Balder called up. ‘What are you doing up there?’
‘I’m waiting,’ Nettle said, leaning as far over the branch as she dared.
‘Waiting for what,’ Balder said, putting his basket down.
‘Nothing you need to worry about. Just mind your own business,’ Nettle said.
‘What business?’ Balder said.
‘Yours!’ Nettle said, climbing up the tree trunk to the next branch as Balder leaped up the branches below her.
‘Hey, wait,’ Melanie called, putting her basket down too and scurrying up the tree trunk. Soon they were all on the same branch.
Nettle put her hands on her hips. ‘Well, you’ve ruined this now.’
‘Ruined what?’ Balder asked. He looked around, his young face aglow with curiosity.
‘What I am doing, that’s what.’ The birds were singing in the trees around them, telling anyone who would listen that the sun would soon set. Melanie took Balder’s hand, ‘Com’on,’ she said. ‘We need to put the baskets and tools back in the garden huts before it’s too dark.’
Balder looked around and back at Nettle and then nodded.
‘You coming?’ Balder asked.
‘I’ll be right behind you,’ Nettle said, her voice gave away her relief that their intrusion was to be short-lived.
Suddenly, an unfamiliar sound wafted up; the low shuffle as something was half-dragged along the ground and the sound of a ‘tap, tap, tap.’ They all looked at each other, knowing what that noise must mean. Melanie bit her lip, Balder’s eyes widened and Nettle crouched on the tree branch, peering out through the leaves to the path below.
‘He’s back again. Look, there on the path,’ Nettle whispered.
‘Who is he?’ Melanie asked.
‘His name is Matthew and he’s from the village,’ Nettle said. ‘He used to come here with a woman but now it’s just him.’
‘Where’s he going?’ Balder said, leaning over Nettle to get a better look.
‘To Fir Tree Mound. He just sits there and then comes back once the sun has set.’
‘Humans are weird,’ Melanie giggled.
‘Let’s follow him,’ Balder said.
‘We have to get back,’ Melanie said.
‘Oh come on,’ Balder said. ‘Please. Let’s see what he’s up to. We’ll be careful. Please?’
The two older fairies looked at each other. Nettle shrugged, ‘I’m good with that.’ Balder cried out, jumping up and down on the branch so much the leaves shook.
Melanie sighed, ‘I can’t let you two go off by yourselves. You’d get lost, or be seen, or both. So, ok. Let’s go.’
She climbed down a couple of branches, paused, looked back up at Balder and added, ‘But we have to be quiet. And when I say it’s time to leave, we leave.’
‘Yeah, yeah,’ Balder said, sliding down on a leaf and landing with a loud thump on the ground. Melanie sighed and Nettle grinned.
With the baskets tucked away in a nook in the tree roots, they flitted over the leaves and twigs that decorated the ground. Where the sun’s rays had snuck past the leafy barrier, ferns and brambles grew.
Matthew was now settled on a log just below the crest of the mound. He stared out over the tops of the trees, watching the sun’s progress towards the horizon’s edge. Behind him a row of fir trees stood tall like soldiers, their features blurring with the dying light.
The three fairies scampered across the grassy carpet that the open area of the mound provided, stopping only when they were in the sanctuary of the weeds around the log. They waited, peeping occasionally to check he was still there, but he didn’t make a sound; just sat there staring out at the kaleidoscope of colours painted on the horizon.
‘Let’s go,’ Melanie whispered after a while. She pulled at Balder’s arm but he refused to leave his hideout. The weeds rustled around them and Nettle raised her hand, ‘Shhh, listen.’
‘Well, Susan. Not a bad sunset. Nicest for a while now. You would’ve liked it, I’m sure. All those pink and orange colours. You always were fond of orange,’ he said.
He paused and Nettle wondered if he was going to say anything else. Then he cleared his throat.
‘Children in the village still noisy and bothersome. I know, I know, you don’t have to remind me – they mean no harm.’
Balder peered further around the log, his neck craning to see over the tall grass.
‘Whose he talking to?’ Balder said.
‘Get back, you’ll be seen,’ Melanie hissed.
‘I’m trying to -’ Balder lost his balance and disappeared among the grass blades. There was a scuffling noise and then Balder came scrambling back, breathing heavily, his face glowing and his eyes sparkling with excitement.
‘There’s no one else there’ he said. ‘He’s talking to himself!’
‘No,’ Nettle said. ‘He’s talking to a ghost.’
Balder jumped and pressed himself against the log. ‘A ghost? No! Really?’
Nettle sighed, ‘Not literally. It’s his wife, who he used to come up here with. Reckon she’s died so now he comes alone.’
‘That’s so sad,’ Melanie said and she crept towards the edge of the log. Matthew started coughing and she leaped back making Balder laugh so hard he had to put his fist in his mouth to stop the sound from escaping.
‘Stop laughing, Balder,’ Melanie said. ‘It’s not funny.’
‘Shhh, he’s saying something else,’ Nettle said waving at them to be quiet.
‘Now my dear, I’m afraid this might be one of the last times I come up here,’ Matthew said. ‘It’s getting to be so hard walking up the hill, even with the stick. I never thought it would come to this. I miss you. I know we were never one for such talk but it’s true. I miss sharing these sunsets with you. I will try to come one more time but I will need a miracle to help me up the hill quite soon.’
With a grunt, he heaved himself upright, knelt on the stick for a second and then tottered gingerly down the hill. The three fairies watched him until he vanished into the trees.
‘Poor old man. We should help him,’ Melanie said.
Nettle looked at her in surprise. ‘How?’ she asked.
Melanie shrugged. ‘Dunno, but there must be a way.’
Nothing else was said as they walked back. Nettle absent-mindedly drew circles in the soil with a stick as she waited for Melanie and Balder to retrieve their baskets.
‘We create a toadstool circle,’ she said suddenly bending down to look at her circles. ‘Bring him into our world and then cure his limp. There’s a song for curing things like that – my mum sang it to me once when I fell out of a tree. It might work on him too.’
Melanie shifted her basket and studied Nettle. ‘Only Mistletoe and other senior fairies are allowed to create toadstool rings.’ She glanced around. ‘Even talking about it might be enough to get us into trouble.’
‘But don’t you see, it’s the only way to help him,’ Nettle said.
Melanie stared at the circles then walked off to the path and studied the ground. A dent in the soil and a tear on a leaf betrayed where Matthew’s stick had been.
‘We could make the toadstool ring here. He has to pass this way to go up the hill,’ Melanie said. ‘If we can get him to stand in it then we can get him to our grove.’
‘So you’re in?’ Nettle asked.
‘It’s dangerous,’ Melanie said. ‘And we could get into serious trouble.’
‘But you’ll help?’ Nettle said again.
‘Yes, I’ll help. As long as all three of us do this together.’
To commit them all to the task, the three fairies stood in a small circle, put their hands in the centre and Melanie sprinkled fairy dust over them.
Two days later, Balder rushed through the woods, dodging stones and shoots of flowers. Melanie and Nettle stood on the path, waiting for him to appear. They heard his footsteps before he came into view and Melanie frowned at him.
‘You may as well have put up a big sign telling everyone what we’re doing you were so loud,’ she said.
‘Sorry,’ Balder said. ‘I couldn’t get away. Mistletoe made me do an extra round because she couldn’t find Nettle.’
Nettle laughed and flicked a strand of her orange hair out of her face, ‘I’ve been too busy with this to worry about digging holes and waking insects.’
‘Well, she’s cross and others are beginning to grumble about it too,’ Balder scuffed his shoe against a stone.
‘We can deal with that later,’ Melanie said, pulling a vial of fairy dust from her bag. She pulled the acorn lid off it and looked at her two companions. ‘Are you ready? There’s no going back once we start.’
Balder nodded and Nettle said, ‘yes, yes, come on. I can hear him!’
They took their places, Melanie whispered a spell as she put some fairy dust in their cupped hands. The fairy dust in their hands began to tingle and shimmer and Melanie nodded at them. They scattered the fairy dust along a line they had drawn in the ground earlier until they had created a sparkling circle. Nettle held her breath and watched Melanie who was concentrating on the glowing ring. Suddenly five toadstools appeared, their tops bright red with golden spots.
They hid in the undergrowth just as Matthew came into view. ‘I need to see,’ Nettle said and pushed the fern leaves out of her way. Matthew was just a few steps from the toadstool ring but even from that distance Nettle could see he wasn’t going to step into the ring; he would step over it instead. She pushed through the fern leaves to get closer.
‘Nettle,’ Melanie whispered but Nettle ignored her. It isn’t going to work, Nettle thought. Our whole plan depends on him stepping into the ring. If he doesn’t, it will all be for nothing.
She moved right up to the path’s edge. Tap went the stick, shuffle went his bad leg. One more step and he would be past the ring. Nettle looked around, her heart pounded and her mouth was dry but her focus was sharp. She saw a large pebble and an idea bubbled. ‘Help me, Balder,’ she hissed. Balder dashed forward and together they pushed the pebble onto the path just as the stick came down. The stick ricocheted off the pebble and Matthew stumbled from the interruption of his rhythm. His bad leg fell down sharply, he cried out and his good leg lurched forward into the toadstool ring.
Instantly, a shimmering cuff closed on his leg and Matthew fell letting go of his stick as he hurtled to the ground. Instead of hitting the earth, however, he fell through it and landed on a soft cushion of moss.
The three fairies watched him sit up, rub his head and look around. When he saw the fairies he cried out and tried to stand but the cuff was still on his ankle and he couldn’t. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ Melanie said. ‘We are here to help you.’ Matthew cried out again and scratched at his ankle trying to find what was holding him to the ground.
‘Try again,’ Nettle said and Melanie repeated her assurances.
‘I don’t think he can hear you,’ Balder said.
‘Or maybe he doesn’t understand?’ Nettle mused.
‘Well, either way, we need to keep going before the magic wears off,’ Melanie said. She raised her hands and the cuff disappeared. Matthew up but with another flick of her hand, he hovered in the air. He yelled out and flayed his arms about.
‘What’s he doing?’ Balder asked. Melanie cocked her head and frowned. ‘Not sure. Can humans grab air?’
‘No,’ Nettle said. ‘He’s panicking. But for the spell my mum used to get to work, we need him to be constantly moving so this is a good start. Melanie, see if you can use your magic to get him moving even more.’
Melanie nodded and raised her hands to the trees. A wind picked up and swirled around, the leaves swished as it raced through the branches and Matthew’s limbs moved faster as they were pushed and pulled by the wind.
Nettle watched for a few moments and then started to recite in a soft, melodious voice. ‘Grace of birds, power of wind, hear these words, let these limbs grow strong, wonders of trees, hear my song.’
Her voice lifted into the trees, the wind swirled the words around Matthew whose breathing rasped against the effort of dancing in the air. Balder began to dance as the magic grew around them.
‘It’s working, it’s working!’ Balder cried.
Nettle began to sway to the melody as she repeated her song. Only Melanie remained steady against the tide of movement. She watched Matthew’s face, seeing his mouth open and shut as he tried to say something. Suddenly, he looked up into the sky and her gaze followed his. A large and cumbersome shape was heading towards them. It came closer so that the glittering wings and large hooves could be made out as it flew across their glade.
‘Dobbin,’ he whispered.
Melanie grabbed at Balder, who tried to swing her around. She yanked her arm out of his reach. ‘Nettle! There’s a flying a horse!’ Melanie shouted.
‘There’s no such thing!’ Nettle laughed.
The sun disappeared then as a shadow lurched over them. The distraction was enough for Matthew to grab at the mane of the flying horse as it hovered by him. As quick as a goldfinch, the horse and the man had disappeared. Nettle waved and shouted at the air, ‘Wait! I hadn’t finished the spell. It might not have worked! Wait!’
But the only reply came from the rustle of leaves falling from the trees.
The bags were heavy even after she had planted most of the seeds and plants. Nettle carried them one at a time. Her wings were sore and so her progress was slow. She had to go further away from the fairy grove than usual to complete her task. Somehow the Queen Fairy had discovered about the attempt to help Matthew and, between that and Nettle’s poor tally of planted Spring flowers, she was in disgrace. To make up for it she was doing the tasks that no fairy ever wanted to do: going to the edges of the wood to wake the last of the slumbering insects and plant the larger shrubs and flowers.
‘Oh, you stupid bag,’ she grumbled as it tumbled over a rock and the contents spilled out across the path. She kicked at a trowel and watched it land in some brambles.
‘Nettle! Nettle!’ Balder shouted.
‘I’m here. What is it,’ she shouted back, scooping seeds and tools back into the bag. Balder bounded up, beaming as he saw her. ‘We have a surprise for you.’
‘Well, it will have to wait. I’ve got to get these bags back to the huts.’
‘Leave them! This is more important. Come on.’ He disappeared into the brambles and, with only a small niggle of hesitation, Nettle followed him. He stopped a few minutes later and waved for her to be quiet.
‘What’s this all about?’
‘Shhh and listen.’
‘All I hear are some human footsteps. Hardly worth leaving my bags for.’
‘It depends on whose footsteps they are.’ He smiled mysteriously and the gloom Nettle had felt for the last week left her as she spotted the owner of the footsteps.
Matthew now walked with solid steps, the walking stick no longer needed, laughing at a group of children who ran alongside him, peppering him with questions. The children ran on and as he passed the fairies, they could hear he was humming the tune last heard in their grove.
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