“Nanny, why is that grave covered in iron?”
“Well, Ellie, that’s a question and a story.”
“Please tell me Nanny.”
“Very well. Sit down here on this bench in the sun and I’ll explain to you. When I was a girl about your age, my Nanny told me the story that she’d been told by her Nanny. It goes like this.
“You know that you’re always told not to go into the deep woods alone, especially at night or in the winter?”
“And you know why?”
“The Faer folk, Nannny, they might take a liking to me and keep me for their own. Then I’ll never grow up and marry and if I ever come back everything will have changed and no one will know me except for some old lady who was my friend at school and is really my age and I’ll have to live with strangers and no-one will marry me and I might be forced to move away.” Ellie gasped for breath.
“That’s right, Ellie my love. But do you know why people know all of that?”
“No, Nanny. I though you just did.”
“Well, it’s to do with that grave and a story my great, great Nanny told us.”
Ellie squirmed a little closer to her Nanny on the bench and looked up into her tanned, craggy face.
“Please tell me Nanny.”
“Very well, but sit still and listen carefully.
“Many years ago a young girl, about 16, pretty and unmarried went to the woods one afternoon to gather some bluebells for the dinner table. But when she got there she sat down to rest, for it had been a hard winter on the farm and she wanted to enjoy the spring air. She soon lay down with her head on her coat for a pillow and fell asleep.”
“Oh no, Nanny, she mustn’t do that!”
“Well, you know that and so do I, but she didn’t.
“Anyway, while she was asleep it fell dark and the Faer Folk came out to play among the flowers and make their music and dance their dances. The girl awoke to the noise and instead of running or shouting she started to sing. Now one of the Faer men immediately fell in love with her. He started to dance with her,” Ellie gasped, “and soon she was so caught up in the dancing and singing that she had been there all night. So when he offered her some wine and bread she took it without thinking.”
“No, she mustn’t eat Faer food!”
“No, she mustn’t. But she did, so you know what happens then don’t you Ellie?”
“Yes, she had to stay with the Faer Folk for ever and ever and never grow up and never get married and…”
Nanny gently interrupted Ellie.
“So the girl lived with the Faer Folk for many years and she took the Faer man who loved her and married him in the Faer way. They lived happily and time passed outside the Faer world quickly, as it does. The people of the village looked for her for many months but in the end her mother decided to stop the search. Everyone thought her dead, so they held a funeral and dug that grave and put a stone up for her but never did it have a body in it for many the year.
“In Faer Land the girl was going to have a baby. Now Faer Folk and humans can make babies, but pure human mothers have a very hard time with them. Eventually it looked like the girl was dying. The Faer king spoke to her husband. He said: ‘You must take her to the human village and find a midwife who can help.’
“So the Faer husband did just that. Now it happened that about 60 human years had passed while she was in the Faer Land and the village midwife was the younger sister of the girl. The midwife recognised her sister immediately so she helped her and carefully nursed her until her daughter was born. Once the girl was born the midwife hatched a plot to separate the Faer Man and his wife so that she could keep her sister and niece with her in the village. She told the Faer man that his wife needed a lot of human medicine and that to return to the Faer Land would kill her. Then she reminded him that if he stayed in our world the amount of iron around would make him grow old and ugly very quickly. She suggested that he go home and leave his wife to be cared for by her relatives.
“But the Faer man loved his wife and daughter and did not want to return to Faer Land without them. So he decided to stay and grow old and ugly just to be with her. So, even as his wife started to grow older and more beautiful, he became bent and ill, his face became lined and he died even while his wife was still young.
“Now, while he had lived in the village he had been a good worker and a good Christian, so his wife wanted him buried in the church yard. Some of the villagers did not like that idea, but the vicar was a kindly man, if somewhat stupid, and agreed. So the grave that had been dug for the girl was opened up and the Faer man’s coffin put in to it. Many people came to the funeral, for he was a well liked man, and his wife sang for him, something similar to the song they first danced to.
“The lady grew old in the normal way. But she always loved her Faer husband, so she never remarried and, helped by her beautiful daughter, she tended his grave daily. Eventually she died a very old lady and was buried with her husband. Her daughter married and went to be a farmer’s wife, and so could not tend the grave quite so often.
“So life went on, until about six months later the church gardener started to notice piles of soil in the church yard near the grave. He put it down to moles and put down some poison but still they came. Now the people of the village started to wonder if it was the Faer Folk coming to claim the bodies. So they had the blacksmith build an iron cage and put it around the grave. Stories say it goes eight feet down and there’s not enough room for an adult hand to fit in to it anywhere.
“Since then there’s been no moles in the church yard. And no one’s seen the Faer Folk in the village, although they are still sometimes to be seen up on the hill in the woods.”
“Is it a true story, Nanny?”
“Go and touch the iron railings, Ellie. Over there, on the sunny side so I can see you.”
“Nanny, they’re really warm! I thought iron was cold.”
“It’s warm to those of Faer blood, Ellie. For you see the girl was my Nanny’s mother.
Now come on, your mother will have that Sunday roast about perfect by now and we’ll need to wash our hands and faces for dinner.”
(c) Chris Johnson 2017 & 2019
Author’s note. There are some interesting graves dotted around all over the country and the Peak District, where I saw the graves which inspired this story, is certainly no exception. Each grave tells the story of a life, some shorter than others some more action packed than others. This story was inspired by two specific graves. I won’t mention the names or locations as that may be offensive to the living relatives. I’ll just suggest to my readers that if you are near a graveyard and have some time, take a walk around and think about the people whose lives are commemorated in that quiet, peaceful space.