“I can’t believe it’s almost the first of May,” said Awena, looking at the calendar hanging on the kitchen wall. “It’s nearly time for Beltane—how did that happen? I’ll need to find the dried meadowsweet to make the May wine—but I wonder where I put it?” She reached into a kitchen drawer, pulling out a pair of scissors. The gilt-edged embroidery of her dress reflected morning sunlight into the room. Awena, it was said, might have invented boho chic. On her feet she wore jeweled sandals. “It’s probably too early to hope to find fresh meadowsweet growing.”
“Beltane?” asked her husband, the Reverend Max Tudor, over the top of that day’s Monkslip–super-Mare Globe and Bugle.
“Do you know,” Awena continued, “I suppose I really should add the recipe for May wine to my newest cookbook, but the recipe is so easy it hardly seems worth it. You simply add the meadowsweet to white wine and let it steep for twenty-four hours. It does give me an idea, though. I wonder if it would be a good idea to organize the book by the four seasons. What do you think, Max?”The gilt-edged embroidery of her dress reflected morning sunlight into the room. Awena, it was said, might have invented boho chic.
The cookbook was only one of the plates Awena kept in the air, in a manner of speaking. She also now had a meditation app. Free to download, of course, and developed for her by a rather intense, bespectacled young man in London with an astonishing collection of video and voice recording equipment. Meditation was a free gift, she maintained, and no one should charge for it.
“It’s always good to be organized,” said Max vaguely, folding back the newspaper to the crossword puzzle. “But what happens if you write a follow-up book? You’ll have used up all the seasons. Did you say, Beltane?”
Not offended that her husband was listening with only half his attention, Awena nodded. She stood back from the kitchen counter, where she had been arranging spring flowers, and cast a critical eye over the bluebells. The cottage she shared with Max and their still-sleeping child, Owen, always smelled of fresh blossoms that were never allowed to stand in yesterday’s water. By some seemingly miraculous process, flowers arranged by Awena lasted twice as long as anyone else’s. This made her presence less, not more, desired by the women of the St. Edwold’s Church Flower Guild. Beloved as Awena was, there was always a certain amount of jockeying for position on the flower rota, for decorating the altar often meant coveted face time with Max, their handsome vicar. Parishioners were known to borrow or even invent problems to bring to Max when they had no real problems of their own. There was something so soothing in his manner they felt the lightening of a burden shared, before they remembered there had been no real problem in the first place.
“Beltane, yes,” said Awena. “ ‘Bright Fires.’ It’s halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Beltane will start at sun-down April thirtieth and last all day May first. You must remember this from last year, Max?”
“I think I’m meant officially to look the other way,” said Max. “But yes, I remember.”
“Beltane was huge around these parts, until Christianity drove it out—or underground,” she said. “The Church tried to turn it into May Day—a much tamer event. It is one of the few pagan festivals they failed to repurpose into a Christian one. The people liked it as it was. But officials did try.”
“It probably looked as though the villagers were having too much fun,” said Max. “We can’t have that. For us it’s either sackcloth and ashes or nothing.” Max thought the Protestant reformers had been by and large a humorless bunch, a trait shared by extremists down to the present day. Too often it had been their way or the highway. Or prison, or the stake. May Day in Calvinist Scotland had been erased from the calendar, as best they could manage, and the Puritans later banned Maypoles around the time they were setting sail for the Americas to spread their peculiar brand of joy in the New World.
“You’re joking, but that’s exactly what was going on. Since Beltane celebrates the return of the sun, it’s a time of new life and growth, a flowering, fertile time. It is also a period when it is easiest to pierce the veil between this world and the next. Just like at Samhain—these are days of ‘no time.’ ”
“I see,” said Max. “This isn’t the one where they did the human sacrifice, is it?” He had put down the paper to listen to his wife; he often learned something new from these rare chats about Awena’s beliefs. And he often came away seeing the many places where her theories and practices intersected with his own. He also carried off many an idea for his next sermon.
“Max, really. Dancing and bonfires and music, yes. Human sacrifice, no. Well, maybe just the once or twice. All that was probably just jealous Romans carrying tales. There was no Wicker Man. Probably not. It’s more that the usual order of things was suspended and a few people got carried away, as people will.”
He wondered why the Romans would be jealous of a lot of hovel-dwelling peasants who probably stank of animal dung and ate gruel laced with gristle, but he thought it politic not to ask. He and Awena—Anglican vicar and Wiccan—got along so well by making every allowance for the other’s religion.
“Beltane was—and still is—a fertility rite. There was all manner of carry-on around here, especially in those woods over by Wooton Priory. Not just the young ones but people of all ages. A bit of an orgy in some cases, it is supposed, but also there were greenwood marriages—a sort of tryout to see if the union of a betrothed couple was going to be fertile.”
“An audition for the main event. I see.”
“The birthrate soared nine months later—there would be a sort of Beltane baby boom; this is all well documented—and finally it was felt a line had to be drawn. The Victorians finally succeeded in stamping out the festivities for a very long while.”
“To replace them with tea parties and ghastly good-works projects for fallen women.”It was during the Beltane festivities one year that she went missing in Prior’s Wood—this was back in Victorian times.
Awena paused in snipping off the bottoms of some yellow daffodil stems. “Do you remember me telling you about Viola, that local girl? From Chipping Monkslip? It was during the Beltane festivities one year that she went missing in Prior’s Wood—this was back in Victorian times. It was her disappearance that put a stop to the celebrations, in keeping with the surge of Victorian disapproval. The timing of her departure confused things for a good while—the fact that she disappeared when there was a lot of organized chaos and debauchery going on anyway. People really did assume she’d run off, possibly because after spending all night in the woods with her lover, a lowly gardener, no ‘decent’ family would take her back in.”
“Not even her own family?”
“Especially not her own family. Her people had a place in the community—the father was one of the local squires—and the girl was now damaged goods, whether or not anything much actually happened in the woods. Remember these were Victorians and this is how they thought. There wasn’t a dowry big enough to erase from people’s minds the image of Viola skipping off with the local gardener, flowers in her hair and wearing, at best, a sort of skimpy toga.” “Really, it sounds delightful. I shall have to make a note to buy you a toga.”
“All right. It was a different era but yes, I can see how the girl must have been distressed. Terrified, actually. She could guess how her family would react and I would imagine she didn’t feel she could face the consequences. But where would she go? London? Then as now, you need money to run off to London with your boyfriend. A gardener would need references and, call me mad, but taking off with the local squire’s daughter in tow would probably ruin your chances of a good reference.”
“It would seem the young couple thought of that. The boy gave notice to the head gardener just before Beltane that he was off to join the army or something, but later he surfaced somewhere in York- shire. No one at his new employer’s realized his connection to the young girl of the house—he had one of those names like James Smith—and I guess no one verified his references.”
“The gardener showed up in Yorkshire, then. But where was she?”“I’ve never given any thought to where I’d hide a body.”
“Her family assumed she was with him and no one could be bothered to go and find out. There had been a bit of a family row, you see, and they just wrote her off. There’s a family Bible Lord Duxter got hold of somehow that he keeps in the archives at the old priory—he can show you it with her name and date of birth cut out of the page by someone using a sharp knife. The rub is that her young man—the gardener—thought she’d changed her mind about joining him. I suppose he couldn’t just take a week off from work to come down here and ask. He was too low on the totem pole to ex- pect any serious time off. It wasn’t until later he learned she was miss- ing. A villager he ran into quite by accident in his local recognized him. He thought right then and there he was in trouble but he could prove, you see, that he was nowhere around when she went missing. He had witnesses—his new employer, for one. Then a theory took hold that she must have gone out into Prior’s Wood with someone else entirely and that is where the mystery lies. Who was she with? And did he do away with her?”
“Undoubtedly, the chances are good he did. But the gardener didn’t get in touch with the family? Once he realized she was missing? I mean, really missing?”
“Not directly. I imagine he didn’t dare. He told this villager—it was one of your predecessors in office, by the way—he told him the whole story, or what he knew of it. The vicar knew the young man and could vouch for his character. It was the vicar who got in touch with the authorities on his return from his travels. So a desultory search of the woods began, a sort of thrashing around the bushes and branches, knowing it was all much too late. Then songs and poems began to be written about her, and her legend was passed down. ‘The Girl’s Grave’ is still sung around these parts every May Day.”
“If she was anywhere,” said Max, catching the spirit of the tale, “it’s a good guess she ended up in the lake in those woods.”
“Hmm,” said Awena. “What makes you think she was put in the lake? It’s more a pond these days, by the way.”
“I don’t know. If you had a body to hide, isn’t that where you’d put it?”
“I’ve never given any thought to where I’d hide a body.”
“Well, no, of course not,” Max said. “But do consider it now. Let’s say she was killed accidentally in some sort of struggle or she was murdered outright. Something happened, in any event, that would cause trouble for someone if her body were found. The killer only had to tip the body into the lake to conceal the crime—he’d weigh her down with stones knotted in the hem of her dress or some- thing. The most likely scenario is that he took her out to the center of the water in a rowboat. Either he rowed out with the body or he strangled her in the boat and then tipped her in. I would think the latter was the simpler way, assuming she was willing to go with him. If she didn’t suspect she was being lured to her death by some sort of maniac.”
“That’s too awful to think about,” said Awena. “I prefer to think killing her was a spur-of-the-moment thing. They quarreled; perhaps he hit her with an oar.”
“No serious attempt at a search was made at the time?”
Awena shook her head. “Not given that family row; she told them she was leaving and sort of flounced off the way girls her age tend to do, then as now. So no, no real search, because they thought she was alive. Very angry and defiant, and very alive. They also didn’t drain the lake, even when they finally realized she may not simply have run off. In any event it would have been pointless. It had been years before they realized what the true situation may have been and if she were down there in those waters she was gone for sure. Even today, the best they could hope for would be to find a ring or necklace or something at the bottom. Her bones . . . well, you know.”
Max shook his head. “Not necessarily. It depends. There’s water and then there’s water. That’s why bog people have been found well preserved after hundreds of years.”
“But that’s dreadful, to think she could have been recovered and no one could be bothered. Even after it was apparent she had not after all disgraced the family by running off.”
“Oh, but in their minds she had, remember—disgraced the family. By being in those woods at all that Beltane night.”
“I’ll ask Jane about this,” said Awena. “She might know something, or she may have come across more information in the archives she’s been sorting through.”
“Jane? Oh, right, of course. Jane Frost.”
Awena paused to coax a recalcitrant stem into the dead center of a tall vase packed with flowers. “She’s been organizing the archives over at Wooton Priory, where I’ll be working during the day in the autumn. For the writers’ retreat, you know. I figure by then I’ll have enough of the book roughed out it will be the perfect time to get the manuscript trimmed into final shape for the publishers.”
“For Lord Duxter.” Whose Wooton Press owed a great deal of its success to the unforeseen explosion in popularity of Awena’s all-things-natural recipes, her television show having added to the surge of interest in her written recipes as well as her general approach to a simpler life uncluttered by possessions. Awena felt a debt of gratitude in return, that Lord Duxter had early on seen the potential in what others had dismissed as a faddish harking back to earlier times.
“You’re sure you’ll be all right while I’m in London for the next few days?” she asked.
“No worries. Owen will be fine with me. We have reached an understanding. If he does not throw his cereal on the floor he gets to watch telly cartoons. And Tara of course fills in as needed.”
“Owen likes being at Goddessspell with her. It’s too bad goat yoga was such a failure. He loved watching the classes but the goats got to be too big a distraction. And then there was the cleanup . . .”
“I think anyone but Tara could have foreseen what would happen.”
Awena smiled. “Worth a try, anyway. But my mind rests easy, knowing I’m free to go. I really need to see the original recipes and try to intuit what it is they meant to say. So much gets lost in translation. Jane’s been helpful in pointing me toward sources in the British Library.”
“Her husband is headed for Saudi Arabia right about now, isn’t he?” Max asked.
Awena stepped back to admire the artistry of her arrangement, saying, “Colin left last week. I’ve been thinking of inviting Jane over. She might like a break from Mrs. Henslowe—her grandmother-in-law, I suppose you’d call her. And I imagine Jane will be feeling a bit lonely without Colin around.”
Awena was always inviting people over “to make sure they didn’t feel alone.”
“Whatever induced Colin to take a job so far away from his family?” Max asked. “I heard there was some discussion beforehand. It seemed a bit up in the air whether he would accept the offer.”
“The financial rewards, purely, according to Jane. Colin had been unemployed almost a year and I don’t think they had a lot of options left. He can be a bit of a square peg, you know. I don’t think job offers were thick on the ground.”
“I see. Of course, that makes sense.”
“But now Jane has her hands so full she never gets to see her own family, she told me. Not that she cares about that greatly—they don’t appear to be close-knit—but what seemed to bother her was the idea that Colin’s family and needs came first in his mind, with his never having a thought that, for one thing, taking care of an angsty teenager like Poppy was hardly a laugh a minute for Jane.”
“That’s right, there’s the stepdaughter,” Max said. “Should we also invite her over?”
“Probably she’d be needed to stay with Netta Henslowe if Jane came over.” After a moment Awena added, “Living with Mrs. Henslowe must be a lot like living alone. Or perhaps it’s more like being an unpaid companion.”
“Netta Henslowe can be difficult, I know. Since her husband was killed in that hunting accident—”
“Since well before that.”
“You are quite right,” said Max. “She was always difficult, probably from birth. So Jane’s not only been left to cope with Mrs. Henslowe, she’s been put in charge of a stepdaughter, who tolerates her at best. I see the problem too often. Poppy didn’t ask for this situation, it was created for her by adults, and she can only think of getting away from the evil stepmother.”“Poppy didn’t ask for this situation, it was created for her by adults, and she can only think of getting away from the evil stepmother.”
“I don’t think it’s quite as bad as that, actually. I think she and Poppy get along, but that is mainly because Jane can’t really be bothered to keep close tabs on the girl. It’s a good thing that at sixteen Poppy is old enough to fend for herself, for the most part. And she’s always hanging about the abbey, so her stepmother isn’t too far out of reach if needed.”
“They say the teen years are the worst. I hope we avoid all that with Owen.” Max turned a page in his newspaper and saw there were no obituaries. Good.
“They all came here from London, am I right?” Awena asked. “Colin, Jane, and Poppy?”
Max folded the paper and took a final sip of coffee. “I believe so. Yes, I think that’s where Jane and Colin met originally. He was a widower, but I don’t know when his first wife died. It’s only certain Poppy lost her natural mother at far too young an age. I would be willing to bet she never bargained on finding herself in a small village.”
“And that’s all the more reason to get Jane out of the house, don’t you think?” Awena asked. “Give the situation a chance to air out a bit? Besides, Jane’s found a sort of treasure trove of stuff at the priory. Letters and books, and an old history of the village. She thinks some of it may be valuable or at least of interest to someone like me. I’d like to hear more about it.”
“By all means, let’s give her a ring. Maybe we could plan a small dinner party. Make sure she feels part of village life.”
“I’ll ring her today.”
But regrettably, in light of future events, Jane never made it to dinner.
From In Prior’s Wood. Used with the permission of the publisher, Minotaur. Copyright © 2018 by G.M. Malliet.