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The Holly & the Ivy

The Holly & the Ivy


The woman made her way through the snow that had started to fall, only lightly at first, several hours earlier.

It had begun to drift now in places and so her progress was slow, though, I felt, none-the-less measured.

From where I was standing I could clearly see that this particular young woman's destination appeared to be a small clump of trees some short way ahead of her.

A faint line of footsteps, growing ever fainter in the still falling snow, traced its serpentine way back to a row of three dishevelled looking cottages. Did she live in one of these humble dwellings?

And what was she carrying in her left hand? I tried but could not discern the object she held closely in her possession.

In the village, not so far away from the scene directly in front of me, preparations for the upcoming festivities were beginning to gain momentum.

People were hurrying to and fro, mostly setting up stalls for the annual Christmas Fair, which was to take place in just three short days time.

This was the time of year that the villagers looked forward to the most.

Ordinarily life in the tiny hamlet was tough. Work was hard and, more often than not, seven long days a week...and all for such a poor return.

But at Christmas the whole mood changed. The traders sold more of everything, certainly food and alcohol, and even the poorest of the poor made plans.

There was carol singing on the green, a lantern parade through the village and the usual church services, all of which were hugely popular and well attended.

Even 'the outlanders' (travellers plying some trade or selling goods not generally found within the confines of the village) were welcome to join in.

Top of the tree though was the Christmas Fair, which had been held on the day before Christmas Eve for as long as anyone could remember.

The woman stopped suddenly. She seemed to sense my presence somehow, though I was sure that I was completely out of her line of sight.

For a moment, seemingly frozen in time, something passed between us.

Quickly it was over and the woman resumed her way through the snow that was now turning into something of a blizzard, driven hard into her face by the bitingly cold wind that had picked up considerably.

She seemed so focussed. Although I had, without any doubt, felt a brief connection to the woman, I could not be sure that she knew for definite that I was here. She certainly never looked my way again as her travails eventually took her through a narrow gap in the snow-laden trees and out of my view.

But my viewpoint had somehow changed. I could suddenly see her again and quite clearly too.

This time I figured out that the woman must be no more than twenty-one years old or so.

I think she may have been a pretty little thing once...but her undoubted beauty was etched with something else. A hardness, that gave her a gravity beyond her tender years.

Something about her face triggered the merest memory of another 'something' in the back of my mind. What was it about her that made me feel far colder all of a sudden than even a fool like me out in such frightful conditions as this should ever have done?

I still couldn't make out what she clutched so dearly to her chest, as if her very life depended on it.

The light, what light there was on such a late, Winter's afternoon as this, was fading fast and I had difficulty seeing exactly what was transpiring in front of me. But I swear this is what I saw!

All of a sudden, the woman stopped dead in her tracks and threw herself violently down onto the whitened surface of the little clearing in the wood. She then started to beat her right fist on the ground in such a frenzy that I feared she would do herself harm.

But that somehow poignant little episode soon passed as the visibly-weeping young woman pulled herself up off the freezing cold floor of the wood and placed what she still grasped in her other hand against the base of a small tree stump.

Back in the village the murmur of anticipation was almost perceivable above the general noise resulting from the various activities that were going on all around in readiness for the upcoming festivities.

Large tents were being erected by the stronger villagers (the Blacksmith with his ever-ruddy face in charge of proceedings as usual!) while gentler folk, women and even children, pulled their weight to the best of their physical ability whenever called upon.

This was a time of year when everyone pitched in for the common cause! God knows times were tough and as Christmas turned into New Year, with the worst of the Winter weather still to come in January and February, it was not unusual for the poorest of the poor to literally starve to death. So if you were poor and still alive at Christmas, you celebrated it as if it was your last.

Where was I now?

I must have staggered through the snow to my new vantage point almost unknowingly but here I was, looking down upon a woman who was lying flat on a bed of straw...and she appeared to be in the midst of childbirth.

I strained my tired-feeling eyes in the dim light of what must have been a barn or farm outbuilding so that I could see more but it was becoming increasingly difficult to make out what exactly was happening.

The look on the young woman's face (without doubt the same young woman I had witnessed earlier in the wood) was both a saddening and disturbing sight to see. Tears stained her pretty, though rough-skinned face, and there was something else...anger clouded those dark, far away eyes.

She was tenderly cradling the result of her solo efforts but to my horror the babe in her arms showed no sign of had been stillborn!

The woman looked in my direction and seemed to be mouthing something...but I couldn't make out what, even in the eerie calm of this dark and sorrowful place in which I too now found myself.

A distant memory...faint at first...but then it struck home to me in crystal clarity. I had known this poor, poor creature!

And intimately too!

Before my thoughts could crystalise further, an other scene was suddenly set before me, as sure as if I had been physically conveyed in an instant to a completely different place and time.

Two villagers seemed to be deep in conversation about some matter or other...what exactly it was I tried desperately hard to hear.

They appeared to be talking about the body of a man. How had he died? They seemed not to be in full possession of all the facts. But a man had died and it was all 'very sad'...'especially at this time of year' said one.

I must admit that I was beginning to feel somewhat light-headed by now. I sensed that I was in some way involved in the lives of these poor people (the young woman and the dead man) but, to my annoyance, I was completely unaware as to the exact nature of my involvement.

After some time...I'm not sure precisely how long passed but it must have been several hours as I felt somewhat refreshed when I regained awareness, I found myself once again in prime position to witness the further progress, through the snowfields, of the same young woman I had seen variously.

This time I could clearly see what she had clasped in her hand, and at times pulled to her breast for protection against the wild wind that had got up so strongly now as to be blowing blinding snow into her tear-stained eyes. Yes!, they were very definitely real tears she was crying and not those caused by the cold weather.

In her red, raw hand she clutched an intricately-made circular wreath of holly and ivy.

And she had reached the little clearing I had seen her at earlier.

As before, she very carefully placed the holly and ivy wreath against the stump of a tree. But this time she looked straight at me and she was again mouthing some words I could, at first, not make out.

But the howling wind, driving snow, and what audible Winter bird-song there had been above the noise of the storm all ceased at once to bring an uneasy quiet to the little clearing.

'She's buried here! said the young woman in a far away voice, her blazing eyes boring into me...

'She's buried here!' she repeated

'No-one else knows!' continued the young woman, her hurtful face failing to disguise the hatred she obviously felt for me.

'No-one else knows!' She repeated

And then...pleadingly

'Why did you abandon me?'

In the village plans for Christmas and the annual fair continued unabated. This was a happy time of year, no doubt about it.

All the tents had been erected on the green now, housing all sorts of festive wonderment for the adults and children of the village alike.

Downstream from the village two men, one with a shiny bald head and of middle age and an other younger and an all together more attractive fellow, were in earnest discussion.

'Pulled 'im out of the river this mornin'' said the first.

'Poor chap must 'ave 'ad a bit too much to drink an' fallen in' said the other man as nonchalantly as if this sort of incident happened all the time.

'Outlander I 'eard' said the first man.

Without warning, I was transported in mind and spirit to a location and moment in time I'd subconsciously been dreading.

It was pitch dark here...Oh! so very dark...and it was raining...absolutely pouring with a cold, icy rain.

And I was completely lost!

The rain was so cold, so ice-cold, mixed with fragments of snow and it was beginning to numb my eyes.

I heard a sound... far off in sinister-looking trees that I could only just about identify in the all-enclosing darkness.

Was that a light I could see in the distance?

A house maybe?

At least I could ask for directions back to the village...back to the comfort of my lodgings in the village...back to...

Then, I felt my balance go and I was the freezing cold, icy, dark water...struggling for breath...struggling to stay afloat...struggling for my very life!

I threw out a desperate, clawing hand but I only managed to grab a tenuous hold on some reed-like plants that were growing along the river's edge...which gave way almost immediately under the strain of my continued struggle.

And now I was being carried further and further by the river's strong current that had me in its death grip...further and further away from any hope of my survival.

'Bethany!' I cried out desperately at the top of my voice...but no-one heard

'Bethany!' I yelled again, as my final thoughts flashed kaleidoscopically across my mind.

'Bethany, my love, please help me!' I virtually whispered, defeatedly, with my last breath.


That Christmas, with all its bright hopes and goodwill toward fellow man, came and went in the it always had done.

And, as another New Year was heralded by rich and poor alike, Bethany Miller continued about her daily business as she too always had.

On the green, a raggedly-attired young boy, played happily with a recently-acquired wooden hoop in the company of his equally excitable small friends.

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24 Apr, 2017
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