Oh, Come ye to the Skimmity
by Richard Chalk
O, my husband. So strong when in the fields. So quiet now.
Sleep on, my husband—slumber in peace at our hearth, beside the fragrant, glowing embers of applewood and heather. No need to stir again before the day’s festivities.
The wassail that I make now is for the mummers—for the villagers, disguised, and others when they come. The freshest eggs and cider, cloves and nutmeg in a steaming bowl. I grate rough roots of ginger, add the frothy pulp from roasted apples—lambswool—to thicken up the potent brew. Its vapour sweetens the air of our tiny cottage. It takes away the fug of ale from your stale drunkenness.
You gurgle, choke a little.
Sleep on, my husband. Breathe the vapour, pungent and strong at this early hour. But all is ready for the revels. For, high above our roof of moss, amid the skeletal, winter canopy, the rooks are cawing now. I hear them cackle and crow, announcing dawn. Perhaps, the weather will be crisp and fine upon this day of days, to signify good harvest in the months to come—a prophecy of improved fortunes. But if rain or snow, clouds or mist, then no matter. What happens today will purify, replenish, nonetheless.
Our Bess is rousing too—another of your loves outside our fallen union. She snuffles and grunts about her pen beyond our drystone walls. She seeks out food—alerted by the odours, livened by her hunger. With us a year now—Bess—a gift from those who come. For today—this day of days—we are one year married too. Have you remembered that, amid your slumbers? Amid the fog of ale that kills your pains? A year has turned. Though you do not know our customs yet—not all. Not those away from the church, at least. Because, like our Parson Littlefayre, you don’t hail from these parts as I.
For, today, the rough music will come. At first, as merest echoes of drumming and distant wails. But that boisterous clamour will rise until it fills the woods around, and the rooks above us will crash and flap to scatter amid the din. For this will not be music that the Parson would approve. Nay, marrow bones will clang on pans beyond our door. Cleavers, pokers, tongs on metal pots. And an unseen crowd will sing a-raucously. “With a ran, dan, dan…” they’ll sing, and smoke will seep beneath our door—the thick, white smoke of burning evergreens. Then a rap of hazel staff on studded oak, and a guttural bellow, “Yea, allow us entry on the Ooser’s day. The man-bull—Dorset Devil—comes a-calling on ye.”
My heart will miss more beats at this than it does even now, as it always did upon the Ooser’s call—especially when a child, and for greater reason on this morn. Will you awake, my husband—though the valerian root will have taken hold by then? Yes, you will be quiet—still. Your eyes a-glaze. But we will know the voice of Blue-nose John beyond our door. So, I’ll brush down my kirtle and then… then perhaps kiss you on your broad, strong brow once more. And I’ll hesitate, no doubt. But I must find the countenance of joy that they’ll expect before I throw open our door and welcome their procession.
He’ll stand here on the threshold, old John—shrouded in the smoke of their small fire, his staff aloft. And he’ll be dressed a-rabbit skins and feathers, as when he blessed us on our wedding’s eve, and his grey beard will be tangled on his chest. If his head be wreathed this day, it will be with mistletoe cut down by his golden sickle, and he’ll wear fine boots as well, or sturdy leather gators, with ribbons and strings of bells about.
“One year a-consummate,” he’ll declare, and the crowd beyond will bray and cheer. Likely, he’ll come forward too, speak low to me, and say, “Is all prepared?”
“All is ready, John,” I will affirm. Or will I falter? “All’s done.”
For all is done, my husband. There is nothing to prevent it now. For you should have been my husband beyond mere title—yours, a wife of swollen face to match her swollen belly.
And John and his players will cross our threshold then, bring with them icy air and plumes of acrid smoke—rowan sprigs and holly burned before our door, to cleanse away the spirit of the dead season. To cleanse away sin.
“Holly be for man,” old John will call, thunderous and croaking. “Ivy brought inside to purify the home.”
And his mummers will drape such greenery about our walls, a-rustling as they go. They’ll prance and play before us here in celebration of the day. They’ll play for you, my husband—for the man of our home. For me—your loyal wife. A tale upon the season, no doubt, but of the old ways—not one that our Parson would approve. For the players will squawk in the voices of children or low like the Christmas bull, whooping and slashing at each other with whips made of their thorny sprigs. Then all will drink of the wassail—all but you. And I will drink most deeply—to find my courage in this bowl that I stir now.
When the bowl is passed to go among those still outside, I hope I will be giddy from the brew. For we’ll be led out too, to be jostled among them—their faces painted dark with soot, and their hessian tabards adorned with the winter greenery of ivy and sprays of pine. Dark faces, all around us, lit yellow by their fire at the cold dawn, their shadows rearing, mocking. And more bells will a-jangle as they dance at us about the fire, each holding up the implements of their music and their skimming spoons. And—o, my husband—the crowd will fall upon you then. One will lift up high the shirt of fool-adulterer, another will hold the head of the Christmas bull upon a pole.
And how will I react, as the women tear at you—tear at your clothes until you be naked, pallid and prone upon the mulch of woodland earth? Perhaps, old John will tower at my side, hold me by my shoulder, or other men will flank me. Will they need to fight me as the crowd dress you in the mantle you have earned? As they crown you fool—your head a-covered with the mask of Dorset Devil?
“For the wife a-child, spurned and beaten,” old John will shout. “Now man-bull, dressed a-mockery, makes amends.”
And “With a ran, dan, dan…” The crowd will sing. “He bang’d her, he did, he bang’d her indeed. And now here he stands in our time o’need.”
O my husband—man-bull now—you will be lifted into place upon the blacksmith’s dappled horse, balanced there and tied onto the saddle. And I’ll lament my strongest ox, whose muscular embrace I felt in tender times, though his rampages left my lips split and cheeks misshapen. But bull more truly now, you’ll be. Though neutered, with your misplaced pride removed.
And they’ll process with you then. We’ll process. Horse and bull to be led by gadding crowd—among the clanking and the banging, chant and song. Not into the village—no. Not near the church. The procession will go off into the outer hamlets, past other houses of the parish and these woods.
Old Blue-nose John will stride at head and rap upon each door.
“Yea,” he will call out. “Come hither to the skimmity. Come forth upon the Ooser’s day.”
And you’ll be at the centre, my husband, nodding and slumped upon your mount, bull-headed in your mask.
Will I trudge on, or will they carry me, amid the growing crowd? Will I remain beside the flank of beast, as its nostrils flare and the warm musk of its hide rises on Midwinter’s air? Will I process with them—and you—along that white chalk path, where I once held your hand on balmy summer’s evenings? Today, all boots will be stained and claggy upon that seasonal surface, and bells will ring at ankles, keep time with thudding hooves.
By the time that Water’s Brook is reached, the party will be reverent, reserved. They’ll lead your steed across the steaming ford, and over into Craven’s field, before all start the climb of White Horse Hill.
And what if Tanner works his field, this day—God-fearing man? What if he toils there beyond the hawthorn hedgerow, in leather jerkin, with his ox and plough, cheeks ruddy and breath a-steaming? Will John halloo him—invite the ploughman to take part? To be sure the ploughman cannot intervene, too many in the crowd to allow for his obstruction—and when his crops, too, depend upon the pilgrimage up that hill. So, will Tanner merely chest his cap, stop and watch the man-bull pass?
For the white horse carved upon that hill will be the final place, as is the way.
O, my husband, I hope I do not reach procession’s end, there to witness what will come. Let me be drained of all my strength by then. Let them leave me at the basin before they climb. Let me not see again the man-bull’s fate, as I did when I was young—my hand within my father’s, as John blooded my cheeks with steaming cloth, and my cheeks burned with a heat that stays until this day.
But, fear not, my husband. For you will not be sensible of the end. Your spirit will not reach that hill—I’ve seen to that. This soothes me in the pains to come—soothes me that those pains will not be yours. A final mercy for the man I loved, and I love still, despite it all.
For I added powdered hemlock to the shavings of valerian in your ale. You will be gone by the time they reach the ancient figure on that hill. The sacrifice will still count, surely. The soil still nourished—made fertile by your gift of blood. Just as you have nourished my womb. Just as that part of your blood will still live on inside me.
So, sleep. Let the mixture work. Let it take away all pain and soon—though, not so soon that John and those who come will not see you still alive.
Hark, Bess snuffles, snorts again beyond our door.
All else will go to her, starved hog—once their ritual has been done. All that remains of you—earthly body—will feed that beloved creature to which you still showed some tenderness. Our Bess, whose own carcass will be destined for their spit upon the feast at Candlemas in but a month—a feast that the Parson will attend. And that man of church will wonder at your absence—no doubt—despite the gossip of wifely knocking that I know he will have heard. He’ll pour scorn on you at leaving your wife a-child, feign sympathy at my plight, as he troughs upon the pork.
O—yes—my husband, you become beast twice, this day.
But sleep on, beside the clicking, cooling embers, your breathing laboured, like the shallow wheeze that comes from worn out bellows. I see that the valerian’s grip takes you now—as they’ll expect. Too soon for hemlock’s black sleep yet, though it waits inside your belly and will come before too long.
Will our Bess survive your meat? I do not know. For it’s a meat made poison now, by my own hand. And if the hog does not survive, I am undone.
And what then?
O, husband. Just know that I have done all this for you.
The rooks are quarrelling louder, but no rough music yet. No echo of cacophony.
Except… leaves a-rustle. Not our Bess this time.
The pad of steps. Perhaps two sets.
Someone approaches. Yes—surely, someone comes.
I stop upon my labours, listen like a fox.
Now, a fist thumps at our door. And again. Yet no guttural call. Only, a thin and whining voice, “Tom Carter. Are you there?”
I stay frozen in the dimness at my bowl. You are frozen on your side at edge of hearth.
“Goodwife Sally then. Are you there? I see the smoke rise from your thatch—I know someone is home.”
Not John Blue-nose then. Nor any of his mummers. The procession has not come.
For I know that voice. We know the voice of Parson Littlefayre.
“You cannot do this Goodwife Sally,” the churchman says. “I have Tanner here beside me—I know what you intend.”
My hands tremble at the steaming bowl. I think to make an answer—find no words. Now, the hammering at our door becomes the thud and crack of shoulder against lock, and I see what I must do.
Yes, my husband. See how I take up the pestle and pour the remaining hemlock powder into this sweet mix.
In union, at last—our family.
I stir. Now take a cup and pour in the wassail. And I drink deep.