Another trip into Tony Mansell’s world of folklore, myth and legend. This time with a tale of a Cornish maid who was cheated out of a life with the only man she loved.
It was late and there was a chill in the air as Annie made her way along the rough track in the bottom of the valley. Stones cut her feet and roots grabbed at her ankles. She was old, too old for such a journey, but there was no going back. This was something she had to do. Somehow, she would find the strength, perhaps from her faith of someone or something too difficult to understand. The pain made the struggle more worthwhile; it was the price she paid for love.
The little Cornish valley was once full of mining activity but now the yellow gorse and brambles concealed the evidence of its former life. The dense canopy of trees almost blocked out the light, it increased her sense of foreboding and as an unearthly sound echoed through the valley she shivered. Creatures of the night held no fear for this country girl but this was different.
The river was her only friend and now it whispered encouragement as it hurried towards its destination, occasionally cascading over miniature rock falls or sweeping around bends; its pace more rapid than Annie’s frail body could manage. At first it was to her right but as she crossed the rickety wooden bridge it emerged to her left and moved away from the path before sweeping back again. She glanced at its bubbling water and remembered the times she had played in it. The bridge was old: it was from where she and her young friends had dropped twigs and then, laughing all the way, raced them down to the shore. Those were carefree days when life was an adventure reaching out before her.
She sensed the spirits of the miners who had laboured there; their tears and sweat had created the valley’s distinctive atmosphere. To Annie they were a comfort as she focused on her goal. No obstacle, human or otherwise, would stop her.
Every so often she paused to rest. They were brief stops except for one, when she bathed her aching feet in the cold stream. She watched as the blood flowed from the cuts and streaked playfully through the water. She looked at her hands, the same hands that had once danced across the keyboard. She had played the piano well but now her fingers were contorted with arthritis. She murmured, “Oh God, why do you burden us with old age?”
There was the noise again; a piercing sound from further down the valley; an obstacle perhaps. No! She was resolute; it would not stop her. It was just one more difficulty to overcome. She even convinced herself that it was her guide – it would help her find the way. She struggled to her feet and continued.
Perhaps it was imagination but the bushes seemed to be closing in, trying to block her way, perhaps testing her resolve. Brambles tore her clothes and wispy branches reached out to grab her face. Jericho had always been her favourite place but today there was nowhere on earth more hostile.
When she was young, she’d walked here with her sweetheart. He’d been a fine man but her life had lost its purpose when he’d been killed in the mine at the lower end of the valley. The rock fall had crushed him and his body was never recovered; she’d even been denied the chance to pray over him. For years she’d walked the valley, perhaps hoping for some contact, something that would give his death some closure. Now, old age made her pilgrimage difficult and tonight would be her last journey.
Her head was full of memories and as she forced herself to focus on the path ahead, she tripped and fell headlong into the bracken. Like giant tentacles the bushes held her and their thorns slashed at her frail body. For a moment she was sure that someone had pushed her but there was no one else there: unless, of course, it was the spirits and they had danced away out of sight. Were they that vindictive? She lay there: weeping, struggling to regain her breath, desperate to rise from her jagged bed. Moving was agony but she forced herself to roll back onto the path. She would rest for a while. After all, she had waited a lifetime so what difference would a few minutes make?
She felt a trickle and raised her hand to her face. As she looked at the blood, panic gripped her. She wanted to look her best – she had to look her best. She crawled to the riverbank, scooped up a handful of water and bathed the torn flesh. It was cold, like ice, and it took her breath away.
As she lay there, tiredness overcame her and she drifted into the world of dreams. But her rest was brief and it was the fearful sound from down the valley that woke her. This time she was grateful to whatever it was, but surely, she had slept for no more than a few minutes. She struggled to her knees, reached up to a branch and hauled herself to her feet. The effort of rising was easier than she expected and she mentally gave thanks to the old sycamore for its help. Exhausted and wracked with pain, she shuffled on down the path, towards her goal. She cursed her body, the body that had seen so many years, the body she had grown to hate. Time had not been kind to it but nor had she, not since he’d been taken from her. She had lost interest in her appearance and the hard work on the farm had done the rest.
She and her sweetheart had made a fine couple as they strolled to chapel each Sunday. Life was simple back then but it was 60 years ago. He’d been twenty-two when he’d been killed and she’d never overcome the bitterness and resentment at her loss. All they had wanted was each other and she’d had to force the anger from her mind, anger that her God had deprived them of a life together. Annie had never married; she’d stayed at home to care for her mother and father. They had never talked about it: she knew it was expected. Besides, the loss of her lover had been such that it was no hardship; no other man could have taken his place.
Guilt had played its part in her sorrow. The night before he was killed, they had lain together, the only time, and she feared that his death was the price of their sin. It had been in this valley, on a warm, summer’s night. He had led her to a clearing in the trees. They had kissed and then he’d undressed her. Always considerate, he had placed his coat on the ground and she’d watched as he removed his clothes. For some, the first experience can be a moment of embarrassment, of awkwardness, but for them it was so natural. As they made love it was a moment of pure ecstasy and she knew that it was the reason she had been created. Even after his death she could not bring herself to regret it, the very act had strengthened their love and increased her certainty that they would spend eternity together. It was what sustained her now, what made this dreadful journey so bittersweet.
She was close now, and her thoughts were of him, his image so vivid despite the time apart. Like a young lover, her excitement increased with every step. At last she was at the end of the valley, where the trees gave way to open space, where nothing could hide from view. There was the mine, a ruin now. It had been abandoned years ago, a monument to his memory, but she hated it as much as she hated the mining adventurers who had sent him to work underground. But these were old thoughts, bitter thoughts, and she must put them to one side. She needed to clear her mind for what lay ahead.
As she emerged from the cover of the trees the sunlight was intense, much brighter than when she’d entered the valley. She could see the rocks and the sands of the small beach gently lapped by the blue-grey waters of the ocean. This was their “Nampetha,” a place they both loved, where Joseph of Arimathea had once walked. She was suddenly aware that her pain had gone and she looked at her clothes, felt her body, touched her face. The wrinkled, weather-beaten skin had become smooth again; she was young and as beautiful as ever.
People appeared from everywhere, they were happy, laughing, basking in the sun’s radiance. Many came to greet her but her eyes were not for them, she was searching for her beloved. After a lifetime of solitude he should be there to greet her. And in a moment, he was. As tall, muscular and as handsome as ever. They embraced and kissed and her body shook in expectation. Tears of happiness flowed and merged on their cheeks; they trembled with love and desire as the years of separation melted away.
“I knew you would come,” he said, “as soon as I heard your funeral bell, I knew you would come.”
Tony Mansell is the author of several books on aspects of Cornish history. In 2011 he was made a Bardh Kernow (Cornish Bard) for his writing and research, taking the name of Skrifer Istori. He has a wide interest in Cornish history, is a researcher with the Cornish National Music Archive specialising in brass bands, and a sub-editor with Cornish Story.