THE OWL WOMAN • by Michael Bloor

That evening, we sat either side of my neighbour Goronwy’s kitchen range. He pronounced my latest batch of scrumpy cider — mysteriously cloudy, both sharp and sweet, with the smell of autumn — almost as good as the scrumpy his father used to make. I understood that there was no higher praise. As a young man, Goronwy’s father had worked in the quarry on Deri Mountain, leading the Clydesdale horses that powered the tramway that carried the quarry stone down to the little town of Abergavenny at the foot of the mountain. Old Goronwy had many of his father’s stories about the quarry and the quarrymen, but the story Goronwy told me that night, of his grandfather’s betrothal, has stayed with me down the years, like an old song.

“In the dim of a winter’s early morning in the 1850s my grandfather, then a young man in his prime, was walking up through the oakwood to his work in the quarry. He heard a sudden breaking of branches, and then a vague shape thudded to the ground directly in front of him. He started forward: it was a young woman, sprawled among the moss and the drifted leaves. Silent, he knelt beside her while she gasped and coughed, made breathless by the fall.

“Now, believe me: grandfather was a Welsh scholar who had competed in the 1852 Abergavenny Eisteddfod, but he struggled to understand her first words. She seemed to be speaking in Old Welsh. She was richly, but strangely, dressed. No Victorian lady, but someone from an antique painting. As she hugged her damaged elbow, he recognised her perfume — a strong, sweet smell of marshy places and hill-springs, the smell of meadowsweet.”

Goronwy paused in his tale and I poured some more scrumpy. He took a deep draught, wiped his moustache, and asked: “You’ll have read The Mabinogion, Alan?”

I stared at the old man and understood: he wanted to know if I recognised the significance of the smell of meadowsweet. In the ancient book of The Mabinogion, the wizard, Gwydyon, fashioned a living bride out of flowers for his nephew, Lleu. A witch had cursed Lleu that he should never have a wife born of woman. So Gwydyon used his powers to create a bride that was not born of woman, but was sprung from the flowers of the wood and the mountain — flowers of oak, of broom, and… of meadowsweet*. Goronwy gave me a significant nod and resumed his tale.

“My grandfather helped the injured woman to her feet and took her down the mountain to his mother’s care. As they stood in the scullery, while his mother bathed and bound the woman’s elbow and forearm, the woman stared wildly about her. My grandfather asked her if, by any chance, her name was Blodeuedd? She turned, smiled and nodded. Her smile, like her perfume, suffused the scullery.

“Blodeuedd, meaning flower-face as my grandfather well knew, was the name of Lleu’s bride of flowers. As he also knew, she had proved a wayward bride: her love for Lleu was itself like a flower that had bloomed, withered and died. So when then she chanced to meet Goronwy, the Lord of Penllyn, she found herself drawn to him. Goronwy in his turn yearned for Blodeuedd. They became lovers and plotted together to slay her husband. Lord Goronwy murdered Lleu, but Lleu’s uncle — the wizard Gwydyon — discovered Blodeuedd’s betrayal and she fled from him. He caught her and punished her, turning her into an owl, destined to rove always alone and mournful through the night skies, and to be shunned and hated by all other birds.

“My grandfather seated Blodeuedd before the warm hearth. Struggling to find the appropriate Old Welsh words, he questioned her about how she came to fall to earth on the Deri Mountain. She touched his arm and he felt the touch like a caress: “I think I know the answer to your question. Few wizards know the strongest spells of all, the binding spells. Merlin, alone, was said to know many binding spells, and they proved his undoing in the cave below Tintagel. I believe Gwydyon’s punishment of me was not binding for all eternity, but only for a span of a thousand years and a day. And now the long years are past, the spell has lapsed, and my owl-shape is cast off. I dwell now on the furniture of the Earth, not in the heavens, and I am again a free and mortal woman. Free, but fearful of this changed world.” She cried and my grandfather comforted her… And by midsummer they were betrothed. You can see their grave today in the chapel graveyard at Bettws.”

Goronwy and I were silent for a while. I took a last sip of the cloudy scrumpy. “The strangest and the greatest of all your tales, Goronwy. Tell me: what do you remember of your grandmother?”

“She died when I was quite young. I remember the smell of meadowsweet, and even as a small child I knew that she was a very wise old lady. My father said that no end of folk would come seeking her opinion, on this matter and that. Even Mr Owens, the minister. And she would always deal gently with even the most foolish enquiries.”

I smiled at Blodeuedd’s redemption. Old Goronwy rose to chuck another two lumps of oak onto the ashes in the range. He glanced out of the window. “The moon is up. I’ll accompany you down the lane.”

I nodded. Goronwy’s liking for moonlit walking was well known to his neighbours. I pulled on my boots, went to the door, and turned: “May I ask you one thing? what was your grandfather’s Christian name?”

“He was named Goronwy. All the first-born males in our family have always been called Goronwy.”   

Michael Bloor is a retired sociologist living in Dunblane, Scotland, who has discovered the exhilarations of short fiction, with more than fifty pieces published in Everyday Fiction, The Copperfield Review, Litro Online, Firewords, Moonpark Review, The Sea Letter, The Drabble and elsewhere.

*cf. pp. 97-117 in The Mabinogion (trans. J. Gantz), Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1976.

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