Rising from the Waters
In the year of Our Lord 1662, it is hard to believe how much the land we see has changed since the Fens were drained and put to work. In the days of King William, this land was all marshes and swamps, from Boston to Cambridge. You could not reach our Isle of Ely except by boat, or by wading chest deep in the murkiest water ever to drown a soul. We were newly under the Norman yoke, and our great cathedral was but a small, though proud, abbey.
Evil roamed these desolate lands, my son. Ravaged by Vikings, Danes and then the Normans, it was the darkest of dark lands: a home to cutthroats, thieves and fugitives. How many are the bones that lie beneath our feet! How many the restless souls!
But as well as the villainy of humans, people talk in hushed tones of the inhuman villainy of unearthly creatures, summoned at night by those who follow the old religion. It is said that on a moonlit night, with chill winds blowing the reeds, weird beings would rise from the swamp. Some say they were half frogs, half men, summoned by spells in secret ceremonies, where witches danced while fallen monks chanted in demonic tongues.
In these days a Saxon woman, Aefra by name, left her home in Crowland, taking the same path as on this same night each year: past the Abbey, through the woods and into the swamps beyond.
Ten years before, the men had raided her village, leaving her for dead beside the body of her husband. They took her fair Wilona, her only child. They ravaged village after village, dragging out many into the swamplands, to do with them what cruel men do in lawless times. Aefra searched high and low until one day she found some blood-bespattered clothing of her daughter. Sure that Wilona’s body lay within this swamp, she tarried many days, weeping constantly. Tying a strip of Wilona’s dress on the lone field maple that stood by the swamp, she marked Wilona’s unholy grave.
Each year Aefra went alone out into the swamps to pray for her child, by the side of the maple. Yet her suffering grew, rather than lessened, as she minded the cold body of her child, lying in corruption and all alone in the swamp. Now Aefra determined to end their sufferings. She would join her daughter at the bottom of the swamp. She would cradle the head of her child, who would no longer be alone.
On this particular cold and windswept night, she drew her robe close to herself and hurried out into the woods. A procession of monks, their cowls casting shadows from their lanterns across their faces, circled the Abbey, and headed out into the woods. She had heard the stories, but nothing would deter her now.
Aefra hurried into the dark woods, and hesitated. Ahead she espied a strange figure rushing clumsily through the undergrowth. An owl screeched. The hairs on her neck stood on end, but she pressed. Soon she would be reunited with her child.
Reaching the edge of the swamp, she saw her maple. It was the time. She gathered stones into her bag. She would hang it around her neck and walk into the waters, till they consumed her.
At that moment, the waters swelled as a creature rose from the depths of the swamp, covered in mud, thrashing and writhing, uttering the vilest curses imaginable. It plunged down again, re-emerging amidst hideous cries.
Dropping the bag, Aefra stood transfixed. She had never heard such suffering and anguish. It tore at her heart, echoing the pain in her own soul. Whether man or beast or demon, she was drawn inexorably towards it.
As rain lashed down, she plunged into the swamp, towards the creature. At her touch, he spun round with eyes that witnessed great affliction and despair, torment streaking his mud-spattered cheeks. Wordlessly, she put her arm around him, supporting his abject body. They stumbled to the edge.
He lay there, shaking his head and choking all the while. She wiped mud from his eyes, from his nose, from his lips with gentle fingers. She sat beside him, confused; her resolution gone.
At last the man – for man it was – told her of his grief. Of his wife and child taken while he was away fighting the Normans. Of his failed attempt to drown himself on this desperate anniversary night.
As the pouring rain washed, bit by bit, the stinking swamp mud from her face, Aefra knew something with certainty: Wilona and this man’s son had called them, and brought them together.
This is why, my son, when I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil: neither from the evil men of this world nor the phantom shapes of another. See this talisman I wear around my neck? It was crafted by that same man, your many-times-great-grandfather. Can you see what is written here?
‘Amor vincit omnia’: Love conquers all. I believe it is so.