Once upon a time, in a small village by a long road, there lived a young man who wanted nothing more than to become a minstrel. Day in and day out he would labour with the lute until his fingers bled. No matter. The notes fell flat and scratchy to the ears of his unfortunate neighbours. Day in and day out he would practice his singing until his throat was hoarse. No matter. The ballads of desperate lovers sounded like market gossip when he sung them. Still the would-be minstrel practised, determined to achieve fame, to one day travel to the distant capital and perform before the king and all his gold-arrayed court.
The young man lived with his mother and grandmother, in a small house near the long road. They had a garden in their backyard and made a living by selling fruit and vegetables to their fellow villagers. The minstrel’s mother was at her wits’ end with her daydreamer of a son.
“Thomas,” she’d say, “go and water the garden.” And Thomas would go out to the garden, but get distracted, grasping for words to describe how the sun light made the water drops gleam, and half the garden would be left dry.
“Thomas,” his mother would say, “take this basket and go to the market to sell our wares.” And Thomas would take the basket to the market, but get distracted, listening to the sounds of life and people, and half the fruit would go unsold and spoiled.
The grandmother was old, some said as old the long road. She moved little and spoke even less, but her eyes were sharp as hawk’s and she saw what burned her grandson. One afternoon, as Thomas sat in the garden, practicing the lute in vain, she called to him and spoke thus:
“Child, I know what ails thee and how to remedy it. And if you do exactly as I instruct you, you will become as great a minstrel as ever’s a minstrel been.”
Thomas set the lute down and swore to do exactly as she instructed. The grandmother pointed to the long road.
“Tonight,” she said, “the court of Faery Queen May will go a’revelling through this road. Mark me well. Go and sit yourself on the ground and draw an iron circle around you. Then play your lute as ill as you have ever played. They will invite you to their dance, if only to stop your music, but heed them not and stay a’playing. They will ask your name and that of your master, but heed them not and stay silent. Know this well grandson. If you speak to them, or move out th’circle they will take you with them and it will be years before you find your way home. They will tell you many things, many great secrets, and if you keep your peace and pay them heed, I guarantee, a minstrel you will be, as great a minstrel as can be.”
Thomas thanked his grandmother for her council and determined to do as she had ordained. And the wise old grandmother, knowing her child’s child to have more heart than reason, gave him a spoonful of pine honey to hold in his tongue before he left the house, with the instruction not to swallow until dawn broke.
That very night the minstrel drew a circle of iron in the middle of the long road and sat himself in. Before long Faery Queen May’s court appeared, dancing and singing their way out of the woods and into the crossroads before Thomas. He looked and saw as fair maidens as he had ever dared imagine and even more so. Their skin was white as the glow of stars, their eyes glittered like gems and their voices were as melodious as any nightingale’s. They saw Thomas and beckoned him with sweet smiles to come and join their revel. But Thomas merely picked his lute and started playing as ill as he could.
Before long a faery, wrapped in the greens of leaves, came and stood on the edge of his circle.
“What is you name fair youth?” she asked. “Who is your master? He is poor master indeed, to have taught you so ill. Listen to the wind as it brushes my leaves, that is how you should brush your strings.”
Thomas listened to the way the wind brushed the leaves but spoke not.
The moon was half-up in the sky when another faery, wrapped in the blue and crystal of the deep forest pool, came and stood on the edge of his circle.
“Where do you come from sweet one?” she asked. “Who are your parents? Your music will ne’er be sweet if you lean on your lute so heavily. Mark my light dewdrops hanging from the flowers. That is how light your body should be.”
Thomas marked the gathering dewdrops hanging from the flowers but spoke not.
On and on, all night long the faeries revelled in his tunes and every now and then one of them would come to stand before Thomas. They tried to get him to sing but the honey made his tongue heavy and unyielding. They tried to get him to join their dance but the circle kept him in. And as the minstrel listened to their words his fingers grew deft and swift, and as the night passed the notes came sweeter and smoother, as good as any minstrel’s of the past.
At last Faery Queen May stood before Thomas. She spoke not but gazed at him with sad eyes, and Thomas gazed back and saw that she was fairer, so much fairer than her companions, shining light the full moon amongst the stars. At last Faery Queen May spoke.
“Oh dearest one, your music will ever be but notes unless love touches your heart. Come with me, beloved, and let me teach you about love.”
She offered her hand and Thomas, spellbound by her beauty, swallowed the honey and sprung to his feet, but! As his hand reached through the circle dawn broke. Like a flash the faery court disappeared and Thomas was left alone on the long road, with a head full of wisdom and a heart aching for love of the Faery Queen May.
He picked the lute in his hands and, as he walked the long road back to his small house at the small village, he played and sung. His old grandmother heard him and wept, for she knew what it meant to have fingers as swift as the wind in the leaves, hold light as dewdrops hanging from flowers and a voice as sweet as a lover’s yearning for their love.