The Magic OintmentPosted: 19 March 2011
Any tale you may choose to name will tell you one thing of the faerie folk: they are never to be trusted. Make a deal with a fairy and you may be greatly rewarded; but break a promise to a fairy and the mistake will cost you dearly. The following story is from the village of Netherwitton, just a few miles west of the Northumbrian town of Morpeth.
A long time ago in the village of Netherwitton lived a cottager and his wife. Though they were not rich by earthly means, they had all that they felt need or want for save one: a child of their own. This loss grew until it became an unbearable sadness for them both. When the cottager was cutting peat in the sunny days of June he would look down upon the boys playing in the valley below and wish that one of them was his. When he sat in front of the fire in the depth of winter he would whittle away and secretly wish he had a boy to make toys for; a little lad, he thought, would be perfect: to play in front of the fire; to follow him out into the meadows; a son he could teach to fish and to learn the ways of all living creatures. His wife sat beside him and also dreamed of a child to whom she could tell the many stories her mother had told to her, and sing the many songs she remembered from her own childhood.
One night came which was much the same as any other. The couple had their supper and were about to turn down the lamp when there came a knock at the door.
“Who could that be, calling at this time of night?” the husband wondered out loud, and went to open the door. In the doorway stood three strangers – a man, a woman and a little boy. Though they were dressed as ordinarily as he, the cottager could see that they were of noble birth. The man was as handsome as a king and the woman as beautiful as a queen; the boy, the most darling child he had ever seen, of tender years. But the cottager and his wife were hospitable people, and they made the family welcome in their home.
“Will you take supper with us?” said the wife, although they had already eaten.
“No, thank you, good lady,” replied the man. “We have come to ask of you far more than that.”
“Indeed sir,” replied the cottager. “Tell us of your troubles, and we will do what we can to help you.”
“We have travelled far tonight, and I am afraid we must travel further before our journey is at an end. We are soon going across the sea and will be gone for some time. Our son is still young and, though he is hardy, the journey may be too much for him – we have heard that you and your wife long for a child. Would you take care of our boy until our return?” said the man.
“We can pay you well,” said the woman. “Will you do us this great favour?”
The wife’s eyes shone as she looked at her husband; clearly there was no need for discussion. “Aye, of course we will,” said the husband, joy showing in his own face, “and we will treat him as our own son. There is no need for pay, kind sir; it is reward enough for us to have this boy to care for!”
The woman continued. “He is a good-natured boy. He will be obedient and well-behaved to you; but you must do one thing if he is to grow strong. Every night, you must anoint his eyes with this ointment,” she said, taking a small jar from her pocket. “Every night, without fail. But please beware that you do not use it for yourselves; for harm will come to you.”
Overjoyed, the cottager and his wife readily agreed, taking the ointment jar with trembling hands. The strangers departed, bidding their son farewell and disappearing into the darkness. That night, the little boy slept in the attic and the next morning, was ready to begin his new life.
Fearing at first that the boy would be homesick or miss his parents, the cottager and his wife filled the boy’s days with endless amusements. The cottager took him up into the hills to watch the shepherd and his dog at work rounding up the sheep. They plucked bulrushes by the river, and gathered firewood for when the cold weather came. In the autumn they went blackberry picking. The boy watched the hens eggs hatch, and saw the lambs first faltering steps in the warmth of the barn. As he grew stronger he helped to bring in the hay harvest, and every evening the wife would tell him all manner of stories that she remembered, and sang to him. He was enthralled by all that he saw, and came to love the cottager and his wife very dearly. As for the couple, their happiness was now complete.
But they did not forget their promise to the boy’s parents. Every night before the child fell asleep, they anointed his eyes with the strange ointment they had been given. As the months passed by, the cottager and his wife wondered silently about the ointment. It was magical, this they knew for certain; however much of it was used the jar was never emptied. By its virtue, the boy was never homesick or unhappy; and he never fell ill. Many a time the man thought to himself that he would try this ointment for himself, to see if perhaps it would cure his sore back. But every time he reached his hand to the jar, he was reminded of the stranger’s warning and held back.
One night, however, the temptation grew too strong. It was the night before the great fair at Longhorsley, and the man was alone in the kitchen polishing his shoes. Eyeing the ointment jar on its shelf, he groaned at the pain in his back and mumbled, “surely this ointment will do me no harm?” Forgetting the King of the Bad Fairies’ warning (for fairies they had been), he smeared a little of the ointment over one eye. Nothing happened, and he went to bed thinking that the ointment was just salve to help the boy’s poor eyesight.
The man slept soundly. Early the next day, he took his wife and the boy to Longhorsely. There were stalls there selling all kinds of goods; butter and cheeses, bread, tea-cakes, flowers, rugs, woolen clothes, pies, shoes and toys. On show were many fine horses and cattle. There were horse-races and all manner of booths; pipers played and the morris dancers crossed sticks in the square. All this the cottager and his wife had seen before, but never had they enjoyed themselves so much, as they had the young boy with them. He was so amazed by everything he saw that the day was a sheer delight.
All of a sudden while the boy was looking at the dancers, a familiar face caught his eye across the crowd. By one of the stalls, he saw the strangers who had brought the boy to them. To his horror, they were taking butter and cheese from the stall, unnoticed by the stall-keeper. Exclaiming loudly, he strode across the square to apprehend the thieves, his confused wife in tow.
“Stop, thieves!” he bellowed.
Spinning around quickly, the King of the Bad Fairies eyed the cottager keenly and saw that he had been seen. As the fairies were invisible to everyone around, he saw that the cottager had broken his promise not to use the ointment.
“With which eye do you see me?” the fairy king asked him. Unthinkingly, the cottager pointed to the eye on which he had smeared the ointment. The fairy blew upon the man’s eye; and when he blew, the man was blinded in that eye. The fairy king, queen and all that they had stolen vanished.
“I am blinded! I am blinded!” the cottager cried to his wife. “Wait… where is the boy?”
The couple looked around the square for the fairy child. They searched all day, enquiring at every stall and of every person at the fair, but they did not find him. He never returned to them, and the cottager was never again able to see with his right eye.
Photo credit: Tweed Valley, Northumberland by Ryan Davison