Once upon a time, there lived a young farmer. Though he was hard working, the Lord had not blessed him with a wife, and his loneliness had given way to despair. It was then, while in the depths of his melancholy, that a curious stranger approached him with a wondrous tale.
She was an old hag, neither to be trusted nor dismissed.
“Spare an old woman some bread, and I’ll share with you a secret.”
Too love-sick to bother with his own portion, he gave her his bread.
“Can you spare some cheese, for my travels are already long, and are just beginning.”
Once again, still heavy of heart, the farmer gave the old woman his cheese.
“This is wonderful, dear lad. But my throat is parched. Have you any ale to sate my thirst?”
For a third time, the lonely farmer, indifferent to his own needs, offered up his drink.
“You treat an old woman well, dear boy. Now, I’ll share something with you, something to lighten the shadows that cross your heart.”
He looked at her despondently. “Then speak, Wise Woman, that my spirits may be lifted.”
“Follow the sun, across the fields, to where it sets on the lake. There you will see the fairest of maidens, rowing a golden boat with a golden oar, with golden hair alike; her face is pale, and her eyes are sad, for she’s found no one to love her.”
“And she would have me for a husband?”
“Wait until the Eve of the New Year, from sunset to sunrise. Watch for the maiden of the lake, who will take you to be her husband.”
And with that, the old woman wandered away.
The following New Year’s Eve, the farmer followed the sun to the lake. There, just as the old woman had promised, was the fairest of women. Her hair glistened in the setting sun, and her golden boat shimmered as if it was on fire. Transfixed, he stared at her beauty, sad as she was. Soon came the night, then the stars started to fade as the moon slid behind the rocks, and the skies started turning gray. As they did, the lady started to fade, as if a ghost.
Awakened from his stupor, the farmer yelled out to her.
“Stay! Stay!! Be my Wife!!!”
But to his despair, she let out a faint cry, and vanished from sight.
The farmer could not sleep and would not eat. He was fading from life the way the lady had faded from his sight, but not his memories.
Night after night he went to the lake, hoping she would reappear.
Night after night, he saw nothing.
Then, one morning, the old woman passed his way, travelling the other direction.
This time, she asked for nothing. Instead, she solemnly instructed him to go to the mountains and seek the counsel of the Soothsayer who dwelt there.
It was an arduous journey, but a profitable one indeed.
As if anticipating his arrival, the Soothsayer asked no questions; he said only what was required of him, which was an answer:
“Woo the woman, lad. Tempt the lady with fine food; giver her your finest bread and cheese.”
Starting on Midsummer’s Eve, the farmer began making his proposal.
Every night he would toss his ritual offerings into the waters; every morning, he returned home, brokenhearted.
However, New Year’s Eve was approaching, and as the day drew nearer, the farmer’s hopes rose higher.
Finally, the day came, and the farmer, dressed in his finest clothes, armed with seven loaves of bread and the finest of cheeses, went once more to the lake.
At midnight, the golden boat appeared, bearing the lady to shore.
She climbed onto land, and whispered in the trembling farmer’s ear:
“I will stay with you forever, or until you have struck me without cause three times.”
To this, the farmer gladly agreed, and escorted his shimmering bride back to his farm.
She brought with her a magnificent dowry of cattle, which afforded them a life of leisure the likes of which the farmer had never known.
And so it was that they lived happily ever after…
For four years, that is.
The First Blow:
After four years of wedded bliss, they were invited to a christening.
In the middle of the ceremony, the farmer’s wife burst out into loud sobs.
“What in God’s name has gotten into you, woman?” he demanded angrily.
“That poor child is entering a world of sin and suffering; nothing but misery lies ahead. Why should I rejoice?” she replied.
In frustration, he pushed her away.
“That, dear husband,” she warned him “was the first strike.”
The Second Blow:
Not long after, they were invited to a funeral; it was for a baptized child.
This time, she interrupted the service by breaking into laughter, song and dance.
Again, the farmer demanded an explanation for her strange behavior.
“The babe has escaped the misery of this world and has gone to be good and happy forever. Why would I grieve?”
As he had done before, he shoved her away; as she had done before, she warned him:
“That, dear husband, was the second strike.”
The Third Blow:
Time passed, and they were invited to a wedding. The bride was young and beautiful, while the groom was old and decrepit, toothless and miserly.
However, being a marriage, it was a festive time, and everyone was merry.
Everyone except the farmer’s wife, who burst out crying.
Again, the embarrassed farmer demanded an explanation.
“She marries for greed, not love. Summer and winter cannot agree.”
She paused between sobs.
“‘Tis the Devil’s compact.”
Flustered, he forcibly struck her.
Still, she looked back at him tenderly.
“The three blows are struck. Farewell, my love, farewell…”
Her voice faded, as did her body.
The farmer never saw his golden-haired wife again, or the magnificent dowry of cattle she had brought with her.
Regardless, for the remainder of his days, he continued to go to the lake on New Year’s Eve, carrying seven loaves of bread and his finest cheese…
Note: This folktale is recorded in Wirt Sikes’ British Goblins: Welsh Folk-Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions. It is a Welsh tale, and while I have made some narrative embellishments, the core of the story is intact, and can be found in several regional variants, including the tale of the Meddygon Myddfai.
Another note: Gwraig is Welsh for wife, or woman.
The image above was taken at Llyndy Isaf, Wales, credit: the National Trust Press Office. I haven’t been able to source the image below, except that it is contained in Sike’s book.