Yesterday was the solstice, midwinter’s day here in the northern hemisphere. Dull it was too, a few cold spots of rain, and too overcast to see the Great Conjunction*, but this year is coming to its end and the dark days will slowly lengthen and lighten, beginning today. I don’t blog much, mostly because I’m not writing much (and so the question beats Am I still a writer?). In the time when I’m not working or writing, I’m either listening to music or reading. At this time of year, the old books and the old tunes are the best. Comfort food for the soul.
Banish misfortune is an Irish jig, probably the cheeriest of all of them (if ever a tune can be said to live up to its name, it’s this one). I don’t know when or where I heard it first, some pub session probably. I borrowed both thought and tune for a midwinter’s night in After the Ruin**, as you can read below. If any one asks how it travelled into the Later Lands, I’ll shrug and say it must have slipped through a window between worlds.
From Chapter 6: Banish misfortune
“Now there’s a space of silence, what should I play?”
“Banish misfortune,” she answered, softly, “as you played the first night I ever saw you.”
He sketched the melody upon the lute, half a tune and half a thought. “I had not thought you listened, love, that night.”
“Oh, Assiolo, every word you’ve said, each note you’ve struck, is sealed fast in my memory.”
He looked up, smiling, music bubbling from beneath his fingers.
“I knew you on that evening,” Marwy Ninek said, quietly lest other ears than his heard her, “of all the men, in all the world, I knew you as my own. When you looked into my face, I wanted to run to you and say, I’m here!”
His eyes met hers but the lutesong never faltered, a paean of love and freedom, giving her the strength she needed to go on: “Assiolo, though I said no word, that night, and made no move, I think my heart would have withered and died had you gone your way upon the road next morning.”
“For me as for you that night,” he said, “and, knowing that, how could I have a thought to leave you lonely? Now listen, love, and let my music tell you all I’ve ever wished for you, then and now and forever and for always.”
At last he let the full tune come dancing out to fill the hall with music and drive sorrow and misery away into the dark. Some smiled to hear it, others danced, and even Yatta Tala tapped her toe upon the floor for all her face was scowling. Beyond the doors, beyond the walls, in the wind and rain, the year was turning but here, within the hall, was fellowship and laughter and company and dancing. The past was gone, the future not yet written; ’twas time to look ahead with light feet and bold hearts and smiling faces. Marwy Ninek leant upon the table, resting her head in her hands, and gazed at Assiolo, her happiness welling up inside her like a sweet spring on Cal Mora-side.
“The tune’s the charm,” she said, and Assiolo nodded, his eyes alight with love and merry laughter.
Yatta Tala came up sniffing. “That’s pretty, lad, but that she’s here tonight says there’s more to you than music.”
Marwy Ninek flushed and stiffened but Assiolo only bowed his head, full courteous but for the smile lurking at the edges of his lips. His fingers never ceased their movement ’cross the lutestrings, plucking and picking to conjure forth his melody.
“That’s between us two, mistress, but what I can, I’ll show, if you’ve a mind to see it.”
The old weaver sucked her teeth and settled herself into the chair beside him. For a little while, all was the same: Assiolo played, music rippled, men and women danced. Then, slowly, the light changed in the rafters, a soft glow as of sunrise in the summertime brightening the hall. Assiolo made no move, he said no word, but on all the ivy strands twined round the beams white roses grew, and on the holly boughs at every arch were other roses, red as blood. Music rippled, music swelled, and then the beams above their heads were beams no longer but branches of flowering trees, elder boughs laden with curd-white blossom and the hall was filled with the honey-heavy scent of summertime. Some stared to see such things, others laughed to find themselves a-dancing beneath the summer trees. Assiolo laid down his lute and drew Marwy Ninek onto his knee but still the air was full of music for a blackbird sat on the topmost twig, its yellow eyes shining in the sunlight, its yellow beak open in song, and the song it sang was Banish misfortune.
“A trick.” Yatta Tala sniffed. “A foolish seeming.”
“No seeming,” said Marwy Ninek, “but the thing itself.”
She twined her arms around her lover’s neck and kissed him softly, cheek and chin. Then the blackbird sang the louder and Assiolo said, “I did but answer to your will, mistress. The tune is honest, and the thought likewise: what harm to deck it out in fancy?”
The weaver shook her head. “The world is as it is, lad, and fancy’s but a step away from folly.”
“ ’Tis easy enough to put an end to fancy, an it displease you; the rest, being the truth, I will nowise hide.”
The blackbird flew away into the shadows, sunlight faded into firelight, the branches were but beams bedecked with holly and with ivy, and men and women rubbed their eyes and thought, as memory slipped away into a haze of beer and wine and barleyspirit, How foolish, how very foolish, to think there were roses flowering at midwinter.
Yatta Tala scowled and went her way, to sup spiced wine and scold her granddaughter, though, often and often, her sharp eyes turned back to Assiolo and Marwy Ninek and, each time, her lips pinched tight, as if to hide her thought or keep her words unspoken. But Assiolo cupped his hand beneath his true love’s chin and turned up her face to kiss her long and lovingly, and neither cared that all and any saw it.
*Typical, 800 years since it’s fallen after dark, and so close to the shortest day, and then clouds block out all hope of a sighting. Ah well, my great-grandchildren may be around for the next one. I’ll wish them clearer skies.
** After the Ruin contains several significant midsummer’s days too, and a satisfying number of equinoctes. The turning year provides structure and symbolism – what’s not to like?