She found the green cloth in the market, on a stall run by an old woman. The other fabrics – greys and browns destined to make overalls and jackets for field workers, had been thoroughly picked through but this one remained neatly folded. It was of a green at once dark and bright, and reminded her of the wood beyond the village. At once she pictured herself in the gown she would make of it.
How much for the green? She hoped she sounded only mildly curious.
More than you have in your pocket, young lady.
And how would you know how much I have in my pocket?
I see through cloth to skin, said the old woman, through skin to bone and through bone to the very soul, and I know full well that you cannot afford my cloth.
Well, it was true, and the girl turned to walk away, but the old woman caught her arm. There seemed no shaking her off.
If I were to give you the cloth, she said, you would cut it askew and sew it with clumsy stitches. It would soon fall apart.
On the contrary, said the girl. If you were to give me the cloth I would cut it most carefully and sew it with the finest of fine stitches, for I have been indentured to Morwenna the seamstress since my tenth year, and will gain my freedom shortly. I plan to set up business on my own account; there is always plenty of sewing to be done.
A woman alone?
Maybe. Or it may be that I will find a husband.
Ah yes, the ploughman Aelwyn. His master’s lands are not so far from here. No doubt you pass them most days.
How did you know? Aelwyn has barely spoken to me and has certainly not mentioned marriage.
No, but he will. How could he resist that summer-fair hair of yours, those tumbling tresses? The dress would serve as both apprentice piece and wedding gown.
If Aelwyn were to ask me.
You may have the green cloth for a wedding gift, young lady. It is too fine for these bumpkins in any case. I would have been unlikely to sell it this side of Michaelmas and by then the sun will have faded it. Take it, but with a warning. Green is a fairy colour, and they believe that only they have the right to wear it. Do not, therefore, wear that dress into the woods.
The dress took many months to make, by which time the market was long gone, the leaves fallen from the trees and the old woman’s warning forgotten.
When Aelwyn the ploughman became very old he was forced to rely on the kindness of his four sons. His wife had long since died and his once powerful muscles were knotted with pain. In winter a rocking-chair in the chimney-corner was his customary retreat, but when the weather was warmer he liked to get out, walk by the fields he had worked, feel the sun on his shoulders. When the sun became too hot one day, with the help of his stick he decided to venture a little further, into the cool of the wood.
It was not a large wood but by the time he got to the middle of it he found himself both weary and confused. I used to know these woods so well, he thought. Yet now the trees are dancing around me, and changing their places each time I look. So he sank down next to a comfortable-looking willow tree, half knowing that this was unwise and that he might not be able to get up again without help.
The ground here was damp. Willows thrive in damp places, he reminded himself, half asleep already. And there he remained; his aching back relaxing against the smooth, warm bark. And beyond the wood the sun was beginning to sink.
When I was a young man, he told the willow tree, there was such a pretty girl – a seamstress with yellow hair that fell all around her face. She often passed where I was ploughing. Once or twice she even glanced in my direction, but before I could get up the nerve to speak to her, she vanished.
It was fifty years ago. Before you grew here, probably. They say she was carrying a green dress over her arm, her apprentice piece, so proud of it that she was taking it over to show her cousin in Sawley. She would have come through here. Might you have seen her?
Trees do not have the languages of men, and the willow did not reply. But as Aelwyn sank into a deeper and deeper sleep she sighed, reaching down with her long and tangled tresses to stroke his beloved face.