James Warner divides his time between San Francisco, California, and Mold, Flintshire.
He is an assistant fiction editor for Identity Theory, and drinks a lot of tea. He persists in hoping that
the Internet will save the short story. His work has appeared in Agni Online, Narrative, Identity Theory, Eclectica,
and other places.
y American girlfriend Fran, while researching her
Ph.D. on seventeenth-century English pulpit oratory, discovered the following passage in Daniel Pell's 1659
Improvement of The Sea
... a bird known as the wodderin, of whom lovers say that she has the power to
foretell, the which of them will first betray the other. With such care does she select the matter to build her
excellent nest, that as she flies everywhere, no secret eludes her scrutiny.
Fran was an Anglophile, an American fascinated by even our stupidest folklore,
and at a point in her research where irrelevant detours were crucial to her sanity. She drove to Oxford, spent
a day in the Bodleian Library, and called me from a payphone to read me a supporting reference she'd tracked
down in Francis Willughby's 1672 Ornithologia
In the Welsh Marches, when two are betrothed, they ask the wotteren which of them will be true to the
other, in deed and in thought, and the said wotteren flies to whoever is the honest one, making a cry
like true! true! who is true?
“So what if both lovers are honest?” she asked me.
“In Wales?” I deadpanned. Fran had some Welsh ancestry on her mother's
side -- farmers who settled in Maryland. Her Welshness was something I teased her about.
That night, as we lay in bed, staring into space, the topic resurfaced.
It was agreed that we needed to get out of London, to flee the depressing
routines and stale emotions festering within our flat, where we had been living together for almost a year,
amid the grubby clamor of the manic-depressive Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham.
“We should go find a wotteren,” Fran said. The word came out slurred by her Baltimore accent.
“Remember when we went to find the site of the battle of Malden?” I said.
“We were stuck for hours in a traffic jam on the A12. The battle site turned out to be a housing development
surrounded with no trespassing signs. Or the time we went to Warwickshire to locate Thomas Mallory's birthplace?
There was a lecture theater owned by the Prison Service, and a ye Holy Grail tea-shoppe that was closed on Sundays.”
“We don't have anything like the wotteren back in the States,” Fran mused. “It could
tell me if I'm wasting my time with you.”
“But nobody's seen a whatever-it's-called for three hundred and fifty years,” I pointed out.
“Two hundred.” Fran reached for the bedside table, having already highlighted a paragraph
in William Hazlitt's essay “On Superstition.”
Near the inn at Llantryn, in the valley of that name, a poet of my acquaintance heard of a bird that flew
into the hand of any man enjoying the perfect felicity of true love. And if the man's love was not truly
repaid? Then on touching a feather of this fabulous creature, legend had it he would melt from the embrace
of the faithless object of his passion into thin air, taking flight himself in the form of a bird. When we
are disappointed in love, how keenly we desire to soar away on wings of sublime imagination.
|"In the Welsh Marches, when two are betrothed, they ask the wotteren
which of them will be true to the other, in deed and in thought, and the said wotteren flies to whoever is the honest
one, making a cry like true! true! who is true?"
I was into Hazlitt, having always over-identified with his determination to
expose injustice, the exhilarating melancholy of his prose, and his pathetic passions, both revolutionary and
amorous. “Fair enough then,” I conceded. “Llantryn it is.”
We set the alarm early that Sunday, and it took us surprisingly little time
to reach the M25. Reinforced-concrete Brutalist office buildings dominated both sides of the motorway.
I said, “I hope this isn't going to be like the time you figured out where
Grendel's mother lived, but when we got there it was a nuclear missile base. Or the time we went looking for
pterodactyls in Epping forest, and that gang of punks latched onto us and wouldn't stop lecturing you about
U.S. foreign policy.”
“This will be different,” Fran asserted, pushing a White Stripes album
into the car's CD player to drown out any further complaints I could devise. She had a new obsession.
American women, and I love this about them, have a sense of entitlement
that completely transcends reality. The way Fran never doubted for a moment that we could find a wotteren
was a case in point.
We were at a stage that seemed to occur in all my relationships. I was
reluctant either to let Fran go, or to commit to marrying her. Now the rhythms of driving distracted us
from our impasse, lulling us into a state of pacific denial. After a few hours, we stopped at a service
station to stretch our legs, relieve our bladders, and eat some Bakewell tart. “I saved my best piece of
evidence for last,” Fran said. “A poem by Robert Graves. Do you want to hear it?”
“Do I have a choice?”
Blue jay and bittern,
Warbler and woad-wren,
These are my brethren
Says old wizard Gwydion.
Spited by women,
I'll follow the larksong
From Brecon to Llantryn,
The cruel moon my sovereign.
“The note for woad-wren in the Collected Poems just says, 'Meaning obscure,'”
Fran noted, “but it's clearly a deviant spelling of wotteren.”
“Next week I'll write to the Oxford English Dictionary about it.”
“You do that.” I was unenthusiastic about Graves's supernatural side,
being more of a fan of the perverse revisionism of his historical novels, but to have brought this up
would have risked us getting into an argument, and it was never much use arguing with Fran.
Once off the M4, we drove through a landscape of fields and pubs. We
crossed the Severn Bridge, and I searched idly for racial differences, as one always does after crossing
a border, even one so often traversed that whatever differences remain are largely imaginary.
Whitewashed farmhouses stood among green Welsh hills.
There was still an inn at Llantryn, doubling as a rather seedy-looking
bed-and-breakfast, outside which we parked. Simply by virtue of being relatively unpolluted, the air
here smelled magical to us. A little way down the road, we found a dismal lake with paddle-boats,
and clay dinosaurs for children to climb on. A man walking a terrier was scowling at us for no clear reason.
I tried to imagine how it had been here in Hazlitt's day. The
clouds were gray yet radiant, the sun seemingly just on the brink of shining through. We were
unsure if it would rain, but agreed to chance it.
It was cool under the trees along the footpath, and the air was clammy.
We walked through dappled shade, sticks crunching underfoot. I suddenly felt blissfully content. It
was the sort of afternoon when, for a moment or two, one forgets how boring adult life is compared to
one's adolescent imaginings of it. Fran plucked a dandelion, and blew away the seeds, and I knew she
was wishing for us to see a wotteren.
|"Well, Fran was beautiful but fragile, otherworldly
somehow. Our sex life had never really recovered from my shock at her first intimations she might
be interested in marriage. I cared about her as much as if I loved her – perhaps this was the sense,
ultimately, in which I betrayed her?"
We climbed over a stile, and followed a footpath alongside a stream, where
a hen stared frostily at us from someone's back garden. I could tell part of Fran was still thinking about
figures of speech in the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes. It was Sunday after all. At the same time I knew
that we were about to make love.
Even the plastic takeout cartons and poisonous mushrooms underfoot seemed
erotically charged in the fluttering light.
There was a sign in Welsh that neither of us could read. We were entering
some kind of nature sanctuary.
Fran's sense of direction was better than mine, so I let her push ahead
of me through limp, dripping ferns to a clearing where, among discarded lager cans, colorful lichens, and
wind-blown scraps of pornography, and the blurting of passerine birds pursuing their ancient vendettas,
broadcasting their sexual laments, I pushed her up against a tree carved with previous couples' initials.
We shed most of our clothes. Fran was freckled and goosebump-covered,
the dappled light ornamenting her half-nakedness, while glistening branches groped after the hissing wind.
I had brought condoms in the pocket of my anorak.
Well, Fran was beautiful but fragile, otherworldly somehow. Our sex life
had never really recovered from my shock at her first intimations she might be interested in marriage. I
cared about her as much as if I loved her – perhaps this was the sense, ultimately, in which I betrayed her?
Now I found myself turned off by her earnest gaze, her theatrical exhortations
to do what I was already doing. It was all a bit much really, as we English say.
Had I known this would be our last time, things would doubtless have gone even
worse... but then, that is something one never knows. We lay on the damp moss, afterwards, listening to the
quiet background noise of a landscape effortlessly recycling itself, and far beyond that the sounds of traffic.
“Do you think you'll ever change your mind,” she asked, “about wanting to marry me?”
Her timing of this question felt manipulative to me. I never liked answering
it, but at least I answered it consistently.
Nearby, something rustled.
We saw it together. It quivered beside a thicket of nettles. The place we were
in suddenly felt remote, as the wind soughed in the branches overhead.
“That bluish tint,” Fran whispered, “must be why Graves called it a woad-wren,
after the blue body paint worn by the ancient Britons.”
She was half-naked, and there were fragments of bark in her hair. I reached out
a hand to feel the soft hair on her wrists. Her eyebrows arched grimly.
“There's no etymological connection, but then, inaccurate but poetically apt
origin-myths were Graves' stock-in-trade.” These, implausibly enough, were the last words I heard Fran speak.
The bird flew around us in circles, trying to make up its mind. I wanted to throw
something at it, to drive it away, before it darted straight towards Fran, wringing a few sounds from its
throat... they sounded nothing at all like true! true! who is true?.. and then Fran was gone. Only her checkered
shirt and blue jeans remained, and her trainers and Playtex bra, and two bluish birds flitting skywards, like
discarded crisp packets in the wind, or fragments of the original firmament.
As I ran back through the woods, calling Fran's name, the wind picked up. The
vegetation thrashed, as if trying to pull itself up by the roots.
Still to come were the police searches, the televised appeals for help, but I
knew that the woad-wren had chosen Fran as his mate. She would never receive a Ph.D. now, or write to the OED,
or find a way to change who I was. Disappointed in love, she had taken wing.
As in despair I grew conscious of being alone, birds tore pieces off the world around
me, as meticulous and as territorial as scholars, and their cries about as meaningful.
Believe what you read about the woad-wren.
Fran will build an excellent nest. And no secret will elude her scrutiny.
* * *