My simple wooden church was all-but empty when I stepped up to the pulpit to give mass to the congregation. I had half expected it.
When Beltane fell on a Sunday, it seemed to draw out the heretical tendencies of my flock. Every year, they would abscond to some secret glade in the woods, to celebrate the coming of the summer, to pray to a heathen god for verdant growth and an abundant harvest. This year was no different.
Eadric, the lord of this manor, looked expectantly up at me from his family’s single pew, at the front of the nave, where he sat with the Lady Frideswide and their daughter, Ælfflæd.
Ælfflæd, as her name suggests, was indeed an elfin beauty, just budding into the full-bloom of womanhood. Their only child, she was the apple of her father’s eye and he guarded her virtue assiduously. She had beautiful, spun copper hair that flowed down her back, a fair visage and a fulsome figure. She was a comely maiden any man would be pleased to call wife; yet, Eadric had spurned all offers of marriage, no doubt hoping for a more advantageous match.
Ælfflæd looked straight at me as though she knew my thoughts were upon her. Her eyes burned with a fierce passion. Was she daring me to return her wanton gaze?
Whilst I recall feeling acutely aware of my own suppressed passion for her, I was glad I stood behind the pulpit, a barrier to her advances. At the same time, I suffered a great indignity that she made me feel this way, in God’s house. Yet, I had been so for some several months, as I witnessed her growing maturity. Were I not a man of God, I would surely have been compelled to pursue her to my fullest capability.
“I am sorry, Father Godrick. It seems you have been abandoned.” Eadric snapped me out of my reverie of his daughter.
He seemed to be smirking. Was he aware of my discomfort? His amused stare did not abait as he awaited my response. Eventually, he gestured behind the family pew: where there should have been a small crowd of worshippers, there were, quite obviously, none.
Did he hide his true meaning in the jibe? I was sure he saw through my thinly disguised desire, and meant to insinuate that I had been forsaken by God, to allow such terrible thoughts about such a chaste young woman to enter my head.
He was right. This was a test of my faith. I determined that I would put her from my consideration and atone for my sinful thoughts. I took in a deep breath of slightly smoky, damp church air.
“The old ways still have a powerful hold over simple people and they fear that if they do not appease the ancient gods, there will be an insufficient harvest,” he continued.
His wife made a mewling sound, voicing her disapproval – but, I wasn’t sure if she aimed her censure at me or my errant parishioners.
It was too much. My choleric humours rose and over-boiled. I erupted, “Well, I’ve had enough of their blasphemous ways. It’s high-time we sorted this out.” At least my outburst hid my distress.
“We, Father? I don’t intend to upset my good serfs – I don’t need a rebellion in the parish. Let them have their superstitions this one day of the year. They are yours and God’s for the other three-hundred and sixty-four.”
He was smiling. Was he mocking me? “Nevertheless, I demand you come with me. For protection.”
“Your youth clouds your judgement, priest. Nought but ill will come of it if you go into the woods today, to enforce your lore. Live with these people a little longer before you judge them. Learn to appreciate their ways.”
It was true. I had been the priest here but a little while – no more than a few years. I had been appointed to the parish before I had even finished my training, when the previous incumbent had unexpectedly died without an apprentice to carry on his work. Two years on and I was still an outsider in this small community. My robust and dogmatic defence of doctrine often caused consternation amongst the many ignorant flaunters of Christ’s Law that lurked within the congregation.
“I shan’t. They must come to God – if not freely then we must persuade them more… vigorously.”
I pulled my chasuble off over my head, threw it on the altar, and swept up my staff from the portico as I strode out of the church – intent on distributing a little of God’s wrath.
Behind me, I could hear Lady Frideswide giggling. How dare she!
“Godrick, wait. I will accompany you. Perhaps, should you chance across them, my presence might prevent bloodshed. Yours, most likely.”
I ignored him and stomped off in a rage. Eadric caught up as I crossed the cold mountain stream that separated the small village from the edge of the woods. A sword swung from his hip as he splashed across the ford. I was comforted to know that he stood with me.
“Do you even know where you are going? Where will they be?”
I stopped, mid-pace. How foolish I must have looked in my rage, charging off into the trees with no idea of direction. I shook my head.
“Well, I have an idea,” he continued. “There is a clearing about a half-mile due North. It is rumoured to be an ancient site of the old religion. Perhaps they are there?”
I nodded my ascent. It was as good a destination as any.
We continued walking. The vegetation itself seemed to be trying to slow our progress. Tree roots sought to trip me, brambles scratched away at my bare legs under my tunic and I could feel the rough ground through the thin leather soles of my sandals with every step I took. It seemed to be so much further than the promised half-mile and, despite my youth, I was becoming fatigued and breathless.
“Wait. I need to rest.” I braced myself against a sturdy beech tree.
Eadric untied a leather flask from his belt, and handed it to me. “Here, drink this. You look exhausted.”
As he passed it to me, I noticed an inscribed motif in the leather – a single holly leaf. I took a long swig. The water inside was cool and refreshing but bitter. I offered him it back. He shook his head. “I have no need. Keep it, for now.”
No sooner had I corked the bottle again, but I felt the need for more. Soon, I had drained it and was trying to shake out the last drop. Eadric looked on, propping himself against a tree, smirking. “Feeling better, Father?”
My head was swimming. “Yes, indeed. But what was in that infusion? I feel quite strange. Drunk… yet more so.”
“Do not fret, my fine priest” Eadric could contain himself no longer and burst out laughing like a braying donkey. “We are nearly there. Just through these trees. Try not to trip on your new leg.”
He pointed at my groin, before hee-hawing once more. My tunic stood pointing outward, like a bedsheet propped up with a pike. I tried to push it downwards, to hide it away between my legs, but to no avail as it popped back up again. I too started to giggle at the absurdity of it all. I lifted my robe – all the better to inspect my unasked-for polearm.
“God’s bones! I’ll be damned if that’s not the finest long-neck I’ve ever been privy to!”
“It is very fine indeed, priest; but lower your clothing and cover the damned thing up, lest you burst from pride.”
My head spun as I did as I was bid, and, still chuckling, he led me stumbling through the trees into the ancient glade.
If I held any hope we would find my errant congregation there, I was to be disappointed, at least for now. The clearing was empty, but for a solitary figure who sat on a log, at the centre.
She was dressed in the simplest of white gowns, her head capped by a laurel of green holly leaves. Beautiful copper hair cascaded down her shoulders in stark contrast to her robe. With the sun behind her, I could see her perfect shape through the thin material; tantalising and arousing.
“My daughter,” Eadric paused whilst I took in anew this vision of beauty, “the Queen of the May and soon consort to Jack in the Green.”
“Is it a secret marriage you wish me to perform then, Lord Eadric?”
“Aye, in a manner of speaking, priest.”
As he finished, chanting began to emanate from the wood. It had a deep, sensual rhythm but I could not make out the words which were old, worn even. They dulled my senses and drew me in until I too swayed with the tempo. Ælfflæd stood and approached me and I sensed that Eadric had stepped away.
The heathen hymn continued as Ælfflæd, swaying seductively, drew near until she was close enough for me to touch. Without volition, I dropped the empty flask I still clung on to and my hand went to her face to stroke her rosy cheek. She smiled as she lent in for a kiss that was long, deep and lusty.
As the pace of the chant increased, my manhood again rose to the occasion. I seemed to have lost all measure of control over my body, as though possessed.
“Lay with me,” she commanded.
“This is not right,” I pleaded, “I am a man of god. Never have I lain with a woman and by my vows, I cannot.” It was no self-aggrandising boast. Whilst many priests flouted their oaths, or even paid a forfeit to the church to allow them to keep a woman and indulge in such wantonness, I never had. Nor had I any desire to do so.
She smiled at me. “We know. That’s as it should be. Two virgins. You and I joined for the first time, as is handed down in lore since time immemorial. Be content that you have been chosen. Your Christian saviour could not grant you such honour.”
“God protect me. You are a demon sent to tempt me. Get thee behind me Satan!”
“Satan? No. Much older than your Roman falsehood.”
Though I begged to be let be, in my weakened state, she pushed me down to the ground and on my back. Casting around, I saw that the villagers had emerged from the trees at the edge of the clearing and were cavorting in little dances, shaking bells and banging on drums. Many of them were drinking from leather flasks. Several seemed to have animal masks on and many were naked including Ælfflæd’s mother.
I tuned to her and yelled out, “Frideswide – stop this madness! For the love of God, protect your daughter. She is possessed by the Devil, led astray by the wicked lusts of your husband.”
Frideswde turned to me and blew me an exaggerated kiss, before continuing to cavort with a nude fox headed man.
In the meantime, Eadric had returned. He stooped down to me and tipped the contents of his recharged leather flask down my throat. I could not muster the strength to resist and I closed my eyes and splutteringly swallowed it down.
As I sobbed, the liquid warmed my mouth and belly. I looked up to see a new and amazing creature come capering amongst the villagers. With awkward, dancing steps, it approached me where I lay, still prostrate on the ground. Eadric, bowed deeply at the thing and withdrew out of my sight.
The monster was huge–well over two rods tall and naked. Its skin was a patchwork of mottled greens and browns, autumn leaves fallen from the trees, powerful arms and legs were knotted limbs of oak. A green, smiling, jovial face looked down at me, out from under a great knot of twigs and holly leaves that served it…no, him… as hair.
Yet, in my drunken euphoria, I felt no fear and watched as, with some difficulty, like a very old man whose bones were stiff and brittle, he squatted down beside me and spoke softly in my ear. His breath smelt of fresh turned soil and his words whispered like a gentle breeze through cornfields. At that moment, I could hear nothing except this quiet explanation, meant only for me. He smiled and I understood.
It was his time.
It was my time.
I must have passed out, having succumbed to the strange draft I had earlier imbibed. But, rather than panic, I wore a strange cloak of calm.
The creature still knelt beside me, his emerald green eyes boring into mine. His rough hands lay on either side of my head and he was rumbling a deep, bass noise as though drawing up the whole of creation to give him power.
Ælfflæd lifted my tunic and lowered herself on my priapic manhood. A great roar of approval went up from the villagers as she impaled herself on me, a small amount of blood from her maidenhead trickled down my thigh as she began to ride me.
I was caught up in the incessant metre of the choir’s pagan chant. I could not have broken free even if I’d willed it.
But I did not will it.
I welcomed it.
The Green Man continued to cradle my head, increasing the pressure of his giant hands along with the intensity of his sonorous moaning. Ælfflæd entrained her gyrations to his beat, growing wilder with each thrust. Though I had no art in it, I followed suit, and gave to her as good as she gave to me.
Around my crown, I sensed the probing of the Green Man’s tendril fingers, burying themselves in my scalp. They were in my ears, up my nose, in my mouth and even pushed into my eye sockets; until my head was covered with a helm of woven roots, yet I laboured under no fear or pain. He wrapped my head in their protective embrace and I came to realise the time to fulfil our destiny had come.
Looking out, through new eyes, on a green-tinted world, I was disoriented. It took me a moment to focus on the fornicating couple, writhing in front of me.
I remember recognising her, thinking that once, I had known her.
I remember thinking that he too seemed familiar, though his head was covered with foliage sprouting from my own hands.
Yet I could not say who he was.
Then she reached her peak and let-go, calling out over and over again.
She bucked atop the young man’s body, who’s head I still cradled.
He groaned and his back arched – hips held high in the air, before collapsing back into the grass.
She spasmed one final time then slumped in exhaustion across his chest, moaning the name one more time.
In that moment, I knew him too.
I was Godrick. Then I was Jack.
Jack in the Green.
The Green Man.
Then, I knew what I had to do. I squeezed with my powerful root-hands until the once-head of Father Godrick cracked like a wren’s egg, to become nothing more than a pulpy mess. He did not resist and he made no noise. He had already departed.
Now, my year is almost done and I have come full-circle. Once again, I creak and groan like an old man and must be replenished or my forest will die and the harvest will fail.
I have selected a young lad from the village to be my replacement – just on the cusp of manhood. The village elders will make sure he is properly prepared, along with his bride.
Eadric will bring them to me on Beltane, when he will take my mantle and become Jack of the Green; to nurture tree and field for a year, whilst I fade away to nothing.