She loved her husband, in her own way. He was young and handsome and faithful – all she required. The only cruel thing he had ever done was to tell her that he hated her favourite dress, but upon seeing her expression, he’d immediately rued his harsh words and bought her a new one. It was green silk brocade with leaves of silver thread stitched over the bodice; a flouncy thing, trimmed with ribbons and fine French lace. She never wore it. Her favourite dress was of simple black linen. Too plain, everyone said, for a woman as comely as Corinna.
Life was peaceful in their household, quiet with no children; and though the servants were discrete, she was aware that the village gossips had their own opinions on the subject. Her husband never mentioned it, not because he didn’t want a child, she knew, but that he didn’t want her to feel responsible.
She was of course.
Sometimes when they sat together in the long evenings; she with her embroidery, he with his books, and the flames in the fireplace cast their fleeting jagged shadows around the walls, she would notice him glance up as if catching sight of something, whereupon she would lean across and stroke his cheek, whispering his name in a voice as honey sweet as the scent of the beeswax candles, to bring him back to her.
Her modest manner of dress and pious ways earned her a Puritan reputation despite her husband’s loyalty to the throne. She kept her own council, as always, content that her influence reached far deeper than his politics. And when mutterings amongst his friends about the potential source of betrayal she posed, caused him anxiety – unspoken as always but she could tell – she charmed his misgivings away with pledges of steadfast devotion, soothing his furrowed brow with her cool fingers, easing him in the velvet warmth of their bedroom, until he forgot all words except hers.
She wore black to counter the fairness of her hair, to cast a sombre and chaste shadow over her conspicuous beauty. Whispers behind hands claimed it was an affectation, but she wore the widow’s weeds in honour of her late husband and would not allow herself to be coaxed out of mourning, even though it was now almost seven years since her loss – and the same seven years since her subsequent wedding, for a young widowed heiress with a fine house and estate would always be an irresistible temptation.
On the few occasions when she wasn’t at her husband’s side she could be found in the church, her bowed head covered with a plain linen coif, hands clasped together so tightly in prayer that the knuckles stood out pale as the pearls around her slender neck. Sometimes she would shake, lost in a holy fervour, her beautiful face upraised, eyes showing only the whites, rosy lips soundlessly speaking words of no recognisable tongue. At these times the other parishioners, in respect of her obvious piety – and out of a tacit fear – left the surrounding carved pews empty. The priest tolerated her shivering form, alone in the seat belonging to her family name, but whenever the sun shone through the stained glass windows, and St Michael appeared to wield a lance of light to pin her down, there would be a strange shimmering over the unused places, and the dust motes in the air would part around shapes like small stooped shoulders and heads. Then the priest would cross himself and lean upon the great and reassuring Bible, and would not meet her eyes.
Respected but never liked, she held her position in that small domain, as a seed protected in her delicate hands, nurtured for her own benefit. Beyond, in her husband’s turbulent kingdom, England was staggering towards civil war in a gathering storm of debts and obligations. Here in her realm, she prepared to pay what she owed.
When at last the seventh Winter died and the year turned, she felt a pang of regret. The price of love. Corinna caressed the thought with awe.
The tide of Spring was surging over every patch of earth, heralded from countless throats; the birds seeming to sing out the blossom that garlanded the orchards and hedgerows. Even the most humble cottage gardens proffered their abundance like brimming treasure chests, and the rutted lanes were spiced with fragrant herbs.
Under her black dress she wore a shift of emerald green, vivid as the church windows, soft as the new leaves, hidden carefully beneath her skirts so no edge would be glimpsed as she walked along, singing softly.
‘Rise, and put on your foliage, and be seen,
To come forth, like the Springtime, fresh and green…’
Her head was uncovered, the coif pushed back to lie across her shoulders, she plucked flowers from the hedges as she passed and twined them into her loose hair.
‘And sweet as Flora take no care, for jewels for your gown or hair.
Fear not, the leaves will strew, gems in abundance upon you…’
The sunrise had transformed the dewdrops to glass, as if the sky had been crafted from a vaulted church window and then shattered into a myriad tiny splinters. She smiled and closed her eyes, delighting in the warmth and the ruby light glowing through the blood within her eyelids. She unbuckled her shoes and cast them aside. Feathery grass closed over her feet, cool and damp, she clenched her toes until the mud soaked through the turf and her slim feet were stained brown, only her nails showing clean as small pink shells.
She could feel May rising through the ground, swelling like an oncoming wave. Then a man’s clear voice sang out over the birdsong:
‘Come, we’ll abroad, and let’s obey
The proclamation made for May,
And sin no more, as we have done, by staying,
But my Corinna, come, let’s go a Maying.’
Every Mayday he found her, out in the fields and woods by the dawn light, her black dress hitched up for running, legs bare and wet with dew, hair wild and wound with petals, chanting the song for which she was named. She reached out her hand and he took it, and they ran, leaping, laughing, singing together as best they could in breathless gasps.
‘Some have wept, and wooed, and plighted troth,
Many a green-gown has been given…’
‘Corinna!’ He laughed with wonder, ‘your shift – are you finally out of mourning?’
They trampled a wide dark trail through the silvered meadow, towards the hawthorn wood; first one leading then the other until they were spinning, arms linked, in a mad dance. When they reached the trees they fell, tangled together and giddy with delight. He made to kiss her, but she put a finger to his lips.
‘Not yet, my love.’ And she drew him further in.
Behind them in the meadow a line of thin trails followed, moving swift and straight as arrows.
The trees closed around them as they walked deeper in, growing thicker and darker, the warm air perfumed by their blossom. At last she found a place that pleased her: a sunlit glade, draped with spangled silken webs, and at its centre a ring of boulders adorned with moss as deep and soft as featherdown. She led him into its heart.
He smiled and drew her into an embrace. ‘Listen! You have silenced the birds with your beauty.’
‘Then we shall sing for them.’ She kissed him, and then they both took up the refrain in hushed, passionate tones.
‘Come, let us go, while we are in our prime.
And take the harmless folly of the time…’
With his lips still on hers he caught a reflection in her eyes, a shape darting behind him, but she cupped his face and kept him from turning.
The glade darkened as if a cloud had veiled the sun, he shivered and looked up – the sky was clear. His voice faltered to silence while she sang on.
‘Our life is short, and our days run
As fast away as does the sun…’
Other voices joined hers, light and pure as birds’.
‘And as a vapour, or a drop of rain
Once lost, can ne’r be found again…’
‘Sing with your children, my love, they have waited so patiently these seven years.’
Now he dared not look behind him.
He felt small hands, cold and slimed with mud, catch hold of his, and tug insistently on the hem of his coat. He kept his fearful staring eyes on Corinna’s face.
‘So when or you or I are made
A fable, song, or fleeting shade…’
High voices, his hands pulled and clutched tight, he dared not, dared not look down.
‘All love, all liking, all delight
Lies drowned with us in endless night…’
Corinna smiled. ‘Seven beautiful babes, my love, all of them yours, each birthed here in these woods and swaddled in the snows of February.’
Corinna stooped, stroked her cupped hands through the moss growing on the stones, raised them and washed her face in the dew. Her skin shone, lustrous and perfect against the darkling glade. She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply as if pulling all the life of Spring deep inside her.
She unlaced her black linen bodice and tore away the skirts, shedding them to reveal the green gown beneath. It was the dress he had bought her, stripped of its ribbons and lace, the silver embroidery unpicked.
She was all he could see – all he would ever see.
His May Queen.
She exulted in his enduring passion. Laughed with pure joy when the name she had chosen for herself was cried out on her husband’s final breath, as he was pulled down into the yielding, devoted earth. For upon this day her love for him was as deep and true as his roots, as bountiful as the leaves he would grow for her, as sweet as the blossom he would bear.
And when the Maying was over and done; when the noonday sun had dried the dew and her tears, after her children were settled down safe in their earthen cots, and the last notes of her song were held; Corinna would lay one more stone within her circle, then wander homeward singing, to mend her beloved black gown.
And mourn her King.
P.J. Richards lives in Somerset, England, surrounded by the countryside, history and folklore she loves. Her short stories have been published online, and in the anthologies ‘You Are Here’ and ‘Ecotones’ . Her novel is currently seeking a home. She is also an artist and her work can be found on Facebook @PamRichardsArt.