On the sunny side of Red Horse Hill, in the corner of a field, there stands an ancient hawthorn tree. No one knows how old it is; no one – not even the other trees – remembers a time when it was young. Most of it is already dead; but a single living branch survives, blossoming in springtime, producing a single handful of haws in autumn, when the leaves turn.
The fallow field in which it stands belongs to a woman who lives alone. She is old; has always been old. Her hands are clumps of twisted branch. Her hair is white as blossom. Her skin is brown and cracked, and her eyes are bright as haws in the sun. Every day, rain or shine, she sits in her rocking chair on her porch, and sometimes she sings, and sometimes she sews, and sometimes seems to fall asleep, though anyone watching closely would see that her eyes are never quite shut, and are always fixed on the hawthorn tree that stands in the corner of the field.
She remembers a time when she was young, many, many years ago. She does not count the years any more, but marks the seasons as they pass, in blossom and leaf, in fruit and fall. Mae was her name in those distant days, and everybody loved her.
Everybody? No, not quite. One young man never noticed her. He lived alone in a tiny cottage on the far side of the fallow field, and seldom spoke to anyone. Folk called him Thorn, for his surliness, and avoided him whenever they could. And the girl, being stubborn, being female, had set her heart on that young man. But the more she pursued him, the less he cared, and the less he seemed to notice her.
Now the hawthorn tree that stood in Thorn’s field had a reputation. Folk claimed it brought both good and ill luck. It was said that the fairies haunted it, that its flowers should never enter the house; that to fall asleep in its shadow could send a person staring mad.
She remembers a time when she was young, many, many years ago.
But most of all, the fairy tree was said to be the heart’s tree, a tree for lovers and for love. This was what brought Mae to the field, on May Eve at midnight, to pick a handful of hawthorn blooms and make them into a May Day crown, so that Thorn would know her love at last and smile at her in the morning.
But in the morning, the young man was as distant and surly as ever. Summer came, and the hawthorn tree lost its bloom and burst into leaf, and still Mae longed for him to look at her – just once – and smile.
And so she crept back to the fairy tree on Midsummer’s Eve at midnight, and cut a swatch of thorny stems and made herself a green May ball to hang outside her window in the hope that her love would see it, and know.
But on Midsummer’s Day the young man remained as silent and thorny as ever. And so Mae went to Crazy Nan, who lived at the edge of the forest, and who was mad, and spoke with the fairies, and slept under hedges, and would know what to do.
Crazy Nan listened to her, and smiled a little smile to herself.
Then she said: ‘You want his heart? Then go to the fairy tree at Samhain, on the night when all the dead are awake, and cut yourself a nice big piece out of the living heart of the tree. Make it into a charm, my girl, to wear around your pretty neck. After that, he’ll belong to you.’
Mae did as old Nan said, and crept back home on all Hallows’ Eve with a piece of the green heart of the tree in her apron pocket. And in the morning she went running to the cottage across the field, certain that this time, she would find love waiting.
But when Mae arrived at the cottage door, no one answered. She went in and found Thorn lying on the ground, his shirt soaked through with his heart’s blood. Horrified, Mae understood that the young man and the tree were one, and that her love was dying. She ran to the fairy tree and gave back the piece that she had cut, and bound it with strips torn from her skirts, strips of red flannel that fluttered and flew.
When she returned to the cottage, Thorn was gone. Some say the fairies took him away; no one knows for certain.
In any case, the tree survived. It stands there to this day, and folk still deck it with ribbons and bows, and the old woman tells this story. Of course, there’s no telling whether it’s true. But just in case it is, beware – never cut a hawthorn tree, or bring the flowers into the house; for love can send a person mad just as soon as sorcery, and it’s wiser by far, the old folk say, to have nothing to do with either.