by Lena Patten
When all the men were away at war, a boy was born to two women who lived on the edge of the town, by the ancient forest, at the centre of which grew
the notorious and dangerous serpent woods. The boy they named Sunday, after
the day he was born.
The first mother was practical and homely, and worried when the housework
wasn't done and when the cupboards were not completely stocked. She had
dark hair and pale skin and was tall like her son, but plain of face. She
tended the family's vegetable patch.
The second mother was worldly and adventurous. When the men had been at
home she had stood among them as an equal, yet none could win her. She had
light hair and dark skin and was small and agile and very beautiful. She
carried a short-sword at her belt and wore a wolf-skin coat, with a hood
made of the wolf's mighty head, the lifeless eyes of which Sunday felt
could penetrate into his soul. She provided the family's meat.
One day the pale-haired, dark-skinned mother took her son deep into the
forest and showed him the serpent woods, where the leaves of the trees
dangled like snakes and the sap from their bark ran with poison. She told
him how in ancient times the woods had been renowned for their ability to
bestow a fertile union upon a couple, and she had been conceived in this
very place. She also told him how the honey made from the sap of the
serpent trees was said to be the best in the world. As well as being the
finest tasting, it had the additional quality of granting visions to anyone
who drunk the mead made from it in large enough quantities.
As they sought out beehives, she told him a story of how as a girl she had
ventured to the very spot they were standing on to collect serpent tree sap
and had been attacked by a huge wolf, the last of the area's dire wolves.
She had slain it by coating her sword in the poisonous juice from the
trees. She had skinned the wolf and the coat she now wore was made from its
fur. It had seen her through many bad winter nights spent hunting in the
As he grew, Sunday took on several of his mothers' traits. He was tall like
the dark-haired mother, and handsome like the light-haired one. He combined
the domestic approach of one and the outdoors spirit of the other to
capture wild animals, boars and rabbits and ducks, and raise them and their
fodder close to home, and by the time his mothers died, Sunday's home had
developed into a small farmstead.
Women from the town came to him to buy meat and vegetables, and many
thought what a fine husband he would make for their daughters, as there
were so few men about, even though the war was long passed and the veterans
had returned home.
One woman, a bank teller, sent her youngest child and only daughter to the
farm for half a dozen duck eggs. This girl reminded Sunday very much of his
first mother, and he was taken by the compassionate approach she took to
the animals when he toured her round the farm. She visited him once a week
for six months, at the end of which he asked her to be his wife. She—and
her mother—accepted the offer gladly.
The two were married, and, having spent so much of his time amongst the
beasts, soon Sunday felt the pull of the rutting season. But, after being
initially accepting of his advances, his wife came to reject them. She
insisted she did not enjoy the exertions of sexual practice and they had
tried long enough for a child without success. She said they should be
happy with the lot they had, which was no small amount, and should
concentrate their energies on maintaining a successful business.
To Sunday, the farm was no business at all, but life itself, which he
carried on with, bearing only a minor resentment towards his wife, for she
was loving in other ways than solely sensuous ones: she cooked his meals
and balanced the books and kept the house clean and pleasant. Still, he
could not help but watch the frolicking of the rams and ewes and the
thumping feet of excited buck rabbits with no small amount of jealousy.
One day when his wife was visiting her mother, a letter was waiting for
Sunday at the local trading post, the master of whom regularly rode his old
Shire between the two towns on either side of the forest to relate the
latest news and pass on any mail. The handwriting the letter was written in
was small but perfectly legible. It purported to be from a woman on the
other side of the forest, where there were known to be many men but few
women, due to a poor approach to the medicine of childbirth.
The woman—who informed Sunday in the letter that her name was Rainbow and that she had been widowed at a young age—was attempting to establish her
own farm. She had been practicing animal husbandry with dogs, cats and
mice, but the dogs kept chasing the cats and the cats kept eating the mice.
She had heard of Sunday's Farm from visitors from the town, and thought he
might have some small advice for her.
Sunday wrote back immediately, telling her that she should keep one cat for
herself, and also the dogs that most liked to chase the cats, for they
would be useful in rounding up the livestock. The mice she should take one
by one to her neighbours by cover of night and release them at the
thresholds. Having taken this action she should then visit the neighbours
in turn the following week to enquire as to their health, where surely they
would remark upon the problem they were experiencing with mice stealing
their cheeses and bread crusts. 'A-ha,' the Lady Rainbow could then
suggest. 'I have just the thing!' Whereupon she could sell each neighbour a
cat. The money for the sales there-from could be used to purchase such
tools as are needed to construct secure pens for farm animals: a saw,
hammer, nails, mallet and wire.
It so happened that the post came to town each week on the day that
Sunday's wife chose to stay at her mother's to dine. A fortnight on from
the first letter and Sunday's response to it, there awaited him at the
trading post a similar envelope to the first one; though upon collecting it
he noted it to be lavender-scented.
It was a glorious summer day and Sunday returned home to read the letter at
length over his victuals, which he took in the garden. The letter explained
in excited terms how Lady Rainbow had done as he had instructed, but had
not the patience to wait an entire week before calling on her neighbours,
who as it happened, were more than pleased to see her, as their food-stocks
had been much depleted by rodents and every one of them was as eager as the last to buy a cat from her.
Lady Rainbow had now erected her animal pens: three sturdy specimens able
to contain even the fiercest of wild boars. All she needed now were the
animals to put in them. But pray tell what animal, if she could
inconvenience him this one time more, would Mr Sunday commend to her?
Sunday fetched his writing feather and parchment and began to write in
earnest. 'A pleasure not an inconvenience,' he wrote. 'Call upon my modest
expertise at any time' he wrote. 'I hear there are wild chickens living on
the edges of your side of the forest, and mountain goats on the cliffs by
the sea that falls to the further side of your village,' he wrote. And he
picked a wild rose in full bloom in the decorative garden that separated
the forest from his animals' pens, and the petals of this he enclosed in
his missive. Then he made a second journey to the trading post and dropped
the letter into the postal box provided.
Sunday's wife returned from her mother's in good spirits, and that evening
made a fine salad with the freshest of the garden's produce and the newest
of the poultry's eggs and the two of them spent the evening in the garden
after the long day's work was done, playing backgammon and listening to the
sounds of the farm.
The summer was an enjoyable one, spent preparing for the coming of the
wetter and colder seasons, but also exhilarating in the joys of life. Even
Sunday's wife was somewhat overwhelmed by the cheer the sunshine and
warmth brought to the world, and one evening Sunday found himself receiving
advances of an unexpectedly amorous nature.
He and the Lady Rainbow continued their correspondence, and soon word
spread of how there was another farm of almost an equal quality to Sunday's
own operating on the other side of the forest. But similarly to how most of
his clientele were women, most of Lady Rainbow's buyers were men. According
to the trading postmaster, the lady farmer had a way about her to make a
man swoon—it was told that men obeyed her almost as well as did the dogs
she kept for hunting and herding.
Sunday knew this was true enough, as she said as much in her letters,
but—as had been his fair mother's plight—she despaired of ever finding a
man to match her will and her ambition. Sunday could only sympathise with
her and send her more advice on what to do about the foxes currently
troubling her hens.
As the seasons passed, so Sunday's wife's belly grew—the pregnancy was a
surprise to them, but an equal delight, and the farmer was impressed by his
wife's attitude to the prospect of child bearing, and was thankful to find
her opinions regarding the rearing of children somewhat closer to his own
than those of her mother's.
With the responsibility of a child looming, such a child's future security
was much on Sunday's mind. Thinking on the future of his farm, and that of
Lady Rainbow's, he began to lay the foundations of a plan. As the dogs
seemed to be failing her in scaring away the foxes, he wrote to his
mistress-in-writing of the need to venture into the woods and collect sap
from the serpent trees. He would meet her in the centre of the wood and
point out the best trees for making the poison, and also show her how to
collect the sap-honey from the bees without getting badly stung.
By this time summer had come round again, and Sunday's wife had given birth
to a daughter, whom they had named Island. His wife was recuperating from a
difficult birth at her mother's home, and Sunday was left to tend the farm
on his own.
He headed into the woods with his mother's short-sword at his belt. When he
saw her, illuminated by the lantern she carried in the dusk-light, Lady
Rainbow was every part the beauty he had heard described, and more besides.
She was confident and smiling, as delighted to meet him as he was her. He
hoped the results of the night-long honey-smeared tryst he enjoyed with her
beneath the serpent trees would eventually complete the initial stages of
After their liaison, Sunday and Lady Rainbow split the sap and sap-honey
between them and headed from the forest in their respective directions.
When Sunday returned to his farm in the early hours, his wife and Island
were waiting for him. His wife told him how she was feeling well enough to
return home, and that she was surprised to return home and find him absent.
He showed her the honey he had brought from the serpent wood and told her
how it was the best in the world, and how it could be used to make a
special mead. He said that as pleased as he was to see them both, he was
tired from the night's exertions in the forest and needed to get some sleep.
He woke to the smell of freshly-baked bread. He enjoyed it with the
sap-honey for his breakfast and took the remainder of the bread with some
boar-meat and an egg for his lunch, and then went out to tend to the
animals, leaving his wife and daughter asleep in the sanctity of their own
home. When it was time for his lunch, Sunday sat on a small hillock
enjoying his food and thought about Island, his wife, Lady Rainbow and his
When he returned home at dusk-fall, it was to find his wife stirring the
contents of a makeshift distillery she had manufactured in the garden. She
had decided to take it upon herself to make the mead he had spoken of.
While his wife stirred the mead, Sunday took Island up in his arms and
carried her about the farm, introducing her to all the animals. 'One day,'
he told his daughter, 'these will be your animals, yours and yours
husband's. And your land will run all the way from here, through the valley
and the woods, and to the cliff-tops above the crashing waves of the sea.'
For the next three weeks Sunday worked eighteen hours a day, and began
clearing the forest nearest to the farm, chopping down the trees, without
regard for ancient nor sapling, nor whether the tree was deadwood or
harboured a thousand forest denizens. By the end of his efforts he had
cleared close to an acre.
'What are you doing that for?' his wife asked him.
'We have a family to consider now,' Sunday said. 'I must make sure I
provide for Island's future.'
At the end of the third week, Sunday walked his wife, along with Island,
into the town to visit her mother. With each step he took had to stifle a
groan of agony, for his body felt as if it had been worked right up to the
graveside. Sunday left mother and daughter by the bank teller's door and
began the torturous route back up the hill towards his farm, but he found
the walk back easier, for rather than the prospect of seeing his
pinch-faced mother-in-law, there was the likelihood of a lavender-scented
letter bearing the tidings he had been hoping for since he had news of
Island's imminent arrival.
He did not follow his usual routine of waiting until he was back at home
and sitting in his garden or by the blazing fireside to read Lady Rainbow's
communiqué, for he was too excited. Instead he tore open the envelope as he
climbed the hill homewards. And the first line of the letter pleased him
greatly. It read, in the Lady Rainbow's tiny script: 'I am with child.'
As the summer progressed and the leaves began to lose their vivid greens in
favour of fiery russet, so Sunday's wife began to warm herself of an
evening by enjoying a half tankard of snake-mead, whilst her husband was
working to clear yet more land. Sunday noticed she became somewhat lax with
the household chores and that the standard of the cooking he was eating had
dropped too. He was so preoccupied with his work of clearing the forest and
with his wife's change of character he failed to notice more than three
months had passed since he had last heard from Lady Rainbow.
One evening, after hours spent battling to uproot a stubborn and aged oak,
he asked his wife if there was any-thing the matter.
'Only that you no longer trouble yourself to admire me or attempt to usher
me to our bed-chamber,' she said, and the statement was very much out of
character. 'Perhaps you have found some other means to satisfy your
needs—is it one of the animals you go bothering now, husband?'
Sunday grimaced. His wife had never spoken to him in such a coarse manner,
nor he suspected had she ever spoken at all in such a way. He watched her
quaff the remainder of her evening's mead.
'No? Not the animals. I presume it is another woman then. Perhaps the one I
have been hearing so much about who lives on the other side of the forest.
Is that why you spend so much more time chopping down trees rather than
spending time with your wife and daughter; to bridge our world and hers?'
'What woman? What are you talking about?'
'Don't lie to me, husband! I speak of the woman who sends you a letter
every month, about the progress of her gestation: Lady Rainbow, who is
pregnant from your seed!' Sunday's wife took three lavender-scented
envelopes from a fold within her petticoats and cast them on the table.
Then she stood. 'I am going to bed. You may sleep in the chicken shed or
the boar-sty to-night, but not in my house.' With that she retired to the
Sunday poured himself a full tankard of mead and sat to read the letters he
had been failing to receive for the last few months. It appeared that the
Lady Rainbow's pregnancy had been a difficult one, and her farm had
suffered for it. Two of her dogs had died, and the third was busy tending a
litter of new puppies. Foxes had returned for her chickens and she had not
the strength to venture into the serpent woods for more poison. She pleaded
for him to come to her aid, and when he did not, she despaired that he had
He poured and drank another full tankard for additional warmth against the
autumn night, and pulled on the wolf-skin coat he had inherited from his
pale-haired mother. Looking up to the window, he saw his wife's silhouette
staring out at him. Then he ventured into the forest, heading first for the
serpent wood, and then for Rainbow Farm. Thanks to the snake-mead he was
plagued by visions, imagining that the trees themselves had come alive and
were revenging themselves upon him for slaying so many of their brethren.
Yet still he pushed on, through the forest and the dense, dark serpent
On arrival at Rainbow Farm, just at daybreak, sore and smarting from bee
stings and innumerable lashings of bramble and hawthorn, Sunday could hear
a great wailing, and he wondered if the Bean Sidhe had come for him.
Rushing to the little cottage that served as the farmhouse, he discovered
the noise was made by the Lady Rainbow herself, who was alone and naked on
her bed, with the crown of a child's head pushing up from between her legs.
Being a farmer, Sunday was practiced at bringing new life into the world,
and this was not where the problem lie: his son, whom he named Autumn,
after the season of his birth, came into the world healthy and screaming
almost as loudly as his mother, but there was nothing Sunday could do to
prevent the local curse of death in childbirth from afflicting Lady Rainbow.
With the child sleeping in amongst the litter of puppies of Rainbow Farm's
surviving dog, Sunday spent the morning building a pyre for his
companion-farmer. He burnt her at dusk, holding Autumn in his arms and
watching the smoke curl up into the clear, cold night sky. He determined to
remain at the farm and raise the child himself, certain that his wife would
not want him back with another woman's offspring in tow.
His wife for her part had not slept well that night. When she woke from a
fitful sleep, her head heavy with a hangover, she could remember little of
the night's events, save that before falling asleep, she had, from her
bedroom window, seen a bear at the borders of the forest. She was risen at
dawn, and calling for her husband, but she could not find him anywhere: not
in the boar-sty nor the chicken shed, nor anywhere else on the farm. She
woke Island and the two of them hurried into town to her mother's house.
As time passed Island's mother convinced herself, and all those she knew,
that her husband had been eaten by the bear she had seen, who she decided
had been trying to enter the house to steal the honey and snake mead. After
disposing of the mead, she had Island help her erect a high, sturdy fence
where the farmyard met the forest, in order to keep out the wild animals,
and made sure to always keep the short-sword, that once belonged to her
husband's pale-haired mother, close to hand.
She warned her daughter from ever entering the forest, for fear that the
murderous bear would make her its prey, and being a good daughter, although
possessing a measure of her father's attitude, Island respected her
mother's wishes and never entered the forest. Instead the girl honed her
passion for looking after the animals into a specialty, using the space
cleared by her father to maintain a small ranch of horses.
Following the death of Island's grandmother, at the start of lambing season
one year, the trading postmaster came to Sunday Farm. His old Shire was
sick and unable to haul the postal cart along the road that crept round the
Setting herself to shoeing a new horse for him, Island asked the trading
postmaster what he knew of the farm on the other side of the forest,
knowing that he often ventured that way.
'Rainbow Farm?' he said. 'The mistress, Lady Rainbow, died must be close to
when you were born, young Island. In childbirth it was, or so the rumour
has it, though she never re-married after she was widowed. After that an
old hermit and his son took the farm over. They're not the friendliest of
folks, but their hens' eggs are the finest I've ever tasted. Lay all
through the winter too, those hens. I always make sure to buy half a dozen
if I'm passing by.'
As the two of them were chatting, a call of distress came from the kitchen
of the farmhouse. Dropping her iron nails, Island ran towards the sound,
closely followed by the trading postmaster. Upon entering the kitchen they
found Island's mother on the floor. The food she had been preparing for
luncheon was scattered across the flagstones and she was sitting in a heap
nursing her head. Island let out a cry of shock and dropped to the floor
'Whatever is the matter?'
The older woman struggled for a few moments to catch her breath, and then
she spoke quietly and with a wavering voice. 'I do not know. I came over
light-headed and then dropped the food tray and the next thing I'm aware of
is you sitting here beside me.'
'I will fetch the physician,' the trading postmaster said. 'Make your
mother comfortable, but do not move her. I'll return in haste.'
The physician was an old man with hairy nostrils and the smell of nicotine
on his fingers. He proclaimed Island's mother to be gravely ill from a long
repressed heartbreak, mixed with the recent grief of losing her mother. He
insisted she was not long for this world and instructed she should stay
confined to her bed-chamber. Soon enough the woman was bed-ridden and
pallid from the lack of daylight.
Late one rainy evening she called for Island, who was beside her as often
as she could be, but was also busy running the farm as best she could. 'I
am thirsty, Island,' she said. 'Thirsty for a certain drink I have not
tasted for a long time.'
'What is it, mother? Tell me where I can find it and I will bring it to you.'
That same evening, on the other side of the forest, Autumn had been left to
tend Rainbow Farm alone, as his father had ventured up to the cliffs in
search of a new Billy Goat to put to stud. A young ewe out in the field
closest to the forest—the field his father had cleared the year
before—had gone into labour. Autumn not being as hardy as his father, but
knowing he had a long night ahead of him out in the dew-damp field, sought
around the cottage for some form of protection against the elements, and he
found the coat made from the skin on the Dire wolf his grandmother had once
slain. He hauled it on around him and pulled the wolf's head-hood over his
brow to protect himself from the rain, then went out to hunker down in the
rain to assist the ewe.
It was close to midnight when the animal eventually gave birth, and through
Autumn's young but expert care, both mother and lamb survived.
On his way back up to the farm Autumn pushed his hands into the pockets of
the coat, and one of them found a collection of papers tied by a red
ribbon. He hurried back to the cottage and lit a lantern at the kitchen
table. Untying the ribbon he discovered the papers were correspondences,
written from his father to his mother and vice versa. The final letter was
in his father's hand, and it was dated the day after Autumn's birthday. The
boy cried very heavily as he read it. Then he wandered from the cottage,
back up to the field with the ewe and newborn lamb present, and into the
'Snake mead,' Island's mother said.' You will need sap-honey from the
Island looked at her mother fretfully.
'Yes, I know I have always warned you not to venture into the forest.'
'It is all right, mother, if it is what you wish, I will fetch the honey
and make your mead.'
'Then you must take your grandmother's sword,' Island's mother said. 'And
if a bear attacks you, you must stab it right between the eyes.'
So advised, Island wrapped herself in her boar-skin overcoat and took a
lantern, heading out into the rain. She walked and walked until the stars
disappeared, hidden by the ever-thickening forest canopy. The forest was
alive with sounds: scuffles from the undergrowth, and hoots and clicks and
Eventually the light changed again, as the trees thinned out, turning from
pine to the unfamiliar foliage found in the serpent woods, where the floor
was twisted with bracken. Island stood still and silent, listening for the
buzzing of the sap-bees but hearing only the pounding of her own blood
through her body. The sword and lantern felt uncomfortable in her grip, and
now she had stopped walking, her feet and neck ached and lack of sleep made
her head feel heavy. She had no idea of how long she had been travelling,
but as it was still dark she believed it to be before four-of-the-morning.
She thought sadly that there would be no cockerel crowing her awake this
morning. Then she heard a crashing behind her, as if of a large creature
pushing through the bracken.
Island swung round with the sword in her hand and looked up into the
piercing, glinting eyes of a fierce-some predator. She raised the sword and
lunged forward towards where the creature's chest should be. By the time
she realised there was a boy beneath the sodden fur, it was too late—her
grandmother's sword had pierced his neck and he fell to his knees, the
wolf's head lolling painfully to one side, as if it really was a part of
Island stood there un-moving, ankle-deep in the bracken.
'I'm...' the boy gurgled, choking on his blood. 'I'm Autumn,' he said.
Before he died he handed her a collection of letters tied together with a
red ribbon. She read them all by the light of the lantern.
By the time Island found her way back to the farm with a small supply of
sap-honey, her mother had already passed on. The rain turned to storm to
suit Island's dark mood. After attending to the funeral arrangements for
her mother she took her finest horse and rode hard through the rain for the
village on the other side of the forest.
When she eventually came to Rainbow Farm there was a man dressed in the
wolf-skin coat her brother had been wearing. He was standing out in the
rain attempting to light a pyre. Island dismounted her horse and walked
over to him to see if she could help.
Story Copyright © 2007 by Lena Patten. All rights reserved.
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About the author
Lena is training to be a psychologist. She enjoys drinking gin and eating walnut and coffee cake. Her best friend Pru is a bit of a nutter.