When I, Twixelblat, came to Murdo’s Mill with Elspeth on the day I first met the Queen of Elfhame, I had only a few hours of experience with this human invention called story. Ravens, after all, don’t tell stories. We live each moment of our lives in that moment, and one moment passes into the next. Now, thanks to the Queen, I have been a teller of human stories for years, and what I find so fascinating is how memory and story are as important to humans as breath, water and food. Stories shape lives. They are the warp and weft of the tapestry that give human lives meaning.
As Elspeth crossed the bridge, she stopped and sat on the bridge railing, listening to the gurgle of water in the millrace. She watched James Hardie, the mill’s owner, scoop silt from the millrace with an old wooden shovel. He waved at her in greeting, but continued to work.
I took a sentinel perch in a nearby oak above the water.
Without realizing it, Elspeth was searching for her own story and meaning. As she watched Master Hardie, it was as if the mill’s waterwheel somehow sensed her need, caught a long-forgotten strand of her memory and unraveled it, playing it out for both of us to see.
A three-year-old Elspeth looked up at Grannie Flora stirring the boiling kettle of cullen skink hanging on the pot hook in the fireplace. The smell of the smoked haddock boiled in milk with onions and potatoes was a sign that dinner was not far off.
Elspeth tugged at Flora’s dress. “Sing me a story, Gran.”
Flora put her spoon down and picked up the girl, who was still larger than her peers. “Well, supper won’t be ready fer a while, dearie, sae I guess we’ll ‘ave time fer a short’n.” She sat in the chair by the hearth with Elspeth on her lap. “Wha’ dae ye want tae hear?”
“The Wee Wee Man, Gran.”
Flora nodded, having predicted her request. The little song was one Elspeth often asked for. Flora knew it was one of her favorites, wherein a traveler comes upon a wee little man who, despite his size, exhibits extraordinary strength. The little man invites the traveler to his home, entertains him with food, pipers and dancing ladies before making himself and all but the traveler disappear in a mist.
When Flora got to the part, “He pulled up a stone six feet in height and flung it farther than I cuid see. And though I’d been a giant born, I’d never had lifted it to me knee,” Elspeth squealed in delight. It was her favorite part, and Flora sang those words louder to emphasize them.
Elspeth loved the idea there could be a wee person with strength even greater than an adult’s. Though she was as big as a five-year-old, Elspeth saw herself as tiny, because her family was all much bigger than she. She had little contact with her peers, other than when they were together at St. James Kirk, which wasn’t often, so she had little opportunity to compare herself to others her age.
Elspeth heard stories not only about faeries and elves. There were the family stories her parents and Gran told sitting in front of the hearth in the evenings.
The waterwheel pulled the thread a little more, and now it was Elspeth’s sixth birthday, on Beltane. Elspeth listened with excitement as Rowena told her, “Fra now on, yer new bedtime will be when it gets dark, but taenight ye’re allowed to stay up until the rest o’ us gae tae bed.” That was the night she heard family stories for the first time. Some were so long they lasted several evenings. Each of the adults in the household had a unique kind of story to tell and an original way of telling it.
Her Da’s stories were exciting adventures involving grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins doing dangerous and heroic things. He didn’t sing his stories like Ma and Gran. He couldn’t sing a lick. But he spoke them like poetry and could act out the exciting parts.
Her Ma Rowena’s stories were mostly about faeries, elves and the creatures from the Otherworld, but also stories of people who lived in Scotland so long ago they were lost in the mists of time, rather like The Wee Wee Man.
Gran could sing both kinds of story and explain all kinds of things about them. If Elspeth wanted to know something about the world beyond their village, she would always ask her Gran, who it seemed to Elspeth had been everywhere.
The waterwheel turned and now Elspeth was seven years old. She and Rowena were in a fen near Murdo’s Mill searching for bog myrtle for Fiona Douglas, Geordie’s ma and Graitney’s finest brewer, who with her husband Angus, ran The King’s Head Inn and Tavern. Elspeth enjoyed accompanying her mother on foraging searches, and Rowena was always careful to tell Elspeth what to look for so she would learn the healing arts early in life, just as Rowena had learned them from Flora.
Elspeth was searching for bog myrtle on her own and was within shouting distance of Rowena when she heard a very distinct “Psst! O’er here.” She turned around in a circle with her hand above her eyes, just the way she did when looking for a plant her mother wanted. She saw nothing unusual, but she was looking for a man to match the voice she heard. “Nae,” the voice said again, “O’er here.” Then Elspeth realized the voice was coming from somewhere in the grass close by. She looked again and saw two of what she could only describe as wee wee men sitting in the foliage of a vine with bright yellow flowers winding its way up the trunk of a rowan tree. They looked identical, except for their garb, and the only difference then was the color of cap each wore. One had a green cap, and the other wore red.
“Who are ye, and wha’ dae ye want?” Elspeth asked with no hint of surprise. “Are ye kin o’ the Wee Wee Man in the story?” she wondered.
“Aye, in a manner of speakin’ we are,” said the one in the green cap. “The Wee Wee Man is o’ our ilk. This is Woozle,” he said, nodding toward the one with the red cap, “and I am Weezle. Your Gran asked us tae tell ye tha’ she needs some o’ this vine here for her rheumatism. Its name is bittersweet. Yer ma will ken wha’ tae dae wi’ it.”
While he was speaking, Elspeth wondered if he was as strong as the Wee Wee Man, but she asked instead, “Will Aw see yiz again, and how can Aw tell which o’ yiz is which?”
“Aye, ye’ll see us again, unless ye dunna,” Woozle said. “And we always wear the same color o’ cap, unless we donnae.”
“How can Aw tell if ye’re speakin’ the truth then?” Elspeth asked, completely puzzled by their strange talk.
“Oh aye,” Weezle answered, “We always tell the truth…”
“Unless yiz dunna,” Elspeth finished. The two wee men nodded, cackled, and slapped their sides.
Finally, Elspeth had to know, “Well, is it true then that wee men are very strong?”
“Of course ‘tis,” Woozle said. “I’ll prove it tae ye.” A rock at least three times the size of Woozle sat in the mud near the bittersweet vine. He picked it up and gave it a monstrous heave. It flew like a bird, through, up, and over the trees. Elspeth stood with her mouth wide open in surprise. Unfortunately, Woozle’s aim took the rock in the precise direction of Murdo’s Mill. It landed with a large thud and the sound of breaking lumber.
“Oops!” Woozle and Weezle said in unison and promptly vanished.
Rowena must have heard the crash and looked up from her foraging, because she called out, “Elspeth! Are ye awright?” A moment later she appeared. “Wha’ was tha’ crash?” she asked running up to Elspeth.
“Aw’m awright, Ma! Tha’ was the sound o’ a badly thrown rock.”
“Did ye throw it?” Rowena demanded.
“Nae, Ma! ‘Twas a wee man tha’ threw it? He was showin’ me how strang he was.”
“And ye saw a wee man?” asked Rowena with no hint of surprise.
“Aw saw two wee men, Ma!,” Elspeth replied excitedly. “Weezle and Woozle, tha’s wha’ they callit themsels. They tol’ me tha’ Gran ‘ad sent them to ask us tae bring home some o’ this vine… bittersweet they said.” Elspeth pointed to the vine.
“Then Aw guess we’d bet’r get tae it, and then we’ll gae see wha’ happened at Murdo’s Mill,” Rowena said, bending down to dig out some vine at the root.
Murdo’s Mill was built by Murdo Hardie five generations ago but remained in the Hardie family and was now operated by Master James Hardie, his wife and two sons. As she and Rowena approached, Elspeth saw Master Hardie clearing silt from the millrace. After a pleasant greeting, Rowena said, “Elspeth and Aw heard an enormous crash comin’ fra’ the mill just a few minutes ago. We think it might o’ been the work of a stane tha’ a frien’ o’ Elspeth threw. Wha’ damage did it dae?” she asked. “We’ll make things’ right wi’ ye.”
“Aw’ve nae heard a thing,” Master Hardie replied. “All’s been quiet as the grave here ‘cept fer the squeakin’ o’ the wheel, bu’ let’s ‘ave a look. Aw’m gettin’ a wee bit deaf fra years o’ tha’ squeakin’,” he chuckled. The three walked around the stone building, checking for signs of damage to doors, windows, even the walls, and the wheel itself, but no one saw a thing.
Rowena and Elspeth bid Master Hardie farewell. As they walked back home with their bags of bog myrtle and the uprooted bittersweet, Rowena shook her head and said, “Ah, those wee men! They’re always up to such mischief, bu’ it’s all in guid fun.”