(first published in Moonpark Review, Issue 10, Dec 21st 2019)
We set off up the mountain on a clear, cold, crisp day, a week before Christmas. We needed to quiet our minds through the rhythmic rustle of the beechwood leaves under our marching feet. So many looming problems: the burnt-out clutch; the Christmas journey to her parents; my parents; her boss…
Our valley has two names: the lower, gentler part is St Mary’s Vale; the upper, wilder part is Cwm Trosnant, which means the valley of the three springs. As Owain — our neighbour — says, the Normans conquered the lowlands, but the Welsh hung onto the hills. Quite soon, we left the beechwood behind us and crossed the invisible border into Cwm Trosnant, with its scattered, bent oaks and scrubby thorns. We kept a look-out for mistletoe, the official excuse for the excursion. The woods and orchards of the Black Mountains of South Wales are favoured places for mistletoe. Every December, the farmers take cartloads of it over the border to the Christmas market in Hereford. It’s spread by thrushes that gorge on the berries, wiping their beaks free of the sticky seeds against the bark of neighbouring trees. The rough, cracked bark of oaks and old apple trees ensure that they are often peppered with mistletoe.
It’s a strange sight in the desolate dead of winter, to come across a grove of oaks, and there among the bare branches is the green, thriving mistletoe. No wonder that many ancient peoples believed the mistletoe to have magical properties, the mysterious green bush with no roots in the earth. Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough’ retells the story of Baldur, the Sun God, who could only be slain by a mistletoe spear. The Druids, who were masters of this land two thousand years ago, were said to harvest it with a golden sickle.
Near the head of the cwm, we reached the first of the three springs, issuing cold and clear from the roots of a solitary, stunted holly tree. We knew the place well enough and had picnicked there sometimes, dipping our hands in the cool waters. The mountain is dotted with these sudden springs. Over on the east side there is a spring with an ancient church beside it and pilgrims still visit the spring to leave tokens and to pray.
I never heard that the holly tree spring was also deemed holy, but we were witnesses that day to a secret wonder. The bark of the holly, like that of the beech, is a smooth, plain, regular grey: no cracks, irregularities, or rough patches. And yet, couched among the red holly berries were vivid, pearly-white berries of the mistletoe.
I gasped. And then I laughed and pulled out my pocket knife to cut it down. She stayed my hand. ‘No, we could search out every holly tree in Wales and never find another that’s home to the mistletoe. We’re witnesses here today, not thieves.’
She was right. We stood for a moment or two and then turned for home. I cut some mistletoe out of a thorn tree, suffering only minor scratches.