The moon came up and the fairies came out. Deep in the wood Robin Goodfellow, otherwise known as Puck, stopped a fairy who was flying by, obviously in a hurry.
‘Greetings, spirit,’ said Puck. ‘Where are you going?’
The fairy drifted down and sat on the grass beside him. ‘Over hill, over dale, through bush, through briar: over park, over fence, through water, through fire, I go everywhere: faster than the moon in her orbit. And I serve the fairy queen, to dew the rings on village greens. The tall cowslips are her palace guards, and you can see rubies in their golden coats – presents from fairies, still holding their sweet perfume. I have to find some dewdrops here and hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear. Goodbye, you naughty spirit: I’ll be off. Our queen, with all her elves, is coming soon.’
‘The king is celebrating here tonight,’ said Puck. ‘Make sure the queen doesn’t see her. Oberon is very bad tempered and angry because she’s taken, as her page, a lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king. She’s never had such a sweet changeling. And jealous Oberon wants the child as one of his followers, to range through the wild forests with him. But she is holding the lovely child by force. She garlands him with flowers and makes a fuss of him. So now they never meet in a grove or a green, beside a clear fountain or where the stars shine brightly, without a quarrel starting, sending all their elves scurrying into acorn cups in terror.’
‘If I’m not mistaken you’re that clever and mischievous spirit, Robin Goodfellow,’ said the fairy. ‘Aren’t you the one who’s scared all the village maidens? Skimmed the milk, meddled with the butter press, making the breathless housewives churn without result? And sometimes stopped the beer from fermenting? Led night-travellers astray, laughing at their distress? They call you ‘Hobgoblin’, and ‘Sweet Puck’, and consider themselves lucky if you let them get on with their work! Aren’t you he?’
‘You’ve got it right,’ said Puck. ‘I am that merry wanderer of the night. I jest for Oberon and make him laugh when I trick a fat, bean-fed horse by neighing in imitation of a filly. And I sometimes hide in an old woman’s bowl, disguised as an apple, and when she drinks I bob against her lips and the beer spills down her sagging cheeks. The wisest old aunt, telling the saddest story, sometimes mistakes me for a three legged stool: then I slip out from under her bum and down she topples, crying, ‘oh, my arse,’ and begins to cough, which makes everyone laugh and say they’ve never had such fun. But make way, fairy! Here comes Oberon!’
‘And here comes my lady,’ said the fairy. ‘I wish he weren’t here!’
Oberon, king of the fairies, was suddenly there. A troop of fairies surrounded him, glimmering in the moonlight.
Titania, followed by her own fairy band, stopped when she saw the other fairy troop.
‘Bad timing to meet you here by moonlight, Titania!’ said Oberon.
‘You!’ she exclaimed, taken by surprise. ‘Jealous Oberon!’ She turned. ‘Come on, fairies: I’m not talking to him!’
‘Not so fast, rash woman! Aren’t I your husband?’
‘Then I must be your wife,’ she retorted sarcastically. ‘But I have known you to steal away from fairyland and take the human shape of the mythical lover, Corin, sitting all day long, playing panpipes and writing love-poems to his mistress, Phillida. What brings you here, from the furthest reaches of India if it isn’t – to be honest – that the gorgeous Amazon, your hunting-booted fantasy woman, is about to marry Theseus: and you’ve come to bless their bed?’ She laughed.
‘You can talk!’ said Oberon. ‘How can you make snide innuendoes about Hippolyta, knowing that I’m aware of your crush on Theseus? Didn’t you lead him to safety through the dark night after he had raped Perigouna? And didn’t you make him abandon Aegles, and also Ariadne and Antiopa?’
‘These are just figments of your jealousy,’ she said, ‘and since the early summer, whenever we’ve met to dance our fairy rounds to the wind’s music – on hills, in valleys, forests, meadows, fountains, rushing streams, sandy beaches – you’ve ruined our fun with your misbehaviour. It’s been so bad that the winds have played their music for nothing and then taken revenge on us by sucking up the unwholesome fog from the sea. Then the rain’s fallen on the land and swollen even the smallest streams until the rivers have burst their banks and made it impossible for oxen to pull their ploughs, so ploughmen have wasted their time even trying. The corn has rotted before it’s had a chance to ripen. The folds have stood empty in the saturated fields and crows have gorged themselves on the bodies of drowned sheep. The ‘nine men’s morris’ pitch becomes flooded with mud and the winding country paths disappear. Humans are denied their winter recreation: no evenings are brightened by hymns and sing-songs. And so the moon, that controls the tides, pale with anger, causes so much rain that the dampness brings all kinds of disease. And because of this unpleasant weather we are seeing the seasons alter. Heavy frosts come just as crimson roses are beginning to bloom and a chain of sweet-smelling summer buds, as though in mockery, is set in the thin ice of a lengthened winter. Spring, summer, autumn and angry winter have all changed their features and the bewildered world can’t tell one from another. And all this catalogue of evils is because of our quarrel, our disagreement. We are the originators of all this confusion.’
‘Sort it out then,’ said Oberon. ‘It’s up to you. Why does Titania cross her Oberon? All I’m asking for is a little changeling boy, to be my page.’
‘Forget it,’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t sell my child for the whole of fairyland. His mother was my dedicated follower, and she often sat and chatted to me in the perfumed Indian air and kept me company on beaches, watching the ships going by. We delighted in the billowing sails together as she, being pregnant with my young page, imitated them, sailing along on the land to fetch this or that thing for me, returning again as though from a voyage, loaded with merchandise. But, being mortal, she died in childbirth and for her sake I’m bringing up her boy. And also, for her sake, I won’t part with him.’
‘How long are you intending to stay in this wood?’ said Oberon.
‘Perhaps till after Theseus’ wedding day. If you’ll co-operate and dance with us in our fairy ring, and participate in our moonlight parties, come with us. If not, stay away from me and I’ll stay away from wherever you are.’
‘Give me that boy and I’ll go with you.’
Titania laughed. ‘Not for all your fairy kingdom! Come fairies, let’s go. We’ll have a mighty row if I stay any longer.’
And that was it. Titania and her attendants simply disappeared.
‘Good riddance!’ Oberon shouted to the empty air. ‘You won’t leave this grove till I’ve made you pay for this insult!’
There was no reply. She had gone. Oberon sighed. ‘My gentle Puck,’ he said. ‘Come here. Do you remember that time I sat on a jutting rock and listened to a mermaid, who sat on a dolphin’s back, singing with such sweetness and harmony that the rough see became calm and some of the stars shot crazily out of their spheres when they heard her?’
‘I remember,’ said Puck.
‘Well that’s when I saw Cupid, all armed up – although you couldn’t see him – flying between the cold moon and the earth. He aimed his arrow at a chaste queen, ruler of a western isle. He shot it smartly, with enough force to pierce a hundred thousand hearts and, in the sharp beams of the pale moon, missed. So the royal virgin passed on, thinking her maidenly thoughts, which were far from thoughts of love. But I took note of where the arrow fell. It fell on a little western flower, once milk-white, but now purple with love’s wound, and virgins call it ‘Love-in-idleness’. Fetch me that flower. I showed it to you once. If its juice is laid on the eye-lids of a sleeping person, it will make that man or woman fall in love with the first living creature they see when they open their eyes. Go and get me this flower and come back before the time it takes for a whale to swim a league.’
‘I’ll encircle the earth in forty minutes!’ Puck flew up into the air, waved, and was gone.
Oberon was pleased with himself. He was going to get his own back on Titania and also get the child. Once he had the juice he would watch out for her and when she was asleep he would drop some of the liquor in her eyes. Then when she woke up she would pursue the first thing she saw with all the passion of being in love, whether it was a lion, a bear, a wolf, a bull or even a mischievous monkey or a chattering ape. And before he would remove the spell, as he could with another herb, he would make her give the child up to him.
He heard human voices. Who was that? He made himself invisible so that he could overhear their conversation.
It was a young man, looking desperate as he pushed branches aside to move forward. But he stopped suddenly and turned to the young woman who was following him and calling his name, Demetrius.
‘I don’t love you!’ he shouted. ‘So stop following me!’ He started off once more – half running – and then stopped again. ‘Where are Lysander and the lovely Hermia?’ he demanded. ‘I’m going to kill Lysander!’ He sat down on a log and thrust his head into his hands. ‘And Hermia is going to kill me,’ he moaned.
The young woman sat down beside him. He looked up and, overwhelmed with fury, pushed her off the log. ‘You told me they’d hidden in this wood, Helena! And here I am, going crazy because I can’t find my Hermia. Go! Get lost! And stop following me!’
She got up, rubbing her elbow, then suddenly she pounced on him, sat on his lap and put her arms around his neck, pinning him down. ‘You attract me, you hard-hearted magnet. It’s not iron that you’re pulling though, because my heart is made of steel. Get rid of your magnetism: that’s the only way you’ll stop me.’ She pressed her mouth against his and he moved his head furiously. She clung to him for a long time, trying to kiss him, but then he managed to loosen himself, and he pushed her away. She landed on the ground again.
He got up and stood over her. ‘Have I encouraged you?’ he shouted. ‘Have I spoken nicely to you? No! Just the opposite: haven’t I told you plainly that I don’t love you and never could?’
‘And even that makes me love you more,’ she said. ‘I’m your spaniel and the more you beat me the more I’ll fawn on you. Treat me as your spaniel. Spurn me, hit me, neglect me, lose me. Just allow me, unworthy as I am, to follow you. What humbler place can I ask – even though to me it’s a place of pride – than to be treated like a dog?’
‘Don’t push me too hard,’ he said. ‘Looking at you makes me sick!’
‘And not being able to look at you makes me sick,’ she said.
‘You’re risking your modesty too much,’ he said. ‘Leaving the city and placing yourself at the mercy of someone who doesn’t love you, and exposing your precious virginity to the dangers of the night and being alone in a remote place.’
‘Your respectability is my safeguard,’ she said. ‘It isn’t night when I see your face, so I don’t think there are any dangers of the night, and this wood isn’t a remote place because as far as I’m concerned, when you’re here, it is the whole world, so how can you say I’m alone when the whole world is here with me?
Demetrius shook both his fists in the air with frustration. ‘I’m going to run away from you and hide in the bushes and leave you to the mercy of wild animals!’ he exclaimed.
‘The wildest animal doesn’t have a heart like yours,’ she said. ‘Run where you want to: it will be a reversal of the story of Daphne and Apollo. It will be Apollo running away and Daphne doing the chasing: the dove pursuing the griffin: the meek deer chasing the tiger! How ridiculous when the coward does the chasing and the brave one flees!’
‘I’m not going to stay here and listen to you!’ said Demetrius. He turned and started off, hurrying.
Helena took off. She dived, flung her arms around his legs and brought him crashing down. They struggled as he tried to release himself.
‘Let me go!’ he yelled. He jerked himself free and scrambled to his feet. ‘Don’t make any mistake about it: if you follow me I’ll do you some mischief in the wood!’
‘Like you do me mischief everywhere else,’ she said, ‘in church, in town, in the country. Shame on you, Demetrius! You really show my sex up. We can’t fight for love as men can. We should be wooed!’ It was a desperate cry. ‘We weren’t made to woo!’
He shook his head in exasperation and left her sitting on the ground and fled into the woods. She sprang up and ran after him. She would follow him and make a heaven of this hell and die by the hand she loved, if necessary.
Oberon smiled at the idea he’d just had. Before the young Athenian left this wood she’d be running away from him. He would be seeking her love!
Puck was suddenly at his side. ‘Have you got the flower?’ said Oberon.
Puck took his hand from behind his back and there it was!
‘Welcome, wanderer!’ exclaimed Oberon. ‘Give it to me!’ He held the flower up. ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips grow and violets nod their heads, canopied with luscious honeysuckle interspersed with sweet-smelling ramblers and wild roses. Titania sometimes sleeps there at night, lulled to sleep among the flowers after her dancing. It’s where snakes shed their bright skins, large enough for fairies to wrap themselves in. And I’m going to anoint her eyes with the juice of this and fill her mind with obscene fantasies.’ He pulled a petal off the flower and gave it to Puck. ‘You take this and go searching through this grove. A sweet Athenian lady is in love with a scornful youth. Anoint his eyes, but do it when the first thing he will see will be the lady. You’ll know the man by his Athenian clothes. Take trouble over it to make sure that he’ll be more infatuated with her than she with him. And be sure to meet me again before dawn.’
‘Don’t worry, my lord,’ said Puck. ‘Your servant will obey.’
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