I’ve always liked the Scottish fairy tale, ‘The Black Bull of Norroway’, because of the image of the bull, I think. Lately though, whenever I’ve read it, I end up wanting to flesh it out. Having played around with a few ideas, I’ve come up with this re-telling. As it’s fairly long, I’ve split it into two parts. Hope you enjoy it …
Meg and the Black Bull
She stared at her hands, cracked and dry from being constantly immersed in water. Flinching, she said softly, “Such is the lot of a washerwoman. Mother was one and her mother before her. I never believed I would be anything else.” Pressing her scarred hands against her lower back, she tried, in vain, to ease the ache that refused to loosen its grip on her.
The sound of laughter caught her attention. She turned her gaze to the three young women, their hair bound and covered, standing before the washing tubs, splashing one another. An involuntary smile graced the woman’s thin lips. “My girls … my blessing. This is not the life I want for you … washing for others with little thanks, to have you grow old before your time. Your father, god rest his daydreaming soul, at least he taught you your letters. But how can I afford an education for even one of you? We make barely enough money to live on.” Taking a deep breath, she straightened her frame, wincing at her aches and pains. “No matter, there must be a way. I will find a way to give my girls a better life …”
“Mama was worrying again,” said the slender young woman as she continued to knead the dough.
“Oh, Beth, Mama is always worrying,” said the younger one, her hair hanging in twin braids over her shoulders.
“Yes, Meg, that is true, but she was worrying about us.”
“How can you tell?” said the slightly taller one, her knife poised over the carrot she’d been slicing.
“She kept looking at us, smiling then frowning. Oh, you know that look, Gwen, we’ve seen it so many times.”
“I wish she wouldn’t worry,” said Meg. “There’s no need.”
Beth sighed. “No matter how often we tell her we’re happy, she cannot seem to understand that we are.”
“It’s always to do with money,” said Gwen. “And it’s true, our life is hard. Just as it’s true that it would be nice to have more money …”
“More food,” said Meg, popping a piece of carrot in her mouth.
“Nice clothes …” Beth gazed into the distance as Gwen murmured in agreement.
Then with a firm shake of her head, Gwen said, “But we have each other.”
Smiling, her sisters nodded firmly. With their pale skin, dark hair and brown eyes, their resemblance to one another was striking.
“Mama always works so hard,” said Meg. “It would be lovely to make life easier for her.”
“But how?” said Beth. “We can’t wash any more clothes than we already do.”
They fell silent, each caught up in her own thoughts.
“What about that … woman?” said Gwen, forming her words slowly.
Her sisters looked at her, both frowning.
“The one who lives on the edge of the woods …”
Their frowns disappeared as they stared, wide-eyed, at her.
“She lives with her daughter–”
“We know who you mean,” said Beth. “But why even mention her?” Glancing over her shoulder, she lowered her voice and continued, “They say she’s a witch.”
“We don’t know that for certain. Maybe she can help.”
“How?” Beth was clearly unhappy. “If she is a witch then maybe … but if she’s not–”
“I don’t know,” said Gwen. “But we’ve heard talk that she’s able to do things … unusual things … out of the ordinary …”
“Surely there’s no harm in talking to her,” said Meg, moving to Gwen’s side; the two younger ones stared hopefully at their sister.
“No,” said Beth. “People tend to leave her alone. There must be good reason.”
Meg clasped Beth’s dough-covered hands. “Oh, please, Beth. For Mama’s sake. I’ll go. I’m not afraid.”
Beth pressed her lips together, her frown deepening.
“Beth …” said Gwen, placing her hand on Beth’s arm.
In the face of their pleading, Beth’s shoulders slumped. “Alright. But I’ll go. No, Meg …” She shook her head to silence Meg’s protest. “I’m the oldest, and it is my duty.”
The next day, Beth went to their mother and said she was going to bake some buns, and boil a little beef from their store, as she was off to seek her fortune. Her mother refused to allow her to go, but Beth said she had to for she would never make anything of herself by staying in the cottage, washing clothes. Only her sisters knew how hard it was for her to say the hurtful words. But it had the desired effect. Her biggest worry having been given voice, the woman tearfully agreed to let her daughter leave. It was an unhappy farewell with their mother refusing to come out of the cottage. As she hugged them, Beth whispered to her sisters that, no matter her fate, she would try to send word to them.
Feeling sick with grief, for the sisters had never been apart, Beth turned for one last wave before she stepped on the road that led to the woods. Her sisters stood with their arms around each other, struggling, like her, to hold back tears.
Beth walked all day and all night, and all day again until, at evening, she came to the house of the uncommon woman by the wood. Endeavouring to ignore her loudly pounding heart, still Beth’s hand trembled as she raised it to knock on the door. A moment later the door opened, and she gasped.
The woman standing in the doorway was beautiful beyond words. Glossy black hair framed a face that was almost heart-shaped; black eyes regarded Beth coolly, while her perfectly shaped lips held a hint of a smile.
The woman raised a brow, and Beth realised she was staring. “Forgive me, mistress,” she said, hurriedly gathering her wits. “I have heard that … I was wondering, um …”
“Speak, girl.” There was a grating quality to the woman’s voice, putting it at odds with her beauty.
Taking a deep breath, Beth said, “I wish to provide a better life for my mother and sisters. Is there anything … can you help me?”
The only words that came to Beth were, “Help me … better myself?”
The woman’s eyes widened momentarily. “You seek your fortune?”
Beth thought a moment then nodded. “Yes.”
“If it is your fortune you seek then, by all means, stay here. Sit by the window and watch. You will know it when it comes.”
Beth blinked, unable to believe her ears. “That is all that is required of me? To simply sit? You do not require me to do anything?”
“Why would I require anything of you, child?”
As she returned the woman’s smile, Beth noticed that her eyes remained cold, but she put it out of her mind. The woman asked Beth for her name as she entered, then gave hers – Lamia.
In the house, a young woman, about Beth’s age, rose from her seat. Lamia introduced her as Lilian, her daughter. She was as beautiful as her mother but remained silent, all the while regarding Beth with malice in her eyes.
Again, Beth mentally pulled a sheet over her anxiety, forcing herself to think only of the wellbeing of her mother and sisters. I am the oldest, she thought to herself. I must be brave.
For the first two days, nothing happened. Beth began to relax in Lamia’s company. She seemed to be the perfect hostess, treating Beth as if she were her most important guest. If it were not for the silent stares of Lilian, Beth would have been completely at ease.
Then, on the third day, a carriage drew up at the door, with four prancing horses, a coachman and two liveried footmen. Beth watched them from the window, and, almost at once, decided she did not like the look of them. If anyone had asked her why, she would not have been able to explain her reasons; all she knew was there was something about them that caused her stomach to tense.
The newcomers remained where they were. They did not look around but continued to stare straight ahead. One of the horses tossed its head, turning slightly in her direction.
With a cry, Beth jumped to her feet and stumbled back; the horse’s eye was red.
“Come,” said Lamia, “your fortune has arrived.”
“What?” Her breath came out in gasps. “But … but whose carriage is it?”
“Your future husband’s.”
“My … husband?” Beth could barely hear her own voice, her heart was hammering so loudly in her chest, pounding in her ears. “But I have no wish to marry. And I cannot … I will not without my mother’s blessing.”
“You should have thought of that before you ventured here, my girl.”
In that moment, Beth realised that Lilian was smiling. But, instead of enhancing her beauty, the smile twisted her features into something cold and cruel.
Beth protested, she struggled, but there was nothing she could do to stop mother and daughter dragging her out and forcing her into the carriage. She called to the coachman; he turned and her blood turned to ice. His eyes, solid black with no pupils, dominated a long, thin face with a cruel gash of a mouth. She tried to scream as they bundled her into the carriage but could barely draw breath. Lying half on the seat, half on the floor, she was vaguely aware of the carriage moving. But it was as if she were floating on air; this carriage did not bump and jolt on the ground. She could not move; her limbs were numb. Thoughts of her mother, her sisters filled her mind; how would she get word to them?
“It has been almost two weeks,” said Gwen. “Still we have heard nothing. The witch … that woman’s house is not that far.”
“She says nothing, but Mama is worried,” said Meg. Her gaze flicked away from her sister as her frown deepened. “What if–?”
“No.” Gwen shook her head, stopping Meg voicing their constant worry that harm may have befallen their beloved sister. She straightened her frame. “There is only one way to find out. I will go to that … woman’s house. See what news she has of Beth.”
“Oh, Gwen, let me go.”
“No, Meg. You stay with Mama. After Beth, I am the oldest …”
Clearly unhappy, still Meg did not argue.
So Gwen went to their mother and said, “Mama, I know you are worried about Beth. So, please, cut me some cake, while I slice a bit of sausage, and I will be on my way to find out news of our sister.”
“No, no, my daughter,” she cried. “I cannot have you leaving also.”
“I will find out about Beth, and I will return. Do you not wish to know her fate?”
There was nothing her mother could do or say, for she did want news of her oldest girl, so she and Meg took a tearful leave of Gwen.
Gwen walked all day and night, and all day again until, at evening, she came to the house of the uncommon woman by the wood. Swallowing hard, she pushed her shoulders back, and knocked on the door. Like her sister before her, Gwen was left speechless at the sight of the eerily beautiful woman standing in the doorway.
“Forgive me, mistress,” said Gwen, quickly dropping a curtsy. “Have you seen … I was wondering … um, my sister. Have you by chance seen my sister?” The words fell from her mouth as if Gwen had no control over them.
“What is her name?”
“Beth, her name is Beth.”
“And your name?”
She hesitated for a moment then said, “Gwen.”
“Beth was here, my dear. She stayed with me for three days. Then a rich carriage arrived and she left.”
Gwen started, then frowned. “She left? But why?”
“She did not say. She said it was her fortune, and she left …”
“She said that? She had no word for her family?”
The woman turned away momentarily. “Words for her family?” She shook her head. “No, nothing.”
Scared and confused, Gwen clasped her hands together, unsure as to what she should do. But the one thing she did know was that Beth would never have left without, at least, letting her family know her fate.
“Why don’t you stay awhile? Maybe Beth will send word, or a traveller might pass by with news.”
Believing she had no other choice, not knowing what else to do, Gwen stayed. Like her sister before her, she found she wanted for nothing. Lamia was the perfect hostess. The only thing that Gwen found unsettling was Lilian’s silent stares.
On the fourth day, a carriage drew up with a coachman, six prancing horses and four liveried footmen. Like Beth before her, the sight of the carriage left Gwen feeling inexplicably fearful. She remained at the window until Lamia called her.
“Go to the carriage, Gwen dear.”
“This is the same style of carriage that came for Beth; they may have word of her.”
Overcome with excitement, Gwen exclaimed and ran out to the carriage, calling her sister. “Beth! Beth, is that you? I’ve been so worried …”
The carriage door opened, and Gwen stared at the empty interior. Before she could say anything, Lamia shoved her in. Ignoring Gwen’s protests, she shut the door.
“Fret not, pretty Gwen. Soon you will be reunited with your sister.”
The coach started to move, Gwen’s cries muffled inside.
“My debt is settled,” said Lamia, her voice harsh. “Tell your masters, my debt is settled.”
“Mama, I will find them, I promise. I will find them and bring them home.”
“No, Meg, my baby. I cannot lose you too,” said her mother, weeping.
Meg clasped her mother’s hands in hers. “I must do this. And you must stay strong. Promise me you will stay strong and be here when we all return. We will be a family again, like before.”
“If only I had not wished and wished so many times for a better life. This would not –”
“No, Mama. Do not blame yourself. No one is to blame. Only promise me you will be here when I come home with Beth and Gwen.”
Taking a tearful farewell, Meg left her mother in the care of a kindly neighbour. She set off to the supposed witch’s house with the buttered bread and cheese that her mother had sadly prepared for her.
Like her sisters before her, Meg walked all day and all night, and all day again until, at evening, she came to the house of the uncommon woman by the wood.
Lamia, kindness itself, told Meg that her sisters had left in rich carriages with nary a thought for their mother and little sister. Meg frowned, knowing her sisters would never do such a thing but kept her silence. Yet she wondered why Lamia would lie … as she wondered why the daughter regarded her with such ill-concealed envy and malice. Even though Lamia’s home was small, still it was filled with comfort, and their clothes were rich enough.
Despite her misgivings, Meg asked to stay awhile. Lamia did not seem happy with the idea, but Meg pleaded and pleaded, in case her sisters came by again, or a traveller brought news, unknowingly using Lamia’s own words against her. The woman finally agreed, but said that Meg would only be allowed to stay for one week.
A week passed … despite Lamia’s lack of friendliness, Meg wanted for nothing, and was treated well enough. But, to her sorrow, no one, not one traveller passed the house. At the end of the week, Lamia told Meg that she had to leave for she had no use for her. Meg begged her to tell what had really become of her sisters; Lamia insisted they had left in rich carriages of their own accord.
“You are lying,” said Meg, unable to stay silent on the matter any longer. “My sisters would never do such a thing. They would never make our mother worry so.”
“Believe what you will, you ungrateful wretch. I allow you to stay for one week, you partake of my kindness, and this is my payment, to be accused of lying. Leave.” She pushed Meg out of her house and slammed the door shut.
Meg stared at the door before slowly turning and stumbling towards the road. Falling to her knees, she buried her face in her hands. “What will I tell Mama? I promised I would find Beth and Gwen …” Her shoulders shook with weeping.
“Why do you weep?”
Meg jumped; so caught up in her sorrow, she’d failed to hear anyone approach. Quickly wiping her face on her sleeve, for her mother always insisted on good manners, she looked up to answer the deep-voiced man before her.
With a cry, she fell back and stared. This was no man standing in front of her, but a bull … an enormous black bull.
“Well … why do you weep, girl?”
“You … you speak?”
“Yes, I can speak. I am the Black Bull of Norroway. Have you not heard of me?”
Eyes wide, Meg nodded. Who had not heard of the black bull? But she and her sisters had thought it nothing more than a tale – the huge bull that never hurt anyone, and was fabled to have speech.
“I ask again, why are you weeping?” The bull looked towards the house. “Did the witch cause you harm?”
“I-I am looking for my sisters. I promised our mother I would find them … They came here, the … witch does not deny it. But to say they left in rich carriages with no thought for our mama …” Meg shook her head. “That is a lie. I know it is.”
The bull looked from her to the house, and shook his head. “Most likely the witch had something to do with their disappearance. It is a pity that your sisters crossed her path.” He returned his gaze to Meg, and stared at her a long while. “Come with me, and I will help you find them. It may be that we are able to help one another.”
Meg looked into the bull’s liquid eyes; she had to admit, he had a kindly demeanour. She wondered how she could possibly be of help to such a creature. Yet she could not discount anything that might help her find her sisters.
She agreed, and when she made to walk beside him, he urged her to climb on his back. Quieting her misgivings, Meg carefully climbed onto the bull’s broad back, and he carried her away from Lamia’s house.
After five days, they came to a grey-green castle in a river valley. “This is my brother’s house,” said the bull. “We will stay here tonight.”
It wasn’t a large castle but still looked big enough to Meg, and appeared welcoming and homely. The people of the castle approached, curtsied and bowed to the bull, then helped Meg from his back. Two of the men escorted the bull to the field. As Meg watched, they spoke for a while before the bull trotted away, and began to slowly gallop around the field.
The women invited Meg into the castle to eat and rest.
Aware of her poor status, she stood with hands clasped before her. “I am a washerwoman’s daughter …”
“You are companion to the Black Bull,” said one of the women, as if that explained everything. “Come. Do not be afraid. Allow us to see to your needs,” she said with a smile, waiting for Meg to ascend the steps into the castle.
Still feeling awkward, Meg entered the castle before coming to an abrupt stop. She turned to face the woman. “Please, can someone take a message to my mother?”
The woman nodded, still smiling.
“Tell her I am well, and still searching for my sisters.”
A look of concern flickered across the woman’s features, and she assured Meg the message would be delivered.
By the time she sat at the table, facing the feast they had prepared for her, Meg felt more at ease. Wondering if he also was a bull, she asked where the Black Bull’s brother was. But those who attended her shook their heads, clearly saddened, and said nothing, leaving her even more mystified.
After a very comfortable night’s sleep, Meg was sorry to leave. Before she left, the woman gave her a grey-green apple, sweet-scented and unblemished, and said, “Do not cut it until you are in the first great need of your life.” Meg kept her confusion to herself, and thanked the woman and the people of the castle. Then she climbed on the bull’s back, and they left.
As they travelled, Meg found the bull to be most attentive and kind, given that he was an animal. At ease in his company, her fondness for him grew. He asked about her life … her mother and sisters.
“I envy the simplicity of it,” he said, causing her to view her life anew. “I myself have two brothers whom I miss dearly.”
“Where are they?”
“Not with me.” He stopped and turned his massive head slightly. “I was not always a bull, dear Meg.”
As he continued to walk, Meg silently wished for him to continue, for she wanted to know what had befallen him and his brothers, but he said nothing more, and she did not know how to ask.
One day, they approached a yellow castle beside a stream. “This is my second brother’s house,” said the bull.
Before she could stop herself, Meg asked if his brothers were bulls also.
“Yes,” was his only reply.
Like before, there was no sign of the bull’s brother, but Meg was treated the same as she’d been in the house of the first brother. Like before, she asked if they would be kind enough to deliver a message to her mother.
In the morning, she was given a sweet-scented, unblemished pear, with the words, “Do not cut it until you are in the second great need of your life.”
In time, Meg and the bull came to a third castle, a purple one. This was the Black Bull’s own castle. His people greeted him, but there was no denying the sadness that surrounded them. They took care of him, and of Meg. And in the morning, Meg was given a sweet-scented plum, unblemished. “Do not cut it until you are in the third great need of your life,” she was told.
After leaving his castle, the bull travelled down a road that led to a dark valley so overhung with cliffs, no daylight penetrated. He stopped at the entrance to the valley. “There is a task I must undertake, Meg,” he said. “I can no longer ignore it. I must fight the Guardian of Glass Valley.”
Meg’s heart tightened in her chest. “But why? Can we not just go?”
“I must, Meg. It is the only way I will be free, and my brothers will be free. And when I am free, I will help you find your sisters.” He set her down by a rock. “Sit here. If I do not fight and kill the guardian, we will never get out of here alive. Sit on this rock, and if the sky turns blue and sunny, you will know that I have won. But if all turns blood-red, you will know I have lost. Most importantly, Meg, you must not move. If you alter your position by even a hair, I will never be able to find you again, for this valley is an enchanted one.”
Anxiety welled up in Meg for she could not bear the thought of the bull being harmed, yet she managed a small, tight smile and nodded. The bull looked at her long and hard, then lumbered away, out of sight. It felt as if she had sat there an age when her surroundings gradually began to lighten; slowly the sun began to shine in an ever brightening blue sky, and she knew her bull had won. In her happiness, she forgot herself and changed her position, crossing one foot over the other.
The bull slowly came into view, his black coat spotted with blood from the battle. She could see him perfectly well, and called out to him, but he looked right through her. He stared at the rock, and looked around. Meg called and called to him, but he seemed deaf to her cries. She reached out to him, but he could not feel her touch. Shaking his lowered head, he said, “Ah, Meg, did I not tell you to stay as you were, that you were not to move? Now I will never see you again.”
Meg cried and cried, and called to the bull but to no avail. The bull walked away, and she was left alone. After a while she pulled herself together for she still had to find her sisters. She walked the way the bull had gone, but soon realised she was walking in circles; she couldn’t seem to find her way out of the valley. For days, she saw nothing and no one. Finally, she pulled the apple out of her pocket, and stared at it. Was this the first great need of her life?
As she lifted it to her mouth, wondering if it would taste as sweet as it smelled, someone hailed her. Looking up, she saw a pair of bulls, smaller than her bull; one was cream-coloured, and the other, a rich brown. She stared, but wasn’t all that surprised when they spoke. They asked if she had seen a big, black bull, and knew then they must be brothers to her bull. She said that he had fought the guardian of the valley, and, having won, had left, but she could not find her way out. They seemed overjoyed, as overjoyed as bulls could be, and offered to lead her out of the valley.
Once out, and with barely a backward glance, they kicked their heels up and galloped away, leaving Meg standing on her own. With a sigh, she thought she might as well return to the witch to try and find clues to her sisters’ whereabouts, for she could not think what else to do.