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The Fairy Eye Ointment
What do you know about the fairy world? If you can see the fair folk you are very lucky… or perhaps unlucky.
We take you to Wales for this intriguing tale about an old couple who hire a young maid to spin for them. After she disappears the couple are visited by a gentleman who requests that the old lady undertakes a job nursing a newborn baby.
Read by Natasha
Adapted by Bertie from The Welsh Fairy Book by W. Jenkyn Thomas (1912)
If you like this story, you might well enjoy The Fairies of Merlins Craig which comes from Scotland.
An old couple wanted to hire a maid. On All Hallows Day, which falls around the same time of year as Halloween, they left their cottage and set out to Caernarfon where a fair was held under the walls of the Castle. There was a place under a tree where those who were seeking work used to stand. Among those waiting that day was a pretty lass – she must have been about eighteen or nineteen years old. She had flaxen hair and light freckles. An intelligent and alert look lit up her large eyes. The other candidates all seemed rather more sullen and slovenly – and not very well washed at that.
“What is your name?” asked the old man.
“Eilian, ” she replied.
“Would you like to live in our cottage and work for us?”
“Yes, I would.” she said.
And so, very easily, she was hired.
The elderly pair eked out their living from spinning yarn, and there was always plenty of work to do. After supper, if the moon and the stars were bright, Eilian would take her wheel out into the meadows and spin through the night. She went out into the open, not just to take the air, but because the fairies used to help her with her work. In the morning she always returned to the cottage with arm-fulls of yarn. Her employers had no idea how she achieved so much in such a short time, but needless to say, they were delighted with their serving maid and thought themselves very fortunate indeed to have found her.
Eilian span through the winter months, and did not seem to suffer from the cold. But when the Spring came, one lovely, bright, night, fragrant with blossom, she went out with her wheel and did not return. The old couple were of course very sad to lose her. People said that she had gone with the fairies, and for once, they were right.
All became apparent to the old woman in the following way. One night when the moon was full and the air was damp with drizzle, she heard a knock on the door of the cottage. A gentleman had ridden across through the lanes to request her help with caring for a newborn baby – his mother was ill and a nurse was needed. The mother had said that there was but one person she would trust to oversee the care of her child while she lay ill, and that was the old lady.
The old lady could not think who the mother could be, but if there was an infant who needed caring for, then she would not fail to help. And so she packed a few things, and rode behind the stranger on his horse to Rhos y Cowrt. The two dismounted and entered a great cave in the side of the hill, and through a door at the far end of it, they passed into a -chamber, where a lady lay in her bed.
This was not the sort of room you might expect to find at the end of a cave, if you would expect to find a room there at all. It was a great surprise to see a heavily carved four-poster bed fit for a queen or a princess. On the walls hung silken tapestries depicting orchards and songbirds. A warm red carpet, perhaps of Persian origin, covered the floor. There were ornaments, a chinese ginger pot, a silver tray, a crystal jug of water – and more.
The lady on the bed was beautiful, but pale. She weakly lifted her arm to ring the bell. A moment or two later a servant, the wet nurse, appeared holding a tiny baby tightly swaddled. The servant curtsied and gently handed the infant over to the old lady. She was glad to lay him in his cot, and rock him to sleep while she sung a sweet lullaby. While she did this his mother turned her head and looked fondly on until her beautiful eyelids could no longer stay open, and she fell asleep.
In the morning, the gentleman came again into the room and gave the old lady a small glass bottle. This, he said, contained a special eye lotion. Twice a day, she must carefully drop the drops into the baby’s eyes, but on no account must the lotion touch her own eyes, or – and this he warned sternly – a great evil would befall her.
The old woman followed her instructions to the letter, and diligently she administered the drops. The baby was a smiling, gurgling, sunny little fellow, and by and by his mother started to recover. They had everything that they needed in that lovely room, though it was not always clear how it arrived there. The old woman would be so engrossed in the child’s happy smile that she did not notice the servants enter and place her dinner on the silver tray.
But then one day, when she felt her duties must be approaching their conclusion, she made a mistake – one that is all to easy to understand. Just as she had finished her duty with the eye drops, her own eye itched, and without thinking, she rubbed it with her finger. In that instant she realised that her finger was wet with a particle of the lotion, because her eye immediately felt most peculiar. She blinked several times before she could open it again, and when her left eye could see once again, she was not sure if she could believe what she saw with it. She was no more standing in a pleasant room, but in a dank, mossy cave. Nor was she alone with the baby and his mother – but dozens of the little folk were all about, busy with various duties, sewing and spinning, distilling and brewing, forging gold coins, hammering at metalwork, and preparing potions. It was more like an underground factory than a bedroom. The lady lay not on a bed, but on the cold ground, and her features were different. She had changed, but not into someone unknown or unfamiliar, for the old lady now saw clearly with her left eye that the mother was none other than her serving maid of old, the young and fair Eilian.
At first the old lady wisely said nothing, but in the morning she whispered to her former maid:
“Eilian, my dear, how come there are so many little people here to wait upon you?”
And Eilian replied:
“How come you can see them?”
“With my right eye I see a beautiful and tranquil room,” confessed the old lady, “But with my left eye I see a cave full of fairy folk. I have been having these strange double-visions ever since yesterday when I accidently wiped a drop of the baby’s eye lotion into my own left eye.”
‘Sshhhhh,’ replied Eilian. “On no account let a word of this slip to the gentleman who gave you the lotion, for he is my husband, the king of the Fairy People, and he will be furious. There is no telling what a hot-headed fairy’s fury might bring him to do. “
And then she told her story in hushed and confidential tones She explained how the fair folk had helped her with her weaving, but had done so at a price – she had given her troth that one day in Spring she would marry the Fairy King. She had no intention of keeping such a promise, and she kept about her a sharp knife with which she scared off any would-be abductors. At night she slept with a branch of mountain ash across her feet, because no fairy will cross or touch the wood of that tree. But one evening, after they had spent all day shearing the sheep, she was so tired that she fell asleep without taking her usual precaution. That night they whisked her off to Fairy Land.
The old woman was very cautious after Eilian’s warning, and gave the fairy husband no inkling that her left eye had any different power of vision from the right. Her time came to an end without mishap, and she was taken home on horseback just as she had come, and she was given a fine sum of money for her services.
She returned to her husband and her accustomed life up on the surface of the world where you and I live. Nor did she see any need to tell anyone of the power that her left eye now held. Some time later, as she arrived at the market, her friend remarked:
“The fairies must be here to-day; the noise is swelling and prices are rising.” Sure enough the fairies were there, but they were invisible to all eyes except the old woman’s left eye. She saw Eilian’s husband stealing something from a stall close by her: she went up to him and, forgetting the warning, said, “Good morning, master, how is Eilian?” “She is quite well,” replied the fairy, “but with what eye do you see me?” “With this,” said the old woman, pointing to her left. The fairy immediately put out her eye with his walking stick, and her right eye had to do the work of two all the rest of her life.
Now that is where most tellings of this story end, as a warning to keep a secret well. But there is a softer version which I have heard on occasion, in which Eilian chances upon the old lady and bestows a light sprinkling of fairy magic to restore the sight of her left eye. It is up to you which version you believe, but there is one thing that I can tell you for sure, because I’m a storyteller and I know it to be true – fairies really do exist and you must always beware of them, for they are tricky folk.