Walking Backwards for Christmas: Bethany’s Carol

Walking Backwards for Christmas, Chapter 6, Part 11 — Between the Walls: Bethany’s Carol

Bethany's Carol[Note: the letter yogh (“ȝ”) you see in the carol appeared extensively in Middle English, and was still in use in Bethany’s time. It usually (but not always) appears as a “gh” in Modern English and is silent, though originally it had a sound like a cross between German “ch” and English “x”. “Xij,” the Middle English form of “this,” would have been pronouned “tjis,” the “s” like the “s” in “treasure.” ]

We all sat in stunned silence a moment.

Then Bethany alone began to sing an ancient carol that I’d never heard before. It must have been venerable, old as far back as when she’d learned it. I’ve heard it since but never again with the melody she sang that night:

Thys endris nyȝth
I saw a syȝth,
A stare as bryȝt as day;
And e’er among
A mayden song
Lullay, by by, lullay.

This lovely lady sat and sang, and to hyr chyld sayd,
My sone, my broder, my fader der, why lyest thou thus in haynd
My swete byrd,
Thus it ys betyde,
Thow thou be kynd veray;
But nevertheles
I wyl not ses
To syng, by by, lullay.

No sheet music had materialized.

I felt like an idiot, at a complete loss as to what to do. The Screen, which had apparently waited politely for me to start playing, seemed to have decided to take matters in hand. No one had yet heard a Mellotron back in 1960, but if I had to describe its sound made, it’s the instrument I’d select today to describe the sound of the screen’s largely whole note accompaniment as Bethany continued to sing the carol:

The chyld than spak in his talkyng, and to hys moder sayd,
I bekydde am kyng in crybbe thar I be layd.
For aungeiles bryȝt
Done to my lyȝt
Thou knowest it ys no nay;
And of that syȝt
Thou mayst be lyȝt
To syng, by by, lullay.

By the time she got to the part about the angels, the sheet music had – rather sheepishly I prefer to think – finally appeared and I had time to study the chords as the screen played on.

I joined in the carol (playing, not singing), as I alternately barring and half-barring chords, trying to pluck out an arpeggio, or do a trill or turn along the way: The Screen apparently gave me credit for effort, and it threw in a flute as well as Irish floor and table harps, as the song continued:

Mary moder, I am thi chyld, thow I be layd in stall,
Lordes and dukes shal worsshyp me and so shall
kynges all.
ȝe shall well se
That kynges thre
Shall come the xij day,
For this behest
ȝefe me thi brest,
And syng, by by, lullay.

Stan was conversational, even becoming fluent, in modern English, but middle English might as well have been Swahili for all he understood of it. So, I was pleased, but astonished, when he took up angel descant on the next verse, even though he did so largely with whole notes and a handful of passing tones. I followed his lead, improvising an alto harmony in the same way:

My der moder, whan tym it be, thou take me up on loft,
And set me upon thi kne, and handyll me full soft.
And in thi arme
Thou hyl me warme,
And kepe nyȝt and day;
If I wepe,
And may not slepe,
Thou syng, by by, lullay.

Personally, I believe St. Cecilia used the magic of the guitar to help us both, and also came to bear too for Gramfer’s bottom harmony on the final – in some ways most telling – verse:

Now, swet Son, syn it is so,
that all thyng is at Thi wyll,
I pray The graunte me a bone,
yfit be both ryȝt and skyll.
That chyld or man
That wyl or kan
Be mery upon my day,
To blyss hem bryng,
And I shal syng,
Lullay, by by, lullay.
Yea blyss hem bryng,
And I shal syng,
Lullay, by by, lullay.

At length, after a long silence, Bethany sighed.

“’Tis a long while since truly I’ve been merrye this day,” she said. “Pleasant, at ease, these have I been, but e’er in a wistful sort of way. Today, with you three, I’ve had taste of a merrier – more magical – Christmas than has e’er been my lot to take pleasure in these past three centuries.”

She turned to Gramfer.

“My dear Fen, well I know thou shalt soon leave for the Astral realms, and my thoughts and prayers go with thee. But bide a while longer, for ne’er shalt any of us see thee again once thou art gone.” She turned to us. “As for you two, I shalt think of thee both as brothers as long as thou shalt live and, tho Fen be gone from us soon, yet do I hope that we three shalt meet and gather together as oft as serendipity affords.”

I hugged and held her close.

“That we will, Bethany, y’ moy be sure,” I said, wholly unaware how difficult it would become to fulfill that promise.

© 2014, 2015 G. H. McCallum and Duvanian Press, all rights reserved.

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G. H. McCallum

G. H. McCallum is author of the Reggie Stone series, the first of which, Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, was released on 12 December 2014; look for the second, The Bluebottle Boys, in late spring of 2016. He blogs principally on the 1960s, Victoriana and magic realism.