One Spring, in the early years of the reign of the Virgin Queen, a curious occurrence was reported in the Fenland town of Ely. The garrulous flocks of birds which arrived each year with the thawing of the snow and the lengthening of the days failed to appear. Although the frosts grew less frequent and the sun returned to smile wanly once more upon the world, the woods and fields about the town remained devoid of any birdlife. That year, the dawn chorus was absent, the air eerily silent and utterly birdless.
Not far from Ely, the town of March had their usual share of birds; likewise in Cambridge and St. Ives. Birds, birds, everywhere; making their nests and the usual racket. But in Ely: silence. No-one could understand why. Were they cursed? What was God doing to the good people of Ely? The Bishop became very jumpy and irritable. All the deacons all suspected he knew something, but was too afraid to say what it was.
In late march, when the dawn chorus should have been at its most rowdy, a terrible thing was seen in the skies about the town. A great shadow was spied circling the spire of the great cathedral, a terrible beast. Young mistress Rose said she saw the beast alight upon the belfry. The Bishop was called in and a council held in the guildhall to decide what was to be done.
The Bishop, a man by the name of Thomas, shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I’m afraid there’s very little to say”, he told the assembled dignitaries, “But the truth of the matter is that we have an infestation”. There were murmurs about the hall. Thomas continued, “That is to say, an infernal infestation of our beloved church of the Holy Trinity. I’m sorry to say it, and God save us all, but the reason there are no birds hereabouts this Springtide is that….well, there’s a Wyvern living in the spire of the cathedral”. The murmurs ceased and a sudden hush filled the room. The gentleman Croke spoke up: “Apologies Your Grace, but did you say…”. “Yes”, said the Bishop, “A Wyvern. All we can do now is see what it wants and pray to the Lord that its terms are not too onerous”. And with that all Hell broke loose.
Young mistress Rose looked across the table at the Bishop, who tried to smile at her. Unfortunately all this did was bare his yellowed fangs, giving him a lupine aspect. Rose’s mother was the first to speak. “By your leave, Your Grace…”, he nodded, “…but if I understand you correctly…you want for my daughter to climb to the top of the Lantern Tower to… talk…with the beast?”. Thomas grew impatient. “No, no! Not my wishes at all young lady, but rather the beast’s own request. This is no ordinary demon, you realise, it’s a Wyvern…well, you wouldn’t understand, but they can be very particular…”. Rose’s mother looked unsure: “What if the beast should…eat her?”. The Bishop shook his head: “Oh, no. He’s promised not to”.
Rose ascended the tight spiral of stone stairs alone. She could hear the Bishop’s men muttering in hushed tones below her. They were clearly scared witless and refused to accompany her any further. She carried her own torch, and the flames threw surprising shadows about her as she climbed. When she reached the top of the stairs and into the Lantern Tower, she placed her torch in the bracket and crept forward into the shadows. She was not afraid.
Although the space was dark and shadowy, she could hear deep, laboured breathing coming from the darkest corner of the chamber. “Mr. Wyvern…”, she called into the dark. To her astonishment the Wyvern replied immediately.
“Please”, it said, “Call me Peter”. It spoke in a beautiful, mellifluous fashion, with something approaching a French accent, “And what name may I call you by, Miss…”. “Rose”, said Rose. “Rose…”, said Peter. “Do you know why I have asked you here, Rose?”. “In truth sir, I do not”, she replied. “His Grace the Bishop…”, “Ah! The Bishop!”, thundered Peter, “That man is a coward and a fool and will not be the Bishop for very long”. He softened: “But you. You are…an innocent”. Rose said nothing. Peter continued from the shadows – Rose was yet to see his form. “I have travelled a long way to be here, but I have no desire to stay. This form wearies me, but I am bound to it…unless you, Rose, unless you can help me”. “If it be your will, then I will help you”, said Rose. “It is my will”, replied Peter, “And please: do not be afraid”, and he moved from the shadows so that Rose could see him for the first time.
It was dawn and the sun was a peach-hued stain on the horizon. The crowd that had gathered all around the cathedral heard the piercing scream, then another. Then silence, and the crowd was silent also. Just then, a commotion was heard far above in the Lantern Tower and as they watched, their necks craned up to the cathedral’s very peak, a great flock of birds burst forth like a gushing torrent of beak and feather. All manner of birds in a fantastic seemingly un-ending stream, every one of them cawing, twittering and singing in one great cacophony of birdsong. Out they poured, streaming from the tower and into the countryside all around, thousands upon thousands of birds: crows, starlings, thrushes, sparrows, robins, blue jays, willow tits, chaffinches, warblers, doves – every manner of bird, every timbre of song, taking to the wing at once, arcing in all directions from the pinnacle of Ely cathedral until at last the torrent became a stream and the stream became a trickle and the last of the birds, a sparrow, fluttered out of the tower and came to rest upon a gargoyle, there to preen its chest. The crowd was slack-jawed in amazement. They hailed it a miracle and gave praise to God for their deliverance. The sun rose and birdsong filled the air.
The Bishop’s men eventually made their way up into the Lantern Tower. A torch was still burning in the bracket. But the chamber was empty. No Wyvern, and no Rose. Just an abundance of feathers, enough for a dozen downy pillows. The Bishop proclaimed it a miracle, but Rose’s mother was not taken with the Spirit of the Lord. She spat and cursed his name. Very soon after, a proclamation from the Queen herself deposed the Bishop from office and he went into exile. Rose was never seen again, and nor was the Wyvern, although there was a rumour that in a town to the north two great birds were seen wheeling and diving through the skies at sunset, singing the most mournful of songs.
© hf Leicester September 2011