What happened was, that donkey’s years ago on a small farm near Tavistock lived a young girl called Elsa. The poor child’s mother had died when she was a tacker which meant now she had to keep house and help her father around the farm. One night they were sat around the kitchen table and her father was pouring over the accounts. He would add this column up and then subtract that row and every time he would sigh and sink his head deeper into his calloused hands. With a groan, the farmer solemnly announced that the money had run out and that to make ends meet he would have to go and work up at the peat cuttings. This meant that during the times that her father was away toiling on the moor Elsa would have to run the farm on her own. So a few weeks later the farmer packed his tools and set out for the ties at Omen Beam leaving a sad and tearful daughter feebly waving at the farm gate.
Although it was a tough lonely life with only ‘Jess’ the farm dog for company Elsa worked hard and kept the farm running. Late one sunny afternoon the girl was returning from the home platt after milking the old house cow. Luckily the field was flush with sweet grasses and herbs and so the cow was milking well. Carefully she carried the brimming pail up to the farm, so as not to spill any of the precious, creamy milk. Halfway up the track she noticed three little piskies sauntering and chattering their way towards her. They were all dressed in identical bracken green tunics with rowan berry red hats set jauntily on their heads. Elsa was slightly worried but knew deep down that she had never caused the piskies any offence so they shouldn’t wish here any harm. As the little men approached the first one chirped “who are you?” Elsa explained who she was and no sooner had she finished than the second piskie asked “where are you going?” Again, she told how she was returning to the farm with the milk to make some butter. Immediately the third piskie announced that “we are all thirsty so will you spare us some of your creamy milk.” Assuming that as they were all little folk they could not drink much the girl smiled and handed the pail to the largest of the three. To her consternation she noticed that as the pail was handed around it was getting emptier and emptier until with a belch the last piskie handed her back an empty bucket. That was going to make the butter to sell at the next Tavistock market, Elsa fretted. Immediately one of the piskies trilled, “Yes! it has all gone, but don’t worry, in the morning take a look in your garden and what you see will more than make up for the loss of this milk.” With that the three little men, red hats and all simply dissolved into nothing, Elsa could just about hear their chattering way off in the distance.
The young girl was nearly in tears, she knew that all that was growing in the parched garden was thistles and ragwort. She also knew that the loss of the milk would mean no butter to sell at market and that meant it would be even longer that her father would be away. Sadly she made her way back to the farm carrying her empty pail, made some supper and went to bed.
The following morning she awoke and decided that although there was no butter to sell she could still take the eggs to Tavistock market. Elsa crawled out of bed and slowly drew back the curtains, what she saw made her blink with amazement. Below, the weed infested garden had been transformed into a ‘Garden of Eden’ everywhere grew roses of such colours and hues that the brilliance made her eyes water. She dashed down and immediately the heady scent of the flowers seemed to lift her heavenwards. “The piskies,” she cried, “they have kept their promise.” It must have taken at least an hour for the girl to cut all the roses and the crop easily filled both panniers of the pony saddle. Happily she made her way towards Tavistock.
On arriving at the market she realised that it was the first fair of the feast of St. Rumon to whom the abbey was dedicated. Men, women, children and animals thronged every street, the whole town was buzzing with excitement. No sooner had Elsa set up her stall than two monks spotted the flowers and decided they make a fitting tribute to St. Rumon and so bought every head and bloom to decorate the abbey. The girl was delighted, the little jingling bag of silver coins that she grasped tightly in her hand would normally have taken ten markets to fill. Happily Elsa skipped back to the farm, it was a glorious day, she had made a great deal of money and more importantly her father was coming home for the weekend, all was well with Elsa’s world.
That night after eating a sumptuous meal of stewed mutton and ‘teddies’, Elsa told her story of the piskies and the roses and presented the farmer with the heavy bag full of silver coins. He was speechless and as the first tear slowly rolled down his weather beaten face he declared that from then on, every night a bowl full of cream must be left for the piskies. Without fail, Elsa dutifully filled a large pitcher with creamy milk and stood it by the farmhouse door.
The next week, Elsa once again on market day found the garden brimming with roses. These were picked and hurried off to market, as before she did a brisk trade in the flowers and had soon sold out. Just as the girl was packing up a girl on the next stall came over. Her name was Syntha and although Elsa didn’t know her that well she knew that she lived on a nearby farm. By nature Syntha was a lazy, fat, selfish and nosey girl and accordingly she did not waste much time in demanding to know where Elsa got so many roses from. Being a trusting and kind sort Elsa related the whole story of her encounter with the piskies. As the tale progressed Syntha’s eyes narrowed and her head slowly nodded as she carefully listened, memorising every little detail. Once the story had been told Elsa was dismissed by the wave of a chubby hand, Syntha had already greedily decided that she wanted some of the piskies favours. That evening the gluttonous girl grabbed a small pail and filled it with the inferior milk that was left after the cream had been scalded. Bucket in hand the girl excitedly waddled off to meet the piskies. Sure enough, exactly at the spot where Elsa had said Syntha spied three little men merrily chattering along the lane. As soon as they spotted her the piskies fell silent, each looking at one an other it was as if they were holding a telepathic conversation. Syntha could hardly hide her excitement and in the end she exploded, “Good evening sirs, my you look some thirsty fellows, would you like a drink of my cool, creamy milk?” The piskies cautiously eyed firstly her and secondly the half full pail. The first one nodded and took the pail and sipped the watery milk, he handed it silently to the next one who did the same, finally the third piskie took a gulp of the insipid liquid and spat it out. With that they all vanished into the cool moorland evening leaving a rather helpless Syntha gawking at the void which once held the piskies.
The following morning Syntha awoke, rushed over to her window and flung back the drapes. There, much to her anger and annoyance was a garden full of exactly what it had contained the previous day – weeds. The girl was seething, why had the piskies not rewarded her for the generosity she had shown them. How dare they ignore her! She got dressed and went around to Elsa’s farm and there much to her chagrin she saw a garden full of sweet smelling roses, their colours were like that of a summer rainbow. Syntha was beside herself, why should that worthless peasant be rewarded by the piskies and not someone such as she?
The next market day Elsa was at her usual stall which was brimming with luxuriant roses, much to the annoyance of Syntha. All day long she brooded as she watched the little leather purse fill with silver coins, until she could take it no longer. Without a further thought Syntha stomped off to the abbey and demanded to see the Abbot. Having been granted an audience the jealous girl related the whole story of the roses and demanded that as they had been grown by means of witchcraft and magic the Abbot must send some monks to the farm to remove the evil spell. The Abbot was hard to convince but by the time he had been reminded of Syntha’s rich father’s gifts to the abbey he relented. A delegation of monks was duely dispatched with bell, book and candle and the magic spell was revoked. With every sprinkling of holy water the roses began to shrivel, wither and die only to be replaced by thistles and ragwort. Elsa was distraught and pleaded the holy men to stop, all to no avail. That night before going to bed Elsa placed the usual pitcher of creamy milk outside the farmhouse door and when the piskies came to drink it they were amazed to see the garden full of weeds. Not wanting to be beaten they worked all night weeding, sowing and watering. In the morning Elsa and her father were greeted by a garden full of ripe fresh vegetables, many of them were even out of season.
As the farmer and his daughter picked the carrots, leeks, swedes, and cabbages the old man asked Elsa if he had told anyone else about her encounter with the piskies. She thought carefully for a moment and then realised that the only other living soul that knew her secret was Syntha. “Yes, father,” she replied, ” I told the girl from the next farm.” “In that case,” the father surmised, “it must have been her that went to the Abbot.” These words did not fall on deaf ears because the three piskies had stayed behind to make sure Elsa was pleased with her new crop and so heard every word. It did not take long for them to realise that she was the mean girl who had offered them the scalded milk and there and then they decided to teach Syntha a lesson.
That very evening as Syntha was waddling across the moors the three piskies appeared infront of her. At first she was startled but then once she recognised the little folk her fear turned to greedy excitement. “Hmmm,” she thought, “they have seen the error of their ways and have come to reward me.” The largest piskie graciously bowed before her, “Pretty lady,” he chirped, ” we have come to beg your forgiveness in such that we never repaid your kindness in sparing us that delicious milk the other day.” The girls chubby face beamed with pleasure as she fumbled with her dress hem. The second piskie took up the conversation, “ask for any wish and we will grant it.” The girls faced flushed as her brain raced to think of the most valuable reward, “cover that big field which my father has put aside for my dowry with gold,” she demanded and to further stress the point she jabbed a sweaty finger in the direction of what must have been the biggest newtake on Dartmoor. The third piskie looked at the enclosure, slowly nodded and then a wicked grin spread across his face, “Granted,” he squeaked. With that the three little men disappeared amidst a chorus of chattering and laughing.
The next day could not come quick enough for Syntha, she heard the chime of every hour until finally the first rays of the rising sun peeked out over the moor. At this sight she quickly dressed and flopped down the stairs, through the door and down the lane. In the distance she could see the field covered with a golden glow as the dawn sun lit up the newtake. Her heart raced at the very thought of the fabulous wealth that was to be all hers. Faster and faster she plodded until breathlessly she reached the gate, here her ecstasy turned to bitter grief as she saw from whence came the golden glow. The field was covered with gold true enough but you would be hard pressed to make a ring from this gold, the whole field was covered with golden gorse, worthless, prickly gorse or furze as it is known on the moor. The girl howled with despair, but this slowly turned to anger which burned in her black heart. “It is that Elsa’s doing,” she shrieked at the top of her voice, “I will denounce her as a witch to the Abbot and he will burn her at the stake or face losing a fortune in gifts from my father.”
It had been mutually decided by the piskies that they must be there to see Syntha’s displeasure when she saw the field of furze and so they had hidden themselves under a large rock. From their hiding place they heard the threats that the distraught girl was making and as she raced off towards Tavistock they summoned a moor mist. Instantly the girl was engulfed in a swirling, thick impenetrable fog which pixie led her into the field of gorse. Initially she wandered down a single path that led between the huge walls of gorse, then the path divided and she went down another way. This ended in a prickly dead end and so Syntha backtracked until she came to a crossroads, she took the left path which led to the intersection of three more paths. Frantically she waddled up one way and down another all the time walking deeper into the golden maze. The prickles on the bushes were tearing at her hair and skin, desperately she screamed for help but the only sound she heard was the chuckling of the piskies. She pleaded, implored, begged and prayed for some assistance but none was forthcoming, all the while the walls of gorse were growing higher and thicker, their prickles biting deeper and deeper into her fat podgy body. Evermore the chortling of the piskies rang in her ears and the sickly scent of the gorse blossom slowly filled her nostrils, every turn and track lead her deeper into the hungry heart of the golden maze.
Syntha was never seen by mortal eye again but some moorfolk say that on still dark nights if you pass by Cox tor you can hear the desperate cries of Syntha as she tries to escape her eternal maze.