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Three Straws

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There are two old adages that are suited to this tale; “You never know what goes on behind closed doors,” and “Be very careful what you wish for.” So let’s go back some 170 years or so to a remote Dartmoor settlement high on the northern plateau. At that time it was a typical moorland hamlet with three or four cottages and a scattering of small farmsteads dotted around its periphery. Being so small and nucleated it goes without saying that everybody knew everybody and their business or so they thought.

At one of the farmsteads, which in this instance will remain nameless, lived a farmer, his wife and one son. The farmer was a hard working man often seen on the moor either tending his cattle or cutting peat. His wife was an industrious lady who kept a clean house, provided home-cooked food on the table and looked after her son as best she could. As far as the local community were concerned they were a god fearing family who through hard toil and graft made their way quietly in the world. The family regularly attended the local church and would usually be seen at any of the social gatherings.

Now, as with any moorland farm part of the family cash pot came from the sale of eggs which, as in this case, would be taken to the local market by the farmer’s wife. As with any local market it was a case of the ‘early bird catches the worm‘ or in other words the vendors who arrived earliest normally got the best prices.  This particular farmer’s wife was renown for being the first to set up her stall which was always in the same place of the market. Folk wishing to buy eggs knew exactly where to find her and also knew her eggs would be fresh with deep daffodil yellow yolks. On one particular market day the wife awoke at the raucous sound of the dunghill cock crow. She then carefully filled her wicker baskets with fresh straw onto which she gently placed hen’s eggs, goose eggs and duck eggs. As she made her way down the lanes the dawn was breaking over the high tors and giving the sky a watercolour wash of delicate pinks and crimsons, it was one of those times when one feels good to be alive. The day’s prospects were good too, the wife was eagerly looking forward to making a healthy profit from her eggs, chatting to her friends and catching up on all the local ‘newsin’. On approaching the market square a very unwelcome sight lay before her, one of the neighbouring farmers had taken her ‘sacred’ spot and had tied up several bullocks which he intended to sell. The woman politely pointed out to the farmer that he was in her usual spot and would he mind moving further down the square. Now anybody who has attended a farmer’s market will know that there is an unwritten rule as to the sanctity of people’s pitches and to claim jump one is asking for trouble. Whether the farmer had had a busy night on the cider and was suffering the after effects or just in a contrary mood is not known but either way he flatly refused to budge. An argument ensued with both parties  refusing to  concede, she wanted her usual spot and he was not going to relinquish it. By the time the woman realised she was not going to win this one all the other vendors had set up their pitches which meant the only spot left was right down the end of the market place. Unfortunately her normal customers just assumed that for one reason or another she was not coming to the market and bought their eggs from other farmer’s wives which meant by the time they did find her it was too late. After realising she was ‘flogging a dead horse’ the woman headed for home in an awful fit of rage, no profit and a basket full of eggs that would be well and truly stale by the time of the next market.

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Now; “you never know what goes on behind closed doors.”, and what people did not know was that this particular farmer’s wife was, on the quiet, a practitioner of the ‘black arts’ or in other words a witch. Alternatively, what folk did know it was never advisable to get on the wrong side of such a person for fear of reprisals. What the neighbouring farmer had done on that particular market day was a big no, no and the woman was going to make him pay for it. Wrapped in an old cloth shawl and buried deep in the chest of the fireside settle was an old book which had been passed down to her through many generations. This book was full to brimming with spells of one kind or another and virtually none of them had a pleasant outcome should they ever be used. For hours she carefully thumbed through each page trying to decide what vengeance she could exact on that despicable man. In the end she finally opted for one which in her mind meant that the punishment fitted the crime.

What was needed for this particular spell were three straws stolen from the victim’s corn stack and as her son was loafing around the farmhouse doing nothing in particular she sent him to acquire them. He soon returned clutching three wheat straws and after relieving him of them she sent him out of the room. This particular curse was known as the ‘curse of threes’ which basically meant that all bad things come in threes. The woman lit a candle and made a triangle formed by the straws around it’s base then she cut her finger and let her blood trickle into the triangle whilst reciting some ancient words. Having satisfactorily completed the curse she merrily went about her daily chores certain in the knowledge that in her eyes justice had been served.

The following morning the wife came down to the kitchen to still find the faithful farm dog still fast asleep beside the hearth which was very unusual. Normally at the first sound of a footstep the dog would be up and stood by the door eagerly awaiting his day’s work. However on this occasion he did not stir, suspecting something was amiss the farmer’s wife gently stroked his head but got no response and she soon realised it was dead. One of the most important things on a livestock farm, especially back then, was the farm dog who would be vital for fearlessly driving and rounding up the animals and to lose one was a disaster. No sooner had this discovery been made than the farmer dashed through the kitchen door clutching his head, moaning and groaning – “just went into the stable and found the horse stiff as a board.”, he cried. Today that dire news would be like a farmer discovering his trusty tractor had given up the ghost for the horse was the tractor in those days. It would pull the cart which carried the peat, it would pull the plough, the reaper and a whole host of other things, in short another disaster. No sooner had this piece of bad news been imparted than the son flew into the kitchen in one hell of a kittle. “Just been into the byre to see to the cattle and found them all dead as a board, then went to let the fowl out and they was all dead as well.” he blubbered. This meant that virtually the family’s entire income had just flown out of the window, no cattle to sell, no eggs to sell, no horse to help gather the harvest and no dog to work the few sheep that had appeared to have been spared.

The family all sat down at the kitchen table, each with their heads in their hand and all trying to find a logical explanation for these three disasters. Slowly the wife extracted her head from her hand and looked at the son. “Where exactly did you get those three straws from, please tell me they came from where I told you?” The son cast his eyes down, “well to save going all the way to that farm I took them from our corn stack, after all a wheat straw is a wheat straw no matter, they be all alike.” Ooops, ‘be careful what you wish for‘ and more importantly how you wish for it.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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