Drawing from two medieval Welsh manuscripts with roots dating back many centuries earlier, this series of 11 stories sheds light on Celtic mythology and Arthurian romance while providing a new perspective on Great Britain itself. From enchantment and shapeshifting to the age-old dichotomies of conflict versus peacemaking and love versus betrayal, all of these tales are uniquely reinvented, creating fresh, contemporary narratives that portray the real world as much as they depict the past.
Based on the fable of Branwen, Daughter of Llyr, this interpretation revives one of the most action-packed stories in the whole myth cycle. Moving this bloodthirsty tale of Welsh and Irish power struggles and family tensions into the 21st century, this retelling retains many of the bizarre and magical happenings of the original. After being wounded in Italy, Matthew O’Connell is seeing out WWII in an obscure government department, spreading rumors and myths to the enemy. When he is assigned the bizarre task of escorting a box containing six raven chicks from a remote hill farm to the Tower of London, he soon finds himself ensnared in an adventure that leaves him powerless.
About the Author
Owen Sheers is the author of The Blue Book, The Dust Diaries, Resistance, and Skirrid Hill. He is a recipient of the Eric Gregory Award and the Vogue Young Writer’s Award. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
By Owen Sheers
Poetry Wales Press Ltd.Copyright © 2009 Owen Sheers
All rights reserved.
Let me tell you something. If you wanted to curse someone, I don't know why you would, but if you did, if you wanted to make their life hard, if you wanted to leave them as vulnerable to grief as possible, I reckon you could do a lot worse than make them a woman in a house of men. Not everyone will agree, I know, but that's how I was feeling the morning when all this happened. After what I'd seen the night before, this was the thought rattling round my head when that old man came tottering up the path to sit down next to me.
I'd been sitting on a bench by the Tower for a good hour by then, watching the sun come up, turning the Thames gold before rising and dulling it back to brown. I was still staring at the river, watching its currents swirl round the bridge struts, when I caught sight of him out the corner of my eye. He was making his way up the path, slowly, an old man in a tweed suit. Tall once probably, but stooped over now, leaning heavily on a stick at every second step. I knew right away he was going to sit down next to me, even as I saw him walking up the path. It was like he was coming for me from the off, not just passing. But like I said, I had other things on my mind. Like curses, my bloody brothers and what the hell I was going to do now? Alone in London for the first time in my life, hundreds of miles from home and a thousand quid in used notes in my pocket. Those notes did give me some options at least. But it wasn't options I was short of at that point. It was something else. Ideas, a direction; a compass for the new circumstances I'd gone and put myself in.
I'd been living with my brothers on the farm for ten years by then, so believe me I knew what I was talking about when I came up with that curse. We'd been a proper family once, but for those last ten years, all through my early twenties, it had been just them and me. Just Dewi, four years older, Sion, two years younger, and me in the middle, up there on the mountain with the wind and the rain, with the buzzards and the ravens. Proper ravens mind, not like those being fed in the grounds of the Tower that morning; hopping round some ponced-up Beefeater chucking them scraps of meat. No, our ravens went looking for their own carrion; big bloody black rags of birds, coughing and corkscrewing into the air above our tumbledown farm, so old and crooked you couldn't tell if it'd been built on the hillside or just grown from out of it.
My father was the first to go, when I was six years old. He left my mother with that farm, a thousand or so sheep, a swelling egg of a bruise round her right eye, and the colour of his own in the eyes of us three scrawny kids. 'Blue as a summer's sky' is what he used to say when he held our faces and looked into them, 'Fel glesni'r awyr ar bnawn o haf'. Ten years after he left us it was Mam's turn to go, carried out of our front porch on the shoulders of four farmers she'd never spoken to beyond a nod and none who'd ever done what their own wives had kept telling them to do and taken my father aside for a good talking to.
I was sixteen when Mam died, just old enough not to be taken away. Sometimes I wish I had been though, instead of being left with Dewi and Sion. Not that they've ever done me any wrong, as such. They're Dad's sons but they haven't taken after him in every way. No, not every way. It's just that, well, so far they've never really done me any right either.
You'd think I'd have better memories of my father than I do, but I don't. Just snapshots, stray photos come loose from some album I've tucked away in my head out of sight. Riding on his shoulders when he went out to check on the flock – that's one of them. I used to warm my hands down the back of his collar while he held me on, his fingers meeting round my thin ankles. Sliding on a feed bag filled with straw down the back field after a snowfall, that's another. And the sound he used to make when working the dogs, I'll never forget that. Like a shout he'd swallowed trying to escape, but going deep into his ribs instead. Still loud enough, somehow, for the dogs to hear him. Sometimes I still catch his smell on the clothes of my brothers. A mix of soil, sheep nuts, hay, hill-wind and soap. I know you'll say wind hasn't got a smell, but I swear up there it has. Mineral it is. Or steel. You can taste it, not like in London. Christ, I soon learnt about the air there didn't I? Sucking in great gobfuls of the stuff, all fumes and God knows what else, as I sat on that bench, sobbing my eyes out 'til my heart was right up in my throat.
The best memory I've got of my father isn't a smell though, or a sight, but a touch. He had this scar, you see, a burn all over his right hand and running up his arm as far as his elbow. Some accident as a kid was all he ever said. When I was little, four, five years old, I used to fall asleep on his lap beside the fire, stroking my fingers up and down that scar. I'd feel the coolness of it, hairless and smooth, knotting all the way up his forearm. When I touched it with my eyes shut I'd see those swirls of colour you get inside marbles. I used to think it funny a scar could feel so nice, and that it was strange how beautiful it looked in the light of the same thing that had made it in the first place.
After Dad left us, once they were old enough, my brothers took over the running of the farm. Mam never seemed to miss him after he went, not openly anyway. She'd never known her own parents, so perhaps she was used to people only being there by not being there. We never heard her speak of Dad again from the day he walked out the door. Or of his father, our Tad-cu, who she'd always talked of fondly, with a smile we never saw her use for anyone else. His wife, Dad's Mam, had died giving birth to Dad, so Tad-cu had been the only relative we'd ever heard about. But after Dad left us, well, it was as if Mam's memory of Tad-cu went with him because she never spoke of him again either. It's funny, she used to tell us all the time our family had farmed these same hills for thousands of years, but did we know anything about who they were? Did we know their names, their faces? Not bloody likely, not a thing.
Once my brothers began taking on the farm work Mam threw herself into the running of the house and into making sure I wasn't going to stay in it a moment longer than I had to. That's how she'd wake me up on winter mornings to go catch the bus down in the village, with that idea in her head. 'How you ever going to get away from here girl?' she'd say, tugging the curtains back on the still dark day outside. 'If you don't get out of bed first? C'mon now cariad, up with you now.' She always said it softly mind, never harsh or anything. I knew even then all she wanted was better for me than she'd ever had herself. But then she went and died didn't she? Slipped on some ice out in the yard and hit her head. Within a week of burying her I was out of school and in the kitchen back home, cooking and cleaning and shopping for my brothers; looking after them so as they could look after me, that's how Dewi put it. And from then on that's how it was; that was us. The branches of our family tree, which had once spread all over these hills, cut back to just Dewi, Sion and me up on that bare slope with little hope of any new roots or growth in any direction. There was a time, early on, when Dewi and Sion used to go into town on the odd Saturday night, but they soon stopped that. Poor sods had no more idea how to handle the girls down there than they did a bloody giraffe. And as for me, well I'm sure they thought it was just brotherly protection, brotherly love even, but neither of them ever took too kindly to me getting friendly with another man. There were a few, over the years, and some even made it up to the farm. But, well, our lives had become different by then, and however much they wanted me – and I saw them want me mind, saw their eyes fair cook up in their sockets when they got a glimpse of my shape – I think in the end the way we lived scared them off. That and my brothers, hunched over the kitchen table, glowering from under their frowns and over their soups.
Pretty soon any friends I used to have in the village or down in the town left the area for jobs or college. Once they had, I suppose I let myself fall into our way of things up there. I'm sure the village talked, they always did, but Dewi and Sion had a pretty simple response to that too. 'Sod 'em,' they'd say over dinner. 'What do they know anyway? Bunch of bloody blow- ins.' That's how they were, see. Had some sense of bloody entitlement, up there on our high farm. No time for any family from 'down there' who'd only been around a couple of hundred years or so. Ridiculous. Though sometimes, when I'm out on the hill, or right up the top of the mountain, I can see their point, in a way. On some days, in the right weather, a hundred years does feel like nothing up there. Like no more than a lark's song on the wind compared to the memory of those hills themselves, or of the rocks jutting out of them, like the battlements of some buried castle.
So, like I said, that was us: the poor orphans on the hill. We worked by day, and at night we ate, listened to Mam's old rock 'n' roll tapes or watched reality TV shows about people who lived on a different planet to us, not just in a different world. Skinny American heiresses, botoxed soap actors stuck in a house together or a bunch of right annoying twats on a desert island somewhere. But you know what? We might have been alright in the end. Maybe, just maybe I wouldn't have ended up thinking that curse about men and women was such a good one after all. Who knows? We might even have been happy, in the end. Or at least, not unhappy; if only those men hadn't come.
But they did come didn't they? All decked out in their white spaceman suits like those scientists in ET who sealed up the kid's house he was hiding in. And when they came they killed our whole flock, over a thousand grazing ewes and lambs. Just four of them there were, standing in the front paddock with rifles at their shoulders, shooting ewe after ewe, lamb after lamb, dropping them all with a single shot each. Then they'd reload and shoot again. And again. And again, with the three of us standing there like we'd had our own brains blown out, unbelieving it was happening, wide-eyed and watching it all.
It was Sion who'd seen the blisters first, on a ewe's tongue lolling out the side of her mouth. She was feeding a couple of lambs and every time they gave her an extra hard jab with their heads a big old dab of foam and saliva would drop from her lips onto the grass. We thought we'd escaped the outbreak, but obviously we hadn't. It had been spreading for a month by then. The first report had come from Devon and within a few weeks there were Foot and Mouth cases as far north as Cumbria. We'd had no movement of stock, in or out, from the farm, and no visitors either. We'd driven into town of course, but from the day of that first report Dewi had laid a strip of straw soaked with disinfectant across the gateway. Every time we came back he'd spray the wheels of the pick-up too, so, yes, we thought we'd escaped. But that foam and those blisters, big as bloody bubble wrap, well, they told a different story.
The inspector came the next day, casting a right old frown over the state of the place as we walked him though the yard to where we'd penned the flock in the paddock. To be fair, when I saw the farm through his eyes I could see his point: the rusted skeleton of a tractor sunk in the ground, the loose slates on the roof, the tyres piled up the side of the house. No fault with the sheep themselves though, he had to admit that. Apart from the obvious, of course. 'Fine animals, fine animals,' he'd muttered to himself as he looked them over, already calculating in his head, no doubt, how long and how many men he'd need to kill them all.
The men in the spacesuits came the next day. When they'd done their shooting they piled the carcases in the paddock, right there in front of the house, doused them with petrol then set them alight. The bodies took with a roar, like some angered god it was. A raging pyre of legs and heads and popping eyes that lit up the windows of the farm the way sunsets always have. They must have seen that smoke stack for miles all around. A thick black pillar it was, right up to the clouds. And the smell, well, with the wind behind it that must have travelled as far as the village at least.
The pyre was still burning when the men left at nightfall, after which it looked as if the farm itself was on fire, every window full of flames, like it was our lives in there, not the carcases outside, that were burning. Which of course, in a way, it was.
Everything changed after that. That was the end of it all. Or the beginning I suppose, seeing as it was those men and their shooting that led to me sitting on that bench by the Tower that morning. Sitting on that bench watching the sun come up, cursing my brothers and seeing that old man out the corner of my eye as he stepped, sticked, stepped, sticked up the path towards me.
When I looked out my window the day after the men came, there was just a long patch of smoking ashes left, a black and grey scar in the middle of the paddock. For the first time in hundreds of years the mountain behind our farm was quiet. Just the odd caw of a crow or a raven's cough, both of them probably wondering what had happened to all those weak lambs they'd been keeping their beady eyes on.
At that time of year the mountain should have been full of the bleating of new lambs and the calls of ewes answering them. Then, in a few months' time, there'd be a day and night of more urgent calls as those same ewes searched the hillside for the lambs we'd taken to market. But after the men in spacesuits there was none of that, nothing. That night, when the ashes had finally stopped smoking, I walked up onto the mountain, just to get out of the house and away from the anger of my brothers. I took a torch, sweeping it over the slope in front of me as I climbed. But all the beam caught was grass, grass, grass, not a single pair of green eyes, bright and hard in the light; not a single long black face rising from a ragged pile of wool. Just the night, briefly burnt away by the torch's beam, then washing back in again after it.
Looking back now I can see we lost a lot more than just those sheep that day. Something else got burnt in that fire; something else shrivelled up on itself, curled and blackened to a brittle crisp, and whatever it was, it lay deep in the hearts of my brothers.
Dewi blamed old Probert over the hill. There was good compensation to be had for losing your flock. Probert was well into his seventies with no sons of his own. So what interest would he have in keeping on farming? Dewi was convinced he'd infected his flock on purpose, then let them out on the hill. 'Old bastard,' he'd said as he kicked through those ashes in the paddock. 'How the bloody else did it come here?'
Whether it was Probert or not, Dewi's suspicion soon spread to Sion, as infectious as the disease itself. Between them they spread the blame too, out into the whole world, until that's where my brothers saw it lying – out there, in the hands of the world beyond our farm. They went cold, the two of them, because of what those men in their spacesuits had done to our flock, to our lives. That fire turned them to ice. Or at least, I hope that was the case. Otherwise what other excuse can I find for them, for what they did? What other reason could there be for them to have gone from tending sheep to stealing them, from being farmers to killers?
Step, Stick. Step, Stick.
I waited for him to walk on but, like I said, I knew he wouldn't. I knew he was always heading for that bench, and for me.
I carried on looking at the river sliding its way through the city. As he sat down I felt his shadow flick over me, then the flex of the bench under my thighs as it took his weight. I kept on looking ahead, shifting my gaze to the ravens now. They'd finished their feeding and were taking up positions on the railings and lawns around the castle. Waiting for the tourists to come I guess; waiting to be gawped at, photographed and no doubt, when the Beefeaters weren't watching, fed again, slipped crusts of Costa Coffee sandwich and Starbucks muffin.
'They say they can tell your future you know.'
His voice caught me by surprise. There was no intake of breath, no shifting on the bench as he turned to me. Just suddenly his voice, clear and easy in the morning air. He didn't have an accent as such, more what Mam would have called 'educated'.
I didn't say anything, didn't look at him. I'd heard about London and seen enough on TV to know you didn't go talking to old blokes on benches. So I just kept looking at the ravens, running their big old beaks under their wings like they were sharpening them, then settling again to catch the day's first heat in their midnight wings.
'The ravens,' he continued. 'They say they can tell your future. Coracomancy they call it.' I thought he'd stopped then, but he repeated the last word, slowly and more quietly, like he was still getting used to it himself. 'Yes, coracomancy.'
Now he'd spoken a bit more I could hear the age in his voice, like something in his throat had come loose, making the edges of his words watery. I couldn't help sneaking a look at him then, just a quick sideways glimpse. When I did he was looking right back at me, bold as brass, so I snapped my head back round and stared down at the ravens in the Tower again. He carried on talking.
'You know the sort of thing, cawing to the right means a journey will go well, picking up a stick or some other object ... oh, yes, like that one there.' As if on command one of the ravens hopped over the lawn and picked up a twig. It stood there, the twig unwieldy in its beak, like a stupid dog that doesn't know what to do with a stick it's been thrown. 'Yes, well that,' he continued, 'that's supposed to mean something will be found.' He allowed himself a little chuckle then, like he'd said something right funny. 'Can't say I believe any of it myself. After all a man's got to understand his past before he can get a look at his future hasn't he?' He paused then, like he was waiting for me to reply. I didn't, and maybe that's why when he spoke to me again it was in a lower, softer tone that made me turn back to look at him. 'Or a woman of course,' he said. 'Or a woman.'
Excerpted from White Ravens by Owen Sheers. Copyright © 2009 Owen Sheers. Excerpted by permission of Poetry Wales Press Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
2. Title Page,
4. New Stories from the Mabinogion,
5. 'He who is a leader; let him be a bridge',
6. White Ravens,
8. The Old Man's Story,
9. Ar Lan Y Môr,
10. Down by the Sea,
11. The Second Branch of the Mabinogion,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is the second book of this series I've read, the first one was Fflur Dafydd's The White Trail. It's equally brilliant. Highly recommended.
The Mabinogion is a collection of medieval Welsh stories of Celtic origin ¿ they are written very much in the bardic tradition of oral storytelling. The eleven tales as normally collected have the four `branches¿ of the Mabinogion proper, a set of Native Tales and three Romances; the Native Tales also include early references to King Arthur. During my obsessive Arthurian reading period some years ago, I did include the Mabinogion. Like Malory, it is not an easy read, and the Welsh names take some getting used to, but these stories are full of magic, nature, and always the cycle of life.The publisher Seren, with its series of short novels `New Stories from the Mabinogion¿ has commissioned contemporary re-tellings of the stories, (somewhat in the manner of the Canongate Myths). White Ravens by Owen Sheers is the first book in the series. Based upon the story of Branwen, daughter of Llyr, the second branch of the Mabinogion. This is a tale of two brothers, their sister and the love of her life. Sheers has chosen to set a wartime story within another contemporary narrative.We start in the near present on a farm in Wales where foot and mouth has caused Rhi¿s brothers into the dangerous business of stealing and butchering lambs to supply fancy restaurants in London. Rhi hadn¿t wanted to be a part of it, but one night necessity forced her to drive the van, and she abandons her brothers once in London ¿ finding herself at the Tower of London. There she meets an old man who tells her another story, that seems to resonate with her own life.He tells of an Irishman, Matthew, who fights for the British in WWII. Wounded, he takes up office work, but one day is sent on a mission to pick up some raven chicks from a remote farm in Wales to replenish the Tower¿s complement. Matthew arrives and meets a gentle giant of a farmer, Ben and later his sister Branwen and it¿s love at first sight for both of them. Then on the day of their wedding, Bran¿s other brother arrives back home from the war. Aghast at losing his beloved sister he perpetrates a shocking act of revenge that makes all the blood of the other pair of brothers¿ butchery pale in comparison ¿ animal lovers beware ¿The writing is very powerful indeed, and tears sprang to my eyes as I read this scene, and then again later when tragedy strikes again and again. War changes people and violence begets violence, whether physical or emotional, indeed the food cycle itself has death at its core. The moments of happiness in this book are few and far between, yet there is a moral to take from this tale and maybe it is not too late for Rhi ¿