Believe What You Read About the Wodderin
by James Warner
My girlfriend Fran, researching her Ph.D. on seventeenth-century English pulpit oratory, discovered the following passage in Daniel Pell’s 1659 Improvement of The Sea.
... a bird known as the wodderin, of whom lovers say that she has the power to foretell, the which of them will first betray the other. With such care does she select the matter to build her excellent nest, that as she flies everywhere, no secret eludes her scrutiny.
Fran was an American and an Anglophile. Fascinated by even our stupidest folklore, she found herself at a point in her research where irrelevant detours were crucial to her sanity. She drove to Oxford, spent a day in the Bodleian Library, and called me from a payphone to read me a supporting reference she'd tracked down in Francis Willughby’s 1672 Ornithologia.
In the Welsh Marches, when two are betrothed, they ask the wotteren which of them will be true to the other, in deed and in thought, and the said wotteren flies to whoever is the honest one, making a cry like true! true! who is true?
“What if both lovers are honest?” she asked me.
“In Wales?” I deadpanned. Fran had some Welsh ancestry on her mother’s side -- farmers who settled in Maryland.
That night, as we lay in bed, staring into space, the topic resurfaced. We agreed we needed to get out of London, to flee the depressing routines and stale emotions festering within our flat, where we had been living together for almost a year, amid the grubby clamor of the manic-depressive Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. “We should go find a wotteren,” Fran said, the word coming out slurred by her Baltimore accent.
“Remember when we went to find the site of the battle of Malden?” I said. “We were stuck for hours in a traffic jam on the A12. The battle site turned out to be a housing development surrounded with no trespassing signs. Or the time we went to Warwickshire to locate Thomas Mallory’s birthplace? There was a lecture theater owned by the Prison Service, and a ye Holy Grail tea-shoppe that was closed on Sundays.”
“We don’t have anything like the wotteren back in the States,” Fran mused. “It could tell me if I’m wasting my time with you.”
“But nobody’s seen a whatever-it’s-called for three hundred and fifty years,” I pointed out.
“Two hundred.” Fran reached for the bedside table, having already highlighted a paragraph in William Hazlitt’s essay “On Superstition.”
Near the inn at Llantryn, in the valley of that name, a poet of my acquaintance heard of a bird that flew into the hand of any man enjoying the perfect felicity of true love. And if the man’s love was not truly repaid? Then on touching a feather of this fabulous creature, legend had it he would melt from the embrace of the faithless object of his passion into thin air, taking flight himself in the form of a bird. When we are disappointed in love, how keenly we desire to soar away on wings of sublime imagination.
I loved Hazlitt, having always over-identified with his determination to expose injustice, the exhilarating melancholy of his prose, and his pathetic passions both revolutionary and amorous. “Fair enough then,” I conceded. “Llantryn it is.”
We set the alarm early that Sunday, and it took us surprisingly little time to reach the M25. Reinforced-concrete Brutalist office buildings dominated both sides of the motorway.
I said, “I hope this isn’t going to be like the time you figured out where Grendel’s mother lived, but when we got there it was a nuclear missile base. Or the time we went looking for pterodactyls in Epping forest, and that gang of punks latched onto us and wouldn’t stop lecturing you about U.S. foreign policy.”
“This will be different,” Fran asserted, pushing a White Stripes album into the car’s CD player to drown out any further complaints I could devise.
We were at a stage that occurred in all my relationships. I was reluctant either to let Fran go, or to commit to marrying her. I loved her, but never enough. Now the rhythms of driving distracted us from our impasse, lulling us into a state of pacific denial. After a few hours, we stopped at a service station to stretch our legs, relieve our bladders, and eat some Bakewell tart.
American women have a wonderful sense of entitlement that completely transcends reality. The way Fran never doubted for a moment that we could find a wotteren was a case in point. “I saved my best piece of evidence for last,” she said. “A poem by Robert Graves. Do you want to hear it?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Nuh-uh.” She produced a photocopy from a pocket in her cardigan.
Blue jay and bittern,
Warbler and woad-wren,
These are my brethren
Says old wizard Gwydion.
Spited by women,
I’ll follow the larksong
From Brecon to Llantryn,
The cruel moon my sovereign.
“The note for woad-wren in the Collected Poems just says, ‘Meaning obscure,’” Fran noted, “but it’s clearly a deviant spelling of wotteren.”
“Next week I’ll write to the Oxford English Dictionary about it.”
“You do that.” I was unenthusiastic about Graves’s supernatural side, being more of a fan of the perverse revisionism of his historical novels, but to have brought this up would have risked us getting into an argument, and it wasn’t much use arguing with Fran.
Once off the M4, we drove through a landscape of fields and pubs. We crossed the Severn Bridge. Whitewashed farmhouses stood among green Welsh hills.
There was still an inn at Llantryn, doubling as a seedy-looking bed-and-breakfast, outside which we parked. Simply by virtue of being relatively unpolluted, the air here smelled magical to us. I ate a cheese, onion, and marmite panini, while an ice cream van played “Greensleeves” woefully.
A little way down the road, we found a dismal lake with paddle-boats, and clay dinosaurs for children to climb on. A man walking a terrier was scowling at us for no clear reason. I tried to imagine how it had been here in Hazlitt’s day. The clouds were gray yet radiant, the sun seemingly just on the brink of shining through.
We were unsure if it would rain, but agreed to chance it.
It was cool under the trees along the footpath, and the air was clammy. We walked through dappled shade, sticks crunching underfoot. I suddenly felt blissfully content. It was the sort of afternoon when, for a moment or two, one forgets how tedious adult life is compared to one’s adolescent anticipations. Fran plucked a dandelion, and blew away the seeds, and I knew she was wishing for us to see a wotteren.
We climbed over a stile, and followed a footpath alongside a stream, where a hen stared frostily at us from someone’s back garden. I could tell part of Fran was still thinking about figures of speech in the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes.
At the same time I knew that we were about to have sex. Even the plastic takeout cartons and poisonous mushrooms underfoot seemed erotically charged in the fluttering light.
There was a sign in Welsh that neither of us could read. We were entering some kind of nature sanctuary.
Fran’s sense of direction was better than mine, so I let her push ahead of me through limp, dripping ferns to a clearing where, among discarded lager cans, colorful lichens, and wind-blown scraps of pornography, and the blurting of passerine birds pursuing their ancient vendettas, broadcasting their timeless laments, I pushed her up against a tree carved with previous couples’ intitals.
We shed our clothes. Fran was freckled and goosebump-covered, the dappled light ornamenting her half-nakedness, while glistening branches groped after the hissing wind. I had brought condoms in the pocket of my anorak.
Fran was beautiful but fragile, otherworldly somehow. I found myself turned off by her earnest gaze. Had I known this would be our last time, things would doubtless have gone even worse... We lay on the damp moss, afterwards, listening to the quiet background noise of a landscape effortlessly recycling itself, and far beyond that the sounds of traffic, while ferns slapped wetly against my neck.
“Do you think you’ll ever change your mind,” she asked, “about wanting to marry me?”
Her timing of this question felt manipulative to me. I never liked answering it, but at least I answered it consistently.
Even consistency, however, can be a form of betrayal, so long as the other person keeps changing.
Nearby, something rustled. We saw it together. It quivered beside a thicket of nettles.
The place we were in suddenly felt remote, as the wind soughed in the branches overhead. “That bluish tint,” Fran whispered, “must be why Graves called it a woad-wren, after the blue body paint worn by the ancient Britons.”
I reached out a hand to feel the soft hair on her wrists. There were fragments of bark on her face.
“There’s no etymological connection, but then, inaccurate but poetically apt origin-myths were Graves’ stock-in-trade.” These, implausibly enough, were the last words I heard Fran speak.
The bird flew around us in circles, trying to make up its mind. I wanted to throw something at it, to drive it away, before it darted straight towards Fran, wringing a few sounds from its throat... they sounded nothing at all like true! true! who is true?.. and then the wind seemed to lift her away, folding her into the rippling chiaroscuro of the woods. Only her checkered shirt and blue jeans remained, and her trainers and Playtex bra, and two bluish birds flitting skywards, like discarded crisp packets in the wind or fragments of the original firmament.
As I ran back through the woods, calling Fran’s name, the wind picked up. The vegetation thrashed, as if trying to pull itself after the birds into the sky.
Still to come were the police searches, the televised appeals for help, but I knew the woad-wren had chosen Fran as his mate. She would never receive a Ph.D. now, or write to the OED, or find a way to change me. Birds tore pieces off the world around me, as meticulous and as territorial as scholars, and their cries about as meaningful, as I settled into my new solitude.
Believe what you read about the woad-wren. Fran will build an excellent nest. And no secret will elude her scrutiny.
James Warner is the author of the novel All Her Father’s Guns. His short fiction has appeared in Santa Monica Review, ZYZZYVA, Mid-American Review, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, etc. The story “Believe What You Read About the Wodderin” originally appeared on the literary website Dublin Quarterly, which has since vanished and been replaced by a lifestyle magazine.