Throwback Thursday: How the Cunning Folk Got Their Magic by Daniel Allen
Editor’s note: This charming Throwback Thursday fable surprised and delighted us. IWe think you’ll find it as enjoyable as we did. Read on!
Once upon a time, in the land of shadows, a terrible plague ravaged the countryside. Those afflicted suffered terrible boils and pains. Everyone who tried to treat them became infected, and entire villages became sick. Scared of succumbing to the disease themselves, the lords hid in their castles. The burgomasters shut the gates to their great walled cities. Left to suffer, the peasants cried out to the heavens for salvation.
The Saints heard their pleas and asked God to intervene and save those sick. The Lord agreed and called upon Saints Cyprian and Justina. These saints bowed and listened as God commanded them. “Cyprian, in your lifetime, you wrote a brilliant book of spells, which you took to your grave. Travel the land of shadows with Justina. Disguise yourselves as plague victims and visit the eminent physicians there. The one who agrees to treat you is worthy to receive your grimoire, which contains a cure for the plague.
Cyprian and Justina left Heaven, descending to that part of the land where the plague was worst. After disguising themselves as old beggars infected with the plague, they began their journey. They said, “Come, let us visit the physicians’ college and see if they will help us.”
It’s painful to say, but their visit to the college was a grave disappointment. Though they knocked at the school’s entrance for an entire night, nobody bothered to answer. It wasn’t until the next day that they overheard a college servant say the school had closed. The doctors had fled to their homes to avoid risking infection by treating the sick. Though disheartened, Saint Justina said, “Come, let us see if the walled city over the hill will let us in and help us.”
They came to the walled city, but nobody answered until after they had knocked for an entire day and night. It was the Burgomaster who announced, “Nobody is to enter the city until the plague has ended. May all the devils curse you for trying to bring the pox upon us!”
Though she wept, Saint Justina said, “Come, I hope the lord across the valley will let us see his physician.”
But they met with even less success at the castle. After knocking at the gates for two entire days, the castle’s men-at-arms shot at them with bows and arrows. The disguised Saints fled the rain of arrows, running through the surrounding woods. They didn’t stop until the next day, at which point they found themselves in the deepest part of the forest.
Unable to find their way out, the Saints became overwhelmed by despair. They wailed and gnashed their teeth. Cyprian resolved that if they remained lost by nightfall, he’d destroy his book of spells. With heavy hearts, the Saints searched for a way out. It wasn’t until dusk approached that they found a clearing in the dense forest thicket. In that clearing was a small hut.
Despite their trepidation, the two Saints approached the hut. But before they knocked, the door opened, an old woman rushing out to greet them. Despite seeing the advanced state of their sickness, she gestured for them to enter her humble abode. As she set a pot of stew and a kettle of tea atop her oven, she said,
“Come and spend the night here. I will gather herbs from the garden to treat those boils.”
That night, the two Saints ate hearty stew and drank comforting tea. While they relaxed after supper, the old woman treated their boils with an unguent. When at last Cyprian and Justina were ready to sleep, the old woman insisted they lay in her cozy bed. The old woman stayed up that night, knitting in her rocking chair. She kept careful watch over her visitors to make sure their illness didn’t get worse.
But despite her best intentions, the old woman dozed off around dawn. When she woke up a few hours later, the two old, infected beggars were nowhere in sight. Instead, standing before her were the two Saints in their heavenly forms. Golden halos blazed around their heads. Instead of the tattered robes they had on the night before, they now wore luxurious robes of many colors. In Cyprian’s hands, he held a large, black codex.
Cyprian offered the book to the old woman, saying, “Oh blessed crone! You, above all other healers in the land, have proven yourself worthy of this honor. Inside this book is a cure for the plague and multitudes of other ailments. Take this book and cure the land of shadows.”
With a smile on her lips and tears in her eyes, the grateful crone accepted the book. She flipped through its pages. And indeed, each one contained a magical cure for a common ailment. She prostrated herself to them and said, “A thousand blessings upon you, Heavenly Protectors!”
But Saint Justina grinned a knowing smile and approached the old woman. She blessed the old woman, saying, “Go now and heal the land. Then teach worthy people you find the secrets of the black book.”
The two Saints then returned to heaven. Meanwhile, the old woman didn’t tarry in her new task. She set out at once from her hut, black book in hand. Following the land’s ancient paths, she made her way from one village to the next. At each place she stopped, she bid the locals bring her the sickened among them. She examined them and, using the spells and balms listed in the book, healed them back to health. Those treated by her survived. Not one person in the villages she visited died of the plague after her arrival.
In each village she stopped at, she picked the kindest and most worthy among them to be the village healer. Before leaving, she had this apprentice copy out the black book by hand. This became the local healer’s private copy, preserved through the generations. This was the start of the cunning folk and how they got their magic.
Daniel Allen is a writer based out of Boston, Massachusetts. He wrote and directed the 2017 short "Virgins Never Die". His writing has also appeared in Community X magazine.