The Coventry Carol: a short story

The Coventry Carol

Lully, lulla, thow littell tine child,

By, by, lully, lullay, thow littell tyne child,

By by, lully lullay!

When the first people gathered in the street to wait for the approach of the pageant, Mother closed the shutters in the front room and went upstairs to the back. Anneys, who always grew more tender to us at this time of the year, followed her, but not before coming over to where I sat at my sewing to put her arm around my shoulders and kiss my forehead. Then she left, to stand at Mother’s closed door, listening, waiting till she judged the time right to go in and coddle her and cry with her and whisper words of comfort and prayer. This had happened every feast of Corpus Christi for the last three years.

I closed my eyes and hummed along, seeing the words in my head as they came.


O sisters too,

How may we do

    For to preserve this day

This por yongling

For whom we do singe

    By, by, lully, lullay?

I had a dim memory of Father singing it to me at night. He played one of the Three Kings in the pageant, and had his own song, but he learned the lullaby too. He’d come back from the practices at night and we’d be waiting for him at our door, and he’d kiss Mother and pick me up and hold me under his chin and sing. I’d get drowsy in his arms so quickly that though I learned some of the first verse, I never knew the ending.

We’d watch the pageants too, Anneys told me, though I don’t remember that. Mother sewed banners and costumes for it, and they paid her, and she’d be among the crowd standing outside to watch the pageant. She’d hold me and watch proudly when her banners led the procession and Father played his part.

Herod, the king,

In his raging,

    Chargid he hath this day

His men of might

In his owne sight

    All yonge children to slay, —

Of what came next Mother and Anneys thought I didn’t remember, and I didn’t like to say so, for hurting them. There was a night after one of the performances when he came home bearing the money the guild had gotten — he was the guild’s treasurer, and it was his task to keep it safe during the night. Mother was at the door with a lamp to welcome him, and I was there beside her. He was not two yards from our door when two men came out of the shadows. One grabbed the money-bag from under his arm, and when he drew his anelace, the other ran him through from behind. He fell down on our doorstep choking blood. The men and the money vanished.

Mother never set foot outside the house after his funeral, not even to go into the walled garden beside, and so I never did either. Father had been a prosperous master craftsman, and between what he left and what Mother’s brothers gave us each year, we weren’t short of money, but we couldn’t afford to keep on the servants. Only Anneys stayed, for love of us and because she’d been my own wet nurse. Mother doesn’t sew or make things for the pageants anymore. Father Iohn comes every week to hear her confession and administer the Sacrament. Anneys told me she once tried to take me to Mass with her, but Mother went wild and Anneys was afraid she’d hurt herself. It’s with difficulty that Mother lets even her leave, for Mass or market.

That wo is me,

Por child, for thee,

    And ever morne and may

For thi parting

Nether say nor singe,

    By, by, lully, lullay.

As I hummed to the end with the players, and heard their muffled words through the walls (the waggon must have been just outside the house), I never once stumbled nor stopped nor lost a word. I had the song down pat, as pat as the singers, as pat as Father once did. I went a little wild inside with the joy of mastery, and in that wildness a thought crept into my bosom: what if I tried the door that led from the kitchen into the garden? Would it yet open, and I see the pageant?

On mouse’s feet I crept into the kitchen. The door had but one bolt, low enough for me to lift. I slid it out and, thank all the good saints, it made no noise. I paused, listening, and when I heard no steps above, pushed the door open and slipped out into the garden.

It was wild and unkempt, for Anneys had no time, what with the two of us and all her work, to tend it but for a patch of vegetables that sometimes she kept in a corner. The wall was too high for me to see the street, but it was old and had not been cleaned in the three years. My bare feet found ledges, and my fingers cracks and crevices to hold to, and I went up, up, till I threw one leg over the top and sat down. The street spread out before me, and a sea of faces, all the people of the town in their high-day clothes, but it was not them I looked at, though more than the height of the wall it was the number of faces that dizzied me till I thought I was lost.

Upon a waggon in the midst of the throng were three dressed as women, holding the children they had been singing to, and two soldiers with drawn swords. Though I could not remember seeing the pageant before, they were yet familiar to me. The women were crying and pleading, and the men tore the children away and killed them, one by stabbing, two by cutting their heads off. The women cried out and tried to take their vengeance on the soldiers, who left bitterly, sorry for their own deeds yet too coward to stay their hands. The women left too, and Herod mounted the waggon and was told that the Child he sought — our blesséd Jesu — had gone into Egypt, whereupon he raged most bitterly. Then the pageant passed on, and the people went away.

I looked around me now, and saw the sun at the height of the sky, whom I only remembered low, when early or late in the day he came in at our windows to cheer us. He stretched out beams to warm me, and the tree that stood by the wall cast round shadows from its leaves on the wall, that swayed forward and backward with the wind. Inside the house we had no wind and no shadows thus alive like their doubles. When Mother had the windows open we could hear the birds, but they came none so close as the nest at the joint of the roof, where three little heads peeped out and gaped at me. Their mother flew down to feed them, the beat of her wings flashing by me. I looked up at the blue and gold in the sky and the movement of the tree and the birds, and I was warm all through, warm in a way the hearth-fire didn’t warm me, howsoever high and hot Anneys built it. I decided life was warm like that too, if only one could reach it.


5 Responses to The Coventry Carol: a short story

  1. I find myself loving the story for its tenderness – tender sadness and tender hope. I wonder at the meaning of it – but I suppose that’s just it. Not that it has no meaning, far be it – but that you have succeeded in writing a story which does not preach but which speaks truth nonetheless.
    We cannot live inside, nor let our dead past hold us with a chain, for our God is the God of the living, not of the dead.

    As a historical question, would the narrator’s father be a mummer of some kind? He seems to be a professional performer of some notability. Or was he a master in another guild related to the Christmastide performances?


    • I’ve never quite been sure what it means, myself, except it wanted to be written and I scraped together the necessary research and did it. It’s vaguely pro-life and that’s the nearest I’ve come to sticking a pin in it. It helps with preaching, though, because you can’t belabour your point if you don’t know it yet.

      Actually, these play cycles (which are fascinating in themselves) were performed by guild members, many of whom would have been amateurs. The narrator’s father would have been one of these. (I like to think they’d have had some fun with it.) This particular cycle was for the feast of Corpus Christi, in July.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, I find myself enlightened! That sense of community – how it contrasts with our modern isolation.
        (While I have your attention in the comments – if you’ll entertain the aside – I saw that you read through the second draft of Goddess. What did you think of the different ending? Did it work, or fall flat?)


      • I had time for only a very superficial reading, so I noticed that it was different, but didn’t stop to analyze. If there’s still time, I can probably get to it tomorrow?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Of course! The contest doesn’t expire until the end of June. I do not mean to pressure you unduly – lately I’ve been in a neurotic mood of compulsive email checking and low-grade hand-wringing.
        Long story short – no sweat.


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