The Legend of the Afanc of Brynberian
The village of Brynberian at the foot of the Preselli hills in northern Pembrokeshire has an ancient history and a curious legend.
It is said that a long, long time ago, in a village that still exists, lived people who were different, but who were in many ways, the same as people wherever they may live and in whatever time.
There were kind, thoughtful people, who cared for each other and the land and all its creatures. There were people with malice in their hearts born out of disappointment or hurts that had begun so long ago that they might never have been named or whose origins had been forgotten.
There were secret thieves and gentle bestowers of small bounty. There were gossips and complainers, praise-givers and those who spoke mostly kind words.
There were old ones and young ones and the ones in between, all of them, as is the nature of life, moving along that path from cradle to grave and whatever might be waiting beyond.
One of those young ones was a child. She might be any child with rainbows in her eyes and a smile in her heart. A child whose name has been forgotten by time, and may, as sometimes happens, have grown into a disappointed woman for whom rainbows and smiling are unimportant in the day-to-day business of getting on with what we are given.
That may be her future, but at the time this tale begins our child is fresh and open and full of sunshine and because of this, we shall give her the name Garedig.
Dress her any way you please. Bestow any fresh freckles or curls, or rosy cheeks. Make her clumsy or sure-footed but do not forget her kindness. It is the one redeeming thing in this whole story.
And now I must shatter any illusion you may have about some idyll where all is well. In the time and place of our story, wellness is not the case.
It so happens that close to our village where people are getting on with their lives, an Afanc has become a serious problem.
In case you have never met an Afanc, and in these times I don’t think many people can say that they have, I should tell you that they are water creatures, with the power and grace of all such beasts when in or upon the water. One thing that they are not, however, is pretty.
Imagine if you will a beaver, with her sharp digging claws and her furry coat and add the features of a crocodile, the long, snapping jaws, the beady eyes, the swishing, powerful tail. Jumble that all up in any way you choose. No one has seen one in a long long time, so your idea as to just how alarming a creature an Afanc might be is as much your guess as mine.
How long the Anfac has lived close to the village no one could be sure. Perhaps for a long time, she was growing slowly and her appetite was moderate. At the time of our story, though, she is big and old, and her appetite is outstripping the supply of fish and small game that might have sustained her until now.
Now she has become a problem. At first, it was the odd cat that did not come home from a night of wandering in the neighbour’s orchard. Then it was Owen’s best dog, and before long, as each night passed, the people of the village woke each morning to find things missing. A row of cabbages from Mrs Pritchard’s garden, the last of the winter potatoes from Gwen James’s store. Then Reece’s beautiful sow, Morwenna, and all of her litter of ten little piggies… and so it goes on.
Understandably, even the most kindly and patient villagers have become somewhat disgruntled at this state of affairs, Those without much love in their hearts are baying for blood. These are not rich folks and if something doesn’t happen soon, winter will be impossible.
Someone thought to consult a wise man who lived in a neighbouring village. The deputation return hopefully. The wise man had said that only a magic spell would work to rid them of the problematic creature, but he would not, or could not, tell them what that magic spell might be.
At a loss to know how they might proceed, as none knew, or perhaps would admit to knowing, any spells at all, they find themselves stumped.
Amid the twittering and wittering around home and hearth, in the square and upon the common carry on, there is our little maid – remember her? Our sweet Garedig, she with a smile and her kind heart. Well, she has a curiosity and she wants to know what kind of creature this Afanc really is.
And so it goes, that one bright morning when the mist is rising over the bogs, she sets off to find out.
It isn’t long before the fearless miss has come across the creature, homeward muttering and belching, leaving a trail of ferny carrot tops and tiny rabbit bones, on the way back to her den in the bog.
Almost there, the monster stops and sniffs the air, swishing her great tail from side to side so that the earth rises up and settles in the trail of her wide-clawed footprints.
“ Who’s there?” She growls, picking a piece of gristle from between her fearsome teeth with one dainty claw, and swivelling her head so that she can observe our little maid with one bloodshot beady eye.
Is the child afraid? I would be. Wouldn’t you?
But if she is, she does not falter. Opening her rosebud mouth, she lisps a greeting. Probably she steps back a little. That would only be sensible.
“Go away!” Our monster has not developed a taste for human flesh, even flesh as tender as this little morsel. She is irritated, she is angry, she is bitter, and her heart is sore with an emptiness that only thievery and mayhem can satisfy; but, and this is important, she is not a consumer of little girls.
Rightly or wrongly, our dear little one wonders how it might be to be the only one of your kind. Knowing only the love of Mam and Mangu and Tad and her old Pops, she feels the loneliness in the bones of the monster before her, so she does what little girls do and she chatters and she sings and she dances and she twirls; and the old monster huffs and grumbles and complains and ambles off to wrap her scaly tail about her own sad body for a day of sleep in the dark mush of the bog.
Later that day, when the subject turns to what to do about the Afanc, our little miss opens her pretty mouth and lips: “ She is old and lonely. We could find her something to do that would make her feel useful. ”
She is shushed for her pains but the words are not lost on old Mrs Clarke, for she is one of those who have begun to feel the creeping helplessness of the aged. Arthritis might have stiffened her joints but does not dull her need to still be part of the world as she once was. She offers the child’s words as a morsel of hopefulness to her neighbour.
And so the idea grows, though, and here is the thing you must not lose sight of, as our story unfolds. The idea of giving the Afanc a purpose may grow in the hearts of the kind and well-meaning. It takes root differently in the shrivelled up, iced over souls of the selfish, and the cruel and those who consider themselves right, even when they are wrong.
So the plan is formed. A task is set. What does a water creature with great digging claws and a nose for water do well? It’s obvious, isn’t it? This kind of creature will be perfect for digging a well.
A deputation is sent and the Afanc watches them approach her bog with a sneer on her face. While Mr Pritchard, he of the stolen apples, makes the offer, she eyes him from beneath heavily lidded, bloodshot eyes and scratches her pale, fat belly.
“ So,” she grumbles, as he stutters to a halt, “you want me to dig a new well in the village, is it? “ A pause while she inspects a claw with minute attention, then a flick of her great tongue over terrible fearsome teeth, “What’s in it for me?”
Pritchard is trembling in every ounce of his being but he is ready. The promise is not scavenged vegetables or raw piggies, but a big bowl of hot nourishing cawl for each night at labours end…
“With fresh-baked bread and a chunk of cheese?”
Pritchard nods in assent. “ My wife’s very best.”
The monster drools. Hot cawl, hot buttered cob and good Welsh cheese. Her belly will be warm and full against the long, cold night, and food is her love and her best friend in the lonely dark.
“ And….” Mr Pritchard opens his dry mouth and adds, “there will be cake for pudding.”
Cake? What kind of cake? Not that it matters. Welsh cakes hot from the griddle, bara brith fizzing with fruit, honey oozing from buns, a light lemon finger, a heavy jam scone?
It’s a deal.
When morning comes the Anfac is swinging her tail along the path to the village. She has a plan. A few false starts, just to make sure she is not being tricked and then she will get down to the task for real.
At the end of the first day, the hole she has dug – and which has shown no water – is filled in and she goes home with a mighty bowl of cawl, piping hot, good sourdough bread and perfectly tingly-on-the-tongue cheese, with a whole spicy, still-hot-from-the-oven bara brith that is out of this world.
Bright and early she begins again with the digging and it is the same. No water, but when the village stumps up the delicious food again, the Afanc knows she will do anything to continue to be in their good books. In all honesty, digging is no problem. It is what Afanc does best. It makes her happy and knowing the grub will keep coming just about puts the tin lid on it.
The next day she begins again and this time she does not stop. Deeper and deeper she goes into the solid earth, her belly still happy from the night before and her usefulness confirmed.
But, remember I warned you that not everyone in our little community thought the problem was so easily resolved. Those that harboured fury at their previous losses, or those that saw themselves as judges of right and wrong, and some who simply saw sport in overpowering others put their own plan into action.
When the Afanc was deep into the ground, mumbling to herself as she worked, those folks began their own work of filling the hole in again upon her head with boulders and gravel and sand and anything else they could find until stamping it down, they could each declare to each other that it was as though the hole had never been dug and the Afanc had never existed.
Greatly pleased with themselves the people went home to their beds and slept the deep and righteous sleep of people who know they have done the right thing.
Imagine their surprise then when in the morning they found the boulders and gravel and everything else they had found to fill in the great hole over the Anfac’s digging body raised up and the hole deeper than ever. What is more, the monster seemed to have no intentions of stopping and continued to dig and dig and dig.
I wish I could tell you what happened next. Did they continue to feed the creature as she dug and dug, each night lowering her dinner to her on longer and longer rope? Or did she reappear at sunset, come climbing and muttering and shaking the day’s grime from her long body, and eat among them night after night under the stars, relishing in her newfound sense of purpose?
I am a softy. I like to think that the little girl was right and the latter version is the right one, that the lonely, old Afanc found something to do and a place to be for the last part of her life. And, do you know? The legend goes some way to bearing this out.
While we do not know for sure why it should be so, the legend tells us that when the Afanc died, quite naturally and not at the hand of humankind, the villagers made a tomb for her in the bog that had been her home and that tomb can be seen to this day.
I ask you: would you go the bother of creating a tomb, a monument to a creature you did not care for? I don’t think I would.
All pictures used in this story are from Pixabay, which provides free uncopyrighted images for general use.