Twined Vines

19th century painting of the harbor at Rio de Janeiro
Botafogo Bay,” 1869, by Nicola Antonio Facchinetti (1824-1900)

A song of bird calls, sloshing waves, and whispering leaves lulled Izabel to drowsiness as she leaned against a palm trunk. Today’s task felt more like leisure than work — until a stuffy British voice broke into her daydreaming.

“Girl, fetch the small leather valise from the carriage.”

Sim, Senhora.” Izabel dashed uphill to the road, darting through a tangle of bushes and vine-twined trunks.

“Is she ready to leave?” Rubinho straightened from his slouch at the rear of the carriage.

Não. Remember? She said we’d be here all day.”

He huffed. “I can’t understand a word she says.”

“I translated. You weren’t listening to me.” Izabel found the valise. “You never do.”

Rubinho hoisted feed bags and went to tend the horses, grumbling about wasted freedom. “Nothing to do out here but kick my heels.”

Izabel took the valise to the grand visitor. Lady North perched in a swirl of long skirts on a folding chair Rubinho had carried to the beach hours ago. Izabel took one look at the easel and gasped. “That is lovely, Senhora!” she blurted.

“Yes, lovely,” Marianne North echoed, gazing out at the bay. “The morning sun set a perfect angle for light and shadow, and the waters shine like silver. Lush purple hills beyond. A most delightful scene.”

19th century painting of the harbor at Rio de Janeiro
Palm Trees and Boulders in the Bay of Rio, Brazil,” 1873, by Marianne North (1830-1890)

“Is it finished?” Belatedly, Izabel slapped a hand to her mouth and stepped back. “Pardon me, Senhora. I’ll keep silent now.”

“No, no, child. You may speak while I rest my eyes a moment. You have done so well this morning, I nearly forgot your presence. In fact, if your mistress will allow, I might borrow your services again tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Indeed. The governor has arranged a skiff to take me to Ilha de Paquetá. That island over yonder, if I’m not mistaken.”

19th century painting of a scene from an island in the harbor at Rio de Janeiro
Bananas and Rocks at Paqueta, Brazil,” 1873, by Marianne North (1830-1890)

Lady North chuckled. “He thought it such a peculiar request, that I would turn down high tea in his palace in favor of a solitary excursion into the wilds of Rio de Janeiro. But I have no use for high society, not when there is such a plethora of exotic plants to capture.”

“Capture?”

“On canvas, dear child. Or cardboard, rather, which I find much more suitable for plein air painting on my travels. Lighter weight, you see. Much more compact than a bundle of stretched frames. Can you lift this satchel, ah– What was your name?”

“Izabel. Like the princess. Sim, this is not too heavy.”

“Then you shall come with me tomorrow and carry the boards.” Lady North cocked her head. “What is your ancestry, Izabel? You’re not of African descent like the coachman. You have a lovely sienna tone to your skin.”

17th century painting of a mixed race woman of Brazil: Portuguese and Tupi
Mameluca Woman Under a Fruiting Cashew Tree,” by Albert Eckhout (c.1610-1665)

Izabel felt a flush rise under that piercing scrutiny. “I have Tupi blood, Senhora.”

“An original Brazilian! How delightful!”

” ‘Original’? Some of my ancestors were Tupi, but–“

“Now if I was a portrait painter instead of a botanist, I might be inclined to have you do a sitting, you and the black coachman and perhaps a fair-skinned Portuguese maid as well. A tableau to capture the essence of this fascinating country.”

Izabel backed off a step, uneasy at the thought of this grand foreigner posing her like a puppet on a stage, among other puppets of different hues, different stations in life. A fair-skinned maid might hope to marry up. Rubinho, she knew, was saving to buy his freedom from slavery. She herself sat somewhere in between.

Lady North rambled on. “But no, I’ve already settled on my next subject. Just up the hill I noticed a fine specimen of epiphyte climbing a Tibouchina tree.”

“An epi-what?”

“Whilst a parasite feasts off its host and saps its strength, an epiphyte merely uses its host as a ladder, reaching higher towards the sun. There. Your botany lesson for the day. Now, I believe, I shall add a touch of cerulean blue to my landscape before your immeasurably hot afternoon sun touches us with crimson.” The middle-aged botanist rummaged through tubes of oil paint nestled in the leather valise.

Izabel edged away, glancing at tree trunks all around, draped by vines and creepers and tendrils. Trees like the Tupi people, she thought — rooted deep over the ages, encumbered over these last two centuries by European parasites and African epiphytes — limbs and vines now so tightly entwined there was no hope of untangling the strands.


19th century botanical painting of parasites and epiphytes
Tree Laden With Parasites and Epiphytes,” 1873, by Marianne North (1830-1890)

19th century artwork painted by English botanist Marianne North during her visit to Brazil, 1872-1873, where the large labor force of African slaves was not emancipated until 1888 by Princess Isabel. By that time there were few native Tupi people left, after the ravages of diseases from Europe.

text: © 2021 Joyce Holt

artwork: 17th and 19th century paintings: in the public domain, according to these sources:

wikiart: “This artwork is in public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.”

wikipedia: “This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.”

{{PD-US-expired}} : published anywhere (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before 1926 and public domain in the U.S.

Forever

Barbara tossed and turned, flinching, whimpering. At last she lurched upright in her bed. “Leave me alone!”

Downstairs in his tailor’s shop, her husband Edward slept peacefully. “Why wear down both of us?” he’d asked after the first few weeks of the haunting, then set up his cot in the workroom.

19th century painting of the interior of a cottage in Wales
Cottage Interior,” 1840, by David Cox (1783-1859)

Something pinched Barbara’s arm. She bit back a shriek. Not to spare Edward. To vex Old Mollans, the ghost of her recently deceased mother-in-law.

A candle still burned on the table beside the bed. Light hadn’t kept it away, nor had herbs or religious relics. Nothing fended the vengeful spirit.

“Have you spoken ill of the dead?” Edward had asked.

“Did you spit on someone’s grave?” her friends had queried.

“Have you broken a sacred vow?” the priest had wondered.

Barbara kept mum about the true cause of the ghost’s anger. Tonight Old Mollans seemed more furious than ever. Something jabbed Barbara in the side. “Lay off!” she cried. “I won’t do it, I tell you!”

Wind blew open the shutters and whipped Barbara’s bedding into a tangle.

“No, you can’t make me!”

The cross fell off the wall, thwacking her on the head.

Barbara flung arms up to protect herself. “No, no, no! They don’t even know about it. I’m going to keep it.”

Her pillow exploded. The feathers whirled around her head, trying to fly up her nose, into her mouth.

“What do you care?” she hissed. “You’re dead and gone! Go lie in peace.”

Silence fell. Barbara wondered if she’d won the argument at last.

Then came a whisper, the first words she’d heard from her mother-in-law in all these tormented weeks. “Treasure left hidden dooms me to wander. No peace for me, no peace for you, never until you fulfill your oath!”

Barbara grimaced. She’d forgotten that scrap of lore. A living hand must retrieve the buried hoard, otherwise the hoarder would never find rest. “It’s your own fault,” she snarled at Old Mollans. “You should have meted out the inheritance yourself while you still lived. Why leave that task to me? You know I cannot abide your heirs! It’s beyond me to hand money over to them.”

The bedside chair leaped into the air and flung itself at Barbara, who rolled out of bed to escape.

The wardrobe crashed over. She scrambled up from the floor and danced around the room in panic, dodging books and shoes. “All right, all right!” she screamed at last. “I’ll retrieve it.”

Barbara stalked into her shrewish mother-in-law’s bedroom. She pried up the floorboard in one corner and withdrew a heavy box. “There. It’s recovered. Now leave me be.”

“The curse still reigns. You must deliver the treasure!”

Barbara stubbornly shook her head. “I won’t give a shilling to my uncouth brothers-in-law.”

“I’ll haunt you forever if you don’t free me!”

“There’s another way to end the curse,” Barbara said, remembering an old tale. “I could throw it in the Ogmore. Better that, than wasting it on your wretched heirs.”

The Ogmore River, said folklore, would settle such a debt, but only if the hoard was cast downriver.

Old Mollans moaned, whirled about the room, seemed to make up her mind. The ghost snatched Barbara up and blew her out the window, up a rush of air into the sky.

18th century painting of a landscape in Wales, looking down from a height
Carneddau Mountains from Pencerrig,” 1776, by Thomas Jones (1742-1803)

The terrified woman strangled on her screams as she watched the church pass below her, and all the houses of Llantwit Major. She flew over hills and streams until the Ogmore spread out below.

“Downriver, remember!” the ghost howled. “Throw it with the current, downriver!”

Still tumbling on the wind, Barbara fumbled the box open and gripped it tight, ready to make a great heave. In one last fit of peeve, she tossed all the coins upstream into the Ogmore’s oncoming current.

“No!” shrieked the ghost. “Miserable woman! Cursed forever! You and I both!” Old Mollans hurled Barbara into the moonlit stream.

19th century painting of a river in the mountains of Wales
A Rest on the Roadside,” 1861, by Sidney Richard Percy (1821-1886)

Barbara staggered up the lane, dripping all the way. She stumbled to a halt by a stone wall. Something looked vaguely familiar. She leaned there, gazing around in confusion.

Evening sky.

Village houses.

The loft of the village church across the sward. That sound pulsing in her ears, it was bells. Church bells tolling evensong.

Memory slowly returned.

First the whirlwind had whisked her out of her house, moneybox in hand, spinning madly. Then it had cast her into the River Ogmore to chase the treasure she’d flung away.

Barbara reached up to brush bedraggled hair out of her face. Her sodden tresses were raspy with sand. The world whirled with renewed terror:  plunging to the river, getting bowled along by the current and dragged along the bottom, nearly drowning. She bent over and retched.

When the ringing in her ears eased off, Barbara slowly straightened. The church bells had fallen silent, too.

That’s how the bell-ringers found her, sagging against the wall. One on each side they supported her on the walk up the lane to her house.

Edward, her husband, took Barbara upstairs while she babbled on about ghosts and broken vows and wasted treasure. “Well now, peace will return, I expect,” he soothed as he changed her into dry clothes and put her to bed.

All night long, something knocked at her bedroom window.

“There’s nothing out there but a crow,” Edward said when he came the third time. He waved arms to scare it off. “Shoo!”

18th century landscape painting set in Wales
Field Near Pencerrig,” 1776, by Thomas Jones (1742-1803)

Next morning while Barbara sat in the parlor, a knock came at the door. She cringed into her shawl and would not answer it. “Old Mollans is out there!” she cried. “Don’t open it!”

“My mother? What do you mean?”

“I broke a vow to her, dooming her to wander unless I set her spirit free. But then I did it all wrong, and she’ll haunt me forever!”

Knocking came again, this time at the parlor window. Edward opened it to look – and a crow flew in, cawing and swooping at Barbara.

Edward grabbed a broom and chased it out.

The crow came in by the chimney and attacked again.

Once more Edward came to her rescue. “You may have to live in the closet, love.” He got a grate from the blacksmith to cover the flue.

19th century painting of a raven
Raven,” by John James Audubon (1785-1851) ~ (technically, not a crow)

A few days later a neighbor came to visit while Edward was out. “It’s stuffy in here, dear. Let me fling open the shutters and get some fresh air.”

“No!” Barbara cried, too late.

The crow flew in, straight for the miserable woman, flapping wings at her head, beating her unmercifully.

The neighbor screamed and flailed at the bird with her purse.

Hearing the commotion, another neighbor burst into the house, eyes widening at the sight. He grabbed a poker. “I’ll kill it!”

“No! Don’t, don’t!” Barbara cried. “If you kill the crow you’ll kill my mother-in-law, and I shall go to perdition! * “

Old Mollans “ghost-walked” Barbara the rest of her unhappy life.


* dialogue taken straight from the folktale; folktale from Glamorgan Vale, Wales; retold by Joyce Holt

text: © 2021 Joyce Holt

artwork: 19th century paintings: in the public domain, according to these sources:

wikiart: “This artwork is in public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.”

wikipedia: “This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.”

{{PD-US-expired}} : published anywhere (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before 1926 and public domain in the U.S.

Silent Mischief

Evading the notice of Dutch sentries, Sinhalese soldiers slipped one by one over the wall into their own city, Trincomalee, fairest city in all Sri Lanka. Trincomalee, now held by foreigners.

Following their captain, the Sinhalese filed through the night down dark lanes toward the waterfront. They could smell the difference on the air. Dutch cooking. Dutch smoke. Stinking Dutch boots.

They had no hope of winning their port city back through battle, but they refused to let the usurpers occupy it in peace. Their captain had a grand plan for this night’s foray. Lit by starlight, teeth flashed up and down the line at the thought of the mischief in store.

19th century painting of a street scene in Delhi, India
The Street of Blood, Delhi,” 1880, by Marianne North (1830-1890)

No other port on the Indian Sea had such a fine natural harbor as this, safe and secure in any kind of weather. Ships of all sizes moored at Trincomalee’s docks.

One unusual vessel had limped into Trincomalee Bay after the last monsoon. It was rigged like the Dutch merchant ships, but narrower, sleeker, not much room for cargo, and it flew an odd flag. One of the Sinhalese recognized the pattern. This ship hailed from some faraway land called Britain.

Now, edging through shadows  along the dock, the strike force located the slim vessel from Britain. One of its three masts had snapped, and the ship listed slightly to starboard. The monsoon had given it a beating.

The gangplank still lay in place. The Sinhalese stole aboard one at a time, armed with daggers, ropes and gags. They took out a lone guard with a thump and a thud and a muffled cry.

No alarm was raised.

One soldier whispered to another, “These Britain-men sleep deep as sloths!”

The captain sent his men in pairs to pry into every door and hatch.


Robert Knox Jr broke from dreams, choking against a gag forced into his mouth. An iron grip pinioned his wrists. Groggy with sleep, he found himself bound before he could even begin to think about fighting back. A sea captain’s son, he didn’t have the street instincts of the sailors below deck – who slept on through the attack aboveboard. In the cabin’s shadows, he caught a glimpse of his father, captain of this poor crippled frigate, also gagged, struggling against several forceful men.

Then a blindfold stole Robert’s sight.

Hands forced him into step, a dagger point in his ribs taming any belated thought of breaking free. He heard others shuffling along, then felt the night air on his cheeks. The deck below his feet, canted ever since the monsoon, shifting with the gentle motion of the bay waters, grating against the dock. The gangplank, creaking underfoot, sagging with his weight.

Had the Dutch of Trincomalee changed their mind about granting them aid? But no need for manhandling like this, in the middle of the night. They could have boarded and pronounced confiscation of the frigate by daylight.

Robert heard a few hushed Sinhalese words among his captors. His guts lurched. The natives of Sri Lanka! They’d infiltrated the very heart of the Dutch-held city!

Now he felt cobblestones underfoot. Herded through the streets like a sheep on market day.

Robert tried to cry for help – and got a blow to his temple that rattled his wits.

Pushed, shoved, punched, he staggered on.

A shout. In Dutch. He recognized a few words. “Stop!” and “Hold!” and “Don’t let them break through!”

Yelling now, and the sound of fighting.

Robert’s captor drove him at a run through the commotion. Other footsteps pounded nearby. A whole horde pelted along, their feet slapping dirt now. The Dutch voices fell behind. Laughter and jeers surrounded him, and boasts in Sinhalese.

19th century landscape painting from the mountains of Sri Lanka
A River Landscape, Ceylon,” by Andrew Nicholl (1804-1886)

Hours later Robert was pulled to a stop. The blindfold loosened, was whisked away. A dark-skinned, mustachioed soldier sliced off Robert’s gag with a thin dagger.

Robert blinked in daylight, working his jaw and tongue, trying to moisten his dry mouth. The Indian Ocean – the first thing he saw – glimmered on the southeastern horizon. How far up Sri Lanka’s slopes had they come?

“Son!” croaked a voice from behind. Robert Knox Sr came up beside him, looking all around. A dozen other dazed Englishmen, arms trussed to their sides, clustered together, surrounded by soldiers in peaked caps and white baggy trousers.

“Who is chief here?” barked one Sinhalese in a sing-song version of Dutch.

Eyes turned to Robert’s father.

The leader of this band strutted up and gave the sea captain a long gloating gaze. He spoke.

The translator relayed his words. “King Rajasinha will be overjoyed to see you. He has quite a collection of exotic captives to adorn his court, but not yet any of your kind.”

“King who?” asked Knox Sr.

“Rajasinha the Second. Rightful ruler of all the isle. He reigns from our mountain fastness – four days’ march ahead. Welcome to the kingdom of Kanda Uda Rata.” The Sinhalese captain sketched a mock bow.

“Mountain fastness,” Robert said bleakly.

“I believe our seafaring days are over, son.” Captain Knox turned his back to the ocean view, shoulders slumped, and followed the soldiers into captivity.

19th century painting of an over-arching canopy of Indian rubber trees on Sri Lanka
Avenue of Indian Rubber Trees at Peradeniya, Ceylon,” 1877, by Marianne North (1830-1890)

In 1659, Sinhalese freedom-fighters infiltrated the Dutch perimeter of the occupied Sri Lankan port Trincomalee. They brazenly kidnapped 16 English seafarers from their crippled ship, including sea captain Robert Knox Sr and his 19-year-old son Robert Jr.

King Rajasinha II of the mountain realm Kanda was delighted to add more captive foreigners to his collection of unwilling courtiers. Robert Sr died of malaria while a “guest” of the king. After 19 years in captivity, Robert Jr escaped and returned home to England where he published an account of the people of the mountain realm of Kanda Uda Rata.

19th century painting of a scene in the palace at Kandy, Sri Lanka
In the Old Palace, Kandy, Ceylon,” 1880, by Marianne North (1830-1890)

text: © 2021 Joyce Holt

artwork: 19th century paintings: in the public domain, according to these sources:

wikiart: “This artwork is in public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.”

wikipedia: “This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.”

{{PD-US-expired}} : published anywhere (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before 1926 and public domain in the U.S.

Sjørå: Sea Ruler

Low sunlight played off the waters of Grønsund, one of many waterways snaking through the islands of Denmark. Evening sun glinted silver and cream from wave crests, wreathed with pale green and deep indigo below. Esben glanced to port where the bluffs of Falster Island sloped down to the strand, all buff and flaxen and crowned with tawny grasses. Dark junipers topped Sjøborg, the highest cliff.

19th century painting of a sailboat off shore in the moonlight
Moonlight,” 1869, by Knud Baade (1827-1879)

On Sjørå’s Rock, just offshore, a fleck of red caught Esben’s gaze. The skipper reefed his sail. He leaned on the tiller, heeling his boat around and into the wind until she slowed like a horse easing from a gallop to a trot to a head-tossing halt. Sjørå’s Rock, the rock of the sea-ruler, wore mussels for a crown, studded rough with barnacles, but one long flank showed smooth stone where mer-folk at times perched to sun themselves. There on the glistening, slate-blue flank lay a small red lump.

Esben leaned out, using his fishing gaff to poke at the thing, then to snag it and draw it aboard. A mitten. A large, bright red mitten.

The skipper looked all around, even down into the depths. No mate could he see. He rubbed his stubbled chin, then tucked the lone mitten into his empty lunch pail, hoisted the sail, and continued on his way home.

Many small fishing boats sailed up the channel after a good day’s catch out on the Baltic Sea. The tide was with them, pouring into Grønsund through the often-perilous inlet called Tolke-Deep. Several fishermen then headed north into Ulvsund and their home ports, among them, Esben making for the coastal village of Borren.

Later that evening, after delivering his catch, Esben hung the mitten before his fire to dry. As he fixed a simple meal, the scent of the wide, wild ocean filled his cabin. He eyed his find. One lone mitten cries for a mate.

He rummaged through his basket of yarn. Beneath the skeins of gold, blue and green he found one of bright red. He smiled, brandished knitting needles, and set to work.

The next day Esben sailed down Ulvsund to Grønsund, slowed in the shadow of Sjøborg, and tossed the pair of mittens onto Sjørå’s Rock. He hummed a satisfied tune as he aimed his craft out through Tolke-Deep and into the Baltic Sea.

19th century painting of a stormy sea coast
Fantasibilde Fra den Norske Sagatid (Fantasy Image from Viking Times),” 1850, by Knud Baade (1827-1879) ~ Notice the similarity in composition with a painting featured in “Phantoms from the North,” two tales prior: “Crepúsculo marino (Ocean Twilight),” by Miguel Antonio Smith

A week later on a morning red in the east but with purple clouds surging in the west, Esben began the same route on his daily fishing routine. A strong breeze filled his sail. As he passed Sjørå’s Rock he heard a voice shout.

“Listen, my mitten friend! Put your boat in at Borren, because Tolke is spitting and the oaks in Norway groan.”

Esben heeded the sjørå’s warning. He hauled about into the wind, tacked back and forth along Grønsund, and hurried for home.

Before long there brewed a storm the likes of which nobody had ever seen. All the boats that were still out at sea were destroyed.


19th century painting of a storm hitting the coast
Stormnatt Von,” 1879, by Knud Baade (1827-1879)

folktale from Denmark

retold by Joyce Holt © 2021

The wording of the sjørå’s warning comes straight from the folktale.

Black Feathers and Gray

T’ika gripped a handful of feathers, hanging on for her life. She slipped about on the back of the huge cóndor that had carried her off from high mountain pastures. Riddled by fear, she gazed down past immense, black-plumed wings beating, beating, beating on the wind.

Glaciers glistened far below, and the winking blue eyes of lakes among the peaks. White speckles of sheep scattered from the pasture where she’d been herding.

19th century painting of a river among mountains, set in the Andes
Cachapoal River,” by Miguel Antonio Smith (1832-1877)

The young shepherdess clung tighter to keep her seat, for the wide back of her captor heaved with each wingstroke.

The great naked head of the cóndor turned to fix one fierce red eye upon its catch. The hooked beak opened to speak.

T’ika shuddered. What message would this mystical Otherworldly creature give her from the spirits above? What doom–?

“Baaa!”

 T’ika lurched upright, eyes flying open. Her fingers clenched wads of her woolen manta, not feathers. The eyes gazing at her, bright with worry, belonged to the sheep of her flock, shuffling and nervous. “A dream,” she muttered. “Nothing but a dream and old legends.”

It didn’t help that every morning her mother sent her off with the same phrase. “Watch out or the cóndor will take you.”

19th century painting of Mapuche folk, indigenous to Chile
Mapuche Fabric and Games,” by Claude Gay (1800-1873)

How long had she slept? Until evening? The day had turned gloomy. T’ika made to rise not from a cóndor’s back but from solid unmoving ground.

The ground heaved.

T’ika fell back to all fours.

Several ewes bleated and dashed away, opening up a view of the wider world.

19th century painting of a landscape in Ecuador: a volcano erupting in the Andes
Cotopaxi,” 1862, by Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900)

The young shepherdess blinked all around. Clouds veiled the sky. Clouds of ash, billowing from Old Man Cotopaxi, rolling closer as if the sky spirits meant to cover the world with heavy, smothering blankets. Gray ash feathers sifted down.

On the southern horizon, resentful Mother Tungurahua shot up a spume in reply.

T’ika sprang to her feet, grabbed her staff, called to her flock, and dashed for the steep path homewards. She’d rather get carried off by the great spirit-messenger cóndor than get caught in an argument between volcanoes.


© 2021 Joyce Holt

based on legends from the Quichua folk of Ecuador

Phantoms from the North

19th century painting of a misty mountain scene set in the Andes in South America
Paisaje con cordillera y laguna (landscape with cordillera and lake),” 1870, by Miguel Antonio Smith (1832-1877)

Kuyen ran up the bluff trail. “Grandmother!” she shouted. “The fishers are returning already!”

Saqui dropped her shuttle, reached for her staff, hauled herself to her feet. “Why so early?” the old woman asked with a glance at the misty heavens. “The sun has barely dusted his feet on his trek up the sky!”

“I don’t know,” Kuyen said, helping Saqui down the trail. “But they were paddling faster than a scared penguin.”

The old woman halted at the last overlook and gazed down at the beach.

The fishermen were hauling their sealskin-bladder rafts up the shingle. No baskets of fish to be seen. They threw down their paddles, shooed the children from their duties at the fish-drying racks to join them in running up the slope.

“Phantoms!” the men cried, voices tight with panic. “A great, huge phantom on the sea, swimming from the north through the mists and heavy fog!”

“Where are the other women?” old Curiman asked, puffing from the climb.

“Up the valley, gathering berries,” Saqui said.

“Good. They’re already halfway to the refuge. Quick, we must all take to hiding.”

One of the husky young men took old Saqui on his back, and they hurried up the steep path.

“Phantoms. Spirits. Monsters,” people muttered.

Kuyen kept glancing back at the foggy sea. Her step faltered, and she cried out, “There it is! The phantom – a monster – like a whale with trees on its back!”

“Dead trees draped with great sheets of lichen,” Curiman said. “Like wings. White wings. Yes, that’s what we saw when it first appeared out at sea.”

“Wings?” Kuyen asked. “Was it flying?”

“No. Just swimming.”

Kuyen stared longer at the sight, shading her eyes. “Paddles. I see paddles!” she said. “Strange paddles. Long-handled paddles. Is it a great raft? Yes, there are fishermen working the paddles!”

“You have the sharpest eyes of all our kin,” said the old man, squinting. “A raft, you think?”

“The monster folds its wings now,” one of the fishermen said. “Slowing to a stop. Like a seagull settling to rest in sheltered waters. A huge devil gull.”

“A raft! Men on board,” Kuyen insisted. “Could they be Incas? Is this a new way they come hunting for slaves?”

Curiman shook his head. “Never heard of them doing this.”

“There’s food aplenty in the refuge,” old Saqui said. “We’ll stay up in the heights and keep an eye on the phantom.”

Curiman set young men to hide and watch from the lower overlooks while the rest of the folk trekked up to the refuge and made it ready for a stay.


19th century painting of the Pacific Ocean seen from the coast of Chile
Crepúsculo marino (Ocean Twilight),” by Miguel Antonio Smith (1832-1877)

Three days later, it was again Kuyen’s turn to take food to the lookouts. The sun shone bright, for a dry wind was blowing from mountains to the sea.

The phantom still rode the waters of the bay. She could see men like ants on a log, prowling the monster’s back.

The three youths on watch were arguing.

“Yesterday they smashed all the fish racks on the beach,” Kuyen’s brother Cautaro told her.

“They haven’t found the racks on the other bluff,” Huenu said. “We should go salvage the fish while we can.”

“But we can’t abandon our watch,” protested Maiten.

“They’re still lazing about on the great raft. What’s there for us to watch?”

Someone must stay as lookout.”

The three youths turned their gaze to Kuyen. She shrugged. “I can watch while you go.”

They slipped into the brush and vanished, and Kuyen hunkered down, staring at the huge vessel slumbering off-shore.

A huge vessel – with a smaller raft debarking. Kuyen straightened and stared. A dozen phantom-men rowed toward the beach.

She glanced after her brother. Nowhere to be seen.

The men below reached land and milled around. Two of them pushed a sealskin-bladder fishing-raft out into the surf. Kuyen could hear them laugh, like barking seals. The others threw rocks at the raft, then lost interest and wandered about.

“Let the enchanted sea wind blow,” Kuyen prayed. “Let the sea send heavy fogs to blind them!”

The dry mountain wind sighed and swirled and muttered away into an ominous calm.

One phantom-man found the foot of the path and called to the others.

Kuyen’s heart tripped. “No,” she whispered.

Yes. They started climbing.

Kuyen backed off from the viewpoint and glanced swiftly around. The well-beaten trail pointed its way up toward the refuge. The phantom-men would follow.

Were they peaceable, like her kin, the Chango folk? Or war-like as the Incas? Would they want to take Changos as slaves? Or slaughter them on the spot?

16th century sketch by a Quechua nobleman, showing Incas attacking Quechua peoples, who live further south than the Chango
sketch by Huamán Poma de Ayala (1535-1616): Incas (right) attacking Quechua peoples (who live further south than the Chango)

What defense did they have? Kuyen scurried along, scanning to right and left.

There. The perfect spot. The trail branched to another overlook at the verge of a cliff. Kuyen dragged branches and brush, gathered leaves and scattered them to hide the main trail, then wound her way higher up the slope.  She must warn her kin at the refuge.

Men’s voices sounded from the cliff edge below, ringing across the steep hillsides.

Other voices chimed in, faint as the chirps of swallows.

Kuyen edged to a vantage point, looking down, down, down.

More ants, creeping along the beach. Men, of course, far off to the north, walking this way. But they moved all wrong. Stiff and stilted, like a heron strutting through marshland.

As they came closer, Kuyen shook her head, baffled. These men clanked as they walked, like great hermit crabs. Their heads glinted in the sunlight like abalone shells.

A gust blew across the beach at their feet, hurling sand inland. The sunlight dimmed. Mists rolled in from the sea.

The hermit-crab men paid the wind no heed. They shouted and waved at the great raft.

The men on the cliff called back. Their voices dropped in tone as they went back down the trail.

Kuyen sagged in relief. She crept down to a better outlook and watched all the men, the climbers and the clankers, board the small raft and row back to the great phantom, now swaying in the first rush of wind from the sea. Fog billowed like smoke.

The hulking vessel spread its wings, whipping and snapping in the breeze. It slowly glided away, off to the north, vanishing into thickening mists.

Cautaro, Huenu, and Maiten eased out of the underbrush with bulky bags on their backs. “What was all that shouting?” Cautaro asked.

“They came to shore, those phantom-men,” Kuyen said. “They frolicked like little children. And more of them came afoot, from the north, honking like seals. But they all drifted away on the breath of the camanchaca.”

“Like a bad dream,” her brother said. “May that be the last we see of them.”

The wind whistled in Kuyen’s ears. “The first, first, first.


© 2021 Joyce Holt

Story set in the region now known as Valparaiso, Chile.

The frigid Humboldt Current flows north from Antarctic regions, chilling a damp wind that blows inland, up the flanks of the Andes Mountains. Dense fog rolls in but drops no precipitation. A little to the north of Chango territory, the Aymara people call this weather phenomenon the Camanchaca, meaning “darkness.” Mosses, lichens, and cacti grow in the arid land where the city of Valparaiso now stands.

In 1536, Spanish sea captain Don Juan de Saavedra was taking part in an overland exploration led by Diego de Almagro, Governor of Cuzco, Peru. Brigantines sailed along the coast to bring them supplies.

Tag-along

Grímur Fatcheeks toddled after the older children but couldn’t keep up.   “Nika!  Nika, me too!” he cried.

His big brother Niklas didn’t hear the piping voice in the midst of all the jesting and laughter.

Grímur halted, stuck a thumb in his mouth and watched the four youngsters pelt down the stony path from Sørvágur village to the lakeshore.  His baby-face dimpled in a frown.  He popped the thumb out and stumped along, bound to join in the fun.

Niklas and his friends skipped flat stones across the shining waters of Leitisvatn.  The late evening sun hung above the clifftops beyond, and gulls spun across the silvered sky.

Grímur picked up a rock as he neared the others.  He had no hopes of skipping it, but it should make a hearty splash.

19th century painting of a Nordic lake
The Twelve Wild Ducks,” by Theodor Severin Kittelsen (1857-1914)

Just as he reached them, the children yelled and took off running along the waterline.

“Nooo!” Grímur cried, and tried to keep up.  “Me too!”

Niklas and the others slowed, their voices dropping to soft coos as they approached a tall gray mare standing in the shallows.  The lovely horse shook a silken mane and stepped to meet them.

Grímur stopped.  In went the thumb again.  Hadn’t old Auntie told a scary story about the fierce horse-shaped nykk who haunts lakes?  But this mare stood sweetly and nickered soft as a lamb.

19th century painting of a white horse emerging from a lake
Noekken Som Hvit Hest (the nykk as a white horse)“, by Theodor Severin Kittelsen (1857-1914)

He stomped on again.  Niklas, largest of the foursome, boosted the others one by one to the horse’s back, then they hauled him up.  The mare nodded, shifting weight ever so smoothly, her tail whisking like lace in a breeze — and took a step along shore.

Leaving him behind again!  As he ran, Grímur called out in woe, “Me too!  Me too!”

Niklas gave his little brother one annoyed glance, and turned away.

The mare swung about and plunked one hoof into the lake.

“Nooo!” Grímur cried.  “Nika, Nika!”

The horse’s head shot up at the cry, nostrils flaring, eye rolling.  A rage gleamed in that fiery eye.  Mane and tail writhed like serpents.  The smooth gait turned to a lurch, and the children tumbled off its back onto dry land.

“Nika!” Grímur Fatcheeks screamed in fear.

The nykk, which cannot bear hearing its name called aloud, galloped into deeper water and vanished, back to its lair on the bed of the lake.


folktale from the Faeroe Islands

retold by Joyce Holt © 2021

The dangerous shape-shifting water horse is called nykur in Icelandic, näck in Swedish, and nøkk or nykk in Norwegian. Sometimes called nix in English, it’s also the root of the word “nicker.”

Want to hear my narrations of the last three tales? Try my podcast, coming out shortly after the blog…

Näck

19th century painting of a Nordic homestead: a log cabin, grass growing on the roof
Langebrata,” by Theodor Severin Kittelsen (1857-1914)

Etta hurried to the barn in answer to a summons.

“Bring the horse in,” the farmer ordered as he readied the plow. “I’ll be plowing the upper fields today.”

The servant girl took a halter and ran down to the lakeside meadow. She stared at the sight for a moment, then turned and darted back to the barn. “There are two horses in the pasture!” she said.

The farmer glanced out the barn door with a frown, but all he saw was the house and courtyard. He jutted his chin in thought, then nodded. “Take the one that isn’t ours,*” he said. “If you can.”

His words put Etta on edge. She walked back to the pasture. There grazed old Bles, a dull brown all over except for the graying blaze down her muzzle. And a few paces away grazed a glamorous white horse. Long silken silvery mane, rich silvery plume of tail, feathered fetlocks.

The strange horse looked up as Etta approached. Great dark eyes blinked soulfully, the very picture of gentleness and goodwill. The uncanny beast nodded its head and nickered in greeting.

The servant girl edged forward. She sucked a small gasp and stood still as the white horse gracefully closed the distance, ending with a swerve sideways, inviting her to climb astride.

Etta knew to be wary about strange horses, whether brilliant white or dark as night. Tales told of the nix, the näck, the shape-shifting demon that lured fools into a ride to a watery death.

19th century painting  of a white horse plunging into a lake, carrying an unlucky rider
Gutt Paa Hvit Hest (Boy on a White Horse),” by Theodor Severin Kittelsen (1857-1914)

She sidestepped. With a flick of the wrist she slid the halter into place.

The horse’s eyes widened and nostrils flared, but the beast had been properly caught and must submit.

Etta led the docile white horse uphill to the courtyard. By the time she reached the barn, her stride bounced with a jaunty air. She had captured a näck!

The farmer used the näck, stronger than an ox, for all the spring plowing, but never dared to remove the halter. One evening, weary and limping, he told Etta to unharness the white horse from the plow.

The servant girl unhitched the plow, led the plodding beast into the barn, poured it a measure of grain, and absent-mindedly took off the halter.

The näck reared, swelling with might and power, glowing in the shadows of the stall. It shook its long neck. Mane and tail whipped like snakes.

Etta cried out and fell back into a corner.

The näck bugled, a sound to shiver the soul, and thundered out of the barn.

Etta dashed after, just in time to see the fell beast gallop the last downhill stretch and into the lake. It vanished beneath the waters, and she never saw it again.

19th century painting of a mountain lake
Tjernet (lake),” by Theodor Severin Kittelsen (1857-1914)

folktale from Östergötland, Sweden

retold by Joyce Holt © 2021

Night Riders

Raamund pulled on trousers in the dark. He shoved stocking feet into wooden clogs waiting by bedside, then felt for his heavy coat.

It wasn’t there.

The early hours of a frigid midwinter morning — too dark even to find a candle.

Raamund grimaced, braced himself against the cold, and left the relative warmth of his cabin. Beneath the sharp crystal gaze of the stars he hurried across the snow-packed courtyard to the barn. His ponies didn’t care if the sun wouldn’t rise until midday. Their bellies clamored for feed at the same old time, every day.

night sky detail from "Dresden in Moonlight," 1843, by Johan Christian Dahl
detail from “Dresden in Moonlight,” 1843, by Johan Christian Dahl

Raamund felt his way between stalls to the ladder, climbed up to the loft, found a twine-wrapped bundle of hay. Bundle under his arm, he started down the ladder again.

The world shuddered. Raamund lost balance and toppled — but didn’t fall far. He landed on his rump. Upon a saddle. Upon the back of a large creature that neighed, shied and swiveled.

A huge horse. It pelted into a run, out the barn door and into the courtyard. It leaped into the air and galloped up the sky with Raamund clinging to the pommel, gaping in terror as the landscape flowed past.

His farm, Rue under Røyte Moor, vanished behind them. Other wild black horses joined the race, ridden by hideous creatures.

detail from "Asgardsreien," 1872, by Peter Nicolai Arbo: the Wild Hunt
detail from “Asgardsreien,” 1872, by Peter Nicolai Arbo

They crossed over the western ridge, flew over Sundbarm Lake, and landed at Sanden on the opposite shore. The night-riders milled about, jostling, yammering, bellowing laughter. They shared bread slabs and flasks of some foul drink.

Raamund turned down the waybread, tried to dismount, but his monstrous steed once again sprang into the air. Off they all dashed again, flying north over Langlim and up to Ommersdal. They wheeled about and came roaring down Svartdal, skimming the hilltops, soaring over frozen lakes. Raamund hugged the hay bundle against his chest, shuddering as frigid winter wind stabbed through shirt and trousers.

detail from "Asgardsreien," 1872, by Peter Nicolai Arbo: the Wild Hunt
detail from “Asgardsreien,” 1872, by Peter Nicolai Arbo

Just a few days until Yule, the darkest and coldest time of year, the most haunted time of year, and now he’d been swept into the dreaded Oskoreid, Yuletide’s greatest peril. Was he doomed to ride with them for eternity?

The Wild Hunt swept up again over high moorland as daybreak neared. Raamund peered down. So hard to recognize landmarks from above — but hadn’t they circled around in a great loop? Weren’t these the moors that loomed above his farm, Rue?

He studied the terrain below. That frozen waterway, the way it twisted coming down from the heights, and those three hillocks on the banks — this was Røyte Moor!

“Jøss!” he cried. “We’re back again!”

At sound of the Christian god’s name, the devilish horses bucked and bugled, the hideous riders shrieked. The saddle slid out from under Raamund. In one thundering heartbeat, he found himself standing upon the frozen stream, the hay bundle clutched tight in his arms.

Winter’s chill gnawed at his flesh, but the warmth of life and hope flowed through his veins as Raamund started his trek downhill, back to the humble haven at Rue.

detail from "Dresden in Moonlight," 1843, by Johan Christian Dahl: two figures walking a road in the dark
detail from “Dresden in Moonlight,” 1843, by Johan Christian Dahl

folktale from from Rue Farm, Seljord, Telemark, Norway

retold by Joyce Holt © 2021

first published 25 Jan 2021

Two paintings by Peter Nicolai Arbo, depicting Night and Day: "Natten," 1887, and "Dagr," 1874
“Natten,” 1887, and “Dagr,” 1874 (“Night” and “Day”) by Peter Nicolai Arbo

Full Gallop

19th century painting of a dark horse
Horse,” 1836, by George Harvey (1806-1876)

Rowena hushed Madoc and drew him back around the corner of the house they had just passed.

“What is it?” he hissed.

“There’s a black horse standing at the head of the lane yonder.”

“So?”

“That lane leads to the graveyard.”

Madoc’s teeth flashed in the gloom of twilight. “So we’re not the only ones roaming dark village streets. Someone’s gone to rob a grave!”

Rowena shook her head. “No saddle, no bridle. This is not a thief’s mount, ready and waiting for flight.”

“A stray then. No need to be shying away into the shadows like this.”

Rowena gulped. “This is no stray. It’s a death horse. When it stands at the burying-lane, it’s waiting for orders – whose soul to fetch. Someone in the village is soon to die.”

“Ah! I’ve heard tell of the creature, but just as a tale to scare children.” Madoc leaned around the corner, taking another look. “It is a rather large horse,” he murmured. “And its eyes – are they glowing?”

Rowena wrapped arms around herself. “Well, there’s no getting past it unless we want to go wide around and tramp over the fields. Though with the rain this morning, the ground would be all mucky.”

“We can wait here.” Madoc drew her close. “I’ll keep you warm.”

Rowena giggled and pushed him back. “Flirt! My friend Isolde lives just up the street. You haven’t met her yet. Let’s go pay her a visit.”

They walked away from the specter at the burying-lane.

19th century painting of a black horse standing still
Marke Horse,” by George Stubbs (1724-1806)

“Have you seen the death-horse before?” Madoc asked.

“Yes, two times. Once it set off walking, just ambling along to the house of Old Toreth the Sour – who poisoned her neighbors’ dogs and cats. She lingered for days before the fever finally took her. Another time, the black horse trotted along in fits and starts, back and forth, and Old Man Garnock kept coming to death’s door but then rallying. He never returned anything he borrowed, and spread the vilest rumors.”

“Who do you think death might come for tonight?”

Rowena shrugged. “No idea. No one is sick, that I’ve heard of. “

A bugling cry shattered the quiet of the night, and a clatter of heavy hooves. Once more Rowena dragged Madoc into cover.

The great black horse pounded down the cobblestones, sparks flying from each strike of the hooves. A gale stinking of sulfur swirled in its wake, and Rowena gagged at the stench. Her eyes widened when she saw the fearsome beast halt in front of the grandest house on the lane.

19th century painting of a grand house in the Welsh countryside
Greenfield House, Harorne,” by David Cox (1783-1859)

Teithi the Tight-fisted, plague of the village. Teithi the greedy solicitor who had driven several local old folk to the poor-house when they couldn’t pay their debts. Teithi the money-grubbing lawyer who had so abruptly shouldered his way into local affairs these last few weeks.

“A full-blown gallop,” Madoc gasped. “What does that portend?”

Rowena’s lips stretched thin at the justice of it. “Sudden death.”

19th century painting of two horses running
Horses Running,” by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863)

Folktale from southern Wales

A retelling by Joyce Holt (c) 2021

Hear these tales narrated by the author on her podcast, also named “Hindsight”