A Tale for Hallowe'en
(A true tale, too.)
It was a dark and stormy night.
Actually, this is a lie. Best we clear that up to start with—there are no lies here. No fictions. This is a true story.
It was a clear, windy, and typically northern Scottish autumnal night, with the moon shining through the Velux window into my attic bedroom. At that point, I had no blind or curtain. In summer, this was annoying, the bright night sky keeping me awake. At other times of the year, there was still the lighthouse on the uninhabited island of Copinsay to deal with, that and the clawing wind, scratching for entry on the window itself. The trade off was being able to see the stars from my bed, or watch birds flying above, especially during the migratory seasons.
This was our third (and final, it would turn out) house in Orkney, a move necessary in order to spread—I now had five younger sisters and space had become a premium. I loved this house, built in the eighteenth century or perhaps earlier, allegedly by wreckers—those men and women who lured passing ships onto sharp knives of rock, in order to steal the cargo. There was a windowsill made from thick, exotic wood, apparently from one of those ships, and the house was squat, stone and smelled of the earth, of old places. It felt like home, very quickly.
We had our first possible visitations immediately. I believe the correct term may be “odour experience”, in the parlance of the modern ghost-hunter. We explained it away by suggesting they were simply scents trapped in the floor, in the walls, something which certainly happens in old buildings. One corner would smell of fresh pipe smoke, one room of wet dog, cooking scents would tantalise, yet nothing was on the hob. And always the smell of the sea.
This last was not especially surprising. We were the last house before Norway, the end of the road and then some. The track up to the house was bleached, dusted by the salt in the spray, the view often hazy, sometimes we would hear the seals sharing their otherworldly song, or feel the deep resonance of huge boulders being moved against the cliffs in storms. At times, they were even tossed upon the cliff tops, something non-Orcadians had a hard time believing.
The bed I slept in was a marvel, dominating my room, with its low ceilings and tight angles. It had come with the house, the solid iron and wooden structure simply too large to be lowered through the hatch downstairs, or out through the window. The mattress was old too; horsehair would occasionally escape and tickle me through the sheets—it sufficed for a time, before we decided to cut it up and burn it. This act of cultural vandalism was justified—the mattress stayed damp, no matter how often we attempted to coax the moisture from its depths. I would often think of those who had slept in that bed, who had perhaps died there, or drew their first breath atop the horse hair. When it burnt, it steamed and hissed.
One night, I awoke suddenly. This in itself was not surprising; I have always been a light sleeper and often wake at odd times, the smallest noise or a shadow crossing my face waking me. I glanced at the clock, illuminated by the bright moon: four in the morning. Plenty of time to sleep. I turned over and closed my eyes, then I swiftly reopened them—something was different. Something I had missed in the brief moment I had my eyelids parted, only to be noted in my subconscious as they closed.
I found my gaze drift to the foot of the bed, past the thick foot-board to the woman kneeling there. She was wearing a shawl, pulled up over her head in a manner I had seen wizened Orcadian great-great-grandmothers do, thick coarse wool keeping heat in, wind out. She was facing away from me and I was not scared.
This last point bears repeating; I had awoken in my own room to find someone kneeling at the foot of my bed, and I was not scared. The figure slowly and silently turned and I could see she was hunched over something cradled in her arms. A baby. There was a woman in a shawl, rocking a baby, at the foot of my bed. And I was not scared.
Her head lifted to look at me, and in the bright moonlight I could easily see the smile that also lit her face. Here was a woman, wrinkles as deep as time, expressing the pure joy of holding a sleeping child. She was not solid, yet she was real. I could see my silver-lit chair beyond her—through her—but I was not scared.
I felt a deep sense of calm. As I returned my head to the pillow, the last I remembered seeing was this be-shawled, ancient Grandmother raising her right arm, then slowly fading, oh so slowly, as I fell back to sleep.
When I awoke the following morning, I felt as though I had slept the sleep of the dead, rested beyond any sense I can transfer into words. I found myself smiling at the memory of my visitation. I should have been, but I was not scared. It had clearly been just a strange, powerful dream, one which left me comforted and at ease with the world.
Over breakfast I told my Mum what I had thought had happened. When I came to the part about the ease the old woman turned, despite her position, her face paled. She pointed to a bumpy section of the kitchen wall, the room below mine.
‘That was the original level of the floor. She wouldn’t have been kneeling, she would have been standing.’
Ice drifted down my back. And, for the first time, I was scared.
This is an additional post to normal, a bonus Hallowe’en story I reworked from an older piece. It really did happen to me, around thirty years ago in Orkney, the archipelago of islands off the north of Scotland.
Today’s episode of Ancestral, Wild Empowerment is delayed, so I thought I shall share this instead. There is another, also true, story I will be sharing tomorrow, from the time I am detailing in A Fall in Time.
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