Thursday, 19 May 2011
A Ghost Story
In March, in the comments to another post, a ghost story was requested. I didn't forget, but I needed some time to find a good story. I thought about all the ghosts that are said to haunt the streets of Aberdeen (from the reports, it seems they would probably out number the living population passing through the streets on most days). But those are not really stories, just anecdotes of sightings, cold draughts, and mysterious footprints or invisible hands grabbing at ankles. A ghost just walking past is hardly more interesting than any other sort of stranger walking past, really. So the days rolled by, and the search for a story sat on the periphery of things, waiting for something good to come up.
In Shetland, we bought a book, The Foy and Other Folk Tales, written by a local storyteller, Lawrence Tulloch who comes from a long line of Shetland storytellers. There are all kinds of excellently told stories in the book -- trow stories, a tall tale competition between sailors, portraits of people who used to live in Shetland, stories of witches, selkies, and of course of ghosts! And there was one ghost story in particular that captured my imagination....
However, the problem of how to tell the tale arises now. Since, if I had heard the story out loud, I would just tell you my version. But since I read it in a book, and I would be writing it here for you, it seems a little awkward. Should I tell the tale in brief summary? Should I work it around and change it to suit me? I think I will give you the story as I remember it, without checking back. But also I want to stress that I highly, highly, highly recommend reading the far better version of it in Lawrence Tulloch's book.
A young man was engaged to be married. A week or so before the wedding, he was on his way to visit the father of his bride-to-be to seal the deal with a drink, as was the custom in Shetland. As he was walking there, he noticed that his dog had been following him, and now they were half-way to the house and it was too late to bring the dog home again. He shouted at the dog, telling it to return home, but it was no use as the dog was still young and not yet well-trained. So he ignored the dog, hoping it would get bored and go home on its own.
A short while later, after they had passed a cemetery, he noticed that the dog was playing with a human skull, throwing it up in the air and chewing on it. He took the skull away from the dog and buried it, saying "if you were alive, I'd have invited you to my wedding, but since you are not, I hope that you can rest in peace". Then he continued on his way.
The week passed quickly and sooner than he could believe he found himself in the happy situation of dancing at his own wedding with his lovely new bride in his arms. Everyone had packed themselves into the home of the newlyweds to dance the night away to wedding music played finely on the fiddle.
Late in the evening, a knock sounded on the door. People living in Shetland at the time were not accustomed to knocking before entering; it was usual just to walk in and announce yourself when you came to a house. It was perhaps because of this, that when the knock was heard, all music, talk, and dancing stopped abruptly.
When the groom opened the door, he found a man that he had never seen before standing before him. The stranger requested the groom to come away with him. The groom refused, saying he would not leave his own wedding. The stranger, however, was so persistent and so persuasive that eventually he succeeded in convincing the man to accompany him, just for a short while, mind you.
The young man and the stranger walked out into the night together. They walked for quite some time, and gradually it dawned on the man that he was walking past houses that were unfamiliar to him, though he knew the island well. Eventually they came to a great house on a hill with many rooms, and the stranger invited the man inside.
The inside of the house was lavishly furnished. The stranger motioned to the young man to take a seat in a big, overstuffed armchair. But as soon as the groom took his seat, he jumped out of it again.
Hanging directly above the chair was a millstone, suspended from a single hair.
Now the young man was alarmed and wanted to know what the stranger was about. He angrily lashed out at him. But the stranger remained very calm. He took a deep breath, smiled, and said "do not worry, I will not let my mill stone fall on you, just as you did not let your dog play with my skull". He continued that he did not want anything from the young man, but a bit of his time. Taking hold of a candlestick that was on the table beside him, he scratched a line into it and said that the man could leave once the candle had burned down to the line.
The young groom wanted desperately to return to his wedding. Still, he sat back in the chair. His eyes were fastened on the candle stick now, and he did not say another word to the stranger. As soon as the candle flame reached the line in the wax, he jumped up from his seat and ran out, and the stranger did not try to stop him.
He raced through the streets of strange houses, back the way he had come. Things began to look familiar to him again and he was much relieved. But when he rounded the bend in the road to the point where he could see his house, his heart dropped. There was no music coming from the house, and there were no lights, nor any signs of a celebration. It was still before sunrise, and wedding parties always last through the night. Something was clearly very wrong.
The young man entered the house and found only an old woman that he did not recognize sweeping the floor. When he asked where all the people from the wedding had gone she looked confused and said there had been no wedding. Very distressed, he came back at her "this is my house, it was my wedding". The woman was silent for a moment and she looked at him strangely. She used all her effort now to straighten out her creaking back and stand up straight. "When I was young, my grandparents used to tell the story of a wedding that was here many generations ago, where the groom left and never returned."
Hearing this, the weight of time fell upon the young man, and he changed before her eyes and became middle aged, then he grew very old and wan, and finally he fell into a pile of dust. The old woman stooped back down again, swept him onto the board she had been holding, and threw him into the fire.