The Valley of the Others
I HAVE come to Dalen to spend the whole night here alone. The Pastorinde and I have often talked of coming — just we two — to see what goes on here during the sub-Arctic summer night, how the birds and flowers conduct themselves through the hours that are dark in more southern lands. Dalen is a great, lonely valley, two miles from the Parsonage. On three sides are high, rugged fjelds, but the fourth is open to the northern sea, to distant islands, and to wonderful shore-cliffs. The Pastor affirms that his best sermons are composed here on snipe-shooting days, and I know that when I come here fishing I return a much better woman than when I left home, even though midges bite and trout do not. When a rare guest visits the Parsonage in the summer, the Pastorinde brings him here as the best her hospitality can offer. If he grumbles at the rocky, boggy trail and looks with a cold eye on Dalen, finding her desolate, then the Pastorinde knows that to one chamber of her heart that guest will have no key. It is a great heart, that of the Pastorinde, and I have learned to know its strength and sweetness during my winter in the little parsonage of Vidareide.
In August, ten months ago, I did my Christmas shopping, talked my last English to the Danish officials in Thorshavn, the capital of the Färoes. Then I sailed away to this northern island where Danish is the language of the Parsonage, old Norse that of the little turf-covered collages.
The last boat of the year came in November. After that we were shut off from the outside world. No telegraph, no cable, no post ! Truly I had need of the Pastorinde, and she has not failed me. There are no children at the Parsonage, but long ago the Pastorinde learned to call me her ‘ pleie-barn ’ — her foster child; and I call her ‘pleiemor’ — foster mother.
It is because the Pastorinde slipped and sprained her ankle that I am here all by myself to spend the night in Dalen. Viktorinus and Jakob Johan, small boys of my acquaintance, bore on their sturdy shoulders provisions, spirit-lamp, warm wraps, and sketching-things, and I have made a little camp not far from the sea-cliffs. The boys have shaken hands and said in Danish, ‘Farewell,’ and ‘A pleasant night to you,’and I have answered, ‘Thanks for thy friendly assistance.' As they left me, I heard Jakob Johan say in old Norse (thinking I would not understand) that he was glad it was n’t he who was to spend the night in Dalen, and Viktorinus murmured something about a Nykur that is supposed to dwell in a tarn up on the hillside. The sentiment of the village is expressed: in the words of old Sigurd, said, not to me, but to the Pastor’s milk-girl. ‘Dalen in the day-time,’ said Sigurd, ‘is for Men, there to cut and dry the peat, or to hunt down the sheep from the fjelds. The daylight is theirs, but Dalen at night is for the Others. They would think the Fróken [Miss] had come to spy on them; they are easily offended, and might take revenge. No, that the Fróken should not do.’ But to me the peasant women say only, ‘Will not the Fróken catch cold? ’ ‘Is not the Fróken afraid of cows?’
It has been what we call a myrasnipa day, the kind that the myra-snipa or marsh-snipe love, and the air seems to vibrate with their curious bleating sound; a day when the mild south-west wind blows gently and all is bathed in luminous mists. There are many rainbows, distant arches, and fragments close by that spring out of a strawcovered chimney, a big boulder, the prow of a boat, or the cliff’s edge. Clouds are bowled softly in from the sea-levels, and wander in a casual fashion over the home-fjelds and between the houses. As I sit in sunshine one envelops me in damp gray walls, then flashes by and whisks in a great hurry round a corner. In rose and violet and gold they come, some stately and full-breasted, others frolicking along like a band of playing children. On every side rises the happy chorus of bird-song. Though many of the notes are harsh and plaintive, they are softened to the ear by the mellow air. A curlew is not a cheerful bird, but he has one sweet contented croon, 'To-whee-e ! to-whee-e ! to-whee-e!’ On a myra-snipa day it tells the joy of living as well as the song of the bobolink.
Ten o’clock, and a change is coming. The clouds have risen, colors are darker, outlines harder. The sheep are slowly mounting, grazing as they go. That is a sign of bad weather. Far out at sea is a heavy bank of cloud. Only the upper fjelds are in sunshine now. There is wind up there. The braided clouds writhe and toss, and from each blood-red peak swings up and away a mighty fiery banner like that of a volcano in eruption.
It will not be a friendly night in Dalen; but I cannot go home now, lest the cows invade my camp. Curious beyond the common wont of cows, they rend and trample objects that are new to them, and some cows will eat garments of cotton and of wool. I am told that a true Färoe cow is never guilty of such evil. When it occurs, it is due to a vicious strain of Danish blood. The Färoe attitude toward things Danish always reminds me of Kipling’s conviction that Canadian political morals and private principles would be of a snowy whiteness if it were not for the contaminating influence of Americans.
I have just remembered that it is the twenty-fourth of June, Midsummer Night, when evil spirits are freed to fare abroad at will. In Norway the fires of Saint John are burning now; but how can one keep the feast in this treeless land? The Norse forbears of the Färoe folk found here, a thousand years ago, a scanty growth of juniper and willows, — and bonfires burned for Balder, God of Light. Now, not a tree or a shrub breaks the outline of the hills.
The old pagan beliefs died slowly here in the Färoes, isolated as the islands were by distance and by dangerous seas. On land and water lingered a host of evil spirits, jealous of the faith that had supplanted Thor and Odin. Even yet an uneasy belief in the supernatural dwells curiously with the religion taught by the Pastor and accepted by his flock; and with the exception of the two at the Parsonage there is probably not a soul in Vidareide who could be persuaded to spend Midsummer Night alone in Dalen.
Eleven o’clock, and I have just had a visit from a messenger, but whether for good or for evil, I do not know, since he could not tell his message to me. Sitting under the shelter of a huge rock, huddled in my warm wraps and halfmusing, half-dreaming, in the silvery light that is neither day nor night, I saw’ a hooded crow, usually one of the most wary and timid of birds, flutter to the ground just beyond my reach. He did not caw as usual, but looking up at me intently, he bobbed his head up and down and said, ' Boo-a! Boo-a!’ Now in this way the old Norse word ‘buð’ is pronounced, and ‘buð’ means ‘a message.’
Both ravens and crows, as all the Färoe folk know, have gone far in the Black Art. They can foretell events, and know when the flocks of driving whales are in neighboring waters; but alas, they lack human speech in which to give their warnings. Last winter a crow came to the cabin of an old woman in Vidareide, looked in at the window and gave the message-call. ‘Now what does this betide?’ said old Ranaa. An hour later a column of smoke on distant Bordö told that whales had been seen off the coast and that men and boats must come at once. ‘Ah, so ol-o!’ said old Ranaa; ‘that is what the message-bird was trying to tell me.’
It is pleasant to sit here in camp, mulling over in my mind fragments of story and Färoe memories, but I had better go a-fishing if, as I promised, the Pastorinde is to have Dalen trout for her breakfast to-morrow. Up among the fjelds that inclose Dalen like an enormous semi-circular amphitheatre, a brook takes its rise and comes leaping and foaming down between the rocks, to run, gathering other little brooks to itself as it goes across the grassy slopes of the valley, to cliffs where it plunges downward to the sea. And in that brook there are trout such as anglers dream of when their sleep is sweet; beautiful trout like those of the Scottish streams. One can easily catch a string of fish weighing from one eighth to one fourth of a pound. Larger than that I have never caught in Dalen, but one day, when I wandered through the valley without my fishing-tackle, — a warm day with little midges swarming in the air, — I saw in the brook, rising for the midges, great lusty trout such as I had never seen before in Dalen, — trout of fully two pounds, and I without so much as a string and a bent pin!
Gray or White Millers, or perhaps a Royal Coachman, arc the flies to use to-night. They resemble the thousands of moths that are flying over thousands of little pink-and-white orchids in the marshy grasses. I must crush the flowers’ waxen petals beneath my feet as I fish along the banks, and a delicate fragrance of bitter almonds will fill the air. These little orchids are potent in love-charms and have, it is said, power as whalecharms. If the white hand-shaped root, ‘Mary’s Hand,’ is cast into the water, it will drive away whales; and if the black, withered root, the ‘Devil’s Hand,’ is used, it will attract them. There are blue-and-white speedwells, eye-brights, yellow tormentillas, and buttercups growing with the orchids, but the rarer plants are high on the fjeld slopes.
Midnight now, and in the north the sunset colors lingering. Nature seems painted with a large brush, forms and colors showing, but insignificant detail omitted. Far away, on the heights of Villingdal-fjeld, the clamor of the seafowl has almost died away. From the ledges under the sea-cliffs comes that monotonous droning that often precedes a storm at sea. A pair of ravens are playing and turning in the air above the dark crags of Morna-fjeld. Now and then an oyster-catcher scurries by, but the birds are strangely still. In friendly weather they would be heard the whole night through. In the hush of bird-life other voices are calling—the little brooks of Dalen. On the black cliffs they show like strands of silver. They bubble up from the peaty soil, cold, sweet, undefiled. Shrill notes are heard on pebbly beaches, deeper murmurs from over-hanging banks. Here and there one gushes up from a mossy basin, swirls over a flat rock, and buries itself with a chuckle beneath the heather. I walk on grassy slopes and hear the rushing of water below my feet, and all around the rumor of waters hurrying to the sea.
I had planned to climb high on the fjeld-side to see what the little alpine flowers are doing, which ones are sleeping, which keeping their petals and leaves unfolded in the midnight hour; but somehow, I feel reluctant to go far from my camp. Not that I am afraid. No, one feels such confidence in islands. There is no mysterious interior as on the mainland, where terrors may lurk. The only danger would be from falling stones loosened by the winter’s frosts and dislodged by the hoofs of grazing sheep.
There are over a hundred thousand sheep in the Färoes, hardy, active creatures that scramble like goats along those terraces where I would not dare venture. They live out, uncared for, all the year. The ordinary winter storms they bear well enough. Early spring is the time of danger, when sometimes a cruel northeast wind blows for many days. It comes from the Arctic icefloes, the glaciers and snow-fields of Spitzbergen, often bringing with it a bitter fog that whirls drearily over the land, obscuring the light. The freshly springing grass is seared and withers away, the grass that the mother-sheep need if they are to have milk for the coming lambs. And so the babies die — by thousands they die —not only from starvation, but killed at birth by the ravens and crows. The birds linger near. They know the approach of travail, await the event, and the lamb is killed before the mother’s eyes when she is too weak to rise and defend her young.
A great boulder has just fallen from the heights of Breides-skard, bounding from ledge to ledge, and disappearing over the cliff’s edge; and as the clamor of the echoes died away, a loud cry rang out, so wild and despairing that I sprang to my feet, in dismay. Then came a crazy laugh, and I laughed, too, though a little shakily, for I recognized the voice of a loon — the northern diver. That laugh is strange enough, but it is cheerful beside the rarer doleful cry like that of a woman in extremity. Night hours in Dalen seem to strain even stout nerves slightly. I know that frost and sheep are responsible for that boulder, but, in spite of sturdy common sense, I find running through my head fragments of queer tales heard beside cottage hearths, or in the boats, or on the trails.
Dalen is said to be ibygd — inhabited — not by human beings but by Hulder-folk, underground creatures who look like men and women, and pursue various avocations by land and sea, as do the Färoe folk. And now is the time of the Hulder-folk. From midnight until three o’clock there is danger on the fjelds, and on the bird-cliffs. Land-slides come often, Boulders fall from the heights upon unwary human intruders in the hours of the Hulderfolk.
These creatures are usually invisible, but, at will, they can appear to human eyes. A Fremsynt, or one who has second-sight, can see them, and so can those who follow in his footsteps or go side by side with him in the wild outfjelds.
The Hulder-folk, though they are heathen spirits and in league with the powers of evil, sometimes perform kindly deeds. Stories are told of their coming to the rescue of milk-girls lost at night in the fog, and leading them safely to the village boundaries. They have given warning of dangerous seas, have provided a Färoe man with food for weeks when he was storm-bound on an uninhabited island. Sometimes they are present at a wedding, hidden in a dark corner, or dancing, seen by the Fremsynt, in the Bride’s dance. Once, before a wedding, a woman who had second-sight saw a pretty girl, a stranger to her, stepping from one of the arriving guest-boats. She turned to ask a companion who the girl was, but she had disappeared when they looked for her. She saw the girl again dancing in the Bride’s dance. ‘Who is the pretty girl with the blue kerchief and apron ? ’ she asked a man who stood near, ‘the one who is dancing in the ring between Drikke and Sunneva?’ ‘But there is no one dancing between Drikke and Sunneva, they dance hand in hand.’ ‘Why, don’t you see her?’ the woman cried. ‘Wait until the girls pass us and I’ll take hold of her skirt so you can see which girl I mean.’ Across the room she saw her plainly, but as the girls danced by, behold Drikke and Sunneva danced hand in hand.
An old woman told me of an experience she had had when a child of nine years. She was walking in the outfjelds with her uncle one Sunday afternoon when she saw a pretty bunch of ribbons hanging on a rock, and near it a handful of sweets. Delighted, she took the treasures and ran to show them to her uncle. He looked at her in a puzzled way and asked her what she meant. ‘Why, don’t you see the pretty ribbons?’ But he saw nothing in her hand. ‘And these?’ showing him the sweets. To him her fingers seemed empty. Then a fear seized her and she threw the things away, for she knew they were a temptation of the Hulderfolk, and had she worn the ribbons and eaten the sweets, from that day the Hulderfolk would have been visible to her and she would have been in their power.
A man living in Sand went one day east to Skola-vikur to a wedding. He was on horseback, and as he passed under the heights of Trondadals-li he heard a voice crying, ’Hear thou, man that rides by! Take word to the house where the wedding shall be, that Bembil is dead, and the child is burned.’ When the man came to the house where the wedding was, he opened the door, and standing in the doorway called out, ‘Bembil is dead, and the child is burned.’ Then sprang one who was not of the invited guests, out from under the table and ran out, crying, ‘ That was my son! ’
And there was a peasant of Sumbó, who found a little Hulder-maiden under a rock, and he brought her home with him. He set her to spinning night and day, giving her no rest. On one condition could he keep her, but I do not understand how or by whom the condition was made. It was that no one should call her by name. If he did she would vanish away. Titil-tata was her name. One Christmas Eve she was dead tired of spinning and she began to sing to herself as she worked,
Titil-tata is my name.
Over and over again she sang it, hoping to make some one speak to her. No one paid any attention to her, but she sang on and on. At last one of the working women suddenly lost patience, whirled around and cried, ‘There she sits gabbling away! Don’t we all know your name is Titil-tata.?' Z-z-z-z-p! Titil-tata vanished away and was never heard from again.
Here is another tale, but whether it is about, the Hulder-folk, who shall say? Rossva is a big red setter, powerful, conceited, and fearless. He has thrashed every dog on the island, and carries himself with a lofty superciliousness which is almost more than they can bear. We can trace his progress round the scattered hamlet by the vituperative chorus of his victims. But lately Rossva has known fear. One calm clear evening, the Pastor was crossing the island, Rossva, as usual, careering on in front. Suddenly Rossva stopped, his eyes fixed on the way before him. His hair bristled on crest and back, his tail drooped, and turning, he fled whimpering, and took refuge between the Pastor’s legs. Then, wondering, the Pastor saw his trembling dog’s eyes, dilated with fear, watching, following an invisible something that approached, passed close by, and went its way. Then Rossva, with a sigh, emerged from his shelter, and the two went homeward, — the Pastor much ‘shaken,’ as the Pastorinde confessed to me later with a twinkle in her eye.
One o’clock, and now the storm is here, bringing the northeast fog. Between the flying scud are glimpses of a leaden sea with great white surges. The surf thunders at the base of the cliffs, and from the brink the spray blows landward like a cloud.
Dalen is very strange to-night, unfriendly, inhospitable. I am not afraid, but never, I think, have I been more wide-awake. All my senses are alert, and all kinds of things that I half believed in as a child all at once seem possible. If I should see a little troll, gray, hairy, misshapen, seated crosslegged among my possessions, or if a queer face peeped at me from behind a boulder, or a line of odd little creatures ran past me down the hill, I am sure I should not be frightened. It would all seem fitting, seemly, what we would naturally expect to see to-night in Dalen.
There is really no relation between the degrees of a thermometer and the sensation of cold in the Färoes. One suffers greatly at a comparatively high temperature, from the violence of the salt winds and the penetrating dampness of the air. I doubt if it is colder now than thirty-five or forty degrees, and the passage of the hours has been marked by the assumption of many warm and woolly garments, and yet I shiver miserably, and must often leave my camp to tramp vigorously up and down to get warm, a teapot full of hot water clasped fondly to my heart.
A few minutes ago I heard distinctly the voices of women and children chattering not far away. I was glad, surprisingly glad. My lonely uncomfortable vigil was ended. The Pastorinde had grown anxious in the storm and had sent some women to bring me home—but why had they dragged their children from their beds to travel the long, hard way? Hurriedly, happily, I ran forward to a point from which I could overlook the Vidareide trail and see my relief party as soon as it came out of the fog. As I stood waiting, listening, the wind tossed the fog aside. The gay voices died away. There was no one on the trail.
Queer things happen in Dalen.
I have had more visitors. The first contingent came waddling from the cliff’s edge, — low, clumsy shapes, emerging gradually from the fog, mottled gray and brown creatures that stood in a row and stared solemnly at me and said, ' Kwa-a-a !’ in low guttural notes. Eider ducks they were, that probably came to the spot every night and were vastly surprised to find a human being here in Dalen. 'Kwaa-a !’ they exclaimed again, looked at one another as though to say, ‘Did you ever see the like?’ and so backed away into the mists.
Hardly had they disappeared when I heard a gasping sound from a bank behind me, and turning, I saw, half obscured by the clinging fog, a great gray object. It was about seven feet tall. Its shape was not that of a beast, — rather a grotesque caricature of a woman’s form. The face was oval, the features indistinguishable through the fog, the neck very long and thin, the shoulders sloping. From the head long hair blew in the wind. The body was clothed in a loose tunic or blouse, and short skirts whirled about, disclosing two thin ankles. I was not frightened. It was all too wonderful to admit of fear. Only a mighty curiosity possessed me. ' What is it? Oh, what is it ?’ The creature tossed its head and stamped its foot. It gasped again, and it looked like nothing of which I had ever heard or dreamed.
Then the storm-fog parted and there stood a large gray-white sheep. I could see that it was a sheep, yet so unnatural, so fantastic, was the figure that it seemed hardly less wonderful than before. It had escaped the men and dogs at the two ‘mountain goings’ of June when the wool is taken. The long, heavy fleece, with the straight outer hair, had come off on neck and shoulders, leaving them quite bare. The hair on the head was still fast, and at the ends other hair had tangled, lengthening it to eighteen or twenty inches. On the body, part of the fleece had come out, caught in the ends of the fast hair, and had been carded and raveled by rocks and heather, making a great fluffy mass like a woman’s draperies. Dimly seen through the fog, the illusion was perfect. The creature faced me, and as the skirt tossed in the gale, two slim legs were revealed. The gasp I heard was the alarm note given by these half-wild sheep.
And the size? Have you ever heard of the peculiar magnifying effect of fog under certain conditions? Warburton Pike in his book on the Barren Lands of Canada tells of one foggy evening in camp when some large animal, presumably a timber-wolf, was vaguely seen charging on the camp. The men seized their weapons and sprang to their feet as into the circle of the fire’s light ran a little field-mouse. And Sir Martin Conway’s party in Spitzbergen, on such a day, hastily prepared for an encounter with a polar bear whose form was dimly distinguished through the mists. A few steps farther on and they met that bear — a little scrap of white paper skating along the frozen snow.
But there is something about my apparition that I cannot understand. There are hundreds of sheep high on the fjelds to-night, and surely not another one among them like this curious caricature of a human form. Why should this one sheep have left its fellows and sought my little camp down on the sea-cliffs? Is this also ‘a sending ’ from ‘ the Others ’ ?
It is four o’clock. The storm is lessening. I am too tired to tramp any longer. Rolled up in as small a compass as possible I will rest a while in the shelter of this big boulder.
‘ Good-day, Thou Blessed. Is all well with thee?’
I open dazed eyes and there stands old Sigurd looking at me anxiously. It is six o’clock. He has come, he explains, to work on the peat, as the sea is too stormy to go a-fishing. So he says, but I know that he has risen three hours earlier than usual, made his own coffee, and come to Dalen to look aft er me. He will carry my things home when he leaves work, and I am free to go when I will.
The way is long and weary. The surf, thundering far below, the sea-birds’ cries make a sleepy confusion of sound; and as I drowse and stumble over rocks and rouse to clearer consciousness, it seems as though I had been going on for hours and hours. At last I reach the outer dike of the hamlet. The homes of men are a pleasant sight after my night in Dalen. In the quiet air the blue peat-smoke lingers in wreaths above the grassy roofs. I hear the pounding of coffee in the little black mortars. The fragrance of coffee is in the air. Half-dressed babies are sitting in the sunshine. Friendly faces greet me as I pass the open doors. ‘Ah! God be praised, it is the Fróken!’ ‘And what kind of a night did the Fróken have?’ ‘I could not sleep all night for thinking of the Fróken!’
On again over the Pastor’s glebelands, and there at the foot of a grassy slope is the Parsonage. Rossva comes cavorting and barking to meet me. Graa-mis (gray puss) follows, picking her way daintily, her tail held carefully erect. ‘The Fróken is coming!’ I hear Sigga’s voice calling within; and there is the Pastorinde hopping on one foot to the door, and waving a dish-towel. ‘Welcome!’ she calls in her clear, ringing voice, ‘Welcome home, my pleiebarn!’ And she takes me in her motherly arms. Within that shelter I make confession. ‘Yes, pleie-mor, Sigurd was right. Dalen at night is for “the Others.”’