To see them on a winter’s morn…
The Keffer Lantyn Fells are works of the godhead to be sure, with their high peaks wreathed in shawls of cloud; and though cloaked white in winter they may be, they nurture certainty of coming Spring, when the crystal waters tumble from the whin stone shelves, their rich red silt bringing sweetness to the Lantyn valley, the like of which is never seen in other lands. I have watched from afar, both in the December chill and the Spring running, and I would love them if I could.
But there is a devil in those hills. Oh, I have heard folk tales from many lands, lurid legends of hideous creatures that lurk in rivers, or run screeching among the bare canyons of the high tops, of forest spirits and venomous sprites, but none to compare with this. And none to have such dominion as this. For beautiful as the sun-blessed Lantyn Vale may be, with its jewelled water and its willow scented glades, no human lives there, and no human ever will.
There were people once. There was a village of fisher folk among the trees that line the upper reaches of the Lantyn waters, shy people nested like secretive birds who took succour from the river and huddled together when the snows came.
Their lives were filled with superstitious tales, of mythic birds and forest ghosts, and one legend, that of Watake, the fish-god of the river, that gave substance to their being. They honoured their protector, taking from the river only according to their needs. And they were honest folk, before the coming of the fated child.
He who did the deed, they say, was a stranger to any charted shore – a ragged, rugged, rabid soul so oddly girded in shark-skin some would have it he was no land-born creature at all. Yet he was a fisher by instinct, and he had learned of the riches that swam in the Lantyn River. The woman? She was daughter to a kindly village man who invited him to share their hearth, and come the autumn the fisher had shared much more. All winter he taught those simple folk his ways with nets that they might plunder the river of its silver children, and come the spring when the woman’s belly was full he took his own harvest and went his way.
It is said the fisher man’s wiles led those honest villagers astray, and that winter greed was born. It is said the spirits were already angered when summer came and his child entered the world. That is as may be, but even the spirits could not have been ready for such a child as this.
For all his poverty, the village man shared with his daughter and her child such as he had, and his grand-daughter had no want or lack of love. Yet from the very start it was clear she was of the fisher’s roving blood, given to straying alone into the upper forests, playing for solitary hours among the stony becks and brooks that fed the Lantyn’s waters in the valley far below. At first she dutifully returned with evening, to sup at her mother’s table, and help prepare her grandfather’s nets. She did this because she was taught that such was the way of the village, yet to learn the cruelty these implements of her natural father’s craft wrought upon the free-swimming fish of the river.
As the child grew she passed all her hours wandering in the woods. She began to learn the ways of the wild creatures living in darkest corners among the trees, even, some would have it, to speak in their tongue. A wood-cutter from the village swore he came upon her once in earnest conversation with an otter that had built a holt in the bank of a stream: she was crouched before the animal, he said, giving forth little chucking grunts and whistling sounds so perfect he could not tell girl from beast. And it seemed to him the otter perfectly understood her. Of course, such tales grow in the comfort of a warm winter fireside, yet there are always some who are ready to believe.
The villagers began to walk in awe, or even fear of the fisher’s child. In her turn, she came less frequently to her parents’ home, but stayed day and night in the forest. There were those who attested they had seen her amid a company of wolves, and some who said that one summer evening as she visited the river to drink she met with Watake. These witnesses spoke of a creature larger and more powerful than any salmon – of scales that flashed all the colours of a rainbow as it leaped before the rose of the setting sun – yet in its great display of strength and beauty it caused not a splash or a ripple in the water, and thus did it affirm it was, indeed, a god.
Though fearsome in appearance, its eye was gentle. It came to the girl to offer its wisdom. She listened, she talked to it – she, seated upon the river’s bank, the fish-god idling in the shallows, long into that night. A friendship was struck, something so deep and so sacred only death could break it; and thereafter her life belonged to the forest and the river. She would never return to her village home.
From time to time down the years came word that the girl was seen, either swimming in the river or deep among the trees, but no-one could get close to her, or hear her speak, until it came at last to the summer of the Great Flood.
For days the Keffer Lantyn HIlls were buried in livid storm clouds. Lightning flickered about the forest’s upper reaches, and the rain came like vengeance: for a day, then a night, then another day. The languid waters of the Lantyn River swelled to torrential fury; fallen branches, whole trees rushed past the little village, frantic hands hauled upon the painters of escaping boats, gathered in nets mauled by the tumult. Only the bravest or most hungry attempted fishing in such a storm. Fortune for good or ill, they say, favours the brave.
As the legend is told, at the very moment Watake was taken by a villager’s net, the storm ceased. The waters calmed and in wonder the people gathered around to see their deity laid low. They stared, they muttered primitive prayers, watched by its eye, and its look might have told them, had they been wise enough, that it understood. But the greed that was their nature now would not release them, so within minutes they set about hacking and slicing the great fish.
Which is how the god of the Lantyn River died.
From his perch among the tall trees a redstart relayed the tragic news and by this means the wild girl heard of her beloved companion’s ignominious end. Her wails of grief echoed and re-echoed through the valley; the screams of her anger turned the river to blood. There and then she uttered a sacred spell that was at once a curse and a death sentence upon the village and its people. There and then she gathered about her all the creatures of the forest, all the denizens of the river and its banks and she made with them a pledge; that never more would men set foot in the Lantyn Valley, unless they should vanquish her first.
It was early the next morning when the villagers, fat with their spoils, woke to the sound of hooves. Staring from their doors they probably never really believed what they saw – the onrush of wild deer, antlers tossing, trampling their huts and barging their walls to the ground; of thirsting wolves, rats swarming, sharp-toothed otters, badgers snarling like rabid dogs, each picking a throat and striking deep. Birds, no matter how humble, that were become raptors, swooping and pecking at mouths and eyes.
A very few escaped, bringing to the outer world their story of the wild plague that erased their village. The rest died. Those who survived spoke of a demonic woman running naked through their compound with fingers of fire, setting roofs ablaze, making bonfires of their nets, and commanding the wolves to hunt them down. In no more than a few minutes their homes were razed to the ground, and one by one, as though they were walking creatures, the trees advanced, and spread, and thrust new roots into the ground. Before a seventh dusk the forest had taken back all it had yielded to the villagers. There were no huts, no boats, no nets. Sated wolves, well fed, slumbered where once the fisher’s steps had trod.
All sorts of rumours prevail, but no-one has ever returned to that valley to learn the truth, for to set foot in those forests is to be attacked: be warned should you ever try, for many have. All wild life there is vicious, the wolves will hunt you down, the deer trample you beneath their feet,, the badgers and even the otters keep watch. The trees themselves will reach down to strangle you, and even though you turn away, your dreams will haunt you for years thereafter. Their general, it is said, is a wild girl who is immortal, and some claim to have seen her, and proclaim her very beautiful, but these are old men’s dreams.
For myself, I stay away. Although I live not far from that devilish valley I would not travel there. Far from it, my fear will always be that the contagion might spread, for once the wild ones have seen the product of their power, why should they not attempt much more? I tell myself such thoughts are foolish, but I have seen how, in the last year or so, my own dog, though he sleeps at my fireside still, regards me differently. And last night, catching a fox among the bins, I could not escape the snarl of his teeth, or the malevolence in his eye.
© Frederick Anderson 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.
Photo Credits: Christel Sagniez and Gloria Peters from Pixabay