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.
Photo Credits: Christel Sagniez and Gloria Peters from Pixabay
In all her life Janice had never been known to speak in less than a shrill falsetto, and at 48 years old it was unlikely that she could ever be silenced. There were neighbours who fervently wished she might, a husband whose wishes were seldom heard, two sons who bought their own houses a mile away so as to be out of earshot: but she would not – some said could not -change.
“Mind you, the whole family were loud.” (This was Mrs. Proudfoot, a long-time friend). “The old man were a blaster down the mine and he were deaf as a post, so ever’one shouted at ‘im an’ ‘e shouted back. ‘Twas ‘im put the ‘Dog and Gun’ pub out of business. He were its only customer.”
Some believed Janice shouted because, like a small dog left alone in a big house, she was frightened. This would have gained greater credence if she were quieter in the evenings when her husband came home, or on the days when she cared for her grandchildren, but no. Teachers expressed concern that Janice’s grandchildren showed signs of premature deafness. Neighbours overheard each and every remark from Janice’s side of conversations, like: “You can’t have rice pudding”, “They’re in the top drawer”, or, more mysteriously: “It’s stuck!” These same neighbours were prone to changing TV channels involuntarily at Janice’s instruction, and to bury their heads beneath several pillows at Friday bedtime.
“Half-past eleven, without fail. It’s like the ‘Ride of ‘t Valkyries’. You never heard the like!”
Freda Warbleton, next door at no. 58, was less charitable: “She shouts to get her way. Every time she shouts at me I do what she wants. She never asks: she just shouts. From the moment she moved in, I got no peace – none at all. ‘Are you going down the town, Freda? Get me some sugar, will you?’; ‘can you pick up the children Freda?’ Freda this, Freda that, Freda the other. Life’s not worth living.”
“Why don’t you move?” I felt I had to ask.
“She KNOWS!” Said Freda. “We tried lots of times, Albert and me. We showed people round and there she’d be, leaning over the fence. She’d scream out helpful remarks, like: ‘Dustmen come on Thursday’, or ‘School’s a mile away: there’s no bus.’ No-one came up with an offer for the house – no-one.”
Janice’s sons generously clubbed together to pay for her house to be double glazed – to keep the sound in, rather than the weather out, said the neighbors – a failed attempt if that were its purpose because winter or summer, Janice’s windows were always open.
Transportation was to prove her final undoing. After receiving bans from the ‘bus companies (she alarmed the drivers, resulting in a number of minor accidents) she fell back upon taxi’s for her social and shopping needs.
The taxi-driver was Romanian. He had few words of English and a fairly loose appreciation of that strange British habit of driving on the left. Given these pre-conditions it is easy to imagine how, with Janice’s stentorian bellow an inch from his left ear uttering some jewel such as: “Yer going straight on, Yer should be turnin’ LEFT!” the poor man managed to somehow do neither. And how he ended up where he did.
Which was Doncaster.
On the northbound carriageway.
In the southbound lane.
Where the police managed to head off her taxi and guide it into a slip road. Doncaster police station was as good a place as any to incarcerate the taxi’s driver, who had no idea that he had committed any offence. Primed by the freehand traffic rules of Bucharest he was stimulated rather than alarmed by the aggressive behaviour of approaching drivers on the Motorway, and found the experience of driving up the wrong carriageway for 22 miles a bit of a blast.
Janice? The pale, quaking wreck ambulance men extricated from the foot well of the taxi’s rear compartment took twenty-four hours to stop shaking. She gave written evidence to the trial which followed, but it made little sense because the woman who had stared death in the face several hundred times within the space of thirty minutes was no longer capable of speech, or even logical thought.
And Janice, sadly, has never been heard from again.