Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Assembly of the Dead, Grimm's Saga No. 342

Fairy Tale for Halloween: The Assembly of the Dead

The queen had died. She lay in her castle in a splendid bed in the mourning hall that had been draped in black. At night the great room was illuminated with wax candles and the guards sat outside in the smaller antechamber.

The watchmen included a captain and forty-nine other men. Toward midnight the captain heard a carriage, pulled by six horses, rushing toward the castle. He then saw how a woman, dressed in the manner of a mourner with noble and decent countenance, descended from the coach.

She immediately asked to be given an audience with the deceased lady. But the captain replied he did not have the power to grant this wish. She insisted, mentioning her own famous name and arguing that as the Lord Chamberlain’s wife she had the right to see the deceased one last time. The captain hesitated, but the woman needled him so until he could no longer disagree.

After granting the woman access, he closed the door to the chamber and walked back and forth outside, listening carefully and peering through the key-hole. There he saw how the dead queen suddenly sat upright and appeared to be speaking softly to the woman, but with closed eyes and with no sign of life in her demeanor (except for her lips moving slightly). Whispering to his men, he invited one after another to look through the key-hole and each man saw the same thing. 

Finally, he took his turn at the key-hole once more and saw how the dead woman slowly lay down again on the fine bed. At once the woman opened the door and was led to her carriage by the captain, who could feel that her hand was ice-cold.

The wagon hastened away as quickly as it had come and the captain saw in the distance how her horses exhaled sparks of fire. The next morning news came that the Lord Chamberlain’s wife, who lived several hours away at her country estate, had died precisely in the hour she visited the dead woman.

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Skulls that Speak in the Bone-House

The Skull in the Bone House

It was evening in the house of Constable Wyler who lived in the Swiss Valley of Loetschen. Women and girls sat in front of the fire spinning while older crones told tales about witches and goblins. The young listened attentively.

Nearby sat a young man of twenty, who boasted about his courage, fearlessness and incredible adventures. “And what fortune I’ve had!” he preened, “Never has a single hair on my head been harmed even though I have done some gruesome things in my time! And today I shall do what none of you would ever dream of. I will go into the bone-house and retrieve a skull! You will see!” Placing his fingers at the corner of his mouth, he pulled his lips back in a grimace so that his white teeth sparkled in the firelight.

The others listened quietly. Finally an older woman said he should not commit such a grave sin and should never make jokes about such things. But the assembled spinners could not hold him back from his foolish deed, even though they cried after him that one should never play with the dead for something gruesome might happen. But these words only acted as a catalyst. He tore himself from the group and stormed into the night.

He hung his hat on an elderberry bush in front of the bone-house of Kippel, where hundreds of skulls were stacked up high. Carefully lighting his lantern, he entered the dusty, dreary hut and searched among the desiccated skeletons for the skull of his uncle. When he found it, he placed it under his arm, then he blew out the candle and made his way home. “They will be surprised when I bring the skull into the chamber and place it on the table,” he murmured to himself and laughed into the dark night.

But it seemed that the skull he carried was getting heavier and heavier, the farther away from the bone house he came. When he arrived at the house of Kippeler Riedbord, he thought he could no longer carry his load. Reaching the chapel, he placed the skull on the stone before the door and murmured a prayer. Then he grasped the smiling skull and continued on his way until he reached Laerchen. But there he had to rest again. It seemed he was no longer carrying a skull but rather a leaden ball under his arm, which was aching under the heavy load. He considered what to do and thought to himself “It is not much further and I shan’t return now!”

But the jaws of the skull began to crack like wooden wheels running across sharp-edged gravel. Then the skull began to speak in a raspy voice: “You are lucky you only removed the skull of your uncle, otherwise you would have been torn to bits!” and the jaws of the skull flapped wildly and groaned like an old lock refusing to open with a rusty key. “Take me back to the bone-house in Aff, take me back, take me back” the skull moaned “and return me to the spot where I used to rest!”

The youth would have preferred a hasty retreat, but he had to remain were he stood. His feet were rooted to the ground and after some time like this he thought it  best to do what he was told and as quickly as possible. He picked up his heavy load and followed the way he had come. Gradually with each step it became easier and he felt his boney load becoming lighter the closer he got to the bone-house. As he stood before the door, he lit his candle and placed the skull at the exact spot of its prior rest. Then he quickly left the dark and creepy hut, never again returning to the evening spinning circle. Instead he returned to his room where he lay in bed lifeless and quite ill for many weeks. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Woman in White: Richmodis von Aducht

From Cologne: The Tale of Richmodis von Aducht

In the mid-fifteenth century plague spread through the city of Cologne. In its shadows, a woman in black could be seen creeping through the narrow streets. It was the Black Death. Its poisonous breath seeped through the window cracks of meager huts but was also seen in palaces and fine houses alike. Without pity it took the life of many thousands.
The gravediggers painted a black cross on innumerable house posts – a sign that the pestilence had visited.

The number of dead rose so quickly that it soon became impossible to bury them all. The bodies of the unfortunate were pushed into a common grave, covered with earth and a wooden cross was placed on top.  It was a time when crying, moaning and wailing filled the narrow lanes of the old city of Cologne.

Near the New Market close to the Church of the Apostles there lived a rich councilor by the name of Mengis of Aducht . But fate visited him and plucked his youthful bride from his arms. The young councilor’s grief was without bounds. He could not pull himself away from the corpse of his bride wearing the white wedding dress she had worn only a few years before. After decorating the coffin with flowers, he adorned his silent wife with the beautiful earrings she had worn in life.

Even the night seemed to mourn the loss of Lady Richimodis. It was deadly still in the cemetery near the church when suddenly the bar of the wooden door was raised. Two shadows slid by through the dark rows of newly dug graves. It was the two grave diggers of the Holy Apostle’s Church, who had buried the young wife of the councilor.  They had closed the lid of the casket while the knight bowed before his wife one last time. But they could not help noticing the sparkling gems, precious rings and costly fabric that enveloped the young woman.

But now from the darkness the rustling of dried flowers in the funeral wreath could be heard. The two grave diggers returned, but this time with sinister intent. Slowly they dug up the tomb and the clods of earth piled high. A dull noise rang out and the light from the lantern flickered as the two men hastily opened the lid of the coffin and gazed upon the lifeless face of the lady. The light of the lantern fell on the folded hands of the corpse and the rings on her fingers glistened.

Suddenly the lifeless body twitched in its coffin. The small, narrow fingers moved. In horror the grave robbers raced from that place, leaving the coffin open and their tools lying on the ground.

A deep sigh emanated from the crypt. Several minutes later the woman who had been buried there sat up. Her eyes searched the dark surroundings. Slowly she understood what had happened: in a death-like state they had buried her while she slumbered.  But her horror only gave her a new vitality. She stood up and gripped the lantern left behind. And without restraint she opened the door the robbers forgot to lock.

The streets were empty. Only the silent stars looked down on the lonely figure in the snow-white gown as she made her way home.

To read the latest about the Black Death in the NYT, go to:

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Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Three Tells of Switzerland

Grimm’s Saga No. 298: The Three Tells

The Three Tells

According to common folk and shepherds of Switzerland there is a cleft in the craggy rock near Lake Waldstaetter. Here the three liberators of the land sleep; they are called the Three Tells. They wear the ancient dress of their ancestors and shall rise again and go out as liberators when the time of dire need arrives for their homeland. But access to this cave is only given to the fortunate finder.
A shepherd boy once told the following story to a traveller: his father, searching for a lost goat in the mountain crags, entered a cave. When he remembered that the three men sleeping inside were the three Tells, the old man who was the real Tell sat up and asked:  

“What time is it?” And when the frightened shepherd said “It is high noon!”, he replied: “Then it is still not time for us to return.” He went back to sleep. The father and his comrades went out looking for the Tells to wake them in a time of need for the fatherland. He searched often for the cave, but never found it again.