Every culture has its own unique folklore - traditions and tales passed down through generations. In the modern day, these are often looked upon by most with the idle interest of a time gone by, but I have always found them to be quite fascinating. They reveal so much about the hopes and fears of people who once were; people trying to make sense of the world around them and at times, cope with its harsh realities. It was this passion of mine that would eventually lead me to major in Folklore at Memorial University.
I relished the study, so I was thrilled when I was given the assignment to interview people on a topic of my choosing. I live in Newfoundland, a province steeped in supernatural folklore, so I jumped at the chance to delve into the stories of the fairies, the mischievous, malevolent creatures that lurked in the forests and fields. In preparation, I went to the folklore archive to borrow some recording equipment as well as to listen to other recordings to get more of a sense of what I was in for. I listened in rapt attention to people of various ages tell their tales of wee people, of lights in the forest or of strange enthralling music carried on the wind.
I decided to conduct the interviews in my home town and made plans to stay with my parents for the weekend. My family comes from Cupids, a rural, over 400 year old community about a one hour drive from the city where I lived. Given that Cupids was the sort of town where everyone knew everyone else, it wasn’t hard for me to find a few of the older residents who were willing to share their tales and encounters with the fairies and allow me to record them. One lady told me of her uncle who was wounded by one of them and spent the rest of the month picking fish bones and wool out of the stinking cut before it finally healed. Another encounter was described by a gentleman who claimed that he had gone into the woods to set rabbit snares, only to come home three weeks later with no recollection of where he had been or even that such an amount of time had passed.
The last interview of the day was reserved for my grandfather, who had agreed to tell me his story but, unlike the others, now seemed reluctant to do so. I assured him that I could find someone else if he was uncomfortable, but he shook his head and began to speak. He told me that his mother would always warn him about travelling on a particular trail; that in order to safely pass through, he must wear his coat inside out and carry some breadcrumbs or else he would be taken. Even in those more superstitious times he was not the sort to believe in such things and so, as he found himself hurrying to get home before dark after a day of berry picking, he brazenly cut through that very trail, without a second thought to his mother’s warnings. He recalled that as he walked along the path, the surrounding trees seemed to close in on him, the area feeling more oppressive. While he felt foolish, he decided at that point to turn back and take another route.
He had begun to shake while telling his tale, but now tears filled his eyes as he spluttered and stammered as he attempted to describe what he saw when he turned back. “Devils!” was all he could finally manage. I took his clammy hand to calm him and told him again that he did not have to tell me anymore. But he regained control of himself and told me that he ran, frantically throwing down the breadcrumbs and tearing off his coat, flipping it inside out and holding it in place like a cape. He did not stop or slow until he reached the safety of home, bursting through the door to find his bewildered mother. She was about to scold him for his torn coat until she realized what had happened, at which point, she held him close and thanked God that he was safe. When my grandfather looked at his coat, he noticed three long tears as if it had been clawed.
His story finished, he shakily excused himself to bed. I apologized for upsetting him, but he waved it away, only turning back to make me promise not to ever go looking for such things. I gave him my word to ease his old mind and left. I returned to my parents’ home and spent much of the rest of the night writing my report and re-listening to the stories I had gathered. Hearing my grandfather get upset again made me feel terrible, but his story also sparked a sense of curiosity within me. I remembered seeing what I believed was that very same trail, when I was a child and helping my family pick blueberries (though I probably ate as much as I picked). We would never take that trail, instead taking one of the longer routes back home. I had assumed that they were afraid of robbers and roughnecks that might be roaming this less maintained and less populated path, but now I wonder if it was simply to appease my grandfather’s fears.
The next morning, I attempted to slip out, explaining, when my mother caught me at the door that I wanted to go for a stroll through my hometown before I had to go back to the city. Once out, I followed my memories back to that blueberry patch and, sure enough, there it was; the path I had remembered seeing years ago. It was even more overgrown but I could still maneuver my way through it. I remembered my promise to my grandfather, but my curiosity overcame it. In fact, a rush of excitement went through me as I walked the same path I was sure he had so long ago. It’s difficult to explain, but this sense of stepping into the folklore was thrilling and suppressed all worry and perhaps my common sense as I proceeded.
Strangely, as I walked onwards, the overgrowth seemed to recede as if someone had maintained the path only so far and then stopped. After passing through a ring of trees that had managed to grow in, I found myself walking on a trail that was as neatly groomed as any other in the community, my initial confusion at the change in the path was turning into disappointment as I wondered if this was the right place after all. Perhaps some childlike part of me had hoped to see something otherworldly. This feeling was soon replaced again, now by a wary sense of being watched. I nervously increased my pace, not for fear of fairies but of malicious people.
The path remained well-groomed, but the dense trees at either side made me feel as if they would swallow me. I began to sweat as I continued onwards, before a sound made me stop in my tracks. There was a low creaking sound as if a bough were being broken. Even though everything in my being told me not to, I turned towards the sound, which was coming from the area I had just travelled. My blood ran cold at the sight that greeted my eyes. Standing there was a tall creature that looked to be made of tree bark that creaked and groaned with every movement. Its body was thin and crooked like a spruce that had been battered and misshapen by the elements with uneven broken branch arms. Its legs were equally misshapen, leading to a mess of roots for feet. Its face was the most frightening of all; split open into a grin of splinters over which two bored holes sat as in mockery of eyes.
I stood transfixed as a clacking noise heralded the approach of its companion; a creature on all fours whose twisted knotted body seemed to be made of joined thin antlers and sinew, except for the face, which was a moose-like skull, complete with wider antlers and with eyes that looked like pearls and shone with terrible beauty. A third being appeared, forming out of the ground in front of me. It held a vaguely humanoid form, although faceless, and looked to be composed of moss and soil, though it reeked of death, and insects burrowed through it. I felt the worst sense of malice as I stared at these things. They, the fairies, ruled here and I was trespassing. Either their thoughts entered my mind or my fears projected that the king of rot wanted to suffocate me in his stinking embrace, that the king of trees wanted to pull me apart until my limbs were as broken tree branches and the king of bone wanted to gore me with each of its twisted antler limbs. I was snapped out of my horrid trance as a malformed insect ridden arm began reaching for me.
I ran from them. I could hear the creaking and clacking and shuffling of their pursuit as I did. The path now seemed impossibly long as I sprinted; cursing my arrogance and my curiosity with every step. I cursed myself further as I felt something tear at my hip, nearly throwing me off. My mind spiraled into deeper panic as I felt warm liquid and crawling sensations coming from the wound, but I forced myself onwards. Like the lash of a whip I was struck in the back, sending me tumbling forwards. I scrambled forwards on all fours like a frightened animal until I could right myself and run again. They could have easily caught me and killed me there, but they did not. They were playing with me, I realized. I was their game and they wanted to savour my torment. Gasping for breath from the strike, the fall and the pain I was becoming increasingly aware of, I thought of my grandfather’s description: “devils”. At that moment I could think of no better term to describe them. The tales I had gathered had spoken to their maliciousness, but even my grandfather’s tearful recount had failed to instill in me an inkling of the pure evil that lurked here, or a true belief in their existence. I had no bread to offer, nor a coat to turn inside out. It was early October and the day was so warm, I thought one would only be a hindrance.
I was shaken from my thoughts by the sign of my salvation the path up ahead was once again becoming overgrown. I hoped that I was reaching the boundary of their domain, and my trespass would soon be at an end. This hope was shattered as a stabbing pain pierced my side. The king of bone would not let me go without his mark. Again I was pitched forward, landing in the overgrowth. The nettles and roots and grass added an agony all their own to my wounded body. By some miracle I stood up and limped slowly away, unable though I was, to get a good breath of air. I stumbled through the last of the overgrowth, a step away from my freedom when I heard a creak and a snap like a broken tree branch. I looked behind me and realized that the king of trees had my arm, and was holding it at an impossible angle. My fear left me, as did my senses, as I slipped from his grip and fell the remaining distance out of the trail. I thought I heard laughter that was soon replaced by the voices of men.
I awoke in a hospital bed, surrounded by the worried faces of my parents and my grandparents. My mother, seeing me awake, burst into fresh tears. She told me that I was in the Carbonear General Hospital and that I had been attacked by a moose. I was seen falling out of the woods by some locals and rushed to the nearest hospital. She broke off at the thought of what might have happened if they had not seen me, and was led out of the room by my father who, himself was holding back tears but still suggested that they step out and let me rest. My grandfather suggested that my grandmother should do the same and, after a quizzical look, she too left, leaving us alone.
I attempted to shift in my bed to look at my grandfather, but was held in place by a sudden awareness of terrible pain. I glanced down at the cast on my arm and then back up to my grandfather who moved to my side so that he could speak quietly to me.
“They can’t seem to keep the wounds clean,” he said after a moment of silence. “They keep finding bone fragments and splinters and dirt…” he broke off, then continued mournfully, “You went looking for the fairies, didn’t you? Without even an offering to protect yourself.” His face was pale as he squeezed my good hand, “I should have never told you my story. I’m sorry I did. I’m sorry I couldn’t make you believe an old man.” Before I could say a word, he left me to my guilt ridden rest.
They kept me in hospital until the wounds on my side and my hip healed completely, out of fear of infection due to the never ending supply of items that needed to be pulled from them as well as the putrid stench. I remember waking from a restless sleep one night only to find a centipede working its way out of my hip. I screamed until the nurses came who pulled the thrashing insect from me, and after inspecting the wound for more, they cleaned it again and left with looks of fear and disgust barely hidden under the bedside manner.
By the time the wounds had healed, so had my bones. They cut open my cast only to find bark and spruce needles caked in around my arm. Baffling though it was, my arm was healed and they could find no signs of infection so I was sent home.
In the years that passed since this incident, I completed my Bachelor’s Degree and am currently working on my Master’s while writing a book about the fairy lore of the province; including my own incident. That day did not quash my love of folklore but has given me a deeper respect for the old tales. I am also driven by another need. Whenever I pass by a wooded area, of which there are many, even in the city, I hear them. I hear their spiteful laughter and the dreadful creaking and clacking and turning of earth. They want their offering. After so many years they want payment for my life that goes beyond a handful of breadcrumbs or a coat worn wrong-side out. I am supplying this payment by telling my story - their stories - and honouring them here and in my book. I can only hope it will appease them, as the sites of my wounds continue to itch and I often find clumps of spruce needles, moss and bone waiting at my door.