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The Witch of the Arder Dunes

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Rixt van 't Oerd die door de duinen loopt. Aan de koe hangt een lantaard om schepen te lokken, door schilder Jan Elzinga uit Haren

This is the story of Rixt, who lost her husband, her son, her sanity, and her life, to the sea.

Rixt was born as the firstborn of a fisherman and his wife, who died in childbirth. As the fisherman did not remarry, for reasons unbeknownst to his daughter, Rixt remained her father’s sole child, and this is perhaps why the man gave his daughter such a wide range of freedom. The fisherman, whose name we shall not say, came to grow a modest fortune through his industrious labours and instinct for business, and as the years passed he owned most of the fishing boats that were moored in the borough’s harbour. When Rixt had come of age, she was well-educated, well-looked, and well-respected for her industrious nature and her friendly and hospitable character – qualities that were reminiscent of her father and, as she was told, her mother.

Though her father passed away when she had reached the age of twenty, this loss was alleviated by the happiness she found in her marriage with a famed captain she had married just before her father's passing. The captain fared over the seas, visiting many ports and trading various goods and was well known for his stubbornness and pride. A difficult man, but well-respected by his crew and well-loved by his newly-wed wife, the latter whom he also loved dearly. The marriage soon produced a son, Siwald, who was born in the disaster year. Though Rixt and her husband were not particularly pious people, they were both grateful for the Divinity that their child had been born just after the Piper had taken his due – but from that moment onward, misfortune would strike the family.

Her husband, proud and stubborn, but honest to the bone, most often sailed towards the Lands Across, that lay north of the Great Sea, where he traded wood and grain for spices, precious stones, and pottery (the latter for which the Lands Across were famous). These journeys took up to several months; as it was, the captain had only heard of the rats that had tormented the borough when the Piper had already alleviated Frigdborgh of its plague; and though he had returned in time for the birth of his son he had found the borough in mourning and despair without fully understanding the loss and trauma the Piper had bestowed on the people of Frigdborgh –not having been a part of it during that fateful night. The mixture of happiness and guilt that Rixt felt when she had her newborn in her arms was not fully shared by her husband. He was mostly happy and proud: a strong boy he had, an heir who could (and would!) follow the footsteps of his father.

But that was not to be.

A month had passed since the birth of his boy, during which the captain and his crew had been preparing for a new journey. Yet on the day of their departure, Boreas felt the need to remind the borough of his existence and, most importantly, his power. Fierce as the northern storm was, it struck the mast of the captain’s ship, heavily damaging not only the mast but much of the ship in the process. Though not irreparably damaged, repairs did take about a month, but when completed a thunderstorm tormented the borough, when Zephyros felt the need to prove that he was not the lesser of his brother. He did so most effectively. Lightning struck not only two of the borough’s many towers, but also the sails and rafts of, again, the captain’s ship, setting them on fire. Though the fires were quickly quenched by the torrents of rain that followed, the damage was done and repairs required another two weeks. Frustrated, the captain quickly decided a new departure date, but in his haste he missed to notice that the new date was set on Easter Monday, which was a holy day.

Indeed, the recently appointed borough’s priest (who was even more self-righteous than his predecessor, Anthenias, had been), was quick to threaten ship and crew with hell and doom were they to set sail on that particular day. But to no avail. Proud and stubborn as he was, the captain ordered his crew to board on the set date, and though they were initially reluctant to follow their captain’s orders, the crew were all present on Easter Monday. Had their captain not proven his worth in all their travels? Had he not saved many a life during treacherous storms, acts of piracy, and other hardships they had endured during their travels? He was indeed proud and stubborn, but equally just, honest, and brave a man. They would, and in fact did, entrust him with their lives.

So, on that fateful morning, the crew stood on deck awaiting orders. These came quickly and they started their final preparation for departure. After an hour or so, when their work was almost done, a group of people had gathered on the harbour’s quay, mostly consisting of the families, relatives, and close friends of the crew, including the captain’s wife Rixt and their son. And of course there was the priest, once again threatening with doom and damnation if the captain and crew were to continue their labour, his fire fuelled by the refusal of the borough’s aldermen to forbid the captain’s departure and his failure (as the priest was one of the aldermen) to persuade them to do so. Nevertheless, his point was soon proven, as at the horizon in the east, beyond the borough’s gates, dark clouds were gathering, and a fierce eastern wind blew through the borough’s streets and alleys. 'Twas now Euros who desired to show his muscles. This time the captain refused to once again delay his departure due to storms whose strengths were equal to those he had sailed through in the open waters. Though his crew protested, they only did so silently, and remained all the more silent when the strong voice of the captain declared thunderously: “The dark one may lay claim on my ship and crew; he may let us sail till the Last Day; but we shall sail today, damned be! Clear all moorings!”

It was his final order as a free man.

The ship started to move, but without the aid of the crew. Indeed: the moorings lines were cleared by virtue of themselves, while the crew stood immobilised at their positions; the cabin boy frozen while climbing the stays; the captain, his monocular in his left hand, stood immobilised behind his helmsman holding the wheel. Silently and steadily the ship began to move; first through the water but gradually rising above it, and so it drifted towards the inland sea that lay beyond the borough’s harbour. The onlookers on the quay were, at first, amazed, and then frightened. Whatever force had taken over the ship and its crew, having heard the captain's last curse it was clear to them that it was not a benevolent one. They soon realised that they would see neither ship nor husbands and sons ever again.

But the priest chuckled slightly, for his point was proven. He sought, and quickly found, someone who would fill the newly opened position of a scapegoat.

---

Rixt had sufficient presence of mind to understand that her position as the captain’s wife had now become a dangerous one, and she had already stored sufficient valuables in her father’s small fishing boat (which he had kept for reasons of nostalgia and bequeathed to his daughter) to sustain her for several years, knowing what the people of Frigdborgh had done the last time they needed a scapegoat. She was indeed called by the borough’s aldermen later that week, who found it prudent that she leave the borough on the charge of witchcraft. That she was neither tortured nor burned was a testimony of the charge’s weakness, yet the knowledge that she was only banished because the people desired the aldermen to respond to this tragedy, that the aldermen banished her only because it was easiest to point the blame to her was but a small comfort – if it was comfort at all. She had foreseen this, fortunately, and she requested the aldermen (the stadtholder, the philosopher, the poet, the bailiff, and the priest) to allow her to keep her father’s boat. This request they granted, as the woman would be off the borough's lands sooner, and Rixt left the borough with her son, the tomcat they owned, and the valuables that would need to sustain them for the years to come.

She set sail to Ame's Eye, one of the islands of the archipelago that separated the mainland from the Great Sea. Though the archipelago was part of the Kingdom of Frigd, the borough itself had no jurisdiction there, meaning that Rixt would be safe there from the fury of the borough's dwellers. It was not far a journey, but a dangerous one nonetheless, as the treacherous waters were shallow and any ship could well strand on one of the many mudflats and sandbanks hidden under the waters. Having arrived safely, she bought a small cottage north of the island's sole village named Syre. Facing the dunes rather than the inland sea, she chose this location purposefully, so that she would not face the mainland's coast and thus see the borough in day and night reminding her of things passed. It was there that Rixt began her life anew, yet her eyes, once shining brightly of happiness and joy, had now a grim and tarnished glow upon them.

This did not go unnoticed by the islanders. Nor had they failed to notice the captain’s galleon sailing above the waters through the island’s western strait that separated Ame’s Eye from its neighbour. They, too, had heard of the tragedies that had struck the borough just beyond the inland sea. Though they could never be sure whether the newcomer was indeed that cursed captain’s wife, they were, unsurprisingly, suspicious, and they treated the woman with disdain and distrust. Soon they began to tell stories to each other, and nasty gossip it was! They told that the woman could change into a gaunt tomcat; those who met the cat could soon expect troublesome times. All misfortunes that struck the village were told to be caused by Rixt: when the milk would not give cream in the churn; when the fishermen’s nets remained empty; when otherwise healthy children suddenly got ill, languished away, and died. She was the cause of calamities that struck the island: poor harvests and the occasional dike breaches. The more the villagers spoke of such vilifications, of which Rixt was thoroughly aware, and the more they treated her with disdain, the more unkind and disdainful she grew.

Yet her son, Siwald, was treated differently. He grew handsome and strong, and kind of nature, as his mother had been once, and strong and stubborn, as once his father. Rixt had told him of his father but not of his final journey, and the villagers did speak of that day but not of his father's involvement, not for lack of proof, but because they did not blame the boy for his mother's flaws. So he had heard stories told of a haunted ship, cursed to sail the seas and oceans until the day of Judgement, that had once left the port of Frigdborgh, disrespecting the rule of God. Rixt had heard them, too, and they tormented her already pained heart.

And so it was that once, during a carnival’s night, the drunken fishermen, staggering of beer and spirits, set out to revenge themselves on the woman. Their drunken heads thought it well to haunt the woman whom they thought a witch. Rixt had heard them coming from afar, making a racket as drunken men do, and had quickly taken her son by her hand and the cat in her free arm to the boat by which she had come to Ame’s Eye. The fishermen found the cottage empty of inhabitants, but in their rage they ransacked it, to destroy it afterwards. Rixt, in turn, sailed away from the village where she had reluctantly made her home, without knowing where the sea would take her and her boy. As it was, it was not far; the currents brought them north of the island, towards the Arder Dunes, where they came to build their hovel under an elder tree, surrounded by rose bushes and pine trees, all twisted and turned by the dominant, rain-bearing western winds of Zephyrus.

The material they used came from their now sole possession: their boat, and what they came short of they found in the form of wreckage on the sandy shores of the Arder beach. Ever since they wandered daily over those shores in search of valuables the sea had given back to the land after having taken them from the ships that sailed its waves. Or those valuables that were given to the sea willingly, by smugglers in fear of discovery. And when the other beachcombers discovered that even the finder’s mark held no importance to the pir, they did not show themselves any longer on that particular beach. Her son, Siwald, brought their findings to the village, where he sold them to passing merchants and, occasionally, villagers. The fishermen had come to regret that carnival’s night, if only because they had felt their wives’ anger and fury the day after, who had been furious for treating an innocent child as their husbands had intended to do. So, it was with reluctance that they bought the boy’s wares, and more of imposed than genuine guilt, but it helped sustain Rixt and Siwald for the years to come, their valuables having been lost in the fire set by the fishermen that carnival's night.

As the years passed, Rixt grew steadily more gaunt and tarnished, while Siwald grew more handsome and strong. He began to long for the sea, tired of the disdain of the villagers and the self-pity of his mother. And finally came the day, seventeen summers passed since that fateful day in Frigdborgh, that Rixt could no longer resist her son, whom she had told often of his brave father, thereby unintentionally kindling the fire of longing in the boy’s heart. It was a day of argument; a fight that had started with nothing but ended everything. Siwald blamed his mother for their misfortune, noting her self-pity and anger, which he did not - could not - fully comprehend since his mother had never told him her reasons for settling on the island. And he blamed his mother for treating those who had mistreated her equally unjust, and that he had to face the villagers and their disdain frequently while she stayed at home. His words pained Rixt, knowing that they were true, but this she did not admit, not when Siwald packed his knapsack with the most elementary necessities. Nor did she speak when Siwald opened the door, bode his mother a well-faring life, and left to the island’s small harbour, in search for work and becoming – unbeknownst but indeed assumed by Rixt – a man of the sea.

Soon after Siwald had left, the cat she had brought with her died, rendering the few worthless trinkets Siwald had found on the beach the sole reminder of her son, and with that, of the life she used to have all those years ago. The amalgamation of happiness, sorrow, and loss would one day become too much for her, but first more years went by, lonely years in which she kept the hope and wish that her boy would once return to her.

---

The island's northeastern coast was marked by rough, capriciously shaped dunes, with seagulls swaying with broad, powerful wing beats over the blinking dune tops. The cluster pines would wave merrily on the rhythm of a pleasant summer’s breeze. So it was during the summers, but summer is followed by autumn, and with autumn came the fierce storms and heavy rains, reshaping the placid hideaway into an inhospitable place. Then the gale-force winds of autumn and winter blew thunderously through the valleys of the sea dunes; the white-crested waves of the sea rolled with savage pace over the sandy shore, bouncing against the dune foot, thereby returning to both dune and shore their capricious, sometimes ominous shapes. The once beautiful girl Rixt had become a skinny, tawny woman, her body sinewy, her often patched clothes hanging loose and sloppy around her bony body. If one had not noticed the gloomy, peculiar glow of sorrow, envy, and misery in her eyes before, one could not fail to do so today. Rixt had become old of age and hardship and, with that, miserable.

She now sold the valuables she found on the beach herself, mostly to passing merchants in the village’s small port, as she shunned the villagers as they shunned her, even though she no longer touched those items marked with the combers’ mark. This did not make the villagers trust her more – but she had not expected this. Knowing that she was alone and becoming old and weak, she sought to avoid conflict, not to repair relations. Mostly, however, she could be found (if one would take the effort) on top of the highest dune of the Arder, facing not the borough (that could well be seen, as it was not that far off the island) but the open sea. There she sat longing for her son, hoping for a glimpse of her husband. She imagined herself seeing her husband’s haunted galleon, floating above the sea dragging fog and wind in its wake. But she knew this her imagination; she knew that she was alone, and became increasingly aware that her life was fed by false hopes.

Her loneliness, however, was alleviated by her finding of a stray cow, which the owner had not taken the effort to retrieve, the animal providing her with milk and company the first year, and company in the following years. She came aware that she would die alone, perhaps in her sleep, but it was equally possible that she died in pain and agony, breaking a limb or becoming ill with none to stand by her in what would then be her final days. So it was that a fiendish plot developed in her mind; a plan that, if well executed, would enable her to gain sufficient means to sustain herself for months, if not years, to come. The islanders thought her a witch; finally, she would become one.

And it was a moonless, stormy night in autumn that she executed her plan.

---

Tonight, it is Boreas, the northern wind, who tries to prove his worth once more. And so he does. Massive waves bluster and bounce against the dune foot, while the winds whistle forcefully and violently around and through Rixt’s creaking hovel. Grey, colossal clouds sweep along the welkin. As darkness falls, the foul woman takes her lantern and fastens it on her cow’s neck. Together they walk to that highest dune of the Arder, where she had sat so often longingly. There she binds her cow to the lone pine tree that proudly resists the challenging wind. The lantern itself wallows and dangles on the rhythm of the wind, but the flame, spreading a golden-yellow glow, does not quench. The cow moos fearfully, but this is all for the better, Rixt thought. If passing ships would hear it (which she thought of as fortunate, if unlikely), they would think it a blowing horn.

And as Mother Nature rages with deafening noise over the Arder, the sight of the witch is terrible: her grey hair flattering over her withered face; her eyes glowing, longing for vengeance and spoils. Shifting sands prickle her eyes, but she cares not. With renewed strength she sings strange songs to the sea, ignoring the fearful moos of her animal companion. Her wrinkled face turns to smile with every gust of wind.

In the distance, she sees a small light and knows it to be a ship. She does not know that it is a ketch fighting its way through the raging sea, struggling against wind and waves. The sailors’ faces are hardened of tension, as it is for their lives that they fight, they know that in this storm their doom is near. One of them shouts relieved: he has found a small, rocking light in the distance, which he (and his fellows) soon come to believe a safe harbour. The captain gives the order to change course, and quickly, the ketch sets sail towards that assumed safe place, unaware of the trap that is set out for them. Indeed, when they near the shore of Ame’s Eye, a terrible blow can be heard through the whistling winds, soon followed by cries for help and of panic of the sailors. Plunging waves finish the sight, claiming the ship that crashed on the sandbanks. And while the ketch’s lantern is now quenched, ever on the lantern on the Arder wallows and dangles on the winds’ rhythm, the flame spreading its golden-yellow light.

--

The next morning the horizon gleams scarlet; the storm has died. In this early light Rixt walks over the beach, which is littered with wreckage, cargo, and the dead bodies of the stranded ship’s crew. She carries cargo back to the Arder dunes: filled crates and bottles, baskets, wood, burying it underground to sort it out later. So the day passes, when finally only the corpses of the sailors are left. Their lifeless bodies carry gold in their pockets, Rixt knows. Her skinny fingers ferret around in their pockets. Finally, just one seaman is left; when she has finished searching him, her work is done.

She bends over the dead body of the young man, which lies on the beach with his legs stretched, with mat eyes that stare into nothingness. Then her face hardens, her smile fades away and she retreats her sinewy arms, bringing them, in despair, to her mouth as to muffle the scream she is about to cry out.

The dune witch has recognised her son.

Now that shrill scream echoes over the beach:

“Siwald! My dearest, poor Siwald!”

The ill-fated woman remains on the beach for a long time, holding the dead body of her son in her arms. Some beachcombers near the scene, amazed when they see how the witch tears the filthy rags from her body and runs with surprising vitality over the beach to the water, submitting herself to the waves. Even after her body has vanished under the waves, the combers still hear that awful cry:

“Siwald! Siwald!”

---

It did not take long for the abandoned, ramshackled hovel where the Arder witch had once lived to disappear. That what was not broken down by wanton youth of the village was quickly destroyed by wind and weather. But the twist-turned elder still stands. And though lost for life, the Dunes remain haunted by not only stories but the presence, too, of the witch that had lost husband, child, sanity, and life to the sea.

Because when Boreas rages over the island, when gigantic waves bounce against the foot of the dunes, then you can see yonder – always yonder – a roaming, golden-yellow light. If you look well enough, you can see a human form roaming the beach, carrying a long, hooked pole with a lantern fastened to it. In the shifting sands you can recognise the shapes of a skinny figure; in the white-crested wave heads you can perceive the peculiar face of a woman. And when those fierce northern winds blow, you always hear, through bone and marrow, that awful cry of despair echoing over the entire island:

Siwald! Siwald!



Written by Hearven.Eräman
Content is available under CC BY-SA


Author's note: Rewrite. For the original, see link on my page. Picture credited to Jan Helzinga.

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