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Monday, July 23, 2012

Tales from the Otherworld

When my grandmother was a little girl in the dark north woods of Minnesota, her parents sent her away from the farm and into town to go to school. In those days, the woods were full of wolves and ghosts, and it was too far for a child to walk. She boarded with two Norwegian women out on the edge of town, and they slept three to a bed in the frigid nights. One was fat old Mrs. Johnson and the other, Thone Gamle, the local witch.

The name was pronounced Tony Gomma, gamle being Norwegian for old and Thone a variant on Thora (the feminine form of the god, Thor). "Poor little grandma," my mother used to say. "I can just picture that skinny little red-haired girl squeezed between those two strange ladies. She must have been terrified." Story addition from my brother, Robert: Grandma also talked about Tramp Harold who the two ladies would fight over when he came to visit.


And why not? One time, the winter was so hard that the wolves came out of the forest and right into town, looking for something to eat. Their calls were close and little Grandma could hear them sniffing at the windows and doors. Thone Gamle, who wanted some peace, got up out of the warm bed and went out into the night to talk to them. Soon the wolves went away and bothered someone else.

Another time, there was a forest fire burning closer and closer the little town. Terrified, Mrs. Johnson begged Thone Gamle to do something about it.  The old woman went out through smoky air and walked all around the house three times, muttering and sprinkling a powder she had made.  In the morning, little Grandma could see how the fire had made a big circle around them, burning other houses, but not theirs.

When Grandma told her stories, I pictured her little girl life like an illustration in a fairy tale book. The world of 1910 was equally remote to me: long ago and far away. If she was in a good mood when we visited, Grandma would read our cards or tell ghost stories. If not, she'd say "Fee fie, children don't have fortunes" or "Your mama don't want me to scare you with such foolishness." And we did get scared. There was nothing more delicious than the thrill of hearing her stories, all of us grandchildren sitting on the floor in front of the fire that burned year-round and never needed stoking. "Tell us about the ghost dog!" we'd beg. "Tell us about the dead babies in the woods!"

Finally she'd agree, and begin by saying, "Strange things happened, in them days." And they did. We knew that back in Norway, her mother's aunt had been stolen by gypsies as a child and never heard from again. Her own sister, Leona, when chastised for playing cards on a Sunday, swore and said she didn't care. Then she was struck by lightning. Anything could happen.

The Story of the Ghost Dog
Once there was a family that lived near us that thought they'd try their hand at farming, but they had no luck. The farm went bust and they had to move on. They had a big Collie dog they couldn't take with them and couldn't find a home for, so the father shot it and buried it under the floor boards of the house.
A few years later we five kids was out in the fields playing, but it was getting on toward dusk and we knew we better get home. We decided to cut through the cow pasture near the deserted farmhouse, even though we'd been told not to. We was about half-way across when a bull spotted us and came running with his head down. We headed toward some trees, our little legs pumping. We was thinking we could climb, but them trees was a long ways off and we could hear the bull snorting.
 All of a sudden we seen this dog jump out through the broken window of the farmhouse. He ran into the pasture and got the bull's attention till we could get safely out, then that dog turned around and jumped through the window of the old house again. We knew it was the dog that'd been shot because we used to play with it, and we recognized him. He saved our lives, but we never seen him again.
Story addition from my sister, Nancy: Just as I remembered - but I always liked the part about her father going into the house to search for the dog ( it had a dirt floor) and seeing the dog foot prints in a circling pattern before it went back to sleep.

The Story of the Babies in the Woods
Once in the winter time us kids was coming home through the woods and it was getting dark. At first we thought it was the wind, but then we knew it was babies crying out there, all alone. We searched for them as we could, trying to follow the sound, but soon enough we decided to run home and tell our parents so they could help us rescue them.
When we ran in the door and told our parents, we were frantic. "There are little babies out in the woods. They're crying and crying!" They wouldn't listen to us and said it was just the wind, but they looked at each other strangely and wouldn't say more.

Later, when I was older, my mother told me the story. There used to be a school teacher in town, a pretty girl who lived with her mother, but she still got in the family way. The father left her, as they do, and she hid it as long as she could with her mother's help. When her time came, her mother delivered the twin babies, but she took them out into the woods and buried them in the snow, still crying from their birth. Folks hear them still to this day, and you will too if you ever get out that way.

If you dream of a bride, she told us, someone will die.
Clasp you hands above your head when you cross a bridge to keep the trolls away.
A black deuce means a sad message is coming.

My grandmother was a woman made of stories and lore from a deep place where dusk is always just  falling: the eldritch world.
eldritch: eerie; weird; spooky.
perhaps from Old English ælf elf  + rīce  realm;

Origin: 1500–10; of a strange country, pertaining to the Otherworld

Grandma may never have heard the word, but she knew it in her bones. She conjured the eldritch world for us as naturally as knot turns to gnarl in a forest of ancient trees. It is a world we'll never regain except through vicarious memory. That world faded when her daughters faced the horizon unafraid, wearing lipstick and dancing the jitterbug. Disappeared entirely as her grand-daughters wove love beads, learned irony and macrame, not knowing the pathway back was being swept away by a witch's broom. We can tell the stories to our yawning children but there'll be no fearsome awe. Journeys have all been undertaken where no first steps remain.

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