This Week’s Prompt: 104. Old sea tavern now far inland from made land. Strange occurrences—sound of lapping of waves.
The Resulting Story:
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Did you know “made land” means reclaimed land from the ocean? I didn’t! I spent a slightly embarrassing amount of time trying to find places or folktales about where the sea has receded before at last finding stories that fit this prompt (somewhat). The only one I found there had to do with the Norse God Thor and while it was…interesting, and connected to drinking, I think I’ll save it for another time.
No for this week I decided to delve into the folklore and urban legends of a part of Europe I admit I knew little of before hand: The Netherlands. The Netherlands have been making land for centuries, and unsurprisingly they have many stories about floods, storms, and the sea. Some of these are fantastic, some of these are rather mundane.
For instance, the story of how the north sea became salty. Once, there was a ship over one hundred kilometers long. It was so vast that a man on horse had to relay orders up and down the ship, taking six days to deliver each command. Where this vast ship came from is unknown—certainly it is a magical marvel, lacking telephone or telegram, and yet almost a small island in scope. But as perhaps was inevitable, the ship and it’s many crew members where wrecked at sea. The salt needed for such a vast ship is almost incalculable, and so the entire North Sea became salt water instead of fresh water.
Ships of same build if not scale were in the employ of a Woman of Stavoren. She was wealthy beyond compare, as a widow running a vast shipping empire. One day, she demanded that the most valuable thing money could buy be brought to her—and in time her ships returned, full of rye. Enraged, she ordered the barley be thrown overboard. All this was seen by an old man on the quay, who told the woman that one day she’d be poor. She swore to him that she could never be poor. To prove it, she hurled a ring into the sea and said she was like to get that back as to be poor again.
The next evening, a cook served her fish. And inside, the woman found the ring. Needless to say, storms struck and sank all her vessels—and she was rendered destitute, forced to beg on the street. The rye still grows where it was thrown, according to rumor. They bare no fruit.
But let us leave the sea behind, but not to far—and venture into taverns and cellars. One story tells that there is or at least was a wine cellar well known by older women. Here, witches flew to meet and drink and enjoy themselves. One woman, after her first trip to the cellar, decides to bring a younger friend along. However, she is too excited to recite the spell to bring them there properly. Most importantly, instead of “Afterward home again” she says “nevermore home again”—and curses the two of them to be forever lost on the road. The younger friend realizes the trouble their in—and as they can’t get home, the devil will come soon to snap their necks. In true college friend fashion, the two decide that if they must go to hell, they will go drunk.
Later, the two are found passed out in the cellar by some workmen, with incriminating brooms. They are found guilty of witch caft and sentenced to burning—they awaken during the burning, however, and manage to escape the devil by converting on the stake. The devil, having appeared as an owl over head to seize their souls, leaves enraged.
Another tavern cellar had a more dangerous creature lurking in it then two drunk witches. Down in a inn at Utrecht, there was a basilisk. The basilisk was born of a rooster’s egg, laid by a snake. The creature was born down there, unknown to the inhabitants. It was first discovered when a man went down to get a drink—and never returned, as the venomous eyes of the basilisk killed him and ground him to dust. This first victim was dismissed, many assuming he had just gotten drunk and passed out—until a second man went missing. And a third. At last, the innkeeper was about to investigate when a monk happened to come in and stop him.
Now, the discovery of a fire breathing—the story mentions this offhandedly, and so shall I—murderous chicken-snake is of course bad for business. So the innkeeper asked for anyone to help, offering a hefty reward. At last a street urchin came in, with a plank of wood as his only tool. Despite the pleas of the adults, the child descended to fight the cockatrice—and triumphed! For to the beasts surprise, the otherside of the plank was a mirror! So the beast died to it’s own gaze.
A more comedic inn story comes to us from Zuiderwoude. A solider was playing cards with his fellows, to pass the watch. Off hand, he offers to send the Jack of Clubs to fetch some jenever. The others laugh at such an impossible trick—but the solider insists. And with their agreement, he goes unconscious. He turns as pale as paper and sweats like a pig, as the jack of club vanishes. A few minutes later, to the horrified soldiers shock, a bottle of jenever appeared with a jack of clubs in its neck. The original solider drinks heartily, and they all join in.
The next day, they walk pass the main gate and learn someone assaulted the guard, nearly knocking him out and slipping past unseen. When they pass a local innkeeper, he accuses them of making a terrible ruckus last night to get nothing more than a bottle of jenever. When they deny it, he singles out the solider with the jack as having come to him in the night. The storyteller asserts said solider was a sorcerer, who never truly left the room.
But one that stuck out to me for our purposes is the Herring in the Bucket story. It is a short and simple and rather mundane story.
The story goes, a farmer was drawing water from a well. When he brought the bucket up, he saw there was a herring in it—a fish swimming in his drinking water. It occurs to him that the fish must have swam into the well—and if it swam into the wall, the ocean must be seeping beneath the earth. A single good storm would sink the entire area, washing it all beneath the sea. And with this in mind, he became miserable and angry, until at last the storm came—and when the waters receded he was found dead.
This sort of story has a few other variants—the maintaining of a dyke is a communal activity that the rich and arrogant often neglect and are ruined for ignoring. But what to me works here, in this small simple story is the horror that it displays. The growing realization that the buried sea is ready to rise up again and swallow it all. I pondered for a moment, why the farmer didn’t leave—but how could he? He is a part of this land as well. In our story, the old sea tavern is perhaps safe—it is where the coast once was, after all. But the made land is unstable—the symbolism of unstable lives, of long buried tensions coming to surface is apparent. Especially considering in vino veritas. There is a lot here, with simple and growing signs of impending doom.
Whether we take it to be the utterly mundane terror of a rising tide—something that is topical these days—or if it has some supernatural to it (we have many many many examples of the sorts of strange things that lurk in the sea), the story has I think a firm and clear footing. What stories have you heard, about seas, taverns, and tavern basements?
Meder, Theo. The Flying Dutchman and Other Folktales from the Netherlands. Libraries Unlimited, 2008.
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