Ysbrydnos (Night of Spirits)

and so enraged was the Devil at seeing the church that blighted his view of the swirling sea that he climbed the side of the mountain and plucked a rock of a fearsome size and weight from the slopes and hurled it down intent on destroying it. But in his blind fury and searing anger he overshot his target and the rock landed in the water beyond. Again and again he plucked rocks from the mountainside and again and again he missed his mark until eventually a sheer cliff face was all that was left of the southern slope and Boulders Bay was created out of all the rocks that flew over the church and into the sea.

“What happened to the Devil dad?”

“Yes daddy! What did the Devil do next?”

The man placed his arms around his son and daughter and drew them close. “You really want to know?” he said with a grin.

“YES! Pleeeeeeeease daddy?”

“Well. As you can imagine the Devil was still in a very bad mood. In fact, he was so angry that he ripped his new trousers as he stomped back down to his cave under the mountain.”

“I didn’t know the Devil wore trousers,” said the small boy, his disbelieving tone lacking the surety of his wide-eyed wonder.

“Oh yes,” said the man. “Especially on interesting afternoons like the one that leads to Nos Calan Gaeaf.”

“Norse Colin what?”

Nos Calan Gaeaf. It’s Welsh for Halloween, and you’re h…”

“Half Welsh, yes dad we know! So it’s Nos Calan Gaeaf right now then?”

The man gave his daughter a squeeze. “That’s right. Tonight is the night when ghoulies and ghosties and…what’s wrong Danny?”

“Ghoulies and ghosties are for babies dad,” said Danny rolling his eyes. “I want to know about the Devil and his trousers!”

“Me too!”

“You too Beth?” Two heads nodded. “Hmm. Ok. So the Devil was stomping and stamping his way down the mountain when he heard a giant rrrrRRRRIPPP and…are you sure you want to hear this story?”

“YES!”

“OK, OK,” said the man laughing. “So. The Devil heard a great rrrrRRRRIPPP and his trousers split in two, revealing a very natty pair of red and black stripy underpants I might add. As you can imagine this did nothing to improve his mood and so he clomped and clumped his way right past his cave, down through the valley and into the village below. ‘BRING ME A TAILOR’ he boomed in his most devilish voice. ‘AND BE QUICK ABOUT IT’. He wasn’t a very polite Devil you see.”

“Stop being silly daddy!” said Bethan giggling.

“Yes. Good point. This is a serious business,” said the man setting a grim line to his jaw which drew more giggles from the children. “Anyway. After a while a small man with big glasses, a stepladder and a measuring tape walked out into the village square. He was too scared to speak but he trembled his way over to the Devil and started to measure him. He climbed the stepladder when he needed and took great care not to singe his measuring tape against the Devil’s hot fiery legs. After a few minutes he nodded, packed up his ladder and walked back into his shop. The day faded to night. A few ghosts wandered into the square and the Devil snacked on them while he waited. And THEN, just before midnight the tailor returned with a magnificent pair of leather and sack-cloth trousers for the Devil to wear. So pleased was the Devil that he promised to spare the village from his wrath for all eternity on the condition that the tailor made him a new pair of trousers once a year on Halloween. The village prospered, grew and its boundaries spread far and wide but Thomas’ Tailors on Main Road remained.”

“But dad…there’s a Thomas’ Tailors on Main Road near my school,” said Danny with marvelling eyes. “Is this where the Devil met the tailor?”

“Yep. Absolutely,” said the man with a solemn nod before breaking into a grin. “Have you seen how old the bloke is who runs that place? He’s got to be seven hundred if he’s a day!”

“Da-aaaad,” said Danny rolling his eyes again and stifling a giggle. “You just made it all up.”

The man hung his head. “I’m so hurt. This story has been passed down through generations to…whoa stop, that pillow hurts you know!”

“I suppose you’ve been telling them a load of old nonsense again then?”

“Who me? Never! Tell your mum kids. We were having a serious discussion about the finer points of trousers.”

The woman at the bedroom door rolled her eyes mirroring her son and laughed. “Bedtime for you little monkeys. Say goodnight to the big ape.”

“Goodnight ape!” chorused the children as the man hopped from foot to foot scratching his armpits before sweeping them both into a hug.

“Goodnight. Nos da. Sleep tight.”

After closing the door on her two babies, Michaela Davies put her arm around her husband’s waist and walked him down the corridor towards the living room. “I’m not sure who has the most fun Ben, you or them.”

“Me neither Kay.”

“I still wish you hadn’t gone through all that take ten ivy leaves and throw one away and step through a hoop with a wild rose nonsense with them.”

“It’s just a silly tradition my gran told me about.”

“Yes,” said Michaela withdrawing her embrace to punch him on the arm. “But you’re not the one who has to clean up leaves and all the other crap from under their pillows in the morning.”

“I’ll make it up to you.”

“Yes you will. Starting tonight when they wake up screaming about ysbryd and The Ladi Wen and The Black Sow…”

“Tail-less black sow.”

“Are you ever going to grow up?”

“I highly doubt it. I’ll still make it up to you though.” Ben shrugged his way into his winter jacket, picked up his keys and hugged his wife tight to his chest. “How about the Park Room for afternoon tea on Saturday? We can drop the kids off with your mum…maybe sneak home for some afters…”

“You are incorrigible!”

“Is that a complaint?”

“No, I’d be more worried if you weren’t.” Michaela smiled and kissed him. “And whoever she was she’d be a dead woman. Have fun at the club. Say hi to Trev from me.”

“Will do. Love you kiddo.”

*

“You were on form tonight. Been practising have you?”

“Just one of those lucky nights Trev.”

“Lucky my arse,” said Trevor holding out his thumb to start marking numbers. “Three blacks in the first, a thirty-odd in the second, cleared the colours in the third…you could have let me win one at least.”

“Trev,” said Ben placing a consoling arm on his shoulder as the two men stepped out in the evening air. “If I let you win a frame you’d complain even more about me letting you win. You played well.”

“Well enough to lose five-nil.”

“Like I said, one of those lucky nights.”

“Yeah, yeah. And the more you practice the luckier you get.” Trevor clapped his friend on the shoulder. “Same time next week?” he said with a grin.

“Wouldn’t miss it. Now get yourself home to the missus and watch out at the crossroads…I think I hear a distant oinking…”

“A-home, a-home as the first…” began Trevor struggling not to laugh as he started up the street.

“Tail-less Black Sow snatch the last!” Ben just about got his words out before hanging his head in laughter. “Cheers pal. Be safe.”

Turning away from the departing figure of his friend Ben made his way down the hill, turning left at the river to walk past the old university. The streets were quiet. No pubs and still too early for closing time, but late enough that the last of the trick and treat brigade were safely tucked up in bed. The crisp late autumn air held all the promise of a long winter ahead and Ben was shrouded in a fog-breathed hood as he walked past the campus. The stone buildings were unlit and silent. In marked contrast to the res halls on the other side he thought.

As he reached the bend where the campus stretched away to the east he stopped to look up at the building where his father had lectured for so many years. Above the arched main window he could barely distinguish the faded old coat of arms sculpted on to the gable with its single remaining Latin fragment, Donum.

Gift’. What gift did you ever give me, dad? Other than finally buggering off with that American woman from the coffee shop.

With a sigh at the memory of his father Ben crossed the road and stepped onto the footpath that wound its way along the river and around the back of the church. He turned to look at the building one more time as a car swept around the corner, lights on full beam. For a brief moment the two tall windows flanking the arch were lit up. In the lightning flash of headlights each window revealed a human child pressed up against the pane. One boy, one girl. Eyes closed. Screaming. Or gasping for air. Ben felt fear pulse through him and took a step back towards the building. A second car rounded the bend. Lights shone on empty windows.

“Definitely shouldn’t have had that last beer,” said Ben. The joke did little to settle his nerves. He waited until the fading rear lights of the cars crested the small hill and disappeared from view. With no further cars in sight he shook his head again and stepped back onto the footpath.

As he walked along the riverside and left the road behind his breath felt colder in his lungs but his thumping heart was soothed by the gentle rush of water. The grass bank shone with the wet gleam of an oncoming frost and Ben unconsciously hunkered down into his jacket. The path was empty save for the regular streetlight sentinels throwing out their white glare and breaking the path up into blocks of twenty paces. Beyond the stained glass of the church he could make out the dim flicker of candles as he walked past. The path bled back into the main road just beyond the corner of the church where the first stone outliers of the graveyard marked time. Ben turned left keeping next to the stone wall of the churchyard. Not far n…

Thump

The dull, wet thud stopped Ben in his tracks. His senses on edge he waited for a moment and then stepped forward again.

Thump

Ben quickened his pace and had reached the open lych gate by the time the next thud reached his ears, this time much louder. He paused again, waiting for the silence to break. A few moments of quiet passed allowing his heart to slow a little. A long forgotten memory of being caught by his mother kissing a girl called Sara under this same gate came unbidden, breaking the tension until another loud thud killed the smile on his lips. What the hell is going on? He leaned under the lych gate roof peering into the graveyard beyond. Meandering rows of headstones stumbled their way to the shade of the huge yew tree in the corner. Right on cue another heavy thump, but this time a hint of movement from the tree accompanied it. “OK, very funny. You’ve got your Halloween scare out of me so you can come out now.” Another thump greeted his words. “Fine,” said Ben, sure now that it was some kids playing around in the churchyard, “I’m coming in and you’d better hope I don’t know your parents.”

As he approached the grand old yew there was no laughter or any sign of a furtive scrambling getaway and he started to feel uneasy once again. The branches of the tree covered the ground in thick shade, so much so that he almost tripped over the first of the flat, heavy stones lying haphazardly amongst the graves. “Where on earth did these come from?” said Ben, crouching to examine the one nearest his feet. His eyes barely registered the name Jack Kent in large scripted letters on the flat side of the rock before another large stone swished past the front of his nose to thump into the ground. Ben jerked his head back in reflex although it would have been far too late to avoid injury. The stone had wedged up against a gravestone with only an M visible in the same flowing script as before. “That’s it. I’m calling the police,” said Ben staring up into the tree. A dark figure leapt upwards and disappeared. “You could have killed me you little shit.”

“If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead.”

Ben spun round. “How did you…”

“Get down from the tree so quickly?” the small figure perched atop the gravestone laughed and disappeared. “I suppose you humans would call it magic.”

Ben turned once more to see the childlike figure dangling his legs from a low branch of the tree.

“Same sort of magic that allows me to carry these,” the figure produced one of the large rocks from an impossibly small waistcoat pocket. “And still have the strength to throw the poor unfortunate souls to the ground.” The rock whumped into the earth to Ben’s right.

“What do you mean poor unfortunate souls? They’re just a bunch of rocks,” said Ben. “Although I admit it’s a clever trick to hide them about your person.”

“These are not just rocks. They are marking stones. They are death.” The creature jumped down from the tree, and took up his earlier position on the headstone. “Not that some of them didn’t deserve to die I might add. Jack Kent was very much worthy of his stone. Shaun Roberts who just flew past your head probably wishes he’d been a little less cocky…”

“Are you,” Ben swallowed air for a moment, “the Devil?”

The little creature threw his head back and roared with laughter. “Me? The Devil? Oh Ben…that’s a cracker it really is. I’m three and a half feet tall and I wear a threadbare waistcoat. Never mind that he’s twice my size he wouldn’t be seen dead in clothes like mine!” The creature’s laughter faded and he shook his head. “No, I have many names among your kind. Rock Fairy, Imp of Death, Angelystor…but the Devil? If I were the Devil our meeting would be much less…sociable.”

Ben, red with embarrassment felt his anger rise. “What do you want from me Imp, and how do you know my name? Am I to die, is that it? I don’t believe in your nonsense. I’m done here.”

The imp raised a hand as Ben took a step forward. “I already told you if I wanted you dead you’d be dead. I’d be scribing your name on to this year’s batch of stones and this time next year after your tragic and untimely death I’d be laying you out with old Jack and the rest of ‘em.” The Imp spread his arms. “I’m here to give you a warning, or more precisely, to give a warning to your family.”

Ben felt the strength in his legs fade. “If you so much as harm a hair on their heads I swear I’ll…”

“Enough!” said the Imp. “I’m growing tired of your idle threats. I mean you no harm but it doesn’t take much to convince me otherwise so tread lightly my friend.”

Ben sat on one of the marking stones. “Fine. I’m listening.”

“Your time, and your family’s time is far from up Ben Davies but your children are in danger. Sit, sit,” the Imp raised his arms as Ben started to get to his feet. “You need to listen to me and listen well. The stories you tell Danny and Beth have power. They are more than just a collection of words, much as the ivy fragments and the wild rose petals under their pillows are more than just the scattering of leaves. The ritual of Eiddiorwg Dalen that your grandmother taught you is not a game at any time Ben, but on tonight of all nights…”

“Are you trying to tell me my children can see ghosts?”

“No. I’m telling you they’ve seen them already. Ladi Wen is keeping them from waking as we speak. It’s her way of punishing them for stepping into her realm uninvited.” The Imp scratched at his chin. “You didn’t imagine the bodies you saw in the windows Ben.”

“No. NO!” said Ben getting to his feet. “You are nothing but a liar and a trickster. My children are safe at home in their beds. It’s just a stupid old wives tale. She is just a stupid old wives tale.”

“I didn’t say they weren’t in their beds. But they are far from safe.” Seeing Ben running towards the road the Imp sighed.

The gate slammed shut just as Ben reached it. “Let me out of here Imp, right now!”

“I won’t tell you again human do not test my patience.” Sparks jumped from the Imp’s hands as he jumped down from the pitched roof of the lych gate. “I am here to help but this is the one and only time it will happen so I suggest you shut up and listen.” Ben put his head in his hands and nodded. “The only way to set your children free is to break a marking stone and throw a piece through each of the windows. And the only way to break a marking stone is to ask the Imp of Death very nicely to do it for you. So go and choose your stone.”

Ben lifted his head up and nodded again. He walked back to where the stones lay beneath the yew tree and picked one at random, “This one.”

“You’re sure?” the Imp tapped his chin as Ben nodded. “There is one more thing you need to know which may change your mind…” Ben spread his hands and the Imp continued. “When you break the stone, the soul within will be free to roam the earth, to haunt and hinder at will.”

“I’ve made my choice.”

The imp nodded and with a snap of his fingers the stone split asunder with a deafening crack. The two equal halves lay side by side on the grass. The imp was nowhere to be seen.

and so the one called Ben stood facing the old university building hefting a stone in each hand. The white witch Ladi Wen gleamed in the arched window, an evil smile on her lips as she drew the two children close to her icy chest. Then, with anger boiling inside him Ben heaved the rocks straight and true smashing the windows on either side. The Ladi Wen, her face a fearful grimace, screamed in anguish as the spirits of the two children faded from her grasp and returned safely to their beds…”

“Dad?”

“Yes Danny.”

“What was the name on the stone?”

“Yes Daddy! Who was it?”

The man placed his arms around his son and daughter and gathered them close. “You really want to know?” he said with a wicked glint in his eye.

“YES! Pleeeeeeeease daddy?”

“Lillian Maud Davies”

“Who’s that Dad? Was she a bad lady?” said Danny eyes wide as moons.

“Bad? Good heavens no! That was your grandmother and I knew she’d be up for chasing Ladi Wen armed with nothing but a wooden spoon and fuelled with the anger of being taken away from her bakestone at a critical welsh cake moment.”

“Da-aaaad!” Two sets of eyes rolled upward in unison. “You just made it all up…”

*

 

Header photo: “Cimetiere saxon Sighisoara” by Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cimetiere_saxon_Sighisoara.jpg#/media/File:Cimetiere_saxon_Sighisoara.jpg

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