The new year was less than an hour old when Betty Butterow, her work at The Squid and Teapot finished, had almost reached the cabin that she shared with her husband, Joseph, in Creepy Hollow. With the exception of the Night Soil Man, there are few who voluntarily venture far afield on Hopeless after darkness has fallen. This is true even in the middle of the year, when the last few strands of daylight are reluctant to leave the sky; to be abroad on a dark and moonless midwinter night was unheard of. However, Betty, you will remember, was a selkie, a seal-woman, and had enjoyed the protection of the mighty Kraken itself when Reverend Crackstone had tried to kill her. Since that day few creatures, on sea or land, would have dared cause her harm.
A thunderous clip-clop, like that of huge but tired hooves, underpinned by a series of sharp and really quite irritating barks, stopped the barmaid in her tracks. These were not noises one heard on Hopeless very often. A flurry of smouldering paper fluttered by, though there was no breeze tonight. Betty’s heart suddenly began to beat faster, not with fear but with excitement. She knew what this was: a spectacle she had heard of but never actually witnessed. Then she saw them. Filling the heavens with clatter and disapproving sighs came the wraiths of six elderly spinsters, arthritically plodding across the night sky on three flatulent mules. At their feet yapped a brace of ghostly Springer Spaniels. This was The Mild Hunt of legend, eternally doomed to chase some fiery, fugitive pamphlets across the skies over Hopeless.
They could only be so close to her home on such a night for one reason; the old stories told of them often being spotted in the winter months visiting the somewhat deranged ghost of Lars Pedersen, the famous Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow.
Betty kept very still and watched the ghostly cavalcade circle down to earth. In the air above her they had appeared to be colossal, filling the canopy of the heavens from horizon to horizon. Now, however, as they clattered to the ground, landing in awkward disarray, they assumed normal dimensions. The cacophonous chorus of yaps, brays, noisy expulsions of equine nether winds and several exclamations of “Dearie me” was enough to disturb the weary wraith of Lars Pedersen. Betty held her breath as he gradually manifested, as if through a doorway unseen. She was not a little surprised by the old phantom’s appearance. It occurred to her that he was fading away. After haunting the area for almost a thousand years Lars had become little more than an outline, as faint as breath on a chilly night. Despite this, she could see how gaunt and wild-eyed he was.
Betty watched for a while longer. The ladies seemed to be fussing around the old Viking. The mules had calmed down and the spaniels were sniffing anything and everything of interest. One wandered over to where Betty was hiding and licked her hand. It was a cold but not unpleasant sensation. It barked at her.
“Shoo” she hissed.
The dog refused to leave and continued barking.
Betty expected the ladies of The Mild Hunt to react to her presence but all they did was to admonish the dogs for their ceaseless noise.
It dawned on Betty that maybe the spaniels could see her when the other ghosts could not. This would make sense; rather like the way in which mortal dogs are said to be able to see things beyond human vision. Emboldened by this thought, the barmaid wandered into the clearing where the ghostly gathering had assembled. Not one of them saw her but the spaniels continued barking. The ladies were obviously speaking to Lars but their speech had become distant and indistinct to Betty’s ears. Uncanny though the tableau was, the spectacle of a group of elderly people talking, even ghostly ones, was not terribly exciting. Betty was almost relieved when the ladies of The Mild Hunt mounted their steeds, gathered themselves together and once more returned to their endless quest across the skies. The wispy shade of the Norseman waved briefly, then turned to leave, pushing open the portal that only he could see. Betty, never one to deny her curiosity full rein, followed, making sure to keep one foot in the world she knew.
If the ghostly spectacle of The Mild Hunt had been memorable, the sight that greeted her eyes now would be indelibly etched upon her mind forever. Incredibly, the land on the other side of the door was bathed in golden sunshine. The grass was green and lush, affording the half dozen goats grazing upon it rich pasture. Chickens and geese busied themselves noisily, while beneath an ancient spreading oak tree, a spotted pig basked contentedly.
On the near horizon purple hills rose up to meet the few fluffy white clouds that graced an otherwise clear blue sky. Birds sang and the scent of summer flowers filled the air. Although there was no sign of the warriors’ feasting hall or drunken revels of myth, Betty knew she was looking at Lars Pedersen’s private, very peaceful, Valhalla.
It suddenly occurred to the barmaid that the shape of the hills was somehow familiar. Then the realisation struck her. They were the Gydynaps! And if that were so…
The rest of the landscape gradually fell into place. Sunlight sparkled on the chuckling waters of nearby Tragedy Creek, while in the other direction ravens circled around the landmark she recognised as being Chapel Rock – minus the ruined chapel of course; Lars did not know about its existence. It was clear that Lars Pedersen was living an afterlife on Hopeless, Maine, but not a Hopeless that any living soul would recognise. Betty looked in wonder. Was this Hopeless as it was, as Lars knew it, or as it might have been? Or even might one day be? The thoughts raced madly in Betty’s head as she drank in the sounds and smells of this idyllic land, aching to be part of it. In silence, Lars Pedersen himself drifted into her field of vision and stood smiling before her. No one would ever refer to this Lars as The Woeful Dane, a nickname his ghost had acquired over the years. She saw him now as young and strong, his long golden hair and full beard plaited and his twinkling blue eyes bright and mischievous. With a slight bow, he held out his hand to her, invitingly. A delicious mist filled her mind, blanking out all thoughts and memories of the Hopeless she knew. Her life at The Squid and Teapot and even recollections of her soul-mate, Joseph became no more than a distant dream. Betty extended her arm towards the handsome Norseman, more than willing to accept his invitation. Just one step is all it would take to transport her to this wonderful new home – just one step.
“Betty. Is that you?”
A voice dragged her out of her reverie. She lurched back, realising how close she had come to leaving this harsh but love-filled life forever. The vision of Lars faded and the portal to his Summerland suddenly snapped shut.
The voice – and it must be admitted – overwhelming stench of the Night Soil Man, had brought her back to the Hopeless she knew so well.
“Are you okay, Bet’?”
Randall Middlestreet looked worried.
Although she had possibly glimpsed Heaven, Betty knew that this version of Hopeless was where she belonged for as long as she was alive. This was home.
She smiled and blew the Night Soil Man a kiss.
“Never better, Randall” she said.“Never better.”
Art by Tom Brown
(Cross referenced with ‘Ghost Writers in the Sky’ and ‘The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow’)