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The Raven-Feather Shroud

 

Hopeless has not always been fog-bound and desolate as it is today. Throughout its long history the island has enjoyed occasional but brief interludes of a much more pleasing climate. It was during the most recent of these verdant periods that the Danish settlers arrived.

 

The warriors came here first, in their long, fiercely elegant dragon-boats. They found the island to be a most agreeable place, with green pastures, bubbling streams and a sparse, timid population that was easily subjugated. It took little time for the invaders to realise that this would be a good island upon which to settle. Many were weary of having to fight. Maybe the Allfather would be kind and let them begin a peaceful existence in this new land.

They sent a longboat back with word of their discovery and over the next months and years a steady trickle of Danes found their way here, bringing with them everything that they needed to survive so many miles from home, including slaves from Britain.

 

It was high up in the hills, which are now known as the Gydynaps, that there lived a vǫlva – that is a seeress, a shaman, a wielder of the old magic. She was old and proud, only coming down to the village when summoned by the chieftain. In order to gain her favour and that of the gods, the settlers would ensure that she never went cold or hungry, regularly leaving food, furs and firewood at her door, especially on the occasions of the four great religious festivals, Eostre, Lithasblot, Winternights and Jul.

 

It was on the eve of Lithasblot, or Midsummer, that a slave (who, legend tells us, was one Cadman Negelsleag) was sent with a basket of food and wine to the vǫlva’s house. It was not a particularly arduous task and the day was pleasantly warm. The slave, knowing that his master did not expect him back for some hours, sat down upon a grassy bank and before long drifted into a deep and dreamless sleep.

 

It was a terrible commotion of squawking and croaking that dragged Cadman rudely from his slumbers. While he had been sleeping, two ravens had come down to inspect the contents of the basket and were quarrelling noisily over its ownership. Some of the food had been strewn on the grass and one of the birds was perched precariously on the edge of the basket, intent on removing the remainder. Without a second thought Cadman picked up a stone and threw it at the raven, hitting it squarely on the back of the head. It instantly dropped to the ground in a tangle of blood and feathers.

An awful dread came over Cadman when he realised what he had done. These birds were sacred to Odin and although the one-eyed deity was not his god, he was well aware of the power that Odin exercised in the minds of the Danes. Suddenly the beautiful summer day disappeared. The sky darkened, filled with threatening clouds. A cold wind shook the trees. The songbirds stilled their voices and an icy hand gripped Cadman’s heart.

There, standing on a ridge, was the vǫlva, her long, grey hair and midnight-dark cloak billowing in the freshening wind. In her hand was a long, ash staff, tipped with brass. The vǫlva’s face was a mask of anger.

“Cursed is he who kills the raven, most beloved of the Allfather,” she screamed, pointing her staff at the hapless slave. The staff crackled and sparked, then sent a cold blue bolt of light that froze his body to the core.

The vǫlva’s eyes glittered and it seemed to Cadman that she grew in stature, towering over him, filling the skies. She pointed to the smitten raven, where it lay on the grass.

“You will pluck just one feather from the bird that you have so wantonly slain,” she commanded.

Like a man in a dream the slave removed a feather from the dead raven.

“It will be upon each Lithasblot-eve, for centuries to come, that you will return to this place and pluck one feather from the raven that you will find here. Not until you have enough feathers to fashion yourself a raven-feather shroud in which to wrap your corpse, may you die. And the oldest man of your line who lives when your task is done, then it will become his burden, and so on, until your descendants are wiped from the face of the earth. Until that distant day you will walk in the shadows, hidden from the sight of men.”

Cadman felt himself slipping away, dragged by unseen hands into an eerie half-life, a shadowy, liminal dimension beyond all mortal understanding.

The island seemed to tremble at its very roots as a cold fog rolled in from the sea. Deep in its darkest caverns, nameless creatures began to stir from their long slumbers.

 

This, of course is only a legend. There may be no truth in it at all. But how many feathers does it take to make a shroud? Five hundred? Eight hundred? A thousand? If these events occurred at all then almost nine hundred mid-summer eves have passed since the curse was placed upon Cadman Negelsleag. For centuries his descendants have wondered if the legend has any truth and if it has, when might the shroud be complete and the curse passed on? Two hundred years ago the Negelsleag family, along with others, updated their names to something more pronounceable for the newcomers to the island. A curse, however, cannot be cheated; although names may change, blood remains the same. Our current Night Soil Man, the last of his line, knows that Negelsleag became Nailsworthy. Nine hundred years and nine hundred feathers ago it is said that his ancestor killed a raven. Shenandoah is a frightened man; he  always stays at home on midsummer-eve and wonders if it will be his last in the mortal realm.

I really hope that this is just another tale, just another island myth – but who is to say? After all, anything can happen on Hopeless, Maine.

Art- Tom Brown

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