The Royal Navy vessel, HMS Sabrina, was a frigate of the ‘Scamander’ class, one of a series of ships that had served in the late Napoleonic War. These were constructed of pine, a wood selected because the Royal Navy needed to build ships rapidly. Although quick to build, they were not expected to last as long as those made of oak. The ‘Sabrina’ was no exception and floundered in the North Atlantic in 1815, during her stint supporting an expedition that was searching for the fabled North-West Passage. Some of her hapless crew survived the shipwreck and found their way to Hopeless, Maine. For a while they believed that they were safe.
Those familiar with the unforgiving nature of Hopeless will be aware that the mortality rate is high, especially among newcomers. Over the years, the island has been the salvation of many a shipwrecked individual. For the vast majority, however, this was but a temporary reprieve. Only the lucky few have managed to survive the challenges posed by a landscape seething with hostility. After almost a year on the island, the remaining survivors from HMS Sabrina felt confident that they had beaten every obstacle that Hopeless harboured. With the aid of some of the tools and weapons salvaged from the ‘Sabrina’, they had successfully evicted a colony of spoonwalkers from the deserted hovel that they now called home and valiantly fought off some strange tentacled beasts who seemed comfortable on both land and sea. The company had put up with wailing ghosts and the attentions of assorted night-stalkers. As the months slipped by the original band of thirty was depleted to just six. Despite all, these six felt themselves to be impervious to anything that the island could throw at them; after all, they had been the ones who had managed to stay alive. In time they would, undoubtedly, have been proved wrong. As it happened, they did not get chance to find out; it was their own ignorance and inclement weather, that doomed them.
There is nothing quite like a beautiful summer’s day to gladden the heart and warm the soul. Sadly, in the year of 1816, no one in the north-eastern states of America could claim to have enjoyed a beautiful summer, or indeed any sort of summer at all. You will not be surprised to learn that Hopeless, Maine, was no exception.
Even by the usual, unremarkable, standards of Hopeless weather, the season, so far, had been abysmal. It was late June and it seemed that no one had bothered to inform the weather gods, who appeared to have been asleep since Christmas. When the killer winds that brought in blinding hail storms abated, a blanket of freezing fog wrapped itself around the island, chilling all life-forms (not to mention one or two of the non-life forms) to the bone.
The small community clustered around the acre or so of spiky grass, common-ground that many years later would come to be known as Iron Mills Common, were faring better than most. The majority of ‘Commoners’, as they were called, were descended from the Saxon slaves of Vikings who had settled on the island hundreds of years earlier. For generations they had suffered every privation imaginable and had learned to survive, no matter what. A bit of wind and icy fog was nothing to them.
There was one man, however, who felt the detrimental effects of the unseasonal weather more than most. Old Corwen Nailsworthy was the community’s apothecary, vintner, distiller and protective guardian of a little copse of elder trees that grew on the edge of the common. These trees were the source of many of Corwen’s remedies and were generally hardy enough to put up with Hopeless’ awful climate. In the past they had produced a wealth of blossom, providing the small community with elderflower wine, cordial, tea and when flour was available, fritters. Besides their culinary uses, the flowers were applied to the skin to alleviate joint pain and elderflower water soothed sore eyes. In addition, of course, the ripe berries, also rich in medicinal properties, made ample stocks of elderberry wine, port and syrup for all to enjoy. Corwen worked tirelessly to use the bounty provided by the elders to keep his fellow Commoners happy and relatively healthy. Sad to relate, 1816 offered no such provision. Such a long and unrelenting winter, having refused any hint of spring to dress the trees, ensured a barren harvest.
Corwen was in his stockroom, looking in dismay at the fast-emptying shelves. Luckily, the previous year had endowed them with a generous supply of medicines and alcohol but the apothecary feared for the future. If they were to be cast into a permanent state of winter – as seemed likely – there would be no more elderberries, or elderberry blossom. He gazed out of the small, grimy window at his beloved trees, bare and forlorn in the grey evening light. Suddenly, his eye was drawn to a group of men standing on the edge of the copse. They seemed to be paying close attention to one of the trees. To Corwen’s horror, one of the group produced an axe and began chopping its trunk, as if to fell it. He rushed out, shouting to them to stop.
The axeman, burly and tattooed, spun on him angrily.
‘We’re cold, old man. You don’t need all these trees. We’re taking this one today and when it’s gone, we’ll take more. Now get out of my way.’
‘You can’t burn elder,’ shouted Corwen, angrily. ‘You will be cursed. The elder is a sacred tree. If you dare burn it, death will follow soon after.’
The men laughed heartily
‘Your superstitions don’t scare us,’ said the axeman. ‘We’ve survived war and shipwreck and everything that this accursed island has thrown at us. We’re not going to be frightened by you or your fairy tales.’
With that, he pushed Corwen out of the way and swung his axe at the base of the tree. It was tougher to cut down than he had thought but eventually the old timbers gave a death-rattle creak and the elder fell to the earth.
Corwen watched, miserable and helpless, as one of the men threw a rope around the fallen tree. Without glancing back they dragged it away, still laughing at the old man’s superstition.
That evening there was less merriment to be had than the six survivors of The Sabrina had hoped. Instead of the roaring blaze in the grate that they had envisioned, the wood of the elder burned with little heat and much smoke. But, they reasoned, with an icy storm raging outside, little heat was preferable to no heat. In view of this they resolved to keep the fire going all night and, when the whole tree was burned, go back for more, as promised.
The following day Corwen looked out of his window, filled with trepidation. Despite his warnings of the terrible consequences of burning the elder wood, he only half-believed the tales. He expected the ex-naval men to return at any moment and take another of his trees. All day he waited anxiously but no one appeared. They did not come back on the following day either, or the one after that.
‘Could it be true?’ he wondered to himself. ‘Is there really a curse?’
Curiosity got the better of him. Taking care not to be seen, Corwen made his way to the place where he knew that the men lived. It looked empty. There was no smoke issuing from the chimney and the front door was firmly closed against the weather. Gingerly, Corwen peered through the window. The sight that met his eyes made him reel back in shock.
The bodies of the six men were strewn around the room, their faces a dark red with features twisted in agony.
‘The curse,’ muttered Corwen to himself. ‘It has come to pass.’
The story of the terrible retribution of the elders spread rapidly through the length and breadth of the island and Corwen and his trees were never threatened again. The following year the weather reverted to something resembling normality, much to the relief of one and all.
Should you be tempted to scoff at this tale and prove it wrong by burning elder, I beg you not to. While the wood has been proved to be excellent for the construction of whistles, pipes and chanters, it can be fatal on a fire. One of its more unpleasant effects is, that when burned, it releases a lethal cyanide gas. More than one mediaeval peasant has discovered this to their cost, which has undoubtedly contributed to the adverse folklore surrounding the tree. As my mother never tired of telling me, it always pays to respect your elders!
Story by Martin Pearson-art Tom Brown