Fantasy Historical Romance denmark magic historical fantasy disability Witchcraft

The Witch of Tarup

By Claire Humphrey
Feb 9, 2020 · 4,266 words · 16 minutes

Whilst strolling around some fields in Prenton, we stumbled across this lovely little windmill and it was very cute.

Photo by Carl Raw via Unsplash.

From the author: Dagny needs a witch to raise the wind and put her new husband's windmill back in business. But no one in the village of Tarup will tell her who the witch is. Her husband might know, but a stroke has rendered him unable to speak. To find the witch, Dagny also has to find her place--in Tarup, and in her new and fragile marriage.


Denmark

1886

 

Every town has its witch, or so the Midsummer Ballad says, but I had only lived in Tarup a fortnight and I did not know who the witch might be.

I asked Bjørn first, but the right side of his face was stiff like wax from his apoplexy, and his reply came out mostly in spittle. I placed a piece of chalk in his hand, as I had tried doing these several days since he began to sit up again, but as before, he could only make it glance across the slate before his hand spasmed and the chalk fell to the floor. His voice went on in a mumbling moan.

I wiped his face dry with my apron and said, "My husband, are you distressed because you are ill, or hungry, or because you do not like what I ask?"

He beat his hand upon the slate. I found his bowl and began feeding him spoonfuls of øllebrød, which was all he could eat now, morning and night.

"You have not had much time to know me yet," I told him, "but I would not look for a witch unless I had great need."

Bjørn jerked his face away, causing øllebrød to run down his cheek.

"If you have had enough to eat," I said, "I will go out."

He beat his hand upon the side of his chair.

"We have run out of beer," I said, and he stopped beating.

Mads Olesen was just coming up to the mill, a bushel of potatoes in his arms. "No wind," he reported, as if I could not see perfectly well the unmoving branches of the oak tree, as if I could not hear perfectly well the stillness of the mill's sails.

I gave him a sack from our dwindling flour supply in exchange for the potatoes, and asked if he would sit with Bjørn for an hour.

"My Farmor, when she was sick," he said, "she always liked me to sing to her."

"By all means sing to Bjørn," I said. "I am sure it will gladden his heart." I was sure of no such thing. We had known each other a matter of weeks before the apoplexy struck Bjørn. I was already unsure how his face looked with both sides alive.

Before I left, I filled a basket with eggs. The smell of the chickens, straw and shit and warm feathers, reminded me of the farm in Allerup, where I was born. One of my brothers held it now. Until I met Bjørn, I had been resigned to living out my days there, tending my brother’s livestock and serving my brother’s wife and reading novels in secret.

"Dagny Jorgensdatter," I said aloud, to reassure myself, "you are never going back to Allerup." And I threw a scarf over my shoulders and a bonnet on my head, and went instead down the hill to the village.

Hans Fisker's wife, Maren Knudsdatter, was feeding her goslings, four of them, nested in boxes in her kitchen. She had a coffee pot just beginning to spit on the stove. "Dagny Møller," she said, without smiling. "I see you have eggs for me. I suppose you would like some herring in exchange."

I had not yet figured whether she disliked me in particular or disliked people in general, but either way, I did not intend to leave without a chat, and since the coffee was ready, she could not very well get rid of me. She poured coffee for each of us, and we pulled up stools close to the hearth and kilted up our skirts to warm our legs.

"And how is Bjørn?" she said.

"He is angry with me," I said, "because I told him I was going to look for a witch."

"A witch," she echoed, still with those flat brows. "You told Bjørn you were going to look for a witch."

"Allerup has two."

"Allerup has a Grundtviger parish leader who teaches girls to defy their families," Maren said. "All manner of things can be found in Allerup."

"I live in Tarup now," I said, "and I need a witch."

"I have lived in Tarup all my life, and I am a good Christian," Maren said. "I do not know such things as witchcraft."

I drank my coffee in silence then, from a blue and white cup small enough to hide in my fist. It was very good coffee.

Maren wrapped up the herring and I gave her the eggs.

"Kirsten Larsdatter could weave you a new scarf, if you wanted one," Maren said.

"I have a scarf. Bjørn gave me this one when we were wed." It was a fine one, bordered with tassels; much finer than anything I could buy for myself with the mill becalmed and my husband ill.

Maren looked away, up at the sky, well-bred enough to make it look as if she was not rolling her eyes. "Kirsten Larsdatter cannot walk about, and she would welcome a visit."

 

 

Kirsten Larsdatter lived in a small house, by herself. I did not know if she was a widow or if she had never married. Today, her front windows were open to the cool spring breeze and I could hear the hush and clack of her loom as I approached.

The sound stopped when I knocked, and then I heard the clatter of Kirsten taking up her crutches and making her way toward the door.

"Dagny Møller!" she said. "Come in and have some coffee."

"Thank you, but I have just had some coffee with—"

"Nonsense, nonsense! I have the pot all ready to go." I watched her drag her reluctant legs over to the stove.

I set my basket of herring beside the door and examined Kirsten's loom. She was making a table-runner for someone, with red and yellow stripes. She had been lamed by a childhood illness, I had heard, and so she spent all her youth perfecting her weaving and sewing, and was known far outside Tarup for the fineness of her work.

"And how is Bjørn?" she said, with the same flat look I'd just seen on Maren Knudsdatter's face. I began to think I had seen it on the faces of all the people of Tarup when they asked after my husband.

"He is angry with me," I said, just as before, "because I told him I was going to look for a witch."

Kirsten Larsdatter laboriously poured coffee, leaning on one crutch, and handed me the cup: even tinier than Maren's, and the coffee was stronger, earthy and rich. I held her cup while she settled into her chair and leaned her crutch against the arm, and then I passed it over.

"A witch," she said. "You told Bjørn you were going to look for a witch."

"Am I to have this same conversation with every woman in the village?" I asked.

Kirsten cradled her cup in both hands and looked at me square. Her grizzled hair was pinned back but a few strands lifted in the breeze from the open window.

"You might have it with every woman in the village, and man too," she said. "In Tarup, we do not take quickly to outsiders."

I set my cup on her hearth with a click. "I am not an outsider. I am the wife of Bjørn Møller."

"Ask your husband where you may find a witch, then."

"I did," I said. "And I am sure he would tell me, if he could speak. He wants the wind even more than I do."

Kirsten Larsdatter sighed heavily, and leaned far over to set her cup beside mine. "You want a witch to raise a wind."

"Just enough to turn the sails of the mill, before all of our grain succumbs to rot or rats."

She looked me in the face again. "I am not the one you need to beg," she said.

"Ah!" I said. "I thought Maren Knudsdatter was hinting to me that you were the witch."

"That sounds exactly like Maren Knudsdatter," Kirsten said, "but I am not the witch."

I set my elbows on my knees and sighed down at the hearth. "Do you know who is?"

She sighed, too. "It is not for me to say. But I have something else that will help. My Farfar had an apoplexy when I was a girl, and though he could not speak or write, he could tap his hand, and we made a board of letters for him to tap upon, to spell out what he would say to us."

I felt very low that I had not thought of such a thing, and very grateful that she had.

She smiled, and squeezed my elbow. "Go and see," she said.

 

 

 I walked back up to the mill with my basket full of herring and a jug of beer from Christian Brygger. I paused before the door to look at our oak tree: even this far into spring, it was leafless, the buds still brown and hard, barely green-tipped.

Inside, Mads Olesen was not singing, but was combing Bjørn's hair. "He did not like my singing, but he likes this," Mads explained.

I thought he was not wrong: Bjørn was not banging his fist on anything, at least.

I sent Mads on his way with a fresh loaf of the bread I'd baked that morning, I put the herrings and the beer in the icebox, and I sat down with Bjørn by the hearth.

"Kirsten Larsdatter gave me an idea," I told him.

I wrote out all the letters on the slate. Bjørn breathed harshly through his mouth, the coals in the stove settled now and then, and the chalk squeaked, and I could hear everything too easily in the quiet of the windless weather, without the sweep of the mill's sails above.

When I was done I held up the board. "Can you point to the letters of your name?"

Bjørn extended his trembling left hand toward the board. The index finger smudged over the B, and continued.

When he had spelled it out, he lifted his chalk-smudged fingertip and pointed it toward me, and I saw the lines deepen and lift around his good eye, as if he would smile.

 

 

The next days were quiet. The wind did not rise, and the oak tree did not come into leaf, but the sun shone and the other trees greened and the chicks grew strong enough to peck in the yard. Bjørn's old dog limbered up in the warmer air and ran about nosing at everything. I traded out some of our dwindling flour; I baked some and traded the bread; I gave some grain to Christian Brygger for beer.

Each morning after I had washed Bjørn and helped him out of bed and given him his øllebrød, he would tap upon the slate and I would come to him and watch him spell out the day's business.

Some of it was needless. I chided him for telling me to do the washing, for, I said, why get a wife if he did not trust her to do the washing? But some of it was needful, such as parts of the mill that might need oiling, or the instruction to send to Odense to cancel the next month's order of flour sacks.

I had Doctor Henriksen back again, and he let more blood and pronounced Bjørn better healed than he expected. As I dug in Bjørn's moneybox for the to pay his fee, my fingers scraped bare wood at the bottom.

When Doctor Henriksen had left, I came to Bjørn and showed him. "We cannot keep on this way," I said. "We need the mill working again. We need this calm to break. And if it does not, we need to think about what I can do for hire."

He tapped on his thigh, his sign for wanting his slate. I brought it to him and he spelled out, "Wind."

"I know we need wind, husband. That is why I asked you for the witch, earlier, but I did not want to bring it up again since it angered you."

"Me," he said.

I did not know what he meant. I looked at his face, which wore the half-vacant, half-pained expression it almost always wore.

"Me. Witch," his finger spelled.

I caught his hand in mine. I knelt on the hearth before him and looked up at his eyes, the one that followed me and the one that did not seem to see.

"You are the witch?" I said, to be sure. His chalky fingertip tapped against my palm. He shut his good eye.

"Then teach me," I said. "Teach me to raise the wind."

 

 

I went down the hill to visit Kirsten Larsdatter, as I had been doing many days lately. Through her window I heard the rhythm of her loom and the aimless sweet mutters of her geese.

"I know now," I called through her window. "I have learned what you could not tell me."

The loom stopped and Kirsten crutched to the window. "Bjørn told you?"

"With his slate," I said.

"Finally," she said. "It is clear to me that he chose you well, even though I was surprised at first."

"So was I," I admitted, for Bjørn was past the age when most men marry, and he was thought to be particular, and a particular man did not usually favour a plain woman past her best years, especially one who had given up churchgoing. "But now I think he is not sorry."

I let myself in through her door and tucked up my skirts to tend her fire; she could do it herself, but she had to pull a chair over and bend deep, and it hurt her legs and back, whereas for me it was a moment's work.

"I already owe you more favours than I can count," I said, "and I have come to ask another. I need a blue scarf, of fine wool, such as I know you have made."

"Must it be blue?" she said. "For I have a red one I made for a customer in Odense who has not yet paid."

"Bjørn says it must be blue."

"Then give me a week," Kirsten said.

"I will give you all the money I have left," I said. "It is to make the wind return."

"Then give me two days, and help me smooth things over with Agneta Blok when I do not have her dress done in the time I promised."

I helped Kirsten select the wool from her stores. I lingered long enough to make her a pot of coffee and set it on the tiny table nearest her loom, and I refilled her lamps with oil and set them close too. Then I went back up to the mill to wait.

 

 

The scarf was very fine, so fine it caught on the rough skin of my hands. As Bjørn had instructed, I teased out strand after strand of the blue wool, snipping them to the length of my arm, and tucking them into my bodice. It seemed a pity after all the work Kirsten had put into it.

When I thought I had enough, I touched what was left of the scarf to my cheek. It felt like a blanket for a baby.

"Dagny Møller," I said to myself, "you are not going to have a baby. You are not even going to have the mill for long unless you get this done."

I was standing on the walkway that stretched around the middle of the mill like a belt around the waist of a stout woman. Before his apoplexy, in the first days of the calm, Bjørn had positioned the sails at rest, in an evenly-balanced X. Now I reached out with a broom-handled hook and dragged the left-hand sail down straight.

Mads Olesen had helped me carry Bjørn and his chair outside, and the two of them waited in the yard below.

I wrapped the shortened scarf around my neck. I had taken off my apron and vest, tucked up my skirt more than was proper, and removed my shoes and stockings. Now I took hold of an upper rung of the sail, and stepped my bare feet onto the bottom one, and prayed that the wind would not rise just now.

I climbed up and up, right to the top rung, where the sail narrowed and the spine of it joined the central rotor. Right hand for the work, left hand to hold: Bjørn had spelled out the rule three times over, but it still felt precarious to have only my left hand clutching the rung while my right searched out a thread from the tangle of blue wool tucked in my bodice.

Bjørn had made me repeat the words of the spell thrice, too. I said them now over the thread, touched it to my lips, touched the scarf there too, and tied the thread to the top rung of the sail to which I clung.

Going down was very slow. Every rung needed a thread, every thread needed the words. I paused once to look down at Bjørn and Mads in the yard; their pale upturned faces looked blank and blurry from here, their eyes dark blots.

I reached the bottom of the sail and stood again on the walkway. It had felt high and narrow before, but compared to the sail it was solid as an oak. I turned and waved down to Bjørn.

Mads shouted up, after a moment, "He wants to know if you remember the words!"

I shouted them down.

"He says that is right!"

"Of course it is right!" I said back, but only under my breath.

I reached up with the broom-handled hook again and dragged the next sail down. As the first one swung up, I could barely see the blue threads upon it, even against the white sail.

I climbed again, all the way up to the heart, and began tying and speaking and tying and speaking, working my way back down.

When I finished this sail, I looked down into the yard again and saw I had an audience: Maren Knudsdatter, looking cross, with her arms folded.

"You should not have your poor husband out of doors!" Maren called.

"He is directing me," I said.

"He is an invalid!" she said. "He belongs in his bed!"

"He is teaching me to bring the wind," I said. "And I do not care what you think about witchery—without the wind we will starve."

"How can he teach you witchery when he cannot even speak?" Maren demanded.

"Mads, tell her," I said, reaching up and out again for the next sail.

I did not listen further, but I heard Mads talking excitedly, and even a rumbling groan from Bjørn. I climbed up until their voices were lost in the creak of the oaken sail-frame and the rustle of my skirts against the canvas.

When I finished this sail, Maren was gone. Mads and Bjørn remained. I could not tell, from this height, whether Bjørn looked pale.

"If you must go in, you must go in," I said. "I can finish alone."

Silence for a minute.

"Bjørn says you are a very fine wife and you will not finish alone while he has breath in him," Mads called up.

I did not think Bjørn had had time to spell out all of that, but I thanked him anyway, and pulled down the last sail.

 

 

The trampled earth of the yard stretched impossibly deep and wide beneath my feet. I clawed my toes into it like the chickens did.

The legs of Bjørn's chair had sunk in a little, too, but he still sat, alone and triumphant; it seemed Mads had gone home for his dinner. I came to Bjørn and knelt on the ground.

"Dagny," he said. His tongue sounded thick and spittle bubbled at the righthand corner of his mouth, but it was my name, nevertheless.

I grinned up at him, and unwound the tattered scarf from about my neck.

I placed one end of it into his hand, and he closed his fingers over it. I took the middle of the scarf and folded it, looped it around, knotted it tight. I set my lips against the softness and said the words Bjørn had taught me.

When I looked up, his good eye was crinkled at the corner.

"Do we wait for morning?" I said, for the sun was westering now, the days still short.

Bjørn shook his head. It was not just a palsied motion on his neck.

I hauled in a breath and took his good hand in my free one. "Are you ready?"

He nodded. He nodded, and I stroked the back of his neck the way you do with a horse who has been strong and brave, before I realized what I did, and took my hand back.

We held the frayed scarf, one to each end. I said the last of the words, which were very simple.

I pulled my end of the scarf. The knot slipped free.

A frozen minute. The earth was cold under my knees.

Bjørn's eyelids drooped, especially the right. His hand trembled a little; I could see the fabric of the scarf rippling in the sunset light.

A lock of my hair stirred, very lightly, against my cheek.

Up above, the sails of the mill began to ripple, too. I could hear the canvas as it filled taut. I could hear the slow sweep and creak as the arms began to turn.

I kissed Bjørn full on his mouth, and on the palms of each of his hands.

 

 

The mill turned day and night for a fortnight. We made up for all of the lost time and more. Mads moved his things up to our house and brought his brother with him, and still I had to bring another young man over from Langeskov to keep up with all the milling.

Bjørn grew stronger. He formed more and more words with his lips and tongue, and set aside the slate except for when he was very tired. He learned again how to chew meat, so that he might vary his diet of øllebrød. I invited Kirsten Larsdatter up to teach Bjørn how to walk with a crutch. His right foot dragged so that I had to stitch a leather patch over his toe, but his left was sound enough to bear him a few steps at a time around the house and yard, although he could not walk into the village or climb the heights of the mill.

The blue wool threads slipped free from the sails: I found a few of them snarled in the bushes here and there. But the wind did not cease for many days, and when it did, it was only a short calm, as happens in all seasons.

I watched the oak-buds finally break open into sprays of painful green. I watched the leaves grow, tender and wet at first, but darker and thicker and stronger by the day.

I pointed them out to Bjørn one evening, as we took our coffee by the open door, feeling the breeze of summer lift our clothes.

"The oak tree is like our family," he said. His words were still thick and stumbling. Others could not always understand, but I could. "Last to bear leaves."

"Our family has not borne any leaves at all, yet, my husband," I said.

"It will," he said.

And sure enough, in the next winter, we turned the sails of the mill so that the uppermost was just coming on vertical, which meant celebration, and I was delivered of a son.

We called him Hjalmar Egekvist, which means oak-twig. Kirsten Larsdatter stood as his godmother so that he could be baptized. He was a small baby, slight-boned, but long, and I thought he would grow up tall.

"I cannot see what may come for him," Bjørn said, over his cradle. "My witch-sight is not what it was."

"He will take over the mill when he is grown," I said.

"I hope I will live to see it," said Bjørn.

"Maybe he will be a witch," Kirsten said, "for he was born of a witch and a witchwife."

"Hjalmar, no," I said, "but perhaps his children, or theirs." As I spoke the words I knew them for truth, and by this, I knew that our dreams of a moment ago did not hold that same truth, and would not come to pass.

The knowledge ran over me like cold wind called from over the sea. I reached across the cradle and gripped Bjørn's hand, and then I gripped Kirsten's hand too. We sat in a circle around the cradle, the three of us, all the family little Hjalmar had: each of us frail and growing older, here for such a short time.

Then the fire settled within the stove, and I shook my head, and sighed. For Hjalmar would have all manner of things I could not see, just as I had things my own parents had never imagined. No, this feeling I had was not for him, but for me, for my own little family, and I held tight against the time when I would have to let them go.

 

This story originally appeared in Long Hidden.