Folklore and Fear: Blowin’ In


Blowin’ In: Folklore and Fear
By Susan Mangan

Me ma was always scoldin’ me, “Hazel, carry the bucket to yer father. Don’t be daft dreamin’ about the face of yer future husband in the clouds. Nonsense lies beyond the sky and the forest deep. Jus’ carry the feed to father and the lambs.”

Fear. Fear of the forest. Fear of my mother’s rough hand and my father’s gentle touch, a bit too soft, changeable, mind, when he pushes my hair out of my eyes and laments: “Hair like the leaves of a rowan tree when the day of All Souls has passed. Gold like a sheaf of ripe barley.”

Muttering words about my mother before her bloom faded, he leaves me to tend to the lambs.

Few children live near the forest. Our family and another is all. We have learned to live with the wood at our door.

Our teacher lives in the village. She is near as old as I, fifteen if she weren’t a day. In our village, we age by decades rather than years. T’was she, Missus Mairead that warned us children to stay out of the wood: “Ne’er stray into the forest, no matter how tempting the mushrooms are in autumn or how sweet the smell of elderflower is in late spring. Stay on the path until you reach the wide-open field of heather. Marked by a cross made from bog oak, the old road begins.”

If we should venture just a stone’s throw on either side of the road near the wood, we would never reach the field of heather and the safety of the village beyond. We would never sit by the hearth again with our small comforts of tea and bun. We would simply cease to be.

                         – (An Excerpt from “Hazel Wood” By Susan Mangan)

There is something so satisfying about an eerie tale well told. As girls, my friends and I would play slumber party games evoking the malevolent spirit of Mary Worth. While we did enjoy the tantalizing shivers of a proper dare, I am not sure what we would have done if an apparition did happen to materialize. Nonetheless, we tempted phantasmagoric fate with ghostly retellings and turns at the Ouija board.

Irish Fairytales
Long before radio, television, and twenty-first century streaming devices, people would tell stories to caution, entertain, and explain natural phenomenon. In Ireland, the storytelling tradition goes back to the days of the traveling storyteller, the Seanachie. Tired from the labor of everyday life, people sought release from their toil through stories, and the Seanachie found both a willing audience and a comforting spot by the hearth. In exchange for a bite of oaten bread or a drop of poitin, the storyteller would weave tales of the frightful Banshee whose cry would mean the imminent death of a loved one, or warnings of the Wee Folk who, despite their size, could upend the safety of home.

Cautionary tales exist in every culture. Snow White and Hansel and Gretel are two of the most famous of the German Brother Grimm’s Fairytales. “Don’t venture into the woods at night or eat from a forbidden tree.” Such advice is the stuff of good mothering.

Children tend to do the opposite of what we tell them. Human nature is in part spurred on by risk and riddled by temptation. Take, for instance, my middle son. During a class picnic celebrating the last day of fourth grade, my son slipped on the stones lining the shores of Lake Erie moments after I explained that green rocks slick with moss were dangerous. Thankfully, he was not concussed, but some lessons require more than one chapter.

That summer I reckoned I was finally wise to the wisdom of youth and crafted a tale, “The Old Mother of Crooked Lake.” This is a story about a fish nearly as long as the Loch Ness Monster.

Staying close to the tradition of the cautionary tale, I created this story to warn my son about the perils of jumping into the weedy lake without a life jacket on and a grown-up nearby. Over time the story evolved, and he and I would tell tales to one another of Old Mother sightings and the brilliantly colored lily pads that would suddenly grow in her wake. We began to believe in our fiction.

My middle child is now grown. On weekends, I am no longer on the dock with my young, curious son. During the gloaming time between twilight and sunset, I still sit with my feet in the lake.

One evening in early autumn, the waters gleamed violet. Jade dragonflies hovered near my face. Between my outstretched feet, the silhouette of a large fish passed beneath my shadow. I could not help but wax nostalgic at the memory of my son rising from the shallow waters near the dock after a swim with strands of lake weed clinging to his hair. I remembered us sitting together curled up in a towel, weaving stories of the Old Mother and how she was not such a scary fish after all.

Maybe, ghostly tales of mystery are meant to bring people closer, comforted by one another, by the fact that we all share worries and fears. Perhaps campfire stories, parlor games by candlelight, woodsmoke, and tawny leaves that float on autumn winds comfort more than frighten. Just maybe, fond memories are the most beloved phantoms of all.

*Susan holds a Master’s Degree in English from John Carroll University and a Master’s Degree in Education from Baldwin-Wallace University. She may be contacted at [email protected].


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