Little Karl’s Island

The Storm


The wild geese had spent the night on Öland’s northern point, and were now on their way to the continent. A strong south wind blew over Kalmar Sound, and they had been thrown northward. Still they worked their way toward land with good speed. But when they were nearing the first islands a powerful rumbling was heard, as if a lot of strong-winged birds had come flying; and the water under them, all at once, became perfectly black. Akka drew in her wings so suddenly that she almost stood still in the air. Thereupon, she lowered herself to light on the edge of the sea. But before the geese had reached the water, the west storm caught up with them. Already, it drove before it fogs, salt scum and small birds; it also snatched with it the wild geese, threw them on end, and cast them toward the sea.

It was a rough storm. The wild geese tried to turn back, time and again, but they couldn’t do it and were driven out toward the East sea. The storm had already blown them past Öland, and the sea lay before them⁠—empty and desolate. There was nothing for them to do but to keep out of the water.

When Akka observed that they were unable to turn back she thought that it was needless to let the storm drive them over the entire East sea. Therefore she sank down to the water. Now the sea was raging, and increased in violence with every second. The sea-green billows rolled forward, with seething foam on their crests. Each one surged higher than the other. It was as though they raced with each other, to see which could foam the wildest. But the wild geese were not afraid of the swells. On the contrary, this seemed to afford them much pleasure. They did not strain themselves with swimming, but lay and let themselves be washed up with the wave-crests, and down in the water-dales, and had just as much fun as children in a swing. Their only anxiety was that the flock should be separated. The few land-birds who drove by, up in the storm, cried with envy: “There is no danger for you who can swim.”

But the wild geese were certainly not out of all danger. In the first place, the rocking made them helplessly sleepy. They wished continually to turn their heads backward, poke their bills under their wings, and go to sleep. Nothing can be more dangerous than to fall asleep in this way; and Akka called out all the while: “Don’t go to sleep, wild geese! He that falls asleep will get away from the flock. He that gets away from the flock is lost.”

Despite all attempts at resistance one after another fell asleep; and Akka herself came pretty near dozing off, when she suddenly saw something round and dark rise on the top of a wave. “Seals! Seals! Seals!” cried Akka in a high, shrill voice, and raised herself up in the air with resounding wing-strokes. It was just at the crucial moment. Before the last wild goose had time to come up from the water, the seals were so close to her that they made a grab for her feet.

Then the wild geese were once more up in the storm which drove them before it out to sea. No rest did it allow either itself or the wild geese; and no land did they see⁠—only desolate sea.

They lit on the water again, as soon as they dared venture. But when they had rocked upon the waves for a while, they became sleepy again. And when they fell asleep, the seals came swimming. If old Akka had not been so wakeful, not one of them would have escaped.

All day the storm raged; and it caused fearful havoc among the crowds of little birds, which at this time of year were migrating. Some were driven from their course to foreign lands, where they died of starvation; others became so exhausted that they sank down in the sea and were drowned. Many were crushed against the cliff-walls, and many became a prey for the seals.

The storm continued all day, and, at last, Akka began to wonder if she and her flock would perish. They were now dead tired, and nowhere did they see any place where they might rest. Toward evening she no longer dared to lie down on the sea, because now it filled up all of a sudden with large ice-cakes, which struck against each other, and she feared they should be crushed between these. A couple of times the wild geese tried to stand on the ice-crust; but one time the wild storm swept them into the water; another time, the merciless seals came creeping up on the ice.

At sundown the wild geese were once more up in the air. They flew on⁠—fearful for the night. The darkness seemed to come upon them much too quickly this night⁠—which was so full of dangers.

It was terrible that they, as yet, saw no land. How would it go with them if they were forced to stay out on the sea all night? They would either be crushed between the ice-cakes or devoured by seals or separated by the storm.

The heavens were cloud-bedecked, the moon hid itself, and the darkness came quickly. At the same time all nature was filled with a horror which caused the most courageous hearts to quail. Distressed bird-travellers’ cries had sounded over the sea all day long, without anyone having paid the slightest attention to them; but now, when one no longer saw who it was that uttered them, they seemed mournful and terrifying. Down on the sea, the ice-drifts crashed against each other with a loud rumbling noise. The seals tuned up their wild hunting songs. It was as though heaven and earth were about to clash.

The Sheep

The boy sat for a moment and looked down into the sea. Suddenly he thought that it began to roar louder than ever. He looked up. Right in front of him⁠—only a couple of metres away⁠—stood a rugged and bare mountain-wall. At its base the waves dashed into a foaming spray. The wild geese flew straight toward the cliff, and the boy did not see how they could avoid being dashed to pieces against it. Hardly had he wondered that Akka hadn’t seen the danger in time, when they were over by the mountain. Then he also noticed that in front of them was the half-round entrance to a grotto. Into this the geese steered; and the next moment they were safe.

The first thing the wild geese thought of⁠—before they gave themselves time to rejoice over their safety⁠—was to see if all their comrades were also harboured. Yes, there were Akka, Iksi, Kolmi, Nelja, Viisi, Knusi, all the six goslings, the goosey-gander, Dunfin and Thumbietot; but Kaksi from Nuolja, the first left-hand goose, was missing⁠—and no one knew anything about her fate.

When the wild geese discovered that no one but Kaksi had been separated from the flock, they took the matter lightly. Kaksi was old and wise. She knew all their byways and their habits, and she, of course, would know how to find her way back to them.

Then the wild geese began to look around in the cave. Enough daylight came in through the opening, so that they could see the grotto was both deep and wide. They were delighted to think they had found such a fine night harbour, when one of them caught sight of some shining, green dots, which glittered in a dark corner. “These are eyes!” cried Akka. “There are big animals in here.” They rushed toward the opening, but Thumbietot called to them: “There is nothing to run away from! It’s only a few sheep who are lying alongside the grotto wall.”

When the wild geese had accustomed themselves to the dim daylight in the grotto, they saw the sheep very distinctly. The grownup ones might be about as many as there were geese; but beside these there were a few little lambs. An old ram with long, twisted horns appeared to be the most lordly one of the flock. The wild geese went up to him with much bowing and scraping. “Well met in the wilderness!” they greeted, but the big ram lay still, and did not speak a word of welcome.

Then the wild geese thought that the sheep were displeased because they had taken shelter in their grotto. “It is perhaps not permissible that we have come in here?” said Akka. “But we cannot help it, for we are wind-driven. We have wandered about in the storm all day, and it would be very good to be allowed to stop here tonight.” After that a long time passed before any of the sheep answered with words; but, on the other hand, it could be heard distinctly that a pair of them heaved deep sighs. Akka knew, to be sure, that sheep are always shy and peculiar; but these seemed to have no idea of how they should conduct themselves. Finally an old ewe, who had a long and pathetic face and a doleful voice, said: “There isn’t one among us that refuses to let you stay; but this is a house of mourning, and we cannot receive guests as we did in former days.”

“You needn’t worry about anything of that sort,” said Akka. “If you knew what we have endured this day, you would surely understand that we are satisfied if we only get a safe spot to sleep on.”

When Akka said this, the old ewe raised herself. “I believe that it would be better for you to fly about in the worst storm than to stop here. But, at least, you shall not go from here before we have had the privilege of offering you the best hospitality which the house affords.”

She conducted them to a hollow in the ground, which was filled with water. Beside it lay a pile of bait and husks and chaff; and she bade them make the most of these. “We have had a severe snow-winter this year, on the island,” she said. “The peasants who own us came out to us with hay and oaten straw, so we shouldn’t starve to death. And this trash is all there is left of the good cheer.”

The geese rushed to the food instantly. They thought that they had fared well, and were in their best humour. They must have observed, of course, that the sheep were anxious; but they knew how easily scared sheep generally are, and didn’t believe there was any actual danger on foot. As soon as they had eaten, they intended to stand up to sleep as usual. But then the big ram got up, and walked over to them. The geese thought that they had never seen a sheep with such big and coarse horns. In other respects, also, he was noticeable. He had a high, rolling forehead, intelligent eyes, and a good bearing⁠—as though he were a proud and courageous animal.

“I cannot assume the responsibility of letting you geese remain, without telling you that it is unsafe here,” said he. “We cannot receive night guests just now.” At last Akka began to comprehend that this was serious. “We shall go away, since you really wish it,” said she. “But won’t you tell us first, what it is that troubles you? We know nothing about it. We do not even know where we are.”

“This is Little Karl’s Island!” said the ram. “It lies outside of Gottland, and only sheep and seabirds live here.”

“Perhaps you are wild sheep?” said Akka. “We’re not far removed from it,” replied the ram. “We have nothing to do with human beings. It’s an old agreement between us and some peasants on a farm in Gottland, that they shall supply us with fodder in case we have snow-winter; and as a recompense they are permitted to take away those of us who become superfluous. The island is small, so it cannot feed very many of us. But otherwise we take care of ourselves all the year round, and we do not live in houses with doors and locks, but we reside in grottoes like these.”

“Do you stay out here in the winter as well?” asked Akka, surprised.

“We do,” answered the ram. “We have good fodder up here on the mountain, all the year around.”

“I think it sounds as if you might have it better than other sheep,” said Akka. “But what is the misfortune that has befallen you?”

“It was bitter cold last winter. The sea froze, and then three foxes came over here on the ice, and here they have been ever since. Otherwise, there are no dangerous animals here on the island.”

“Oh, oh! do foxes dare to attack such as you?”

“Oh, no! not during the day; then I can protect myself and mine,” said the ram, shaking his horns. “But they sneak upon us at night when we sleep in the grottoes. We try to keep awake, but one must sleep some of the time; and then they come upon us. They have already killed every sheep in the other grottoes, and there were herds that were just as large as mine.”

“It isn’t pleasant to tell that we are so helpless,” said the old ewe. “We cannot help ourselves any better than if we were tame sheep.”

“Do you think that they will come here tonight?” asked Akka. “There is nothing else in store for us,” answered the old ewe. “They were here last night, and stole a lamb from us. They’ll be sure to come again, as long as there are any of us alive. This is what they have done in the other places.”

“But if they are allowed to keep this up, you’ll become entirely exterminated,” said Akka. “Oh! it won’t be long before it is all over with the sheep on Little Karl’s Island,” said the ewe.

Akka stood there hesitatingly. It was not pleasant, by any means, to venture out in the storm again, and it wasn’t good to remain in a house where such guests were expected. When she had pondered a while, she turned to Thumbietot. “I wonder if you will help us, as you have done so many times before,” said she. Yes, that he would like to do, he replied. “It is a pity for you not to get any sleep!” said the wild goose, “but I wonder if you are able to keep awake until the foxes come, and then to awaken us, so we may fly away.” The boy was so very glad of this⁠—for anything was better than to go out in the storm again⁠—so he promised to keep awake. He went down to the grotto opening, crawled in behind a stone, that he might be shielded from the storm, and sat down to watch.

When the boy had been sitting there a while, the storm seemed to abate. The sky grew clear, and the moonlight began to play on the waves. The boy stepped to the opening to look out. The grotto was rather high up on the mountain. A narrow path led to it. It was probably here that he must await the foxes.

As yet he saw no foxes; but, on the other hand, there was something which, for the moment, terrified him much more. On the land-strip below the mountain stood some giants, or other stone-trolls⁠—or perhaps they were actual human beings. At first he thought that he was dreaming, but now he was positive that he had not fallen asleep. He saw the big men so distinctly that it couldn’t be an illusion. Some of them stood on the land-strip, and others right on the mountain just as if they intended to climb it. Some had big, thick heads; others had no heads at all. Some were one-armed, and some had humps both before and behind. He had never seen anything so extraordinary.

The boy stood and worked himself into a state of panic because of those trolls, so that he almost forgot to keep his eye peeled for the foxes. But now he heard a claw scrape against a stone. He saw three foxes coming up the steep; and as soon as he knew that he had something real to deal with, he was calm again, and not the least bit scared. It struck him that it was a pity to awaken only the geese, and to leave the sheep to their fate. He thought he would like to arrange things some other way.

He ran quickly to the other end of the grotto, shook the big ram’s horns until he awoke, and, at the same time, swung himself upon his back. “Get up, sheep, and we’ll try to frighten the foxes a bit!” said the boy.

He had tried to be as quiet as possible, but the foxes must have heard some noise; for when they came up to the mouth of the grotto they stopped and deliberated. “It was certainly someone in there that moved,” said one. “I wonder if they are awake.”

“Oh, go ahead, you!” said another. “At all events, they can’t do anything to us.”

When they came farther in, in the grotto, they stopped and sniffed. “Who shall we take tonight?” whispered the one who went first.

“Tonight we will take the big ram,” said the last. “After that, we’ll have easy work with the rest.”

The boy sat on the old ram’s back and saw how they sneaked along. “Now butt straight forward!” whispered the boy. The ram butted, and the first fox was thrust⁠—top over tail⁠—back to the opening. “Now butt to the left!” said the boy, and turned the big ram’s head in that direction. The ram measured a terrific assault that caught the second fox in the side. He rolled around several times before he got to his feet again and made his escape. The boy had wished that the third one, too, might have gotten a bump, but this one had already gone.

“Now I think that they’ve had enough for tonight,” said the boy. “I think so too,” said the big ram. “Now lie down on my back, and creep into the wool! You deserve to have it warm and comfortable, after all the wind and storm that you have been out in.”

Hell’s Hole

The next day the big ram went around with the boy on his back, and showed him the island. It consisted of a single massive mountain. It was like a large house with perpendicular walls and a flat roof. First the ram walked up on the mountain-roof and showed the boy the good grazing lands there, and he had to admit that the island seemed to be especially created for sheep. There wasn’t much else than sheep-sorrel and such little spicy growths as sheep are fond of that grew on the mountain.

But indeed there was something beside sheep fodder to look at, for one who had gotten well up on the steep. To begin with, the largest part of the sea⁠—which now lay blue and sunlit, and rolled forward in glittering swells⁠—was visible. Only upon one and another point, did the foam spray up. To the east lay Gottland, with even and long-stretched coast; and to the southwest lay Great Karl’s Island, which was built on the same plan as the little island. When the ram walked to the very edge of the mountain roof, so the boy could look down the mountain walls, he noticed that they were simply filled with birds’ nests; and in the blue sea beneath him, lay surf-scoters and eider-ducks and kittiwakes and guillemots and razorbills⁠—so pretty and peaceful⁠—busying themselves with fishing for small herring.

“This is really a favoured land,” said the boy. “You live in a pretty place, you sheep.”

“Oh, yes! it’s pretty enough here,” said the big ram. It was as if he wished to add something; but he did not, only sighed. “If you go about here alone you must look out for the crevices which run all around the mountain,” he continued after a little. And this was a good warning, for there were deep and broad crevices in several places. The largest of them was called Hell’s Hole. That crevice was many fathoms deep and nearly one fathom wide. “If anyone fell down there, it would certainly be the last of him,” said the big ram. The boy thought it sounded as if he had a special meaning in what he said.

Then he conducted the boy down to the narrow strip of shore. Now he could see those giants which had frightened him the night before, at close range. They were nothing but tall rock-pillars. The big ram called them “cliffs.” The boy couldn’t see enough of them. He thought that if there had ever been any trolls who had turned into stone they ought to look just like that.

Although it was pretty down on the shore, the boy liked it still better on the mountain height. It was ghastly down here; for everywhere they came across dead sheep. It was here that the foxes had held their orgies. He saw skeletons whose flesh had been eaten, and bodies that were half-eaten, and others which they had scarcely tasted, but had allowed to lie untouched. It was heartrending to see how the wild beasts had thrown themselves upon the sheep just for sport⁠—just to hunt them and tear them to death.

The big ram did not pause in front of the dead, but walked by them in silence. But the boy, meanwhile, could not help seeing all the horror.

Then the big ram went up on the mountain height again; but when he was there he stopped and said: “If someone who is capable and wise could see all the misery which prevails here, he surely would not be able to rest until these foxes had been punished.”

“The foxes must live, too,” said the boy.

“Yes,” said the big ram, “those who do not tear in pieces more animals than they need for their sustenance, they may as well live. But these are felons.”

“The peasants who own the island ought to come here and help you,” insisted the boy.

“They have rowed over a number of times,” replied the ram, “but the foxes always hid themselves in the grottoes and crevices, so they could not get near them, to shoot them.”

“You surely cannot mean, father, that a poor little creature like me should be able to get at them, when neither you nor the peasants have succeeded in getting the better of them.”

“He that is little and spry can put many things to rights,” said the big ram.

They talked no more about this, and the boy went over and seated himself among the wild geese who fed on the highland. Although he had not cared to show his feelings before the ram, he was very sad on the sheep’s account, and he would have been glad to help them. “I can at least talk with Akka and Morten goosey-gander about the matter,” thought he. “Perhaps they can help me with a good suggestion.”

A little later the white goosey-gander took the boy on his back and went over the mountain plain, and in the direction of Hell’s Hole at that.

He wandered, carefree, on the open mountain roof⁠—apparently unconscious of how large and white he was. He didn’t seek protection behind tufts, or any other protuberances, but went straight ahead. It was strange that he was not more careful, for it was apparent that he had fared badly in yesterday’s storm. He limped on his right leg, and the left wing hung and dragged as if it might be broken.

He acted as if there were no danger, pecked at a grass-blade here and another there, and did not look about him in any direction. The boy lay stretched out full length on the goose-back, and looked up toward the blue sky. He was so accustomed to riding now, that he could both stand and lie down on the goose-back.

When the goosey-gander and the boy were so carefree, they did not observe, of course, that the three foxes had come up on the mountain plain.

And the foxes, who knew that it was well-nigh impossible to take the life of a goose on an open plain, thought at first that they wouldn’t chase after the goosey-gander. But as they had nothing else to do, they finally sneaked down on one of the long passes, and tried to steal up to him. They went about it so cautiously that the goosey-gander couldn’t see a shadow of them.

They were not far off when the goosey-gander made an attempt to raise himself into the air. He spread his wings, but he did not succeed in lifting himself. When the foxes seemed to grasp the fact that he couldn’t fly, they hurried forward with greater eagerness than before. They no longer concealed themselves in the cleft, but came up on the highland. They hurried as fast as they could, behind tufts and hollows, and came nearer and nearer the goosey-gander⁠—without his seeming to notice that he was being hunted. At last the foxes were so near that they could make the final leap. Simultaneously, all three threw themselves with one long jump at the goosey-gander.

But still at the last moment he must have noticed something, for he ran out of the way, so the foxes missed him. This, at any rate, didn’t mean very much, for the goosey-gander only had a couple of metres headway, and, in the bargain, he limped. Anyway, the poor thing ran ahead as fast as he could.

The boy sat upon the goose-back⁠—backward⁠—and shrieked and called to the foxes. “You have eaten yourselves too fat on mutton, foxes. You can’t catch up with a goose even.” He teased them so that they became crazed with rage and thought only of rushing forward.

The white one ran right straight to the big cleft. When he was there, he made one stroke with his wings, and got over. Just then the foxes were almost upon him.

The goosey-gander hurried on with the same haste as before, even after he had gotten across Hell’s Hole. But he had hardly been running two metres before the boy patted him on the neck, and said: “Now you can stop, goosey-gander.”

At that instant they heard a number of wild howls behind them, and a scraping of claws, and heavy falls. But of the foxes they saw nothing more.

The next morning the lighthouse keeper on Great Karl’s Island found a bit of bark poked under the entrance-door, and on it had been cut, in slanting, angular letters: “The foxes on the little island have fallen down into Hell’s Hole. Take care of them!”

And this the lighthouse keeper did, too.