The Great Crane Dance on Kullaberg


Although there are many magnificent buildings in Skåne, it must be acknowledged that there’s not one among them that has such pretty walls as old Kullaberg.

Kullaberg is low and rather long. It is not by any means a big or imposing mountain. On its broad summit you’ll find woods and grain fields, and one and another heather-heath. Here and there, round heather-knolls and barren cliffs rise up. It is not especially pretty up there. It looks a good deal like all the other upland places in Skåne.

He who walks along the path which runs across the middle of the mountain, can’t help feeling a little disappointed. Then he happens, perhaps, to turn away from the path, and wanders off toward the mountain’s sides and looks down over the bluffs; and then, all at once, he will discover so much that is worth seeing, he hardly knows how he’ll find time to take in the whole of it. For it happens that Kullaberg does not stand on the land, with plains and valleys around it, like other mountains; but it has plunged into the sea, as far out as it could get. Not even the tiniest strip of land lies below the mountain to protect it against the breakers; but these reach all the way up to the mountain walls, and can polish and mould them to suit themselves. This is why the walls stand there as richly ornamented as the sea and its helpmeet, the wind, have been able to effect. You’ll find steep ravines that are deeply chiselled in the mountain’s sides; and black crags that have become smooth and shiny under the constant lashing of the winds. There are solitary rock-columns that spring right up out of the water, and dark grottoes with narrow entrances. There are barren, perpendicular precipices, and soft, leaf-clad inclines. There are small points, and small inlets, and small rolling stones that are rattlingly washed up and down with every dashing breaker. There are majestic cliff-arches that project over the water. There are sharp stones that are constantly sprayed by a white foam; and others that mirror themselves in unchangeable dark-green still water. There are giant troll-caverns shaped in the rock, and great crevices that lure the wanderer to venture into the mountain’s depths⁠—all the way to Kullman’s Hollow.

And over and around all these cliffs and rocks crawl entangled tendrils and weeds. Trees grow there also, but the wind’s power is so great that trees have to transform themselves into clinging vines, that they may get a firm hold on the steep precipices. The oaks creep along on the ground, while their foliage hangs over them like a low ceiling; and long-limbed beeches stand in the ravines like great leaf-tents.

These remarkable mountain walls, with the blue sea beneath them, and the clear penetrating air above them, is what makes Kullaberg so dear to the people that great crowds of them haunt the place every day as long as the summer lasts. But it is more difficult to tell what it is that makes it so attractive to animals, that every year they gather there for a big play-meeting. This is a custom that has been observed since time immemorial; and one should have been there when the first sea-wave was dashed into foam against the shore, to be able to explain just why Kullaberg was chosen as a rendezvous, in preference to all other places.

When the meeting is to take place, the stags and roebucks and hares and foxes and all the other four-footers make the journey to Kullaberg the night before, so as not to be observed by the human beings. Just before sunrise they all march up to the playground, which is a heather-heath on the left side of the road, and not very far from the mountain’s most extreme point. The playground is enclosed on all sides by round knolls, which conceal it from any and all who do not happen to come right upon it. And in the month of March it is not at all likely that any pedestrians will stray off up there. All the strangers who usually stroll around on the rocks, and clamber up the mountain’s sides the fall storms have driven away these many months past. And the lighthouse keeper out there on the point; the old fru on the mountain farm, and the mountain peasant and his house-folk go their accustomed ways, and do not run about on the desolate heather-fields.

When the four-footers have arrived on the playground, they take their places on the round knolls. Each animal family keeps to itself, although it is understood that, on a day like this, universal peace reigns, and no one need fear attack. On this day a little hare might wander over to the foxes’ hill, without losing as much as one of his long ears. But still the animals arrange themselves into separate groups. This is an old custom.

After they have all taken their places, they begin to look around for the birds. It is always beautiful weather on this day. The cranes are good weather prophets, and would not call the animals together if they expected rain. Although the air is clear, and nothing obstructs the vision, the four-footers see no birds. This is strange. The sun stands high in the heavens, and the birds should already be on their way.

But what the animals, on the other hand, observe, is one and another little dark cloud that comes slowly forward over the plain. And look! one of these clouds comes gradually along the coast of Öresund, and up toward Kullaberg. When the cloud has come just over the playground it stops, and, simultaneously, the entire cloud begins to ring and chirp, as if it was made of nothing but tone. It rises and sinks, rises and sinks, but all the while it rings and chirps. At last the whole cloud falls down over a knoll⁠—all at once⁠—and the next instant the knoll is entirely covered with gray larks, pretty red-white-gray bullfinches, speckled starlings and greenish-yellow titmice.

Soon after that, another cloud comes over the plain. This stops over every bit of land; over peasant cottage and palace; over towns and cities; over farms and railway stations; over fishing hamlets and sugar refineries. Every time it stops, it draws to itself a little whirling column of gray dust-grains from the ground. In this way it grows and grows. And at last, when it is all gathered up and heads for Kullaberg, it is no longer a cloud but a whole mist, which is so big that it throws a shadow on the ground all the way from Höganäs to Mölle. When it stops over the playground it hides the sun; and for a long while it had to rain gray sparrows on one of the knolls, before those who had been flying in the innermost part of the mist could again catch a glimpse of the daylight.

But still the biggest of these bird-clouds is the one which now appears. This has been formed of birds who have travelled from every direction to join it. It is dark bluish-gray, and no sun-ray can penetrate it. It is full of the ghastliest noises, the most frightful shrieks, the grimmest laughter, and most ill-luck-boding croaking! All on the playground are glad when it finally resolves itself into a storm of fluttering and croaking: of crows and jackdaws and rooks and ravens.

Thereupon not only clouds are seen in the heavens, but a variety of stripes and figures. Then straight, dotted lines appear in the East and Northeast. These are forest-birds from Göinge districts: black grouse and wood grouse who come flying in long lines a couple of metres apart. Swimming-birds that live around Måkläppen, just out of Falsterbo, now come floating over Öresund in many extraordinary figures: in triangular and long curves; in sharp hooks and semicircles.

To the great reunion held the year that Nils Holgersson travelled around with the wild geese, came Akka and her flock⁠—later than all the others. And that was not to be wondered at, for Akka had to fly over the whole of Skåne to get to Kullaberg. Beside, as soon as she awoke, she had been obliged to go out and hunt for Thumbietot, who, for many hours, had gone and played to the gray rats, and lured them far away from Glimminge castle. Mr. Owl had returned with the news that the black rats would be at home immediately after sunrise; and there was no longer any danger in letting the steeple-owl’s pipe be hushed, and to give the gray rats the liberty to go where they pleased.

But it was not Akka who discovered the boy where he walked with his long following, and quickly sank down over him and caught him with the bill and swung into the air with him, but it was Herr Ermenrich, the stork! For Herr Ermenrich had also gone out to look for him; and after he had borne him up to the stork-nest, he begged his forgiveness for having treated him with disrespect the evening before.

This pleased the boy immensely, and the stork and he became good friends. Akka, too, showed him that she felt very kindly toward him; she stroked her old head several times against his arms, and commended him because he had helped those who were in trouble.

But this one must say to the boy’s credit: that he did not want to accept praise which he had not earned. “No, mother Akka,” he said, “you mustn’t think that I lured the gray rats away to help the black ones. I only wanted to show Herr Ermenrich that I was of some consequence.”

He had hardly said this before Akka turned to the stork and asked if he thought it was advisable to take Thumbietot along to Kullaberg. “I mean, that we can rely on him as upon ourselves,” said she. The stork at once advised, most enthusiastically, that Thumbietot be permitted to come along. “Certainly you shall take Thumbietot along to Kullaberg, mother Akka,” said he. “It is fortunate for us that we can repay him for all that he has endured this night for our sakes. And since it still grieves me to think that I did not conduct myself in a becoming manner toward him the other evening, it is I who will carry him on my back⁠—all the way to the meeting place.”

There isn’t much that tastes better than to receive praise from those who are themselves wise and capable; and the boy had certainly never felt so happy as he did when the wild goose and the stork talked about him in this way.

Thus the boy made the trip to Kullaberg, riding stork-back. Although he knew that this was a great honour, it caused him much anxiety, for Herr Ermenrich was a master flyer, and started off at a very different pace from the wild geese. While Akka flew her straight way with even wing-strokes, the stork amused himself by performing a lot of flying tricks. Now he lay still in an immeasurable height, and floated in the air without moving his wings, now he flung himself downward with such sudden haste that it seemed as though he would fall to the ground, helpless as a stone; now he had lots of fun flying all around Akka, in great and small circles, like a whirlwind. The boy had never been on a ride of this sort before; and although he sat there all the while in terror, he had to acknowledge to himself that he had never before known what a good flight meant.

Only a single pause was made during the journey, and that was at Vomb Lake when Akka joined her travelling companions, and called to them that the gray rats had been vanquished. After that, the travellers flew straight to Kullaberg.

There they descended to the knoll reserved for the wild geese; and as the boy let his glance wander from knoll to knoll, he saw on one of them the many-pointed antlers of the stags; and on another, the gray herons’ neck-crests. One knoll was red with foxes, one was gray with rats; one was covered with black ravens who shrieked continually, one with larks who simply couldn’t keep still, but kept on throwing themselves in the air and singing for very joy.

Just as it has ever been the custom on Kullaberg, it was the crows who began the day’s games and frolics with their flying-dance. They divided themselves into two flocks, that flew toward each other, met, turned, and began all over again. This dance had many repetitions, and appeared to the spectators who were not familiar with the dance as altogether too monotonous. The crows were very proud of their dance, but all the others were glad when it was over. It appeared to the animals about as gloomy and meaningless as the winter-storms’ play with the snowflakes. It depressed them to watch it, and they waited eagerly for something that should give them a little pleasure.

They did not have to wait in vain, either; for as soon as the crows had finished, the hares came running. They dashed forward in a long row, without any apparent order. In some of the figures, one single hare came; in others, they ran three and four abreast. They had all raised themselves on two legs, and they rushed forward with such rapidity that their long ears swayed in all directions. As they ran, they spun round, made high leaps and beat their forepaws against their hind-paws so that they rattled. Some performed a long succession of somersaults, others doubled themselves up and rolled over like wheels; one stood on one leg and swung round; one walked upon his forepaws. There was no regulation whatever, but there was much that was droll in the hares’ play; and the many animals who stood and watched them began to breathe faster. Now it was spring; joy and rapture were advancing. Winter was over; summer was coming. Soon it was only play to live.

When the hares had romped themselves out, it was the great forest birds’ turn to perform. Hundreds of wood-grouse in shining dark-brown array, and with bright red eyebrows, flung themselves up into a great oak that stood in the centre of the playground. The one who sat upon the topmost branch fluffed up his feathers, lowered his wings, and lifted his tail so that the white covert-feathers were seen. Thereupon he stretched his neck and sent forth a couple of deep notes from his thick throat. “Tjack, tjack, tjack,” it sounded. More than this he could not utter. It only gurgled a few times way down in the throat. Then he closed his eyes and whispered: “Sis, sis, sis. Hear how pretty! Sis, sis, sis.” At the same time he fell into such an ecstasy that he no longer knew what was going on around him.

While the first wood grouse was sissing, the three nearest⁠—under him⁠—began to sing; and before they had finished their song, the ten who sat lower down joined in; and thus it continued from branch to branch, until the entire hundred grouse sang and gurgled and sissed. They all fell into the same ecstasy during their song, and this affected the other animals like a contagious transport. Lately the blood had flowed lightly and agreeably; now it began to grow heavy and hot. “Yes, this is surely spring,” thought all the animal folk. “Winter chill has vanished. The fires of spring burn over the earth.”

When the black grouse saw that the brown grouse were having such success, they could no longer keep quiet. As there was no tree for them to light on, they rushed down on the playground, where the heather stood so high that only their beautifully turned tail-feathers and their thick bills were visible⁠—and they began to sing: “Orr, orr, orr.

Just as the black grouse began to compete with the brown grouse, something unprecedented happened. While all the animals thought of nothing but the grouse-game, a fox stole slowly over to the wild geese’s knoll. He glided very cautiously, and came way up on the knoll before anyone noticed him. Suddenly a goose caught sight of him; and as she could not believe that a fox had sneaked in among the geese for any good purpose, she began to cry: “Have a care, wild geese! Have a care!” The fox struck her across the throat⁠—mostly, perhaps, because he wanted to make her keep quiet⁠—but the wild geese had already heard the cry and they all raised themselves in the air. And when they had flown up, the animals saw Smirre Fox standing on the wild geese’s knoll, with a dead goose in his mouth.

But because he had in this way broken the play-day’s peace, such a punishment was meted out to Smirre Fox that, for the rest of his days, he must regret he had not been able to control his thirst for revenge, but had attempted to approach Akka and her flock in this manner.

He was immediately surrounded by a crowd of foxes, and doomed in accordance with an old custom, which demands that whosoever disturbs the peace on the great play-day, must go into exile. Not a fox wished to lighten the sentence, since they all knew that the instant they attempted anything of the sort, they would be driven from the playground, and would nevermore be permitted to enter it. Banishment was pronounced upon Smirre without opposition. He was forbidden to remain in Skåne. He was banished from wife and kindred; from hunting grounds, home, resting places and retreats, which he had hitherto owned; and he must tempt fortune in foreign lands. So that all foxes in Skåne should know that Smirre was outlawed in the district, the oldest of the foxes bit off his right earlap. As soon as this was done, all the young foxes began to yowl from blood-thirst, and threw themselves on Smirre. For him there was no alternative except to take flight; and with all the young foxes in hot pursuit, he rushed away from Kullaberg.

All this happened while black grouse and brown grouse were going on with their games. But these birds lose themselves so completely in their song, that they neither hear nor see. Nor had they permitted themselves to be disturbed.

The forest birds’ contest was barely over, before the stags from Häckeberga came forward to show their wrestling game. There were several pairs of stags who fought at the same time. They rushed at each other with tremendous force, struck their antlers dashingly together, so that their points were entangled; and tried to force each other backward. The heather-heaths were torn up beneath their hoofs; the breath came like smoke from their nostrils; out of their throats strained hideous bellowings, and the froth oozed down on their shoulders.

On the knolls round about there was breathless silence while the skilled stag-wrestlers clinched. In all the animals new emotions were awakened. Each and all felt courageous and, strong; enlivened by returning powers; born again with the spring; sprightly, and ready for all kinds of adventures. They felt no enmity toward each other, although, everywhere, wings were lifted, neck-feathers raised and claws sharpened. If the stags from Häckeberga had continued another instant, a wild struggle would have arisen on the knolls, for all had been gripped with a burning desire to show that they too were full of life because the winter’s impotence was over and strength surged through their bodies.

But the stags stopped wrestling just at the right moment, and instantly a whisper went from knoll to knoll: “The cranes are coming!”

And then came the gray, dusk-clad birds with plumes in their wings, and red feather-ornaments on their necks. The big birds with their tall legs, their slender throats, their small heads, came gliding down the knoll with an abandon that was full of mystery. As they glided forward they swung round⁠—half flying, half dancing. With wings gracefully lifted, they moved with an inconceivable rapidity. There was something marvellous and strange about their dance. It was as though gray shadows had played a game which the eye could scarcely follow. It was as if they had learned it from the mists that hover over desolate morasses. There was witchcraft in it. All those who had never before been on Kullaberg understood why the whole meeting took its name from the crane’s dance. There was wildness in it; but yet the feeling which it awakened was a delicious longing. No one thought any more about struggling. Instead, both the winged and those who had no wings, all wanted to raise themselves eternally, lift themselves above the clouds, seek that which was hidden beyond them, leave the oppressive body that dragged them down to Earth and soar away toward the infinite.

Such longing after the unattainable, after the hidden mysteries back of this life, the animals felt only once a year; and this was on the day when they beheld the great crane dance.