The Wind Witch

In Närke

In bygone days there was something in Närke the like of which was not to be found elsewhere: it was a witch, named Ysätter-Kaisa.

The name Kaisa had been given her because she had a good deal to do with wind and storm⁠—and these wind witches are always so called. The surname was added because she was supposed to have come from Ysätter swamp in Asker parish.

It seemed as though her real abode must have been at Asker; but she used also to appear at other places. Nowhere in all Närke could one be sure of not meeting her.

She was no dark, mournful witch, but gay and frolicsome; and what she loved most of all was a gale of wind. As soon as there was wind enough, off she would fly to the Närke plain for a good dance. On days when a whirlwind swept the plain, Ysätter-Kaisa had fun! She would stand right in the wind and spin round, her long hair flying up among the clouds and the long trail of her robe sweeping the ground, like a dust cloud, while the whole plain lay spread out under her, like a ballroom floor.

Of a morning Ysätter-Kaisa would sit up in some tall pine at the top of a precipice, and look across the plain. If it happened to be winter and she saw many teams on the roads she hurriedly blew up a blizzard, piling the drifts so high that people could barely get back to their homes by evening. If it chanced to be summer and good harvest weather, Ysätter-Kaisa would sit quietly until the first hayricks had been loaded, then down she would come with a couple of heavy showers, which put an end to the work for that day.

It was only too true that she seldom thought of anything else than raising mischief. The charcoal burners up in the Kil mountains hardly dared take a catnap, for as soon as she saw an unwatched kiln, she stole up and blew on it until it began to burn in a great flame. If the metal drivers from Laxå and Svartå were out late of an evening, Ysätter-Kaisa would veil the roads and the country round about in such dark clouds that both men and horses lost their way and drove the heavy trucks down into swamps and morasses.

If, on a summer’s day, the dean’s wife at Glanshammar had spread the tea table in the garden and along would come a gust of wind that lifted the cloth from the table and turned over cups and saucers, they knew who had raised the mischief! If the mayor of Örebro’s hat blew off, so that he had to run across the whole square after it; if the wash on the line blew away and got covered with dirt, or if the smoke poured into the cabins and seemed unable to find its way out through the chimney, it was easy enough to guess who was out making merry!

Although Ysätter-Kaisa was fond of all sorts of tantalizing games, there was nothing really bad about her. One could see that she was hardest on those who were quarrelsome, stingy, or wicked; while honest folk and poor little children she would take under her wing. Old people say of her that, once, when Asker church was burning, Ysätter-Kaisa swept through the air, lit amid fire and smoke on the church roof, and averted the disaster.

All the same the Närke folk were often rather tired of Ysätter-Kaisa, but she never tired of playing her tricks on them. As she sat on the edge of a cloud and looked down upon Närke, which rested so peacefully and comfortably beneath her, she must have thought: “The inhabitants would fare much too well if I were not in existence. They would grow sleepy and dull. There must be someone like myself to rouse them and keep them in good spirits.”

Then she would laugh wildly and, chattering like a magpie, would rush off, dancing and spinning from one end of the plain to the other. When a Närke man saw her come dragging her dust trail over the plain, he could not help smiling. Provoking and tiresome she certainly was, but she had a merry spirit. It was just as refreshing for the peasants to meet Ysätter-Kaisa as it was for the plain to be lashed by the windstorm.

Nowadays ’tis said that Ysätter-Kaisa is dead and gone, like all other witches, but this one can hardly believe. It is as if someone were to come and tell you that henceforth the air would always be still on the plain, and the wind would never more dance across it with blustering breezes and drenching showers.

He who fancies that Ysätter-Kaisa is dead and gone may as well hear what occurred in Närke the year that Nils Holgersson travelled over that part of the country. Then let him tell what he thinks about it.

Market Eve


It was the day before the big Cattle Fair at Örebro; it rained in torrents and people thought: “This is exactly as in Ysätter-Kaisa’s time! At fairs she used to be more prankish than usual. It was quite in her line to arrange a downpour like this on a market eve.”

As the day wore on, the rain increased, and toward evening came regular cloudbursts. The roads were like bottomless swamps. The farmers who had started from home with their cattle early in the morning, that they might arrive at a seasonable hour, fared badly. Cows and oxen were so tired they could hardly move, and many of the poor beasts dropped down in the middle of the road, to show that they were too exhausted to go any farther. All who lived along the roadside had to open their doors to the market-bound travellers, and harbour them as best they could. Farm houses, barns, and sheds were soon crowded to their limit.

Meanwhile, those who could struggle along toward the inn did so; but when they arrived they wished they had stopped at some cabin along the road. All the cribs in the barn and all the stalls in the stable were already occupied. There was no other choice than to let horses and cattle stand out in the rain. Their masters could barely manage to get under cover.

The crush and mud and slush in the barn yard were frightful! Some of the animals were standing in puddles and could not even lie down. There were thoughtful masters, of course, who procured straw for their animals to lie on, and spread blankets over them; but there were those, also, who sat in the inn, drinking and gambling, entirely forgetful of the dumb creatures which they should have protected.

The boy and the wild geese had come to a little wooded island in Hjälmar Lake that evening. The island was separated from the main land by a narrow and shallow stream, and at low tide one could pass over it dry-shod.

It rained just as hard on the island as it did everywhere else. The boy could not sleep for the water that kept dripping down on him. Finally he got up and began to walk. He fancied that he felt the rain less when he moved about.

He had hardly circled the island, when he heard a splashing in the stream. Presently he saw a solitary horse tramping among the trees. Never in all his life had he seen such a wreck of a horse! He was broken-winded and stiff-kneed and so thin that every rib could be seen under the hide. He bore neither harness nor saddle⁠—only an old bridle, from which dangled a half-rotted rope-end. Obviously he had had no difficulty in breaking loose.

The horse walked straight toward the spot where the wild geese were sleeping. The boy was afraid that he would step on them.

“Where are you going? Feel your ground!” shouted the boy.

“Oh, there you are!” exclaimed the horse. “I’ve walked miles to meet you!”

“Have you heard of me?” asked the boy, astonished.

“I’ve got ears, even if I am old! There are many who talk of you nowadays.”

As he spoke, the horse bent his head that he might see better, and the boy noticed that he had a small head, beautiful eyes, and a soft, sensitive nose.

“He must have been a good horse at the start, though he has come to grief in his old age,” he thought.

“I wish you would come with me and help me with something,” pleaded the horse.

The boy thought it would be embarrassing to accompany a creature who looked so wretched, and excused himself on account of the bad weather.

“You’ll be no worse off on my back than you are lying here,” said the horse. “But perhaps you don’t dare to go with an old tramp of a horse like me.”

“Certainly I dare!” said the boy.

“Then wake the geese, so that we can arrange with them where they shall come for you tomorrow,” said the horse.

The boy was soon seated on the animal’s back. The old nag trotted along better than he had thought possible. It was a long ride in the rain and darkness before they halted near a large inn, where everything looked terribly uninviting! The wheel tracks were so deep in the road that the boy feared he might drown should he fall down into them. Alongside the fence, which enclosed the yard, some thirty or forty horses and cattle were tied, with no protection against the rain, and in the yard were wagons piled with packing cases, where sheep, calves, hogs, and chickens were shut in.

The horse walked over to the fence and stationed himself. The boy remained seated upon his back, and, with his good night eyes, plainly saw how badly the animals fared.

“How do you happen to be standing out here in the rain?” he asked.

“We’re on our way to a fair at Örebro, but we were obliged to put up here on account of the rain. This is an inn; but so many travellers have already arrived that there’s no room for us in the barns.”

The boy made no reply, but sat quietly looking about him. Not many of the animals were asleep, and on all sides he heard complaints and indignant protests. They had reason enough for grumbling, for the weather was even worse than it had been earlier in the day. A freezing wind had begun to blow, and the rain which came beating down on them was turning to snow. It was easy enough to understand what the horse wanted the boy to help him with.

“Do you see that fine farm yard directly opposite the inn?” remarked the horse.

“Yes, I see it,” answered the boy, “and I can’t comprehend why they haven’t tried to find shelter for all of you in there. They are already full, perhaps?”

“No, there are no strangers in that place,” said the horse. “The people who live on that farm are so stingy and selfish that it would be useless for anyone to ask them for harbour.”

“If that’s the case, I suppose you’ll have to stand where you are.”

“I was born and raised on that farm,” said the horse; “I know that there is a large barn and a big cow shed, with many empty stalls and mangers, and I was wondering if you couldn’t manage in some way or other to get us in over there.”

“I don’t think I could venture⁠—” hesitated the boy. But he felt so sorry for the poor beasts that he wanted at least to try.

He ran into the strange barn yard and saw at once that all the outhouses were locked and the keys gone. He stood there, puzzled and helpless, when aid came to him from an unexpected source. A gust of wind came sweeping along with terrific force and flung open a shed door right in front of him.

The boy was not long in getting back to the horse.

“It isn’t possible to get into the barn or the cow house,” he said, “but there’s a big, empty hay shed that they have forgotten to bolt. I can lead you into that.”

“Thank you!” said the horse. “It will seem good to sleep once more on familiar ground. It’s the only happiness I can expect in this life.”

Meanwhile, at the flourishing farm opposite the inn, the family sat up much later than usual that evening.

The master of the place was a man of thirty-five, tall and dignified, with a handsome but melancholy face. During the day he had been out in the rain and had got wet, like everyone else, and at supper he asked his old mother, who was still mistress of the place, to light a fire on the hearth that he might dry his clothes. The mother kindled a feeble blaze⁠—for in that house they were not wasteful with wood⁠—and the master hung his coat on the back of a chair, and placed it before the fire. With one foot on top of the andiron and a hand resting on his knee, he stood gazing into the embers. Thus he stood for two whole hours, making no move other than to cast a log on the fire now and then.

The mistress removed the supper things and turned down his bed for the night before she went to her own room and seated herself. At intervals she came to the door and looked wonderingly at her son.

“It’s nothing, mother. I’m only thinking,” he said.

His thoughts were on something that had occurred shortly before: When he passed the inn a horse dealer had asked him if he would not like to purchase a horse, and had shown him an old nag so weather-beaten that he asked the dealer if he took him for a fool, since he wished to palm off such a played-out beast on him.

“Oh, no!” said the horse dealer. “I only thought that, inasmuch as the horse once belonged to you, you might wish to give him a comfortable home in his old age; he has need of it.”

Then he looked at the horse and recognized it as one which he himself had raised and broken in; but it did not occur to him to purchase such an old and useless creature on that account. No, indeed! He was not one who squandered his money.

All the same, the sight of the horse had awakened many, memories⁠—and it was the memories that kept him awake.

That horse had been a fine animal. His father had let him tend it from the start. He had broken it in and had loved it above everything else. His father had complained that he used to feed it too well, and often he had been obliged to steal out and smuggle oats to it.

Once, when he ventured to talk with his father about letting him buy a broadcloth suit, or having the cart painted, his father stood as if petrified, and he thought the old man would have a stroke. He tried to make his father understand that, when he had a fine horse to drive, he should look presentable himself.

The father made no reply, but two days later he took the horse to Örebro and sold it.

It was cruel of him. But it was plain that his father had feared that this horse might lead him into vanity and extravagance. And now, so long afterward, he had to admit that his father was right. A horse like that surely would have been a temptation. At first he had grieved terribly over his loss. Many a time he had gone down to Örebro, just to stand on a street corner and see the horse pass by, or to steal into the stable and give him a lump of sugar. He thought: “If I ever get the farm, the first thing I do will be to buy back my horse.”

Now his father was gone and he himself had been master for two years, but he had not made a move toward buying the horse. He had not thought of him for ever so long, until tonight.

It was strange that he should have forgotten the beast so entirely!

His father had been a very headstrong, domineering man. When his son was grown and the two had worked together, the father had gained absolute power over him. The boy had come to think that everything his father did was right, and, after he became the master, he only tried to do exactly as his father would have done.

He knew, of course, that folk said his father was stingy; but it was well to keep a tight hold on one’s purse and not throw away money needlessly. The goods one has received should not be wasted. It was better to live on a debt-free place and be called stingy, than to carry heavy mortgages, like other farm owners.

He had gone so far in his mind when he was called back by a strange sound. It was as if a shrill, mocking voice were repeating his thoughts: “It’s better to keep a firm hold on one’s purse and be called stingy, than to be in debt, like other farm owners.”

It sounded as if someone was trying to make sport of his wisdom and he was about to lose his temper, when he realized that it was all a mistake. The wind was beginning to rage, and he had been standing there getting so sleepy that he mistook the howling of the wind in the chimney for human speech.

He glanced up at the wall clock, which just then struck eleven.

“It’s time that you were in bed,” he remarked to himself. Then he remembered that he had not yet gone the rounds of the farm yard, as it was his custom to do every night, to make sure that all doors were closed and all lights extinguished. This was something he had never neglected since he became master. He drew on his coat and went out in the storm.

He found everything as it should be, save that the door to the empty hay shed had been blown open by the wind. He stepped inside for the key, locked the shed door and put the key into his coat pocket. Then he went back to the house, removed his coat, and hung it before the fire. Even now he did not retire, but began pacing the floor. The storm without, with its biting wind and snow-blended rain, was terrible, and his old horse was standing in this storm without so much as a blanket to protect him! He should at least have given his old friend a roof over his head, since he had come such a long distance.

At the inn across the way the boy heard an old wall clock strike eleven times. Just then he was untying the animals to lead them to the shed in the farm yard opposite. It took some time to rouse them and get them into line. When all were ready, they marched in a long procession into the stingy farmer’s yard, with the boy as their guide. While the boy had been assembling them, the farmer had gone the rounds of the farm yard and locked the hay shed, so that when the animals came along the door was closed. The boy stood there dismayed. He could not let the creatures stand out there! He must go into the house and find the key.

“Keep them quiet out here while I go in and fetch the key!” he said to the old horse, and off he ran.

On the path right in front of the house he paused to think out how he should get inside. As he stood there he noticed two little wanderers coming down the road, who stopped before the inn.

The boy saw at once that they were two little girls, and ran toward them.

“Come now, Britta Maja!” said one, “you mustn’t cry any more. Now we are at the inn. Here they will surely take us in.”

The girl had but just said this when the boy called to her:

“No, you mustn’t try to get in there. It is simply impossible. But at the farm house opposite there are no guests. Go there instead.”

The little girls heard the words distinctly, though they could not see the one who spoke to them. They did not wonder much at that, however, for the night was as black as pitch. The larger of the girls promptly answered:

“We don’t care to enter that place, because those who live there are stingy and cruel. It is their fault that we two must go out on the highways and beg.”

“That may be so,” said the boy, “but all the same you should go there. You shall see that it will be well for you.”

“We can try, but it is doubtful that they will even let us enter,” observed the two little girls as they walked up to the house and knocked.

The master was standing by the fire thinking of the horse when he heard the knocking. He stepped to the door to see what was up, thinking all the while that he would not let himself be tempted into admitting any wayfarer. As he fumbled the lock, a gust of wind came along, wrenched the door from his hand and swung it open. To close it, he had to step out on the porch, and, when he stepped back into the house, the two little girls were standing within.

They were two poor beggar girls, ragged, dirty, and starving⁠—two little tots bent under the burden of their beggar’s packs, which were as large as themselves.

“Who are you that go prowling about at this hour of the night?” said the master gruffly.

The two children did not answer immediately, but first removed their packs. Then they walked up to the man and stretched forth their tiny hands in greeting.

“We are Anna and Britta Maja from the Engärd,” said the elder, “and we were going to ask for a night’s lodging.”

He did not take the outstretched hands and was just about to drive out the beggar children, when a fresh recollection faced him. Engärd⁠—was not that a little cabin where a poor widow with five children had lived? The widow had owed his father a few hundred kroner and in order to get back his money he had sold her cabin. After that the widow, with her three eldest children, went to Norrland to seek employment, and the two youngest became a charge on the parish.

As he called this to mind he grew bitter. He knew that his father had been severely censured for squeezing out that money, which by right belonged to him.

“What are you doing nowadays?” he asked in a cross tone. “Didn’t the board of charities take charge of you? Why do you roam around and beg?”

“It’s not our fault,” replied the larger girl. “The people with whom we are living have sent us out to beg.”

“Well, your packs are filled,” the farmer observed, “so you can’t complain. Now you’d better take out some of the food you have with you and eat your fill, for here you’ll get no food, as all the women folk are in bed. Later you may lie down in the corner by the hearth, so you won’t have to freeze.”

He waved his hand, as if to ward them off, and his eyes took on a hard look. He was thankful that he had had a father who had been careful of his property. Otherwise, he might perhaps have been forced in childhood to run about and beg, as these children now did.

No sooner had he thought this out to the end than the shrill, mocking voice he had heard once before that evening repeated it, word for word.

He listened, and at once understood that it was nothing⁠—only the wind roaring in the chimney. But the queer thing about it was, when the wind repeated his thoughts, they seemed so strangely stupid and hard and false!

The children meanwhile had stretched themselves, side by side, on the floor. They were not quiet, but lay there muttering.

“Do be still, won’t you?” he growled, for he was in such an irritable mood that he could have beaten them.

But the mumbling continued, and again he called for silence.

“When mother went away,” piped a clear little voice, “she made me promise that every night I would say my evening prayer. I must do this, and Britta Maja too. As soon as we have said ‘God who cares for little children⁠—’ we’ll be quiet.”

The master sat quite still while the little ones said their prayers, then he rose and began pacing back and forth, back and forth, wringing his hands all the while, as though he had met with some great sorrow.

“The horse driven out and wrecked, these two children turned into road beggars⁠—both father’s doings! Perhaps father did not do right after all?” he thought.

He sat down again and buried his head in his hands. Suddenly his lips began to quiver and into his eyes came tears, which he hastily wiped away. Fresh tears came, and he was just as prompt to brush these away; but it was useless, for more followed.

When his mother stepped into the room, he swung his chair quickly and turned his back to her. She must have noticed something unusual, for she stood quietly behind him a long while, as if waiting for him to speak. She realized how difficult it always is for men to talk of the things they feel most deeply. She must help him of course.

From her bedroom she had observed all that had taken place in the living room, so that she did not have to ask questions. She walked very softly over to the two sleeping children, lifted them, and bore them to her own bed. Then she went back to her son.

“Lars,” she said, as if she did not see that he was weeping, “you had better let me keep these children.”

“What, mother?” he gasped, trying to smother the sobs.

“I have been suffering for years⁠—ever since father took the cabin from their mother, and so have you.”

“Yes, but⁠—”

“I want to keep them here and make something of them; they are too good to beg.”

He could not speak, for now the tears were beyond his control; but he took his old mother’s withered hand and patted it.

Then he jumped up, as if something had frightened him.

“What would father have said of this?”

“Father had his day at ruling,” retorted the mother. “Now it is your day. As long as father lived we had to obey him. Now is the time to show what you are.”

Her son was so astonished that he ceased crying.

“But I have just shown what I am!” he returned.

“No, you haven’t,” protested the mother. “You only try to be like him. Father experienced hard times, which made him fear poverty. He believed that he had to think of himself first. But you have never had any difficulties that should make you hard. You have more than you need, and it would be unnatural of you not to think of others.”

When the two little girls entered the house the boy slipped in behind them and secreted himself in a dark corner. He had not been there long before he caught a glimpse of the shed key, which the farmer had thrust into his coat pocket.

“When the master of the house drives the children out, I’ll take the key and ran,” he thought.

But the children were not driven out and the boy crouched in the corner, not knowing what he should do next.

The mother talked long with her son, and while she was speaking he stopped weeping. Gradually his features softened; he looked like another person. All the while he was stroking the wasted old hand.

“Now we may as well retire,” said the old lady when she saw that he was calm again.

“No,” he said, suddenly rising, “I cannot retire yet. There’s a stranger without whom I must shelter tonight!”

He said nothing further, but quickly drew on his coat, lit the lantern and went out. There were the same wind and chill without, but as he stepped to the porch he began to sing softly. He wondered if the horse would know him, and if he would be glad to come back to his old stable.

As he crossed the house yard he heard a door slam.

“That shed door has blown open again,” he thought, and went over to close it.

A moment later he stood by the shed and was just going to shut the door, when he heard a rustling within.

The boy, who had watched his opportunity, had run directly to the shed, where he left the animals, but they were no longer out in the rain: A strong wind had long since thrown open the door and helped them to get a roof over their heads. The patter which the master heard was occasioned by the boy running into the shed.

By the light of the lantern the man could see into the shed. The whole floor was covered with sleeping cattle. There was no human being to be seen; the animals were not bound, but were lying, here and there, in the straw.

He was enraged at the intrusion and began storming and shrieking to rouse the sleepers and drive them out. But the creatures lay still and would not let themselves be disturbed. The only one that rose was an old horse that came slowly toward him.

All of a sudden the man became silent. He recognized the beast by its gait. He raised the lantern, and the horse came over and laid its head on his shoulder. The master patted and stroked it.

“My old horsy, my old horsy!” he said. “What have they done to you? Yes, dear, I’ll buy you back. You’ll never again have to leave this place. You shall do whatever you like, horsy mine! Those whom you have brought with you may remain here, but you shall come with me to the stable. Now I can give you all the oats you are able to eat, without having to smuggle them. And you’re not all used up, either! The handsomest horse on the church knoll⁠—that’s what you shall be once more! There, there! There, there!”