by Tim J. Myers
There was once a fisherman living with his wife and children on a small rocky island just off the coast of Norway. On a bit of high ground in the lee of a great jutting rock, he and his wife had built a snug little house with their own hands, its stone walls thick enough to withstand any storm. In that house they had everything they needed: tackle, tools, dishes, blankets, warm clothes, a serviceable tea set–even a brass-backed hand mirror that had been his grandmother’s. They’d lived on the island since their wedding, twenty-five years before. The wife kept a fine garden beyond the house which gave them good things to eat (including a sizeable potato crop) and summer flowers to fill their little rooms with fragrance. A short distance from their island, across a narrow strait, lay a prosperous village and the church they rowed to each Sunday.
There was a great deal of work to do, of course, and they were cross with each other from time to time–but who can escape that? With the two sons close to manhood, and the fine daughter, and the loveliness of their home, they were fully contented.
And why shouldn’t they be happy, the fisherman would ask himself, when the sea was full of fish for any man willing to bend his back over a net, and their three little goats gave rich milk, and the sun shone and the rain fell? And if a great wind-maddened storm surf should rise and dash their garden away–for it lay in a place exposed to heavy seas–wouldn’t they simply plant another next season?
But one mid-summer morning, when he came down to his boat, the fisherman saw a splattering of yellow-white foam in the bottom of it, the kind of foam people said was the vomit of the Draug. Suddenly feeling cold, the fisherman looked all around, but he saw nothing: only the cheery little house nestled against the great rock in the sunshine, with a plume of blue smoke rising from its chimney, and the goat shed and garden beyond. The weather was fair, white clouds slowly crossing the sky like laden ships and the sea moving only in the steady exhalation of surf along the shore. So the fisherman drove the worry from his head, telling himself that if a man believed every story there’d be no end to his foolishness.
But that evening a wind came up out of the west–a clammy wind that blew light but unceasing, with a hint of rotting-fish smell in it–and the fisherman grew uneasy again. For days the ill wind kept up, but it blew so softly no one but him seemed to notice. His wife and children, when he asked them about it, just shrugged, as if they were landsmen and one wind the same as another to them.
The ill wind blew for weeks. As he worked the banks and shoals on the tossing sea, the fisherman often found himself looking over his shoulder. But he never saw anything. He did, however, notice a change in his wife and children. Day by day they seemed to grow more tired and listless; the children began to bicker endlessly with each other, and his wife had less and less to say to him. The fisherman felt a bit ill himself but couldn’t say just where. And when he asked his family if they were ailing, they always insisted they were not, finally growing exasperated at his repeated questions. At night his wife slept fitfully. Her eyes began to look vacant.
Disturbed as he was by all this, the fisherman was forced to admit that nothing bad had actually happened, and–though he thought long on it as he worked his nets at the side of his boat–there was nothing in particular he could do about his fears. So he gave himself over to work, hoping thereby to calm his uneasiness, feeling relieved that at least he could labor for the sake of his loved ones, however distant they might be to him at the time.
One night, however, as they all sat at their driftwood table over bread and fish stew, things came to a head. His wife would hardly speak to him and seemed ready to flare up at any moment, and the children were tormenting each other so bitterly that he lost his temper when one of them spilled a cup of milk. The fisherman banged the table with his fist and roared at them to be still. At this his wife leapt to her feet and began to shout, accusing him of laziness and selfishness, then insisting hotly that they’d all get on better without him. The fisherman was stunned, and, as the clammy breeze kept the lace curtains billowing steadily at the windows, he roared back that she’d been treating him like a beast of burden and he’d stand for it no longer. At this point the oldest son spoke up and roundly complained about his father’s failure to provide them with the kind of rich life the villagers had, and the daughter added that his rough ways and worn clothes embarrassed her keenly. The fisherman was lost in rage and astonishment. “Then I may as well leave and never come back!” he bellowed. “Yes, yes!”, they all said. “Be gone with you! And you won’t find us weeping at your absence!”
When he turned at the door in disbelief, his wife was right behind him, and his heart almost broke when she hissed, “And I never found you fair to look on, though you may have thought so! Another would do just as well in my bed!” Stumbling out of the house, he made his way blindly to his boat, beached on the lee shore of the island, and rowed across the narrow strait in the deepening twilight. A mist was coming in off the sea, veiling the moon. When he struck the mainland he hauled his craft up above the water line–weeping and cursing all the while–and went straight to the tavern, whose lamp-lit windows illuminated a good portion of the dark street.
Once inside he ordered strong drink and hurried himself toward drunkenness, still reeling with what had happened. But some of his friends were there and quickly saw his state of mind. Sitting down with him they began to talk, gently prying as to what troubled him. When he managed to mumble, “…myself…and the wife…”, they immediately sat back, saying “Yes, yes,” and nodding in a sage manner, thinking they understood the whole of it. But when he blurted out that he’d found the yellow-white foam in his boat, they all leaned forward again and their eyes grew large.
“That’s the Draug and no mistake, brother!” said one. “He leaves his vomit like a he-bear pisses on a tree, to make a claim. You must be careful!”
“The Draug is a most wicked and lustful spirit,” said another, “and we all know his one fancy is to bring the living down under the water and drown them. And he can take any shape he’s a mind to. Harald Vinden up at Trygg saw him once, sitting in that strange half-boat of his, in the shape of a sailor from the King’s navy–but without a head! Harald laid on the oars that night, I can tell you. And the squall came up with a fury just as he passed the breakwater.” Then the speaker nodded fiercely and clamped his teeth down on his pipe.
“There’s some have seen him as a black cormorant, or a seal with eyes like burning coals!” the tavern boy put in, caught up in their conversation when he brought more drink.
“Whatever he may be, and whatever shape he takes, it’s certain he means you harm, brother!” a third fisherman said. “It’s the sign of death he’s put on your island, and you can never tell how he may come to you!”
Now the fisherman, who was level-headed and keen of wit, had heard such things before and was ready to dismiss them as tavern talk. Besides, what would the Draug, whose great delight was the drowning of sailors and fishermen on the sea, have to do with his wife and children on the island? No, he thought, as he drank himself deeper and deeper into despair–No, it’s my fault. I’m no man at all. I’ve failed my loved ones…–even as part of him cried out, But I’ve done nothing wrong! I’ve loved them and worked hard for them!
For three days the fisherman stayed ashore, spending most of his time drunk in the tavern or sleeping in a little room where the tavern keeper stored his empty kegs. But after three days he grew weary of this–not only of the drink but also of floundering about in pity for himself. When he woke on the fourth morning he decided to put things right. So he rowed out to the island and went to speak with his wife.
But she would have none of him, nor would his sons and daughter, and he began to feel desperate and weak again. This time he was struck forcefully with how strange and lifeless they all were, except when they were angry. The children sat slumped before the fire hardly caring if a stray ember drifted onto them, and his wife huddled near a window trying to read her Bible. Vexed and mumbling, she kept turning the pages as if she couldn’t find her place. There was nothing for him to do but leave.
As he stepped into his boat again, he suddenly stopped and sniffed the air. The clammy breeze still moved quietly and endlessly over the jumbled rocks and tussocks and little flower-dotted meadows of the island, but this time there was something else in it, something he could barely make out as he stood there on the yellow sand with one foot in his boat and his nose in the air like a dog’s. What it was he had no idea–but he knew it hadn’t been there before.
This time when he got to the village he was lost in thought. But he soon made up his mind. Taking work in the afternoons with a farmer whose fields were laid out along the strait, he began saving money for his family. He knew they could get by for a good while on goat’s milk and the stock of dried fish and potatoes in the root cellar. When each day’s work was through he took a quick meal at the farmer’s table and then left, making his way to the creek where he hid his boat by day. As darkness came on, he would row out to the island. Sometimes he would creep to the windows of his little house and look in, tears streaming down his cheeks as he watched his wife and children in the firelight— but that got to be too much for him, and he hated to see the empty glinting in their eyes. So he’d spend the night walking the island, like a sentry, sometimes waiting in shadows, sometimes patrolling over the stones and wet grasses, sometimes climbing the great rock near the house and peering into the darkness out to sea. Though he carried no weapon but his fishing knife, he watched keen-eyed and anxious, drifting off now and then if he sat but then rousing himself fiercely, smelling always that strange new smell and growing more and more fearful of it. As soon as dawn came he would steal away, cross the strait, sleep for a time under the sailcloth in his boat, then hurry under the noon sun to work the farmer’s fields.
For months he lived like this. Autumn with its leaf-fall and sea mists came and went, winter brought huge storms off the sea, the little island was smothered in fresh white snow–and still he walked his familiar rounds each night, aching with fear and grief and sometimes praying for an end to it all. Then he would think of his wife and children for the thousandth time, and remember how it felt to glimpse the North Star through galloping storm clouds; that would always warm his heart. But even when a great winter gale blew for days, its eventual weakening would bring the clammy breeze again, and the deeper smell of something evil within it–and the fisherman’s heart, instead of shrinking with terror as before, began to harden with rage, his eyes narrowing. Again he’d walk the island, tracing and retracing his own prints in sand or snow–which, if his family ever noticed, they did nothing about. They almost never left the house any more.
One night in March, when a great storm came crashing in from the west and the wind screeched about the rock edges as the seas grew, he crossed over as usual–even the little strait hopping with whitecaps–and began his lonely vigil. The task had grown terrible to him; lately he had been asking himself how much more he could take. More than once he’d gone to the tavern to find comfort there. But even when he was drunk, he always came back to the island when darkness fell. This night, though, no evil thing was likely to be lurking about, so fierce was the storm–or so he told himself–and though he never even considered rowing back to the warm tavern, he did seek shelter in a cluster of broken boulders on the shore beyond the house. There he settled himself to pass the night, pulling his cap down and his collar up, as spindrift on the driving wind wet the island like rain, and the crash of surf on the windward shore made the ground shudder.
Sometime after midnight he jerked awake. To his amazement, everything was still; not even the slightest hissing of surf on stones could be heard. Terrified, he leapt to his feet and began running toward the house. No storm that size could blow itself out so quick, he told himself–or have I been sleeping here the whole day through and into the next night?
When he got to the house the front door stood wide open. He rushed in. A fire still burned in the fireplace; the bedcovers on the beds were all pulled down and rumpled, as if his wife and children had just gotten out of them. But the little rooms were deserted, and the eerie silence so thick he felt deafened by it. Now he knew something was truly wrong, and a nightmare terror blazed through him. Then he heard the voice–a man’s voice.
It was raspy and deep, and came from somewhere on the island. Has some man been here with my wife!? he raged–but then immediately knew better of it. This was not a human voice. He rushed from the house.
A strained and fickle moonlight shone down through the driving storm-wrack that filled the sky–but made not the slightest whisper. There was no one at the little beach; no one at the goat shed; no one in the garden or the meadows or on the low salt-grass dunes beyond them. But when he turned to windward he saw them: his wife and children standing motionless on the rocky strand along the open sea. Their dark figures in the wavering moonlight looked almost like headstones.
And as he came puffing hard to the shore he saw the Draug. He’d already noticed a stench as he ran forward, and it seemed to double at every step, as if the combined odors of gutted cod, ancient brine-soaked timbers, and rank seaweed. The Draug sat on a throne of half-rotten sea-casks past the waterline, in the shallow water just beyond where the foam slipped back into the waves. He held a half-burned ship’s cleat in one hand for a scepter, a broken compass in the other. Draped in torn and ill-fitting sailor’s clothes, he was talking to the fisherman’s wife and children out of his half-human, half-crablike mouth. But even as the fisherman felt terror surging through him, he thought, See, he’s come to the very edge of his kingdom, doesn’t dare set foot on the sand–and this one thought, slight though it was, gave him some comfort, making a little space in his fear through which anger might enter.
“Draug!” he heard his own voice roar, and again, “Draug!”, and then he scrambled down over the low rocks to the shore till he stood before the creature.
The Draug looked him over in a leisurely, mocking way. Its head, jutting from the drowned sailor’s jersey, was something like a sea turtle’s, something like a very old woman’s, and something like smoke. Its eyes, though, were bright and steely, and as it spoke it gestured lazily with two withered brown-green hands.
The fisherman quickly looked at his family. When he’d come rushing onto the beach, each of them had turned at the noise–and now as he looked into their faces he could see they were wholly beyond themselves. Even his young daughter’s eyes were dull and unfocused, with a sheen like nacre. All of them stood straight but hump-shouldered, as if some force were holding them up. Their blank eyes had looked at him and registered nothing; then they’d turned away again, fixing their empty stares on the Draug.
“They’ve missed you terribly,” the Draug said in its horrid rasping whisper. “As you can see.”
Its words struck the fisherman like a blow. But now he knew how things stood–and even as the skin prickled all up and down his body, he was glad to finally see the truth, though it meant the destruction of them all. “Draug!” he shouted again, and then fell to cursing it, reaching for every foul name he could think of, corpse-eater and whoreson and more besides. The Draug rocked its leathery head back and laughed with a grinding sound. Then it suddenly glared at the fisherman.
“You shall pay for your wicked tongue once I find you over open water!” it snarled. “But your oaths are useless. These will be mine–I will embrace them in the deeps–and your wife: she will be sweetest of all.”
Roaring in pain and rage, the fisherman reached for his knife–but it stuck fast in its sheath. So he fell to his knees to lift the nearest stone and hurl it at the Draug–but not a single rock would move, though he bloodied his fingers in his frenzy to dislodge one. Finally he leapt to his feet. “Then I’ll kill you with my own hands,” he snarled, and started forward.
“Brave fool!” the Draug replied, laughing almost gaily. “It won’t make any difference! Look!” And it pointed one dark creviced hand toward the entranced woman and children standing before it. The fisherman spun round to see them all stumbling slowly toward the Draug, drawn like scraps of flotsam on the tide.
“No!” the fisherman screamed, and ran to the water’s edge to stop them. But nothing he did had any effect. Even when he pulled at them with all his strength, or set his shoulder against their bodies and drove with his legs, they kept inching slowly forward toward the sea. He couldn’t even slow the pace of his small daughter, just nine years old.
Falling again to his knees on the rocks, the fisherman watched their slow inexorable steps and screamed in rage and pain–which seemed to delight the Draug. Draping one leg over the arm of his sea-cask throne, he chortled, “Had enough, then? Did you think you could stand up to ME!? Before I make a bloated corpse of you, I’ll crush your heart–destroy everything you love–and there’s nothing you can do! Don’t you understand, stupid mortal? All they can see is me.”
For an instant the fisherman felt he would run mad–but suddenly the Draug’s words trickled past his torment. Then he leapt up and ran wildly back the way he’d come, slipping and falling on the stones.
“You can’t escape me, coward!” the Draug called out. “I shall feast on you!” But the fisherman heard nothing. I must break the spell, he told himself—It’s the only way. Is there some magic I can lay hands on, equal to the powers of the Draug? Even as he asked the question his soul seemed to fail within him, and he burned like wood ready to give way to the fire. No—of course not! I’m only a man–I have no such powers. So what power do I have?
For a moment he thought of all the nights he’d kept his bitter watch on the island, as his family ate their meals in firelight or slept uneasily in their beds. Night after night, all those months—pain and fear, the exhaustion he’d known—and worst of all the despair at not being loved. All those nights, endless darkness till the small relief of dawn’s first paling streaks. All those nights, till he felt he could go on no more!
Then it hit him—the depth of that simple, mysterious power, his love for them. He did go on, night after night—for them. Because no matter how strange they became, he remembered who they really were. If only I could help them remember themselves! he cried out in his head. But how?
It came to him quietly, in a sudden calm of his racing heartbeats. It’s love that tells us best who we really are. Love is our truest mirror.
He knew instantly that the working of this truth required no spell or counter-magic—only a profound but ordinary kind of power, a way of seeing. Turning suddenly he raced toward the house, then flung himself through the door–and there, on the side table by their marriage bed, found what he wanted.
Before he reached the shore again, the clammy silence suddenly erupted in noise–the storm was again smashing against the island, winds shrieking–and woven within that sound came long gurgling screams, which the fishermen realized were the cries of drowning men, the Draug’s court music. The Draug still sat on his wooden throne, though the waves leapt around him, and now he was holding out his dark ill-clad arms, as father to child–and the fisherman’s wife had stepped into the water, her children close behind her.
The fisherman dashed into the boiling surf in front of his wife. With the Draug’s wild laughter sounding in his ears even above the booming and wailing of the storm, he stood before her, shuddering again to see her dull, spell-fixed eyes. Then he spoke her name close to her ear, quietly and tenderly, again and again, and held the brass-backed mirror in front of her so she could see her own face.
The Draug gave a mangled shout behind him. The fisherman’s wife paused, seemed to grow confused, and then suddenly looked all around in terror, eyes wide and chest heaving. Quickly the fisherman grabbed her arm and pushed her ashore, then held the mirror up to each of his children, repeating their names as before. On seeing their own faces they seemed to slump, almost falling, but when the fisherman took hold of them and spoke, each quickly turned and raced back up the gravelly beach.
Then the fisherman turned to the sea and waded into the surf, brandishing the mirror like a weapon. “Draug!” he bellowed. “Now you will see what you really are!” But the Draug, in sudden terror, gaped and fled. As it turned and slid beneath the waves, the fisherman saw only its sloped and tattered shoulders and the back of its hooded head.
In an instant the storm had blown itself out, and the wrack cleared from the sky as if it had never been.
Then they ran to hold each other, weeping and laughing, while the sun rose warm and yellow behind them and shone down over the vast calm reaches of the sea.