Many a long year ago there was a young farmer of the name of Gorry Kermode that had a farm away up in the mountains. When he married and took Katriney his wife to live in that lonely place, every person said to him, ‘Fancy taking Katriney up there with the wind blowing all day long and not a soul to speak to! How will she do at all?’
They need never have worried.
‘What talk have you all got?’ Gorry asked. ‘She’ll do very well.’
And so she did.
In the house there was always a good fire on the hearth and good food on the table. Outside, no matter how hard the wind blew, Gorry saw to it that the roofs of the dwelling house and cow-house, barn and stable were all thatched and warm for man and beast against the winter storms. Of course, as everyone knows, the finest thatch in the world is no use when the winds start to blow in winter, unless it’s fastened on tight. And Gorry’s thatch was firm against every wind that blew.
Indeed this was no wonder. There was no better man in the parish than Gorry to make rope for tying on thatch. Made out of straw it was and it was suggane. At every ploughing match there would be a competition for making rope. You can be sure Gorry would be there and you can be sure there would be no man to beat him. One minute there was a pile of straw on the ground. The next minute Gorry would have some person to hold the iron twister for him and his fingers would play out the straw to it with all their secret power. When you looked again the straw would be all gone as if by magic and in its place there would be a ball of rope. There wasn’t a man living that could break with his hands any rope that Gorry had twisted for it was strong and firm. Indeed, he was known all over the island as the champion for making suggane.
Under a sycamore tree, all bent with the wind there was a little house on Gorry’s farm called Thie ny Moghtyn. This house had been built specially to give shelter to the people of the roads that had no house of their own, but got their food and shelter from the houses they called at on their travels over the island. They would come knocking at the door just as the dark was falling. Katriney would give them a kindly welcome and bite and sup, and a warm by the fire. When they’d had a bit of a cooish and told the news of the world, there would be a bed for them in the Thie ny Moghtyn.
Gorry and Katriney were busy and happy in their farm on the mountains and far from lonely, but their happiness was even greater when a child was born to them, a girl they called Ysbal. Nothing was too good for Ysbal. Gorry made a cradle for her with his own hands. The day the child was born he made new cuirn crosses and hung them at every door in the house and the outhouses to keep away all harm. When the child was laid in the cradle he hung another there above her head.
With her blue eyes and her curly hair and her rosy cheeks and a way she had of laughing, there was never a child like Ysbal in the earthly world. But it was not only her mother and father that thought so. All the people of the roads, when they saw her, thought the same. Not one of them would go out of the kitchen without saying, ‘My blessings and my seven blessings on the millish veg veen.’ Indeed Gorry would never let one of them go from the kitchen without a look on the child and for him they could never praise Ysbal too much.
Now one evening Katriney was rocking the child to sleep when there came a knock at the door. When she opened it, there stood a beggar woman she had never seen before asking for bite and sup. Katriney made her welcome, though for some reason she couldn’t name, she didn’t like the look of her at all and she was glad when Gorry came in.
‘I hear tell,’ says the woman when she’d eaten her fill, ‘you have a fine child in the cradle.’
Gorry could never resist praise of Ysbal so he took her over to the cradle where by now the child was asleep and she stood and gazed down at her.
‘Indeed, and it’s the truth they’re telling,’ says she, but Katriney noticed that when she went off to her bed in the barn, she put no blessing on the child. Instead she stood a long time at the door, talking about this and that, and asking many a question, always with her eye on the child in the cradle. It was such a cold, crafty eye that Katriney turned from her more than once to see that Ysbal was still sleeping quietly, for she didn’t at all like the way the woman looked at her, and took such a long time to be gone to her bed.
At long last, when she’d gone on her way, Katriney said to Gorry, ‘I wish she’d never seen the child.’
‘Ah! What harm can she do?’ asked Gorry.
Katriney felt as though a black cloud had suddenly come over the sky.
Now a day or so after this an old friend of Gorry and Katriney called Robin the Roads, had come to ask for bite and sup, and put his blessing on the child and gone to his bed in the Thie ny Moghtyn, when there came a knock at the door after dark had fallen. Once again a stranger stood there, a man this time, asking for food and shelter. Gorry and Katriney were having their supper so they invited him to come and eat with them. He was small and dark and all the time he ate, his glance would be darting here and there about the kitchen but it would come to rest always on the cradle where the child was lying.
‘I hear tell,’ says he, ‘you have a beautiful child there in the cradle.’
‘That we have indeed,’ says Gorry delighted as usual with any praise of Ysbal and he takes him over to put a sight on the child. Like the woman before him the stranger looks at the child and, ‘Aye, it’s no more than the truth they’re telling,’ says he, and without a word of blessing back he comes to the fireside, for it was a chilly night in November.
‘I hear tell too,‘ says he to Gorry, ‘that you’re a great hand at making suggane.’
‘I’ve done a share if it in my time,’ says Gorry, very quiet and not very much liking the stranger’s tone of voice, for he sounded as though he didn’t believe what he’d heard.
‘I used to be a good hand at it myself,’ says the stranger, ‘though it’s long enough since I tried my skill. Somehow I’ve a fancy to try my hand again tonight. What do you say if we have a match? Each start with a pile of straw and see which of us can finish first?’
‘No, Gorry!’ says Katriney, afraid all of a sudden; she couldn’t tell why. ‘You’ll wake up the child. And it’s too late to start anyway.’
But Gorry seemed not to hear her. He was in a world of his own. ‘Very well,’ says he, ‘I’ll take you on. Go you to the Thie ny Moghtyn – the house with the candle in the window – and ask Robin the Roads to help us. Let the pair of you bring in the straw and twisters from the barn while I make room for us here in the kitchen.’
‘Oh, Gorry,’ says Katriney, when the stranger had gone, ‘Be careful! I don’t like the man at all. He’s here for no good. I’m sure of that.’
‘Be easy, woman! Be easy!’ says Gorry, ‘What harm can a bit of twisting do?’ Then in a voice that Katriney had never heard before he said, ‘I’ll show him who’s the best hand at making suggane. You see if I don’t.’
Katriney said no more then but watched as they divided the straw into equal heaps. Each of the men took some in his hands and began playing it out. Robin held the twister for the stranger and Katriney held it for Gorry.
At first Gorry kept his eye on his own piece of rope and watched it come from his fingers firm and even and strong as it always did. Usually when he watched the twisting rope he felt quiet and content as if it was a summer day on the mountain and the sun was shining, but tonight he felt angry and uncertain as though the sun had gone down and the world was filled with darkness.
For a moment he looked across at the stranger’s hands and saw how quick they moved and how the rope was slipping out of his fingers and shining in the lamplight, gliding like a serpent.
‘The first one to finish gets the prize,’ he said to Gorry and his fingers seemed to move faster and faster.
‘We have never said anything about a prize!’ says Gorry.
‘Oh! But there must be a prize!’ says the stranger.
‘What prize are you talking about?’ asks Gorry.
The stranger said nothing, but went on with his work. Only his eyes strayed towards the cradle where the child was sleeping.
And Gorry knew then! The child was to be the prize! Katriney knew it too and, ‘Stop! Stop the both of you!’ she cries.
But Gorry could not have stopped if he’d wanted to. A strange power seemed to have got hold of him. He MUST go on. He MUST beat the stranger. He could not bear to be beaten at this game where he was always champion.
Yet though he wanted to win this match more than anything else in the world, it seemed he was working more slowly than he had ever done in his life. His hands felt as if they’d been made of lead. His fingers seemed to have lost all their secret power.
Faster and faster the stranger’s fingers moved. The straw in his heap dwindled and dwindled, his piece of rope grew longer and longer. Suddenly the straw had all disappeared and, ‘I’ve finished! I’ve finished!’ he cried. ‘I’ve won the prize,’ and he darted over to the cradle.
But Katriney was too quick for him. She rushed towards the cradle, reached it before him, and stood with her back to the child.
‘Now,’ says she, ‘let me be getting a look at this rope.’ With that she picks up the ball from the floor, unwinds it, gives a sharp pull, and the rope breaks into hundreds of little pieces, as if it had been made of water.
‘And what kind of twisting is that to win a prize, I would like to know?’ says she.
With that, the stranger waited to hear no more but away off with him into the dark where he belonged and he was never seen in those parts again.
‘I wonder how in the earthly world the like of that man got into the house, for it’s no ordinary man of the roads he is,’ says Katriney.
‘I don’t know what in the world came over me,’ says Gorry. ‘Like a man in a nightmare I was. One voice inside me saying, “Don’t listen to him,” and another saying, “Show him! Show him!”’
After a minute Katriney went to the door. ‘I see now what happened,’ she said. ‘The cuirn cross is missing. You’ll find that beggar woman must have taken it.’
‘I’ll go and fetch another now, late though it is,’ says Gorry, ‘the way the child and the whole house will be safe.’
There was a pale moon in the sky behind black clouds. By its misty light, Gorry broke off a twig of cuirn from the tree at the gable, broke it in two, tied the pieces together with sheep’s wool and hung it above the door.
As he stood there, suddenly the moon came out from behind the clouds and the whole sky was filled with light. He could see the shape of every mountain and his little fields with their stone walls as if it had been daylight. He watched it all for a while, then he went in. He smiled to himself as he saw Ysbal asleep in the cradle and all round about him he could feel the house, peaceful and quiet.
cuirn = rowan/mountain ash
Thie ny Moghtyn = house of the poor
cooish = cosy chat
millish veg veen = sweet little darling, dear little one
(source: Twisting the Rope and other Folktales from the Isle of Man by Kathleen Killip (1980); artwork by Friedrich von Amerling)