The wood so softly singing
In a language strange to hear
And the song it sings will find you
As the twilight draws you near

Nicky Nye and the Haunted Forest

Nicky Nicky Nye
He pulls you down
Underneath the water
To drown, drown, die.

Nicky was a water spirit of the malicious kind. He was notorious for grabbing children from the river bank and dragging them in. He had green teeth, green hair and green eyes. Like waterweed. But he could be as clear and transparent as the running waters when he wanted to be. In the past he had been feared by children and their mothers all along the river. But these days he tends to stay in the haunted wood, and that is what this story is about.

Few lived in the wood, or even dared to venture into it, especially after dark. Only two people lived right in the heart of the wood. One was an old wise woman. The other was her nephew, later known – after her time – as the Cunning Man of the Wood. They lived about a mile apart. He made his reputation while still a young man. But even before this folks marveled at the fact that he lived in a cottage right on Nicky’s river. But they knew his aunt and put it down to her magic: the placing of stones, the speaking of charms and the spaniel bitch, which she had given him as a puppy, and which had powers no doubt like those of the one who was said by those with a gossip’s tongue to be the old woman’s familiar.

One day a farmer from the forest edge came to the Wise Woman to ask her advice as his cows were dry and he suspected dark magic. She nodded and told him to go to her nephew who would know what to do. The farmer hesitated, then took the path to the river. He told his tale to the young man, who thought a while then turned aside and said, as if to the empty air,

“what thinks?”

As if from nowhere the spaniel was at his side with eager eyes.

“Yes, we’ll come”, he said. “At midnight”.

The farmer did not want to wait to accompany them and set off home before it was dark. They came in the gloom of the night and the spaniel sat in the meadow among the cows. A large hare comes lopping across the field and begins drinking from the udder of one of the cows. The spaniel sprang, the hare leaped, and away with them. The spaniel nipped at the hare’s heels and was all the time forcing the direction of the chase towards the river. As they arrive the spaniel barks and Nicky emerges and grabs the hare. Then a screech as the witch comes out of the hare form and struggles to get out of Nicky’s clutches. But she failed.

After that, the Wise Woman’s cottage began to fade a little, so that people sort of forgot it was there. But they know about her nephew and his spaniel. And about him there are many tales to tell of his life in the haunted wood. 

How did the cunning man live safely in the the haunted forest?

His spaniel has been mentioned, and the tale says that it was a spayed bitch. Why?

John Aubrey in his The Remaines of Gentilism (1686-87) relates the following:

I believe all over England, a spaied bitch is accounted wholesome in a House; that is to say, they have a strong beliefe that it keeps away evill sprits from haunting of a House ; e.g. amongst many other instances, at Cranborn in Dorset about 1686, a house was haunted, and two Tenants successively went away (left the house) for that reason: a third came and brought his spaid bitch, and was never troubled.

Why should a spayed bitch have magical properties? Perhaps the lack of procreative ability concentrated the energies on psychic matters? This is a mystery that remains to be explained.

It is said, in another tale, that the cunning man had the help of his aunt, White Mary, in arranging things at his cottage: placing stones in a particular configuration, hanging ribbons in a special way on the ash tree, constructing the well surround in a way that kept the flow of sweet water running, and strewing herbs regularly to keep the surroundings wholesome.

These magical defences did not banish the spirits of the forest, but allowed the cunning man to live safely alongside them, to interact with them, and to live in harmony with the denizens of the forest. Bringing anything new into these arrangements might upset the equilibrium. This happened when the cunning man brought home a new wife. 


So when the Cunning man wanted a wife, what did he do? White Mary had faded from public view and it was the Cunning Man that people came to consult so he was now well known. Few were the women who would come to live in his cottage in the Haunted Wood. But there was one with a bit of independence of mind who had caught his eye, and he thought he had caught hers. So he went to her , and he wooed her, and in due time she came home with him as his wife. 

 But that was just the start if it. As they passed Mary’s cottage he pointed out the nosegay of herbs Mary had left for her. But they were green and grey for the most part and she paid little heed of them. That was her first mistake. When they entered the cottage the spaniel, who could be either there or not there, as was needed, was not there, as she had no need or heed of her. That was her second mistake. 

 ‘Oh well’, thought her husband, ‘She’ll learn’. A few days later, when she had settled in, he had to go out for the day and would not be back until late that night. Before he went he warned her not to move or change anything around the cottage. Later that morning she went out to the well for water. Just beyond the well an ash tree’s branches hung down and were bedecked with seven bright ribbons. She took two for her hair. The well itself was difficult to get to because of the stones arranged around it. So she moved them. 

 During the afternoon she started to get a feeling that she was being watched, but she ignored it. Then as evening drew a shade across the forest, she began to hear noises. She looked out through the front door and realised that the ash tree was right up against the house. How had that happened? Then she saw that one of the branches was moving towards her. She screamed and retreated into the cottage. Where could she get help? This was her only thought. And at that thought the spaniel suddenly appeared beside her. The end of a branch pushed open a window and the spaniel jumped snarling up and through the window. There was a terrible commotion outside for a while, then it subsided. She went to the window for a look and saw that the tree was gone but the spaniel was now at the well where the green head of Nicky Nye had appeared. Fear gripped her and she shrank back. 

 But then she heard a soft voice singing and she peeped out again through the window. A woman with a face like moonlight was walking around the well and putting the stones back in their places as she sang. By the time the Cunning Man returned all was quiet. Nicky had gone back into the well and the spaniel was sitting at his wife’s side having her ears scratched. The next morning he went out to survey the damage. The well was as it had been and Mary must have come back at first light as fresh herbs had been strewn all around. But the ash tree was gone save for a gnawn branch on the ground. He took the branch away later and came back with a sapling ash to put in the place of the one that had gone. Then Mary came with new ribbons and another nosegay which his wife took with thanks and hung over the window in their bedroom. 

 For the most part she got over that night and now the spaniel was at her side most of the time. But the thing she didn't get over was her fear of Nicky Nye and because he knew her fear he had power over her. He never again appeared at the well but she could feel his presence when she went down to the river so she always kept away from the water. 

 A few years passed and a young child was growing up in the cottage. One day he toddled down to the river as they walking towards the bridge. He looked into the water and saw Nicky looking back. Then a green arm emerged and began to encircle him and the green teeth of Nicky Nye protruded from his open mouth. The mother’s fear was tested but she found new strength and running towards the child she pulled him back, hissing at the creature. The spaniel was there too and Nicky retreated with the spaniel in pursuit. He kept away after that, but whether it was because of the spaniel or the fact that the wife had won over her fear, or that she was by now part of the magical configuration of the place, is hard to say. But so it was.

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