Monday, October 31, 2011

"Sammle's Ghost" -- a Tale for Halloween

This is a retelling I composed something like thirteen or fourteen years ago, as best as I can recollect; I've not been able to find an etext version on line, yet.

Source: Briggs, Katherine. "Sammle's Ghost" British Folktales. Pantheon Books, New York. 1977. Pages 191-192.

"Sammle's Ghost"

Once, a young man named Sammle was killed in a fire which blazed until his body was nothing but ashes scattered on the wind. When everything was calm again, he woke as a spirit and rose up. The new Sammle was very disoriented, because now he could see all the other spirits and bogles the he never saw when he was alive. It was as if he were lost in a strange and crowded city, and he didn't know where to go.

Finally, another soul noticed his confusion and said to him: "You must go to the graveyard, and see the Great Worm. Tell him you're dead, and ask him to have your body eaten up, because until then, you won't be able to rest in the Earth."

So Sammle wondered about looking for the Worm, asking all the ghosts and spirits how to get there. Finally, he came to a great underground cavern, with passages leading off in all direction, like a maze, and he followed them down and down until he got close to what he was sure was the center point. The air was hot and damp, and smelled of mold, moss and sulfur. Strange, glowing, creatures clung to the walls, illuminating everything with a strange, blue-green light. Snails and slugs and other slimy things that Sammle could not name crawled over and under his feet. Fluttery things, like bats and giant moths, flew about his head.

After what seemed to be an eternity, Sammle came to the great central chamber, where the Great Worm himself lay coiled on a flat stone, as though he were king on a throne.

He raised his head as Sammle entered, and swung it from side to side, sniffing the air, for he was completely blind. "Sammle!" he called out, thrusting his giant head into the lad's face. "Sammle, you are dead and buried, is that it? Dead and food for worms?"

"I-I suppose so, Your Honor," Sammle answered, surprised that this creature knew him by name.

"Well, then, where are you?"

"I, um, I'm right here, Your Worship," he answered, not wanting to offend, but unsure of the proper form of address.

The Great Worm scoffed. "You don't think we can eat spirit, do you?" he asked. "We need your body before you can rest in the Earth. Where is your body buried?"

It's not buried, that's just it. It was burned to ashes, and scattered by the wind."

"Phew! You'll not be very tasty, then. But that's not important. Just gather your ashes and bring them back to me."

So Sammle wandered high and low, picking up every ash and bit of bone one by one, and putting them all in a sack. He then returned and gave them to the Great Worm, who crawled down inside and sniffed around."

"Sammle," the Worm said, from inside the sack, "You're not all here."

"Well, I've gathered all my ashes, of that, I'm certain."

"There's an arm missing."

"Oh, that's right," Sammle said. "It was amputated when I was young."

"If you want to rest, Sammle," the Worm said, "you must find it and bring it back here."

"Well, I've not idea where the doctor put it. But I'm willing to look." And so he journeyed over the wide world, and eventually found his arm, and brought it back to the Worm. ...Where it had been kept, and whether anyone noticed it was missing, I don't know. But Sammle couldn't worry about that, now.

The Great Worm turned it over and over, sniffing it carefully. "No...." he said, slowly, "there's still something missing. Are you sure you never lost any other part of you?" he asked.

Sammle wracked his brains. "I lost a pinky nail," he said at last, "and it never grew back."

"That must be it, then. You'll have to find it, too."

"I'm afraid that's impossible," said Sammle. "But I'm willing to try." And try he did. He searched high and low, in places only a ghost could go. But years passed, and he couldn't find it. So at last he returned to the Worm to report his failure.

"I've looked high, and I've looked low," he said, "and I'm afraid I couldn't find it even if I searched a thousand years more. Are you sure you can't make do with what you've got? A nail is such a small thing, after all."

"I am sure," the Worm said. "If you want to take rest in the Earth, the Earth must have all of you. If you're certain you can't find it . . ."

"Certain, unfortunately."

"Then you must walk for all eternity. I'm very sorry for you. But try to make the best of it -- you'll have lots of good company."

Then all the creeping things and fluttering things turned Sammle out of the Great Worm's chamber for the last time. And, unless he has found it, his is still searching for his pinky nail.

Earlier this month, when I was trying to figure out which story to retell here, in honor of Halloween, I thought first of all the stories with witches in them, where the old women are identified as witches because they walked hunched over, with a crutch, or had a shaking palsy in their hands and/or head. And then, "Sammle" floated to the surface, and I remembered the detail about his amputated arm.

I've loved this story from the time I first read it, back in my teens, especially for the way the world of ghosts and spirits is depicted as a parallel society -- dark and eerie, perhaps, but neither particularly evil nor mournful... just different (and even having its own sort of humor).

The loss of Sammle's arm is treated the same way; until he'd died in the fire, it's implied, he'd lived most of his life with one arm. And yet, that difference was so incidental to his sense of Self that he had to be reminded of it by someone else. This is also a reminder of how common amputation was, "back in the day," before doctors had such things as antibiotics to stop infection from spreading from a wounded limb to the rest of the body.

In the universe of this story, then, it can be inferred that most ghosts (like pirates) are missing body parts. And thus, as in life, the disabled are living in a separate, parallel, almost inivisable community from the world of the "Wholes" and the "Normals."

But still, that doesn't make it especially tragic or mournful. Just different. And we often do have our own sense of humor about it all.

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