Author’s Note The island of Seeheim is fictitious. However, if anyone were to remark on passing resemblances to the island of Sylt, I would not necessarily be inclined to contradict them!
There were, so it seemed, only two somewhat strange things about Isolde Hornbeam. One was her name. Her mother was a lover of opera, particularly Wagner, and her father was one of a long line of Hornbeams, though there had not been, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, one single forester or tree surgeon in his family line. And it was one of those names that managed (just) to be pleasingly eccentric rather than embarrassing. It wasn’t as if she were called Fifibelle Hopscotch Rainstorm, or any of that ilk of names that rock stars (and by no means only rock stars) inflicted on their unfortunate offspring.
And the other was her choice of holiday destinations and times. Even then, Isolde kept it within certain limits. She had never felt any urge, even if she’d been able to afford it, to ski down Mount Everest, or to spend her holiday concocting organic soap in an Iron Age village, or something that looked very much like one.
But she did like to go to unfashionable places out of season, and to seek out both the quirky and the prosaic, or sometimes both at the same time. She supposed that her November break on the North Sea island of Seeheim met both qualifications. A small speck of land in a large sea can never be entirely mundane, and it had its fair share of desolate landscapes and legends. But it was still a part of modern Germany, and with all the efficiency and practical hospitality that came with that. Even if you avoided clichés, it was true. There was a well-stocked supermarket, and all the infrastructure of an advanced country in the third decade of the 21st century. And though, to the best of her knowledge, Isolde had no German blood, she spoke the language, and not just Wagner’s libretti, fluently. She could even make a stab at the local Plattdeutsch dialect, and her efforts were treated kindly.
There was something paradoxically romantic about the fact that you could (unless you had your own boat) only reach Seeheim by rail and not by sea. The journey across the Bismarck Dam offered the thrill and frisson of feeling dangerous, the train seeming to jut through the sea itself, the waves almost touching its carriages, whilst being statistically one of the safest railway lines in Europe.
Isolde had rented a little house – and somehow that was entirely the right thing to call it, not a cabin or a cottage – that afforded her the best of both worlds. She could, from the back window of the tiny, but well-equipped kitchen, look out to the North Sea, to its crashing or tranquil waves, and without entirely convincing herself she saw it, dwell deliciously on the local legend of the spectral rider on the white horse. But she was only a few minutes walk away from the little town, from the Nordmarkt supermarket, and from a cosy little café that served Apfelstrudel and steaming cups of coffee or glasses of mulled wine.
She had rented the little house from a local lady called Frau Hansen, who had the kind of reserved friendliness Isolde found very appealing. There were quite a few incomers on the island, but Frau Hansen’s family had lived there for generations. She had a way of making sure people knew about that without being remotely boastful! There was undeniably something in the air, as there was a fair contingent of robust people in their nineties, and even a couple of centenarians. Frau Hansen’s mother, Frau Heinrich, was only two years off her hundredth birthday, and though her hair, still long and wrapped round her head in plaits, was snowy white, her face was remarkably unlined, and she walked entirely unaided. Frau Hansen said she had “So many tales to tell,” and Isolde would have really liked to hear one.
When the first flakes of snow began to fall, Isolde couldn’t have been more pleased. Though Seeheim had the kind of landscape that was positively made for the skies of late autumn, an early snow fall was, to her mind, always cause for rejoicing, and an unexpected bonus. Though the island had what tends to be euphemistically described as a “bracing” climate, you could by no means bank on snow, even in January. She tried not to build up her hopes, and told herself that all too often, nothing came of thin November flakes and they simply turned to rain. But these flakes did not turn to rain. They thickened and intensified, and would have done any Christmas card proud.
Isolde decided to stock up at the Nordmarkt (though she already knew in her heart she would end up buying more than she needed – she always did when she was on a self-catering holiday, despite her good intentions) and have a cosy afternoon in watching the snow. She bought the kind of thing you do when it’s snowing – soup and ginger tea and red wine and hot chocolate. And some tins of herrings. She would probably take some tins of herrings home with her, to remind her of this holiday.
Though she wouldn’t normally have done, because of the snow and her heavier than usual shopping, she had brought the car to the Nordmarkt, and was very glad she had. For the first time she began to have a few misgivings. Snow was fine, snow was, of course, cause for rejoicing, but she hadn’t thought it would get quite so extreme. What she thought of as her warm coat suddenly didn’t seem so warm, and what she thought of as her sensible boots felt suspiciously like flimsy sandals. She realised, with something of a start, that she had never driven in such weather, when a sharp, swirling white curtain seemed to be drawn around everything. Now come on, she told herself. It’s not as if you’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s only a few minute’s drive back to the little house and it’s a good modern road in flat territory, not some potholed death-trap with sheer drops.
When she saw the bundle on her bonnet, her first thought was that a fellow-shopper (not that there were any other cars in the car park now) had decided to ditch their purchases – perhaps someone who had to walk home. Mildly irritated, but not able to deny she might have been tempted to do likewise, she took the bundle, thinking that she certainly wasn’t going to walk back to the shop with it – it would be put down on the ground! We are used to expecting the expected, and for a couple of seconds it didn’t occur to Isolde that there was something strange about wrapping your shopping, especially shopping you had ditched, in a throw. A cherry red throw, tightly swaddled. Afterwards, she would never be able to quite determine if that quaint, but wholly appropriate word swaddled occurred to her before or after.
As she picked the bundle up, it moved. It wriggled. Tins of soup and packets of tea and bottles of wine do not wriggle. They may shift, but they do not wriggle. In her shock Isolde nearly dropped the bundle, and then thanked God she hadn’t. A little face was looking at her from one end of the throw. Little whimpers were emerging from it.
For a few seconds, Isolde went onto autopilot. The baby seemed healthy, but must most certainly not stay out in this icy cold blizzard for a second longer. She opened the car door and put the baby in the cherry red throw onto the back seat, turning the heat full on. “You stay here,” she said, somewhat unnecessarily, and not sure if she were speaking English or German. “I’m going back to the supermarket to get help.”
But the supermarket was closed, with signs apologising and saying it was due to the adverse weather conditions. This is not the kind of thing that happens to me, thought Isolde. This was most certainly not on my holiday to-do list! Not that she had made one. But that wasn’t the point. I suppose I had better take her back to the little house, she thought. Though she had, of course, not taken off the throw to look at the relevant parts, instinct told her the child was a girl. This was not a time to worry about not having the relevant child seat! She was even more nervous about the drive than before, now someone else was dependent on her for their safety, but she made it safely back to the little house, along the roads that now seemed totally deserted. Leaving her shopping in the car, she carefully carried the baby into the lounge, turning the radiators up to their maximum capacity, and settling her on the sofa. She was remarkably well-behaved, with an air of stoicism and curiosity strange in such a little baby. “You’ll be fine,” said Isolde. “I’m phoning Frau Hansen. She’ll know what to do and will see to things.” She was entirely confident about that, and it was a reassuring thought. Frau Hansen was one of those people who gave the impression of being able to sort things out and take the drama out of a crisis without being remotely irritating about it. But, presumably because of the weather conditions, she couldn’t get a signal on her phone.
She did not exactly panic, but had the troubling sensation that it might not be long before she did. Isolde loved children and was a doting auntie to her sister Elisabeth’s daughter, but had little experience of babies. She did, however, know that they needed both changing and feeding and she lacked the means to do either. She did have some milk, but wasn’t regular cow’s milk bad for babies? And anyway, without a bottle, how could she feed her? It was true that for the time being the child seemed content in her solemn way, and not to need either feeding or changing, but that would not, of course, last for ever. Or maybe even not for the next minute. I will keep trying my phone, she thought. Or if needs must I can venture out again. I am exaggerating this blizzard. It is melodramatic to even call it a blizzard! She looked out of the window to reassure herself. She was not reassured.
The sensible thing to do was to switch on the radio. That was what you were always advised in any kind of crisis (though she wished the word crisis hadn’t come unbidden into her mind). Listen to local radio. She put it on, relieved that at least that was working, and that it didn’t seem to disturb the baby. They were playing some folk music, the authentic, not the fake kind, and she told herself that if they were playing music then the situation couldn’t be that serious or they would only have rolling news – wouldn’t they?
When the song ended there was a weather report, warning about the sudden blizzards mainly affecting the North Sea coast and islands, and telling people not to venture out if they could help it, but reassuring them that according to the relevant authorities, the conditions, though extreme, were short lived and would start to clear the next day. Well, it’s alright them saying that, she thought, but it appears they didn’t see it coming in the first place. They did give out a couple of emergency telephone numbers, and Isolde noted them eagerly, and with a sigh of relief – that was cut off in mid-sigh as she realised that if a phone wasn’t getting a signal for one number, then it wouldn’t get it for another. The announcer said that they were taking the chance to re-broadcast their series “Tales from the Snow”.
Well, that’s not what I want to hear, she thought, a tad tetchily, a break from it would be more like it. But she supposed she ought to stay tuned to a local channel, and anyway, the baby seemed to like it. She did not want to risk accidentally hitting on some raucous rock music or pompous politician. And perhaps being told a story was no bad thing.
After a couple of bars of atmospheric music, one of those people with a voice made for storytelling began to tell her tale.
“This is a legend told on the island of Seeheim. The oldest inhabitants of the island, and it is known for the longevity of its natives, swear that they knew people in their childhood, knew people who were very old when they were young, who could remember their grandparents recounting tales of people who had witnessed it.
In the century before last, Seeheim was a very different place, and yet in some ways the same place. The Bismarck Dam had not yet been built, and to reach the island you had to brave the waters of the North Sea. But many of the little houses are still there today, and the stories of the Phantom Rider of the White Horse are still told. You had to beware if you saw that Rider, or heard the hoofs retreating into the distance, but it was not necessarily a malign spirit.
Where today you will find the Nordmarkt Supermarket, there was a little farm. The people who owned it, a couple called Jehann and Kurt, were childless. For twenty years they had longed and yearned for a child to call their own, and that child had not come, and each month brought sorrow and frustration. They were devoted to each other, and it is said they rarely spoke of it, but there was a sadness in their smiles. Now Jehann was reaching the age when a woman knows she will not bear children.
An early blizzard came that year to Seeheim, sweeping across the bitter, surging waters of the North Sea, and turning autumn to winter. Kurt went to check on his livestock, wrapping himself up in a warm coat and wearing his sturdiest boots. And it was then he saw a bundle, bright cherry red on the pristine white of new-fallen snow. He knelt to pick it up, and realised that it was a baby. A solemn-eyed little girl, making no fuss, as if she was sure she would be found. Overcome with wonder, Kurt took the baby in his arms, bearing her into the little farmhouse to Jehann who, it is said, did not look especially surprised. She told her husband that, looking out of the window, starker white and swifter white among the driving show, she had seen the Phantom Rider, and heard the hoofs, and known that something strange was going to happen, and despite herself, she had been half-afraid, but now she knew that he had brought them their hearts’ desire.
They made enquiries, of course, but nobody came to claim the child, whom they called Ilse. They adopted her as their own, and she grew up happy and loved on the little farmhouse, bringing nothing but joy to Jehann and Kurt. “
“Ilse,” muttered Isolde, suddenly sleepy, and took the baby in her arms, and they both drifted off to sleep as the storyteller began another tale.
When Isolde awoke, the blizzard was already abating, and there was no baby in her arms. But she knew she was in other, loving arms.
There was a signal on her phone again, and Frau Hansen called to check if she was okay. Isolde assured her she was, and it was true. Putting the phone down she noticed a cherry red woollen thread beside her on the couch.