Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The white horse and St. Elmo’s fire

My grandparents were walking on the beach on a dark night, and they knew they were not alone. The sound of the waves silenced any other sounds. But they sensed they were being followed. And when they looked over their shoulder, they could vaguely see a light spot between the surrounding darkness. The spot got larger and more defined. A white horse, without a rider or any human accompanying it, was walking behind them. When they stopped, it stopped. When they walked, it would resume its pace. When they approached the houses of Katwijk, the horse had vanished and was nowhere to be seen...

Katwijk, the town I am not born in, but lived all my life, was small village surrounded by kilometres of dunes to the south, east and north, and the North Sea to the west. It was a poor village, where many families depended on fishery for their living. Not many people followed higher education, and who lived in Katwijk focussed on their neighbours and families. There was little interaction with the outside world. Which is not to say the outside world did not know Katwijk – it was a popular seaside resort for families, and many famous painters spend months in this then small village to be inspired by the dunes and the sea.

Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp)

No television or radio around the turn of the 19th and 20th century, dark evenings in the streets where the poor fisherman families lived, legends were abundant, and stories were important. Katwijk was a village where Johnny Depps's portrayal of Ichabod Crane, the colourful police investigator in Tim Burton’s lovely horror movie The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, based on the story of Washington Irving, would not be out of place in Katwijk trying to analyse the white horse story – albeit without a headless horseman. And now we are on the subject of movies, Joel and Ethan Coen are my favourite cinomatographic story tellers today. Their latest film here, A Serious Man, a great movie by itself, starts with a superb legend like scene, situated in a small rural Jewish village in 19th century Poland, where a couple is visited by a dybbuk – a man, a rabbi in this case, who is actually dead, and comes to the living with evil intentions. The dybbuk is stabbed by the woman, if he survives, it is proof it is already dead. The man walks out, so it was obvious a dybbuk according to the woman. But then they notice the man lost blood…

But I am drifting off, I need to focus myself to the real world here. I love stories. And I miss them. My father told me the story about the white horse, as it was told to him by his mother, and of course, even his generation did not believe that story anymore. But still… When my father was a teenager he had to pedal back to Katwijk on his bicycle in the 1930s, after seeing a Boris Karloff Frankenstein movie in the town of Leiden, some ten kilometres away. Having to cycle in the dark, between the dark streets and the fields, he was scared. Almost as scared as he was as a 12 year old boy when he was asked to bring the weekly pension to a former employee of the shipping company his father worked for. This particular man was a bachelor, who lived with his single sister in small house in one of the creepiest and darkest alleys of the village. This sister was known to be extremely ugly, with an appearance that would qualify for a position as a witch. There was no electric light where she and her brother lived, and when my farther knocked on their door, he was frightened as he never was before. A cracking voice, as the story goes, asked who he was and about the natureof his visit. When my father explained that he was bringing the pension money, he was invited in. What my father did not anticipate however, were the steps down behind the door, because the dark living room was lower than street level. My father walked in, and fell down from the stairs. Lying on the floor he looked up at the face of the witch that was illuminated by a lantern from below. My father was so scared, that he threw the money on the floor and ran off without looking back.

Now, that is a story I love. And it is with regret that I must admit that I can not tell stories. Maybe I could, but I do not have any stories worthwhile to tell. We have rational explanations for everything around us, and there are few things that scare us today. That’s too bad, because the art of story telling is a tradition that should be kept alive, but is an endangered species these days. I blame myself too. When I have stories, it is not because they are mysterious, but because of a kind of bizarre nature at the most. Like when I was spending a few days in Bacharach with my parents, and we left the famous old inn “Altes Haus”, which not surprisingly means “Old House”. I opened the door to go outside, but at the same time the door was pushed open from outside. And I was staring right in the face of Mr. Klaus Kinkel – at the time the minister of foreign affairs of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, and leader of the German Liberal party. “Guten Abend”, he said to me. I know, it is a pathetic attempt for a story, not only because of its triviality, but also because it so short. Somewhat more words can be used to describe an odd conversation at a bus stop many years ago. It was a beautiful summer’s day, and the around 60 years old lady sitting on the bench was obviously eager to find a reason to start a conversation. It did not take long for her to find one. “Look at her,” she said, pointing at a young and tanned lady in a nice summer’s dress, passing by on het bicycle. "I bet she is going to the beach.” I replied that the lady was absolutely right to do so on such a glorious day. “Well, not for me. I don’t go there. My hips. I can’t walk through the sand, and when I sit down on the beach, I can’t get up anymore.” I enquired if she did mot have a garden to enjoy the summer. No, she did not. “But we do have a trailer in the Veluwe forest.” For non-Dutch, the Veluwe is the large forested nature area in the centre of the country. “You go there often?” I asked. “No, we do not anymore.” So, why was that? “My husband’s heart.” I did not understand this right away. “When my husband gets a heart attack, I will not be able to walk to a phone to call a doctor. Because of my hips, you know.” I was glad the bus arrived at that point.

Katwijk beach

So, there you have it. My supply of stories is limited, not very interesting, and consists only of remarkable, but probably pathetic situations. I so much wish I could tell stories that would bring my audience to the edge of their seats and keep ‘m awake at night. But we are too sophisticated for nonsense like that these days – and with that, an ancient tradition fades away.

The people walking on the beach that night realized they were not alone. The sound of the wind and the sea prevented that any noises could be heard, but it was absolutely clear that there right ahead was a moving light on that deserted beach. No matter what they did, the light stayed ahead of them. They could not catch up. And when they stopped, it stopped as well. That light was seen before and it always meant doom. Any rational explanation that there was a man walking with a lantern, or that it just could be St. Elmo’s fire, were out of the question when it was obvious that there was a demon walking there, or by golly, the devil himself.


  1. Personally I think radio, television and now internet killed story telling. For a long time story telling - or oral tradition - was the only way people had to share information. At the same time people lived in close communities, just like Katwijk before the war.
    I remember relatives telling stories on their life in the twenties and thirties. How they lived and worked and how they played tricks - even then. But ghost stories were not a part of that.