April 19, 2021

The Howling in the Hills, by George Jacobs

Editor’s note: This classic, gentle tale took me back to the old fashioned fables I remember from when I was a little girl. It has just the right amount of detail for a folkloric story. Enjoy!

On the edge of the world there was a village. To the north were towns and castles and roads. To the south was nothing. Well, not nothing. But nothing civilized folks cared much about—just hills and forests and fast flowing rivers, and above all, monsters.

It was true that the villagers didn't ever see monsters, if any. But there were wolves and bears and things, and they did sometimes take the sheep and hens.

The oldest person in the village was an old lady. She may have had a name once, but none remembered it. To everyone she was simply Old Nan. Old Nan had strange ways, but commanded respect. Wherever anyone was sick or injured, it was Old Nan's hut they came to, and it was Old Nan that healed them. Not always, it must be said, but she did her best and the villagers were grateful. Old Nan didn't ever have to cook or clean.

One day, a shepherd boy ran out of the hills. A look of fear held his face and his hoarse cries were unintelligible. His father came and wrapped a blanket about his shoulders and gave him a glass of milk. The villagers gathered, and even the mayor came out, for such an event was rare in the village on the edge of the world.

Eventually, the boy uttered one word. "Monster."

The villagers at first reacted with good humor. Doubtless the boy had glimpsed a bear and his imagination had run wild. Such were the ways of youth. But then a great cry was heard echoing across the hills, a sound that chilled the hearts and unsettled the minds of everyone who heard it. It was not a bear.

Recovering his wits, the mayor put out the call. A posse of the brave was assembled, and with pitchforks they marched out into the hills, determined to find the monster and to slay it. All day they hunted, but they did not find the monster. And at night its howl grew louder, and the villagers locked their doors and slept uneasy. All except Old Nan.

So things continued for a month and a day. The shepherd boys refused to go into the hills and the wolves preyed on the sheep. Traders began to pass the village by, taking their business elsewhere. The mayor grew worried. The monster howled and wailed, and yet still the posse could not catch even a glimpse of it, as they roved over the hills, clutching their weapons tight.

The people of the village on the edge of the world were proud, but now they were scared. The monster needed to go. The mayor brooded and pondered, and at last began to draft a letter to an Earl in a far castle. It seemed the village was in need of a knight.

That morning Old Nan sniffed the air. She felt the rays of the sun. Spring was here. She smiled. It was the time to harvest several of her most useful herbs, ones that grew in the hills and the caves and deep in the woods. Old Nan donned her stiff boots and heavy cloak and headed out.

People watched from their doorways, disbelief on their faces.

“Don’t go,” they cried, or “The monster will get you.”

But Old Nan just smiled and shook her head. The medicines and poultices wouldn’t make themselves. She had herbs to collect.

The day stretched on, the sun rising and falling in its arc, and Old Nan’s herb sack began to fill. Her back ached and her belly rumbled, but she enjoyed the sun on her face and the grass between her toes and wouldn’t have traded her work for all the world.

Birds sang and the trees whispered in the wind. And something watched Old Nan. Something lurked in the shadows of the forest. Something spied from the cool mouths of caves. But it didn’t cry out, nor did it howl, not now. It knew the people of the village hunted it. Knew they wielded sharp things, hurting things.

“I know you’re there,” said Old Nan at last, as she sat by the river. “So you might as well come out from behind that tree. And if you’re going to eat me, you best get it over with, my legs are tired.”

The monster was confused. It considered. The old human wasn’t scared of him. She didn’t have a sharp thing. Tentatively, it crept from its hiding place. It was big and hairy and covered in horns, and on its face was an expression not of hunger nor fury but of worry. It bowed its head then pointed a clawed finger deeper into the hills, mumbling in strange gutturals.

Old Nan did not understand the words, but she did understand the meaning. All creatures were the same, when you got right down to it. She nodded, put one frail hand in the monster’s big one, and followed it to its cave.

As they approached, Old Nan heard a low moaning echoing from its depths. When she entered the cave, she was not surprised to see another monster, this one slightly smaller and with swollen belly, squatting on the floor and clearly uncomfortable. Old Nan rolled up her sleeves and got to work.

It took time, and there was a lot of blood. There were moments Old Nan felt fear, but she pushed on regardless. And when the moon was in the sky, there were three monsters in the cave. A family.

And from that day, no wolf nor bear ever took a sheep nor a hen on the hills. The people of the village on the edge of the world never feared to leave their homes. And the traders did come. More in fact than had before.  And still Old Nan made her medicines and her poultices, and never had to cook nor clean, and she smiled as she gathered her herbs in the sun.


Bio: George is a lover of genre fiction, the outdoors, and ancient history. He lives in the UK with his wife and pet degus, enjoying long walks along the canal and bird watching. He has examined martian meteorites and now plans train schedules.


You can learn more about this old photograph here. I thought it captured my own idea of what Old Nan would look like.


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Benny B. said...

Such a cute and twisted take on old legend. This could have been one of those camp fire stories you tell kids before bedtime. Loving it!

George Jacobs said...

Thank you very much, I'm really glad you enjoyed it!

Kelly Jarvis said...

This story captivated me from beginning to end! I love to think of Old Nan and the family of monsters that she helped.

Ellie a.Goss said...

Beautifully paced, with a wholesome feel even with the word monster involved. I thought it circled back nicely, making a nice compete folklore story. One I will share with my granddaughter.

George Jacobs said...

Thanks a lot! Yes, I'm sure Old Nan and the monsters have a lot of joy in their future.

George Jacobs said...

Thank you! I am touched and I hope your granddaughter enjoys it too!

Melissa Yuan-Innes said...

Hooray for baby monsters!

HulderMN said...

What a wonder-full tale!

George Jacobs said...

Yay indeed, thank you! Looking forward to reading your story!

George Jacobs said...

Thank you very much, I'm very glad you enjoyed it!

Krys Plate said...

I've never heard a tale like this before. I very much enjoyed it!