Not to be confused with ‘The Legend of Black Mountain‘, this Irish fairy tale is from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Book of Witches. A little girl and her widowed grandmother live on a hilltop; the windows of their cottage look out across a valley to the looming bulk of the Blackstairs Mountain, where witches are known to live.
This therefore being a somewhat insalubrious neighbourhood, the widow and her granddaughter have developed a witchery-proofed security system. Every night before they go to bed, they loose the band that works their spinning wheel and lay it aside (never trust a spinning wheel); pour the washing water into a channel to flow away under the front door; cover the burning turf in the hearth with ashes; and lastly, put the broomstick through the bolt sockets of the front door (never trust a broomstick either). In this way, grandmother and girl can sleep safely.
They live by spinning and selling thread. One day they take their work to market, despite the stormy weather, and as they come home that night they lose their way in the heavy rain. By the time they reach home, they’re so worn out they forget all about the four tasks. They are on their way to bed when a heavy knocking makes them suddenly remember. A voice screams from the other side of the door, calling out to the washing water and the spinning wheel band, the broomstick and the turf coal. It demands to be allowed inside, and the door flies open.
A crowd of witches burst into the cottage, bringing with them the actual Devil. It’s all too much for the grandmother, who falls in a dead faint – and while that’s an understandable reaction to Satanic incursions, it leaves her granddaughter alone in their midst. The Devil settles comfortably by the fire and pulls out his nose to play it like a trombone. Dancing to the music, the witches knock over the furniture and smash the crockery and tip the dresser through a window. They even start a game of leaping back and forth over the unconscious old woman, but the girl is largely ignored. For some time she looks on, horrified – then she pulls herself together and slips out the door.
Is she escaping? No, a moment later she comes racing back into the house shouting as loudly as she can. “Granny, Granny, come out! The Blackstairs Mountain and the sky above it is all on fire!”
The Devil stops his music and leaps through the broken window. The witches run after him, shrieking lamentations as they hurry back to their mountain. The girl wastes no time; the moment the last witch is out of the house, she has the door bolted with the broomstick. When the other three tasks are completed, she goes to her grandmother and wakes her with a splash of cold water. She’s just sitting up when a furious howl rises from the Blackstairs; the witches know they have been tricked, and are coming back.
There is a sudden silence. All the more terrifying for their restraint, four quiet knocks sound at the door. “Washing water, let me in!” a voice wheedles from the other side. “Turf coal, turf coal, open to me, open!” But not one of the domestic conspirators is in a position to obey. The spell of safety holds. Outside the witches scream and rage, while the girl and her grandmother huddle on the floor like they’re back out in the storm. At last the witches give up and return to their mountain, leaving the wreckage of their impromptu party in their wake. The girl and her grandmother never forget the ritual again.
See, this is how I came to love fairy tales as a child: a little girl gets to outwit the forces of wickedness and save the day on her own. She also overcomes the inherent traitorous qualities of a broomstick and a spinning wheel, which gives me all sorts of meta joy. The witches have a whole mountain to hold their parties on, they’ll cope.