A new category for this blog, to practice my English and to introduce you to one of my favourite books: Hasse Simonsdochter (1983), by Thea Beckman. In this romanticised version of the story about Jan van Schaffelaar (c. 1445 – 1482), the Dutch cavalry officer saves Hasse Simonsdochter (the main character) when she is attacked by a couple of cattle-drivers who pass the Kampereiland. Van Schaffelaar is said to have killed one of the drovers and was sentenced to death by the people of Kampen. Hasse Simonsdochter, however, banishes him, which forces them to marry each other.
1 The elven child
Oh, the buzzing wind through the young reed! Hasse Simonsdochter could never get enough of it. Especially in spring, when it was still green and pliant, the reed was sweet to her. The southwest wind, fresh and salty, made the culms bend and rub along each other, so that it whispered, rustled, sang under the high skies. The water of the IJssel rippled, the sky seemed higher than ever.
Sometimes Hasse imagined that she saw angels sitting on the clouds sailing by, with musical instruments and billowing veils. The deep organ sound of the bittern, mixed with the whistling, squeaking, singing of the reed birds seemed to answer the heavenly music. The IJssel delta in spring – for Hasse it was paradise.
But it was a stolen paradise. Actually, she was supposed to be at home in the reed cutters’ hut with her father, mother, brother and sisters. She was supposed to weave baskets, help her mother with the spring washing, do a thousand tasks. Instead, she now walked here over the low dyke along the Noorderdiep, looking out over the unseen reed lands, the sun on her head.
When she came out of the hut this morning to fetch water, the sun was just above the horizon. Hasse had sniffed up the sky, discovered the blue-pink sky, and suddenly she knew: ‘This is going to be a bright day! She had dropped the wooden bucket from her hands and started running: across the old seawall, into the wide bright country. She jumped over ditches and stormed through the still gloomy meadows, further and further up to the wide reed collars of the Noorderdiep. The reed had received her singing:
“Welcome Hasse, elven child!
Welcome Hasse, elven child,’ the birds also sang in the alder bushes along the dyke, and they flew over her, with straws and lint in the beaks, busy, busy, busy, busy…
In the hazy distance, behind the sparkling river, the city of Kampen pierced its towers into the sky, and for a moment Hasse thought to hear the sound of bells over the chirping of the birds. The bells of the Bovenkerk? Hasse had been there with her mother, many years ago, and she could never have forgotten it. The awe-inspiring space of St. Nikolaas, called Bovenkerk by the Kampenarians, had made an indelible impression on her. Everyone in IJsselmuiden and in the mound village Grafhorst knew that Hasse Simonsdochter was no ordinary girl. When she was still a small child, a neighbour was frightened by Hasse’s tantrums, dark eyes and glistening teeth. To her mother, she said:
“But ma’am Marte, that’s no ordinary child. That’s a changeling!’
Hasse had been there, and she remembered her mother’s upset face when she put her hands above her head.
“What did you say, Griete?
“You’ve been cheated, ma’am Marte. They took your eldest child out of the crib when it was perhaps less than a day old… robbed and put an elven child in its place! That’s what they do sometimes, those reedlings. If you have a beautiful child, you gotta guard it carefully, or the elves will come and steal it. They lay one of their own and woe to the family that such a thing happens! That’s years and years stuck with an elven child; an unmanageable ugly monstrosity who wants to be good for nothing… Poor ma’am Marte, what have they done to you?”
Hasse’s mother was afraid to believe it, even though neighbour Griete was known as a wise woman.
“Wouldn’t I have noticed?” she stammered.
“Think! Was your child so dark? Did it have such raven-black hair and such bright dark eyes?”
“That… I don’t remember. My child was bald when it was born, and it had blue eyes, but all newborns do… don’t they?”
Mrs Griete shook her head. ”Look at your other children, Marte! They have light hair and grey eyes.
Do they look like Hasse? Does Hasse look like you or your husband? No! Then how did she get that brown skin, those pointed fingers?”
“She’s always outside,” Mother tried to defend herself, “I can’t keep her inside. She’s always looking for the reed collars. ”
“Of course, that’s her home! She doesn’t belong in a hut of respectable hardworking people. She’s a changeling, I swear to you.”
Luckily for mother Marte, Mrs Griete also knew the defence against an elven child.
“You have to treat such a wench badly,” she had recommended. “Give it a beating and little food, make it cry all the time. The reedlings can’t stand that. They’ll come one night to take back their brood and give your own child in return.”
Could it be? Shortly afterwards, Hasse’s mother, full of doubts and fears, had walked with Hasse by the hand to IJsselmuiden, to pastor Damme, a short fat man with bulging eyes and a somewhat hoarse voice. He always reminded little Hasse of a frog. ma’am Marte told the priest what she had heard from neighbour Griete, and the priest had gravely shaken his head while his bulging eyes looked down on the girl. “Maybe Griete is right, ma’am Marte. We know such things happen sometimes. And now that you mention it… Over the years, I have baptized dozens of children, and all of them start to cry softly when the holy water touches their heads. But now I suddenly remember your Hasse was making a scene at her baptism and started screaming bloody murder. She opened her eyes, looked straight at me with wild hatred, and red spots appeared on her forehead as if the holy water had burned her.”
“Yes, yes,” whispered the mother, who could not remember at all.
Afterwards, she had had three more children baptized, but what Father Damme said – or made up – there suited Marte, who had heard enough.
“What should I do?” she shouted desperately, “If it’s true…
Father Damme had taken Hasse’s little chin in her hand and forced her severely to look at him. “Who are you really, Hasse?” he’d beseeched. Hasse wrinkled her nose, she’d felt like biting his hand. She didn’t like the priest; he smelled acidic, and his priest’s robe was full of stains. Savagely, she had withdrawn her head and clenched her teeth.
“She’s wild and disobedient,” the pastor murmured, “very different from your other children. Well… then there’s only one way to get the elves to give you back your own child: you have to mistreat this elf spawn. Ma’am Marte shuddered.
“That’s what Ma’am Griete said, but it sounds so… so harsh. Hasse is just a little kid. The priest sighed, and like all insecure people, he sought support from a higher authority to get rid of the problem. “Then take her to Kampen, to the Upper Church. Have the child there examined by Father Bernardus, who is a holy man. He’ll be able to tell you if your suspicions are correct, and he can give you advice, good woman. So it happened that little Hasse came to Kampen for the first time in her life and at her mother’s hand went into the Upper Church. But Father Bernardus had just died: there was a funeral in progress.