(a Cornish folktale)
It happened a long time ago, in Cornwall, in the waters just off the coast of St. Ives. A great wind began to blow steadily onshore. Many storms struck the coast that month; many ships were lost at sea. It was a sad time and a frightening time, too.
This new storm came up slowly, just as the sun was beginning to set. Ships hurried to shore, but soon the waves were rising, high and fast, hurling themselves against the cliff face, and soon the sea front was shrouded in mist, with no light anywhere.
In the lighthouse yard two dozen men worked hard, steadying the light, shining it out to sea. They wore oilskin coats, and sea spray stung their faces. They shouted over the wild wind in order to be heard. “I see one out there!” someone cried.
They all turned to look and sure enough, there it was, a great ship appearing out of the mist.
“We must save her,” some men cried, but others shook their heads. It seemed hopeless, for Cornwall has a difficult coast in the best of times, and this was one of the worst. Atlantic winds whip in from north and west, and waves are cold and strong. Sharp rocks are everywhere. Shipwrecks are frequent. They watched the ship battling the waves, and when they saw the ship’s anchor ripped from the seabed, they shook their heads.
“What can we do?” they cried, as fisherman raced from their homes and ran to the shore.
The ship swirled this way and that as those onshore watched. Her sails ripped into ribbons. Her great mast trembled, and then it split as waves swept onboard, and many sailors were instantly swept out to sea.
Those onboard were terrified. Distraught passengers ran back and forth amid sailors dying and screaming. Some of the sailors had broken limbs; others lay upon the deck helpless. The vessel creaked louder and louder as it turned in circles.
Waves spurted into the air, twice the height of the highest rocks onshore, but everyone onboard began to work. They stood in knee-deep, freezing water, filling buckets one after another after another and tossing the water overboard.
Onshore the St. Ives fishermen launched their fishing boats from the pier, determined to save as many of the sailors and their passengers as possible.
The fishermen rowed their boats as close as they could, but they couldn’t get near enough to reach those onboard. “Throw us the lines,” they called to the sailors onboard.
The sailors, relieved to see rescuers so close, threw their lines. Soon, the fishermen hauled people to safety on the fishing boats.
“Hurry, hurry!” they cried, for they could see the ship could not last much longer. It was going down, and anyone who remained would drown with the ship.
A group of sailors appeared on the deck holding a young lady, one of the passengers. The woman held a little child in her arms.
“Give us the child,” a sailor called.
“Never!” the woman cried, and she pulled the child closer and closer. “I’ll never let my child go.”
The sailors, frantic, looked at each other. “Well then,” they said, “we’ll lower you both together,” and they lowered her into the freezing water. She grasped the line with one hand, holding her child with the other.
But when she felt the water on her skin the cold shot through her — sharp as a bullet. And the lady fainted.
Now the fishermen had not seen the child, and when they pulled the lady to safety, they did not know that they had left a child behind to drown.
The night wore on. The fishermen saved many of the crew and most of the passengers, rowing them to safety in St. Ives. There the women of the village cared for all those who suffered from broken bones and chill and terror.
In the morning the storm had passed, and the day was beautiful.
The young lady woke and looked into the eyes of those who were caring for her. “Where is my child?” she asked.
They looked at her, and they looked at each other. No one had seen the child.
“Perhaps she is imagining things,” some whispered.
The woman grew frantic. “My child! I was holding my child!” she cried, and she rose from her bed and ran about the village, weeping as she searched. But when she understood her child had drowned, she returned to her bed and closed her eyes. Not long after, she was dead.
Saddened by the lady’s misery, the villagers said prayers over her and buried her in the local churchyard.
But only a few days passed before people began to see the lady. Some saw her pass over the wall of the churchyard. Others saw her walking on the beach. Some laughed at these tales, but even those who laughed soon saw her walking the beach, searching everywhere — in every rock crevice, in every cave — and they understood she was searching for her child. When at long last she found no one, she sighed deeply and returned to her grave.
People say on clear nights the lady walks from the graveyard, climbs the wall and searches. And on those nights when it is dark and windy, the lady carries a lantern to light her way.
They say when they see the lady and the lantern they know a wild storm is coming.