This article was first published in the Time Out Barcelona Guide.
What to do if little Johnny won’t go to sleep at bedtime? A glass of warm milk? A gentle lullaby? Or a blood-curdling horror story of child abduction and flesh-eating monsters? Catalan folklore is full of decidedly non-PC espantanens (‘child-frighteners’), designed to make kids behave and – as a side effect – turn them into gibbering emotional wrecks.
El Coco is one of the best known. With shaggy black hair and fluorescent eyes, El Coco preys on children who don’t go to bed when they’re told. Only leaving his hidey-hole in the dead of night, he lingers in the shadowy corners of children’s bedrooms and taunts them with a scary grunting noise, before grabbing them and carrying them home to eat raw. Sadly, it can be just as dangerous to go to sleep, at least when La Pesanta is around. In the form of a huge black dog with human hands, she jumps on to the chest of those who sleep on their backs; her great weight gives them terrible nightmares before suffocating them to death.
Warning of ‘stranger danger’ is L’Home del Sac (the ‘bag man’), a sinister old man dressed in old brown rags with shaggy hair and a giant sack on his back. Wandering the streets of Barcelona, he lures over any children he sees out alone with sweets and toys and then tosses them in his sack. Back in his castle, he boils down the children’s juicy flesh to produce a fine oil, which he uses to grease the train tracks.
Then there’s the Caçamentides (‘liar hunter’), a man as tall and wide as the towers of the cathedral and with fingers as sharp as claws, which he uses to snatch up children who tell lies. He knows who they are because when a lie comes out of a child’s mouth, it turns into an invisible bird that flies away after leaving a dark stain on their teeth. The birds fly to Caçamentides and tell him where the child is to be found. He barbecues his captives and eats them seven by seven.
Much feared by little girls who live in Bruç, Esparreguera and Piera is the Cardapeçois, a strange and bad-tempered old woman who’s obsessed with well-combed hair. She visits little girls with long, tangled locks and goes at them with thistle heads and, in especially bad cases, the sharp iron spikes used to card sheep wool. She combs until she’s pulled all the hair out, and the offender is left bleeding and bald.
Putting on the frighteners out in La Vall de Ribes de Freser is Jan de Gel, a boy made of ice, and so cold-hearted that children freeze just by looking at him. He throws the human popsicle on his back and carries it to his ice cave to make it into a hearty soup. Another winter sprite is La Tinyosa, who appears as a mass of foggy cloud, descending over any children lost in her territory of the Montserrat mountains and the plains of Vic, and carrying them away.
This story won The Independent Story of the Year competition many years ago, but it’s now very hard to find, so I’m delighted that Alfie Dog Fiction has published it on their website. The novelist Angela Lambert, one of the competition judges, was kind enough to compare it to Kipling – high praise indeed.
Here’s the start of the story:
One day the Reluctant Eagle decided he would like to see outside the nest. He knew his feathers were not quite ready for flying but he thought that it would be alright just to look.
Foot by foot he struggled up the eyrie. By the time he got to the top his legs were aching.
Then he had his first look Out There.
It was just as well the eyrie was old and well built. It could take the impact of a nearly full grown eagle falling into it flat on his back.
The sky and cliff had still not stopped spinning when Mrs Eagle returned to the nest.
“Are you alright, dear?”
The Reluctant Eagle struggled upright and tried to bury himself under his mother. But really he was far too big for that anymore and all he succeeded in doing was nearly pushing her out of the nest.
“Calm down, dear. Now, what’s the matter?”
“I… I looked Out There,” the Reluctant Eagle said. “I’m really sorry, I know I promised to be good, but I just wanted to look.”
“At least you didn’t try to fly before you’re ready.”
“It’s so far down,” he said.
“What’s so far down?” Mrs Eagle was beginning to realise what her son was talking about.
“Everything. Out There.”
“But you will be able to fly, dear. Up, down, and round and round.”
The round and round was a mistake. The Reluctant Eagle groaned and hid his head beneath his wing.
Mrs Eagle’s suspicions were confirmed. Her son was scared of heights. She was flummoxed.
Mr Eagle arrived at that moment. When Mrs Eagle had explained what was wrong he prodded his son with his beak. “Pull yourself together, boy. This is no way for an eagle to act.”
“I wish I’d never hatched.” The voice was still muffled as the Reluctant Eagle had discovered that if he kept his head under his wing and his eyes tight shut then everything stopped spinning. “I liked the egg. I never asked to be an eagle. Why couldn’t I have been a… a rabbit or a deer or something?”
Mr Eagle was too shocked to answer. How could an eagle want to be a rabbit?
Mrs Eagle spread her wings, indicating for her husband to follow.
“We’ll be back soon, dear,” she said. “Don’t forget to eat your dinner.”
The wind caught her wings and in one soaring swooping arc she was carried off until she landed on a nearby crag. Mr Eagle followed.
“How are we going to teach our son to fly if he’s afraid of heights?” asked Mrs Eagle.
Mr Eagle was taken by surprise at this request to start thinking so soon after landing. “Er, I think we have to do something,” he said.
“So do I,” said Mrs Eagle.
“You do? Oh, of course you do. Yes, we have to do something.”
“Quite,” said Mrs Eagle.
“Right. I know, I’ll tell him to start acting like a proper eagle.”
“You already have,” Mrs Eagle pointed out.
“Who do we know who’s afraid of heights?”
“No one on my side of the family,” said Mr Eagle.
“I didn’t mean eagles.”
“Who else is there?”
“Well, you know.”
“I do? Oh, yes, of course I do.” Mr Eagle stared off into the distance, hoping for inspiration. He noticed a pair of ears twitching against the skyline.
“Rabbits?” he said.
“Well, not just rabbits,” said Mrs Eagle. “Any of the four feet. They can’t fly so I suppose they must be scared of heights.”
“Right. Quite. Scared of heights. Hmph.”
“So we could ask them.”
“Yes.” The word was out of his beak before he could stop it. “Ask the four feet?”
“Who else would know?”
“Er, yes.” Mr Eagle was trying to work out how he had agreed to this.
“So.” Mrs Eagle turned to look at him. “What are you waiting for? A watched egg never hatches, you know.” As she spoke her wings opened to their full span and before Mr Eagle could say anything she was airborne. He watched her disappear over the edge of the cliff.
“Ah well,” said Mr Eagle and went off in search of four feet.
The rest of the story is available to download from Alfie Dog for the princely sum of 39p (of which I receive half), in files suitable for Kindle, other e-readers or as a pdf to be printed out.
I have spent quite a lot of time – probably more than I should – on author photographs: tilted head, rested on pensive finger; serious, face on, stare; pencil portrait. But now I realise all that thought was wasted. What people really want is a baby grimace! So, I present to you my new author photograph: Isaac, with supporting role played by me.
Reading children’s books from the past, or indeed talking to older people, I am always struck by the freedom to roam that children had then. In ‘Swallows and Amazons’, the children are sent off for weeks on end, on an island, without life jackets, and not all of them can even swim! ‘Go out and play and don’t come back ’til tea time,’ which was then a common enough parental instruction would now be regarded as parental dereliction. So, our children sit at home, in front of screens big and small, and talk.
For what has replaced the old freedom to roam is a communication revolution that allows children to communicate, widely and largely unsupervised, through instant messaging, texts, Facebook, the full panoply of modern chat, and they generally do so with greater fluency and facility than their parents. Can this freedom replace the old freedoms? Before we get too misty eyed about the old days, it’s worth bearing in mind that research indicates in medieval and early modern England, children roamed freely, and, too often, paid for it, inquest reports being full of accounts of children drowning, falling, and in many different ways paying for their curiosity and intrepidity with their lives.
So, no rose-tinted nostalgia. It was still a dangerous world, and even if people didn’t fear prowling paedophiles, there was always the danger of a bad-tempered horse kicking out, or the latent anarchy of unsupervised children running out of control. But, is it any wonder that children then became responsible adults so much sooner – after all, they had been responsible for themselves, and learned the consequences of recklessness, so much sooner. Today, with freedom to communicate but no freedom to roam, the sticks and stones of encounters with real, bristling, tangible dangers have gone, to be replaced with the subtle dangers of insult and upset. All real enough, but more easily resolved via an ‘unfriend’ or a ‘block’ than the problems of roaming. Is it any wonder that we find it so difficult to grow up these days? We have been physically removed from the key understanding of adulthood: that actions have consequences.