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The stolen winding sheet

The Ghost of Baubie: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieA long time ago in Sanday, there lived an old woman named Baubie Skithawa.

But old Baubie Skithawa lay dying. She had long been feeble, but had enough to keep her, and was beholden to no one.

But Baubie had prepared well for her death. Her grave clothes were laid by in her chest and long since she had bought a fine winding-sheet at the Lammas Fair in Kirkwall.

Knowing that her days were short, old Baubie called for Jenny, the midwife, who not only brought people into the world but also helped with laying out the corpses. So Baubie called for Jennie now, and says she;

"Lass, I'm wanting to show you where to lay your hand on my grave clothes when the time comes. And I'd like to be sure that I have all that is needed. I don't want to go ill-clad to my grave, for I've always tried to do things decently. Do you think I should try them on ?"

"No, no!" said Jennie, "I can tell fine by the look of them whether they'll do or no."

When she saw them, she thought they would do very well. She said that she had dressed many a corpse in Sanday, but never had she seen better grave clothes on any. Baubie died soon afterwards, and Jenny laid her out in all her fine grave clothes.

The neighbours sat two nights at the wake, and among them was the goodwife of Bae. A rough, coarse sort of woman she was; everyone called her "Black Jock" after her old grandfather who was said to be close kin to the Devil himself. Folks noticed that Black Jock often fingered the winding-sheet, and once she was heard to mutter, "It's a great pity to put such a fine piece of cloth under the mold."

But no one replied. Black Jock had no friends and people were afraid to cross her. She too was thought to be overfriendly with Old Nick. Black Jock was there when Baubie was put into the coffin, and she drank her fill at the wake afterwards.

Now what did Black Jock do a day or two afterwards?

Down to the Cross Kirk graveyard she went in the silence of the night, with a spade in her hand. She dug up Baubie Skithawa's grave; she broke open the coffin lid; and she took the fine winding-sheet off the poor dead body. Then she filled up the grave, and home she went and laid the stolen winding-sheet away at the bottom of her own chest.

The very next day the Lady of Hellsness sent a young lad named Andrew Moodie on an errand to Stove. As he was coming back in the mirky dusk, the sky grew black as the bottom of a kettle, and when Andrew was half over Bae Sand there broke out the most fearful storm of thunder and lightning that ever he saw. Fire leaped from cloud to cloud, flashing to sea and ground like sparks from the forge. The thunder crashed as if the very heavens were rumbling down for Judgement Day. Andrew noticed that the cloud was blacker over the Cross Kirk than anywhere else, and when he came near, for his road ran beside the kirkyard, he saw a sight that almost made him faint with terror.

From every grave in the kirkyard, there stood up something like a mast of fire, red, yellow, blue. And the tops of these pillars of fire were far above the kirk roof. Sometimes the pillars of coloured flame stood straight on end; sometimes they waved from side to side like reeds in a breeze. On the top of every pillar stood one or two, and sometimes three or four, spirits of the dead, fluttering in their grave clothes. And the spirits beckoned and waved to one another, or shook their heads at each other as if they had been a flock of ducks. If they were speaking, Andrew did not know, for he heard not a word. But on top of one of the fiery pillars he saw one poor forlorn spirit standing motionless and alone - and she was bare naked. That was Baubie Skithawa's spirit, whose winding-sheet was stolen. And all the rest were glowering and pointing at poor Baubie as if they were scolding or making fun of her. For it is said that if spirits come back to the world (may they stay in their own place!) they just take up their old ways and habits.

Andrew feared that Baubie's spirit was about to look at him, and he turned his back to the Kirk Well he knew that a ghost's glance is not canny and has stolen the sense of many. No farther would he go - not for all the gold in the king's chest would he go by that kirkyard. So he made for the house of Bae as fast as his trembling legs would move, and banged and kicked on the door with all the strength left to him.

And he cried. "For heaven's sake open the door. I've seen things tonight that I'll never be the better of ! And if ever you hope for mercy, have pity on me! Open the door! No, I never saw the like in all my life . . . !"

Black Jock was in her house alone, for her Goodman had gone to visit a sick cousin at Rusness. He was a poor stick, the Goodman of Bae; Black Jock had fairly scared what little sense he had out of him. But still, he had enough to bide at Rusness that wild night. Whatever Black Jock was thinking, she took Andrew in. Then she banged the door shut again and barred it with the wooden yoke she used for carrying water pails. Andrew noticed that three steel awls were sticking in the wood. And she said to him; "What the Devil takes you out on such a night? Idle whelp that you are ! Sit over there on the stool, and mind a close tongue keeps a safe head !"

The moment that she said the Evil One's name there came a clap of thunder right over the roof and such a blaze of lightning that Andrew was both stunned and blinded. When he recovered a little, he saw Black Jock sitting in the middle of the floor, drawing circles around her with a big needle. Her lips were moving and her face was dark and troubled. Andrew was about to tell her what he had seen at the Kirk, but the minute he opened his mouth, she picked up a hard peat and clouted him. It caught him on the knee and he shrieked with pain. But short time he had to think of that !

For now, between the crashes of thunder, he heard outside the house of Bae, a noise like the jabber of a thousand scolding folk, but they spoke no earthly tongue. The smokehole, the window, and the cat-hole through the eaves at the top of the door had all three been stopped by Black Jock's own hands. Now every bit of stopping was being driven out by ghostly hands. And again and again he saw the ghostly face of Baubie Skithawa's spirit glowering through the window-hole. And O, that face was white, white ! And always the spirit cried with a doleful whimper, "Cold, cold, am I the night ! Cold, cold am I ! Give me my sheet ! Give me my sheet ! It's cold, cold, to lie in the mold, mother-naked ! Give me back my sheet !"

And then she shrieked fit to rend the heart of any living creature. The cat lay trembling and howling in a corner, for it is truly known that dumb beasts cannot abide ghosts. Then one of the spirits thrust in his hand through the cat-hole and pulled out the old shearing hook that Black Jock had put over the door to keep away evil spirits. He pulled it out, but he let it drop at once, for there was steel in the hook. Then he set up such a roar that Andrew thought the very ghosts themselves had gone mad. And they began again, dancing like devils about the house, around the house, over the house and under and on the house, roaring like mad bulls. It was getting near cock-crow, and well they knew their time was short.

Once Baubie's spirit thrust her head and long neck through the window, and then she got in her two long white arms and kept groping through and groping through the house, and peering about in search. One of her arms came feeling about over Andrew's head, and he cowered down in mortal fear. For all that, he got one wallop from her hand on the crown of his head, and the mark stood there all his life. When he felt the ghostly blow, he fell on the floor, and the toe of his shoe flicked the sail-needle out of Black Jock's hand. Then she swore a fearful oath, for she knew well that the spirits would have their way now that she lacked the steel. She had no time to delay: she flung open her big chest and dragged the winding-sheet out from the bottom. No sooner was the sheet free of the chest than it flipped out of her hands like a living thing. And up it flew, and around and around it whirled, and out of the smokehole in a blaze of blue fire.

'The Devil himself go with thee and bide with thee!" cursed Black Jock as the sheet switched out of the hole. No sooner was the word out of her mouth when something gave her a great wallop on the rear, flinging her flat on her face on the earth floor.

At that blessed moment the cock crew, and the spirits flew off to their own place. Andrew heard them fluttering overhead like a flock of frightened swans. When the folk came to the house of Bae in the dawn, they found the place in dreadful disorder. Everything was flung here and yon, and the three cattle lay dead in the byre. Andrew Moodie was lying helpless as if half-dead, with the mark of Baubie Skithawa's spirit's thumb and finger on the crown of his head. He recovered well enough, but never a hair grew on that mark afterwards.

The folk tried to lift Black Jock from the ground where the spirits had flung her. They lifted and they pulled, they tugged and they heaved, but they could not budge her, although five women and three men tried with all their strength. You see, she was spirit-bound, or as some say, she had the ghost-cramp. They did not like to send for the minister, for they did not know how he would take it. So off they bustled for old Mansie Peace, the grandfather of Peter Peace who would neither burn nor drown. All those folk had more wit than their own. Old Mansie went around Black Jock seven times, and said seven eerisons over her. Then he boiled seven bluestones and made enchanted water of the brew, and poured a full measure of it over Black Jock's back. And then she could rise, for the water took the ghost-cramp off her.