Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Hollering Hole

'Tis a favorite time of year, when we open that musty-smelling old tome of the Ancient Legends of Second River. So many there are. And I do like telling these old stories. It should be noted here that Mr. Washington Irving, good author that he was, frequented a health resort on Green Island, once located in the Passaic River in Newark right on the border of Second River. He became acquainted with and collected many stories and beliefs of our Dutch settlers. That was good. From thence, for reasons known only to himself, he transported them up the Hudson to Tarrytown. That was bad. You see, if the truth were to be told, the Village of Second River was "Sleepy Hollow". Be that as it may, here we have a good old tale, one that Mr. Irving didn't take with him. It's still ours.

It was dawn the day before the day of Halloween. A beautiful, clear, crisp autumn day it was, too, not a cloud to be seen anywhere, except perhaps for that odd, shimmering cloud on the northern horizon. It was time to harvest the last crops of the season. Early Autumn crops had been bountiful. The promise of a good late autumn harvest was cause for good feelings. No one would be hungry this Winter. Folks worked anxiously in the fields with one eye to the North, clouds don't ever approach from the North unless, well ... , unless a Nor'easter was coming and a Nor'easter could make a mess of their harvest. The work intensified. That odd, quivering, undulating cloud appeared to draw nearer. There was some cause for concern. The harvest couldn't be completed in one day.

In late morning a voice rang out. It was the watchman in the church steeple, -
"AMIMI, AMIMI !" Amimi was a native American name the Dutchmen had learned from the Lenape for wild pigeons. The odd cloud, it was the coming of a plague of Egypt. A bolt of fear shot through them. Wild pigeons came in huge flocks, not just hundreds or thousands or even hundreds of thousands but millions at a time. They could devour the entire crop in the field and all that had been set out to dry. What to do? What to do?

A scouting party of birds arrived overhead, skimming over treetops, then more. The sky darkened. The air was filled with the eerie whoosh of countless flapping wings. The sun was blotted out by the numbers of them. The villagers had heard stories from other colonies about flocks so big it took three days for all of them to pass over. The villagers watched and prayed that they would just keep moving. All day they came and on into the evening. All through a night of uneasy sleep filled with terrifying sounds of millions of beating wings, they kept coming and coming. But they were moving, not descending.

Now, those devoutly religious Dutch villagers were certainly not a superstitious lot. Everyone knew that if you left the spirit world alone, it would leave you alone. But still, they had a certain concern for their souls. After all, it was common knowledge that birds were often messenger from the other world. But, good heavens ! ... what kind of message was it that it would take so many birds to deliver ?? There were shivers going up and down more than one spine.

Morning came, though the sky remained dark. Then it happened. A travel weary bird spiraled down and took his rest on a tree branch, and another, and another. In a frightening moment, trees everywhere filled with legions of tired, hungry birds. Danger was upon the village. It was an eerie, awesome, scary sight. The villagers were impelled to action. else it would be a hungry winter. Men rolled out the cannon and loaded it with small-shot. Each man brought his musket. Perhaps the birds could be frightened away. They fired and fired again. The women rushed to church and prayed for deliverance. They had heard a strange tale of how the bishop of Quebec had actually formally excommunicated the birds to protect the local farmers. Perhaps it helped, so they prayed some more. A group of young girls, to the chagrin of the elders, formed a circle and began chanting strange incantations. Oooommm. The children rushed home, dressed themselves in spooky garb, perhaps the first Halloween costumes, and returned to the fields to shout and moan and threaten the unwanted visitors with rocks and seaman's curses.

The birds remained. Ten thousand pair of glowing red eyes watched every move in the village. Old Mr. Thomas sat before his cottage puffing little, elegant smoke rings from his pipe. Mr. Thomas, a good Welsh miner, had left his home in the old country to come work in Mr. Schuyler's copper mine. So much did he like the village that he had decided to stay. But, a part of the old world follows a man wherever he may go. While the Dutch villagers had their encounters with headless horsemen, ghosts and witches, these things were no worry to Mr. Thomas. Being a proper Welshman, and a miner at that, his only encounters with the oddities of life were the Knockers, a race of diminutive men who dwelt in caves and tunnels below ground, a region familiar enough to a miner. The Knockers were a friend to miners who, with their rap-a-tat-tat on the mine walls warned of an impending cave-in or showed the way to a rich vein of ore. A miner would be much in fear to go below were he not confident that a group of Knockers lived in tunnels nearby.

Upon his first arrival at the village, Mr. Thomas had reconnoitered the area, looking for a crack, a crevice, a hole, a sign that the Knockers had come to the village with the miners. If they had, there would be a network of tunnels below the village in which they would live with an entrance here or there where they would come from time to time into the outer world. He had found one. It was up along the Second River, on the North bank. It was a small opening between rocks in an outcrop hidden by brush. Mr. Thomas widened the opening just enough to stick his head in. He would not enter or disturb them. He only wanted to know that they were there. As he stared into the darkness, he saw a pair of eyes glaring back at him. All was well. It was an ancient tradition that a miner, when finding such an entrance, would dig such a hole. It was called a "hollering hole". You see, the Knockers mostly helped the miners underground, but on occasion, if the need was great, a miner could shout about his trouble into the hollering hole and, if he were in good standing with the Knockers, they may see fit to help him. Mr. Thomas was content with his life and so had never imposed upon the Knockers. However today was a most extraordinary day.

It was late in the evening, Halloween evening it was. Mr. Thomas took a last puff on his pipe, doused it and stood up. He nodded to his wife. Words were not needed. Both knew what they were about to do. With lit torches and the acrid smell of burning pine pitch, they headed through the darkness down to the river. Mr. Thomas cleared away the brush, helped his wife to kneel down and thrust her head into the hollering hole. She screamed a terrible scream. She shrieked a wonderful, ear-piercing shriek. The scream and the shriek rushed like a raging torrent through the tunnels. Then she shouted, "The Amimi have come ! Please, help us !"

The villagers were hard pressed to describe what happened in the fields that night. They, Dutchmen as they were, could not see the Knockers but admitted to seeing misty steam-like vapors rising up from the ground. And with this came a most unearthly clanging like otherworld hammers striking on perfectly tuned steel anvils accompanied by wailing and screeching. If you have ever heard the cry of a cat whose tail has just been flattened by a rocking chair, multiply that sound by a hundred, make it ten times louder and let it echo back and forth a few times, you may have some notion of the sound that rose from the ground that night. The shrill cry struck a thunderous fear in the birds. One bolted into the air, then another, then a thousand, then ten thousand. In a whoosh rivaling the gale wind of a Nor'easter, they were off and gone. They flew into the darkness of night that Halloween evening, a thing birds never do.

The ladies returned to church to offer a prayer of thanksgiving. Surely the Heavenly Father had saved them. The men rolled back the cannon confident their ruckus and gunfire finally had the desired effect. The girls all went to one house to make fudge and discuss which incantation it was that worked at last. The children ran through the fields noisily arguing over whose costume was most scary and had turned the trick. Old Mr. Thomas sat before his cottage, puffing little, elegant smoke rings from his pipe.

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Some folks say ... and it may be true ... that the old hollering hole is still there !