The Truth About Names
[Preface: The basis for this story came from http://www.gandolf.com/cornwall/index.shtml
- a page devoted to Cornish folklore. The taboo of never saying
an animal's real name is mentioned there, though this story and
its 'explanation' is my own concoction. I never had much opportunity
to RP actively with Oswald Bone, so much of his character I'm
taking from logs. Hedra Skewes is a character I invented for
this piece. Also, I don't know if hickory trees exist in Cornwall
or not: A minor point, but if someone knows for certain, please
let me know.]
"Excuth me, Mrs. Thkeweth."
Hedra Skewes looked up from her work at the sound of her name being butchered so. Her gray eyes darted up to the young face- of course, Oswald Bone. Hedra scowled faintly.
"What is it, boy?" she demanded, her eyes dropping back to her lap, where she was using a metal knife to pry apart hickory nuts into a wooden bowl.
Oswald took a step up onto the porch, glancing around. Mrs. Skewes lived alone quite far into the woods outside his home of Poddington-on-Slossip, and were it not a brightly lit afternoon, he'd not have wandered so far afield. He pushed at his black hair.
"I'm thorry to have bothered you." he lisped, "I have a question."
Hedra glanced up again. Children always seemed to find her with their questions. She had lived in Cornwall for all of her seventy years, most of it in the house she sat in front of that afternoon. Always alone. She didn't mind the occasional company: people asking her historical questions, coming to her for some home remedies, even her more "esoteric" concoctions that the Church would frown on, and of course the occasional curious child.
"Yes, yes, always full of questions." she huffed, cracking open a hickory nut. "What is it?"
Oswald looked solemnly at the old woman. "I overheard thomeone at the pub in town talking about "rookers." The boy paused and rubbed his nose. "He was thpeaking about a tin mine in Tewiff, and thaid that the mine had been empty for many years, and when it was reopened, it wath full of "rookers.""
Hedra grunted, and nodded, assent. "Not surprising."
The Bone boy tilted his head to one side. "What ith a "rooker?""
"A rooker," said Hedra, tossing the hulls of a hickory nut to the growing pile at her feet. "is a cat."
Oswald blinked a few times. "Then why didn't he thay the mine wath full of cats?"
Hedra surpressed a small smile. "Was he an old streamer, then? A miner?"
Oswald nodded once. "Yeth, I think he wath."
"That's what streamers used to call cats they'd encounter in the mines."
Oswald frowned as he considered this. He opened his mouth to ask another question, but Mrs. Skewes had beaten him to it.
"Very careful people, streamers." she said, digging the edge of her knife into the hull of another nut. "Very careful about their names. A streamer would never call an animal by its real name, especially while in the mine itself."
Oswald inadvertently took another step closer to the old woman. "Why not?"
Hedra paused, dropping her knobby, twisted hands into her lap. "Are you certain you want to hear this story, boy? It's a story very near and dear to this town, and one you should heed. Else I'll not waste my time with you."
Oswald nodded his assent, and to show his interest, he sat down on the porch near the woman's feet, to listen with a solemn expression.
Hedra sat up, collecting her thoughts and stretching her shoulders back, just a little, wincing at how her arthritic joints complained.
"The first thing you must know is that this story is true. It happened right here, in the old tin mine out on Wildcombe Moor."
Oswald nodded, silent and rapt.
"The second thing you need to know is that names have power. They do. If you can find out someone's name- their true name, mind you- you can have power over them."
Oswald wasn't sure he understood that, but he listened anyway.
"Many years ago, long before you were born, the tin mine here in Poddington kept many men employed. They were respected, and revered, because their work brought some prosperity to our village, and their work was dangerous."
"Dangerouth becauth of cave-inth?" piped in Oswald.
Hedra scowled. "Don't interrupt me, boy. Yes, dangerous because of cave-ins, but also dangerous because of where they were digging." She looked up and glanced at a spot somewhere in the distance over Oswald's shoulder. "Out in the old country. Out by the Tor." She referred to the pile of rocks shaped like a skull that had been there since the time of the druids, perhaps. She looked down at the boy.
"You don't go out there, do you? To the tin mine?" she asked him. Oswald shook his head, no. In truth, he did, from time to time, but had always heard how dangerous it was to be out there. It was one of the reasons he went.
"Don't lie to me, boy." Hedra scolded. "I'm sure you go out there a lot more often than you should. But you need to stay clear of that place. This story will give you a reason to."
Hedra picked up a hickory nut and held it in her fingers for a few moments. "Once you start going under the earth, the rules change. Things are different the deeper you go, and you have to know the rules. Streamers knew that. They had to, or they'd end up dead, or trapped or worse."
The knife was pressed against the line in the hickory nut's hull, and it gave sluggishly. "There was one young buck called Tomas Kent, or Tommy. Tommy was brash and cruel. A braggart, always prone to getting into fights, always breaking young women's hearts, always drinking a lot more than he ought. Tommy worked deep in the mine, excavating new tunnels and looking for new veins."
The old woman tossed the empty hulls into the pile at her feet, with a soft clatter. "Tommy also liked killing things for sport. Not a hunter, no, he wouldn't eat what he killed. Nor was he skillful like a hunter. Tommy would just kill things."
Oswald was completely silent as Mrs. Skewes told her tale. She picked up another nut. "Now, animals would often make their way into the mines: foxes and stoats, badgers and owls, rats, cats, and voles. Most miners would try to avoid them or just drive them out rather than tangle with them. Not Tommy. Tommy took great pleasure in chasing them down and bashing them with his pickaxe or the face of his shovel."
Hedra looked up at the sky beyond her porch, thoughtfully, the latest nut yet untouched. "Now, this is what they tell me happened. One day, Tommy and a couple of others were deep in the mine, very deep. They may have even been right under the Tor itself that day, when Tommy broke through an earth wall and tumbled right into a natural cave. Well, as Tommy shook the dirt off, some of the others shined some light in, and they all saw that the cave was full of foxes."
Oswald's eyes got a little bigger.
"Yes, foxes, a dozen or so of them. But they didn't run away like most foxes do, they just sat there, looking back at the men. Well, Tommy, maybe a little embarrassed by taking that fall, maybe wanting to show off for the others, he grabs his pick-axe and runs at one of them. The fox just sits there, and the others just watched, silent and still, as Tommy clubbed it to death."
Hedra lowered her eyes and fixed them on the Bone boy. "Tommy picks up the carcass and shakes it, and laughs. He turns back to the others and says, "Look, boys, I killed a fox!" And no sooner were those words out of his mouth, when the other foxes started a kind of weird howling. Tommy's eyes got really big, and suddenly he simply vanishes, and standing right where he was another fox, this one small and mangy and dirty. The other streamers watched the pack of foxes descend on this newest one and tear it to shreds. They got so scared they dropped their tools and ran for their lives, and didn't stop running until they were out of the mine and halfway back to Poddington village."
Oswald only then realized he was holding his breath. He exhaled deeply, eyes rapt on the old woman, who had returned to shelling hickory nuts.
"Ever since then, the streamers will never call an animal they meet in the mine by its true name. They call cats "rookers" and an owl a "braced farcer" and foxes are "long tails." Hedra dropped another empty hickory shell to the pile beside her. "Because they know that names have power."
Oswald sat in silence, not knowing what to say. Finally, Hedra spoke.
"So be sure you stay out of the mine, young Master Bone, and you also be sure that you respect the animals you may come across. Now, run on home. It's getting late, and your Mother and Father will be wanting you."
Oswald got up. "Yes, Mithus Thkeweth." he says, a bit more solemn and quiet than he was when he came. "And... thank you."
On the way home, Oswald didn't dawdle. He found himself thinking about the virtue of a brisk walk on the shortest path. He also began to think that he might want to start using a pseudonym.