The cabin boy had been travelling around all summer long with his captain; but when they began to prepare to set sail in the fall, he grew restless and did not want to go along. The captain liked him, for though he was no more than a boy, he was quite at home on deck. He was a big, tall lad and did not mind lending a hand when need arose. He did as much work as an able seaman and was so full of fun that he kept the whole crew in good humour. So the captain did not like to lose him. But the youth said out and out that he was not minded to take to the blue pond in the fall. He was willing to stay on board until the ship was loaded and ready to sail, though.
One Sunday, while the crew was ashore and the captain had gone to a farm-holding near the forest in order to bargain for small timber and log wood - presumably on his own account - for a deck load, the youth had been left to guard the ship. But you must know that he was a Sunday child, and had found a four-leaf clover; and that was why he had the second sight. He could see those who are invisible, but they could not see him.
And as he was sitting there in the forward cabin he heard voices within the ship. He peered through a crack, and there were three coal-black crows sitting inside the deck-beams, and they were talking about their husbands. All three were tired of them and were planning to kill them. The talking crows were witches who had assumed such forms.
"But is it certain that there is no one here who can overhear us?" said one of the crows. And by the way she spoke the cabin-boy knew her to be the captain's wife.
"No, you can see there's not," said the others, the wives of the first and second quartermasters. "There is not anyone on board."
"Well, then I do not mind saying that I know of a good way to get rid of them," said the captain's wife once more, and hopped closer to the two others. "We will turn ourselves into breakers, wash them into the sea, and sink the ship with every man on board."
That pleased the others, and they sat there a long time discussing the day and the fairway. "But is it certain that no one can overhear us?" asked the captain's wife once more.
"You know that such is the case," said the two others.
"Well, there is a counter-spell for what we wish to do, and if it is used, it will go hard with us, for it will cost us nothing less than our lives!"
"What is the counter-spell, sister?" asked the wife of the quartermaster.
"Is it certain that no one is listening to us? It seemed to me as though someone were smoking in the forward cabin."
"But you know we looked in every corner. They just forgot to let the fire go out in the caboose – that's why there's smoke," said the quartermaster's wife, "so tell away."
"If they buy three cords of birch-wood," said the witch, -"but it must be full measure, and they must not bargain for it -and throw the first cord into the water, billet by billet, when the first breaker strikes, and the second cord, billet by billet, when the second breaker strikes, and the third cord, billet by billet, when the third breaker strikes, then it is all up with us three!"
"Yes, that's true, sister, then it is all up with us! Then it is all up with us!" said the wives of the quartermasters; "but there is no one who knows it," they cried, and laughed loudly. With that they flew out of the hatchway, screaming and croaking like ravens.
When it was time to sail, the cabin-boy would not go along for anything in the world, All the captain's coaxing and all his promises were useless, nothing would tempt the boy to go. At last they asked him if he was afraid because fall was at hand and he would rather hide behind the stove, hanging to mother's apron strings.
No, said the youth, he was not afraid, and they could not say that they had ever seen him show a sign of so landlubberly a thing as fear. He was willing to prove it to them too: now he was going along with them, but he made it a condition that they bought three cords of birch-wood, full measure, and that on a certain day he was to have command, just as though he himself were the captain.
The captain asked what sort of nonsense this might be, and whether he had ever heard of a cabin-boy entrusted with the command of a ship. But the boy answered that was all one to him; if they did not care to buy the three cords of birch-wood and obey him as though he were captain for the space of a single day - the captain and crew should know which day it was to be in advance - then he would set foot on the ship no more, and far less would he ever dirty his hands with pitch and tar on her again.
The whole thing seemed strange to the captain, yet he finally gave in because he wanted to have the boy along with him. And, no doubt, he also thought the boy would come to his senses again once they were under way. The quartermaster was of the same opinion. "Just let him command all he likes, and if things go wrong with him, we'll help him out," said he.
So the birch-wood was bought, full-measure and without haggling, and they set sail.
When the day came on which the cabin-boy was to take command, the weather was fair and quiet; but the boy drummed up the whole ship's crew and had all sails reefed, with the exception of a tiny bit of canvas.
The captain and crew laughed at him, and said: "That shows the sort of a captain we have now. Don't you want us to reef that last bit of sail this very minute?"
"Not yet," answered the cabin-boy, "but before long."
Suddenly a squall struck them, struck them so heavily that they thought they would capsize, and had they not reefed the sails they would no doubt have foundered when the first breaker roared down upon the ship.
The boy ordered them to throw the first cord of birch-wood overboard, billet by billet, one at a time and never two, and he did not let them touch the other two cords. Now they obeyed him to the letter, and did not laugh; but cast out the birch-wood billet by billet. When the last billet fell they heard a groaning as though someone were wrestling with death, and then the squall had passed.
"Heaven be praised!" said the crew - and the captain added: "I'm going to let the company know that you saved ship and cargo."
"That's all very well, but we're not through yet," said the boy, "there is worse to come," and he told them to reef every last rag, as well as what had been left of the topsails.
The second squall hit them with even greater force than the first, and was so vicious and violent that the whole crew was frightened. While it was at its worst, the boy told them to throw overboard the second cord; and they threw it over, billet by billet, and took care not to take any from the third cord. When the last billet fell, they again heard a deep groan, and then all was still.
"Now there will be one more squall, and that will be the worst," said the boy, and sent everyone to his station. There was not a hawser loose on the whole ship.
The last squall hit them with far more force than either of the foregoing ones, the ship laid over on her side so that they thought she would not right herself again, and the breaker swept over the deck.
But the boy told them to throw the last cord of wood overboard, billet by billet, and no two billets at once. And when the last billet of wood fell, they heard a deep groaning, as though someone were dying hard, and when all was quiet once more, the whole sea was the colour of blood as far as eye could reach.
When they reached land, the captain and the quartermasters spoke of writing to their wives. "That is something you might just as well let be," said the cabin-boy, "I have to say that you no longer have any wives."
"What silly talk is this, young know-it-all! We have no wives?" said the captain. "Or do you happen to have done away with them'?" asked the quartermasters.
"No, all of us together did away with them," answered the boy, and told them what he had heard and seen that Sunday afternoon when he was on watch on the ship; while the crew was ashore, and the captain was buying his deck load of wood.
And when they sailed home they learned that their wives had disappeared the day of the storm, and that since that time no one had seen or heard anything more of them.
[Stroebe, 1922, p 62-68. Retold]
Borgan, Bjarne. Viknaboka: Gards- og ættehistorie. Bind III. G.nr. 55 til 78. Austafjord – Binnerøy. Vikna: Vikna Historielag, 1969.
Stroebe, Clara, ed. The Norwegian Fairy-Book.. Tr. Frederick H. Martens. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1922.
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