The Legend of Rungholt

THE LEGEND OF RUNGHOLT


by Dini Armstrong


***CONTENT WARNING***

was first published by the webzine www.historyandfiction.com in 
November 2019.


The story is inspired by true events.

This is not a good time for his stomach to be playing up. Strapped down to his seat, the cockpit is so small he keeps rapping his knuckles on the sides. The dull ache under his ribs is morphing into something sinister. Why now? The mission has gone swimmingly. As part of Operation Hurricane, Archibald has escorted a squadron of Lancaster bombers in his Supermarine Spitfire and, like a mother hen, has watched over them while they transformed the entire North German city of Brunswick into a blazing inferno. Instinctively he cups his genitals as if his scrawny hands could offer any protection from the Luftwaffe’s most recent invention: Messerschmitts equipped with dual autocannons, capable of shooting upwards.


So far so lucky. He shivers with adrenaline and the freezing cold of the cockpit. The Lancasters only have one task left – dumping any remaining bombs into the North Sea to lighten the load and ensure a smooth ride home. For this, they have to fly precariously low. Navigation is more gamble than science. Judging by his compass, speed and time in the air, he concludes that he is flying across the Wadden Sea – the intertidal zone between the west German coastline and a range of Frisian islands. The water here is shallow and during low tide, it is possible to walk from the smaller islets to the mainland.


Blinded by searchlights, he smells the cordite before he hears the terrifying paradiddle of tiny hot shards of metal, ripping the fuel tank in the starboard wing to shreds. Anti-aircraft flak. He pulls sharply upwards – both to escape the beams and gain enough altitude to bail. Reflexively, he jettisons the canopy and detaches both oxygen and radio cable before unbuckling his seat. He could climb out onto the wing and jump, but instead, he performs a half-barrel roll and pushes the stick forward, which allows him to fall out of the cockpit without hitting the stabilisers. Plummeting through the pitch black, he can feel the frost biting into his skin. He pulls the ripcord almost immediately and is briefly yanked upwards before gliding down towards the unknown. He steers the chute towards the darkest patch he can detect, and his impact is cushioned by the squishy mud of the Wadden Sea - not a sea at all at this moment, just a vast expanse of wet muddy sand. For the second time today, fortune favours him: the tide is low. For now.


In the pitch-black nothingness, he cannot see the thick mist that surrounds him, but he can feel the damp brushing against his cheeks. So, this is how it ends. It’s not a thought so much as a familiar hunch, the same hunch that has accompanied him for a year now; co-piloting every second of every one of his twenty-eight missions. There is a hint of irony that he has come so close to his thirtieth flight – the end of the tour – and yet he can see clearly that he does not stand a ghost of a chance. With D-Day three and a half months ago, he suspects the Nazis might not give two hoots about the Geneva convention, should they find him here – especially once they connect him to Operation Hurricane. He discards his harness but keeps the leather helmet. It is bitter cold. Archibald takes a minute to reflect on his options. Without a compass, he has no idea which way to head for the mainland. It is shortly after two a.m.; the sun will rise in the East around half past six. He could wait and walk in the opposite direction. On the other hand, sunlight means exposure. Besides, he has no tidal schedule, so is unable to determine how much time is left until the North Sea will come back to claim him. If he starts to walk in a random direction, he risks heading deeper into the sea, where the incoming tide might cut him off.


With the adrenaline receding, a warm and heavy wave of tiredness washes over him. Maybe it is best to wait for first light. All he needs is to sit down, just a short while, just to shut his eyes for a little. His legs give in under him, and he falls forward into a kneeling position. Good, at least his bum will stay dry this way. He removes his gloves to rub his hands, numb from the cold. Distractedly, like a child on holiday, he begins to explore the wet mud around him. The sand is smooth and crunchy, jagged fragments of shells are interspersed among tiny pieces of rock. Succumbing entirely to infantile curiosity, he digs his fingers deeper into the mud, enjoying the squelching sensation. His mind wanders to the millions of years that it must have taken to break down these rocks, how they have withstood weather and erosion until reaching their current form. Never disappearing fully, just changing shape. The thought comforts him. He feels himself drift off, when his right hand comes across something smooth and solid. Archie wriggles it loose, working his fingertips into the mud with purpose, until finally unearthing his buried treasure. In the dark, he has to rely on touch. It is pear-shaped and about the same size as the fruit, heavy for such a small item, made of porcelain maybe, or clay. His fingertips make out some holes, about the diameter of peas. Crawling on all fours and feeling over the ground surrounding him, he finds a puddle deep enough to submerge his find and wash out the mud. The item is hollow inside. On one end it seems to have a small spout. A pitcher perhaps, for serving cream with coffee. Immediately, an image forms in front of his eyes – afternoon tea in the garden, sunshine and freshly baked cake. In the quiet, he hears his stomach growling. But no, the holes would make no sense in a pitcher. Instinctively, he places the salty spout on his lips and blows into it, producing a surprisingly clear tone that he recognises instantly. This is an ocarina flute, not dissimilar to the one he used to play when he was a boy. With some difficulty, he positions his stiff fingers over the holes and begins to work out a simple melody, a melancholic tune that warms his soul and uncovers a forgotten part of himself, buried deep inside. Here he is, an innocent little boy, playing. Somewhere on the horizon of his mind he can hear a child laughing.


There is no way of telling how long he has been kneeling here when he starts to make out a flashlight in the distance, tiny at first, then growing in size, weaving its way towards him. He freezes, still holding the flute to his mouth, releasing not a sound, not a breath.


“Hallo?” He hears a voice calling. A woman’s voice. An older woman’s voice. “Hallo, ist da jemand?”

As far as he can tell she is alone. It seems unlikely that she is Gestapo, unlikely even that she is human. An apparition probably, conjured by his mind - company in his final hour. He can see the flashlight moving away and feels an unexpected twinge of abandonment. The ghost is still shouting, with more authority this time and in English.

“Hello? If you can hear me, make a sound. I mean you no harm. The night is chilly, and the tide is coming. It’s not me you need to fear!”

Her logic is impeccable. Before he is conscious of making a choice, he tries to shout, but instead produces only a hoarse whisper:

“Over here, over here!” Struggling to stand up, he almost drops the flute, but instead he uses it as a whistle this time, blowing into it with all the breath he can muster.

 

Archibald is lying on a chaise longue, propped up by a large pillow. His rescuer has resuscitated a small fire, and the glowing amber emanates a wave of heat that thaws every cell of his frozen body. For some reason he cannot stop trembling. She has left him alone to prepare a pot of tea, and he makes use of the opportunity to take a look around. So, this is how the enemy lives. He is reminded of his grandmother’s drawing-room, but in contrast to back home, he can see no knickknacks here, no porcelain figurines, no pretty paintings. In the corner stands a small upright piano. He cannot make out the title on the sheet music. A skilfully carved shelf overflows with books, that have been stacked sideways and lengthways, even in piles on the floor. Candles are strategically placed, giving out a warm and comforting light. Photos of babies, children and young adults decorate a sideboard in the corner. An armchair is drawn up to the fire, its back and both arms covered with lace crochet doilies. Two large windows have been blacked out with heavy velvet curtains. The place smells clean, comfy even, but it is not tidy.


The chaise longue he is lying on seems to belong to a different era and would look more at home in a French chateau, were it not for the odd threadbare patch. The rugs on the polished hardwood floorboards seem expensive, Persian maybe, but they, too, have seen better days. When his hostess returns, he attempts to rise, but his strength is failing him, and he slumps back down.

“Please do not get up. I am sorry that we have no coffee. I am afraid there hasn’t been any for a while.” She pauses as if trying to grasp for the memory of real coffee beans, then sets down a tray. “All I can manage is a pot of peppermint tea, but it’s grown in my own garden, and very refreshing.”

“No, but, of course not, please don’t apologize,” Archibald stutters, unsure of the protocol. “I am so thankful for your help.” He sits up, quick to push his feet under the coffee table. With his boots drying by the fire, he is worried his socks might be a bit whiffy. When the woman has poured two cups, he manages to rise, and bows.


“My name is Archibald, I am very pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss …”

She looks at his outstretched hand as if unsure what is expected of her. Remembering her age, he gently takes her hand and pretends to kiss the back of it.

“My,” she smirks, “you’re quite the gentleman.” Offering no name in return, she hands him a cup and saucer. Judging by her bearing and clothes, she might be from aristocratic stock, but there is something sturdy about her, like a woman who knows her way around a farm.

He takes a sip - the tea is delicious.

“I took the liberty to sweeten it with a little honey from my hive. I hope it will return you to good health in no time.”


Honey. He cannot remember the last time he had honey. There are slices of bread, too, soft, with a fresh crust, and, oh good Lord, real butter. It takes immense willpower to spread the generous serving as thinly as possible, leaving most untouched. Although they are in the countryside, he knows the Germans are starving. She is likely to have served the greatest treasures of her larder.

“Why are you helping me?” he breaks the silence, chewing big mouthfuls. “I am the enemy after all.”

She laughs, not a ladylike chuckle, but a great roaring laugh.

“Enemy - my backside! You chaps are getting rid of that loudmouthed Austrian flapdoodle with his silly moustache, spouting nothing but hogwash. Promising to make Germany great again. Well, look how that turned out. Good riddance to the entire lot, I say.”


Archie is not sure what shocks him most, her views or her language, but he is glad of both.

“I hope you don’t mind me asking – where did you learn to speak such excellent English?”

“My mother was Scottish, she taught me well,” she states matter-of-factly. “Now then, young man, will you tell me where you learned to play the flute like that?”

Archie, still wearing his jacket, takes out the ocarina. “I played a bit as a young boy,” he holds out the clay flute, “but I actually just found this in the mud tonight.”

The old woman’s face lights up with excitement and she plucks the item from his hand. “Tonight? You mean to say you found this here on Südfall, out in the Wadden Sea?”

Archie is taken aback by her sudden enthusiasm. He also takes a mental note of their location. The tiny islet Südfall. “Yes, is it a local instrument? I thought maybe a child might have lost it while walking out there.” He takes another slice of bread. The woman inspects his treasure at arm’s length, then she rises, fetches a magnifying glass from another room and returns to take a closer look.

“It might have belonged to a child alright,” she concedes, “but it was lost on January 16th, 1362.”

Archie is flabbergasted. “How would you possibly know that?”

“Make yourself comfortable, my boy,” she proposes, “I believe you might want to hear this.”

Feeling at home already, Archie pours himself another cup of tea, then he leans back in his chair and listens.

 

“According to ancient legend, there was a medieval city here, rich and beautiful beyond imagination. They called it Rungholt. It might just be a myth, I guess we will never know. We call it our Atlantis, you see. There is no proof that it even existed, despite the efforts of a local farmer, a certain Herr Busch, who spends a great deal of time out there. He is our Frisian Schliemann, a bit of a celebrity in these parts – although he does have to take his share of ridicule, too. It’s hard to find proof, you see. One day the tide shows outlines of an old wharf, buildings, wells - the next day it’s all covered with sand. It’s as if the Sea is teasing him, like a woman lifting her skirt to reveal an ankle, then bashfully hiding away.”


“It must be so frustrating for him,” mutters Archie.

“We all need to believe in something, I guess. I am sure he spends more time with the mythical dead out there than at home with his wife and children.” She takes a sip of tea.

“Where was I. Oh, yes, in 1362, this area still belonged to Denmark.
It is said there were thousands of inhabitants, drawn by the wealth of the city. Rungholt made its money by harvesting the peat around here, which contains salt – one of the most sought-after commodities in those days. They used it to preserve meats, you see.

“In 1634, a Frisian clergyman wrote down some of the legends that floated around in the area. According to him, the peat farmers on Rungholt had succumbed to debauchery and strayed from the path of righteousness by holding great feasts and wasting their money on drink. One night, they poisoned a pig with alcohol. As it lay dying, they forced the local priest to administer Last Rites – for a laugh. Obviously, this would have been seen as a horrendous offence against the church - a mortal sin even. Apparently, the poor bullied priest …,“ at this point she rolls her eyes, “went to bed that night praying that the Lord should bring a great punishment. Which He did. Apparently.”

Archie sits bolt upright. “What happened to Rungholt?”

“Well, young man, a storm happened. A storm so powerful that it created giant waves, sweeping over the entire coast, drowning thousands and thousands of people. The Rungholt folk saw it coming. They rang the church bells to alert all citizens to retreat to higher ground. In fact, some people around here,” she pauses for dramatic effect, “swear they can still hear the church bells ringing deep below the sea. But the poor people at the time! I wonder how long it took them to realise it was too late. When the water rose so high there was nowhere to go … with children screaming and their parents unable to help, just forced to let them go … their little warm bellies … into an ice-cold watery grave. Can you imagine it, the devastation of it all?”

Archie falls quiet, his shoulders slumped forward. “So, it was a hurricane?”

“Yes, the most horrendous hurricane Europe has ever seen. They call it the Grote Mandrenke – the great drowning of men, although they seem to have forgotten all about the women and children. Until then, a lot of our islands were actually mainland. They say around thirty-five thousand people drowned within a day or two, and that’s just along the Frisian coast.”

“What do you think,” he asks, surprised by the pleading tone in his voice, “was it the priest who killed them?”

“How old are you, boy?” she asks.

“Nineteen.”

“Oh, you are but a baby,” she replies, “I am almost eighty, I have seen a few things in my life. If I have learned one thing it’s that men tend to use stories as a way to influence others. A way to manipulate them into following their goals – all equally righteous at that time, no matter how destructive their consequence. I believe the clergyman who chronicled this story needed to exaggerate the vengeful nature of God – when the pews are filled, so are the coffers. Nothing pries open wallets more effectively than a good old portion of fear.”

“So, you don’t think it was the priest’s fault?”

“I suspect this version of the story suits the church, because it demonstrates the power of prayer – a priest’s prayer anyway. I also think that folk want to believe this story, because it means they can keep themselves safe from hurricanes by living a pious life. Good luck with that!” She snorts.

They sit in silence for a while. His hostess gets up briefly to place another log on the fire.

Archie swallows a couple of times. “What if they deserved to die?”

“Poppycock! Thirty-five thousand human beings? Men going about their business, trying to make a living? Women raising children, pregnant a good few of them I should think, children, babies? They all deserved to die?” She emphasises the word deserved mockingly, and adds: “And what about the priest? If he was so righteous, why did he drown with all the others?”

Archie starts to tremble again. “You’re right, he did drown, didn’t he? He must have done. With all the others. Surely. Why would he survive? I mean he wasn’t the one who drowned them, but he helped to make it happen and he wanted them to die. Maybe he was happy when they did. It makes no sense. Why would he be the one to be saved?”

His hostess gives him the same quizzical look his grandmother used when he was a child, caught stealing a cookie. That steely focus, laced with disappointment, that look that made his stomach churn, burst into tears, confess everything, leaping into the cathartic process of being scolded, hugged and forgiven. He stares at the fire, but this is not helping.

Finally, the woman rises. “It’s late, you had better get some sleep.”

 

When he finally awakes, late afternoon on the following day, his hostess insists he stay at least a day or two, until things blow over – for his as much as her sake. She has found a few clothes in the cupboard that belonged to a manservant, and together they burn his pilot’s uniform. Archie persuades her to give him a list of odd jobs around the house and completes every single one of them with great care, rewarded each time with tea, bread and stories. He learns that the children on the photographs are her nephews and nieces. For a brief while, after the death of her brother’s wife, she got to be their mum, while her brother travelled the world. But on his return, he remarried, rendering her presence in his household obsolete. She has lived here since, only horses for company. Finally, she reveals her name: Countess Diana Henriette Adelaïde Charlotte von Reventlow-Criminil.

Two weeks pass before he brings himself to leave her, armed with a flashlight, tidal maps and a full jar of honey. He has left the flute on the sideboard, next to the photographs. He needs to find his own way home, no matter how long that might take him.