James has written for various magazines, including Celtic Guide, Mythology Magazine, and Pagan Forest.
Folk tales come about for many reasons, typically as a way to share cultural values and norms, but also as a way to show how one must behave to stay healthy, such as discussed in the Tale of Nera. As the years roll on, the tales were cleaned for children. Well, we say they were made better for children, but children on the whole are fine with the blood involved in the original tales. We, as adults, should remember that children need to be protected from harm, but part of that protection lays in the knowledge of what can happen if they are not careful and the associated repercussions.
So on that slightly gory sentiment, I hope you enjoy these three tales of British beings! Feel free to use them, to keep your own bairns from eating unripe nuts and fruits and from straying near water while unsupervised.
Milk Churn Peg
Along the road came hopping Little Jenny and her brother Wee Jamie, both bound for their parent’s farm in the northern shires, after a visit to their grandparent’s house in the village. Jenny and Jamie were wary of all things on their way home, as their grandma and grandpa were full of stories, mostly about all the witches and boggarts and hobgoblins that inhabited the downs and forests of the borderlands. They knew of the brownies that were helpful as long as you let them be. They knew of the horse like kelpies that would drown you if you got on their backs. The most warned against by their grandmother, though, was the nearby Churn Milk Peg, who lived in the orchard along Shot Lea Lane, which the children had to pass as they made their way home.
However, none of these beings scared the siblings as much as Ronnie Dunkle and his friends. Ronnie was an older boy and the terror of the village’s youth. He had no qualms on beating smaller children, secure in his place as the local sheriff’s son. While the horrible images brought upon when hearing of the supernatural would make the duo pause, they knew firsthand how vicious Ronnie was.
As they were nearing the orchard, which was near enough to halfway home that it was a marker of both dread and joy, they were preparing to run past as fast they could when they heard a rough laugh and a voice cry out: “Well, if it isn’t little Jamie and his snotty sister.”
Jenny and Jamie stopped in their tracks and saw Ronnie and three of his friends lounging near a turnstile. Jenny hated Ronnie with her whole being, but knew there was little she could do. Jamie, though, was scared nearly to death of the bully, as he would take the brunt of the abuse.
“Why don’t you join us?” Ronnie guffawed. “We’re going nut picking in the orchard.”
“It’s not time yet!” Jenny retorted. “The nuts aren’t ready yet and they’ll make you sick. And don’t forget that Milk Churn Peg is there, too, and she won’t let you pick them anyway!”
The four ruffians laughed loudly.
“Milk Churn Peg?” Ronnie scoffed. “Has someone been filling your head full of old fairy stories? There’s no such thing! Now why don’t you join us in picking the nuts? Or would you rather us go by ourselves after having some fun with you first?”
Jamie gulped at the threat and looked at his sister. “Fine, we’ll go.” She said, “If only to watch Milk Churn Peg stop you cold.”
The four laughed again, and then the entire half dozen climbed over the fence and made their way through the furrows of the orchard until they came to the center, where the best nuts were said to be. As they stood looking up at the green nuts, the scent of pipe tobacco filled the air and they heard a cackle. Looking around, they saw an old lady standing under a nearby hazelnut tree, smoking a pipe. She was horrible to behold, with whiskers upon her chin, a green tint to her skin, and hair frizzled around her head like a devilish halo. Her clothes were filthy, but her eyes gleamed as she stared at them.
Jenny and Jamie froze to the spot. They knew without a doubt that this was Milk Churn Peg. The four ruffians, though, laughed, taunting her and calling her names.
“Smoke!” she responded. “Smoke a wooden pipe! Getting nuts before they’re ripe!”
The four laughed even louder.
“Of course they’re not ripe yet.” Ronnie replied. “Why do you think they’re here?”
Jenny and Jamie suddenly knew why they were brought along. They were to eat the unripe nuts, when they were still in a pulpy state, the insides being called “churn-milk,” for the consistency and what it would do to one’s stomach if eaten too soon.
Ronnie looked at the terrified pair. “Now climb on up and gather the nuts. It’s time for your dinner!”
Neither Jamie nor Jenny moved. As scared as they were of Ronnie, they were absolutely scared to their marrow of Milk Churn Peg.
“I said climb!” He shouted, his face turning red.
The siblings mutely shook their heads and remained rooted to the spot.
With a vicious look upon his face, Ronnie glared at Jenny and Jamie. “Fine.” He grumbled, looming over them. “When I get back down, you’ll be fed the nuts.”
“Smoke!” Peg cackled again, repeating her threat. “Smoke a wooden pipe! Getting nuts before they’re ripe!”
“Quiet your mouth, old woman!” Ronnie shouted. He turned and punched Jamie in the nose, causing the young man to fly back and lay sniffling in the mud. As Jenny screamed, he turned to her and shoved her roughly, where she joined her brother in the muck.
With a nod from their leader, the four bullies started to climb the trees. The sister and brother looked on with horror and Churn Milk Peg simply puffed her pipe and stared at the climbers. The moment Ronnie touched a nut, though, there was a green blur and a shriek. Milk Churn Peg had run up the tree, as if the trunk were flat ground, and stood next to Ronnie. As his eyes widened, afore he could utter a word, the boggart-witch reached out with her sharp nails and tore out his throat. He sputtered, drowning in his own blood, and watched as Peg leaped to three other trees, gouging out eyes and ripping off arms.
It was over in less than a minute. No more sounds ever issued from the throats of the four young men. Milk Churn Peg was once again standing calmly beneath a hazelnut treat, puffing on her pipe. Her eyes gleamed as she stared at Jenny and Jamie, but they were left unbothered as they stood and, after a few hesitant steps, ran back through the orchard and home.
No one else knew what happened to Ronnie and his friends. The magistrate was very upset and took it upon himself to look through every cottage and house, but nothing could be found. Jenny and Jamie were scolded and sent to bed without supper, for getting mud on their clothing, but they never spoke a word to anyone else about what happened.
A couple months later, as the nuts were ripening and the grains were nearing harvest, they were once again walking home from their grandparents, who had smiled knowingly, but didn’t say anything. As they neared the orchard on Short XXX Lane, the scent of pipe tobacco wafted through the air and a hint of a cackle could be heard on the breeze. Stopping in their tracks, they looked for signs of Milk Churn Peg, but saw nothing. Nothing, other than a small basket of ripe nuts, left for the children to take home.
Her mother’s words echoed through Liza’s ears as she meandered along the path.
“You’re to go straight to your father!” her mother had yelled as she closed their cottage’s door behind her. “No traipsing down the path to the river!”
Traipsing indeed, Liza thought. As if walking along their own pastures was such a bad thing. After all, it wasn’t as though it was her fault that her older brother Bill had never come back from taking their father his lunch one day. Personally, Liza thought that Bill had finally run away to find his fortune. He’d always talked to his little sister about leaving and finding a pot of fairy gold or rescuing a princess from ogres. Liza always assumed his head was in the clouds, but his feet would always be grounded on their farm, but his wordless departure only hurt because she had wished to give him a farewell hug.
Her mind started to stray as she walked the path to the lower field, as it always did. It was a beautiful sunny day and the basket that held her father’s food and the clay pot that held his nuncheon ale were not heavy. As she tried to mimic a particularly difficult call from a nearby wren, she realized she had taken the wrong fork and was heading down to the river. Stories of Peg Prowler and Jenny Greenteeth and Nelly Longarms bobbed briefly to her memory’s surface, and then pushed under by the weight of adolescence-turning-adulthood.
Shrugging, knowing her father wouldn’t miss his meal for a while still, she continued until she came to the shore. Taking off her shoes, she sat down and put her feet in the water. The sun was warm and the water cool and it wasn’t long before she started to drowse.
A particularly interesting dream, in which her brother and she were fighting wild men with blue swirl tattoos, started to become a nightmare. She was suddenly aboard a ship which was capsizing and she was becoming so water logged that she couldn’t breathe.
With a sputter and a struggle, she awoke to find her nightmare was coming true. Her feet had become tangled in the river’s weeds and had been pulled into the water. She reached for the shore and, had it not been for a happily placed root, would not have made it. She managed to free herself from the weeds and collapsed on the riverside, shivering with fear and cold.
“What’s wrong, little one?” She heard a hissing whisper of a voice come from the water. “Don’t you want to join your brother?”
Her eyes jolted open and she sat quickly up. Liza stared in horror as a green skinned woman’s head appeared above the waves. Its hair was a brackish and miasmatic green-black and its teeth were jagged ruins of dark green. Her mind raced to her mother’s warnings to never go to the waterside by herself, as this was Jenny Greenteeth, ready to pull her under and feast upon her flesh for the creature’s dinner.
The water hag laughed, sounding like the hiss of a dozen snakes sniggering in their sleep. “You’ll like it down here with me. Your brother certainly enjoyed his brief time.”
Liza suddenly realized at what the creature had been hinting. Her dear brother had not left to go find his fate. His fate had been found at the bottom of the river, drowned by the hands of this beast and then devoured by it.
Reaching behind her, she grabbed at the food basket. She then walked forward on her knees, tears streaming down her face.
“My brother?” she whimpered.
“Yes.” Jenny smiled through black-tinted gaps. “And an aunt and cousin and a dear pet. I’ve been feasting upon your family for some time now.”
“And I’ll see my brother again, if I join you?” Liza sniffled.
Jenny Greenteeth, caught momentarily off guard by the offer, rebounded and smiled a corpselike rictus smile. “Of course, dearie.”
A green skinned hand reached out form the water towards Liza. Liza reached forward. As their hands touched and as Jenny Greenteeth started to shriek in glee, Liza jumped forward and swung the ale filled clay pot at the beast. It went through the seaweed like hair and connected solidly. Jenny Greenteeth shrieked and let go of Liza. Liza, however, continued to slam the clay pot upon the creature’s head, until the shrieking stopped and the creature became limp. Liza scrambled back to the shore and watched as the body washed downstream, soon becoming lost under the water.
Crying, Liza sat on the shore and shed tears for her dear brother. His head always in the clouds, he surely found the same demise as she would have, were it not for a fortunate awakening and lucky root. Her father did not even notice her tears or the lateness of his meal, busy as he was, and her mother was just relieved when her daughter arrived home, safe and sound.
Years later, Liza warned her own children not to down to the river on their own. Knowing, though, how children are, she would follow them from a distance. Those few times her son and daughter went to the river without her, she would see bubbles start to form on the surface, mere feet from the young ones. Liza would smile and wave a clay pot, though, and the bubbles would go away.
Donald lie in his small bed, which was really a pile of straw with a thin sheet of wool between him and the stalks underneath. During the day, when the sun shone brightly, it was easy to ignore his mother’s warnings. He had been very brusque with her earlier and had been late with his chores, so he wasn’t surprised when his father had administered a very strict punishment. His backside being used to such admonishments, though, he pretended to be injured and then later laughed it off.
Now, in the dead of the night, laying near the window, his imagination started to get the better of him. Tales of Black Annis would creep in, as he stared through the window that cooled the house at night. Tales of how she would creep from her cave at night to feast on children. Tales of how her claws were long and hard as iron and how her teeth were sharp and strong like knives, both having been used to hew out the stone of her cave dwelling. Tales of how she would take wicked children back to her abode where they would be eaten and then their skins turned into Black Annis’ own clothing.
All these things Donald thought as he lay there by himself. His parents were well enough to do that he had a small room to himself, as the oldest, while his younger siblings shared rooms. His less well-off friends were jealous, and because they needed to work harder to have food on their plates, he always teased them for doing what they were told right away. As he heard a howl off into the distance, coming from the direction of the hag’s hills, he regretted not following his mother’s orders.
Regardless of his fears, he must have fallen asleep, for when Donald awakened at the sound of snorfling outside his window, the moon had moved much higher in the sky. His skin grew clammy, straining to see if another sound would come from outside. To his horror, a sound came through that sounded like the grinding of teeth, sharp and full of iron.
As he watched in terrible fascination, a long arm started to reach through the window, its skin black in the night air and its claws gleaming darkly from the moon light. Fighting through his cold congealing blood, Donald leapt off his bed and looked around for the herbs his mother had told him to hang above the opening. Finding them thrown haphazardly into a corner, he ran and grabbed them, and then ran to hang them above the window.
His mother had picked these herbs early every day, just as the sun rose, and put them around every opening in the house. She instructed her son to do the same, so he would take the small bundle and then laugh as he threw them aside.
Now his laughter came back to haunt him. He scrambled to the window, doing his best to avoid the long arm while hunting for the nail that had been above his window as long as he could remember. Relief filled his being as he found the nail and started to hang the herbs. In his clammy hands, though, the herbs slipped through and fell to the floor. As he reached for the plants, he felt a clawed hand grab his ankle and pull him through the window. There wasn’t even time for a scream.
The next morning, his mother found the herbs on the floor. Of course she felt sad and she cried for the loss of her son, but they were well off and had other, better behaved children, and knew had her son listened as he should have, he would be alive and well and safe in her loving embrace.
I'd say that I hope you don't have nightmares from these tales, but if they help you survive? Well, then nightmares it is! Take care and be well! Wassail and Slainte!