Most of the fairy stories I have come across from this province are from the Avalon region, with a seeming concentration of fairy stories from Conception Bay. There are other spots throughout the province where fairy stories can be found, and I have heard a few, though not many, from Labrador as well.
This week’s fairy story is from just over the Labrador border, in the Bonne Esperance region of Quebec’s Lower North Shore. But there is a Newfoundland and Labrador connection, since the story itself comes from the famed Dr. Wilfred Grenfell.
The earliest version of the story I have found is from an article entitled “The Log of the S.S. Strathcona” published in the magazine “Among the Deep Sea Fishers” in October of 1903. The magazine was the official publication of the International Grenfell Association. It was published in Ottawa by the Grenfell Association Publication Office, from 1903 to 1981, and details the life of the mission and experiences in Labrador and northern Newfoundland.
In the summer of 1903, Grenfell, travelling on board the S.S. Strathcona, stopped in the community of Bonne Esperance, Que., and shared stories with some of the local inhabitants. It was here that Grenfell heard a story about the fairies, which he included in a letter written on July I5 to the editor of the magazine.
Grenfell writes, “I was greatly interested by one of the settlers telling me that last winter he had been ‘lugged off by the fairies.’ He assured me many travellers over some marshes known as Kennedy’s, had at various times been ‘lugged off’ by these same fairies. Certain it was he spent a night away on ground well known to him last winter, and that without food or any preparation for the night. A search party found him returning next day. It had been bitterly cold and there was 12 to 16 feet of snow on the ground, but his own description was that he had heard these fairies, and had had to follow them away from home.
“At night he climbed down into a hole in the snow by the foot of a tree, placed under his feet the still warm body of an Arctic owl that he had shot, and around his legs a dozen or so dead partridges. Then he crouched up in a ball, and pulling his jumper right over his head to keep the draft off and the heat in, he went peacefully to sleep. In the morning he woke up as spry as could be, ‘ne’er a frostburn,’ though it was some time before the blood had done ‘trinkling’ back again into his legs.”
The story evidently made an impression on the then 38-year old Grenfell, because he included the tale, with additional detail, a decade and a half later in his autobiography, “A Labrador Doctor.”
In his book, Grenfell gave the man a name — Harry Howell. Grenfell also added a few details missing from the 1903 version. According to Grenfell, Howell had heard the fairies ringing bells, a sound he had heard before.
Grenfell writes, “He told me later that he was coming home in the afternoon when the blizzard began. It was dirty, thick of snow, and cold. Suddenly he heard bells ringing, and knew that it was the fairies bidding him to follow them — because he had followed them before. So off he went, pushing his way through the driving snow.
“When at last he reached the foot of a gnarled old tree in the forest, the bells stopped, and he knew that was the place where he must stay for the night.”
Grenfell goes on to note that there “was no persuading the man that the ringing bells were in his own imagination.”
Storyteller and author Dale Jarvis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.