Melch (or Melsh) Dick

Squirrel with a hazelnut
Picture by Peter Trimming, under cc-by licence on https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2722998

Melch (or Melsh) Dick is new to me, I only came across this one recently, though the name appears in some old lists of fairy folk. He’s a creature that lives in (often ancient) woodland and guards against people picking unripe hazelnuts. The phrase that keeps coming up is “Melch Dick’ll catch thee lad!” as a warning against picking unripe nuts. Churn-milk Peg seems much the same character. Melch or Melsh is a word that means unripe, and churn-milk represents the mushy pale interior of an unripe nut too. The story was full of dialect, which I’ve largely removed while keeping most of the story intact. This is (lightly tweaked) from “More Tales of the Ridings”, by F.W. Moorman.

What I’m going to tell you now is what I’ve heard my mother say, scores of times, so you’ll know it’s true. It was the back end of the year, and the lads had gone into the woods to gather hazelnuts and acorns. There were two or three big lads amongst them, but most were little ‘uns, and one was lame in the leg. They called him Doed of Billy’s of Claypit Lane.

Well, the lads had gotten a load of the nuts, and the they set off home as fast as they could go, as it were getting a bit dusky in the wood. But little Doed couldn’t keep up with the other lads on account of his dodgy leg. So the lads kept hollering back to him to look sharp and get a shift on, or he’d get left behind.

So Doed loped along as fast as he was able, but he couldn’t keep up with the other lads, try as he might, and all the time the light was slowly fading. At long length he thought he saw one of the lads waiting for him under an oak tree, but when he drew closer he realised it was someone that he’d never clapped eyes on before. He was no bigger than Doed, but it was hard to tell how old he was, and he had a weird smell about him – as though he’d taken the essence of all the trees from the wood and smeared them over his body. But what capped it all off were the clothes he was dressed in, covered in green moss, and on his head was a cap of red fur.

Well, when Doed saw him he was a bit afraid, but the lad looked a him in a friendly way and said, “Now then Doed, where are you going?”

“I’m off home”, says Doed, and his teeth started to chatter with fright.

“Well, I’m going your way”, says the lad, “so if you like you can come along with me. You’ll not recognise me, but I can tell who you are by the way you favour your mother. You’ll have heard tell of your uncle, Ned Bowker, that lives over by Sally Abbey? He’s my father, so I reckon we’re cousins.”

Now, Doed had heard his mother tell him about his Uncle Ned, so he calmed down a little, but still wasn’t keen on the look of this lad. However, they carried on talking and Doed let on that he was keen on squirrels. You see, he loved to collect animals and kept linnets, and magpies, in cages, and a box full of hedgehogs. But he’d never caught a squirrel, they were too quick for him, and he wanted one more than anything in the world.

When Melch Dick heard that – for of course the lad was Melch Dick himself – he said that if Doed came with him, he’d soon give him what he wanted. He’d been climbing trees and caught a squirrel, putting it in the basket he’d carried his dinner in.

Well, little Doed hardly knew what to do. It was getting late, and there was something about this lad that worried him. But then he thought of the squirrel and how much he wanted him. So he said to Melch Dick that he’d go with to fetch the squirrel, but he musn’t stop long or folks would know that he’d lost his way and would come looking for him.

When Melch Dick heard him say he’d come with him, his eyes glistened, and he set off through the wood with Doed following him. The wood was full of great oak trees, with birch set amongst them that there just beginning to change colour.

After a while they got to a pool in the middle of the wood. It was no bigger than a duck pond, but the water was deep, and all around the pond was a ring of Aspen trees with their boughs hanging over the water. The sky had been overcast earlier, but the wind had cleared the clouds, and the moon was shining in a way that lit up the trees and made the water glisten like silver.

Melch Dick settled down by the water and Doed did the same, as they started talking again, with Doed asking him why he was covered in green moss.

“If you were to climb trees the same as I have”, answered Melch Dick, “then you’d be covered with moss too, I’d say.”

“And why do you wear a cap of red fur?”

“Why shouldn’t I wear a fur cap, I’d like to know? My mother makes them from squirrel skins, and they’re fearful warm in winter time.”

When little Doed heard mention of squirrels again, it reminded him to ask for the squirrel in the basket.

“Wait a while”, said Melch Dick, “and I’ll show you more squirrels than you’ve ever seen in all your life.”

With that, he takes a penny whistle out of his pocket, obviously made by Melch Dick himself, whittled from a slim ash branch. He put it to his mouth, and blew two or three notes, and sure enough, there was some noise from nearby and in no time at all, half a dozen squirrels were sat on the branches of the aspens. When Doed saw the squirrels in the moonlight, he was beside himself with excitement. He looked at them, they looked at him, and their eyes were as bright as glow-worms.

All the while Melch Dick playing his whistle, and the squirrels kept coming through the trees. You could hardly see the branches for the squirrels now. It was as though all the squirrels in the forest had heard the tune and been forced to follow the sound. They mad no noise or fuss, but sat down on the branches, pricked up their ears, cocked their tails over their backs, and kept their eyes fixed on Melch Dick.

Well, when Melch Dick decided he’d gathered enough squirrels, he changed his tune, and it was a rough tune too. Sometimes it was like the howling of the wind down a chimney, sometimes like the curlews and lapwings up on the moors. But when the squirrels heard the tune, they lined up twelve to a branch. They jumped from tree to tree, right around the pool, with their tails set straight out behind them. They were that close together, it was like a great coil of rope spinning around the water, all the time their faces turned to Melch Dick, and their eyes were blazing like burning coals. Round and round they went, with little Doed just holding his breath and watching them. He’d seen horses riding around a ring at a fair, but that was nothing compared to the squirrels spinning around the pool.

After a while, Doed thought that Melch Dick would stop playing, but he did nothing of the sort. Instead, he played ever faster keeping one eye on the squirrels and one on little Doed. The faster he played, the faster the squirrels jumped, and before long the tune was more like a shriek than a dance tune. Doed had heard nothing like it before, it was as though all the devils in hell and had loose and were being blown through the sky above. It was a strange sound, and a strange sight too, and little Doed’s teeth started chattering and every limb on his body was shaking like the aspen leaves on the trees around the pool.

Doed was scared half to death, but for all that, he couldn’t take his eyes off the squirrels, they’d bewitched him, had the squirrels. He put his hand to his head, and it felt as though he was spinning around and around himself. Now, that was what Melch Dick wanted, and why he’d set the squirrels going. He couldn’t do anything to Doed while he was master of his own senses, but if he was to get giddy enough to drift off into a daydream, then sure enough, Melch Dick would have him in his power and be able to turn him into a squirrel, as he had done to so many lads and lasses before.

As Doed felt his head getting wooly, thinking he was falling asleep and unsure where he was any more, he decided he must be lying in bed at home, drifting off to sleep without saying his prayers. You see, his mother had taught him a prayer to say every night before going to bed. Well, Doed tried to say his prayer, but couldn’t remember the words! That made him uneasy, as he was a good lad and it worried him that he forgotten the words. All that he could call to mind was something that he’d heard the lads and lasses say on their way home from school. He reckoned it was more a bit of fun than a prayer, but he started to say it anyway, as loud as he could:

“Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John,

Bless the bed that I lie on.”

He’d no sooner said the words than all of a sudden, Melch Dick stopped playing, the squirrels stopped jumping, the bats stopped flying over the poolm,, the moon hid behind a great thunder clound, and the wood and the water were as black as a boot. Then there came a scuffling and a shrieking all over the wood. The squirrels started spitting and swearing like mad, the wind yowled, and there were all sorts of strange noises overhead. Then, after a minute of chaos, the moon came clear of the cloud, and Doed looked around. But there was nothing to see. Melch Dick was no longer next to him, and there was not a squirrel left in the trees. All that he could see what the aspen leaves blowing in the wind, and tiny waves in the pond lapping against the bank.

Doed was well-nigh starved to death with cold and hunger, and the poor lad started crying as though his heart would break. But then he had enough sense to start shouting for help, and before long there came an answer. His father and the lads from the village had been looking for him all over the wood, and as soon as they found him, they took him home and put him to bed. It was a long while before he was better, and he never set foot in the wood again without a bit of witchwood in his pocket, cut from a rowan-tree on St Helen’s day.

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