The Devil on the Ice

The next story is a folk tale from the area of the Waterland, an ancient rural district just north of Amsterdam. Reclaimed a thousand years ago from swamp and sea and  dotted with small farming and fishing villages the Waterland is just as haunted, if not more so, as the great city to its south.  



“If it’s gambling you hold dear, it’s the devil you should fear.”


That’s what the old folks said in the village of Uitdam. Johan Hook did not care. He was young, he did not listen and every winter evening you could see him playing cards and rolling dice with his mates at the pub.


“Then at least make sure that you’re home in time”, his father told him “for between midnight and one is the hour of vice. Then the devil will ride his skates on the ice.”

”Even if the devil would ride with me, I’ll be home and inside the gate before midnight.” Johan answered, and he tied on his skates and rode away.


But that evening his gambling at the inn of Zuiderwoude went far too well and he soon forgot his promise. Every time his friends persuaded him too play another game, and another, and another and the hour became late. “The devil! A quarter to midnight!” Johan uttered and he collected his winnings, ran out of the pub, put on his skates and rode away from the village of Zuiderwoude to his home in Uitdam.


There was a bright moon and the wide, frozen land was silent. But Johan had only made a few strokes on the ice when he heard that someone was riding along with him. He looked over his shoulder but saw no one. Only a shadow, like that of a bird passing overhead, seemed to glide after him. And ever more clearly he could hear the sound of skates scraping across the frozen waste behind him.


Johan braced himself, leant forward and skated as he had never done before, and never would again, for he knew his eternal soul depended on it. On the first stroke of midnight you could see two dark figures fly across the Little Lake, a half hour’s walk from the village of Uitdam. On the sixth stroke you could see Johan sprint the Alewijk canal leading to the village, on the eighth stroke he reached the Uitdammer Dee, the lake next to the village, on the tenth stroke he could see his own house by the water, on the eleventh he jumped from the ice and at the stroke of midnight he had landed inside the gate, had stumbled into his house and shut the door behind him, his skates still on his feet.


There was a brief silence but then Johan heard a voice, cold as frost, coming from outside: “Just in time, Johannes Hook. But next time you won’t be so lucky.”

But Johan would never gamble again. Or put on his skates.