folktale from the Faeroe Islands

by Joyce Holt


    Grímur Fatcheeks toddled after the older children but couldn't keep up. "Nika! Nika, me too!" he called.
    His big brother Niklas didn't hear the piping voice in the midst of all the jesting and laughter.
    Grímur halted, stuck a thumb in his mouth and watched the four bigger kids pelt down the stony path from Sørvágur village to the lakeshore. His baby-face dimpled in a frown. He popped the thumb out and stumped along, bound to join in the fun.
    Niklas and his friends skipped flat stones across the shining waters of Leitisvatn. The late evening sun hung above the clifftops beyond, and gulls spun across the silvered sky.
    Grímur picked up a rock as he neared the others. He had no hopes of skipping it, but it should make a hearty splash.
    Just as he reached them, the children yelled and took off running along the waterline.
    "No!" Grímur cried, and tried to keep up. "Me too!"
    Niklas and the others slowed, their voices dropping to soft coos as they approached a tall gray mare standing in the shallows. The lovely horse shook a silken mane and stepped to meet them.
    Grímur stopped. In went the thumb again. Hadn't old Auntie told a scary story about the fierce horse-shaped nykk who haunts lakes? But this mare stood sweetly and nickered soft as a lamb.
    Niklas, largest of the foursome, boosted the others one by one to the horse's back, then they hauled him up. The mare nodded, shifting weight ever so smoothly, her tail whisking like lace in a breeze. She took a step along shore.
    Leaving Grímur behind again! The little boy ran, calling out in woe, "Me too! Me too!"
    Niklas gave his little brother one annoyed glance, and turned away.
    The mare swung about and plunked one hoof into the lake.
    "No!" Grímur wailed. "Nika, Nika!"
    The horse's head shot up at the cry, nostrils flaring. A rage gleamed in the monster's fiery eyes. Mane and tail writhed like serpents. The smooth gait turned to a lurch, and the children tumbled off its back onto dry land.
    "Nika!" Grímur Fatcheeks screamed in fear.
    The nykk, which cannot bear hearing its name called aloud, galloped into deeper water and vanished, back to its lair on the bed of the lake.

Sørvágur is a village on the island of Vágar in the Faeroe Islands. The long narrow lake of Leitisvatn, also known as Sørvágsvatn, lies not far from the village.

Tales of this shapeshifting water creature are found throughout Scandinavia under similar-sounding names:

Norwegian: nøkk (bokmål) or nykk (nynorsk)
Old Icelandic: nyk
Icelandic: nykur
Middle Dutch: nicker
Old English: nicor
Old Swedish: neker
Swedish: näck or nek

Copyright 2017 by Joyce Holt

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