The Bone Knockers
The folklore in East Hants is rich and plentiful. Everyone has a story or experience they would like to share. One such story has circulated East Noel for many years and if circumstances allow, could occur again any day: the story of the Bone Knockers.
East Noel's introduction to the Bone Knockers was in the early 1800’s after the death of a decidedly “wicked” school master who boarded in the village. It is said that while his body lay in the parlour of the house, the dwelling became overrun with crickets and frogs. The teacher was quickly buried and the crickets and frogs disappeared. However, after the burial a strange noise began. It lasted a few weeks and then disappeared. Perhaps the schoolmaster’s spirit wanted to taunt the villagers. The strange noise wasn’t heard again until early fall of 1938 and the Bone Knockers once again alerted the village to their presence.
The noise made by this strange “entity” resembles the eerie sound two bones make when tapped together. As Reta Laffin described it, “It was like a will-o-the-wisp. One minute it was heard nearby on your right side but two seconds later it was heard far off in the distance to your left.”
One evening the villagers were determined to find out what this bizarre noise could be. They searched the area and eventually captured a small bird in the marsh. Believing they had caught the sound maker, they carefully contained it and waited for the noise to begin. The captive bird remained mute. Unfortunately, morning light would prove the detainee to be none other than a partridge.
Local author Hattie Dyck recently said, “it will soon be time to hear them again, happens about every 75 years.” But what exactly is it being heard? Surely not a couple of moonlight dancing skeletons?
One possible explanation is an extremely elusive bird known as a Yellow Rail. In Robie Tuft’s Birds of Nova Scotia, a letter written to R. W. Tufts in 1938 by Colin Faulkner describes a possible calling of a Yellow Rail near Noel:
“Many people in this countryside, both nature lovers and the superstitious, are interested at present in a weird sound moving about on the surface of a swamp or salt marsh and nearby uplands. No one has been able to see the bird or insect that produces the sound. The noise resembles that made if dry bones were knocked together. In intensity it can be heard on still nights about 100 yards or even farther. The sound is located on the surface of a swamp or salt marsh; it is not up in the air at all. It recedes when approached, returns when let alone, stops momentarily when a pebble is thrown near it. It keeps the click click click click up continuously for ten minutes or longer, when after a brief pause it begins again. It was also in the same swamp about 70 years ago.... Because of the sound, those interested call it the 'bone-knocker”.
The Yellow Rail prefers to walk rather than fly during breeding season which in part helps explain Reta Laffin’s description and also Colin Faulkner’s recollection of not hearing it in the air. This sounds like a very plausible explanation for the bone knocking noise except for one small factor. The Yellow Rail has never been identified in East Hants. Local twitcher, Rosslyn MacPhee, has been birding most of her life and said, “I don’t know of anybody ever seeing one in Hants County”. Patrick Kelly, President of the Nova Scotia Bird Society recently told me, “The Yellow Rail is a rare bird which, combined with its very secretive nature and the fact that it is only in our general area during breeding season where it prefers habitat that people do not generally go to, it is no wonder that sightings are few and far between”.
The story of the Bone Knockers will have to remain a mystery. If you happen to find yourself wandering the marsh near Noel this fall and hear a bone chilling knocking sound, look out for a Yellow Rail or a dancing skeleton – both are extremely rare and a magnificent find!
- Kate Robson