It is a northern land, a hard place where the trees bend always to a cold, flowing wind. At night the north star flashes and beckons, a jewelled finger. The skies turn like a dial, so big and remote…
A child lived there who thought how huge everything was, and was afraid of the emptiness between stars and beyond stars. But her grandmother whispered, “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Don’t you know the whole universe is knotted up in a handkerchief in God’s pocket?”
So the child grew up fearless. Often she spent her nights wandering on the high moors with a stick of yew in her hand, calling the owls, who would whirr down in a soft blur of feathers and clutch her arm, turning their black brilliant eyes here and there. But as sunrise streaked the sky she would be back at the cottage to blow the fire aflame and put the kettle on the hob and kiss her grandmother awake.
Then her grandmother died and was buried. After the funeral, the young girl sat alone in the cold cottage and cried. “Grandmother, where have you gone? Why have you left me? How can I find you?” And each night she wandered further and further afield, following the bright beckoning of the North Star, axle of the sky, till she came to the country where it is always dark and day is no more than winter twilight, even at noon. Underfoot was heather, and black bilberries, and withered bracken. One night she came over a ridge and saw a lake lying beneath her.
Its waters were still and dark and very cold, and it lapped a shore of granite pebbles that glinted in the starlight. And, straining her eyes, she thought she saw the dim loom of an island far out in the lake, and at once she was overcome with longing to set foot on it, but there were no boats on the shore, and the water was too cold to enter. It would have frozen her heart. And it seemed the North Star shone directly over the island, tugging her towards it.
Three times the stars wheeled overhead as she walked along the shore, watching the dark shape of the island sleeping on the water, and in all this time she saw no more than a quick meteor threading the high heaven, and heard no more than the crunch of her own footsteps and the knock of her staff striking the shingle.
At last she came to a beach where, scattered here and there in the rough gravel, were round pebbles that glowed like tiny moons; and an old man sat huddled on the shore beside his boat, a patched old leather coracle. He was staring at the ground, but when he heard the young woman coming he scrambled up, crying, “Go away, go away. All this is mine!”
“What do you mean? I only want you to lend me your coracle so that I can cross over to the island.”
“Island? What island?” asked the old man. Then he looked cunning, and counted on his fingers, and mumbled to himself, and said, looking up, “You must pay me for the use of my coracle.”
“I have no money,” she said. “But I will work for you.”
The old man set her to pick up all of the glowing pebbles and heap them near the coracle.
Under the turning sky the girl went back and forth, collecting the stones till her hands were cold and bruised, but although the pile grew higher and higher, the old man was never satisfied. Soon all the shingle close by was dull, while the pile beside the coracle shone like a white beacon. She was so stiff she wondered if she would ever be able to straighten up again, but still she had to go to and fro, and each time she asked for the coracle, the old man shook his head.
Finally she went back and threw the last stones on the high pile. “I have done enough.”
“Not yet, not yet,” said the old man, groping in the heap.
“Yes; if you do not give me the boat now, I will take it – I have earned it! – and I will crack your head into the bargain.”
The old man turned to her then and put two stones into her hand – but at the last moment he snatched one back – saying, “The coracle leaks and will not float. These are opals. Take your fee and go.”
“Row me over,” the girl demanded, throwing the jewel down. But because the old man moaned and clutched at his dead heap she lowered her stick, saying, “You would do better as an honest fisherman, I think,” and dragged the coracle into the water, which lapped her foot and seeped into her shoe, so cold that she gasped. She climbed in and poled off with her stick, then took up the paddle and began to make her way towards the darkness that lay on the centre of the water, just showing an island’s shape against the star-prickled sky.
The leather sides of the coracle were cracked and dry, and the cold water welled in so that she had to stop paddling and bail with cupped hands till they stung and ached with cold. At last the leather swelled with the moisture and the cracks were closed. Then she picked up the paddle and went on.
Slowly the island drew nearer, and larger, until she was working into a little bay where small, gnarled trees grew right against the water and leaned out above it. She grasped their branches and pulled herself out of the boat, and they shook bitter bark down into her face and hair, and her fingers were sticky with resin.
Slowly she hobbled inland with bent back and frozen hands, and she blundered in the darkness, for gall and bark were stinging her eyes. But she dragged herself uphill, tearing her skin on brambles, till she reached a high mound in the centre of the island, free from trees and bushes, covered with short, dry grass. At the top of the mound she drove her staff into the turf and sat down beneath it and wept in the cold air, and the tears washed the bark from her eyes and splashed warm on her hands, watering the ground with salt. And when she looked up there was the north star, straight overhead, brighter than she had ever seen it.
And the stick at her back rooted, and put out dark leaves and small white flowers.
Copyright Katherine Langrish 2013