Evelyn stood at the mouth of the cave. The lost warmth of the warrior’s hands, his body, his voice, his heart, that absence left an emptiness. She could feel it like a man might lose his arm in battle but still complain he felt pain in his fingertips. Nothing remained but a fire that dwindled to ash, and the thick forest she had come from. Beyond was the path that led to her village, to rows of houses but not homes. To dresses and shoes that waited in her abandoned closet, but they would not fit her anymore, or she would not fit inside of them.
She wandered through the arc of trees, which had become full of green and bird-song. Hope whispered on the wind. It was impossible to stay sad while the sun danced through the leaves and left a delicate pattern on the path ahead of her. Like life and love and time. They trace their shadowy impressions on the heart too, but they can’t do so without the light.
“Oh, how I wish I could share this with you right now.” She closed her eyes and tried to always remember that moment.
A breeze lifted her hair and smoothed it from her face the way her warrior once had.
Evelyn came to the other side of the woods, to the place she had entered frightened and burning with life on that first winter night. It seemed not only a season ago, but a lifetime of seasons since she had sought out the mysteries of the forest. Slowly, she put one foot outside the last row of trees, and let it rest in a world that had once been hers. She didn’t belong there anymore. She turned back to the path. Winter would return again, and maybe her warrior would too. She could go to the cave. She could wait.
A lone, gray wolf stood in the path. Each time she tried to take a step forward, he lowered his head, pushed back his ears and growled. Even with the wolf ahead of her, the road back to the village was a kind of death too. She stood straddled between her two pasts until night fell.
The moon rose round and full, and its light spread until it fell over the wolf. He leapt away and disappeared into the dark forest. Evelyn ran as fast as she could down in the direction she thought would take her back to the cave. Nothing was familiar. Everything seemed changed. She came to a place she didn’t remember, where the path forked in two directions. Neither seemed right. In the center, a gnarled tree twisted up from the ground. Evelyn was too tired to decide which choice to make. She threw herself down in front of the tree and rested her head against the trunk.
“I am lost.” But what am I really looking for, she wondered.
“Alms for the poor?” Croaked a voice from above her.
Evelyn wasn’t leaning against a tree. She was leaning against a bent, old woman draped in a black cloak with a pointed hood.
“Alms for the poor?” The old woman reached out an arthritic hand.
Evelyn had lived too long with the magic that hummed through the forest to let fear run cold through her body. She reached into her cloak and pulled out her last pouch of dried seeds and fruit. “Here you are, Vala.”
“You call me Vala?” said the old woman. “How do you know I am a seer?”
“I have lived in these woods for many months with a young warrior who runs with the wolves and disappears with the ravens. I have survived with nothing more than these seeds and the clothes on my back. There is no such thing as poor here. You asked only to test my generosity.”
“Ah, well, you do have a wise mind and a generous heart. Tell me, do your mind and your heart hold the same desire?”
“You know they do, Wise One. I wish to find the warrior’s cave, to find the joy I had for a short time. I want it back. I want him to return. I want him to want to return.”
The old woman worked her ancient tongue over her toothless gums. “No. Your heart wishes to love him, and your mind wishes to possess him. It is one kind of generosity to offer your food to a stranger. It is a far greater generosity to offer freedom to the one you love.” She placed her chill, twig-like fingers on the top of Evelyn’s head. “You won’t find your home or your story on this path anymore. Do not linger here.”
“But I can’t go back to the village. I’m not the girl I was any longer.”
“Then go forward into what you are becoming. Not every fire was meant for warmth and the discovery of another soul. Some fires are lit ahead of us, to guide us where we need to be to discover ourselves. There is a child in your belly now, and she is a part of your true destiny. Raise her to know how to tend the hearth and wield a sword with equal strength.”
“I don’t know which way to go.”
“In exchange for your seeds, I will show you where to start.” The old woman pointed down the path to the right. “Go forward this way, and do not get lost in the past again, My Child.”
The gray wolf leapt down the path and disappeared into the shadows.
Evelyn looked back at the old woman. There was nothing but a bent tree with a knotted branch that pointed to the darkness of the right hand path. She pushed through branches and tripped over logs until she came to a clearing. Above her in the Heavens blazed the greatest fire she had ever seen. The young warrior danced through the sky around it, leaving trails of deep red and indigo and violet wherever he went.
“Evelyn,” the warrior sang.
The night grew bright with his dance.
She made her home in that clearing, and there she had a daughter. The mother of us all. She taught her daughter to fight and weave with equal craft. Since that time, our ancestors have lived only where the Northern Lights can guide them to the place of their own stories and then, in the end, the lights call us forward to our greatest adventure of all…to the Beyond North.
Read part one here: The Northern Lights, Part One: The Wolf
Long ago, in the land of our ancestors across the sea…
A woman in an emerald cloak drifted through the snow, down a white path that snaked through a thick forest. She was alone. No one had come with her because no one knew where she was. All her life, she’d heard the forest wasn’t safe, but it would be better to die than to go on living as she had been. She didn’t know what she was searching for in the forest. She didn’t know what she was running from in the village either. She only felt it. A knowing that there had to be something more. It called to her on the wind. The wild wolves answered, and suddenly she needed to answer it too. She needed it so badly that it didn’t matter what might come of her.
The song of the wolves danced along the frozen North Wind. They sang of the night, and the pure white snow, and the lonely moon grown full with waiting from above. As if conjured by their plaintive call, she came to a place where the trees formed a long arch above the path, like a snowy cathedral that glittered in the moonlight. A pack of silver wolves stood sentry at the far end, weaving a web of deadly confidence.
My goodness, they will hurt me, she thought. I will die here all alone.
But she had been hurt in the village too, and lonesome, although she was always surrounded by her people. On that path with the wolves, fear made her blood race, and she felt alive.
“So beautiful,” she whispered. “So fatal. I will grow, or I will die.”
“You won’t die today,” A young man stood over her. His hair was cut haphazardly, as if he’d done the job with his knife and no mirror, but it shone as silver as the wolves and the moonlight. He carried a large wooden shield on his back and the horned helmet of a warrior under his arm.
How had he interrupted her solitary path? She never wanted him to look at her like that again, and she wanted him to always look at her like that. Like the unknown forest, how his eyes promised her life and danger.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I am a traveler.” He shrugged, but the corners of his mouth grew tight, and she wondered if he had traveled much farther and longer than that shrug let on. She only dreamed of travel and yet to him it seemed like a burden. “I am many things to many people. Who are you?”
“I am Evelyn. I mean nothing to anyone.” It was impossible for her to shrug away the secret that she had just left being a daughter, and that she was intended to be someone’s wife. Those both meant something to someone. The truth was that she was the one who didn’t know the meaning of any of it. That felt like an unworthy sentiment, and she looked down so he would not see her go red.
Cuts and bruises ran over his hands and into his fur-lined coat.
“Are you hurt?” She reached out and touched a clotted wound. What made her do that? What made her ache to think he felt pain?
“Only a little. Nothing that won’t heal. Are you hungry? Are you cold?” The way he said it, not like she was a child, the way she felt at home, but as if he had a giant heart and he really saw her standing in front of him. Like a woman should be noticed, full and real.
“Only a little.” She smiled.
He returned it with a small, lopsided grin that made her grow warm right through her heart.
“I am very far from home,” he said. “I don’t have much to offer you, but there is a cave just around the bend. I’ve got dry wood, and I could build you a fire.”
“Yes.” She hadn’t really, honestly said yes to anything for a very long time.
“I see the richness of your cloak, and I’m worried it won’t be enough for you.”
Richness. Comfort. Plenty. She’d had every one of them in abundance, but none had given her the warmth she gained from his crooked grin. She reached up and kissed him on the corner of his mouth.
“Come on,” he said.
They walked together to his cave. He moved toward her, so close she could feel his heat and smell the foreign spice of his skin.
“I am brave in battle.” He put his hands on her shoulders. “But you frighten me.”
“Why would I frighten anyone?” She wasn’t afraid, not now that she had said yes and meant it. She liked the moment just as it was with the promise of discovery spread out in front of her. It would never be like that again, with everything right on the edge of beginning.
“I am afraid to part with you.” His face grew sad again, as it had when he spoke of being a traveler.
Evelyn nodded. She knew what it felt like to always be waiting for the hurt to come. “I was afraid of the wolves in the same way. They captivated me, but I knew they could hurt me.” It was worth the risk. She stepped in closer to him. “I’ve never done this before. Have you?”
“I don’t think so. Not like this.”
She smiled. He kissed her.
Neither of them left the cave, not for a very long time.
One night, Evelyn woke and watched the warrior sleep next to her. His profile glowed gently in the firelight. He looked so much more a boy than a man. Sleep had taken the edges of worry from his face, but a single tear slipped from his eyelid and slid down onto his temple. She put her lips against it and tasted the salt of that tear. Her heart grew so big she could hardly breathe.
My goodness, I have fallen in love, she thought. He will hurt me. I will die here all alone.
When morning came, and the sun pressed out the shadows and the mysteries, she was afraid to tell him how she felt.
Time passed. The wind and the wolves stopped howling. The cave echoed with the rush of melting snow. Evelyn watched the warrior’s face grow distant, as if he were listening to something far off beyond the newly budding trees. She felt the coming hurt, waiting to tear out her heart with the same deadly beauty as the pack of silver wolves that had stopped her on the path.
“I’m cold,” she said. “Will you put more logs on the fire?” As long as he kept the fire going, he couldn’t be leaving.
He did not look at her as he put them slowly, one by one into the flames. “It is time for me to leave. These are the last logs I will ever put on this fire I built for you.”
“Why can’t you stay with me? I want you to stay.”
“Because the snow has turned to water. The dead of winter has turned to the life of spring. That is change. I have heard the thrumming call to battle, and I always answer that call. It is as much a part of me as what I was here with you.”
“I thought you said you were afraid to lose me.”
“I am afraid to lose the warmth of your touch, and the way you look at me, and the way you notice life’s simple beauty. Even worse, I am afraid you won’t understand that I have to go. I have no choice. I am afraid you will be so angry that I will lose your love.”
“You don’t know that I love you.” If he did, he would know how vulnerable she was.
“Yes, I do know you love me.” He put his arms around her and pulled her close to him. She felt the muscles of his chest move beneath her hands. It seemed impossible that she was about to lose the familiarity of his form. “Before we met,” he said, “you knew how to find the beauty in life. You don’t need me for that.”
“I don’t want to live without your touch.”
“You will live all the same. You found me with a pack of wolves, Evelyn, but I am the lone wolf. Please let me go.”
“I wanted you to stay forever.”
“Forever isn’t possible here on earth, and believe me you wouldn’t want an unchanging forever even if I could give that to you.” He smoothed the copper hair from her face. “Do you remember the first day we met, how I built you this fire?”
“Yes.” She forced the word through the pain in her heart.
“I will build you a great fire in the Heavens. The largest and brightest you have ever seen. It will be my gift to you. For your love and for showing me how beautiful this world can be. I had forgotten that beauty a long time ago. My fire will always show you where I am, and how to find me when you are done with the life you were intended to live.”
“But I want to come with you now.” Impossible. It would be impossible to move through the world without his touch and his voice.
“Your story isn’t over yet. Someday you will come tell it to me, and I will hang on every word.”
He kissed her. She tried to smile.
A cloud of ravens flew through the cave. And he was gone.
To be continued…
The story continues: The Northern Lights, Part Two: The Path
Soft and lost
Naïve and wise
Stood on the street corner
Watching poetry fly
up toward the street lamps
like moths to that last hope
That dangerous burning promise
When Lancelot happened by
Oh, hey there, Guinevere
Hey, friend of mine
Imagine running into you like this
your letter fresh in my pocket
Unanswered and waiting
Naïve and wise
I was going to write
I’d have written so well
but I’ve been so busy
Didn’t you hear?
I’ve gone on a quest
I’m finding the Holy Grail
She tried to pass him
but he pulled her close
So lately familiar
Don’t stand so near me
We can’t collide anymore
I never knew you at all
I knew you like I shouldn’t
How you shed your clothes
The first time I asked
And I saw what you thought of me
Alive and real and unmasked
But now my words
Hidden there in your pocket
Exposing the colors
The me I think I am
I showed you mine
But you won’t give me a peek
Not of your heart
You won’t undress that far
Don’t think it doesn’t matter
But my silence is the kinder story
Than a lie about the contents of my heart
A heart I hardly know
Don’t mind me,
Don’t stand there watching, Lancelot
I’m just falling
One foot in front of the other
And Baby, a woman
She can walk all night
Until she comes to that morning light
Where the sky grows soft
and the pillars sleek
That man-made building between her streets
How it can touch her sky
and make her breathe
I know you know that feeling
You have shown me
But I was falling from the start, Lancelot
When my sins came spilling
All at once into your lap
And you said…
I’d have asked you anyway
My god, I thought
Here he is
A man who can make me breathe
A man who will take me as I am
One foot in front of the other
Until you found me here
Where is that woman I held?
Wild and impetuous and free
You will run me off with girlish fear
Don’t look for my white horse now
I’ll still make you breathe
We’ll find some other convenient time
Soft and lost
Older and wiser
Stood on the street corner
His face unmasked in the summer sun
No lover’s shadows to hide behind
Just a man
of lost intentions
of empty promises
of wayward dreams
Just a man
in civil war with disappointment
and the brilliance of his mind
and the goodness of his heart
There in front of him
Her heart and Camelot destroyed
Nowhere left to run
Coming to her own wasted truth
I’d have asked him anyway
I’m late, said Lancelot
I’ve got a grail to chase
Sometimes, a man
He comes up empty handed
Nothing to hold but his own manhood
When a Guinevere happens by
A woman to fill with his empty time
That sacred gift
That faith for free
Consecrated at her private alter
Isn’t that what holy means?
And isn’t she a vessel?
Isn’t she that grail?
Hidden there in plain sight
Right in front of him
He turned away
Sometimes, a man
He’s out for the quest
He looks around another corner
Sometimes, a woman
She swallows regret for her pride
She learns to offer the final empty lie
I’ll see you later
Guinevere called after Lancelot
When she really meant goodbye