I have seen the river run with blood
After dawn woke peaceful. Still cold
but with the damp scent of spring
I have watched sunlight on the water
Life reflected into fire. Heard the vultures sing
of heaven. Dance in circles. The immortal taste of flesh
I have felt the pulse of life grow weary
Known, too late, dawn’s other choices
Night has come. We don’t take anger with us
inside the force of creation
rebuild the wings of Icarus
soar on sinews a gentle lift
through feathers on the wind
from rapacious bird to zealous explorer
against the current of history’s lessons
to reach the galaxy of gods
face the nuclear sun full knowing
someday you will fall
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
Synopsis: The Keeper’s House is based on the Celtic myth that beneath their skins, seals are a beautiful lost race of humans called the Selchie (or Selkie). See The Story of the Queen and the Selchie for my own take on this myth. In previous chapters, sixteen year old Nula O’Malley’s solitary life on Lighthouse Island takes a surprising turn when she develops a budding romance with her only friend Sam. When Sam is lost at sea, Nula uses her hidden seal skin to find him, a choice that will leave her permanently tied to the life of a Selchie. During her journey to save Sam, Nula meets Baruch, who is also a creature from Celtic myth. Baruch is a Fin, powerful sorcerers and shape shifters (and supposedly quite alluring to human women). I’ve imagined the Fin as angels of the sea, with fins like wings on their backs. These two romantic interests represent Nula’s choice between the familiar world of the lighthouse and the lure to discover the mysterious world beneath the waves…although neither can offer her true destiny…the story only she can tell…
“Didn’t he ever think it would have been better if he never met Maria, and neither of them had been hurt?” I thought of how much easier it would be to step back in the ocean if there was no one to leave behind.
Mother smiled. “I don’t know about that. I can tell you that among the seal folk, we do not say ‘falling in love’. We say ‘learning to swim’ because love is like finding the warmth in a current that points you toward your destination.” Mother reached out and tucked a section of my hair behind my ear. A simple gesture, but it brought me warmth.
“When your Sam was in my arms that day I named him, I was pregnant with you. I saw him the way you would. I felt it in my heart that you two would teach each other to swim.”
“I don’t know that Sam loves me.”
“There is one way to find out, but it is frightening. It might be even harder than the journey you just faced.”
“You mean I have to tell him how I feel.”
“…or accept that you may never really know. And then there’s Baruch.”
“Baruch is different. He really did teach me how to swim. I’d like to find out what he truly means to me, but, what am I offering either of them really? I can’t even know that yet.”
“Oh, Nula, there you have your current, right in that question.” She stood up. I knew she would leave. I didn’t want her to, but I could not say it. “You should go home now. Tell your father I will see him soon. Tell him I could not be more proud of you, and I will never be far. I love you, Nula. Never waste a chance to say those words.”
She dove into the water, and I watched her, nothing more than a shadow beneath the moonlit waves. I followed her shadow until it disappeared, and I was alone.
I walked back to the keeper’s house. The beacon pulsed as always, one long, two short, one long. I felt torn, anxious to see Da and know Sam was safe but hesitant and shy to present myself so transformed in front of them. How would I tell them I might choose a path that took me away from them? I stood at the top of the wood steps to the little beach, lingered under the moon and listened to the ocean’s gentle lullaby.
I closed my eyes and felt him out on the waves.
I was happy to see him and have him as an excuse to stay out in the night a bit longer before I faced my family. I ran down to the beach but stopped short of the water, uncertain what might happen if I were to cross that line. Baruch stood in a bright silver boat that he steered with a long, silver staff. He floated across the surface like a twin of the luminous moon, and the sea lifted him from shoulder to shoulder until the boat rested on the beach before me. Baruch leapt onto the sand. He carried a bow and a pack of arrows strapped to his back.
“You look like a Selchie,” he said. His face was as fierce and unreadable as always.
“Maybe. I doubt it will be as easy as that.” I shrugged and the movement sent fire hot pain from the wound in my shoulder. I clenched my jaw to keep myself from crying out.
“It rarely is.” I saw him read the pain in my face. He lifted my sealskin cloak and let it fall behind my shoulders.
“My goodness Nula, what happened to you?”
“Ach, don’t touch it! You’ll make me see black again.”
“It looks like a bite.” He ran his thumb along the edge of it.
“It is a bite.”
“What bit you?”
“Myself. It’s my own bite.”
He tilted his head.
“I had to improvise,” I groaned. “Now, please stop touching it. The pain takes my breath away.”
“Brave girl.” There was almost a gentleness and awe to the way he said it.
Baruch leaned forward and held my shoulder steady in the palm of his hand.
“You’re hurting me awful,” I cried.
He didn’t answer. Instead, he blew against my wound. His familiar warm tingle moved down my arm. The pain was worse at first, but then it tumbled away on the force of his breath.
He stood. “You’ll have a scar.”
I looked down at the circle of angry red puncture wounds. “Oh, it is going to be ugly.”
“No.” Baruch took me by the shoulders again, but this time there was no pain to it. He angled me into the moonlight. “I like your scar best of all of you. It’s a part of your story.”
We stood in an awkward silence under the moon.
“Thank you for coming here tonight, Baruch. You are a good friend.”
“I am your friend, but I didn’t just come here to see you safely home. I came because I need your help.”
Baruch took my arm and led me down to the boat. I stood on tip toe and peered inside, careful to keep my feet safe of the water.
And there lay Mrs. O’Malley. Not the young, copper haired woman I’d seen in Tir na Nog, but the old one I’d always known. Her gray braids tumbled over her usual faded and patched brown dress. Her hands were folded over her chest, and she had a silver coin over each eye. She was still and radiant…
I’d never seen a human death before. Only the goats and chickens. I’d never felt the cool emptiness that hung all around what was once Mrs. O’Malley. I sat back on my heels and pressed my forehead against the cool metal of the boat.
“I found her like this,” Baruch said.
“I’m sorry.” I lifted my head. “You must be very sad.”
“For myself, I suppose I am. For Mother…she had such high hopes for the world beyond this one. I wonder if she will find what she is looking for.”
“You mean Erinan. Your father.”
Baruch looked out over the water. “Yes.” He put his hand on the ornate silver dragon that wound its way up the prow of the boat. “I wanted to give her a proper funeral. The kind that would have meaning to her. I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go, or of anyone else who could appreciate what it meant and stand beside me.”
“Yes. I do know what it means.”
“I couldn’t think of anyone else I wanted to stand beside me.” Before I could answer, he turned away and gave the boat a shove. It shot out into the sea and cut through the thick surf as if it were pushed by a thousand hands. It drifted away from us beyond the waves to the open water.
Baruch pulled out an arrow, fitted it into the bow and pointed it toward the sky. When he pulled back on the bowstring, the tip of the arrow caught fire and arced across the night. It fell like a whisper into the boat.
There was a moment when nothing happened, and then the flame took hold and blazed to life. The fire rose up and reached orange and red arms out to the night like a prayer.
Baruch opened his arms wide and called out over the waves.
Open your eyes
Find me in the wild ocean
Find me in the burning flame
Unravel me and spread me across the sky
Like a string of stars
The horizon swallowed the boat and the flame little by little until all was silver and peace again.
“That was beautiful,” I whispered. “Thank you for coming tonight.”
“You already said that.”
“Now I mean it more than twofold. Thank you.”
Baruch looked up toward the keeper’s house. “I am sure you are anxious to see your family…and Sam.”
Da and Sam did tug at the back of my mind, but I was also disappointed that the moment I’d just shared with Baruch was gone. “Baruch…”
He put up a hand. “I need to say something that you might find biased coming from me. I offer it up for consideration because I think it is for your own happiness. Sam might love you, but how long could he be happy on this island? He has his destiny as much as you have yours. Would you really risk so much to bring him out of the water, just to offer him a life by the sea? And if you left the sea entirely… went away with him… what would become of you? Would you be the girl he knows right now?”
“I was thinking…well…what if…”
Baruch stuck his raised hand in front of me. “Here, Nula,” he said quickly, “let’s shake hands as friends.”
“You are going to shake my hand and leave?” I asked, but I had wanted so much more from our parting.
“That is what human friends do when they part, is it not?”
“I wouldn’t know.” I put my hand in his. The usual current of warmth moved between us and I knew, now that I’d experienced Tir na Nog and the magic of the sea, that there was more between us than that. Baruch must have felt it too, because he pulled me toward him, wrapped his arms around me and held me close against his chest. He smelled of the sea and the air but also of the sweet flowers and rich soil of Tir na Nog. It was familiar and mysterious all at the same time. We stood there, the two of us, leaned against one another as the sky grew dusky with morning and the world turned toward goodbye.
“When I first saw you…” Baruch paused. “When we first met, I felt right away that there was something kindred between us. In the beginning, I wanted you so badly, I’d have done anything, said anything, behaved any way that would allow me to possess you. Yet every time I came close to your body and your time, I’d inexplicably stop myself.”
“Because it isn’t really what you want…”
“Oh, no. I want both of those things very much. Desperately sometimes, but there is something I want even more.” He pulled away and put his hand on my chest. “I want more than one small piece of your heart. I wish for you to know with complete certainty that I am the one for you. I don’t know if I deserve it, but I wish it.”
“You do deserve that.” I knew as I said it that it meant I was nowhere near ready to discover the other side of his kiss.
He stepped away from me but held my gaze. The energy of our embrace still hummed between us.
“Aren’t you going to say you hope I find the story only I was meant to tell?” I asked.
“You’ve learned a great deal about the ways of the sea folk, but no, I will not wish that for you. I don’t have to wish. I know you will find your story.”
“Then can I say that I hope that our stories will lead us to the same place at the same time again someday?”
“Maybe someday,” he said, and there was almost a smile in it, “we will meet in Tir na Nog.”
“What will you say to me when you see me there?”
“I don’t know. What does a human man say when he wishes to court a woman?”
“Now that…I really have no idea.” I laughed uncomfortably.
“Well, then maybe I will just say, ‘Are you that Nula?’”
I laughed again, but this time it felt deep and real. “Do you really know so many Nulas?”
“That isn’t what I would mean,” Baruch shrugged. “Good bye.” He started to wrap his fins around himself.
He let his fins fall.
“My answer is yes. I am that Nula. I always will be.”
I put my palm against Baruch’s cheek. He spread his fins wide. The light grew brighter all around him, it engulfed him, and he was gone.