This is a story whistled by northern winds through pine branches and down the chimneys of the sleeping . . .
On a cold winter’s eve in January, the Pilgrim Woman took a broom and swept the floor in the abandoned chapel. She laid down a rug for the children to sit close to the fire. Then she tucked a sack behind her chair before she began to tell this tale:
In the time not of our grandmothers, but before their grandmothers’ grandmothers, there was a young mother who lost her only child. Her heart and her soul and her mind cracked like glasses fallen from a shelf on a hard floor, but she did not weep. Her hands grasped her broom and so she swept. Her fingers took hold of an old cloth and so she dusted. Her knees fell to the ground and so she scrubbed.
Over many years, she created a beautiful home, hoping in her grief that one day her child would return. Every feast day she laid presents by for her lost child, until she had so many that they filled a sack. Cakes and sweets and fruit she gave to local children – telling them to let her know if they saw her lost one. The children learned not to fear her long nose and worn face but they could not tell her where to find her child.
One cold night, three fine gentlemen called. ‘Could she accommodate them?’ they asked. They pointed to a glittering star. ‘We are on a mission to find the child born under that sign.’
‘No, no!’ she said, distraught. ‘The place is not ready, it is not clean enough. You cannot come now. Come back in the morning and all shall be perfect.’ She shut the door and began to clean.
The three fine gentlemen left sadly and followed the path of the star’s song to another place where the Christ Child lay.
As she tidied and polished, the mother saw the light of the star reflected in her gleaming tiles.
‘Oh, I am slow. That’s the sign,’ she said and leapt up.’They are seeking my child.’ She left her home to follow them but not before picking up her broom and the sack beside the door.
It was too late. Even their footprints had gone. Dragging her sack and her broom along, she kept on searching. Her clothes turned to rags and her skin grew wrinkled and ugly, yet her eyes glittered with the light of hope. A passing angel took pity on her and gave the old mother the gift of flight.
And so it is that she still seeks the three wise men on her broom. Whenever she finds a child on the Eve of Epiphany, she leaves a gift.
The Pilgrim Woman pulled out her sack and began handing out small treats to the children.
‘Hm,’ said the landlord, ‘shouldn’t you give coal to the naughty ones?’
She shook her head and the spangles on her dress tinkled like the voices of stars.
‘The presents are for everyone – for all of God’s children have a little of the Christ Child in them.’
And she handed him a satsuma wrapped in glittering paper.