This is a story pricked out in dots of light, scattered like salt on a dark cloth…
For the first time, the Pilgrim Woman lit candles before she started the peppercorn story. The old chapel stood too far out in the shifting sand dunes for buried cables, and the gales put paid to poles and lines. In the gently shifting light, as the sunset faded beyond the garret, she told this tale:
The autumn his mother died, a poor boy cut himself a hazel stick, then bundled all he owned into an old grain bag. The boy with the stick and the bag then trod the chalky roads of his homeland. His feet climbed upon the downs, away from the smokeless cottage of his birth, and his thoughts ran on ahead in search of his fortune.
As he walked, he whistled. The sound of it kept the wild things away, and the Grey Folk smiled or capered according to their kind. Even the robbers hidden behind clumps of gorse let him by. His youth and his brown hessian bag re-assured them he was not worth the effort of accosting.
As the day turned towards night, rain fell. The chalk paths ran with milky streams between dark clumps of yew. His feet slipped on the steep tracks. Brambles snatched at his ragged clothes. Branches tipped water over him. Still he strode along till he reached the top of a ridge.
Here the yew trees gave up hiding the sky with their dense needles. Darkness came and the rain clouds retreated from it. Step by step the boy’s path petered out onto rough grass. The turf lay close-cropped over three old mounds. The sheep that had nibbled it slept safe inside wattle hurdles.
He paused and looked round.He knew this place. His mother had brought him here and told tales of old battles. Above the graves of the Danish Kings, a vast sky glittered. To the south, the sea ran smooth and silver-grey in its light. On land, house lights shone warm and gold with welcome for someone.
He was quite alone.
What was the point of it all? His head dropped towards his damp, splattered boots.
Then words from his mother flitted past like evening moths.
‘Look up,’ they said. ‘Good things are like stars – the more you look, the more there are.’
The boy lifted his chin. He stared till his eyes took in even the tiniest specks of light. Then he made his camp right there – surrounded by a treasury of hope.
The voice of one of the lord’s servants broke into the quiet.
‘So what happened – did he become rich?’
Many faces turned to see the answer, some with remembered sadness in their eyes. Even the Lord-by-the-Sea looked her way.
‘No,’ said the Pilgrim Woman, ‘but he never forgot to look – and he always found something to warm his heart.’
image: public domain