This is a story spelled out in fallen icicles, paw prints and drops of red blood . . .
Snow had crusted the sand dunes and whitened the marram grass outside the Lonely Chapel. The Pilgrim Woman made a blazing fire and handed out warm drinks before she told this tale:
A man there was who lost his wife. His pain and grief were great – and the sole relief he could find was outside in the cold. The colder, the better for him. Day after day, he journeyed seeking wilder, more barren places.
His travels took him north. By night he follow-on the Pole Star and let the chill settle upon his skin. Its touch brought a numb solace to his wounded spirit. Further and further north he went by mountains and moorlands, wastelands and ferries.
At length he came to a remote island where the stars glittered every night over ice and snow. The ferryman warned him not to venture out after sunset.
‘For there are great white bears and worse beings out there. I would not wish to meet a one of them.’
The man of grief thanked the ferryman and resolved to seal his fate in the frozen deserts of that island. No sooner had he put his pack into a small bothy than he set out.
He had not yet lost the sound of the sea when he came upon a trail. Huge paw marks ran side by side with tiny bare footprints. Drops of blood like lingonberries lay scattered along the strange path. He followed them over a ridge, then stopped.
In front of him, a woman walked unshod, clad in glittering white. A queen by her bearing, at either hand vast polar bears paced, majestic and easy in her presence. All was pale about her: her hair, her skin, her garments – except her lips and what she carried.
As she stepped on the crusted snow, she bent down and picked red shapes from the rocks and snow. The man of grief peered then gasped. He covered his mouth lest she should hear him. Each red, dripping shape was a heart.
He turned, searching for his bothy. A blizzard arose and beat him back. It thrust him toward the fierce white maiden and her bears. No matter how he struggled, the wind and the snow pushed him onwards till at last he fell on his knees before her.
Let me die, he thought, it will be an end to pain.
The weather calmed as if ordered. A soft hand took hold of his chin and lifted it gently. She said nothing. Colours given by the Northern Lights rippled across her gown. The warmth of hot springs ran through her blue veins. Her eyes reflected constellations.
She raised him up, wonderstruck and unable to speak. ‘Come,’ she said and lifted up her pail of glistening red hearts. ‘Come see the calling I have answered.’
And he followed her, flanked by the softly padding bears. Not to a palace of ice and crystal, nor yet a turf-roofed hut like his own, but to a sheltered cave. It shone with the light of a well-made fire. He paused at the entrance to let her go first.
‘See,’ she said, ‘I collect frozen hearts and thaw them. There can be no hurrying – it takes time.’
One of the bears nudged his back softly with its nose. He shuffled in. Watched the flames. Remembered. Slowly his shoulders lost their burden of pain. His bruised ribs began to move in time to their long breaths. He shifted forward.
‘Not too close.’ The Maiden of the Snows spread out her fingers. ‘Too fast and you may leave a core of ice trapped inside.’
The melting hurt as much as it healed. Tears ran down past a smile he could not prevent. When he felt his heart at ease in his body again, he asked what he should do now.
The Maiden of the Snows gave him a torch of cloudpine. ‘Go back and light a fire. Share it with any that sorrow. Pass the flames on.’
She waved him farewell then called to her companions.
‘Come, Time and Memory – we have more hearts to heal.’
Picture: The Ice Maiden – The Dreamer of Dreams (1915) by Edmund Dulac
Story Inspiration from Queen Marie of Romania’s The Dreamer of Dreams