A Tale from the Shore

I wrote this one as a birthday present for perhaps the greatest friend I could wish for. This is for J. – and, I guess, for life, with all its ups and downs and roundabouts, never easy, but always worth living.

 

You need not to climb mountain tops

You need not to cross the sea

You need not to find a cure

For everything that makes you weak

 

You need not to reach for the stars

When life becomes so dark

And when the wind does blow against the grain

You must follow your heart

 

-City and Colour

 

 

She had always loved the coastline, ever since the days her dad had taken her down there for fishing, for staring at the waves and pondering how insignificant every manmade thing seemed in contrast to the vast Norwegian cliffs.

Her dad had owned a little rowing boat on which he’d sometimes take her out into the fjord, dip his fishing rod into the water and point out this or that specific point to her – peaks, gashes in the rock, trees or stony beaches – about which there was a story to tell. He had known a great, great many stories. For a while he’d take her down to the shoreline every Sunday, and every time there were new tales about trolls, ancient heroes, about dragons and goddesses and sometimes also about Nazi soldiers that had tried to land there during the war, and suffered unspeakable punishments. Those later stories were particularly fascinating because they were rooted in historical truth, but nevertheless, the ones about trolls and dragons always remained her favorites.

When she was eleven years old, her father fell ill. It was a sudden burst of cancer, the doctor said, it was quick and brutal; and in a matter of weeks she had to watch him deteriorate from an always smiling man with a beard like iron wool to a mere shadow of himself to a silhouette under piles of blankets to a grave upon the hillside east of their house. Her mother planted a cherry tree in the ground where her husband lay buried, but the tree could never replace the man that had been there, and even less his stories, his smiles and the fishing trips down in the fjord. After hardly less than a year, the cherry tree fell victim to the Scandinavian winter, and the grave remained empty ever since.

There was little good that she remembered from that time in her life. Everything had seemed too silent – the house, the hills, the fjord, even the waves down at the shore seemed more solemn than usual, and kind of dull without the stories someone told upon them.

She would often go down to the sea, pick up a pebble and carry it up to her father’s grave. There she would stand for a moment, frozen as if hoping for a voice or some sort of revelation to suddenly appear, and then drop the stone into the grass like a coin into a wishing well. After some weeks, a sizable pile of white and grey pebbles had accumulated on the grave, big enough that even her mother took notice of it.

“Darling, please, stop whatever that is about. These rocks don’t belong up here, and they’re not gonna bring him back. Stop tearing yourself apart!”

“But … I miss him so much, mum.”

“So do I – but do you see me wasting my days to carrying dead stones around? Stop it, I tell you, stop being so silly!”

After that, she would only ever dare to stand by the grave and stare at the stones she had piled up on it, as if somewhere in their webs of white enclosures she could discern ancient runes that would tell her one last tale of her father. She could spend hours, sometimes entire afternoons staring like that. Her mother would watch her from one of the windows of the house, clench her fists, then wordlessly shake her head and look away again. Fog crept up from the sea and covered them both in effervescent rags. The stones kept laying where they were, but she didn’t add a single new one to the pile.

Later on, she would only remember dimly that one afternoon when she’d walked up to her father’s grave, like so many, many times before, and found a cat sitting on top of it. It was perched on the stones as if waiting for her: a large, beautiful animal as white as a pearl, with piercing blue eyes and a leonine grace when it jumped off its seat to walk up to her and rub against her legs.

“Oh, look at you!” she said with a sudden smile on her lips. “Where did you come from, cutie?” She crouched down and petted the cat between its ears.

Meow,” it replied and tilted its head as if, with that, everything had been said.

“What is your name? What should I call you?”

This time the animal remained silent, and so she petted it some more and then went home without a final decision, pondering Snowflake as well as Freyja, Ice and Princess Morning Star but feeling that none of them fit exactly right.

The next time she went up to her father’s grave, she carried a piece of dried fish with her, and, to her enormous joy, the cat was sitting there again, greeting her with a dignified meow and a brush of its little pink tongue against her hand. It devoured the fish with an appetite quite unbefitting an animal of its size, meowed once more, let itself be petted and then disappeared again into the hills. Still, she had not decided on a name for it.

In the following weeks, the two of them became friends of a sort, with her contribution being a piece of fish, or cheese, or fresh chicken whenever she went up to their meeting point, and the cat’s contribution a kind of respectful, but genuine affection that she had thus far only ever experienced from her late father. With the cat being generally taciturn, sometimes she would choose to retell some of the stories she’d heard out in the fjord to it, and even though the animal never responded with anything more than a purr, some part of her still felt like it was listening.

She gave up on trying to find a name for it and instead just settled for cat,or sometimes, when she was having a particularly somber day, little friend. The cat didn’t seem to care, in the characteristic way of her species that never seemed to care about most things at all, as long as there was food and a hand to pet them.

For a couple of weeks it felt like things were becoming alright again – so alright, in fact, that she became careless. On a rainy afternoon when she came home from her father’s grave drenched to the bones, her mother demanded the truth:

“What on earth would you be doing out there?!”

“I … I just wanted to go feed my little friend.”

“Your little friend?

“The cat that always sits up on the grave!”

Her mother gave her a long, incredulous look. “Child – maybe we should drive into town tomorrow, take you to see a doctor. This nonsense cannot continue.”

“But there is a cat! Come on, if you don’t believe me, come up and I will show you!”

She grabbed her mother’s hand, and together they went out into the rain again, around the house and onto the muddy path that led up to the grave and its hill of pebbles. There was no cat anywhere to be seen.

“What would a cat even do out here in the middle of nowhere?” Her mother said, her expression comprised to equal parts of sadness and the rational self-righteousness of adults. “Really, child … It’s not like we had enough worries already as it is.”

They went back into the house again. Afterwards, she had no way of telling how much of the wetness on her cheeks came from the rain, and how much were tears. When she returned to the grave the following afternoon, and the afternoon after that, and for days and weeks to come, always with a particularly big chunk of fish in her pocket and a desperate flicker of hope in her heart, it remained empty. The splendid white cat did not appear again, and after another winter had passed, she came to believe that it might have never existed in the first place.

 

She left her home to go to school, first in one of the neighboring towns and then to Trondheim almost a thousand kilometers to the north, where she tried to study medicine but shortly after switched to computer science – not because she particularly liked that subject or was particularly good at it, but just because it would give her an opportunity to work from anywhere she liked. She missed the remoteness of her family home, the endless grey and green hills around it and the single road that led to the town if you went east, and to the coast when you went west, where her father’s fishing boat probably still lay forlorn between the pebbles, slowly getting overgrown by moss, algae and the nests of seagulls raising there young.

The city seemed suffocating to here because it was so devoid of everything magical. There were no little rowing boats in its port, just massive industrial fishing vessels. The greenery it contained was parts of strictly planned and tended parks. There were no reindeer standing in front of the windows at night to steal herbs from someone’s garden, no nooks and crannies between the rocks from which trolls might wreak their mischief, there were no empty fjords but busses full of tourists, and the stories that people told were about the Market, oil, political candidates and ever faster, more expensive cars.

It was a place where time seemed to be running away from you instead of standing still and monumental, instead of being enshrined in the unmoving cliffs and the midnight blue tides.

In the last year of her studies she fell in love with a fellow student called Sven, an always smiling, always neatly dressed and softly spoken guy who proposed to her on the day they both graduated, and – overwhelmed perhaps by her newly gained freedom, or just hoping to find something magical after all – she accepted.

For a few months then she was happy. The city seemed wider, and one day Sven brought home a huge canvas painting of a fjord and a gargantuan snake rising from it that she could hang in her study. A whole wall thus turned into a scenery so often imagined in her childhood, and while she was working at her computer, she would occasionally glance at it and smile, silently content.

Unfortunately that happiness, like so many things in her life before it, did not last. Sven got a job offer from a multinational IT firm in Chicago that he told her he would be an idiot to refuse. They talked about it, first matter-of-factly over a glass of wine in their living room, but after a while – after she had looked at pictures of the city on or laptop and had frozen in dread about the streets that seemed like geometrical coffins of concrete to her, about the skyscrapers that were higher than any fjord that she had ever visited – they became more and more agitated. Sven emptied the wine in one gulp and refilled his glass with whiskey. He accused her of holding him back, she accused him of having no sense of what’s beautiful and important. He called her words sabotage and her outlook small-minded, she called him greedy and a robot.

He told her he had been sleeping with a colleague from work for over two months.

She told him she didn’t even care, packed one bag, and moved out in the same night. The picture of the fjord and the primordial snake in it she left hanging in her study. He can take it to bloody Chicago with him if he wants, and stare at it when he gets wasted from regret, she thought bitterly.

She rented a car, threw what few belongings she had in the trunk, and started heading back south towards the house where her mother still lived, and which she hadn’t visited for five years.

 

Over the course of the next weeks, very little happened in her life that was able to tear through the veil of somberness that had fallen upon it. Her mother was well into old age by now, and the solitude of her home had made her tacit, so when her daughter arrived, she gave her a long hug and made her a vast cup of black coffee, but she barely said a word to her. She felt as alone with her pain as she had in the strange streets of Trondheim.

The nature around her house was beautiful as always, and the solitude, if it did nothing to make her feel better, at least also kept her from feeling worse. She took long walks between the hills, slept under the clear, empty sky, placed straw in fodder cribs for the reindeer and moose, all the while attempting to sort out the questions in her head: when things had go wrong. What mistakes she had made. Why she hadn’t returned to this place sooner, to keep her mother company and keep herself from getting hurt. Why she had ever left it in the first place.

Sometimes these walks would lead her onto the road that led west from her house down to the fjord. The first time she arrived at the little beach where her father had kept his fishing boat she suddenly fell to her knees in a burst of tears, because the boat that she had imagined so often during her time in Trondheim wasn’t there anymore. Her mother could give her no answer when she asked about it later, so she came to assume that one of the fierce winter storms must have carried it away at some point, and that it probably lay shattered at the bottom of the sea between shoals of salmon, who probably rejoiced over this retributive irony.

The loss of the boat hurt her almost more than the death of her father himself had hurt, because it felt like the last piece of him that had remained upon earth until now had been erased.

Nevertheless she kept going back to the fjord, maybe because the utter majesty of its cliffs made her forget all her grief for a moment. Oftentimes she came there in the evening to watch the sun drown, or before the break of dawn to watch it rise again above the hills to the east and make the sea light up like a plain carved from sapphire. A thermos flask of hot coffee in her hand, these moments sometimes actually made her smile: a tired smile, a smile resting upon a terrible, leaden sadness, but a genuine one nevertheless.

 

It was on one of those walks that she beheld the black ship for the first time. She was strolling along the edge of the cliff in late fall when sunset came right after lunchtime, hundreds of meters above the fjord so that the ocean looked little bigger than a bathtub, and the shoreline seemed like something a child might dig out on an idle afternoon.

The ship must have come from the horizon, but she only noticed it when it had already entered the fjord and docked there, which was surprising given its size that even from her altitude was astonishing: the ship was at least seventy meters long, but not one of the steely colossi that she knew from the port of Trondheim, but build in a much more old fashioned stile. I gigantic central sail buckled at its mast. Its body was flat and wide. Several dozens of oars protruded form either side, and in the front, it had a caved figure quite similar to a dragon, but rather beautiful than ferocious. Even more curious was that it didn’t seem to be built from metal or even wood, but from something dark and pearlescent, a material which looked both utterly familiar and incomprehensible to her. She thought of nacre and turtleshell, then of dark honey, and finally of some people’s hair which seemed black until it caught the sunlight and betrayed a variety of colors embedded in it.

She stood there like spellbound. The mere sight of the boat moved something in her, its image resounded like a piano chord both abysmally low and beautiful in its somberness. She could feel the little hairs rising on her neck.

Suddenly, a solitary figure appeared on the deck of the ship. It was miniscule, hundreds of meters below her and half enshrouded in the ensuing night, but nevertheless, she beheld it clearly. It was a man in a long coat, with a beard like steel wool and a crown on his head made from some pale material like ivory. The man was looking directly at her. He raised one hand, first to salute, and then to beckon her. But she felt like all strength had left her legs. She kept standing atop the cliff until the darkness became complete, and when she finally managed to walk down and reached the shore, the strange ship had gone again.

With a shudder, she went home to sleep.

 

That night she dreamt of the ship, and when she woke up, she was filled with a hear-wrenching desire to see it again. There had been an otherworldly beauty about it that she found impossible to put into words but that made everything around her pale in comparison, paler even than it had already seemed. She walked out of the house without saying a word to her mother, went down a translucent path between hills that seemed cut from cheap paper, under a sky that grey and seemed neither distant nor close, but simply non existent. This time she went directly down to the shore, found herself a large boulder and sat down on it, staring out into the fjord.

She didn’t even wonder how she knew that the ship would appear again.

It became midday and then afternoon, and the already morbidly pale light faded away entirely. Far overhead, the cover of clouds broke open and a single white star appeared, like a celestial eye looking down on her. She did not look back.

Once again, the strange ship seemed to appear out of nowhere, when she’d taken her eyes from the horizon for just a moment. She faced the ocean again and there it was, dark and massive and motionless, anchoring in the fjord with its endless rows or oars resting in the unperturbed water. It was impossible to take her eyes of it. The hung flaccidly since the breeze had suddenly ceased completely. Only the eyes of the dragon-like figurehead seemed uncannily alive and moving, two pieces of onyx ablaze with a spark of pure red.

Overhead, the clouds dissipated further and revealed a river of stars as well as a full, iridescent moon, but she found it impossible to take her eyes from the ship even for a second.

And once again, the figure appeared on the deck with its cloak, the beard and its ossified crown. This time it was much closer, so close that she could see the wrinkles on its forehead and the smile upon its lips, and there was no doubt anymore as to whom she was seeing.

“Father …” Her voice was like a swallow in the feral cathedral of the fjord.

Again he raised his hand, first waving and then beckoning her to come closer. Something started to move on the water: a boat – no, the boat! – being launched from somewhere on the other side of the ship and drifting towards her without anyone steering it. With a swish like a whisper it came to halt on the beach where she was waiting, sitting expectantly there at the border of pebbles and sea.

She stood up. Her father beckoned again. He was smiling.

She took one step towards the little fishing boat, then another one, like in trance. She didn’t know what she was doing, what was happening around her, didn’t even think about it. She just moved. Closer, closer, even closer still, reaching out and touching the railing of the boat she’d believed sunken …

And then, abruptly, she stopped.

Something soft was brushing against her shin. Now, for the first time, she could avert her eyes from the ship and its single passenger. With an unspeakable effort of will she looked down, and suddenly her translucent face lighted up.

Meow!” the pearl-white cat said, looking up to her.

Meow,” it echoed from behind, and as she turned, there was a second cat, large and majestic just as the first one, but black as coal save for a white blaze between its ears. The cat pranced towards her, and for a moment it seemed as if it wasn’t walking at all, but gliding on black feathery wings.

“You? Is it really you, little friend?” she asked with a trembling voice. Slowly, like a person dreaming, she went to her knees and stroked the cat’s silky white fur.

Meow,” the cat replied once again. A second later, it was joined by its black companion. They both pressed against her as if they wanted to push her back up the hill, urgently, almost desperately. She noticed with mild surprise how warm their bodies were.

For a moment, it seemed like things could go either way. The vast ship still lay anchored in the fjord, and the cloaked figure stood waving by its railing, its face growing more and more impatient. The two cats in turn fought to keep her from the rowing boat, from the ship, from the ocean. Up in the sky, not a single shred of cloud was still to be seen.

But eventually the warmth of the cats prevailed. She stood up, and the white one jumped onto her arm where it stayed, purring and snuggling ever closer. She suddenly realized that she was freezing.

“It has become awfully cold, don’t you think?” With her mind still not entirely free from the haze, she took a step back from the shore, then another one, and a third. The black cat was incessantly circling her.

She stepped back onto the path, walking uphill, every step faster and more determined than the last one. At some point she was running, stumbling onto the street and towards the amber lights of her mother’s house, eastwards to where the sun would rise again after an almost – but almost – never ending Norwegian autumn night.

Only when she arrived back at her front porch gasping for breath, she realized that her arm was empty. Her heart was pounding in her chest, sweat was dripping down her cheeks, but there was no cat anymore – neither a black nor a white one.

Shaking her head, she stepped inside to the smell of salmon being fried. “Little friend …” she mumbled to herself. “I don’t know … I think I might finally have found a name for you.”

Outside, the sky was still clear and crystal cold. The full moon shone brighter than ever, and in the hours before midnight, it was joined by wavering curtains of purple, azure and emerald. By that time she was already fast asleep, deeper and more peacefully than she had been in years. But if she had stepped outside again just for the moment and looked up at the sky, she might have seen a peculiar shape between the moon and the northern lights: the shape of a chariot, crossing swiftly above the fjord, and perhaps even the shape of a gorgeous woman standing within it, with eyes brighter than even the brightest of the stars.

The chariot was not drawn by horses, and neither by rams like that in some other ancient stories. It was drawn by two cats.

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