“She must be lonely,” I say, and inch closer to my mother, burrowing into her shoulder. “She must be bored, too.”
“She’s not lonely, sweetheart,” says my mother. She pulls the blanket tighter around us, and we huddle together, gazing up at the night sky.
This is our tradition, every February, to greet the end of winter, and to say goodbye to the lady in the stars. Tonight, we sit together on a blanket in the sand, listening to the rhythm of the waves and the cold wind blowing through the dune grass.
“I’d be lonely,” I say. “And I bet she’s tired of the quiet, too.”
“She’s very old,” my mother tells me, “and very wise. She sees all of us, and our joys bring her joy. She’s not lonely, with the whole world and the moon and stars to keep her company.”
My family has lived on this island for as long as anyone can remember. We’re as tough as the sea and as sturdy as the land, my mother says. Together here, we’ve made it through ferocious storms and sweltering summers. We’ve learned how to live on the outskirts, on the edge of the country, and all that time, we’ve passed down the story of the lady and her home in the winter sky. And tomorrow, I’ll leave her, and my family, and this island, forever.
“James is a good man,” my mother says, “and he’ll take care of you. You’ll make lots of friends. You’ll have pretty babies, and you’ll be happy.”
She always could read my mind.
“You can come to visit,” she says. “A boat ride across the bay isn’t a trip across the ocean.”
“I know,” I say. And I do, but right now, the bay feels a lot like an endless, angry ocean, dangerous and impossible to cross.
“The lady was scared, once, too,” my mother reminds me. “She had to leave her home and family.”
“The stars needed a guardian,” I answer back, parroting the story I’ve known my whole life. “And she was chosen among all her people to be that guardian, and she accepted, because she was brave and smart, but also because she was kind.”
“Most importantly because she was kind,” my mother clarifies.
“I’m not kind,” I say. I sit up and fidget with my bootlaces. “And I’m not brave, either.”
“You’ve never been afraid of the waves,” says my mother.
“I can swim.”
“And you’ve always taken care of the gulls,” she says.
“I can’t stand to see them hungry.”
“Other people would call them a nuisance,” my mother tells me.
“I find other people to be a nuisance,” I say.
“You want to argue,” she says, “and I understand. The lady didn’t think she was brave or smart, or kind. She ran. You’re not planning on running?”
“No,” I say, and sigh. “No, I’m not going to run away. Where would I even go?”
“See!” my mother says with a laugh. “You’re very smart.”
I lie back and look up. The stars shine bright white, like diamonds on black satin.
I know what it’s like in the city, where the stars hide from the streetlights. I’ve read about it, and about the crowds and the noise.
“The lady tried to hide,” I say, continuing the story, “but the moon found her, and reminded her that imperfect things can still light the way in the dark.”
My life will look very different from my mother’s, and from what I envisioned when I was small. Back then, many families called our island home, and children ran on the beach, and lovers huddled together on the dunes, and old grandfathers sat at the pub to drink ale and tell stories. Most of them have gone now, and there certainly weren’t any men of marriageable age left for me to choose from when the time came. And so my father chose for me, a well-to-do man on the mainland, with a nice brick house and an old family. Like ours, but not like ours at all.
“The moon lit her way into the sky and walked with her to her new home,” my mother says. “And there, she cares for the stars and watches the world.”
“And they say,” I add, finishing the story, “that if the world should ever need her, strong and caring guardian that she is, she will leave the sky and walk the earth again.”
“There is always a path home,” my mother says. She reaches down and squeezes my hand. “But you might find you like your new one better, and that it gives you purpose and something to care for, just like the lady.”
“The lady isn’t real,” I whisper.
“She’s as real as you and me,” my mother says. “She’s as real as this island and the ocean, and as real as the moon and the stars.”
“She’s just a story.”
“And like I said before, you just want to argue.”
“I don’t,” I say. “I really don’t. I’m just pointing out the truth. The lady isn’t real. I’m leaving tomorrow. Everything’s going to change.”
I stand up, walk out to the water. I let it slide over my boots, and I can feel the cold through the leather. I’ve probably ruined this pair. I don’t care. I hear my mother behind me, her steady steps in the sand. She places a hand on my shoulder. I turn, and she sweeps a stray hair off my cheek. My cheek is damp, and I realize I’ve been crying. She does, too.
“My brave, smart, kind girl,” she tells me. “Your life will be just as beautiful and vibrant as you want it to be. That’s your choice to make.”
“And even the lady had a choice,” I say.
“Your father chose James,” my mother says, “because he is a good man. You can choose him, too.”
James has written me letters and sent me pictures. He’s told me all about the life we’ll lead together, and how excited he is to marry his island woman. We’ve exchanged books, and shared our favorite memories. I don’t love him yet, but I know I can.
“I do,” I tell her. “I have. But I wish I could have both, James and this island. His home and mine. Why do women always have to choose?”
“Because only women are strong enough to do it,” my mother says. “But don’t tell your father I said that.”
We smile together, and turn back towards the dunes. It’s time to go home, for the last time.
“Someday,” my mother says, “I hope you’ll tell your children about the lady. I hope you’ll tell them about this island and our life here.”
“I will,” I tell her, and I mean it with every fiber of my being, right down to my soul. “I will.”
Thank you for reading! This is the second of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore
Here’s the first story, if you’d like to read it:
I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.
The next story will be posted at the end of March.