Stares-Past-Stars

Once upon a time there was a wolf who lived in the forest. This is not remarkable, of course, for (in those days, at least) the forests were full of wolves.

This wolf, however, was unusual. He did not have a pack. He did not even have a mate. Instead, he chose to live by himself, on the edge of a broad lake. There, he would spent the nights staring at the stories that the stars reflected in the placid black water. That was how he got the name Stares-Past-Stars.

He spent his days stalking whatever small game the pack that who hunted in that forest had overlooked. That pack had no use for Stares-Past-Stars. In his meditations, once or twice, the idea had come to him to join them. When he loped into their den, though, he found their language strange and their customs beyond understanding. For their part, they did not even seem to notice him. They went about their intrigues for pack-position without giving him so much as a sniff.

He tried telling them the stories he saw in the stars. He might as well have been explaining leaves to roots. So he gave up and returned to his lake.

One particularly clear morning, while taking his morning drink, Stares-Past-Stars saw a small cottage at the bottom of the lake. He had never seen it before, but there it was. Curious, he dove into the cold water (for though it was warm late spring, the lake was fed by mountain snow). He swam down, down, down, until he reached the front window.

He looked in. The window must have been a very good window indeed, for it kept any water from rushing in. He could see a woman inside. She was frantically pushing a towel under the crack of the front door, where the lake seeped in. He could see the fireplace had been stopped up with bedding, clothes, and whatever else she could find, so only a little drip-drip-drip got through. A puddle was spreading though, and soon enough the cottage would be full and she would drown.

“Help!” the woman cried when she saw Stares-Past-Stars watching her at the window. Her voice sounded most odd because of the water.

His breath ran out at that moment. He surged to the surface, gulped another lungful of air, and dove back down. This time, he swam hard as he could towards the window. He broke through it, in a great fountain of water, and seized the frightened woman by the scruff with his teeth. He dragged her to the surface against the rushing tide. Fear made the woman foolish, and fought him the whole way, kicking and scratching, but he held on strong.

When they reached the pebbly beach, the foolish woman gave him one last kick in the side for good measure. She ran off into the forest, leaving Stares-Past-Stars gasping on the shore. After he had coughed all the water out of his lungs, he stood on shaky legs and sniffed the wind. He could tell the foolish woman had run far away.

“Well, let her go,” he thought. “If she makes it out of the woods without being eaten, good luck to her. And if she is eaten, good luck to whomever eats her.”

It was then that he noticed she had dropped a scarf in her haste to escape. He lifted it with his snout and gave it a sniff. It did not smell entirely like the foolish woman. The outermost scent, yes, was hers, but beneath that there was a long-worn odor woven deep into the night-black yarn.

“She must have stolen it,” he thought, “and what is stolen ought to be returned.”

He draped the stolen scarf around his silver neck and trotted away from the lake. He snuffled the foolish woman’s trail for quite a while, in the hopes that she might lead him to the other smell on the scarf.

For all day and a night he followed the foolish woman’s trail through the forest. In the darkest hour, when the blazing river of stars above was covered by clouds, he found her.

On the very edge of the forest, a stone’s throw from the farms and pastures where people lived, there was a long-lost church. No one had gone there in a very long time, and the forest had reclaimed almost all of it. The only part that was not overgrown with trees and vines and thorny brambles was the altar, and it was there the foolish woman sat, holding her leg.

From the darkness at what used to be the door, Stares-Past-Stars could smell her pain. He could also smell her blood, and it made his stomach growl, for he had not eaten in a day and a night.

“Who’s there?” the foolish woman cried. “I warn you, my stepmother is Queen of the Night and my father a powerful Fisher King.”

“That must be why you’re a thief,” Stares-Past-Stars growled as he strode over brambles and vines to the altar. Just as he got close, a high wind parted the clouds. The blazing light of the river of stars above filled the ruined church. Then he could see that the woman had turned her ankle and then pierced both her hands on thorns when she fell.

She saw him too, but she did not scream, for she saw the scarf a moment later.

“Mine!” she cried, and lurched off the altar to snatch it off his neck. He was too quick for her. He leapt and bounded nimble up the branches of a nearby tree, until he stood in the empty picture-window, backlit by the blazing river of stars.

The foolish woman hobbled after him. Heedless of her bleeding hands, she scrambled over brambles and briars, trying to find purchase to climb the tree.

The wind fluttered the night-black scarf round the wolf’s neck. It carried the smell beneath the foolish woman’s smell to his twitching nose. Without even thinking, Stares-Past-Stars raised his face to the sky. The stars were full of the smell on the scarf. A gust caught it off his neck and carried it to the altar. He could see, deep within the night-black yarn, glittering motes of light.

“No, you stupid wolf!” the foolish woman shouted. She stopped her climbing and dropped to the ground. “My stepmother will kill us both!”

The motes of light within the yarn poured out onto the altar like stars. They assembled themselves into the glowing shape of a lovely woman. Stares-Past-Stars leapt down from his perch. He bowed deeply with both paws, as wolves do, for he knew this must be the Queen of the Night.

“Thank you, good wolf,” said the Queen of the Night. “In her jealousy for her father’s love for me, my step-daughter wove this scarf from the wool of purest nothing. She gave it to me as a gift, and I did not think it any harm. To humor her, I wore it. After I had worn it a year and a day, she was able to complete her spell. She drew me into the nothing, all my star-stuff and love, and there I have been imprisoned for many years.”

“Lies! Lies!” cried the foolish woman on the ground, but the wolf knew differently and snapped his teeth at her neck for silence.

“She told her father, who fishes the great River of Stars, that I had run off, no longer loving him.”

An endless silver thread dangled through the broken roof of the long-lost church. From the depth of the sky came a whisper: “I knew better. I boarded her house and threw her in the lake for punishment. But she would not tell me where you were and I could not see.”

The Queen of the Night wrapt the silver thread round her waist. “I am here, my love.”

“Bring my foolish daughter to me,” the voice from the sky said.

Stares-Past-Stars grabbed the daughter by her scruff. He dragged her to the altar. The Queen of the Night trussed her round with the nothing-scarf. She tugged on the silver thread and it reeled them up.

Stares-Past-Stars returned to his home by the lake. He spent the rest of his days weaving stories out of the reflected River of Stars. If anyone had ever asked him about the foolish woman in the drowning house and her stolen scarf, he would just have said: “It just shows that you’ve got to look past the way things seem.”

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