We left the young woman among the gypsies, waiting for the time when she might return to the old one.
Now, the Storyteller continues her tale:
On the seventh evening of the encampment, she makes her way back to the cailleach’s fire. Once more the old one gestures her to sit, takes her hand into both of her own.
“Here is what I have thought about. The Sidh have a great love of beautiful things. Yet, for all their cleverness, they are utterly without any skill to create beauty. So they must either barter or steal lovely things. If you could find or make something of incomparable beauty, you could perhaps barter it in exchange for your bairn.”
“But how will I gain entrance to the Sidhean?”
“Ah,” says the cailleach, “for that too you’ll need to barter something. That is all I can tell you, but I shall give you a blessing of protection before we part.”
The old one places her ancient knobby hands on the young woman’s head, saying, “I bless you with protection from any harm that might come to you from fire and water, earth and air. May the Holy One go with you.”
So they part, and that night the young woman falls into a deep and dreamless sleep. When she wakens, the gypsy encampment and all her merry friends are gone. She is alone. Entirely.
For a long, long while, she sits on the bare ground, unable to move, not knowing what to do or how she shall ever find her child. The morning swells to midday, exhales into evening and still she sits. Empty of purpose. Empty of guidance.
Then, like a slow return of the tide, knowing rises within her. Clarity. Focus.
“I must either find or create two things of incomparable beauty.” Her mind opens up paths of memory and she recalls the most beautiful things she’s ever heard of. She remembers two that outshine all others: the golden harp of Wrad and the white cloak of Nechtan.
She smiles. She knows now what she must do. She sleeps.
As soon as dawn touches the sky, she is awake. She drinks pure water from the brook beside the encampment, and sets off walking towards the sea.
By midday, she is scrabbling over the rocks by the shore, collecting in her apron the tufts of eider down left behind by the ducks. Because of the old gypsy’s blessing, the fire of the sun does not burn her fair flesh, the rocks on which she walks do not cut her feet, the roiling waves do not come too close to her and the winds do her no harm. When her apron is full of the soft white down, she chooses a large flat rock on the shore, sits down and begins to weave.
With careful fingers she rolls the soft down into thread, weaves the thread to form a cloak. When it is finished, it is as if a white cloud has fallen from the sky. She chooses a sharp rock, cuts off a strand of her red-gold hair. Some of the hair she carefully hides beneath a stone. The rest she uses to weave a pattern into the hem of the cloak. Fruit and flowers and leaves appear, all burnished gold. When the weaving is complete, she gently folds the cloak, hides it under a gorse bush, begins walking slowly along the rocky shoreline, seeking what she needs.
It is several hours later, the sun already a purple pink memory, when she finds at last the backbone of a great fish. It is strong, supple and perfectly shaped to form the frame of her harp. Joyfully, she hurries back to the rock where she wove the cloak, recovers the remaining lengths of her hair, securing each, one by one, to both sides of the frame. With delicate strength she tightens the red gold strands, testing for resonance.
At last she takes the harp into both hands. She plays a few chords of such aching sweetness that the birds themselves pause in their flight across the sky to listen.
Exhausted, she lies down in the shelter of a large rock and sleeps.
At dawn she wakens, carefully places the white cloak over her left arm, picks up the harp in her right hand, sets out for the Sidhean. With the gypsy woman’s directions clear in her memory, she leaves the shore, and begins to walk towards the deep oak woods on the far horizon. (to be continued…)