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THE BARD'S MAP
The night was cold and the wind whispered softly, rustling leaves and occasionally rattling the shutters of our small cottage. But the sky was so clear I could see every star, even the tiny ones. Despite the chill, I spent a lot of time outside looking at the sky. It was better than being inside our cottage, which held nothing but memories of happier times, and looking at my mother, sick with the wasting. Once she had been pretty, and even as she faced death, her eyes still held a twinkle.
"'Twas what your father first noticed about me: my eyes," she had told me many times. "Lovely Mairi-Blue-Eyes, he called me." Large they were, like sapphires, except that I had never seen a real sapphire, so I had to take her word.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Thomas, the Pig Boy. "Old Mrs. Pinkett says to come in. She says…"
He did not finish the sentence.
Somehow, we both knew this night would be my mother's last. There was so little left of her. Thomas squeezed my shoulder as I rose to go inside. I entered as quietly as I could, though the door creaked as a light wind rushed in beside me. Old Mrs. Pinkett nodded over at the bed where my mother lay. Her once soft arms now felt of brittle bone. But her eyes were more alive than ever.
"Sing for me, Trinket," she whispered. So I sang for her the songs that we had made up in the years since my father left. They were not as beautiful as his, but we tried our best. For my mother always said that a house without music would be a lonely house indeed. When I finished, she raised a frail hand to my cheek.
"I've much to tell you, Trinket, and so little time," she said.
"First, tell me, once more, tell me the beginning," I said.
She drew a breath and began. "Once, a handsome storyteller whisked a fair maiden off her feet with his silvery words and amazing tales. He promised her a story each night and during the whole of their time together, he was true to his word. He carried her off with his words to places far away. And when she finally agreed to marry him, he took her to a little cottage by the sea where they were most joyfully happy.
"Their happiness was complete upon the birth of their babe. Our precious child, they called her, our delightful trinket, and that became her name. Your name: Trinket. The bard's daughter."
I smiled when she said my name.
Then she coughed. I turned to pour her some water, but there was Thomas, cup already in hand. I wanted to thank him but he disappeared as quickly as he'd come. My mother coughed again, this time even more harshly. I gave her water, but she had trouble swallowing. She tried to speak, but her voice rasped, sounding small and choked.
I took over the telling, willing my own voice to be strong.
"The traveling bard left one day when the girl was six, off on one of his storytelling, story-collecting adventures, for that was the life of a bard. He traveled from castles to villages, from coasts to mountains to valleys, telling the stories that were his own.
"He kissed the top of the child's downy head," I went on. My mother smiled, for I had added the downy part since the last time. "And called from the top of the hill, I shall see you with the season's change."
I hesitated, then continued.
"But he never came back."
In a whisper, my mother took over the tale, adding the parts where perhaps he was kidnapped by pirates and forced to stay aboard a ship until he'd told ten thousand tales, or perhaps he had defeated a fierce dragon by putting it to sleep with a bedtime tale and had to tame all the dragons in the land with his stories.
Yes, she had told me time after time, that is why he could never come back.
My mother waited for his return. It took a long time for her heart to break completely. And when the illness came last winter, she had no fight left in her. A mended heart could have stood strong against the rampage of the fever and the wasting that followed. But a heart in little pieces had no chance.
She coughed and pulled me closer. "Trinket, my sweet girl. You have choices to make, you know."
I could live with Old Mrs. Pinkett and learn the healing arts, but as much as I liked her, I did not feel the call in my bones to heal others. That is what Mrs. Pinkett said I should feel if I were to learn from her. My bones felt only empty.
I could live with Thomas the Pig Boy and his mother and learn the care and keeping of pigs and the occasional sheep, but the smell was too much. And though Thomas and I had spent most of our lives together, playing and getting into trouble, I'd no wish to be daughter to his mother. She was a rough woman with a sharp tongue that hurt far worse than getting a smack. How Thomas put up with it, I did not know.
My mother would want to know the direction I would take, Old Mrs. Pinkett had told me. It would help to ease her passing if she knew what my future might hold. But I was not so ready for my mother to leave. Not ready at all.
She looked at me, seeing more than I wished for her to. Her sapphire blue eyes squinted slightly. "I know what you are thinking."
"I am not even thinking in this moment. You must be mistaken." My lie sounded false, even to my own ears. The wind whispered and hissed through the cracks in the shutters as if doubting my words as well.
"You are thinking of him."
"Him who?" Though we both knew exactly who him was.
"You want to go and find him."
Did I? I had never spoken these words, but in her last moments, my mother knew the questions I had been too afraid to ever ask.
"There is a map, Trinket. A map in the old chest…" She coughed again and this one rattled throughout the room. A gust blew open one of the shutters and it creaked back and forth whilst the wind whistled around us, secretive and chilling.
There was no time to dally, so I asked, "What really happened to him, do you think?"
She was quiet and her breath did not come for a moment, causing me to think that perhaps she was gone, but then she sighed and closed her eyes. The flurry in the room calmed to a gentle breeze.
"I wish I knew."
Those were her last words.
* * *
I cried for a whole week after she passed. I cried until the tears would come no more and my soul was empty.
"'Tis the way of things, lass," said Old Mrs. Pinkett. "Death is but the other side of life."
Thomas cried, too, after I assured him it was not unseemly for a boy to do so. He'd spent most of his life, when not with his pigs, skulking around our cottage. Eventually, we'd set a place for him at our table each night. I think my mother thought of him as a son. A messy, wild son.
She was buried in a dress of blue cloth that she herself had woven two winters ago, for her hand at weaving was among the finest in the land. 'Twas a glorious shade, like the sky at dawn. With her hair brushed smooth, she looked almost as I wanted to remember her. Mrs. Pinkett, Thomas, and even Thomas's mother said words for her. But I said nothing. I could not say what was in my heart. I could not ask her if she was at last joining my father, or if he had abandoned her even in death.
* * *
Thomas was the one who found the map. He helped me go through my parents' things. There was not much in the chest. Mostly tools and odd bits of cloth my mother had woven. There was a lovely mirror, small and silver, that we found by the back door of our cottage one winter's night. And my mother had saved the small velvet bags filled with coins that showed up mysteriously on the porch from time to time. I'd keep the mirror, for my mother had loved it well. Perhaps it was a gift from an admirer. I had wanted to believe it was from my father, but my mother was certain it was not. Why would he leave a gift and disappear? Nay, he's probably still composing lullabies for dragons, she'd say. Regardless, I would keep it. The velvet bags, though now empty, were of good quality and could be traded possibly. And there, underneath a fine cloak my mother had woven for special occasions, rolled up in a cracked leather canister, was the map.
"Trinket, mayhap the map shows where your father traveled about," Thomas said.
"Then why did he not take it with him the last time he went?" I asked, although I knew the map had been my father's. But it helped me to argue with Thomas. I could only know what I was truly thinking when I had to defend one thought against another.
The map was soft and faded, drawn by my father's own hand in the black ink he always kept a small jar of on the shelf. But the ink in the jar had long since dried up, and the lines on the map had paled to a dirty brown. I traced an imaginary path from our town, through trees, to a far-off castle. Then I drew another, this time down the coast and to the villages by the sea.
"What are you going to do with it?" Thomas asked.
"What do you think?" My fingers trailed yet another direction, over the mountains to the forest.
He looked at me with eyes that widened as he understood my purpose.
"You are not going to follow it!" He spit when he yelled, which made it a good thing that Thomas the Pig Boy yelled very little.
"You are only eleven."
"Almost twelve. A year older than you."
"What will you do out there?" Thomas asked, flicking the map with his hand.
"Why, find my father, of course."
And I will leave this place, and all the pain, behind.
But I did not say this aloud.
Thomas thought for a moment.
"If you go, can I come?"
I could have tortured him by not answering, or by saying no, but I had secretly hoped that he might want to journey with me. I could not imagine that hed want to go back to spending all his time with his battle-ax of a mother, getting scolded if he breathed too loudly. As for myself, it would be easier to travel with a companion. And Thomas was a fairly brave boy, not to mention my only true friend.
"Could be dangerous, you know. Life on the road will not be easy."
Thomas's large brown eyes were already dancing. "Will there be excitement, do you think, and adventure?"
"Aye, mayhap. But if I let you come, you cannot complain," I said, though I knew he would from time to time. He was Thomas, after all.
Thomas nodded, his eyes alive with thoughts of great escapades.
My own thoughts were more focused. There was a truth I sought.
And I hoped with all my soul I would find it.
"Yes, Thomas," I said, "you can come with me."
Text copyright © 2012 by Shelley Moore Thomas
Pictures copyright © 2012 by Daniel Craig