Call the Ships to Port
Fannar walked into the train station. It was time. He’d seen the signs. Today was the last day of autumn, and he had to use the telephone to call the other villages and warn them. It was his responsibility.
Fannar knew these things, for he was the shaman, and he spoke with the snow.
– – –
And so our story begins – in a small village on the northern coast – with a call from a telephone.
But this is not the story about Fannar, or about snow, although both will feature prominently in the tale. It’s also not about telephone calls or trains. It’s not even about the last day of autumn or about this particular village, even though that’s where it begins.
This story is about Kala.
It’s about how she loses everything and about what happens to her afterwards.
It’s not a pleasant tale, and while It ends well, after a fashion, it’s a rough ride getting there. And even then the ending is just the start of another story.
So let us begin this one, in another village, a little later the same day.
– – –
The call had come in at around noon. Shaman Fannar had called from Lurensborg to warn the village that today was the last day of autumn. Everyone had known it was coming, of course, but it was good to know that this was finally it.
Tonight the bay would freeze, and in a few days the ice would be thick enough to walk on.
Today, soon, they’d light a fire on the little hill overlooking the harbor. The fishermen in their boats would see it and make for home. You had to get your ship to safety before the ice came in.
Tomorrow it would be too late.
– – –
And now the villagers are gathered on the hill above the harbor. It’s just a little past midday, but it’s the dark part of the year and the sun has already begun to set in the west. It won’t be long now until the days are as black as the nights.
Men and women. Old and young. They’re all there. Everyone in Lurstrand who isn’t out to sea stand around the big bonfire.
They’ve added to it since midsummer. Old junk. Fallen tree branches. Chairs broken beyond repair. It all goes on the fire. Anything that burns but is too bothersome to be used for fuel during winter.
It burns now.
Flames reach for the sky. A crackle becomes a roar. Villagers take off their mittens, pull back their hats and scarves. Warm their hands and faces. The last kiss of summer.
Out to sea the first of the boats come into view, and around the fire, villagers cheer.
One by one, the boats appear. As they draw close enough to be recognized the families of the crews leave the crowd around the fire. They go to greet their loved ones and to help pull the boat out of the water.
It’s a time to celebrate. Another fishing season comes to an end and it’s time to welcome winter with your family around you and a smile on your face.
The sun sets. Darkness falls. Most of the villagers have left the hill now, but the fire still burns. The old and the lonely remain – those who no longer have any family left among the fishermen, or never did.
There’s them, and those still waiting for the last ship. A small group, not even a handful of people. Standing with their backs to the fire, staring at the sea. Waiting. Silent. Still.
One boat is still not home, and there’s not a speck of light out there in the darkness.
And then there’s Kala. Tall and proud. Long black hair. Dark skin, thin lips and slightly slanted eyes. She stands apart. Is apart. Stares into the flames. Everyone she knows and loves are on that boat. Her father. Her big sister. Her betrothed. It’s not a big family, but they’re all she’s got.
– – –
On the other side of the fire the old folk huddle up together. No one talks about it, but they all know. That boat won’t come.
Any other year, they’d wait until everyone else had left, and then they’d bring out the flasks and pipes and bottles they hide under their vests. They’d tell each other stories and share memories of times gone by while waiting for the fire to die down. It’s their way of celebrating the last day of autumn. It’s traditional, and it’s how elders do it in all the villages along the northern coast.
But not in this village and not on this evening.
It’s a bad omen when a boat does not come back when called by the fire, and it’s been a long time since it happened last. There will be no stories told this night, and the celebrations of those who came back will be replaced by fear and mourning.
– – –
The fire dies down. The air grows cold, and there’s really no hope left now. The boat that has not shown up will not come. When the fire burns out its time to leave. The winds of winter will clean out the ashes and the hill is no longer a place for mortals.
The old folk mingle with those waiting. Comforting words. Gentle guiding hands. A mother is mad with grief. A husband mute with loss.
One by one the mourners are gathered up and lead down from a hill.
Kala walks alone. Shakes off any helping hands. Silent. Head held high. It’s too dark to see her face.