Issue 1/1984 | Archives online, Children's books, Fiction

A story from Läsning för barn (‘Reading for children’,1884). Introduction by George C. Schoolfield

There was once a little child lying in a snowdrift. Why? Because it had been lost.

It was Christmas Eve. The old Lapp was driving his sledge through the desolate mountains, and the old Lapp woman was following him. The snow sparkled, the Northern Lights were dancing, and the stars were shining brightly in the sky. The old Lapp thought this was a splendid journey and turned round to look for his wife who was alone in her little Lapp sledge, for the reindeer could not pull more than one person at a time. The woman was holding her little child in her arms. It was wrapped in a thick, soft reindeer skin, but it was difficult for the woman to drive a sledge properly with a child in her arms.

When they had reached the top of the mountain and were just starting off downhill, they came across a pack of wolves. It was a big pack, about forty or fifty of them, such as you often see in winter in Lapland when they are on the look-out for a reindeer. Now these wolves had not managed to catch any reindeer; they were howling with hunger and straight away began to pursue the old Lapp and his wife.

When the reindeer pulling the two sledges realised this they took to flight and rushed down the mountain side at such a dizzy pace that the sledges were constantly being overturned and rolling over and over again in the snowdrifts. The old Lapp and his wife were used to this sort of thing and held tight, though they could no longer either see or hear anything; but just at that moment it so happened that the Lapp woman dropped her child in the snow. In vain did she cry out and try to stop the reindeer; it knew that the wolves were on its heels, so it twitched its ears and ran all the faster, until the sound of its galloping hoofs was like the cracking of nuts. Before long both the reindeer and the sledges were far away.

There lay the little child in the snowdrift, wrapped in reindeer skin and looking at the stars. In a trice the wolves were there; the child could move neither hand nor foot, but could only look at the wolves. It did not weep; it made no movement; it merely looked. And the innocent eyes of little children have a wondrous power. The hungry animals stopped dead in their tracks and did not dare to touch the child. For a moment they stood quite still and looked at it as though in astonishment. Then they ran off again, following the reindeer tracks to continue their hunt.

Now the child lay alone in the snow in this desolate place on a winter’s night. It looked at the stars, and the stars looked back, and a friendship arose between them. Those boundless, numberless, beautiful and distant suns twinkling in the night sky seemed to take pity on the defenceless human child lying there in the snow; they looked long at it, and the child looked long at them, and the starlight stayed in the child’s eyes. Yet the child would have frozen to death if God had not brought another traveller across that desolate waste. It was a Finnish settler who lived near Enare Church. He was on his way home from the town of Vadsö in Norway with salt and flour for Christmas, and he found the child and took it up on to his sledge.

It was Christmas morning when the settler reached his farm; the bell in Enare Church was just ringing for morning service. He took the child straight into the warm cottage and gave it to his wife. ‘I have a Christmas present for you, Lisa,’ he said, wiping the frost from his brown hair. And then he told his wife how he had found the child.

The wife picked up the child, took it out of the reindeer skin and gave it some warm milk to drink. ‘God has sent you to us, you poor thing,’ she said. ‘What a look you are giving me! If you have no father or mother, then Simon Sorsa shall be your father, and I will be your mother, and you shall be our child. Simmu and Palte and Matte will be so pleased to have a sister, for I can see you are a little girl. Have you been christened, I wonder?’

‘I wouldn’t rely on that’, said Simon Sorsa. ‘The Lapps have far to go to church, so they save up their children until they can take them all along together. Then the children drive themselves to the church and shake the priest by the hand and say amen when he has christened them. It is Christmas Morning now, so it would be best to take the child and have her christened in church.’

His wife thought this was a good idea, and so the little foundling was christened and called Elizabeth after her foster-mother. The priest was surprised to see the child’s eyes shining like stars when he blessed her, and later he remarked with a kindly smile, ‘You ought really to be called Star-Eye instead of Elizabeth.’

The settler’s wife found this no way to talk for a Christian man, and she told her husband about it. But Simon Sorsa had noticed the same thing as the priest and said that this name was as good as the other.

‘Whatever do you mean?’ said the wife. ‘You must never put magic into her head, for she is a Lapp girl, and the Lapps can work magic. Simmu’s and Palte’s and Matte’s eyes are as good and grey as hers are brown, and if you want to give the girl a nickname, you can call her Cat-Eye. That would be just as good.’

The settler had no wish to upset his wife, and he pretended to forget the new name, but the priest’s words became known, and from that day on the neighbours began to call Simon Sorsa’s foundling child Star-Eye.

The girl grew up with her three foster-brothers and became as dainty and slender as the three boys were big and strong. She had black hair and brown eyes, like most Lapp children; but Lapp children can sometimes be excitable and stubborn, whereas Star-Eye was always peaceful, quiet and serene. The four children got on well together, except when the boys occasionally pulled each other’s hair for a change. The settler and his wife were fond of them all; everything went well for them, and no other father or mother made any enquiries about Star-Eye. How could the Lapp and his wife possibly not believe that the wolves had eaten up their little child?

Star-Eye was not yet three years old when her foster-mother began to notice something about her that she could not understand. The child had a power in her eyes which no one could resist. She never contradicted, she never defended herself when the boys teased her; she simply looked at them, and straight away they did everything they could to please her. The black cat with its flashing eyes dared not look at her; Fox, the shaggy brown farm dog, immediately stopped barking and growling when Star-Eye looked at him. The foster-mother fancied that she could see the girl’s eyes sparkling in the dark, and one day when there was a snowstorm raging over the mountains and Star-Eye went and stood on the steps outside for a moment, it almost seemed she had calmed the storm, for within a few minutes all was peaceful.

Much as the settler’s wife loved the child, she did not like this kind of thing. ‘Stop looking at me,’ she would sometimes say impatiently to her. ‘You seem to be trying to look right through me.’

Star-Eye was sorry at this and looked down at the ground; all she understood was that her kind mother was upset. Then the foster-mother patted her gently on the cheek and said, ‘Don’t cry, Lisa, my dear. It’s not your fault that you’re a Lapp child.’

One day when Star-Eye was three years old, the settler’s wife was sitting at her spinning wheel thinking of her husband, who was away on a journey. She remembered that his horse had lost a shoe from its left hind leg. Star-Eye was sitting in the corner astride a bench and pretending she was riding her horse; but at that moment she said to the bench, ‘Mother thinks you have lost the shoe from your left hind leg.’

The settler’s wife stopped spinning and said in surprise, “How do you know that?”

‘Little Lisa saw it,’ replied Star-Eye.

The foster-mother was disturbed at this, but she said nothing and decided in future to keep a close watch on the child. A few days later a passing stranger spent the night in the cottage, and in the morning his hostess noticed that a gold ring was missing from the table. Suspicion fell upon the stranger, and he had to let his clothes be examined, but there was no sign of the ring. Just then, Star-Eye awoke, gave the stranger a surprised look and said, ‘He’s got a ring in his mouth.’

There indeed was the ring. The stranger was turned out, and still the settler’s wife said nothing. Some time passed. Palte caught the measles, and the priest came to tend him, for he was also experienced in medicine. The mother had two fresh salmon in the larder and thought to herself, ‘I wonder whether to give him the little salmon or the big one? I think the little one is good enough.’

Star-Eye was sitting in the corner. She was holding a small brush in her arms, pretending it was a sick child. The broom became the priest, and Star-Eye said to it, ‘I wonder whether to give you the little salmon or the big one? I think the little one is good enough.’

Her foster-mother heard this, and every word pricked her heart like a needle. When the priest had gone she could no longer control her anger, but said to Star-Eye, ‘I can see now that I will never get rid of the magic in you, Lapp girl that you are. So you shall never again look at me with those fey eyes of yours. You shall live under the floor in the cellar, and once a day you shall come up for food, but until you rid yourself of that nasty knack of yours you shall be blindfolded to stop you seeing through people.’

Now this was not a nice thing to do to a poor little child who had never harmed anyone, but the settler’s wife was superstitious, like so many others of her kind, and she firmly believed that the Lapps could perform magic. So she shut Star-Eye up in the dark cellar, though she gave her clothes and food and a bed so that the child need not go cold or hungry. Star-Eye had all she needed except freedom, love, the company of other people and the light of day.

The settler was away, and Star-Eye was in the cellar. It was not much fun, but it was not as bad as all that. She had company. There was an old walking stick, a broken pitcher, a wood shaving and a bottle without a neck. She pretended that the walking stick was her father, the pitcher her mother, the piece of wood, the shaving and the bottle her three foster-brothers, and all, except the walking stick, lived in an empty tub. They all had their jobs to do in the tub, Star-Eye sang for them, and the mice and rats listened to her.

Lisa, the settler’s wife, had a neighbour called Grumla. On the day before

Christmas the two women were sitting in the cottage talking about the Lapps and their magic. The mother was knitting a pair of mittens, Simmu was playing with some copper coins, and Palte was grinding an old tile to powder, while Matte had tied a piece of string to the cat’s leg. Then, down in the cellar, they heard Star-Eye rocking the spool from the loom and singing a lullaby for it:

Mother’s knitting all her wool into warming mittens.
Simmu’s got his hands all full, Matte’s teasing kittens.
Palte’s grinding tiles to dust,
While the kitten’s legs are trussed.
Now the moon its watch is keeping,
Now the spool, my babe, is sleeping.

‘What’s that Lapp brat bawling about down in the pit?’ asked Grumla.

‘She’s singing a lullaby for her toys in the tub,’ replied Lisa.

‘But she can see everything we’re doing right through the floor,’ said Grumla. ‘She can see the moon shining even down in her dark cellar.’

‘I do believe she can,’ exclaimed Lisa. ‘Heaven preserve us, the child can work magic.’

Grumla was an evil woman. ‘I know what to do,’ she said. ‘Tie seven scarves over her eyes and put seven rugs on the hatch, then she won’t be able to see anything.’

‘I’ll try that,’ replied Lisa. She went straight down into the cellar, tied seven woollen scarves on the little starlit eyes and placed seven rugs on the floor over the hatch. But soon it grew dark, and the stars began to shine, and the Northern Lights climbed across the evening sky in two great arcs.

Then once again Star-Eye was heard to sing:

See the stars are shining forth,
now the night is nigh.
And two arcs stand to the north
o’er the mountains high.
All the stars look down to earth.
Northern Lights are near to me.
Let us sing our Saviour’s birth,
Tiny stars, so dear to me.

‘Just listen,’ said Grumla. ‘Now she can see the Northern Lights and the stars! She’s the worst troll child I’ve ever come across.’

‘That can’t be,’ said the settler’s wife. ‘I’ll go down into the cellar.’ She went down under the seven rugs, found Star-Eye still with the seven woollen scarves over her eyes and asked, ‘Can you see the stars?’

‘Yes, there are so many of them, so many,’ replied Star-Eye. ‘It’s all so clear and bright, Mother. Christmas is coming.’

The settler’s wife went upstairs again and told Grumla about this. Grumla said, ‘There’s nothing for it now but to dig a hole seven ells deep under the cellar floor and to put the troll girl into it and fill it up with sand. That will help.’

‘No,’ said Lisa. ‘I don’t think I could ever do that. It would be a pity for the child, and I’m afraid my husband would be upset if he heard about it.’

‘Well, then, give me the girl,’ said Grumla. ‘I’ll take her back to Lapland.’

‘So long as you don’t harm her,’ said the settler’s wife.

‘What harm would I do her?’ said Grumla. ‘I’ll take her back where she belongs.’

Grumla took the child, wrapped her in an old reindeer skin and took her out into the mountains. There she put Star-Eye down and went her way, saying, ‘I’m doing as I promised. She came from a snowdrift, so she must be put back in a. snowdrift.’

Star-Eye lay there in the snowdrift in her reindeer skin and looked up at the stars. It was Christmas Night again, just as three years ago, and the countless host of beautiful, boundless and distant suns in the sky again looked down in mercy on the innocent child. They shone in her eyes, they looked into her infant heart and they found nothing but goodness and the love of God. Then the child’s eyes took on a yet more wondrous light, and their vision was extended so much that they could see far beyond the stars, right to the veils around God’s invisible throne where angels were going back and forth, carrying messages to the millions of worlds in God’s infinite creation. And the night was clear and still and filled with silent worship. Only the Northern Lights crackled across the heavens; their arc spread across the sky at Star-Eye’s head.

Early on Christmas Morning, while the children in the cottage were still asleep, the settler came home from his journey. When he had taken his wife in his arms and brushed the frost from his brown hair he asked about the children. His wife told him that Palte had had measles, but was well again now, and that Simmu and Matte were as plump as wheat buns.

‘How is Star-Eye?’, asked the settler.

‘She’s well,’ said the wife, for she was afraid of her husband, and her conscience was tormenting her.

‘We must take good care of Star-Eye,’ continued the Settler. ‘I had a dream last night. I dreamt that I was in my sledge, and a star fell down on to my skin rug and said to me, “Take me and care well for me, for I am the blessing on your house.” But when I reached out to take hold of the star, it disappeared. I awoke and began to think how God’s blessing has been with us in everything we have done these three years since we took the stranger child into our house. Before that nothing went as it should. We were ill and poor, our fields were blighted by frost, the bears took our cows, the wolves took our sheep. But now everything is so good and thriving because God is gracious towards the merciful and blesses them, and his angels keep watch over innocent children.’

When the settler’s wife heard this she again felt a prick in her heart, but she did not dare say anything. Before long the boys awoke, and the father took them in his arms and rejoiced to see them so healthy and strong. Then, when he had rocked them on his knee for a time he again asked, ‘Where is Star-Eye?’

Then Simmu replied, ‘Mother has shut her up in the cellar.’

Palte said, ‘Mother has tied seven scarves over her eyes and put seven rugs over the hatch.’

Matte said, ‘Mother has given her to Grumla, and Grumla has carried her off into the mountains.’

When he heard this the settler grew red with anger, but his wife grew as white as a linen sheet and could only answer, ‘She was a Lapp child and the Lapps can work magic.’

The settler made no reply, but tired as he was, he went straight to the stable and harnessed his horse to the sledge again. Then he went first to Grumla’s cottage, dragged her into the sledge with him and forced her to show him where she had put the child. They reached the mountain, climbed out of the sledge and went on skis over the snow-covered crevices. When they came to the spot where Grumla had left the child, a tiny hollow could still be seen where she had lain in the snow, and close by there were the tracks of a sledge, but Star-Eye was not to be found. She had gone, and when they had searched for a long time to no avail, they had to turn back. The settler went on ahead, and Grumla followed a little way behind. Then came the sound of a cry; the settler turned round as he sped downhill and saw a pack of Lapland’s hungry wolves tearing Grumla to pieces at the top of the mountain. But the steep slope prevented him from going to her help, and when he gradually worked his way back up, the wolves had already eaten Grumla. Sadly, he returned to his cottage just as the bells were ringing for morning service on Christmas Morning.

The settler’s wife was sitting there overcome with remorse, and had not the courage to go to church and worship God, for that morning when she had gone out to feed the sheep the wolves had been there, too; they had broken into the sheep-pen during the night, and not one sheep was left alive.

‘That was the start of our punishment,’ said the settler. ‘Mother, let us take the children to church; we need it more than ever now, for we have a great sin to atone for.’

From that day no one knew what had happened to Star-Eye. The ski tracks in the snow near the place where she had been left in the snowdrift led people to the conclusion that some wanderer in the mountains had again been led by a good angel to this lonely spot, had found the child and taken her along with him. We have to believe that this is what happened, but no one knows who that wanderer was, or where Star-Eye was taken to find a new home – a better home, we hope – to which she was to bring plentiful blessings, and where she was to see more than others see. Indeed, it is her destiny to see through walls seven times thicker than ordinary walls, to see through the hearts of men, to see beyond the stars, through the blue vault of heaven, all the way to the dwellings of the blessed.

And what is so strange about that? Do we not, very occasionally, find someone endowed with such a gift, someone who seems able to read other people’s thoughts? Do we not find good and pious people whose faith is so strong that they can see right to the veils which hide the glories of the blessed? They cannot see beyond those veils, for beyond them there are still many things which ‘no eye has seen and no ear heard’, but it is already a great gift to be able to see beyond the limits of the earth, and none but a few chosen ones can do that.

People used to believe that men’s fates were determined by the stars. Now we believe that men’s destinies depend on the will of God; but this does not mean that the stars have lost their wondrous power. For when we look at them with sufficient devotion we can always see as it were a snippet of God’s cloak in His boundless creation. A patch of eternity always shines out through the earthly night, and then the question is whether this radiance remains in our eyes and our souls. It stayed with Star-Eye because she was an innocent, forlorn child who had no dwelling place on Earth. The difference is that the light from the stars so often grows pale in other people’s eyes as a result of the thoughts and desires that drag us all down to Earth.

Now no one knows where Star-Eye is to be found. She must still be a child, for it is not long since she disappeared. So look carefully at all good children with clear, shining eyes: perhaps one of them is the Star-Eye we are looking for. She is said to have had black hair and brown eyes, like Lapp children, but that does not mean that she is not to be found among the fair and the blue-eyed. Such things are not important. She might look quite different. Simply notice whether she can read your thoughts, calm storms and guess a secret from behind seven woollen scarves. If she can, she must be Star-Eye. If you have found her, please tell us, but do not tell her, for she has long forgotten the cellar and the cruelty of human beings, and it is better that she should have forgotten them. Alas, little Star-Eye, I once saw you; I will not say where, but I did see you, and you read my thoughts, and you put your arms around my neck, for you saw that I loved you. Who would not love you, delightful child, with the brightness of eternity in your radiant eyes!

Translated by W. Glyn Jones

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