|illustration copyright © Anthony Lewis 2010|
"Now,” said the Old Storyteller. “Whose turn is it to choose tonight?” The youngest of the North children, whose name was Gerdal, shyly put up her hand. The Old Storyteller lifted Gerdal onto her lap, and pulled out the magic pouch. “Dip your hand in, my dear, and we shall see what we shall see.”
Gerdal shut her eyes and dipped in her hand. Out came a beautiful crystal snowflake, hanging from a long white thread of hair.
“Ah,” said the Old Storyteller, “That reminds me of a story I was told long ago…” And she began to rock Gerdal slowly, as she began the tale of...The Snow Woman's Hair.“Far, far north of here, in the place above where Earth meets the sky, there lives Snow Woman. She is very very old, and very very round and very very wrinkled, and her long, long, heavy hair is whiter than swansdown, and softer than velvet. Her little house is made of a million huge icicles all stuck together by her friend, Jack Frost, and the tiny square windows are covered in lacy ice paintings of all the flowers that ever were in the world. She has few visitors—only Jack Frost and the North Wind can bear the cold of her house—and she lives all alone except for a flock of white snow geese, which lay eggs for her, a winged white reindeer, which gives her milk, and a herd of white polar bears, which bring her white fish to eat, and white sealskins to wear.
All year long she trudges the snowy fields around her house, setting traps for ice rainbows. She bundles the rainbows into the big white sack on her back, and when she gets them home, she untangles the colours, and puts them into glowing piles on the floor. When she has enough, she gets out her big loom, and weaves them into shimmering blankets, each one strange and different. Some are green and ghostly, some are fiery and frightening, others have colours that change and swirl as you look at them.
Once a month, she fills her sledge with the blankets she has woven. Then she harnesses up her winged reindeer and flies off to the edge of her world, where she hangs her blankets from a long line of air. She fixes them on with sharp hooks made from the broken-off points of stars. There they flap and float in the wind, and sometimes, if the season is right, we can look up into the sky and see them glittering on the horizon. We on Earth call them the Northern Lights.
Long, long ago, when Snow Woman was young, she had a different name (which only she remembers), and she lived on a different world, in a place where it never snowed. It was warm and sunny, and full of trees and flowers. She was the only daughter of a great warrior, and not one of her six brothers could equal her skill with lance and bow, with sword and stave—and on horseback she could outride and outfight anyone in the kingdom. She was also very good at a great many other things. But Snow Woman was not happy. Every day she looked up to the frozen blue sky that lay over the ice mountains of the north, and every day she felt them calling her more and more.
In the September of her sixteenth year, there was a great tournament, not only for those who fought, but also for those who played chess, and five stones, for cooks and winemakers, for inventors of great inventions, for storytellers and jugglers and bards. In fact, it was for anyone who was any good at anything. Snow Woman was determined to be the best at everything, for the king had announced that whoever won the most competitions would get a great prize of gold and jewels.
But the great ice god, Friij, up in his great ice palace in the farthest north had also heard of the tournament. He looked down at the beautiful green land, and licked his icy blue lips. How nice it would be if all the pretty plants and trees shrivelled in his frosty breath, and how much better the land would look if it was covered in ice. Friij mounted his snow dragon, and flew south to try his luck.
The tournament was in full swing when he arrived. Everyone gasped as Friij landed his snow dragon in the middle of the main arena and seized a trumpet from the nearest herald.
“I challenge all comers at everything,” he boomed. Frost and ice appeared where he stood, and he looked so huge and frightening that no-one dared to accept his challenge—except Snow Woman. Friij looked her up and down and spat.
“Pah!” he snorted. “A mere girl! I shall freeze your bones and give them to my dragon to crunch!” But Snow Woman was not afraid, and two days later, with only the five stones competition to go, she and Friij were even.
Friij was angry. He was a god. He wasn’t going to be beaten by a mere mortal, and a twig of a girl at that. He simply must win the last game. But he wasn’t very good at five stones. What should he do? He decided to cheat.
“I will make you a bargain,” he said, smiling an icy smile. “I will stake all the riches of my kingdom on this last game of five stones. If you win, you may have the six hoards of the Frost Giants, and the great Ice Diamond of Norgard. But if you lose you must come north with me and do whatever task I set you, for as long as I ask, or I will freeze your land and its people to death.”
Snow Woman was very good at five stones. She considered carefully, for she was tempted by the thought of such riches on top of the king’s prize. Anyway, even if she lost, she would gain her heart’s desire to go north, and surely no task could be as difficult as all that. She was young and brave, so she took a deep breath and spoke.
“I accept your terms,” she said, rashly.
Friij got out a little pouch from his dragon’s saddlebag, and shook it out onto the ground. Five little stones and a bigger pebble lay there, each glittering and glimmering as the sun shone on them. Snow Woman picked them up and threw the first throw, but as the stones rose in the air, Friij twiddled his little finger, and the stones bounced off Snow Woman’s knuckles and fell to the ground. Friij smiled a wicked smile and picked the stones up for his turn. He made a perfect throw. At the end of the seventh and last round, Snow Woman had not won a single point.
So Snow Woman had to keep her promise, and go with Friij. She said goodbye to her father and brothers, goodbye to trees and flowers and warmth, and mounted the snow dragon. Away, away they flew, northwards and further north still, till they reached Friij’s great palace. It was all even more beautiful than Snow Woman had imagined.
As they dismounted in the great ice hall, Snow Woman asked Friij what her task was to be.
“I will show you,” he said, and he clapped his hands. A magical picture appeared within a huge icy wall of a land all blue and green. “This is the world called Earth,” he said. “Every year, in the season they call winter, your task will be to cover as much of it as you can with snow. Remember, if you fail, your people will suffer! You must start off at once for the place where Earth meets the sky, and there you will live and carry out your work. From now on you will be called Snow Woman, and this task will be yours from now until the end of time.”
It would take too many days to tell you the full tale of the terrible journey Snow Woman had to make to reach the place above where Earth meets the sky, and of the despair she felt at her impossible task. How could she save her people from Friij? How would she find the way? But in the end Jack Frost found her trudging through the skies, lost, lonely and desperate, and he took pity on her. He brought her one of his winged reindeer, and he showed her the path to her journey's end. There he built her an icicle house, with some of his exquisite flower pictures on the windows to remind her of happier times.
What I can tell you is that on that journey she changed. Whether it was by her own magic or by another’s, nobody knows, not even Snow Woman herself. Her dusky rose skin became white, and her eyes changed from the deep green of leaves to the ice blue of the northern sky. And her hair…as she reached her new home, her dark hair became white too, and it grew and grew and grew until it was so heavy she had to shear it off with great scissor blades of ice. As the first cut was made, it slithered off the edge of the ice and fell down the sky to Earth. And as it fell it changed to flakes whiter than swansdown and softer than velvet, and covered the winter Earth below with snow. So in that way, Snow Woman’s hair saved her people from the terrible ice god Friij, and as far as I know, is saving them still.”
The Old Storyteller put the crystal snowflake back into her magic pouch. Then she lifted her head as if she had heard something outside.
“Listen, children, I hear a sound of cutting now!” As the older children ran to look out of the tent door, they saw that it was true. Snip! Snip! Snip! Long strands of Snow Woman’s hair were covering Earth in a veil of white, and as they looked up into the sky they seemed to see a small round figure wielding a large pair of scissors in the gleam of the Northern Lights above. Little Gerdal yawned sleepily, and the Old Storyteller smiled as she cuddled her deep under her white cloak.
“Time for bed!” she said. “There’ll be another story tomorrow.”
Story copyright © Lucy Coats 2010