The Poor Thing
There was a man in the islands who fished for his bare bellyful, and took his life in his hands to go forth upon the sea between four planks. But though he had much ado, he was merry of heart; and the gulls heard him laugh when the spray met him. And though he had little lore, he was sound of spirit; and when the fish came to his hook in the mid-waters, he blessed God without weighing. He was bitter poor in goods and bitter ugly of countenance, and he had no wife.
It fell in the time of the fishing that the man awoke in his house about the midst of the afternoon. The fire burned in the midst, and the smoke went up and the sun came down by the chimney. And the man was aware of the likeness of one that warmed his hands at the red peats.
“I greet you,” said the man, “in the name of God.”
“I greet you,” said he that warmed his hands, “but not in the name of God, for I am none of His; nor in the name of Hell, for I am not of Hell. For I am but a bloodless thing, less than wind and lighter than a sound, and the wind goes through me like a net, and I am broken by a sound and shaken by the cold.”
“Be plain with me,” said the man, “and tell me your name and of your nature.”
“My name,” quoth the other, “is not yet named, and my nature not yet sure. For I am part of a man; and I was a part of your fathers, and went out to fish and fight with them in the ancient days. But now is my turn not yet come; and I wait until you have a wife, and then shall I be in your son, and a brave part of him, rejoicing manfully to launch the boat into the surf, skilful to direct the helm, and a man of might where the ring closes and the blows are going.”
“This is a marvellous thing to hear,” said the man; “and if you are indeed to be my son, I fear it will go ill with you; for I am bitter poor in goods and bitter ugly in face, and I shall never get me a wife if I live to the age of eagles.”
“All this hate I come to remedy, my Father,” said the Poor Thing; “for we must go this night to the little isle of sheep, where our fathers lie in the dead-cairn, and to-morrow to the Earl’s Hall, and there shall you find a wife by my providing.”
So the man rose and put forth his boat at the time of the sunsetting; and the Poor Thing sat in the prow, and the spray blew through his bones like snow, and the wind whistled in his teeth, and the boat dipped not with the weight of him.
“I am fearful to see you, my son,” said the man. “For methinks you are no thing of God.”
“It is only the wind that whistles in my teeth,” said the Poor Thing, “and there is no life in me to keep it out.”
So they came to the little isle of sheep, where the surf burst all about it in the midst of the sea, and it was all green with bracken, and all wet with dew, and the moon enlightened it. They ran the boat into a cove, and set foot to land; and the man came heavily behind among the rocks in the deepness of the bracken, but the Poor Thing went before him like a smoke in the light of the moon. So they came to the dead-cairn, and they laid their ears to the stones; and the dead complained withinsides like a swarm of bees: “Time was that marrow was in our bones, and strength in our sinews; and the thoughts of our head were clothed upon with acts and the words of men. But now are we broken in sunder, and the bonds of our bones are loosed, and our thoughts lie in the dust.”
Then said the Poor Thing: “Charge them that they give you the virtue they withheld”.
And the man said: “Bones of my fathers, greeting! for I am sprung of your loins. And now, behold, I break open the piled stones of your cairn, and I let in the noon between your ribs. Count it well done, for it was to be; and give me what I come seeking in the name of blood and in the name of God.”
And the spirits of the dead stirred in the cairn like ants; and they spoke: “You have broken the roof of our cairn and let in the noon between our ribs; and you have the strength of the still-living. But what virtue have we? what power? or what jewel here in the dust with us, that any living man should covet or receive it? for we are less than nothing. But we tell you one thing, speaking with many voices like bees, that the way is plain before all like the grooves of launching: So forth into life and fear not, for so did we all in the ancient ages.” And their voices passed away like an eddy in a river.
“Now,” said the Poor Thing, “they have told you a lesson, but make them give you a gift. Stoop your hand among the bones without drawback, and you shall find their treasure.”
So the man stooped his hand, and the dead laid hold upon it many and faint like ants; but he shook them off, and behold, what he brought up in his hand was the shoe of a horse, and it was rusty.
“It is a thing of no price,” quoth the man, “for it is rusty.”
“We shall see that,” said the Poor Thing; “for in my thought it is a good thing to do what our fathers did, and to keep what they kept without question. And in my thought one thing is as good as another in this world; and a shoe of a horse will do.”
Now they got into their boat with the horseshoe, and when the dawn was come they were aware of the smoke of the Earl’s town and the bells of the Kirk that beat. So they set foot to shore; and the man went up to the market among the fishers over against the palace and the Kirk; and he was bitter poor and bitter ugly, and he had never a fish to sell, but only a shoe of a horse in his creel, and it rusty.
“Now,” said the Poor Thing, “do so and so, and you shall find a wife and I a mother.”
It befell that the Earl’s daughter came forth to go into the Kirk upon her prayers; and when she saw the poor man stand in the market with only the shoe of a horse, and it rusty, it came in her mind it should be a thing of price.
“What is that?” quoth she.
“It is a shoe of a horse,” said the man.
“And what is the use of it?” quoth the Earl’s daughter.
“It is for no use,” said the man.
“I may not believe that,” said she; “else why should you carry it?”
“I do so,” said he, “because it was so my fathers did in the ancient ages; and I have neither a better reason nor a worse.”
Now the Earl’s daughter could not find it in her mind to believe him. “Come,” quoth she, “sell me this, for I am sure it is a thing of price.”
“Nay,” said the man, “the thing is not for sale.”
“What!” cried the Earl’s daughter. “Then what make you here in the town’s market, with the thing in your creel and nought beside?”
“I sit here,” says the man, “to get me a wife.”
“There is no sense in any of these answers,” thought the Earl’s daughter; “and I could find it in my heart to weep.”
By came the Earl upon that; and she called him and told him all. And when he had heard, he was of his daughter’s mind that this should be a thing of virtue; and charged the man to set a price upon the thing, or else be hanged upon the gallows; and that was near at hand, so that the man could see it.
“The way of life is straight like the grooves of launching,” quoth the man. “And if I am to be hanged let me be hanged.”
“Why!” cried the Earl, “will you set your neck against a shoe of a horse, and it rusty?”
“In my thought,” said the man, “one thing is as good as another in this world and a shoe of a horse will do.”
“This can never be,” thought the Earl; and he stood and looked upon the man, and bit his beard.
And the man looked up at him and smiled. “It was so my fathers did in the ancient ages,” quoth he to the Earl, “and I have neither a better reason nor a worse.”
“There is no sense in any of this,” thought the Earl, “and I must be growing old.” So he had his daughter on one side, and says he: “Many suitors have you denied, my child. But here is a very strange matter that a man should cling so to a shoe of a horse, and it rusty; and that he should offer it like a thing on sale, and yet not sell it; and that he should sit there seeking a wife. If I come not to the bottom of this thing, I shall have no more pleasure in bread; and I can see no way, but either I should hang or you should marry him.”
“By my troth, but he is bitter ugly,” said the Earl’s daughter. “How if the gallows be so near at hand?”
“It was not so,” said the Earl, “that my fathers did in the ancient ages. I am like the man, and can give you neither a better reason nor a worse. But do you, prithee, speak with him again.”
So the Earl’s daughter spoke to the man. “If you were not so bitter ugly,” quoth she, “my father the Earl would have us marry.”
“Bitter ugly am I,” said the man, “and you as fair as May. Bitter ugly I am, and what of that? It was so my fathers—”
“In the name of God,” said the Earl’s daughter, “let your fathers be!”
“If I had done that,” said the man, “you had never been chaffering with me here in the market, nor your father the Earl watching with the end of his eye.”
“But come,” quoth the Earl’s daughter, “this is a very strange thing, that you would have me wed for a shoe of a horse, and it rusty.”
“In my thought,” quoth the man, “one thing is as good—”
“Oh, spare me that,” said the Earl’s daughter, “and tell me why I should marry.”
“Listen and look,” said the man.
Now the wind blew through the Poor Thing like an infant crying, so that her heart was melted; and her eyes were unsealed, and she was aware of the thing as it were a babe unmothered, and she took it to her arms, and it melted in her arms like the air.
“Come,” said the man, “behold a vision of our children, the busy hearth, and the white heads. And let that suffice, for it is all God offers.”
“I have no delight in it,” said she; but with that she sighed.
“The ways of life are straight like the grooves of launching,” said the man; and he took her by the hand.
“And what shall we do with the horseshoe?” quoth she.
“I will give it to your father,” said the man; “and he can make a kirk and a mill of it for me.”
It came to pass in time that the Poor Thing was born; but memory of these matters slept within him, and he knew not that which he had done. But he was a part of the eldest son; rejoicing manfully to launch the boat into the surf, skilful to direct the helm, and a man of might where the ring closes and the blows are going.