Now this is the tale of a peasant woman who went into the mountains to find a cure for her sick child. She carried the infant, swaddled in thin blankets and threadbare dresses, in a straw basket on her back, for she had no one else to care for him. With her she took a thick glass bottle shaped like a giant teardrop that hung on a string around her neck.
Its contents had always fascinated her; those pure white bits like broken eggshell suspended in liquid the color of fresh grass. Sometimes when she lay awake at night she would look for its soft glow in the darkness, and she took comfort in knowing its light was for her alone. But soon the bottle would belong to the one at the place she sought, for when she was a child she was told by her mother, “Should you ever wish to give your life for someone, give this potion instead, and both you and they will live to see another sunrise.”
It was said that in a cave deep in the mountains lived a cruel snow witch who guarded a rare healing pool. Many had ventured on the path up the mountain range, never to return. The journey was considered so perilous that the wealthiest landowner in the village had promised a cart of gold coins and half of his own land and cattle to whoever could bring back so much as a drop of water from the fabled pool.
The day this challenge was announced, the woman had spent the last of her money on yet another doctor, only to be told, “Your child is incurable, and will die in three days.” But upon hearing of the pool and the reward the woman had sold all she had and bought a sheepskin anorak, a pair of boots, and enough food and water for six days. She then set off at dawn.
Around noon the woman had reached the mountain trail. Before she went up she stopped to feed herself and her child. But the child could barely swallow, and she was only able to feed him a sip of gruel at a time.
“Please be strong my dear; I will heal you soon,” said the woman as she heard his weak cries. Then she sang a soft lullaby to soothe him.
She thought she heard a noise somewhere. The woman stopped singing and listened closely. There it was again, a rustle in the bushes nearby.
A moment later out hopped a large hare. Its fur was darker than the deepest shadow. It looked up at her with eyes the color of a clear blue sky.
“What was that you were singing?” the hare asked, its voice low and rumbling like distant thunder.
“It is a song my mother taught me,” the woman replied. “I sing it to my son whenever he is upset or in pain.”
“Sing it again,” the hare said.
So the woman sang again, and when she was done the hare closed its eyes and nodded.
“I can hear the sorrow in your voice,” it said. “That is the song of the comforting mother, who calms her child in the face of despair. Fear not, for I have heard you. Whenever you cannot find your voice, sing the lullaby and I shall come to your aid.” Then it turned into mist and disappeared.
The woman finished eating and started to make her way up the mountainside. The path was long and twisting and the wind blew piercing arrows into her skin, but she marched on, thinking only of her son’s laughter and how she wished to hear it again.
Even as night fell she still walked, with only the moon to light her way. But as the hours passed the woman’s steps became slower and heavier, until it felt like she was dragging the weight of the earth behind her. Still she clung to the potion round her neck and swore she would live to see another sunrise.
In the light of the dawn, another obstacle soon made itself known. After the woman had crawled up yet another steep slope she stood and found herself facing a wall of jagged rock and ice. She thought about trying to scale it, but was worried about falling and hurting herself or her child. The woman fell to her knees. How would she ever get past this? There was no other way up the mountain. Was it truly hopeless?
At that moment the child started crying again. The woman’s heart ached. She did not wish for him to feel even the slightest bit of her own anxiety and doubt, but the more she tried to muster her courage for his sake, the more the wall loomed over her.
As the woman stared up at its impossible height, she was reminded of what her mother always told her as a child whenever she felt incapable of something or wanted to give up. Perhaps those words could give hope to both of them now.
So she turned her head and said to her son, “My dear, you have a spirit of fire. Your flame cannot be put out by tears or stormy weather. It burns from within and lights your way. It melts away all that stands between you and what you seek. Remember the gift of your undying heart.”
The moment she said this, the ground began to tremble. Thinking it was the start of an avalanche the woman became frightened. Only one thing could help them escape death. She took hold of the potion and reached for the cork to open it.
It was the sound of cracking in front of her that made her stop and look up. Ice and stone broke off and fell as the wall opened its flaming blue eyes and gaping pitch-dark mouth.
“Dear woman, I have heard your words,” boomed a voice from within the open mouth. “It is the speech of the inspiring mother, who encourages and uplifts her child so they may grow in their inner strength. Do not let your own strength falter, for you shall have safe passage if you trust those words as your child trusts you.” Then the mouth grew until it stretched from top to bottom, revealing a tunnel that appeared to lead into nothingness.
The woman stood up. With a deep breath of icy cold air, she stepped inside. As she did so a small flame appeared before her. It flickered in the air as it went ahead of the woman, lighting the tunnel a few steps ahead. The woman followed and hoped she would reach her destination soon.
The woman did not know for how long she walked. In the tunnel there was no sunrise or sunset, but only the light of the flame in front of her. Time stretched on into eternity.
She stopped a few times to rest, eat, and feed her child, and the flame stayed with her. It was during one of those times that she took her son off her back and noticed his breathing was heavy. The woman placed a hand on his forehead, but had to draw it away such was the burning sensation from when she touched his skin. She placed her forehead on the frosty stone wall then pressed it against the child’s forehead to cool it. When she was done she placed her son in the basket, pulled the woven straps over her shoulders, and stood. Then she walked again and did not stop.
After what felt like an age, the woman came across a glowing blue river. On the other side she could just about see the end of the tunnel. She set the child down and entered the river. The water went up to her shoulders. If she held her child above her head, then perhaps they could both make it across.
So step-by-step the woman made her way across the river. She trod carefully, for the rocks below were slippery and uneven, and a single hasty motion could drag them both underwater. When the woman lowered her foot halfway across the river, the ground beneath it crumbled and her foot became trapped in a tight hole.
As she pulled and tugged to no avail, the current grew stronger and the water began to rise. She panicked and struggled even harder, but then she looked up at her child and realized how easy it would be to lose her balance and drop him. So the woman chose to ease her foot out carefully, and stay standing for as long as she could.
A long time passed. The woman’s foot was still stuck, her arms had grown numb and shaky and the water was now above her chin. There was no way to reach the potion without sinking her son into the fast river. All she could do was hold him up until the very end.
The woman thought of the last time she had been this close to drowning. She had been a child and run too close to the river’s edge. She had fallen in and been swept downstream. When she woke up she found herself being carried by her dripping wet mother to safety. That night she’d asked her mother how they had survived, for she knew her mother could not swim either.
As the waters rushed over her head, the woman closed her eyes and recited the chant her mother had taught her back then.
“Whether you be a raging river,
Or the depths of a bottomless lake,
To your grave I shall not deliver,
My loved one you shall not take!”
At that moment the woman heard a tinkling sound, like the clear laughter of hundreds of tiny bells. She opened her eyes and discovered she had not drowned. A creature resembling a young girl with smooth, ghostly pale mottled skin was floating in front of her. She had hair like strands of silken ice and stared at her with huge silver eyes.
“My dear sister, I have heard your chant,” she said. “It is the vow of the enduring mother, who stands by her child in all seasons and circumstances. Even the rising waters could not pull you down to the riverbed. For your perseverance, allow us to lift you up.”
The tinkling sound rang in the woman’s ears as many smaller creatures filled the water and swam around her ankle. They grabbed her boot with their webbed hands and pushed and pulled until they had dislodged it. The first creature lifted her hands and the woman and child were raised out of the river. Water flowed out of the woman’s hair and clothes until they were bone dry. Then the two of them floated to the other side and out of the tunnel.
The woman landed on a snowy plateau in the dark of night. The mouth of the cave was a few steps away. She looked down at the child and saw that his face had grown paler than the moonlight shining down on him. He could not open his eyes he was so weak, and his body shuddered with every breath. Heart racing, the woman held the child close and rushed inside.
Her footsteps echoed endlessly. The cave was massive, like the belly of a stone giant. Luminous ice crystals covered the ceiling. The woman slowed to a stop as she approached the center of the cave. Before her was a pool of still, deep blue water that twinkled like the midnight sky.
As the woman took a step towards it, shrieking laughter shattered the silence. She whirled round and saw a tall, barefoot, skeletal figure wearing a ragged gray dress and a rotten, stinking bear pelt around her shoulders. Her long white hair was frozen around her head in a wild halo. Her pinpoint eyes were sunk deep into their sockets and her pointed teeth glinted as she leered at the woman.
“What delicious morsel has wandered into my cave?” said the Snow Witch in a voice like sharp knives scraping against each other.
The woman knelt before her. “My son has an incurable illness and is close to death. Please allow me to approach the healing pool so I may dip him in it but once,” she said. “Look, I have brought this potion, which is worth more than my very life. Take it, so my child might be saved.”
The Witch’s eyes gleamed. “I shall most certainly take it…once my wolves have feasted on your pathetic child!”
A gust of wind swept the woman off the ground and pulled her towards the Witch. The Witch ripped the potion from the woman’s neck and the child from her arms, and then commanded the winds to lift the woman high into the air.
“Keep her there until her last breath has been sucked away!” the Witch cried.
As the woman struggled to breathe, she looked down and saw a pair of large, slavering black wolves emerge from the shadows and slink towards the Witch. The Witch held out the child with both hands, ready to drop him to the ground.
The woman wanted to cry out, to yell at the Witch to stop. But how could she when the winds had already stolen most of her breath? As her vision started to fade, the black hare’s words echoed in her mind: Whenever you cannot find your voice, sing the lullaby and I shall come to your aid. So as the last wisps of air left her, out of the woman’s mouth rang a silent lullaby straight from the heart.
The hare soared through the air and caught the woman in its mouth, pulling her out of the furious winds. Once it had landed it placed her on the ground and grew to ten times its size.
“Get the potion while the Witch is distracted and throw it on her. I will protect your son,” said the hare. It leapt over the Witch and the child on the ground and landed in front of the wolves. With a smack of its paw it sent one wolf tumbling into the other, but within moments they had gotten up again. They bared their teeth and threw themselves at the giant hare.
The Witch screeched and sent spears of ice flying. The woman scrambled towards the potion, which had dropped beside the Witch’s bear pelt. But the moment she grasped it, the pelt shook with great violence and growled. The Witch spun round and kicked her with surprising force, sending her rolling across the cave until she stopped at the edge of the healing pool.
“I shall soak your child’s bones in your blood,” the Witch hissed as it floated towards the woman.
Her whole body trembling, the woman coughed and pulled herself up onto her hands and knees. The potion had fallen from her hand and was now an arm’s length in front of her. She knew if she reached for it, the Witch would lunge.
She caught sight of her reflection in the healing pool. It was so close, but her death was closer. She could only hope the hare would save her son, but would she have to give her life after all?
Go into the deep…, the potion whispered.
Its voice brought back feelings from long ago, though the woman could not understand why. She looked at the Witch’s soul-piercing eyes.
“Soak in the pool first,” the woman said. “And drown in its magic!”
Then she swept the potion into the healing pool and dove in after it.
The woman refused to close her eyes for even a second. But the water below was dark as the pit, and she was already succumbing to its depths. For a moment she wondered if she would ever find the potion…and that was when she saw it glow again, brighter than it ever had, within her reach.
She stretched out a hand, but her fingertips slipped against the smooth glass. The Witch’s icy fingers closed around her neck. The woman fought against the iron grip. She made one frantic, final grab.
The moment her fist closed around the cork, she pulled it up and twisted the bottle away with all her might.
All at once the potion rushed upwards and straight into the Witch’s open mouth. Her eyes widened in terror. The green liquid flowed through every part of her body. The Witch let out a silent scream as it bubbled and burned beneath her skin. Finally, the potion entered the Witch’s ancient soul and destroyed it from the inside.
The Witch’s body cradled the woman in its arms and rose to the surface. It floated to where the child lay and set the woman down beside him.
“Pour the water over your son,” the Witch’s body said, in a voice so serene it made the woman feel like a little girl again, resting in her mother’s arms. Even the maimed and bloody hare felt calm as it dropped a limp wolf on the ground and watched them.
The woman took the bottle, which was full of water from the healing pool and poured it over her still child’s head. There was a moment of silence, and then the child coughed and opened his eyes. Color returned to his cheeks and his face no longer held a grimace of pain.
The woman took the child in her arms as tears fell from her eyes, but at that moment she heard a thud behind her. She turned and saw the Witch’s body lying on the ground.
Fear gripped her heart. The woman hurried over to the body’s side. Its hair now flowed over its shoulders and its eyes looked deep and tranquil, but its face was gaunt and had a deathly pallor.
“I know the Witch is gone,” the woman said. “Tell me, who are you?”
“I am the snow healer who once protected this cave,” the body replied in a soft voice.
“How did you end up in the potion?” the woman asked.
“The potion contained pieces of my soul and some of your mother’s life essence.”
“My mother?” asked the woman.
“Yes.” The snow healer’s breathing was slow and labored. “When I lived here I would allow anyone who survived the journey to dip themselves in the healing water. One day a young woman arrived at the cave with her sick baby, but while I was taking the child to the healing pool the Snow Witch attacked me and struck me down. As she delivered the finishing blow, the woman threw herself in front of us and was hit instead. With her final breath she blew some of her life essence onto the child. So potent was the love that flowed within it that it entered me as well and healed us both. With my strength returned, I was able to flee the Witch and take the child with me to the nearest village. That child was you, my dear…” Tears streamed down the healer’s cheeks as the stunned woman listened. “I disguised myself as a human and raised you there. So moved was I by that woman’s sacrifice that I dedicated myself to learning the way of the mother and devoted my whole heart to you. I taught you magical words of comfort, strength, and determination. I gave you the life essence I had absorbed that day, mixed with part of myself so I could be with you always. I made that potion so that in your own time of ultimate sacrifice I could make mine in your place, and allow you to continue living alongside the one you loved most. Giving up that life essence eventually caused my body to succumb to mortality. Those fragments are all that are left of me and the life essence is the only thing sustaining them. This body is very old and has not received sustenance in a long time. It will not take long for all the life essence to be consumed. Therefore, I must relinquish it once again, so your real mother may rest in peace…”
The woman took the snow healer’s frail hand in hers and squeezed it tight. “You are both my real mothers. I will love you for all eternity.”
“As will I,” whispered the snow healer. “Even if I fade into nothing…my love…will remain…” Then she closed her eyes and breathed her last.
The woman bent over the empty body and bawled. She clutched the child to her heaving chest as her long, loud wails echoed throughout the cave. A hole opened in the woman’s heart that nothing in this world would fill it ever again.
When her tears had run dry she picked up the bottle and refilled it with water from the healing pool. She went over to the hare and poured the water over its wounds. Once they had healed, the woman filled the bottle again and returned the cork. Then she climbed on the hare’s back and they left in silence.
It took an hour for the hare to reach the woman’s village. It set her down outside the open gates and said, “This is where I leave you. Remember, sing the lullaby whenever you cannot find your voice and again I shall come to your aid.” Then it vanished into mist once more.
The woman stared down at the sleeping child in her arms. She knew there was nothing left here for them, at least until she claimed her reward. All she had was her child, the one she loved most. The one she would have given her life for. No matter her troubles, she knew he was all she needed.
So with a quiet heart the woman stood and watched the sunrise.