This is a retelling of a traditional Inuit story.
There is a place you may know many miles from here (but not so far as you think) where the land is a wild and savage desert, and words once spoken float like ghosts in the still and sultry air. In this place the ground is jagged with rocks and heavy with knowledge. The sky is the colour of metal and the trees are charred and beautiful and black.
Among the people who lived in this desert, it was the custom that when a woman wished for a child she would go out into the wild and dig for it. Sometimes she would dig deep and sometimes she would dig shallow. Sometimes it would take her no more than an hour, sometimes it would take her a day, a month, or a week. And when she found her baby, cramped and cold and swaddled in soil, she held it and soothed it and rocked it and snuggled it and brushed the earth from its face with her lips.
Some women found the digging easy and their families were large. Some did not care for digging and their families were small. Some were lucky - they dug up babies almost before they knew they wanted them; others were unfortunate - before they were successful they had to try and try and try.
One woman was much more unlucky than the others. She dug for a year and a day, she dug through rain and wind and hail, she dug until her fingers bled and her hair was matted with dust and the tears had tracked through the dirt on her cheeks, she dug until her mouth and eyes were plugged with soil and she was covered with earth from head to foot, but she could not find a child.
The woman was loved by a man. Each day he watched her dig until it was so dark she could not see, and each night he found her, cramped and cold and black with soil. And when she wept he held her and soothed her and rocked her and snuggled her and brushed the earth from her body with his hands. But his heart was empty because they could not find a child.
Whenever a magician or a healer came to their land, the woman asked for help. One said sing a song every day before breakfast, another said drink only apple wine, a third advised her to stick needles into her arms and say her name backwards six times at midnight while rubbing her face with candle soot. She did it all, but she did not find a child.
The years passed and, at last, when the hard ground was torn and gashed like a ploughed field from horizon to horizon, she was visited by the wisest woman of all. 'You must make the long journey north to a valley far away. When you reach it, dig, and keep on digging. Then you will find your child.'
So the man packed her knapsack and filled it with bread and apple wine and sent her on her journey. She walked and she climbed and she scrambled until there was nothing left to eat and the soles of her boots were worn right through, and when she thought she could not walk another step, the mist cleared and she saw the valley and knew that this time she would find her child.
She dug and she dug and she did not stop. She dug until her shoulders were rocks, her spine burnt like fire and her heart was colder than ice. She dug so hard her lips and eyes and ears and nose were clogged with dust and she could barely breathe. It got too dark to see or hear or taste but still she scratched and burrowed and dug and dug and could not stop. And then, because she had dug right through to the other side of the earth, there was nothing left to dig, so there was nothing left to do but stop.
She stopped and then
she looked around. This place was nothing like her home. The air was light
and warm, the earth was soft and green and moist. Trees grew tall against
an indigo sky, and water ran in pools and streams and rivers everywhere,
clean and clear and warm and sweet.
Exhausted the woman marvelled and wondered and gazed. And as she looked, two giant children, a girl and a boy, saw her lying on the ground, stiff and sore and dry and cracked. And they picked her up and soothed her and rocked her. They washed the earth from her skin and out of her hair and gave her fresh clean clothes. And gently, because she saw that she was tired, the girl lifted her to her heart and carried her in a sling around her chest. As they walked, the woman felt the girl's heartbeat and as their bodies swayed, the rocks in the woman's shoulders turned to dust, the fire in her spine was soothed and the ice in her heart began to thaw. She felt warm and safe and comfortable. When she was tired the boy sang her awake and when she was hungry she drank from the girl's breast. And she knew that she was happier now than she had ever before been in her life. But in her heart she recognized an empty place because still she had not found her child.
The children saw this and they asked her what was wrong. 'I want to have a child,' she said. 'I want to hold it and smell it and run my fingers down its spine. I want to tickle it and soothe it and tend it as it grows.' The boy and the girl lifted her up so she could see a distant mountain. 'We will carry you to the mountain. You must climb it and when you reach the summit, you must dig. Then you will find your child.'
So the next day she climbed the mountain (backwards, because now she was used to this place) and then she started to dig. And before she had dug for a very long time she found a tunnel and followed it deep into the heart of the darkness. And before she had followed it for a very great distance the tunnel broke and branched and twisted into hundreds of perplexing passageways. In the pitch dark she could not tell which way to turn and to the right and left, above and below, forward and back she could hear the sound of creatures sniffing and scraping in the blackness. They pawed at her skin and tore at her hair but she was looking for her child and she did not have time to stop.
When she had walked for a day and a night and her hands and body were slimy with moss and earth, she still had not found her child. And because she could hardly breathe and could not crawl another foot, she lay down on the damp earth and began to cry. 'Now I know I will never find a child,' she said. 'And now I am ready to die.'
And she let the ground close over her and embraced the soil and breathed in the earth and at last she felt safe because she knew there was nothing to dig for, because all the digging she could ever do was over and done. She lay in the darkness and let it wash over her until there was nothing in her heart but a pinprick of light. And just as the pinprick was about to be extinguished, she heard a scratching and she opened her eyes. And just when she thought it was nothing, she heard a snuffling and shuffling that began very softly and became firmer until it sounded like footsteps padding her way, so she lifted her head. And a shadow separated itself from the blackness and she recognized the shape of the man. 'You did not come back,' he said. 'So I came to find you.' And he touched her, cramped and cold as she was and crusted with dust, and he held her and soothed her and rocked her until at last she was so tired there was nothing left to do but sleep.
She slept and she slept and she slept. And when she awoke she saw that she was back in the place where she was born. The place where the land is a wild and savage desert, where the sky is the colour of metal and the trees are charred and beautiful and black.
She did not feel happy
and she did not feel sad. But when she looked at her arms she thought
she saw a child there, small and soft and snuffling, its milky breath
against her skin. So, gently, because she did not want to wake it, she
began to lick the earth from its face with her tongue.