Liliwhite and the Will o’ the Wisp
Where the snow fell deeply and the forests ran thin, there was a boy called Liliwhite. Each morning, Liliwhite left his small wooden house and walked along the exposed village road to milk the cows at his uncle’s farm. In the summer he waved at the lupines on the roadside, and in the winter he smiled as the wind played in his hair. He didn’t mind working in the cold, even though the barn was drafty, even though his fingers were stiff, even though he had to wait an extra hour for the ice to melt in the water trough. In the winter, he didn’t see a soul in the fields, and the stars were beautiful, and the cows were thin and docile from the slim stalks of wheat. in the cold, even though the barn was drafty, even though his fingers were stiff, even though he had to wait an extra hour for the ice to melt in the water trough. In the winter, he didn’t see a soul in the fields, and the stars were beautiful, and the cows were thin and docile from the slim stalks of wheat.
Liliwhite loved the early winter but he dreaded when his cousins would come from inland to spend Midwinter with his uncle. His girl cousins drank the cream he left out for the tomte and asked him when he would find a husband (Liliwhite was transgender, and though he wouldn’t have minded a husband, the thought of being anyone’s housewife left him ill). He watched with envy as his boy cousins left for the forest to hunt and trap, while he was left behind with the dairymaids.
When the sun grew weak and the nights grew long, his cousins arrived in a great procession. In the days that followed, Liliwhite became very distracted. He dropped a bucket of milk on the steps for the simple pleasure of cleaning it alone. He became so lost in thought that he heated the cow’s water until it boiled. By the seventh day, Liliwhite was so thoroughly miserable that he made up his mind to leave the village behind. He knew his cousins would try to keep him from leaving, so he snuck away in the earliest hours of the morning. The moon was bright and full. He took two torches and his cousin’s hunting knives, along with his own skis and tent.
The snow was fresh but not falling when Liliwhite left. He went north, following the footpath to the mountains. Now, if you have been as far north as Liliwhite, you would know that the sun disappears around the solstice, and does not return until the new year. Liliwhite must have known this, and yet: he left anyway. Liliwhite skied through the night, and through the dark morning, too. He skied until he couldn’t see the village lights anymore, and he skied further. He had crested the saddle between two mountain peaks before a hunting horn broke over the valley. Toward the south he saw a faint line of torches creeping up the mountain path. He skied, and the torches followed, he skied, and they grew ever closer.
Perhaps Liliwhite’s escape would have been a simple race against the hunting party, but polar night is a time when the valleys shake and stretch. The mountain path touched down on the boulder-filled tundra and refused to go further: where the road should have picked up again, new finger lakes stretched across its path. Liliwhite had no choice but to take to the scree field. He would be harder to follow there at least. The moon had tucked itself into the clouds at this point, so it was dark, dark, dark. He lit his first torch with a piece of flint and, with his skis strapped to his back, set off into the wilderness.
Liliwhite’s torch burnt out within the hour, and he soon lit the second. With the boulders hiding his tracks and the path vanishing far behind him, Liliwhite felt quite alone. Now, it is not wise to set out without enough light, but Liliwhite did not expect it to be so cloudy, and he did not expect to be forced off the path. Regardless, he found himself in the scree field, by the dying torchlight, and then he found himself in the dark. In such cold weather, it’s really best to keep moving. So Liliwhite inched blindly forward through the night.
Not long had passed before a light appeared in the distance ahead. It was whiter than the oil torches that pursued him, like a flash of herring scales—another traveller on the tundra? Liliwhite started after the light, which receded just as fast as he approached. Moving as quickly as he could without his sight, Liliwhite followed. He scrambled faster and faster, until his ankle twisted and he fell. He called up from the ground towards the distant light: “If you are a traveller, help me, please!” But the light only blinked, and Liliwhite fell into an unwilling sleep on the stones.
When Liliwhite awoke, the white torchlight was in front of him, held aloft by a strange creature. It wore an elaborate hood that covered its eyes, with two points over where its ears should have been. Fabric looped from point to point under its chin, revealing only its mouth, which was set in a crooked pout. It was not the strangeness of the creature’s appearance, but the perfect stillness of its vigil that unsettled Liliwhite. He had the sense that he had made a mistake, asking such a thing for help. The spirits that dwelt here were old and powerful—you could come at them with all of your might without their noticing.
Liliwhite rose to face the creature. “What should I call you, friend?”
The creature considered him for a time. “Friend, I have not been called before. Many call me the Will o’ the Wisp. You may call me what you like.”
Liliwhite shivered. “You are kind to help me, spirit, but I fear you will be angry with me, for I do not know how a favour is repaid in your world.”
“Do not think of it,” replied the Wisp, “I have lived this future many times and you have repaid me in each.”
Liliwhite nodded. “I was travelling North,” he said, “But I cannot see the stars, so I have lost my way.”
“Lost?” said the Wisp, “I do not understand. You are here, and I am here also.”
Liliwhite frowned. “I suppose you are right,” he said, “But that doesn’t help me much.”
“Your family searches for you, yet you do not answer them,” said the Will o’ the Wisp, turning his head. “You say you do not wish to be lost, yet you do not wish to be found.”
“Well,” said Liliwhite, “No, not by them.”
As if reciting a verse, the Wisp replied: “‘An outside and an inside and me in the middle, perhaps that’s what I am, the thing that divides the world in two.’ Where do you dwell, creature? What is your place? You orient your body to the stones and the lichen… you imagine that you become located by the touch of them. You imagine that you are inside your body, with your body inside a place. There is no interior, no refuge, no deep down for you. You land on the ground out of habit. It is your touch that dislocates the object.”
Said Liliwhite: “You mean to say that I am only lost because I imagine myself to be lost.”
“Not at all,” said the Wisp, “You are lost because you cannot be found.”
Liliwhite was wise enough not to argue with anyone who spoke in riddles. “If you speak the truth,” he said, “then what am I to do?”
The Wisp did not answer. In the distance, torchlights appeared, for they had seen the bright glow of the Will o’ the Wisp.
“You must put out the light,” whispered Liliwhite, “Or they will find me forthwith.”
“Very well,” said the Wisp, and he vanished along with the light. In his place, glowing gently, appeared a patch of bog lupines, the very same kind that grew on the village road in the summertime. “You must be lost, too,” said Liliwhite to the plants. The torches grew closer, and their bearers had reckoned well where Liliwhite stood. He dared not move, lest they hear him stumble, but he feared staying, lest the hunters stumble over him.
Well, thought Liliwhite, if I truly cannot be found, let them realize that I am lost. He plucked seven seeds from the bog lupines, and one by one, he ate them up.
When the hunting party found Liliwhite, he was as cold and still as the East Lakes. They buried him in the scree where they found him. Their mourning was short, his name was spoken for one year and then forgotten. But if you ask the stones and the lichen, they saw the strangest thing that night: the Will o’ the Wisp, waiting at the foot of a scree grave, with two torches in his hand. And Liliwhite, frost on his clothes, skis on his back, taking a torch for himself.