The night is still as the cool white stars blink above her and the sea laps against the hull of her boat. Each ripple glistens under the half-moon hanging in the sky. Gudrun sighs and begins pulling in her lines. Every line comes up bare, save for the sad looking bait which hangs limply from each hook.
Once upon a time, her boat would have been packed with the night’s catch. The shallow waters would be teeming with fish, their scales shimmering, and she would haul them into the boat until the buckets were overflowing.
She loves fishing. Just as her father had, and his father before him.
Her earliest memories were of sun-soaked decks and foaming green waves. She would help pull in the lines, and the deck would be alive with leaping fish. She remembers her father’s great booming laugh, and the way he’d pick her up and catch her whenever they were blessed with a bountiful catch. But then her father’s strong body grew frail. His tanned skin became pale. And within a year she had to bury the man who had raised her and loved her.
The care of her three little brothers had fallen to her at the age of fifteen.
So she took over her father’s trade and became a fisherwoman. The women in town scoffed at her coarse hands and the trousers she wore instead of fine dresses. She ignored their sideways whispers, preferring work to gossip. Her brothers helped her gut the fish when she pulled ashore with her catch, then she’d sit in the market all day until she had sold every last fish.
It didn’t bring in much, but it was enough.
Over the years the town began to grow, as port towns do. Soon work began to dredge the bay so that larger ships could dock. The water grew murky, the sea grass died and the fish began to disappear.
Tonight, she looks down at her empty buckets with the feeling that her whole existence lay on a foundation ready to collapse. It makes her heart ache to think of her brothers pretending to be full after a meagre meal of stale bread and thin soup. All she wants is for them to have a happy childhood. But there’s no use in complaining.
Complaining never solves anything her father used to chide.
Suddenly the night blazes around her.
She shields her eyes as a brilliant burst of light falls from the sky, trailing sparks in a wide arc, before plunging into the sea. The waves around the spot where it had fallen are phosphorescent. She unclips her oars and rows towards it. Deep down beneath the midnight waves, something is glowing.
Pulling off her shoes, she takes a deep breath and dives into the water.
She swims down towards the strange light. When she reaches the sandy floor of the sea, she finds a starfish, royal blue with gold edges, illuminating the night like a beacon. She picks it up gently, and swims back to the surface where her boat sways upon the waves.
‘What is it, Gudrun?’ asks Jon, the eldest of her little brothers.
‘It’s a sea star,’ she replies.
‘Why does it glow like that?’ asks Finnur, the middle brother.
‘I don’t know,’ she laughs. ‘But it fell from the sky like a shooting star. I had to dive into the sea to catch it.’
‘Do you think it misses its home up in the sky?’ asks Kari, the youngest brother.
‘Maybe,’ she strokes his hair affectionately. ‘But we can try to make it feel welcome. We’ll make it a lovely home and look after it just as we look after each other.’
Together, they lug buckets of seawater to fill an old tub in the yard. They bring in sand to make the bottom nice and soft, and plant what little seagrass they can pull up so that the starfish has somewhere to play. Kari even adds his collection of seashells so the starfish won’t feel sad.
The next morning, before the light of dawn, Gudrun sets out once more in her father’s old fishing boat. The three brothers wake early too. They sit around the tub and gaze down at the glowing star.
‘You know,’ says Jon, ‘I heard the butcher’s wife say Gudrun would be much better off if she gave up fishing. She could become pretty again and marry someone with lots of money. Then we’d never have to gut fish again.’
‘I’m tired of stinking like fish all the time,’ complained Finnur.
‘Me too. If she married a rich man, we could live in a mansion with so many rooms that you can’t count ‘em. We could have whatever we want, because Gudrun would never say no to us.’
‘That’s true. She’d never refuse us anything.’
Kari says nothing. Instead he dips his hand into the tub of water to gently stroke the starfish.
‘Yes,’ continues Jon, ‘I wish Gudrun would marry a rich man and we could all move into a giant house with golden rooms and lots of toys!’
As the two boys excitedly discuss their imaginary plans, only Kari notices the starfish curl its arms in for a moment before unfurling them once more. Each blue limb ripples with gold and for a moment its light grows brighter.
Gudrun sits at her market stall beside a single bucket of fish. The fish are so small they’re barely worth the time to gut them, but it’s all she’s caught in days. She smiles at passers-by, hoping someone will take pity and make a purchase so she doesn’t have to return home with empty pockets.
After several hours, she decides to pack up.
As she rises from the ground, she notices a man, much too well dressed for the market, standing before her. He’s looking at her, yet he seems to stare straight through her.
‘Gudrun, is it?’
‘Yes,’ she answers, bowing her head respectfully.
‘Yes, I think you’re the one I’m searching for. Come, we have much to discuss.’
He takes her firmly by the arm, and leads her away. ‘I had an odd dream about you the other night. I saw your face, heard your name and saw you right there in the market, though I’m sure we’ve never met before. And I knew I had to find you because we’re destined to marry.’
Gudrun pulls away from him in shock. His eyes look through her in that strange way, and she waits for a derisive smile to let her know he’s making a joke at her expense. But he only stares, dead-eyed and tight-lipped, his grip tightening possessively on her arm.
He tells her of his fortunes and describes his grand home filled with gold. His manners are cool, calm and reptilian as he rolls out his plans for her, and makes her vow she would never set out on a fishing boat again.
‘But it isn’t just me you would be burdened with in this bargain,’ she pleads. ‘I have three young brothers to look after. I have no parents, and I’m their only support.’
‘Then I suggest, for their sake, you agree to my offer.’ He releases her arm only when they reach her front door. ‘I await your response, but do not take long. I will not tolerate such an insult.’
That night Gudrun’s brothers encourage her to make the match, and by the end of the month she finds herself married to Sigurd, the wealthy. The boys play with their marvellous new toys and run about the gold-filled mansion with the carefree joy of youth.
It warms her heart to see them play as children should.
But poor Gudrun is not treated as a wife should be by a loving husband. Instead she’s teased, beaten and derided. And on certain nights when Sigurd’s temper is foul and a fire burns in his belly from the mead, he scares her more than any storm upon the sea ever did. Still, she endures for the sake of her brothers, who were blissfully unaware of her misery.
One winter’s night, Sigurd drowns himself in so much mead that he can barely place one foot in front of the other. As he attempts to climb the stairs to catch Gudrun before she can lock herself in her room, he topples down with a crash. Gudrun stares down in horror at his prostrate body. She can tell by the angle of his neck that he can’t possibly be alive, but she still sends for the doctor, who arrives promptly to pronounce him dead.
The boys hide outside in the courtyard as Sigurd’s body is taken away. They sit beside the fountain where they had hidden their precious starfish when they moved into their new home.
‘What are we going to do now?’ asks Jon.
‘Do you think we have to gut fish again?’ asks Finnur.
‘I sure as hell, won’t!’
Finnur shakes his head. ‘I wish Gudrun will get all Sigurd’s money and become a lady. Then we can keep living like this and be happy.’
Kari stays silent. He looks down at the starfish, which curls and unfurls its limbs before rippling with gold.
Following the burial of her husband, Gudrun is taken aside by her mother-in-law.
‘I don’t know why my son married you. He must have loved you, or else a curse was placed upon him. But everything he had is now yours. You,’ she spat the word in disgust, ‘must now become a lady, because you represent my family and I won’t tolerate a filthy fisherwoman as a daughter-in-law.’
From that day forth, Gudrun wakes up before the dawn, as she always had. But instead of pulling her boat out into the salty spray of the sea, she’s washed, dressed and preened. Her mother-in-law ties the strings on her corset too tight so that she feels like she can’t breathe, and fusses over her hair until the weight of her curls makes her head ache.
Gudrun is forced into a tedious courtly life, surrounded by cruel women who refuse to warm up to the girl who was once a fisherwoman. She sees her brothers less and less. And piece by piece, her life is stripped away from her so that it’s no longer her own.
One night she rises from her bed with a heavy heart.
It’s a burden living in a place where everyone silently resents you. She sneaks passed her mother-in-law’s door, from behind which she can hear a rumbling snore, and picks her way into the hallway which leads to her brothers’ rooms. One by one, she opens each of their doors to glance inside. Each one sleeps peacefully with a smile upon his face.
Only Kari is still awake.
He feigns sleep until he hears her shut his door and walk away. Then he creeps out of his room in search of Gudrun. He finds her curled up in the garden, crying. He watches from the shadows for a long time, his huge brown eyes filled with concern.
Finally, he makes a decision.
He follows the garden trail into the courtyard and sits down on the edge of the fountain beside the glowing sea star. He pats it gently, tenderly.
‘Thank you for trying to help,’ he whispers. ‘But my brothers are spoiled now. They’re so used to doing nothing that they don’t ever want to do anything. And Gudrun doesn’t even look like my sister anymore. She’s so weary and tired, and it hurts to see her so sad. Please, my pretty star,’ he pleads, ‘I wish that things will go back to how they were when Gudrun was happiest.’
The starfish lies motionless for a time.
Finally it curls its royal blue limbs. As it unfurls them once more, it transforms completely into gold and grows so bright that Kari has to shield his eyes from the dazzling brilliance. With a grand whoosh, the starfish launches into the sky like a shooting star, and disappears amongst the constellations.
Gudrun awakes with a start. She can smell the fresh salt of the sea and feel the gentle sway of the waves. When she opens her eyes, she discovers she’s not in the home of her late husband, but in her father’s boat upon a sea kissed by the dawn. Her lines are in the water. She pulls them out in confusion, and they come up with multiple fish on each hook.
She looks down into the water, where swarms of fish swim in loops around her boat. She laughs in ecstasy, pulling in fish after fish until her boat is alive with gleaming silver scales.
As she pulls in to shore with her catch, her brothers run out onto the beach to meet her. They laugh and cheer her impressive haul.
‘Just wait till dad sees. He’s gonna be so proud!’ shouts Kari.
Gudrun looks down into his eyes, shocked as she recognizes the knowing twinkle in their depths.
‘Thank you,’ she whispers so that the other boys don’t hear.
‘Gudrun!’ she hears her father’s booming voice call cheerfully from inside the house. ‘How could you set off without me?’
The house is small, more like a hut. But the windows glow with a warmth sweeter than all the gold in all the mansions in the world. ‘Coming, Pa,’ she replies. She runs across the sand, skipping like she used to as a child.
~ By Ekaterina