The doctor gasped. The midwife nearly dropped her. The mother turned away and would not look. And the baby smiled up at them all through eyes as dark as pools of midnight. Sparse wisps of damp hair speckled her forehead with soot. She was the last brunette.
They put her away, the blonde father, the golden mother, she was an abomination, a thing unloved. And the baby would have died if the old woman hadn’t found her, the old woman whose white hair had once outshone the raven’s wing, whose black eyes now peered milky at the world. And the old woman loved the baby, for she recognised her as kin.
She grew up alone in a pale world: buttercups and dandelions, butter and cream, yellow sunlight and golden moon. The old woman fed her and clothed her and loved her after her own fashion but she did not speak to her because she could not.
There were animals in her world, birds and forest creatures, dogs and cats and a sturdy donkey, and she made friends with them all, but they did not speak to her because they could not.
A pedlar came to the cottage one day. In his pack were wonderful things: ribbons and laces, needles and thread, bright thimbles and rainbow buttons, but as he drew out this treasure to lay before the girl, out tumbled his last best gift to her. It was small, its green cloth binding a little torn, a little shabby, its pages fragile with age.
The girl had never seen such an object before, for schooling she had had none, and so she asked the pedlar: ‘What is this thing?’ And when the pedlar had overcome his astonishment at her ignorance he began to teach her.
And the small book of poems laid the world open to her, and here she found her friends. Their aloneness was hers and their words spoke to her.
‘I must go down to the sea again,’ she read, and saw the lonely traveller striding the dunes.
‘When I consider how my light is spent,’ she read, and saw the lonely poet, blind at his desk.
‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,’ she read, and saw the lonely farmer toiling over his dry stones.
‘I wandered lonely as a cloud,’ she read, and smiled because she saw her own lonely self, but when she read ‘a host of golden daffodils’ she groaned and threw the book away.
When the girl was sixteen the old woman died. The girl buried her as best she could, and laid branches over the grave. She called the donkey in the field and when he trotted over she tied her small bundle to his back. ‘We are going travelling’ she told him, and the donkey hee-hawed as if he understood her, and stamped his hoof with impatience to be off.
She called the dog in from the wood and stroked his ears. ‘We are going travelling’ she told him, and the dog wuffed and wagged his tail and ran to the door in his impatience to be off.
She picked the cat up where it lay curled on the hearth, and buried her face in the soft fur. ‘We are going travelling,’ she told her, but the cat spat and struggled and leapt from her arms. ‘You may go travelling,’ the green eyes said, ‘but I will remain here where it is comfortable and warm.’
So the girl and the dog and the donkey set out, and they walked for many miles and many days. They crossed the fields, and the heath beyond. They came to the hills, and the mountains beyond. They came to the wide sea which they could not cross, so they walked along its shores for many days and many miles. And as they walked the golden sun rose before them, and the golden sun set behind them, and every day it shone fiercer.
At last they came to a jungle, and the girl’s eyes widened at the richness. There were black shadows that soothed her eyes like velvet; vibrant greens and cool blues, an assault of purple and scarlet and crimson. For two days and three nights they walked through the jungle, drunk on colour and scent and the calls of unknown creatures. And on the morning of the third day the world ended.
Here at the edge of the jungle the land was scorched brown, jagged with grey-black boulders under a sky white with heat. Figures approached the travellers, joyous figures who called and laughed, their teeth flashing white in ebony faces, their dark hands reaching to her pale ones in wonderment. ‘Come,’ they called to each other, ‘come quickly and see the golden girl.’
The girl looked at the donkey. ‘What do you think?’ she said. The donkey shook his ears and stamped his feet. ‘Yes, that’s what I thought,’ she said.
The girl looked at the dog. ‘What do you think?’ she said. The dog raised one paw and wuffed. ‘Yes, that’s what I thought,’ she said. ‘It looks like we’re home.’