This is a fairy tale that popped into my head a few years ago (I believe inspired by Lord Dunsany’s Time and the Gods). I didn’t ever write it up because it feels incomplete, but I was rereading Sandman this weekend and it reminded me of this and I figured I might as well.
In the dawn of the world, there was a boy. He was not a terribly unusual boy. Perhaps a little cleverer than most, perhaps a little more prone to trouble. He had many adventures, but the world was young and full of adventure then.
There was a girl he loved, or thought he loved. Unfortunately she did not love him, and spurned his advances, yet he pursued her anyway.
Most likely he knew this was wrong. He was not a bad boy, but very proud (as boys often are) and he thought that through persistence he could win her heart.
Eventually in order to get rid of him, she began to set him tasks, claiming that he needed to prove himself to her.
“If you really loved me”, she would declare in the dead of winter, “you would bring me a perfectly ripe peach to show your love”.
And so he would search far and wide, and he would return with just the perfect peach.
As time passed and he refused to be frustrated she would set him harder and harder tasks. With each task, he would learn new tricks and his skills and alliances would grow. He befriended animals and trees and spirits and winds and fairies and they would show him the way to fetch what she desired.
“Bring me a flower from the top of the tallest mountain” she would ask, and a wind would carry him there to pluck the flower for her.
“Bring me one of the moons on a necklace” and the fairies would fetch a moon from the sky for him (this is why we only have one moon).
At last, so frustrated at his persistence, she set him one final task.
“If you truly loved me, you would bring me the names of all the stars in the sky”
For once, the boy paused. He knew, at last, this was a task beyond him. He pleaded for her to accept some lesser gift – a necklace of burning jewels, the egg of a dragon, a cloak woven from the finest spider silk, but she was adamant.
“You only seek to deny this gift because you are afraid that it is beyond you”, she declared triumphantly.
This was of course true, but it stung the boys pride deeply. He could not refuse.
“Very well”, he said. “I will find the names of all the stars in the sky, and I will bring them to you. I swear before the gods that I will not rest until I have done so”
At this, both boy and girl knew that they had perhaps gone too far, but it was too late. It is dangerous to swear an oath before the gods, because they might be listening, but it is more dangerous to go back on one, because they will be vengeful.
So, his fate sealed, the boy set out on his quest to find the names of all the stars.
There is a man who stands upon a dead world. He knows the names of all the stars but one.
The sun has long gone out. It is a blackened cinder that now burns cold where once it lit the world.
The sky is empty but a single point of light. It was once the least of all the stars. It burned the dimmest, and thus has lasted longer than all the others.
The stars are a guarded lot, careful to give out their names, but the man has spent many aeons earning their trust and one by one they all gave their name to him, save this last.
Whenever he has asked its name of it, it has replied “I will give you my name, but not yet”.
So, to pass the time, he has learned many other names, always returning to the star that denies him.
“I have learned all the names of all the animals in the world”, he said. “Will you now give me your name?”
“I will give you my name, but not yet”
“I have learned all the names of all the trees of the forest”, he said. “Will you now give me your name?”
“I will give you my name, but not yet”
The world has died around him, and as it has died he has learned the name of every thing in it, but still the little star has denied him its name.
At last, as it begins to flicker its last, he asks it one more time.
“Little star, will you give now me your name?”
And it gives him his name, and then fades away.
And so he speaks the name of the girl he once loved and calls her spirit to him. In the time since he left to name the stars she grew into a woman and married a man. He did not bring her the moon on a necklace, or name the stars for her, but she loved him and that was enough. They had children, and then in the natural way they grew old and died.
To the man who named the stars, she still looks as she did when they grew up together.
“I have brought you the names of the stars, as I promised”
She bows her head to him in silent apology.
“I would love to hear them”
And so he speaks the names of the stars.
As he names each star, its glow appears above in the night sky, called out of death and into light.
By the time he speaks the name of the last star, the one that had long denied him, the sky is once more ablaze with light.
The woman he had loved smiles and thanks him.
He continues to speak.
He speaks the name of the sun, and for the first time in aeons it begins to rise.
He speaks the names of the winds, and the dead air stirs.
He speaks the names of the plants and the trees and the grass grows and the forests cover the earth again.
He speaks the names of the animals and the birds and the fish and the world once more teams with life.
He speaks the names of the people who have lived, and humanity once more walks upon the earth.
And, finally, he is able to rest. And so he does.