This is a story I wrote a while back. The original inspiration for the tale was a visit to Anglesey, and in particular a Hut group near Holyhead Mountain.
Newith and the Bone Needle
Long ago, in a village on a hill by the sea, there lived a lad called Newith. He lived with his mum and his little sister in an old hut that barely kept out the rain. Newith was neither handsome nor particularly healthy, and life had never been easy, but things had got much worse since his dad died.
It had been such a small accident. Father and son were out collecting mussels, when Newith slipped on a seaweed-covered rock. Without thinking he grabbed his dad’s arm and pulled him over as well. They both ended up with a few cuts from the sharp rocks, but his dad’s wounds didn’t heal properly, and after a week of pain and fever, he died.
Newith missed his dad. It was lonely without him, and soon Newith began to feel even more alone, because the villagers stopped speaking to him or looking at him. It was generally agreed that he had ill-luck, which was a serious and contagious disease. The only person who would even look at Newith now was his mum, but she spent most of the time crying and praying to the Mother.
Newith decided that he’d better stay away from the village as much as he could, and so he made himself a shelter in a lonely valley high in the mountains. He spent his days hunting rabbits and digging for roots, but each night, as soon as it became properly dark, he picked his way slowly down the mountain path to the village. The village dogs didn’t worry about ill-luck, and let Newith approach his old hut without much fuss. Quietly, he’d move the skin-flap aside and step past his mum and sister who lay quietly snoring by the hearth, to put down the little bits of food he’d saved for them.
On his way back to the valley Newith always passed by the village’s ancestor house. His dad’s body was still lying on the table outside, waiting for the birds to finish carrying his flesh into the sky. Newith would sit for a while and talk to his dad’s spirit, telling him how the day had been, and how he missed him, and asking him to take away the ill-luck. As the days passed and the moon waxed, Newith saw that his dad’s bones were now clean, glowing in the moonlight. He knew that before long the villagers would move them into the ancestor house. He sat down by the table and said, “I can see your head-bone now, dad: it’s lovely and clean. You must be almost there by now. Remember to tell Lord Bran about me and ask him to help. I bet he will if you ask him.” When he came by the next night, his dad’s bones were no longer on the table.
At sunset the next day, Newith came down to the village to see if his luck had changed. He carried three fat rabbits he had managed to trap, hoping that the villagers would see them as a sign of his luck. He had washed himself in the mountain stream, and decorated his body with red clay the way his dad had shown him when Newith had become a man. He entered the village and walked slowly towards the old hut, glancing at the villagers as he passed, but they still averted their eyes and hurriedly moved out of his way. In his heart, Newith despaired but still walked slowly and steadily on to the hut. His mum hugged him, took the rabbits and invited him to stay a while and eat with them, but Newith shook his head. In the back of the hut his little sister sat silently watching him. He nodded to her and smiled, but she never moved or spoke.
On his way back to the valley he noticed a sound behind his back, and turned to see his little sister following him. She stopped and didn’t answer his calls, so he walked on, glancing back every now and then to see her still following. When he got to the valley, he waded into the stream and washed off the clay. His sister sat on the bank watching, and, clean and wet, he sat down next to her to dry off in the warm evening breeze.
“You should go back now Dew, before it gets dark,” he said. She made no response, and when Newith turned to look at her he saw tears flowing down her cheeks. He put his arm around her and drew her close. “Don’t cry Dew; it’ll be alright.”
“No it won’t,” she sobbed, “Lady Arianrhod came to me in my dream and showed me. It was awful.” Newith both wanted both to know and not to know what Dew had seen and sat quietly for a while, wondering which would be best. But in the end, the decision was made by Dew.
“It was winter and there was snow everywhere. I saw you all alone, walking along the valley, stepping carefully in the snow. You looked so cold, Newith! There was a wolf following you, but you didn’t see it. It followed you a long way, coming closer all the time, and then you tripped on something and fell over in the snow, and the wolf ran forward and sprang on top of you. There was blood all over the snow…” She broke into sobs. Newith hugged her close, and after a while she drew back from him and continued. “The Lady said that the wolf was your ill-luck, and it’s been following you since you were born, coming closer all the time. It never sleeps, and it never thinks of anything but you.”
Now Newith knew, and he wished he didn’t. Brother and sister sat for a while looking at each other, he pale and she flushed with crying. There was a strange pleading expression on Dew’s face, and all of sudden, out of nowhere, it occurred to Newith that there was something Dew hadn’t told him. “Did the Lady say anything else?” he asked.
Dew smiled happily and then hugged him tight, “You asked! I told her you would! She said I could only tell you if you asked, because otherwise it wouldn’t work. I wasn’t even allowed to give you any hints. There is a way to escape from the wolf! If you do it right, he’ll lose your scent, and then you can come back and live with us!”
Newith’s heart felt light with relief, “Tell me what she said.”
“You have to use this,” Dew said, producing a polished splinter of bone from her pouch. “You must be very careful because it can make and unmake everything. The Lady used it to weave the world in the beginning.” Newith took the splinter and held it carefully. It was as long as his hand, and as thick as a stem of barley at one end. The other end came to a point finer than any he had ever seen. As he looked at it closely he saw that the needle was carved with a complicated design of spirals winding round from the base to the tip. “What do I do with it?” he asked.
“You have to make yourself different, so the wolf won’t know you any more. The Lady said we’re all made of light and dark and water, woven together. It’s like when mum makes our winter clothes, only much, much finer. The Lady’s needle is the only thing in the world fine enough to unpick those threads and weave them together again.”
Newith’s heart sank, “But how can I do it? I can’t even weave wool properly!”
“Don’t worry,” Dew smiled, “the needle is very clever. All you have to do is close you eyes and think of how you want your new self to be. When you’re ready, gently push the needle against the skin just below your belly button and it will do the rest.”
Newith sat for a while studying the needle, still unsure of it, but after a few minutes he decided he would trust in Dew and the Lady and give it his best effort. His heart felt lighter having made the decision, and he smiled at Dew and thanked her. She smiled back, but remained silent, and he closed his eyes and began to think about he would like to be. He would be strong so that could carry the stones to rebuild their hut, and skilful so that he could make a good waterproof roof. He would be a cunning hunter, so that his mother and sister need never go hungry. Most important of all, he would be lucky, so that no matter what he did, it would always turn out for the best. He tried to imagine how this improved Newith would look, and wondered if perhaps he shouldn’t be handsome as well, because that would always help with the girls. In his mind he saw himself meeting a nice girl at one of the big festivals and bringing her back to their village. All the other men would wish they had Newith’s luck, and they’d come to him for advice and help.
Newith soon became absorbed in imagining this new life. He forgot his problems and felt happier than he had been in a long time. He was just imagining what kissing his new wife would feel like, when he became aware of his hand, tightly curled around the bone needle. Without leaving his dream, he pressed the needle against his belly as Dew had told him to do. Nothing seemed to happen, so he pushed it in a bit, and then a bit more. The needle was so fine that he didn’t feel anything except a slight tickle as he pushed it in, deeper and deeper.
Suddenly, everything changed, and he was dazzled by a burst of writhing patterns of light and dark. His ears filled with a roaring sound. He tried to think what the sound could be: a great fire, perhaps, or a waterfall, or maybe a great wind. With each thought he felt his body move, as if in a coracle tossed about by a storm. All his imaginings were forgotten as he tried to keep his balance. Fearfully, he opened his eyes but the world he knew was gone, replaced by the flashing threads of light. He tried to pull the bone needle out of his belly, but his arm didn’t seem to be there any more. Newith was so frightened that he couldn’t think of anything to do. Panic possessed him, and he writhed around although he didn’t seem to have a body, yelling and screaming although his voice was lost in the great roar. After a while he calmed down a bit, and just watched the lights. He found that focusing on a single thread of light made the roaring sound die away, and he didn’t feel so thrown about. Picking a thread at random, he put all of his attention on to it, ignoring the other threads as they flashed across his view. A tickling started in his belly, and then a rather pleasant pulling feeling which turned into a sudden tug. Then, with a popping sound, he fell out of the world of threads.
The one that had been Newith sat on his rump and sniffed the air. He scented others of his kind, and some rabbits, and in the distance, the smell of men. He sat and licked his fur for a few minutes. He remembered his life before, and the world of threads, but it was like an old story, and foxes don’t generally have much use for stories. He got up and trotted off looking for dinner. The fox lived well for a season, but then winter came and food became scarce. He grew thin and hungry, and stayed in his den as the snow fell outside. The pangs of hunger reminded him of the bone needle and he licked his belly as he thought about it. In the back of his mind he began to see the threads of light, and the sound of the snow storm grew in his ears. There was a scent unlike anything he knew. Then he was back in the world of threads.
This time he didn’t panic. Right away he picked a thread and followed it until it led him out again.
The one that had been Newith ruffled his feathers for a moment, and then leapt into the air. Fierce joy filled him as his powerful wings lifted him high above the rocky crags, the joy knowing he was so perfectly made for the freedom of the air. As he swooped over the valley looking for prey, he saw two people sitting by the river, but Eagles had no interest in the doings of men. The eagle lived well, but one night as he lay in his comfortable nest, he saw a star falling, leaving a trail of light, and he began to think of the world of threads. He felt an itch in his belly, and rubbed at it with his beak. Suddenly he was back in the world of threads.
The one that had been Newith followed another thread, and lived as a salmon in the stream, then as a hazel tree in the woods, a mole in the earth, a dragonfly on the wing, a badger, a bear, a beetle, an otter, a wild cat, water-weed, a pebble, each time returning to the world of threads. Who was he? He never thought about it any more, only the desire to re-make himself remained. He began to follow the fainter threads, and re-made himself into forms which have no names in the world of men.
He did not count how many threads he had followed, but there had been many, before he noticed a dark one, a thread of black woven into the ever-shifting background of light. Having noticed the one, he saw there were many, and decided to try and follow one of them. He picked one, and followed it as he had followed the other threads.
When the pull came to take him out of the world of threads, he found himself in complete darkness, in a silence so profound that it seemed to extend to the ends of the world. Although he couldn’t hear or see anything, he felt very comfortable. It was warm and dry, and the ground was soft like dry moss under his feet. He found he could move, and that his body had arms, hands, legs, and a head with eyes and ears, which seemed odd for such a dark and silent place. It was a form which seemed somehow familiar. He walked around a bit, but there didn’t seem to be anything except the floor beneath him, the darkness and the silence. It was rather boring.
Sitting down on the soft floor, he noticed that there was something else in the darkness after all – not exactly sound, but a kind of quiet vibration that he felt playing across his body. Paying attention to the vibration brought it into focus, and he realised that it was a communication – not words, but still speech of some sort.
As he followed the vibrations, he became aware that someone else was near him. The vibrations in his chest and head became faster and more subtle. In the dark, someone touched his hand, and he felt a wave of images and emotions run through him. Images of a young boy holding his father’s hand, joy and love, then a boy at night next to a tomb, sadness and hope, then an image of a boy and a girl sitting by a stream, the boy with his eyes shut, holding his belly, and the girl looking worried: fear and wonder.
In the dark, a pair of invisible hands clasped his hand tightly, and a stream of images flowed through him of the various forms he had taken when following threads – and all the time there was a second, shadowy form nearby. With the images came the understanding. Newith’s father had passed into the underworld, but had watched over his son as he tried to change his luck, and then had followed him as he got lost in the maze of possibilities presented by the world of threads. His father was overjoyed now that Newith had by luck remade himself as a spirit, because they were together, and he could ask Lord Bran to help Newith return to his proper life.
The one who had been Newith understood all this quite clearly, and felt the love that Newith’s father had for his son, but he himself remembered nothing and felt nothing. “Am I this Newith?” he wondered.
At that moment he became aware of a third presence in the darkness, and felt a brush of fur against his skin. Instantly his heart filled with love for his dad, and he knew without doubt that he had been Newith, even though he still remembered nothing of his life.
Something scratched his belly in the dark, and he felt a sharp pain. For a panicky moment he thought he was on the way back to the world of threads, but his father’s hand tightened on his, and he knew that the pain was Lord Bran removing the needle. Then he felt a touch at the back of his head, where the skull comes down to meet the backbone, and the memory of who he was opened like a flower. He could feel his father’s joy, and this time his own rose to match it.
The time came to leave his father and to return to his proper life. Newith understood that Bran’s gift allowed him to remember who he was: not just his life as the boy Newith, but all that he was and ever had been, down to his roots in the time before light, waters or darkness. This memory would never be lost, and with it he could travel through the world of threads without fear. He kissed his father goodbye, and remembered the world of threads. The threads were calmer this time, and he quickly found the one that would take him home.
“Newith, don’t put it in so deep, you’re supposed to touch the skin gently… are you all right?”
Newith opened his eyes and smiled at his sister, pulling out the bone needle from his belly.
“You’d better try again,” Dew said reproachfully, “Did you hurt yourself? I was so worried when you didn’t answer me before!”
“All done.” Newith smiled and held out his hand with the bone needle.
And that was the beginning of Newith’s luck. Many were the years of happiness and plenty that the villagers enjoyed thanks to Newith, the cleverest hunter, the one who talked with the spirits, the chieftain and, as he grew old, the teacher. And Newith never forgot the help he got from his sister, his father and from Lady Arianrhod and Lord Bran.