The sun had just gone down, and Simon was on the beach, making a sandcastle. A salty breeze came in from the water, and he could hear seagulls in the distance. The sandcastle was in the shape of a circle, and had lots of windows he’d poked in with this finger. There was no moat, but in the middle there was a space in which he’d dug a lake and filled it with water. He was trying to model the castle after one he’d seen in a dream, but it was hard to remember the details. The quiet of the evening was nice. He could listen to the sound of the waves and focus on what he was doing.
He heard a muffled burst of laughter behind him, and looked back toward the house, where yellow light spilled out the windows. His sisters and cousins were inside, playing together before supper. Simon was too little to join them. At least, that’s what they told him. He didn’t mind. He liked playing on the beach by himself. It was better playing alone, because he could make his imagination go anywhere he wanted. At least, that’s what he told himself.
He noticed someone sitting on the porch swing, facing the water. It was Grandpa. He wasn’t watching Simon, however. He was looking up at the sky. Simon followed his gaze and saw that the stars were coming out. The full moon hung over the water, like a big sugar cookie. After a minute, Simon put down his shovel and went up to the house. He sat down beside his grandfather. Grandpa liked sitting quietly at night too, he thought. There was a kind of lonely, wishing expression on Grandpa’s face. His glasses reflected the moonlight. Simon felt a quiet sadness surrounding him like a blanket.
After a few minutes of sitting together in silence, Grandpa spoke. “Simon, do you ever wonder where the moon comes from when it rises?”
Simon thought for a moment. “I’m wondering now,” he said.
“When I was your age,” said Grandpa, “I used to wonder. I’d watch the moon rise over the water and wish I could get on a ship and sail to the end of the world. Then I’d see find out where the moon comes from. That wish was like a magnet inside me. I could always feel it pulling me.”
“Did you ever go?” asked Simon, looking up at Grandpa.
For the first time Grandpa looked down at Simon, peering at him through his glasses. His wrinkled face, thought Simon, looked like a map. He was quiet for a while, as if he was making a decision.
“Yes,” he said, finally, “one day I went.”
“And did you find where the moon comes from?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Tell me the story,” said Simon, moving closer to Grandpa. Grandpa put an arm around his shoulder. He gave a heavy sigh.
“Well, I kept wondering and wishing, and that wish kept pulling me and pulling me until one day, when I was old enough, I built a small ship and I set sail.”
“Were you excited?” asked Simon, who was now getting quite excited himself.
“Excited, and sad,” said Grandpa. “Mostly excited.”
“Why were you sad?”
“Because there was another wish pulling me now too,” replied Grandpa. “A wish that kept pulling me back home, even while I sailed away.”
“What was that wish?”
“Eliane,” said Grandpa with a smile. “Pardon me. Your grandma. I had promised her to come back to her and marry her. And I never make a promise I can’t keep. At least, that’s what I told myself.” That sad look came over his face again, and he seemed to be lost in thought for a while.
“So what happened?” prompted Simon. “Did you make it to the edge of the world?”
“It was a long, long journey,” said Grandpa. “Days and nights and days and nights. Finally one night, when the stars were bright, I saw something glowing on the water ahead of me. As I got closer, I saw that it was an island.” He shook his head, looking out at the water. “I can’t describe it to you, Simon. It was like someplace from a dream. There was a beach of white sand that glowed like the moon was shining on it, except the moon hadn’t risen yet. My ship made no sound at all as it slid up onto the beach. When I stepped off, I felt the sand. It was softer than – than anything you can imagine. And beyond the beach, there were trees full of white flowers that glowed like moonlight. The scent of those flowers was so strong and sweet and…almost musical. I wish I could describe it better. It was that scent that convinced me I wasn’t dreaming. It
made everything feel so much more real.”
Grandpa sighed again. Why does he sound so sad? Simon wondered.
“At the edge of the trees, there were two tall stones, like jagged pillars. Between them was a path, winding through the trees. I followed the path through the forest of white blossoms. It went on for a long time. It was the most magical forest. From all around, I heard nightingales singing sweetly. There were mushrooms growing on the ground, big mushrooms that glowed all different shades of pale blue and green and purple. And when I got to the end, do you know what I saw?”
“What?” said Simon breathlessly.
“A castle,” said Grandpa. “A tall, shining castle made of white stone, shaped like a circle, sitting on a hill. It was full of turrets and towers. Light came from every window. The gates were open. And standing in the doorway was a lady, looking as if she’d been waiting for me.”
“A lady!” breathed Simon. “What did she look like?”
“Tall,” replied Grandpa. “Black hair almost down to her knees, with a crown of white flowers on her head. She was wearing a long gown made of some shimmery silver material. And her eyes were like little pockets of night sky, so deep you could get lost in them. She introduced herself to me as the Moonkeeper.”
“Did she live on that island all by herself?”
“All by herself, except for the nightingales who came to do her hair every morning, and the wolves who sang for her whenever the moon was full, and the spiders who wove the material for her clothes.”
“She must have been lonely,” remarked Simon. He knew a bit about loneliness.
“She was lonely,” said Grandpa. “But she told me she had been waiting for me. The stars had told her that she would not be alone forever. Someone would come to be her companion, and he would become immortal like she was and live with her forever.”
“The stars told her?”
“Oh, yes. She listened to the stars, and trusted them. She said on clear nights she could hear them singing. Sometimes, when I was with her and we were very quiet, I could hear them too.”
“So did you stay with her?”
“For a while,” said Grandpa. “She showed me all around the island, the marshes where the blackbirds sang, the field of glowing pink flowers that was full of butterflies, the mountains where the waterfalls danced. She showed me the castle, too. It was a strange castle. From the outside it looked small; it would only take you a minute to walk all the way around it. But on the inside it was huge, full of hallways and big rooms and courtyards with gardens. I never saw the same place twice, in that castle. Like things were always moving around. Only the Moonkeeper always seemed to know her way around. It was all marvelous. But the best thing of all was when she showed me the moonrise.” Grandpa’s eyes shone with excitement. “In the centre of the castle, there was a big, round lake. From the shore of that lake you could see the castle going around it like a ring, far bigger than it looked from the outside. The water was so still that the stars were perfectly reflected on its surface.”
Simon looked up at the stars. “Was it ever daytime there?”
“She told me that the island was many miles past where the sun rose,” said Grandpa. “Every morning, she would see the sun rise in the west, and it would be morning for a short time. But soon the sun would disappear as it travelled over the world. So for her, it was always night.”
“And where did the moon rise?”
“Right out of the centre of the lake. The first time I saw it, it took my breath away. We were standing beside the lake, the Moonkeeper and I, and very slowly, the lake began to glow with some deep, hidden light. It grew brighter and brighter, until I saw the moon coming up under the water. Then the Moonkeeper stretched out her arms and began to sing. I wish you could hear that song. I can’t describe it. And the moon came up out of the water, shining brighter than ever at the sound of her voice.”
Simon shivered. “Wow,” he said in a hushed voice, trying to imagine it.
“The moon was just past full. There was a sliver of shadow on the right side of it. The Moonkeeper moved her arms slightly, and the shadow crept forward just a little bit over the moon. Then she lifted her arms, and the moon flew up, up, into the sky, as if it weighed no more than a balloon.”
“So that’s how the moon rises,” said Simon.
Grandpa heaved a sigh. “It was beautiful,” he said. “She was
beautiful. Everything was beautiful. I never wanted to leave.”
Simon looked at him. “But you did leave.”
“I did leave, because of the promise I’d made to Eliane. That promise was still pulling my heart towards home. The Moonkeeper pleaded with me to stay, but when I told her about the promise, she understood. She told me to go back as quickly as I could, but I couldn’t bring myself leave just yet. I stayed for once cycle of the moon, walking with the Moonkeeper through the gardens and forest, listening to the stars, watching the moon rise. I wanted to drink in the beauty of that place as much as I could, so I could always carry it with me. That was my mistake. It only made it harder to leave.”
The breeze had died down, and the shore was completely still except for the rhythmic lapping of the waves on the shore. Grandpa continued. “The Moonkeeper walked with me to the beach where my ship was. She said goodbye to me on the white sand. I asked her if I could kiss her. She didn’t say no, but she warned me. A kiss is a promise, she said. Don’t make a promise you can’t keep.”
“So did you kiss her?”
“I did. That was my downfall, you see – I wanted to hold onto her even though I had to leave. I didn’t want to lose her completely, even though I knew leaving was the right thing to do. I had to have something to hold onto, so I kissed her. And when I walked away, she looked even sadder than ever. I watched her as I sailed away. She stood on the beach, a lone white figure, all forlorn.”
Grandpa took off his glasses and wiped his eyes. “I shouldn’t be telling you this,” he said. “You’re too young to be hearing about your Grandpa’s sad love story from when he was young and foolish. Anyway, it was a long, long time ago.”
Simon sat in thought for a while. “Does Grandma know?” he asked.
“I told her everything,” said Grandpa. “Everything but the kiss. I was never sure if she believed me or not. She’s always been a sensible, down-to-earth kind of woman, your grandma. And I’ve always been a dreamer, full of wild stories. She likes my stories, but she doesn’t always believe them.”
“Do you wish you had stayed?”
“Never,” said Grandpa firmly. “I love Elly far too much. We’ve been blessed with many good, full years together. And our children, and our grandchildren. I wouldn’t give you up for the world.” He rubbed Simon’s hair affectionately. “But I do think about her sometimes. I can’t ever forget her. Sometimes when the moon rises I can almost hear her voice, singing the moon into the sky. It’s like there’s a little piece of her always inside me, pulling me back over the sea. And I wonder if she’s even more lonely than before.”
The two of them sat in silence for a while, listening to the steady rhythm of the waves on the shore and looking up at the moon. Simon thought the reflection of the moon on the water looked like a great silvery path, leading across the ocean.
A voice from inside interrupted his thoughts. “Ephraim? Where are you? Dinner’s ready.”
“Coming, Elly,” called Grandpa. He stood up and clapped a hand on Simon’s shoulder. “Enough sad thoughts,” he said. “Let’s go enjoy some of your grandma’s shepherd’s pie with the family.”
The smell coming from inside made Simon’s mouth water, but he stayed on the porch swing for a few more minutes after Grandpa went into the house. A sea breeze sprang up again, brushing against his face, and for a moment he thought he could smell white flowers. He watched the moonlight on the water and listened to the stars, wondering and wishing.