The Tale of Hjul the Fisherman and the Night of the Bright Tree
Gather round the hearth, now, gather and Nana will tell you the tale of Hjul and the Night of the Bright Tree.
It was the darkest night of the year. It had been a lean year, a poor year, for war was waging in the land and too many an end of day had found the nets of fishermen empty or as close as can be. Hjul was no exception and, if anything, he was one of those mostly afflicted. But he was of sturdy folk, Hjul, such as our village makes; for he was indeed one of our own, no matter what others claim. And he was also a proud father and a pious man, venerating the Aesir and the Vanir as was proper. It was his love for his family and his faith in his gods that urged him to the sea that day, for in good Hjul’s mind, both deserved a feast and tribute, on that most sacred of winter nights.
And so it was that he left the shores even before the bright hours had come, along with others that shared as brave a heart as him. Before the sun even rose, they pushed their boats on the ice, guided by their lanterns on their boats bows, until they reached the water, and from there they sailed straight south. At the start of the bright hours, he threw his first net with the others but, as was usual that year, the nets came up empty. As the bright hours reached their peak, he and a handful of others, no more, sailed further south and tried again but still their nets would come out empty. One by one, his fellows made their way to the frozen shores, but Hjul’s pride was hurt and his honor wounded. Alone he sailed still, until the shore behind him looked distant and Mannheim was but an island to him. And there, as the bright hours faded finally, he threw his nets for a third time.
He waited long, in the cold and the bitter wet winds. He waited till the winter dusk settled and the lights of his fellows’ boats disappeared in the north. He waited till dark came upon him and the only light in sight was his own, weak lantern. He waited ‘till the longest night of the year swallowed him and even the flame of his lantern seemed to wither. Tucked in his furs, he waited, his boat rocking gently on black waves, his light a lone star dancing in the darkness, with its oil running out.
Hours passed and Hjul looked with desperation as his small flame withered. And he thought then that when the light run out, then he would know the gods did not wish for fish of him this year and he could return. So he kept his eyes peeled on that light. Ever withering, never gone, the light kept shining. That was the first miracle of the Night of the Burning Tree, for the oil never did run out.
Now below, the elusive fishes that hid and shied away all year long, they saw his pale, enduring lantern and to their desperate eyes, it seemed like the sun. For if you think that nights are dark for us Nords in winter, then know for the fish it is worse for they swim in the void. So lured they were by the promise of sun in the form of the small lantern, that they rushed in Hjul’s nets by the dozens. And that was the second miracle of the Night of the Bright Tree.
Rejoiced and thanking the gods for their kindness, Hjul gathered his nets, full and rich for the first time that year. He laughed in the dark and prepared to come home only to realize, finally, what the price for his fish was. For in the longest night of the year, the dark of sky and dark of sea are one, the clouds hiding stars and the Glow of the Bifrost both. Hjul was lost and knew not where land was.
Now some say that that was the end of Hjul. Some say that he never returned and no one ever heard of him since. Others say he is alone in the dark still, his little fisherman boat floating in the long dark of the night sky and that by his lantern, the star Yulodi, do sailors know to find South and by the torch of his waiting wife, the star Ghilde, do they know to find North. But we of our village remember what others won’t. In his dark desperation, Hjul saw a light appear in the North, bright and branched with a glow that touched the clouds; and he knew where the land was. He praised the gods and his laugh echoed in the dark, then thanked them as tears froze in his eyes.
It was the third and final miracle, the miracle of Hjul. A miracle that came with sacrifice; as do all things. For that was the night of Ragnarok and the Burning of Yggdrasil, the longest night of the year and all years since; the night we remember with Hjul’s name and call the Night of the Bright Tree.