Orla wanders the world in silence, bound up by her sorrow. Her only confidants are the stones and the earth, and when they weep the tears she cannot, the very world shakes and rumbles. She is the Mother of Earthquakes.
* * *
In days long past she lived in peace with her five children, four boisterous, playful sons and one wise, blue-eyed daughter, all bright and brave and bold children. Their father had died of a fever when the youngest was not yet born, and so Orla had raised them alone. The daughter, eldest of the five, loved her brothers dearly, and her love and care bound them all together.
In those days there was no great blue canopy of sky, but rather the Sun and Moon drifted through the black void above the earth, shining their light down on men and birds and beasts. There was nothing above the mountains and trees but the black. One morning Orla’s daughter spoke to her of a strange dream; she and her brothers had drifted high above the world and had gone to speak with the Sun and Moon, who had a great and important task for them. Hearing their sister’s tale, Orla’s four sons all claimed to have had the same dream, and asked their mother what it might mean.
Orla told her children that it was only a dream, but a leaden weight of worry settled on her heart that day. The next four nights the children each had the very same dream; they drifted together up above the world, where the Moon and Sun told them that a great task was waiting for them. On the fifth night Orla could not sleep but sat before the fire, feeling the moon’s light on her back and wondering why the strange dream had come to her children, and what it might mean. Then Orla heard the clattering of window shutters and a great rushing of air poured through the small farmhouse. A chill piercing her heart, Orla ran upstairs and threw open the door to her daughter’s room. The window was open wide, and the bedcovers were thrown back, and her daughter was nowhere to be seen. Orla checked the other bedrooms, but in each there was an open window and missing children. She ran to her daughter’s window and as she looked into the night she cried out; far above, just visible in the Moon’s silver light she could make out the shapes of her five children, drifting high above the world.
Orla ran downstairs and, snatching up her husband’s old cloak and throwing it about her shoulders, she ran out into the night, following her children as best she could. But she was bound to the earth, as were all men and beasts and birds in those days, and she could not move fast enough. Soon her children were out of sight but still Orla ran, keeping the Moon before her and crying out to the silver orb to return her children. But whether the Moon could hear her or not as it sat high above in the blackness, it made no reply.
All through the night Orla ran, and on through the next day. The Sun, too, gave no answer to her cries, and Orla began to feel the sharp pain of despair clutching at her chest. At last she could go no further, and as she sank to the earth sleep claimed her almost at once.
* * *
Orla slept for a day and a night, waking once more as the Sun shone down on the world. But as she opened her eyes, she saw that something had changed. The golden orb hung above the world as it always had, but now it drifted in an expanse of the purest, most beautiful blue Orla had ever seen. For a long while she could do nothing but gaze in wonder at the beauty of it, like an ocean over her head. But then another strange thing happened. As she sat looking up she heard a whispering sound and she felt a movement in the air about her, as though a gentle hand was brushing past her. It was a totally new sensation; all her life the air of the world had been still, but now it seemed to move, as though it were alive…
Soon Orla became aware of a cacophony of noise drifting toward her on another strange shifting of air. It was the sound of birds, many hundreds of them all cawing and croaking and singing at once. Curious, Orla moved toward the sound. Very quickly she saw where the noise was coming from; in the distance ahead the ground was covered by a shifting blanket of hundreds of thousands of birds, of every shape and size and colour. At the centre of the group was a huge eagle, deep golden and majestic, who was the only one not making any noise.
Finally the birds began to quieten, until finally there was no sound at all. Orla stood at the edge of this strange gathering, wondering what would happen next. Beside her a small, brightly coloured bird with a yellow-orange beak stood. He looked up at Orla curiously, and she did her best to smile at him. At the centre of the gathering the Great Eagle slowly turned around, looking all about him. Once he had made a full turn, he raised his voice and spoke.
“Fellow birds,” the Great Eagle said. “Thank you for coming. I have news for you, for us all, news that changes everything!”
There was a murmuring from the gathered birds at this, but it was quickly hushed and the Great Eagle continued.
“Last night, as I slept, I was visited by the Sun and Moon. They spoke to me, told me of the great gift they have given to the world. You all have seen the strange, beautiful blue that now sits above, through which the Sun and Moon drift. You each have felt the movements in the air which stir our feathers and tempt us upwards. These are the gifts the Sun and Moon have given, thanks to the kindness of five pure souls who aided them.”
Then a beautiful white swan called out, “But what are these things? What do they mean? What are they for?” A murmur of agreement rose, and the Great Eagle ruffled his feathers and stood taller.
“This blue canopy above, that is called the Sky. Those movements of the air, those are the Four Winds. As to what they are for…”
The Great Eagle spread his wings wide, and he shone golden in the sunlight. Then he raised them high and with a powerful stroke beat downward. Orla, as well as every bird in the clearing let out a gasp of wonder as the Great Eagle beat his wings and soared upward. Before that moment birds had flown, of course, but only from tree to tree, or gliding down to the earth; nothing like this. This was the wild, free flight of a bird no longer bound to the earth. The Great Eagle circled above the gathering of birds, calling down to them.
“This is the gift we have been given, my brethren! No longer shall we be bound to the earth as men and beasts are! And even they can attempt to claim the skies, if they try hard enough. Come, my brothers and sisters! Fly with me, spread the word through the world; the Sun and Moon have given us the Sky and the Four Winds, and no longer shall any creature of the world be bound to the earth if he does not wish it!”
There was a moment of stillness on the ground below, as all eyes watched the Great Eagle. But then, almost as one, a hundred thousand beaks cried out in joy and a hundred thousand pairs of wings beat at the air as every bird leapt upward. Orla covered her ears to block out the thunder of wings, staring in amazement at a blue Sky filled with birds.
She stood for a long time watching them as they explored this new territory, until at last they began to drift away, through the blue Sky to their homes. Finally Orla stood alone in the clearing, gazing at the Sun shining above.
“Five kind souls,” she whispered, sinking to the ground. “Is that what you have done with my children?”
Just then she heard a fluttering of wings, and the brightly coloured bird landed in front of her, looking at her curiously once again.
“Hello,” he said. “What is your name?”
“I am Orla, little bird,” she told him, and asked his name in return.
“I am the Bright Bird,” he told her, ruffling up his feathers. “Brightest of them all, I am. You look sad. What is wrong?”
So Orla told the Bright Bird what had happened to her, how her children had dreamt of the Sun and Moon for five nights, and how they had drifted into the darkness above the world on the sixth night. She told of her chasing after them for a night and a day and how, when at last she had slept, she had woken to find the world had changed. Then she had followed the noise of the birds, had heard the Great Eagle’s words; the Sun and Moon had given the Sky and the Four Winds into the world thanks to the kindness of five souls. Finally she told the Bright Bird that she now feared that those five kind souls were her four sons and her only daughter.
Once she had told the Bright Bird her tale she began to weep, for she did not know what she could do. The Bright Bird took pity on her and touched her hand gently with his wingtip.
“Do not weep, poor Orla. Perhaps if you speak to the Sun and Moon they will answer you, and can tell you if they truly have taken your children.”
“But I have called out to the Sun and Moon,” Orla told him. “I have called to them until my throat is raw, and they have not answered me.”
But the little Bright Bird chuckled and shook his head.
“They cannot hear you down here, it is much too far! But I will lead you northward to the tallest mountain in the world, and help you reach the top. From there I am sure that, if you call out to them, the Sun and Moon will answer.”
Orla thanked the little Bright Bird for his offer, and they set off together immediately.
* * *
The journey was long and hard, but eventually Orla and her new friend stood at the very peak of the tallest mountain in the world. All about them was the bright Sky, and through it the Four Winds gambolled and danced, tugging at Orla’s cloak and the Bright Bird’s feathers.
Orla took a deep breath and called out to the Sun and Moon, asking that they come down and speak to her. No reply came, and Orla cried out again, but again there was no answer. After Orla call out to them a third time and received no answer, the little Bright Bird grew angry. Furious, he beat his bright wings with all his might and flew up to the very top of the Sky where the Sun and Moon drifted, looking down over the world. When he found them there he swooped about them, pecking at them and scolding them for their rude treatment of his friend, until they at last agreed to come down to speak with Orla. The Bright Bird flew so close to the Sun and Moon that his beautiful bright feathers began to burn, and by the time he reached the mountain top again he was smoking all over. Orla pressed handfuls of cooling snow against him and the smoking and burning stopped, but the poor bird’s feathers were now black as jet, only his yellow beak retained its colour. The colour never returned to his once-bright feathers, and he was known as the Blackbird ever after.
Once sure that her friend was well, Orla stood and faced the Sun and Moon, and her sorrow and anger made her voice strong though her knees felt weak.
“Sun and Moon, I have lost my children. They dreamed of you for five nights, and on the sixth they were taken from our home, drifting into the blackness above the world to your domain. You have stolen them from me, and I want them back!”
And then the Sun and Moon spoke to Orla, in a voice unlike any she had ever heard. The voice was both man and woman, both young and old, both gold and silver. The Sun and Moon told her that her children had indeed come to join them in the place above the world, but they had made the journey willingly.
The Sun and Moon told Orla that they had sought throughout the world for the right souls, those with the purest hearts that could help them finish the world they had made. After countless years they had found those souls in her five children, and they had agreed to help them. The Sun and Moon explained that Orla’s daughter had become the Sky that sits above, and her sons had become the Four Great Winds that drift and dance through the Sky and across the world below.
“They have completed the world we began,” said the Sun and Moon. “They have made it whole so that birds and beasts and men may use the Winds to aid them, so that they can look up into the Sky and dream further and higher than before.”
Tears coursed down Orla’s cheeks as she spoke five words to the Sun and Moon.
“Please. I miss my children.”
There was sorrow in the voice of the Sun and Moon as they answered Orla. They told her that they could not keep her children against her will; if she were to demand it they would be returned to her. But if she were to take her children back, the Sky and the Four Winds would be lost, never to return. Birds would fly no more, and the hopes and dreams of all creatures, man and bird and beast alike, would be forever bound to the earth, unable to reach any higher.
Orla cried out in anguish, sure that her sorrows would drown her. But as she stood there at the very top of the world, she felt the playful caress of the Four Winds in her hair. In the whispering of the Winds she heard the mischievous laughter of her sons, and she realised that in the blue Sky was the colour of her daughter’s bright eyes. At last she nodded, knowing that her children had made their own choice. She wished to hold them in her arms again, but she knew in her heart that her own desire could not outweigh the hopes and dreams of the world.
Orla told the Sun and Moon that she did not wish to doom the world to sorrow, and they promised her that as longs as her children served the world as the Sky and the Four Winds, they would not die. And, so that they might not lose their mother’s love, neither would she. But Orla knew herself, too, and knew that she might not always be so strong in her resolve; some days she might feel too great a loss, too great a sorrow, and would demand her children’s return no matter the cost. Even at that moment she could feel it building in her, a dull ache at her core. So Orla thanked the Blackbird for his aid and then, standing before the Sun and Moon at the top of the very world, she swore a sacred, binding oath. She swore that she would speak no more words to any thing, man or beast or bird, above the earth for the rest of her life.
The Sun and Moon bowed low in respect for her sacrifice, and Orla turned away from them and began her long, silent journey down the mountain. The Blackbird went with her, riding on her shoulder. As they reached the foot of the mountains the Blackbird bade her farewell, promising to spread the story of the Sky and the Four Winds far and wide. As his tiny shape faded into the distance, Orla turned and began to walk, heading back into the world once more.
* * *
And so it was that the childless mother began to wander the world, caged in her own silence. She travelled far and wide, crossing oceans and mountains under the wide Sky and the Four Winds, and she never spoke to another living being.
But as she walked in silence, so too did she walk in sorrow. The ache grew in her still; the desire to see her children, to hold them once more. It grew and grew, like a scream of sorrow trapped in her throat, held there by force of will. And on the day that she thought the scream must break out of her, shattering her silent world, it was on that day that the stones spoke.
Night had fallen and she had stopped to rest in a small cave, a sheltering hollow in the earth, warm and welcoming in the fire’s glow. Orla lay in the darkness, thinking on her five children and the ache in her heart. As sleep gently reached out to her, guiding her downward, she heard the sighing, rumbling whisper of the stones and the earth.
We know you, Orla, they said. We have heard the story of your loss, your sacrifice. We know the tale of your silence; no word to man or bird or beast, from now till ever more. But we know, too, of the ache in your heart, and we would aid you if we can. So speak to us of your sorrow, mother, when you can be silent no more. When the pain becomes too great, speak to the stones and the earth. We will weep for you.
Orla woke the next morning and walked onward, but soon enough she felt that the ache in her chest had grown too great to hold, no matter the cost. So, remembering the words of the stones, she knelt and dug into the earth. She pushed her face into the earth and screamed, pushing the sorrow that had built in her deep down among the stones. No sound escaped into the world, the stones took it all. Finally, her throat raw and her eyes wet with tears, Orla covered the hole once more, burying her scream in the kind earth. So the stones took Orla’s sorrow, so that she might not break her oath.
* * *
Orla wandered ever on across the world, and the years passed her by. When her pain and loss grew too great she gave it to the earth to hold for her, and when the earth could take no more sorrow it wept for Orla, as it had promised. The earth and stones rumbled and shook, crying out in pain and sorrow, weeping as she could not. So it was that in time, the ageless, sorrowful figure that walked quietly through the world became known as the Mother of Earthquakes, who asked the earth to speak where she could not. She wanders still.
Some day you may see her, a woman alone, bound in silence and sorrow. If you see her, watch her carefully. Because there are moments when you can see the Mother of Earthquakes lose sight of sorrow. A fleeting moment; when a blackbird sings, when the winds blow playfully, or when the sky is the bright blue of a young girl’s eyes. In those shining moments, Orla, Mother of Earthquakes, smiles…