Inis Breandán, Isle of Man

Harald Pinknose woke with a sense of something good.

Harald Pinknose woke with a sense of something good. It was a feeling of something long looked-​forward-​to finally arriving… but it was something he could not quite name.

He pulled Bunny Bluenose down to face-​level and whispered reverently, “Is it somebody’s birthday today?”

From high above Papa’s voice softly said, “Perhaps it is and we don’t know it, if Aunt Synne had her baby today.”

Harald flung himself onto his back and squealed, “Papa!”

Papa smiled and bent far, far down until their noses almost touched. “Pinknose!”


“Pick me up!” he demanded. “Papa,” he gasped, already squirming with excitement at the possibilities, “is it still night?”

“It’s still night,” Papa reassured him.

Pinknose laughed with glee at their naughtiness. He was always happy when Papa came home, but his favorite sort of coming-​home was when Papa arrived so late that he came to get Pinknose out of his bed, in brazen defiance of the staying-​in-​bed rule. Only Papa could break rules laid down by Mama, but Pinknose could too if Papa helped.

“Don’t tell Mama!” Pinknose giggled wickedly.

Papa squeezed him tight and pulled his head down onto his shoulder.

Papa squeezed him tight and pulled his head down onto his shoulder.

Pinknose was still sleepy enough that he was content to snuggle there for a moment—but then he remembered how many things there were to tell!

“Papa!” he said, “Uncle Brede and Wyn was here, and Sigefrith and Stein, last night and today, but they went home.” He took a breath and rushed on, fearful to have such a mass of things to tell and—who knew?—perhaps not time enough to tell it. “But Stein didn’t go home!”

“I know, I was just talking to Stein—” Papa began.

'But wait!'

“But wait! And they brought your ships, Papa!”

“I know…”

“And how did you get home if you don’t have any ships, Papa?”

“So, do you know your big friend Skor—”

“And where’s Mama?”

'And where's Mama?'

This, he thought, was the thing looked-​forward-​to finally here. A house without Mama was a house with rules enforced weakly if at all. Pinknose had learned that being naughty all the time was exhausting business—and not nearly as much fun as he had hoped it would be.

“Did she go see Sweyn first, because he’s the baby?”

Papa sighed and smoothed back Pinknose’s hair, even though his hair had not fallen into his eyes.

'Mama isn't here, boy.'

“Mama isn’t here, boy,” Papa whispered. “So—”

“But Sigefrith said she was with you!”

“She was, but listen—”

“Is she coming tomorrow?” he whimpered.

'Is she coming tomorrow?'

Just as when he had lost Bunny Bluenose for an entire night, he had not known how much he needed Mama until Mama was gone. Papa often came and went and came again, but Mama was home through every storm and season. Mama did not go away in ships—except this one time, when she had.

“No, boy, listen—”

“After–after tomorrow?” Pinknose begged, generously allowing an extra day. He thought he could hold out that long.

“Listen, Harald,” Papa said hoarsely. “Be quiet and I shall tell you.”

Pinknose dropped his head upon Papa’s shoulder and fell silent. Papa never called him Harald for a reason that made him glad.

Pinknose dropped his head upon Papa's shoulder and fell silent.

“So,” Papa began, “do you remember Uncle Murchad?”

“Is he here?”

“No, but do you remember Auntie Synne? Mama’s sister?”

“With the swing?”

'With the swing?'

His mother’s tales of her girlhood home and her adventures with her little sister were among Pinknose’s favorites. Those involving the old swing were of particular interest: never had Pinknose seen a tree that could hold a child’s swing in its branches—even for such a little boy as he. Truly everything in the land of Mama was wondrous on the scale of Mama.

“Yes, with the swing,” Papa smiled. “But Auntie Synne isn’t swinging now, because she has a big, big, big belly, because she’s expecting a baby any day.”

“What day?” Pinknose asked gravely. One would not want to miss a birthday.

“We don’t know yet,” Papa said. “Because he hasn’t been born yet, you see. But Mama and I went with Skorri and his ships to Ireland to see Uncle Murchad and Auntie Synne, and Mama decided to stay for a little while to visit Auntie Synne and help her when her baby comes. And so, Pinknose, do you know why?”

'And so, Pinknose, do you know why?'

Papa was beginning to smile and speak easily again, and if Pinknose was to be called Pinknose, then matters could not be so very dire.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because Auntie Synne’s belly is so hugely, tremendously, enormously big that Mama thinks she is going to have two babies at the same time!

Pinknose gasped. “Two birthdays!”

'Two birthdays!'

Papa laughed softly. “That would require some coordination,” he said, “but do you see? Auntie Synne will have her hands full, with two new babies, and one old baby, and that Cry-​Baby Uncle Murchad on top of it. So Mama wanted to stay a while and help.”

“I think Mama will have three babies at one time!” Pinknose said, for Mama would not be so easily outdone.

“I think we should hope Mama spreads them out a little,” Papa said with a faint smile that did not reach as for as the corners of his eyes. “That way the birthdays are not all in the same month of the year. We’re having a bit of a birthday dry spell right now.”

'We're having a bit of a birthday dry spell right now.'

Pinknose weighed the benefits of this arrangement for a moment before remembering his true concern. “But Mama will come after Auntie Synne is all done having babies?”

Papa brushed back his hair again. “Mama will come when she’s ready,” he said softly. “You know Mama. But she said I must give you boys a thousand and a hundred kisses, and also spank your behinds for all the naughty things you’ve done since she left.”

Pinknose laughed sheepishly, hoping Papa would be inclined to laugh along, as he sometimes privately did at their naughtiness. But oh! he despaired at the powers of divination of Mama! How could she know what he had been up to?

Pinknose laughed sheepishly.

“But I think we will not do the spankings and say we did,” Papa said with a sly wink.

That was Papa! Pinknose giggled in relief and smashed his head into the curve of Papa’s neck.

“Papa,” Pinknose sighed after a sleepy while, “how many days is there?”

Papa grunted. “Days till what, boy?”

'Days till what, boy?'

“How many days in every day?” he asked.

“Hmm. Three hundred and sixty-​five days in all the year,” Papa said thoughtfully, and then he squeezed Pinknose tight against his breastbone and rubbed his bearded chin over Pinknose’s hair. “But we will see Mama before then,” he whispered.

“I know, Papa,” Pinknose soothed. “But what I think is, I think Mama should have that many babies, so we can have a birthday every day.”

'I think Mama should have that many babies, so we can have a birthday every day.'

Papa burst into loud laughter such as was not suited for nighttime—though Mama was not home to scold—and Pinknose freely laughed with him. He had not meant it for a joke, but Papa was always proud of his boys when they made him laugh, and never mocking.

But Papa’s laughter suddenly grew so raucous that Pinknose began to fear—it was more like Papa’s angry laughter when he read a letter he did not like or when one of his men had failed.

Then Pinknose realized it was a cough.

Then Pinknose realized it was a cough—a deep, breathless, hacking cough—and it was no relief to him. Guthrun sometimes coughed that way, and everyone who heard her fell silent and awkward until the excruciating moment had passed.

When it had passed over Papa, Pinknose drummed his fingers on Papa’s collarbone and mumbled, “I think you’re sick, Papa.”

“That’s right,” Papa said, chuckling gingerly, “and that’s what happens if a man doesn’t listen to Mama. So, do you know what Mama always says about wearing your socks to bed, and going out without a hat, and wearing wet shoes, and wiping your nose on your hand?”

'That's what happens if a man doesn't listen to Mama.'

Pinknose nodded fearfully.

“So, Papa did all those things at the same time.

Pinknose gasped. It was like his brave Papa to be so bold—but even Papa could not so brazenly defy the rules of Mama without consequences.

“So let your Papa be a lesson to you,” Papa said with a ponderous gravity, and he concluded with a wink and a loud and ludicrous sniffle.

Pinknose smiled because Papa smiled, but he was not at ease.

“If Mama was here,” he quavered, “she would make you her chicken soup all by herself. She only makes it when someone is sick.”

'She only makes it when someone is sick.'

“Is it good?” Papa asked slyly. “I never get any, since I never get sick.”

“It’s good,” Pinknose assured him, “and she feeds you with a spoon, even if you’re not a baby.”


“And she makes it all by herself, no cook!” Pinknose hastened to add. “She even cuts up the chicken all by herself. I bet she even kills the chicken all by herself!” he whispered, for such feats were not to be mentioned lightly.

Papa chuckled. “I bet Mama would, if she wanted.”

'I bet Mama would, if she wanted.'

With a sword,” Pinknose added reverently.

Papa began to laugh again, carefully, though his laughter so rumbled in his chest that Pinknose feared it was meant to serve double-​duty as a cough. He had never dreamt that one day he would be forced to think of how not to make Papa laugh.

Pinknose lifted his hand and gently pushed back the strands of hair that stuck to Papa’s sweaty face. Then he let his own head fall against it, plastering his own hair against Papa’s cheek.

“I wish Mama was home.”

'I wish Mama was home.'