One windy spring afternoon, Too-Ticky discovered that she had misplaced a scarf.
She had other scarves, of course: a nice thick woolen one, a fine silk one from far away, a lovely blue one that Moominmamma had crocheted for her once, and a few more. But it wasn’t cold enough for the woolen one, and she was going out berry-picking today; both fine silk and the loose stitch that Moominmamma had used would surely get caught on thorns and ruined.
No, she wanted the simple one she had knitted herself five summers ago. It was thick enough to keep back the wind, but not so thick as to be stiflingly hot. It was perfect for autumn and early spring, if only Too-Ticky could find the dratted thing.
“It’s early enough in spring,” she said to no one in particular. “I only just left the bathhouse last week. Perhaps I forgot it on my way out.”
It was worth looking, at least. None of the Moomins were using it at the moment, so no one would mind if she went to check.
Halfway down the old beach path, she ran into Snufkin walking in the other direction. His hair was damp and drying in the wind, his hat twirled in one hand, and he smelled of the sea. He was in high spirits; even without his harmonica, there was a song on his lips.
“Just gone for a swim?” Too-Ticky said by way of greeting.
“It’s a good day for it,” Snufkin replied with a smile, and with that he was on his way.
And perhaps the waves were crystal blue and clear and tempting when Too-Ticky reached the shore, but she was there for a purpose. In a few moments she had crossed the jetty and reached the bathhouse.
For years she had used this place as a winter home. It was small, but it was built for heat, and Too-Ticky never needed much room anyway. Besides, there was plenty of space if you knew where to look.
For such a small place there was no shortage of nooks and crannies and hiding-places, and Too-Ticky knew them all. Extra shelving tucked behind doors, a cupboard that was quite a bit bigger than it seemed from the outside, a loose floorboard with enough space beneath to store all sorts of things. She used them in the winter, then cleared her things out by spring so that the Moomins might make use of them, if they were so inclined. They were always empty again by the time she returned in the following winter.
One by one, Too-Ticky checked them all for her misplaced scarf. It was not behind the stove, nor in the closets and cupboards and half-hidden corners, or any of the places she would have expected it to be. They were all empty, and before long Too-Ticky was ready to call it a lost cause. She hadn’t checked under the floorboard, but why in all the world would she have put it there?
Still, it never hurt to be thorough. With a sigh, Too-Ticky popped the loose floor board up and peeked underneath.
It was not empty.
For a few moments, Too-Ticky simply stared at the hiding place beneath the floorboard, and the object currently contained there. Naturally, it was not her scarf.
Quickly, Too-Ticky pushed the floorboard back down, then spread a little rug over the spot before scrambling up and heading for the door. She opened it and paused, casting this way and that to be sure that the coast was clear, then closed the bathhouse behind her and hurried across the jetty and back the way she had come.
She would do without her scarf today.
A whistle came from the garden in the wee hours of the morning, before the sun had quite reached the horizon. It roused Moomintroll from sleep so gently that he couldn’t be sure what had woken him, until it came a second time.
It was Snufkin’s whistle, of course. Moomintroll knew it even before he made his way to the window and opened it to find his best friend standing below the rope ladder. Snufkin whistled the way he did everything else: in a peculiar way that was uniquely his own.
Moomintroll climbed down as quietly as he could to avoid waking the rest of the house, especially Little My. If she found out that he and Snufkin were doing secret things before dawn, then she would do everything she could to involve herself.
Snufkin’s night-eyes shone with excitement as Moomintroll touched down beside him. “I found something,” he said. “What do you think of a walk down to the beach?”
“I like the sound of it,” Moomintroll replied. “If we hurry, we can watch the sunrise. What did you find?”
But Snufkin only smiled and led him across the bridge to the beach path without answering.
“Fine then,” Moomintroll said, when it was clear that Snufkin wasn’t going to answer. “I suppose everyone has a right to their secrets.”
“You aren’t wrong,” Snufkin said with a soft chuckle. “But this won’t be a secret for long. Call it a surprise instead.” As he said this, he reached out and took Moomintroll’s paw to help him over a log that had fallen into the path. His grasp loosened when they were past the obstacle, and Moomintroll reluctantly let him go.
Privately, he would have liked to hold paws all the way to the beach, and all the way back as well. He was fairly certain that Snufkin would have let him, if he’d tried. But Moomintroll wasn’t certain that Snufkin would have liked it, in fact it was quite possible that Snufkin wouldn’t have liked it at all. It was certainly more of a risk than Moomintroll was willing to take.
The worse risk, in Moomintroll’s mind, was that Snufkin would realize why Moomintroll wanted to keep holding his paw.
And, well, that just didn’t bear thinking about.
Still, with or without holding paws, it was a lovely morning for a stroll. They were in a bit of a hurry; with each passing minute the sky grew lighter, and if they weren’t careful then they might miss the sunrise. With the sea to the west, sunrises weren’t quite as glorious as sunsets, but there were enough clouds in the sky this morning to make for some lovely colors, and with fewer trees on the shore, there would be plenty more sky to see it.
A cool breeze swept in from the sea, ruffling Moomintroll’s fur as they broke through the treeline. The sun hadn’t risen into view yet, but the sky overhead was dusky blue with threads of purple and orange. It was going to be a beautiful morning, Moomintroll just knew it.
“It’s this way,” Snufkin said, turning away from the sandy beach and toward the rocks and cliffs that held the caves.
As they crested the highest points, the sun finally made its appearance over the jagged horizon of the distant Lonely Mountains. Light bled into the sky, its warmth chased way the night’s chill, and Moomintroll paused for a step to admire it all against the treetops and the mountains and the peak of Snufkin’s hat.
There were few things more comforting to Moomintroll than moments like this: a quiet moment early in spring, with Snufkin at his side, the sea to the west and the sunrise to the east, painting the sky in rainbows.
He stole a glance at Snufkin’s paw, half-hidden in his well-worn sleeve. It wouldn’t be so strange to take it. They were climbing over rocks, after all—it was only safe.
With a shake of his head, Moomintroll turned to look at the sea again.
“It’s down this way,” Snufkin said suddenly. “The inlet past the caves.” The rocks sloped downward, and Snufkin took Moomintroll’s paw as the path grew steep.
Moomintroll took this as an excuse not to let go until they reached the bottom.
By the time the inlet came into view, the sun was high enough to still reach them. Snufkin tugged Moomintroll along, following the water further inland until it widened into a miniature lagoon. The water was bright blue, almost cerulean compared to the darker ocean. At low tide there were plenty of sandy shores and jutting boulders to swim out to.
Moomintroll had liked this lagoon when he was younger. It had been a wonderful swimming hole, back when he was first mastering the skill. These days it was a bit shallow and boring, but it was still a lovely place to sit and think and watch the clouds roll by.
Now, Snufkin kicked off his boots, placed his hat beside them, and waded into the shallow water. “It’s easiest to see from that boulder there,” he said, pointing. “Now that the sun’s up, I bet it’ll look even better.”
Mystified, Moomintroll followed his lead. It was shallow enough to wade the entire way, but deep enough that they could still paddle and swim the short distance, just to get there faster. Snufkin’s sodden clothes clung to him as he grasped the rough rock and climbed out, reaching back to pull Moomintroll up beside him.
The rock jutted out of the water about twice as high as Moomintroll was tall, but there were plenty of pawholds. Moomintroll reached the top and shook off his wet fur, then stood up near the highest point to look out over the water.
For a moment, he thought the stars themselves had fallen and landed in the lagoon to twinkle up at him from the sand. He blinked, dazzled for a moment, before the colored spots in his eyes vanished and he could see beneath the water more clearly.
They weren’t stars at all; they were coins. Silver, gold, copper, and bronze winked and sparkled merrily in the sun. By the time Moomintroll realized he was grinning, his cheeks already ached.
“Thought you’d like it,” Snufkin said. “It’s like a hidden treasure.”
“Or a wishing well.” Moomintroll leaned over the top of the rock as far as he dared. “When did you find this?”
“I was going for a stroll before dawn,” Snufkin replied, taking his paw again to keep him from falling off the rock. “Even without the sun, you can just about see them from the shore. I thought you might like to see them, too.”
“You were right.” Moomintroll squeezed his paw with a shiver of delight. He made the mistake of looking back at his friend, and saw Snufkin’s smile, and the sunlight turning his hair to as bright a gold as the coins beneath the water. “Snufkin, it’s beautiful,” he said, because saying anything else that was in his heart at that moment was far too dangerous.
Snufkin turned his head away, reaching up as if to tug the brim of his hat over his eyes, but he’d left his hat on the shore, so there was nothing to tug. Moomintroll was overwhelmingly tempted to press his damp snout to Snufkin’s grinning face right then and there.
The morning was beautiful. The sky, the sea, the sunrise, and the coins—and Snufkin, too, was beautiful. He was beautiful the way the sea was beautiful, vast and wild, untamed and free, and Moomintroll loved him so desperately it felt like a betrayal. To Moomintroll it felt like freedom, but to Snufkin it would surely feel like a cage.
And Moomintroll loved him too much to hurt him that way.
Eventually they made their way back from the rock to the shore, bickering gently over whether or not to tell the others of Snufkin’s find. By the time Snufkin had retrieved his hat and dried his feet enough to put his boots back on, they had reached the consensus that Little My and Snorkmaiden might be all right, but Sniff would definitely ruin it by trying to retrieve them.
“You may as well tell Snorkmaiden,” Snufkin said. “She’d never forgive us if she found out we saw this and kept it from her.”
“Let’s go, then,” Moomintroll said.
“There are a few more things I wanted to look at first,” Snufkin replied. “You go on, and I’ll catch up later. If you hurry, you can tell Little My and Snorkmaiden before Sniff even wakes up.”
This sounded like an excellent plan to Moomintroll, who waved to Snufkin and set off back toward the beach.
He was caught up in a playful argument with Little My when Snufkin finally joined them. Perhaps, had he been paying better attention, Moomintroll might have noticed how pale and shaken he was.
For the past few weeks, Snufkin had been acting… odd.
Of course, everyone knew that Snufkin acted odd. He was odd, to most creatures who didn’t know him well. But there was a difference between being odd and being out-of-character, and Moomintroll was more and more certain that Snufkin’s behavior was the latter.
For example, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for Snufkin to wander off even in the spring and summer, to find a secluded fishing spot or climb a peak in the Lonely Mountains to see the view. But never this often—and many times he invited people along, usually Moomintroll but sometimes the others as well. He didn’t simply vanish.
It also wasn’t out of the ordinary for him to be up late at night or very early in the morning, after midnight and before dawn. Snufkin kept his own schedule, no matter how strange it might be. But he still slept—he never looked this tired, as if he were up all day and then all night with hardly a nap in between.
So here he was, with bags under his eyes and ever-present worry lines, always lost in thought on the rare occasion that he spent time around the others, vanishing at odd hours and deflecting invitations and requests to spend time with him.
It was a little maddening, if Moomintroll were being honest. In fact, it was a little frightening. Was Snufkin upset about something?
…Was Snufkin upset with him?
At last, after weeks of watching this odd behavior, Moomintroll stumbled upon his friend quite by accident. Snufkin was at his campsite, sitting with his back against a log and doing… not much of anything, as far as Moomintroll could tell. (And there was another oddity, because Snufkin was always doing something, be it smoking or fishing or watching the sky.) As far as Moomintroll could tell, he was resting—and from the look of it, he greatly needed it.
Without waiting for an invitation (if the past few weeks were any indication, he wasn’t going to get one) Moomintroll crept into Snufkin’s campsite to sit with him. When Snufkin didn’t immediately tell him to go away, he let himself relax a little.
“Have you been sleeping well?” Moomintroll asked.
“What an odd question,” Snufkin remarked.
“That’s not much of an answer.”
Snufkin tilted his head downward, ostensibly to light his pipe, but Moomintroll knew that he was hiding his eyes behind the brim. The dark circles underneath them were getting worse; even Sniff was bound to have noticed by now, and Sniff didn’t notice much of anything that wasn’t already of interest to him.
“You just seem… off,” Moomintroll said uncertainly. “You’re a little pale, and slower than usual, and you’ve been avoiding company like you’re trying to hide it—which isn’t working, by the way.”
“Thank you,” Snufkin said in a long-suffering voice.
“Snufkin, I’m worried,” Moomintroll informed him, and Snufkin sighed.
“I know,” he said. “That’s why I’ve been trying to hide it. It really isn’t something you need to concern yourself with, Moomintroll. I can handle myself just fine.”
“Are you sick?” Moomintroll asked. “Is your tent all right to sleep in? You’ve had it for years, so maybe it’s getting a bit old and worn—”
“Old and worn is precisely how I like it,” Snufkin said sharply. Moomintroll fell silent, ears drooping a little, and his friend sighed again. “I didn’t mean to snap. But I really am all right.”
Moomintroll frowned. “You’d come to me if you weren’t, wouldn’t you?” he asked. “If you needed my help… you know it’s no trouble, don’t you? All you have to do is ask.”
Snufkin smiled at him, and it was almost reassuring. “Yes, Moomintroll, I know that very well. And thank you.” He stood up, pipe stem held in his teeth. “Why don’t we go walking? I’ll bet the fresh air will do me some good.”
Normally, Moomintroll would agree, but just looking at him now…
Oh, it was such an awful thought. He hated to think it, that Snufkin could ever look fragile. Snufkin was never fragile, or breakable, or anything like that. He was the strongest creature Moomintroll had ever met. He could be prickly and impatient and even sensitive sometimes, but he was never fragile.
No, that was a thought that Moomintroll needed to put out of his mind, right this instant.
“I think a walk sounds good,” he said. “We could go down to the beach again.”
“That’s the best idea I’ve heard all day,” Snufkin told him.
Along the way, they talked. Or rather, Moomintroll did most of the talking. Snufkin listened attentively, answered here and there, and chuckled when Moomintroll made a joke. He was clearly making an effort, which was good, but these quiet conversations in the woods were usually more, well, effortless.
They were halfway to the beach when Moomintroll realized that Snufkin had gone quite a few minutes without making a sound. “Are you sure you won’t tell me what’s wrong?” he asked. “If you’re sick, then Mamma could help.”
“I’m not sick,” Snufkin said. “You don’t have to worry about me.”
“Well, I don’t have a choice in the matter,” Moomintroll said. “You seem so tired, and you’ve been pulling away and keeping to yourself lately… and it’s still in the middle of spring, so it can’t be… unless…” His voice trailed off.
“Moomintroll?” Snufkin slowed to a halt.
“I know you need your space,” Moomintroll told him cautiously. “But… it feels like you’ve been needing your space a lot, recently. And if… and if you have to leave, even this early, then I understand! I’m just—I’d just be surprised, since it’s not even summer yet, but I understand. Really, I do. And it’s all right with me—I mean, not that you need my permission to—”
“Moomintroll,” Snufkin cut him off gently. “It isn’t that, I promise. I can’t—I don’t want to leave yet.”
“I just wish you’d let me help,” Moomintroll whispered.
Snufkin smiled sadly. “I know. And I wish I could, I really do. But there’s…” He paused. “There’s nothing…”
That was all the warning Moomintroll got before Snufkin listed forward and crumpled against him. It was only because they were close and Snufkin was already facing him that Moomintroll managed to catch him.
“Snufkin?” Moomintroll tried to help him upright again, but Snufkin only slumped limply against him. His hat fell off, and his head lolled against Moomintroll’s neck.
He was cold. Why did he feel so cold?
“Snufkin?” Moomintroll cried desperately. “Snufkin, what’s wrong?” Tears pricked at his eyes when Snufkin failed to answer, driven by fear that threatened to turn to panic. Moomintroll fumbled until he got his arms under Snufkin and lifted. His friend offered no resistance. His eyes were closed, his face pale and still.
And then, as Moomintroll watched in growing panic, a single lock of his brown hair faded to white.
Turning, Moomintroll raced back the way they had come, trying not to jostle Snufkin any more than he had to. He scarcely breathed as he ran, heedless of twigs and stones under his feet or the burn in his lungs. It took far too long for him to reach the tree line and stumble out into the valley, but he put on an extra burst of speed when he spotted the stream and bridge and Moominhouse on the other side. His chest ached from sprinting with Snufkin in his arms, but Moomintroll still had breath enough to shout.
“Mamma! Mamma, help!”
The spare rooms weren’t made up, the bed linens still in the wash, so Moomintroll offered up his own bed with hardly a thought. Mamma worked quickly and efficiently, and Snufkin was bundled up warm beneath the covers in hardly any time at all.
“Is he sick?” Moomintroll asked, unable to contain himself. “It’s not a fever, is it?”
“No, dear,” Mamma replied. “It’s quite the opposite. His temperature is very low.”
“But what does that mean? The only thing I can think of is maybe the Groke, and she hasn’t been seen in the valley since winter—and even then, Snufkin would have said—”
“Moomintroll.” Mamma placed her paws on his shoulders, stilling him. “I know you’re frightened. I’m worried about Snufkin, too. But panicking won’t help him. You know that, right?”
“I know,” Moomintroll sniffled. “I’m trying not to. I’ll try harder, Mamma.”
“That’s all anyone can ask,” she said. “Here—go down to the kitchen. Turn the oven on low, and heat some clean towels for Snufkin. Heat some water, as well—you remember how to make warm compresses, don’t you?”
“We’ll need plenty of them,” she said. “And it will be good to have hot water for tea, when Snufkin wakes up.”
When, not if. Moomintroll repeated it to himself as he dashed off to follow her instructions.
He was busy in the kitchen with heating towels and boiling water, when Little My came in. He was so focused on what he was doing that he barely noticed her.
“What’s going on?” she asked. “Are we having a cleaning day?”
“Snufkin’s sick,” Moomintroll said bluntly.
“Sick? What’s wrong with him?”
“Don’t know,” Moomintroll replied, and hurried past her to the stairs with an armload of hot towels.
Mamma was in his room, poring over the index and table of contents in her grandmother’s recipe book. She flipped back and forth between pages, frowning deeply.
“Any luck?” Moomintroll asked as he carefully tucked heated towels around Snufkin’s back and shoulders. His friend shifted a little in his sleep, but did not wake. Snufkin’s hat, which Moomintroll had gone back to retrieve, sat on the bedside table.
“Some things seem similar, but nothing sounds quite right,” Mamma replied. “I may just have to read page by page if I hope to find anything. I’m working as quickly as I can, dear, don’t you doubt that.”
Eventually Mamma went downstairs to mind the stove and search for a remedy, leaving Moomintroll to watch over Snufkin for any changes in his condition. He passed the first hour or so in a haze of frantic energy, pacing the room and startling at every sharp breath or rustling blanket. Mamma brought more towels when the previous ones cooled, and Moomintroll kept himself busy tending to Snufkin as best he could.
By the end of the second hour, his nervous energy had bled away, leaving him drained and tired and still sick with worry. Solitude was the perfect place to cry it out; the only one there was Snufkin, and he was sleeping too deeply to see Moomintroll’s tears.
It felt good to cry. Like he’d been holding back for long enough that letting it out was as natural as exhaling. He may as well have been holding his breath since he caught Snufkin mid-faint—maybe even before that, when Snufkin started pulling away and disappearing.
The when didn’t matter. What mattered was now, with Snufkin as warm as they could make him, and Moomintroll with tears dripping down his face as he watched over him and tried to keep him comfortable.
At last the weeping ran its course, leaving Moomintroll red-eyed and smoothing out his tear-stained fur. He took long, deep breaths until the shuddering and hiccuping stopped.
Were the towels still warm, he thought as he uncurled and got up from his chair. He should check—
Snufkin stirred, murmuring faintly. His eyelids moved as if trying to open.
Snufkin’s fluttering eyelids opened, as slowly and arduously as if they were made of lead. “M… Moomintroll?” The covers shifted. He tried to sit up, only to roll over with a weary sigh. “What happened?”
“You collapsed,” Moomintroll replied, doing his best not to sound like he’d just been crying.
“Oh dear.” Snufkin managed to free one arm from beneath the blankets, and pressed it against his eyes. “How foolish of me. I’m very sorry about that.”
“What are you sorry for?” Moomintroll’s voice cracked. “I’m not upset with you, I was just—” Scared, he didn’t say. Snufkin would probably hate the thought of frightening him even more than angering him. “I mean, one moment you were talking to me, and the next—you just dropped, and I almost didn’t catch you, and you could’ve hurt yourself falling like that. And when I picked you up, you were so cold, and…” His voice trailed off.
Snufkin blinked blearily up at him. “And…?”
“Your… your hair, Snufkin,” Moomintroll said, reaching out to touch the white streak. “Some of it’s turned white.”
Snufkin pulled away from his paw, and Moomintroll pulled back didn’t try to touch him again.
“Mamma’s been looking through her grandmother’s book,” Moomintroll went on when the silence grew too much. “She hasn’t found what’s wrong yet. But don’t worry! I’m sure she’ll find it. She’s bound to, her grandmother’s book has everything, and I’m sure she’ll…” His voice trailed away. With each word he spoke, Snufkin’s face was closing off, until his friend finally started trying to sit up again. “Snufkin?”
“You don’t have to trouble yourself,” Snufkin told him. “In fact, I think I’ve stayed too long. You shouldn’t worry too much. I’m sure if I sleep this off in my tent, I’ll be right as rain.”
“But—wait!” Forgetting himself, Moomintroll caught hold of one of his paws, and winced at how ice-cold it felt. “Snufkin… do you know what’s wrong? Do you know what this is?”
“Yes, and that’s how I know you don’t need to trouble yourself.” Snufkin tugged at his paw but didn’t pull it out of Moomintroll’s grasp. Either he wasn’t really trying, or he didn’t have the strength.
“I don’t think that’s true,” Moomintroll said, his voice cracking again. “That’s not true, is it? You know what this is. And you know that it’s bad. No, Snufkin—” He pressed forward until he was leaning over the bed, trying to get Snufkin to look at him again. “If you know what’s wrong, then you should tell us! That way Mamma can find it in her book and—”
“Moomintroll, this isn’t—”
“—we can help you, we can make you better again, if you just—”
“No, Moomintroll,” Snufkin cut him off. His eyes were glassy when they met Moomintroll’s, but they didn’t waver. “You can’t.”
“How do you know that?” Moomintroll challenged him. “If you’d just tell me what’s wrong, then I could—”
Snufkin looked away. “Didn’t you tell me, not too long ago, that everyone has a right to their secrets?”
“Who cares about secrets?” Moomintroll demanded. “You’re sick, and that’s more important to me than any old secret! You need help and you won’t even let me try!”
It was the wrong thing to say. Moomintroll knew it as soon as he’d said it, as soon as he saw Snufkin’s shoulders tighten, as soon as Snufkin turned around and curled up again with his back to him.
“Go away, Moomintroll,” Snufkin told him, and said nothing more.
Moomintroll stood speechless for a moment. He forgot what he was going to say next. He forgot, even, that they were in his bedroom and Snufkin was in no place to tell him not to be in it. When Snufkin said to go away, he meant it.
It was good that Snufkin had turned his back. It made it easier for Moomintroll to hide tears on his way out. Mamma probably noticed anyway as he rushed out of the house, and Little My definitely did, but Moomintroll was past caring.
Of course there was nowhere he could go to feel better. Usually when he was upset he would either talk to Mamma or find Snufkin, but now Snufkin didn’t want to see him, and Mamma was busy trying to find out how to help Snufkin, and the last thing Moomintroll wanted to do was distract her with his worries and hurt feelings. Little My would only press him for details or mock him for being a crybaby. Sniff would only listen politely before offering some platitude and turning the conversation around to whatever he wanted to talk about. Snorkmaiden would try to distract him, and Moomintroll didn’t want to be distracted. He wanted a solution, and that was the one thing he couldn’t have.
And so Moomintroll crept off into the woods to sit by the pond alone. He cried a little more until he stopped feeling so clogged with sadness, then sat back and stared listlessly at the water.
He wanted a solution, but how was he supposed to find one if he didn’t even know what the problem was? Mamma might find something, but Snufkin knew what was wrong and seemed so sure that it wasn’t in any book, even his great-grandmother’s recipe book.
What if that meant there was no remedy?
This thought brought a fresh wave of tears, and because Moomintroll was having the most miserable luck that day, that was when someone happened by and saw him.
He startled at the sound of rustling bushes, hastily wiping his eyes before the brush parted and a familiar voice called to him.
“I thought I heard someone—Moomintroll? Is something wrong?”
Too-Ticky. Why in all the world hadn’t he thought of Too-Ticky?
“Oh, dear,” Too-Ticky said gently, setting her basket down to sit beside him. Out came a handkerchief to dry the rest of his tears. “What’s gone wrong, Moomintroll?”
“Snufkin’s sick.” Moomintroll sniffled miserably.
“Well that’s no good. I imagine Moominmamma’s delving into her recipe book, then?”
“She hasn’t found anything,” Moomintroll said, wiping his eyes. “And Snufkin knows what’s wrong, I know he does, but he won’t tell me. I got frustrated and pushed too hard and now he’s angry with me and I just don’t know what to do, Too-Ticky.”
Too-Ticky was still and silent for a moment, thinking carefully and deeply. “You say he’s sick,” she said. “Sick how? Is it a fever? A cold?”
“No, none of those things,” Moomintroll answered with a shake of his head. “That’s the whole problem, Mamma doesn’t even know where to begin. But he’s been so tired lately, like he hasn’t been getting enough sleep. And this morning we were out walking when he fainted. One moment he was all right, and the next he was just—gone.” He shuddered at the memory. “He’s so cold, like ice. And when he fainted, a lock of his hair turned white. Mamma says she’s never seen anything like it.” He turned to Too-Ticky, his eyes finally dry. “Have you ever heard of anything… like…?”
The look on Too-Ticky’s face told him all that he needed to know.
“You do know!” Moomintroll scrambled to his feet. “You know what’s wrong with him, don’t you? Too-Ticky—”
She cut him off with a paw on his arm. “I don’t—I don’t know for sure,” she said. “I suspect, but…” She sighed and got to her feet. “I didn’t want to do this. Ohh, I didn’t want to do this at all, but I’ve got to. I need to talk to Snufkin.”
“He’s in my room,” Moomintroll told her. “I don’t know if he’s still awake.”
“All right.” Too-Ticky nodded. There was a tension in her jaw that he had scarcely ever seen before. If he didn’t know better, he might have thought she looked almost angry. “Moomintroll, I’m going to need your help. And I’m going to need you to trust me.” She looked him in the eye, her face solemn and serious. “And that means not asking me questions before I know for sure. Do you understand?”
Moomintroll swallowed his frustration and reluctantly nodded. Why was everyone so determined to hide the truth from him? “What do you need me to do?”
“When I go in to talk to Snufkin, I need you to make absolutely sure that we aren’t disturbed,” she said. “No one comes in. No one interrupts. And no one, not even you, can listen at the door.”
“All right, I can do that,” Moomintroll said.
“And if I’m right, and it’s what I fear,” Too-Ticky went on, “then I still might not tell you everything. I need you to understand that if you ask me a question and I say that I can’t answer it, I mean it.”
Moomintroll was silent. It was asking an awful lot; how was he supposed to be helpful if he only knew bits and pieces? “I hope it’s not what you fear, then,” he said at last.
“Believe me.” Too-Ticky smiled bleakly at him. “So do I.”
Moomintroll stopped at the door to his own bedroom and hung back. “I think he’s still upset with me,” he murmured, staring down at his feet. “It’s better if you go in. I’ll watch the door for you, and I promise I won’t listen in.”
Too-Ticky held his gaze for a moment, as if searching for a lie, but there was none. She went in and closed the door behind her, and that was that.
With a deep sigh, Moomintroll sat down on the hallway floor and leaned back against the wall. He could hear Too-Ticky’s voice through the door, just barely, though she was speaking too quietly for him to make out any words. Just to be safe, Moomintroll began to hum. It was tuneless at first, but it gradually melted into melodies he recognized. “All Small Beasts Should Have Bows In Their Tails.” Snufkin’s latest spring tune. A ditty about a caterpillar that Snorkmaiden had stuck in her head a few days ago. After a few more, he cycled back to “All Small Beasts” before he was finally interrupted.
“What are you sitting and humming out here for?” Little My demanded, startling him. He had been so lost in thought and focused on not listening through the door that he hadn’t seen her come up the stairs.
“It’s none of your business,” Moomintroll answered. And then, because trying to hide things from Little My was basically impossible, he added, “Too-Ticky’s in with Snufkin right now.”
“Why Too-Ticky?” she asked, walking past him to the door. “I want to talk to him, but Mamma says he’s been sleeping. Are they talking right now?”
“Too-Ticky says you can’t go in,” Moomintroll said, getting up. “Not even me. I was humming so I wouldn’t eavesdrop by accident.”
“That’s no fun,” Little My scoffed. “Come on, let’s see what’s going on.”
Moomintroll did something very risky, then: he picked Little My up and tucked her under his arm, stopping her from going in. “You can’t. Too-Ticky told me to watch the door.”
Little My wriggled in his grip, teeth clacking as she tried to bite him. Thinking quickly, Moomintroll turned her upside down with her back to his body and his arm across her middle. She was still pulling at his fur, but it was harder for her to get her teeth into him. Casting about for a more permanent solution, he spotted the wastepaper basket nearby. He upended it with his free paw, then popped Little My underneath like a ball in a shell game and sat on it to keep her there. The basket shook beneath him as Little My tried to get free, but eventually she stopped trying to knock it over and settled for kicking it every now and then.
Eventually Too-Ticky emerged from Moomintroll’s bedroom and closed the door behind her. Her grim not-quite-anger from before was gone; now she just looked horribly worried.
“Well?” Moomintroll said, jolting a bit when Little My kicked the basket again.
“It’s what I thought,” Too-Ticky said. “Perhaps it’s worse. I thought maybe he’d know… well, never mind. I’ll need your help, Moomintroll.”
“Of course.” Moomintroll finally got up, and the basket went flying into the wall when Little My flung it off.
Too-Ticky barely batted an eye. “I meant what I said before,” she told him. “If I say that I can’t tell you something, you mustn’t press me.”
“I promise I won’t,” Moomintroll said.
“I don’t promise a thing,” Little My said. “What’s going on, anyway? What’s wrong with Snufkin?”
“What do we first?” Moomintroll asked, ignoring her.
“First I speak with Moominmamma.” Too-Ticky was already on her way down the stairs. “You’ve been very kind to let Snufkin have your room, but I’ll have to move him.”
Moomintroll followed her, and Little My followed Moomintroll, still worrying at his ankles like a terrier. He did his best to pay her no mind, but she was persistent.
“Oh hello, Too-Ticky,” Mamma greeted, glancing up from the recipe book. She was most of the way through it, and looked as if she had been reading it cover to cover for some kind of clue.
Gently Too-Ticky took the book from her paws. “Get some rest, Moominmamma,” she advised. “The cure for Snufkin’s ailment isn’t in any recipe book, not even your grandmother’s.”
Mamma’s tired eyes lit up. “You know what’s wrong, then?”
“I do. There isn’t much I can say about it, but I’ll do everything I can to help. First, I need to move him.”
“Where to?” Mamma asked.
“Not far. Just to the bathhouse.”
“The bathhouse?” Mamma looked confused. “I don’t know, Too-Ticky, it gets awfully cold with the wind coming off the ocean. Are you sure it won’t harm him?”
“Mamma,” Moomintroll broke in. “If Too-Ticky knows what’s wrong, then she knows how to help, so I think we should listen to her for Snufkin’s sake.”
Her face softened. “Of course. You’re right, you’re both right.”
Too-Ticky smiled ruefully. “I know it isn’t winter, but I’ll have to impose on you for at least a little while.”
“For Snufkin’s sake,” Mamma repeated with a tired smile. “Thank you for your help”
“There’s no need to—ouch!” Too-Ticky pulled her hand up, rubbing at a fresh set of small teeth marks.
“We could all be a little more helpful if we stopped dancing around the truth,” Little My said sharply, baring her teeth again. “For the third time, what’s wrong with Snufkin?”
“You should ask him yourself,” Too-Ticky told her. “If he wants to tell you then he’ll tell you. If not, then there are other ways to be helpful.”
Moomintroll half-expected Little My to bite her again, or at least argue. Instead her eyes widened, and she said nothing more. It might not have been surprising on anyone else, since that was the closest that Moomintroll had ever seen Too-Ticky come to scolding someone, but still. This was Little My they were talking about.
“Let’s be going, then,” Too-Ticky said, more to Moomintroll than anyone else. “Knowing Snufkin, he’ll want to make the journey on his own two feet.”
In this instance, Too-Ticky didn’t relish being right. It would have been far less trouble to carry Snufkin down to the shore, but of course he was too proud to let them.
Of course, pride was no substitute for strength, which left him leaning on Too-Ticky whenever it got to be too much. Moomintroll hovered by him worriedly, paws wringing in agitation but never touching him. Snufkin had spoken little since they helped him out of bed and down the stairs to the door, and every now and then Moomintroll made a feeble attempt to start a conversation that fizzled out to nothing in the end. All the while, Snufkin seemed unwilling to even glance in his friend’s direction.
It was difficult to watch, even more so when Snufkin’s ailing strength finally failed him three-quarters of the way to the sea. Moomintroll made a dive to catch him as he slumped forward, but Too-Ticky had it in hand. She swung his limp form easily into her arms, and Moomintroll simply retrieved Snufkin’s hat from where it had fallen.
Snufkin was terribly pale, and every bit as cold as Moomintroll had said. His eyelids were drooping but not quite shut; he was too weak to walk any further on his own, but not weak enough to be unconscious, and all the more miserable for it if Too-Ticky was any judge.
In fact, it was only when they reached the sea that he stirred again, nose twitching at the breeze that whipped about them. Too-Ticky wasted no more time in getting him across the jetty and into the bathhouse, where Moomintroll leapt to help set up the bedding she used in the winter. In a matter of minutes they had Snufkin set up and comfortable, and Too-Ticky left a window open to let in the fresh air. He was asleep by the time she turned back around.
“Right,” she said softly. “He’s settled in, then. Let’s go.”
Moomintroll left Snufkin’s hat within his reach, followed her outside, and asked, “What do we do?”
Right, of course. This was the hard part: getting help from Moomintroll without telling him what was going on. Too-Ticky dearly hated being in this position, but to do otherwise would be a betrayal, both of Snufkin and of herself.
But it was hard, so hard, seeing Moomintroll droop after Snufkin shied away from his touch, unable to tell him why.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know it’s a lot to ask. There are things that… well. It’s not for me to say whether or not you deserve to know them, but I understand that it hurts not to know.”
Moomintroll blinked and fidgeted with his paws. “It… does hurt,” he said. “Just a little. But it would hurt more to lose him. The most important thing right now is to help him, and if I forced him to tell me things, or if I went behind his back to find them out, that would be the opposite of helping him, I think.” He clasped his paws together to still them. “Do you know how to help him, Too-Ticky?”
And wasn’t that a complicated question? Of course Too-Ticky knew what would cure Snufkin’s condition. Whether or not she knew how to get it was another matter entirely.
“I know what he needs,” she said at last. “We just need to find it.”
“And you can’t tell me what it is,” Moomintroll said. “Or what it looks like. Or anything about it.”
She swallowed the lump in her throat. “No.”
“Alright.” Moomintroll took a deep breath. “That’ll be hard. But I’ll do my best.”
Too-Ticky smiled. “Thank you, Moomintroll.”
“I want to help Snufkin,” he said. “So just tell me what you need from me, and never mind telling me the rest, whether it’s later or not at all. Tell me how I can help him now.”
It comforted her as much as it twisted at her heart. Would that Snufkin could see the trusting light and calm determination in Moomintroll’s eyes. Would he change his mind if he could? She was almost sure of it.
But that was not for her to decide.
“Snufkin told me you both went to the inlet further down the shore,” she said. “When he showed you the coins. Can you take me there?”
He nodded. “It’s this way, toward the south. We just have to get over those big rocks with the sea caves underneath.”
Too-Ticky followed him up, and then down again. It wasn’t far, only about the length of a morning stroll, before they reached the inlet and the lagoon further inland. It was a nice little spot, and with the sun high in the sky, Too-Ticky could still see the twinkle of coins out in the center of the water.
“We swam out to that rock,” Moomintroll told her, pointing. “The water wasn’t as deep at the time.”
Too-Ticky hummed thoughtfully and continued around the water’s edge. Coins were all very well, but not what she was here for. About halfway around the lagoon, the sand gave way to rocky ground that stretched from the water’s edge well into dry land. With Moomintroll at her heels, Too-Ticky crossed the rocks carefully, gripping the wet stone with her feet to keep from slipping.
Out of the tide’s reach were a pair of rocks noticeably darker than the rest, leaning against each other side by side. Too-ticky shifted one over, revealing a hollow dug into the sand and dirt beneath it. It was empty, and Too-Ticky could smell nothing but the usual scents of the sea.
“Moomintroll,” she said.
“You have a better nose than I do. Can you smell anything besides the tide?”
Moomintroll eagerly complied, but came away with a look of disappointment. “No, nothing. Sorry, Too-Ticky.”
“It was a long shot,” Too-Ticky said. This was surely the first place Snufkin had checked, anyway. “Don’t worry, Moomintroll, we’re not finished yet.”
Moomintroll frowned. Too-Ticky could tell he wanted to ask more, but was holding himself back. She appreciated it very much.
Footsteps and scattering rocks heralded the arrival of company: the old Hemulen was coming down the path from inland, his specimen bag slung over his shoulder. At the sight of them, he waved.
“Hello, Mr. Hemulen,” Moomintroll greeted. “What brings you here?”
“Botany, of course,” the Hemulen replied. “I’ve been considering expanding my scope into seaweeds—they are plants, after all. I’ll be quite busy, I expect. Good day to you both!” He moved on without wasting a moment.
Something clicked in Too-Ticky’s mind. “Of course,” she said. “Yes! Moomintroll, I know of a way that you can help.”
“What?” he asked eagerly.
“Make your way around the valley,” she said. “Talk to any Hemulen you meet, and find out what their business is—what they collect, if anything. See if they can tell you about any relations of theirs, as well. The more Hemulens you find out about, the better.”
Moomintroll looked confused for a moment, before his eyes widened in realization. “The cure for Snufkin is something we have to find,” he said. “You think perhaps a Hemulen might have it, or know how to find it?”
“Close enough,” she said. “Do that, while I check on Snufkin and follow up on other leads.”
Moomintroll needed no second urging. Without another word, he turned and dashed after the Hemulen to talk to him first.
With that done, she made her own way back to the jetty with all the speed she could muster. She ducked into the bathhouse and found Snufkin sleeping fitfully, twitching and shifting beneath the covers. He was still far too cold, even with the house well heated. Too-Ticky fussed over him, tucking him more snugly in his blankets, but ultimately there was little she could do.
If there’s nothing you can do, then there’s no point in worrying. If there’s something you can do, then do it, and there’s still no point in worrying. Another deep breath. I know what to do.
Of course, she didn’t know if it would work. But if it didn’t, then she still knew what to do next.
The stamp of a small foot on the jetty drew her attention, and she opened her eyes to find Little My standing there, fists on her hips. “So when is anyone going to tell me what’s going on?” she asked.
“Snufkin’s sick,” Too-Ticky answered readily. “And we’re doing all we can to help.”
“Well I know that,” Little My scoffed.
“Then you know all you need,” Too-Ticky said, and walked past her toward the shore.
Little My followed her all the way back to the sand before she spoke again.
“It’s his cloak, isn’t it?”
Too-Ticky halted in her tracks. It took a moment for the fur on the back of her neck to lie flat again, and for her heart to sink from her throat back to her chest.
“His cloak?” she said after a moment. “I’ve no idea what you mean. It’s washed and hanging outside the bathhouse—you must have seen it.”
“Except you do know what I mean, and you know I’m not talking about that old green thing,” Little My pressed.
“Little My,” Too-Ticky warned.
“You seem to think I’m stupid,” Little My said. “That, or you’ve forgotten that he’s my brother.”
It was hard to argue with that.
Too-Ticky turned around at last. “So you know, then. How long?”
“I didn’t know for sure until recently,” Little My answered. “But after what’s been happening, it wasn’t hard to figure out. I remember his father, too.”
“Have you told anyone else?”
“I haven’t told anyone at all.” Little My scowled at her. “It’s his business, and I’m no tattletale. What do you take me for?”
“You couldn’t have known for sure that I knew,” Too-Ticky said sharply. “And what’s more, I don’t recall asking you which parent he got it from, but now thanks to you, I know.”
To her surprise, Little My looked away.
“You’re trustworthy,” she said.
“That’s not for you to decide,” Too-Ticky told her. “Don’t be so carefree with secrets that aren’t yours.”
Little My’s scowl deepened, for all that she was looking at the water instead of at Too-Ticky. “I didn’t come here to be scolded by the likes of you. I’m here because I want to help. I’m no good with that bedside manner stuff like you or Moomintroll, but I can help get it back.” Finally she met Too-Ticky’s eyes. “I’ll help you break the one who has it, if I have to.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Too-Ticky said, raising an eyebrow. “I don’t know who took it, or why, but depending on the answers to those questions, we may need all the help we can get.”
“Who cares why?” Little My asked. “Selkies need their cloaks, and that’s all that matters to me.” She hopped off the jetty and into the sand. “I won’t speak of this to anyone else, not even Moomintroll. But the second you know who has it, tell me. I’ll make them sorry they ever touched it.”
Me, snapping awake at 3 AM: Snufkin and Moomintroll are perfect for playing with the "animal bride" narrative.
They told Snufkin that he was found in a basket. They told him this because he asked them one day, and they thought that meant he didn’t remember.
Snufkin did remember the basket. He remembered the rocking of the stream lulling him to sleep. He remembered gentle paws placing him inside, a soft muzzle against his forehead before he was set afloat—
And he remembered some of what came before. Memories came in scraps and pieces, of sights and sounds and scents and feelings.
He remembered a cloak, so much bigger than his own but still just as soft and warm and smelling of home. He remembered hiding it when all the noise and chaos got to be too much, which was often.
In his earliest memories were paws tucking his cloak around his shoulders, as a gruff voice told him, Never, do you understand? Never let them take your cloak, or find your cloak. Your cloak is your secret, and your secret is your life. Guard it.
And somewhere between the warning and the basket, the cloak that was not his vanished, and there were only arms around him, holding him close as the voice spoke again, thick and heavy with sorrow, Keep it secret, keep it safe, never let them see, never tell a soul.
Even if I love them? he remembered saying.
Especially then. If you love them, if they love you, then never let them know.
The past blurred and scattered after that, like a reflection in troubled waters, and his next clear memory was the basket and the river and the trembling paws tucking him warmly in his cloak and setting him adrift.
He felt paws on him again, brushing his hair back as if to check his temperature, and for a moment, caught between past and present, he couldn’t be sure whether it was happening in the here and now. A monstrous effort finally lifted his eyelids, and he looked up to see Too-Ticky again.
“Where’s Moomintroll?” The question was barely out of his mouth when he realized he hadn’t seen his friend since they first brought him out here.
“I sent him out to gather information,” Too-Ticky replied.
Even in his half-conscious state, Snufkin tensed. “What kind of information.”
“We’re looking into Hemulens,” Too-Ticky replied. “I sent him out to ask after everyone’s hobbies, and the hobbies of their friends and relations. Who knows? Perhaps they mistook your cloak for something in their area of expertise.”
Snufkin stared up at her, too exhausted and muddled to string more words together.
“He doesn’t know,” she assured him. “And he’s been very good about not asking.”
“Oh,” Snufkin said.
“Your secret is safe,” she murmured, as consciousness slipped from his grasp again. “Rest now. We’ll fix this, I promise you.”
Snufkin had little choice but to listen. He shouldn’t have been able to sleep—his cloak was still gone, the smell of the sea was a cold and distant comfort, and even Moomintroll was away. But he was tired, and so he slept.
He wondered who would tell the Joxter, should his friends fail.
Moomintroll went to Too-Ticky with a list clutched in his paws, several pages long and written out as neatly as he could manage in his mad dash through the whole valley.
“I think I’ve found all the Hemulens there are to find,” he told her. “Not everyone I talked to was interested in collecting things, though. Some of them do things like knitting and paper mache. I still wrote them down, just in case.”
“Well done.” Too-Ticky scanned the pages, her eyes narrowed in thought. With the tip of Moomintroll’s pen she traced down the list of hobbies and collections. There was the botanist Hemulen they knew well, and his second cousin who collected butterflies. A family of Hemulens living to the south of the valley boasted collections of postcards, first-edition books, and antique nutcrackers. Others collected rocks and buttons and coins and teapots. One lone Hemulen living on a high peak in the Lonely Mountains had a devoted himself to photographing and cataloging different types of clouds.
As Moomintroll watched, Too-Ticky’s eyebrows rose twice, and she marked a few entries on the list. She did not speak until she had reached the very bottom.
“All right,” she said. “Perhaps some leads, then.”
“Can I see?” Moomintroll asked.
Too-Ticky hesitated for a moment, then showed him. She had marked a few of the Hemulens he had written down: one that collected seashells, one that made a study of bygone eras of fashion, and one old Hemulen who kept and maintained a cabinet of curiosities, whatever that was. As far as Moomintroll could tell, there was no connection between them; they weren’t even related to each other.
“What does this mean?” he asked.
“It means we have leads,” Too-Ticky said. “Such as they are. The seashell collector is a bit of a long shot, but still worth looking into if the others don’t pan out.”
“Well, let’s go, then,” Moomintroll said. “I… I can come with you, can’t I?” He saw the hesitation plain as day on her face. “Oh please! Please, Too-Ticky, let me come! You can ask me to leave the room if you need, just please let me help!” An idea popped into his head, and he jumped on it. “Besides—this is a secret you have to keep from everyone, right? You won’t be telling the Hemulens anything, so what’s the harm in letting me come along?”
“Ohh, I wish that didn’t make so much sense,” she sighed. “All right, then, Moomintroll. You’re sure you’re all right with leaving Snufkin all by his lonesome while we go around consulting with Hemulens?”
It was Moomintroll’s turn to hesitate. He hadn’t thought about that. “W-well… he won’t be alone. Mamma can come out and look after him. And she can send word if something happens… yes, Too-Ticky, I’m sure. I don’t think Snufkin would like me hovering about, anyway.”
“I wouldn’t sell yourself short.” Too-Ticky patted him comfortingly.
“No, really,” Moomintroll fretted. “He’s still upset with me for pressing him before. If I fuss over him, I’ll only make it worse.”
“He did ask where you were, when I last spoke to him.”
Moomintroll was quiet for a moment, ears drooping. At any other time, the thought of Snufkin asking after him would have at least been comforting, but now… “He probably wanted to make sure I haven’t found out… whatever it is he doesn’t want me to find out,” he said. “And that’s all right! Really, it is! I just want to help however I can, and I don’t think being around him right now will help. So I’ll help with this, instead.”
Too-Ticky looked at him with an expression that was mostly unreadable, but with a touch of sorrow to it. “Well, then. Let’s not waste any more time.”
The first Hemulen lived not far from Mrs. Fillyjonk, in a neat little house with window boxes whose flowers were separated by color and trimmed so as not to spill over the edges. There wasn’t a speck of dirt on the walkway in spite of the fact that it was outside, and the neatly cut grass probably hadn’t been stepped on by real feet in recent memory. It was the sort of place Snufkin would look upon with distaste, Moomintroll thought. Snufkin hated when people treated outside places like that.
Too-Ticky knocked politely on the front door, and presently a fussy-looking Hemulen opened it.
“Hello, madam,” Too-Ticky said politely. “So sorry to bother you, but we were hoping for a few moments of your time.”
The Hemulen lady squinted at them both over the rims of her pince-nez. “I’m not interested in purchasing anything,” she said warily.
“Fantastic,” Too-ticky replied, without missing a beat. “We’re not interested in selling anything. As a matter of fact, we were hoping to avail you of your expertise.”
The Hemulen lady blinked, and the wariness turned to interest. “My expertise?”
“We hear you’re the foremost expert on fashions,” Moomintroll said, catching on. The best way to get a Hemulen talking was to ask them about their favored occupation, whatever it might be.
Sure enough, the Hemulen looked downright eager. “Well, I have been known to dabble… how can I help you?”
“A relation of yours told my friend that you have quite the collection,” said Too-Ticky.
The Hemulen’s eyes lit up. “Would you like to see it?”
“That would be wonderful!” Moomintroll replied.
They were ushered in with eager anticipation, and Moomintroll couldn’t help but stare. If the outside of the house was fastidiously neat, the inside was an explosion of controlled chaos. Fabrics of every kind were piled and thrown over every surface. The walls were plastered with pages from fashion magazines that spanned decades. The first few rooms hosted a veritable forest of coat racks and hat trees, all of them laden with clothes and accessories.
A few carefully aimed questions from Too-Ticky had the Hemulen lady chattering eagerly. Moomintroll found himself learning more about sewing and styles and seasonal trends than he ever thought he would, and he was certain that he would forget most of it by the time he walked out the door. From time to time he glanced at Too-Ticky for some kind of signal or clue, but she seemed to be doing little more than listening attentively and admiring the Hemulen’s collection.
Not for the first time (and most definitely not for the last) Moomintroll wished he knew what they were looking for. All he could do was keep an eye out for anything that looked out of place.
The Hemulen had just led them through her parlor when he actually spotted something of potential interest. It was hanging on a clotheshorse in the next room, almost lost in the rest of the clutter. “Um, excuse me,” he spoke up, the next time the Hemulen paused to take a breath. He pointed to the garment, a long flowing coat with a prominent collar and lining that looked very much like… “Is that real fur?”
Too-Ticky had gone very still.
The Hemulen looked over and shook her head with a disapproving snort. “That? Goodness, no—not in the way you might be thinking. Of course, I’ve made an extensive study of fur garments, how they’re made, and what they mean for fashion as a whole, but I won’t touch the stuff.” She patted the coat. “This is made from alpaca hair. Harvested quite humanely, no different from shearing a sheep.”
“I see,” Moomintroll, feeling relieved and not entirely sure why.
“Tell me, Ms. Hemulen,” Too-Ticky said. “Have you ever come across a garment or material whose origin was entirely mysterious to you?”
“Not for long!” the Hemulen said proudly. “I always find it in the books eventually. Though you’re not the first to ask me something like that.”
“Oh?” Too-Ticky said. “Who else, if I may ask?”
“A Hemulen much like myself,” she replied. “Though not one that I know well, unfortunately. I got the impression that he’d found something, perhaps when emptying out some attic or other. I told him I might be able to help if he showed it to me, but he never gave me a straight answer and I haven’t heard from him since.” She sighed. “Such a shame, not that I blame him. Some Hemulens get rather jealous, you see.”
Moomintroll remembered their elderly neighbor Hemulen, who refused to collect butterflies out of dislike for his cousin, and saw her point.
“Well, we thank you,” Too-Ticky said. “This has been illuminating, and your collection is impressive.”
The Hemulen lady beamed. “Oh yes, I know. I’m glad you enjoyed it!”
They said their goodbyes, and Moomintroll followed Too-Ticky out again.
“So?” he asked, once they had left the house behind. “How was that, do you think?”
“I’ve got a strong feeling that we’re on the right track with Hemulens,” Too-Ticky told him. “Good eye with the fur.”
“Oh, thank you!” he said, surprised.
Fur, he thought without meaning to. Is fur important? He squashed the thought as best he could; if Too-Ticky and Snufkin didn’t want him asking, then they probably wouldn’t like him guessing, either.
“But anyway, we’d better be moving on,” Too-Ticky said hastily, as if she herself had realized her mistake. “I have high hopes for the next on our list—our friend with the cabinet of curiosities.”
“What is a cabinet of curiosities?” Moomintroll asked. “The Hemulen who told me about it was talking about a great-great uncle of hers, who she didn’t know very well. Does that mean he keeps it in his kitchen?”
“Not that kind of cabinet,” Too-Ticky said with a small smile. “Cabinet used to mean a room, not furniture. A cabinet of curiosities is a bit like a museum, only smaller and not as organized.” She thought for a moment. “Actually, that Hemulen lady’s house was something of a cabinet of curiosities, only for fashion. They’re usually full of things like old artifacts and plants and animal… specimens.”
Moomintroll nodded. “Oh, I see. So if it can have lots of different things in it, then maybe it has what Snufkin needs?”
“Perhaps,” she said. “I’ll have to have a look at it first. Luckily, most curators of these cabinets have no qualms about showing them off.”
“Well, now you’ve got me curious,” Moomntroll said. “Shall we go, then?”
As they hastened into the foothills together, Too-Ticky continued to turn the Hemulen lady’s words over and over in her head.
She didn’t touch fur, so she had no reason to want a selkie pelt. But someone else had asked her. Recently too, most likely. That could be a lead, if it weren’t for the fact that the Hemulen lady didn’t remember much else.
Too-Ticky put those thoughts aside for the moment and returned to their present visit. This elderly Hemulen’s home was noticeably bigger than the previous one, with two full stories. Hemulen houses were nothing like the stovepipe towers that Moomins lived in; they were boxy and practical and as orderly as their owners could make them. Such fastidious creatures, were Hemulens.
A few minutes of knocking brought the homeowner shuffling to the door, frowning at them and tilting his head so that they were practically speaking directly into his ear-trumpet.
“Hello,” Too-Ticky said, and got right to the heart of the matter. “We were wondering if we might peruse your cabinet of curiosities?”
“Eh?” The Hemulen squinted nearsightedly at them. “What for?”
“Because we’re curious about it?” Moomintroll offered, while Too-Ticky marveled at the existence of a Hemulen who didn’t leap at the chance to show off his collection.
The Hemulen squinted at them both again, seemingly suspicious of their intentions, before finally admitting them with a wrinkly smile. “I suppose there’s no harm in it.”
Unlike the omnipresence of all things fashion in the Hemulen lady’s home, this Hemulen’s collection was confined to the upper floor. The stairs led up to a single door, which he unlocked before ushering them inside.
Moomintroll gasped, and Too-Ticky couldn’t blame him. It really was like a museum, or several museums, all jumbled together and scattered artfully around the room and beyond. A cluster of shells, meticulously labeled. A glass case of antique tableware, arranged by date. An array of pressed flowers that took up an entire wall. Three regular cabinets full of ships in bottles. From the ceiling hung antlers and horns of every size and shape.
And more, and more. Every room they passed through was as varied as the last, and the Hemulen seemed to have a story for every odd and end that caught his eye. In fact, he was so absorbed in telling them that he hardly seemed conscious of the guests who were listening.
“Go on, have a look around,” Too-Ticky murmured to her companion. “If you see anything… interesting, just give a shout.”
It was a risk, letting him go off on his own. Moomintroll wasn’t stupid; he’d seen her show interest to the fur, and that must have been a decent clue for him. But she couldn’t do all this on her own. She needed help if she was going to save Snufkin, and if she couldn’t trust Moomintroll to do what was best for Snufkin, then she couldn’t trust anyone in the world.
Without a word, Moomintroll wandered off to explore, his paws locked behind his back to keep from touching anything even by accident.
“With a collection this impressive, you must entertain many visitors,” Too-Ticky said casually.
“Ha!” The old Hemulen’s stick rapped sharply against the floor. “You’d think! Ahh, but the young aren’t interested in this sort of thing. It’s too scattered, they say! Too disorganized! Disorganized! Me! The very idea of it!”
“Such a shame.”
“And if it’s not that, it’s other silly questions,” the Hemulen grumbled. “They don’t want to see my collection, they want to hang about and ask me things—not even about my collection!”
“Take that young Hemulen lad from the west side of the valley. The one that collects… eh, what was it… seashells? He was in not too long ago, asking me about sea creatures. ‘Sea creatures?’ said I. ‘I can tell you all sorts of things about shellfish and starfish and urchins! I’ve got shells of my own, right here, you see!’ But no, he didn’t want to ask about those sorts of creatures. He wanted to ask about, about large mammals! Mammals! Of all things!”
“I see,” Too-Ticky said calmly, while her heart began to race. “He must have found something of interest.”
“Good for him! Don’t see how he has to make it my business. Now, about these pottery pieces here, they’re actually…”
Eventually they had made their way through all the rooms, and Too-Ticky skillfully untangled herself from conversation with the old Hemulen. They were short on time, and she suspected their search was nearing its end.
“I didn’t find anything,” Moomintroll said regretfully, once they had a moment to speak with one another. “At least, I don’t think I did.”
“That’s all right,” she assured him. “I need a favor from you. Look in on Snufkin for me, and I’ll meet you at the bathhouse later.”
“You found something,” he said, eyes lighting up.
The planks creaked beneath Moomintroll’s feet as he hurried down the jetty. A lazy wisp of smoke curled from the top of the bathhouse, which meant the fire was low. Given that Too-Ticky had left a window open, it might have cooled down inside.
Sure enough, the, the fire in the stove had been reduced to faintly glowing embers, and the open window was letting in the chilly ocean breeze. Snufkin, curled up in his nest of blankets, was trembling. His hair was fully streaked with white by now, and as Moomintroll watched, another lock of brown faded.
Alarmed, he stoked the embers back into a proper fire, and risked closing the window by a fraction. But even as heat rose and spread throughout the room, Snufkin still shook beneath his blankets. Moomimntroll tried piling more on top of him, but to no avail. His friend was still fast asleep, but his face was tense and his eyes were screwed shut, his whole body curled into tight ball. It made him look very small.
Moomintroll wrung his hands, his heart aching fiercely at the sight of Snufkin in so much distress, but nothing he did seemed to help. He felt utterly helpless, like the worst and most useless friend in the world. It was even worse that he was alone, that Too-Ticky wasn’t there to help him, but he shouldn’t have needed her help at all. This was Snufkin, his friend, the person he loved more than anyone or anything else in all the world, and Moomintroll couldn’t even help him sleep in peace. The last time they’d spoken, Moomintroll had upset him with nothing but a few foolish words.
“What use is loving you when I can’t even help you when you need it?” Moomintroll whispered. Snufkin gave no answer.
He had one last resort, though he wasn't sure if Snufkin would like him to try. He wasn't even sure whether or not Snufkin was still upset with him. But... what choice did he have, now?
With no idea what else to do, Moomintroll carefully untangled the blankets around Snufkin’s back and crawled underneath them.
The blankets and heat were almost stifling to Moomintroll, but beneath it all Snufkin was cool to the touch. No wonder he was shivering, if this was how he felt. Carefully, Moomintroll wrapped his arms around Snufkin and curled around him, so that his friend's back was pressed to his soft belly. His tail went around Snufkin’s waist, pulling him closer. Wriggling gently under the blankets, Moomintroll tried his best to cover as much of him as he could. He could feel Snufkin’s heartbeat beneath his paw, and took comfort in that.
Eventually, Snufkin stopped shivering. Moomintroll breathed a sigh of relief into Snufkin’s hair, and tried not to worry about how much of it was white.
He wasn’t sure how long he lay curled around Snufkin before his friend began to stir and murmur softly. It alarmed him for a moment—he wasn’t sure if Snufkin would want him to stay—but if that was the case, then Snufkin would tell him and Moomintroll would leave. Simple as that.
His friend stirred again, nearly raising his head.
“I remember,” he said faintly, slurred with sleep. “A few things.”
“Snufkin?” Moomintroll said softly. “Snufkin, wake up.”
Snufkin pressed back against him. “…Moomintroll?”
“I’m sorry,” Moomintroll whispered.
Snufkin was quiet for a moment. “For what?”
“I don’t know,” Moomintroll replied, and then, “I’m sorry I said your secret didn’t matter. I didn’t mean it. If it’s important to you then of course it matters. I was just scared.”
“Oh,” Snufkin said, which didn’t tell Moomintroll much. But he didn’t pull away, or tell Moomintroll to get off of him and go away.
“I’ve been helping Too-Ticky, I think,” Moomintroll went on when the silence got to be too much. “It’s hard to tell how helpful I am when I don’t know what we’re looking for. But I think she found something, and that’s why she sent me back to you. So, you’ll be better soon, I hope.”
He thought he felt Snufkin relax a little. He hoped he wasn’t imagining it.
“I hope this is all right,” he said a little belatedly. “It’s just, you looked a little cold. You were shivering. Of course, you’d tell me if it wasn’t all right. That was a silly question. And you probably want quiet—I’ll stop babbling now.”
“Moomintroll,” Snufkin said faintly. He sounded half asleep.
“Yes?” Moomintroll whispered.
“I’m very glad you’re here.”
His breathing evened out after that, which probably meant he was going back to sleep. Moomintroll whispered a soft oh that was nearly drowned out by the waves just outside. He curled around Snufkin and lay quietly, listening to how Snufkin’s breath matched the ebb and flow of the tide.
The seashell Hemulen was a spry young fellow, who never seemed to be without a conch or nautilus shell to hold and toy with, feeling along the spirals and ridges with restless paws.
“Oh yes, of course, the cabinet of curiosities. Fascinating, isn’t it?” He smiled, eyes slightly magnified by his spectacles. "Not very helpful for what I wanted, but I’m still very glad that I went.”
“If I may ask, what did you want?” Too-Ticky asked.
The Hemulen chewed at his lip. “Well, I’m not sure I should say. Honestly I shouldn’t have said anything to that oldster either, but my uncle has been looking terribly out of sorts and I only wanted to help…”
“Well, how would you feel about a set of fresh eyes, then?” she pressed gently. “I’ve seen a few things. Perhaps I could offer a second opinion?”
“Oh, well…” He hemmed and hawed for a moment, then finally asked, “As long as you can keep a secret?”
“I am well-practiced,” Too-Ticky assured him, and he sighed.
“Well, it all started some weeks ago, when I was wandering the shoreline in search of specimens—one of my best sand dollars was broken, and I’ve been wanting to replace it. So I made my way past the caves and to the inlet and grotto, when what should I find? Coins! Absolutely everywhere! And I recognized them, as well!”
“Oh?” Too-Ticky said when the Hemulen paused for breath.
“None other than my uncle’s own collection! Dozens of rare coins, scattered beneath the waves! Years of work! Well, of course I went round to his house and asked him what in all the world he thought he was doing, throwing away all those years of toil, and he told me it was done. Finished! His collection was complete, and he’d worked himself into such a state that I suppose hurling rare currency into the ocean made sense to him. I mean, can you imagine?”
“I don’t think I have much choice,” Too-Ticky said. “I have to wonder, though, how does the cabinet of curiosities enter into it?”
“Yes, well, recently my uncle has been at a loss for what to do next," the Hemulen explained. "He’s thrown himself into one thing after another, but nothing seems to stick. But then, not too long after he gave his coin collection to the sea, he came upon something of interest. Something that, perhaps, could unlock a new passion for him.” The Hemulen turned over the conch in his paws, set it aside, and picked up an abalone shell instead. “Trouble is, he can’t seem to work out what it is. And he guards it so jealously that I can’t convince him to show it around. It’s some kind of… fur garment, is my best guess. I went to an acquaintance of mine that specializes in all things fashion, and then to the cabinet of curiosities, but unfortunately neither of them know what to make of it. It certainly doesn’t help that I couldn’t bring it along and show them—”
“Perhaps,” Too-Ticky broke in. “Perhaps I might talk some sense into him. It sounds a bit familiar to me. I could try to pay him a visit.”
“I wish you luck,” the Hemulen sighed, a wrote down his uncle’s address on a slip of paper for her. “I’ve barely been allowed a peek, and I’m family.”
Too-Ticky ran the rest of the way. Haste was not her usual forte, but the end was in sight and Snufkin didn’t have time to spare. Upon arriving at her final Hemulen’s doorstep of the day, she paused to get her wind back before knocking.
The door opened by a crack. A narrow, middle-aged Hemulen face peered out at her. “Yes? What is it?”
“Good afternoon, sir,” Too-Ticky said politely. “I happened to hear that you came across a very lovely fur garment recently, and I was wondering—”
The door shut in her face.
“Go away!” the Hemulen demanded from inside. “I’m not interested in selling!”
“But I am interested in identifying it!” Too-Ticky called back. “Your nephew has been making inquiries for you, has he not? I understand your hesitance to remove a potentially valuable item from your home, but if I could come in and have a look, perhaps that would make you feel more secure?”
After a few seconds of silence, the Hemulen opened the door. “You don’t much look like an expert.”
“Looks can be deceiving, Mr. Hemulen,” Too-Ticky answered. “May I come in?”
Grumbling, the Hemulen stepped aside to admit her. Too-Ticky stepped inside and found a home very much unlike the previous Hemulen houses she and Moomin had viewed. They had all been jam-packed full of things, some more organized than others, but all of it scattered throughout whatever space its owner found agreeable.
By contrast, this home was nearly empty. Its walls were bare, and Too-Ticky suspected that many of its cabinets stood empty.
Such was the lot of Hemulens who found their life’s work complete.
Eventually, the Hemulen led her to a partially emptied workroom, its shelves half filled with empty glass cases, acid-free envelopes, and polishing cloths. In one corner sat a small chest, which the Hemulen made a considerable fuss over checking, as if he suspected that someone had tampered with it while his back was turned. Finally, as Too-Ticky was nearing the end of her patience, he opened the chest and pulled out the rumpled canvas covering its contents.
Too-Ticky’s breath caught as she looked upon it and knew.
The smell of salt wind and seawater flooded her senses as the Hemulen pulled the fur cloak from the chest—and it was all she could do to keep from setting upon him and tearing it from his paws. Soft, dappled gray-brown fur rippled in the lamplight. Her nose twitched. It smelled of the sea and of freedom, but most of all it smelled of Snufkin.
Abruptly it was snatched away from her—she had been reaching for it without meaning to, and the Hemulen pulled away before she could touch it.
“Look with your eyes, please, and not your paws,” he scolded her. “Well? Can you identify it?”
Too-Ticky swallowed hard, and chose her next words carefully. “I can, sir. In fact, I can identify its owner, as well.”
“Of course you can, as I am its owner” the Hemulen snapped. “Found it on the beach, fair and square.”
“You’re mistaken,” Too-Ticky said. “An acquaintance of mine left it, and it was gone when they came back. Please—they aren’t angry, they only want it returned. If you would just allow me to deliver it—”
“I knew it!” the Hemulen cut her off. “I have found something valuable, haven’t I? Well, I tell you, I’m not letting you sell it out from under me with so much as offering a finder’s fee—”
“Sell it?” It was rare that Too-Ticky raised her voice, but she did so now. “I will do no such thing! I told you, I want to return it to its rightful owner—”
“You think I haven’t been cheated before?” the Hemulen retorted, stuffing the cloak back in the chest. Too-Ticky made a reckless lunge for it, and almost got a crushed paw for her troubles when the Hemulen shut the chest. “I’ve been collecting precious things long enough to know when to guard a find.”
“That cloak has no price,” Too-Ticky told him, in a voice that was very close to a snarl. “Its owner needs it for their health—without it, they sicken and die. Would you have that on your conscience, Mr. Hemulen?”
“This is preposterous,” the Hemulen spluttered. “And I want you to leave, right this instance. Leave, before I call the police!”
Too-Ticky considered wresting past him, but the chest was shut and locked, and she couldn’t break the thing open and make off with the cloak before the Hemulen found the nearest police inspector. To her frustration and anger, she found herself bullied and driven out of the Hemulen’s home, the front door shut and locked behind her.
She wasted no more time on her temper, and raced back to the beach and the bathhouse.
When she opened the bathhouse door, she found a sight that pulled at her heartstrings. Moomintroll was curled up with Snufkin like an oversized cat, his friend half-hidden in the curve of his body. He looked to be half-asleep, while Snufkin seemed caught in some fitful dream. By now, there was most white in his hair than brown.
Moomintroll’s droopy eyes met hers. “He’s asleep,” he whispered. “I think he’s having bad dreams. I want to wake him, but… he needs to rest, doesn’t he?”
“You’re doing wonderfully,” she assured him, kneeling by them. “But I need you to wake him now. I must speak with him.”
Moomintroll nodded, and gently nudged Snufkin with his snout. “Snufkin,” he said. “Snufkin, wake up. Too-Ticky is here.”
Snufkin stirred, finally struggling his way out of the dream as if he were drowning. It looked all wrong, for a selkie to drown in anything. “Hello, Too-Ticky.”
She gave Moomintroll an apologetic look, only to find him already untangling himself from the blankets and getting up. “It’s all right,” he said. “I’ll wait outside and make sure no one listens in.”
Snufkin’s eyes followed him to the door. It might have been a fond look, or it might have been more, if Snufkin weren’t already so tired and miserable. With Moomintroll gone from his side, he was already starting to shake again.
“I’ve found your cloak,” she said once Moomintroll was gone. “I just wanted to let you know that. The one who found it won’t give it up, so I’m going to steal it back.”
Snufkin managed a weary smile. “That sounds wonderful. I wish I were well enough to help.” His words slurred; he was already drifting off again.
“I’ll have to make do without you,” she replied.
Snufkin hummed softly, burrowing deeper in the blankets. He mumbled something she couldn’t quite catch.
“Snufkin?” she said.
“I’ve remembered things,” he murmured. “The basket, and the river. Father’s cloak. It smelled of him.”
“I imagine so,” Too-Ticky replied.
“Mymble forgot to keep it secret,” Snufkin sighed. “And he lost it. And I almost lost mine—they tried to take it.” He twitched beneath the blanket. “I’d never seen him angry, before then.” He sighed again. “So… basket. River. Set me adrift, to find later. And he did. But it took so long.”
Too-Ticky sat there, listening to Snufkin’s breath even out again. She wondered if he’d even realized she was there and listening to him, or if he’d been rambling in a dream. She was inclined to think the latter.
He was fading away, and that meant that time was short.
Moomintroll was waiting for her when she came out, slinging an empty rucksack over her shoulder. “I’ve found what he needs,” she said. “But I’m going to have to steal it back.”
“Let me help,” Moomintroll said. Before she could reply, he continued, “Even if I can’t see what you’re stealing, I can keep a lookout. Who’s going to watch for police while you steal it?”
She couldn’t argue with that at all.
It seemed as if Moomintroll blinked and Little My was in their midst, keeping pace with them even as one of their steps took a dozen of hers.
“I told you to tell me when you found it,” she said accusingly to Too-Ticky. “You said you’d let me help.”
“It seems to me that you were the one doing all the saying,” Too-Ticky replied. “In any case, you’re here now, so you may as well come along.”
Little My scoffed at this, but leapt up to latch onto Too-Ticky’s pant leg and climb up to her shoulder.
She knew, Moomintroll thought. Somehow Little My knew what was going on, knew what was wrong with Snufkin and what they needed in order to help him. He supposed it made sense; Little My was his sister, after all. Did that mean the Mymble’s daughter knew? What of their mother the Mymble? What of their thirty-odd siblings—did they all know Snufkin’s secret while Moomintroll alone was left in the dark?
“So,” Little My said abruptly. “Who are we taking it from? If it comes to a fight, then they had better be ready to feel my teeth.”
“A Hemulen,” Too-Ticky replied. “One who collects—who collected coins. He completed his collection some time ago, and has been searching for something new to fill his time. So when he found… the item, he was very excited to discover something he thought was new. When I tried to take it from him, he became very upset and threatened to call the police.”
“So he’s upset with you,” Little My said, delighted. “That’s perfect. Knock on his door again and start a row with him, and I’ll slip in and steal it while Moomintroll keeps watch.”
“Will you be able to carry it?” Too-Ticky asked. “When I saw it, he had it locked in a chest with a heavy lid.”
“All right, then I’ll start a row with him,” Little My said cheerfully. “You can rob the chest, and Moomintroll can stand outside and hoot like an owl if the police come along.”
“Why do I have to hoot like an owl?” Moomintroll asked. “Couldn’t I just shout ‘The police are coming’?”
“Whatever you think is best, dear. It had better be loud, whatever you do, or I won’t hear it over the old Hemulen shouting at me.”
“I’ll do my best,” Moomintroll said. “If you’re all right with this plan, Too-Ticky?”
“It would be best, since I know where he’s keeping it,” she said thoughtfully. “All right, then. Keep your wits about you, both of you. For Snufkin’s sake.”
Her words renewed Moomintroll’s resolve. His tail thrashed furiously behind him as they came nearer and nearer to the Hemulen’s home.
The Hemulen lived in a snug little copse of trees nestled just beneath the foothills of the Lonely Mountains. It was thanks to these trees that the three of them were able to creep up on the house without being seen. It was lucky that they did; as they approached the home, Moomintroll’s heart sank at the sight of a figure dressed smartly in familiar dark blue, speaking with an irate-looking middle-aged Hemulen.
“Oh, no,” he murmured, as they peered around the only tree trunk thick enough to hide them all. “The police have gotten here before us!”
“No matter,” Little My whispered fiercely. “There’s only one. There are two of them and three of us.”
“We carry on with the plan,” Too-Ticky said. “Little My, I trust that you can keep both of them occupied?”
Little My scoffed. “That’s a stupid question.” Without another word, she climbed down from Too-Ticky’s shoulder and threw all caution to the wind as she ran the rest of the way to the house, in full view of both the officer and the homeowner.
“There you are!” she shouted at the top of her voice, pointing at the now very startled police officer. “Well? What do you have to say for yourself? Are you going to do your job or not?”
While both Hemulens were focused on Little My, Moomintroll and Too-Ticky crept around toward the back of the house, using trees for cover. She stopped him about halfway around, then continued on her own. Moomintroll watched her disappear around the corner, then positioned himself by a tree to watch for danger and listen to the trouble the Little My was skillfully stoking.
“What is the meaning of this?” the former coin collector demanded. “Can’t you see we’re busy? I’m trying to report a potential theft!”
“Ha! Of course you would know about theft when you’re a thief yourself! Well? Are you going to arrest him?”
“Er…” The police officer sounded baffled. “That is a very serious accusation. What has he stolen?”
“I haven’t stolen anything!”
“He stole something very valuable from one of my siblings, and he’d better give it back!”
“You—! You’re with that horrid woman who barged into my home telling lies, aren’t you!”
“They weren’t lies, you ass, now give it back or you’ll be sorry!”
“I found it, fair and square!”
It devolved into a shouting match from there, with the police officer trying unsuccessfully to interject.
Moomintroll marveled at Little My’s effortless talent for causing trouble. He also marveled at how two people could shout so much and so loudly, without actually telling him anything about what they were shouting about. It was lucky for Snufkin that they could.
At last, the police officer managed to get a word in edgewise. “Shall we have a look at this stolen item?” he asked. “Perhaps if there’s some sort of identifying mark of ownership…?”
Moomintroll’s heart leapt to his throat.
“Not until I have an apology from him!” Little My shouted.
“An apology for what?” the Hemulen demanded.
“For stealing and telling lies!” Little My answered. “As well as calling others bad names, falsely accusing me, and not bathing nearly enough.”
“Why, you insulting little—”
This bought a few more precious moments. Moomintroll fidgeted in his spot, wishing he could do more than just stand still and watch and listen.
“Fine!” the Hemulen shouted at last, his patience running out. “I’ll go and fetch it, and you’ll see that there’s no one else’s name on it, and therefore it’s mine to keep!” Little My answered him with a word that would have made Moominmamma reach for the soap. A moment later the Hemulen let out the telltale howl of someone who had just been bitten by Little My.
“Now see here—” the policeman said.
“Thief!” the Hemulen shouted. “Thief! I’ll bet she has a few nasty little friends sneaking around back to steal it from me! Stop them!”
Moomintroll had heard enough. Abandoning his hiding place, he ran around to the back of the house, where he spotted the open window where Too-Ticky had surely gone in. It was a little high, but he placed his paws on the sill and managed to pull himself up.
“Too-Ticky!” he called. “Please hurry, Too-Ticky, I don’t think Little My can hold them back much longer!”
A moment later Too-Ticky appeared, her face alight with triumph. The bag over her shoulder was now bulging rather than limp and empty. Moomintroll stood aside to give her room to climb out. They weren’t safe yet; the Hemulen was shouting inside the house, and approaching footsteps told them the police officer was coming around the back. Too-Ticky hesitated for a split second, then pushed the bag into Moomintroll’s paws. It was full but not very heavy, and Moomintroll couldn't begin to guess what was inside.
Still, he nearly dropped it. “Too-Ticky, what—”
“Go,” she said. “I’ll stay here and help Little My stall them. Don’t stop for anyone, don’t open the bag, don’t reach inside. Just take it to Snufkin and give it to him.”
“And it will help him?” Moomintroll asked.
“More than you know. Now go!”
Moomintroll fled into the trees.
The bag thumped against his back as he ran. Twigs and fallen branches broke underfoot. Bushes got caught in his tail, jutting branches snagged at his fur and scratched him as he passed. He stubbed his toe on a jutting root. In spite of it all, he kept running for all he was worth, and only when he left the copse behind did he look back to see if anyone was following him.
He was alone.
Too-Ticky and Little My were still behind him, dealing with an irate Hemulen and a police officer whose patience was most likely wearing thin as well. But they could take care of themselves, and Moomintroll’s task was clear.
He ran the rest of the way to the beach.
By the time he felt sand beneath his feet, he knew he must look terribly unkempt. He was out of breath, and so weary and footsore that even his tail and ears drooped. The bag that had previously been so light was now an unwanted weight. But he kept running, over sand and wood planks, until he finally stopped at the door to the bathhouse.
“Snufkin!” he shouted, out of breath as he threw open the door. “Snufkin, I’m back! I’ve brought—well I’m not sure what I’ve brought, but Too-Ticky said it would help!”
There was no answer from the pile of blankets on the other side.
“Snufkin?” Moomintroll stumbled closer, nearly tripping to kneel at his sleeping friend’s side.
Snufkin lay still in the nest that Too-Ticky had made for him, not even shivering anymore. His hair was more white than brown now; only a few chestnut streaks still remained.
Moomintroll shook him gently, worry turning to fear when Snufkin didn’t respond and his eyes stayed shut. The fire was still bright and the air was warm in spite of the open window, but when Moomintroll touched Snufkin’s face, his skin was ice-cold.
“Snufkin, wake up,” Moomintroll pleaded. “Please—we have it. Whatever you need, we—they got it for you. Please, just wake up and take it, Snufkin.”
Snufkin did not answer.
Tears pricked at Moomintroll’s eyes. What was he to do? Too-Ticky had told him not to look or reach inside the bag, and how could he give Snufkin what he needed without doing either of those things? He couldn’t wait for Too-Ticky to come and do it for him, because he had left her behind with the Hemulens in the copse.
If only he had stayed behind, and not Too-Ticky!
Finally an idea came to him, thrown together by desperation and the beginnings of panic. Too-Ticky had told him not to open the bag—but that was only what she had said, not what she had meant. What she had meant was that he wasn’t to look, or to try to learn what was inside.
Moomintroll pushed the bag closer to Snufkin’s side, shut his eyes, and opened it with careful paws. Then, as gingerly as he could, he tipped it over until he was sure he could hear something spill out of it.
Please, he thought. Please let this be enough.
The ocean was deep, black as ink, and very, very cold. Snufkin could not remember being this far from the surface in all his life. The deeper you swam, the bigger the things you might meet would be. There were many things that hid down in the hidden places of the sea. Ancient, nameless things only whispered about to scare pups.
But that was where Snufkin now found himself, drifting in the endless dark. Without his cloak, he had no flippers to swim to the surface, no fur and fat to keep out the cold. The ice had set into his veins long ago, leaving him so cold and weary that he could not even shiver.
Wake up, Snufkin! Please, wake up!
And then, light.
A whisper of warmth.
A breath of salt air and sunlight.
How was there air and sunlight, all the way down here?
The warmth touched the ice in his veins, thawing it enough that he could reach out, grasp it, and let him pull him up, up, up—
Snufkin peeled back his heavy eyelids, and found his world awash with dappled gray-brown. Dry fur brushed soft against the end of his nose.
His eyes flew open.
The covers slipped back as Snufkin lunged for it. His hands were ice-cold but still his cloak—his pelt, his skin, his soul—warmed at his touch. With a breathless, watery laugh, he pulled it free of the bag it had been stuffed into and wrapped it around himself until the heat flooded the rest of his numb body.
It surrounded him like the sea in summer, so warm and gentle that no mother’s embrace could compare. It settled around his shoulders, clinging as if determined never to leave him again. He laughed again, until his eyes stung with tears. He ran his hands through his hair, pressing it down over his eyes just far enough to see the white darkening back to brown.
It was only then that Snufkin’s head cleared, and he realized that he was not alone. His first thought was that it was Too-Ticky, come to deliver his cloak to him as promised. And then his tired eyes cleared, and he found himself looking at Moomintroll instead.
Moomintroll, who sat a few feet away with both paws clamped over his eyes. He looked terribly bedraggled, covered in scratches and bruises, with mud and burs in his fur and a twig caught in his tail.
It was instinct that made Snufkin gather his cloak closer around him. It was curiosity that made him speak.
“I didn’t look!” his friend blurted out, without taking his paws from his eyes. “I didn’t look inside the bag! Too-Ticky told me not to open it, but—but you wouldn’t wake up when I brought it to you, and I thought… I thought maybe if you could smell it, or touch it, maybe it would help. But I didn’t touch it! I promise, Snufkin, I didn’t touch it or look at it and I don't know what it is.”
Snufkin stared at him. “Oh,” was all he could think to say.
“S-so…” Moomintroll stammered. “Is it… are you all right? Is that what you needed, to get better?”
His throat felt very thick, and it was suddenly very difficult just to say, “Yes.”
“Oh.” Moomintroll’s voice broke. “O-oh… that’s good. I’m glad. That’s all I wanted to—I can go now, if you like, I just wanted to stay long enough to make sure. When you didn’t wake up, I was so afraid that we were too late. But I’m so glad you’re all right, Snufkin.”
Snufkin cast aside all his years of secrecy and caution, and threw his arms around Moomintroll—his kind, clever, faithful Moomintroll—and let his tears dampen his friend’s chest. Moomintroll hugged him back—and Snufkin’s cloak was still around his shoulders, close enough to brush against the soft white velvet of Moomintroll’s fur, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. He couldn’t see Moomintroll’s face, but he knew with all his heart that his friend’s eyes were still shut tight.
His cloak smelled of the sea, Moomintroll smelled of trees and soft soil and Moominmamma’s kitchen, and Snufkin had never been so enveloped by the feeling of home.
Little My returned home in much the same way as she did everything: none the worse for wear, and quite pleased with herself. She had left a chagrined police officer and an angry, defeated Hemulen with a ransacked house in her wake. Oh, and Too-Ticky was with her, as well.
They returned to the bathhouse to find Moomintroll sitting on the beach, crying his eyes out. But they were happy tears, and Moomintroll always did have far too many feelings in his heart, so that was no cause for alarm.
It meant that Snufkin was all right.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Too-Ticky said when Moomintroll had finished tearfully delivering the good news. “What about that bruise on your nose?”
Moomintroll rubbed his round snout. “Bumped it into the door. I had my eyes closed when I was leaving. What about the police officer? And the Hemulen?”
“It’s all taken care of,” Too-Ticky assured him. “I’d like to claim some credit, but we owe it mostly to Little My.”
“We won’t have any more trouble from them,” Little My said proudly. “And neither of them know that Snufkin was involved at all, so he won’t, either!”
“How did you convince them?” Moomintroll asked.
She simply smiled beatifically and said, “I threatened them, dear.”
That was the best way to get things done, after all.
“Where’s Snufkin now?” she asked. With how long he’d been cooped up inside, she wouldn’t be surprised if he was going for a swim as they spoke.
But Moomintroll nodded toward the bathhouse. “He went back to sleep. He’s getting better, but he’s still tired.”
There was a collective sigh of relief, which Little My would neither confirm nor deny being a part of. Shortly afterward, she excused herself to the bathhouse. Too-Ticky was likely to still be smoothing things over with that Hemulen policeman, but Little My’s part in that whole business was done.
But she had one more thing to take care of.
Little My didn’t like being reminded that she had a conscience, and there was no better reminder than the heavy weight that now rested on it.
True to Moomintroll’s word, Snufkin was fast asleep in the bathhouse—not that she doubted Moomintroll’s word. Snufkin’s, perhaps, but never Moomintroll’s. But he looked all right for once; he had some color in his face again, and the last of the white in his hair had turned brown.
With a grumble of effort she climbed up so that she was level with the fire grate, and sat amusing herself by balling up bits of paper and throwing them into the smoldering embers. She waited for perhaps an hour or two, bored and restless but unwilling to leave before Snufkin woke up. If she were to step out even for a moment, she couldn’t be sure that he would still be there when she got back.
At last, he stirred.
Little My thought about getting up, but decided against it. She was almost out of paper.
She could almost tell when he spotted her, because he froze—probably to keep from dislodging blankets by accident and revealing the cloak underneath. Rather than commenting on it, she threw another paper ball into the embers. It caught and burned quickly.
“Moomintroll told me what you did,” Snufkin said at last. His voice was hoarse and croaky. “Thank you. I can’t repay you—”
She had one last bit of paper. Instead of the fire, she threw it at Snufkin’s head.
“Don’t you ever say that again,” she snapped. “Don’t. I didn’t do it so you’d owe me something. I did it because I wanted to.”
Snufkin was quiet for a moment. “Moomintroll doesn’t know what he helped you steal for me,” he said eventually. “He kept his eyes shut so he wouldn’t find out, even by accident.”
Little My wished she hadn’t thrown the last paper ball. She would have loved something to occupy her hands.
“But you know,” Snufkin went on. It wasn’t a question.
They had never talked about this before. Snufkin hadn’t said anything, and Little My had known better than to ask.
But she knew now, for sure knew, and the jolt of finally knowing had dislodged some memories she had kept shuttered away for a very long time. She couldn’t put them back no matter how hard she tried, and now they sat at the back of her throat, sour and wretched.
What could she do but spit them out?
“He wasn’t fun to tease,” she said. She looked at the fire grate and not at Snufkin, because if she looked at Snufkin then she might lose her nerve. “That’s what they all thought. They like to tease, and when he was new, they thought he might be fun. But he wasn’t. Teasing is only fun when the one you’re teasing gets annoyed, otherwise what’s the point? And he never got annoyed. You could dance on him, pull on his ears, use his paw for a swing when he slept in the peach tree, and he’d just smile at you and go back to sleep. There’s no fun in that.”
She kicked her legs over the edge of the shelf she sat on. “But Mama let slip about the cloak, and someone found out he got annoyed when they touched it.”
Snufkin didn’t answer. Little My didn’t look at him, but knew that he was lying still and watching.
“Suddenly he was fun again,” she went on. “They had a new game, hide the cloak and watch him jump and rush around to find it. I didn’t think much of it because as long as they were bothering him, they weren’t bothering me.” She kicked the air again. “At least, at first.”
Her stomach curled up into a tight, uncomfortable knot.
“I knew all the best hiding places,” she said, a little proudly because that, at least, was something to be proud of. “Because I was the smallest without being the youngest. I knew all the nooks and crannies that the others couldn’t get into. So I used one. And for the first time, he couldn’t find it.”
She left out that it was her siblings’ idea, that they egged her on and begged her to use one of her best hiding places. There weren’t many excuses more worthless than “it was only a joke,” or “we were only playing,” but “they told me to do it” was a strong contender.
“I didn’t think much of it, until one day I looked around and you were gone. And he stopped smiling after that.” She drew her legs in, scowling at the fire until blue-green spots appeared in her vision. “I caught him looking at me once, after you were gone. He didn’t look annoyed anymore. He looked at me like he hated me.”
She could hardly hear Snufkin breathe.
“One day Mama went out to visit a friend. She asked him to come along, and he said no. I don’t think she knew that he couldn’t even if he'd wanted to.” She hugged her knees to her chest. “Everyone went with her but me. They didn’t notice. So I went back to my hiding place, and I took it out, and I gave it back to him. He didn’t say a thing to me, didn’t look at me, just took it and left. And he never came back.”
Little My stopped talking then, because there was nothing more to say about it. That was what had happened, and there was nothing worth saying besides that. The sourness still lingered on her tongue, but it no longer sat heavy in her throat. Maybe it would never go away. Maybe it was better if it stayed forever, to make sure she could never forget about it.
Snufkin didn’t say anything, either. But saying nothing meant he didn’t tell her to get out, so she didn’t. Going away would feel like running away, and Little My had never run from anything in her life.
So she sat, and watched the fire die, and imagined the heaviness of the past burning up like bits of paper, and rising as smoke and ash.
Two days after Snufkin finally left the bathhouse, Moomintroll went to close his window against the late evening breeze, and found a note caught between the sill and the shutter.
Meet me at the jetty, it said in Snufkin’s spidery handwriting.
Moomintroll needed no second urging.
By the time he reached the shoreline, the last dregs of sunlight had drained from the horizon, leaving nothing but inky blue studded with silver. From far off, Moomintroll could see the very end of the jetty on the other side of the bathhouse, where the moonlight shone down on the familiar shape of Snufkin’s hat.
The jetty boards creaked beneath his feet as he crossed it, hurried through the empty bathhouse, and came out the other side where the wooden steps led down into open water. Snufkin sat at the top, watching the waves gently lap at the steps below.
Moomintroll sat down beside him, shivery with excitement. It seemed as if forever had passed since their last nighttime adventure, but now Snufkin was well again and the rest of spring and all of summer still lay before them.
He noticed then that Snufkin wasn’t wearing his usual green coat, with its patches and mended tears and worn buttons down the back.
As a matter of fact, he was wearing a cloak.
A fur cloak.
For a reckless moment Moomintroll nearly reached out and touched it. But the moment he lifted his paw from the jetty, he was struck with the feeling that if he did so, he might ruin something invisible and fragile that could never be mended.
He kept his paws to himself, and looked with his eyes instead.
It didn’t flow and wave and fan out like most cloaks ought to. Rather it seemed to cling to Snufkin, fitting perfectly around his shoulders without a single fold or crease. The moonlight touched it, turning dappled gray to silver.
It looked perfect on him. It looked as if it were made to be worn by Snufkin, and no one else.
“Good evening, Moomintroll,” Snufkin said, in a voice that barely rose above the whisper of the sea.
“It’s a lovely night,” Moomintroll answered.
His friend hummed in agreement. “I thought we might go for a swim.”
No sooner did the words leave his mouth than Snufkin was setting his hat behind him on the jetty and slipping into the water, cloak and all. Moomintroll thought about protesting—after all, it would be a shame to ruin such a lovely cloak with seawater—but he didn’t see much sense in it. It was Snufkin’s to do with as he wished.
And it did look like a good night for a swim.
Moomintroll took a deep breath and slipped beneath the waves. He opened his eyes against stinging saltwater, just to marvel at the way the moonlight pierced through the surface. Snufkin was swimming through the pale shafts just ahead of him, his cloak still clinging to him instead of billowing out in the water.
He saw Snufkin look back at him, then take off through the moonlit waves. Moomintroll swam after him, laughter leaving him in a stream of bubbles.
They chased each other back and forth, weaving through the shifting beams of light, occasionally daring to dive down into the shadows before coming up again. Moomintroll was a skilled swimmer, but something told him that his friend could swim circles around him if he wanted.
Moomintroll surfaced for air first. It took a moment to blink away the saltwater, but when he did, he found Snufkin’s eyes shining silver in the moonlight, as his wet paws pressed against either side of Moomintroll’s snout.
Before Moomintroll say any more, Snufkin dove down again. Spluttering, Moomintroll followed.
His friend was swimming through in moonlight again, watching and waiting as Moomintroll caught up. Their eyes met, and Snufkin reached back—
—and pulled the hood of his cloak over his head.
Moonlight rippled all around them. Snufkin turned a somersault, his gray cloak shining brightly in the dark.
And then Snufkin… wasn’t Snufkin anymore. And the cloak wasn’t a cloak, and perhaps it never had been.
Another breath left Moomintroll’s mouth, this time in a cry of surprise. A rush of bubbles flew past him, then around, and around again, twisting and turning through the water with a skill and speed that Moomintroll could never hope to match.
He kicked his way to the surface to gasp and breathe, and a moment later a round head with a broad, whiskered muzzle and Snufkin’s familiar eyes broke the surface beside him.
“You—!” Moomintroll spluttered as the seal pressed its muzzle to his face and dove again. “Snufkin!”
There was no catching him here, in his element, in the place where he belonged. But Moomintroll could try.
When at last they broke the surface again, Moomintroll was laughing, and the seal who was Snufkin barked a close approximation to the sound. With the tide low and gentle, there was a stretch of exposed rock that was closer than the end of the jetty. Moomintroll swam to it and climbed up and out of the water.
He looked back just in time to see the seal following. Flippers turned to arms and hands, the seal skin loosened into a cloak, and the hood went back to reveal Snufkin’s smiling face.
“You’re a selkie.” Moomintroll could hardly believe the words as they left his mouth. “You’re a selkie, Snufkin!”
He reached down to help pull his friend up onto the rock, and together they sprawled on it side by side, both of them soaking wet from the sea.
Snufkin didn’t let go of his hand. If anything, he gripped it tighter.
“I thought—” Snufkin’s voice caught. “I thought perhaps it was time you knew.”
“Oh, Snufkin,” was all Moomintroll could say. He couldn’t think of much else at first, too busy staring at the sky as loose threads wove themselves together in his mind. “That Hemulen—he had your cloak, didn’t he? That’s what we stole from him.”
“I’d left it hidden in a hollow beneath the rocks, that morning I showed you the coins,” Snufkin said. “I sent you on ahead so that I could retrieve it, but it was gone.”
“Oh,” was all Moomintroll could think to say. His friend had been so upset, so stretched thin, constantly disappearing and looking more and more exhausted each time Moomintroll saw him. He must have been running himself ragged searching for it.
They lay there for a while, as waves whispered just beyond their reach and the stars winked down at them. Seal fur was meant to be waterproof, so Snufkin’s cloak was dry long before Moomintroll's fur.
Eventually, Snufkin sat up and pulled his cloak snugly around himself. He looked small beneath the wide expanse of the night sky, so Moomintroll sat up with him. They were still holding paws, and Moomintroll wasn’t about to stop anytime soon.
“Well?” Snufkin said softly. “I don’t mean to rush you, Moomintroll, but… what do you think?”
What did he think—of Snufkin being a selkie? Of finally knowing the secret that was so far beyond his reach?
Snufkin was watching the sea, and Moomintroll was watching Snufkin. He looked… nervous. Moomintroll had never seen him nervous before, at least not to this degree.
“I think…” he began. “I think… a few things make sense now.” He played gently with the paw he held. “You always leave before the first snow falls. But that also happens to be before the ocean freezes over, too. And… years ago. When we first met, during the comet.”
Snufkin took a deep, trembling breath, and let it out again.
“When we came upon the shore, and found that the sea was gone,” Moomintroll went on. “That was the first time I ever saw you cry.”
“It felt like my heart was torn out, seeing the ocean gone,” Snufkin told him. “It felt like the world was at its end, and there would be no more happiness left.”
It was unbearable to see him sad, so soon after watching him fly through the water with such joy and brilliance. Moomintroll pressed his snout to the side of his head. “But it came back,” he said.
“Yes,” Snufkin replied. “Yes, it came back. Oh, Moomintroll.” He sighed, leaning against Moomintroll’s side despite the dampness that still clung to his fur. “I’m sorry I never told you.”
“No, Snufkin—” Moomintroll wrapped his arm around Snufkin’s shoulders, careful when touching his cloak. “Snufkin, I’m very happy that you told me. But I would have been happy even if you kept it secret for as long as we lived.”
“I was afraid,” Snufkin went on, heedless of Moomintroll’s words. “I was so afraid—me, afraid of you! But I learned so young—to keep the secret, to protect it with my life, even—no, especially from those I love.”
Moomintroll went still.
“I told myself that I would never tell you, when I realized how much your friendship meant to me. When I realized how much I loved you.” Snufkin’s eyes glistened. “They tell stories, you know. Always the same. The selkie loves someone enough to reveal the secret, and their cloak is stolen and hidden away so that they can never leave.”
“But you,” Snufkin went on, with a broken laugh. “I lost my cloak, and woke up to find it returned to me, and you—you with your eyes covered so you wouldn’t learn the secret. Oh, Moomin, why couldn’t you make it harder to love you?”
The saltwater running down Snufkin’s face did not come from the sea.
“Snufkin.” Moomintroll let go of his paw so that he could cradle his face instead. “Snufkin, are you listening? I love you. And I never meant to tell you that, either.”
Snufkin’s eyes shone with tears and moonlight as he listened.
“You’ve told me what freedom is before,” Moomintroll went on. “You told me what it feels like, and I’m not like you, I don’t feel the call to travel, but—when I love you it feels like the all the things you told me about freedom. You make me feel free, Snufkin. Do you understand?”
He embraced Snufkin carefully, just in case he wanted to pull away. “I want my love to feel like that for you, too,” he said. “I don’t ever want my love to be a cage.”
“Never,” Snufkin answered, his voice half muffled in Moomintroll’s fur. “You always—you’ve always taken me as I am. Even when it makes you sad.”
“Oh,” Moomintroll said shakily.
“You do,” Snufkin told him. “You do make me feel free. I’m safe here, with you, because I know that I can choose to leave when I need to and you’ll let me, and I can choose to come back and you’ll be here waiting for me. There’s no freedom without knowing you can choose.”
“Then… can I choose to love you, Snufkin?” Moomintroll asked.
Snufkin laughed softly, and pressed close enough that Moomintroll could feel the soft fur of his cloak. “My kind, clever, patient Moomintroll,” he said. “Nothing would make me happier.”
Farther down the beach, the calm surface a grotto broke, and a seal slid gracefully from the water to the shore. Moonlight shone down as the seal’s skin rippled, flippers became arms and the tail became a pair of legs. The hood went back, and its owner smiled in satisfaction as she dropped the last coin in the pile on the shore.
Coins were pretty enough, but they had no place in the ocean where anything could come along and swallow them. No, they belonged on dry land, where someone might find a use for them.
That would be fitting, she thought, for someone to come along and claim this lovely coin collection just because they found it. But that was someone else’s business now, and not hers. All things were in their rightful place, and that was all that mattered in the end.
A few moments later, the stout figure was gone, with only a ripple to to betray that there had been anyone at all. A broad, silvery shape whisked out of the grotto and through the inlet, and with hardly a splash, Too-Ticky returned to the sea.
I mean come on, she has a Scottish accent now, obviously I'm going to make her a selkie, too.