“Moonspinners. They’re naiads—you know, water nymphs. Sometimes, when you’re deep in the countryside, you meet three girls, walking along the hill tracks in the dusk, spinning. They each have a spindle, and on to these they are spinning their wool, milk-white, like the moonlight. In fact, it is the moonlight, the moon itself. . . . all they have to do is to see that the world gets its hours of darkness, and they do this by spinning the moon down out of the sky.”
The Moon-Spinners, by Mary Stewart (1916-2014), tells the story of a young Englishwoman, Nicola Ferris, who works for the British Embassy in Athens and is on vacation in Crete with her cousin. While exploring in the mountains on the day before her cousin arrives, Nicola discovers a young Englishman, Mark Langley, and his Greek guide, Lambis, who have witnessed a murder. The murderers have shot Mark and left him for dead and have taken his teenaged brother, Colin. Nicola tends to Mark’s wound and then ignores his and Lambis’s instructions to go on with her holiday without getting further involved in their plight. The characters Nicola meets in the tiny hotel in the village of Agios Georgios turn out, of course, to be in the thick of the mystery, and Nicola remains anything but uninvolved.
Transporting Teenaged Me
The novel, with its captivating and exotic setting, romance, suspense, and—of course—happy ending, helped me to endure high school, during which I dreaded every day. Most of my teachers relentlessly repeated the mantra, “If you don’t have top grades, you won’t get into college.” I felt unbearable pressure to sustain my good average and a constant fear of failing to continue measuring up.
In my high-school class of 550, friends were available even for the socially insecure, as I was. I liked my friends and always had a place with them in the lunchroom, but I didn’t have a high-school through-thick-and-thin best friend the way I’d had a best friend at summer camp, and I craved that kind of friend. I also wanted a boyfriend. Senior year I did have Wayne, whom I’d met at camp, but he lived three hours away, and I never did manage to talk myself into caring about him without big reservations. I played the flute in the school band, but prime social scenes such as the yearly musical and the cheerleading squad were closed to mousy me.
The Moon-Spinners and other Mary Stewart novels were my escape, my salvation. I read them in between, and sometimes instead of, my towering assignments and daydreamed about finding a handsome young man in distress to rescue. When I hear the name “Mary Stewart,” I see myself sprawled on the pink spread covering my bed in my room on Rockingham Drive. Mother and Daddy are in the kitchen and will soon call me to supper. The notebooks and textbooks surrounding me are taunting me, not always loudly enough to make me turn to them but raucously enough both to taint and to sweeten my time with Mary Stewart’s romantic, adventurous young heroines and heroes.
Still Inspiring Yearning
The Moon-Spinners was not quite as appealing to me when I read it this week as it was when I read it in the 1960s. The frequent lists of flowers and other plants, for instance, seem contrived, or perhaps it’s that I don’t share Mary Stewart’s fascination with identifying every single plant as it is confronted. Nicola Ferris’s cousin, Frances Scorby, is a botanist, which explains Frances’s knowledge of plants, but Nicola also names one after the other, even as she is worrying about potential murderers around each turn. Then, too, the climax of the book seems forced, with Mark, Colin, and Lambis—with help from Nicola—defeating the villain in a somewhat cartoon-like brawl.
But The Moon-Spinners still stirs my yearnings. Teenaged me told herself stories of finding a young man like Mark who needed my tender care to recover from some dire illness or injury and who would love me absolutely. To go to sleep at night, I daydreamed my way into his story, over and over. I still remember how I visualized Mark’s/my young man’s cave-like hideout in the mountains. I continue to dream sometimes of a similar man—although healthy and no longer young—whom I would tenderly love and who would love me absolutely in return.
Beyond the inexhaustible plant life, The Moon-Spinners vividly describes the scenery of Crete, and the sails of the Greek windmills helped spin me into the world of the story. And so as I read The Moon-Spinners this week, I wanted to be overseas, minus the criminals of course, at least for a few weeks of quiet and wandering. I still yearn to explore foreign lands, sleep in quaint villages, taste cultures and lives vastly different from my own. I’ve had the blessing of visiting Europe five times, but I crave returning.
That dream is perhaps more likely to be real than is the arrival of the man whom I sought so earnestly in my younger years and for whom I still keep a candle burning. Even now the longings sometimes tug at me:
Wishing for a man—
To love and be loved—
Crept back today
As I danced with the women
In our line-dancing club
To a country tune our leader played.
The singer was holding his lady dear,
And I waltzed-two-three,
Wrapped within motion,
And the words pulled longing
Out from under the years,
And it waltzed with me
Yet other times I think I am too busy, too happily overbooked, to welcome Prince Charming into my life at this point. (But he’s welcome to stop by; a woman can change her mind.)
With or without a plane ticket to Europe, I can answer some of my other longings. I wish to wander the Tuscan countryside. But whether I ever return to Tuscany or not, I can walk by the pond in our community and explore the grounds of nearby Longwood Gardens and Winterthur. They’re not Tuscan, but they’re filled with beauty. I can continue studying Italian, read books in Italian and about Italy, and go on loving and listening to Andrea Bocelli, with a concert to thrill me from time to time. And I have been to Tuscany and have masses of memories to savor.
I remember the last time I saw Paris, or rather the only time I saw Paris. I was young and Paris was magnificent. How blessed I am! I may not return, but as with my Tuscan reveries, I can remember how it was, study the language, and throw myself into vicarious adventures via books, movies, and music.
Becoming a Moonspinner
Whether or not I again see distant lands, and whether or not my aging prince ever gallops up to my door, life goes on spinning beautiful tales under my waning but still-shining moon. The darkening moon is with me, with us all, as completely as the full moon. As the Moonspinners “see that the world gets its hours of darkness . . . by spinning the moon down out of the sky,” the waning moon gives us time to see the stars that illuminate our lives with their subtler lights. And so:
I shall warm myself in the cool evenings by my own fires
And by the fires of losses turned into memories
And regrets into experience.
I will, like the roses of autumn, bloom in beauty and tranquility
With no thought of the frost to come.
I will nurture peace within myself. Then perhaps I can become a better Moonspinner, sharing comfort and serenity, harmony and repose.
 Mary Stewart, The Moon-Spinners (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1962), p. 74 in the Kindle edition.
 Winifred Burgess Hayek, “The Waltz,” A Woman in Time (CreateSpace 2016), p. 160.
 Winifred Burgess Hayek, from “North Country August,” A Woman in Time, p. 255.