“The Man Who Bottled the Sun” by Ransom Riggs, from Tales of the Peculiar
You may have heard that there are regions in the far north where the sun doesn’t rise at all in winter, while in summer it shines constantly, even at midnight.
It wasn’t always so.
There was a time when Iceland got as much sunshine in the winter as Spain. Then a peculiar man named Jón Jónsson came along and changed everything.
Jón’s parents knew he was special from an early age. When he was seven he caught a flu that made him want to sleep all day, but there were no curtains on the windows and his room was filled with sunlight. His mother laid him in bed and went out to fetch the shutters, which were made of wood and normally used only during winter storms. When she returned with them under her arm, the room was dark. She thought she was losing her mind: she could see the sun glinting against the window glass, but its rays stopped there; the room itself was mired in a moonless night’s gloom. But there was a glow beneath her sleeping son’s sheets, and peeling them back she found light leaking out between the fingers of Jón’s closed hand.
Carefully, she pried his fingers open.
There was a blinding flash. In an instant the room was filled with sunlight.
Jón woke up, groggy and blinking.
“Jón, dear,” said his alarmed mother, “what did you do?”
“I turned off the light,” he replied, and then he did it again: he reached out, and with a motion like catching a fly in the air, he scooped the light from the room, closed his fingers tightly around it, and went back to sleep.
Though Jón’s parents found this amazing, his ability didn’t change their lives. The family trade was shoe making, and they lived comfortably enough. What good could taking sunlight from the air do them? Sometimes Jón would use captured sunlight in place of lanterns at night—lantern oil was expensive, after all, and daylight was free—but to stop the light from escaping before night fell he had to keep his fist closed tightly around it all day, which tired his hand and made it hard to do much else. He tried stashing sunlight in wooden boxes and glass bottles and goatskin bags, but it was no good—after a few minutes it always leaked out. Impressive though it was, his ability didn’t seem to have a practical application.
Jón Jónsson’s parents died when he was still a young man. A sickness swept through their valley and took them very suddenly. They’d only been buried a day when a tax agent came knocking and told Jón that everything his parents owned belonged to the government. They owed a debt of unpaid taxes worth more than their entire estate, and Jón stood to inherit nothing. He cursed the agent and vowed to fight the decision, and even went to plead his case before their assembly at Þingvellir, but to no avail. After months of fruitless protest, he found himself homeless and penniless. He packed up what he could carry on his back and left, and another family moved into the house where he’d spent his youth.
Jón Jónsson spent the next few years drifting from place to place, finding work where he could. He cobbled shoes in Akureyri, gutted fish in Grundarfjörður, and drove sheep down from the highlands in fall. He didn’t make friends easily or stay in one place long. Lodged in him like shrapnel was the conviction that he’d been wronged and was owed a great debt, and it filled him with a bitterness that came spilling out of him at the slightest provocation. He was as curmudgeonly and disagreeable as an old hermit.
One day he was working with a road gang clearing rocks from a lava field. Sitting alone during his lunch break, he was surprised when a strange man dressed in gray and covered with wiry hair popped up from behind a boulder.
“Are you Jón Jónsson?” asked the stranger.
“I am,” Jón said. “And who might you be?”
“My name is Tyr, and I have a gift for you.”
“And why would you give me a gift?” asked Jón. “I’ve never met you before.”
“Never mind that,” Tyr said. “Here it is.” From behind his back he produced a small, black box made of obsidian. “It’s yours if you want it. I have only one condition.…”