Sunlight on the Snow

The snow falls every year, here in the north. Winter comes with a sombre promise to take and give nothing back. But we are stubborn people. We hold on to our homes, even when it costs us dear.

South of us the valleys stretch out, welcoming warmth, sheltering it in a cradle of trees and soft grasses. But we have the mountains and the spaces in between, the small cracks where we find what warmth we can.

In the summer the frozen rivers melt and flow again in the deep ravines. The water filters through the rocks until it’s pure and sparkling – the best water you ever tasted. It nourishes the roots of the trees, and the deer drink from the streams. We kill the deer, and the snow hares, and the mountain lions. We eat them and we take their pelts for warmth.

We survive in our mountain home.

Lydia watches for the first snow every year. She’s sun-haired, like me, and sun-eyed. Seven years old, a summer girl, who delights in the feel of sunlight on her skin. But like her brother before her she knows the time when the season will change, and she waits for the coming of winter.

I too can feel the change in the air, when it turns. I smell it in the air’s new sharpness, and I hear it in the fickle voice of the wind as it calls along the ridge. We hold on against the approach of winter, digging our fingers into the cracks in our ravines between the mountains.

In the morning, Lydia bursts through the door with the news. “Ma, it’s today! The first snow’s fallen!” Normally the first snow is fleeting, and the sky is light and pale in its wake. It doesn’t seem so long ago that I too found it beautiful, the way the sky mirrored the earth below, making the world completely white.

Lydia runs to me and presses her cold hands against my cheeks, laughing. I ruffle her hair and kiss her forehead. My summer girl. She has powdery snow melting in her hair and on her shoulders. She giggles as I brush her down.

“Have you been in a snowball fight already?”

“Hannah and Marta ambushed me as I was coming past the log pile. But then Benjamin helped me. He got snow all down their backs.”

“Go and round them up then. When the snow stops you must go and build the snowmen on the ridge. And don’t forget your gloves!”

Lydia flings the door wide and runs into the winter air. In doing so she lets it into the house and I shiver against the cold. On days like this the chill in my bones wakes up biting. I’ll sleep poorly and my joints will creak for the rest of the winter. It’s been that way for three years.

My balance is getting better now. I have a stick but I keep it mostly for comfort, these days; I don’t need it to get up and add another log to the fire. The wood pile is neatly stacked on the left.

I like the snap of firewood when it burns. Fire is our ally against the cold, so I will not begrudge it a burn or two when I’m stupid enough to put my hand in the flame by mistake. I sit here and keep the fire high, and in the afternoon I hear my husband’s voice outside. There’s a cold blast of air as the door opens.

“Close the door,” I say. “Keep the warmth inside.”

“I’m going up to the ridge,” Alun says. “I just wanted to tell you. The snow’s stopped. Lydia and the other children are going up to build the snowmen.”

“It’s stopped already?”

“Yes, but it’s deep.”

“Let’s go then.”

“Are you sure you want to come?”

“Yes, of course. Get me my furs, will you?”

I hear Alun hurrying, gathering the things that we will need, and then I hear the wind outside. It howls around the house, trying to get in.

I hear the whisper of its voice at the door, and it calls to my blood. I see a figure in my mind’s eye, tall and lanky with youth, dark haired and wrapped up in furs. Aryn, my winter boy, with a young boy’s smile and eyes as old and knowing as the mountains.

“Hurry,” I whisper. Alun takes my arm and leads me outside, where the wind blows right through me. Alun has cleared a path through the snow going up to the door. I plant my feet firmly on the freezing, slushy ground and begin to walk.

Alun takes me to the edge of the village, where the snow lies ankle deep. We follow the scattered tracks of the other villagers to the top of the ridge, where the first snow always falls deepest. The kiss of a snowflake on my cheek is cruel and cold. My knees buckle.

“Katya, do you want to go back?” Alun’s voice is gentle, close to my ear.

“No. I have to be there.”

We go on.

At the top of the ridge Alun and I stand close to the others. For years we have been gathering here to see the first snow – the snow that rides ahead of the true winter storms, the snow that settles but never stays beyond a few days. The children build their snowmen here each year. The snowmen tell us what they will bring, whether they will be cruel or merciful. Last year, they stayed for a day and a night. That winter was kinder than the others before it.

I hear the summer voices of the girls and the loud hoots of the boys, singing, shrieking as they throw snowballs back and forth. The adults, with proper solemnity, shush them and wait for them to begin. I must be here, even though I no longer find any joy in the game and ritual of it. I imagine the snowmen with twisted, grimacing white faces. I will show those demons of the winter that they cannot frighten me.

But the wind sings in my ears, promising ruin.

This year, it whispers. This year … this year.

While the children build the snowmen, some of the villagers sing, some of us are quiet. Afterwards, most of us leave the ridge in small groups and return to our homes, but some linger until it gets dark, offering prayers to the mountain.

As we walk back to the village, Lydia holds my hand and tells me about her snowman. He is tall and big, and his name is Elmun. I murmur appreciatively to make her happy, because she still trusts in the snowmen as our protectors and helpers.

Alun is at my side with his arm around me. I realise I am crying.

Our house is cold and there’s a draught coming in somewhere. I go carefully to the fire and move to the left, feeling for a couple of thick logs. It needs to be kept high as the night draws closer.

“Ma, let me do that,” Lydia says. I feel her small hands on top of mine as she tries to take the log from me.

“No, it’s fine.” I gently push her away. “I want to do it.”

Lydia is young and good and likes to be helpful. I hear her sigh as she steps back. She’s wondering why I don’t just sit by the fire and relax. But keeping the fire high is my job. It’s all I can do against the cold.

Alun sometimes tells me that I spend too much time blaming myself for what happened, and even more time trying to make up for it. Perhaps he’s right. But on some days, when the wind howls around my house, I wonder if it would have been different, if the snow hadn’t taken my sight so quickly. Would I have found him, my Aryn, my winter boy?

Three years ago Aryn was fourteen and growing up fast, but he was determined to join in with the children one more time. He named his snowman Ivan. Ivan outlasted all the others and still stood tall on the fifth day. Nobody else minded, because Ivan was bigger and thicker-built, and the six others had already melted.

After five days, Lydia’s snowman still stands and I understand: winter has touched her summer-born heart. I know the wind is laughing at me as it hisses past my ears.

This year, it sings. This year … this year.

On the fifth night I lie in my bed. The house is warm and I cannot hear the wind. I feel safe. I reach for Alun and kiss him and press myself against him. I feel him go still as he realises. It’s been so long, but we haven’t forgotten. It comes back to us, our dance. We are still in tune, after all this time. It makes me weep.

I wake up early, before sunrise. Alun’s still snoring next to me and I’m careful not to disturb him as I get up and feel around for my clothes and my furs.

In the main room, last night’s fire is still giving out some warmth. I find my stick, propped up next to the hearth, and then a skin of water. The wind outside is cold, but I set myself against it and trudge through the snow that has come up to our door again. This will be the last time.

I have a good sense of direction and my feet have rehearsed the village paths. I find my way up to the ridge, where I feel the first small protests from my joints as the chill begins. The furs are still doing their job, but my bones remember. I walk carefully along the top, feeling my way with my hands outstretched, until I touch the cold, wet skin of a snowman. Even though the melting has begun, he still stands. Elmun, Lydia’s snowman. Alone on the sixth day.

This year, sings the wind. This year … this year.

I swing my fists through the air but I overreach myself and stumble, falling to my knees. With a groan I get to my feet again. I reach out, searching with my hands for Elmun. I knock him down.

“You can’t have her,” I pant. “Not Lydia. She doesn’t belong to you!”

Suddenly I feel foolish. What good is it to scream and rage against the greed of winter? What can be done? If it reached down the mountain it could smother us. Our ravines would fill with ice, our deer would run south towards safety. Even the mountain lions would abandon this forsaken place.

Our fragile mountain home would disappear.

The wind promises ruin. It howls with a hunger that must be placated.

And I know what I must do. I leave the ridge, and the village, behind.

Beyond the ridge the land dips down into a small wood of fir trees that gather around the mountain’s feet. I remember coming this way last time. Aryn had gone looking for game and he’d been gone too long, so I went after him. I took enough food and water for two people to last three days on the mountain. I wrapped myself from head to toe in furs, more than I really needed. They would keep Aryn warm, once I found him.

I’m sure the trees remember my passage. The wind sighs through them, but they have kinder voices.

Up on the mountain past the wood, the snow is still falling, powdery beneath my feet. It hasn’t had enough time to really set in yet. I remember the way the sun shone off it before, like blue skies. I was thinking about my winter boy, but the beauty of the sun on the snow filled my heart with hope.

Beauty in this land is treacherous. After two days had passed he was still lost on the mountain, and still I searched. The relentless glare of the sunlight on the snow was hurting my eyes.

Another day passed, and another. I didn’t want to eat the food that I’d saved for Aryn, but I would need it if I was to keep searching. By then my eyes were sore and weeping and my vision was growing darker. I thought the clouds must be closing in, because it was too early for night to be falling. My strength was leaving me as my joints slowly seized up. I remember urging my feet to go on, but I must have tripped over a stone. I fell, and couldn’t get up.

I lay in the snow, calling for Aryn. Then I croaked his name, until my throat was raw and freezing. I drifted on the snow, on the wind, hearing voices calling across the mountain. The world went dark.

Alun found me and carried me off the mountain. Nobody found Aryn.

People in the village talked of what might have happened to him. A mountain lion had overcome him, perhaps, or he’d run out of food, or he’d fallen into a crevasse. It didn’t matter. The wind, the winter, had taken him. If I’d known what it wanted, I would have gone in his place.

I’m slower than before. I have to be more careful not to slip and my joints are unwilling. I can feel them growing stiff and numb, but I have to keep walking. Alun might already be looking for me. I have to go further so he won’t find me. The winter is hungry for a summer child, but I will go in her place.

I walk all day, up and up. When it feels like the night has set in I sit down in the snow. My furs are wet and the cold has started to seep through them, so I take them off. They’re no use to me anymore. I start to shiver.

The wind is still singing, but now it sings to me. Sings peace.

After my short rest I get to my feet for one last push. My legs and arms are unbearably heavy, but I don’t mind. I’ll make it to the top. It’s getting brighter, and I think I can hear his voice calling on the wind, my winter boy, my Aryn.

This year, sings the wind. This year … this year.

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© Rosanna Silverlight 2010

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