They say she is the soul of all wasted women: beautiful and barren, she is the suicide of winter, the white bone buried beneath the seedling; a strange and dangerous tree awaiting its first blossom.
There is one in every country that has felt the bite of winter: always a woman neither young nor old, suspended in her middle years—the hardest years, they say—beyond the Maid but before the Crone. She lives alone and keeps her time by the solstice, retreating into the ether when the ice breaks and summer melts her down, returning her to the soil. She might have been a distant cousin of the Erlkönig, so similar are their practices, the cautionary tales that have come to obscure their origins.
It is said her house is no bigger than a snowflake, that she may pick up and leave off wherever she pleases; a traveling woman, a lady of leisure. Snow is her prime real estate, her stocks soar by the year though she offers no shares. In Scandinavia she is kept at bay by bells on boughs, appeased with milk and lingonberries. In Russia she is feared like a Bolshevik, Siberian Shiva of that violent terrain, there is no appeasing her. You simply run like the devil should you sense her near—and you always know when she is.
A bit of parity I suppose, she only takes men fresh off the cusp of boyhood, occasionally older if there’s a score to settle. (Bring your patriarchy to her clearing and you’re a dead man.) It is tempting to paint her a scorned woman, driven to her wretched eternal winter by an unrequited love so many years gone even she has trouble keeping the names straight. She was a huntress, she was a wife, she was a giantess, she was only a woman. Know this, though: she will not bother with feminine prey. Better to leave them to their own kind, the slow and inevitable slaughter of age that will drive men from the very bed they bloodied you in.
They say many things, substantial as myth and temporal as ice.
* * *
Shortly after the first war a young soldier set out by automobile. Well, youngish. His face was gaunt and his eyes hollowed, a mouth once twisted in youthful verve newly thinned and without sensuality. Experience had chiseled his handsomeness into something of stone, rather than flesh; he was quite clever, and kind enough, but no longer malleable. They say war will do that to a man, but I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been in one and can only surmise, which is dangerously close to assuming, of which neither he—nor she—would have approved. He was making his way south, to the sea, and that is all we need to know.
What began in the morning as a light snowfall had steadily worsened, his visibility gradually reduced to a blindfold. This, of course,was her doing.
The road grew a skin of ice and in no time the wheel was out of his control. The car spun like a top and off it went over a steep ravine. He was not badly harmed, and freed himself from the wreckage with minimal distress. But his bearings were lost, and there was nothing but the great white ravine around him, only a hint of night sky and murmur of moon to light his way. A village was surely not far from where he was, however arduous a journey by foot. No choice but to do it, he rolled a cigarette and set out along the spine of the ravine.
Sooner rather than later a faint bobtail of light winked in the distance, some cottage no doubt. Whistling under his breath he made his way towards it, following it like a captain’s lantern over the white sea upon which he’d stranded himself. He flicked the last ember from his cigarette, savoring the little pop and sizzle as it landed in the snow.
As the light grew broader and brighter the man quickly realized here was no cottage, but a great house of the strangest stone he’d ever seen, fine as glass but thick as marble. The winter retreat of some wealthy family from the city, he suspected, despite the queer location. The mansion stood lavish and exposed as a block of wedding cake, the ravine offering none of the privacy he knew the rich so craved. There was something garishly modern about the place, its architecture unlike any he’d ever seen. And while he knew he was in no position to do so, nouveau riche cut a contemptuous arch in his brow.
As he approached the imposing entrance, the merry —wherever it had come from—dwindled, then went out altogether, rendering the place a somber mausoleum. He knocked and waited, but no answer came. He knocked a second time—a little louder, more brusquely—and again was met only with the echo of it. He hesitated, decorum grappling with the situation at hand. He had no wish to disturb the occupants, but something of the class revolutionary in him noted there was no absence of space and means to provide for a passing traveler—a soldier, no less—for the night. He stiffened his shoulders and pushed his way into a dimly lit hall.
Everywhere gray stone, not a splinter of furniture or splash of tapestry. Mausoleum, indeed. Dozens of candles illuminated the interior, clustered in chandeliers that dripped not with wax but—he blinked—ice?
Are you going to stand in my hall all night or join me by the fire?
Her sing-song voice was clear as a bell, ringing out from the end of the central corridor, where the shadows of a fire leapt and beckoned.
He made his way to a windowless dining hall, where a great fire lapped at the edges of a table, and a woman seated at the head of it. How does one describe a creature that is more element than flesh? Her skin, her hair, even her—all of it stripped of color, not even white, but something else entirely? Cloaked from head to toe in a robe of living ermines that coiled and stretched and sniffed from their stitched imprisonment, she presided over an empty table, her chair the only chair, her setting the only occupied space.
“Pardon my intrusion,” he offered, in awe of her. “I knocked…”
“And I didn’t answer,” she said. “I knew you would come in anyway. They always do.”
“Then I shall await a proper invitation, or with apology see myself out.”
She gestured to a wooden bench that ran the length of the table.
“Oh, you were always invited. Long before you even arrived. Come, sit. Warm yourself by my fire. Keep me company this long night.”
A bourgeois bohemian, he thought. Her imperious language and medieval mannerisms, the Bosch-like figure she cut. He was too weary to ask questions he doubted she’d answer outside of riddles—the chandeliers dripping ice, her cloak of living ermines—so he seated himself and waited obediently, as one does in a dream. What happened thereafter was beyond his control, and he was glad to give in if it kept him from the cold ravine.
He asked if she lived alone.
She did, she replied.
He asked if she was lonely.
Sometimes, she replied.
He asked if she was real.
Does it matter? She returned.
Only if I’m dead, he responded. If my body is back in the ravine and this is my spirit before you.
If you were dead this would be your house, and your table, and your great fire to welcome whomever you pleased. She said this softly and, he thought, a little sadly.
You are not dead, she said flatly.
Are you, then? He asked.
Only when the ice melts, only for a spell. I always come back.
This exchange took place without words, in silence.
When she spoke aloud once more, her mouth reddened like a berry rubbed between one’s fingers, as if conversation could restore her vitality.
“You were a soldier, yes?”
“Do I make it so obvious?” he returned with a smile, and reached into his coat pocket. “May I smoke? Or will it melt your great hall?”
“You may do as you like. I will not ask you about the war. I’ve lived through all of them and they’re all as one. Different costumes, different toys, always played out the same. Whatever you tell me I will already know. So share with me a memory, just one, then speak no more of it.”
He studied her, the smoke snaking its way from his nostrils. She spoke plainly and without pretense, but it was pageantry all the same.
“Your mouth reminds me of a poppy pushing its way up through the battlefield in Ypres. A month of bullets and jackboots tearing up the ground, tearing meat, and no dogs around to throw the pieces to. And still the poppy remained intact. I would go to the spot day after day and there it was, a little trampled but ever imperious. Besides the blood it was the only bit of color I saw those weeks.” He added thoughtfully, teasingly, “And blood as you know oxidizes and turns black within a few short hours.”
“What poetry,” she jeered. “And did you pluck it when the battle was over? Press it between the pages of a book—a diary perhaps—as a memento? Or did you leave it in the ground to flourish?”
His gaze was impassive. “Neither. Someone beat me to it, a nurse perhaps. It’s pressed between the pages of someone else’s book. A dirty book, I hope.”
“And what do you intend to do with yourself now?”
“Swim,” he replied. “I shall spend the rest of my days by the sea. Is that not poetic as well, lady?” His hollow eyes flickered. The ermines hissed a little at him.
“It is, but I will not mock you for it.”
“So it meets with your approval?”
“Do you require it?”
“Strangely, and against my innate conviction, yes. For if this is a dream, I would like to know I will fall softly, and without terror. For truly, you are capable of it.”
She tipped her head to the side, absently stroking one of the ermines.
“I am but a woman.”
“A far greater danger, in my experience.”
“You have fought a war and won.”
“I have also fought women and lost.”
“Will you fight me, then?”
“No,” he said, tossing the remainder of his cigarette into the fire. “I will tell you about the sea instead.”
She smiled, and recited:
Sleep I could not
on the sea beds
for the screeching of the bird.
That gull wakes me
when from the wide sea
he comes each morning.
“I will keep a house by it,” he continued, “and bathe naked in it no matter the season. I will grow sea-bones, and die an unhaunted man many years from now.”
“Many, you say?” For truly, she was capable of terrible things.
“If this is a dream,” he repeated quietly, “I would like to fall softly, and without terror.”
“And so you shall,” she replied, and rose from her seat. She loosened the ermine robe and it fell away from her, revealing a body of pulsing opal, the lines of which continuously expanded and contracted: she was slender, then she was voluptuous, her hips narrowed then widened, her breasts swelled and reduced. She extended her hand and he took it, rising. He stood before her by the great fire, on the ermine robe that now lay a motionless rug, and let himself be undressed. Her touch felt like nothing at all, like a cool wind that blows through the wood at night, stirring all but disturbing naught. He closed his eyes and there was the poppy, its petals unfurling against a tempest of ash and flesh. The arrogance of survival, impervious to pleasure but ever aching to deserve it.
His breeches unbuttoned, he felt the last of himself exposed. It was here she paused, and he opened his eyes. He knew what it was that she saw, and waited with neither curiosity nor bated breath. He had mastered the effortless gait of walking with one god-given leg of flesh and bone, the other aluminum alloy. The phantom limb syndrome did not apply to him, for he had taken to his new appendage as any mortal transformed by a malevolent god must. The war had claimed its memento, the rest was neither here nor there where he was concerned. In fact, he though, the duralumin leg complimented the present interior quite nicely.
Press that between the pages of your book.
Something in her face, that glacial expressionlessness, began to shift. It blurred itself, then hardened, then blurred again. She did not recoil, it was not revulsion. Something human moved in her. A strange and dangerous tree awaiting its first blossom. She opened her red mouth and released a sob that melted her in his arms. He struggled to catch her, to gather her up, but it was too fast, too human. In no time at all his hands dripped with ice.
* * *
By morning the house was no more and there was only his car, which he awoke in the back seat of, wrapped in an (unmoving) ermine robe. He shifted to the driver’s seat and rolled a cigarette, and smoked while the engine warmed. After a moment he reached into the glove box and pulled out a small volume, the diary he’d kept throughout the war, filled with sketches and scraps of verse and reflection, photos and postcards he’d salvaged from the debris and pasted into the pages. He removed the poppy and studied it for a beat, then let it drop from the window. The breeze lifted the flower, and it danced for a time over the snow before eventually settling into its scarlet stasis.
By then the man was long gone.
Emily Linstrom is a writer and artist currently adventuring abroad. Her work has been featured in various publications such as Three Rooms Press, American Slander, Nailed Magazine, Rogue Agent Journal, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Misfit Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, and Yes, Poetry, as October’s featured poet. She was the first prize recipient of Pulp Literature Press’s 2015 The Raven short story contest. Upcoming publications include Literary Orphans and The Wayward Post. You can learn more about her work at www.emilylinstrom.com.
Image Credit: Greg Miller