Winter's Envy

Caroline Peyron September 19, 2022
Fable, Magic
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When he was a baby, John slept too much and ate too little, and the priests and the doctors didn’t believe that he would make it through the season. His mother of love, green eyes, and hope, listened to him breathe at night as she prayed to the constellations for her baby. His eyes were green as dying lamplight, and his little heart beat too fast. He hiccuped and fainted throughout the days, and everyone who held him felt that he was too fragile to even cradle.

One night as his mother lay asleep beside his cradle, and John had slipped into an infant dream, a shadow loomed over him in an already dark night. It was a woman so beautiful and so cold, with eyes brighter than white moonlight and a touch of her breath like winter. Her hair was the color of ash, and it nearly reached her heels. It was a curtain, a veil; a dark cascade of shadow. The woman had pursed lips and a light step, and whether she came into the cottage through the door, the window, thin air, or the walls, it made no difference: she was wicked-seeming, and it would be wise for even the trees to bend out of her path.

The woman lingered over John, staring into his fragile, stone-smooth face. She listened to him breathe as his mother did, so shaky and inconsistent. She watched as his little legs twitched, and as he began to shiver. Her coldness was radiant; it was waking him. The woman saw John’s eyes open slowly, one at a time. He was shivering and he sniffled, and he met her gaze.

He was a baby so he could not know, but this woman was not supposed to be there. Oh, no, she was certainly intruding. She stood between the baby and his mother, whose senses she froze for the while. John’s mother was a beauty, with love like a wildfire and hope like an angel’s. John’s mother was nervous for her son’s health, but she was strong enough for the two of them. The fae lady was weak at heart and envious, having lost a child of her own, once upon the age. She had stolen beloved babies from good women before, and it was time again to do so. She stood in her winter-sharp grace, her cruel elegance, her dark glory: ready to take.

John giggled and pulled at the air that hung between himself and the lady, as she stared piercingly into him. For some moments she watched him, then turned back towards his mother where she lay, slumped with sleep and freeze. With slow ascent, the ice woman drew her arm up from her side, and she lowered a practiced hand towards John’s clumsy one. She held out a finger with a long pale nail, and after swiping the empty air the first time, the second time, the third, John finally gripped the lady’s finger, and his infant hand froze.

The ice blossomed in John’s palm and danced towards his wrist. It spiderweb-spindled down his baby arms, and it covered his shoulders and his chest, his collarbone and his ribs, his hips and his little knees and his little feet. The freeze crawled up his neck in a thin film, and chilled John’s smile still. His heart was frozen. Its irregular beating, its slows and stops, were chilled to numb. He was not dead yet, though. He was not made into only ice and eyes, young bones and frozen blood. His baby soft skin was solid. His green-moss eyes were all that remained as they were before. They turned and looked about, and again found the woman’s gaze. She took her finger from John’s frozen grip and pulled him from his cradle. She held him as a mother would. She might have looked loving if her presence were not so cold. The porcelain-frail baby was ice now, and now he would truly shatter if she were to squeeze him too tight. With the woman’s face over John’s as she stared greedily into his eyes, her black-veil hair fell over his small form, and there was darkness. The warmth of her absence permeated the room that was violated, and John’s mother awoke to find endless grief, and a coldness that could never leave her.

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John fell asleep from the cold, but the woman kept her freeze out of his insides so that he would live. She brought him to a far away mountain-town in the north, into her house of dark wood and narrow windows. She laid him on the hearth she so rarely used, and struck a match. The match lit the ancient dry wood the instant that the lady had cast it into the alcove, and a fire raged in the home of hailstones. John’s husk of ice melted off him and left him lying in a biting puddle on the stone. He clenched his fingers and kicked his legs, and let out a whimper, weep, and a cry. The ice lady took him up again in her delicate arms and nursed him to silence on her breast. Even after the thawing, his lips sprouted snowflakes.

Just as John’s mother had, the woman grew wary of John’s baby brokenness. His green eyes followed the paths of birds out the small windows, when there were no birds in the sky. He sneezed in fits that lasted minutes, which panicked his little heart into letting him faint. He drooled like a dog and grew weary too fast. The woman was not so concerned as John’s mother was, however. She had a glacier for a heart. When she thought that the baby was dying, she lit him a fire, and she fed him thick bread. She did these things not out of goodness, for she hadn’t known goodness since she had lost her own infant, but she did them because she must; that was all. She always lost children too soon, but to lose John as an infant would be her worst record yet. The lady had to maintain him, else her loneliness would send her to venture down the mountainside again, and the trek was never kind. The earth always gave her some pitfall: some rock to trip her up, some hill to slip down, some storm to call at the rage within her.

John, though, when the woman picked him up beneath his frail arms, giggled at her face. She was beautiful, but a baby couldn’t notice. She was all John knew anymore. She sat knitting in her chair and he crawled over to her, rolling over her feet. With disdain the ice woman gazed down at the boy she had stolen. She did not love him, but an infant’s need made John love her, and though she was no lullaby mother, the woman began to sing again, after she had been tight lipped and silent so long. They were not sweet songs, and there was no love in her words. She sang haunting lilts and tunes; carols from drowned sailors; prayers from dying men turned to ice. John’s home was the woman’s voice, her warm hearth, her windows over the fjords, and the winter in her eyes: eternal, steady, watching.

One night, four moons after the woman had stolen John away, the mountain shook beneath the ice woman’s home, startling John awake as he lay in the lady’s arms. Her snow eyes snapped open, too, alert. The mountain shook again and the woman rose delicately to her feet. She laid John on the stones of the hearth, and she went to the window. Closing her eyes, she saw in her mind’s eye a woman shouting through the mountains. There was a tempest in her eyes; fury in her voice. She was fire and she was coming. The ice woman, with a shroud of calm over a panic that she had not felt in decades, lifted John again, and laid him in the ashes of the fireplace. He grew dark with soot, and she swept her hair over him, and it looked to those who did not love him as if he were gone. Even the ice woman could not see the babies she hid, nor the bones in their wake.

John’s mother came storming up the mountainside, and the ice woman waited before the hearth. The door opened and John’s mother came inside. The ice woman long ago stolen the child of another, and his mother had never come. Longer before then she had stolen a baby girl, and likewise the girl’s mother had never come to reclaim her child. She had never known the rage of a mother; she knew just their anguish that she relished, and her own satisfaction of having a child again. She had never felt fear in herself before; she had never known that her bones could become more chilled than they were, and she stood with her winter eyes melting before John’s mother’s pine-greens. The ice woman saw who she could have been, when she long ago lost her own baby. She could have fought back. She could have chased her child to the world’s end, even in vain, as John’s mother had. She saw her sin, her greed, and grew cold, cracking at the knowledge. The true mother cursed her with a word of anger, of pity, of victory, and the ice lady shattered all at once. She was fragments on the floor, sharp as glass, cold as snowcaps, but she was dead at last. Her lost child waited for her in Heaven, but the ice woman instead burned for the first time.

John was in the hearth. Anyone else could not have seen him, but his mother could find him even in blizzards. John drooled and he cooed, and his mother’s eyes grew teary. She crossed the shards of the ice woman, and knelt before her baby. She reached out a hand above him, and John swiped at it a first time, a second time, a third, and finally John caught hold of her first finger in his small ones. He giggled and his mother turned to ice. Slow, steady, she cried until she was still as stone. Her green eyes grew too frozen to see, and her heart chilled itself to a stop, too cold to beat.

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