Skating passes the afternoons. I circle the lake, around and around, carving lines in the ice. The blades of my skates make a slicing sound with each turn. I like the world this way. Just here, just now. Frozen lake and frozen sky, barricaded by trees. The crows form a line on a branch to watch me, folding themselves up to keep warm.
I tell them the story of the ice maiden. She was a village girl who drowned herself for the love of a shepherd’s son, long ago. The galloping winter encased her in ice. It was too dangerous to cut her body free, so her family planned a vigil on the bank until the thaw. The Erlking, a frozen monarch himself, rode past and saw her lying there. He placed a perfect kiss upon her icy lips as he claimed her for his bride. I imagine her face beneath my feet, pale and perfect in her crystal coffin.
My tale telling is interrupted. Villagers come with noisy chatter that scatters the crows. They’ve seen me now, so I won’t leave, even though they don’t like me. Not anymore. I’m fast but they’re faster. The girls catch up with me.
“Look at her. She’s disgusting.”
“She smells. She never washes.”
“Her hair’s filthy.”
They go on like this for a while, circling me and calling to one another.
“It’s your fault.” The store keeper’s daughter is bold. She’s the only one that dares to address me. She smells of clean nightgowns and her mother’s kisses. Her hair is golden beneath her fur cap. “It’s your fault that it’s always winter.”
I don’t care. Winter is happiness. It’s Mother making Lebkuchen and sewing by the fire. It’s her, jumping up and clapping her hands when Father comes home. It’s her bedtime tales of changelings, lost travelers and the Erlking’s adventures.
The girls leave but not before I’ve plucked a hair from my denouncer’s coat. None of them notice. I put this piece of spun sunshine in my pocket.
The boys linger. They knock me down. I’m sprawled before them, my skirt tangled around my knees. I feel dizzy when I sit up, realising that I’ve cut my head and bled upon the ice. Red stains white. These boys are wolves in human skin. They’ve scented fear. One tries to kiss me. I can taste the cheese he had for lunch and smell the sourness of his sweat. I rake at his eyes with my nails and call down every curse I’ve learnt. They don’t know that the words are empty without the charms to make them real. They’re still laughing but they’re not so sure anymore. They’re thinking of what their pretty friend said about me causing the lingering winter. They’re wondering what my mother might have taught me.
“Leave her alone!”
I hear the sure swish swish sound of Peter’s approach as he comes to save me from my would-be ravishers. He’s flushed, a circle of pink on his cheeks, which only serves to heighten the blue of his eyes.
The boys are even more unsure now. Every one of them is a coward. Peter, even outnumbered, will not be cowed. He’s tall, with the strength needed of a farmer’s son.
The store keeper’s daughter makes eyes at him. I’ve seen her glance over to see if he’s watching her.
She’s welcome to him.
“Leave her be.” Peter speaks with authority.
“She’s a witch!”
Witch. A term used for women who dare to be wise.
“She’s no such thing, are you, Lebkuchen?”
Someone snickers. I’m furious Peter thinks he has the right to use my pet name because I followed him about when I was small.
“I am,” I turn on him too, “and I’ll make sure that each of you grow a tail by morning.”
“You’re hurt,” he reaches out to touch my head. Then to the boys, “What did you do to her?”
I turn and skate away. The crows gather again, lovers of drama that they are.
“Lebkuchen!” Peter calls after me, torn between wanting to follow me and chastising my tormenters. “Wait!”
I walk home. The forest keeps me company. I listen as the trees whisper to one another. They’re as vain as people. Today their boughs are adorned with icicles. Jack Frost’s fingers. I touch one and it snaps off. A clean, certain sound.
I can see home. Snow heaped along the sills. My mother’s skates are strung up in one window, a single unlit candle in the other. Garlands, made of mistletoe and holly, decorate the windows and the door. Poisoned berries and the spiked leaves are a defence against trolls. One in particular. His hands are strong enough to crush rocks. His eyes are pyres. He comes marching out of the woods without warning, right up to the door.
It’s getting colder. I wish I’d brought my hat. Snow starts to fall. It smothers the world into silence. I put out my hands and let snowflakes pile up on my palms. They are gentle at first but then come faster and faster. There are flakes caught in my eyelashes.
Mother looks up. Her books are strewn across the table, open at different pages. So many, all mixed up. Lexicons and manuals. Almanacs and tomes of forecasting tables. Spell books and recipe books. Runes scribbled in the margins of a book on animal husbandry. I put them back on the shelf.
“The other children hate me.”
She nods as if this is only to be expected. I sit at her knee, head on her lap. She doesn’t complain that I’m too old for this. I ask her to press her handkerchief against my bleeding scalp.
“How did you make me?” I ask.
She looks through the window at the cold outside. Her skin is the shade of shrouds.
“I don’t recall.”
“Shall I tell you? It was like this,” I begin, “you made me from snow.”
“Snow,” she repeats. “Snow baby.”
“Yes. From the first snowfall of a new moon. You gathered each flake before they touched the ground. When you had enough, you shaped me and lit me with the new moon’s light.”
The troll has come down from his great hall, carved deep into the mountain. He carries an axe whose sharp edge has slain many trees.
Except he’s no troll. It’s Father. He fills the doorframe, stoops to enter, but he’s just a man. I can hear his dogs scampering around outside, happy to be free of their harness.
Father’s well armed, not just with an axe but with a talisman, so no garland can keep him out. I curse this amulet. Mother made it as a gift, to keep him safe from sorcery, even her own. Proof of love, she said. Let no-one ever claim I bewitched him.
Seeing Mother has put him in a rage. She looks as she ever did, except for the blankness of her face. He storms about, shouting and smashing crockery. I see the house through his eyes. There’s no hot meal ready for him. Chicken bones and mouse droppings litter the floor. Dust on Mother’s mantle and mirror. Dirty clothes, abandoned where I dropped them.
“I’m tired of this.” He slumps down in a chair. My father’s temper blows in and out. “It has to stop.”
Mother blinks. Father gets up and takes her by the wrist, pulling her to her feet. I’m knocked to the floor. The threadbare rug doesn’t cushion my fall.
Father pulls her to the door and opens it. The cold air whips in a flurry of snow as he drags her out into the dark. I fly at him and bite his arm. He raises a hand against me. I crouch, teeth bared, waiting for the fist to fall.
It doesn’t come. He picks me up by the scruff as if handling a pup and throws me back inside.
Next morning. Father’s gone. So’s Mother. I lie in bed listening to the creaking trees trying to shed their load of snow. Listening to the single bell of the village church. The wind carrying the calls of the great wolf that outwits the hunters’ guns. To the sound of ships, far off in the north, crashing on the rocks.
Hunger gets me up. Father never leaves the cupboard bare. I lift the pail lid and sniff. Fresh milk. Yellow butter in a dish. A slab of meat, marbled with waxy fat. He always leaves wood. Logs stacked by the hearth. I touch each one, thankful for the gift made by the trees. I stroke the places where the axe bit deep into the wood.
There’s a saying here. You’re never alone if you have a fire.
I open Mother’s books.
Mother smiles. I tell her I’m cold and ask for a blanket. She looks around until she finds one in the linen chest, where the mice now nest. I tell her to spread it over my knees and kiss my head.
“Mother, how did you make me?”
“I’m not sure.” Her skin has a fevered glow.
“Shall I tell you?”
“I’m a fire baby. You made me from the fire’s heart, where the flames aren’t red or yellow but white. Fire that has its own light.”
Mother stares at me, her marvellous creation.
I go out in the afternoon. I’d rather stay at home but there’s something I have to do. The cold greets me when I step outside, tugging at the seams of my clothes and finding its way in. I’ve lost my gloves, so my hands are cold. Frost bites my fingertips.
As I leave I put a cup of milk by the door. It’s for the gods. Not the gods of fire, the sun, the trees but small gods, which I loved best. God of nails, of spoons and of twine. Gods of the mundane, who should be worshipped every day. Gods woven into the warp and weft.
I pass the heap of snow on the hill above the house. I don’t look at it. I won’t look at it. I walk with care, fearing a fall. My wind has frozen my bones and made them brittle. The ruts in the track are filled with ice and sparkling snow which cracks and crunches underfoot. The only sound in my glittering kingdom.
I’ve made the golden hair into a charm. I learnt how to do this from Mother’s books. I knotted it around a piece of deer hide, a strip of fish skin and a crow’s feather. The hide ensures her heart is always hunted. Fish scale so that she’ll be taken by currents rather than making her own fate. The feather so she’ll never feel settled. I fix this charm to the dead tree at the crossroads using a rusted nail. This way she’ll never feel alive.
Let the store keeper’s daughter look at Peter all she wants.
Father’s sled is outside when I get home. I didn’t expect him back so soon. The unhitched dogs flop in piles, pink tongues lolling. The cold shows me their breath.
He sits in Mother’s chair, rocking. He stops when he sees me. Frowns. Everyone thinks him handsome, but his hair and beard are too long. Thinness makes him look ill.
“This can’t go on.”
I look around. He’s swept the floor. I can smell the broth bubbling in the pot.
Mother’s not here.
I read out instructions from Mother’s cookbook and she follows them. I watch her stir the melting honey and molasses in the pan. The sifted flour looks like a snowdrift in the bowl. She adds spices. Ginger. Cinnamon. Nutmeg. It’s the smell of winter and Mother. I want to cry.
“How did you make me?”
“Shall I remind you?”
“Oh, yes.” She looks like I’ve offered her a treat. Her skin is the colour of withering leaves.
“It was like this. You made me from flour, ground by a firstborn’s hands, mixed with spices and the same firstborn’s tears. You added honey and molasses with a few flakes of salt so I wouldn’t be too sweet. You lit me with candle light.”
She looks at her hands.
“I’m your baby. Your Lebkuchen.”
Lebkuchen. Bread of life.
The door opens. Father, again. He hangs up his coat. Mother gets up when she sees him. She knows what’s expected of her now. He wasn’t always so keen to be rid of her. I remember that once he seized her in his arms and kissed her cheeks, her lips. His bewildered happiness was a short-lived. Mother’s mouth didn’t move. Her face stayed smooth. Father backed away, confused. He spat on the floor, like he’d just eaten something bitter. He cursed and clipped my ear, thinking it was done to trick him out of childish spite.
“You don’t have to go,” I tell Mother.
Father shakes his head at me. I run to her instead, crying and clinging. Father’s hands fall on my shoulders and he prises me away. I wait for a shaking.
“Hush, Lebkuchen, hush.” His arms enfold me. “You know she has to go.”
Mother doesn’t need a second telling. She opens the door. The world outside is white. As she walks out, I notice she’s not wearing any shoes. Father clutches me tighter and kisses the top of my head. Snow mother. Fire mother. Lebkuchen mother. The farther she is from me, the less substantial she becomes. She gets fainter and fainter until she’s no more than a column of flour and spice dust, whipped away by the wind. The snow is streaked with sticky sweetness for the dogs to lick.
“Lebkuchen, just like your mother, with her gifts and face and books. You forget you’re also mine. No more of this now. You’re breaking my heart.”
He wipes my face. I notice that he’s trimmed his hair and beard. He fetches the comb and tugs at my knots and tangles. I sit quiet.
“Tsk, Lubkuchen, you’re too old to be carrying on like this. We’ve both been through a trial and you when you were neither woman nor child. I’ve stayed away too often. No more. And you’ll come with me whenever I need to be gone long.”
We finish making the Lebkuchen together and eat some in silence.
“Put your coat on.”
I shake my head. I know what he’s doing.
“Lebkuchen, you can’t ignore it anymore. Come and pay your respects.”
It’s already warmer outside. The icicles are dripping water and light. We go up on the hill. The snow covering her grave is melting. Beloved Wife. Beloved Mother.
“She wouldn’t want to see you like this. It’s all right for you to love other people,” he nudges my side with his elbow, “even me.”
I turn my wet face away.
“You can’t shut the world out. And don’t shut yourself in. If hurt can’t find you, love can’t either.”
There’s a waterfall of words inside me. I’m scared they might wash me away.
“People forget how things were once winter’s over,” is all I can say.
“We won’t forget,” he says. “We’ll remind each other.”
Spring is sudden. Everything buds and blooms. Life bursts from the ground as if it’s been asleep too long. I go to the dead tree and retrieve the charm. I unknot the deer hide, the fish skin and the feather. I reverse the words and burn the charm upon a fire made from branches of the dead tree. The store keeper’s daughter is not my friend. Or my enemy.
I walk to the farm, beyond the village church. Flesh of fields revealed now the snow has gone. I see Peter with another boy, leading a dappled mare. Peter’s eyes are the colour of summer skies. His hair is heavy wheat.
The store keeper’s daughter makes eyes at him.
I step onto the track to stop him. His name is a charm. It burns my mouth.
His friend looks at me like I might bite. I growl at him.
“I made this for you.”
I take the talisman from my pocket and hold it out to Peter. It’ll ensure that he’ll never be enthralled, glamoured or seduced by any spell. It’ll protect him from fevers and be his luck-bringer. All this, even if he’s happiest when the store keeper’s daughter looks his way.
“Don’t take anything from her.” His friend puts a hand on Peter’s arm.
“She won’t hurt me.”
“You don’t believe in magic?” I can’t help but ask.
“No, but I believe in you.”
Peter takes the amulet and ties it around his neck. We nod at one another but don’t smile. My mother’s love was all exclamations and declarations. I love more like my father, I think. In a quieter, but not lesser way.
I turn and go. It’s time for home. I have honey and molasses to melt. Flour and spices to sift into a bowl. Father’s out, fishing on the lake. It won’t be long before he’s home.
Spread the word!