Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Promise of Snow, part 11

She woke in the night, her body twisted in the sweat-drenched sheets, her blood burning with remembered heat. Years had come and gone, some slow like the breaking of the ice in early spring, some fast like a sudden blizzard--but the fever still came this way. She rose quietly from the bed, tiptoed away, and stepped outside into the cool air. She could always tell when snow was coming, and on those nights when the fever burned brightest, the cold of the winter burned iciest too.

Standing on her porch, a breeze blowing about her, she lifted her arms, spinning a slow circle as the wind rose. Her hair, pale in the moonlight, shifted in the breeze. She tilted her head up to see the cool face of the moon staring back down at her. Her mouth opened to catch the first snowflake of whatever storm was on its way.

She smiled. The heat had passed again.

She turned to step back inside, but her husband was there, barefoot despite the chill, smiling and watching her.

"Come here," she whispered, and he came to stand beside her in the dark of the night. His arm wrapped around her waist as he pulled her closer. She sighed and closed her eyes. This here, this was the best of everything--the warmth of the pack, the joy of the winter sun, the promise of snow.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Promise of Snow, part 10

She came back to him late the next morning and stood just inside his doorway. "I am sorry," she said, her eyes on the ground. "I could not accept it, but I must. I risked you, Tomas, for my own selfishness. I did not care that you might be hurt. Had you gone through the gate without me . . . " She shuddered. "You would have died." She tried to cover her heart in ice for her next words, to tell him she would leave forever if he wanted.

She looked up and for the first time noticed the changes in his house. When they'd left the night before, his belongings were set out and ready for his nephew. Now they were bundled tightly into packages meant for travel. Even his second largest loom was dismantled, packed up. Her eyes ran across it all then raced to him. It seemed she would not need to offer to leave; he was leaving her first.

"You're . . . going somewhere?" she asked, trying to keep the trembling from her voice.

He shook his head. "No, not me."

She wrinkled her forehead. "I cannot use your loom."

"No, Ivana. Not you either. Us. Together." When she didn't respond, he waved her over and turned to a piece of paper he'd set out on his table. "Look here." He pointed, and when she stepped closer she could see that it was a drawing of the lake and its surroundings.

She looked where he pointed, at a spot far above the lake.

"Look. I've been asking the elders again, and Matias says that there is a legend of this place. The story is of a land, here on this mountain." She looked again as he pointed to a range of pointed triangles. "You go up the mountains far enough, it is cold. Cold and white, and flakes of coldness fall from the sky there. No one knows where the legend came from, or even if it's true. Matias says long ago groups left the village to learn more, but no one has ever returned." He nodded in excitement. "That is where we are going."

She stared at him.

"It won't be like your home," he added apologetically. "It might not even be real. But it looks promising, yes?"

When she wrapped her arms around him, the flakes of snow began to fall again in her soul.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Promise of Snow, part 9

She knew you should not wander into the jungle, late at night, by yourself, but her anger and guilt drove her. If she could have run away from herself, she would not have felt the need to run through the dark. But she could not avoid herself, or the thoughts that continued to heap themselves like a physical weight upon her shoulders.

All the things she had avoided thinking about. When Tomas had told her about the man and woman from his land who had disappeared, and when he'd gotten Matias to tell them more stories of disappearances at longest night--a thought had flickered through her. Why had her pack never met any of those who went through the gate? What had happened to them? She hadn't wanted to think of it then, too full of the excitement that Tomas would come with her. But now she thought, and the thoughts felt correct in her mind, the way she'd always instinctively understood the nature of the gate.

The gate would take someone from this world back to the lake on longest night, the coldest and most dangerous night of the year. She knew from experience how to treat such a night, how to protect herself. Even with a transformation, with fur and claws instead of skin and nails, could anyone from Tomas's world of burning sunlight possibly know what to do in burning cold? Worse yet, when she came through the gate, she came through into water. What if they had done the same, coming back perhaps even under the ice? They both would have died, trapped as the water leeched the life from them.

She had nearly killed them both, all because she hated this heat, was not willing to consider the idea of living with it for the rest of her days.

But she considered it now. There was no other choice.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Promise of Snow, part 8

Finally, longest night came. While the people of the village held their wild celebrations of laughter and song and vigils to welcome the night, she and Tomas slipped away into the approaching darkness. They walked up the river until it reached the lake, calm and lapping gently under the light of a full moon.

He took her hand. "This is it."

She nodded. "Are you certain you wish to go?"

He squeezed her hand, and his warmth simmered through her. "You really have to stop asking that, you know. If you ask me again, I might have to kiss you just so you can't speak."

She laughed. "Are you certain you wish to go?"

He grabbed her and kissed her, but she playfully shoved him away. "Fine. I will stop asking." She looked up into the sky. The time didn't feel quite right yet, not the way it had when she crossed this way. That time she had just known when to look down into the lake, known when she would see the gate open up. "I do not think it is time yet," she offered as she began to sit on a rock beside the lake.

He had stepped closer to the water and suddenly sucked in his breath. "No, it's time. I can see it." He took a deeper breath. "Your world is so stark, so beautiful." When he turned to look back at her, his eyes shone. "Like you." He stepped closer, bringing his toe nearer the water. "Come." He beckoned. "Let's not wait anymore."

She stood again. Something was wrong. She stepped toward him. "Wait!" she cried. He stopped, his feet just beside the water.

He turned back and quirked his brow. "What's wrong?"

"Where is it? I cannot see it." She stared frantically down into the water.

He pointed. "Right there, right there beside those rocks."

She stared, squinted. "No. I cannot see it."

He stepped back from the water, looking uncertain for the first time. He pointed again, but she shook her head. Her heart pumped wildly.

"What if . . . What if your people were right? You can only go one way."

She took his hand and pulled him still farther back. "I cannot see the gate. I can never go back." Her pale skin paled even further as she continued to shake her head. "I could have lost you," she whispered. "You could have stepped into my world and been gone forever."

He turned to face her then, reaching out to put his hand on her cheek.

She pulled her hand from his grasp, stepping away from him. Her eyes were wide as the realization crashed through her, burning in seconds through all the drifts of joy that had built in her soul. "I am so very sorry. I was foolish, more even than I was in coming here." She drew back. "I am so sorry," she whispered. Then she turned and crashed headlong through the jungle, heedless of its dangers, only knowing she had to get away from the taunting lake. Its waters lapping against the shore sounded far too much like laughter that she would never see its gate again. She would never be comfortable again. And she had almost sacrificed Tomas to discover it.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Promise of Snow, part 7

His presence complicated things. She'd thought long and hard about how to get back home and had finally come to a conclusion that felt right. This world's longest night was approaching quickly, and if Ivana was correct about the ice gate, this was the time that she would be able to go back home. She knew the stories that no one had ever come back, but she was sure this was the way. If longest day brought her to this land, longest night would take her back home, if she willed it.

"Do your people ever speak stories of a gate to my world?" she asked him one day.

He shook his head, apologetic. "We have plenty of legends and stories, but nothing about your world or a gate in the lake."

She shrugged and looked away as if it didn't matter. She still believed she was right. "Not any tales of your longest night?"

"Nothing," he said, but then he stopped, and his brows drew together. "Wait. I think I remember Matias the storyteller telling of a couple who disappeared that night, many years ago." He waggled his eyebrows suggestively. "He says they got lost on the way to . . . spend some time together. Alone. On the longest night of the year." He winked.

She blushed, a reaction that felt very strange on her skin. At the same time, her heart picked up. She was right, the gate did open that night. She could go home.

But every day she felt his smile. Every day he made her laugh. She could not imagine living here, in this overheated world of endless sunshine where even the rainstorms were streaked with rays of light and left her drenched but no less sweltering.

But she could not imagine living in her beautiful, snowy home without him.

And yet, despite the wrenching in her heart, the day grew closer. Each sunrise brought one less day to make her choice.

He saw the wrenching within her. They sat together in the relative cool of the late evening, their feet dangling into the stream, the heat bearable for the moment. "You're planning to go back, aren't you." It wasn't a question.

She leaned against his shoulder. "I do not know."

He was silent for a moment. Then: "I could come with you," he said quietly.

She lifted her head and stared at him. "You would do this?"

There was fear in his eyes, but he nodded firmly and spoke without hesitation. "I would."

She had not even considered that he might be willing. This opened a new world of possibilities. She jumped up from the ground in excitement. Then, just as quickly, she stopped and dropped back, staring down. "But what of your family? Your business? Your life here?"

He took her shoulders and forced her to look into his eyes. "I will leave them behind for you. You will be my family. . . . If you want me."

She took a shuddering breath. "Of course I want you." Then she shook her head. "But I cannot ask this thing of you. I changed in crossing between our worlds. I became like you. But what if you do not become like me? What if my feelings here about the heat--what if those are your feelings about the cold? You will grow to hate it and resent me." She felt hopelessness battle the hope within her. She did not want to examine the possibilities; she just wanted to go.

"I will go with you. We'll work it out together." He smiled, one side of his mouth quirked up in humor. "If I don't change, you will simply have to make me a coat of rabbit skins. If I am always cold, well . . ." He grinned wider still. "I'm sure you can come up with some way to keep me warm." Then he winked.

Ivana laughed and felt the tension leave her. She did not have to choose between the things she loved most after all.

And so they prepared to leave. There was little to do. Tomas would leave his looms behind, and one of his nephews would take over when it became clear he was not coming back. They would not be telling anyone their plan. Together they visited his friends and relatives, and quietly he bade farewell to the world he had known his whole life. She was as busy as she could be, desperate not to think too deeply about what they were attempting.

But she loved him, and so she watched him, waiting to see the taint of regret. Her dreams became filled with both hope and despair, warring inside her--the hope a soft snow constantly melting under the oppressive sun of despair. But he never wavered, and slowly the snow mounted in her soul until it could not easily be burned off. She began to smile, to sing. Her whole world felt white.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Promise of Snow, part 6

Once begun, it was simple to fall in love with Tomas. The instinct to trust him that she'd felt on their first meeting was easy to embrace. His voice was a trickle of ice through her veins, his laugh a cool breeze. Even the brush of his hand against hers--it was warm, but not with the oppressive warmth of everything here. It was more like curling up with the pack on an especially freezing night. Despite her previous fears, she found herself telling him the truth of her life, wondering how he would receive such news.

"I knew you were not from here," he simply remarked. "The hair, your skin, those pale gray eyes." He touched her cheek, held it. "Of course, I thought maybe from beyond the lake--not from within it." He grinned, and she grinned in return. His smile was that way, an infection that was easily caught.

She took him to the lake one day and showed him. "This is the place I fell into your world, on the day of longest sun. It is the only time one can cross that bridge to your world. It is the only day one can even see it, and even then, some cannot see it at all."

She stared down into the water, imagining her own people there. It was still close to longest sun in both places now, and the ice was at its thinnest, so they would keep away at this time of year. All except for Ivana. She had always slunk away to watch the humans for those hours the tunnel was visible. Each year she wondered if she would have the courage to jump once the vision opened into a gate. She wondered until the day she did it.

Still, though she could not see them, she could imagine them--her pack, prowling for food, tussling together, or nestled in a pile to rest. And beyond them, as far as the eye could see, the expanses of ice and snow. Above them, the sky--cold, gray, beautiful in all its shades of light and dark. Within its clouds, the promise of snow. If she were there, the cold would make her shiver with pleasure, but she was here now, and despite her imagination she could feel only the heat.

"Did you mean to do it?" he asked, breaking her from her reverie.

She sighed reluctantly. "Yes. The legends of my people warn us away from the ice on the day of longest sun. They say those who fall through never return. Most will not stray near the lake, not on any day, except sometimes to hunt fish. But I--" She looked down, remembering. "I would not listen. I watched your world, caught up in its beauty, its color, the leaves and flowers growing everywhere. I saw you there. I would watch you--I mean, I would watch your people." She blushed. "I was determined to discover what it was like." She shrugged. "So I came."

He sat beside her now, his fingers touching her knee as he looked into her eyes. "And is it so bad here?"

She looked away. "It is not all bad."

He waited, but she did not continue. "Except?" he prompted.

She looked up into the sky, the brightness of the noon sun burning the air white. "Except that." She pointed upward. "I could not have known, but I should have known. I was warned. From my world, I could see only the colors--and a sky so bright I could barely look at it. But I could not feel it. I could not feel the scorching heat that burns into your core, setting your blood on fire. Every day I wait to see if my skin will melt from the heat, and every day it does not." She held out her hand before her, staring at it in wonder. "I am almost surprised."

He reached gently to grasp that hand and hold it between his. "And I am deeply glad," he said solemnly.

The heat of his hand, still so different from the heat of the air that constantly pressed in on her, rushed up through her skin. She looked again into his eyes, a deep dark brown like the rich soil beneath them. He leaned in, and she closed her eyes. When his lips pressed against hers, a glorious fire burned through her. She didn't mind.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Promise of Snow, part 5

"You've been sick."

Those were the first words Ivana heard when she opened her eyelids, so heavy they felt like stones.

"It's common to traders who come through the jungle for the first time. I'm sorry I didn't think of it when I saw you. I would have insisted you come to the village to be cared for."

She opened her eyes to look for him, and he brushed her forehead with a rag that had been soaked in water. It wasn't precisely cool, but it was more pleasant than much of what she had felt here, and a tentative smile formed on her lips.

He answered her smile with a much wider one of his own. "I'm glad you came before it was too late. Dying of jungle fever, alone and hallucinating, cannot possibly be pleasant." He sat back and appeared to think before adding, "Well, I suppose that depends on the hallucinations."

She chuckled and was immediately surprised by it. It felt so human, not like the laughter of her people.

He chuckled too, reaching up to smooth her hair back as he wiped her forehead again.

She thought to rise, but he stopped her. "No, you should still rest."

And so she did.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Promise of Snow, part 4

She tossed to the left, and the bark from the tree she slept beneath scraped her skin. She twisted right, straining to find a comfortable spot. Everything seemed to sting or burn or stick. Feverish dreams raced through her brain, difficult to comprehend and impossible to ignore. It did not take more than one night of this to realize that something was wrong with her body, more wrong than just her presence in this world. She felt it in the way the lines of the trees seemed to blur and sway even as she stood still. She felt it in the increasing waves of heat flooding through her, even more unwelcome than the heavy heat of the air. When she woke from sleep, her mouth too dry to swallow and her eyes refusing to focus, she knew she needed help.

She had avoided contact with the humans, preferring to prowl rather than interact. As far as she knew, the man Tomas was the only human who had even seen her. She did not relish the idea of entering the village and finally becoming known to the humans, but even less did she want to die alone, here in this miserable world. So she staggered the short path from the lake to the tiny village, swaying as the colors and sounds seemed to grow brighter, then fade, then swell again.

She'd never followed the dirt path to where it led between the houses of the village, where the rays of sunshine filtered down through the leaves of the jungle and left the forest clearing dappled in sunshine. She felt exposed and vulnerable. Eyes seemed to follow her every step. 

A wave of dizziness swept over her, pushing her forward. She knew which house was his from watching the people--there was no need to ask for direction. She also knew the proper greeting, and once she was near his doorway, she clapped. "Tomas?" she called, her voice sounding tinny in her ears.

Immediately he appeared on the doorstep. In one quick look, he assessed her state. He swept forward and picked her up, not bothering to ask permission. The action was none too soon; she'd begun to sway. The lights of the sun dimmed as he brought her inside, but it seemed to dim more than it should have, and it was becoming foggy and patched with black. Strange, she thought, before she could think no more.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Promise of Snow, part 3

This man standing before her hadn't stood out at first when she'd watched them, but she'd grown used to the people she saw, so she recognized him. He often came to the lake on the single day each year that she could look through into this world. He would fill a jar with water and leave quietly. He laughed occasionally, when the play was funny, but mostly he just went about his business. What he did on his other days, she could not know. Up close and in person now, she saw how his earth-colored hair curled softly against his head, slightly damp from the day's rain shower. His eyes, also dark like the earth, were filled with concern. His voice was soothing like a cool breeze across her skin.

Though she still feared him, still feared so many things in this sweltering place, she felt her breathing begin to slow. The sweat that slicked her palms lessened. Her heart stopped racing, and she felt a moment's calm. In spite of herself, she responded to his concern.

"There is nothing that you can do," she said, shaking her head.

Again he reached out his hand, and this time she took it and allowed him to help her to her feet. "I'm sorry. I wish there was." He spoke with a voice she suspected he would use on a wild animal. Not far from the truth, she thought. "Can I at least offer you something to eat?" He stepped away and pulled off a pack he carried behind him. Still watching her carefully, he brought a leaf-wrapped pastry from his pack and showed it to her. "It's not much."

The smell of meat wafted from the leaves, and her mouth watered. Yes, it was cooked meat, but her new human body seemed to wish for that. She had eaten only meagerly since her arrival.

"Thank you."

He nodded and watched as she devoured the pastry. He hesitated before asking, "Are you sure there's nothing I can do for you? You are obviously not from here." He gestured to her skin and hair, so many shades paler than everyone she had seen living in the village. "Are you with the traders who just came through? I can help you find them." When she did not respond, he shrugged helplessly. "You seem lost."

Almost she told him the truth then, a sudden instinct to trust overcoming her. But caution stopped her; she could not speak of her home to a stranger. She shook her head again. "I am lost, but you cannot help me." At this, her throat constricted and she turned away.

When he reached out as if to comfort her, she backed away. She could not accept comfort in this terrible place.

He smiled gently, compassion in his eyes. "I'll leave you, then. But if you need my help, I live in the village, at the end of the main street, across from the well. If you can't find me, ask for Tomas the weaver."

She nodded but did not turn around.

"May I ask your name?"

"Ivana," she whispered.

"Goodbye, Ivana. Good luck." The leaves rustled softly, and by the time she turned her head to watch, he was gone.

She felt more bereft then than she had before, and she sat down again, this time to cry salty tears that mingled with the salt of her skin.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Promise of Snow, part 2

She didn't hear him approaching as she knelt beneath a tree, picking berries that she had seen the creatures, the humans, gather and eat. She was used to keener hearing that would alert her to danger; it was another thing that she could not have foreseen about this strange world--she felt almost deaf, though she was surrounded by sounds. Birds called in the trees, monkeys howled to one another, the underbrush crackled with her every movement. Yet there was a muteness to her hearing now, a loss of the crystal clarity that allowed her to locate a startled rabbit or keep off the creaking ice.

He was standing almost directly over her before she felt his presence. She turned and cried out, a wordless bark, and startled away from him. But her legs betrayed her, and she fell backward, helpless and vulnerable. He followed her quickly, and though it was not her custom to submit without a fight, she cringed before him.

He did not growl, though, or claw or bite. Of course, she remembered, that is not the way of things here. But still, she had seen enough in her prowling around the village that though men did not growl and claw, there were other ways to hurt. She had quickly learned the words for and uses of knives and fists. It was part of why she resisted going there; she did not want to be known to these creatures she did not yet understand. Still, it was not with violence that he approached her. He bent to his knee, his hand reaching out, and she flinched away from him.

"Are you well?" he asked. Ivana had been surprised, at first, to discover how the language of humans came so simply to her. It must have been the magic of the ice gate.

She merely shuddered, and the places where her fur used to be prickled.

He looked at her more closely and seemed to recognize something in her expression, for he did not immediately try to touch her again. "I'm sorry," he soothed, "I didn't mean to startle you."
She'd seen him before. When she was young and had first started watching the humans through the ice, they'd all looked the same, all furless skin and many-colored coverings. Beautiful, breathtaking, but all vaguely the same beautiful. As she came back to the ice each year to watch them, though, she began to recognize the differences. They grew and changed and had personalities, just as her pack did. One with a mane that grew longer and blacker every year. Another who had skipped and laughed one year--but the next year, she came only to drink, and she never smiled. Two who always came together, holding hands and growing old.

She came to know them in a way, those who came to the water, though she did not know their names or all the reasons that they came. To them, the water seemed a place of play. As she'd watched them, she had thought, perhaps naively, that they must be very immune to cold to splash and laugh in the waters. To her pack, water was always potential death. You did not play in it.

Especially not in this lake, the gate lake.

Of course now she knew that their lake was not the frozen expanse that hers was. Water came in all temperatures, and this water--like all things in this sweltering place--was warm. True, it was cooler than the air, but it could not refresh her; it simply added to the constant heated damp. Even the rain here, of which there was far too much, was not cold. It came down from heavy clouds in sheets, forming tiny rivers through the mud beneath her feet. These humans would splash right through it, going on with their days, taking time to play even as the rain poured down on them. And as they'd played, she'd watched, for many years until the day she had finally built her courage and jumped.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Promise of Snow, part 1

Note: The following is a short story I wrote recently, but it's rather far too long for a single blog post. So I'm breaking it up into its multiple scenes and posting each individually. That may also prove to be an unwieldy way of presenting it (since I just realized that makes it a whopping eleven parts!), but since this is an experiment in the first place, too bad. I'll just be posting it day by day until its done. Hope you enjoy.

P.S. Hooray for the website morguefile, from which I gleaned the photos. And no, they don't all fit the story great. But they were free, and quick, and some are gorgeous. Plus, did I mention free?

Ivana hated it here. It had been only six days by the calendar of this world, but already she hated it. Her skin itched; sweat trickled between her shoulder blades. When she reached behind her to swipe it away, these inflexible human arms could not reach the spot. When she scratched, she scraped away the last tufts of her fur, leaving them in a growing heap as if she'd shed not just her skin but her self. And when the fur pulled away, it revealed pale new skin--human skin--soft but still itching.

Her pathetic claws now couldn't even draw blood--another cruelty of her transformation in this world. She would prefer scrapes and blood to this incessant itch.

And the heat. The heat was unbearable. She breathed it in. It sank in through her eyes, slithered around her shoulders and neck like a living thing. There was no avoiding it. She had not known that she could feel this way, did not want to know it now. During the day, she wandered this new place. The vivid colors she had so admired as she stared at them from her own world now felt too bright. She had to squint just to look at the flowers growing in profusion underfoot, pinks and reds and yellows clashing all around her. Above, vines of purple and green climbed up trees so immense she could barely see their tops.

Night brought tantalizing fantasies of the beloved world she'd left behind. She dreamed of frozen places, of the expanses of brilliant white, the ice nearly blinding in the radiance of the cold winter sun. She felt the breeze blow through her fur, across her nose. She howled at the moon. But here in this otherworld--when she woke up, here she was drenched in sweat, the heat a physical weight upon her, pushing her down into the vibrant green moss she slept on.

She was tired and sore and broken down. She should have listened when they told her she did not know what it would be like in the otherworld. They said she'd be alone, that there would be no one to care for her. But still she'd watched through the ice, seen the otherworld reflected in the ice's magic. How could she not be curious? The colors in that image blazed. Home was blue and black and gray and white. Here the colors popped around her, and what had seemed so fascinating and magical from across the ice now seemed only overwhelming, too garish, pounding into her head through her eyes until she closed them and breathed a sigh of relief as she saw home once again in her mind. Soon enough, though, she would have to open her eyes to reality again, a reality that she knew she had chosen.

She believed that knowledge would drive her mad.

Only a day into her sojourn in this land, she'd thrown herself into the lake, flailing through the water, seeking for a glimpse of the gate that might take her back home. She could not see it, so she knew it wasn't open, but she continued to splash anyway, desperate for the gate to appear and swallow her back.

It didn't.

Finally she'd dragged herself back out of the water and dropped to the ground, panting. She would never have gone into the water like that in her world, in her previous body. It would have been death, and she would not seek that end to her torment. After all, there was still hope that there might be a way back. There had to be a way back, and she would look until she found it. She kept that hope like a single snowflake fallen to the ground, careful not to breathe too deeply as she gazed at it--lest it melt away.