He didn’t say anything, not at first. My father just sat down next to me on the step, and put a hand on my back, and let me cry. Tears were part of life, he’d said. He’d seen a lot of them. It was part and parcel of obituaries.
It didn’t feel like a part of life, caught up in the tears as I was. It felt like I was trapped there, miserable feelings coming streaming out of my eyes and dripping down onto my hands and pooling around my shoes. It felt like everyone and everything I ever knew being condemned to a slow frigid death. It felt like it would never end, the tears and emotions just whirling faster until the ice came for me too and then my tears would freeze to my face and my feelings would freeze in my head and I would be stuck in that misery for the rest of forever.
That didn’t happen. The emotions whirled themselves down to a murmur, the tears stopped flowing quite so hard, I blew my nose on my father’s handkerchief. I breathed in, and out, and I felt like I could be human again.
“You okay?” my father asked. He knew the answer already, but it was the thing to say. Just like the study was where the father worked, or that the washing got done on Wednesdays. Simple. Easy. I wanted to cry again.
I didn’t. Instead I said, “I don’t know how to help.”
He rubbed my back and waited for more. I could feel the words building up in my throat, and I tried to put them in some semblance of order before they came gushing out. “Flare, the witch, she wants something, she wants something really meaningful, and then she’ll fix the forge and save the town, and I thought, I figured, she used a charm and I think it was an amber charm on me because I was following her so I thought maybe if I gave her mine she’d save everyone but then she didn’t take it and it’s here and the ice is right there and I don’t know what to do!”
My dad stared off into the ice for a moment. I could see it creeping closer down the road, tree-branching its way inexorably towards me and my dad. I turned and stared off towards the forge. An iron giant, warming the whole town, failing now, and the only person who could save it wanted something I couldn’t give because I didn’t know what it was.
My father said, “There are stories about witches, you know.”
“Fairy tales?” I asked. I’d heard one or two of those. The one which came to mind was one where a witch lived in a massive ice crystal outside of town. One day a man who wanted a gift to win his sweetheart’s love went to see the witch. The witch gave him three tests, or something, and then he got to choose a gift, and he chose something simple, and it turned out to have some sort of immense value. I couldn’t remember the details. It had been a long time since I’d heard it.
“This one isn’t a fairy tale,” my father said. “Just a story. I feel like there’s a grain of truth in it, but you can use your own judgement.”
I nodded, and wiped the tears from my eyes, and listened.
“The story is about a young girl, much like yourself, who loved to explore nature. The world was warmer, then, warm enough that you could venture out onto the ice without needing charms, so long as you dressed in warm clothes and covered your face.”
I pictured it. It was difficult. For as long as I’d known, the cold was a death sentence, no matter who you were, if you didn’t have a charm to ward you against it. Even then, it wasn’t easy to venture out onto the ice. The harvesters were willing to risk it, to bring back ice to drink, but it was a dangerous job. Mother had been a harvester. Father wrote at least one harvester obituary a month.
“The girl lived in a town on a mountainside. The town had no forge, for in those days the chill could be blocked out by a sturdy enough house. The girl, though, longed for the outdoors whenever she was indoors, and one day, she set out to explore the world, and come back to her village with news of what she found.”
I could understand that. There was a world out there.
“She packed food, and clothes, and a tent to pitch, and she went off into the world. Now, in those days, water wasn’t nearly as difficult to gather. It would fall from the sky, in fact, liquid and drinkable, needing no purification. In this way, the girl sustained herself as she walked.”
That was hard to believe. Water from the sky? Where would it come from?
“She walked, and walked, and walked, until eventually she’d walked so far she reached a place where the cold became like our cold. Deadly cold. And the girl could progress no further. She walked anyways, looking to see what she could be missing out on. As she traveled along this boundary she came to a witch living in an old tree, caked with ice.”
A witch! Living alone? Who did she talk to? Who did she rely on?
“The girl knocked on the old tree’s door, and the witch answered. She was a woman as old and gnarled and frost-covered as the tree she lived in, and she asked the girl what she wanted. The girl said she wanted to travel on. The witch said she could help with that, that she could give the girl a gift that made the cold stand at bay, and that would give her a life as long as that of the witch herself, and that would be the key to a whole new world of charms. All she asked was a simple bargain in exchange.”
It sounded too good to be true. Maybe the girl thought that too.
“The witch wanted the girl’s firstborn child. Whenever the girl had a child, and when that child reached its seventh birthday, for seven is a charmed number, the witch would come to collect it. There would be no issue should the girl die before she could give birth, no issue should the girl choose not to give birth. The girl agreed, for she could not imagine staying at home long enough to have a child, much less to raise one to seven years old.”
“The girl agreed, and the witch gave the girl a witch-stone, and with the witch-stone in hand the girl ventured forth, and found many strange things in the distant lands where not it is too cold for any charm to protect from.”
“Eventually, though, the girl grew homesick. She followed the warmer air back to her home village, and there she was greeted by a man that would become her husband, and eventually father her a child. The girl had adventured for so long that she’d forgotten the promise she made to the witch. Her family was happy, but when the child reached her seventh birthday, the witch appeared out of the ice and stole her away, citing the bargain the girl had made.”
“The girl charged out into the wilds again for the first time in seven years, looking for her child, looking for the witch to beg her to give the child back. She wandered, and wandered, heartbroken, searching and searching, but she never found her. She wandered for so long even the witch-stone couldn’t protect her, for nothing lasts forever, and in time the ice came to claim her body, freezing it solid in a canyon a lifetime away from here.”
The poor girl.
“So, beware of a deal a witch makes, for they feel no qualms stealing your body, your lifeblood, and your soul away from you, should you be reckless.”
We were silent for a moment more. I could feel an idea beginning to fit together in my mind. The barest glimmerings of a plan, dancing just at the edge of my perception. Steal your body, your lifeblood, and your soul. These things were valuable to a witch. They were precious in a way other things couldn’t be. Witches, at least in the story, were alone. They had the world at their fingertips, but they were alone.
I rubbed the last of the tears from my eyes, and hugged my father. Flare had come alone. I whispered, “Thank you,” into his ear. He guided me to the dinner table, and prepared dinner for me. Flare was a witch. I ate mechanically. He guided me up to my new bed. I lay down. Flare wanted something proper.
In the darkness, I could feel the pieces begin to fit. My father wouldn’t like it. It was an idea that would break my father’s heart. But better my father be heartbroken than frozen in his study, midway through writing the town’s obituary.
I dreamed of travel.