The Book of Winter

Caroline Friedel

 

 

A snowstorm howled around the cottage that night like a wild beast on the prowl. Having fed and milked the goat, Lentetje sat with her straw dolls by the fireplace. Her parents’ gloomy whispering filled her with worry. There was so little food left. When she caught the words “goat” and “slaughter”, she covered her ears.

Just then a knock echoed through the cottage. The family turned to stare at the door. There was another knock, more urgent this time.

Lentetje scrambled to her feet and pushed a chair to the door. She climbed up and opened the small lookout window.

Beneath a thick hood, frosty blue eyes the colour of a frozen lake gazed at her. A white beard hid most of the man’s face, but there were dark shadows beneath his eyes. At the sight of Lentetje, his face lit up with a smile.

As she smiled back her father lifted her away from the door and stepped to the lookout. Seeing the old man, he relaxed a bit. He searched the darkness behind the man, but the whirling snow was impenetrable.

“You’re alone?” her father asked.

“Alone, and old and tired. Just looking for shelter for the night.”

“Papa,” Lentetje whispered, “let him in, please. It’s so cold outside.”

Her father’s hand went to the bolt.

“Pieter, again?” Lentetje’s mother twisted her hands together. “We’ve barely enough for ourselves.”

He turned to her. “We can’t leave him in the storm, Lieke. He’ll freeze to death.”

With an apologetic look at her, Pieter shut the lookout and unbolted the door.

The old man stamped his boots, brushed the thick snow from his coat and slowly made his way in. “Thank you, sir. I’m Talvi.”

Pieter pushed the door shut against the wind and snow. “I’m Pieter. This is my wife Lieke. Please, come sit by the fire.”

“Thank you,” Talvi said. “First though…” he lowered his heavy sack to the floor with a sigh of relief, pulled out a bag, and held it up. “Food.”

Lieke took the bag as if it were treasure. When she looked inside and saw the turnips, onions, parsnips, and cheese it held, she drew a breath. “So much. We can’t take this much from you.”

”Don’t worry,” Talvi said. “I’ll soon reach home.”

“Where it will also be needed.”

“They should still be well stocked.”

“Where’s home?” asked Lentetje.

“Lentetje, let him rest,” Lieke told her.

Talvi pulled off his heavy coat and Pieter hung it by the door. With a contented sigh, the old man sank into the chair by the fire and closed his eyes.

Thanking him, Lieke went to prepare a meal and Pieter stoked the fire. Lentetje planted herself cross-legged on the floor before Talvi.

“I’m Lentetje,” she said.

“It’s an honour to meet you,” he said with a small bow of his head.

“Where’s your home?”

“On the far side of the hills. I haven’t been back for years though, not since the end of autumn.”

“Much will have changed, I’m afraid,” Pieter said. ”These long years of winter have left their mark everywhere.”

“That’s what I fear.”

“We were well stocked from the years of summer,” Pieter said. “But if winter doesn’t end soon… ”

“We’d have more if Pieter hadn’t been so generous with our harvest,” Lieke said. “Everyone who laughed at us for stockpiling in summer came begging once winter dug its claws in.” The parsnips danced about under the vigour of her chopping.

“I couldn’t let them starve, could I?”

She said nothing but now the parsnips nearly flew.

Talvi turned to Lentetje and gestured toward his sack. “There is something I carried with me on my travels to the north and back. Would you like to see it?”

Lentetje nodded eagerly, jumped up to get the sack, and dragged it across the floor to him. He drew out a package wrapped in waxed cotton. The whole family looked on as he unfolded it layer by layer to reveal a heavy book bound in blue linen.

The cover said ‘The Book of Winter’ in frosty blue letters edged in silver. On the title page, it was written again, encircled by ice crystals, snowflakes and icicles that shimmered and sparkled in the firelight. Lentetje’s eyes widened. Talvi smiled and turned the page.

Lentetje gasped. A fiery red, violet, and gold sunset was mirrored in the smooth ice of a frozen lake. Behind the lake rose a forest of snow-capped spruces and firs. Talvi turned the page to reveal a vast snow-covered plain, the snow crystals sparkling like diamonds in the winter sun.

“All the ways winter can be,” he said. “Beautiful and terrible. Magical and merciless.”

Page after page, the beautiful images drew them into the book. They saw cottages with fluffy hats of snow and warm light in their windows, frozen waterfalls gleaming in the sun, and savage blizzards. Christmas roses and holly berries, red against the white snow, deer, kestrels, snowfinches and grouse, next to barren, wind-swept ice fields.

They took it all in with widened eyes. When Talvi turned the last page, they were startled to find themselves back in the cottage.

“I wish there were a Book of Spring too,” Lentetje sighed.

Talvi gazed softly at her. “Perhaps there is.”

“She has never known Spring,” Pieter explained. “She was born at the end of the last one.”

“I remember autumn,” Lentetje said. “The trees had leaves like fire, red and orange. I want to see leaves again. And flowers.”

“Spring will return,” Talvi said. “Soon.”

“You can’t know that,” Lieke said.

“But it’s true! As the legends of the North tell, Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter are not just seasons, they are humans as well. And each of them has a book that is the source of their power.”

“Why hasn’t Spring taken their turn then?” Lentetje asked.

“There was a witch, a very powerful witch–”

“Hmm.” Pieter looked sceptical.

     “Truly! She lived far to the north, where on the coldest nights even the air freezes. But she wanted warmth and green living things. So she stole the Book of Spring.”

“Spring should have guarded it!” Lentetje cried.

“Oh he tried. He fought bravely. But he was no match for her and in the end, though she didn’t mean to, she killed him.”

Lentetje hid her face in her hands.

“But she soon found it’s not the book that makes one a season. One must be born to it. When the witch killed Spring, a new Spring was born. But…” Talvi sighed.

“What?” Lentetje asked fearfully.

“A new season is always born well before the old one dies. This new Spring was just a baby. So the other seasons drew out their time while Spring grew, and they searched for the book until they exhausted themselves.”

“Seasons get tired?” Lieke raised an eyebrow.

“Of course. Summer and Autumn did their best, but finally each had to rest. Then Winter searched for years, weariness creeping into his bones. He yearned to go home, but without the book everything would die beneath endless ice.”

Lentetje wrapped her arms around herself. “He has to find it.”

“He has. The witch had it hidden in an ice castle high in the sunless frozen north but he found her. Under the flickering Northern Lights, Winter and the witch fought. She raised ice dragons. He shattered them with hailstorms. She called forth an army of frozen ghosts. He blew them away with a blizzard. She shaped giants out of frost crystals. He brought down an avalanche on them and on the witch. He almost left her to suffocate…”

Lentetje stared at him wide-eyed.

“…but he pulled her free, and built a prison of ice to hold her.”

“Perhaps the ice in her heart will melt if she’s brought to where the seasons change,” Lentetje said.

Talvi smiled. “That’s a good idea for all the Seasons to talk about. But first Winter has to take the book to the new Spring.”

“And then it will be Spring?” Lentetje asked.

“And then it will be Spring.”

“That was a good story,” Lieke said with a smile as she carried the stew pot to the fireplace. “And soon, we’ll have good food.”

 

That night in her small attic bed, Lentetje dreamed of things she had never seen — fat buds unfolding into blossoms and young leaves, soft green grass sweeping the hills, delicate flowers unfurling.  When she woke in the morning, the storm had passed. Through her small window the clear cold dawn sent new light.

She climbed down the ladder to the first floor where her parents slept and then down the creaking steps to the ground floor. The fire had burned low and the armchair by the fireplace was empty. Talvi’s coat and sack were gone and the bolt on the front door was drawn back.

Tears burned her eyes as she looked at the empty chair, then she gasped. On the table — his book!

But no, though it was shaped the same, the colour was a soft green. Was this… She held her breath and looked at the cover.

The Book of Spring’ was written on it in white letters outlined in gold. Inside, the book’s name was encircled by blossoms in soft, bright colours and green vines twined around the letters. She recognized them from her dream! Her fingers shook as she turned the page. It was blank. She searched the whole book. Blank. All blank. Her breath trembled at the edge of a sob.

∼∼  …It can be filled... It was Talvi’s voice, soft and far away.

Lentetje looked around. “Where are you?”

∼∼  …On my way home. If you need me, ask in your thoughts, and I will answer.

∼∼  The book is empty, she thought.

∼∼  …It is for you to fill.

∼∼  I? You mean I… I am… Spring? Her hand shook as she reached out to touch the page. It stayed blank. ∼∼  Nothing happened!

∼∼  …Give it your dreams.

She closed her eyes and in her mind the strange beautiful shapes from her dreams came to life.

A picture formed on the page to the soft scratching of an invisible quill: icicles melting and snow sliding off the roof of a cottage just like their own. She cradled the book and hurried outside. Icicles were dripping in the first warm sun Lentetje could remember.

It would be long before their roof lost its burden of snow, but in her mind and on the next page the retreat of snow began to reveal pale green grass sprinkled with clusters of small white flowers. Their delicate white bells trembled above the melting snow.

“Snowdrops,” she whispered. Her mother had told her about them.

As the invisible quill swept across the page, flowers in yellow, white, and purple unfolded, sketched out petal by petal and leaf by leaf. Blue star-shaped blossoms spread across the green meadow.

With the rush of images appearing in the book, she began to tire. But she knew that as the days passed Spring would spread through the book and the land. She could glimpse it all, in memories she never knew she had and in fleeting images of dreams to come.

     “Blooming trees, green fields wild with flowers,” she whispered. “Hyacinth, daffodil, primrose, bluebell, lilac, peony. Sparrow, stork, rabbit, deer, fox. Fish jumping in lake waters. Dragonflies, bees, butterflies. Warmth, growth, life.”

On the other side of the valley, Talvi looked up. The sun had come out from behind the clouds and its golden rays washed over him and the fields all round. A laugh of joy escaped his lips. He opened his heavy coat, raised his arms and danced slowly in the melting snow.

 

END

 

 

“The Book of Winter”  © Caroline Friedel.  Published 12/23/18
Caroline Friedel is a scientist by heart and by training and currently an associate professor for bioinformatics at the LMU Munich. To date, she published around 50 scientific articles as well as two other short stories: “The Tale of the Storyteller” in the anthology “In Memory: A Tribute to Sir Terry Pratchett” and “The Anthropomorphic Personification Support Group” in MYTHIC Magazine (issue #4).

 

illustration by Fran Eisemann.  Stock images from the public domain, and Alyson, UK “emothic-stock”, for “Bluebells in Snow”

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