Tinder — A Flash Fiction Draw Challenge Story

Here’s my entry for the first Flash Fiction Draw Challenge (the post for the original January draw is here, and a round-up post for all the stories I’m aware of that were written is here). In case you didn’t know about this challenge, there’s a video here explaining (and showing the first draw), but the quick version: I used a deck of cards (three suits) to randomly put together a genre (in this case: Fairy Tale), a location (in this case: a prison) and an object (in this case: a tattoo machine) and challenged anyone who wanted to play to write something over the next week, with a maximum of 1,000 words.

My resulting tale was “Tinder,” a queer re-telling of the “Tinderbox” fairy tale, by Hans Christian Andersen.

Flash Draw with Words


“Tinder”

It’s one thing to be poor, another returning from the king’s army poorer still. That was me, before I found myself in prison, awaiting the gibbet.

*

Before I’d heard of prophecy, I’d served my term in battle. I fought witch flameborn beasts as well as any, my survival as much luck as skill, my wounds clear enough proof.

No soldiers escorted me. Wounded, I was sent home without coin for service, instead “rewarded” with freedom, a limp, and terrible memories.

I encountered the witch before I’d made it to my king’s land. We eyed each other, but I bore no armor, and she no flame.

“You’re no soldier,” she said.

“No longer. You don’t fight for your emperor?”

“Were you free to choose to not fight for your king?”

I laughed. “My service…ended.”

“Usefulness, more like.” I noticed only two fingers on her left hand, and her thumb but a stub.

A witch unable to strike a match would ignite no tattoos.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Hm.” She cocked her head. “You have the scent of prophecy.”

“If you say.”

“Come. I have work. Treason, but it pays more than you can use, if you’re wise.”

I was a man unconcerned with kingly approval.

I went.

*

The split in the huge tree was ink black.

“Inside are three beasts. Guardians. But you are not marked as a witch?”

I had no tattoos. “No.”

“Bare your skin for the dogs, show them. They won’t stir. All I ask for is the tinderbox within. It will allow me magic again. The coins you may take.”

*

Three dogs, though “dogs” does no justice. The smallest with eyes wide as saucers, its body scaled to match. Ink black, they guarded three piles of coins; copper and silver and gold, each dog larger than the last.

I gathered the coins first, then the tinderbox in my paltry rucksack. When I took the tinderbox, the three beasts faded. Last I saw their eyes: the largest’s wide as a tower window.

The witch watched me dress.

“The tinderbox?”

I gave it. “I hope this restores your life as these coins might mine.”

“I half worried you would keep it. Or harm me.”

“I’ve learned witches wish to protect their land and emperor.” I spoke treason.

“You don’t know why you fought, do you?”

I didn’t.

“Prophecy. Your king’s son is locked away because the king fears the emperor’s soothsayer.”

I did know the Prince never left his tower. But not why.

She drew a deep breath, and put a hand in her robes. I tensed—betrayal?—but she gave me a vial.

Ink.

“In thanks,” she said.

*

The ink became three dogs etched round my neck by a woman with eyes like the witch and an accent to match. Many escaped war by becoming smaller, hiding among the shadows of the city, out of view of the castle.

The sting of her needles, the thrum of her odd device driving the needles still comes to me some nights when I dream.

*

Without work, the coins I’d gathered went. None offered work to a man as scarred as I. It didn’t matter I was strong, I was a reminder of a war they chose to believe would never reach them.

I walked the city, circling the castle, hoping to find something.

I looked at the tower and remembered the witch’s word: prophecy.

*

Summoning the first dog was an accident: a rare cigar to warm a cold evening. A spark touched my dog low on my neck. Had I worn a shirt, or the match been easier to light, it might never have happened.

The dog crouched low before me, ready to obey.

“Fetch,” I said, not even sure what I intended.

It returned with the prince.

*

He was handsome, schooled, had soft hands, and though he was afraid after the dog drew him through shadows to my rooms, he savoured his brief respite from his tower. We spoke.

Then didn’t speak.

In the morning, he told me of the prophecy that birthed war: the king would beget a son who cared nothing for princesses, who would fall for a man with no work.

I struck many a match on winter nights, and was much warmer for the prince’s company.

*

They found us, eventually. What trickery, magic, or simple deduction I’m unsure, but when they came, there was no escape. To my surprise, my cell was as large as my cheap room, and the cot as comfortable, but I wasn’t allowed cigars, and had no way to barter.

No prisoner is given the simple pleasure of a warm fire.

My former soldiering meant nothing—I knew of the prophecy.

For that I would die.

*

Beyond the gibbet, I see my prince. The king has made him come, of course. To watch as the king would defy prophecy. The proclamation calling for my death is made. I step up to my place.

“Will we grant last request?” The prince’s voice is loud in the nearly empty square. There are few here. The king, queen, prince, and two jailors. Also the black hooded man who will end my life. Is this born of a fear of the king: what if I spoke? What if I told?

The king eyes his son with fury. It’s a soldier’s right.

“Your request?” the prince asks. His eyes are misery.

“A cigar,” I say.

*

The dogs spare the queen, who faints dead away as the first beast tears her husband’s throat. The guards take longer. The black hooded man falls last.

None here learned to fight flameborn beasts.

The Prince’s hands shake while he undoes my binding. The cigar smolders at my feet. My neck burns where I twisted as it was brought to my lips.

“Now we run,” he says.

“Did your prophecy say how this ends?”

He only smiles.

We run.

*

I wonder if anyone will tell our tale true.

Likely not.

 

 

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Five Shillings and Sixpence

This was written for the Renaissance Press Holiday Blog Roll 2017!

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Knocker from Pixabay.

Five Shillings and Sixpence

None of this is right, thought Peter, when the turkey was delivered.

It wasn’t the bird itself, though to be sure there was no way his father could have afforded such a large turkey. It was… everything.

Peter tugged at the collar of his father’s old shirt, standing back while his mother and father and even Tiny Tim exclaimed over the turkey. The address was right on the label. It was for them.

“But who?” asked his mother.

“I think…” Tim said, then paused as though he was reconsidering his words. But he smiled. “I think it was Mr. Scrooge.”

As his parents exclaimed over that particular unlikelihood, Peter eyed his brother and noticed the shadow around Tim had grown thinner.

“Well,” his mother said. “I’d should expect to start now, though I’ll confess I’m unsure I’ve a pot large enough.”

His whole family laughed. An unexpected joy, and on Christmas Day no less?

Peter put a well-practiced smile on his face, and as Tim passed, he rested a hand on his brother’s thin shoulder for a brief second. Tim smiled up at him. Peter, after all, rarely touched anyone.

The shadow was lighter still.

None of this is right, Peter thought again. He bit his lip.

*

“Five shillings and sixpence,” his father said, finishing his announcement.

Peter lowered his head, feeling a swell of pride as his family cheered for his good fortune. It wasn’t much, but the first time his father had told him of the position, Peter had felt the shadows move around him. Most especially? The darkness looming around a lone crutch by the fireplace shifted. Moving further away. Not gone—Peter wasn’t sure he believed there was a way to send a darkness so inevitable away—but further. And further he’d take.

The difference of five shillings and sixpence.

Their meal, later than usual thanks to the morning’s turkey, held a similar sense to Peter. The shadows were drifting away, and they were shifting so quickly Peter had stumbled a few times through the meal, answering the wrong questions and only realizing after that he was having conversations others weren’t. He caught Tim staring at him, and had to stop himself from returning the gaze in kind.

The shadows around Tim were nearly gone.

How?

Surely it wasn’t the five shillings and sixpence. He’d already known…

He remembered Tim’s voice: “I think it was Mr. Scrooge.”

When his father led a toast, and included the man in question, the cries of outrage from his family rang hollow. Peter couldn’t quite join in. He glanced at Tim again, and found Tim looking at him, a small frown on his face.

“Peter?” he said. It was a quiet aside, the sort Tim spoke best. His voice had always been soft and gentle.

“It’s nothing,” Peter said kindly, and Tim turned back to the passing of the cup. But by the time the cup had passed around the table, Peter could barely keep up the pretense. Everything was changing.

And it hadn’t been him.

After the meal, Peter excused himself, wrapped his neck with his muffler, and went out into the snow.

*

It wasn’t just his home, though his home was considerably more affected than many of those around. Peter closed his eyes, recalling how the street had appeared only the day before, and when he reopened his eyes, it was all the more obvious. It was like someone had washed some stones clean from the dark layer of coal smoke that coated them.

And his family’s home was the cleanest.

It wasn’t a real stain, and the real stains were still there, of course, but to Peter’s other eyes, the sight that had opened over the last couple of years, there were shadows he’d gotten used to seeing everywhere.

He’d also gotten used to noticing how he could shift them, ever so slightly. A kind word. A connection. Doing unto others…

He pushed his hands into his pockets, took a moment to consider, and followed the shifting pattern of darkness. The path was hard to follow—as a rook might cross the sky, not how a young clerk-to-be might walk—but he found his way through alleys and crossed narrow streets as he needed until he was facing a graveyard.

Peter had learned to avoid graveyards. Here, often the shadows he could see were thickest yet. Losses, inevitable losses, those not even delayed by the power of five shillings and sixpence, tangled and twisted themselves thickly in places like this.

But this one? To Peter’s gaze, it was almost light. And a single space where there was no gravestone yet placed was brightest of all.

Peter’s breath hitched, a cloud of white tugged away on the cold city wind.

If this much could change, what about him?

He was almost unsurprised by the time he reached Ebenezer Scrooge’s home. It was not a beautiful place, and he’d never have known it in passing, but it all came from here. Every fray in the twisting ropes of shadow, every weakness to the weave of potentials that Peter had been fighting and struggling for the better part of two years began here.

I think it was Mister Scrooge.”

Tim’s voice echoed again. Peter breathed on his hands, unsure what to do now. He couldn’t as well as use the knocker, not if he wanted his father to know nothing of his evening walk.

The knocker.

It, too, was clear of shadow; it fair glowed.

The door opened. Peter started, as did the woman stepping out of the building. She wore a heavy shawl and had her hair tied up and appeared to be a servant. A charwoman, perhaps.

“You gave me a fright,” she said, not unkindly. She laughed. “Merry Christmas, in keeping with the situation.”

“A Merry Christmas,” Peter managed to reply.

The woman, too, was positively alight.

She stepped past him, and Peter nearly let her go, but the words were out before he could stop himself. “May I ask..?”

She turned, waiting.

“Are things…well…here?”

“Young master.” The woman’s smile only grew. “Things have never been so well as they are here. It’s changed, I must say myself. It’s, well, it’s Christmas.” Then, with another “Merry Christmas” from her lips, she was off. Peter eyed the closed door.

Changed, indeed.

Peter went home, wondering if there was change enough for him.

*

By the day after Christmas, it was confirmed. Tiny Tim had been right about the turkey, and more than that, Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge had not only seen fit to give his father more time to be with his family, but a raise as well. Peter stood quietly back as his father exclaimed the virtues of this new Mr. Scrooge, and watched the shadows fairly flee from around their home.

It should have filled him, Peter thought. It should have left him overflowing. But instead, Peter felt a weakness in the place behind his heart, a duller ache than he remembered. There were no shadows in his home to worry about.

Indeed, the world around Peter Cratchit was lightening day by day. The darknesses were retreating. So now there only remained those within his own heart.

For his family, though, Peter smiled and laughed, skills he’d been honing since the first braids of sorrow had started to appear throughout the world.

Those same laughs and smiles he prepared to carry to his first day. Where before he’d felt a sense of pride and minor triumph of delay against a future so determined to take his brother Tim from him, now he knew only uncertainty. It was not five shillings and sixpence shifting the world everywhere he looked. It was Ebenezer Scrooge. He had joined the Cratchit family for a dinner—Peter’s mind still spun at how much brighter the man seemed from all previous glances—and by the end of it, Peter had been hard pressed to find even a shred of ill fortune. He’d even touched Tim’s crutch, a thing he’d long ago learned never to do.

There had been nothing.

And so, as he stood outside where he was to work, he wondered what he could possibly do, who he could possibly be, now the only thing to give him direction had shifted so suddenly and without his being of any usefulness at all.

When a darkness gathered at the corner, Peter turned. A woman was crossing the street, and beside her, a cart was waiting to be unloaded at the warehouse, which blocked her from view. A horse and carriage was coming.

Peter Cratchit cried out as he moved, caught the woman by the arm, and both half-swung and half-pulled her. They fell together, backwards into the dirty snow, but the horse and carriage passed them with room for but a barest breath between.

“I’m so sorry,” Peter said.

“No, no,” the woman said, her voice shaking. “That was nearly my life.”

They rose. The woman eyed him. “I’ve seen you before, I believe.”

Peter didn’t recognize her, but he offered his hand. “Peter Cratchit, at your service.”

“Indeed you were,” she said. She was older than he’d first thought, and only now was it obvious. Still, she was beautiful in that her eyes were kind and her smile was easy. “And that settles where I’ve seen you. You’re the new clerk.”

Peter gestured to the building where he was to work.

She nodded. “My husband’s company. Come. I’ll come in with you, and explain why we’re both so wet. I’d only meant to stop by to see my husband and son.” She winked. “Now, I have a tale to tell.”

Peter gestured for her to go first. Ropes of darkness scattered away from them.

The woman’s husband—Peter’s employer—embraced her despite the wet snow drenching her dress, and kissed her forehead. “My Belle,” he said, his heart obviously full of a deep love. “Never.” He said it again, like it was a vow. “Never.”

“I’m unharmed and well,” she said, though she did not let go of his hand. “Thanks to young Peter.”

“I knew I’d made a good choice,” the man said, and Peter blushed.

He was shown to his desk, and introduced to the man’s eldest son, who would be his companion in the small office they would share. It was cozy, and warmed by a fire. Peter thought of his father’s office, and a small shiver ran through him.

“Are you warm enough?”

“I am,” Peter said. Shadows were fleeing all around him. And these, he knew, had nothing to do with Ebenezer Scrooge. A future that had almost been, thanks to a horse and carriage, was instead never to be. And he’d done that. Peter himself. “Thank you. I was just thinking of…something else.”

“Oh?” His companion asked it with genuine interest.

“I’m afraid I can be overconcerned with the future,” Peter said.

“That seems wise to me.”

“Does it?”

“The grasshopper and the ant,” his companion said.

Peter nodded. “Yes. In a way.”

“Join me for dinner.”

Peter blinked, surprised. “I…” He wasn’t sure what to say.

“By every account, you saved my mother’s life today. It seems only fair I treat you to a dinner. You’re a working man now, Peter Cratchit, and we working men might as well be friends.”

Peter looked at him. Really looked. Despite the man’s smile, and the brightness of his voice, something familiar lay between them. It took a moment to find the twisting dark behind his heart. Worry. Fear. A hopelessness. A future alone, because…

Because.

But no. Even as he watched, a tiny piece frayed and drifted away.

Something familiar indeed.

“I would like that very much,” Peter said. Another fray.

For just a moment, Peter Cratchit thought of Old Mr. Marley. He wasn’t sure why, but the thought of the man, who’d been so close to Mr. Scrooge even before his father had worked for him, was as clear as day. He’d met the man only once.

He shook his head. Overconcerned with the future. But it occurred to him to wonder what Mr. Scrooge might have been like had Mr. Marley been alive longer. Had Mr. Marley perhaps had the chance to see the shadows Scrooge could have undone, and what that might have meant.

Peter dipped his pen into the inkwell.

There was no way to know, of course. And it was a strange and random thought. Mind, graveyards, door knockers, charwomen… It had been a strange and random week, all told.

“I do look forward to being friends,” Peter said.

His companion smiled.

They got to work.

Flash Fiction — End of a Thread

Earlier this week, I mentioned I had three flash fiction pieces thanks to taking part in the NYCMidnight Flash Fiction contest, and shared the first of the three. Today, the third story comes to play. Now, this was where I ended my journey in the contest, as I did earn an honourable mention, but only the top stories moved on into the final round.

That said? For this round, I wasn’t confident. I was given the genre of “mystery,” something I rarely touch, and scissors and a pasture. It’s possible I could have perhaps done better had I not gone to a queer and non-contemporary place with the story, and the judges’ feedback was pretty clear: they weren’t very keen on me pushing “mystery” to intersect with Greek mythology.

I do like the piece though, and like I said, honourable mention was granted.

When his last mortal friend dies in a pasture, Ganymede finds the scissors of Atropos and realizes he is witness to a murder. The motive seems clear: there is one goddess with very good reason to punish him for stealing her husband’s attention, but how can a mere immortal cupbearer find justice among the gods themselves?


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Image from Pixabay.

End of a Thread

On the hillside where I was snatched away, I visit my last mortal friend. He tends a flock of cattle, and though my opportunities to visit him are rare and he is already changed compared to me, I treasure him. Together we often laugh and speak of simpler times, before I became cupbearer to the gods.

I walk through the pasture. My immortal talents part the animals for me. I feel a pull on my heart and turn, expecting to see my friend waiting. But he’s not there.

A few hesitant steps reveal my mistake. He is there, but he is not. He lies in the pasture, eyes closed, one hand still holding his walking stick, his legs curled beneath him.

It isn’t sleep.

I weep. He was mortal, as I am no longer, and I knew this day would come, but he is barely a man grown, not even a father. Nothing marks him, no reason for his stillness. It makes no sense.

My eyes—changed by my immortal state—catch a glimpse of light.

Beside him in the grass, there are scissors. I lift them.

Their weight is not earthly. I bear the cups of the gods. I know when I am holding something of theirs.

This is not death, then.

No, this is murder.

*

I remain in the pasture; I also go elsewhere. It is a gift of immortality, but not one I use often. It is tiring, and it’s difficult to concentrate on two selves at once.

But a dead friend needs little attention.

They are together. My lover and his wife are speaking, and so before I am noticed—before I even exist among them—I deflect, and step aside.

And I realize.

I am by no means the first to capture his attention, nor am I not so vain to believe I will be the last. But my position is cupbearer. Lover.

My position is not wife.

If a thing of the gods struck down my one mortal friend, then surely the motive is godly, too.

Hera.

If it be so—and it must—then what can I do? Even with this loose thread, what justice can I unravel from this tapestry? What proof is there?

Threads.

Of course.

*

I am standing in a pasture with the cool, still body of my friend; I am elsewhere again.

“May I ask you a question?”

If she of wisdom and war is surprised to have the cupbearer speak to her it doesn’t show. “You may.”

“Atropos. How does she know when it is time?”

Athena is silent long enough that I wonder if she won’t answer. She only granted me permission to ask, after all.

“Is that the right question?”

I pull out the scissors. In Athena’s gaze, they glimmer.

“No,” I say.

It is a hard thing, I think, to embody both knowledge and destruction. She has grace many of the others do not, and I think it is born of this.

“Perhaps, cupbearer, I am not the one to ask.”

*

I am standing in a pasture with the cool, still body of my friend; I am elsewhere again.

Facing the three women takes every ounce of courage I have. I, who bear cups to the gods, who by my lover’s act will never meet the eldest of the Moirai, can barely raise my chin.

Clotho’s gaze is curious. Lachesis’s holds compassion.

But Atropos merely waits. Were she angry, or sad, I wouldn’t be able to speak.

I raise the scissors. “Yours, I believe.”

She takes them, and while I stand there—and elsewhere—she gathers three strings from Lachesis and shears them, wraps the lose end around the spindles and places each in the shadows behind her.

“I don’t understand,” I say.

“Do you not?” Her voice is a caress of shadow and rest.

“Why strike him down?” My voice breaks. “Why now?” It’s an unfair question. Atropos knows the measure of every life. She does not have to share how with a mere cupbearer. She answers only to fate.

Except… Except no. Not just fate.

Athena’s words: the right question.

“Why leave your shears behind for me?” My voice grows weak.

“So that you might ask,” Atropos says. She snips another thread. “That you might ask me, Ganymede.” Another. “Thank you for their return. It is agreeable to have met you. Now go.”

*

I am standing in a pasture with the cool, still body of my friend; I am elsewhere again.

The first words I ever say to Hera become this: “I’m sorry.” There are ways to speak as immortals, to include more than words. I think I do this, too, for the first time. She sees the pasture where now the sun is low, and she sees my suspicions of her as they were born—and as they have died, as surely as if cut by Atropos’s scissors.

She does not look at me. She does not speak to me. It’s possible she never will, and in this immortal place, never has weight.

But Hera nods. The slightest inclination of her chin. She has heard me. Perhaps she understands me, perhaps even forgives me—though whether for considering her as murderer or for my mere existence catching her husband’s eye, I do not know.

*

I fill his cup, as always. His smile for me is as full of his love and lusts as ever, and even as I stand in the pasture, waiting for someone to notice my friend is missing, to notice he is gone, to come and learn he has ended, that look warms me to my very core.

I have the love of a god. It is magnificent. It lifted me to immortality.

I step away from where the gods feast, from he who snatched me from a pasture and made me his forever.

From the only one who could order Atropos. From the only one she must obey.

And I know.

Zeus.

He will not share me.

 

Flash Fiction — Pine Puppet and Candlewick

A couple of days ago, I mentioned I had three flash fiction pieces thanks to taking part in the NYCMidnight Flash Fiction contest, and shared the first of the three. Today, the second story gets its turn. Now, for this round, I felt way, way more confident. I was given the genre of “fairy tale,” and the objects of an abandoned railway car and a ticket stub. I love doing queer retellings of stories, so I took a look through a list of fairy tales and found Pinocchio waiting for me. I placed first in my group with this story.

As is so often the case, fairy tales get told the way the teller wants them told, not necessarily how they were. Candlewick, who knew a certain real boy, tells his tale of the village carver, a puppet who danced, a lady in blue, a train and a ticket to a magical land, and how a cricket’s voice changed everything for everyone.


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Photo from Pixabay.

Pine Puppet and Candlewick

They say our story means be good and don’t lie, but it’s really be like us or be quiet.

I’ve no idea why I’m made a donkey. I promise we had no coins to plant.

But maybe I should start at the start, like they do.

*

Once upon a time there was a carver who already had a real boy, but that boy struggled at most things. The carver loved him, so he carved a solution: braces and crutches, bound with strings and straps.

Folk called him Pine Puppet because of those straps and ropes and the scent which followed him. They weren’t cruel exactly, but rarely kind. Pine got left behind, like me. Me they mocked for being the mean chandler’s boy—burned little Candlewick—but him?

Pine was their puppet, dancing for them so they’d be nice a while.

*

Nights I’m bravest I visit the railway. Sometimes it’s there: our railroad car. The paint peeled, lanterns unlit, and rabbits build nests for their kits in the torn seats.

I listen to the crickets.

And hope.

*

Pine wasn’t disobedient or mischievous. Him kicking his father in the story was an accident of tightened straps, not malice. Sure, his nose was pointed, but Pine didn’t lie. He kept secrets though, like how he felt about boys who could run, jump, and play more than he ever would.

He wasn’t jealous. Not of Fox or Cat or even Magpie, with his unfortunate name.

No, Pine adored them boys.

Which of course was the problem.

I met Pine when I was done working and my father had sent me home with a kick to my back and a snarl for my dinner. I had wax on my sleeves, burns on my skin, and a rare afternoon to myself. I was young enough to know what I wanted, but not old enough to believe I deserved it to happen.

That’s when I saw Pine, smiling and planning his party.

And he invited me.

*

The fairy—it makes me laugh, even now—was no blue-haired pixie. She was a weaver riding the rails, bringing stories, shawls and dresses in equal measure. She wore blue, which I suppose is how it got confused. She didn’t have magic.

Just knowledge.

When other boys played outside the market, Pine watched. She understood his gaze, telling him about the train and a party in a village where different might not only be good, it could be forever. She’d heard it so from the crickets, who repeated all things people said from everywhere, if you knew how to listen.

People like her, Pine, and me? Talked about more than to?

We know how to listen.

*

I had wax on my sleeves, burns on my skin, and aches for something I couldn’t have. And then, suddenly, wonderfully, Pine Puppet. Coming from the rails. He moved quickly despite his straps, strings, and wood.

“Would you come to a party?”

I fell in love with him on the spot.

We walked hours while Pine invited the other boys.

They refused. Some laughed and asked him to dance first. He danced. They turned him down.

“I’ll miss dancing for them,” he said.

It broke my heart, so newly given to him.

“You’ll come with me?” At least a dozen times he asked as I walked him back to his father, who was so poor he and Pine were rail thin.

I promised.

“I’ll get tickets tonight,” he said.

*

He traded a school book for two tickets marked “Toylund Return Fare.”

I worried. Weasels preyed on simpletons near railways, offering rides to places that didn’t exist for good coins before scarpering.

“It will just be us,” he said.

I kept my ticket in my pocket, by my heart.

“Tonight,” he said.

My father was furious I was once again late. It took long hours to finish my final chores. I smelled pine everywhere, despite the wax on my sleeves. When I heard my father snore, I left a note and fled.

The train waited. It was an impossibility: no engine, only a string of railroad cars one after another, each painted brightly. It had overstuffed seats, and lanterns danced like fireflies. More people were on board than I expected, none familiar.

But so many like us.

Pine was waiting.

We climbed on board, sitting together, afraid and excited like everyone else. When he reached for my hand, I tried to hide my burns. He unrolled my fingers.

“Candles bring light and warmth,” he said. “There’s few things as good.”

The train left.

*

The stories saying Pine was a puppet who wanted to be real and didn’t know how to be good? Not true. We were always real. And Pine was the best person I ever knew from the start. Maybe the storytellers are jealous. Together we were happy. We had a place with each other, every night held laughter, each morning a smile, and days—even ones we worked hardest—worthwhile.

Yes, we worked. Toylund was a village, and even elsewheres and elsewhens have crops to plant, raise, and reap, and candles to dip.

But in Toylund someone kissed my fingers each night.

After many months of singing, laughter, kisses, and love, a cricket chirped near my pillow. It talked of a chandler. He was ill, couldn’t make enough candles to sell, and wished he hadn’t been brutal to his son, who’d fled.

Crickets aren’t cruel. They mindlessly repeat what they’ve heard. We couldn’t unhear it.

Beside me, Pine reached into his pocket and pulled out his ticket, cut neatly in half.

“Use mine,” he said.

*

Sometimes I board our railroad car and close my eyes.

I hear laughter and feel kisses where wax burned the scars into my hands.

Someday, when father is gone and no one needs me? I’ll come here. I’ll bring my ticket stub. That’s why Pine gave me his.

I hope it’s enough to bring me back to Toylund, to what matters most.

My Pine and his Candlewick.

Reflection

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Soap Bubble, from PixaBay.

I only know my own part, but that’s all any of us can say. But before I begin, I need you to understand one thing above all: I was rescued twice, not once, but I was never kidnapped.

But I should start at the beginning, which I guess is the garret.

For most people, if you live in a garret you get two views. One is the view through your window, where you can see the whole city, up high like a bird. The other is the way people view you, which is the complete opposite. Us poor people lived in the garrets, where even as young as I was when all this began, I had to duck down on one side of our room so I wouldn’t hit my head on the slope of the roof.

And in my case, I had a third view but it had barely started. A glance in water, a moment in front of the small mirror my mother kept, or catching a glance at the side of a teapot.

But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

I did have a grandmother, but I lived with my parents and brothers, too, all of us in our two rooms with one window, but if people talk about my family they only talk about my grandmother. I had friends—we garret kids had the top set of stairs to ourselves, after all—but mostly there was Gerda.

Gerda didn’t live in my building. Her family was in the one next door, but if I scarpered out my window I could climb into hers, and between the windows her papa built a box where my grandmother grew vegetables, some herbs, and sometimes even a flower or two.

They weren’t roses. You don’t grow roses in garret flower boxes.

I guess that’s the first thing you’ve been told that’s wrong. They were pansies. And it’s more important than you’d think. Pansies are tough.

It took me quite a while to figure that part out for myself.

 

*

 

It was my grandmother that told me about the Queen of the Snow. When winter came, and the last of the things that grew in the box were gone, she’d tell me stories by the light of the window, or read to me from the only book we had in our rooms. My parents worked most of the day—my father chipping away deep in the stone of the earth, my mother keeping one of the great houses fed without being seen. Two of my brothers were already working with my father—I imagined that would have been me, too, if not for everything that would come—and my third brother was out selling, carrying his tray-box around his neck and stomping his feet in the cold.

My brothers always looked at me like I’d done something wrong being born last. Like somehow, staying home with my grandmother and holding the yarn while she knitted, or cleaning the floors while she cooked up a stew from bits and pieces was a great life they’d missed out on for having been born before me.

Me? I watched them climb down all the stairs every day and go out into the city and walk through the streets and thought they had freedom.

We were both wrong. They were no more free than I was, they just got a different view and had more people to talk to.

I should say my Grandmother never meant to be cruel. When they say she loved me, I suppose in her way, in a fashion, she did. Same with Gerda, really. But there’s love and there’s love. So when my grandmother warned me about the Snow Queen, she thought she was doing me a good deed.

 

*

 

I heard the same stories year after year—my grandmother only had so many—but when frost started to draw patterns on the glass of our window, that was usually when I’d hear about the Snow Queen. The frost reminded her, I think.

“She’s a queen like bees in their boxes have queens, my boy. You have to watch the snow. Sometimes what seems white and pure and delicate isn’t—that’s her.”

My grandmother would trace her finger on the glass, pressing it against the surface until the frost melted.

“Watch for the snow. Sometimes it’s not snow. When you see the snowflakes gathering in the light make sure they’re not hers. They’re more like bees, my boy. Like bees made of ice so sharp and fit to cut you like glass.”

After that, she’d knit for a while in silence, and I’d watch the ball of yarn grow smaller and smaller until the candles grew dim and it was time to start the evening tea, and I would go down all the stairs to fetch water or sweep the room and after I’d look at the frost on the window and wonder about bees made of glass.

“Beware her kisses, my boy. One kiss and you’ll be as cold as she is, two and you’ll be as heartless, and if you allow a third…” Here she would pause, and look over her glasses at me. “A third is death.”

That winter, the winter they talk about, I barely slept. I lay by the fire in my blankets, shivering with a cold that had little to do with the drafts of an attic room. My grandmother had started to ask about my friendship with Gerda.

My eldest brother would soon be married, and he would leave us in spring.

I knew what she was asking, and I knew I couldn’t answer.

I gave up trying to sleep and paced the small room, wishing the movement and stoking the fire would warm me inside where the cold of fear was settling. To the window. Back again. In the other room, the rest of my family slept. I tried whispering rhymes to myself—Gerda had a silly rhyme about pansies she liked to sing to me—and sometimes that would help.

But that night it didn’t.

The cold inside me only grew worse the more I thought about the days ahead.

So I went to the window.

It was just a glimpse. A woman, tall and beautiful, in a cloak as white as freshly fallen snow. She was walking through the street, and the angle between the two buildings from our garret window meant my glimpse was brief.

But she turned, and she met my gaze.

Her smile seemed kind.

I pulled away from the window, went back to my bed by the fire, and pulled the cloth over my eyes. I should have been terrified.

Instead, for the first time in months, I finally felt warm.

That night I realized I liked the stories of the Snow Queen better than the ones from the book, which so often made my insides twist, desperate and terrified, even as my grandmother swore we’d all be welcomed in paradise. She said she knew our hearts, and we were all worthy.

I knew better. I only had to see a mirror to be reminded.

And I knew better than to say so.

 

*

 

For all the warnings my grandmother made in winter, it was in summer it began. I had brought a bucket to the plant box between our garret windows and Gerda had a picture book. I don’t know where she got it, but it seemed like a very beautiful thing to me. There were dancing ladies and men in great coats and so many birds.

I was using a ladle to water the plants. If that seems silly, understand: if I could, I didn’t want to have to go get a second bucket of water and carry it all the way up all the stairs to the garret. With a ladle, I could be careful, and water each vegetable enough with just one bucket.

“Look at these two,” Gerda said. She pointed to a group of pipers, each man playing music. Her voice was hushed, as though she was telling me a secret.

I looked at the picture. Two of the pipers were holding hands.

Heat and cold warred inside me, despite the summer day. I opened my mouth to say something, glancing down at the bucket, and I saw Gerda’s reflection.

She was recoiling from me, pulling away and shaking her head. Disgusted, or afraid, or just pitying. It was hard to tell on the surface of the water, but I was sure of one thing: like every reflection I happened to look into, it was telling me a truth.

It was a warning.

“It’s a terrible thing,” I said, meaning one thing, but knowing Gerda would hear another. She gave me a little nod and closed the book, and helped me water the rest of the vegetables.

I watched as every ladle lowered the water in the bucket. Gerda seemed to get further and further away.

“Gerda,” I said, before there wasn’t enough water left to show her face. “Are we friends?”

She smiled at me. It was a sunny smile, as warm as the day. “Of course we are.”

Her reflection shook her head.

I poured the last of the water into the garden. The pansies were bright and pretty, even though the wind had been strong for days many were a little beaten down. I wished I had half the courage they had.

 

*

 

It was easy to catch my grandmother’s reflection, too. Between the basin where we washed the dishes, and the small mirror in the garret, it just took a little forethought. When I allowed myself to think of myself as I was, and whisper a word out loud, her reflection would turn from me. Or raise both hands to the heavens, pleading and afraid. Or weep.

That was the worst.

After, I kept my own counsel, and I tried to avoid anything that reflected, but it wasn’t always possible. My grandmother noticed. So did Gerda. And my grandmother even noticed how little Gerda and I spoke, and that gave her more concern.

“Have you argued?” she asked me, one autumn afternoon.

“No, grandmother,” I said. I was always respectful. I did nothing to give her any reason to worry about me. But I knew it couldn’t last forever. Her face was full of concern.

“Good,” she said, but I knew she felt it was anything but. Her stories turned to tales of those who didn’t allow love in their hearts, and the various cataclysms befalling them. Every story seemed to begin with someone who lost love from their heart and become cruel, and ended with someone who loved them bringing them back from some dark place.

I learned to close my eyes when I passed the garret mirror, and keep my gaze above the water when I washed plates or watered the plant box.

 

*

 

By winter, the tales my grandmother told were once again of the Snow Queen, and I was barely sleeping. I could not find enough blankets, and I singed myself by sleeping too close to the fire. Nothing thawed the fear every mirror, window, or pool of water revealed to me: if they knew, they would turn away.

And worse, I knew if would eventually be when.

After a particularly heavy snow, and a productive morning, my grandmother suggested I go outside with my sled. I knew she wanted me to go with the others my age, and especially Gerda, but I took her to her word and no further and carried my sled outside by myself. Between the fear in my chest and the snow that was still falling, I was soon chilled through, though I did ride down the slope of the lane a few times.

It was there, at the end of our lane, I saw the carriage sleigh. It was beautiful: its wood painted white, trimmed with fur and bells and somehow stately in a way I couldn’t explain. And on it, as though she were waiting for me all this time, was the beautiful woman herself, in her white furs and smiling her kind smile for me.

Children would hitch their sleds to carriage sleighs like this, to have a ride. But this was her carriage sleigh, and I looked around and saw no other children and the snow in the air seemed to swirl in and on itself in little circles, less like snow and more like bees.

My grandmother’s warnings conjured nothing. I should have been afraid. I shivered, but it was not born of fear of this woman.

I tied my sled to the carriage sleigh, and her smile stole any shred of worry I might have had.

The ride out of the city was incredible. There were no crowds of people in our way. Everyone seemed to step aside just in time, and I found myself laughing as the snow itself blew into people’s faces and made them turn, or twist, or pause. We flew through the streets, and when we came to rest outside the gates, I was panting from laughter.

I untied my sled, and went to thank her.

The woman on the carriage sleigh was no longer just a beautiful woman in white fur. She had cast aside her fur coat, and beneath she wore snow and ice gathered like a fine gown. Her eyes were the palest blue I’d ever seen, and I could see my own reflection in them.

And just for a second, I saw myself smiling, and happy.

“You are the Snow Queen,” I said.

She nodded once. “I am.”

“Are you here to hurt me?”

Those pale blue eyes filled with a sadness so familiar I ached for her. “Do you think I am?”

I shook my head.

“Most people can’t see me,” she said.

“I see things,” I said. “In mirrors. In glass. In water. In…”

“Ice?” she said.

I nodded. “Reflections.”

“You see a person’s heart, then?”

“I think so.” I swallowed. “Yes. Truths, I think. Words in my head make truths in reflections.”

The Snow Queen waved her hand, and snow whirled in a circle beside us, a swarm of flakes that wove the air itself into ice so perfect and smooth I could see both of us on its surface.

“And what do you see of me?” she asked.

I looked at the reflection, and I allowed myself to imagine telling her more of myself. Not just of the things I could see in mirrors.

In the ice, the Snow Queen opened her arms in welcome, and I stepped into her embrace.

“I do not love,” I said. “Not as they want me to.”

When the Snow Queen embraced me, she kissed my forehead. And finally, the cold fear that had lived inside my heart was gone. My grandmother was right: I was as cold as she was.

It was just that she wasn’t cold at all.

“They’ll never understand,” I said. It wasn’t a question.

And so the Snow Queen kissed me again.

I was not made heartless, either. The second kiss drew a distance in my thoughts and memories, though, and a clarity to know I could not be what they expected. It wasn’t heartlessness. It was understanding that some hearts could not be pleased.

Enough understanding to know it was time to leave.

 

*

 

There was indeed a magic in reflection, and I could touch it. The Snow Queen took me to her palace, tucked away in the northern woods where snow and pines reigned around us in a peaceful and beautiful rest. She had friends, people like us, who would visit a while from time to time, but mostly she lived alone, content and happy with her own company.

She took me to a lake frozen mirror perfect, and began to teach me.

“I work with snow and ice and memory,” she said. “You work with words, reflection, and potential. I’m not sure how much of what I know might guide you, but for me, it always comes to a thought—a word as a truth—and the magic takes the rest.”

It was like that for me, too. I had only to imagine words of truth on my lips, and I could see the reactions that those words would bring in the reflections of those around me, but to do so with a purpose beyond discovering how others would react?

We started with simple things.

The Snow Queen would speak of winter, and for her, the snow would shift and twist and fly around in squalls about us, covering the world in a layer of white that no longer left me cold.

And so I spoke those words, and beneath us, the surface of the lake showed me winters around the world, where people woke and shared greetings, or where those who were alone would gaze out upon the snow-covered beauty of the season, and perhaps see something in it worth knowing. And, a few times, I even saw others like us—a valiant antlered deer who seemed to be fighting off wolves with a blazing light, and a woman who could pull time taught and hold it steady, and a young slight man who drew patterns of frost on every surface he touched with his bare hand—and I knew that even in the simplest words and truths there was much to learn.

I would often spend the whole of the night outside, for it seemed to me that the reflections I saw in moonlight were different from those in sunlight, and besides which, I had no fear of the cold thanks to the Snow Queen’s first kiss.

If I was not happy, it was not that I was unhappy.  If I was alone, it was worth saying that I was not lonely. The Snow Queen would visit, and she would see what words I had uncovered, and often join in for a while to speak them herself and see what, if anything, they would do when she used them.

When I said “home” under the sunlight I saw my family, who believed I had drowned in a river. When I said “home” under the moonlight, nothing would appear beyond swirls of light and colour.

When I said “escape” under the sunlight I could watch myself hitch my sled to the Snow Queen’s carriage sleigh, and ride off to the freedom I now enjoyed. Under moonlight? The same word showed me myself, sitting on the lake, speaking word after word, trying to find the right one.

One morning, the Snow Queen came to me, and draped a beautiful white cape across my shoulders. I tied it closed. “Thank you,” I said, though I was confused. “It’s lovely.”

“It’s a day for giving gifts,” she said, and I realized just how long I’d been working my magic on the lake.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I keep thinking there is a word I’m missing. Something I could say that would show me where in the world there is a place for those like me.” I smiled at the Snow Queen. “And yet here I sit, in a place you’ve brought me to that is place enough.”

“This is mine, and it is perfect for me,” the Snow Queen said. “But for you? I’m not sure. I think you’re right. There’s a word you still seek.”

“I’ll keep trying. But, for you?” I gestured to the lake beneath us. “Gift,” I said.

I kept my eyes away from the ice, for it felt private, but seeing the joy that crossed her face at whatever it was she watched play out beneath us a gift in and of itself. Her laughter made beautiful snow zephyrs dance around us.

“You’re talented,” she said, once the vision had ended. “Perhaps tonight you will join me for a dinner?”

I said that I would, and I did. But come the morning, I returned to the lake and the hunt for my words.

And just before sunset game Gerda.

 

*

 

“The pansies wouldn’t die,” Gerda said.

She stood facing me. I had no idea how long she had been there, watching me conjure magic from the reflection in the lake, but when I finally saw her, the expression on her face was exactly as I’d seen it in the bucket. Disgusted. Afraid.

Well.

Now she knew, and I knew I’d been right not to tell her.

As victories went, it was hollow.

“How?” I said.

“The pansies… and then I went… I went to see a woman. She… She was like you, but I thought, to save you, it was worth the risk… She tried to stop me, but the pansies, again…” Gerda was shaking her head. “They broke through and I knew it meant you were okay.”

A coach stood by the edge of the lake. I hadn’t even heard it approach. It must have been how she’d come here. I never did find out if the thing about the Prince and Princess was even a little true, but this much was: her adventure had served her well, even if my “rescue” was not at all to be at her hand.

And she did look so fine, dressed in beautiful winter clothes. She couldn’t feel the cold in those layers of beautiful cloths and furs.

“Aren’t you cold?” she said. It was like she was reading my mind.

“No,” I said. “It’s part of…” I bit back the words. “It’s part of all of this.”

“Will you come home?”

“Home.” I repeated the word, and the magic of it escaped me. Beneath us, the lake showed us my family in their garret, gathered for a meal. Gerda gasped, stepping away from me, her eyes on the magic.

And then the sun set, and the lake changed to the swirls of light instead.

“Why are you doing this?” Gerda said. Then, angrily, “Why are you like this?”

Snowflakes began to swirl around the edge of the lake. The Snow Queen, protecting me.

“Gerda,” I said, not sure what else to say.

“Come home with me,” Gerda said. “Come back to us. We’re your family. We love you.”

“Say that again,” I said.

Gerda frowned, but repeated herself. And when she said “We love you,” I caught her words and let the magic free.

Beneath us, she saw the truth of her words reflected in the ice. She saw my grandmother weep and pull away, my brothers full of scorn and spit, my mother turn her back, my father’s anger… And her own disgust.

“It’s not true,” she said, shaking her head. “We do love you. If you just free yourself from her. From what she’s done to you.”

Around the lake, the snow swirled faster.

“She rescued me,” I said.

“No!” Gerda stomped her foot, as if wishing her fancy new boot would break the ice and drop us into the frigid water deep beneath. “No, you are not… This isn’t you. You’re not…”

“A pansy?” I said.

She turned away. “You don’t have to be.”

“But I am,” I said. “And I always will be.”

The ice beneath us filled with the swirling light again, so bright that the snow swirling around the lake seemed like lace curtains in motion. Gerda took my hand, frightened.

“It’s okay,” I said. I tried repeating the word that had set the magic in motion. “Always?” The light flared. It wasn’t quite the right word, but it was of a family with the one I’d been seeking all along.

Gerda was crying now.

“It’s okay,” I said. She buried her face in my shoulder. I tried another word. “Forever?”

Closer, still.

“Please don’t,” Gerda said. “Kai. It’s like her. It’s the snow. It’s the Snow Queen!”

“It’s not,” I said. It was so close. Almost the right word. I could rescue myself, I could find the way to a home, if I just got it right. “It’s not her. It’s me. It’ll always be me. Forever. It’s…”

“Kai!”

Eternity.”

Light again, a moment between breaths, and then we saw all the places where I belonged.

 

*

 

In the story you were told, we came back together changed, adults in the space of the fallout of a single magical word. And I suppose, if you look at what happened a certain way, that might be true for me at least. But it took me time to go to all the places I saw, and it took me a bit longer to figure out what it was I was looking at.

And Gerda went home without me.

The lake showed me a pretty house in the woods, planter boxes on the windows, but also a row of stone houses in a city much bigger than the one where I’d grown, each colourful door with a basket hanging above. And a farm. And some docks lined with barrels. And so many gardens, one even by a palace.

I thought one of those places might be where I belonged, and so I went to them. It took days, then weeks, then months. I grew stronger, and taller, and in each of those places my magic was welcomed by one or two people, and I used it to help them speak truths and see things they didn’t yet know.

And I would say the word “Eternity” and I would see all the places I had been already before the rest. Sometimes the order was different. Sometimes some of them were gone, replaced by others. It was a different kind of riddle, but as I traveled, I met others like myself.

It’s possible you’re wiser than I, and have spotted what it took me years to notice myself.

The pansies.

Pansies in flower boxes or baskets. Pansies on the hillside of the farm. Pansies on the docks. Hardy things, those flowers. And they’re everywhere. They make it even when the wind breaks them down. They bloom, and grow, and thrive wherever they can.

It’s possible all the various mirrors who’d shown me where I needed to go to find a home where I could belong could have been a bit more clear, but, well.

They reflect. It’s what they do.

People come to my home from all of those places: the city where I was born, the farms, the row of stone homes, villages, and ships. Over water or glass I help them find the words they need, and outside, I hang a mirror. Each morning I stop, face it, and say the word.

Eternity.

The mirror is there for people who need it. People who need to look and see a truth they might not know themselves.

There have always be those like us.

There always will be.

And where we belong?

Everywhere.

You’re tougher than you think.

Just like pansies, children who live in garrets, and the Queen of the Snow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frost

It wasn’t a magic hat, and it certainly wasn’t about laughing and playing—though there is dancing—but if you’ll let me, I promise there’s a story worth telling.

It’s not just about the snowman, either. Or the magician—who, by the way, was a woman, not a man, but that should surprise none who’ve watched how history is shifted as it is passed along.

Mostly? It’s about a man who most considered a boy.

He was a man, though, and that’s important to know. They called him Little Jay, and it was not a compliment to deny him even his first full name. He was scrawny instead of strong, short instead of tall, and took so much after his mother that his father would routinely tell others at the pub that his wife must have made Little Jay all on her own.

Certainly, he was of no use to the man, who was a woodcutter and a carver and who had five other strong sons who learned his craft and worked with him every day. Together, through winter the six Carver men filled the fireplaces of all. They were a cornerstone of the village.

Little Jay was more like a crack in the cobblestone path.

So, Little Jay helped his mother in the house. Their family had no daughters, and so it was Little Jay that learned the skills his mother taught. Little Jay could mend, and sew, and cook, and when it was time to make the straw brooms and baskets, his were as good or better than her own. He had a knack for building patterns from scraps that came from always inheriting them, taking broken things and mending them. After all, when one of his brothers or his father would rip or tear their clothing beyond a simple repair, he was small enough to undo the stitches and fashion a new shirt or trousers from the pieces, carefully avoiding the ruined bits.

And with the torn leftovers, he often found enough to make small colorful patchwork hats, gloves and scarves, or small dolls for the children of their village. He also mended for the villagers, and his repairs were often pretty. His mother called this his magic, but Little Jay knew it wasn’t magic to make a pleasing pattern out of castoffs.

It was practical, perhaps. Useful, even. And certainly a way to pass time in the winter.

But magic? No.

Magic was rare, and wonderful, and often in the hands of those the village didn’t mind inviting around when times were dire or needs were great, but otherwise preferred to leave unseen. Such was the case of the traveling wizardess who came through with the first snows each winter.
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The families of village fed her, housed her, and asked her to bless the fields where the crops would grow. She always smiled, never correcting that magic was not a blessing, but worked the spells in exchange for their hospitality. Even Little Jay’s father and mother would have her over to spend a night. Little Jay would sleep in a nest of blankets by the fire, and after feeding her a nutty bread and thick stew, the wizardess would walk through the woods, touching the small saplings the family planted, tying small silk ribbons to ensure they grew tall and strong, and then sleep in Little Jay’s bed until morning.

With each family, she stayed only a night. And she was ever careful not to cross paths with the parson, who made it no secret she was not welcome.

She saw the way even those who hosted her frowned at a woman who wore silk trousers and seemed to feel nothing of the cold, though she expected they cared more about the trousers than the enchantment she had woven into her silks. She knew full well that when she had done the things they asked of her, it would be wise to go, and quickly.

On the last night, before she left the village, the wizardess would perform for the children, making things appear and disappear, and other minor magics that were as much trickery as they were spells. Little Jay waited for this night every year, and though often his brothers would mock him for attending, many of the other parents liked that Little Jay was present at these shows, watching over the other children who watched.

None wanted to offend the wizardess, after all, but were an adult to join the audience, it would seem too much like approval in the eyes of the parson.

That winter, the wizardess wore a shawl of black silk, and as her final trick, she threw it into the air and while it floated down in front of her, she echoed the meow of a cat. The silk was shredded, mid-air, though none saw anything touch it, and the children applauded as the segments landed on the straw covered floor of the barn.

When the wizardess picked up the pieces again, pushing them into her closed fist and then pulling the scraps back out as one long braided scarf, the applause was all the louder.

This, she explained, was the most important piece of magic there was. Anything broken might never be what it was, but in the right hands and with enough heart, it could always become something else.

And as she wove the scarf around her neck, gathering her things about her and getting ready to leave, it was Little Jay who noticed the small scrap of black silk still left in the straw.

He tried to stop her, holding the piece in his hand, but the wizardess merely winked, and was gone. Wizardesses are often like that: they are present to begin a tale, and far less often see the end of one. Her role was done, and here she left the story.

But that scrap of silk?

Little Jay worked it into a silk cap he’d made of scraps.

Change had come to the village.

His mother praised the pattern Little Jay worked into the scraps. His father criticized the dye on Little Jay’s hands, and the uselessness of a silk cap in winter. His eldest brother joked that only a snowman would wear a hat so useless.

After dinner, when his father took the rest of his brothers to the pub, and after he and his mother had finished the dishes and placed the hot stones in their beds, Little Jay went to his small room filled by the large bed he’d never grow into, pulled the quilts over himself, and found himself awake.

He heard the other men come home, and he heard them take themselves to their beds. He heard their laughter, and their cheerful wishes for good dreams, and he heard their snores that followed.

After, as quietly as a small man who has learned to avoid notice could be—which is very quiet indeed—Little Jay dressed himself, wrapped himself in a scarf he’d made from scraps, shrugged into his patched jacket, carefully slid his feet into boots after layering two thick socks on first, and found his best, warmest gloves.

Little Jay went outside, into the snow.

He loved the snow, and the patterns it made. Drifts were like waves, and the ice on the pond sometimes looked like large snowflakes. He would catch flakes on the end of his scarf, so he could peer at them, holding his breath, and see the tiny star-like patterns—tiny, beautiful things—before they melted away. Tonight, the dark sky was full of snow, and the dim lights from the village below, and the single winter lantern his mother kept lit overnight, were barely enough to chase off the darkness.

But still, Little Jay had no fear of the dark, and much love for the dance of the snow, and so he twirled, arms wide, knowing the scorn he’d invoke for what he was doing were anyone there to see.

When he saw the way his footsteps remained in the snow he knew it was the kind of snow that would build and he set to work. What his brother had said—only a snowman would wear a hat so useless—struck him as a dare, and he took pains to craft a man of snow as large as Little Jay himself was small, as wide as he was narrow, and as strong as he was gentle. He took care, and time, to craft a jacket of snow, with pond stones for buttons. For boots he wrapped pale orange leaves he found under the trees, and he used needles from the evergreen trees as though the man’s white trousers were stitched with green thread. For the face, he took two slivers of coal for the eyes, which he placed under a strong brow and a square jaw nothing like his own face, and then he wove his patchwork scarf around the snowman’s neck.

Now he was done, the smile slipped from his lips.

The large man of snow in front of him was nothing like him. And while that had been the point, now Little Jay couldn’t help but think this was the sixth son his father would rather have had.

He pulled the silk hat from his head.

To have a man like this, a man like his father, and his brothers, who would look at him and respect him and—yes—love him, even though he was small, and narrow, and gentle.

What that might be like.

He wiped a tear on the hat, then fit it on the top of the snowman.

Then, Little Jay went to bed, which was how he missed the snowman’s first breath.

The next morning, a man came to their door. A stranger in the village was a rare thing, and not often welcome, but the tall, broad-shouldered man was eager to work, possessed good humour and an easy smile, and even in the mid-winter, there were opportunities for such a man. For a place by a hearth and a plate at the table, he agreed to chop wood, or clear snow, or haul what needed hauling. That he was handsome, with eyes darker than anyone in Little Jay’s family had ever seen, and that his clothing was so unusual brought some pause—especially to Little Jay’s father—but the man put them all at ease within moments, and soon it was settled that he would breakfast with them, work the day together, and join them for dinner and warmth thereafter.

When Little Jay and his mother brought out the morning food, Little Jay nearly dropped the wooden bowls of warm oats and brown sugar.

The stranger wore a white fur coat with carved stone buttons, and white breeches sewn with green thread. Leather boots a pale orange, and—most importantly—atop his head, a silk cap made of dyed scraps, and a scarf almost to match.

Little Jay looked out the window, but the snowman, and the cap and scarf, were not there.

The man met his gaze, nodded once, and smiled.

His father introduced Little Jay as an aside to his wife, the way one might mention the spoon a cook stirred with, and if his father or brothers noticed how warm and kind the stranger’s greeting to Little Jay was, it went unmentioned.

His mother asked the stranger his name, and with a short pause to once again meet Little Jay’s gaze, the man said his surname was Frost.

They ate, and then they went to work.

Little Jay fretted the day away, and more than once his mother had to bring his attention back to the blankets they were mending, and the baskets they were weaving. Making patterns out of castoffs felt dangerous now, and Little Jay’s fingers trembled.

Could it be true?

He wove another round of the basket’s rim. The women who would later buy the basket would swear it held more than it should.

Could it be true?

He patched a faded blue quilt with small yellow scraps, making a bright star on an otherwise cloudless sky. The child who would later sleep under the mended cloth would always dream of flying.

Could it be true?

They started the evening meal, and Little Jay found himself weaving bread in knots, something he rarely bothered to do unless the meal was a special one. His mother, seeing him work, considered whether or not her son might be apprenticed to the village baker.

But of course, he had two broad-shouldered sons of his own.

She returned to her work, swallowing the familiar fears of what futures might be there for her youngest, smallest son.

When the men returned, Little Jay’s father’s report of the day was something close to a celebration. The stranger had done work almost equal to the rest of them, and their wagons were full of wood for the village days before they could have expected. His father and brothers tore apart the knotted breads, telling stories of how the stranger felled trees with half the blows it would have taken them, and only Frost himself paused to compliment the bread itself.

They laughed into the dark hours, knowing that the next morning they could have the rarest of rewards: a later start. His father offered the stranger Little Jay’s bed, saying Little Jay himself would sleep by the fire in blankets—he was the only one small enough to fit in the nook. And though the stranger protested, Little Jay thought nothing of it, and eased his concern with a smile and a bob of his head.

The others went to sleep, his brothers one by one, then his mother, and finally his father. Little Jay cleared the table with Frost’s help, and they worked side by side in silence. When what work that could be done was done, Little Jay found himself looking at Frost again.

His brow was strong, and his eyes were as dark as flecks of coal. He still wore the silk cap, though he’d shed the white fur coat with the carved stone buttons and beneath that wore a plain cotton tunic. Broad and strong, he seemed so very real, and yet…

Frost reached out, took Little Jay’s hand, and thanked him.

Little Jay listened in silence as Frost explained that anything broken might never be what it was, but in the right hands, with enough heart, it could always become something else. Magic from a piece of a scarf meant to keep a wizardess warm could not be a scarf again, but it could bring warmth of another kind, enough to make what was snow into something that was, though still snow, alive. Something crafted with love might, with that little bit of magic and a single tear, be given the freedom to return the love. He drew Little Jay into an embrace.

There was room enough in Little Jay’s bed, though Little Jay was careful to return to his little nest of blankets and pillows by the fire come morning, and the next day, while he and his mother worked, she noticed the patterns he wove into the baskets were truly things of beauty, and a second blue quilt was mended with whole constellations of snowflakes.

On the market day, the village met Frost, who charmed them all by helping them carry their fire wood to their wagons, and who was the talk of the village by the time the sun hit its peak. Even the parson stopped at their family stall, ostensibly to pick up one of Little Jay’s excellently woven straw brooms, though his mother knew the man had already purchased one only two weeks earlier.

Frost’s laughter, dark eyes, and warm voice put the village at ease, it seemed, and in some small way, it made Little Jay feel welcomed as he’d never felt before. Indeed, Frost had a way of mentioning Little Jay’s talents to those who browsed their stall, and a few times the other villagers looked at Little Jay like they were seeing him for the first time.

But neither the man born of magic and a longing for love, nor a youngest son who made that wish, however, knew how dangerous being noticed might be.

There were few so easily slighted as the eldest Carver son, used to all the attention and praise. And after days of being placed second to a stranger, Little Jay’s eldest brother had begun to study the stranger.

The cap he wore, for one, was familiar.

The eldest son went to the parson with his firewood and asked if he had ever seen clothing like the fur coat Frost wore, and the parson had to admit he had not. The eldest son asked the parson if it was perhaps odd that a man so strong would need to wander from village to village to find work. Having planted the sapling, the eldest son returned to his family, and tried hard to remember where he’d seen that silk cap.

The parson had never come to dinner before, but his request could hardly be turned down. Little Jay worked beside his mother, once again braiding bread dough while she worked to craft a meal worthy of the respected man’s standing. The brothers were not happy to have to wear their finest, except for Little Jay, who liked the way the collar of his shirt made him seem a little older.

At the meal, it was soon clear that the parson wanted to know more of Frost.

Why would a man so strong and so generous of spirit need to wander from village to village?

Frost dipped his bread, took a moment to thank Little Jay for his efforts, and suggested that anyone with a gift should seek to spread the gift as widely as possible. If strong arms made for shorter work, then were they to travel, there would be more gained from them for many.

Was it not hard to keep such beautiful white fur clean? And what sort of fur might it have been?

Frost sipped his tea, took a moment to thank Little Jay’s mother for the lovely blend, and suggested that everyone had surely seen a white furred creature at one time for another, and that it only took patience and fingers as clever as Little Jay’s to make large things from small things, and cleanliness was a goal worth seeking.

And how long would the village be granted the strength and giving of such a man?

Here Frost paused longer still, taking the last bite of his meat. Having come with the snow, it seemed fitting he’d leave that way, too.

Little Jay clenched his hands under the table. His father, uncomfortable with the directness of the parson, suggested it time for hot gin and lemon, and his wife went to set the pot to heat.

And that hat, the parson wondered aloud. How unusual it was.

Little Jay’s eldest brother remembered then. He turned to his youngest brother and asked him plain if he had made it.

From scraps, Little Jay agreed, with a measure of pride.

And this was how the parson’s gaze was turned to Little Jay.

After all had eaten, and drunk, and said their goodnights, the parson left. Little Jay and Frost cleaned the table and kitchen, and then, as had become their habit, they made up Little Jay’s nest of blankets and pillows by the fire, and then left them there alone. They went outside, and danced in the snow together, which Frost could call and conjure to play, before heading back inside to Little Jay’s bed.

From the hill-top, unseen, watched the parson.

The sheriff and the parson came for Little Jay after the Carver father and brothers and Frost had left for the morning’s work. His mother, standing in front of her youngest son, tried to refute what they were saying.

Little Jay, however, was tired of scraps. He was tired of mending the broken things of others, and watching others have lives he might never have. So Little Jay stepped forward, and told them of a scrap of magic, of a wish and a tear, and of how a man made of snow was the most loving thing he had ever encountered, of a man who loved him despite his size, and who danced with him in the snow and made the snow dance with them in kind.

Little Jay had been loved, and he did not care if magic had been the seed of that love.

They took him.

Little Jay’s mother ran to the woods, and found her husband and her sons and Frost, and it was as though she saw Frost for the first time. Eyes as dark as coal, more handsome than should naturally be, skin unreddened by the cold, unlike her husband and sons, and a simple silk cap that could have done nothing to keep the cold at bay.

She wanted to hate him, and though she told him what had happened and how it was his fault, she knew the words were untrue even as she said them. Her eldest son, appalled, threw himself at Frost, and so surprised as the big man that he did not stop the eldest son from tearing the silk cap from his head and flinging it far into the woods.

The eldest son turned, sure he would now see a snow man where Frost had stood, but Frost remained. Frost pushed the man aside, and began to run. Though Little Jay’s father and mother and the other brothers tried to chase after him, the snow itself seemed no impediment to Frost, and soon he had left them behind.

Frost paused at the home where he had shared the winter so far, grabbing one of the unfinished straw brooms—just the broomstick—and then was once again on his way.

Down he went, to the village.

The villagers had seen the parson and the sheriff pass by with Little Jay between them, and many had heard the whispers spread in the wake. They lined the street, and parted before Frost as he approached. Each time his broomstick touched the ground, a tremor ran through the village.

The sheriff, seeing the large and angry Frost approaching, held out his hands and called for the man to stop, but Frost raised the broomstick and thumped it against the ground, and a wave of snow and ice burst forward, knocking the sheriff aside.

Frost drove his stick into the ground by the doors of the parson’s church, and the doors were driven from their hinges win a spray of cold.

Little Jay lay inside. Fingers snapped, each a refusal to recant; back bleeding, each stroke a refusal to speak of Frost with anything but love; feet broken, a refusal to apologize for magic.

The parson’s words of condemnation died on his lips when he saw Frost’s coal-dark eyes, and the fury within them, and he stumbled aside as Frost lifted Little Jay, and carried him from the church to the street, from the street to a field, and from the field, away.

While they walked, the snow parting and rejoining behind them, Little Jay reached up a broken hand, and asked for one more kiss.

In the mountains, where the snow fell thickest, Frost knelt down, and gathered Little Jay into his arms again. The small man was shaking with cold, and his body all but finished, so broken at the hands of the parson and the sheriff. Frost, created out of love and a wish, shed his first tears, and held Little Jay tight while he kissed him.

In that moment, it was understandable that both had forgotten what they’d learned.

But with that kiss, Frost and Little Jay both were reminded.

Anything broken might never be what it was, but in the right hands, with enough heart, it could always become something else. Even hands and a heart first made of snow. A scrap of a scarf and a tear had seen to that. And now, a tear and a kiss were magic and heart enough to restore some of what was lost.

A magic twice mended, first for love and now for life, could only go so far.

Still, Little Jay took a breath. And then another. He sat up, and felt none of the cold around him. He smiled, looking at the man who had carried him from his village, and understood.

Little Jay rose, and when his hands brushed a tree, patterns of ice spread up and down the bark, like scraps of winter mended and woven into something beautiful. He turned to Frost, who nodded.

Their hearts were now the same, winter born and winter sustained. And since that day, they travel together, loving and loved, wherever the winter snows might take them. They leave patterns behind for those who might need to see beauty when things are cold.

Little Jay left the name Carver behind with his village, taking Frost’s name as his surname instead. In all the places the snow falls, there are none quite as happy as Frost and the man who used to be Little Jay.

But you likely know him as Jack.