SNOW BEES

By : Fairuza Hanun Razak (Co-Founder of English Creative Writing Program, Jakarta)

Not a single mote of dust lingered in even the narrowest corner of Annistyn Snow’s house. And for that matter, money scarcely came to her family.

Regardless of that, Mama Annistyn traded her last gold beads to an herbalist for a concoction. Honeysuckle pollen, wings of snow bees, and a sprinkle of blueberry dust. Dust, here, was a source of money, thus good luck. You could gather the motes of dust thickening your windowsills in exchange for beads of silver, if offered to the right merchant; that was why you wouldn’t be surprised if you visited Tear for a fleeting time and caught an itching cold the following morning.

When she got home, seven-year-old Kodiak was sipping the blood of the cockatoo Mama Annistyn’s son had gifted her. Mama Annistyn wrenched back Kodiak’s crimson-speckled winter-blue hair, and tipped the wretched fluid down the child’s throat. At the searing touch of the brew, drained to its dregs of tattered frost wings and beads of pollen, Kodiak stilled in her squatting position and dropped to the floor on her hard back.

Mama Annistyn sighed, placed the glass phial amongst its relatives along the window, flooded in light and soon with hope and fervent prayer, it would be filled with dust. As Kodiak slept wide-eyed, Mama Annistyn made for the enclosed chamber, where Kodiak’s mother lied in bed, her skin torn in gashes of dark-blue veins and caked in dried dribbles of blood. Both the mother’s arms and legs were restrained by chains, melded to hold for as long as it took. Her head, was fastened with a leather belt, tied to the headboard, worn and thin. Mama Annistyn feared it would not hold long.

***

It began five years ago.

Mama Annistyn was head of the clan Merrigan, descended from a long, aged line of the family Forwith, which began from Merrigam herself: a noted founder of a cave that restored a kingdom its wealth, but her mark in history was drowned in the sea of smothering male inventors who strove to earn favours from great men instead of to create a brighter world. Like her women ancestors, Mama Annistyn intended to carry on a legacy unacknowledged by the world, the legacy of Merrigan, founder of improbable things. The fourteenth descendant of Merrigan excelled in all things wondrous and improbable, brought elusive treasures to powerful queens and kings, founded the abundant well in Tear’s square that now watered livestock and people from all corners of the world. However so, Mama Annistyn was poor in everything that counted as money. Her mother, Sasha Snow, left her only a horse, a she-goat and three chickens, before a brutal cold extinguished her soul during a travel to the north.

Facing the frightful times of winter, with so little food to sustain them, Mama Annistyn looked to a local saint, whose temple sat in the corner of Tear, praying day and night under low candlelight in his spindly turrets. Mama visited him, bowed to the idol Baidul, and asked him to speak to God about her happiness. The saint saw a darker thing that lay beneath her poor appearance, strung from heritage. He hesitated, disgust curling in the pit of his stomach, nevertheless he nodded. Kept his promise. But hatred could do many things to twist one’s words.  

When Mama Annistyn and Papa Frigdan had two children, they were incredibly blessed. Mitchska and Jantzen were clever, fluent in their spoken language, and people of Tear spoke of their imminent becoming great poets, though as years grew them, Mama Annistyn and Papa Frigdan heard better of these rumours. The parents noticed near to none had mentioned such a hopeful future for their daughter.

Mitchska was rebellious and stubborn and too strange, the people of Tear said. She would not make a good wife. Mama Annistyn was heartbroken, Papa Frigdan driven to icy rage, so both sent Mitchska to an expensive boarding school in the north. The school, built like a fortress, with powerful unheard women as the faculty, held promise for Mama Annistyn and Papa Frigdan. Jantzen was betrothed to a young woman he loved – daughter of a popular poet, whose grand ancestor had been Merrigan’s religion convert of a younger sister. Mitchska was off to a scholarly life.

Incredibly proud they were, when Mitchska returned home. Jantzen, thankfully, harboured no bitterness towards his sister, and both encountered in a friendly discussion about the present literature. Mitchska became the star of the family. People who’d doubted her bit on their bitter tongues and praised her for her numerous accomplishments.

For a moment, everything was beautiful. A frozen frame of time captured underneath a globe of glycerine and glitter, shiny and pearlescent a memory that seemed untouchable to sorrow. Until, their firstborn, their daughter Mitchska, was discovered to hold an inhuman trait – one that compelled both loving parents to isolate Mitchska from the world.

The following spring, Mitchska gave birth to a baby, whose father remained unknown, and fell to a deep, unshakable slumber. Her skin turned as frigid as ice in midwinter, and her eyes, wide awake, were marred with bulging blood vessels. That same day, when it was neither dusk nor twilight, but somewhen in-between, Papa Frigdan died, diagnosed by a forensic doctor to have been poisoned.

A wailing babe was thrust into Mama Annistyn’s care, and she wept along with the child over the losses she was befallen with.

Hearing of this, Jantzen and his wife Inaya insisted that they raise their niece, for Inaya was barren and both desired a child of their own terribly. Weathered with age and grief, Mama Annistyn knew she could not handle another child, and agreed.

***

For six years, Mitchska’s daughter grew knowing Jantzen and Inaya as her parents, after all, they showered her with all the love they had.

One evening, on Kodiak’s sixth birthday, Jantzen and Inaya gifted Kodiak a kitten, adopted from a shelter. The kitten was ruffled and ugly to many, one eye scarred and bits of his fur ripped off from his body. Yet, Kodiak adored him, and he, her.

Several days after, midnight, the couple was awoken by a crash of broken glass, strange squelching noise, and ragged weeping stirring from the foyer. Inaya immediately leapt to her feet and called the authority, while Jantzen encroached down the staircase, moving in the cloak of shadows, the glint of his gun in his hand. He rounded the corner at the end of the stairs; he was startled to find shards of a knocked down vase sleeting the floor, snagged in the cornflower-blue strands of Kodiak’s hair, littered on her lap.

Kodiak?

His heart stopped the second he saw a sobbing Kodiak clutching her kitten to her chest, smearing her nightgown with…

Blood.

Horrified, Jantzen yelled at Kodiak to put the cat gently on the ground. Kodiak flinched. Jantzen realized his mistake, smitten with guilt. He knelt to match her gaze and said much gentler, “Come to me, Kodiak.” Slowly, hesitantly, Kodiak unfolded her legs, stood, and walked to her uncle. Jantzen enfolded her in a hug, his breaths panicked and jagged. It was as if his heart was about to shatter through his ribcage. Kodiak was trembling, hard. “Are you okay, honey?”

Perhaps too petrified to answer, Kodiak nodded.

Jantzen sighed in relief.

Inaya descended the flight of stairs, her slippers padding softly against the parquet. She dropped to her knees and her arms flew around them both, quailing. “I was terrified, sweetheart. What happened?” asked Inaya.

Kodiak burst into sobs. Every cry racked her shoulders. She choked on them as tears glassed her eyes, trickling relentlessly down her round cheeks.

***

The police arrived, sirens polluting the death-scented air. Having surrendered to sleep in her weeping, Inaya carried Kodiak to her bedroom, quietly changed her into clean clothes. Kodiak curled slumbering amidst stuffed animals and furred blankets, hopefully, tonight’s trauma dispelled from her mind forever.

Inaya closed the door to their child’s room, approached an officer whispering in hushed, concerned voices with her husband. The cold struck her like wind a guttered match, and Inaya tucked her arms around her to still her quivering heart.

“Is she all right?” asked Jantzen.

“She’s asleep,” Inaya replied, then she turned to the officer. “What’s going on?”

Sparing a glance at his notepad, the officer said, “The cat died with a deadly bite mark in his neck, puncturing right through the jugular vein. It killed him instantly, but is the reason why so much blood was in this scene.”

“A wild animal?” wondered Inaya.

His face was grim and foreboding. “It’s the most likely, however, we had our best evidence detectives on site and we couldn’t find any traces left by the animal. No mud – it was raining last night, so there had to be, for the beast had to come from outside – and no pawprints except for your cat’s.”

Inaya’s heart rapped wild like a bird trapped in its cage. “Wait, what are you saying?”

The officer’s gaze flicked uncertainly from Inaya to Jantzen, who felt dread trickle into his chest. “I’m saying, your daughter was the only other one in this house who left a trail of evidence.”

***

Since then, Kodiak had sought sanctuary in her Mama Annistyn. It was not that Inaya and Jantzen had driven her away from the only home she knew, but it was a sort of strange calling, like a mother lioness beckoning to her cub to return to her after having been raised by cheetahs. Dawn dripped through the windows, Inaya and Jantzen awaking to Kodiak’s empty bed, the room filled with stuffed animals and blankets and storybooks no one had taken, the nook window shattered open.

Mama Annistyn’s heart leapt in horror the second she came home from the market, dropped all her bags, discovering Mitchska’s bedroom door ajar, an ancient key twisted inside the keyhole. She patted the key in her pocket – gone.

How?

She scrambled forward, neglecting her fallen groceries, and clutched onto the doorway of her daughter’s bedroom. Little Kodiak lay curled against her sleeping mother’s stomach. Worried that she would catch whatever Mitchska had, Mama Annistyn tugged Kodiak from the bed. Kodiak refused fervently, lashing out with scratching nails and gnashing teeth at her grandmother whenever Mama Annistyn tried to take her away more forcefully.

“Kodiak!” scolded Mama Annistyn. 

The child froze at the name, as though for the moments in between everything, she had forgotten her given name. Kodiak shook her head, and her teeth came sharp and nails honed to a point they were claws.

A flash of bone-white, a scalding pain on her arm, a spittle of blood – and Mama Annistyn stumbled backwards, colliding against the wall. Her injured arm she pressed close to her stomach, whilst Kodiak’s gnashing-teeth and scathing-claws retreated, peacefully slumbering on her mother.

For a fleeting second, Mama Annistyn could have sworn Mitchska’s lips twitch in a smile.

A smile that chilled the very spirit in her bones.

Mama Annistyn had always known there was something terribly, terribly wrong in this world.

***

Jantzen and Inaya raced from the next town where they lived to Tear, five hours of journey spent in feverish hope in their hearts that Kodiak must have gone to Mama Annistyn if she hadn’t brought her stuffed panda and her favourite edition of Anne of the Green Gables. The old woman’s humble smoke-sighing-chimney abode was Kodiak’s version of a warm witch’s cottage and she felt home in it even without her personal belongings.

Though, when they arrived and perceived the situation, realization steeped them, that perhaps not fairy tales created Mama Annistyn’s place a home for Kodiak. Rather, the silent presence of her mother.

Jantzen had already nearly unremembered his older sister, so caught in the perfect family life with Inaya and Kodiak. Now, as he stared at the sinister body which canned her sister’s soul, it dawned him he had forgotten too much.

Mitchska’s remnant of this world roiled off a dark promise. Revenge, toward anyone who dared take her daughter away from her.

***

They left Mitchska’s door ajar, which was not the ideal thing to do, what with the possibility of Mitchska’s mysterious illness spreading at the caress of wind. But they did not want to leave Kodiak unsupervised.

“How are you, Mama?” Inaya tried to seed a conversation.

Mama Annistyn bustled in the wooden kitchen, from stirring the low metal pot to standing on her tiptoes to reach the large oven. Heat flushed them all, and the couple felt useless to sit about and not help, but Mama Annistyn had always been stubborn – just like Mitchska, thought Jantzen, amused – to let her do everything by herself. Seated behind the pantry counter, Inaya nursed her burnt hand with an ice-cold towel, a victim of attempting to adjust the pot’s heat and then being smacked away by Mama Annistyn for doing such a foolish thing.

“Not well,” grunted Mama Annistyn, “as you can already see, child.”

“How long have you noticed this…difference of Mitchska’s, Mama?”

Jantzen nudged Inaya and coughed empathically. “Don’t,” he whispered.

But Mama Annistyn had already heard. A wet sniffle score through her, yet she managed a stoic face. “I knew sending her to school was a bad decision, although I wanted terribly for her to succeed in her own way.” She looked both of them in the eye. “It was your father’s idea, you see.” She sniffed wetly again, and waddled to the pot, crouching before the fire that lit her glassy eyes. “You never realized it, Jantzen, for you were encompassed in your marriage that time, but when your sister came home, she was different.”

There was a pause. Heavy, brutal. One you wanted to crack.

Inaya did. Her gaze was fierce. “Different how, Mama?”

“Her mind was filled with strange knowledge. Every supper she kept prattling on about a strange prophecy from an odd dream she had mid-semester. She said she consoled with her teacher, then everything went black, she said. I was terrified if the teacher might have…altered something within her. My sweet, sweet Mitchska.”

For the rest of the afternoon, they ate in strangling silence.

***

The night sky was starless, and moonless. Branches of the apple trees in the neighbouring orchard tapped on her window furiously. Let us in, let us in, they seemed to whine, creaking against the gust. The candles at the foot of Kodiak’s bed burned low, dripping wax all over the wooden trunk. Sweat glistening on her forehead, tears stinging her vision, she concentrated her mind on the candles, willing them just to glow a little brighter. Failing.

Her magic guttered like a weak flame on a curling, blackening match.

She thirsted suddenly.

Kodiak peeled off her blanket with her foot, stepped as quietly as she could on the ancient floorboards. Reaching the door, she twisted the knob, praying silently, fervently, Mama Annistyn wouldn’t wake at its rusty sound. She peered into the corridor, hushed and foreboding and shadow-spilt. Finding no one outside, she stole through the corridor, making for her aunt and uncle’s bedroom. She slipped inside, shook her aunt’s shoulder softly.

“Auntie Inaya?” she whispered, one eye darting to the cracked door. “Auntie.”

Inaya’s bronze eyes fluttered open, drowsiness crusting the edges. Her words tumbled out, drawling with sleep. “What’s the matter, sweetie?”

Kodiak was guilt-stricken, but the scathing thirst in her throat drove her more desperate than any day. “Auntie, I’m thirsty.”

“There’s a jug of water on the counter,” Inaya reminded her gently. Her eyelids threatened to fall shut; it was obvious Inaya fought to stay awake.

“No, Auntie.” Kodiak shook her head, jostled her aunt’s shoulder one more time. “I’m thirsty.”

The impression on the word jolted Inaya into full consciousness. She knew what Kodiak meant. Casting a brief glance over her husband, assuring herself that he was still deep in slumber, Inaya carefully sat up on the bed and pried open one of the drawers of the nightstand. She lifted layers of folded clothes, produced a sweater of Inaya’s favourite. It was lumpy in several places, its knitting already falling apart, but in the thickness of its entirety was caused by the three blood bags stowed in between folds. Cow blood, fresh from the market. The seller had shot Inaya a suspicious look, for not many women of great families purchased beast blood, even for their cooking. It was only the lowliest servants dressed in rags who would be sent to buy it, and usually not seven bags at once.

Inaya pulled out a pin from her black hair, unravelling the messy bun to spill across her shoulders, and punctured a corner of one of the blood bags. Kodiak took it, the thirst now scorching the walls of her throat, placed the cut corner between her lips, and drank. Gulp after gulp.

When the blood bag was finished, Inaya tossed it into her tote bag to be disposed of during tomorrow’s trip to the grocery’s. If Kodiak, barely eight, already starved for more than the weekly dose of two bags, Inaya worried what would happen as soon as she reached her growth spurt.

Everything didn’t seem out of place at this moment: Inaya wiping Kodiak’s crimson-stained mouth, then giving her a breath-mint to rid of the blood’s scent. Inaya had only discovered Kodiak’s secret a week ago, two nights after her cat’s demise. So petrified Kodiak had been, shaken to her core when she confessed to her mother-figure that she had been the one who’d killed the kitten. Who’d sunk her teeth into his jugular vein and wrested away his life in the small puncture, just for a drop of blood to relieve her abnormal thirst. “I’m sorry,” Kodiak had sobbed into Inaya’s shoulder, that night that changed everything. “I’m sorry.”

“Auntie Inaya,” Kodiak said, bringing Inaya out of her flurry of thoughts. “I’m going to be okay, right?” She asked this, small and scared.

Knife-tips brushed Inaya’s eyes, fleeting and hot and stinging. “Yes.” Her voice cracked with tears. She pulled Kodiak into her chest, their arms weaved tight round each other. She closed her eyes, swallowing the salt in her eyes. You are going to be strong, and brave, and beautiful. “Yes, you are.”

***

It was the seventh night of their stay in Tear. Death pervaded the town of Tear once more, as Inaya Kaliph slipped from the world in her sleep. Grief and sorrow crushed Jantzen, twisted him crooked and broken until all he could do was comfort himself in a dark corner of Mama Annistyn’s living room. He rocked back and forth beside the hearth, never moving even when Mama came to light a fire, thus his flesh was covered in cinder.

Mama Annistyn hardly was at home. If she were, the kitchen would taste of splendid chicken broth, candied snow bee wings filed painstakingly in a glass box, and bright blooms of poppy eddying at the bottom of water, bleeding juicy flavour into the liquid. She would always distract herself in pots and ovens and spice jars. Perhaps coping from the loss of her daughter-in-law.

Whenever Mama was not home, Kodiak stepped out of her mother’s room once or twice a day to visit her uncle. Her small arms encircled his neck in an embrace that made his heart throb less. The child, suddenly grown in mind and attitude, pressed a kiss on her father-figure’s forehead. Peacefulness swept through him, his heartaches healed slightly; it was better than nothing. “Get well soon, Uncle,” she often whispered, before confiding to her mother’s room.

As Kodiak kept this routine, Jantzen rose from his dark dwelling on the fifth day. He brushed the cinders from his shirt and trousers, bathed himself, and for the first time, that night, he entered Mitchska’s room, not to lure Kodiak out for supper, but with the sole purpose of seeing his sister. Kodiak smiled at her uncle and huddled next to him. One arm around his niece, he sat on the edge of the white cot.

“I miss you, sis,” whispered Jantzen, though Mama Annistyn was not around to berate him for nearing his ill sister. The silence seemed too fragile, spun glass which he now cradled from splintering to the ground. Mitchska and he had never been too close, for their parents had separated them at birth, Jantzen to his uncle and aunt in the adjacent town. Whilst Mitchska learned all she could about history and gained academic astuteness, Jantzen wrestled against the expectations of society and taught himself the splendours of language and its art. Mitchska chased an academic future as an engineer, but Jantzen wanted to make a family.

So, Mama and Papa sent Mitchska to the boarding school in the north.

Over the three years Mitchska had been absent, a shadow – something terrible and dark – cast over Mama Annistyn. Jantzen had noticed it in the visits he’d done twice a week. But he’d warded it off, asking a nurse to do weekly checkups on his mother, telling himself it was perhaps a small migraine.

And then Mitchska’s homecoming happened.

He looked at Mitchska now – truly looked – for the first time, and saw not a girl threatened by Death, but a girl who wore eyes sagging with fatigue, the unrest of the soul. There was something about this, the frozen-in-time photograph she seemed to live in, like a broken clock waiting to be repaired. The hour hand arrested in an unfixed moment, somewhere between one minute and the next, never complete. Mitchska was the caged hand. Everything about the stiffness of her said so. She wanted to break free – but break free from what? What could make a soul so restless?

“If you’re worried for Kodiak,” Jantzen whispered to his sister, “don’t. She’s well taken care of, sis.”

He swore Mitchska’s face contorted painfully, lips twisting with such desolation. Eyes still closed, her lips parted, the movement torturously slow. “Get…out…”

The whisper sent a jolt of alarm through Jantzen.

“What?” he breathed. Then he looked to Kodiak. A grave shadow darkened her face.

“Uncle,” whispered Kodiak, her voice a shivering flame in the summer-night wind. She pressed her fingers into Jantzen’s arm. “Mummy’s scared.”

***

In the tales her uncle and aunt used to tell Kodiak, days spun beautiful fairies and nights breathed monsters. After the frightening story, Aunt Inaya amended it by conjuring another tale, this time of whimsy and happiness, and carried by the moment of joy Aunt Inaya and Uncle Jantzen tucked in beside her, the three of them off crossing the threshold to dreamland hand in hand. That was the happiest day of her life, recalled Kodiak.

The apple orchard next to Mama Annistyn’s house rapped against her temporary room’s window. Their branches reminded her of a monster’s claws.

“There is a monster in this house,” Mummy had told her, words shaking. The wind-whisper racing past her lips was enough to soak Kodiak’s heart in ice-cold fear, erasing all traces of courage she had walled around herself that first day of fleeing to the confines of Mummy’s bedroom. “Get out, please, my love.”

***

Mama Annistyn sprinkled dried snow bees into the broth, stirred the pot and wiped tears from her eyes.

A filthy stench washed the room. She retrieved a blade, glimmering gold-brushed silver, crystallized from beeswax and textured such as the frost pattern of the snow bee’s wings. She now understood why saints kept them in cups outside of the gates, crushed in soot: to ward off something powerful and unwanted. Understood why the concoction from the herbalist – containing snow bees wings – paralysed the feral Kodiak even for an hour.

It was scorched in Mama Annistyn’s mind, the memory. The letter from the boarding school that came. The announcement of a dark creature in their student body’s midst. The accusation that the strange occurrences – ice-crusted students, snowed-in dorms, storms in the assembly hall – all of that had pinpointed back to her daughter.

Draining the last drips of the putrid broth from the blade, Mama Annistyn rose from the stool before the pot and laid it on the windowsill to dry in the cool wind. Once cold to the touch, she picked up the blade and strode to her daughter’s bedroom. The door was no longer locked, for Kodiak had always found a way to thief the key under her nose.

Mama Annistyn pried the door open, then closed it behind her, silent as smoke.

The blade felt sure in her hands.

She raised it over Mitchska’s heart.

***

“Mummy?” Kodiak cried out.

Mama Annistyn snapped around, sheathed the blade in her apron’s pocket, where all her spoons and ladles lied. Blood seeped into the pale-yellowed cloth. Well, she thought, this would be inconvenient.

A door swung open in the hallway. Footfalls. Sniffles and cries muffled. “It’s okay,” Mama Annistyn heard Jantzen say. “It’s just a nightmare. Go back to sleep, Kodiak.”

One more witch to die, thought Mama Annistyn, as the blade dissolved into sugared wings. She cupped a handful of it from her apron. Dessert.

***

Morning raked across the wood of the corridor. Telltales of a monster.

In the grey hours before dawn, Kodiak and Jantzen crept into Mitchska’s room.

At the whiff of Death – of rot –, at the terrible crimson streaked across the wall, Kodiak crumpled to her knees. Her scream was terrible and heart-wrenching, and it rang painfully trapped in Jantzen’s skull.

***

Jantzen despised funerals.

After attending four funerals in his life, he’d sworn never to have to see another body laid to rest in the cold, hard ground. Yet the universe denied his wishes, and here he was, watching his sister’s blue-veined, grey-fleshed corpse being lowered to the unwelcome earth. The moment she rested against the soil, it seemed as though the earth wanted to spit her out, disgusted.

Jantzen clenched his fists, burying them at his sides. A hundred needles flew and pricked behind his eyes. Kodiak’s frigid hands clasped his right fist, unravelled it. “Uncle,” she whimpered, blinking through her own tears, “we have to get out of the house.”

***

“Why are you not eating?” shrieked Mama Annistyn.

Kodiak winced as another pinch scored through her thin flesh. The candied snow bee Mama Annistyn pushed against Kodiak’s adamant lips. “Eat!” said Mama Annistyn. “Do you wish to die?”

“What is going on?”

Uncle Jantzen!

Please, please, save me, Kodiak wanted so badly to cry out.

“The girl won’t eat her snow bees,” huffed Mama Annistyn, putting her hands on her hips. “Stubborn as her mother she is.”

Jantzen knelt before Kodiak, grasped her hands, dwarfed in his own. “Honey, Kodiak, the snow bees are good for you.”

“She won’t last through winter if the bee’s blood does not get into her system.”

He sighed. “I know, Mama.” He stood. Kodiak stared at her feet, flushed in guilt. “Just…let me do it. She’s lost both her mother figures in less than a week. Give her time. Please.”

Mama Annistyn grumbled, dropped the spoon on the counter, and left outside to tend to the chickens. When she was gone, Jantzen leaned against the counter on which Kodiak sat, her legs dangling.

“Look, Kodiak, I won’t be able to help you if you won’t tell me why you’ve been acting like this.”

Kodiak hung her head, strands of her hair curtaining her small face. “Mummy told me to keep it a secret.”

“Keep what a secret?”

She looked up through the cascade of her hair. “Witches can last through winter without anything to sustain them…” She bit on her lower lip, then released it. “Snow bees kill witches.”

Jantzen did not know whether to laugh or worry. “Witches?” he said in an amused breathlessness. Kodiak’s gaze darted to the back door, where Mama Annistyn had left through, brief panic streaking her features, and nodded. “Well,” said Jantzen, smiling, though puzzled, “you’re not a witch, are you?”

Kodiak pressed her hand over her mouth, stifling a sob that rent through her throat. Her eyes watered. She said quietly, “All Snow girls are.”

***

“Mama,” Jantzen began. He joined his mother on the settee in front of the fireplace. Her fingers dug into the margins of a crinkled photograph of Mitchska during her graduation day. Even in the tintype it shone clear that his older sister’s skin had begun to grey, bulging veins stark on her neck, where the so-called illness started.

“She was a beautiful bright girl, that Mitchska,” mused Mama Annistyn. It was unsettling to see this side of Mama Jantzen had never been shown before. To know the woman was capable of reminiscing something wonderful and holding regard of it as such, and not lamenting over the darker shades of life – it awakened something in Jantzen. Pity? Or was it…sympathy?

“She was,” said Jantzen.

Her eyes glazed over. “Terrible, the thing that happened to her.”

Jantzen shifted in his seat. Gathered his courage. “Did something happen to her at school?”

“No,” Mama Annistyn said firmly. Her eyes were coals burning in the dark, fierce but hollow and desolate enough to haunt you. “Something happened to her since birth.”

He suppressed a shudder. “What do you mean, Mama?”

“Her babe tears were salt. Saltwater. They did not dry upon blotching the floor and linen. They filled the room.”

Jantzen was silent.

“I was still in labour at the time, delivering you. They took her to be washed in a separate room. Pain glossed my vision, so much that I was unaware of the deluge that pooled the next room.

“They thought it was a severe leak. A burst pipe. But there were no peeling plaster or holes in the wall to allow the leakage to pool in that room. Everything was closed shut. I knew better.

“I had been trying to smother her abilities. Taught her history and science. Got her to pursue an academic future, just so that your Papa and I could send her off to that boarding school. Far, far from here. It didn’t work. She was too strong… Frigdan told me to stop. Stop, stop, stop, stop. It didn’t work. I failed, I failed, I failed, I failed…”

Tears welled in Mama’s eyes. “You can never change the world if you are a monster to the world.” She bit down on her lip. Her eyes squeezed shut. The photograph was crushed, Mitchska’s grinning face distorted in its centre, in her hands. She wailed, “I can’t bear it any longer.”

She stood up abruptly. Her steps rang hollow on the parquet as she stormed down the corridor. Jantzen chased after her, heart beating raucous in his ears. No, no, no, he thought.

She was going for Kodiak’s room.

He caught his mother’s wrist, gripped it. “Mama, don’t––”

A flash of silver-blue in the dark.

Excruciating pain sundered through his extended arm, deep and gashing, and then the affliction was wrenched back, ripping through bone and tissue.

The wall supported him from collapsing to the ground.

Black spots danced in his vision as an ache tore through his body, pounding in his head. “Kodiak,” Jantzen groaned. “Kodiak, get out!”

A door creaked open, Kodiak tiny in its frame. “Uncle Jantzen?” Her voice was frail, petrified. She had to be protected.

Mama Annistyn pivoted round, blade in hand dripping blood. Kodiak’s face paled. Jantzen leaned his uninjured arm against the wall, and staggered towards his niece. Before his mother could.

An agonizing headache seized him; his vision blurred. He nearly slipped. He looked down through his blotted sight. Blood was pooling beneath him, a steady stream drawn from his arm’s wound.

Another pang of pain, like gongs reverberating in a small, empty room.

“Jump out the window!” screamed Jantzen, clenched by frustration.

There was a crash, a shrill child’s shriek. The creak of a window shoved open, and the thuds of bodies on grass.

Consciousness slipped from Jantzen’s grasp––

And he fell, fell, fell, down an abyss of darkness.

***

The gravestones shone in the sleet and feeble sunlight.

Two years seemed too short a time. It felt like a nightmarish yesterday when the snow-bee blade rotted Mama Annistyn from inside out. The stench had been putrid and powerful, clogging her lungs. Adrenaline had surged through blood and bone, and when it abated, and Kodiak looked at her grandmother’s dead body – dead witch body – her breath caught in her throat. Had Mama Annistyn been planning to kill herself as well?

Kodiak had clambered to her feet, head dazed in the aftermath of everything. And then she’d remembered her uncle in the corridor. When she reached him, all she could to replenish his blood had been sparse. Her hands, slippery with his blood, pressing against the wound, helplessly struggling to stop the blood from flowing. Exerted her magic, what little remained from Mama Annistyn’s daily dose of snow bees. But the pool of crimson soaked her pyjamas.

Ragged breaths, Uncle Jantzen had clamped a hand over hers, so small was it back then.

“Tell me a story, Uncle,” whispered little Kodiak.

Now, Kodiak touched the stone, caressed the name engraved into it, her fingers quivering as she did so. She couldn’t help it; tears specked the granite, tracing paths earthward. She swept her trembling hand over both graves.

Bloody and sweating, Uncle Jantzen mustered a weak smile that faltered with every jagged rise and fall of his chest. “Once upon a time…”

A bed of lavender and baby breath burgeoned from the barren ground, enchanting the air with a lovely fragrance, undulating at the brushing kiss of the lamenting north wind. Stirring reminiscence of precious memories.

IN LOVING MEMORY OF

JANTZEN & INAYA SNOW

MAY THEIR SOULS FIND PEACE

***

The temple’s canals smelled saccharine, thick with the taste of honey laced with a hint of ice.

The girl looked up from the syrupy silver water that flowed through the narrow canals and spilled into a large moat, deep and wide enough to drown a person. Drawing a shaky breath, she crossed the wooden drawbridge, the heels of her leather boots clacking hollowly on the slab of oak.

She passed under the gateway, arched high in a webbing of white roses. The walls were pale-grey, like snow under a rolling cloud. Murals of clouds and idol-gods, stone-guardians and lidded-gazed maidens portrayed on the pillars made her fists clench. The incandescent lamps burned fulgent, despite dawn’s fingers already grasping the edge of the world. A coterie of maundering vestals rushed past her, not noting how strange it was for a girl as young as her to wander in a church at first of daylight.

The praying hall was empty, save for a lithe figure in the middle of it all. He sat, legs folded beneath him, as his hands were raised in fervent prayer. The flickering candles scored scarlet into the darkness. The girl flicked her wrist in the direction of her shoes, and instantly, her footfalls fell in perfect silence. She did not break step, not as the pungent scent of snow bee blood burbling in small kindled pots washed her lungs as she crossed the threshold to the praying hall.

The girl did not come here to pray.

No, she did not need an idol to save her or to look after her.

The figure – the man – pivoted round in his place on the mat, abandoning his prayer to the god-idol Baduil. The shadows that swathed him were not on his side. He could not perceive who was approaching, so he wondered aloud, “Sister Anska?”

The girl shoved her hand forward. Porcelain and stone idols shattered to the floor, a million helpless little things, with no magic, no real power to piece them together. A loud thud. The crack of bones, the wheezing of breath.

The man was slammed into the wall.

The candles ignited brighter, illuminating the room, enough for both of them to see each other.

The man’s face was of terror.

“You fractured my family to shards.” Her voice cracked. Hoarse with tears. “Mama Annistyn, Papa Frigdan, Mama, Aunt Inaya… Uncle Jantzen.”

Fire roared, reflected the rage and pain in her eyes. Recognition at the names held dear in her heart lit his wide-eyed stare; the man shuddered.

“It’s your turn to suffer,” spat Kodiak Snow.

Once upon a time…

His voice was soothing, despite the breaths that came difficult for him.

There was a bear cub, who lived in a wood where everything could evanesce to smoke and wind. Her family, was lost the same way, when they took a stroll for berries near the forest pool. The roar that was chased by a deathly hush, was not of thunder or of another predator. It was man-made, and it rang still in the air, ensnared by the claws of the wood.

His breath hitched at this part. Blood gurgled from his wound, and Kodiak was helpless, helpless, helpless.

The bear cub knew the settlement of the hunters who’d killed her family, so she prowled after it. The hunters were drinking kvas by the fire and roasted over its flames was the bear cub’s little brother. Grief and fury rent through her; she attacked. Two men’s blood dripped from her paws. One last living cowered against the tents. In the flames and in the blood, she saw nothing but her agony. But then she looked into the last hunter’s eyes, shining tears, and saw not a bear, yet a human with murder in her stare. She staggered back, stunned. Forgive me, suddenly said the hunter. He extinguished the fire, and sliced his knife through the binds knotting her brother. Forgive me, he said again.

Uncle Jantzen coughed. His eyes began to dull and glass. And yet, his voice raspy and his breathing clipped, he continued.

The bear cub forgave him, not because the hunter freed her brother from binds, rather because she realized. Forgiveness was not an easy thing to give. The good could hate, and the good could kill. They all stood in a grey world. It was only a matter of hope – that people could change, could dream a better world.

Both human and bear buried their friends and family under a berry brush.

And then her uncle’s fingers loosened from her hands.

Kodiak blinked the knife-edged tears from her eyes. Her hands trembled at her sides, resisting the urge to wipe her vision clear. She would not look so weak.

“You may be a holy man, but your heart is fleshed of hatred.” She took in a deep, quivering breath. The dark fire in her heart quietened, so did the candles’ burn soften. The horror melted from the monk’s face.

All that was left in her was pain for those who did not see what she had seen. The bear and the hunter’s story palpitated in her chest. “I cannot forgive what you have done, nor can I forget,” she said earnestly. She knelt down. “But I do not feel any anger, for instead I feel sorry for you. That you had to live with hatred and fear in your heart. I am sorry for all the things you went through. I am sorry, and I hope you may be healed.”

The wicks on the candles curled. Smoke wisped through the room. Darkness veiled the monk, and when he opened his eyes, the girl was gone, dawn had flushed the sky lambent, and everything seemed to have never been this brighter.

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