The trout froze in the lake. These days the earth was a sleeping giant; snowfall, the cold, and the lakewater turned solid, silent, and white. When I walked to the middle of it, to better watch the winter, it seemed as if I were standing on the palm of a cold upturned hand. I brushed the snow aside with my foot and saw it below me: a black shadow caught in the water. A smudge. A fish preserved.
The fifth boy I took in January. His name was Kay. He had a sweet red mouth, like gooseberries, a smattering of freckles, long gentle lashes that flitted when he blinked. I’ve told you about him; he was the silly dancing boy, the boy who hitched his sled.
A kiss, once, twice, and I took away his sense of cold, the unfulfilled worries hammering behind his chest. I let him ride with me, nestled in my bear-fur, and he said it was softer than any bed he’d ever slept in. On the way home, he turned and blinked his big black eyes, and said, “Where are we going?” And so I told him of my palace, of my gardens. I promised him a new pair of skates.
“Will there be any other children?” he asked. “Don’t you have any?”
“No,” I said, because I didn’t, anymore. “But you shan’t be lonely. I’ll give you anything you want: I’ll give you an entire world and a new pair of skates.” I meant, I will give you time. “I’ll read you fairytales.”
And Kay nodded his small head, yawned, and settled drowsily against my breast.
When I was small, fairy-tales were the underpinnings of winter. I learned to read early. Stories caught in the spindly frosted branches, like snowflakes catch in lashes. Like words catch between the lips. Here is the truth, still: the light is whitest in wintertime, and the wind is sweetest. It’s easy to imagine when everything seems like an unwritten page.
I imagined myself a palace, a chariot, two snowy white horses, even though real horses can’t live in this kind of cold. I built long sheathed walls of ice — snowy Roman columns whiter than marble, arches, buttresses, fountains that couldn’t flow, frozen in a flying watery arch.
The truth is also this: I’m immortal. Fractals are infinite, and the ground here is ancient, permafrost-permanent. The problem was that I couldn’t imagine a child, a little boy for myself. I made a small snowchild in my garden, traced around his eyes, found three decade-old bits of coal for the buttons on his coat. He didn’t come alive.
That night, I set a blaze inside the fireplace and burned it hot until it melted the tips of my fingers a little. For the last time, I gathered the ashes and sprinkled their remnants amongst the snowy hills. A little human boy for myself. See, human boys are so much sweeter than human men, who have sweaty red necks and reechy fingers. I was never meant to be a wife –– god knows, never, and I’m a godless woman. But a mother, perhaps. I already told you: in wintertime, it’s easy to imagine.
The first I took I found in Copenhagen. I found him sitting on the curb. I was blowing past and he was nearly frozen. He was seizing and coughing in such a way that brought to mind internal organs. I noticed the white of the nape of his neck, peeking between his coat and his hair. It was December. I had already been in this city, that year. This is what people are like, mind you. They leave children in winter on the streets.
He had hair like fire and a grin like the curl of new-leaf in spring. That was once I washed him, and kissed away his straining lungs, and later. We used to play together, paint pictures in the downy snow, tear off icicles. I made him puzzles out of ice, spell this with the pieces, spell that, and he would. He was a very good speller. He wrote poems on the walls.
I washed him of his troubles, too, you see. I didn’t warm him up but I made him not mind the cold. A good two years. But he grew too fast, hardened his hands, he thought he was so smart –– and he was; he was. Only one day he said enough; enough with the puzzles, enough — and he fastened his cloak under his chin and set out on a walk. He left for good, a week later.
Then came a second, amber-eyed. A dimpled third, laughing; a long lanky fourth, a quiet, bookish boy. I found them in different places, but they all stayed here, with me, for a time. They all grew and stretched and began to kiss colors.
The sweetest memory was this: falling asleep, when they’d come before me, put their head on my knees, or when I’d find them sleeping somewhere, curled over some game or other. There is nothing I love as much as a small sleeping body. One used to clasp at my hands with his curling child’s fingers, and he used to wheeze, sweetly, softly, through his nose. That one always made me tell him stories –– and I can almost hear his voice, his bright, high voice, his endless questions. He, also, left after a year. No one stayed longer than a year.
This morning, I froze the trout in the lake; and slowly, the lake turned solid from the heart. By midnoon, the ink-black waters were clean, crystalline, sweet. Sugar-white. I dressed the trees in icy hoar, coiled the breath into a mist-wisp in the air. I hushed the crickets, the susurrus-grasses. Even as a child, I had loved this; had loved the little ice-cold eddies in the river, the coruscating frost that crawls across the tundra, the softness of a snowy bed. All my life.
Sometimes, on odd days, I remember: two little houses, the balcony caught betwixt and between; potted roses, one red, one white. Those were colors, and times. Histories. I remember the kitchen, fireplace; warm gutsy smells, leaky lamplight, butter-yellow. An old woman sitting, rocking by the stove.
You know, I met the author once. He was a bookish man –– head in clouds, eyes upward, wide forehead, an excess of fantasy. He looked up at me, fumble-footed, doe-eyed, smiling, a child; he said, I write stories. They were sad stories: a mermaid turned into seafoam; a girl froze on the streetcurb, dead, three matches burned and withered in her hand. He said I sang like an angel. He said I made him want to write things. He said women need hearts, not only heads. He let forth a plethora of nonsense, sweet-nothings, nothing-sweets. He wrote, as well, about God. I didn’t want to share myself: women are also gods, of a sort. Have been gods all along — we, too, can birth life, can grow it from the ground, the dust. This comes with the womb, with a woman’s flesh.
And perhaps he was also so desperate because he could never keep his creations, could not make them physical, they always melted away. He knew how to write but not how to kiss; he did not know how to have sex. He wrote me letters, and, yes, though there was something decaying about him, there was, too, something truly wonderful. I might’ve turned him into ice, a heap of chilly silvers on the floor, but I spared him, on a kind thought. I doubt you remember him, although I read you some of his stories.
At home, Kay liked to run around in circles and to slide on the ice, hands splayed, head awry, like a running bird that forgot what to do with its wings. He asked me about too much and ran too fast ahead. He cried a little when he fell. He was very good, like you were, at solving number-problems, at dividing things.
He almost made me think too much. A soft smell, steam, hot water; wispy newborn curls, and suds. We used to wash together.
Here’s the answer: two small dimpled hands; sticky, sweet fingers. I used to kiss each one. And the imprint of two little feet on my thighs; you walked along my body, and then, across my back. I was an island. A seaship. I was many things. There were so many fairytales; it was so easy to imagine. I was very lonely, and you weren’t a child, and I missed the way you had been.
I miss the weight. I have become weightless. And ageless. I remember: a heart that stopped at age ten. Age twelve; age twenty. He grew up. They always told me get over it, it’s time, everyone grows up, everyone gets old. Everyone dies. Everything dies.
I miss this: a yellow kitchen, in the evening. A glowing little fire; an old woman, in her chair, rocking. You, playing by the stove.
I’m beginning to see a darkness in you, my little boy. Where –– where are your hands? I so miss your hands, I so miss your thumbs, won’t you knead my back –– you were so much crueler when I was old, and you had always had such a magic touch, and you used to have always done what I asked. Oh, gods, I miss you. I wish –– I only wish you’d come for me, maybe, you’d promised you’d come for me, you promise you’d visit, you promised you wouldn’t put me here, here, in this godforsaken sterilized place, you promised many things. I wish there was some color here. I want some color. I want some blood. Where are you? My life wasn’t all that easy. It wasn’t so easy, you know. Everything I had, I had for you. I’m lonely. I’m lonely. I’m walking the streets at night in wintertime and I’m so lonely I wonder if I were to lay down in the snow, whether I would simply disappear? I don’t think I can feel my legs. I don’t think I can feel my legs anymore, and where are you, where are you, I can’t even hear your voice on the telephone where are you where did you go––?
I tried and tried to cough the animal out of my chest; until you put me here, until I came up with bile, until red spotted the white, red flecks on a white plastic toilet seat, on white tissues, red and white roses, you bought me red and white potted roses and they stood on the nightstand of my hospital bed. I coughed color into the sheets, it was the whitest, plainest room, white curtains, white walls, white sheets, white notes, numbers going down, an old white nightgown. The whiteness of a page; perhaps this, the author knew. I was waiting for you. I was reading his book because I missed you. He was such a fool, but still, he made these knitted worlds, full of prayer, and ghosts, of flowers and lace.
The girl came in a year. Hot-headed: her hair was the color of riverbank mud when it melts. She had hot tears, hot hands, and she cried and cried and cried the blush back into his cheeks. I came home to the sound of children laughing; they were spinning hand in hand, over the ice. I don’t know how I saw it. He understood something, it turned over in his eyes; he said her name, he remembered; he began, again, to grow, to mutate, to turn over and over and over. His heart hammered and hammered, I could almost feel it, how much it hurt.
When I stepped into the hall, she whipped around to face me, held up her chin, and said, “I’m taking him home!” She took a shaking step backwards. Her high voice echoed. “He isn’t yours anymore.”
She ran right to me and tried to grab me by the arm. She barely reached my elbow. Her voice was shaking, from the crying. “He’s mine, do you understand? I won’t let you have him.” Her eyes shone prettily with tears, and I wondered whether, when Kay grew older, he would fall in love with her. She threw her head up and stared at me.
“Well?” she asked. “Why aren’t you saying anything?!”
Behind her, Kay blinked his big black eyes. I filled my lips with a smile; this was also part of nature, wasn’t it? She was staring with such determination. I laughed till my sides ached from it, and till her ears ached from the ringing. What a feisty little thing she was.
“Aren’t you afraid of me?” I asked, at last. She was such a small girl, and I’m a very tall woman.
“No,” she said, quickly. “No. You’re just a frozen hunk of ice.” She stalked up to me till she was very close. When she put her hand out, the anger of her little heart blistered. Her fingers singed me. I thought I would melt.
“Fine,” I said. I looked at him, but his eyes went right through me, slid away. Ice is transparent, after all. The laugh rang harshly around the halls, echoed, a little too forced.
Kay left without a farewell. His long lashes were wet with tears, and he was laughing, and crying, all at the same time. The girl’s hair fluttered in the icy wind. I watched from my window. It was the breaking of dawn, the auspice of a new life, and the sky was high, and they were so small. I blew on it — I thawed it a little for them. You see, it’s a secret, but my breath is still warm, on good days.
Soon, he will begin to change. Stretch out, thin out, his voice will sink; his nose will grow, and his hair. Perhaps stubble will grow on his chin. But what does it matter, after all? I’ll find my sixth somewhere soon. They never freeze for long. I lied when I said the palace isn’t empty. The word Kay’s puzzle spelled was eternity. There’s time, yet. Spring never comes here.