- Ruler of the Inverted Year
You come alone, your footsteps smoking. The first in generations to walk the Road of Bones. There are no signs, and snow chokes the channel between the trees. Those who tried before you walked until they could walk no more and stiffened where they stood. It is too cold for decay.
Sit by the fire and warm your guts with whiskey. We do not ask questions. Take the shed in the frozen field and the fur that once belonged to Henry’s son. He won’t need it now. Do not go out at night when the temperature digs down deep. And if you should meet the woman from the mountain, pass her by.
Stay close within the village bounds. The mountain beyond the field is sheathed in fog, and those who seek the woman do not return. We pass the warning down from son to son, but some will not obey.
Your mirage shimmer ripples across the field. The snow around your shed retracts, and your path to the bar and back again reveals red ground. You pace the field to earn your keep. No need for a plow, your footsteps free a swath of land for crops hearty against the hoarfrost. You chisel ice from our gutters and thaw the pipes, asking for nothing more in return, as if there’s nothing you deserve. Loneliness rolls off you like sweat.
Our girls watch you from beneath their hoods. You are different from the boys they know, who breed the sled dogs and repair the roofs. They seek out your heat. We see how they follow you, fitting their boots into your footprints. You trudge on, head bowed.
As the village slides into night, the woman comes from the mountain. Frost blooms in her footsteps. Her bare fingers batten down the edges of her hood, and her furs are stitched from creatures with shining pelts. Dogs cower as she passes trailing ice dust. [End Page 24]
Our boys watch her from the windows. They have never ventured beyond the field, and life moves too slow, they say. When she steps from the curb, she parts her furs for them, exposing her white-blue shins.
We pass the warning down, but there’s always one who does not obey. Joe sits across from her at the back of the bar. He leans forward on his elbows, determined to pry beneath her hood. The liquor hardens at her lips and clinks against her teeth. She skims her hand over his, slowing the blood in his veins. Now that he has seen the woman for himself, Joe thinks we must be wrong. A pleasant numbness seeps through his limbs. His fingertips are blackening. He leaves his furs and follows her beyond the field. Joe’s father locks his door. He knows his son is not coming home.
Snow trembles on the branches when you pass beneath, and sputters to your feet. Gerda steps out of your smoking boot print and pushes her arm through yours. She has been restless since the day she was born, a month early even then. Your breath thaws the frost along her hairline. She slips her fingers into your pockets. My hands are always cold, she says.
You ward off the winter. Ice glides from our roofs, exploding on the cobblestones. We never knew our streets were stone. Turnip shoots thrust through the red soil. Cabbages unfurl, seeking sun. We reap the first harvest in generations. You walk the field all day. There will be whiskey waiting when you’re done.
Gerda leads you into the dancehall like a trophy horse. Furs steam in the corner, and boots stamp in time to the fiddle. The windowpanes weep. Gerda steps out of her furs. The dress she wears beneath reveals her slender arms and legs. The other girls, too, expose their soft, pale bodies, and the boys unbutton their shirts, pressing close. They are drunk with warmth. Some tumble outside to dance half-naked in the snow. Gerda takes your hand.
You are clumsy at first, in your too-big boots and your tight collar, but you loosen in Gerda...