The Winter House
T. L. Shreffler
She found strange satisfaction in watching the silver gaps between the trees at night. It was just past the midnight hour when she would take her lonely perch at the tower window, settle her eyes on some distant branch or cloud, and wait.
And she told herself, not many moons. Not many moons before her intended beloved. He would arrive at the tower steps before her fourteenth year; she would be a child bride, perfectly loved.
And then she thought... no, it would be as a young lady, and then as a woman, full of moonlight. And each night, she watched. And never did anyone approach.
And as the years passed, she forgot that she was waiting, and took to sitting in her room, creating art from sounds and symbols, pressing love upon them, sewing her heart into a warm cloak that she wore tightly around her shoulders, because the nights were colder now, and a thick winter underway. It felt as though it had snowed longer than the season; days shortened and lengthened, and yet ever there was snow on the windowsill. Birds migrated overhead, one direction and then eventually another. She forgot how many times she noticed them pass. She felt as though time had grown as cold as her fingers.
And slowly, slowly she became ice, and then stone, and then part of the very tower walls.
* * *
When he first saw the house, it was as a fortress of ice and thorns.
He looked upon the wild gardens with no small wonderment. Abandoned, perhaps? It was impossible to tell, and yet night was closing in, and he had followed the road as far as it would go -- it had ended here, at the wrought iron gates, strange, spiraling beasts arching above him, sentinels to the silent dwelling.
The windows on the lower story were broken. He could easily climb the gate, slip in.... It would be sure suicide to stay out on a night like this. The winter of this forest was dense and permanent; some said a god had died here, hundreds of years ago, and now no warmth would visit its tomb. Others said it was the eternal chill of a woman's heart... but he couldn't imagine anyone ever living in this forsaken castle. The gray stone was blackened by what may have been centuries of weather and wear. Even the vines that climbed its spiraling tower were brown, hardened by frost.
But night was closing in. "A roof, a bed," he murmured, and gripped the iron gate with two hard, strong fists. He pulled himself easily upward. "And with any luck -- a match."
* * *
All entrances were either locked or barred, but he grabbed the hinges of the kitchen door and pried it from its frame. The wood gave easily, soft as a sponge.
He stepped into what may have once been a kitchen, but was now a room of dead leaves and branches, the ancient remains of pans and clay bowls. He followed the obvious path into a hallway, long and worn, dusty, shadows elongating into billowing drapes. The hallway led him into a cavernous room with a mahogany table stretching from one end to another. A massive fireplace took up the entirety of the northern wall, large enough to have cooked an entire stag. There were remnants of expensive carpets across the ground, rusted dishes and empty, faded picture frames, all covered with a thick layer of dust. From this room, it was impossible to see outside the windows, which were thickly coated by frost. Webbed patterns reached from the floor to the ceiling, traveling up the glass like lines on a map.
He could have stopped in that room, made a place on the floor and set a fire in the hearth, ate from the fragile roots he had gathered and what was left of his travel bread... and yet curiosity stirred in him. Who had lived here, so many countless years ago? He had passed through a town not far from the forest, where he had learned of an abandoned house, a palace of ice in the heart of this cursed winter. He could only assume that this was the place where the curse had been born. What had happened here? It seemed that something had been forgotten.
He left the cavernous room and sought the stairs.
* * *
A stranger had entered her walls.
She watched through windows, through mirrors and picture frames. His shadow was tall and lean as a willow tree; his clothing dark and tattered as the earth. He left soft marks on her carpet, indentations of wide boots.
He crossed the foyer to an abandoned fireplace, but did not stay there. Rather, he sought the tower. He sought the stairs.
She shuddered, each step a violation, like a hand pressing between her thighs.
* * *
The tower stairs led only to a singular room, and yet it was a room that he did not ever wish to leave. He stood in awe at the doorway, gazing upon the smooth stone walls, every inch covered in paintings. The colors were bright and entrancing; fields of gold and brilliant reds, emerald forests, flowers on the verge of bursting into bloom, nighttime owls swooping beneath silver moons which seemed to drift outside of their frames. Faint light seeped through the frosted window, barely illuminating the dark shelves and rusted furniture, yet the paintings seemed enough to light the room on their own. They shivered on the walls with their intensity, as though some sleeping force was on the verge of waking. He wanted to reach out and run his hand over the thick oils and acrylics.
The room was sparsely furnished: a sewing table, baskets of old brushes and dried paints, forgotten vases with the dust of dead plants, a small hearth to the side and a large armchair in the middle, perhaps the most preserved piece of furniture he had seen in the house. He sat down upon it with a weary sigh, his eyes still combing over the walls, over endless scenes of forests and clambering wildlife. It hardly resembled the cold winter outside the window. He shivered, the chill seeping up from the floor.
A red cloak was flung over the back of the armchair. It was soft to the touch, and he pulled it around his shoulders, startled by the warmth of the fabric. It sank into his skin, spreading through his bones like warm honey. He let out a deeper sigh; old stresses were released from his muscles, loosed from his neck. It all flowed away. There was a security in this room that he could not name; something that bid him to stay.
He slowly fell to sleep.
* * *
She wrapped her arms around him and pressed her lips next to his ear. “Don’t leave,” she whispered. He stirred in his sleep; she knew he heard her. “Please don’t go.”
“I must,” he replied groggily, dreamlike. It was a dream, or perhaps not, she could not tell anymore. “I must awaken the forest.”
“The forest sleeps because I sleep,” she whispered. She could no more explain it to him than she could herself, only that she was cold; she had become cold and she didn’t know how to relight the flame. Fire needed fuel, and the sun could not shine through all weather. “You must awaken me.”
“Who are you?”
“I am over your shoulder,” she whispered, and held him tightly.
“I want to see you.”
“Build for me. Build me the house I once had. Make it warm. Then you will see me.”
“Tear down the rafters, pull apart the roof, dig up the floor and replace it with young wood. Open the windows. Uncover my garden.”
“I cannot stay,” he murmured drowsily. He turned, his face warm and flushed, and pressed it deep into her satin folds. “I am only traveling through. I am a journeyman, a wizard, a curse-lifter. People have need of me.”
“Stay,” she murmured.
* * *
He awoke. Was it ever morning inside of this tower? He stretched, and the cloak slipped over his skin, a soft caress. He smelled her suddenly; a subtle fragrance in the air, like some forgotten summer. The dream came back to him… no, not a dream, a vision, or a visitation.... Her voice had whispered to him from the floors and ceiling, from the countless paintings that strung the room. She was here. He could not see her… but somehow, she was still here.
He stood up and went to the tall window. It latched on the upper left-hand side. He was a man of great height and was able to reach the locks, and he pulled them apart easily, their rusted hinges crumbling like dried bread. With a mighty shove, he pushed the window open, forcing it past countless years of weather and wood rot. The clear air struck him like a knife, piercing his lungs with unexpected ice. Yes, it was morning in the woods, and it was snowing, white flakes swirling down from the sky. He could not see the wild gardens beneath him or the distant trees. Instead he stood, breathless, and tasted the dense mist, the heavy scent of pine trees and frost. All was still and silent.
Open the windows, he thought. This castle needs light.
Down the stairs he ran, and room by room he traveled, making blueprints in his mind, opening doors and curtains, finding a music room full of instruments, a library full of yellow, dry books, closets and compartments and bedrooms full of lace. He flung open cupboards and drawers, set rugs over windowsills and threw out chipped plates and battered dishes, and ever she was just ahead of him, the train of her dress hovering beyond a corner, the fragrance of her perfume behind each door. She was here, all of her, waiting, hiding, drawing him deeper into the house.
And soon a whole day passed, and he spent another night in the tower, where her embrace covered his shoulders and he felt her arms around him in the depths of sleep. And another day passed as he tore up floorboards in search of hidden treasure, uncovering long-lost necklaces, gold watches, fragments of family heirlooms. He took rags to the dust on the mantle, poured new oil in the lamps, and each night he wrapped himself in the red cloak and slept in her soft chair, and her hands ran over his shoulders and he shared stories with her, memories of his childhood, wrongs he had committed, love he had thrown away and family he had not seen in years. And she listened, and laughed softly, and her breath was as gentle as the breeze through the window, which now held the trill of birdcalls, the trickle of water, and the occasional rustle of a passing deer.
And finally he found himself outside, in the garden, where frost had long overtaken the earth. Nothing grew but for the spider-like vines, the dirt solid-packed and impenetrable. He walked the length of the house, inspecting each corner, his eyes perceiving the damaged bricks where mortar had crumbled; cracked and leaking pipes, rotted flower boxes.
In the back of the garden he found a shed, which he broke open with a well-placed kick. Inside he found a shovel, an ax, trowels and hammers and other tools, surprisingly untouched by the harsh and endless winter. He took the ax and hacked back the vines, cutting his hands on the thorns, fresh blood bright against the pale snow. They clawed at the earth, vicious and reluctant to go, but he cut the vines down to the roots, and discarded them in a fire towards the back of the house. He cleared the old brush and rotted boxes… but there were no nails in the shed, and no new seeds, and as he churned the earth he could tell that it was rich soil and in need of planting. He would have to go back to the village where he had first heard of the cursed forest.
* * *
When next he slept in her chair, he turned his face towards her and settled his cheek against her softness. “I must leave,” he said in that space between dreams. “I must go, but I will return.”
“Take me with you,” she replied, and it pulled at his heart, because she sounded so alone.
“I cannot carry a house,” he said.
“Then carry a piece of me, something to remember me by.”
And the next day, when he set out for the village, he wrapped the red cloak around him and walked with swift, long strides. He left the forest quickly, for his pace was that of a tall man, and when he reached the village many stopped to stare at him, for although the villagers recognized him, few had expected his return. He saw them turn and whisper to one another, pointing to his red cloak in admiration.
He walked into the trading post, a large building to the rear of the village, made of stout poles and a thatched roof. He was surprised when the men parted around him, gazing at the red cloak as though transfixed by some rare jewel. He went to the counter and opened his coin purse, withdrawing everything he had.
“I need all of your seeds, nails, fresh lumber, and nutrients for the soil,” he said, spilling the coins onto the counter.
“This is more than enough,” the clerk said, but took the coinage anyway.
“Then give me a horse and wagon to carry it,” he said.
The clerk nodded, then pointed over his shoulder. “Who is that beautiful woman behind you?”
The woodsman turned, alarmed, but saw nothing except the crowded shelves and dull occupants of the store. “What woman?” he asked.
“The one who wears the red cloak,” the store clerk said.
And the woodsman looked high and low, in every corner, but could not see her.
He returned to the house, just as he had promised. He cut and laid the lumber, rebuilding walls and rotted steps. He then spent his time in the garden, at first wrapped in layers and layers of cloth, since the wind was fierce and the sky dark as lead. He tilled through the snow, set the seeds deep under the earth so they would not freeze, and warmed them with his own hands. It seemed that the season began to turn, for slowly the wind changed and blew less harshly, instead caressing his cheeks. He thanked the weather and the woods, blessing them with murmured words. When he could do no more, he took the paintings from the tower and distributed them throughout the house, and it seemed that each room became brighter, filled with its own quiet light.
He did not know when it happened, but suddenly he looked upon the house and no longer saw a fortress, but a cottage, something much smaller and sweeter than what he had first taken it to be. The tower, which had once stretched above his head like an unconquerable arm, was now small enough to climb, and the vines young and strong where they grew on the trellis.
And ever at night, he waited for her visits. He asked for her name, though she had none, and so he came to think of her as a voice, as snow and sunlight. He asked for her hands, though he could not clasp them, and instead she caressed his shoulders, the back of his neck, ran long fingers through his hair. And he begged her to come to him, to appear as she truly was, to which she replied with a soft sigh, and said “You have seen how I truly am. You have seen my battered roof and creaking floors. This is all there is.”
To which he replied, “I do not care if you are damaged.”
And she held him close, but could not reply, because beauty was not found in an old house, and though winter held its own enchantment, it was also harsh and suffocating. Yet at night, when she silently walked the halls of her abode, and left the tower room and stretched down hallways, peering out of picture frames and polished mirrors, she could not help but smile warmly, because each chamber held a piece of her, fully restored. She found herself wishing to walk down the hallways with her own legs, not those of stools or tables; and when she saw the open windows and the freshly churned earth outside, she felt the sudden need to melt, to settle her weight against the woodsman, to rest her head on his shoulder.
And she did not know when it happened, or how, but the day came that she woke up and there was light at the window. She stood, though it was not as a chair, and she wrapped her cloak around her, and she stepped to the windowsill to peer outside at the garden. She saw vines climbing to her bedroom window, and far below, a patch of earth, a sprinkle of green grass peering through. And above her, in a whirl of sound, a flock of sparrows passed into the forest.
And when she turned, he stood at the doorway, flowers and fresh earth in his hands, his eyes gleaming down at her like two warm stones. And she smiled, because she didn’t know what to say, only that joy bloomed in her as quickly as the garden outside of her window.
“I am the heart of this house,” she said.
“Then I am your builder,” he replied. And he took her in his arms, and lifted her from her feet, for he was a tall man and could carry her from room to room, walking upon the new wood and polished floors. She smiled upon him, and the last trails of frost melted from the windows. Each thought that they might be dreaming, but knew that it could not be, because she was solid in his arms and he was as strong as she had imagined, lifting her easily down the front steps. They walked into the garden, which was now full of cascading sunlight, the air thick with blooms, and he thought that she was more precious than the flowers, more awake than the sparrows and the pine trees, more vibrant than the red cloak. And she thought he was as beautiful as the woodgrain of a new house.