“Tell me a story, grandpa.”
The little girl’s voice was pitched low, half asleep. Her grandfather, who had been dozing a bit himself, took his half-blind gaze from the window and its kaleidoscope of drifting snow to look down at her.
She was curled on his lap, one chubby fist curled against her cheek, insulated from the cold with a thick blue flannel romper. Her mother’s childhood blanket was draped over the both of them. They sat together in the old man’s favorite chair, one that had been with him almost as long as he could remember, the one with the patched and frayed cushions and the old wood frame that creaked in all the places he knew and loved. Before them the fireplace popped and crackled, merrily devouring the last armload of twigs the girl had placed in it. Next to that an old black and white television, one of the behemoths from the days before cable and HDTV and digital processing, was hissing with white noise, displaying nothing but the static and snow of an empty channel. He preferred it that way; the sound was soothing to him, made him think of listening to the wind when he was a child. He smiled, running his fingers through the girl’s thick, blonde hair.
“What kind of story would you like, Marlene?”
His voice was slow and more than a little rough, a relic of long years working on the docks and his tobacco and whiskey habits when he had been young. But the little girl had never heard it raised in anger, and in that very roughness it became gentle, something soothing. Perfect for storytelling. Grandpa always told the best stories. Her round face scrunched up, her blue eyes rolling towards the ceiling. She placed one finger to the corner of her pursed lips while she thought.
“A fairy tale. Where a boy saves a girl and they like each other a lot.”
The old man chuckled. He laid one arm around the girl’s back and hugged her to him.
“A fairy tale, hmm?”
She nodded, her eyes wide with anticipation; she knew her grandfather’s moods well, and was certain she’d get what she wanted.
“Yes, yes, please!”
The old man smiled, making a show of tilting his head back and scrunching his eyes shut.
“I don’t know, Marlene,” he drawled, feigning reluctance. “Seems my memory isn’t so good these days. Hard to remember the really good stories…”
He cocked one eye open, just a bit, gave her a moment of silence. As expected, the girl’s face fell, her expectant smile turning into a pout. His laughter bubbled out of his throat again.
“Oh, all right. If it means that much to you.”
“It does, it does!” She clapped for emphasis, laughing a little herself.
“Well, then. We’ll have to get ready. Can’t just tell a story, you know.” A smile – somehow a bit sad – lurked at the edges of his mouth as he spoke. “Especially not this one.”
The girl nodded, leaning forward and breathing deep of his old, secret smell. His cigarettes, his cologne, the books he read and the detergent he used, they all combined into a singular, heavenly scent that she identified only as “Grandpa Smell.” The smell of home, of safety, of tales told on cold winter nights when everyone else was asleep.
“Go on, put a little more wood in the fire. Not the twigs this time; one of the big logs. And pour me a glass. Storytelling can be thirsty work, especially on a cold night.”
“Okay!” She spoke in an oddly endearing combination: a shriek of excitement merged with a stage whisper. The old man’s smile lost some of its sorrow.
She hopped down, immediately busying herself with his requests. He stood, taking a moment to pop all the knots in his spine, and cast an appraising glance around the room. He walked towards the wall switch and turned the dimmer down low, making the fire, the white glare of the television and the reflection of frost in the window the primary sources of light. He returned to his chair, head bowed in consideration for a moment, then lifted it, the big muscles in his arms – still there, still strong, despite having been retired for almost a decade – bunching with the strain. He drug the old chair towards the window, turning it so it faced directly out into the snow. Nodding, he settled back down, and made a beckoning gesture.
Marlene was ready; the log had been placed, his glass was filled. She set the glass carefully on the armrest of the chair, and climbed into her own favorite chair: his lap.
The old man took a sip of the whiskey, giving it a moment to bring its welcome heat. Nodding, he coughed into one fist to clear his throat and slid one arm around the girl. With the other, he pointed out the window.
“Do you see that, Marlene?” His voice had dropped an octave, a velvet whisper that promised wonders and excitement.
“See what, grandpa? The snow?”
“Well, yes… and no. The snow is there, but it’s what’s behind the snow that’s important.”
She leaned forward, her face almost touching the glass, squinting and trying to see what he was talking about. She shook her head and looked back up at him. His expression was hard to read; some of that sadness was back in it, and his eyes looked watery.
“I don’t see anything. Just the yard.”
“That’s okay, honey.” He scrubbed at her back briefly, the callused texture of his knotted hand bringing shivers through her. “Maybe you’ll see it. Just keep looking. And you have to look hard, okay?”
She nodded. “Of course, grandpa!”
“Alright, then. You have to look behind the snow, like I said. Because it’s not just our yard out there. Or even just the world. There’s a place past even that, where magic is real, and fairies and sprites and ghosts wander.”
“Ghosts!?” In a brief moment of fright, her voice had become more shrill than she intended, and she immediately clapped her hands over her mouth, blushing.
Grandpa didn’t seem to mind. He chuckled, taking another sip of his drink and patting her on the back again.
“Yes, ghosts. But they’re not going to hurt you. They have their own business to attend to, you know, and hurting people isn’t usually included.”
She bobbed her head, but slowly, as though filled with doubt at the prospect.
Sensing her worries, the grandfather smiled. “It’ll be alright, I promise. One guaranteed happily ever after, coming right up. Ready?”
“Ready!” she said, with more enthusiasm.
“Then keep looking.”
* * *
“A very long time ago, and not very far away at all, there were two villages. One was a village of farmers, who worked very hard and always had the tastiest vegetables. There were tomatoes and pumpkins, squash and peas, cabbage and rice, and there was always enough for everyone. There were fruits in the summer, too; strawberries bigger than you can imagine, and oranges so sweet you could shock your tongue, and birdfruits-“
“What’s a birdfruit, grandpa?”
“You don’t know about birdfruit? It’s what we used to eat all the time when we were young. They’re little green plums, almost, but they have wings. When you want one, you just put out your hand and call, and they fly right to you. Of course, you’d have to be careful. If you called too many at once, they might splat all over you, and those stains are hard to get out.”
“I want one!”
“Maybe we’ll go looking for them later. Okay? Now, keep looking…”
“But it was never winter there. Only spring and summer and fall. Time to plant and time to harvest, and that was all. But the villagers were fine with that. Saved them the trouble of cutting wood and making heavy clothes and worrying about if they’d saved enough food.
“Across a little lake, there was another village, and it was full of rusalki. They were the people who’d passed on, or had accidents, and were ghosts now, and they lived in their village with some of the fairies, who would conjure them up soups and nuts and pretty necklaces.
“It was always winter there, because the Fairy Queen liked it that way. She liked the cold, and the way light reflects off ice, and how, if you listened just right, you could hear singing in the low winds when they skated across the surface of the lake. Most of the rusalki were fine with it, too; they’d had enough of the other seasons when they lived across the lake, and when they came to the rusalki village, they thought it was new and different and fun. Building snowmen, and ice skating, and shaking the snow off the tops of the very tall trees. The fairies liked it, because their Queen liked it, and they always liked the things the Queen did. So they were pretty happy, too.
“Then one day a little girl came to the rusalki village. She was the prettiest little girl they had ever seen, with long blonde hair and big blue eyes and a velvet ribbon to tie her hair. And the Queen saw her and felt lonely for the first time in just about forever, because she remembered having a daughter once, who looked just like that little girl, but her daughter ran away to live with the humans and the Queen never saw her again.
“So the Queen went to meet the little girl, and took her in and adopted her, so she had a new daughter. Everyone was satisfied. After all, she was the prettiest little girl, and the rusalki and fairies who’d been there for a long time knew how lonely the Queen had been since her daughter ran away, even if she tried to pretend she wasn’t.”
“That’s so sad, grandpa!”
“I know, honey. But everybody has sad times, and sometimes you have to make it past that to find the happy ones, right?”
“Where was I? Oh, right. So the Queen adopted the little girl, and gave her a name, because the little girl didn’t remember what her name had been before she came to live with the rusalki. She named her Annysia, which means ‘little angel,’ and gave her all kinds of things to make her happy. There were pretty blue dresses, and glass tops that cast all the colors of the rainbow on the castle walls, and even her very own pony made of living ice, that she named Snowdancer. The little girl was very happy, and the Queen was happy to have a little girl again, and all the rusalki and fairies were happy because the Queen was happy and they had a princess again.
“But after a few years, Annysia decided she was bored. I mean, sure, all the toys and dresses and ponies she could ever want was nice, but part of her remembered her old village, and the way the trees would change color. Or how nice it was to find a big pile of leaves to jump in and the way they crunched just right when you did it. She loved the Queen, and she loved all the people, and they all loved her, but somehow it just wasn’t enough.
“She took to wandering away from the castle. Just a little bit at first, but further and further away as the years passed. The Queen started to worry, and told Annysia that she loved her, and wanted the best for her, but that she must never ever go past the midway point of the lake.
“Annysia, because she loved her mother, promised she wouldn’t. The Queen told her ‘If you do, I am not responsible for what will happen,’ and Annysia said ‘I understand, mother,’ and went out and rode Snowdancer to the lake.
“It was everything she had wanted, everything she had been missing; from her spot near the middle of the lake, she could watch the trees and the vegetables grow, could sometimes see the farmers working in the fields closest to the shore or hear them singing their work songs.
“One day, while she was watching, she saw a birdfruit tree that was growing close to the shore, and part of her remembered calling them and having them come. Now, the soups the fairies made were all delicious, with thick broth and lots of good things in them, but Annysia missed having fruit. So she reached out her hand, and whistled like she thought she’d done when she had been in the farming village so long ago, and the fruit came to her. It was delicious, just like she knew it would be.
“Today wasn’t like other days, though; while before the farmers were always far away, barely close enough to make out or hear – and a rusalka has much better sight and hearing than we do – there was one from the village who had was closer to the lake than anyone had been before.
“Andrei was the boyar’s son, and so everyone expected him to do brave, rash things, and he never disappointed them. Like when he went out into the woods with a stick, claiming that he was bear-hunting, or the time he fell into Irina’s well because he swore there was treasure down there. But today he was doing something even the other villagers would have been shocked at. He was walking along the lake, almost to the halfway point, and trying to see the village of the rusalki.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Because he was a very curious boy… and because his father had told him not to.”
“That doesn’t make any sense, grandpa.”
“Sure it does. When your mother says ‘You can’t have a cookie’ when you ask, don’t you just want the cookie more?”
“Well… sometimes. But why would his dad tell him not to go there?”
“Because the farmers remembered when the Fairy Queen lost her daughter, and they were very superstitious. Some of them thought the fairies or the rusalki might steal one of their children for revenge.”
“But that’d be mean, and you said they were nice!”
“They were… mostly. But fairies sometimes play tricks on people, and the farmers didn’t know the fairies or the rusalki very well, so they were worried. And since it was the princess who had gone missing, Andrei would be in the most danger of all, since he was the closest thing they had to a prince. So he especially wasn’t supposed to get close to the lake or the other village.”
“But he was not very good at listening, and liked to do things that no one else had done or thought of before, so he was close to the edge of the lake and he saw the birdfruit when it came to Annysia. Then he saw her, and just stopped. He saw how beautiful she was, and heard how kind she was in the way she whistled for the fruit, and knew that he loved her.”
“But was he cute? A fairy princess, even if she’s like a ghost, can’t just fall in love with some boy if he’s not cute.”
“Andrei was very handsome. With a broad chest and thick black hair and wide green eyes, he was just about the cutest boy in either village, and that included some of the fairies, who were filled with beauty.”
“Well… okay, then.”
“So do you know what Andrei did? He walked right up to the edge of the lake, and he waved, and called out ‘hello!’
“Annysia was so scared that she dove under the water and hid. She knew she wasn’t supposed to be seen; her mother had told her so, because the Queen knew that the farmers were scared of the fairies, and she didn’t want to make it any worse, even if they had stolen her daughter. So Annysia hid under the water, breathing from the secret bubbles that came up from down below, and waited until she heard Andrei go away before she swam back, mounted Snowdancer, and rode home.
“Andrei was heartbroken. He knew he’d scared her, and hadn’t meant to. He stayed by the lake for a while, waiting to see if she’d come back, but finally it was getting dark and he didn’t want to push his luck any farther. So he went home, too. He didn’t tell his father where he’d been or what he’d seen, even though he wanted to. He wanted to tell everyone about the beautiful fairy girl he’d seen and how he loved her, but he knew it would be dangerous, even more dangerous than when he’d hunted the bear, and so he stayed quiet.
“Annysia stayed quiet, too. She knew that if her mother knew that she’d been seen, she’d forbid Annysia from going to the lake anymore and Annysia didn’t want that. Plus, she thought the boy had been handsome. Part of her was very curious about the boy, even if he was a little scary. ‘He came to the edge once. Maybe he will come again. I won’t run away next time,’ she thought to herself.
“And so the next day, Annysia went to her place on the lake, and watched, and waited. And Andrei, thinking that what has been seen once might be seen again, went to the lake as well. And he watched, and waited. But neither saw the other until Annysia started to get hungry for fruit again, and called another birdfruit.
“When she whistled, Andrei ran to the spot he heard the noise, and saw her there. She was just about to take a big bite of the fruit when she saw him. It startled her, and she dropped it into the lake. She almost went down after it, but stood her ground, puffing out her chest and doing her best to look tough and strong as Andrei came towards the shore of the lake.
“Andrei was also trying to look big and tough and not afraid, but his heart was beating so very fast and he was shaking a little, because he was so in love with her and was worried she would run away again. As he got closer, and Annysia could see him better, and could see the way he was shaking, she realized that he was as scared of her as she was of him, and her heart melted a little bit, and she wasn’t as scared, and she realized she loved him too. So she swam to meet him, staying always on the rusalki side of the halfway point.
“They met there, at the middle, him on the shore on the farmer’s side, her in the lake on the fairies’ side, and they talked. They got to know each other, and told each other stories all day. Stories about who they were and what they dreamed about and what it was like in their respective villages. They talked so long that they didn’t notice that it had gotten dark until the owls began hooting, and both of them were suddenly worried and ran to their homes, because they knew they would be in trouble. But not before agreeing they would meet again tomorrow.
“When Annysia got home, the Queen was waiting, and wanted to know where she had been. Annysia couldn’t lie when asked a direct question – no fairy creature can, you know – and so told her mother about Andrei and the things he had told her about the farmers. Her mother was very upset, and reminded Annysia of what had happened to her older daughter. But seeing that Annysia was in love with Andrei and not able to bear the thought of causing her daughter pain, the Queen told her this:
“‘You may see him. But remember that you must always stay on our side of the lake, or I cannot be responsible for what will happen!’
“Annysia agreed – again – and thanked the Queen and ran off to her room to dream of the boy and wonder what it would be like to dance with him beneath a snowy sky, because he had told her that he had never seen snow because his village had no winters.
“Andrei ran home, and when his father asked him where he had been, he told him, for surely talking to one of the fair folk all day was proof that he was brave and rash and manly. But his father punished him, claiming he would bring down ruin on the whole village. He forbid him to see Annysia again, or even go near the lake. Andrei argued, he yelled, he even fought, but it did no good; seeing that his son would not be moved, Andrei’s father had him tied up in the town hall, thinking that keeping him away from Annysia for a day or two would make the boy forget about her and things could go back to normal.”
“He’s not a very nice daddy.”
“No, I guess he wasn’t. But sometimes parents and children disagree. Do you remember how your grandma used to be about your dad?”
“Yeah. She was always mean to him.”
“She didn’t mean to be. She was just worried about your mom. Sometimes parents do things that seem bad, but they mean well. Do you understand?”
“Don’t worry. It’ll be alright by the end. I promise.”
“Double promise pinky-swear?”
“Double promise pinky-swear.”
“So the next day, Annysia went out to meet Andrei, and went to her spot in the middle of the lake, and she looked and she called, but he didn’t come. She was terribly heartbroken, and she cried. Each tear that fell into the lake turned immediately to ice, building a coating of frost on the whole lake.
“Andrei could hear her calling, and could sense her crying, but try as he might, he couldn’t get out of the ropes they’d tied him with, and so he started shouting her name, as loud as he could.
“Annysia heard her lover’s shouts, and could feel the pain of the ropes biting into him, and could think of nothing except that he did love her, and he was hurting. She moved to go to the sound of his voice… but in so doing, she crossed the midway point of the lake. She only realized her error when her tears began to freeze completely, trapping her under a sheet of ice that sprang up across the lake. Clouds began to gather overhead, blowing from the to of the fairy queen’s castle on the rusalki side over to the farmer’s side, dropping snow as they went.
“In only a few hours, the frightened farmers were almost buried by snow, and they did not know what to do. ‘Our crops will die!’ they cried. ‘We’ll all freeze!’ they shouted. ‘What has done this?’ they demanded. Andrei’s father knew, of course; the fairies had cursed them because of his idiot son.”
“But that’s not what happened! It’s their fault, not Andrei’s!”
“I know, honey. But they didn’t know any better.”
“This had better end with a happily ever after, grandpa. Or I’ll be mad.”
“Shhh. Just keep looking. Can you see it yet? The place behind the snow?”
“Then we’re not done yet, are we? It’ll be alright soon.
“So. The whole farmer’s village froze over, and Andrei was still tied up, and Annysia was trapped under the ice, breathing from the secret bubbles and eating seeds from the birdfruit she had dropped before, which was turning into a tree. And people threw things at Andrei, the vegetables that had died and gone bad from the cold, and kept telling him that it was his fault. Only one villager never threw things, never blamed him; Old Alura would only watch him sadly, looking as though she was about to cry, and then would go away. But she came back day after day, and though the other villagers were getting thinner and angrier, she still looked the same.
“In the fairy village, there were no more games and fun; all the rusalki were sad and stared across the lake with worry in their hearts. They knew Annysia had gone missing, and they knew the Queen would be very upset, and they knew that whatever was happening over there was her form of revenge. The fairies were all sad as well, for no one wanted them to make delicious soup or wondrous toys or pretty jewelry, and their Queen had locked herself in her room and wouldn’t come out.
“Annysia stayed beneath the ice, crying and crying and tending her tree and drinking air from the secret bubbles. The tree had nearly reached the top of the ice now, and made plenty of fruit for her to eat, but it no longer tasted good. It just reminded her of the things she was missing, and what she missed most was, of course, Andrei.
“Finally, the villagers stopped coming to throw things at him. The children had even grown to enjoy the snow, to doing the things that the fairies thought were normal but that were new and different to them: ice skating and snow fights and frosted drinks. The adults were less pleased, but had figured out how to get on, sewing heavier clothes from the skins of the bears and making fires with the thickest trees their axes would cut. Still, they were worried. What would happen if spring never came? Would they all starve?
“But Old Alura didn’t stop coming. One day, she was the only one in the room with Andrei, and she smiled and ran to him.
“‘Shh,’ she said, as she untied him. ‘I know what has happened and what you must do. You must find your love, and things will be right.’
“Andrei didn’t know what to say. He was grateful that she had released him, but how could she know what had happened? He asked her, and she told him:
“‘I ran from my mother once, a long time ago, because I loved a human, too. My mother was very angry, and her anger and sorrow sent the winter against the farmers then, too. But then she saw that I was happy and though it made her sad, she stopped, so I might stay happy and my husband would not die.’
“Andrei was shocked by this. He’d known Alura was old, of course, but not that old.
“‘You must go, and take this.’ Alura reached into the neck of her heavy coat and pulled out a shining pendant made of ice and crystal. ‘Take it to your love and make her take it to our mother, and beg her mercy. Now go.’
“Andrei took the necklace and ran to the lake, but stopped at the halfway point. Sticking out from the ice was a single birdfruit. It hadn’t sprouted wings yet, but it was there just the same. When he went to look more closely, he saw the tip of a tree poking out from the ice, and heard weeping from beneath it. Knowing it had to be his lover, he ran to the shore and found himself a big stick, bigger even than the one he had been using to hunt bears, and picked it up, then ran back to the tip of the tree and started digging at the ice with his stick, and his hands and the tip of Alura’s pendant, which was very sharp and tough because it was a thing of fairy magic.
“Annysia heard the sounds, could hear Andrei’s grunts and shouts from above, and began to call to him. He had not forgotten her! She urged him to dig faster, and started helping as well, as best she could, digging from underneath the ice.
“The noise they were making brought people from both villages to the shores of the lake, staring at the young man and his antics and across at each other. Rusalki and fairies and humans all clustered around, until even the boyar and the Queen were gathered at the shore. Both of them walked out onto the ice to meet in the middle, where their shouting children were.
“At last, Andrei broke through the ice, and Annysia dove out of the water and into his arms. They held each other, and kissed each other, and their parents stared in shock and awe at the sight. When they separated, Andrei turned to the Fairy Queen and held out his hand, which still had Alura’s necklace hanging from it. He took a deep breath, and puffed out his chest, and tried to look as brave and as bold and as strong as any boyar had ever been, and said to her:
“‘Your daughter wanted me to give this to you. She says she begs your mercy, for herself, for the village and for your other daughter who I love.’
“The Queen’s face trembled. Cracked. Fell. She began to weep, small jewels of every color sprinkling down onto the ice, and some say that if you go fishing in the lake, you still might catch one. It’s very good luck.”
“I want to catch one!”
“I think you will, one day. But shhh, now. We’re almost at the best part.
“The boyar, too, began to weep, for he saw his folly and that this had been his doing.
“The boyar and the Queen looked at one another, and nodded.
“The boyar said: ‘I would be happy to welcome a new daughter. If her mother permits it.’
“The Queen said: ‘I would be overjoyed to have a son. If his father permits it.’
“Then they said together: ‘I permit it.’
“And so Andrei and Annysia were to be wed. And as part of the marriage agreement, the Queen spoke to the weather, and made it so that the rusalki would always have their winter, and the farmers would always have their summer. But at the shores of the lake, it would always be fall. And in the center, on a small island that grew around the birdfruit tree that had kept her daughter safe and fed, it would always be spring. And the Queen and the boyar agreed that they would each let their people cross as often as they liked. So they lived happily ever after.”
“Yay!” The little girl applauded.
“Did you see? Behind the snow, where the tree is?”
“Maybe…” The little girl’s voice was hesitant.
The grandfather laughed, as he took the last bit of his drink. “Tomorrow, when the sun comes up and everything’s sparkling with all that fresh snow, we’ll go out to the yard. Then we’ll go out to the lake behind that. You know the lake?”
“The one momma doesn’t let me swim in?” Her lips had pursed in a disgusted pout, probably related to her mother’s insistence that the lake was somehow contaminated or dangerous.
“Yes, that one. And she has her reasons, but it’s safe as houses right now. Frozen right over, though without any ghostly fairy princesses trapped beneath, I promise.”
“Well, okay. If you’re sure.”
“I am. But there is something else there. The big tree, right in the middle. Sometimes, if you go to that tree, and you wish really, really hard, and you had good dreams the night before… you can see behind the snow, and see that island of eternal spring, where Andrei and Annysia lived happily ever after. So we’re going to go and look for it.”
Marlene’s eyes were wide, lips trembling at the prospect of it. “Really?”
“Really.” He bent over her, putting his dry old lips to her forehead. “Now go on. It’s late. Get to bed, and have good dreams.”
She threw her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly, before giving him a healthy smack on his cheek. She slipped off his lap, and scurried to the door, pausing for a moment before she left the room. “Goodnight, grandpa. Love you. Sweet dreams.”
He smiled, turning his face away so she wouldn’t see the tears that were starting to well up in his eyes. “Goodnight, Marlene. I love you, too.”
When she was gone, and he was alone again, he rose from his seat and filled his glass. He settled back into his chair, staring out the window, past the yard, behind the snow, and to the lake he had once known so well. Lifting his glass, his voice thickened by emotion, he toasted the night.
“I love you, Annysia. Good night.”
Andrei drained his glass and leaned back in his hair, folding his hands over his chest. Moments later, he was asleep, and dreaming of his childhood.