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Winter, Part One
A Solstice story
Snow translates the valley.
By the days of the first snowfall the world's turned brown, its dead maidenhair grasses crushed and woven into a ragged tapestry of muddy maple leaves, a sad reminder of what had been summer trapped beneath the dishwater skies of autumn.
Snow heralds change. It doesn't simply cover - it destroys and it renews, putting a face of crystal purity to the sharply brightening skies, reflecting the too-distant sun back into the heights in which she lives, beckoning to her, drawing her nearer, bringing her home to the valley she once loved; while underneath everything the snow hides liquefies and runs into the deepest places of the earth, into the ice-rimed river which carved this place from nothingness.
Snow, then sun, then spring and summer, ever and always until the final night, ever transforming the valley.
Now, however, the darkness held her close.
Snow crested over her carpet slippers, the only footwear the thieves had left her. They'd come in the night, taking the new boots that rose above her calves, the ones that kept her arthritic and swollen knees warm and dry. Snow stuck to the hem of her skirt, a too-thin wisp of fabric. They'd taken the blue jeans she worked in, the long underwear, her snow pants, every stitch that might have kept her warm and safe against the winter.
Still, she moved forward, watching for the sun.
It was difficult going for a woman hunched against both cold and time. Shoulders which had once been broad enough to bear toddlers and infants, to carry hay to the cows and pails of milk to the house, were now pinched together and rolled forward, huddling against the ears which sprouted coarse iron-grey hair from their recesses.
In the darkness she tripped, more than once, falling to the side with a small and unheard curse. They had taken her walking sticks, and besides, she no longer had the strength in her arms to fight the weight of the earth which tugged and taunted her. Rest, it seemed to say, fall and rest, fall and rest, here in the soft and the cold.
She did not rest. Her reward, she knew, lay in the center of the valley, and there were many hills and trees to pass before she would come to the center and the seat.
Dawn changes the world.
The Fox Valley sees few pale roses, few painter's dreams in late December. There is the deep black fading into a deeper blue, almost darker than the night it rolls away. The world is not revealed; it is peeled away, deep rich shadows paling into grey and white figures draped in snow and rimed with ice.
She lived for this moment, for the coming of dawn, for the stripping away of the silent blackness to see the world as it was, to feel the promise if not the warmth, to see the hope in the sky if not the hope's fulfillment.
She stood, desperate and shivering, plastered with snow from her countless tumbles, nose simultaneously streaming into her scarf and painfully dry in the sharpness of cold air. She watched the chasing of the dark, watched as the trees became trees, the stones became stones, the hill became a hill, the waiting man...
She closed her eyes, tears at the corners.
"Heather, you swore that you had learned." His was a pleasant baritone, tolerant and sad and carrying well in the soundless sky, a voice pitched and modulated for a country of rolling hills and vales. She said nothing in return, only opened her eyes. He stood in the east, of course, stood so that she could not watch the coming of the sun without acknowledging his presence.
His boots, she saw, were made for snow.
"Every year, we warn you." He remained standing, hands protected by black kidskin gloves, body swathed in a wool coat the color of charcoal, a cloud-grey scarf wrapped comfortably around his neck. "We send a Christmas card in the mail. We send it early, so you'll remember that we haven't forgotten you. We watch your farm, Heather. You know that. We hear your car on the days you start it and we hear your door when you latch it quietly behind you. This year we even sent you a party, Heather. We brought you gifts of fruit and wine and left them in place of all the things you wouldn't need today. Every year, we warn you, and every year, you come here anyway." He paused. "You'd make me proud, really, if it weren't such a nuisance.
"I can't afford to keep warning you, Heather. Last year was the last time. I told you that last year, and you swore – you swore to me, Heather – that this trip wouldn't be necessary. That none of this would be necessary."
She lifted her head, autumnal eyes under graying brows. "Then I'm a breaker of promises, Nathaniel Long, and long may you be damned for forcing me to become so."
"I didn't make you promise anything, Heather. I gave you a choice."
She snorted. "I chose to live, then, given the alternative." The sun had risen, and her attention was now focused squarely upon his long and delicate face, so different from the pale roundness of her own. "Things have changed."
"It's difficult, I know." Still the voice held that same sad tolerance, the half-false love of a father who feels betrayed. "Growing old, and worn, and tired and spent ... growing useless."
"There's plenty of use in me yet. You'll see, Nathaniel, if you just step out of my way."
"You know that I can't."
"I know you won't," she said, "though the devil knows why."
"That he does, among many other things. Still, I do want you to know that I do wish you'd listened. This won't bring me any joy."
"May it bring you pain," she spat, "and bring this town and all its halfwit fantasy down around your head in a crown of thorn and ashes."
"Well, we'll see," he said, not unpleasantly. "You can lie down, Heather. It's all right."
Already her lips were losing what little color they had, her thin blood turning sluggish in the cold. She stood, fixing her gaze on him. "In the old times," she whispered, "I'd have burned you where you stand, Nathaniel Long. I'd have drowned your babies and all you loved in the whitecaps of the flooded river of my birth. I'd have scorched your fields and kept heat from your crops. In the old time I would have pulled your poisoned fangs moments before I split your wicked grin and buried you beneath the sands."
"In the old times," he said, "I would never have known you, Heather Riley, and our lives were simpler things when we lived continents apart, but those days are dead and clinging to them only brings trouble. We survive by letting them go. That's the only reasonable thing."
"So you say, every year." The chattering of her teeth lent a stutter to her voice. "You're wrong. You've been wrong since the hour you were born. But maybe it's better this way, if it keeps another like you from this vale of tears."
"I've tried telling you that as well," he said, and his smile was genuine. "I do wish you'd listened, but for now, Heather, lie down and go to sleep. I've heard that it's a not unpleasant way to die."
And all things considered, it wasn't.
Weak light trickled through the bay windows where Corbin Byrne lay sprawled across his leather couch, one arm thrown across his eyes, a sweater rolled askew across his abdomen from where he'd twisted and turned in his dreams. He woke slowly to birdsong and for a brief moment he smiled before recalling that the song was nothing more than his phone's ring tone, set to remind him of spring.
He didn't need to look at the calendar to know that dream was mistaken. It was the winter solstice in the town of Solstice, and he ran one hand through his auburn curls with a frown. He'd hoped the day would pass without disturbance, though he hadn't really expected to get his wish. For a moment he considered falling back asleep to the sound of birdsong, then shook his head in frustration.
"Good morning, Corbin. Did I wake you?"
"Not really ... I'm just waking up."
"I imagine you know what I'm calling about?"
"Just tell me it's good news?"
"I'm afraid not," said Long. "Heather Riley's dead."
Corbin made a half-hearted effort to sound surprised. "Oh ... I'm sorry to hear it. She was getting on, I guess."
"Mmmm. At any rate, if you could come by today, I've pulled the files we put together last year and I want to know where we stand."
"All right. I'll be in around ... noon?"
"I'll bring in lunch. See you then."
"Yeah." Corbin hung up and looked out the window. He lived in a condominium along the riverside, high enough off the ground to keep him comfortable of nights. It gave a good view across the Fox to the east, where he could see the sun, scarcely visible behind the thick grey clouds of winter. He let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding.
"Why do I always have to bring her back?" He asked the window, but no answer came – only the first few heavy flakes, sticking to the other side of his reflection.
"Good morning, Sue." Corbin's smile was genuine, if tired. "Is his nibs in?"
"Good afternoon, Mr. Byrne." Sue returned the smile, keeping up an old charade. "If you mean the Mayor, he's in his office. Some kind of appointment, for which someone is apparently late."
"Chronically," he agreed with a nod. "I'll see you soon."
He walked through the metal detectors with a nod to old Drake and a handshake for the few other municipal employees who had not yet left for their holiday vacations. Through the cubicle patch and down a long hall before knocking at the frosted glass of Mayor Long's door.
"It's me, boss."
"Come on in, Corbin."
Mayor Long sat behind his desk, head cocked to hold a telephone receiver to his ear. He held up a finger and waved for Corbin to sit in one of the leather chairs along the windows, where he received visitors. This inner office was painted in warm jewel tones, deep reds and oranges reflecting light in all directions.
"This place always makes me feel like a fruit fly," said Corbin, plucking at his black turtleneck. "What was wrong with the old paneling?"
"Too austere, like you." Mayor Long wore a burgundy shirt and scale-grey vest with immaculately pressed dark pinstripe slacks. "It warms me up – winters get so long here, you know." He nodded toward a white paper bag. "I started already but you're welcome to go ahead. Oh, excuse me," he said into the telephone, "will three-thirty be all right? Excellent. Thank you so much, Doctor, I'll have the nanny bring him by. I appreciate your time."
Corbin lifted the lid and took a turkey sandwich before coming to the desk. "Is Nicky sick again?"
"It's probably just a cough, or in his head." Long sighed and reached for his coffee. "But you know, better safe than sorry."
"Kids," Corbin nodded, taking a bite of the sandwich. "Hope it turns out all right. Why don't you ever put out good food until evening?"
"If you were ever up early enough for a decent breakfast meeting, I'd offer to buy at Egg's." He tapped three manila folders lying on the desk. "I've been looking through them for a day or two, thinking it might come to this – along with your last notes. What exactly changed your mind about our first candidate?"
"She's going through therapy right now. With a specialist in regression and repressed memories, so that's right out."
"How did she start in on that?"
"Bad timing ... just one of those things. Her blog said she had an epiphany and decided to start last August, when I was busy with the Smiths up north. I couldn't leave that case to fly down and convince her the guy's a sham."
"Anyone we know?"
"No, a local. If he was on the blacklist I'd have brought in some leverage earlier."
"Well, it would have been a hard sell to bring her up from Florida during the winter, anyway. That makes Ms. Soon your first choice?"
"Yeah." Corbin leaned against the desk with his hip, flipping through the second folder. "She's in St. Paul right now, so moving down here might actually seem like a winter blessing. Plus, her ex-husband's violated the restraining order twice already, so we can hopefully bring up Sheriff MacIntyre's history of working with women in bad situations."
"Have you talked to MacIntyre?"
"No, and that's sure as hell not my place right now. She'll know why we're looking to bring Ms. Soon to Solstice, and I don't think she's going to like it."
"I don't like it either." For the first time, Long's face pulled into a frown. It aged him, bringing the lines around his thin lips into high relief. "And I know that you don't. I tried to reason with her, Corbin. You know I tried. You were there a few times, years back."
"Yeah, but that's the only reason I'm not kicking about all of this." Corbin tapped his fingers on the file. "Heather was with us for a long time, Nate. She was patient in a way that these others won't be. She at least used to know the value of walking away, even if it was only to fight again next year."
"Believe me, I know."
"I just want to be clear." Corbin pushed off from the desk and walked slowly to the door. "This isn't something I do lightly, and it isn't something I enjoy."
"But it is what you're good at, and it is what I pay you to do, and you do seem to enjoy that."
Corbin took a breath, and mentally counted to five. "I'm not complaining, boss. Like I say, I just want to be clear."
"Consider it done." Long's voice lost its edge and returned to its pleasant baritone. "It's been a difficult day, and I think we're both a little tired. I'll talk to MacIntyre, all right? You don't need to get involved on that end."
"Unless I get Ms. Soon down here."
"Until, Corbin. Until you get her down here." Long's smile was full of perfect teeth. "I have faith in you. Sue will make the arrangements, and you can fly to St. Paul as soon as you're ready."
"Do you want to know how it gets done?" The question was a formality, and Corbin was already shrugging back into his jacket.
"No, no. Just let me know if you run into any problems, and be sure to keep an eye on her ex-husband as well. If he's watching her, we might have more trouble than we thought."
Corbin snorted. "The day I can't outwit some random wife beater is the day I'll never see."
"Why, boss. I thought you had faith in me."
Story and image by Ivan Ewert, Copyright 2009