Longest Night

Longest Night - a short story by Karen de Lange

 

Dan takes his gloved hands away from my eyes. Even through my eyelids, the sudden light is dazzling. Something cold brushes against my face. ‘You can open your eyes now, Bryony.’ There might be laughter in his voice.
I open my eyes. Dan has brought me to the very edge of the forest, to where the branches of the pine trees reach out over the moorland, casting a shadow which warns of the darkness beyond. There are wolves and tree cats somewhere in that gloomy place, and who knows what else; we are at the border of their kingdom, the end of human influence.
Dan has stepped away from me to lean against a tree trunk, arms folded on his broad chest, watching me with eyebrows raised. ‘Well?’
I turn away from him, away from the thick green light beneath the trees, towards the open moor and the grey winter sky. A handful of smoke plumes mark where the village nestles out of sight a mile or so distant. And the first few flakes of snow are fluttering down, landing like goose-down on my outstretched hand. ‘Oh! It’s snowing.’
‘You noticed.’ Yes, he is definitely laughing at me.
‘How did you know it was going to snow?’
‘Because I made it snow.’
I snort. Now I am laughing at him. ‘You’re a blacksmith, Dan. Not a weather witch.’
He pushes himself away from the tree. His feet crunch on the carpet of pine needles, releasing their sharp scent. ‘I’m a blacksmith now, yes.’ He tweaks my cold nose. ‘You’ve known me two months, Bryony. Don’t assume you know everything about me.’
No chance of that. I rub my nose with my equally cold fingers. ‘You should tell Mairtin. You could help with the harvest.’
‘Mairtin doesn’t trust me yet; I’m still the stranger here, remember? But when the time’s right, I’ll help with the harvest, if they need me.’ He gestures round at the snow beginning to cover the ground, clinging to the boughs above us. ‘Meanwhile, you said you wanted snow for Longest Night. And you have snow. So you don’t tell Mairtin. Yes?’
I think for a moment. Mairtin is my great-uncle, one of the wisest and best of all of us. ‘For now,’ I agree.

 

I think it will be one of the most beautiful Longest Night celebrations I can remember. I keep my own house now, am counted as an adult of the village, and I am free to stay out as long as I wish. All night, if I want.
The sky is darkening by the time Dan and I return from the forest’s edge, though there is no sign of the setting sun behind the thick clouds. Dan goes back to the forge to send his apprentice home and lock up. The other women of the village call to me to help them, and together we hang long strings of lanterns between the houses around the edge of the square. Men come and go, singing as they bring armfuls of wood for the fire which will warm us all through the night.
Still the snow drifts down. I pull my scarf tight around my head, and the cold air rasps in the back of my throat. I have no doubt that my cheeks are just as flushed as all the other women’s, with snowflakes caught in my eyebrows just as in theirs, turning us all into parodies of our own mothers. Even with the constant tramp of feet back and forth, the ground soon acquires a mottled covering of white. By the time the fire is lit, the roofs of the houses are completely covered.
I tilt my face to the sky, watching the snow spiralling silently out of the blackness, catching the light from the lanterns as it floats to the earth. I can no longer feel the tips of my fingers, but that doesn’t matter. Dan finds me there, touching me lightly on the shoulder so that I don’t startle. The other women draw back a little, casting looks at what they see as his over-familiarity. How long must he live among us before they will accept him, I wonder? How long before they see him as one of them, as their blacksmith, their friend, and not a stranger from a distant city? How long before he will tell any of us the truth about why he came here?
He holds out a beaker to me. ‘Here. You look like you need warming.’
I take it and lift it to my nose. The scent of the whisky is dark and heathery. ‘Thank you.’
‘They want me to help light the fire.’ He smiles. ‘Stay here.’
‘I will.’

 

The fire blazes as high as the snow-blanketed roofs. From a smaller fire, the mouth-watering smell of roasting pork fat rises from two slowly turning hogs. Three fiddles and a flute send their music soaring high and fast, and my feet carry my equally fast, flying across the hard ground from one partner to the next round the circle of the dance. The music is a bird in flight, it is a waterfall, it is the tiny pricks of cold snow I feel on my warm face. Arms and hands pass me back and forth; my feet never stop moving.
My breath crystallizes into tiny cloudlets each time I exhale. Dan laughs as he spins me round, releases me, catches me, releases me again to the next man in the circle. Time and dance and song all blur into one; I am free, I am free.

 

Now the darkest time of the night; the darkest time of the year. The fire spits sparks into the empty sky; the snow has stopped. All the children have been ushered off to bed and nothing remains of the hogs but bone and gristle. The fiddles still play but it is no longer the whirling jig that draws feet and soul to spin faster and faster. This is a step-dance, stately and graceful. I turn and curtsy and turn again.
The pattern of the dance leads me close to where Mairtin sits on a chair that has been brought outside especially for him. He is so wrapped up in wool and fur that only his eyes, nose and mouth show. As I pass he beckons to me. I leave my partner with an apologetic wave and go to my great-uncle.
‘Mairtin.’
‘Bryony, my dear.’ He reaches out his hands to me. ‘Help me up, will you? I would walk a little, and it seems I have frozen here.’
I take his wrists and pull gently, bringing him to his feet. He is so light; my washing-bowl is heavier. I let him support himself on my arm as we walk. The dancers make way for us – or rather, for him.
Here, now, so close to the fire that the heat is almost painful on my face, though my back is still cold, and my ears are filled with the crackling and the crumpling of the wood, Mairtin stops. He closes his eyes, smiling.
‘Warm enough?’ I ask.
‘Yes, my dear. Very nearly.’ He opens his eyes and looks around us, ‘This is a good place.’
Does he mean the village? Or this very spot, here beside the bonfire, the dry air rippling with heat haze and snowmelt beneath our feet? ‘It is,’ I agree.
His eyes focus abruptly, fixing on my face. ‘There are more things in this world than our imaginations can countenance,’ he says, and it sounds for all the world like a warning. ‘More things in the forest than we like to believe we understand.’
‘Yes, Mairtin.’ I wonder if he is rambling, if this is the first sign of the dementia he has held at bay for so long.
He looks away from me. ‘You should be careful, my dearest Bryony. I should not like to see you in danger, and be unable to help you.’
I follow his gaze, and find myself looking at Dan. He is standing at the edge of the square, heedless of the dancers, watching Mairtin and I. There is not enough light to see his expression, but he is certainly not smiling.
I could pretend I do not know what Mairtin is talking about, but that would insult both of us. Still, what he is saying makes me angry. ‘I am in no danger from anybody, Mairtin. And just because Dan is new to our village, that doesn’t mean anything. He’s been good to all of us.’
Mairtin looks back at me. ‘He could live here for twenty years, dear. That wouldn’t change what he is. He doesn’t belong here.’
A weather witch, I almost say, but then I remember my promise to Dan. Besides, there is a look on Mairtin’s face that says he did not mean anything like that at all.

 

The clouds are clearing. Through a gap close to the horizon I can see the Witch Star, shining orange. The fire is burning down, but there are not many people left for it to warm. Most of them are sat close to it, talking and laughing and drinking whisky. Nobody plays music.
Mairtin retired to his bed hours ago, but I am still here, sitting on the chair he has vacated. He refused to speak any more on the subject of Dan after his last, cryptic announcement. I am trying to dismiss what he said as merely age, and fear of the unknown, but something in me won’t believe it.
Dan is here now, still, pacing back and forth at the edge of the firelight, unwelcome at any of the warm, whisky-fuelled conversations. There is only one way to set my mind at ease, I tell myself, and go over to him, treading carefully on the icy ground.
He turns away from me. As he does, the firelight catches his eyes, reflecting, for such a brief moment I am sure that I have imagined it, the slit pupil of a golden-eyed tree cat. He walks away.
And I follow, one strange step after another on the hard ground. Under the strings of lanterns, between the dark houses. Why am I following? I don’t even know.
As we leave the village Dan looks over his shoulder. I am reassured that he knows I am following, that I am not sneaking or prying. I am sure that flash of gold was my imagination. Just tiredness making me see things.
Out towards the woods, to where Dan took me earlier. Where he made it snow. The Witch Star has set and the sky in the east is turning a deep turquoise. A few clouds high overhead are already catching a pink glow from the approaching sun.
The edge of the woods. The exact same spot. Dan waits for me, his head bowed. Under the trees no snow lies on the ground, but the pine needles crackle beneath my feet, each one edged with frost.
‘Bryony.’ His voice is flat.
‘Dan.’ I reach out and take his hand, hanging limp by his side.
‘Are you here to interrogate me?’
‘No.’ How could I do such a thing?
‘You heard what Mairtin said.’
‘I heard what Mairtin said,’ I reply carefully. Of course I did. But he didn’t. He was over on the other side of the square. ‘You were right, Mairtin doesn’t trust you. If you told him you were a weather witch, it might help.’
‘No, it wouldn’t.’ He looks sad. ‘Did you hear what Mairtin didn’t say?’
Oh, I am sick of this. I only want to go to bed now. ‘Out with it.’
He looks up, and the shock makes me take a step back.
‘Gods.’
‘Don’t be afraid.’ Those gold tree cat eyes look so out of place in his gentle face, yet somehow so right as well.
‘What are you?’ I whisper. I realise that I am rubbing my own hand where up to a moment ago it had been in contact with his, and I force myself to stop.
‘Crommenach.’
‘What?’
He looks to the sky. ‘I don’t know how to say it in your language. Mairtin might.’
‘He didn’t know what you are.’
‘He suspects. There are legends.’ Dan reaches up with one hand, pointing to the sky. Unlike yesterday evening, the only clouds now are the high and wispy ones, but we are suddenly surrounded by a flurry of snow. He lowers his hand again and the snow stops, leaving only a thin layer on the ground around us.
‘You are no weather witch,’ I accuse him. ‘Why did you even come to our village?’
‘There are places in the world where our blood is still mixed with the blood of humans. These places are almost like home to us; we can rest in them, when we are in need of rest. I was in need of rest.’ His eyes narrow. ‘You feel it, don’t you?’
Every hair on my body is standing on end. The air prickles against my skin. ‘I feel nothing.’
‘We are the people of the borderlands. The places of change.’ He looks around. ‘The place where forest becomes field. Where night changes to day. Where one year meets the next. I knew you would follow me here. Will you come a little further?’ Dan holds a hand out to me, inviting me. His eyes are still gold as a summer sun, glowing against the black shadows of the forest.
‘No.’ I take a step back. ‘You aren’t who I thought you were.’ If I keep telling myself that I am angry rather than afraid, maybe it will be true.
‘Very well.’ He drops his hand, and the glow of his eyes dims; or maybe that is just because of the growing light in the sky. ‘Take care, Bryony.’
I don’t think that I so much as blink, but he is gone. The trees rustle. The borderlands. The places of change. I close my eyes, knowing that there is indeed power in this place and this time. Snow, I think impetuously, and open my eyes again. A handful of flakes flutter down through the empty air.
A sliver of sun shows itself above the blue horizon. I turn my feet towards the village, towards home. It is time and past that I was in bed. I hope that I am just imagining the sensation of being watched by tree cat eyes from beneath dark branches.

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