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December 21, 2020

The Gifts of Midwinter, By Kelly Jarvis

 

A merry bonfire crackled on the riverbank, its burning logs snapping in the snowy silence. The babbling brook, usually eager to share its secrets, had been hushed by a thick layer of winter ice. 

It was too cold to be gathering near the water’s edge, but the villagers would not forgo their Solstice ritual of seeking the first star in the dusky evening sky. Even old Babushka, the storyteller, tottered toward her seat of honor next to the flames, her woolen scarf wrapped tightly around her white hair. One of the villagers offered her a sip of amber alcohol from his tankard, and she drank deeply, letting the burning liquid linger on her frozen lips.

 When the purple veil of twilight tossed itself across the horizon, Babushka knew it was time to start the story. She spoke slowly, as though her voice was gently pulling at the ribbon atop a brightly colored gift, trying to reach the present inside without damaging the beautiful wrappings.  

“A dark tale is best for winter,” she whispered, the skies deepening in response to her words. “And this dark tale begins with love, as dark tales often do.” 

The villagers drew closer. Babushka’s words hung in the frigid air as her breath rose, ghostlike, in the sun’s final glow. It seemed as though the spirit of Old Winter itself was speaking through the storyteller. 

“Davnym-Davno, Once Upon a Time,” Babushka began, “Father Frost and Mother Spring fell in love. Never was a pair more unfortunately wed, for he was aged with deep set wrinkles in his soul, and her mind was as young as a newly opened rose.”  

“The couple spent much of the year apart, for in summer, Mother Spring was busy tending to the growth of the world, and during autumn’s harvest, she rested. But each year just after the Winter Solstice, when her husband’s growing darkness finally turned toward her light, they would find each other again.” 

“Father Frost would initiate courtship by brooding about Mother Spring’s long absence, stubbornly refusing to lift the white blanket of the North so that he might welcome his wife home to bed. Mother Spring, ever young and playful, would shiver at his icy touch, teasing her husband with slices of sunshine and bits of birdsong until his temper softened. Try as he might, the surly god of winter was unable to resist the blush of life beneath the goddesses’ glowing green eyes.”  

“Their passionate embrace would plunge the new year into a turbulent dance of ice and thaw. Only when Father Frost saw the painful scars of frostbite his love had written across his wife’s dewy skin, would he allow himself to weaken so that she might grow. Mother Spring would weep with sorrow as her husband languished, and her tears would fall upon the earth like rain, coaxing beauty and life from the pain of his annual death.” 

Babushka stopped speaking and let her gaze fall upon the villagers. Some were wearing black coats or shawls, signs of the grief they had suffered since the last Solstice gathering. They nodded in sympathy as they recognized themselves in the sad tones of the tale. They leaned closer to the warmth of Babushka’s words, feeling their absent loved ones summoned by the story. 

“Although his immortal life renewed itself each year,” Babushka continued, “Father Frost knew that his seasonal death caused his wife immeasurable pain, so one year, he decided to give Mother Spring a parting gift to comfort her. With the last of his strength, he crafted a late season storm, molding mounds of fresh fallen powder into the shape of a snow-child. He gave it hair the color of sunlight, eyes the midnight blue of the sky, and lips stained red by holly berries.” 

“Delighted, Mother Spring kissed the gift, and her rose scented breath melted the snow-child into living flesh. They named their daughter Snegurochka, so they might remember she had been born from the last of winter’s beauty.” 

“The Snow Maiden lived in her father’s winter woods. She grew to be a lovely young lady, and though her pale skin was always cold to the touch, her golden hair, crowned with diamond icicles, radiated warmth, falling around her shoulders like liquid sunlight. Her parents took turns visiting her in her far-off realm. Her father would bring her long blue robes and fur trimmed hats to keep her warm in his chilly presence, and her mother would drape her in sundresses woven of white flower petals which fluttered against her temperate maternal breezes. Snegurochka was happy for thousands of years, but each year at the Solstice, when her parents forgot all but one another as they renewed their passion, the poor maiden grew lonely, longing to find a true love of her own.” 

“One year, the Snow Maiden wandered to the edge of the winter woods where she spied a shepherd driving his flock home from the fields. The sheep meandered down the lane like little earth-bound clouds of snow, and Snegurochka, having been crafted of snow herself, felt the gentle creatures were her kindred spirits. When the shepherd lifted his pipe of reeds to play his sheep a tender tune, the notes rang against the clear evening sky. The lonely melody lingered in the air, calling the sheep home, and stirring the Snow Maiden’s ice carved heart.” 

“Mortal love will bring you nothing but pain,” Father Frost howled, storming away when his daughter told him about the shepherd. He threatened to bury the shepherd under sheets of ice if Snegurochka did not promise to stay away from him. Confused, the Snow Maiden appealed to her mother, who could see warm desire blossoming beneath her daughter’s breast. “To truly know mortal love, you must become mortal yourself”, Mother Spring explained sadly. “Mortal life does not renew itself like the seasons. If you become mortal, you must leave the winter woods forever.”  

“Although she had lived for thousands of years, the Snow Maiden was little more than a child. She stamped her foot and cried until her doting mother, who could deny her daughter nothing, created a magic halo of white chrysanthemums. Mother Spring placed the flowers just above the maiden’s golden locks. She sighed in agony as she bid her daughter farewell, but Snegurochka, who was hurrying to reach her shepherd at the edge of the forest, was too excited to notice her mother’s tears.” 

“Snegurochka entered the grazing field at twilight. The sheep were wandering home, their soft wool blending into the purple shadows of the evening. The shepherd’s heavenly music lifted with the breeze and danced among the wakening stars. He turned to see a beautiful woman running toward him. Her silver gown fluttered behind her, spilling frosted drops of sparkling snow onto the solitary lane.” 

Babushka paused, giving the young sweethearts who were gathered around the Solstice fire time to smile shyly at one another, remembering their own romantic beginnings. When she spoke again, her voice creaked like a long-forgotten memory. “This is not a springtime story,” she warned, “This is a winter’s tale.” 

“The shepherd’s mystical music beat inside Snegurochka’s newly human heart, pulsing with passion and pain. When the Snow Maiden felt the weight of time wrap itself around her, she suddenly understood the terrible price she must pay to know true love. Still, she closed her midnight eyes, and still, she opened her berry lips, and still, she leaned forward to kiss the shepherd whose song had touched her soul. The moment her frozen skin brushed against his human heat, she melted into a puddle of icy water.”   

“The astonished shepherd stared at the chrysanthemum flowers floating on the misty pool at his feet. He brushed his fingers against the strange film of frost that settled on his beard. Then he returned to his somber song, filling the dusk with crystal notes, never knowing that he had been kissed by a Snow Maiden who had willingly sacrificed everything for one moment of mortal love.” 

The villagers stirred, and Babushka lowered her voice to conclude her tale. “Some say that if you listen carefully on the Solstice night, when the veil between the living and the dead is thin, you will hear the lonely voice of the Snow Maiden calling for her shepherd. Some say that all mortals who hear the shepherds haunting tune echoing off the stars on the longest and darkest night of the year will know great love and suffer great loss. Do not be afraid to listen, my children, for the pain of loss is the price of love, and it makes our mortal lives worth living.”  

A frozen tear slipped down the storyteller’s cheek as she spoke, and she lifted her face to the heavens where the first star of the Solstice, drawn forth by her story, unwrapped itself in the night sky.   

A cheer of celebration rose as the spell of the tale was broken. The villagers gulped the dregs of their tankards, hugging one another in Solstice celebration. Now that the star had appeared, they would return home to break the first bread of the winter holidays. They would feast and sing and exchange gifts. They would reminisce on the souls who had passed that year and celebrate the newest arrivals. They would set white candles in their windows, leaving the flames to flicker against the darkness until the breaking of dawn. 

Long after the villagers left the water’s edge, the merry embers of the dying bonfire continued to glow, casting a ruddy shine on the quiet surface of the river. Just past midnight, the swollen sky released a flurry of love-struck snowflakes who, having heard Babushka’s story of devotion and despair, eagerly threw themselves into the sizzling embrace of the burning ashes waiting below.  

Old Winter yawned and was finally lulled to sleep by the sweet, sad tune of a thousand stars singing a song of Solstice love.  

Kelly Jarvis teaches classes in literature, writing, and fairy tale at Central Connecticut State University, The University of Connecticut, and Tunxis Community College. She lives, happily ever after, with her husband and three sons in a house filled with fairy tale books.

Cover Painting by Otto Ubbelohde 1950

Cover Layout: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff

14 comments:

  1. Who can resist a dark tale? This is beautiful!
    Everything you write is absolutely beautiful.

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  2. How you see the world is beautiful and I have loved every second of this story. I'm sure I will never look at a blanket of snow or a puddle on the ground the same again. The people you hold dear must be very proud, I have no doubt. Well done, as always:)

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  3. Wonderful story, Kelly! A beautiful tale for a cold winter night.

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  4. Your way with words continues to amaze me. This story was both haunting and beautiful. It certainly is a winter’s tale. Please keep these stories coming!

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    1. I am so happy you liked it! Thank you so much! ❤️

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  5. What a beautiful story on a snowy night! Wishing everyone a Happy Solstice and Happy Holidays!

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  6. Always love your frosty tales. You never disappoint, Kelly. This is a wonderful way to welcome in the winter solstice. I have a warm desire blossoming for another one of your stories. Can’t wait for the next one!

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  7. Kelly, what a hauntingly beautiful tale. The frame tale of the storyteller adds a sweet dimension.

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