Gritty Details

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Saturday's Storyteller; "She sang the carol that summoned the snows."

by Belinda Roddie

She sang the carol that summoned the snows. And I, poor sap standing in the blizzard, fell madly in love with her.

It started after the last storm, and I caught a glimpse of her as she stood on the hill outside of town, crooning to the moon as she always did. Her hair, undone as if from a rope-thick braid, hung in red spirals around her shoulders. She wore her father's cloak: Green, trimmed with silver brighter than the tinsel on my family's Christmas tree. From the side, I could see that her hands were clasped in front of her, her fingers intertwined like basket reeds, as she sang the madrigal that brought the wind and ice to the mountains and valleys.

It was because of her that we could retrieve water from the rivers. It was because of her that the seasons passed as they should. And much against my own rational thought, and against my family's wishes, I adored her.

They told me that she was not to be trusted, but with each fleeting year and each swell of frost, my heart grew warmer in my chest, burning as if fired by coals. I did not understand the words that came from her lips, but the melody made my breath freeze in my throat. It sounded like church bells and harps and sleighs clattering across the shining powder. It sounded like distant drums and trampling horses' hooves and shrieking zephyrs. It was gentle, like a lullaby played on a spinet piano; blustering, like angelic trumpets from on high; welcoming, like a jig played on a fiddle and flute as the townsfolk held their annual holiday gala. I was lured to it as if by a Christmas siren. She enticed me with her voice.

Of course, apart from the music she provided and the winter she delivered to us, I knew nothing about her. Nor did I imagine I would become acquainted with her any time soon. The festival would begin shortly, and I was not expecting her to attend. Besides her duties to the town, she did not associate herself with the general populace, and I was certain that she did not speak much. My father had once told me, over tea and homemade biscuits, that she had a terrible stutter that nearly rendered her mute. While she could barely speak, she could sing, and she found her voice through the gift of music. Who was I to challenge her on that? And yet, there I was, listening to her, waiting for something besides her song.

When I worked alongside my brother and sister at the shop where we sold our carvings and our ceramics, I could barely concentrate on my craft. I would find myself drawing out her face in the clay that rose like a brown flower from the potter's wheel, and I would have to remake the jar all over again. Not even night spared me; I would dream of her, her eyes glinting only a few feet away from me, both of us ankle deep in the snow, our only contact being the icy particles of our breath mingling in the air. Connected by nothing but the space between us.

And so it was that, as I manned the market stand at the festival while my brother and sister were fetching plates of beef and cheese from the local food vendor, that I found myself paralyzed at the sight of her, edging slowly toward my table.

The snow had lessened somewhat in its descent, and even though the ground was covered in a beautiful white, we did not expect another torrent of the elements to swallow up our town this week. The gods worked with her, but they were not cruel. They would cater to our needs once in a while. I could feel my own cheeks throb above my tattered scarf, and I quietly hoped that I was not blushing. Her hair was up in a bright crimson braid, and the chill brought out the freckles around her nose and eyes.

At first, when she approached me, I could not speak. She didn't seem to mind; instead, in the mutual silence, she examined my family wares, her brown eyes scanning each bowl and cup and plate that I had tirelessly formed out of the earth with my callused hands. I was caught off guard when she pointed at a particular dish, which I had delicately painted before allowing it to dry in the kiln. It was a rich blood red, with illegible golden handwriting embroidering its voluptuous body like coils or chains. I was quite proud of it.

"Oh! That." I found the words and managed to expel them from my mouth somehow. They felt heavy and sticky, like toffee. "Just made, actually."

"By...you?"

Her voice, sans a lyrical Noel, startled me. She spoke slowly, haltingly, only those two words. She must have prioritized them above all others. I felt my tongue flop against my teeth.

"Er...yes. I made it yesterday." I flailed my hand in its direction. "Five shillings, if you're interested."

Her smile could have melted me from the inside, like a furnace, and I almost began to stammer myself. She reached into her cloak and produced a small, brown satchel, which she offered to me. I poured out the coins and counted ten.

"All...yours." She folded her hands as I weighed the gold and silver discs in my palm. I stared at her.

"No change?" She shook her head. I wrapped up the bowl and handed it to her. "You sure you don't want something else? I have cups for three shillings, four shillings..."

No dice. No mugs for her, or chalices, or glasses. She simply took the bowl and walked away, leaving me wobbling behind my stand. It took me a while to realize that perhaps she knew that the other items I promoted were not made by me; after all, my sister was the glassblower, my brother the woodworker. I made the pottery. I was the one who could.

I watched her walk away and felt a weight press further and further upon my back, as if a great stone held me down and made it difficult for me to breathe. Not only had she purchased one of my wares; she had also spoken to me. Her, the one who could only communicate through an aria or canticle, who felt her burdensome stutter lift when the notes of a chorus buoyed the lyrics drifting from her lips. She had spoken to me, Perhaps tonight, when I drank and danced with my brother and sister at the local tavern, she would sing, too. Maybe even to me.

Despite my personal vertigo, I managed to sell most of what my family had made before sunset. Then, packing everything up and putting on my fur hat, I walked from the festival market with an impulsive spring in my step. I was not ashamed.

***

Lester the fiddler and Jaclyn, his accompanist, were already playing reels by the time my brother, sister, and I settled down at our table with majestic pints of golden-amber ale. The crisp honeyed bite of the booze warmed up my body in all the right ways, and I basked in the heat of each slow sip. 

My brother enjoyed the music; my sister did not. She did not like much noise, truth be told, save for the sizzling of her torch and the soft hiss of her cutters as she made quick work of hot glass. She made everything, from crystal horses to shining lanterns to simple figurines suspended forever in the literal sands of time. She drank her beer faster than my brother and I did, then promptly returned to the bar for a second round as we applauded one musical piece and awaited another.

"If all goes as well as it did today," my brother commented over the lip of his glass, "we may not have to work at the festival on Christmas Eve. We could spend time with Papa."

I swallowed a mouthful of ale. "You think we could manage that?"

"Sure. Today, we sold double than what we expected. If it keeps going like this, we won't have anything left to offer." He looked me up and down, his eyes seeming to be glazed like my own ceramics. "Nice work getting that bowl sold for twice the price, by the way. You did a good job on it."

"I didn't mean to get double the price."

My brother smiled. "Then someone must have really liked it," he said. "This is why I tell you to be careful how you measure the worth of your art, Eirian. You assume your work is inferior and deserves only pennies. I feel like it deserves at least the meaning of your name."

I laughed. "Not even my finest is worth silver."

"Well, I didn't say gold, now, did I?"

That quip landed my brother a jab in the ribs with my elbow, and we jostled each other for a bit before my sister returned with a second brimming pint. From there, the conversation shifted to holiday plans - who would prepare breakfast on Christmas Day, who would manage the daily activities, who would cook up the roast. I was not much of a chef myself, but I could make a mean mead. Pottery was not my only path in my life, though I was not sure, at this point, what my true passion was.

Save for her.

She entered the tavern and hung her father's cloak by the side of the door, the light snowfall from outside having flocked the fabric like a fresh fir tree. Her cheeks were red from the cold, but her smile was something everyone noticed. All of the patrons stared at her in bewilderment as she passed, and she sidled up to a stool at the corner of the bar. My siblings noticed the way I gazed at her. They said nothing. I knew how they felt, for they had made it painfully clear to me.

I wondered if she would sing for us. As the bartender served her what appeared to be a hot toddy, I could hear the reels change to lingering, wordless ballads, telling stories that needed no language but yielded richness in their rhythm and wiles. Lester played on his own for a few of these songs, and then Jaclyn took the lead, singing a sean-nós that brought even my sister to tears. I was about ready to start singing myself, even though I couldn't manage to stay on key after one or two notes. I finished my pint of ale, and then I heard a rustling of fabric beside me.

"Someone wants to dance," my brother said quietly, begrudgingly. He was staring up at her, eyeing her red hair, her stature, her thick eyebrows. I don't think she noticed.

"Who? With whom? To what?"

It was then that Lester started up another tune, his bow zipping across his fiddle. The siren's call. She was gripping my shoulder now, leading me away from the table. Her hands settled on my neck. Dizzy, I felt my fingers find their way to her hips. The fabric of her trousers felt glossy, like silk. Her breath was hot against mine.

"Do you normally just get someone to dance without actually asking them?" I was locking my eyes on hers for the first time without fearing I would faint. I felt invigorated, like an anvil struck by a rogue hammer.

Her smile didn't fade. Her words were less spaced out, no room for faltering. "Just you."

As we danced, I looked around and did not know where my siblings had gone. Their table had been vacated, the steins left half-emptied and lonely. Perhaps they had gone to warn my father, who would not tolerate this sort of behavior from me. Perhaps he would burst through the tavern doors in his bedclothes, his face a fiery purple, his cane like a cudgel in his fist. He had told me before - no, warned me - that I was not to impose my presence on any lady, much less her. Her. The songstress of the seasons. The musical wonder.

But he never came. And he never spoke to me about that night. Ever.

No one moved along with our choreography. All were watching. All were wordless. They must have been baffled, for we were probably an odd sight. Me, short-haired and ruddy, still dressed in my work tunic and apron, clay residue always remaining under my fingernails no matter how hard I scrubbed my hands with soap and water. Her, significantly taller than I was, almost more masculine in build than I was, leading me across the floor as if guiding me on a journey I could not fathom on my own. Her hands did not shake or twitch against my shoulders. Her lips were curled, as if she wanted to speak to me further but just left the words backed up behind her tongue. She led me, and I followed.

Once the dance was over, I found myself outside with her, trying to stay warm as the effects of the beer wore off. She briefly went back inside to retrieve her cloak and my jacket, the latter of which she draped across my shoulders like a cape. I chuckled.

"Thanks."

She didn't respond. She took my hand and pointed toward the hill. It was dark by this point, with no moon.

"You're going to sing again?"

She nodded.

"And you want me to come with you?"

Another nod. I was floored. Inside, the music continued as if nothing had happened. People drank. People danced. People celebrated the Yule.

"I'd be honored."

So she took me. And I heard her sing. And she told a story I could not tell on my own, not through art or brewing or making silly bowls. Yet she held the vessel she had purchased from me as she continued her ode to the winter, to ask that the gods be calm. Only a few flecks of snow descended into the mouth of the bowl. It was as if she were collecting tokens of appreciation.

When she was done, I gathered the courage to stand beside her. She communicated to me through music, I to her through my craft. And both worlds were joined by warm kisses that left imprints on my mouth, before she tucked her hands beneath her cloak and left me in the frigid night.

She sang the carol that summoned the snows. And I loved her.

This week's prompt was provided by Daniel Bulone.

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