There once lived an old woman who was so very old that none remembered her name. They called her Granny Winter, because her eyes were the color of water under ice, and her hair was the pure white of newly fallen snow. Pinned up in a bun, her hair was drawn so tightly that it pulled at the skin of her face. She never argued the name, but she did not seem to care for it either: her mouth turned into a sour frown and she glared when someone used it. Still, she answered, so no one ever thought to call her differently.
Granny Winter lived in a small house in the northern end of the village, which in turn was at the top of a mountain. She kept to herself, and if she’d ever had a husband, he was long forgotten to the past. The young men sometimes tried to dare each other to steal a kiss from her thin pressed lips, but no one ever accepted. If she’d ever had lover or family, they were nothing more than village legend now. She had a small flock of goats and a single donkey that seemed nearly as ancient as its mistress, but other than that she lived alone. Stray animals avoided Granny Winter’s house, and mothers whispered to their children to keep their distance. The old woman made no attempts to change this either; she seemed content to interact with the rest of the village as little as possible. Only once a week, on market-day, did she actually enter the village, leading her tottery donkey on a piece of fraying rope, its back piled with jugs of pale yellow goat milk. She bought what little things she needed, speaking briefly, then headed back up the steep trail, never looking back.
Life had followed this pattern for many years; even the oldest man in the village, who was now mayor simply by default, could not remember a time when Granny Winter did not make her slow, careful way to the market every week, looking as old as the rocks that lined the path.
Then, one year, there was a winter so fierce and terrible that three strong, healthy men froze to death in their beds overnight. As the cold deepened, heading into the darkness of the midwinter months, the people of the village drew together for warmth, coming together in the mayor’s fine house and sleeping in crowded, clumsy quarters. Only Granny Winter did not come, and people whispered that she must already be dead, like a canary in a mine: if only people had thought to check on her, and seen the harbringer! Others said that this was the revenge of her abandoned ghost, finally dead and without anyone to perform last rites before it could become a lost soul, seeking retribution against a village that she had never loved. They told stories and bowed their heads together and shivered as the wind howled outside, tearing at the walls and shrieking through the skeletal branches of trees.
Midwinter Day dawned icy-cold and clear, and people opened the windows and peered outside, squinting against the blinding reflection of light off the snow. What they saw was a girl standing in the middle of the village. She was hardly dressed for the weather: her bare feet made a line of faltering tracks in the heavy snow, and her white shift scarcely reached past her knees. A few of the youngest men, with the hottest blood, rushed out and tried to coax her inside; it took long moments before she consented.
Inside, the girl was given hot soup and tea and bundled up with what few blankets the villagers had to spare, before being led to the fire and pressed to sit. She was lovely and pale, with eyes the color of dark water under thick ice and hair so pale blond in color that it seemed nearly white. Her face was an elegant oval and her lips pursed into a tiny pink heart, dark against her fair skin. She drank what was given to her, but did not speak when they pressed her for a name or where she’d come from, only staring into the fire without blinking for long, long seconds. Still, many of the young men persisted: she was lovely and she was strange, and that was enough to enchant a good number of them.
Finally, as evening began to cut through the flimsy protection of the day, she looked up from the fire, and she said, “I must go see my grandmother.” Her voice was small and thin and high, more like a child than an adult woman.
The oldest of the village youths was named Richard, and he had spent the entire day at her side, attempting to get her to speak. He pounced on her words. “Your grandmother? You have family here? What’s your name? We could take you to her.”
She turned to look at him. When she blinked, her white lashes made strange crisscrossed shadow patterns against the high rise of her cheekbones. Her eyes darkened, so now they seemed less like ice and more like deep still waters. “I have to see her,” she repeated. “I have to see her before Midwinter’s Day ends.”
“It’s too late to go out,” he said. “We’ll give you more tea, and you can share my blankets. That way you will keep warm until tomorrow, and then we’ll go see your grandmother.”
The girl cocked her head. She frowned. “I have to find her,” she said, and she got to her feet, shedding the blankets that had been piled around her shoulders as she did. “Grandmother is waiting. I don’t want to keep her for too long.”
“You can’t do that,” said the second oldest of the village youths, whose name was Lucas, and who had also spent the day at her side. He looked at Richard and he looked at the girl, and he went on, “Night is coming. It’s too cold to go outside. You’ll have to wait.”
“I cannot.” The girl stepped away from the fire. She frowned at the ring of people that was silently forming around her. “Let me go.”
“It is folly,” said the mayor, whose beard was gray and whose face sagged with wrinkles. He was very old, but people still remembered his name though none used it any longer. “You’ll freeze to death if you wear nothing but that little shift. Once the sun sets completely, it will be too cold to bear outside. There is enough food for you, if people are careful; stay inside and rest until morning.”
Again, the girl said, “I must go see my grandmother.” She stared at each person around her in turn, never once blinking. “Whether or not you think you can allow me, I must go.” She stepped forward, and then forward again. Though people crowded in close, trying to form a wall of bodies, somehow she slipped through, elegant as any choreographed dance, her eyes fixed on the door. When she reached it, though, the mayor caught her small wrist in his large gnarled hand.
“Stupid girl,” said the mayor. “We couldn’t let you go outside now, no matter how much you wanted. It’s so cold that letting any of it inside would kill us, as well. Don’t be selfish. Wait until tomorrow; if there’s any sun, that will be enough to send you on your way.”
She looked at him with her ice-colored eyes. She said, “There was no way I could get in without being invited. There is no way you can keep me here.”
The people looking on only saw this: that the mayor abruptly went white as snow, looking into the girl’s eyes, and let go of her wrist, stumbling back until he hit the wall with his shoulders. His mouth gaped open and his hand remained half-raised, pointing. The girl watched him for a few moments longer, then turned back to the door, which she opened and stepped through. A blast of knife sharp wind tore around her slim frame and those inside flinched away as one; when they looked again, the girl was gone.
Rather than follow her into her folly, they closed the door again, padding the frame with the blankets she’d discarded, and turned to the mayor. He was pale and shaking, and refused to say what he’d seen in the girl’s face, and eventually he was given soup and tea and left to stare into the fire.
A long night passed. The wind seemed fiercer than the previous nights, scrabbling against the walls of the house with angry fingers. A few people, those with keener ears than the rest of the village, would later claim to hear a woman’s voice calling through the wind’s shrieking, calling something that could not be understood.
In the morning, the entire village was blanketed with a heavy cover of snow under slate-grey skies. With some effort, Richard and Lucas managed to work a window open wide enough for the both of them to wriggle through. Together they crawled outside and stood shivering together in the cold, looking around. The snow had fallen high enough to reach to the lower branches of trees, covering all but the top of the roofs for many of the houses in the area. The thin village road was completely obliterated by the snowfal, and the only building that stood mostly unscathed was Granny Winter’s small home, there on the far, far end of the village, up the steep trail towards the mountain’s summit. There was no sign of the girl. The two young men began to walk towards Granny Winter’s home.
When they reached it, Lucas pointed up. “She doesn’t even have snow on her roof,” he said. “That’s strange, isn’t it?”
“Maybe it’s her ghost,” said Richard, but he raised a fist and knocked on the door regardless. He waited a long moment, then turned to Lucas and said, “We probably won’t find anything, we should just go–”
Footsteps sounded inside. The two young men turned. A moment later, the door opened. Granny Winter looked at the two of them, healthy and alive as any of those who’d taken shelter in the mayor’s home, her thin lips pressed together into a disapproving frown. Her thick white hair was unbound for once, tumbled around her weathered face. She wore a thin white dress, not dissimilar to that of the girl from the day before, but with an added dark blue shawl draped across her drooping shoulders.
“What do you want?” she said. Her voice was low and raspy, going up and down in an odd rhythm. “Go away.”
“We’re looking for someone,” said Richard and Lucas said at the same time. “There’s a girl who’s gone missing.”
Granny Winter did not look very impressed. She hitched her shoulders up a little, pulling the shawl tighter around her shoulders. “Stop sniffing around here,” she said. “Go back and chase the skirts that were meant to be opened to you.”
“You saw her, then,” Richard said. His eyes went bright. He tried to lean forward and peer around Granny Winter, where she filled the doorframe. “Is she your granddaughter? I never knew you had family – is she all right? What’s her name? Please, tell us, we were worried–”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Granny Winter. “There’s nothing for the two of you here. Go home.”
“I don’t want to,” said Richard. He stretched up onto his toes, looking into the darkness of Granny Winter’s small home. “I want to see her – I promise I’ll treat her well, I just want to talk–”
“It’s not going to help you,” said the old woman. “You’re not going to find what you want here. Go home, little boy.”
He frowned. “I am a man,” he said. “And you’re an old woman who’s been deadweight in this village for years. I just want to talk to her, so let me through.” He put a broad hand on Granny Winter’s skinny chest and shoved hard. She made a startled noise, like a struck cat, and fell back. Richard pushed his way inside and Lucas trailed after him, neither of them looking to see how and where the old woman fell.
Inside, her house seemed smaller than it looked from the outside, full of a strange cold dark – not as cold as the world outside, but still enough to make a man’s breath steam when he exhaled. A thin bed pallet lay in one corner and a few pots ringed a nest of dying embers. Straw had been stuffed into cracks in the walls, but it did a poor job of any proper insulation. Richard looked around the small room and frowned.
“Where is she?” he said. “Where are you hiding her?”
Granny Winter said nothing. Richard turned to her. She leaned heavily against one of the walls, both of her hands pressed to her chest. Under the tangle of her heavy white hair, her dark eyes were hard and unblinking. He took a step towards her, drawing himself up to his full height, so he towered over the slight old woman. It had been a long winter and he was a restless young man; he took a deep breath and seemed to swell until he filled the entire small room.
“She’s your granddaughter, right?” he said, his voice too loud. “Or were you lying before? It isn’t funny, old woman.”
Granny Winter’s mouth twisted and she lowered her head until her hair swung forward, first framing, then veiling, her face. In the dim light from the fading embers, she looked less like anything human and more like a fixture in the small crowded room. “I said nothing about any girl,” she said. “You were the one who assumed. Now get out.”
Richard’s hands clenched into fists, relaxed, tightened again. His eyebrows drew together and he said, “Where is she?”
“She’s not here,” said Granny Winter. Something passed across her face that might have been a smile, though in the dark it was hard to be certain. “Leave now.”
“I’m not leaving until I find her,” said Richard. He reached out and caught a fistful of Granny Winter’s shawl, dragging her in closer. He was tall enough that it lifted her up onto her toes and then off them, so that she dangled like a doll. “So you might as well cooperate, or it’ll end poorly.”
“Richard,” said Lucas. He sounded small and nervous. “Come on, if she’s not here, we need to keep looking–”
“She’s here,” Richard said. His eyes gleamed in the dim red firelight. “And the old woman is going to tell us, or else.” He raised his other hand in threat.
Granny Winter finally lifted her head. She looked at Lucas, who stood by the door and made weak noises about the wasting day – and she looked at Richard, who seemed to take what he saw in her face as encouragement. His hand began to move down.
The first noise it made was loud as a whipcrack. Granny Winter’s head snapped around until it faced Lucas, who flinched at the sight of her wide-open eyes. Richard shoved her back, still clutching the front of her shawl; her head made a dull thud against the wall when she struck it. Her arms and legs jerked with the impact, then just dangled loosely. Richard’s fist connected again.
And before the fifth time, Granny Winter said, in a voice that was clear and without pain, “Winter has come early for you.”
Richard struck her again, and the door banged open, in a numbing blast of winter air. Lucas yelped and fell silent. Richard turned to look. The girl stood in the doorway, her long hair fluttering around her, brighter than anything but the snow itself, which swirled in graceful flurries around her small bare feet. He smiled at once, dropping the old woman.
“You were here,” he said. “I knew it, I was waiting for you–”
The girl looked at him. Snow was caught in her long hair, on the edges of her shift, rested unmelting against her high cheekbone. Lucas was gibbering in the corner, pressed as far away from the doorway as he could manage; Granny Winter remained completely silent. Richard came towards her, holding his arms out and smiling broadly. She watched him come towards her, and when he swept her up into her arms, she weighed practically nothing, as cold in his arms as the wind itself.
“I looked for you,” he said. “I dreamed about you, too. Tell me your name.”
She tilted her face up. Wind cut through her hair, moving pale shadows across her face. She reached up with a small hand and touched his cheek, and her fingers were cold enough to make the entire side of his face ache with their chill. Her pale lips moved.
“I can’t hear you,” said Richard. He leaned down closer, until his forehead was pressed against hers. His teeth were chattering loudly, but he still smiled, tightening his arms around her waist. His breath steamed out in a cloud around their faces. “Tell me again.”
For the first time, the girl smiled. She brought up her other hand, so that she was cupping his face between both, and pushed up onto her toes, her lips a hairs breadth away from his. She spoke again, breathing into his mouth, and then closed the last gap for a brief, chaste kiss. Richard made a noise into it: first a sound of pleasure that then drew out and elongated into a long begging moan, not unlike the wind that wound its way through the empty trees.
He fell silent. The girl pulled away from him then; she let go of his face and put both of her small hands on his chest and pushed. Richard fell as she did so, his body breaking away from the arms that were hooked around her tiny waist, to fall onto the floor and bounce once, with a lifeless thud. The arms tumbled into the snow, the fingers still locked together. The girl rubbed her thumb across her own lower lip, then licked it and stepped into the small hut, over the fallen body. She looked at Lucas, who had covered his face with both hands and was moaning into them, trembling like he was naked in the cold. She looked at Granny Winter, who had straightened and was undoing the knot of her shawl, which she let drop to the floor. Bruises had already formed on the old woman’s pale skin, livid over her cheekbone and across one eye.
“Did he hear you?” she asked.
The girl shook her head. “No,” she said. “And if he did, he took it to the darkness with him.”
Granny Winter smiled then; it softened her face into a maze of wrinkles and made her eyes light up. She held her arms open. Dainty as a deer, the girl crossed over to step into their circle and wrapped her pale arms around the old woman’s neck. They leaned together, cheek to cheek, the old woman stroking the girl’s long flowing hair, and Granny Winter whispered, “I have missed you.”
“I came when I could,” the girl said, her voice also a whisper, apologetic. The howling wind outside subsided at the sound of her voice. “As soon as I heard you calling. I know it’s been hard. I’m sorry.” She tilted her face and brushed her pink mouth across the darkest of the bruises on Granny Winter’s face. “I wish I had come earlier. These will take a while to heal.”
“But they will heal,” said Granny Winter. She shook her head and ducked it a little, coy as a girl in spring. “I’m ready to go with you.”
The sentence earned her another smile, bright and warm as the hidden sun. The girl pulled away, taking one of Granny Winter’s worn hands in her own. She beamed “We’ll go now, then,” she said, tugging. “Follow me, darling. The way is long, but I won’t let you get lost.”
Without looking back, they walked out into the snow.
Hours later, worried about the oncoming evening, several of the other young men of the village emerged from the relative safety of the mayor’s home to venture after the fading tracks that led up to Granny Winter’s home. They found the open door and the pieces of Richard’s body, and Lucas shivering speechless in the corner of the small stark room. He refused to answer any of their questions, his eyes skittering over Richard and then sliding away, like he couldn’t bear to look for too long. They had to carry him back, where he huddled beside the mayor, the two of them shivered in a cold that the fire couldn’t touch.
After that, the weather began to clear: the unusual chill gradually dissipated, fading from the intense cold into a warm, early spring. Richard was buried once the earth was soft enough to receive him, but Lucas never spoke of what he’d seen that day – his eyes would grow shadowed and uneasy if the subject was brought up, his silences stretching until they turned awkward.
The mayor only ever said one thing: that winter was a cruel and demanding creature, and life would be better without its presence. He died before the fall came again, eyes wide open and staring until someone came to press them gently shut.
Granny Winter and the girl were never seen again.