under all that cold

On Tuesday evenings they have story time. If she is very good and if the weather is not too cold (it makes her brother’s knees ache, and he cannot sit for very long that way if the snow has piled too thick on the windows, seeping in), then after everything has been put away and things are quiet and still, then she picks a book from their small collection and brings it over to her brother. He always pretends to be surprised, though he smiles at her with all the warmth she has come to expect from him.

“What’s this?” he asks. It is the first line of their ritual, the signal that he is willing, that he is willing and they may proceed.

She hands the book to him. Right now, they are working through a collection of fairytales, and she has memorized nearly all of them now, but they are too precious to rush. When he takes it, she says to him: “It’s story-time. Will you please read to me?”

Then he smiles, the expression making his entire face crinkle up into something gentle and soft. During the day, during the rest of the week, he is always so stern that sometimes she forgets that this is her brother, the gentle person who has always been by her side, even after all the world fell apart outside. But when he smiles, she remembers, and she climbs up to sit, half on his lap and half in his chair, tucked up nice and neat against his side. He is never very warm, even at the best of times, but she puts her head against his chest and she can hear the steady rumble of his heartbeat and it comforts her.

He opens the book and puts a hand on her shoulder, and the other he uses to prop the book up. She holds the other end; this way it’s collaborative. It is her job to listen, and to turn the pages when he reaches the end of one.

And then he reads to her. His voice is soft enough that all the rough edges are smoothed away. He reads steadily and without hesitation; the words are so familiar that they slide off his tongue without effort. There are so few books in their collection that she has come to know all of them well, but even so, she cannot make herself actually stop with this. As long as there is this, on Tuesdays, she can tuck herself up and feel comforted.

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, there lived a princess in a splendid castle, who had everything she could wish for. But even so, she was unsatisfied with her life.

This is one of her favorite stories. The spoiled princess sets off on a journey to find what she is missing in her life, only to discover that the special treasure — the one that eludes her despite her wealth and power — is love. She rescues a prince who tells her that he loves her — for you are fair and you are wealthy, and I think that the two of us could always be comfortable with our lives together — but her journeys have changed her, and in the end she returns to her home and sees how her servants smile and her people rejoice to see her, and she realizes that she did, in fact, have love; she had simply blinded herself to it, and she lives happily ever after.

It’s a nice story. Sometimes she tries to imagine it — to live somewhere splendid and beautiful, to live where food isn’t a struggle every day (every other day, sometimes, when the cold is particularly bad for a long stretch of time), or somewhere that doesn’t have cold seeping up from all the places where their patchwork walls don’t quite succeed in sheltering them. She thinks about how it would be if they could live somewhere that doesn’t make her brother’s bad knee ache, or where she doesn’t sometimes wake to see her breath misting in the air, her throat dry and aching. No matter how hard she tries, though, she can’t quite actually envision it. The cold is too much a part of what she knows, weighing heavy and white and stretched in her vision. The sun sometimes seems like a fairy tale in and of itself, too vague and brilliant to really solidify in her vision.

Even though she can’t imagine it though, she still sometimes likes to try. She listens to her brother read the familiar words. And the princess set out into the world, for it seemed foolish to her that there could be anything she was missing, but she could feel it there, weighed in her heart. She took a dress of silver, a bag made of gold, and a staff of the diamond shine of stars, and she set out on her journey. Far and wide she traveled, and people watched her go with awe in their eyes, for she was a lovely princess and she walked with the same grace as the distant winds.

Sometimes, if the day had been hard (all of the days were hard, even if the snow was soft and heavy, always piling deeper and deeper), she would fall asleep to the sound of his voice, low and steady, pitched so that it wouldn’t crack, even on the sharp edges of fricatives. If she is tired (and she is often tired), she lets her head come to rest on his chest, and she closes her eyes, and she dreams of a world where the sun is shining and the snow has melted away to a carpet of green. She dreams of having a dress of silver, a bag of gold, and a staff of the diamond shine of stars, and this she would turn and give to her brother, by her side.

These are for you, she says, for love.

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