My sister Nika and I never liked going to Grannie Luvan’s place. She kept an old man in her kitchen who was said to be some relation of sorts to her husband. The old man would sit in a spot near the stove, and though he had no use of his legs at all, he kept a stick with him always, and sometimes he’d be twisting the stick in his hands with a look on his face like that of somebody struggling through a storm. And often he’d be muttering to himself, or shouting, and more than once we saw him bite his own lip hard enough to make the blood spurt.
He terrified us.
There were some in the settlement said that he’d stolen that stick from the six-fingered people that lived in the forest, and others said it had been given to him by the Queen of the Rat Folk, for he’d snatched her youngest son away from a mob of our own folk who were set on murder and returned the ratling safe to their warren kingdom in the broken lands, and still others said the old man had made the stick himself, all alone at the top of Candle Hill, in the space of the darkest hour of the darkest night of the darkest year—that time when the clouds got so thick that noon was called the pale midnight—but whichever story was told, everybody agreed that the old man in the kitchen did things with that stick, the sort of things that were only talked about in whispers.
Our mother was a third cousin to Grannie Luvan, and she used to pay her a visit once a month or so. Whenever she told us to get ourselves presentable, for we were off to see her cousin, Nika and I would beg and plead with her not to make us go. Then Mother would say Grannie Luvan was lonely often, with her husband being dead and her having no children of her own, and though the other grannies of the settlement visited her occasionally, Grannie Luvan liked it best when we came, for children in the house lifted her heart. And it was true enough that Grannie Luvan would smile when she saw Nika and me, and give us honey bread and sometimes a toy she’d got off a traveling trader. All the same, we always wound up in the kitchen, Mother and Grannie Luvan chatting over tea, and Nika and me eating our honey bread in silence and staring at the old man by the stove, even when he had his chin down on his chest, snoring away the afternoon. Awake or asleep, that stick was always across his lap, and both his hands on it.
For years we went, dragging our feet on the way there, sulking on the way back. Those were the good visits. There were times we came and the old man in the kitchen was rowing his stick in the air as if he were paddling for his life, or shouting words we didn’t understand, or twisting the stick, twisting it and twisting it, and all the while moaning under his breath, and then we could hardly keep from running out of the house altogether. It was only Mother’s stern eye that kept us in our chairs, but nothing in the world could make us swallow more than a bite or two of honey bread, and that itself was a day’s labor.
As we got a bit older, and a bit older yet, we argued harder for being left at home when Mother went to visit Grannie Luvan. We are kiddies no longer, we said. We don’t need toys or honey bread, and Grannie Luvan only chats with you, not with us. All she does is pat our heads and ask if we have any news, and we say we don’t, and then she talks to you. We won’t go anymore, we said.
“Won’t you, now,” Mother said.
“We will not,” Nika said. Though a year younger than me, she was always the bolder. She tossed her head back and crossed her arms.
I thought Mother was going to get angry then, shout at us, tell us that as long as we were eating from her table we would do as she said, but instead she shook her head and sighed, and a sad look came over her. “Let me tell you something, girls,” she said. “There’s many who’ll do you a kindness when it costs them nothing. And to be fair, there’s some that will as well, though it lay a bit of weight on them. But there’s precious few that will pay the price that old man in the kitchen does. He has done a deal of good for many upon many. I dare say there’s hardly a family in this settlement or in the six that neighbor us that hasn’t benefited from his kindness. And look at you two, trembling at the thought of sitting in the same room with that good man for an afternoon. I put the shame of it on myself alone, though, for raising ignorant daughters.”
“I don’t understand,” Nika said.
“Stay home, and may you be the happier for it. You’ll not be missed much, with your silent stares and your fearful faces.”
“Wait,” I said. “We’ll come if you want,” because Mother saying she was shamed made me ashamed. Nika cut her eyes at me, but I pretended not to see.
“No,” Mother said. “From now on, you come only of your own will.”
And I would have gone with her that day, except that Nika grabbed my arm and hissed in my ear not to be a baby, that to stay strong now would free us from these visits forever. She swore that she would never speak to me again if I gave in. So Mother visited Grannie Luvan alone that time, and the next time, and the time after that. Whenever Mother readied herself up for the walk across the settlement, the shame would come on me again, but I never went with her.
This past summer, before she got sick, I spoke to Mother when Nika was out somewhere, with a boy, most like, though she said she was going to do some work for Grannie Zeva, who needed her floors scrubbed and her pantry sorted, and would pay with green-goods from her garden—though not a speck of a salad-leaf did we ever see that day—and said, “It is true enough that when we were young, Nika and I were frightened to stone of the old man in Grannie Luvan’s kitchen. How could we not be, with the face he has on him, and the gnawing of his own lips, and the shouting, and the twisting of the stick? But you never explained. You never said a word to us about him, except on the day we said we wouldn’t go again. Then you said he was kind, and paid a great price for his kindness.”
Mother was sitting on the end of her bed. She rubbed her face. Perhaps the sickness was already coming on her then, though we didn’t know. “I did,” she said.
“He does things with his stick,” I said.
“Always good things?”
“He does what he can,” she said, which was no answer at all. After a moment, she said, “He had a choice. A person can have a power and decide not to use it,” which wasn’t much more of one.
“Where did he get the stick?”
“That I cannot tell you, as I do not know. Stop pestering me, now. I’m tired.”
“And Grannie Luvan? Her husband is under the earth since before you were born, and the old man has his shelter yet.”
“Grannie Luvan has more than a load and a half of kindness in her herself, which you might have learned if you hadn’t let the fear beat you. Now let me have a nap.”
I think now that indeed the sickness was already upon her then. Nika and I only noticed it in the autumn, when Mother began to push away her plate and say she could not eat more, though she had not taken but a spoonful of whatever dish it was. As the days grew colder, she grew worse, and on the day of the first snowfall, she stopped eating altogether.
The day after, she would not swallow even one mouthful of water.
The next day was the same.
Nika could not look at her. She wouldn’t even come to the doorway of Mother’s bedroom. When I tried to make her, she ran outside without even a shawl over her shoulders and stood shivering in the icy drizzle that had followed the first snowfall until I went and dragged her back inside.
“Stop it,” I said. “You have to help me.”
She was crying like a kiddie, as if she were six instead of sixteen. “Help you do what?”
“Take her to Grannie Luvan’s.”
“What?” She shoved me. “What?” Sobbing, she tried to shove me again, but I grabbed her from behind and held her tight. Bolder than I she might have been, but I was older, and I was bigger.
“We must take her to the old man in the kitchen.”
“She can’t eat and she can’t drink. Either we take her, or we ready up her winding sheet.”
Nika stopped struggling. “Do you really think the old man in the kitchen can make her well?”
To be honest, I didn’t know. All the talk about him in the settlement, even what Mother had said about his helping so many people, didn’t mean that he or his stick actually had powers. I was old enough to know that by then, that talk was one thing and truth another. I also doubted whether the old man in the kitchen—or Grannie Luvan, for that matter—would be welcoming to us, since we hadn’t visited for years. But Mother was thinning away in her bed, and if we didn’t do something, she’d thin away to nothing. “We won’t know unless we try, Nika,” I said. “We have to try.”
“How are we going to get her there?”
“We’ll have to carry her.”
“All that way? No. I have an idea. Let go of me, will you?” I did, and Nika straightened her clothes. “Pawo up the hill has a wheelbarrow. I’ll go get us the loan of it, and meanwhile you wrap Mother up in all the blankets and coats we have.”
And that was how we took her, trundling across the width of the settlement with Pawo’s wheelbarrow, and her so wasted and small she looked like an ancient child lost in layers of swaddling. She didn’t say a word to us when we bundled her up and carried her outside. Her eyes were half-closed, and I thought that there wasn’t enough of her still clinging to the skin of this world to know what we were doing. The icy rain was still falling, mixing with the snow that was already on the ground, and I thought that we would surely never get to Grannie Luvan’s place without tipping the wheelbarrow over, or slipping and breaking our own necks. Pawo from up the hill had lent us the wheelbarrow, but he didn’t come along to help us push it. Nika walked backwards the whole way, holding on to the sides of the barrow to keep it steady. There were plenty that saw us from their windows and from their doorsteps as we struggled, sloshing and sliding in the snow, but not a one spoke to us, or gave us a hand to lift the barrow over a hillock, or broke a step of the path for us. I remembered what Mother had said about there being many who’d do you a kindness if it cost them nothing, but I also thought that if it hadn’t been Mother in the wheelbarrow, I wouldn’t have been out there in the cold and the wet myself, getting soaked to the skin, my teeth chattering despite all the pushing I was doing, which wasn’t warming me at all.
Grannie Luvan must have seen us coming from her front room, because we hadn’t gotten halfway up the path to her house when the door flew open and she came running out, old woman that she was, and lifted Mother and all her blankets into her arms. “Into the kitchen with the both of you, quick,” she said. “Set yourselves next to the stove, or there’ll be three sick instead of one.” It had taken Nika and me both to carry Mother to the wheelbarrow, even thinned and shrunken as she was, but Grannie Luvan bore her into the house as if she weighed no more than a cat. We left the barrow on the path and hurried after her.
It had been years since we’d visited, but nothing had changed, not a curtain nor a coatstand, and the house had the smell of honey bread in it still. Nika grabbed my hand; she was shivering worse than I was. Straight into the kitchen went Grannie Luvan with Mother in her arms, and we followed.
The old man was in his place near the stove, the stick across his lap. He looked up, and there was a bleakness in his eyes that chilled me more than ten winters’ worth of snow ever could. Grannie Luvan set Mother down on the floor and stripped the wet blankets and coats off of her. “By the stove, I told the both of you,” she snapped, and Nika and I went to stand close to it, but on the opposite side from where the old man sat.
The old man leaned forward. “She cannot eat.”
“No,” I said.
“Not even half a sip of water.”
He nodded. Mother was lying on her side, with her knees pulled up. I couldn’t tell if her eyes were open. But I could hear her breathing, for her breaths were raspy, and though that wasn’t good, as long as she was breathing I would not let myself cry.
“There is no food nor drink in the world that can nourish her now,” he said. “Her body is like a sieve. She can hold neither the strength of food nor the goodness of water within her.”
Nika did start to cry then. Grannie Luvan glanced at her and said, “She isn’t dead yet. Save your grief until you need it.”
I said, “But if there is no food nor drink in the world that can nourish her, then she will surely die.”
“Not if there is something else in the world that can be coaxed to feed her.” She looked at the old man. He was turning his stick over, rolling it between his hands, but not twisting it—not yet. I tried to read his face, but he had his head lowered.
“Is there anything you can do?” Nika asked. That was the boldness in her, to speak to him straight that way.
He rolled his stick between his hands a few more times, then set it down on his lap. “I see one thing. I can make it so she can be nourished by something that is neither food nor drink. It will be difficult, but I see the way to the working of it. I will do it, if that is your desire.”
“Yes,” Nika said.
“Wait,” I said. “You have to tell us more. What is this thing that can nourish her that is not either food nor drink?”
“The cold,” he said. “I will make it so she is able to eat cold.”
Grannie Luvan drew a breath. “There is a deal of power in cold.”
“There is,” the old man said.
“But there is no friendliness in it.”
“There is not.”
“Can you truly do this?” she asked. “You are not as strong as you used to be.”
“I know it. But I will try.”
“Then do it!” Nika cried.
“Has he ever said no?” I asked.
“Never,” Grannie Luvan answered. “As long as there is a chance, however small, he has always taken on the fight, no matter the cost to him.”
“And what will the cost to him be for this?”
“A mighty one,” she said.
“Can we pay part of it? We are her daughters.”
Grannie Luvan shook her head. “He must pay it himself. That is the law of workings and doings.”
While we were talking, the old man had already begun. Nika noticed first, and tugged my arm. The old man was twisting his stick; tremors shook his shoulders, and he threw his head back and let out a groan, and then another, but he kept twisting the stick and twisting the stick, and even though we were standing beside the stove, we felt the cold rush in.
“This will be a long battle,” Grannie Luvan said. “I’d better make some tea.”
Hours it was we were in the kitchen, and sometimes the cold would be fierce, and then a moment later it would flow away like water out of a broken pail. “Watch your mother, not him,” Grannie Luvan said. “If you see a frost spread over her, then he is winning.”
And indeed a frost would come upon her, on her arms and her legs and her face; seven times it came, and seven times it melted. The old man’s breathing was labored, raspier than Mother’s, and his hands shook as he twisted the stick. Grannie Luvan made tea, and then she made supper, but she was the only one who ate a bite of it. Nika and I knelt by Mother, watching her as Grannie Luvan had said to, but looking at the old man, too, for how could we keep our eyes from him, especially when he moaned and shook?
And then the eighth time the frost came over her, it spread from the top of her head to the soles of her feet, a glistening whiteness, and it did not melt. The old man let his stick fall across his lap, and leaning back in his chair, let out a long sigh.
“Are you well?” Grannie Luvan asked.
“Well enough,” he said. “Let me sleep.”
Mother stirred, and Nika and I both reached for her, but then stopped, afraid of breaking the charm.
“It’s all right,” Grannie Luvan said. “You can touch her. She’ll be cold, but don’t let that frighten you. It’s the cold now that’s feeding her.”
And indeed, within a few minutes, Mother was sitting up, and stroking the frost on her skin with wonder.
“Slowly, now,” Grannie Luvan said. “Rest and let the cold nourish you. It’ll take a time yet for your strength to come back.”
“Did the old man do this?” Mother asked.
Mother looked at Nika and me. “You brought me here.”
“Yes,” I said.
“In Pawo’s wheelbarrow,” Nika said. “Do you remember?”
“I remember a little,” Mother said. “There was a storm, and the wind was howling with the voices of geese screaming against their slaughter, and it felt like half the world was to be blown flat.”
“No, it was only raining, and we pushed you over the snow,” Nika said, but Grannie Luvan shook her head at her.
“You remember more than most,” she said to Mother.
“How is he?” she asked.
“Sleeping. And so should you be, and your daughters. I’ll ready up some bedding for you. You’ll stay here the night.”
Nika and I were still kneeling next to Mother. We stroked her arms, we stroked her face, we stroked her hair. She was cold, but not as cold as true frost was, and none of the frost came off on our fingers. And she did not shiver herself, but smiled at us, and sat up straighter. Her breathing was no longer raspy. “I am feeling halfway to well,” she said. “By the morning, I’ll be walking home on my own feet, and Pawo can have his barrow back with thanks.”
“Grannie Luvan,” I said. “Tell us true. This cure will only last the winter.”
Nika looked at me, and then at Mother, and then at the old man asleep in his chair with the stick across his lap. “No.”
“Your sister is right. It is the cold that is feeding your mother now. She will grow strong through the winter, but once spring comes, after the last snow falls and then melts, there will be little to nourish her. Cold water from mountain streams might do for a while, but come the height of summer . . . ”
Mother nodded, as if she already knew this, but Nika stood up and beat her fists on her thighs, and shouted, “Then what was the good of all this, all of his twisting of the stick and battling with the forces of here and beyond?”
“Don’t wake him,” Mother said.
Grannie Luvan said, “Perhaps by the summer, he will find another doing he can work.”
“And perhaps by the summer, he’ll be dead his own self.”
“Nika,” Mother said, reprovingly. She reached for Nika’s hand, but Nika moved away.
“So might any of us, girl,” Grannie Luvan said. “Everything in the entire world is temporary. Even mountains wear away, given enough time, and great seas dry to desert.”
“It’s all right, Nika,” Mother said, but Nika wouldn’t be comforted. And she will not be comforted still, though a month has passed, and Mother is hale and strong and bustles around the house, and I have grown so accustomed to the frost on her that I only take note of it when the sunlight streams in the window and makes her glisten like an icicle. Nika goes out to stare at the sky. I know she is wishing for a long, hard winter, with falls of snow as high as the trees. She wishes for a winter that will never end, and that is a wish that cannot come true.
We all know that spring will come, even if we wished an ocean full of wishes, and summer must follow. “If the old man in the kitchen can do more, than I will be grateful, but if he cannot, then I am content, for I have had more time than was due me,” Mother says, and I understand, and I keep my grief locked up against the day it will be needed. Nika will not listen when Mother talks like that, and goes off by herself.
“Leave her be,” Mother says. “It is hard going for her, but it is not an easy learning for anyone.”
“I fear her boldness,” I say, for it had come to my mind that Nika might climb up Candle Hill and seek her own stick.
“She has not the gift,” Mother says. “Nor, though I lay the words against my own daughter, the kindness. Do not fret for that.”
“I won’t, if you say not to.”
And she murmurs, “It is a hard learning.”
It is, indeed.
Grannie Luvan has sent word that the old man in the kitchen is poorly; he has done no workings since he twisted the stick for Mother, but added that he is often so after a mighty battle. I haven’t told Mother or Nika of this message.
I am thankful for the winter and try not think about the spring. There is time yet. When I go outside, I do not stare at the sky and wish, nor let my thoughts stray to forests or warren kingdoms or hilltops, for I well know is it not in me either to be as strong or kind as the old man in the kitchen, or even so much as Grannie Luvan. All I do is pick up a handful of snow, and kiss it.