Hoarfrost Michelle Muenzler
When the first snow falls, it burns. The other women dance in the flurry without me, beneath a moon clouded by giants’ breath. Snowflakes spin into their open mouths and dust their outstretched hands. They dance that winter’s planting will be done, that their wombs will spill over with its seed. They dance that summer’s turn will be slow to come.
If I could still dance, I don’t know what I’d dance for anymore.
* * *
“Hundhor would make me a good husband,” my hearth sister says. Hundhor is the white bearskin rumpled beside her. His jaws are wide, though his eyes are only one summer dead.
“He is too young,” I say.
I cannot look at her. The first snow has planted her womb–her eyes have turned glacier slick, and her fingers skitter like sleet down Hundhor’s ruff. An ice-baby is certain, come deep-winter, and she will need a husband to keep her warm.
She takes my frosted hand in hers and holds tight despite the silvered trails that creep up her arm from mine. “I wish you could have danced with me.”
“Next winter,” I say, and pull my hand away. It crackles, pinprick shards casting adrift and gathering like loess on the stiffened bearskin crusted to my frozen legs.
“Next winter,” she says, her voice quiet.
It is a lie we speak every summer’s death, and every summer’s death it feels less true than the one before.
* * *
Her marriage is decided. Hundhor’s fur is brushed to a sleek shine. His dead eyes glisten with smeared seal fat.
I drag myself to the hearth entry and peer between the layered hides. The wind bites into my flesh, and the hoarfrost creeps a finger farther along my cheeks. But I must watch, and she must know I am watching.
Beneath ice-sharpened skies, my hearth sister dances with Hundhor. No snow falls upon them–an ill omen. For a moment, I dream she throws Hundhor’s hide to the ground and runs to me, her ceremony incomplete. Together, we birth the frozen thing deep in her womb, and I care for it as though it were my own.
But no. When the dance is done, she wraps her husband’s arms about her shoulders, and the slickness of her eyes softens. They retire to their new hearth, his great paws enveloping her.
Hundhor offers her the one thing I no longer can. Warmth.
* * *
At deep winter’s rising, she calls loudly at my entry. Her voice breaks the snapping wind. “Will you see him? You must see him. I will not leave until you see him.”
I do not want to see the crackling shard cradled in her arms, the purple iridescence of its hunger, or the green glaze that signals its other needs. I do not wish to see her ice-baby.
“Return to your husband,” I say. “My hearth is closed to you.”
My heart cracks, mirrored by the cracking of my womb. I set my hand to the winters-old bulge of my belly where the dead ice has rimed my flesh smooth, but there is no further movement.
No, my hearth will remain closed until summer forces itself through winter’s cracks. Until all the ice-babies have melted, the low whistles of their wailing lost to the first thaw.
It will be a long wait.
* * *
Winter is forever. When I breathe, my hearth fire gutters.
Outside, women’s laughter and the whistling of ice-babies fill the air. The ice has not yet tipped my ears, so I cannot close out their voices.
I stare unblinkingly at the bearskin worn thin and blocked in ice beneath me, a river of fur trapped in perpetual stillness. I do not remember his name, my failed husband.
It is forgotten along with the intended name of the dead thing still trapped within my womb.
* * *
“Please,” she says through the skins of my entry, “just hold him.”
Winter seeps from the soil, but I am closed to the growing warmth. It is easier being ice than flesh.
“Please,” she says again, “just for one summer’s turn. Just for one sun’s passing.”
I refuse to answer. She has Hundhor now–let him hold the ice-baby. Let it melt in his paws while she weeps. Had she not left me, I would have cared for it. And for her. Now she will lose the only thing she loves to the thaw.
Perhaps it is cruel, but there is too much ice in my heart to care.
* * *
When the wailing begins, I do not hear her voice. She should be at my hearth, begging one last time, her husband abandoned. If she begged once more, I would relent.
It is difficult to breathe, there is so much ice in me.
I miss her smell.
* * *
She has gone to the glacier to save her ice-baby. She has gone to death.
I tremble, and the hoarfrost shivers from my flesh. But even as it flakes away, my dead womb builds it anew, silver trails spiking in snowflake patterns. I tremble harder, then scream and shake until summer’s breath explodes past the ice of my lungs and warm air scrapes my throat.
With a snap, I break my legs free of my failed husband’s fur. I shove aside my entry hides and drag myself through the thaw slush and toward the glacier’s mouth. Ice bleeds in my wake.
I find her, stiff and naked and purple-lipped, in the glacier’s mouth. Beside her, her ice-baby gleams black, its edges melting despite the glacier’s protection.
“Shhh,” I say, and hug it to my breast. It whistles between shades, from black to green to purple to blue. Its edges harden as the ice of my womb crackles outward. Hoarfrost turns our flesh to stars.
“Shhh,” I say again, and start the slow drag homeward.
I will make sure this ice-baby lives, through this summer and through every summer after.
Previously published in Three-lobed Burning Eye, 2012, and Toasted Cake, 2014. Reprinted here by permission of the author.
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