BY BRIGITTE N. MCCRAY
I yank one of the icicles from our cabin's roof to read the fine lines. They're like swirls of winter wind, and when I fit the tip of my fingernail inside one of the grooves, I see your death, cold and slow in the blizzard to come.
To save the rest of us, you ignore the lines that have predicted your death. The mountain requires an animal's heart, you say, because it's used to frozen bodies scattered at the top. They have become the mountain's bones. The blood warmth reminds the mountain of us living below. If not, burial under snow will come.
When you leave to hunt a deer, I swallow the last sliver of that ice and pray to the mountain top.
I would have never said this to you before, but offerings in this bitter landscape are as hopeless as the fires we build to hold back the cold.
Once the snow stops, I find your frozen body against an oak with deer prints circling you; some of the prints disappear as I dig your rifle from the snow. One of the village men who helps carry you home asks for your rifle. Perhaps he fears I will use it on myself.
Without you, my life is like a branch sagging from snow. I place your body, shrouded in feathers of frost, in the rocking chair on our porch. Each night I drag the table near the doorway and drag you two or three feet so you can sit at the table as I eat. I keep cooking a whole pot of stew instead of cutting the ingredients in half. I even place a steaming bowl in front of you; only, it grows lukewarm. As the water melt from your life fluids seeps through the cracks in the hardwood floor, I think of how you would have nagged me for not soaking it up with a towel, but if I sop up the grief and wring it out, my heart will squeeze out the memory of you. Better that I push you again outside.
The villagers wonder if I've caught the snow madness. Do you remember the winter before last? When they ran the Widener girl down the mountain and into the valley because she kept eating deer hearts and claiming to hear the mountain? Oh how they shouted after her and fired the guns into the breathing night.
I dream they did the same to me.
Maybe it wasn't just a dream. When I throw off the blankets, I'm wearing my boots, and they're muddy and wet from snow. I remove them and set them by the fire. Outside, standing next to you, the temperature doesn't even bother my feet.
I remember one of those early nights of our courtship, when you walked me a bit up the mountain, where the snow mounds glistened under the moon, and you told me that, although I hadn't been raised in the village, I would come to understand that ice and snow buries our loneliness.
Last autumn, when we killed that goose and its short breastbone foretold an early end to winter, I laughed in disbelief. Now, spring travels up the valley two months early, and your skin begins to thaw. Finally, your whiskers are clear of the clumps of ice.
I use the garden wagon to roll you inside the springhouse, but even the springhouse doesn't keep you from melting.
I have to take you farther up, where snow sticks to boulders and the waterfalls are as still as your body. I lay you on a sled and then wrap the harness around my chest. I pull you through the village and leave mud trails behind. The other wives watch me go. One says, "How far up the mountain you plan on taking him?"
"Until it's cold enough."
"It might be too cold for you."
"I've grown used to the cold."
"Not the kind of cold that far up."
I pull the sled faster past her, the harness cutting into my skin.
On the coldest of nights a year ago, when you whispered that old tale about couples who climbed to the mountain top just so they could be together in death, I imagined my skin stuck to yours and the ice covering our bodies stopping our hearts. I thought that if we ever made that climb, the comforting coldness from your arms would keep me from turning blue.
Although the cold wind comes down around me and snowflakes circle, I keep on. I want us to see those other couples, to know that their frozen bodies live and continue to love above. So I climb with the snow blinding me all the way to the summit.
What did I imagine awaited me at the top? Crystallized flesh that popped and cracked from the shifting of love? Instead, eyes and mouths are opened in shocked wonder at the end.
The mountain says to me, place your hands on love grown cold from wind and ice and grab hold of the frigid end. One woman's hair has stiffened while it blew, and I run my finger over tresses caught midair. I run my finger all the way to her blackened lips. Brittle ice breaks and falls to the ground. I touch her partner's cheek and more ice falls. How long will it be before you and I crack apart? Even the snow at the top of the mountain can't preserve our decaying hearts.
I have become bone of the mountain.
I shove the man, then the woman. As they plummet, their bodies break, like shattering ice. Pieces stutter down the mountainside to land at the bottom and melt back into the comforting snow.
Brigitte N. McCray is a member of Codex and a graduate of the Odyssey Workshop for Writers of Fantastic Fiction. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University and her PhD in English from Louisiana State University. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in such publications as Mythic Delirium; Prick of the Spindle; Cease, Cows; and SmokeLong Quarterly. She has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Twitter @bnmccray.