Winter Daughter: A Yule Tale, short story by J.M. Elam at Spillwords.com
Luke Pennystan

Winter Daughter: A Yule Tale

Winter Daughter: A Yule Tale

written by: J.M. Elam

@elamjm

 

Winter Daughter: A Yule Tale, short story by J.M. Elam at Spillwords.comThe first snow had fallen softly but sticky as burnt sugar. It coated the landscape and didn’t stop all night. Lucia had watched it in the moonlight until she couldn’t keep her eyes open another moment. The next day she’d ran outside before anyone else woke and watched it falling while the sun rose.

When Lucia snuck back inside, she found Mother prodding the ashes in the fireplace. Silently Mother handed her the poker and gestured at the fire. Cold as ice, Lucia gripped its handle and poked the ashes.

They sparked and glowed, reawakening. Mother handed her a thin cut of wood. Lucia wondered if she was in trouble and quietly fed the fragment to the embers. The flames grew and quickly devoured it. Before long, the fire was roaring.

“Go get dressed,” Mother said kindly. By the time Lucia returned, Mother seemed more like herself. In a hurry to help with breakfast, Lucia grabbed the edge of the pot over the fire. It burned through her apron and clattered to the floor.

“I’m so sorry.” She bent down to clean it, but Mother grabbed her hand.

“Wait.” Mother looked down at their spilled oats like she was trying to read the future. Maybe she was, although she usually read the stones and sticks.

“I’ll clean it and start a new batch,” Lucia offered.

“You wasted that food,” her sister Marta interrupted. “Are you going to pay for more food too?” Marta was the oldest and always thought of the practical things that Lucia missed. Her friends called Lucia “absent” because she kept to herself and didn’t always pay attention.

Mother gently turned Lucia’s hand to reveal the burn mark on her palm. Then as though she’d done something miraculous instead of clumsy, Mother hugged her tightly. Lucia hugged her back, holding her hand away from Mother’s back.

By the time she’d pulled away, her younger sister, Cara, had started another pot. Lucia grabbed a cloth off the table and bent down to clean her mess, but Mother took it gently. “Go press your hand in the snow.”

Obediently Lucia dug her palm into the cold snow and exhaled in relief as the pain eased. The snow steamed and melted, as though her hand was hot as the fire poker.

When Lucia withdrew her hand, surprisingly, it didn’t hurt anymore. She knew that it should but was grateful. All that remained was a reddish crescent, dark against her skin. It didn’t disappear, not through the next day or the one after that. The pain never came back. Still, Lucia found herself glancing at it while she did her chores or sat in class.

As Yule drew nearer, they all began preparations. Holly and pinecones were perched everywhere, for protection. They prepared candles, carving symbols of protection and hope into the soft wax.

Lucia heard her parents arguing the night before they chose the Yule Log. She was making little bags of sweets to give to the smaller children in the village, and their whispered argument wasn’t nearly as quiet as they thought. The other girls listened at their door but couldn’t make sense of their mumbled words.

Lucia remained by the fire, trying not to listen. Soon she was captured, enthralled by the flames. They licked the stone and wood joyfully, dark smoke wafting up the chimney. Her parents’ voices became distant. While part of her mind remembered their voices, the other part existed in the fire.

Suddenly she smelled it, that unmistakable scent of wood smoke and snow. Lucia felt for a few moments like she existed in three places at once. She was the flames, she was the snow, and she was a young girl waiting for her parents to stop fighting.

Then the whole house went silent, as though the snowy somnolence had covered everything. Lucia still sat before the dancing flames, but there was no sound, not even a crackle.

When Lucia came to herself, Marta was shaking her, calling her name. She heard it mid-word and realized that it might have been happening for a long time. Her parents simply stood there, watching her. Father clasped Mother’s hand.

“You’ll go with me instead of your Mother to pick the Yule Log.” He turned and walked back into the bedroom. That was that.

“Girls, why don’t you start dinner?” Cara obeyed as usual, but Marta paused, watching the two of them before responding. “Let’s take a walk.” Her Mother bundled her up like she was still a baby, although she was thirteen now and had regular cycles. But it comforted her, so Lucia didn’t complain.

They walked a long time until they couldn’t even see the moon through the trees. There was such darkness and chill that for a moment, Lucia was glad for the extra layers. Finally, they paused.

“You know that we need to protect ourselves on the longest night?” Mother asked, her voice clear in the darkness although she spoke quietly.

“Of course, that’s why we light the Yule Log. It keeps us safe from the Winter Spirits.”

“Yes, Lucia, but our family is especially at risk. I’m not like Father or the other Mothers. Those in my family have special abilities. Over time, it’s all but disappeared. It’s better if it disappears. Sometimes what makes us stronger also attracts things that want to feed off our weaknesses and power alike.”

“What do you mean?”

“Even among my kind, I’m different. I’m the Winter Daughter. It’s always protected us, but it also draws the Winter Spirits. I have what they want.” Mother held out her hand, and light sparked along her palm. “I’d hoped that you would be like your sisters. But you took after me, and you’ve been marked as the next Winter Daughter. Your light will protect our family this Winter.”

“Me?”

“You’ve been chosen,” Mother took my hand and gently rubbed the crescent on my palm. “…as I was chosen. I hoped it wouldn’t happen for a long time, but it has.”

“Why can’t you do it?”

“I’ve gotten weaker over the years. That’s fine because it means they want me less. Besides, there’s only one Winter Daughter at a time. Always one, but only one.”

“Is it so bad?”

“No, but it can feel heavy. As a winter daughter, you’ll always feel the pull between the cold darkness and light’s flame, and you need to fight for that flame. It’s what will keep you safe in the Winter when the draw to give in to the sadness is the worst. But they’ll want you. Believe me; they’ll want you and everyone you love.”

“What do I do?”

“Take my hand.”

Lucia stared at Mother’s flame-filled palm and was ashamed of her fear. But Mother had never hurt her, so she grasped it. First, heat rushed through Lucia’s whole body until she was humming with it. Then it happened.

Like the embers in the fireplace, something within her ignited. Lucia didn’t see the radiating glow or the flames that crowned her brow, but she saw the light she cast over her Mother. It reminded her of the light from the bonfires they built during the fire festivals. Beltane had always been her favorite.

Light broke off of her and floated toward the sky, but Lucia shone for a long time. When the light finally went out, the darkness seemed deeper for it. Lucia and Mother walked home, arm in arm, talking for a long time.

Although Lucia wasn’t glowing any longer, the warmth and joy still filled her chest. She knew she should be afraid, but she shared something with Mother now, something special.

Lucia didn’t tell her sisters what happened, but she noticed how Marta looked at her differently. Lucia was asleep when Cara rolled over in bed and shook her arm. “Lucia, Lucia.”

“What?” she said drowsily.

“I’m scared, and I don’t know why.” Lucia pulled her sister closer.

“Don’t worry. I’ll always protect you.” Cara squeezed her back, and they fell asleep.

***

Lucia’s Father woke her early the next day, and she bundled tightly. They walked deeper into the woods than she’d ever been. It was Lucia’s first time choosing their Yule Log. She naturally felt both excited and important.

“Your Mother told you last night.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes, Father.”

“I didn’t want it to be true. Your Mother has such a rough time. I’m always so afraid I’ll lose her. Not that she’d leave us, mind you.” He added as they walked.

Lucia noted how big the trees were. Even the trunks dwarfed them. They passed several smaller evergreens that would have done nicely, but Father didn’t even glance at them.

“She’s strong. The Winter Spirits hardly ever give us trouble anymore, but she battles within herself in the Winter. So sad, yet so strong. All of her kind struggle. I don’t know why. I know she’s tired.”

“I understand.”

Father paused and turned Lucia toward him. “I want you prepared, not scared.”

“I know.” And then Lucia felt it, that glow in her chest. It pulled her around and drew her away from him, farther into the wood. The crunch of old leaves, sticks, and snow told her that he followed. Beyond that, she felt caught in a daydream.

When she saw it, it felt like waking. To anyone else’s eyes, it looks average, maybe even a bit decrepit, but she knew it was the right tree. “Can it be this one?”

“It must be.” He gently patted her shoulder and chopped it to the ground. They rubbed the torn edges and the stump, where they’d chopped it, A small token of gratitude.

They walked home silently at first and then talked as they never had. Father told Lucia more about Mother, and she felt like she knew them both better.

When they came home, Father chopped off the end of the trunk. That would be their Yule Log. Like before, they gave special care to the cuts. Together the women chose the candles for the long night, decorated the tree, and then lovingly carved the Yule Log. Each of them made a mark.

After sunset, they dressed in their finest and set aside their dinner. Father had already cleared the fireplace. The girls lit the candles then washed their hands in the snow while Father and Mother placed the Yule Log into the fireplace.

Mother handed Lucia the flint and steel. As Lucia stepped toward the Yule Log, the windows rattled. At first, she barely got a spark. She finally lit a small piece of wood, but it went out as she fed it to the Yule Log. Lucia felt a chill run through her like drinking from the creek. She wanted to cry but felt her Mother’s hand on her shoulder.

A familiar warmth spread through her body, igniting in her hand. She prayed that she wouldn’t burn their home down. The flame enveloped the slender cut of wood and lit the Yule Log. Each of them took turns placing wood into the fireplace. Lucia held out her hand, but it looked entirely ordinary. She relaxed and joined her family at the table.

As they ate dinner, the snow began falling, and the wind whistled outside. Lucia glanced at the fire periodically and felt grateful for its warmth. They moved from conversation into Cara’s favorite tradition, stories. Mother said it was a way to knit them together, make them stronger. It was how they would survive the Winter that was still ahead.

Everyone took turns with tales, some scary, some funny, others more like a memory than make-believe. Cara’s was the funniest as always. She was quiet but charismatic, and Lucia almost envied her. Cara was like a light all her own, with a spirit brighter than her hair. Her eyes twinkled as she spoke, and even Marta snorted at one point.

Eventually, they all wound down, and Lucia watched light twinkling all around, joyful, and peaceful. Mother began setting out their Yule pudding, and Cara stepped outside to bury their milk jug in the snow.

The door slammed behind her, and Cara’s scream filled the night. All the candles flickered then held steady. Mother and Lucia’s eyes met for a second, and they both rushed for the door. Father and Marta weren’t far behind.

They ran into a blizzard and the darkest night that Lucia had ever seen. Something seemed to push against them, shadows thicker than soot. Cackling echoed around them and through them.

“Give me back my daughter,” Mother roared, and her skin turned the shade of icicles, somehow transparent and pale blue. But her eyes, her eyes were the shade of hot coals, flecked with red and the brightest gold.
“Give us the Winter Daughter, and we’ll give you this one.” Marta looked furious and frightened all at once. Father gripped his ax tightly.

The snow was falling thick and twirling through the shrieking wind. Or maybe The Winter Spirits shrieked, and the wind was silent. Lucia realized she didn’t care. Mother looked like she might rush into the night rather than give her up to them.

But she wasn’t the winter daughter anymore. Lucia saw it in her eyes. It was why her parents had argued. It meant that she was the only one that could stop this. Mother had already given her everything, and Lucia had made a promise.

Lucia met her eyes, and Mother yelled something through the deafening storm. Lucia’s Father reached for her, but she raced into its depths.

Invisible things grabbed her, fingers pulling and tearing. They swirled around her dizzyingly. “I want my sister.”

“She’s home now.”

Lucia felt their cold claws deep in her chest, ice and darkness and sadness. Lucia wanted to sink into the snow and sleep forever. She remembered her light, but it wouldn’t come. She didn’t know how to escape. Tugging away didn’t help. Lucia was theirs, and she didn’t even know if she cared anymore. Everything felt so heavy and so hard.

Then she felt fingers clasp hers. She searched through the darkness but couldn’t see more than a pinprick through the shadows. The exhaustion was real and overwhelming. “Lucia,” she heard Marta scream. That love was an ember. It filled her chest despite her helplessness, and the light that slumbered woke with a vengeance.

It sprung through her body like an inferno, and Marta covered her eyes, even as she held tightly. And then Lucia saw through the storm, her hands connected to Mother’s and Father’s and Cara’s. Hope ignited a passion that filled her body until not a bit of chill could touch her. It traveled through, melting everything in its path.

Her form glowed brightly as the sun, yellows and reds and oranges. She saw the shifting shadows, thick and solid. Sparks flew off of her, lanterns breaking through the thick darkness.

She let go of their hands and stepped toward the inky depths. A crown of flames shot from her brow, dancing hot and joyful. Lucia’s hands turned to light and spread like red and gold, like flames. She heard Spirits scream and felt them disappear. The snow slowed then stopped altogether, emptiness replacing the spaces filled with fear.

Lucia stood for a long time until her light began to dim again. And then Cara grabbed Lucia’s left hand, Marta her right. Their family formed a circle in the night. At that moment, Lucia was not only the Winter Daughter but the Yule log. She was their protection, and they were hers.

J.M. Elam

J.M. Elam

I’m an artist and writer located in Louisville, Kentucky. I graduated from IUS with a BFA in 2012. While I was probably a writer long before I could admit it to myself, I’ve always been a lover of art, stories, learning, and growth. Nothing is wasted. I’m seeking to hone my craft, and I hope that quest never ends.
J.M. Elam

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This publication is part 54 of 58 in the series 12 Days of Christmas