The stories begin: there was a lowland man, and he loved a mountain woman. From there they diverge, but the bones of it remain the same.
A poet once, as part of his pleas to his lover, compared her to both the cold and unapproachable peaks and the mountain women themselves, wed in spring and widowed by autumn. (No word of the men who farm on those peaks, since the poet had no use for men except as an audience.) Might the poet’s love bring a thaw to her heart, lest she turn to the unnatural habits of women of those peaks?
The poet, who had never been to the mountains, gained enough fame that the metaphor worked its way into the lexicon of lazy imitators.
The poet’s lover, it was said, after the verses were published took ship to avoid him.
Katrin had known since she was a little girl what her husband would look like, ever since she was old enough to understand that Aunt Gunna had deeded her farm to Katrin. Nobody ever had to explain it to her, though Gunna took a turn at it, pointing as example to her own husband as he worked under the farm tree, leaf shadows dappling his broad shoulders. Katrin’s particular picture of her husband shifted a little as she grew tall and her whims changed, but she knew he’d be strong and sun-brown, with quiet smiles and loving hands.
Nobody ever said anything about a weedy young man, halfway down the east side of the pass, his lower half pinned under a rockslide that hadn’t been there the day before. She followed the sound of his cursing all the way up to the pass, then found herself unwilling to interrupt him, at least until he saw her standing at the treeline a few yards below him. His curses stopped mid-breath, and he stared right back at her, one hand grasping at the scree as if to throw fragments at her.
Katrin finally cleared her throat. “What—”
“You’re real!” He gave a little huffing laugh. “I thought—you hear things about these mountains, you know, and I’d started to think I was seeing things.”
Katrin frowned. “You are seeing things. You’re seeing me.” She shook her head. “What are you doing here?”
“Ah.” He gestured to the fractured slate that pinned his left leg. “Rock.” When Katrin only nodded and didn’t immediately move to either help or depart, he went on. “It’s stopped hurting quite as much, but I don’t know whether that’s a bad thing at this point. I’d thought the path would be fine, it looked fine, but it just crumbled—”
Katrin nodded as she approached and braced her hands against the slate. It wasn’t as heavy as it looked; it was just at a bad angle for him. A pack lay a few feet beyond, stuffed full almost to bursting. “You came over the pass?”
He hissed as she levered the stone away, and the pitch of his voice wavered as he tried to maintain normal conversation. “They told me spring in the mountains could be treacherous, but I thought they meant snow.”
Katrin thought about telling him that yes, snow was a problem too, as he drew back his foot.
“Aaa—aha, yes, thank you, that’s—that’s just fine, I’m sure if I wrap it up—”
Katrin gave him a look over her shoulder, and he closed his mouth.
But only briefly; he did not seem to be capable of closing it for long. “Or maybe not. It does hurt, I’m just – you’ve already gone out of your way—”
She got to her feet and looked down at him. He managed a smile, only a little crimped at the corners. “How do you feel about sharing a sledge with a dead buck?” she asked.
He blinked. “Uncomfortable? But intrigued, if it means I don’t have to worry about staying warm tonight. I think I taste frost.”
“You do,” she said, and went back for the sledge.
His name was Argen, and while he weighed less than the deer and was as accommodating as he could be when it came to sharing space on the sledge, it was still slow going. But it was downhill, for the most part, and he didn’t complain, even when she bumped him over the threshold into her farmhouse’s main room. In fact, he offered some help when it came to setting the bone, a few ideas that he claimed were just street medics much as her own knowledge was farm medics. When it was done, he wiped sweat and dirt away from his face and asked for his pack.
He’d been trading in the uncanny lands on the far side of the mountains, and since the downriver trade was so heavily taxed, a man could make a good fortune with just one or two trips if he was willing to risk the unwatched passes through the mountains.
“You can see how well that worked out,” Argen added, and Katrin found herself smiling back at him. He unrolled what he could reach, little cloth-wrapped bundles that held confections of glass and stone, etched copper enameled in dizzying patterns, ivory boxes within boxes. “Take one of these,” he said. “Worth plenty in the lowlands, maybe less up here but it’ll still fetch a good price. Any one of them is yours, for saving my life.” His eyes went wide, and he shook his head. “Except the big package—near the bottom, I can get it...”
Katrin raised an eyebrow at him.
He grinned again. “Actually, hand it to me. I’ll make a gift of it to you, but not the usual way.” She gave it to him, and he unwrapped it, murmuring little pleas that it had survived the fall. At last he held up a concertina. “Got a favorite tune?”
She didn’t, but he played anyway, and the instrument made a noise entirely unfamiliar to her. It was loud—like a chorus of honking geese—and obnoxious, and nothing like it had been heard up this way since, well, since she could remember, at least. Probably since Aunt Gunna could have remembered.
She hadn’t known her little farmhouse could be loud. She liked it.
Katrin’s husband was pumping water when she woke. Two buckets sat dripping on the floor at the door to their bedroom, the last in his hand as he stood at the pump. He’d left his shirt behind in the high summer heat, and the muscles moved under his skin like billows in grain fields. Katrin watched him from the window a moment, still wrapped in her robe, then went to retrieve the buckets and move them from bedroom to kitchen.
He’d tried to make breakfast. Two sets of bowls and cups had been set out, knife and fork and spoon and even the good butter plate. All of them that could hold water had been carefully filled up to the brim. Katrin braced her hands against the table, did not curse aloud, and started clearing the table. He’d moved on to fencework by the time she was done, digging a fresh hole for the post that needed replacing, fixing what needed fixing without even a word to know it.
This was the life she’d always known she would have. The life she dreamed of as a girl. How life in the mountains was supposed to go.
The game goes: three or more children stand around a pole or post or tree. One holds stones or sticks or counters, always one fewer than the number of children. They pass the counters hand to hand, hiding how many are passed each time, while singing: summer winter fall and spring, shake the branch see what it brings!
On brings they hold up the counters, and anyone without a counter is chased around the tree. In the villages on the floodplain, the one chased is the winner; on the outskirts of the city, the one chased is the loser. The game is not played in the mountains.
Katrin hadn’t known she could be loud either, but Argen soon drew it out of her. A quick wit would do that, he claimed, and quicker hands, he’d added with a grin, after those quick hands had drawn a shout from her. Katrin, shocked and amazed by this noise they made together, put her hands over her mouth and giggled, then kissed him and put their hands to better use.
Argen couldn’t go out hunting or plowing with the yoke, but there were plenty of small tasks he could do, like mending (he was quick with a needle and better with an awl than most leatherworkers) or cooking, when he could stand. Katrin made it easier on him, setting him up with what work she could when she knew she’d be out all day, and in return he had tea for her at sundown, and music, and talk. He made the whole farm loud, whistling or singing as he worked, and she began to join in, more hesitant than she’d been in the bedroom but learning to sing as well.
He could walk soon enough but showed no interest in leaving, even if Katrin repacked the little treasures for him to sell, and he even snuck a few with him when they went to market. He sold one to a trader who cheated him terribly, most terribly, but he presented Katrin with a new steel axe and a pair of scissors besides.
The other mountain women were at the market; it was usually the only time they saw each other unless they made a point of visiting. Katrin met their appraising glances with lifted chin, answering their questions with a challenge of her own. Their husbands, or wives in the case of the few mountain men, followed after them, carrying armfuls of new-cress or white onion. Argen greeted them, and they raised hands in return, but their smiling silence unnerved him.
“Should I be, I don’t know, starting a social circle with them?” he asked on one return from the market. “That’ll be tough if they’re still not talking to me.”
“It’s not you,” Katrin said, then paused to figure out what she could say, now that he could go down the mountain and out of her life again. “It’s not that they’re not talking to you. They just don’t talk much.”
“Ah.” He paused, but not for long, because this was Argen. “You didn’t talk much to start with. Maybe it’s the same? No? Any of them sing? You don’t have to talk much to sing.”
“No.” She hurried her pace, making him lean a little more on his cane to catch up. “And they won’t be a problem come winter.”
They might not, but Argen might, and as the summer moved into yellow heat and cooler nights he confided that he really didn’t want to go back down to the lowlands, that he could finally hear himself think around here (and so could everyone else, she told him, laughing). One night, not long after his leg had healed enough that he could mount her rather than be ridden gasping, Katrin burned one of their candles down to the nub working at figures and sums. Argen came out to find her at the kitchen table, two slates in front of her covered with tiny numbers in long columns. “I’ve tallied it all,” she told him with an unsteady laugh. “There’s enough. There’ll be enough to feed us both over the winter. You can stay.”
Argen came to look over her shoulder at the tiny figures. “Nobody’s ever told me they loved me with columns of figures before,” he said.
Katrin’s tired laugh turned into a real one, and then into a startled sob as she realized yes, that was what she had said.
Katrin did the hunting; her husband couldn’t kill anything. But he joined her, sometimes, and at least twice she’d come home empty-handed while he’d brought in berries and cattails and armfuls of mushrooms. This time he vanished while she was checking her snares. She gathered up a few greens to go with the rabbit, then sighed and made her way back to the house.
He hadn’t put out place settings, this time. Instead he’d gone inside, by the cabinet near the hearth and the concertina that lay in a little heap on top of it like a discarded shawl. From the looks of him, he’d been there a while.
Katrin dumped rabbit and greens on the table. “Leave it,” she said, and he turned, his eyebrows peaked together in concern. She sighed. “Leave the concertina alone,” she repeated, this time in a sweeter voice. It was the tone that mattered, not the words. “Don’t you ever touch that,” she cooed, and he smiled at her.
In bed that night he slid one hand over the curve of her shoulder, down to her breast. She turned her face away briefly, so he wouldn’t notice her initial grimace, then submitted. It was the contact, the physical contact and the comfort of it, that he needed. Perhaps she needed it too; certainly her body welcomed it, opening to the warm hard length of him like the furrow to the plow, sliding and gasping and betraying her at last. But even physical release did little to keep her from staring awake at the ceiling, long after he’d curled around her like a vine and fallen asleep.
The story goes: so the peddler’s thinking it’s a bit of all right, yeah? He’s got a warm place to stay and a lovely pair of tits to bury his face in, and she’s not asking any questions about when he’s going to marry her. Perfect situation, right?
(This story’s usually told late at night, when someone wants to give his friends a shiver, so there’s actually nobody who thinks it is a perfect situation.)
So one evening she brings her aunties to visit, and he puts up with it, the way you do when you know it’ll be over soon and you’ll get a good tumble at the end for putting up with it. And her aunties, they’re all these old crones who look him up and down and chuckle to themselves.
But to his surprise they’re not bothering him about when he’s going to marry her. Instead they just want to talk about plants, and crops, and all sorts of stuff that makes him want to fall asleep right there. Only he doesn’t fall all the way asleep, and just before all her aunties leave, one of them looks over at him and says “Frost’s coming soon, dearie. Best get that one in the ground before it freezes.”
(At this point there’s always one listener who catches on and knows what’s going to happen, and always one who won’t get it till the blood’s on the ground at the end. It doesn’t matter; the one telling it knows who to address it to.)
Summer cooled and turned like iron from yellow heat to red-gold, and Argen joined her at the market more, selling off his trinkets to prepare for the winter (no point in keeping them, he said when she protested; I meant them to start me a new life, and it looks like they’re doing just that).
He was useless at hunting due to a habit of singing under his breath that let every creature on the mountain know where he was. It didn’t stop him from ranging up and down the mountainside, and though he didn’t know stickleberries from nightshade he could ferret out any number of other things, from hard thorns perfect for turning into needles to white river stones that apparently could be sold in the city to sprays of gold flowers that did nothing but remind him of Katrin. Moreover, he was good with his hands, and the little house was in better repair than Katrin had ever known it, as if the noise sustained it more than generations ever had.
There came a market day when Katrin ran into Old Bet, who was not old but had claimed the title ever since she was twenty, and her husband at the market. “Katrin,” she said, nodding. “And your young man.”
“Bet,” Katrin said. “Argen, this is—”
Argen went up to Bet’s husband and stuck out his hand. “Nice to meet you. My name’s Argen.”
Bet’s husband, tall and brown from the sun, smiled a little confusedly back. Argen looked down. “Ah. Wheelbarrow. Sorry, guess you can’t put that down.” He withdrew his hand. “What’s your name?”
“John,” Bet said. “John Barleycorn. Katrin, you know there’s a north wind blowing, right? You doing your planting this year?”
Katrin bit her lip and shook her head. Argen started to argue—she’d been doing nothing but planting!—but he caught her glance and instead turned to John and started asking about music, whether he played or sang. John smiled and said nothing.
“Well, I’m doing my planting tonight,” Bet said, “all proper with witnesses and cider after. You’re certainly welcome to come. On your own,” she added.
“Thank you, no. But if you have cider to spare, I’ll happily buy some off you later on.” Katrin took Argen’s hand and led him away.
Argen lowered his voice as they reached the edge of the market. “His name’s not really John, is it?”
“No. How’s your leg? If you hurry, we can go home and be over to Bet’s by sunset.”
“You’re going after all?”
“No. But.” She stopped and looked at him a long while—still weedy and thin, even with a summer’s work on his shoulders, brown where the sun caught him in ways that were nothing like Bet’s husband’s brown. “There’s something you need to see. If you’ll be here over the winter.”
Argen smiled. “Of course I’ll be here. Lead on.”
They had to hurry over broken ground and so got there after sunset, but Bet had a clear idea of what was proper and timeliness was not part of that. A few of the other mountain women were already there, holding mugs of cider and complaining about the cold tang in the air.
Katrin led Argen to the far side of the house, next to the woodpile. “Don’t say anything. Don’t make any sound. No matter what,” she said in his ear, and he held to it. But as the cluster of women moved out past the garden toward the sheds, he gestured ahead to the big spreading tree at the edge of the forest, then to the two of them: better hiding place? Katrin shook her head.
The mountain women formed up into two ranks with Bet in the middle. All of them wore heavy cloaks, but the bare skin showing when they moved revealed that they were naked beneath. She gave Argen a wry glance when he gasped. The nakedness was for practicality. There were only so many times you could wash your good clothes, after all.
Bet’s husband came out of the house, tall and strong. He paused at the edge of the garden, waiting. “Take off your clothes,” Bet ordered. Only so many times you could wash your husband’s clothes, either.
Bet’s husband did so, revealing a perfectly formed body, right down to the shaft not yet erect but thickened with arousal. One of the other mountain women made an appreciative noise. Bet beckoned him, and he came to her, smiling. She slid one hand around the back of his neck and kissed him, long and lascivious. “Oh, get on with it, Bet,” another woman said. “I’d rather not be here all night.”
Bet glared at her from the kiss but withdrew, smiled at her husband, and drove the knife in her other hand into his throat.
Katrin was ready for it and so got her hand over Argen’s mouth in time. Bet’s husband sank to his knees, pale fluid cascading down his chest. Bet withdrew her knife, turned it, and dug it in again, under his chin. He fell like a tree, and the women descended on him, working quickly. One soon held up his heart, another his testicles, another a flap of liver, and finally Bet (not without some cursing at neckbones and gristle) held up his head. As one they raised them, and as one they brought them to the foot of the tree and began scraping in the dirt. “Couldn’t have dug this before, could you, Bet?” one of them called.
“It’s not the right order of it,” Bet said primly.
Under Katrin’s hand, Argen shuddered. She nodded to the far side of the house, and the two of them crept away from the women who were now laughing and tamping down dirt and asking if there was any cider left.
The song goes: Hey on the mountain snow comes down/hey on the mountain snow comes down/my wife is dead and she’s in the ground/a-hey, a-hey, a riddle-ay-day
Hey on the mountain comes the rain/hey on the mountain comes the rain/I’ll get me another with the sprouting grain/a-hey, a-hey, a riddle-ay-day
He tried again with breakfast. Water again, a plateful with a single green leaf balanced on it like a boat on a lake. Katrin looked from it to his hopeful expression—the right face, the wrong expressions—and shook her head. “You’re an idiot,” she murmured sweetly.
Her husband smiled, gestured to the plate, then picked up a trowel and went out to the vegetable garden. Katrin dumped the water over the cold hearth and just kept herself from breaking the plate there as well.
He nodded as she joined him, pulling up the weeds that never really had much of a foothold, not since spring, not with both of them keeping an eye on it. “I’m not a tree,” she said, keeping her tone level. “I’m not a fucking tree, and I don’t want your water. I don’t want you. I never wanted—”
Her voice broke, and she pressed the back of her hand to her eyes, one after another. When she looked up he had stopped, gazing at her in concern. He reached out to her shoulder, but Katrin slid out from under the touch, dropping her own fork. “I’ll be back. Don’t wait up.”
Of course he did, when she returned with armfuls of red-finger squash; sitting at the foot of his tree and jumping up when she reached the cottage. It’s important to show affection, the other mountain women said. Show you love them; that’s how they stay connected to you. Of course, none of the other husbands or wives tried to make breakfast.
She brought the squash inside, smoothed her hands over her eyes and hair, and went to him, let him hold her and stroke away the knots in her shoulders. He knew where those knots were, where they’d always been, but that didn’t make them vanish.
The story goes: you know, like mushrooms, or asparagus. (My mother grows asparagus, one of the boys says, and they tease him about this for about a month.) There are these women up north who don’t like men, but they like this plenty (accompanied with a boastful crotch-grab, of course). So they make a deal with, I don’t know, the devil or something, and they kill any men who come through there and cut off their stones and plant them. And they come out of the ground dick first, so the women, they have to fuck them out of the ground.
Whoa, all the boys say in that adolescent mixture of horror and lust that always comes with this version of the story. They all stop and imagine it for a moment, eyes going unfocused, and then the first bout of teasing about the one boy’s mother starts up. It’s just one of many such stories that get passed around like this, although it makes enough of an impression on one of them that he will have an embarrassing moment when his class discusses the poet’s winter women sonnet.
Katrin and Argen made their way back slow in the dark, Katrin rapidly cycling between regret that she’d shown him anything, angry defense of the ways of the mountains, and panic that Argen would leave her. “The way my aunt told it,” she began.
He jumped, and so did she, both at the sound of her voice. She cleared her throat and tried again. “The way she said, the soil here’s not so good. So when the farms were made, there was never enough for two to last through the winter, and finally one half of a couple made a, a bargain or a choice or discovered something – did something, anyway, so that his wife’d have enough and he’d be back in the spring.”
“So.” Argen’s voice squeaked, and he cleared his throat. “So you all just kill them, just like that?”
“Not kill! Back in the spring, remember? They plant him, remind the tree that come spring it’ll need to, to produce, and in spring, after the thaw, he’ll come out.”
Argen didn’t speak for a long moment, long enough that they reached their gardens. “I wish I could say that’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen, but, well, I did go trading on the far side of the mountains.” He shakes his head. “They’re, what, like dolls? Or like earth-slaves, or both?”
“No. They don’t – they don’t respond the same way we do, but they agree to it, same as anyone. It’s, it’s like it’s the land, right? Like the farm itself.” She slowed under her tree, looked up at its branches. “And if they’re not treated right, if they’re hurt or ignored or forced, they remember. The tree won’t produce again, and the land, it sicks.” Not that it stopped some people, but by and large most mountain women and men had learned to deed their lands to someone who wouldn’t do something like that. “They don’t have children. Sire or bear, either way. For that you need to go to someone else. Winter liaisons.”
“Winter liaisons. Is that what I’m for? For getting a child on you?”
Katrin snorted. “I don’t want children. I had three younger siblings; I’ve had enough of that.” She caught at his hand, pulled him so that he faced her. “I wanted you to know. So that if, if you want to leave, you can.”
There was just enough starlight that she could see So you can replace me before the first frost? on his lips, but he didn’t say it, and for that her heart broke a little further. He turned a little and looked at the tree. “Is this—?”
“Yes. If you hadn’t come, I probably would have given it a bit of my blood this fall and brought out a husband in the spring.” Or a wife, come to think of it; her aunt had had as many wives as husbands, going by the seasons. She put her hand on it, felt the gnarls of the bark and the lumpy roots underfoot. “I thought you needed to know.”
He laid his hand next to hers. “Glad I’m here, then,” he said finally. “So you don’t have to go through that.”
The story goes: the trees were brought over from the uncanny lands on the far side of the mountains, brought pick-a-back in cuttings by a man who never stopped smiling and who could not speak above a whisper.
No, that’s wrong; the trees were always there on the mountain, and it was only with the bargain that they changed; make the right sort of bargain with a beech or a crabapple and the only difference will be in the color of your husband’s eyes.
No, that’s wrong; the trees aren’t the important part but the soil, the good earth they grow in that you wouldn’t expect on a mountain, and that’s what should have told us from the start that something was amiss on these slopes.
These stories are not told the way that other stories are told. They will never be collected like children’s games and poetry and folksongs by bright-eyed students who record the bark of them and leave the taproots untouched. But they are what the older women of the mountain argue, on the cold nights, and those women have not yet come to an answer.
Winter was long and made longer by the simple fact of two people in a small space, and her columns of figures had been off enough to make it a lean one. But Argen made his music, and she sang along, as if they could keep warm by singing. And, somehow, they did.
The first morning they heard water dripping from snowmelt Argen recognized it first, laughed, and then improvised a song around the beat, one that eventually abandoned rhyme and meter entirely. Katrin, more forward now than she’d once been, laughed along with him, then set about making it impossible for him to keep time without gasping. By the time they made it outside that day, runnels had begun to cut the snow, everywhere except where the farm tree cast its shadow. “We made it,” Katrin said.
“We did.” He wasn’t looking at her as he said it, but at the farm tree with a kind of defiance. “I’m glad,” he said finally, turning to her. “Glad you didn’t have to –”
“Yes,” she said, and drew him back inside.
Argen’s leg was now well enough that he could range further up and down the mountain, seeking small things to make their lives easier, although he only ever went up to the limits of the other farms, never a step further. Come summer and market-days, he treated the husbands and wives with a particular courtesy, and they seemed to recognize it in turn, not affording him a space among them but acknowledging his place with Katrin. And if he ever thought about being replaceable, it was no more than she thought of him leaving to the lowland women.
But they’d made it through a year, summer winter fall and spring.
The lower field was looking good for grain, and Katrin had chased out several chiselteeth while she was up there, so her mood was a little better as she returned home. That mood was dashed immediately as she came up the trail and she heard the first honk. She dropped her pitchfork and ran.
Her husband was standing in front of the cabinet – had dragged over a stool so he could reach up on top, dislodging months of dust. He was holding it completely wrong, one end held up in front of his chest, the other dangling uselessly by his navel.
A second, uneven honk sounded as he pushed the two ends together, batting it like a cat.
“No!” Katrin slapped it out of his hands, and it went skidding across the floor into the corner. “Don’t you ever, don’t you ever—” He looked at her, and it was that that did it, the familiar face that was the wrong face that was so blank with an expression so vacant and stupid—
She slapped him, as hard as she’d slapped away the concertina. He stared at her, gray eyes wide and shocked. “I hate this,” she howled. “I hate this, I hate you!” Katrin’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I hate what I’ve done—”
The last was the truth, but it didn’t matter. He kept staring, and at last she broke, running into the bedroom and slamming the door shut behind her. After a time she heard him leave.
The story goes: Aphrodite loved Adonis, a mortal man with the beauty of a god, but she couldn’t be everywhere to protect him, and he was gored by a boar on a mountaintop. She held him as he died, and his blood became anemones, flowers across the side of the mountain, and she made it so that he was part of those flowers, that as they lived on so he might live on, even though diminished.
The anthropologist pointed out the parallels, then smiled encouragingly, waiting while the mountain woman thought about it. It wasn’t that she minded the time, or even the mountain woman herself, but the anthropologist had brought only so many cigarettes on this trip, and the mountain woman was making her way through the last pack now.
Finally the mountain woman took a final drag and let the smoke trail out through her nostrils. “That’s not the way we tell it.”
It wasn’t spring thaw that did it this time but too many autumn rains and one last ranging of Argen’s, seeking needles or stones or just a last flower before the chill set in. And not rocks this time but mud, too much mud and too little space to run. This time it wasn’t his leg but the whole right side of his body caught under the slide, and his left arm grasped weakly at the mud as she ran up to him.
“Are you making a habit of this?” she demanded, and the garbled, breathy sound he made in place of a laugh made her whole body contract.
No dead deer this time but no sled either, and it took her time to lash a quick V of branches and move him onto it, enough time that the light had faded by the time she brought him home. But not even fading light could hide how bad it was, and in the light of multiple lanterns she had to admit that even bringing him here had been a wish that their summer preparations would still hold, a denial of what had happened to him that made all those preparations worth nothing.
“I can’t do this,” she whispered. “There’s too much, too much for me to fix—is there anything, anything in your pack—”
She reached for him, moved her hand at the last minute so she wouldn’t touch raw skin, but there was no unwounded part of him. His left eye was cloudy but awake, and after a moment she realized the thin sound she’d been hearing was not her own panic but his whimper. With a moan, he raised the one hand that still worked and pointed out the open door.
Toward the farm tree.
“No,” she whispered, but he fumbled for her hand and clasped it, then pressed it to his forehead, his heart.
Then pointed to the tree again.
“That’s not how it—not—” She fell silent—silent, Argen had never been silent, and how could she go back to silence again? It had worked once, if her aunt’s story was right, and could it again, and it wasn’t fair—”Oh, love,” she whispered, and kissed him. Even that kiss hurt him, and she reached for her knife as she withdrew from him.
She did it there, as Old Bet and her companions had done, in front of the tree, and when she’d buried what needed to be buried and then buried the rest anyway, she lay down beside the tree and sobbed.
It was a slow and silent winter, but the tree swelled with the spring, and finally it split its trunk to let her husband free. He had smiled on seeing her, and it had been him, been Argen with the white blooming to green skin of the husbands, brown within hours of being in the sun, and the gray eyes that had been his. The eyes had convinced her at first that all was well.
But that conclusion had been wrong, and he had been wrong, and not all the water breakfasts in the world could wash it away.
The story goes: so then she says, oh, we grow them different up here! Maybe you should have turned him to the light a little more? Well, next time give him some better fertilizer, that’ll help!
The punchlines shift, but what’s there stays the same: the unnatural winter women of the mountains, the unsuspecting lowland man, oh whoops you mean you don’t grow back? What use is a man you have to keep around all winter, am I right?
And if there’s a layer of anger under every iteration of the story, well, the best jokes all have some fire underneath them, right?
Katrin didn’t sleep. She huddled under the blankets, listening to the scratching on the wall – not the scratch of someone seeking to come in but something else, her husband dragging a tool against the wall of the cottage over and over. Maybe she’d broken him, as she’d broken their informal mountain marriage, as she’d broken her aunt’s farm. When they went wrong, the marriages like this, they went wrong fast. So much for the lower field; so much for the vegetable garden; nothing planted there would grow, not while she was here. Maybe the mountain would buck and shift and bury her, too, under a rockfall, and maybe that would be the best.
Maybe she could gather what was left of Argen’s pack, she told herself, and go down to the lowlands and sell it, or cross the mountains and bargain there with whatever she had (which at this point was her blood and her body, and she knew there’d be buyers for both). Even as she thought it she knew it wouldn’t happen; this land was hers and she its, and now that she’d wronged it she would let it exact its punishment.
She made herself get up when the sun reached the far wall. The scraping had stopped some time ago, and she wondered if her husband was still there, if he had disappeared into the forest as they were said to do when wronged. She wrapped a blanket around herself and walked outside.
Nothing had begun to wither yet. She trailed her fingers over the flat of a leaf, over the ridge of the fence, inhaling the last green scents.
He was sitting by the side of the house, elbows on his knees, exhausted and still—but only for a moment, as he raised his head to meet her gaze. And beside him, behind him, all across the wall of the house, were scratched lines, groups of five and ten, marks like a child’s attempt at doing sums.
Columns. Columns of figures. She drew a harsh, uneven breath and let it out in a sob. “Wait,” she said, “wait.”
She ran back into the house, to the corner where it had fallen when she knocked it away, and ran back out, not daring to trust in forgiveness. Her husband was still sitting, hands open on his knees, and she fitted the concertina over his fingers. “Please work, please. You never did teach me how to play this damned thing—”
Putting her hands over his, she brought the concertina together: honk. And back out, pressing his fingers onto the keys: wheeze-honk. And again, loud and obnoxious and ridiculous, and her husband staring in amazement at this sound they were making. When he opened his mouth, the word was a whisper overridden by this crude music, but it was there, and she nodded and wept and repeated it for him.
The story goes: there was a mountain woman who loved a lowland man.