We were just going to bed when the townfolk came, led by Mrs. Hutch with her know-all voice.
I climbed up the cabin ladder to the loft, careful to curl my toes over the rough beams of wood. Ma had fallen off the stairs just a week ago, and now she slept downstairs on the sofa. The cabin was just one big room, so she could still yell up at me and Minn to make us quiet down.
Minnie had the covers pulled up over her head. I could see her eyes shining out from a little hole, like a cat in her cave.
“Move over, Minn.” I swung my legs under the covers. She scooted back, and I pressed my feet against her thighs.
Minnie wrapped her hands around my feet. Their warmth prickled. “So cold!”
The underside of the covers twinkled with little points of light. Minnie touched her finger to the sheet. When she pulled it back there was a warm, red star there. She made two rectangles, a star in each corner of the boxes. An arc of stars lead from the bottom of one rectangle to the center of the other. My feet in Minnie’s hands.
“The two sisters.” Minnie pulled her hand away from the sheet, and I stared at our constellation. I wished I’d be able to see it when we went outside. But we were all earth-bound for now.
There was a knock on the door. I could hear voices outside. A few shouts.
I felt Minnie’s nose on my head, the warm air from her lungs. But after a minute my head started to get cold, and I couldn’t tell her breath from the outside air that flooded in as Ma opened the door.
“Good evening, Mrs. Hutch.” Ma always spoke like a town person, all polite and quiet, even when she was mad.
Minnie and I watched from the loft, the blanket covering all but our eyes.
Mrs. Hutch bustled in and sat in the big rocking chair. Ma’s chair.
“How’s the leg mending?” She hadn’t even taken off her boots at the door. Little bits of snow started falling from the toes, melting into water that would make our thin carpet smell sweet-sick.
Ma didn’t sit down. She rested her hand on the windowsill, her fingers touching the bit of frost on the pane that had been there since winter started six months ago.
“It’s on its way. Another week –”
“Another week and we’ll have already gone to each other’s throats.”
Minn growled, her lip arched. I put my hands on her arms, whispered no one listened to Mrs. Hutch no ways, but it took a glance from Ma to quiet her.
When Minn was silent Ma turned back to the woman in her chair. “We can bring in more Aurora. The full moon is on her way – it will be bright as lamplight outside.”
Mrs. Hutch shook her head, her fur bonnet still edged with frost. “This winter has gone on long enough.”
She turned to the loft and we ducked back under the covers. “Lux, come down.”
Minn crossed her eyes and made a face and laughing made me feel more brave, even if I had to laugh quiet, beneath my hand.
I wiped my feet on the carpet so the sweat wouldn’t make me slip, and went down careful, rung by rung.
Mrs. Hutch waved her hand at me, telling me to come close until my feet were right next to hers. Her face was red from the wind, with wrinkles worn into her skin like tiny roads. Beautiful eyes. Like the winter moon or maybe the summer sky, both kind of together.
She looked at me for a long time, so long I looked over to Ma to see if I could go. But Ma wasn’t even looking at me. She was watching Minn, who’d pulled her head out of the blanket and had curled her fingers over the railing.
That’s when she did it – slapped the palm of her hand straight onto my chest. “Lux, light-bringer, I charge you to change the seasons.”
Ma weighted us down with baskets. There was a jar of snow, and a corked bottle of aurora, its green light swirling behind the glass. Beside these was a pound of moose-meat wrapped in white butcher paper.
I wore my snow pants and layers of thermals. I had on my thickest wool socks, and my big mittens.
Ma rested her hands on my shoulders, eyes peering into me. “It shouldn’t have been brought on you. Not yet.”
I set my teeth together, waited for her to tell me encouraging things like the moms that came over in the late summer to pick blueberries from our place. Things like You can do it. Like I believe in you.
I walked out of the cabin with my teeth still tight against each other. The snow was packed down with the footprints of the townpeople, the tracks of Mrs. Hutch’s sled had cut straight down to the dirt.
I watched through the front window as Ma said her goodbye to Minnie. Ma opened the wooden box she kept on the bookshelf and pulled out the silver chain. It was as thin as a strand of hair and as tall as Minnie, but it was strong. Ma wrapped the chain around Minnie’s waist, opened the door and handed the other end of the chain to me.
Minnie pulled Ma in a hug and they started crying. Ma had been cursing the night for six months straight. But here we were, ready to set off, and she couldn’t bear to let Minnie go.
I started off down the steps, and Minnie cried out at the pull of the chain.
“Stars be with you,” Ma called behind us.
I didn’t turn back to wave. I’d be seeing Ma again soon enough.
Minnie walked behind me, swinging her basket. I slowed down to walk beside her.
The hairs in my nose started to freeze up, the moisture from my breath forming into icicles that blocked all sense of smell. I could see the tips of my bangs turn to white as my breath settled there.
We walked through the forest. The moon was out and the light came up from the snow all around us. The birch trees guided our path. It was hard work to walk through the unpacked snow, even with the snowshoes. My legs were beginning to ache.
The aurora road grew brighter in the sky. I had to keep an eye on it to make sure we were going in the right direction. Sometimes it could shift fast. I lost sight of it, and I had to pull out the bottled aurora and let a little out to get us back on track. The aurora drifted up from the bottle, and the sky river moved to take the wisp of light back into its stream. I had my eyes on the sky.
The chain tugged in my hand. Minnie had veered off course. She talked to a raven perched in a birch tree. I couldn’t parse their squawks, but I listened for a second. I thought I could hear a story in the raven’s sounds. I closed my eyes, and thought of ravens far up north. They spied on a polar bear hunting for seals, pouncing and pushing his paws through the ice.
I shook my head of daydreams. The sound of skin on fabric filled my ears when I twisted my head in my hood. I couldn’t speak to ravens.
“Minnie? We need to keep going.”
She kept talking to the raven, as if she hadn’t heard me.
The raven flew off, up toward the circle.
“Let’s go, Little Sister,” Minn said.
We crossed miles in moments. When my right foot touched the top of the snow we were in an open field of short, scraggly trees. When my left foot hit we were in a birch forest, the ground sloping up in front of us. My eyes ached from the jumping images. But I kept them open. I watched the aurora to make sure we stayed on the right path.
Minnie wouldn’t talk to me anymore. She kept tugging at the chain when she thought I wasn’t looking. But I held on.
I needed to prove to Ma that I could do this right.
The cabin at the circle was smaller than ours. The door was open, and I could see the soft orange glow of a lantern inside. There were quilts and books piled up in the corner. A sketch pad with a blank sheet was on the easel, waiting for Minn.
Lily sat out front, her pink dress spread around her. She had her fingers on the soil, coaxing up flowers. Around her wrist a gold bracelet dug into her skin, its chain tied to an iron plate in the ground. Deep lines from Lily’s movements cut the snow, spoked out like a clock. Lily’s basket lay on the ground beside her. A sprig of fireweed shot out over the handle. Something moved inside. A sandhill crane.
Minnie hung back from the circle, holding her basket with both hands.
Lily brought up a flower, humming softly to herself. The petals wrapped around her finger, and when she pulled her finger away the flower opened its yellowy center.
You have to be careful with people who have been in the bush all winter. Sometimes they talk to themselves out there, and they don’t realize they bring that voice with them back to town. Lily was always alright by the time she came back to Ma’s cabin, but then again Ma had been there for the trip back.
Lily stood up and shook the snow off her dress.
“Lux!” Lily held out her arms, and I walked up and hugged her. She was warm. The ice in my nose melted a bit, and I could smell fresh earth and grass.
Lily pushed her hand under my hood and stroked my hair. Her warm fingers pushed the worries of winter out of my head for a moment, but then it was too much and I was sun sick, all headachey and wanting to hide.
I scooped a bit of snow and rubbed it on my forehead. “She broke her leg on the ladder.”
Lily laughed, all light and airy. “I’ll get her healed up quick.” Her eyes rested on Minn.
I kept hold of the silver chain as Minnie took a step back.
Lily held out her hand to me, the one with the gold chain on it.
“I’ve got to get Minnie settled first.” I held the chain tight in my mittened fist, my thumb pressed down against the silver cord.
Lily nodded. “Of course, Lux. You’ll do just fine.”
She was always so horribly positive.
There was a squawk at the edge of the clearing. I looked over and saw Minnie holding a raven in her arms, cradled like a cat. She’d called down the raven from the treetops. The bird cawed at me as I stepped up to them.
“Time to switch over, Minn.”
“Can’t we go back for just a little bit? Mrs. Hutch can’t blame us if we tell her we got lost. It’s your first time, after all. We’ll just tell her you made a wrong turn.” The raven stuck his long black beak into Minnie’s cupped hand and pulled out a red, frozen berry. He held it clamped there in his beak like a treasure.
“It’ll be your time again before you know it.” I turned my back to her and walked over to the stake to tie her silver chain down. I had threaded it through the eye and was just about to close the ends in a knot when I felt a small, hard thump on my back. I pulled my hand out of the mitten and reached to feel my back. They came back stained with berry juice.
The raven flew at me.
I fell forward, the snow muffling my cry. It packed against my eyes and went into my nose. I pushed myself up, sputtering for air. The raven was still on me, his wings out, batting against the sides of my head.
Squaw! Squaw! Squaw!
My mittens were slashed where the chain had pulled against it. I’d let go.
I jerked my elbow back and hit the raven’s wings. He jabbed at my face, and cut my skin open beneath my ear. I cocked my arm and pushed my elbow back again, hitting the bird in the head. He fell into the snow, rocking his body to try to turn over.
Minnie was gone. The woods around the circle were all winter.
My face stung where the raven had pecked it.
I couldn’t help it. I started to cry.
“Poor baby!” Lily’s voice was soft, but there was heat beneath the words. Her skin turned light blue. The grass singed beneath her. She hummed a mock lullaby underneath her breath, punching at the staccato notes.
My heart was all heavy and I wanted to sit there and cry a bit more.
I pushed myself up and looked at Lily. “Which way?”
Lily pointed to a tree that was covered in ice.
I took off into the snow, wiping my tears from my face as I ran. My heart beat fast. The air was colder down this way. I reckoned it was getting close to fifty below. The air hurt in my throat, and my lungs weren’t ready. My hand stung with cold where the mitten had been sliced open.
“Minnie!” The snow pulled my voice down into it, made it softer.
The clearing fell farther and farther behind me. I looked over my shoulder and saw the small shape of the cabin in between the trees. The sound of Lily’s humming disappeared into the silence of the woods, until all I could hear was my own breathing, my own feet crunching in snow, and the wind whipping all around me, trying to push me back.
I stopped in the forest to get my breath right. I bent over, my mittens on my knees, coughing, forcing air down in me. Small sounds of the deep forest. The soft thump of snow falling off of a branch. A twig snapped.
My body tensed. I turned my head slowly.
It was a moose. She bit frozen rosehips from the bushes. The tiny branches leaned as she pulled at them, and then snapped back as her teeth clamped down.
The moose had a little beard on her chin. She looked down at me as she chewed. Everyone was always older, always taller than me. Even this moose.
I came up to her knees.
Minnie’s basket was over by the tree. The white butcher paper flapped open, the moose meat gone.
“Minnie?” I stared at the moose, trying to see my sister in those big, dark eyes.
The moose leaned her long neck down and gobbled in another rosehip. The silver chain swung from the moose’s neck. The open end hung down her chest. It was two feet above my head. I’d have to jump to get to it.
The light in the forest was giving way from moon to sun, from cold light to warm. I didn’t have much more time to make a switch. Things could go off-balance easy, and then I’d be stuck here in the northland, watching Lily and Minnie fight. And down south the seasons would be twisting back and forth.
Ma would know I had failed. And Mrs. Hutch would come with the townpeople again, like they had when Pa’d been too heartbroken to take his daughter up north.
Here I was at the Arctic Circle, Minnie gone moose on me, my voice a squeak.
“Minnie?” The wind had more force than my voice.
The moose didn’t pay any attention to me. I took soft, slow steps to her, holding out my hand like I held a treat.
“Minnie, please. You do this every year with Ma. Please.”
The moose snorted. The air from her nostrils made puffs of white fog that drifted in the air. Her breath smelt like warm berries.
I held my ground.
Summer and winter were in me at once, the blueberries and the aurora. The moose and the sandhill crane. They were telling me what to say, the trees around me leaned closer to hear me say it.
“Minnie, Sister Winter, I tie you to this place for the space of a season.”
The moose bent her head down and shook it. Her brown hair turned black, her body shrank and shrank until it was girl-sized, and then Minnie stood in front of me. Her silver chain around her waist. The end right at my feet.
“Stay.” The words came out easy now, just flying. I barely had to think them.
I squatted down, keeping my eyes on Minnie, and picked up the chain. I held it tight in my mitten.
“I’m sorry Lux.”
“Let’s go.” I turned my back on her and faced the path to the circle. She didn’t move at first, then she picked up her basket and wrapped the moose meat back in its package. The chain tightened, then slacked in my hand.
She walked beside me, back to the clearing.
I kept my eyes straight ahead. After a while the air felt less cold, and I didn’t have to work so hard to breathe in and out. I wanted to reach out and take Minnie’s hand, but something in me held back.
Lily had cooled down. She had been growing flowers out of the ground and then plucking them, weaving them into a garland across the top of her head. She flashed her bright smile at us as we walked up.
“Quiet for a bit,” I commanded in my new voice.
Lily’s smile twitched, and she brought her lips together.
I tied Minnie’s silver chain to the stake, tied it with the knot I’d learned out of a book and practiced with one of my hair ribbons. I tested the strength of it. It would hold. Minnie sat on the ground in front of the cabin, her eyes down.
Lily stood and twirled around to make her dress lift up, her hand still chained to the stake. She lifted her arm above her as she twirled, like a piece of ribbon at a spring festival. She was going to be a pain to take back south.
I knelt in front of Minnie and took my glove off, pushed my hands into her hair.
“I‘m sorry, Minn.” I put my head on her chest. She circled her arms around me, pulling me into her lap.
“You’ve got a good voice.” She kissed my forehead. I felt little bits of ice grow up where her lips touched my skin.
I wanted to cry but I was afraid I’d lose my voice if I did. Lily kept twirling around, ignoring us.
“I’ll be back for you Minn. Summer never lasts as long as you think.”
She gave me a squeeze. “Better go.”
I kissed her cheek and then stood up. Ma had tied Lily’s chain in a simple bow around the stake half a year ago. I pulled one ear of the bow and it came loose into my hands. The warmth of the gold chain came through my mittens and made my fingers sweat.
“Time to go, Lil.”
She did another spin, this time bending down to pick up her basket. The sandhill crane flapped his wings, then settled down.
“Have a good summer, sister,” Lily called over her shoulder.
I tugged at Lily’s chain, my voice strong. “Enough of that.”
We walked back south, to our village. Lily pulled up bits of color from the earth as we walked together. The bark of the birch trees felt warmer. Snow melted off of tree branches and fell into the snow, making tiny, deep circles.
Lily was singing and twirling. I imagined Ma, back at the cabin, happy to see her. Mrs. Hutch and the townspeople would leave gifts on our front porch for weeks, hug Lily whenever they met her out in town.
But I was already missing the winter.
Jenni Moody is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her stories are forthcoming in River Oak Review and Missing Links and Secret Histories, an anthology from Aqueduct Press.