This was another entry for the competition themed ‘Winter’, and I think I prefer this one:
“Winter cleanses. It takes the wild mud and confusion of Summer and Autumn, and transmutes them to soft, silent whiteness. In the Winter it is possible to think, to consider the past year, and perhaps prepare for the next.”
Elder Phips recited the traditional greeting as the congregation settled. His warm voice filling our hearts, while the warm church thawed our chilled bones. It was cold outside.
“Let us all say thanks for the bounties which Winter provides.”
We bowed our head, and mumbled the ritual.
“Thank you Winter for cleansing us. Thank you Winter for protecting us. Thank you Winter for saving us. Thank you Winter for providing for us.”
When I was younger I always questioned how Winter had done all these things. Now I was a man, I knew what we were thankful for, though I didn’t entirely agree. Still, the community around the church was strong, and our Elder kept us together. I was not going to rock the boat.
After the ceremony Elder Phips invited me into his study. His house joined to the back of the church, and there was no need for us to put on our full furs to get there. There was some discussion of linking the whole village up in this way.
“Ah come in Jorgy.”
“Thank you Elder.”
“Oh hush, I’ve know you since you were a pup, please call me Phips. Now I expect you are wondering why I asked you in here?”
“It is two things. Firstly, I know the other hunters follow you. Are you supporting the covered links for the village?”
I paused. This had become an emotive issue.
“I will Elder. While the resources required are substantial, I’m convinced that it will return more. It will allow more visits, strengthening the community as well as reducing the time all of us spend getting ready for outside.”
“Good man, I thought you’d see sense. Now if only I can get the salters to agree. Any ideas?”
I thought a little.
“Perhaps remind them that they will get more visits, and more chances to sell their wares. They aren’t fools, though they may act that way sometimes.”
“Excellent. I shall.”
He stopped and looked at his desk. The second thing, whatever it was, clearly bothered him. It was also clearly the real reason he’d called me in.
“Ah Jorgy, there’s a more delicate matter.”
I waited silently. I had a suspicion I knew what it was.
“It’s about, ah, the Spring.”
I had wondered if he had the courage to say it. I stayed mute.
“Well, there have been rumours that you, ah, that you think the Spring might be coming.”
One casual remark, and now this quiet inquisition.
“No Phips. I had but remarked that the South wind was less cutting than I would have expected for this time of year.”
He looked at me, trying to judge.
“That’s not all Jorgy. I have seen your log-pile. It is not up to the eves. The Guidance clearly states that the log-pile should be built up to the eves during every long break in the weather.”
Digging himself out of this was going to be more difficult.
“Apologies Elder. My son has been ill, and I spent the time looking for extra food for him to help him recover.”
“Hmm, I would have more sympathy if you hadn’t told Tomas that you didn’t think there was any point in having such a stockpile. You claim that you didn’t use all of yours during the last big freeze.”
Ah, the crux of the hypocrisy. He’d watched his neighbours when the snow had finally cleared enough. They’d been manically burning their wood, to make sure that it was all gone. The Interpretation of the Guidance was that all fuel supplies should be exhausted after a big freeze, otherwise Winter would send worse.
The problem was, the big freezes were less common, less vicious, and shorter than they’d been even a few years before. The weather was changing. But these fools could not see it. I was rocking the boat, even while trying to keep my own keel even.
There was nothing I could say to the Elder. So I said nothing.
He shook his head sadly.
“Jorgy, the Spring isn’t coming. The devil is playing tricks, and you are falling for his ways. I’m afraid you must pay penance.”
I wanted to scream at him, but there was little point. I thought voting for the covered links, a measure I thought would become irrelevant in a few years, would protect me, but clearly not.
“You must do ten hours a week on community work.” Which would mean the covered ways. Ten hours would be tough, but it could be worse.
“And half your next hunt.” I nearly stood at that point. It took iron will to stay still. Half my hunt was already taken as tax. The other half was to feed my family. With both halves taken, we would starve, or be forced to live off the charity of the village. Which of course was the whole point. The Elder liked to make sure we understood that the community was paramount.
He nodded. Then smiled, as if the unpleasantness was now in the past, and we would all be friends.
“Good lad Jorgy, I knew you’d understand. Now, don’t forget to make sure the other Hunters vote the right way. You know the way out?”
When I arrived home Mary looked at my face. She could see the Thunder, but then she’d known it was likely to be bad if the Elder had called me in.
“Oh Jorgy. What?”
“Half the hunt.”
“Nooo” she covered her mouth. She knew hunger and feared it. But she also feared the shame of relying on the bits of stew and weak broth from the other villagers. The women would be kind and helpful, but they would be judging.
“I’m sorry Mary. Perhaps I can do a double hunt?”
“Stay out there for that long? Winter will get you.”
I smiled wryly. She was trying to get a rise from me.
“Perhaps he will, but I might snare Spring.”
“Jorgy, it’s that kind of talk that got us into this trouble. Do you want them to do worse?”
“I know. But, I don’t understand. It is so obvious. Spring is coming.”
She shook her head.
“Jorgy, it’s been a thousand years of Winter. How many times have a group of hotheads decided Spring was coming, that the old ways are bad and that they should be in charge?”
“I know. But I am not a hothead.”
“I’m not saying the old ways are bad, just, that change is coming.”
“And you should be in charge?”
“Winter’s bones woman! No. I would not want that.”
“Then why challenge?”
“I wasn’t, not really. I am just trying to get them to see what is in front of them. Yet…”
“There are some that won’t believe until their faces are rubbed in the mud.”
Such language from Mary. She was clearly upset too.
“Do you think we should…”
We’d talked about leaving. I believed that the changing weather meant that it was safer to be out, and that travel was now possible.
“Oh Jorgy. I don’t know. What about Karl?”
“We could leave him here?” I winked at her.
“Our son! Never. Who would look after him?”
“It’s hard out there Mary. I may think Winter is weakening, but He still has some strength.”
“I’m strong enough Father.”
“Karl, how long have you been listening!” The whole time probably, though I’d only noticed his slipper sticking out a little while before.
He walked forward, holding his head high.
“Since you came back. I want to leave. The other boys all taunt me, they call me Spring’s spawn.”
I reached out to him, and he ran for a hug. How had we arrived at the point where Spring itself was evil?
The decision was made. We spent the rest of the day packing. There wasn’t much. I made sure they both had extra furs, minimal food and some basic tools. We’d start off fast and light, in case the Elders sent someone after us. Once we were several days away and I was confident we were clear I would build a sledge, and then I’d be able to hunt properly. We’d have a few days of hunger, but less than if we stayed.
I left a note for the Elder saying that he could distribute all that we’d left. He would have anyway, but giving him my permission would enrage him. I told him we were leaving to look for Spring.
Gathering all our belongings we stepped into Winter’s cold embrace. After centuries of cleansing I hoped that humans were pure enough to be given back the other seasons. We were ready for whatever came after Winter. We were ready for Spring.