Mother Winter

“How do you deal with the heartbreak?”

Lucinda stared into her martini, not daring to look up at his face. Afraid of the answer resting behind his strange, dragon’s eyes.

The clink of glasses and cutlery blended with the scents of rich paella and freshly baked bread. Holiday lights twinkled discreetly around the restaurant, and a small rosemary bush shaped into a classic fir tree cone shape sat next to the host’s podium at the front of the restaurant. Sleek, well dressed people surrounded their small two top table, and that the lights of San Francisco winked and blinked in the freezing rain outside the window.

But all she saw was a single green olive, floating in a bath of reflected candle light and gin.

“That is quite a heavy topic for the season, isn’t it?” Rex’s voice was dry as paper, yet surrounded her with a warmth she could wrap her body in. If only she dared.

But he was too old. Too wise. At age forty-five, Lucinda had always thought of herself as mature. Sophisticated. Worldly.

Then she had met Abraxas—aka Rex—and her life turned on its head.

She was still falling, unsure of which way was up, and what life meant anymore.

“Lucinda? Are you going to explain?”

Finally, she looked up. His skin was dark, pulled taut across fine bones like an Egyptian mummy. His eyes were darker, still, and blazed like fire when he was angry. That made him sound horrific. He was anything but. Uncanny, yes. Horrible, no.

His hair was black as jet falling in soft waves across the shoulders of a lavender sweater made of soft merino wool. A stark white collar cradled his unlined neck.

He was ageless. Beautiful. Eternal.

His eyes blinked more slowly than human eyes. His only tell, if you were looking closely enough.

“The heartbreak?” he prodded. “What do you mean?”

Lifting a glass of ruby red wine to his narrow lips, Abraxas drank. And waited.

A server approached, smiling brightly, blond hair in a ponytail, crisp white shirt encasing a slender frame. She was beautiful. Just the type Lucinda had bedded many times. Everyone in this place was beautiful. That’s what high thread count sheets, organic food, and the best skin unguents money could buy obtained.

The server placed a chocolate dessert dusted with cinnamon and swirled with peaks of white cream in the center of the table, and set down two fresh spoons.

“Can I get you anything else?” she asked. “Dessert wine, perhaps?”

“No thank you,” Abraxas replied.

“Well, enjoy!” The server threaded her way with ease through the crowded restaurant. Lucinda idly watched her backside make its way to the bar. But there was no heat in her gaze. She was out of sorts.

Not herself.

She hadn’t been since she had met the creature seated across from her. Dragon. Demon. God. He had been called many things over the centuries, or so he said. To her, he had never defined himself.

She decided dragon was as good a label as any of the others.

Shoving her half drunk martini away, Lucinda picked up a spoon, and tapped it on the edge of the small white plate.

She felt his stillness. Preternatural. As if he barely breathed, though she knew he did. Just as he ate. An shat. And slept. And all the rest.

He just did it… differently than she did.

She looked up again, allowing his steady gaze to catch her own.

“The heartbreak.” She waved a hand as if to encompass the room and beyond. “The greed. Sorrow. Stupidity. Short-sightedness. War. Unnecessary suffering… You’ve seen so much of it. Seen things that would kill me. And yet, somehow, you’re still here. You endure.”

His inhalation was swift and sharp, as if a force had elbowed him in the ribs. Lucinda watched his pupils dilate and his narrow nostrils flare. She’d broken through the dragon’s carapace.

Well. Wasn’t that interesting?

Now it was his turn to pick up a spoon. Turn the bright metal between his long, slender, dark fingers. The glint of an expensive watch peaked from beneath one white cuff. Dragon’s hoarded, didn’t they?

He had money. She knew that. And a Pacific Heights home filled with art and books, music and films that he watched from a capacious couch in a half dark room.

But the thing she had only recently realized was this: the main things dragons hoarded?

Was time.

***

The knife of wind sliced through Lucinda’s wool coat as she walked up the hill in the gathering dark, body slightly canted toward the sidewalk, pushing against the slope.

More rain scented the air, and dark clouds hovered above, but for now, the day was dry. Bing Crosby sang about sleigh bells, the music piped from expensively kitted out store fronts into a city with no snow. A cable car clanged by. Festooned with golden garlands and a green wreath, it chugged upward past the St. Francis Hotel doormen in their ridiculous Beefeater costumes. Glittering people exited and entered towncars and limousines. Bundled up shoppers thronged the sidewalks. Half a block away, the temporary ice skating rink filled Union Square, lit by a towering Yule tree.

“Spare change?”

The voice was a quiet puff of breath in the midst of the winter clamor. So soft, Lucinda almost didn’t catch it.

Her warm boots paused on the sidewalk, as if of their own accord. She slid an errant dark curl beneath her wool cap and looked down.

The woman’s brown eyes shied away from Lucinda’s gaze, like a skittish deer. Sitting on a battered milk crate, and swathed in layer upon layer of scarves, hats, coats, and gloves, the woman’s age was as indeterminate as Rex’s, but for a different reason. Rex was ageless because he was so well cared for, and so long lived.

This woman? She could have been in her mid-forties, like Lucinda, or younger, or in her sixties. Time stole from the poor. Time and hardship.

Lucinda smiled. “Let me see what I can do.”

She fished through a leather bag that cost more than this woman probably lived on in a month, and found her wallet. Even though Lucinda almost never used cash, she kept a few bills tucked away, just in case. You never knew when you needed to tip someone, or when you’d encounter a person like this.

Someone in need.

Three fives, two twenties, and one fifty-dollar bill.

Her gloved hand hovered over the green scraps of paper.

Pulled out the fifty.

“Here you go. Happy Yule.”

The eyes between the hat and scarves widened.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. Please. Buy yourself a warm dinner.”

“Thank you.” The woman’s face tilted upward, brown eyes clear. “And a Good Yule to you, as well.”

Lucinda blinked. Then nodded. That reply was not what she had been expecting. Most people trotted out a “Merry Christmas” without thinking, no matter what greeting Lucinda offered.

“Well. All right then,” Lucinda stammered, a too-bright grin affixed to her face. “I’ll be on my way. Keep warm!”

She continued the press upward. Rex was likely wondering what had made her so late. They were meeting in an antiquarian bookshop, so at least he was well occupied.

“Ma’am! Ma’am!” the woman’s voice caught in the wind behind.

Lucinda felt a frisson run up her spine. It wasn’t from the wind. It wasn’t fear. It tasted slightly of the same, uncanny essence that Abraxas carried.

That was it. It was something so old as to be barely recognizable. Older than a human lifespan. Older than a woman, asking for spare change on a milk crate in the middle of the San Francisco Christmas shopping rush.

Frozen on the sidewalk, Lucinda didn’t want to turn. Didn’t want to face whatever caused the feeling that set the small hairs at the back of her neck on end.

“Excuse me!” A woman shoved passed her, bags and packages colliding with Lucinda’s coat. Lucinda hadn’t even realized she’d stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, next to a restaurant with bright, steamed-up windows.

The moment was a simple one, yet felt momentous somehow.

“You’re being ridiculous,” she muttered to herself. “She probably wants to ask you something.” Then slowly turned around.

The bundled-up woman had vanished.

But there, something shone on top of the battered milk crate.

Lucinda picked her way back down the hill, that strange feeling building beneath her skin.

On top of the crate was a woven band of red and green wool, strung with nine shining bells, wrapped around a branch of gleaming holly.

She reached down with one gloved hand. The air grew thick. Lucinda pushed on. She grasped the branch. A holly leaf pricked her thumb through her woolen glove. Carefully, she unwound the strand of bells.

Laughing, she shook them toward the dark clouds above.

“People are crazy this time of year,” she heard a man mutter as a family trooped by. “Stick close, okay?”

Lucinda laughed again, and shook the bells at their retreating backs.

She couldn’t wait to show her gift to Rex. It was just the sort of whimsical thing the dragon would enjoy.

The earlier sense of unease faded with each chime of silver as she walked back up the hill.

***

“She simply disappeared?” Abraxas’s dark fingers engulfed the porcelain tea cup.

Lucinda cradled her own delicate cup, warming her fingers as the fragrant steam danced on the surface of the pale brown liquid. Russian Caravan Tea, smoky and delicious.

“Yes. All that was left was the milk crate and that.” She gestured to the woven band of red and green, the shining bells, and the holly.

A small red dot marred the pale skin of her thumb, where the holly had penetrated her glove.

“What do you think it means?” she asked her friend.

A stack of iced holiday butter cookies sat on a white plate in the center of their round marble table top. She smelled hot chocolate, likely being quaffed by the two children at a table nearby. They chattered at what looked like their grandparents.

Rex blinked his slow blinks at the objects next to Lucinda’s left hand. One blink. Two. Three.

She had learned to wait as he pondered. Rushing a dragon did no good.

“Bells. Holly. Red and green…. How old did you say she looked?”

“I don’t know. Could have been my age. Could have been sixty-five. But…”

Abraxas picked up a cookie shaped like a tree outlined in garish green icing. He sniffed, then set it on the tiny saucer beneath his cup.

“But what? You’ve been doing this a lot of late, you know. Pausing in the midst of a thought, as if you are not certain what to ask, or whether you want to know the answer to the question.”

Lucinda grabbed a holly shaped cookie and bit in, crumbs scattering as the sugary, buttery treat cracked between her teeth. She wasn’t stalling. Was she?

Finally, she swallowed.

“But when she called after me, something changed. I felt something…”

Lucinda cradled the teacup and looked out at the rain streaming down the windows, mottling the images of people rushing by, and the lights. The ever present winter lights. Blinking. Twinkling. Light fractured by water droplets, forming stars.

“She felt old. As old as you. Maybe older.”

“Well,” said Abraxas, picking up his teacup. “Isn’t that interesting? I wonder who in the world she could be?”

But his lips quirked in a tiny, satisfied smile, as if he held a great secret.

“What aren’t you telling me?”

“Finish your cookie,” he said, “and I’ll show you the books I purchased today. You’ll love these.”

She sighed and did as she was told. If Rex didn’t want to talk about it, no amount of prodding would make him.

“This isn’t over, you know,” Lucinda said, before finishing off holly cookie.

“These sorts of things never are.”

***

That night, Lucinda’s dreams were haunted. Strange. Memories of old lovers. Family. Past mistakes. Pettiness. Grudges. Jobs stayed at too long. Career roads not taken.

These were tempered with snapshots of joy. Her first carousel ride in Golden Gate park, little shoes kicking at the painted horse’s sides. Her first kiss. Her grandmother, teaching her to bake sugar cookies shaped like trees and stars.

And then there she was. The bundled up woman. But this time, her face looked younger, though her waving hair was pale as moonlight on snow. She wore a long, dark dress patterned with snow flakes at the hem. Over that was an apron, edged with green, with holly embroidered on the front placket. She combed her long hair, and rain fell in streams with each stroke.

“Mother Winter,” Lucinda said, and the woman smiled as brightly as the solstice sun.

Setting down her comb, Mother Winter opened her arms. Lucinda walked into her embrace, smelling cinnamon and clove, the warmth of the kitchen, and the cold of night. She was all of that. She was everything.

“Grief is no more powerful than joy,” she said. “Or have you forgotten?”

She kissed Lucinda’s brow, like a parent would a beloved child.

Lucinda woke up with a strong sense that her life had changed.

Forever.

***

Rex’s living room was a marvel of Victorian architecture. Tastefully striped blue wallpaper hung between the high coved ceiling and white painted wainscoting. Art hung, gallery style, in every available space. The space could have been imposing, or overwhelming, instead, it was just right. Cozy and welcoming, even, like the cranberry red sweater she’d wrapped around herself before leaving her own home an hour before, on yet another gray and rainy San Francisco afternoon.

Lucinda sat in dark jeans and stockinged feet on one of two comfortable teal velvet chairs, while Abraxas lounged on a black leather chesterfield sofa.

A fire crackled in the deep fireplace with an embellished cast iron surround. The only music was the afternoon rain. They drank jasmine tea from Rex’s favorite porcelain cups, painted with dragons.

Through the open pocket doors were floor to ceiling bookcases filled with leather and paper bound tomes, plus small pieces of sculpture and other objet d’art collected over who knew how many centuries.

How did one decide what to keep and what to give away? Rex still collected but the already jam-packed elegance of his home pointed to the fact that he must have lost a lot over the years. A person like him would need ten homes to fill with the spoils of all of his interests, hobbies, and avocations.

“Just let me know if you’d like to switch to something stronger,” he said, always the proper host.

“Tea is good for now, thanks.”

They stared at the fire for a while, the crackle of flame on wood a sharp counterpoint to the constant hiss of rain.

“So, are you going to tell me what is on your mind?”

Lucinda looked at my best friend, her mentor, and her would-be-lover if only he wasn’t so skittish about bedding a person centuries younger than he must be. Lucinda had tried to convince him that a human in her middle forties was old enough to know her mind. She could tell he was almost swayed by the argument, but had not yet given in.

“The woman I met? Who gifted me the bells and holly?”

He simply nodded and sipped at his tea.

“She visited my dreams, and gave me what I think is an answer to the question I asked you at dinner the other night.”

“What question was that?” he asked, with one sharp eyebrow raised beneath that dark, luxurious fall of hair.

As if he did not remember every single thing Lucinda ever said.

“The question about how you deal with the heartbreak of this broken world.”

A slight smile graced his thin lips. “Ah. That question. And what was her answer?”

“That joy and grief are equally powerful, and I needed to remember that.”

Rex nodded, dark eyes lit by the orange flicker of the hearth fire.

She shifted in my chair, then tucked her legs up, like a cat. “So, you agree with her?”

He tilted his head, considering Lucinda and her question.

“I do.”

“And?”

He rose, fluid as a ballerina, or a snake, and crossed to an antique sideboard where three glass bottles displayed a variety of spirits.

“Whiskey?” he asked, taking two glass snifters from the cabinet before she answered.

“May as well.” If he thought they needed a finger or two of spirits to have this conversation, who was she to say no?

“There is something I learned many years ago…” he paused to take a thoughtful sip of amber liquid. Lucinda followed suit. The whiskey burned a trail of fire down to her belly, warming her inside. She crossed to sit on the Chesterfield, legs tucked up again, facing her ancient friend.

He considered the fire, then looked back at Lucinda.

“It was after a battle. I walked among the carnage. The death. The wailing from families. I watched as the carrion birds and gleaners gathered, smothering the corpses as they went about their work.”

They both sipped some more of the liquid fire.

“I decided that day that I would do all that I could to make things different for all the beings who lived on earth. With every breath I took, I would strive to ease pain and uplift creativity. I would do what I could to increase harmony everywhere I went.”

The silence extended this time as rain turned from a hiss to a pattering, then pounding, on the tall windowpanes. The sky outside darkened, the shadows from the fire and lamps growing longer. Lucinda sat patiently.

That was one thing Rex had taught her during their friendship: how to wait quietly. How to observe and allow things to unfold.

That was another piece of the puzzle, wasn’t it? She hadn’t realized.

“In many ways, I have failed,” he said, voice so soft I leaned in to catch his words. “In other ways, I have succeeded handsomely.”

His dark eyes caught hers, gaze so fierce, Lucinda almost gasped. “And that is life, my dear Lucinda. So your phantom was correct. Joy and grief stalk this earth, doled out in equal measure.”

“And you have born this, how?”

“By always remembering to choose joy. No matter how difficult it is to do so.”

Now it was her turn to nod, as his words sank deep, following the whiskey’s heat.

“The winter knows such things. It is why, during what is the darkest hour, every human celebration invokes joy.”

No wonder she had called her Mother Winter. And Lucinda had gotten all this wisdom for a snippet of conversation and the gift of a fifty-dollar bill to someone begging on the street.

What a bargain.

***

They talked long into the night, pausing to eat soup and warm sourdough bread by Rex’s fire. Lucinda asked him what it took to choose life, again and again, and taste the wine of immortality. She had a strong feeling that she needed to learn such things.

They made love for the first time on soft, dark sheets in a candlelit room, as rain soaked the city outside.

In the morning, Lucinda tied back her hair, pinned the holly sprig to her woolen hat, and wound the skein of bells around her left wrist. She was Mother Winter now, or at least carried a part of her. She would bring comfort and bestow gifts in times of cold.

Whether Lucinda’s life would be longer than an ordinary human span, she did not yet know. What did it matter, anyway? Magic was magic and meant to be shared, for as long as life did last.

And Lucinda had a bit of magic, just as she had Abraxas, be he a dragon, or a demon, or a God.

Yes, Lucinda was something other, too. Wasn’t she? She smiled at her reflection in the ornate mirror hanging just inside Rex’s front door.

She looked different. Less conflicted. More certain of herself. Thrumming with destiny.

Mother Winter had offered her a chance that cold afternoon, and Lucinda had grasped it, even if she wasn’t quite sure how. The bells and woven wool and holly sprig were badges of office, that was clear now. Or at very least, she intended to treat them that way.

It was now Lucinda’s job to remind people to bring a bit of light into dark corners, and to wish each other tidings of joy.

 

This story was graciously funded by my Patreon supporters. It is part of my new Winter Solstice collection—A Hope for Winter—which is currently part of a terrific holiday story bundle which benefits Able Gamers: The Holiday Collections Bundle .

#shortfiction

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