Fiction: ‘Winter Flowers’

Winter Flowers

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The ice advances steadily, encroaching upon the land like the rise of floodwaters. Crystal after crystal forms an icy crust upon the ground. Even the leaves on all the trees that refuse to shed their plumage for the winter are preserved in transparent cocoons. Every once in a while you can hear them tinkle as they’re knocked against each other by the breeze.

Clouds descend closer to the ground. They wrap themselves over the landscape in a thick white cloak, the cool particles of mist seeping into the last vestiges of warmth remaining in the land.

The world is white and empty.

There’s a peculiar silence to that frozen landscape.

A silence that reaches everywhere.

No insects buzz in the afternoon light. No birds sing. No river runs. Only the crows have stayed behind to scratch at the frozen earth. It’s as though time itself has abandoned the land for the winter, leaving it more dead than alive.

***

He flutters on the breeze like a stray petal. The powdered pattern adorning his wings camouflages perfectly with the tree’s frost-covered bark. Tucking himself into a tight crevasse between branches, the moth waits for the crow to settle her jet-black feathers as she bounds upon the snow.

He waits in silence, keeping his wings perfectly still as the crow rises from the ground to land in his tree. He wills himself to become as lifeless as the bark. As soon as the crow has turned her beady black eyes and pointed beak in the other direction, he flits out of his hiding place, flying to a safer branch as quick as his little wings can carry him.

Hurry Hurry Hurry

He draws on all the strength left in his little body to flee. He strains against the cold wind, pushing against it with all his might. There’s a great rush, followed by a sharp snap, and then a darkness blacker than a crow’s feathers.

***

The crow searches the frozen floor of the forest for movement, some sign of a meal, but life is scarce and she finds none. She croons a weary sigh and flaps up onto a naked tree branch.

Constant hunger is nothing new to her.

It would be a long winter, perhaps longer than all the others she has lived through over the years. She was stronger, once. Using her only her wit, she had survived the harshest winters with barely a scar to show for them.

But the worst of the storms are yet to come…

She pauses.

Hope flickers somewhere deep inside her.

There is movement, incredibly small but very near. She peers away, willing it to move again. Hoping there is something there. Anything. With a sudden snap, she crushes the moth in her sharp beak and savours the feeling of food in her belly, as meagre as it might be.

***

He emerges from the shadows, his coat hanging from his bones in a matted tangle, revealing sharp ribs and sunken stomach. The old wolf gazes longingly at the crow perched in the tree, safely out of reach as she puffs out her feathers against the cold.

When he was younger he would’ve waited.

He would’ve stalked it for days, until the old bird finally relaxed her constant vigilance and gave him an opening to strike. But he is too old now. His pack had chased him off many months ago, preferring a reckless young pup to lead them. Now, his body numb from the bitter cold and his stomach empty for too many days to count, he wanders alone through the frozen land.

He starts to dig.

The snow is packed loosely beneath the trees, letting him burrow all the more furiously. Snow flies through the air behind him. When he’s done, he squeezes himself into the burrow he has dug. It covers him like a steady, frozen hand. He feels the warmth start to flow through his old bones and spread to his muscles and sinew. He closes his eyes. Images of fat rabbits bounding through the thick grass dart across his vision. He can see the trees rustling with plump squirrels and deer sprinting through the forest, their hooves pounding on the solid earth.

Separate the old buck from his herd. He’ll be easier to chase down.

His legs kick out for a moment. As the ice closes in around him, silent as death, he dreams of a time when the land, his land, was very much alive.

***

A deep penetrating cold creeps down into the soil and travels up her long, tangled roots. Her branches bend under the weight of the snow.

She can feel him, small and trembling, as he hides in the wrinkles of her bark. She can hear her flapping her enormous, black feathers before she curls her talons around a branch and closes in for the kill. She can feel him digging at her roots with his brittle claws, burrowing down until he’s surrounded by snow and the smaller wispy hairs of her roots; the ones which had kept her strong while the other trees toppled under the howling wind.

A sudden shattering sends the crow flapping away with a squawk, her black beak stained with the silvery powder of her catch.

Shards of ice lay beneath the tree.

The old wolf doesn’t stir. She knows that he didn’t hear the commotion above him. The row of icicles hanging from her branches ring like tiny glass bells as the tree shakes herself off with dignity.

The renewed silence is as sweet as music. She embraces the old wolf sleeping beneath her and slowly, bit by bit, she returns to her slumber, feeding him dreams of lush, green fields, golden sunlight, and herds of fat game.

Rest now, my little flower. I will give you shelter.

She gathers all the warmth left in her ancient limbs, and sends it to him. Like a mother comforting her child, she holds him closely, and feels his small, fleeting life slip away beyond her reach.

~ Ekaterina

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