Kij Johnson

The Snow Wife

The research I do — into Japan, or dogs, or Arctic exploration, or comic-book theory — is research I do for love. I get interested in a topic and then obsessed with it. Sometimes I use it directly in my writing; other times it’s there in the background, where I hope it affects how I see things; or it appears in a story years later, which I thought I was past that particular fascination. This story was written for the Flight of the Mind workshop in 1999, and has not been published before this collection.
 

In Fisher’s village the snow falls until it buries everything. After certain storms, the villagers must climb into the rafters and out through the open eaves onto the roofs of their great dark houses to see the sun again. Tunnels are dug from house to house, but this is hard work, and they collapse sometimes in snowstorms. In a village of a hundred people, in winters such as these, your neighbors may keep you sane, or they may drive you mad. The balance is delicate.

Fisher lived alone in a small house at the village’s edge, too plain and too awkward and with too little choice to have a wife. Snow fell; already as high as the walls of his house, it drifted into the thatch. He drank hot wine by the fire.

Fisher didn’t notice how the snow-wife came in. He was alone, and then he was not. She was pale and wore white silk robes, layered for warmth. Her hair was as black as smoke-dark rafters. Her hands, when he gave her rice, were cold. She didn’t say much, which was fine with Fisher, who had few words and did not spend them easily. His life shifted pattern: still simple but sweeter.

It is not hard to marry in the village — three nights and shared wine will do it. But it seemed very serious to Fisher who had always been alone: he wept with happiness when they drank from a single cup.

He did not think about his wife’s nature. She was clever and kind, joyous in sex. If her hands were always cold, it was no surprise, here in a village where the snow drifts over the roofs of the houses.

After three days, the storm eased, and the first neighbor arrived.

“Brrr,” Carter said, and stamped his straw over-boots. The tricolor cat that followed Carter everywhere began looking for frozen mice by the walls.

“The roof on Blacksmith’s storage collapsed — the only bar iron he’s going to have until spring is the stuff he had in the forge. Weaver had the baby two days ago — it’s a girl and they’re both fine. How was it for you?”

Fisher led his wife forward to meet Carter. She smiled and bowed and offered them wine, then retired to mend a worn robe.

“Hmm,” Carter said. “When did she get here?”

Fisher flushed. “She arrived during the storm.”

Carter looked at Fisher for a long time, stroking the tricolor cat when it came to his hands. “Hmmm. Well, good luck to you both,” he said.

News spread and others came to greet his pale wife. Visiting was frequent when the tunnels were safe, but Fisher loved the times when the storms made them dangerous, and he was alone with his kind, clever wife. If she looked older and a little tired, this was no surprise, for village winters are hard.

Snow fell, and blew away, and fell again. The sun returned and the days grew long. Snow melted on the roof; the thatch dripped until Fisher pushed it clear. When he got the front door open and led his wife into the thawing courtyard, he saw her robes looked plainer in the daylight, and there was a streak of silver in her hair. His heart ached, and he held her cold hands against his face. “I will never leave you,” he whispered. She said nothing.

Spring came: flowers slipped through cracks in the snow, which dwindled from fields to patches. Fisher’s wife could do less now, for she had fallen sick. The neighbors helped when they could, bringing roots from their dwindling supplies. Fisher and his wife walked each day, she close in the curve of his arm. He gave no sign of how carefully he chose their path, so that they might always step in snow. Her hair was as white as her worn robes.

She died.

Fisher sat in his small house. It was spring and warm, so there was no fire. Carter entered, the tricolored cat by his bare foot. “I’m sorry,” he said, and he sat down. “But she could not have stayed.”

“You knew she was a demon,” Fisher said, not looking.

“We all knew,” Carter said.

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Why should we?” caster said. “Happiness is rare. We did not want to stand in the way.” The tricolor cat came to Fisher and pressed against his hand.

“She was a demon,” Fisher said again, and stroked the cat’s ears. “She might have destroyed us all. That is the way of demons.”

“No,” Carter said, and stood. “Even a demon grows lonely, and she loved you. Happiness is rare,” he said again, and left.

 

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© 2001 Kij Johnson
El Colombiano has accepted a translation
Tales for the Long Rains, 2001