© 2018 by  J.J.Faulks

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The Frozen Giants of Winter

 “Look! Look!” What started as a single cry soon turned into a chorusing commotion. Chair legs scraped across the wooden planks of the cabin floor and desks were pushed aside as the children rushed to the window. The initiator of the clamour pressed a pointed finger to the chilled glass, his warm skin leaving a neat imprint on the pane. The combined exhalations of fourteen towheaded children soon clouded the glass, so no one could see the snowflakes sailing slowly to the ground.

 

“I saw it! I saw the first snowflake!” The boy shouted, looking back over his shoulder to Astrid, seeking her approval, as if her nod were certification of the fact that he truly did see the first snowflake. He was rewarded with a kind smile and warm gaze.

 

Setting her book down on the table at the front of the class, Astrid approached the children gathered around the window, her arms open wide as if to envelope them all in her embrace. “Come on,” she encouraged them, “Let’s get our coats on and we can go outside.”

 

The murmur of excitement spilled over into cries of delight as the children rushed to find their warm woollen coats. Hats, mittens and scarves were thrown up into the air as the children bundled themselves into their winter garments. They were all too excited to notice the chill and would happily have run outside just as they were, but they knew that Astrid would not let them step one foot outside the cabin door unless they were properly attired.

 

The snowflakes were floating to the ground steadily but surely. Too few had fallen to provide a proper coating, but some tufts of grass were already sporting a light dusting. The bluish grey clouds hanging thick and pregnant overhead told Astrid that this was no brief flurry, but soon the snow would be falling with a dogged persistence. The time taken from the first snowflake to the full flourishing of winter would not be long.

 

Astrid watched as the children danced amidst the snow, their voices chattering away in a singsong of wonderment. It did not seem that long ago that she herself attended the little village school. She felt a certain nostalgia creeping upon her as she remembered fondly the thrill that the first snowflake inspired in her childhood self as all thoughts turned to preparations for the Winter Festival and the arrival of the Frozen Giants. She still felt that thrill, but its buzz was a little muted now. No matter how festive she felt, it could never quite match the intensity of her memories.

 

As with any other day, the walk home took Astrid by her grandmother Alva’s house. She entered the cabin without knocking, calling out instead, “Grandma, it’s me!” She was quick to close the door, firmly shutting the cold out. Her body sighed into the embrace of the cabin’s glowing warmth.

 

As with any other day, Alva expected her granddaughter to arrive at this time. She called out in reply, “I’m in here.” There was no need though; Astrid knew that she would find Grandma Alva sat in front of the spitting hearth, logs crackling beneath the licking flames, two mugs of warmed apple juice and a plate of hazelnut bites awaiting her arrival.

 

Little ever changed in their village, and that was the way that Astrid and Alva liked it.

 

The two women sat opposite one another, the fireplace a welcome host between them. Each cupped a warm mug in her hands, and each wore a thick woollen blanket across her lap. Astrid and Alva were so alike that an observer could be forgiven for thinking that there was some curious type of mirror between them, reflecting age for the youthful and youth for the aged.

 

“The snow began today,” Astrid commented. The statement was somewhat redundant, given that the snow - now falling heavily - could clearly be seen through the window. “The children insisted that they had seen the very first snowflake to fall.”

 

“Mmm.” Alva’s response lacked enthusiasm; the usual sprightly spark of vitality having faded from her eyes. She stared out of the window, drinking in the sight with a sombre silence that was so dissonant from her normal character.

 

Astrid’s brow furrowed into a small and worried frown, but before she could voice any concern regarding her grandmother’s mood, Alva offered her a weak smile, saying softly, “Just tired, dear.” Astrid nodded, though Alva’s assertion left her far from convinced.

 

Alva struggled to maintain the smile, the muscles around her mouth tiring quickly with the occasional aching twitch. She knew that she could not let the facade slip though, not for so much as a second if she was to avoid Astrid’s questions. Those questions would have to wait until Alva was ready to tell her granddaughter the truth.

The following day, as with any other day, Astrid was awoken by the morning light streaming in through the window. However, on that day, the light was unusually bright. Her husband grumbled groggily at her side as she swung her legs over the edge of the bed, her bare feet recoiling from the cold touch of the floor, and padded across the room to pull back the curtains. Outside, a legdevouring bed of crisp snow covered the land, early morning sunlight reflecting and intensifying off its unblemished white surface. Astrid smiled to herself, clutching her shawl a little tighter around her shoulders as a shiver of anticipation rippled across her goose pimple-flecked skin. There would be no school today. The Frozen Giants were coming.

Astrid’s parents and husband led the way down to the lake, talking animatedly to one another as they went, whilst Astrid and Alva walked at a slower pace a short distance behind. With her arm linked through Alva’s, Astrid took care to match her grandmother’s steps. The snow was deep and difficult to trudge through, and Astrid did not wish to rush her grandmother. Alva had insisted that she would be fine on her own and that Astrid should walk ahead with the others, but Astrid had refused. She would not leave her grandmother behind, even if it meant missing the arrival of the great ice ships. Chatting away to her grandmother, Astrid noticed that Alva was struggling more than usual, as if a weight of tiredness hung heavy around her neck, and the listlessness she had shown the previous day still had not lifted. Alva’s smile remained resolute though, hiding her gritted teeth and laboured breath.

By the time Astrid and Alva arrived at the pebble-strewn lakeside, a huge crowd had already gathered. Everyone in the village was sure to attend, each family huddling together for warmth in the pelting snow. The best viewing points closest to the shore had already been taken, but Alva’s parents and husband - having stormed ahead in their excitement - had reserved them a prime spot on the gently sloping hill that overlooked the water. Though bitterly cold, the lake had not yet frozen over.

 

An expectant hush fell upon the crowds as clouds rolled in over the water, covering the surface first with wisps of white and then with a dense grey mist. The cloudy screen grew both in depth and in height, completely obscuring the view across the lake. Only the waves lapping against the rocky shore could be seen, each lick audible in the anticipatory silence.

 

Alva’s bony fingers crept down Astrid’s forearm, searching for Astrid’s hand. Clutching her granddaughter tightly, Alva stared out across the mist with watery eyes. Though her grandmother’s grip was firm, Astrid could feel a hidden frailty lurking beneath the surface that added a desperate tone to the touch. Alva’s skin was cold - colder than it ought to be - and the suppleness of youth had gone. The fleshy rose hue had been replaced by muted —

 

“They’re coming!” Alva’s statement brought Astrid back to the present, back to the water, back to the Frozen Giants that they had come to greet.

 

At first, there was nothing to see, and as the seconds lapsed into minutes Astrid thought that her grandmother was mistaken. The breath that had caught in her throat loosened into a long sigh of lost expectation. But then, slowly, silently, the ships sailed in across the clouds, and her breath held tight within her chest again.

 

The bow of the first boat breeched the clouds, blue ice gleaming in the crisp sunlight. Teardrops of meltwater streamed down the hull. One at a time, other boats emerged. Two, three, four. Five in total. Each craft carved flawlessly from solid blocks of ice. Aboard the boats, silent and stoic, sat the Frozen Giants. Muscular, hard and cold, as if they too had been chiseled from ice. When the boats landed on the pebbled shore, the Frozen Giants stepped out and proceeded with great lumbering strides through the parting crowds, their heavy footfall carrying them through the village and into the snow-laden forest beyond. They passed by in silence, offering the gathered villagers no acknowledgement as if they were merely an extension of the beach, a rocky humanoid outcrop that stood between the water and the trees. The Frozen Giants would not be seen again until after the Winter Festival, when it was time for them to return to their land beyond the lake, taking with them the chosen few who would never return.

 

Starting as just a low level hum, voices returned to the throng, bubbling up to a gentle simmer, then growing louder and louder as individuals competed to be heard. The further away the sight of the Frozen Giants grew, the more animation returned to the villagers, as if the presence of the icy colossals had frozen their excitement but now they were thawing. Slowly the buzzing crowds dispersed, adults reminiscing over past comings and children already reenacting the landing, each vying for prime position in their imaginary ice crafts.

 

“Grandma, it’s time to go.” Astrid’s hand tugged at the crook of Alva’s elbow, trying gently to lead her away from the shorefront.

 

Alva blinked heavily, shaking her head slightly, startled. She had been looking out across the water, staring through the dissipating clouds, oblivious to the families migrating back into the village. She glanced around with her sudden awareness, realising that they were now alone, the last ones stood on the beach. Astrid was holding her arm with her ever-present concern, and a short distance off - watching expectantly - were Astrid’s parents and husband. Alva placed her hand over Astrid’s, patting reassuringly. “I think I’ll stay here a little while, dear. You head back.”

 

Astrid hesitated, her brow furrowing into an involuntary frown. “Are you sure? It’s cold and the snow is getting worse. I can stay here with you.”

 

Shaking her head, Alva patted Astrid’s fingers again and then pried them off her arm with a gentle strength. She offered Astrid a warm but soft smile, pushing her hand away. “I’ll be fine, dear. Now, off you go! Go on!”

 

Reluctantly, Astrid took a timid half-step back. She paused, waiting for her grandmother to change her mind, and then - seeing that Alva had resolved to stay - she walked to her awaiting family, accepting her husband’s proffered arm and trudging back towards the wooden cabins of the village through the tracks left in the snow by the other villagers. Every few weighted steps she glanced over her shoulder towards Alva, each time seeing her grandmother stood in the same position like a stone pillar, watching out over the water.

 

As hard as she tried, Alva could not see the opposite shore. No one had ever seen the opposite shore. Only those who were chosen to travel with the Frozen Giants were blessed with that sight, and they never returned. Still, she tried to see across the water to the land that she knew must lie beyond. Each year the distance that she could see decreased a little - that was to be expected - but this year, the shortening of her vision and the nearing of the blurred haze seemed particularly marked.

 

Preparations for the Winter Festival began in earnest the following day. Astrid led the children down to the edge of the forest, to the point where the trees met the village. They did not venture far into the woods, not wanting to disturb the Frozen Giants in their winter dwelling. Delving in the snow, the children collected fallen twigs and pine cones, stashing them in satchels slung over their shoulders. Walking in pairs and chattering away, they carried their finds back to the school, where they used lengths of twine to fashion them into icons of animals and cabins. These little figures would be displayed as a miniature village during the festivities.

 

Each day, Astrid would stop by her grandmother’s house on the way home to update her on the children’s progress. As they counted down the days left until the Winter Festival, removing one wooden pin from the calendar every evening, Astrid noticed her grandmother becoming more and more distracted and withdrawn. Something was playing on Alva’s mind. With only a week left before the Winter Festival and the return of the Frozen Giants from the depths of the forest, Astrid decided to confront Alva.

 

Sitting in front of the warmth of the fireplace, Astrid asked, “Grandma, what’s wrong?” Her voice was thick with concern, and her expression told Alva that there was no point in trying to hide anymore. It was time for the truth to come out.

 

Alva waited for a long time, the seconds dragging out slowly until they felt thrice their true length. Then she sighed a long, slow sigh of resignation. Reaching out to lay her hand upon Astrid’s, she confided, “This year is my year. I will be chosen.”

 

Astrid paused, her confusion captured in a frown. It was as though her grandmother had spoken in a foreign tongue, one that she did not understand. Then she shook her head, her every movement denying the claim. “No! You can’t know that!”

 

Astrid tried to pull her hand away from Alva’s, to distance herself from the truth, but Alva gripped her tighter. “Astrid…I know. It’s my time.”

 

“But,” Astrid complained, realising as she spoke how childish - her tone bordering on whiney - she sounded, “I don’t want you to go!”
Alva smiled, her granddaughter’s plaintive expression tugging at her heart. “I know, dear, I know. But we all must go eventually. That’s the way of it. The old make way for the new.”

 

“But you’re not old,” Astrid protested, the ridiculousness of her statement punctuated by Alva’s burst of laughter. “Well,” Astrid drew out the word before amending her assertion, “Not that old, anyway.”

“I am that old, dear,” Alva chuckled. Her tone then turning more serious. “This will be my last Winter Festival. But that’s ok. I’ve seen so many, and now I’m tired and I’m ready to go. I want to go.”

 

“Can’t you stay? Just for one more year?” Astrid tried to bargain.

Alva shook her head, “No, dear. Now is my time. One day you will understand.”

Astrid did not think that she would ever understand. How could she understand and accept her grandmother’s decision to leave her? She knew that the old had to make way for the new; it was the way of life, like the changing of the seasons. However, when she watched the chosen few sailing away across the lake each winter, she never imagined that one day that would be her grandmother. It was as if in her mind her grandmother was immune to ageing; somehow she was exempt and would never be chosen.

They spoke no more on the matter. A weight seemed to have lifted and Alva’s mood lightened accordingly. Having told her granddaughter the truth, she was now able to enjoy her last Winter Festival. Astrid was more troubled though - the burden had merely shifted from one person to another. She tried her hardest to be happy and to enjoy the little time she had left with her grandmother, but the spirit of winter had left her and she no longer felt the excited anticipation of festivals past. At school she wore a glass smile, eager not to let her unhappiness affect the children, but knowing it was always at risk of fracturing. With her grandmother, she kept the conversations light and upbeat, but her words tasted false on her tongue.

 

The Winter Festival was a day filled with songs and laughter, warm drinks and hearty food, children playing and adults dancing. Happiness and excitement prevailed. The festivities centred around a large bonfire, which burned from noon until midnight. As the flames dwindled and grey smoke billowed into the crisp air, the villagers gathered around the dying fire.  Someone - no one knew who - started to a make a hushing sound. Shhhhh! The call for silence was taken up by others, intensifying and dampening the buzz of voices, until all of a sudden and in perfect unison everyone fell silent. Then came the beat of the drums, slow, pounding, persistent. Each boom rang out, echoing throughout the village, vibrating through the people. It was the call for the Frozen Giants. It was time for the choosing.

 

The drums continued at their steady pace until every one of the Frozen Giants had emerged from the forest and had gathered in a circle around the throng of villagers. One of the Giants stepped forwards into the ring. He alone surveyed the villagers, taking time to eye each individual in turn, whilst his kin retained their impassive stares. Then, wordlessly, he pointed to the chosen few one by one and waited for them to step forward out of the crowd. When Alva was chosen, Astrid reached out desperately to grab her hand, to pull her back into the mass, but Alva merely turned, placed a loving kiss on her granddaughter’s forehead and reminded her softly, “The old must make way for the new.” Then she walked away.

 

The chosen villagers led the way out of the ring and down to the water’s edge, followed immediately by the Frozen Giants. Everyone else formed a procession, carrying torches and lanterns to guide their way. On the stoney shore, families huddled together for warmth, watching as the Frozen Giants helped the chosen few into the ice boats. Astrid noticed the tenderness of the hand offered to Alva as she climbed aboard the craft, and it gave her hope that her grandmother would be looked after on her journey across the lake and beyond. She clutched at her husband as she joined the others in raising one hand and waving goodbye to the departing boats and their special cargo. Tears ran down her cheeks, but she would not look away, determined to capture every last glance of her grandmother until she disappeared into the inky depths of the night.

 

The year that followed was strange for Astrid. At first, out of habit, she would stop at her grandmother’s cabin on the way home from school, only to remember as she reached for the door that Alva no longer lived there. She would stand still for a moment, dazed and her heart aching, before she found the strength to continue her walk home. Over time, she found that she no longer approached the cabin, as if her feet had learnt to carry her past without stopping. Her eyes were still drawn to the windows though, and every day she hoped that she might catch a glimpse of Alva pottering around inside. That day never came. Astrid missed Alva desperately, and she wished for just a little more time with her grandmother, but then she realised that no amount of time would be enough. She could spend lifetimes with Alva and never tire of her company. The worst thing, Astrid found, was that - just as people promised her - things did become easier over time. She did not want things to be easier - easy was not enough for the love she felt for Alva. She felt that the hurt should never end, should never subside. But it did. That made her feel guilty, as if she were heartless and had not grieved enough. But then the guilt subsided too.

For the first time in as long as she could remember, Astrid was not at school when the first snowflake fell. She was at home, wrapped in one of Alva’s old blankets as she stared out of the window. She thought that she would feel bitter about the return of the Frozen Giants, but instead she was filled with a certain gratitude and fondness. The Giants did not come to take away loved ones, but they came to bring peace to those in need. “The old make way for the new,” Astrid said softly, sending a loving smile to the baby girl gathered tenderly in her arms. Turning her attention back to her daughter and away from the freshly falling snow, she resumed great-grandmother Alva’s story about the Frozen Giants of winter.

Winner of Heffers Cambridge Short Story Competition