The Tale of the Singing Snow Witch
Written by Steve Carr
Holding the two tinkling icicles between her long, bony, chalky-white fingers Grunelda knitted the strands of spider silk into the last thin squares of ice. She tossed the icicle needles and remaining silk into a bowl made from penguin egg shells and filled it with frigid water and threw the completed quilt onto the icy floor in front of her and stared appraisingly at it and frowned. Leaning back in her rocking chair carved from a block of ice, she bit into her lower lip with her one remaining jagged tooth hanging in the center of her top gum and brushed ice chips from her albino seal skin robe that clad her skeletal frame from her chalky wrinkled neck to her bloodless blue feet. "I'll never get the hang of quilting," she hissed aloud, waved her hand and turned the quilt into a single sheet of ice. She leaned her head back and stared up at the dome of the stalactite covered cave and opened her pale purple mouth and uttered six discordant singsong notes. A colony of screeching white bats burst out from deep within the cave and flew out of the cave's entrance into the perpetual blizzard of ice and snow that surrounded the top of the mountain. "I'll never get the hang of singing, either," she groaned.
At the base of the mountain, Lepshi looked up and watched the bats flow out of Grunelda's cave. He pushed on the rump of the last reindeer, shoving it into the pen with the rest of the herd, then shut and tied the gate closed with a leather strap. The fresh snow crunched beneath his deerhide boots as he made his way to his cottage. He kicked the snow from his boots and opened the bright green painted door and went in. A large fire was burning in the slate and stone fireplace. Glowing red logs beneath a large black pot filled with boiling soup crackled and popped as steam rose from the liquid. Lepshi removed his bearskin coat and hung it on a peg on the wall, went to the pot, and inhaled the aromas of spices, meat and vegetables. "Get your nose out of the soup old man," Helda, his wife, said as she came through the door leading from the cellar. She was carrying a small wooden cask. "Is the herd locked in for the night?" Lepshi stepped back from the fire. "Yes, they're in. It's getting harder to find patches of moss for them to feed on. Grunelda will bring about the end to all of us." He grabbed his pipe with an ornately carved stem from the mantle place. Helda removed the stopper from the top of the cask and poured dark ale into the soup. "That should liven up the soup a bit," she said. "Grunelda has been here a long time and we have survived so far and will continue to do so." Lepshi took a long twig leaning against the stones of the fireplace and stuck the end of it into the fire. With a small flame burning on its end, he lit the tobacco in the bowl of his pipe and drew in several breaths. As soon as he was able to exhale small puffs of smoke, he leaned the twig back against the stones, then flopped into his overstuffed chair. "She scared the bats our of their sleep again." Helda cackled loudly. "So, she's been singing again." She put the stopper back into the cask and placed it on the floor away from the fire. "If singing is what you can call it," he said with a chuckle. "When are we going to eat?" "As soon as Marany returns from the village, "Helda said. "She went to buy some more ribbons for her wedding dress." "That dress will be nothing but ribbons by the time she finishes it," Lepshi said. He exhaled a large cloud of smoke. "Imagine, all that fuss just to marry a poor hunter."
Carts and carriages pulled by reindeer and moose slowly glided along on the hard packed snow down the Main Street of Berenfeldt. The bells tied around the animals necks or hanging from their antlers and racks jingled melodically. The wooden walkways outside the shops of the street were crowded with people carrying armfuls of packages and rushing to get home for supper and before the sun set. Inside Mrs. Munheim's finery and millinery shop, Marany stood at the counter and stretched out a long piece of bright yellow ribbon. "Oh, it's simply lovely, Mrs. Munheim." Mrs. Munheim crossed her arms beneath her enormous bosom, beaming. "Didn't I tell you? And it just arrived from the coast. Not another girl in town has even laid eyes on it." Marany rubbed it against her rose colored cheek. "It's the softest ribbon I've ever felt." She held it out at arms length, squinting as if looking at it anew. "But is yellow a good color to adorn a wedding dress?" "Any color is a good color when you wear it my dear, " Mrs. Munheim said cheerily. "Your dress will simply be dripping in ribbons and adding this yellow will make you the envy of every girl in town." "I'll take the entire length then," Marany said with a laugh. "Splendid," Mrs. Munheim said as she gathered up the ribbon and began winding it around a small wood spool. When the church bells began to toll, Marany quickly laid the coins on the counter for the ribbon and grabbed the ribbon. "I must get home, Mrs. Munheim. I hope you're coming to the wedding." "A polar bear couldn't keep me away," Mrs. Munheim said. As she stepped out of the shop, Marany looked toward the top of the mountain. The sun was beginning to set, making a silhouette of Grunelda's storm-battered mountaintop abode. Marany untied her reindeer, Swisher, and jumped on its back and took the reins in her hands. "Home, Swisher," she said.
Grunelda sat at the opening to her cave and listened to the church bells and tried to imagine what the same sounds would be if they were notes that were sung. The howling of the wind muted the sound of the bells somewhat, so she turned her left long pointy ear to their direction and held an ear trumpet made of walrus tusk to her waxy ear. It didn't help. The notes she heard from the bells never came out the same as she tried to sing or hum them back. She flung the trumpet into the cave and watched it crash into a snow globe she kept on a chunk of ice, breaking both the globe and trumpet. With a wave of her hand, the pieces of the trumpet and globe were reassembled and placed on the ice. Turning to the view of the valley below as the sun began to set, through the storm she saw a young woman riding swiftly on a reindeer toward the cottage closest to the base of the mountain. "Ah, ti is the one known as Marany who sings so beautifully while tending her reindeer," Grunelda muttered. She raised her arms and vanished.
Trudging through the deep snow Jurgen kept his crossbow raised and shifted it from side to side as he scanned the woods. The wolf tracks and droppings all around him had him worried. He hadn't seen one, but he was in their territory. The bitter cold bit at his nose and cheeks and formed crusts of ice on his eyebrows and eyelashes. The branches of the dead trees creaked under the weight of the snow. As the sun began to set the trees cast long, foreboding shadows. The carcasses of the white hares he carried on his back became heavier with every step. At last he found a tree with a hollow opening at its base and stepped into it and collapsed inside against the decaying wood. "This being mine own," a high pitched voice said from above. Jurgen looked up. Two large bright yellow eyes were staring at him from further up inside the tree. "Who are you?" Jurgen asked, raising his crossbow and aiming it at the eyes. "I am being the Keeper and you are being in my own," it said. "The keeper of what and your own what?" Jurgen asked. "It being who I am and called," Keeper said, "and this being my own home. You are not being invited here."
"I mean you no harm," Jurgen said. "I need a place that is safe to stay for the night if you don't mind." He lowered his crossbow. "I will be giving it some thinking," Keeper said, then disappeared into the darkness further up the tree. Jurgen removed the top to the bladder holding juniper cider and took a long drink.
Keeper reappeared, again only his eyes gleaning in the darkness. "It is doing me no badness you being here for the night so you can stay." "Thank you Keeper," Jurgen said. He loosened the strap holding the hares and let them drop to the ground. "How is it you live in this tree?" "I fell here while riding on the back of a goose a long time past from a land far away," Keeper said. "This being a good place to wait for spring then I will return home," Keeper said. "The witch Grunelda has bewitched the land and spring will not be returning any time soon," Jurgen said. "I can keep hoping it becomes otherwise," Keeper said. He crept further down the tree, his bulbous blue head crowned with a brilliant white tuft of hair coming nearer to the fur hat on Jurgen's head. Keeper sniffed at the hat with his pig-like snout. "That being once a friend of mine." "I'm so sorry," Jurgen said, taking the hat off. "Your friend has kept my head warm for a long time." Crawling down the tree on two short legs with his six toes grasping onto the walls Keeper stretched out a long twig-like blue arm and three spindly fingers toward the bladder. "What being that?" "It's what I carry cider in," Jurgen said. "Would you like a drink?" Jurgen handed the bladder to Keeper. Keeper lifted the bladder to his small, lipless mouth and poured the cider in. He lowered the bladder as his mouth spread into a smile across his face between folds of skin. He ran his long orange tongue around the rim. He looked at Jurgen. As his eyes turned to the color of light blue he said, "I am thinking I am found a friend."
The old man used a long intricately carved cane to tap the ground in front of him as he crossed the road leading from Berenfeldt. His long white beard dragged between his feet and wind whipped at his long gray robe with a raggedy hem that left a trail in the snow. He used the hand not holding onto the cane to reach out in front of him, to feel for objects he might encounter in his path. As Marany pulled on the reins to bring Swisher to a stop, the old man turned in her direction. "Who's there?" The old man asked in a craggy voice. "It is Marany, the daughter of Lepshi and Helda," she said. "Who are you?" "I am but a poor blind beggar who has lost his way," the old man said. Marany slid down from Swisher's back. "It will be nightfall soon and you must get indoors before night's chill sets in. Where do you live?" "I am unable to say," the old man said. "I wandered from my hut and I have no idea what direction I came from or where I am headed." "Oh, my," Marany said. "I will help you up onto the reindeer and take you to my house to get you out of danger for the night." "That is too kind of you my dear, but my coin pouch is empty so I can't pay you," the old man said showing her a leather pouch hanging from the rope belt around his waist. "You don't have to pay us," Marany said. "My parents will be glad to help you." Using all her strength, Marany helped the old man up onto Swisher's back, then got on behind him and swiftly rode home, reaching it just as the sun set beyond the great dark woods.
Helda ladled hot soup into the old man's bowl. "That smells delicious," the old man said putting his nose near the liquid and inhaling. "What's in it?" "Potatoes, goat milk, cheese, juniper spice, hare and ale," Helda said. "Jurgen supplies us with the hare." "Who is Jurgen?" The old man asked as he dipped his spoon into the soup. "He is my betrothed," Marany said. "He is the greatest hunter in all of Berenfeldt." "But poor as a goose," Lepshi said. The old man put the spoon into his mouth. "This is delicious." "My daughter is going to sing at her own wedding," Lepshi said proudly. "Is she?" the old man said then put the last spoonful of soup into his mouth. "She has the most beautiful voice in the valley," Helda said. The old man stood and raised his arms and with a flick of his hands, transformed into a human figure made of snow, then changed into the bag, Grunelda.
With Keeper riding astride Jurgen's back, his long blue legs wrapped around Jurgen's waist. Jurgen trod the snow covered path leading out of the dark woods just as daylight broke across the white landscape. A flock of snow geese nosily honked in the morning sky as they flew southward in a V formation. As the bells of the church rang in the new day in Berenfeldt, their melody carrying throughout the valley, Keeper grasped onto Jurgen's face in alarm. "What being that?" "Those are the church bells," Jurgen said as peeled Keeper's fingers from across his eyes. "Have you never heard bells before?" "Not hearing much from inside my tree," Keeper said. He tilted his head, intently listening. "What being that called?" It's music," Jurgen said. "The purpose being?" Keeper asked. "Music brings happiness," Jurgen said. "Except for when Grunelda does it." Arriving at the road leading into Berenfeldt in one direction and to Marine's cottage in the other direction, Jurgen stopped and removed the stopper from the bladder. "Enough left for a final swallow for each of us."
"Cider brings happiness too," Keeper said.
Marany awoke covered by a polar bear pelt. She sat up, rubbed her eyes and brushed her long golden hair back with her fingers and looked up at the ceiling of Grunelda's cave. Wind howled from outside the cave entrance and the sounds of chattering bats echoes from the inner depths. She moved her leg and found she was chained by stone links attached to a post in the frozen floor. Unclinching her fist, the yellow ribbon spilled out over her fingers. She wove it through her hair, forming a braid as she unsuccessfully tried to imagine ways she could escape. "So, finally awake," Grunelda said as she flew into the cave from the swirling storm and landed on her bare feet at a table cluttered with mortars, pestles, jars and books. "Why have you brought me here?" Marany asked. Grunelda removed the lid of a jar and placed a viviparous lizard in it and closed the lid. "I wish to sing beautifully. I intend to sing beautifully," Grunelda said. "I need a singing voice. I had set out to find just any young girl's voice, but your parents praised yours, and so here you are." "You want me to teach you how to sing?" Marany asked. "Don't be dense, girl. I haven't the time to learn how. Witchcraft will give me your voice without me doing anything other than preparing a potion." She flipped open a book and ran her fingers down the page. "I should have thought of it long ago." "You can't steal my voice," Marany said. "Why ever not?" Grunelda asked. I have everything I need but a walrus tusk." She raised and spread her arms and said "and I know just where to get one of those," and then flew out of the cave..
Lepshi sat at the table in front of the roaring fire holding his wife's hand trying to console her when there was a knock on the door. "Maybe Grunelda has brought Marany back," he said. He opened the door and was greeted by Jurgen with Keeper clinging onto his back. "Where have you been?" Lepshi asked angrily. "I was hunting in the dark woods," Jurgen said. "Has something happened?" "Grunelda has taken Marany," Lepshi said. Jurgen turned and looked toward the top of the mountain. "What is that?" Lepshi asked now facing Keeper. "I being a who not a what," Keeper said. Jurgen turned back to Lepshi. "Can we come in?" "Of course," Lepshi said, standing aside and then closing the door after they entered. Still at the table, Helda had her head in her hands, crying softly. Keeper climbed down from Jurgen's back and onto the table, his eyes turning a pale pink as he reached out and gently touched the top of her head with one finger. "Keep hope," Keeper said.
Marany sat huddled in the bear skin and begun to sing. her voice carried out of the cave and was caught in the wind circling the mountaintop. In Berenfeldt everyone stopped and stared at the beautiful aria coming from the whirling clouds.
Standing outside her shop, Mrs. Munheim knew without a doubt whose voice it was. "It's Marany," she said, and soon after everyone knew it also. Grunelda flew into the cave and was in a rage. "How dare you sing without my permission," she screeched at Marany. "Now be quiet." She tossed a walrus tusk onto the table and opened up several jars and emptied spoonfuls of lichen, fox whiskers, hare breath and the lizard's tail into a mortar. Using the walrus tusk as a pestle she group the contents in the mortar into dust. After checking the instructions in the book she held the mortar above her head and sang out three sour notes, then held the mortar above Marine's head. "If you ever wish to see your beloved Jurgen again you will sing for me." As Marany began to sing, Grunelda took a handful of the contents in the mortar and tossed it into the air above their heads. Marine's voice faltered and then became raspy and hoarse. Grunelda opened her mouth and sang out a perfect c note. Then she sang the first song she ever sung that was pitch perfect.
Keeper gripped onto the rocks with his fingers and toes and quickly scaled the side of he mountain with Jurgen hanging onto his back. "Faster, faster," Jurgen said. "Being as faster as can be," Keeper said. "Climbing being something I can do." As they reached the ledge outside of Grunelda's cave, Jurgen climbed over Keeper and found his footing as he was buffeted by the strong wind and snow. He pulled an arrow from his quiver and loaded his crossbow. "Grunelda!" He yelled. Seeing Jurgen, Grunelda stopped singing and aimed her pointy fingers at him and blasted him with a wall of snow. Knocked back, he nearly fell off the ledge but steadied himself and aimed the crossbow and shot the arrow, hitting Grunelda in the heart. She uttered one last perfect note before crumbling into a pile of snow and chunks of ice.
As the regular seasons returned to Berenfeldt and the valley, that spring everyone attended Marany and Jurgen's wedding. Marany was dressed in a beautiful white laced gown draped with colorful ribbons, but beneath the veil tears streamed down her cheeks. Each chord that the organist played made her heart ache with the desire to sing as she once had been able to do. Jurgen lifted her veil and kissed her on the lips. Marany stepped back and in a whisper, began to sing, then her voice grew stronger and returned to as it once was and soon her singing filled the church. Sitting in the front pew between Lepshi and Helda, keeper's eyes turned a bright blue as he raised a bladder of cider to his mouth and before taking a gulp, said "always keep hope."