Wintersong(3)

By: S. Jae-Jones


Sometimes it was easier to humor Constanze than to ignore her. I sighed. “What day is it?”

“The day the old year dies.”

Another shiver up my spine. My grandmother still kept to the old laws and the old calendar, and this last night of autumn was when the old year died and the barrier between worlds was thin. When the denizens of the Underground walked the world above during the days of winter, before the year began again in the spring.

“The last night of the year,” Constanze said. “Now the days of winter begin and the Goblin King rides abroad, searching for his bride.”

I turned my face away. Once I would have remembered without any prompting. Once I would have joined my grandmother in pouring salt along every windowsill, every threshold, every entrance as a precaution against these wildling nights. Once, once, once. But I could no longer afford the luxury of my indulgent imaginings. It was time, as the apostle Paul said to the Corinthians, to put aside childish things.

“I don’t have time for this.” I pushed Constanze aside. “Let me pass.”

Sorrow pushed the lines of my grandmother’s face into even deeper grooves, sorrow and loneliness, her hunched shoulders bowing with the weight of her beliefs. She bore those beliefs alone now. None of us kept faith with Der Erlkönig anymore; none save Josef.

“Liesl!” Käthe shouted from downstairs. “Can I borrow your red cloak?”

“Mind how you choose, girl,” Constanze told me. “Josef is not part of the game. When Der Erlkönig plays, he plays for keeps.”

Her words stopped me short. “What are you talking about?” I asked. “What game?”

“You tell me.” Constanze’s expression was grave. “The wishes we make in the dark have consequences, and the Lord of Mischief will call their reckoning.”

Her words prickled against my mind. I minded how Mother warned us of Constanze’s aged and feeble wits, but my grandmother had never seemed more lucid or more earnest, and despite myself, a thread of fear began to wind about my throat.

“Is that a yes?” Käthe called. “Because I’m taking it if so!”

I groaned. “No, you may not!” I said, leaning over the stair rail. “I’ll be right there, I promise!”

“Promises, eh?” Constanze cackled. “You make so many, but how many of them can you keep?”

“What—” I began, but when I turned to face her, my grandmother was gone.

*

Downstairs, Käthe had taken my red cloak off its peg, but I plucked it from her hands and settled it about my own shoulders. The last time Hans had brought us gifts from his father’s fabric goods store—before his proposal to Käthe, before everything between us changed—he had given us a beautiful bolt of heavy wool. For the family, he’d said, but everyone had known the gift was for me. The bolt of wool was a deep blood-red, perfectly suited to my darker coloring and warming to my sallow complexion. Mother and Constanze had made me a winter cloak from the cloth, and Käthe made no secret of how much she coveted it.

We passed our father playing dreamy old airs on his violin in the main hall. I looked around for our guests, but the room was empty, the hearth cold and the coals dead. Papa still wore his clothes from the night before, and the whiff of stale beer lingered about him like mist.

“Where’s Mother?” Käthe asked.

Mother was nowhere to be seen, which was probably why Papa felt bold enough to play out here in the main hall, where anyone might hear him. The violin was a sore point between our parents; money was tight, and Mother would rather Papa play his instrument for hire than pleasure. But perhaps Master Antonius’s imminent arrival had loosened Mother’s purse strings as well as her heartstrings. The renowned virtuoso was to stop at our inn on his way from Vienna to Munich in order to audition my little brother.

“Likely taking a nap,” I ventured. “We were up before dawn, scrubbing out the rooms for Master Antonius.”

Our father was a violinist nonpareil, who had once played with the finest court musicians in Salzburg. It was in Salzburg, Papa would boast, where he had had the privilege of playing with Mozart, one of the late, great composer’s concertos. Genius like that, Papa said, comes only once in a lifetime. Once in two lifetimes. But sometimes, he would continue, giving Josef a sly glance, lightning does strike twice.