Wintersong(4)

By: S. Jae-Jones


Josef was not among the gathered guests. My little brother was shy of strangers, so he was likely hiding at the Goblin Grove, practicing until his fingers bled. My heart ached to join him, even as my fingertips twinged with sympathetic pain.

“Good, I won’t be missed,” Käthe said cheerfully. My sister often found any excuse to skip out on her chores. “Let’s go.”

Outside, the air was brisk. The day was uncommonly cold, even for late autumn. The light was sparse, weak and wavering, as though seen through curtains or a veil. A faint mist wrapped the trees along the path into town, wraithing their spindly branches into spectral limbs. The last night of the year. On a day like this, I could believe the barriers between worlds were thin indeed.

The path that led into town was pitted and rutted with carriage tracks and spotted with horse dung. Käthe and I took care to keep to the edges, where the short, dead grass helped prevent the damp from seeping into our boots.

“Ugh.” Käthe stepped around another dung puddle. “I wish we could afford a carriage.”

“If only our wishes had power,” I said.

“Then I’d be the most powerful person in the world,” Käthe remarked, “for I have wishes aplenty. I wish we were rich. I wish we could afford whatever we wanted. Just imagine, Liesl: what if, what if, what if.”

I smiled. As little girls, Käthe and I were fond of What if games. While my sister’s imagination did not encompass the uncanny, as mine and Josef’s did, she had an extraordinary capacity for pretend nonetheless.

“What if, indeed?” I asked softly.

“Let’s play,” she said. “The Ideal Imaginary World. You first, Liesl.”

“All right.” I thought of Hans, then pushed him aside. “Josef would be a famous musician.”

Käthe made a face. “It’s always about Josef with you. Don’t you have any dreams of your own?”

I did. They were locked up in a box, safe and sound beneath the bed we shared, never to be seen, never to be heard.

“Fine,” I said. “You go, then, Käthe. Your Ideal Imaginary World.”

She laughed, a bright, bell-like sound, the only musical thing about my sister. “I am a princess.”

“Naturally.”

Käthe shot me a look. “I am a princess, and you are a queen. Happy now?”

I waved her on.

“I am a princess,” she continued. “Papa is the Prince-Bishop’s Kapellmeister, and we all live in Salzburg.”

Käthe and I had been born in Salzburg, when Papa was still a court musician and Mother a singer in a troupe, before poverty chased us to the backwoods of Bavaria.

“Mother is the toast of the city for her beauty and her voice, and Josef is Master Antonius’s prize pupil.”

“Studying in Salzburg?” I asked. “Not Vienna?”

“In Vienna, then,” Käthe amended. “Oh yes, Vienna.” Her blue eyes sparkled as she spun out her fantasy for us. “We would travel to visit him, of course. Perhaps we’ll see him perform in the great cities of Paris, Mannheim, and Munich, maybe even London! We shall have a grand house in each city, trimmed with gold and marble and mahogany wood. We’ll wear gowns made in the most luxurious silks and brocades, a different color for every day of the week. Invitations to the fanciest balls and parties and operas and plays shall flood our post every morning, and a bevy of swains will storm the barricades for our favor. The greatest artists and musicians would consider us their intimate acquaintances, and we would dance and feast all night long on cake and pie and schnitzel and—”

“Chocolate torte,” I added. It was my favorite.

“Chocolate torte,” Käthe agreed. “We would have the finest coaches and the handsomest horses and”—she squeaked as she slipped in a mud puddle—“never walk on foot through unpaved roads to market again.”

I laughed, and helped her regain her footing. “Parties, balls, glittering society. Is that what princesses do? What of queens? What of me?”

“You?” Käthe fell silent for a moment. “No. Queens are destined for greatness.”