Having not entered the Pictonaut Challenge (to write a 1000 word short story based on a picture found at The Rogue Verbumancer’s blog) for a couple of months, I thought I would get in a bit early with January’s one. Initially the picture didn’t fill me with ideas. ‘Cowboys,’ I thought, ‘and horse bums. Oh.’ Then I thought, what about the person seeing the picture – the one watching them plod away. Who is she? There was never any question in my mind over the fact it was a she.
So I wrote about her, and why the others were leaving, and thought my tale quite OK (although over the word limit a bit). Then, reading it back this week, it occurred to me it owes a lot to The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, which I read towards the end of last year. That is a lovely book, which I would certainly recommend – particularly if you like my story and want to read something in the same setting and better written…
Once Upon A Time a small girl watched three men on horses plod away from her into the Alaskan snow and thought: I hope they don’t come back.
And because she lived inside a story, the small girl got her wish.
The men were her two older brothers and her father – or so she had thought, until her mother revealed in a melodramatic death bed scene that she was actually adopted. As a baby she had been abandoned on the doorstep by fairies, and the people she thought were her parents had been too afraid not to take her in for fear of incurring their magical ire. The family were pleased to have her, though, for she was a helpful and good natured child.
‘I hope you can forgive me for lying,’ said Mama, expiring gently before the girl, whose name was Caitlin, could get a word in. The word, by the way, would have been ‘no’ – as in ‘no, I do not forgive you; have you any idea of the identity crisis you have just inflicted upon me?’
‘You’ll have to do all the cooking and housework and such, now she’s gone,’ Papa told her matter of factly. He was a traditional man, with a traditional hat, and he had no other daughters, sisters, or plans to remarry – so in his mind Caitlin was now the woman of the house. She’d probably have to be a spinster too, so’s there was someone to look after him in his twilight years.
‘But I want to learn to hunt and ride,’ Caitlin said, ‘and go to college and make something of myself. Cooking and cleaning present no intellectual stimulation or physical challenge!’
Papa thought about her words, and conceded there was truth in them. But they didn’t have the money to send Caitlin to college, or to buy another horse for her to ride – and someone had to keep house, small and simple though it was. As the youngest, the smallest, and the female-est, Caitlin had drawn the short straw.
‘We’ll talk about it when I come back,’ he said, kissing her swiftly on the forehead and striding out to the yard to join the others.
This is when she made her wish.
As you might expect of a person left on the doorstep by fairies, Caitlin was not an entirely human child. Her true parentage was shrouded in mystery, but one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that sometimes when she made wishes – when she made wishes and really meant them – they would come true.
This wasn’t through any deliberate magical act on Caitlin’s part. In fact, she had no idea her wishes could come true, because this was the very first time it happened.
As you have already heard she was a good natured soul, not prone to making unrealistic wishes in the throes of apoplectic rage. But on this occasion, the death of her mother, the discovery of her adoption, and the announcement she was not to learn to hunt or ride or be a neurosurgeon came together to make her just about as furious as it is possible to be. And you will know if you have ever read a story how magic often plays on emotions and works in cruel or mischievous ways.
She watched her father and brothers tromp off through the snow until they were mere specks in the distance, hating them more with every frozen step. They weren’t her real family, she thought. They couldn’t keep her as a slave in this stupid cabin – they had no claim over her.
Caitlin pulled on her boots and coat and went outside, aiming in the most general sense to Have An Adventure. She would walk in the opposite direction from her father and brothers and see what she could see.
Perhaps there would be another girl to talk to, or a fox to play with – or maybe she could conduct some sort of rigorous scientific research on the winter landscape to help her prepare for college. That sort of dedication might stand her in good stead if she were to apply for a scholarship.
She stayed out all afternoon, enjoying the cold of the air in her lungs and the sound of winter in her ears. So absorbed was she in communing with nature that night had fallen before she knew it. Soon it was so dark she had to bend almost double to see the prints she’d left in the snow, scurrying quickly along the trail to find her way home.
The cabin was empty on her return, and stayed that way all night. By this time, her initial white hot rage had cooled, and Caitlin had almost decided to forgive Papa his foolishness, and explain to him exactly how and why she was going to go to college to become a biologist. She also wanted to ask her oldest brother Alec a tracking question, so she propped herself up at the window and watched for their return. She waited so long that eventually she fell asleep with her head against the glass, and woke the next morning with frost patterns dancing on her cheek.
The house was still empty. Caitlin thought perhaps her family were trying to teach her a lesson, something about them all needing one another to do their bit. When Papa wanted to teach the boys something he never told them what it was, he showed them by means of a trick, or giving them a fright.
‘It’s not going to work,’ she informed the morning sun, her anger returning. ‘You can’t trick me, I’m not my brothers. I’m part fairy, I can look after myself.’
Once again she pulled on her boots and coat, and walked briskly in the opposite direction from her father and brothers. This time she carried a catapult and filled her pockets with marbles, so she could hunt wild rabbits that would feed her until they came home. She didn’t need Alec’s tracking advice; she would show them she could fend for herself.
The first day, perhaps inevitably, she didn’t even see a rabbit, much less catch one – and still her family did not come home.
The second and third days were much the same – not a rabbit in sight on her journey through the hard white terrain. There were beans in the cupboard, so she wasn’t starving, but they wouldn’t last forever. Her father and brothers still stayed away.
On the fourth day, she saw a leveret, and killed it with one marble stroke. She was so proud she could have shouted for joy – but she didn’t, because there was nobody to hear. The cabin was empty on her return, and starting to look a bit grubby.
On the fifth day, she ate hare for breakfast, and began to think perhaps this was not one of Papa’s lessons, but that something bad had happened.
After two weeks, she was good at catching small animals, but convinced her father and brothers had abandoned her. She started to venture further away from the cabin, sometimes taking cover in the woods at the foot of the mountain and camping. She returned home less and less, but every time she did go back, it remained untouched.
After two months she had used up all the food supplies in the cabin, and decided she didn’t want to live there anymore. She began to remove the blankets and sheets, the clothes and the tools, and everything that seemed vaguely useful, to a camping spot amongst the trees. Instinctively she knew she was safe there, in a way a girl without fairy blood would not have been – but she never saw any sign of magic.
After two years Caitlin was nine, and had not seen another human being in so long she had almost forgotten how to speak to them. She returned to the cabin on her birthday with a gnawing sense she was supposed to be looking for something, but she could not quite remember what it was.
The place smelled musty from disuse, and felt cramped in comparison with the unending forest that was now her home. Caitlin walked around it slowly, touching surfaces and trying to make half remembered fragments of faces from her old life stay still in her mind’s eye. However hard she concentrated the images would not stay, instead they danced blurrily just on the edge of her vision.
She sat in the chair by the window where she had fallen asleep so many times waiting for her father and brothers to return. A layer of fine white dust had grown on the sill, a line of tiny footprints scattered through it.
A shadow fell across her face and she looked up through the glass. She was momentarily blinded by bright sunshine reflected on the snow, but then saw three specks on the horizon. Her heart jumped in recognition, though her mind was still unsure exactly why or what she was seeing…
And then the specks were gone. The horizon was cold and empty, and past it the snow went on forever.