When Winter Came

When Winter Came


Polina’s mother died on a chilly autumn morning, and as she breathed her last she smiled because it was not winter. She had escaped her fate. Polina coughed as she walked towards the home of her childhood, carrying the ashes of her mother in a wooden box thrice blessed by an eastern witch.

She passed the weary meadow, and looked beyond the rocks. There was the River Volga, and by its mighty waters, on the bank, was her home. Polina did not enter or come near. She went to the shore and opened the box with her mother's ashes. Polina emptied the box into the air, and the ashes glimmered in the light of the morning sun as they arched up and got caught in the wind. This was the closest thing she had seen to snow since she was five years old.

Looking through the window of what once was her home and seeing nothing, she couldn't help but to remember. When she and her mother abandoned their cabin by the River Volga many years ago, Polina knew she would not return. Staying another season would mean death. They gathered what money they had and took the first train south. By the time winter had come they were in Morocco, far from the reach of the frost.

"Will we die, mama?" she asked between sobs as a little girl. "Will the curse kill us?"

"No, my little babushka, not at all," Marzanna said. "The witch who cursed me very much underestimated just how strong we are." She held her daughter in her arms. "Now come, no more tears. We shall prevail."

In Rio de Janeiro the sun was high, and Polina was angry. "Mother, will you listen to me for once?"

Marzanna smiled. She was in a drunk and shallow haze of sensations and light. "But darling what is wrong?" She teetered about their apartment, a hovel, dressed in extravagant colors. She spent more money on that outfit than she did on their food that month. And the potions, of course.

"Look at you," Polina spat. "You're drunk already and it’s just past noon."

Her mother giggled. "I know! Isn't it wonderful? Oh, but look at the time. I should go."

"Can I at least come with you? I've never been to Carnaval."

Marzanna stopped and seemed to sober for a moment. "You haven't?"

"You always leave me. Always." Did her mother not know that she wanted to see foreign magics? To dance in the crowd? To be with her?

"Because it's not safe for you Polina. The company I keep is not the sort I want you around, my babushka. Not at all." Her smile faded as she reached down and touched Polina's cheeks. "You are growing to be so beautiful my darling. But you are pale, and white like..." She faltered. Marzanna looked deep into Polina's eyes, which were so much like her own. "I have to go. The sun must shine within us, my darling."

Polina sighed. "You always say that. You always say it's because of the curse that you're never here."

"Our curse which has forced us to travel the world? To see new people and new lands and to enjoy the brightness of the sun? We've never had to suffer another winter again and it is because our curse is a blessing. We have won, my darling."

“Our blessing? Really, mama? Is it our blessing that I can’t go home? That I am stuck here in this room all the time while you go and party and fool around? Or that I cannot meet my own father?”

Her mother stiffened, and when she spoke her voice was shrill and loud. “Enough! Enough of that Polina. If your father cared to meet you then he would have stopped his bitch of a wife from cursing us. From keeping us away.”

Polina was silent, and her mother breathed to calm herself down. Marzanna reached into her purse and pulled out a small bottle, golden in color, and drank it until it was drained. She smiled, artificial joy on her lips.

"Winter is more than just a season, my darling. That is why we are here! There is no need to dwell on the past." She stepped out the door, but had enough lucidity to look back at her daughter for a moment. Tears had begun to well up in Polina’s eyes and she did her very best to stave them off. But she saw her mother looking at her with inattentive, happy eyes and the tears fell down her cheek. Polina tried to rub them off with the back of her hand, but they fell freely. Inside fear began to spring up. She could not cry too much, but she feared the tears would keep falling until the curse killed her.

"You should go on a walk, or see a park,” her mother said. Her tone was cheerful and relaxed, and Polina despised the ease of her voice. “Do not cry, my love. Tears are the snow of the heart. We have everything we need -- each other. The sun."

She left, drunk on joy. Polina looked out at the parade below, watching alone from the window in their shared room, and in her heart it snowed in Rio de Janeiro. But she did not cry long, for she feared that her mother was right. The curse was theirs still. She put on a happy face, as best she could, and let the sunlight warm her body in the bed.

Naples was safe, even in the last stretches of autumn. Polina, without her mother's ashes to accompany her, made her way to the bookshop by the sea. It was a little green building that looked like it was shelved in the wrong section, sidled up between stone buildings tinged gold by the touch of an ancient, constant, sun.

She peeked through the front window, trying to spot her friend. It was empty, save for the books. Polina opened the door and bells jingled as she did, a crystalline jingle of gems that she could only just hear above her. But the owner of the store heard it quite clearly, for he poked his head out of an alley of shelves. "Polina, is that you amore?"

"It is me, Lorenzo."

“My Polina! How old are you now? Surely you must be twenty.”

“You’ve got your arithmetic facilities yet, Lorenzo,” Polina said.

He walked over to her with his bad hip and a smile. He was shorter than her, but his embrace was comfortable and warm. The tweed of his green jacket was a familiar texture, and the smell of pine on his tie. "And your mother?" he asked.

Polina grimaced, "She walks with us no more, Lorenzo."

"I'm sorry to hear that… she was still quite young. Was it... did it snow?"

"No," Polina said. "It did not. Natural causes."

"I see. Well, sit. I will get you a caffè." He pulled out a chair from somewhere and offered it to her. She took it and sat as he went up the spiral stairs that lead to his private quarters on the third level. He returned within moments and had two steaming cups in his hand.
"That was fast," she said.

"Oh yes, it's been long since you came here. I enhanced the stairs for efficiency."

"Enhanced or enchanted?"

Lorenzo laughed. "Both in one. Where have you been as of late?"

"I have given my mother her burial rites, and that is all. When she passed we were in Arizona. The shamans there helped me, few though there are. When I returned to Russia I had her ashes blessed. And now I am here."

"Ahh," he said. Polina wasn't sure if it was in response to her or simply an expression of gratification at his espresso. “And to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit, young lady?”

"I don't know. I came for company. You're my friend, Lorenzo." She cast her eyes about the room. Sunlight streamed through the tall windows, reaching high up towards the ceiling of Lorenzo’s bookshop. From where she sat, it seemed like the rows of books would reach ever-upwards without end.

"You know Polina, I have always liked you best of all my customers."

"I've never bought anything here."

"No, but when you come you ask to read my books. Or you drink caffè with me. And when you are troubled you ask for some wisdom or some chapter to help. So many of my customers come and say ‘Lorenzo, can I have a spell, please?’ Spells! They seek spells when a simple book will do. Bah! You are my best customer with no doubt!"

She smiled and raised her cup. "To our friendship, and to your wisdom."

He raised his. "To my caffè.”

They sipped in silence. “Is there nothing I can do for you, Polina?" Lorenzo asked after some time.

"I suppose I have a question. Do you think that my mother's curse is mine also? The woman who cursed her was a vengeful witch. She hated my mother, and me. That I existed."
He adjusted his position in his seat. "Well, it depends, no?"

"My mother... She was afraid of the power of the witch who cursed her. She went to great lengths to escape it."

"Before I met your mother, I did not take the Russians to be superstitious, you know?"

"Then you do not know Russians very well."

"I have since come to learn better," he said. "But my amateur opinion is that the curse was just a way to get Marzanna out of Russia. No more than that, my Polina."

Within Marzanna’s daughter, something shattered and cracked under the pressure of a truth long-denied and known longer still. "But she went so far... I always thought we would have been just as well settled in Morocco, or southern Spain."

"I fear, my Polina, that the extent of your mother's intensity was self-imposed. I doubt that the curse is yours also."

When Polina asked, her voice trembled with desperation. “Can you check? Is there some way for me to know?”

“I can try,” said Lorenzo. He put down his cup and took her free hand in his, closing his eyes. Polina watched his face as he discerned her spirit, and she felt the ghost of his touch in her heart.

When he opened them, she noticed for the first time the golden specs in his brown eyes. “You have no malediction,” Lorenzo said in his steady and wise voice.

“She lied,” Polina said. She shook. “Did she ever consult you to find out about me? About her curse?”

“No. I would have certainly made you aware of the fact if I had known, Polina.”

She shook her head in disbelief. “Why would she lie to me?”

Lorenzo patted her hand gently. “She was not a witch. She was afraid.”

Tears began to fall from her eyes. "I was afraid! Even now I fear my own tears. I fear to feel anything that is not happy. She would say 'Winter is more than a season. The curse will kill us if we are sad, or if we are blue. It must be summer in our souls.'" Polina sobbed. "I'm scared to cry."

Lorenzo stood and embraced her. "Oh my darling. You needn’t fear anymore. Not a bit. I will give you a spell, free of charge, for all the spells you have not bought from me."

It was some time before she calmed enough to open her eyes or take her head away from the comfort of his tweed jacket, and when she did it was because it was cold -- a touch so foreign to her that it almost escaped her.

In Lorenzo's bookshop it snowed. White flakes glittered in the sun as they fell upon her, and she gasped.

"It's snowing."

"Yes, it hadn't escaped my notice." He smiled. "You are free, Polina. The snow is yours now, as much as the sun. You can cry. You can laugh. You can go wherever you wish to go. Her curse has never been yours."

"No, it has always been mine," Polina said. She looked at the snowfall around her and breathed in the cool air of winter. "But now I'm free. Thank you, Lorenzo."

"If you need someplace to stay, I've been looking for a shop-hand. I'm afraid you'll have to learn Italian, though." Lorenzo waved his hand and the snowfall reversed directions, floating upwards into the ceiling and out of existence.

Polina smiled and embraced Lorenzo. "I'll return soon. I have to go for a bit. Thank you, again.”

She did not know why she stole the sailboat -- it might have been because she wished to weep but did not want to do so where someone could find her. Instead, she set the sails and went to sea. The day was bright but sinking slowly, the delicate balance between afternoon and evening. There were good winds, so she went far out into the water, where the ocean bobbed her up and down on waves as if rocking her, cradling her. It did not matter that she was chilly anymore -- she had the liberty to be chilly. To be anything.

Polina stared into the sea for some time, watching the ripples of the water as the waves moved her boat. She looked past her own image on the surface and into the depths. When she found nothing in the depths, there was little for her to do but look at her reflection, then the ripples. And then remember.

"My babushka," her mother said. Her words lingered in her mouth too long, complacent slurring. She smelled like liquor and sun, and Polina looked up at her with squinted eyes.
"I'm not an old lady, mother," Polina said as she laid down again on the bow of some rich man's yacht.

"You are acting like one. Why don't you enjoy yourself? There are handsome young men here. You can pass the time."

The sun beat down on Polina as it always did. Her mother never went anywhere the sun was not proud and bright. In fact, Marzanna would not even sleep through the night, leaving her resting time for when the sun could warm her.

"I am passing time until we can go back home and read a book and go to sleep."

"Ah," said Marzanna. She came and laid down next to her daughter. "Well then I shall spend some time with you here if you will not come spend time with me."

Polina turned her head and looked at her mother properly. She was well into a few drinks, by the looks of it, but her breathing was content and even. "That is a first. Don't you have some Italian man you'd rather work your charm on?"

"No. I'm right where I want to be," she said, and smiled. "Next to you. I'm happy."

"You're always happy," Polina said. "And drunk. I bet you've had three of those potions by this time."

"No," her mother said. "I have not had any today." She closed her eyes.


"But I have had a lot of alcohol."

"I figured," said Polina.

"I love you, my daughter," Marzanna said. She reached out her hand and Polina took it.

"I love you too, mama."

"Without you, I would be alone. You are my world," her mother said, and Polina almost believed her.

"No, mama. I am not." Polina replied. But her mother was asleep and could not disagree.

That evening, Polina rocked in the ocean on a lonely boat until she too fell asleep.


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