I slip into the winter woods with a beer bottle in one hand and a boy’s rough-soft fingers in the other because you’re not here to stop me. The scent of leaf mulch and wild mint climbs around us with each step. The boy cranes his neck toward the smoke grazing the treetops over my cottage.
“Who lives there?” he asks. They all do.
Sometimes I’ll say: Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Gretel. Other times: The Wolf, the slumbering beast, the Serpent of Eden.
Now, I’m mostly tired, and I don’t know if it’s because of the cold nestling into my bones or our latest fight. So I say, “My mother.”
Once we’ve reached the hot spring deep in the forest, I let my jacket and dress slip off my frame. The steaming bluegreen water envelops me. The boy steps after me into the spring. His fingers glide over my bare, slick skin. Over the impression of scales catching the dappled cool-toned sunlight. The curiosity behind his eyes never makes it past his lips. I sweep his questions away, again and again until our lips are technicolor kiss-bruises.
Afterward, he dries himself off and promises he’ll text me. He kisses me one last time, and his mouth is as hot as his smile is warm. I remain in the water a little while longer, stretching my sluggish limbs like a starfish. Then, letting my clothes hang from the tree branch where I left them, I wrap myself in a fleece blanket and walk barefoot back to the cottage through the numbing chill.
This is bound to spark another fight once I get home. If you’re awake, that is.
“Why are you doing this to me?” you ask.
I play with my soggy lunch cereal. The golden flakes look as appetizing as grubs. Which is to say not appetizing at all.
“Oh, no reason, really,” I say. Cool and casual, that’s me.
You sigh the sigh of disgruntled mothers everywhere. It throws me, just for a second.
“Is it because I didn’t make it to your parent-teacher conference?”
Again, I bite back, my spoon stirring with a vengeance. I stare down at the whirlpool of lukewarm milk in my bowl. I’d like some soup that will burn my throat and warm me from the inside, but there’s no one here to cook it. To your credit, you tried, but you kept nodding off at the stove. Your hands still bear the burn-mark proof.
Last time I cooked, I almost set fire to our cottage.
“Ems,” you say, hissing-soft. “Emily. Look at me, please.”
And I do, though it hurts to watch your drooping lids, the under-eye bags, the regret in your dark matte gaze. I know it’s not your fault, this family curse, this legacy. But sometimes it’s too easy to blame you for it.
“I’m going out,” I announce.
I don’t bother with my fur-lined jacket, but I do grab a sealed bottle of apple cider from the pantry. Since I can’t get any fucking soup around here, I have other ways to get warm.
The pine and fir tops look like bristly paintbrushes. The sky, a milky canvas. My breath frosts the air, and the smoke of my cigarette curls gray fingers before me. I sit on a frost-wet boulder, drink, and text with the boy from yesterday.
How’s your mother? he asks, and I have half a mind to text back: Still a cold-blooded snake.
You sit at the kitchen table when I return, right where I left you. Every inch of you ashiver. I soften despite myself, fix you a hot water bottle–grumbling all the while–and shepherd you to bed. We lie back-to-back like we used to when I was younger. Your skin is a glacier. Your scales more pronounced than usual. They bloom across rough patches of goosebumped skin, green-black and iridescent. Suddenly, I feel like a terrible daughter. I feel like my too-human father, who kept running out on us until we finally had to lock him out of our lives for good.
“Sleep,” I say, pressing against you, tucking the comforter snug around us. “Hibernate. Whatever, I don’t mind.”
“But I can’t,” you say. I picture stalactite tears solidifying down your cheeks.
“You can. Winter will be over before you know it, and then you’ll make it up to me.”
What I don’t say is, I need you.
What I don’t dare to think is, soon, I’ll feel the marrow-deep urge to sleep the winter away, like you.
What I don’t know yet is that, each year, it will keep getting harder for us to find our way back to waking.
Back to the world of humans.
The boy from the hot spring texts again while I claw in and out of dreams with unfeeling fingers. He’s invited me over to his house, where his family is having a feast, his mothers and aunts and uncles preparing homemade jams and pickling vegetables for the long winter.
I toss my phone to the side and settle against you, chasing ever-elusive warmth.
About the author:
Avra Margariti is a queer author and poet from Greece. Avra’s work haunts publications such as Vastarien, Baffling Magazine, Lackington’s, Daily Science Fiction, The Future Fire, Best Microfiction, and elsewhere. You can find Avra on twitter (@avramargariti)