sat at the window, waiting for the inevitable.
the sky was heavy with snow, and bruised clouds hung low to the horizon, turgid
with the potential storm. Even the light held a yellow tinge where it managed
to seep through to the world below. The ground had been frozen for days, the
trees stark and naked against the sky, stretching up their arms as though they
wanted to pierce holes in the clouds, but still no snow had come.
time he could snatch a glance Tom searched the sky for the first falling flakes.
His limbs ached with the need to be outside, his grey eyes glowed with it, his
mouth was pinched up with it. His snowshoes, skates, and skis had been sitting
in the understairs for seven months, and with only a few days of blizzards he
and his twin sister Abigail could be outside gliding across the plains, covering
miles in no time. A good hard frost, and maybe they could even make it to the Great River
and skate all the way down to Oustown.
A burning cuff to the ear slapped him back into the real world, where
his father’s voice rose in anger.
‘…don’t you listen to what I’m saying, boy? I don’t spend all my life
labouring and studying so you can grow up with a brain full of dung! Now tell
me the simple definition of an insect.’
Tom blinked as he turned back to the dim light in the study, a surge of
hurt and anger rising that he pushed away as well as he could. It did no use to
rail against his father’s moods. Dad would always have his way, and beneath all
of the gruffness and swift temper there were usually well-meant intentions that
Tom understood when the hurt had subsided.
But still… He wanted to be outside, not here in this dim and stuffy
room. The oil lamp on the desk cast everything else in the room into shadow,
making the desk the only place that was clear to his eyes. The lamp’s glow fell
over an open book, the pages covered with diagrams of dragonflies and
butterflies labelled in tiny copperplate writing.
Tom pressed a hand to his throbbing ear, and began to recite the words he
had learned the night before: ‘Insects may be generally defined as articulated
animals possessing six legs, two antennae, two compound eyes, and a small
brain, that respire by tracheae, and that have two distinct sexes.’
‘Good, boy,’ Tom’s father muttered gruffly at his perfect recital and
Tom smiled at the small praise.
A flicker in the light outside caught Tom’s eye, and he cast a glance to
the window again. It was beginning to snow. He groaned inwardly, letting the
curtain of his dark fringe slip forward to cut off the tantalising sight. The
first snow of the year, and again he was trapped inside reciting things he
didn’t care about and didn’t want to know. Why did this have to happen every year, studying always coinciding
with the most fun and exciting weather?
‘They’re beautiful things, insects,’ his father said, leaning over Tom’s
shoulder and gazing at the book. ‘Beautiful, Tom. What you learn now you’ll
never regret, even if you spend your life as a common farmer. I’ve been
studying at this for more than half my life now, and they’ve never grown less
But you’re still a common
farmer, Tom thought with suppressed
resentment, staring at the images on the page. All that studying, and you’re still a common farmer.
He wondered what his father’s knowledge would earn them if he worked in
a great university somewhere, or if he ignored his passion and just worked on
the land like every other farmer. His entomology books alone would have bought
Tom and Abigail enough new shoes and clothes to last until they were of age.
They filled most of the walls of the study, solid proof of his father’s love of
all six-legged fluttering things. There were no pictures here but his
painstakingly drawn diagrams of insects, and he marvelled over the rainbow
sheen on the backs of beetles and on dragonflies’ wings. But his concept of
beauty seemed to stop at the sheen on a wing – he didn’t love music or art or
literature – just the wonderful insects that he stabbed and killed and kept in
ranks in shallow drawers.
Tom’s mind was wandering again. He dragged his attention back to his
father, to see him brush his finger along a row of books at the back of the
desk, and draw out the thickest, heaviest one of them all.
‘Now, read this. Chapter sixteen.’ He glanced out through the window briefly
and then said brusquely, ‘Twenty-nine pages, then you can go in the snow. It’ll
have settled by then.’
‘Really?’ Tom asked impulsively, joy leaping up in his heart.
His father put a warm hand on his shoulder.
‘Really, Tom,’ he said, his voice softening. ‘I do remember being your
age. Your grandfather wouldn’t let me out until I had completed my catechism,
and dark’d usually fall before I reached the end. Be grateful for small
Tom took the book and opened up its heavy, cracked leather cover to
reveal pages yellowed by time. Almost all of his father’s books were old, either
scrounged from rubbish piles or bought second-hand for a few shillings, or
bought dearly from specialised shops on rare trips to the city.
‘Seventeen sixty-two,’ he murmured, deciphering the Roman numerals on
the title page.
‘Maybe so,’ his father nodded. ‘But it’s no less valid. The forms and
colours of insects haven’t changed in a century. Time like that’s nothing to
God wasn’t waiting to play in the snow – but Tom knew better than to
give voice to his thought. He let himself sink into the facts of the life-cycle
of the cabbage-white butterfly, blotting out everything around him. The sooner
he read it the sooner he could be outside. Last year it had been learning the
different varieties of moth that had kept him from the snow, while Abby danced
in the thickening flakes. He wondered what it would be next year…
After half the chapter he snatched a
glance at the snow, casting a practised eye over the size and heaviness of the
flakes. It had to be right to ski, and it looked perfect. Not too wet, not too
heavy, just cold enough. The falling flakes blurred the trees at the edge of
the yard, and the ground was whitening over perfectly.
Flurried movement beyond the fence caught his eye, and he saw Abby out
there, twirling in the snow. Tall for her age like he was, and thin too, her
auburn hair whipped out around her as she spun, then fell like a warm cloak
about her shoulders as she slowed and began to spin the other way.
She was playing with a spirit wand. It was a cheap toy, bought in a gift
shop in town. Most likely it had been split from a scrap of pine and only had
the weakest of incantations spoken into it and a thousand others in the same
box. Probably the whole lot had shared one sacrificed spirit – the smallest of
birds or a black-winged beetle. But with it Abby was able to stand under the
falling snow and create an invisible umbrella to make the snow warp around her.
Tom stole a glance at his father this time. His father said time after
time that magic was against God and nature, and nothing with a spirit-soul was
allowed in his house. No matter that Abigail was outside, beyond their garden
fence – she would still get a beating with the soft end of a belt if her father
Tom shuffled around as if to make
more light fall on the book, hoping to turn his father’s gaze. It worked – his
father slapped the back of his hand as he pushed the book across the desk.
‘Six shillings that cost me, child,’
he snapped. ‘Pick it up if you must move it.’
‘Yes, sir,’ he muttered, not
stopping his reading.
‘Hmm,’ his father grunted.
Tom could feel his father’s resolve softening at Tom’s meek response. He
saw him lean forwards in his chair to see what page Tom had reached. He was close
to the end – only five pages to go. His father’s foot tapped twice on the
floor, and he reached forward to take another book from the shelves. His foot
tapped again impatiently as he realised that with the gathering clouds outside
there was only light enough for one person to read. Finally he put his broad
palm down over the page Tom was reading, and told him;
‘Read it tonight, boy. Go and play
in the snow now.’
Tom closed the book with practised
control, then spontaneously hugged his father, who responded with startled
impulsiveness, folding Tom in his strong arms. Warmed, Tom ran out, whooping,
into the snow.
He had to double back around the
house to get to where Abby was playing, and he ran with his mouth open, letting
the precious snow crystals float into his mouth and melt on his tongue. The
first taste of winter…
He cornered the back of the house
and saw Abby still standing where she had been before, twirling the wand so
that the invisible umbrella whirled about her head as a swirling ball of emptiness
in the storm.
‘Abigail!’ he called, and her face
turned to him, pink in the cold. ‘Abigail!’
He took the garden fence at a jump,
barrelling into Abby’s side and shoving her sideways until she was out of line
of sight from his father’s study window.
‘Stupid girl!’ he snapped at her
jokingly. Perhaps she would be distracted enough by his insult to stop playing
with that wand. Playing on his half-hour age advantage to act like an elder
brother always worked.
‘Not as stupid as you, Thomas,’ she countered automatically,
sticking her tongue out into the falling snow.
‘Ha!’ Tom laughed derisively, pushing her still further away from the
window. ‘I’m the one who studies every day – all you do is sewing and Bible
study! Besides, you’re stupid enough to do this in sight of the house. Don’t
you ever look where you’re standing when you play with those things? You want
to get beaten?’
Abby glanced over her shoulder, as
if she had realised for the first time that she had been right in front of her
father’s window. Then she shrugged and twirled the wand again, sending a flurry
of crushed-up snowflakes into Tom’s face. He spluttered, and snatched the
flimsy wooden stick from her. As he cracked it in two it gave a quiet sigh, and
a puff of something indefinable wafted out of the hollow core.
Abby shrugged again, looking
unconcerned as he dropped the broken pieces into the snow.
‘Got ’nother upstairs,’ she said
nonchalantly. ‘I bought two last time we were in town. I saved the pennies from
The heat of that summer seemed
impossibly far away. Tom remembered watching Abby picking up farthings and the
occasional penny from the streets after the carnival had passed, the heat of
the sun striking down on her back as she bent. He had been more interested in
watching the great cart horses lumber past and staring at the wagons done up to
look like boats and sleighs and fantasy castles. The chance to gather money had
passed him by.
He scraped up a handful of snow from the ground and rubbed it into Abby’s
hair. She squealed, darting left and right to avoid him, jabbing him with a
broken half of the wand until he broke that piece in half too.
‘Come on,’ he said breathlessly at last. ‘Let’s go’n find some proper
snow. Don’t need to be back until darkfall.’
The snow was growing thicker on the ground with every moment, and it
would be thicker still in the bluffs by the river. It was still early in the
afternoon – they had at least three hours until dusk.
Abby met his eyes, glanced down once
more at her broken wand, then grinned, and raced off towards the fields through
the whirling snow. Tom shouted with sheer pleasure at the coldness and freedom
of it all, then bolted after her, catching her up easily as she reached the
first hedge and pushed through the scratchy, leafless branches into the field
The land stretched out before them,
perfectly flat, and sectioned by wide fields and scrawny hedges, but only a
mile away the river flowed down through the plains, and the ground was rucked
up around it like a feather quilt, patched with bushy trees and thickets of
reeds. In summer this was the meadow at the edge of their father’s land, damp
and lush and filled with flowers. In winter it was useless to animals, but
perfect for Tom and Abby. The snow lay more heavily there, caught by the dips
in the ground and protected from wind by the trees. There, it was possible to
lie almost covered by snow, invisible to all eyes unless someone was standing
right on the edge of the dip. In summer they used these hidden hollows to play
secretly with cheap magic and pretend to be outlaws. In winter it was too cold
to stay still and hidden for long, and they spent half their time rolling in
the drifts, and the rest testing the still water where the reeds grew through
it, trying to see if the ice would soon grow thick enough to let them walk
right out into the centre of the stream.
‘Another week, I reckon,’ Abigail
said with an air of professionalism, pushing down on the thin icy crust with
her toes. The ice cracked like the surface of drying cake frosting, and water
‘I dunno,’ Tom shrugged. He was at
least as knowledgeable as she where these things were concerned. ‘Give us two
more days like this. The water’s cold, coming down from the mountains. Bet the
waterfalls’re frozen up there by now.’
‘Yeah,’ Abby nodded. ‘But moving
water, Tom. It’s flowing well.’
She turned back to the spindly trees
behind her. Neither of the pair knew what their real name was, but Abby called
them blood-sticks because their bare twigs were wet and bright red at this time
of year, brilliant against the snow. She broke a twig off from a low branch and
cradled it to her body, muttering something over it. Then, suddenly, she was
whirling in the snow again, making an umbrella of nothingness over her head.
‘Drier than you,’ she sang saucily,
laughing at the look on Tom’s face. ‘Said I had more.’
‘Ab – ’ Tom began, stuttering. ‘Ab –
do you know what you’re doing?’
‘Yeah,’ she nodded, grinning.
‘Getting warm and dry.’
And it was true. The shield around
the wand was not only protecting her from the snow, but steam was rising in
wisps from her clothes, turning when it met the limit of the wand’s bubble and
falling down again towards her shoulders.
‘Ab, you’re making magic,’ Tom said
softly. ‘No spirit-soul or nothing.’
‘So?’ she asked. ‘I have been, ever
since I started bleeding every month.’
Tom suddenly became awkward,
stepping backwards with his hands in his pockets. ‘Didn’t know you did that,’
he muttered. ‘Thought you were a bit young, n’all.’
‘Yep,’ Abby said concisely, as if
she were proud of it. ‘Mum says she was young too.’
‘But that’s not magic-making,’ Tom
protested again. ‘That doesn’t mean you can make spells.’
‘I suppose it does,’ Abby said
reasonably. ‘Seeing that I can and I do.’
She reached forward with the wand and its bubble of air as if to cover
him in dryness too – but Tom jumped backwards as if he thought it would sting
‘Abby, you can’t,’ he
insisted. ‘I mean, you mustn’t. You shouldn’t. If Dad - ’
‘Dad won’t,’ she said shortly. She threw the stick carelessly into the
river, where it sizzled gently, then sank like lead.
‘Dad’ll kill you for a witch.’
Abby paused briefly as if Tom had struck real fear into her mind. But
then she shook off that serious moment.
‘Dad says witches aren’t real. Dad says natural witches are made up by
heretics and madmen, and that spells are only made by using the souls of poor
‘Doesn’t mean he won’t kill you.’
Tom became silent, wondering whether that would be the literal truth if
their father discovered what Abby could do. With his grounding in soil, science,
and religion, he had an utter horror of those who practised magic. He said they
would be damned in hell with murderers and unclean women. Perhaps he would
think it better that Abby died young and in innocence than old and in sin.
‘Just – ’
Tom hesitated, then took hold of both of Abigail’s hands firmly, pulling
them close to his own chest. It didn’t matter that they were boy and girl. When
he mingled his fingers with hers it became hard to tell whose were whose, and
they both felt for a moment like one being.
‘Just promise me,’ he said gravely. ‘Don’t let Dad see. Don’t do it in
the house. Don’t do it at all – least not until you’re married or grown and out
of that home. Whatever happens, don’t let our father see it.’
Abby met his eyes, suddenly as deadly serious as he was. She was staring
so deeply he felt as if he were falling into the splintered depths of her
grey-green irises. It was like being under a spell when she did that, as if he
were becoming part of her.
‘Promise, Tom, on our blood – unless our lives or souls depend on it.’
She spoke softly and firmly, with the oath she and Tom always swapped
over great secrets or pledges of allegiance. Usually it was nothing more
important than not revealing a hiding place, or pledging faith against their
father’s bullying. This time, her words seemed to vibrate through the silent
snow with their seriousness. She understood Tom’s fear, and relief broke
through his chest at her promise to hide her ability from their father.
That was enough, and he let her hands drop to her sides, then hugged her
quickly, before she could step away.
‘It’s amazing, though,’ he admitted almost reluctantly, his mouth close
to her ear.
Abby stepped back, scrutinising his face – then she suddenly laughed,
and clapped her hand to her mouth.
‘You’re jealous, Tom!’ she realised. ‘Jealous of me, because you think
we should do everything the same! Except all your learning, of course,’ she
added ironically. ‘Men’s work, and that stuff. All the fun things I can’t do
’cause I’m a girl.’
Tom shrugged, and drifts of snow
fell from his shoulders. Perhaps Abby was right. Perhaps he did feel dull and
talentless beside that supernatural ability.
‘I always imagined being able to move stuff with my mind, or go invisible
at will, things like that,’ he muttered. ‘Never thought you’d be the one to do
Abby shrugged in return, and turned
towards the break in the trees that led back to the way home.
‘No one’s saying you can’t. Mum says
boys come into age older than girls do. You don’t know yet what you can do.’