“Hivara is beautiful,” Grandfather said.
I rolled my eyes, because I knew, from that single phrase, where this would lead. I’ve heard Grandfather tell this story many times before, but my cousins, it seems, have not.
“No she’s not!” said Ruon, the youngest of them. His face scrunched up with a level of offense reserved only for the young and for middle-aged women confronted with a situation that’s going more than a few degrees away from their way. “She’s an old lady!”
Grandfather’s eyes twinkled. “You better not let your grandmother hear you say that. Or Hivara, for that matter.”
“Hivara’s not going to hear us.” Gisa rolled her eyes in a perfect imitation of me. I winced. It was not a habit of mine I would have passed on intentionally. “She’s way up high in her floating castle.”
“She’s not always there,” Grandfather said. “And even so, her servants walk ground beneath her. They could hear you, and report back to her.”
“The wolves?” Avron looked up from his toys. “They won’t catch us. They’re so big we’d see them coming.”
Grandfather chuckled. “Wolves have excellent hearing, and Hivara’s wolfs are as white as her snow. They can be very sneaky, when they want to be, and very scary when they don’t.”
“I’m not afraid,” Gisa said. She had her father’s borderline-foolish levels of confidence in all things. “The wolves don’t hurt people.”
“Yeah!” Ruon put his hands on his hips, forcing me to stifle my laughter. “The wolves are her Servants. They only hurt other Servants.”
“Hmm.” Grandfather leaned back in his chair. “Well, that’s usually true, but I still wouldn’t want to test it, after seeing them.”
“You’ve seen Hivara’s wolves?” Gisa’s eyes widened with that hopeful wonder that fades sometime after childhood, and her mouth slackened, hanging open.
“I,” Grandfather said, leaning forward dramatically, “have seen Hivara herself.”
Ruon gasped, and Avron put his toys down, scampering closer to listen in. Gisa, however, shut her mouth, narrowed her eyes, and turned her face into a flat mask of incredulity.
“No you haven’t,” she said.
“Gisa, are you calling me a liar?” Grandfather asked, raising his eyebrows.
“No,” Gisa said defensively. “I’m just.. Saying that I don’t believe you.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?” I asked.
Gisa glared at me, which only made me laugh. That same glare, from her mother, made me shrink back in fear of what was to come next. Gisa’s lacked impact, perhaps due to her stature, and perhaps because of the roundness of her cheeks. My laugh only made her glare harder, which she accomplished by jutting her head forward and squinching her eyes into tight, wrinkled knots.
“Either way,” Grandfather continued, “I have seen her, and she was beautiful to behold.”
His eyes shifted their focus, looking past everything in the room, back to some distant memory. It was the same look he got every time he told this story. He sighed, which was part of the story, too; I probably could have sighed in sync with him, had I tried. I know Grandmother could have. I’m sure she has heard the story far more times than I have.
“When people talk about beauty, they hold Vernoa up as an example,” Grandfather said. “They say she is lovely: lovelier than the most perfect woman ever to grace the world. Her hair is long and flowing, threaded through with vines and flowers, and her skin is soft and supple as a babe’s; her eyes are bright as daylight. She is a young, healthy women who bears the life of her season, blessing the world with fresh-grown leaves and flowers.”
“Everyone knows Vernoa is pretty,” Ruon said. “Her season is the prettiest, so she must be, too.”
“Ah, but isn’t there beauty in the bright summer light?” Grandfather said. “Isn’t there beauty in Lotom’s time, when the leaves turn to red and yellow and orange, and fall to the ground?”
“I guess,” Ruon said. He wrinkled his nose. “But I don’t think Ethau or Lotom are pretty, like Vernoa.”
“They might be,” Grandfather said. “I haven’t seen them. Perhaps they are as handsome as men can be.”
Ruon shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe.”
“What about Hivara?” Gisa said. “You said you saw her. How? Why?”
“If you’ll believe it, I saw her on a day like any other,” Grandfather said. “It was a cold day. Hivara’s influence had finally won out over Lotom’s, and so the air was brisk, and snow fell from above, coating everything in white. It fell heavy, that day, so thick that you couldn’t have seen from the house to the shed.”
“She was in your back yard?” Ruon asked.
“Hivara was here?” squeaked Avron.
“No, no,” Grandfather said. “I wasn’t at home. I was walking in the woods.”
“But why?” Gisa asked. “Why would you want to be out in the cold and the snow?”
I had heard the story enough times that I, too, became curious enough about this question — and about Grandfather’s unsatisfying answer — that I had asked Grandmother. She had frowned and, after a moment’s thought, told me that Grandfather had gone for a walk because she’d had a disagreement with him. She wouldn’t tell me what it was about; she said she couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter much to me, though, because to hear Grandmother give more details suddenly made me wonder if the story was actually real.
“Oh, I’ve always liked to walk,” Grandfather said. “It’s good for the body, even in the cold.”
“I hate walking,” Ruoin said. “It’s so boring.”
“Well, this walk was anything but boring,” Grandfather continued. “I was huffing along, at a brisk pace, when I realized the air had gotten even colder. The snow swirled around me, but the flakes had become finer and more dispersed. I could see further, though of course everything had the white haziness that heavy snowfall brings to the day. I stopped, listening, though at first I wasn’t sure what compelled me to do so. Then I realized that the sound of my breathing, and the rushing sound of all the snow hitting the ground, weren’t the only sounds to be heard.”
The cousins were actually listening, now. It was always a subtle transition, from movement to stillness, and from open mouths to open ears. This part of the story had always taken my attention, too. Perhaps it was less the words and more how deeply Grandfather seemed to feel them. He was invested in this story. It was a part of him.
“Then I saw them — three figures, coming through the snow. It grew so cold it felt like my eyes were freezing, but I kept them open, because I wanted to see. I knew this was something special the moment I saw their shadows in the haze. I knelt, like I would for a Queen — because what Queen wouldn’t kneel for one of the Seasons? Then I could see her clearly, and oh. Hivara, with a Wolf on either side of her. All three had bright, piercing blue eyes. The Wolves looked at me as they passed, but Hivara ignored me. I was beneath her. I felt it in my soul. I would give that soul to see her again, though.
“She wore armor, like they say, but no words could ever do it justice. I’ve never seen armor made by a man look like it was so perfectly part of a person, but Hivara’s armor may as well have been her body. She walked with grace despite it, and it looked heavy and functional, as though it had been carved from a block of blue-grey steel. Her face was uncovered, and yes, she did look like an older woman —but one who had aged with grace and care, so that her beauty would last the centuries. Her hair fell straight as ice over her shoulders and down her back. It was so white it made the snow look dim and shadow-grey.”
“One of the Wolves bared its teeth at me, but they said nothing. They simply walked onward. None of them left tracks in the snow. In seconds, they had vanished between the trees and the snowflakes. The thicker snowfall returned, and the air warmed from frigid to merely cold. I found that my breathing had slowed, and I fought to return it to my regular pace as I forced my now-still legs to unbend, all while wondering if what I had seen had truly been real.”
“Was it?” Gisa asked, but from the whispering awe I heard in her voice, I had little suspicion that she doubted Grandfather now.
“Yes,” Grandfather said. “There’s no doubt in my heart. I saw Hivara that day.”
“So she’s real?” Ruon asked.
I tilted my head, unsure of how to take his question. “You didn’t think she was real?”
“Well… I dunno,” Ruon said. “Adults make things up all the time to explain how things work. I thought she was one of those things they make up so they don’t have to explain something.”
“No.” Grandfather chuckled. “No, the Seasons are very real, son.”
Ruon’s eyes went wide, as though something fundamental he had believed about the world had just shifted in front of them. Perhaps it had. It’s easy to witness the ways the Seasons impact us, but it’s harder to conceive that they’re really up there, in their floating castles, observing or ignoring us as suits their whim. Especially because nobody — well, almost nobody — ever see them.
“What was she doing in the woods?” Gisa asked.
“Who can say?” Grandfather shrugged. “Nobody really understands them, or their motives. They do what they do, and they are what they are.”
It went on like this for quite a while: My cousins, asking questions, and Grandfather, giving non-answers. This was part of the tradition, too, for those that heard his story for the first time. It wasn’t a very good story, in the end. Nothing dramatic happened. There was no real consequence, and he didn’t learn much from it. It was simply something that happened to him that he liked to relay to everyone he met, especially his grandchildren.
I can see why the even stands out to him, in his life. It’s likely he’s never met anyone else who has seen one of the Seasons first-hand. It’s likely none of us will ever meet another. But he tells it like it’s a story, when it wasn’t. It was merely an event: a small slice of his life, without a good beginning or a great ending.