Winter of the Heart

Written by Addie Barnett
Art by Tom Honz

As children, we are compelled by unknown forces to love the winter. Something inside our soul drives us to play in the blankets of immaculate snow and through our limbs, still unyielding under the weight of the passing of time, courses blood as hot as a furnace and as red as a newly bloomed poppy.

But as the years pass, that childish excitement dims away until it is all but gone, hidden underneath age, worry and exhaustion. The soul, once brightened by the prospects of playing in the snow, only sees the seething cold and the havoc it brings. It perceives beauty but chooses to focus on the darkness.

Such are the teachings of the monks at the Gilded Abbey, an order long forgotten both by the gods and the emperor. Nestled inside the darkest corner of the second province of Vneria, the Abbey cradles a grim lot of elderly humans, too tired to follow the rules of an Emperor who has forsaken them, but youthful enough to come up with their own commandments anyone who wishes to join the order must learn to follow. Whoever comes must strike their name from the annals of time and bow before the bones of their ancestors as they choose what name the future monk will wear. Some receive ludicrous names such as Ear, Eye, or Nose; others receive names of emperors, heroes, or generals.

And sometimes, the bones choose to change the identity of the person altogether and offer them a new life. In my former life, I used to be called Gabriela. That’s what the tag slung around my neck said. I did not get to meet my parents. The abbey became my family, my support in both times of strife and bounty, a gilded prison one can never escape even if they want to. In this life, my name is Ewan. The monks didn’t know how to put up with this radical change, but, seeing as how none of us would ever leave the order, they found all they could do was accept this was who I was now and get to know their newest family member.

I don’t remember much of my former life; probably for the better. But I do know I was abandoned, and the monks never dared to step foot out of the abbey and attempt finding my parents.

“Why so glum?”

My thoughts break off in a million iridescent shards; I turn to look at Majid—at his bushy black eyebrows, eyes of Anatase indigo, and pockmarked face—wondering how our friendship had come to blossom. I was a shy person; even as a child, I didn’t engage with all the others running around the abbey compound, shrieking like a gaggle of seagulls. Majid found me cowering in a corner, covering my ears with my hands as I tried to drown out their screams, the blood in my temples throbbing with such ferociousness, I thought for sure my head would implode.

But it didn’t. Majid embraced me at his broad chest, cooing gently until I stopped whimpering. And that was it. That’s how our friendship started. That is also the extent of our interactions.

Majid pulls me in a hug and whispers, “You need to learn to shut out the world. Your mind is like an avalanche–a great, icy river in which you will drown.”

“I can’t,” I mutter, feeling angry tears escaping the little control Majid has helped me muster.

“Yes, you can.” He pushes me away and pressed his big thumbs on my forehead, staring me in the eyes. “The mind has no limits—both a blessing and curse. If you don’t put up some barriers, you will end up like a cloud. Beautiful, but drifting away as the wind blows. A human can’t live like that. We need stability. We need earth.” He pounds the frozen ground next to me. “Look at the river.”

I turn my gaze towards the frozen river.

“What do you see?”

“Frozen water.” I squint. “In some places, grass is sticking out.”

“Anything else?”

I shake my head.

“Look closer.”

We stand up and walk down to the riverside so I can take a better look and see what Majid wants me to see. But no matter how hard I try, I have no idea what he wants me to see.

“What am I looking for?”

“Look inside the water.”

I squint at the murky water frozen beneath the foggy ice. “There are fish in there?” I raise my eyebrows and squat down to better look at the half-dead animals. “They seem pretty dead.”

“They’re not. They are cryogenized. When spring rolls in again, they will return to life.”

“What does this have to do with me?”

Majid crosses his arms against his chest and stares at the vastness before us. Mountains looming in the distance, trees right on the other side of the river, birds circling the grey skies in search of food. I would leave the abbey if I could.

I would leave and never come back.

And go where? A voice inside my head asks. Do you think there is any place that wants you?

“You’re like the fish. Dormant. Waiting to return to the life which has been stolen from you by the bones.” Majid suddenly says, a smile parting his lips. “There is winter in your heart and when spring returns, defrosting the block of ice in your soul, the urge to fly will overcome you so strongly you will not be able to resist.”

As children we are taught we shouldn’t fear the winter. No one tells us of the death it shelters in its icy embrace; all we see is snow and the incredible chance of having fun. Of losing ourselves to an afternoon with no consequences; when we are the masters of our own fate, when no one can tell us what to be or who to be.

Many years have passed since Majid told me my time would come. So many that even Majid did not survive their passage.

But as I stand at the river with my backpack thrown over my aged shoulders, I can feel his hope—the hope that I won’t be trapped like he was—bloom inside of me. It’s time to see how the world looks during spring.

Winter has finally ended.