Sometimes, when he's feeling brave, he'll pay his grandma a visit. These times are rare, but she's family and he figures family is at least somewhat important. It's not like he has anything else to do. She's getting old, and he wonders if each visit might be his last.
He walks in the door and he's always greeted with an insult and some kind of hood, or scarf, or other knitted creation. He returns her insult with one of his own, stuffs her gift into his bags, and they settle into their old routine.
While he's there, he usually asks to hear the story.
"What story?" she'll ask, as if she doesn't know.
And he'll say, as courageously as he can, "You know, the story. The one about how they died." He doesn't know why he wants to hear it—he just does. It never takes her long to tell, and she never shares many details, but it's all he has.
Then the bantering starts, though it's mellow compared to how it used to be. Years have passed, but she's still certain she's stuck with a fool of a grandson, and he still thinks she's a wrinkled old bitch.
Most people, when they get old, their memory slips, but not hers. He's convinced that she'll remain as sharp as a newly forged sword until the day she stops breathing.
She knows the story better than anyone. After all, she'd been there. Sort of. She'd lived through the same ordeal, but, for some reason, she'd made it out alive while his parents had died.
Once, when he was still a child, he'd asked her why that was. She offered him a gap-toothed grin and said that life is just funny like that, sometimes. But her eyes looked off into the distance, and she didn't really seem all that happy about it, so he figured it was just something a person couldn't get over, like losing your favorite toy.
This time, when he asks her to tell the story, there is the usual pretending, the same tired argument, but she's putting her needlework down before she even begins. He makes a face at it as she lays it on the small table; it's another scarf, he notices, and he hopes it's not for him this time. She always makes them from the itchiest wool she can find.
As she turns her chair toward the fire, he throws a log in the fireplace and nudges the hot coals up around it with the poker. Then he sits on the rug by her feet. Nostalgia, thick and almost comforting, fills him. How many times had he sat just like this, waiting for her to tell him the same story?
"You never knew your parents," she begins, same as always. "A real shame, that. They were both very kind, and—" she puts a long, bony finger up to the side of her head and taps it, "—smart. Incredibly smart. I never did know why they married one another, why he picked someone inclined toward anima studies, or even what she saw in him. But they were both scholars of a sort, so I suppose they had that."
She leans back in her chair and closes her eyes, and Hugh tries to imagine a mother and father whose faces he'd never had the chance to memorize. He doesn't even have a hazy memory to look back on. There is simply nothing. Sometimes he is grateful for it, and other times, he desires nothing but to know more about them.
Niime continues, her voice quiet, creaking with age just as the rockers on her chair do with each movement she makes, "Now, your father ran off on some adventure—left your mother to live with me. And when he came back after a year or so, he was a changed man." She opens her eyes and regards him with something like thoughtfulness. "He wasn't worse, or better. Just…different. As if he'd seen too many things, more than he'd intended to. He settled right down, didn't even want to leave the house for a time. In fact, he spent many hours right here looking into this fire with a blank expression on his face…"
Hugh turns to look into the small flames as they lick the sides of the log in the fireplace. "Well, not this fire, Grandma," he says off-handedly. "I just built it today."
"Don't pretend you don't know what I mean!" she snaps, and scoots back in her chair so that she's sitting up straighter. "Canas didn't withdraw from society. He didn't wilt. He just did a lot of thinking. And when his thinking was done, you were born." She pretends as if she's holding an infant, and looks down at him seriously. "And what an ugly baby you were, too," she says, "all wrinkled, screaming for attention every second of every day."
"So…I was like you are, now," he tells her, and a moment later, the back of her hand comes crashing down on his head. He simply grins, mumbling out an insincere apology.
"When you were about seven months old, I got sick of your loud mouth and went down into the village."
"To care for the sick," he says with a roll of his eyes.
"It was a convenient excuse," she shrugs. "It was a two-day walk one-way, and after I'd been there a day or two, the sky started to look bad. Too…something. Dark? I still remember the hours before it hit…"
Hugh starts—she's never said anything like this, he thinks, and he leans forward, strangely eager to hear this part of the story she's never told before.
Her eyes glaze over as if she's suddenly gone back more than twenty years. "The sky was as dark as night, but it was nearing high noon. And the snow started to fall, slowly at first. I was standing just outside old Maddie's door with a pail of water to boil for soup, and I set the pail down to catch the flakes in my hand. I could see, in the distance, snow falling as thick as a woolen blanket. I've seen some bad storms, Hugh, but this one… It was terrifying. Terrifying and beautiful. It was like seeing a giant white wall coming closer every moment, and I remember hurrying inside the house when I felt the rush of wind grow stronger. And not a moment too soon."
"The storm hit?" he guesses. Never before has she really spoken much of the actual storm. He's seen quite a few storms, himself. Living in a place like Ilia affords a person very little choice in the matter.
"Of course it hit, you dolt!" She sighs and closes her eyes. "It hit the house so strongly the entire building trembled. And it didn't stop until the storm passed, four days later." She glances down at her hands, and then holds them out to the fire as if she feels a chill. "It wasn't until the storm was over that I began to worry about your father and mother, up here alone, so far from everything."
Including help, Hugh thinks, though he does not say it.
"Old Maddie died from her illness before the storm ended, and all I could do was take her blankets to keep myself from freezing to death. Even when the storm passed, it wasn't over. Snow was up past the windows, and it took another day to start digging through it. Even with our doors opening inward, not everyone had a shovel inside with them. And not all those who did were in proper condition to do much. Most people were out of firewood completely."
"So that's why we always kept plenty in the house," he wonders aloud.
She ignores him. "Within a week we'd dug most of the village out, and I bundled myself up and headed up here. Took three days to get back, even with snowshoes on."
The story starts to sound familiar again, and he leans back, resting his weight on his hands behind him.
"I saw the house in the distance, but there wasn't any smoke coming out of the chimney. And the air was so still all I could hear was my own breathing."
This is the part where she always says that she found his parents, already dead, at the house. There is never any more detail given. But she surprises him.
"So I knew something was wrong, very wrong. So I ran—"
He can hardly picture his old grandmother running, but he supposes twenty years ago, she'd been spry enough. The thought is a strange one. He watches her carefully, hungry for more knowledge about this subject she has never spoken of in great detail, before.
"I ran to the shed and broke a window to get the shovel out. The door was completely buried, and the hinges were frozen shut. After I climbed back through the window, I dug out the front door of the house and pushed it in. The inside of the house was cold—colder even than the outside, since it hadn't seen the sun for a week. There wasn't any wood left, and the table was gone from the main room. I started calling for Canas, but nobody answered. Not even you, and you always made this particular sound whenever I came in the house after being gone for a little while. So I started looking, and in the back bedroom, I noticed the bed."
Her voice sounds as if it's cracking, but Hugh shrugs it off. He must be mistaken. His grandma's never cried about anything. She's always been tough as long as he's known her. The toughest person he's ever known.
"It looked like every blanket in the house was on the bed—their wraps, cloaks, muffs—they really tried everything they could think of. When I pulled the blankets back, though, I didn't see anyone. Not at first. But I dug through the blankets until I felt skin. It was cool to the touch, and when I'd torn the bed apart, there you were. At first I thought you were dead, but when I picked you up—this red-faced, exhausted baby who was wrapped head to foot in layers of clothing and blankets—you opened your eyes."
Hugh shakes his head. This is usually where he asks her how she could have lived while his parents died, but this time he has another question: "How did I live?" She's never told this version of the story. He hadn't known she'd found him alone.
"I really don't know," she says, blinking her eyes quickly. "You'd cried so much you didn't have any tears left, and you'd soiled yourself enough times you ought to have frozen to death in it."
"Grandma!" he scolds, his face a mixture of horror and embarrassment.
"What? It's true." She reaches over for her needlework and picks back up on her project where she left off. "At the foot of the bed were potatoes wrapped in handkerchiefs. They must have kept you warm long enough that you managed to live. You were practically surrounded by them."
"And Father and Mother?" he finds himself asking. He knows they were already dead, but this is a side of the story she's never really bothered to explain beyond exactly that: "they were dead".
"I held out some kind of hope for a little while that at least one of them would come barreling through the door, saying they'd just been out in the storm studying. That they'd learned all kinds of new stuff about weather patterns, or something like that. But when a week, and then two passed…I knew." She sighs softly and all he can hear is the click-clack of her needles as she works. "Didn't find them until the snow melted more than a month later," she tells him nonchalantly after a time. "It's not like we could have buried them until the ground thawed, anyway. It was probably for the best."
He can't imagine what it would be like to have to keep bodies around until the ground thawed. "Where did you find them?" He knows it's a strange question even as he says it.
She pauses in her work, and he can't help but notice that her eyes look glassy. "I don't know what they were thinking, going out there. They'd burned the furniture, but surely they could have shared the bed and they'd have lived, same as you." She shakes her head and looks back down, eyeballing every twist of her needle as if she desperately needs something else to concentrate on. "Canas was lying facedown just a couple of yards from the shed's door. I could have walked right over him and not even known."
"And my mother?"
"Lying up against the shed door."
"Do you think…?"
"They died together? Or even saw one another?" She scoffs and shakes her head. "I imagine that Canas went out when the fire started to die and they realized there wasn't anything left in the house to burn save the blankets. Smart as he was, he didn't have the common sense to find something to tie to the house so that he could find his way back. Well, I guess there probably wasn't any rope around. So he left your mother with you. When he didn't come back after an appropriate amount of time had passed, and the coals were cooling, she must have put the potatoes in the coals to warm them, and then bundled you up as best she could, wrapped up the potatoes and tucked you in with them, and then headed out, herself, either to find Canas or to get the firewood."
"Maybe both," he suggests.
"Perhaps. But I imagine she stumbled right over him on her way to the shed. They were dressed warmly enough—" she holds up her nearly-complete project and sighs, "—even had several scarves wrapped around their necks. But out in a snowstorm so fierce, they might have wandered for hours before they ended up where they did."
"So close to their destination, too," he whispers.
"And even the shed is not but twenty-five yards from the house," she adds. "It's not unheard of for people to die mere yards from their own front doors, their arms loaded with wood. In a snowstorm so thick, a person can't even see their own hands right in front of them."
"That's rather depressing…"
"Is it?" she asks. "It's just life. They made the wrong decision."
"Like my parents." He can't imagine what it would be like to wander in the snow for hours and hours, only to die right in front of a relatively safe place. Could they have known they were but a breath away from their destination? No, he supposes, they could not have.
"Right." She gives him something of a smile as she uses a knife to cut the thread on her finished scarf. She hands it to him, and he takes it without complaint, without any hesitation or even a word of ingratitude. "We all make mistakes," she says. "Some are bigger than others. Some are harmless, and others might cost our life."
Like going off to war or studying the dark arts, Hugh thinks to himself. He folds the scarf up and gets to his feet. "Life is a series of decisions, I guess."
"Isn't that what I just said?"
"Well, not exactly…"
"Close enough!" She makes a shooing motion at him. "Don't take credit for my discoveries. Now, isn't it about your bedtime, you stupid, ungrateful grandson?"
It's still light outside, but he decides to indulge her, just this once, since she took the time to tell him so much he hadn't already known. He wonders if this means she's getting ready to die, and the thought is troubling to him. She is the only parent he's ever known, even if he'll never admit as much to her. "I suppose so," he says, but pauses by the doorway, turning back toward her. "Hey, Grandma?" he asks hesitantly.
"What do you want, now?" She wipes her eyes on her sleeve, but he chooses to pretend as if he cannot see.
He thinks of all the things he would like to ask her, things like if she resents him for living instead of his parents, or if she's ever loved him, but he looks down at the scarf in his hands, and then back to her. "Thanks," he says, holding it up slightly. He wonders if she knows he's not talking about just the scarf, but he shrugs and turns on his heel to leave the room.
Her response is quiet, but he hears it nonetheless, "You're welcome, Hugh."
I was honestly getting sick of seeing this story by the time I finished it, so it didn't get a proper editing. (Not that I usually do one of those, anyway.) So I apologize that this is not the best it could be. Further notes at [swayingtheflame] dot [livejournal] dot com.
Thank you so much for reading! Feedback is, as always, appreciated. I'm still pretty rusty at writing.