Winter Baby

by Anna Caro

We knew our homes to be haunted from such a young age that we never feared it. At the end of the year, when the snows thawed and beams of sunlight shot through between the mountains, we offered thanks to them for their protection over the long fallow season, for the summer that had at long last arrived and the world they had left us. On the long stone tablets we laid out offerings from our dwindling supplies of flat bread and frozen fruits, and satisfied with their offerings, they absented themselves for the one moon of summer as we furiously ploughed, sowed, watered and harvested our crops. We heard nothing from them as the men and women met each other at sundown each night, knowing that only this season was a blessed time for a baby to be conceived. Those born in winter would be pale, sickly, perhaps walk with a limp or have shortness of vision, sometimes die in childhood, or have some impairment that would only materialise as they grew.

Like me.

For the summer I was nineteen, my partner – we did not strictly couple as we did during the six winter moons, but the establishment of pairs, if with some fluidity, made things easier– was a girl one year my senior by the name of Jasleen who had already birthed two children, both healthy.

The decision was based primarily on reason. Summer pairings were focused on the creation of offspring, winter ones on friendship and romance, domesticity, the ability to put up with each others’ day to day faults, and yes, even love. For a few these were the same. But for most their summer partners were chosen on a flash of physical attraction that they claimed indicated a biological compatibility.

For others, though, for those such as myself and Jasleen who felt attraction only to those of our own genders, it was a weighing of facts; not only did we share a friendship, but an averaging of our heights would put a child slightly above the norm and our bloodlines were sufficiently distinct as not to cause concern. More importantly, she dismissed the concerns of others that the inverted joint in my left wrist and my shorter left leg would have any bearing on our child.

“Not unless it’s a winter kid, like you,” she laughed.

That is not to say that we found summer a hardship. While I will confess to the occasional stab of jealousy when I saw Lett – my partner of the last winter – walking down the field with some girl, our coupling was simply another necessary chore on top of the many that needed completion, a chore eased by the strength of friendship and the comfort of another body and the intoxication of sunlight. In one or other of the curtained nooks set aside from the cave complex, and lying on cushions, our tunics hung neatly on hooks, our duty would be followed by an hour or more of conversation, then, perhaps, one of us would take some quick sleep, exhausted from the day’s labour and secure in the knowledge that here we would not be disturbed.

It was on one of these nights, when Jasleen was asleep with my arm loosely round her shoulders, that I saw the ghosts in summer for the first time. I was not alarmed at first; after all, I had grown up with the dancing of fire on the walls, the faces of a strange race in the shadows. Indeed, it took me a few minutes to realise where I was; I was used to seeing them dancing on the wall of the rooms I had shared with Lett for six months, or those of the child centre or my parents where I had lived beforehand – not here.. I sat up in the interrupted darkness.

“Who are you?” I asked into the air. Jasleen stirred, looked up at me.

“Just a dream,” I said, and the ghosts disappeared, but not before Jasleen noticed the dying flicker of a flame.

“Was that…?”

I nodded. “I think so.”

“Why are they here? Did we do something wrong?”

I had never thought of the ghosts as malevolent, but they always had an authoritative presence. The legend was that they were the first inhabitants, the architects of this city and many like it spread throughout the planet, they who carved out the homes we now inhabit. By the time our ancestors arrived – political exiles abandoned on this strange planet with none of the technology that brought them there – the ghosts (the term referring now to the original race as well as their lingering remnants) had long gone in their physical form. Yet there was always a persistent feeling that we were just borrowing their homes, and that they were watching us, judging our every action.

We held each other lightly, enough to give comfort without admitting our fear. Though we had no reason to believe harm would come to us, we both knew that something was very wrong. This seeming jolt to the natural order of things made me nauseous and Jasleen anxious and on edge. “I need to go,” she said, throwing her tunic on backwards in her haste. I waited for a few minutes, staring blankly at the wall, then dressed myself, slipped on my clogs and made my way back to my quarters.

I pulled aside, one after another, the three thick furs which covered the entrance way, keeping out the snows and chill winds of winter. Inside I sighed, irritated with myself and took them down, as I should have done at the start of the season. In their place I hung a sheet of linen, lit a candle and clambered to the high ledge of rock where I slept. In the glow of the candle was a room that, though small, was half empty – clothes, tools, dice games had been carried to the dwelling where Lett would spend his summer, a room he would share with his cousin. I stayed here alone, more from apathy than design. I had my own space, at least, and I would never bring Jasleen here though she was one of my oldest friends. Not now.

The ghosts returned most nights from then, growing stronger, their features more defined. When in the mornings I would take Jasleen’s hand in mine as we walked down to the fields and we set to work thinning the bushy green vegetables, plucking out weeds, fertilising the soil, I felt unease, but also began to adapt, until I felt that their presence in summer was inevitable, even though I wasn’t sure why.

Weeks later, Jasleen met me with the news; she was at last with child, and so we joined the other couples who had concieved, one growing group of friends as if we were children once again, laughing and hanging out, telling stories over beer after the day’s work was over. Lett and the girl he was with did not join that group though – this was her first summer to be paired, so hope was far from lost, but I would still sometimes see her looking unhappy as she walked past.

And so, as the cold winds that indicated that winter was just around the corner, and we worked furiously day and night to stockpile grain and firewood, to pack fruits underground where the cold preserved them, Lett caught hurried words to me over the food we were on a short break from stacking, leaning against a fence with tin mugs of sweet tea in our hands. He was young enough that his face had changed noticeably over summer, filled into the structure that had been there all along. The sun had bleached his hair to the colour of straw.

I was wondering. His hands shifted uncomfortably, clutching at the fabric of his tunic.

We’re young. I meant he was young; I was two summers older. Things might have changed.

Do you know they have?

I shook my head. Then I reached my hands to the back of his head, rubbed them gently through his hair, then brought his lips up to mine. We can try and see.

Our liaison was brief and electric, covert; it was not yet winter, not yet our time, and it left me aching for more. But all the while the sun’s passage was getting lower in the sky, til it reached the point where it would barely rise above the horizon each day, sending only a cool glow across the snow covered land.

We decided to start afresh on new territory. We negotiated a new room, roomier than the previous winter’s but three levels up, accessible only by a narrow pathway down the cliff face, or through long corridors of communal areas. As the ice set in it was the latter we were forced to use, and so often it was easiest to keep ourselves to ourselves in that little room, until one of the elders passed comment and we were forced to admit that the stories and music and blazing fire in the largest room held a strong appeal.

The first few weeks of winter passed quickly, with repairs to curtains and double, triple checking the stockpiles with an anxiety that was almost comforting by its regularity. So much was it so that it was a while before anyone noticed. But Telta was the eldest of our number and when he moved to speak the whole room fell silent.

“Those who once were with us,” he croaked, “are no longer”.

There was anxiety, turning of heads. It was true that it was not news to us, but we had barely noticed the absence of the ghosts. Now it had been drawn to our attention everything seemed uneasy, our world altered. From then we were distracted, edgily looking round for them, wondering what had caused their demise – and whether it was our turn next.

I visited Jasleen not as the father of her baby girl – that would not have occurred to us then, even as a concept – but as a friend. Her dark hair was drawn back, her face drenched with sweat while her partner, blond, tall, her own belly swollen looked on proudly. Throughout the complex, new babies were being born everywhere and with none of our own we took up responsibility with the elder children, older men and women and the infertile, running round gathering food and taking messages, taking poultices from the medicine workers – often tending to their own new ones – to those who fell sick in childbirth.

As Lett and I grabbed some quick rest – not sleeping, we figured a little sleep would feel worse than none at all – we each saw something blurry our of the corners of our eyes. Flames flickered and danced round the corners of our room. I felt a reassurance which bore little relation to what was to come.

“They’re back,” Lett whispered, and I nodded, gazing round the room. We walked and the passageways were alive with light, and everywhere we could hear sighs of wonder. Jasleen grinned when I came to her, her baby gurgling and seeming to glow.

“It’s like,” she whispered. “It’s like they’ve come to put a blessing on her. They’ve returned to watch over their children.”

And there, staring at Jasleen and Lett, the two people in the world about whom I cared most, there was nothing I could do but agree. At the naming ceremonies not only the babies were named, but the ghosts – so often talked about in euphemisms – were officially named as Tasim. Those Who Protect. No more would we keep them in the shadows, but embrace them as a real part of our every day existence.

And so Lett’s comment, lighthearted though it was, carried with it an uneasy irrevence.

“There are so many more of them. Do you… do you think they’re breeding.”

Other things made me uneasy too. Faces formed in them, faces not too dissimilar from those of our people. They took form, ghostly, semi transparent, not yet tangible and yet taking our shapes, walking amongst us.

They showed us how grain could flourish all year round, how certain combinations of plants warmed the ground and, though the sun was just an orange glow and two layers of furs were needed, the children could run round outside all year and we could travel to other parts of the world.

One of them saw my crumpled hand, my limp, and suddenly there were five of them around me.

“Because I was conceived in winter,” I explained, and they shook their heads sadly, in a gesture that did not seem quite natural to them. They they told me they could fix it, and I guess they did, but so accustomed was I to using the hand I was born with that I struggled to eat and to pick up objects – I had to learn from the beginning, like a child.

With the distinction between summer and winter blurred, they said we could reproduce all year round, that there was no need for us to break our summer pairings. Around us our whole society seemed to be disintegrating. The seasons may as well not exist any longer.

I shouted in the air that echoed round the caves, bouncing from the rocks. “I’m a winter baby!”

With bags made of skins and flax strips bound around our feet, twenty six of us, plus children, made our way across the hills. Some of us, like me, were running to save their love, others, traditionalists, their culture. For five months we camped on a plain and dreamed of founding a new society here, like our old one but better, stronger, truly our own. But food was scarce and when illness struck we were weaker than expected, several died. At a meeting those with children were encouraged to return; only Jasleen and her partner refused.

Several months of walking later, and we were down to eleven adults and Kala. Our feet were bleeding and sore and we took food from plants that had not grown near our home, using only guesses and instinct as to what was safe. Eventually we found a complex of caves that though much smaller than the one we had left behind, seemed to consist of chambers and connecting corridors in a similar fashion. Here we took refuge and divided up our little remaining provisions, occasionally venturing out for more plants and to gather water from a spring not so far away.

I held Lett, his body thinned so his bones protruded. His hair had grown long and the damaged ends glinted in the candle light. I wondered how long we could keep going, and thought of those left behind and those fallen on the way.

One day Jasleen suggested we explore the caves. If our suspicion they had once been inhabited was correct, who knew what we might find? So by flaming torchlight we wandered through the rooms, finding only empty caverns. We might never have found anything at all had not Jasleen let Kala crawl on the floor for a few minutes while we talked. Her foot wenth through a narrow crack and the floor started to open.

We fell into the cold flames below.

We are preserved here, just like the Tasim were for centuries. One society is over, another has begun, and there is no place for us there. But there are other ways of fighting, and one of them is by haunting, a constant flickering reminder of our existence. And so we will wait. For winter.

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