Winterdim

Chris Howard

7

Archippa



I woke and the sun was up, and I could feel the crawl of the forest under me—a strange far-from-home forest, the smell of last autumn, dry and dying, the green scent of new leaves, and sunlight coming through the canopy in blazes and winks.

“Beautiful trees.”

My voice sounded weak, the words raw in my throat. I was on my back, a blanket covering me. A bee zipped by my ear, doubled back and landed on my shoulder—on my bare skin. Then it decided I was too much trouble to sting or deal with and darted away just as quickly.

Where’s my damn shirt?

Oh, yeah. I remembered the axe blade going into my side.

I looked down, following folds of dark rough material, felt the blanket’s weight like something from another era. There was a whole time-travel feel to it—as in this isn’t from my time. I felt my skin under that weight, but not against the coarse weave. It was smooth as ice, a thousand thread count sheet between me and the blanket. My head ached when I moved, but the curiosity beat out the pain.

I lifted the layers of covering, and found I was down to my underwear. I know I ruined my shoes, but everything? My side was healing nicely, a row of flowering bruises—a core of purple and rings of yellow, a line of scarring that would smooth over in a few days, eventually disappearing—my renderer working overtime to prevent her host from going straight to the compost pile. Way to go, Shirley.

Rather than move my head or neck, I tried swiveling my eyes as far as they would go, left and right. Couldn’t see a thing but forest roof. I smelled water, deep water, definitely a river nearby.

Then I heard him, Reed’s heartbeat very close, slow and even as if he was sleeping or very relaxed. He was on my left, so I slid my eyes in that direction.

“You have something you want to tell me, Mr. Gossi?”

Reed jumped up and moved into view, and the forest floor rumbled under me, pounding into my head. Leaf Father, that hurts!

“Thea.”

That’s all he said, my name mingled with a long surrendered gasp he had been holding on to for this occasion. Then he was hovering over me, grinning, the annoying prick.

I waved him away. It was worth the pain, and his motion in the air brought me the scent of the river again—and a sense of security.

“Deep water.” I propped myself up on my elbows, scanning a wide band of moving cold silver and a thick tree line along the far bank. “Please tell me that’s the Mississippi?”

A woman’s cold watery voice answered, “No. Most recently he was called the Illinois River.”

My body jumped into combat motion on its own, wrestling with the sheet and blanket, my hair spiraling, my fingers already calling the trees for assistance.

Pain lanced through me, made me stagger and blurred my vision. I also imagine I looked less than intimidating in my underwear.

Reed was smiling—I mean really happy to see me up and about smiling—I’ll bet, and the woman’s voice went on thoughtfully, “I do not know his new river name, or if one has been granted him. He flows into the grand Mississippi—she takes many lovers, but I believe he is her favorite.”

“It’s okay,” Reed was saying. “Lie down. This is Archippa. She lives by the river. She’s helped me care for you.” He pulled the sheet around my shoulders, covering me...caring for me. Fine, I take back the ‘annoying prick’ remark.

The old woman went on. “I’ve made you another set of clothes as well.” Archippa presented a neatly folded stack of pants and shirts in soft greens, purples, and on top, what looked like a striped brown and bold orange poncho with a hood. “You appear to be traveling lightly. Had packs made for you too. You’ll need something to carry your stuff in.”

Even with self-cleaning materials and embedded bios, it was nasty to wear the same things every day—as we had for the last week minus whatever I’d missed in unconscious recovery time.

Shirley fed me some data, including the time I had spent mending, and the running counter of my debt to her. I just nodded my head, accepting the price.

Archippa also offered an ancient shopping bag of bright blue woven plastics. “This is your original clothing, your skirt, shirt, socks, shoes. I’ve repaired them all. Your shoes were in bad shape.”

I looked down, felt my toes wiggling, but my feet were covered in the sheet. “You got me new shoes, too?”

“And helped this young man nurse you from the land of the dead.” She laughed, and I assumed meant well with her humor. “He wouldn’t give up on you—No, Reed Gossi wouldn’t let you go. Up to me, I’d have tossed your near-corpse into the river and be done with you.”

She continued laughing, holding the clothes in the crook of one arm and making a wiping her hands motion.

“Thanks.” I tried to make it an appreciation for the new clothing and shoes, but I was too weak to pull the snarl and sarcasm out of my voice.

She took it without any difference in her expression.

Archippa had all the old crone appearance settings dialed up, but she was far from what she appeared to be. There was real muscular strength in her limbs—the bent posture was a bad act. She had soldier’s hands, callused along her thumb and forefinger, a quick and elegant way of bending her fingers, grasping, gesturing, everything rigidly precise. Nothing shaky about this woman except who she really was.

I went along with the act, bowed my head, sending out a few receptive tendrils to catch what I could from her skin and bones. “Pleased to meet you, Archippa. Really, thank you for your help.”

Reed took the new stack of clothing for me, helped me back to the ground and under the covers, even spent a few minutes tucking me in.

I closed my eyes to concentrate. My head was starting to ache fiercely, but still not enough to stop me reeling in my receptors and finding out that Archippa was actually as old as she pretended to be, well over one hundred and twenty by my recept’s assessment of bone growth and telomere length. I couldn’t detect much in the way of dimensional renderer presence—except my own—in a hundred meters, and yet, through the haze of pain, Archippa still lit up like a sunrise.

Where the hell are river witches from anyway? Rootworld was my guess.

My brain was slipping. I’d spent all my new won strength jumping to my feet, and it was catching up to me. Reed put his hand on my shoulder, slid it gently up the slope of my neck, and I dropped all attachment to my proximity sense array, let it go. Too weak to do anything about any of it anyway.

“Can I get you anything, Thea?” Reed’s whispering voice slipped into my thoughts, but took me a while to comprehend.

“Tell me a story.” I opened my eyes a little, caught him staring down at me. “Please? Have anything with trees in it?”

Reed pulled his hand away. “I can tell you my story.”

That didn’t sound exciting, although it might put me to sleep. On the other hand, it might increase the pain. Wait, the pain’s already increasing. “That sounds lovely.”

I felt Archippa’s soft slide to the ground, legs folding easily under her, felt her smile—even her smile was too young for the age of her bones and the caps on her chromosomes. “If you don’t mind another listener, Reed Gossi, I’d love to hear it.”

Reed hesitated, then said, “No, that’s fine.”

He went silent for a few minutes, apparently gathering up the pieces of his story.

“It was a long time ago.” Reed coughed on something—sounded like a surge of pain—memory pain I had no idea he carried in his head. “Long ago when the world was crowded and I was nine years old, I entered the forest on Waking Day and never returned.”

My eyes shot open wide. How did he know about Waking Day?

Reed cleared his throat to cover a sob, and wiped away tears. I smelled the fresh fluid and salt in the air.

Archippa seemed surprised, too. “Really? Waking Day was—”

Reed cut her off. “Never, it seems, lasts around eighty years.”

I turned my head to the side, trying to focus on Reed. “How do know what Waking Day is?”

He was staring up into the trees. “She told me.” He said it simply, not a hint of guile in his tone. “She said we must pretend to sleep for a little while so that we can wake to a world remade.”

“But—”

He waved me off, dialing back the story to start over. “I went into the woods, deep into the Long Wild, seven days before the Vanishing deadline, and I found her waking up. My parents searched for me, and when the day came to get in line for the New England Sphere Joining, they didn’t go. They lived out their lives there in the house, gave everything up...they were dead twenty years when I reappeared—when she finally let me go.”

I started to get up, and he put a caring hand on my shoulder. “Andrea Gossi was my aunt’s granddaughter—and she was in her thirties, already married, when I came out of the woods—still nine years old. I was the kid who had lost his parents twelve years before he was born—or reborn. Andrea and Lazaro took me in, became my mother and father.”

Lazaro Gossi? That’s Reed’s father’s name? Not his biologic father then.

Reed looked up, deeper into the canopy of leaves. “She called me.” He smiled sadly, sounded confused, and ran his fingers through his hair. “I lost my Red Sox cap on the way. My grandfather gave me that hat.”

I gave Archippa a glance to see if she was confused. What’s a Red Sox cap?

He reached up, mimed taking something out of the air. “I caught a flower petal in my backyard and it led me into the forest that day. Heard her music—not quite singing, just long sorrowful notes. No one else seemed to hear it. Because I asked.” He opened his hands, made a pleading gesture, and then shrugged. “So, I went to find out who was making the song. The forest seemed brighter, as if more sunlight was allowed through the covering overhead. The song grew louder, and I followed it deeper into the Long Wild.” He stopped, clutching at his knees. “There’s a clearing six or seven kilometers in, ringed in oak and ash, a bed of grass greener than any green I’d ever seen. The sound of a small creek crossing the clearing on the east side. Right in the center there’s a tree, really tall with silvery bark. I didn’t see any fruit, but it looks like a cherry tree.”

I whispered, “It is a Dogwood tree,” and felt Reed and Archippa drop their gazes to me. “I know that tree. Sorry, go on.”

She was there, floating upside down right at the center of the tree’s highest point. Her feet pointed at the sky, her hair was long, winding along the branches, around the trunk, rooting right into the ground. And there were blossoms everywhere. I was breathing them in. They were in my hair, under my shirt, sliding into my shoes, in my mouth. They tasted like...warmth and soft melting petals of sugar. I walked into the clearing, still listening to the woman’s song. She didn’t see me at first. She just floated there, spinning slowly, her hair winding with the tree, making the blossoms dance, do her bidding. They made spirals and nets and shapes of animals and rivers of pink that became clear water—and I became thirsty. That became blood, and I became angry. That asked for meaning, and I told her my name. That became eternity... and my watch stopped for eighty years. She caught me, trapped me there—called me a spy, made me stand on that spot in the clearing—invisible—with the world and seasons changing around me, grass and saplings growing through my shoes, autumn leaves in my hair, winter ice up to my neck.

Reed closed his eyes for a moment, fought off a shudder of pain. “Right after I went missing, there were search teams with dogs combing the woods, looking for me. Two days after she caught me, my own parents came through, walked right by me, calling my name, and I could not answer them. I couldn’t move, couldn’t make any signal, or tell them what had happened. I couldn’t even cry. My mother and father lost everything with me—missed the Vanishing and all the promise of the Spheres, waiting their whole lives for me to come home, and they died never knowing I was right there in the woods.”

Archippa leaned over me, gaze leveled at Reed on my other side. “Who is She?”

“Kraneia. She told me her name.” Reed looked back, then rubbed his eyes and sighed. “She said her name was Kraneia.”

I was up on my elbows, the blanket rolling away to my waist, and pain like sharp iron in my head and side. I caught a shift in Archippa, as if she knew the name.

Reed looked haunted, his eyes rimmed red, looking back at me when he caught my movement. “You know this tree? A dogwood?” He seemed lost, the story pulling at wounds so deep he couldn’t find them to stop the bleeding. “Thea, please. What can you tell me about Kraneia?”

I tried to shrug, but it felt more like a shudder. “She’s my mother.”

And Archippa, that hag, laughed at me.

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