It’s not the cold what kills you. Not the naarg-wolves neither, Maw says, though they’re plenty scary. No, it’s the Dreams what’ll get you in the end. Dreams what wake in winter and sleep in summer. If only summer weren’t so short. Like the song of a chitkil it is, a burst of glory that leaves you colder, darker than before.
But the cold and dark has a song all its own. I got no fancy words for it, but when the moon of long shadows rises over the top of the black ice forest, I get all chokey, like something’s trying to force its way out of my throat.
Maw says I waste too much time staring slack-jawed at the purple horizon. “Close that mouth and get to work, fool girl,” she says, “or a Dream will drift in and eat you from inside.”
Maw says horrible things but she don’t mean nothing by it. She’s been a bit off since Paw disappeared. Into the snowfield he vanished, with nary a footprint for anyone to see. Maw set the dogs to follow him and they didn’t come back neither. Me and Jacob were in town, selling skins. By the time we made it back home, the first storm of the season was howling in our faces, and it were all we could do to throw ourselves inside and bolt the door.
That were a couple of moons ago. Now it’s just Maw and me and my brother Jacob and my sister Hilsa in the wood and stone house Paw built so many years ago. The beams are rotting—every night I breathe the musty smell and think of how Maw were always after Paw to replace them.
Word got around that we’d lost Paw and the dogs, and the mayor came by in his skid. “We can grow you more dogs but it’ll cost,” he said, and then he looked at me and licked his lips like I were a hank of roast gizla.
Maw spat on the ground and said, “Don’t want ’em. Dogs is more trouble than they’s worth, eating half of whatever we trap or shoot.”
The mayor said, “You gone plum crazy, old woman? What’s gonna warn you when the naargs fetch up at your door?”
Maw raised her dart gun and said, “Git your dirty boots off my land,” and that were that. No one’s come by since. Can’t say I’m sorry ’bout that.
Jacob and Hilsa was all for packing up and taking a slow shuttle to Tersis, a research station on the next planet that still gets the occasional longship. But Maw said, “You done lost your senses? You knows how lucky we is to be here? This is our home and if you don’t like it, go bury yornselves in the snow and good riddance.”
They didn’t say nothing, but I knew what they was thinking: fool Maw and Paw to pretend they’d won a lottery when all they’d won were a one-way ticket to exile. No one comes to Charaid now, and the nearest colony with more’n a few dozen families is eleven parsecs away.
Jacob’s nineteen Earth years, and he says he still remembers what it was like back on the old mother planet. Hilsa doesn’t—she was born on the ship—but he keeps telling her stories, showing her these vids of a warm, wonderful place with lots for everyone to eat, and no winter at all.
He tried showing me his vids, but Paw had told me the real story—how the seas had risen and swallowed whole cities, how you couldn’t breathe without a mask. Only a lucky few thousand won the lottery to escape Earth every year.
So I just laughed at Jacob. “If it were all so wonderful, Maw and Paw wouldn’t have left Earth,” I said. “Vids are for fools who don’t have enough work to do.”
Jacob pulled my hair and I kicked his shins and then Maw came flying out of the kitchen and landed us a few with her boots. We slunk out into the cold and jumped up and down trying to warm ourselves.
But then Jacob said something I can’t shake off, try as I might. He said, “You’re not like us, Charyn. You was born here. You’re as alien as them Dreams.”
That’s malarkey and I kicked him again, but he just stared at me like I was some stranger what had come knocking at the door and set the dogs a-barking.
I wish there was others like me—kids born on Charaid. But I’m the only one—the only one what lived, anyhow. The rest died of a burning fever soon after they was born. That’s why the longships stopped coming. No point trying to populate a planet that downright refuses to be populated.
So there’s just the old timers, less of them every year. There’s the graves behind the church—my sister’s too. Janely would’ve been eight if she’d lived.
And then there’s me, the freak. No one can understand it. They studied me when I was a baby and found nothing different, no sneaky stuff that had slipped into my cells when Maw weren’t looking. No matter what that fool Jacob says. Making out like he knows something the scientists didn’t.
The scientists left long ago, so there’s no one for me to ask my questions, not that I rightly know what to ask. No, there’s just folk like Maw, trying to scratch a living from acres of snow and ice and woods what hide things you wish you didn’t know about.
I wonder how long Paw suffered before he died.
Jacob and Hilsa tried to take the skid into town. Maw lit into them and then she took out the reactor, what makes the skid work, and now we’re all stuck here, thirteen kilometres from town. It’s like Janely all over again. Maw went crazy then too.
Jacob said, “You want to kill us like you killed Paw?”
I thought Maw would hit him but she didn’t. She just went all quiet and still and then she went into her room and banged the door shut. I wish Jacob hadn’t said anything, but he blames her for letting Paw wander off on his own. As if Paw ever did anything Maw wanted.
Stores are running low. Even the nutri-pills are gone. No help for it but to go out and hunt. Hilsa refused to help—she’s such a scaredy cat—so that left Jacob and me. We pulled on our jumpsuits and sweaters and gizla-skin cloaks, and then we strapped on our snowshoes. Jacob took the traps and Paw’s exploding tip gun, the one we found half-buried in the snow just outside the forest. I took the sled and the knives, and then we opened the shed door and walked out into the cold.
Wind and ice and purple shadows whispering like they was waiting for us. I shivered and clumped my way across the snowfield. Winter twilight’s the best for hunting. And being hunted. That’s why you need two people—one to hunt and one to watch your back. But Paw went alone that day, with not even the dogs for company. A Dream called, and he listened. Or maybe he were just tired of it all. Maybe he got over-confident. I sure don’t know.
Behind me, Jacob said, “Don’t you go running off this time or I’ll peel your skin and hang it up on the door for the naargs to chew.”
I’d have stuck my tongue out at him but that would have frozen it. “I never ran nowhere. I was close the whole time.”
Jacob snorted and kept walking. I scowled at his back.
It was just that one time two years ago when I turned twelve, and they never let me hear the end of it. Paw took Jacob and me into the forest to hunt gizla, and I saw something—no, I heard something—and I took off after it. I couldn’t help myself. It was like a song, but not with words and music and dancing. Not like first summer’s eve at the town hall. I could never explain to anyone afterward what I felt. Like I followed the song but I was also in the song, and then Paw was dragging me home by the ear, red-faced and hollering. Maw thought maybe a Dream swallowed me and I wasn’t tasty enough, so it spat me out again.
Maybe she’s right. And maybe that’s why Jacob looks at me funny sometimes.
We neared the forest. I could tell Jacob was nervous. So many firsts. First hunt of the season. First time without Paw.
I smelled them before I saw them, elongated shadows loping toward us from the forest. I screamed, and Jacob whipped the gun off his shoulder. He took aim and let fly and six bodies dropped to the ground, dark stains spreading on the snow. The rest melted away, back into the ice trees. A stench rose from the ground, and I tried not to gag.
“All that meat,” I said. “Such a waste.” Naargs tasted like death.
Jacob lowered the gun. I could see he was trying not to shake.
“Good shooting,” I told him. He grunted and stared at the trees. “They’ll be waiting for us,” I said. “A pack like that. Should we be going back?”
He gritted his teeth. “No. They’ll just follow us home. Watch my back, okay?”
“Okay,” I said, and we walked on. The ice trees closed over us. Black ice twisted into trunks and boughs and tendrils and arches that not even the summer sun could melt. Here the chitkil sang, just before the sun slipped away from the rim of the world. Four moons of summer followed by eighteen moons of winter. How fair is that?
We reached a small hollow with a bubbling hot spring what made crazy shapes around the edges of a pool. We took off our snowshoes and I unloaded the traps. My mouth watered thinking about gizla steak. Then I sniffed the air.
“Naargs a-coming,” I said.
Jacob squatted on his haunches and raised the gun.
That’s when the song started. I found myself standing, turning around, walking away. I could hear Jacob hollering behind me, could hear the gunshots and the snarls, but it was like a vid in another room. It wasn’t real, wasn’t important. The only thing that was important was the song, and getting as close to it as possible.
And if it were a Dream what called, what then?
I didn’t care. If this was how Paw died, then it was a fine thing.
The notes high and sweet, the longing so sharp I couldn’t bear it. I began to run, my boots sinking into piles of fresh snow. Somewhere I lost my hooded cloak. The cold rushed into my ears. Icicles stabbed my face. But I didn’t stop—I couldn’t.
Not until I skidded on the edge of a frozen pond and saw who was waiting on the other side.
The song died and something squeezed my heart. The sudden silence was painful—or perhaps it was seeing Paw again that made me feel like blubbering.
“Paw!” I yelled. “You all right? I’m coming.”
I stepped on the black ice, digging in my crampons. The ice would hold—it always did.
But in the middle of the pond, cracks opened under my feet. I had no time to think, to react. I fell, arms and legs flailing. Black water gushed into my screaming mouth.
I woke to the orange glow of fire. I stretched my hands to it and sighed. I was all warm and comfy, like I was in Maw’s bed, snuggled up to her side.
Wait, that was years ago. Where was I? I blinked and looked around. The Black Ice Forest. Paw sitting on the other side of the fire, turning meat on a stick.
“Paw,” I said. “Why did you leave us and come here? Maw is worried.”
Paw didn’t answer right away. He tossed me the cooked meat. “Eat,” he said. “Talk later.”
I tore into the meat, burning my tongue. With a pang I thought of Jacob. I was supposed to be watching his back.
“Don’t worry about him,” said Paw, picking up another stick of meat. “He’s home safe.”
How had he read my mind? Maybe I’d spoken aloud. “The naargs?” I said.
“And what about us?” I couldn’t help asking. “We dead too?”
Paw gave a snort of laughter. “Damn fool girl. Dead don’t eat. Dead get eaten.”
I laughed too because it was funny and I was that dumb. Paw must have saved me when the ice broke under my feet. Though it was weird, the ice breaking like that in dead winter. And I couldn’t figure out why he’d left us to come live in the forest.
And then I looked again and it weren’t Paw at all, just something that were wearing Paw, like a skin.
“Who are you?” I said, although I didn’t feel scared. Not yet.
“Who are you?” it said, and tossed me another bit of meat.
I wolfed it down before talking, I was that hungry.
“You’re a Dream, ain’t you?” I said, and licked my fingers. “The ones what lure people into the cold.”
“A dream,” it said. “A figment of the human brain, not real. Is that how you see us?”
It weren’t talking like Paw no more. It weren’t looking much like him neither. The hair coiled like worms, the face all loose and shiny. I began to shake. It leaned forward and stared at me out of dark, empty holes. “You haven’t answered my question. Who are you?”
“The only one what lived,” I stammered. “The others all died, didn’t they? Fever burned through them in less’n a week. Not me.”
It leaned back and grinned, a dreadful sight what made me shudder. Perhaps it hadn’t got the hang of human teeth. “Not you,” it said. “When you were born, we bonded with your—how shall we call it—with yourstem, modifying your body’s reaction to our presence.”
That didn’t make sense. “Your presence? What do you mean?”
“We are everywhere on Charaid. We are Charaid. Every shard of ice, every animal that breathes. We are even inside you.”
Inside me. I tried not to vomit but they came out anyway, all evil-smelling, those bits of meat I’d just eaten. So this was why I had survived. Jacob was right. I was as alien as the thing sitting opposite me.
My throat burned. I wiped my mouth and looked up to find it watching me. “Adult humans could withstand us, but the new-spawned could not, unfortunately,” it said.
“You killed and ate Paw, didn’t you?” I said.
It blurred at the edges, and now there was hardly no resemblance to a human being. “Yes and no. Your father died of the cold well before we absorbed him. Just like we absorb the others that wander too far from the light and warmth of their homes. Just like we will absorb you when you die. But unlike them, you will continue to live in us. Because we live in you, havelived in you, since the beginning.”
“Why only me? Why not the others?” Why am I alone, I wanted to scream.
And then it was Paw again, sitting right beside me, stroking my cheek with callused palms, wiping away the tears just like he used to if I fell and hurt myself or Maw whacked me too hard. “You’re thinking of Janely, aren’t you?” he said. “Such a pretty baby. Your Maw was never the same after. I’m real sorry about that, Charyn. But you see, we had to be sure. Part of us thought of you as an infection. Another part wondered if you were intelligent. We had to talk to an adult, and the only way to do that was to bond with one at birth and wait for it to grow.”
The wind rose and the fire flickered. My eyes watered and I blinked. “So you’ve talked with one,” I said. “What’s gonna happen now?”
“Up to you,” said the thing pretending to be Paw. “Would you like to leave Charaid, now that you know about us?”
“I can’t leave, can I?” I said. “Not with you lurking in my insides.”
“We can purge you,” it said. “It is not impossible, although it would kill some of us. You could leave with your siblings.”
“Your mother will refuse to leave,” it said. “You know this.”
I got up and walked away from the fire. I guess I couldn’t bear looking at it no more. Couldn’t bear thinking what it had done to me. It didn’t try to follow me or anything, but a little later I stumbled into a clearing and there it was again, my fake Paw, warming its hands in front of another fire.
“Stop pretending to be him,” I snapped. “My Paw is dead.”
The thing shifted in the firelight, bits of flesh and bone rearranging themselves. I squeezed my eyes shut, unable to watch. When I opened them again, a small girl with pigtails sat by the fire. “So am I,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t exist. Do you not still think of me?”
I swallowed hard. “Janely,” I said. “Wish you was really here.” Tears leaked out of my eyes, froze on my cheeks. I knew it was just a trick, that I was being a fool. But seeing Janely all growed up, the way she should’ve been, just tore something inside me. And the hardest part was knowing that it didn’t have to be this way.
“It’s not your fault, Charyn,” said the Dream. It had taken on Paw-skin again. “You were picked at random. You can leave Charaid, if that is what you wish.”
No. I wouldn’t let it all be for nothing. This was myplanet too. I wiped my face. “What do you want?” I said. “For us to stay?”
“Humans are—interesting. We have learned much from our bond with you. But to stay in Charaid, to make it their true home, humans will have to accept us as part of their ecosystem, just as we have accepted them into ours. If you agree to this, you can stay.”
It was asking me to speak for everyone, for all humans on Charaid. “I don’t have much choice, do I?” I said. “And the others may feel right different.”
Not-Paw shook its head. “The strangest thing about you is how separate you are. This will change when we are bonded with all of you, of course.”
I flinched at the thought of being in Maw’s head. “You can enter the adults?”
“It will be sufficient to bond with the new-spawned. Over time, all humans on Charaid will be connected to us.”
“Won’t work will it?” I said. “Hardly no more babies being born.”
“You are a human female. Surely you can find a male to procreate with. When your child lives, others will follow.”
I thought of the mayor slobbering over me and would’ve puked again if there was anything left in me to puke. “I’ll think of another way,” I said.
It stood up. “Take all the time you need. Remember, you are not alone. You never have been.”
Paw disintegrated, pieces of flesh and blood flying apart. The fire died away and the cold crept into me, along with the realization of what I’d just done.
Would I have done it if the Dream weren’t in me already? I thought of Janely, and I knew the answer.
I don’t remember how I made it home. They helped me in some way. I knew they was there by the notes of the song that drifted to me now and then. The song kept me going, kept the worst of the cold away. Through the forest and across the snowfield and by the time I reached home, I even had my gizla-skin cloak on.
I hammered on the door and Jacob flung it open. I stumbled in and fell on the floor. Then it was like I was outside looking in while Jacob and Maw dragged me to the fire and Hilsa stripped me down to my jumpsuit.
For the longest while I couldn’t speak or think. When I’d pulled on some dry sweaters and gulped down a bowl of broth Maw shoved at me, I started to think I might live after all. I looked at my family, at their worried faces, and it hit me then. I wasn’t alien like them Dreams. But I wasn’t like Jacob nor Hilsa neitherc. I was something in-between. And maybe that was okay. Maybe that was best.
Maw said, “Has a Dream got your tongue?”
“It got a lot more’n that,” I mumbled.
“What?” said Maw. “Speak up, girl, or is it a clout on the head you’re wanting?”
I cleared my throat, prayed to all the gods that didn’t never exist, and began:
“Maw, I ain’t only me.”
Rati Mehrotra is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She blog at www.ratiwrites.com