Written for my dear friend Nao Sims of Honey Grove, inspired by a conversation about her dance class series of the same name
A star will guide you to the Winterhouse. Between the courtship calls of the great horned owls in December there is a door. It is made of smoke, it is made of bronze, it is made of bone. Take the hand of that star and he will show you how to knock and how to bow and how to cross the threshold in the old way. It is a low lintel. Only animals do not need to bow their heads. In the darkness you could not see much of that house, for its walls in the night are made of shadows and of certain winter stars, though for stability they are stuffed with straw, they are coated with clay. Starmade but mud and sturdy, this Winterhouse as round as time.
In winter, in the year’s darkness, there is no time. The Winterhouse swallows time. You will leave time like a coat at the door when you cross the threshold, clasping a star by the hand. He too will vanish once you have stepped fully in—a glimmer of snowlight, a longing, and he is gone far up in the wheel of rafters with the smoke.
Owls and their ancestors perch on those rafters, the kind with very black eyes. The floor is covered with furs—bear and deer, sheep and goat, gray fox, red fox, bobcat, snowshoe hare. Everyone has given their coat to winter.
The Old One sits in the center by the fire that heats the whole house, a fire whose light and shadows move everywhere in the shapes of animals, of stars. The light of the Winterhouse is made of embers. It is soft. It dances. It is generous to shadow. It courts the unseen. You can never see everything at once, in the Winterhouse. Only many points of light amidst a great and indigo darkness. Still you can see the Old One very well, she who sits nearest the fire, cooking on the hot coals. Her coat is sewn of a hundred skins, of every creature that dwells in the winter forest. Her coat covers the whole of the floor; it is all the furs beneath your feet. When she moves, they rustle. She is old and broad and dark, and she is cooking little buns on the coals.
The air smells of yeast, of nutty flour, of sweet bread. She offers a bun to you. Her hand is gnarled, ancient and twisted as roots, and yet you see that it is jeweled. On her sooty fingers are rings of immaculate delicacy. They shine with a crystalline sharpness, with the glitter of snow, of sun on cold water. At her neck, over the many braided rabbit furs of her vest, hangs a piece of silversmithing that dazzles you. It is a woven net of silver, fine as spidersilk, jeweled with clear gems as perfect and bright as rain. Her looks are not a queen’s, but plain and strong and lined, her furs the furs of ancient memory, simply tanned and many colored, ragged here and there. And yet at her hands gleam the work of the smiths who live deep in the ground, the forgotten ones who tend the earth’s own light. You would like to ask her what it is she has seen, and how she goes there in those underworlds of silver, gold and stone. If by foot, by cat, by star, or none at all, and only soul.
But her kind, fierce eyes quiet you, and you accept the steaming bun.