The snow crunches beneath my feet, the crisp air burns my lungs with every inhale. I flip the collar of my mom’s leather jacket up against the wind and continue picking my way across the sparkling snow. Every sound makes me flinch, waiting for the danger it hides. This isn’t my season. A million beats of my heart hammer blood past my ears, but no arrows fly toward me. No Waniyetu materialize from the dark winter’s night to kidnap or kill me.
At the first sign of snow this afternoon at the Denver Botanical Gardens, I knew I’d be sneaking away from my village well after midnight. Tracing the path my family’s rental car had taken one fateful night more than forty years ago. The night I lost them all. The night I gained immortality for the pattern of freckles along my wrist.
The traffic along Colorado Boulevard is heavier than it was back then, even at nearly three in the morning. It’s far too cold tonight for foot traffic, but I stay invisible to human eyes all the same. Bright colored lights adorn the cookie-cutter houses. They shine through the layer of newly fallen snow like beacons of hope.
The year I was twelve, when mom’s leather coat trailed on the ground when I tried it on, we flew to Colorado for a skiing holiday. It had been the most exciting week of my life with bright red cheeks and huge cups of hot cocoa. The swirl of heat off the marshmallow-dotted liquid rose into the mountain air. My little sister, Lucy, and I had snowball fights and learned to ice skate. We skied on tiny pieces of wood strapped to our feet. And we were more alive in the thin air than we’d ever been before.
I force myself to picture the last night. My parents’ faces are blurry no matter how hard I concentrate. All I recall is my mom’s enormous beehive and the smell of her Channel No. 5, which faded long ago from her coat. My dad’s Buddy Holly glasses and grey fedora. Lucy was wrapped in yards of blankets, only her large gray eyes — like mine — peeking through. Mom let me wear her new leather jacket for the ride. The Temptations played on the radio, everyone singing along to stay awake until we got to Stapleton where a long flight home to New York awaited.
And then we started sliding. Tires squealed and brakes pumped uselessly. Dad gripped the wheel so tight his knuckles turned whiter than the snow. Mom gasped. Lucy and I screamed. We struck something and the car flipped. Sparks and gravel sprayed the air before we slammed into something solid. Unmoving. Unmoveable. The marks it made on the road leading up to the light post have long since been repaved; the light post refurbished to something modern. I kneel at the spot where our car made its final resting place. Trace a finger in the snow. Tears freeze against my cheeks in the wind, unable to hit the ground.
In the spot where Lucy died, having been ejected through the windshield, I lay down in the snow. Let the cold seep through the leather and satin lining, through my layers of spider-silk clothing to my flesh. If I lay here long enough, maybe I’ll feel her with me. My skin prickles in response. My hair fans out like a frozen silver waterfall around me. The night isn’t still. It’s evasive. Cars race through dirty slush. In the near distance, the soft growls and splashes of zoo animals pierce the quiet. A gaggle of geese honk and reassure each other on the man-made lake. And a blanket of cold air pushes us all down, down, down. Pinned against the surface of the spinning Earth.
I stare up into an empty expanse of white clouds, feel the grief yank at my core. It builds behind my navel until I can’t hold it back any longer. The power explodes outward pushing my nagi up into the atmosphere. The clouds react to the lightest of touches, but I wrench the moisture from them — hoping to make them bleed. The storm begins in icy rain, hitting my face in sharp splats. This is my gift. Grief. Gift.
The rain soon turns to snow and falls slower. Floats like dandelion seeds in a summer breeze. Lands delicately all around and on top of me. The flakes hit my face like cold kisses from the dead. I tug more snow down on me. On this spot. Inches turn to feet turn to a yard and bury me and my memories underneath it all.
My nagi snaps back against my skin sharper than a rubber band. Every cell aches inside me as the heat of fever melts away the inner edges of my snowy cocoon. Like a drop of blood in the ocean, my pain attracts hunters. This yearly pilgrimage of mine burns deeper this year. I don’t move to return to the safety of my village. I remain in the biting cold, flashes of bloody images behind my eyes.
A strong hand reaches down into the snow and clutches my arm. The fingers will leave bruises, so tight is the grip. I gasp into a mouthful of snow as I’m dragged up to the surface.
“Oskē,” a familiar voice draws out in a puff of warm breath, “are you hurt?”
It’s Elkv-Hoktē’s son, Kokēm. I wonder if he’s here to collect my nagi and take it to his mother in the Land of the Dead. If so, I hope I’ll join my parents and my little sister. I might have found a new family with the Bloketu, but they’re not blood no matter what the Changing Ritual did to mine.
Through a mouthful of snow, I say, “Yes, but not like you think. How’d you find me?”
“Your pain is like a bonfire in the dark.” His eyes sparkle like the layer of snow. He releases my arm and drops down beside me. “If you intend to remain here wallowing all night, I’ll stay to protect you.”
I snort. “I don’t need your protection.” He reaches out a hand to brush away the hair pasted to my fevered forehead. I shiver down to the marrow in my bones. When he removes his hand, my skin yearns for its cool touch.
“No,” he says with a soft smile. “But here I am all the same.”
“Here you are.”
Without my nagi’s influence, the snowstorm ends. The wind picks up and sweeps away the clouds above in swirls of gray. The stars remain hidden.
“I hate the winter,” I whisper, hoping he hears it and at the same time that he doesn’t. It’s a sign of weakness. The color of shame brightens my skin, but I hope it will blend with the heat already there. All that power flowing through me has its cost, and I’m paying for it.
Kokēm stands up and stretches out his hand. I take it and he helps me to my feet.
“Let’s go home.”
I turn my head to look at the spot where Lucy had once lain in a dark, bitter pre-dawn. Kokēm gently laces his fingers with mine and leads me home.
For more poems by Anna Akhmatova, please read her collections online or at your local library. Poem © Copyright, Anna Akhmatova 1985. English translation by D. M. Thomas. All rights reserved.
Stay tuned for extra content this week from Audrey. Return next Monday for Julie’s answer to this prompt.