Friday, April 16, 2021

The Winter Tree by The Somnambulist Society

 The trial had been a brief affair, all things considered. The judge had given a verdict that was swift and exact: the accused should be taken from this place and hung by the neck until dead. In the gallery, there was not even a murmur of dissent as the judge placed the black cap upon his weary head. They had known the accused was guilty the moment he entered the court.

 

They carried Winter in chains, his white beard flecked with spittle as he cursed the jury. His eyes, the colour of a frozen lake, rolled and widened with anger at this great betrayal. It mattered not. The twelve men and women of the jury, who sat in silent condemnation of this immoral man, knew that they had done the right thing. At least, that is what they told each other. They left the courtroom two-by-two, holding their coats tight against them as they walked out into the cold, aching night.

 

Winter sat in the cell beneath the courthouse, still ranting and raving at this great injustice. He knew the ones who were behind all this, who had ordered this show- trial to defame his good name. He heard a rattling of keys from outside his cell; he stood up, though his hands were wrapped in chains, to better see who it was that wished to visit him at this late hour.

 

The heavy door opened, and with it came a wave of warmth that made Winter shy away into his cell. Through the door came his sister, Summer, in all her lustre and wonder. Her golden hair shone like summer dawn, and her eyes were green as meadow-grass. Where she walked, the sound of laughter and music followed her. Standing behind her, Winter saw that his brother had come too.

 

Autumn stood by the door, his red hair looking almost ablaze in the light of his storm- lantern. His thin, pinched face was furrowed in a scowl, and he tapped the stone floor irritably with his blackthorn staff. The smell of damp earth and apples carried into the room, making the air heady and warm.

 

Summer stepped over to Winter, her warm arms outstretched as if to embrace him. He shied away, and Summer let her arms drop to the sides of her bright linen dress. She knelt close to Winter, to better see his face:

 

"We did not want this to happen, you know." She said to Winter, her voice soft as a breeze through an orchard, "Not like this. You are our kin, after all."

 

Autumn, still standing by the door, snorted at this and rolled his eyes, as if the thought of Winter being one of their own was nothing but a cruel joke. He was not like them, not at all. He was an outcast among the family of seasons.

 

Summer took a seat on the floor beside Winter. The straw that was slick with sweat and grime upon the floor began to sprout wildflowers, purple and yellow blossoms  that curled between Summer's feet.

 

"Whatever it is you want from me, you can forget it." Said Winter quietly, his head between his bony knees and his hands knotted in his white hair. "You always do   this. I cannot help what I am or what I bring into this world. Then why do you torment me so?"

 

Autumn stepped into the cell, his blackthorn staff click-clacking on the stones. His


robes were the colour of embers, and his great boots were tarred with the soil of the harvest:

 

"Oh stop your whining, worming pitying. Summer may indulge your weeping, but you will find no sympathy from me, or from Spring."

 

Winter looked up, gazing up  at  Autumn  between  his  fingers.  Autumn  smiled  at him, a mirthless grin that sizzled with contempt.  "Oh  yes,  Spring  knows  all  about our little plan. It was her idea, really. She will be waiting for you at the gibbet-tree."

 

Winter rocked back and forth, whining and sobbing with the knowledge that his dear sister had wronged him so. Summer lay her arm across his shoulders and tried as best she could to soothe him. Her warmth brought nothing to him, only a reminder that soon his days would be numbered.

 

He spent his final hours in that cell, alone with only his thoughts as Summer and Autumn left to make the necessary arrangements. It would be a slow, lingering death that awaited him; a lonely exit from this cold, hard world. He dwelt upon his crimes, such as they were; killer of the harvests, shortening the days and lengthening the nights. He was a bringer of the frost and the fever, a snow-carrier and Baron of the melancholy.

 

The executioner, who wore a hooded mask as they took Winter from his cell and out onto the icy road the following day, said nothing as they waited for the horse and cart. This shabby chariot that would carry Winter down the long, winding road to the world beyond. Winter grimaced as he was hoisted into the cart, like a sack of flour to be carted off to market. No gloating boys or cackling waifs followed the cart as it trundled away from the courthouse. The only sound to be heard was the wind through the leafless trees and the soft animal-panting of the horses.

 

The hill was known as Steng-Cross, where the rolling hills met the endless grey skies. The gibbet stood like a dead tree in the vast expanse of nothing, a skeletal frame that reached upward to the gloomy clouds. The closer the horse and cart came, the more substantial the gibbet became, its narrow crossbeam and scraps of winding ropes swaying gently in the breeze. Beside the gibbet, stood two figures; Winter could see that they were Summer and Autumn, though they were bundled up in heavy, long coats of wool and fur. Winter grimaced, realising that he could  not see any sign of Spring. Where was his sister, who had been plotting against him since the moment of their conception?

 

The cart stopped; the horses stood shivering, steam rising from their flanks. The executioner tugged at Winter's chains, who came down uneasy from the cart.

Winters feet were bare, and he felt every blade of grass like a razor's edge upon his skin. The frozen mud cracked like eggshells, leaving his feet streaked in brown and grey the further  he walked. Finally, the masked executioner  stopped as they came     to the foot of the gibbet.

 

Summer would not look at him, though Autumn seemed positively eager as he held the noose in his gloved hands. Winter shuddered as the rope was tightened around his neck, the coils rasping at his skin like a twisting serpent. He whimpered as Autumn flung the rope's end over the gibbet's arm, the wood creaking as it landed.

 

The executioner removed their mask, a hood of black sackcloth. Winter saw that it was Spring, her grey eyes streaked with tears. She seemed wracked with grief, but


did not voice it; she pushed Winter closer to the gibbet, beneath the shadowy crossbeam.

 

Together the three siblings hoisted their brother into the air. His feet danced upon nothing, and his arms clutched at his throat. A thin streak of urine puddled in his britches and his white eyes became bloodshot and wild with fear. Spring, Summer and Autumn all strained at the weight of their sibling, as he dangled there. Their arms ached, and they felt their teeth grinding in their heads like millstones until at last Winter lay still. His body swayed in the breeze, like the last leaf of a tree before the frost.

 

They tied off the hangman's rope and left Winter thereupon that lonely hill. They sat upon the cart as the horse pulled them away from Steng-Cross, neither of them able to meet the others gaze. It was a shameful thing, what they had done, but it was the right thing to do. Winter must make way for the coming seasons, after all.

 

Winter's body hung rotting like a bloated white fruit, the carrion birds pecking at him until nought but a bag of rags and bones remained. Then when the time came again, they would take the body down, and let their brother back into the world once more. He would have his fun, his idle frolic, until they needed him gone for another turn of the season.

 

The gibbet of Steng-Cross was eternal. The gibbet atop the hill, it was Winter's Tree.


© The Somnambulist Society

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