Allin knew midwinter nights better than the stars did.
He’d seen the fading scars on his mother’s hands from where a shadow had shaken itself loose from her grasp, years ago, and seeped minnow-quick into her skin. Allin’s family had once climbed the sky, but that had been before the stars dimmed to pinpricks in the distance. Now not even the best of them could hear the constellations calling their names or catch a handhold before the dark crumpled under their feet.
And yet, as he turned a rusty climbing hook over in his hands, he thought he might do it, and bring back a sliver of the moon in time for the lunar festival.
He fitted the hook to a crevice in front of him. It looped through the night easily enough, but when he ran his fingers over the blackness, it was slippery. He adjusted his footing on the hill and gave the hook’s rope a tug.
Was it too much to hope that he wouldn’t fall like the others?
There was nothing for it; Allin had hoisted himself up onto the back of a breeze before his better judgment could say stop. The moon was still dark at this time of month, but now – now he could imagine it round and plump. He could imagine his fingers knocking against it and coming away changed – glowing, perhaps. Every time he slid his foot into a new cranny in the sky, his breath quickened. The air grew thin, and he took mouthful after mouthful of it. Around him, the snow-wrapped wind ripped through bits of cloud.
I should have brought a coat, Allin thought, but still he reached for the next velvet fold above him.
His hand grasped at nothing.
Of all places, his stomach felt it first, the stone-drop towards earth. Get a hold on something, Allin – and he tried, falling faster all the while. He brushed against a stray night-thread, and he almost grabbed it, though his breath stopped short in his throat.
That couldn’t possibly be hair.
It was gone in a blink, but no matter, because climbers’ eyes were honest. Allin tried to gather a pocket of air beneath him, to try and cushion his fall at the very least, but he couldn’t prevent the oof! that cartwheeled off his tongue when he landed.
Ach. He knew he hadn’t gotten the worst of it – the grass underneath him had been crushed – but his back disagreed.
“What did I tell you?” Allin’s heart wilted faster than a wildflower after the first snow. “Always take something sharp when you go climbing.”
His mother had crested the hill, lips pursed, and he remembered it with a pang: the night had to be cut. Even the softest skies had to be tamed.
“Let’s get you inside,” his mother said. There was a jaggedness to her voice that he couldn’t place, an edge that shouted just a boy, Allin and stung him. No better than the rest. As Allin’s mother herded him towards their cottage on the hill’s far side, he shot a last glance upwards. A piece of him dislodged, suddenly, and yearned for the sigh of a thousand wishes that, like him, had to rise to meet the moon.
Prynne, teller of tales, sent her son out to the stargazing hill a few days later with a knife and a promise: don’t climb too far. She knew that he wouldn’t be kept from his real homeland any longer, even if he was destined to slip off of it.
She only hoped that he didn’t break too many of his bones learning that.
Allin couldn’t stop fingering the worn blade, remembering his mother’s eyes. They had seen too many lunar cycles and explored too few of them. It was thoughtless of him, he realized, not to have noticed before.
Farther off, the air was thick with the chill and the anticipation of joy. The village’s yearly festival approached, and already merchants from every nook of the kingdom were bottling up the town roads.
Allin hesitated, just for a moment, when he felt the first shadows shift in his hands. As he came to the top of the hill, he started to pull the air towards him, feeling where it was rough. In old tales about the sky-scalers, they had always spoken the same language as the moon and stars.
He wondered what that might sound like, the endless weave of light that he’d reach when he got high enough. And what of the black hair he’d held briefly the last time he’d ventured upwards?
The winter so far had been gracious, and only a light coating of snow dusted the ground. Thankfully, he’d had the presence of mind to bring his coat. The moon winked shyly overhead – from here, Allin could just glimpse it.
“Well,” he muttered, “at this rate, it’ll be spring before I’ve started.” Tonight the air was as firm as a wooden post when he most needed it, for the very beginning. He slid the knife into a sheath and left it in his coat pocket. One foot up. Then the other. He cautioned himself, knowing that he’d gotten higher than this last time, but already the bracing cold was getting the better of him, pulling his mouth into its inevitable grin.
Eleven winters, maybe twelve – this was all the time Allin had had to grow. But no matter, because climbing required nothing more than a certain hardiness of the heart, and this he had in spades, handed to him by generations of stubborn blood. Before long, the frosted hill was growing toy-like below him, and he whooped into the sky.
And someone called in return.
Though his mind screamed don’t, Allin’s limbs stiffened. The voice was girlish, perhaps his age. She – he decided that it was a she – shouted again. He could make out the end to a question.
“What?” he tried, but the wind was stealing his words at this altitude. Was this another climber, as reckless and hopeful as himself? Or – and he had to chuckle in disbelief at it – was she the source of the lock of hair that had caused his fall before?
More importantly, where was she?
Allin strained to hear the girl’s words. There were no directions in the sky, but he thought she might be somewhere in the path of his outstretched left hand; perhaps a few stars over, and a little farther –
His eyes slid onto the moon.
When he’d planned on getting a piece of it home, he hadn’t stopped to ask if someone might be on it. Ridiculous, he told himself. Impossible, surely.
But his heart clamped shut and told him no; Allin had been raised on the idea that impossibility itself was impossible. Besides, the clenching in his chest wasn’t for naught.
He could have sworn the girl on the moon was shouting help.
Panic seared over his vision. There were no more handholds, no more steps he could take towards her. His mother had taught him that in the sky, people saved each other, because one good turn meant everything here. Allin let his fingers sift the air one last time, but there was still this relentless nothing, save for a faint tickle on his palm.
This is the hair from before; I’m sure of it, he thought. It had to be.
Whoever was on the other end of this, he hoped they didn’t mind him pulling.
When Allin wrapped his hand around a few strands, they held unbroken. They were surprisingly supple, certainly well cared for. And black, ink-stained, like the best kind of night. In fact, if he wasn’t looking hard enough, they all but disappeared.
He would twist them into a rope, he decided, and climb without help from the air. A leaden weight inside him assured his mind that he would be led to the moon. Ma taught you how to braid, Allin. A long time ago when she still wished you were a girl. Three locks of hair, over and under each other.
Inching up on the coiled braid was easier than he’d imagined, and much less work than reading air currents. His back and arms ached, but the repetition was comforting. And his knife was still tucked securely into his coat – no need for it tonight. He hadn’t loved the notion of using it, anyhow.
Before long the moon filled his sight, luminous and gloriously cut. Only a sliver of it was visible under its customary shadow, but if he squinted just so, he could see even the dark side catch the light, tenuous as a dream.
Did it normally do that?
And the silhouette on the far side, faint, like someone sitting – that was the girl who’d been calling help at the stars. He didn’t even have to tell himself.
He ventured a “hello, there” and watched her go rigid from behind. She whirled, with eyes that showed she had evidently been spooked by his voice. Something about her was odd, even more so than her mere presence, sitting calmly as if she owned the moon. He scrutinized her features, confounded. Whyever did she look so much like someone he knew?
He and this moon-girl could have been twins.
She seemed to realize it in the same instant, and her mouth, small like his, opened in surprise. They had the same eyes and delicate cheekbones and stubborn jaws – but Allin had gotten these from his mother, he reasoned, so this was undoubtedly a mistake. But it seemed like anything but – there was nothing except their hair that was markedly different: hers an unforgiving black, his a sandy brown.
“You were pulling at my hair, weren’t you?” she asked, brow knitting in confusion. “Are you standing in for Irina?”
“Who on earth – or, on moon, I suppose – is Irina? And who or what are you?” It wasn’t until he’d blurted it out that he reflected the questions were rather rude.
Understandably, she was indignant. “What, don’t they have girls where you come from?” She huffed before adding, “And if you’re asking for specifics, I am a Lorelei, thank you very much. Irina is my mother. What, then, might you be? I’ll assume you’re one of those ‘boys’ Irina speaks of so often, though you’re the first one I’ve seen.”
“Never seen a boy? So you’ll have me believe you were born on the moon?” Though that thought was worrying, he was secretly relieved. If Irina was Lorelei’s mother, then the resemblance between them was merely a disturbing coincidence.
She faltered a little and said, more quietly, “The moon’s all I remember. So I’ll have at least a name off of you, if you please.”
“Allin,” he replied, and suddenly, pressed by conscience, he brought out a superhuman amount of manners and extended his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
He half-expected her to not know she had to shake it, but she did. Her grip was firm for the size of her hands, but somehow reassuring. He took the opportunity now to clamber onto the moon, the smooth, cool surface of the moon, and his mind reeled with the enormity of what he’d just done. Climbed to the moon, he thought, giddy. Ma will kill me.
“If you’re from land,” Lorelei started, “how did you reach me?”
“Mostly the wind helped at first, but then I used that.” He pointed at her hair, spilled around them like a merchant’s rug. ” I ought to thank you.”
“You got up the same way Irina does, then.”
“It’s awfully nice for climbing,” he conceded. “But then – your mother’s from land, too? Have you got a father?”
Lorelei lowered her eyes. “Wish I did,” she murmured.
“It’s perfectly fine. I don’t have one either,” he admitted. “My ma’s name is Prynne, and she does well all on her own.”
“Irina’s different. She leaves me alone for long stretches and is downright horrid at times. I’ve always wanted to see land, but she won’t let me, and I haven’t the faintest idea how to get down from here. I don’t think she’s from land.”
“Rubbish. She doesn’t sound like a mother – she sounds more like a witch. And getting down’s easy.” That wasn’t altogether true, since the only ‘getting down’ he’d ever done from the sky had been falling.
“I think she is a witch,” Lorelei explained. “But a real one with sparks in her fingers.”
As she spoke, a glow crept over the rim of the night, blushing and dressed like dawn.
“Drat,” Allin said furiously. “I’m in for it now. I’ve whiled away the whole night up here.”
Lorelei nodded in understanding, noticing the receding dark. “Come back soon, all right?” she said earnestly, tying him a rope of hair. “Tell me all about where you live. Just whistle and I’ll let down my hair.”
“Agreed.” He flashed a grin. “I’ve just made friends with the girl who lives on the moon.”
“That you have.” Lorelei smiled in return. “Now hurry up.”
Allin jumped off the moon with nothing but a handful of braid to steady him. Luckily, getting down was as easy as he’d assumed, but breathless – plummeting and clinging to Lorelei’s hair for dear life. Within a matter of moments he’d landed, but on his feet this time, which earned him a shot of pain up both legs and a rush of satisfaction.
He ran home just as the few birds left for the winter began to sing. When he opened the door carefully so it didn’t creak, he was greeted by the sight of his mother Prynne, sleeping facedown on their main table. She must have waited for me, he thought with a pang, and he looked about the kitchen.
He managed to gather a decent breakfast for her that morning, in time for them both to catch the last of the night sweeping itself away.
A few days later, Lorelei was shocked to receive Irina’s arrival an hour late.
“What happened?” she asked, but Irina waved her off disgustedly.
“Land-dwellers,” she muttered darkly to herself. “Meddling as always.”
Land-dwellers, Lorelei thought, and Allin sprang to mind, unbidden and grinning.
She matched their faces to each other: Irina, Lorelei, Allin. Curious indeed. Maybe her eyesight was going soft, but she could’ve sworn that for a heartbeat, all three of them looked almost related. No, no. Irina’s got those awful stone-gray eyes, and her hair’s almost white. Allin and I have green eyes. When had she noticed that? And our hair’s different.
“Is it better down there?” She shrank back as Irina turned, eyes narrowed. The pale looseness of her mother’s form, how part of it always seemed to be far away, never ceased to unsettle her. Perturbed, she thought, We really look nothing like each other.
Irina’s answering sigh was more like a winter wind than any human sound. She put a careful hand on Lorelei’s bony shoulder. “No, my pet,” she said, but the endearment was a whip on her spell-hardened tongue. “Too many hungry mouths and falsehoods. That’s why I brought you here. No one can touch you.”
Lorelei couldn’t keep herself from feeling the lingering cold of Irina’s hand through the threadbare fabric of her outgrown dress; it spoke of betrayal and other things that left angry wounds. She resisted the urge to shake it off – but just barely. Just barely.
Allin was a stupid boy, which meant, of course, that he returned to the moon far too quickly for his own good. As soon as he’d handed Lorelei an offhand greeting, he set to work scraping at the ground with a short knife.
“You won’t get anywhere,” she said. “What do you want with it?”
“The midwinter festival’s soon,” he responded. “I need something to prove to everyone that I really did get up here.” He sifted through a smattering of dust obtained from all the grinding. “This is no good.”
“A festival?” Her interest was piqued. “What’s it like?”
“Oh, it’s grand. There’s snow on the soil and people gather about selling tidbits and trinkets from all around the country. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get a fire-eater or something. The midwinter festival is the only time anyone really comes around these parts.”
“Why only then?”
“We’re famous for our moon in the winter,” he said, shrugging. “It has this blue crown, nothing short of breathtaking. People bow to the moon this time of year, write poetry about it. They’d be even more astounded if they knew you were here. They’d love you.”
Love. The foreign thrill of the word sang up Lorelei’s spine.
“So, is the moon really worth seeing from land?”
“Oh, it’s something. It swells and burns blue. I mean, I don’t know if you’d like it, seeing as you live on it. You must think the moon is boring by now.”
No, Lorelei thought. Never. She wanted to see it – this marvel she’d been living on, this moon that had built most of her memories.
“Could I come to the festival?” She shivered with yearning – she could feel it, papery and insistent like an unsent letter in her throat.
Allin fixed her with a delighted look. “Don’t see why not.” Then he sobered. “Though Irina might not like it.”
Lorelei gulped as inconspicuously as she could. There was nothing she hated as much as showing that she was frightened. When she spoke again, her voice was firmer than she’d ever made it. “She’ll never find out.”
Lorelei knew it was a foolish fear because she lived in the sky, but here it was: heights made her heart seize. Allin was already a long way down, nimbly picking a path through knots of her hair and stray air drafts.
“Changed your mind?” he called lightly.
“No.” She leapt forward before the sensible vein in her could drag her feet down. One, two, three, four. A snake of vertigo coiled inside her, gnawed at her. Thrum-thrum-thrum. She held her breath. I have wings. I have wings, she thought. Her heart skittered. Her breath wobbled.
All you have to do is convince yourself that you can’t fall.
She bit her lip and tried to ignore the lurch she felt with every step. In the meantime, Allin had crept back up to where she was and was eyeing her doubtfully. Without a word, he let her take his hand, and he guided her down to the hill without a hint of malice. A blustery breath blew out of her as soon as her feet were planted on the ground.
“I’ll pay you back for that,” she managed. “Thanks.”
He shook his head. “It was nothing. Now, when we get there, it’ll be loud, and -”
A sudden rattling echoed above them. The stars shook, and something like oil seemed to fall.
“My hair,” Lorelei whispered. Allin could only gape.
“Well, there’s a spectacle,” he said finally. “And there’ll only be more in the festival up ahead. Come on. We’re lagging.”
They ran towards what looked like paper lamps bobbing in a faint breeze. Trilling giggles and shouts wafted into their ears, and they both beamed. Soon they were close enough to hear the folk tunes and pipes of countless dances. They made it to the festival’s boundaries just in time to hear someone cry, “The moon!” Everyone whirled to gawk at it, and Allin and Lorelei were no exception.
The moon had really outdone itself.
A blue wreath encircled its rim, and in its center it was pearly, mesmerizing. I have been living on the back of a queen, Lorelei thought reverently. It was easy to believe that this was the sphere that pulled tides and commanded wolves. This was a bringer of miracles and doom. Allin, too, was spellbound. He was reciting something softly – a poem, perhaps, or a prayer.
It was there for a moment, nothing more, and then everyone returned to the festivities. Lorelei and Allin were stone-still for a time. It was Lorelei who finally broke the quiet.
“So,” she said, casting her gaze over the waiting wonders, “shall we go?” Allin threw back his head and whooped.
“Please,” he replied, a smile cracking his face in half.
Later, neither of them would remember much about the night. They would reminisce about the jovial merchants who gave away sweets and the traveling troupe of jugglers, but they would never be able to pin faces on any of them. Everything was just too star-dusted and glowing to be caught by ordinary minds.
When first light began to intrude on the horizon, Allin rubbed his eyes and declared that he would take Lorelei home. He helped her up the steeper parts of the climb, which was much simpler now that Lorelei’s hair wasn’t spilling through every spare bit of space. Their eyelids were leaden and their heartbeats ragged, but all that mattered was their smiles – fixed even as the morning materialized.
“Should I have expected this?”
Lorelei tensed and felt a truth in her bones: she’d been caught. And worse, Allin had been caught with her.
“No, Irina,” she said, hanging her head. She felt the woman’s claw-like grip close around her arm.
“And this boy has the stench of grass in his blood,” Irina observed disdainfully. She was livid beneath her thin facade of sweetness. “Land scum.”
Allin raised his eyebrows – brave and dense in equal proportions. “I don’t smell,” he retorted, “and my Ma will hack you to pieces if you touch Lorelei or me.”
His declaration was received by Irina’s hiss of amusement, which was terrifying, followed by her even more terrifying hiss of shock. Lorelei’s guess was that she’d finally realized the resemblance that she and Allin shared. “How quaint,” said Irina coolly. The air around her pulsed faintly, and Lorelei knew she wasn’t the only one smelling the spark in it. Allin winced visibly. “But you won’t ever get close enough to my darling girl to harm her. I’ve protected her for years and there is nothing you can do to her. I did her mother a favor, bringing her here.”
Darling girl? Lorelei thought, blinking fast. No phrase had ever curled in her stomach so wrongly. Protected me? Did my mother a favor?
“You admit you aren’t her mother?”
Lorelei’s mind snapped.
Weeping and weeping, a sharp herb-fragrance, a promise to keep. The word “no”, over and over. Irina. Reaching for a mother. Mother, not Irina. Starlight and tears and so much distance.
It had all the heaviness of a memory.
“I don’t want to be protected anymore,” she said. Irina fell silent. That was what it was like: unspoken words falling, falling, falling.
Then there was crashing pain blooming into her skin like a thousand needles, and someone was crying. It was Allin, she realized, and this weight sinking into the pit of her mind was an apology. I’m sorry, so sorry. But the rest of her thoughts were a shrieking smear. Not this, Irina. Never this.
When it was over – and how long had it been? – Allin had buried his face in his hands. Lorelei stood up and laboriously walked to him, refusing to allow Irina to see her crawl. Her legs were splitting. Her soul was splitting.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, trembling. He was still. She looked closer.
So it was possible for a sky-climber to really and truly weep.
Irina’s face was immovable, and she lifted Allin’s limp body carelessly.
He said, “I’m blind.”
And Irina cast him down.
All Lorelei knew was that Allin hadn’t visited her in days, and that left a bad taste in her mouth. It wasn’t like him to keep from climbing for so long – no, that was a grievous understatement. Had he really been blinded? Was he recovering from the fall that Irina had dealt him?
Night fell gracelessly and cruelly, not at all like the wonder-filled world it had been with Allin in it. What must it be like, Lorelei wondered, not being able to see the stars? Even the thought of it filled her with a terrible grief. Already she was mustering strength.
She’d spent too long waiting for Allin to come to her. It was time to trust in her own self – and, she reflected wryly, finally repay him for the festival. She didn’t like the idea of being a girl who constantly had to be saved and helped.
Obviously she didn’t have the ancestry for making the sky her own. That was Allin’s domain. She would have to borrow a path.
The scramble to the ground was a blur, with Lorelei’s heart halfway out of her chest. When she landed, she wasted no time, recalling that Allin had pointed towards his cottage on the festival night. Run.
She barged in moments later, heaving in exertion. Allin was slumped over at a wooden table, and his mother – had he said her name was Prynne? – was fussing over him. When Lorelei came in, Prynne spun and stared daggers at the young girl, face tight with worry.
“Is he… all right?” Lorelei asked.
Prynne squinted at her. “Who are you?” Lorelei pointed towards the sky, and Prynne nodded in understanding. His mother used to climb, Lorelei confirmed to herself. This is unfair.
Allin, unseeing. That was a tragedy. “Who’s there?” he asked.
Lorelei sniffed and wiped her eyes. “Lorelei.” And before she knew what she was doing, she rushed to him and wrapped him in a hug. Her tears were everywhere, streaking down her cheeks and wetting his as well. Stunned, he hugged her back.
Something shattered, quietly at first, but it grew louder. Lorelei felt as if she would burst.
“I can see,” Allin said. He looked once at Prynne, and they were both stared in amazement: Allin at his suddenly visible hands, and his mother straight at Lorelei herself.
“Kenna?” Prynne’s eyes were lanterns so hopeful that it hurt Allin to see them. I can see, he thought gratefully, and then: Kenna? Who’s that? The girl shook her head.
“Lorelei,” she said gently. “And I’m told that you’re Prynne.”
Allin and Lorelei both saw her face fold in on itself like a runaway wave.
“That I am.” She seemed to flicker like a candle flame disturbed by a careless sigh. “Kenna’s hair was as black as yours, dear. I must have gotten confused.”
Allin frowned. “Ma, who’s Kenna?”
This time, Prynne let out a sigh that rolled ocean-like in its depth. “She was your twin, and she was… she was taken away by my sister.”
“What was your sister’s name?” Lorelei asked intently, at the same moment that Allin butted in with an incredulous “I have an aunt?”
“Irina. That’s all.”
“Irina?” Allin and Lorelei echoed together. A slow smile burned over their faces like hot sugar, but Prynne continued, oblivious.
“When I was carrying you and Kenna,” she said, speaking to Allin, “I craved an herb that only grew in my sister’s garden. She’d gotten the blood-thread of our grandmother, a witch. But she guarded the herb, and your father eventually had to steal it for me. But Irina is a hawk if I ever saw one, and she caught him and made him promise that my firstborn child would be hers in return for the herb.” Her voice was resigned, but it crackled with regret underneath its softness. When she opened her mouth again, she was hardly audible. “Kenna was born before you. I haven’t seen her or Irina since then. Kenna would never forgive me.”
“Your sister” – Lorelei cleared her throat before going on, mouth dry with dusty hope – “did she have a face like yours, only with gray eyes and white-blonde hair?” She didn’t dare see Prynne’s expression, not now when things seemed so improbable.
Allin informed her, “It appears so,” and Lorelei finally looked up.
Prynne’s thunderstruck expression rivaled that of someone who’d just been told they were royalty. “Yes,” she breathed.
Lorelei felt a swelling within her, something that made her as grand and lovely as the moon itself.
“In that case,” she said, trying out the words, “I forgive you, Ma. I forgive you.”
There was nothing left in the air around them but a resounding thank you.
In a country long gone, a grassy knoll stood, just a heartbeat or two away from the sky. It still held the memory of a young boy’s feet and bright, bright eyes.
The boy was older now, and a father and husband. A brother to a princess of the night.
Every midwinter was the same.
The children would race outside, no matter how old they were, and the then-boy would follow just behind them. Their laughs would be like firelight, jumping to embrace the air. The boy’s wife, along with his mother, would march up the stargazing hill with a blanket for them to lie on, but it would soon be abandoned.
The moon would rise, blue circlet blazing. The boy’s sister would be there, as she always was, sitting cross-legged on its bright face. She’d decided to stay on the moon after meeting her family, too in love with the night sky to really ground herself. Stars would be tangled in her hair by the dozens.
The children would bring out their climbing hooks. Though their father’s joints creaked, he would join them. The moon-girl would brush out her tresses and toss stars at them. The shower of comets never failed to lift a gasp from the whole village, where the midwinter festival and snow already blanketed every home. The children’s gleeful shouts would be the loudest, and the moon-girl would hear them.
Each of them would make a wish.
And for a moment, all the world would be right.
Christina Im is a wordsmith and an admirer of whimsy and rawness. She was a National Gold Medalist and National Silver Medalist in the 2014 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Her work either has appeared or is forthcoming in several publications, including Canvas Literary Journal, YARN, -Ology Journal, and GREYstone. You can find her online at christinaim.flavors.me.