Fire at the Soul
Mary Anna Evans
Once there was a girl named Lilja who lived on a mountain with a veil of ice and a soul of fire. But it isn’t fair to call her a girl and I shouldn’t do it.
Lilja was nineteen years old and a woman. She worked beside her parents in the family’s mill and in their home. She pulled her weight. She earned her keep. She was nobody’s little girl, but she was her parents’ only child and they loved her beyond the bounds of sanity.
Lilja lived in a stone house beside a stream, and there was never a day when she couldn’t look out her window and see snow. Even in the summer, her mountain was capped with glacial ice. Snow fell every year when autumn was barely begun. Sometimes, the barley fields lost their race with the snow and Lilja’s family knew that they would have hungry nights that winter. Still, they were lucky, because the potatoes, cabbage, beets, and carrots from their garden would carry them through.
In the best years, though, the barley didn’t die with the frost. It ended its life on the stone of their mill. Then, just when winter loomed, the people who farmed at the foot of their mountain brought their own barley for milling. Lilja was a happy woman and she had been a happy child, but her happiest times had come with the flatlanders and their grain. It took days for her parents to conduct their yearly business. While they did, young Lilja had played chase-the-goat with the flatlanders’ children.
An only child, even the cherished only child of loving parents, is bound to get lonely sometimes. On lonely days, she remembered that autumn was coming and that it would bring the friends she saw just once a year.
Lilja’s last sight of her father was a thing of color, light, and roaring water. One moment, she was standing at her washbasin, scrubbing her ears. In the next moment, she was at the door watching the brook she’d loved all her life rise up and cover everything. The fire at the mountain’s core had melted its icecap from below, trapping more and more water until the glacier couldn’t hold together any longer. A flood had burst out of the ice, and it soon carried whole trees in its mouth. The sound of it shook her teeth in their sockets.
She could see her mother working beside the water, cleaning leaves from the mill race. Nothing showed of her but pale hair hanging over powerful shoulders.
Her father was a finger’s length out of Lilja’s reach, but she reached for him anyway. He looked up and saw that she was as safe as it was possible for her to be—the ground sloped down in all directions from their little house—then he turned and ran for his wife. Lilja saw her mother’s head turn as she did the same things. First, she made sure Lilja was on solid ground, then she looked for her husband. He and the flood reached her at the same time.
This would have been her last sight of them, but her father’s red head hadn’t gone completely gray and her mother’s pale hair was like a beacon. They were easy to spot among the floating debris being swept away.
The cold water kept rising as she watched them go. It lapped at her toes. It covered her feet. It toyed with her ankles, but it came no further.
A day passed before Lilja found her mother face down in a cold stream. She wasn’t dead.
Lilja laid her on rocks cushioned by soft moss, then she couldn’t think of anything else to do. Nothing but time was going to fix her mother’s bones, but Lilja’s mother had no time left.
“You know how to tend the garden. And the sheep. You won’t be hungry.”
“Hush,” Lilja said. “You need to rest.”
Her mother ignored her. “The heart of the mountain. You have to go there. For the fire. And you must go, because no one should be all alone.”
Lilja knew there was a perfectly good fire still burning on their hearth. She also knew that nobody lived in the heart of the mountain. She would be as alone there as she was here, so why go?
Her mother heard the doubt in her silence and tried again. “The house fire…no magic in it. It will bake your bread, but the forge? Only coals from the heart of the mountain will heat a forge like ours, and how will you mend your tools without it? And how will you keep your food? Food dried with the mountain’s fire will never rot.” The eyes drooped shut and reopened. “Unless you replace the coal your father kept in the mill’s forge, you will have to leave this place.”
Lilja’s mother went silent, and her uneven breath mixed with the mountain wind.
An hour passed. Two.
Lilja’s mother stirred again. “The map is under the bed where your father and I slept.”
The word “slept” lodged in Lilja’s heart and burned. Her parents should sleep there tonight. They should sleep together there every night, forever. What would she do without them?
“Take the map and the stone basket where I keep my knitting wool. You will be safe. You will be whole again. You will be happy again. Remember that I love you.”
There were no more ragged breaths.
Lilja looked at her herb garden and remembered the sharp-sour taste of its dill and sorrel. Sheep grazed on a pasture fenced by stones she had dug from the ground herself. If she left here, her past would disappear. Maybe she would disappear.
Lilja had always been an obedient daughter, but here she drew the line. She was going nowhere.
Lilja never found her father. She buried her mother beside the pool where she had washed herself every morning. As Lilja laid stones over the grave, she thought of the way her mother would rise out of the translucent pool and into the translucent air as if there were no separation between the two. For the rest of the day, her skin would be as dewy and her hair as shiny as if she had just come from washing.
After her own morning baths, Lilja began her days alone by pouring a cup of water on her mother’s grave. She grieved her father as she netted trout from the stream, because the two of them had spent many a winter’s evening mending the nets and tying new ones. She tried to forget her mother’s voice, urging her to strike out alone.
As autumn neared, her cabbages were balls of crisp, icy green, and the beets’ red shoulders rose out of the ground beneath their tender leaves. It was time to catch more fish than she could eat, hanging the extra ones to dry. She and her father had always done this in the mill over the forge, but the hearth inside the house should work as well.
It did not.
Then she bent her trowel on a stone while digging for early potatoes, and she knew no ordinary fire would get the metal hot enough to mend it, though the single coal kept in her father’s mill forge had always been enough. It had heated her father’s entire mill without ever going out. She had seen it all her life, but she had never seen that it was magic.
Lilja spent a sleepless night imagining a winter without dried fish and fruit. She spent another sleepless night thinking of a life lived on a downhill slide as one tool after another broke and couldn’t be fixed. And still she vowed to stay where she was.
Early the next morning, she went to the pool to dip out some water to drink and the water spoke. It said, “You look like a person who would listen to her mother.”
Lilja had been squatting on the bank and now she sat down hard. She crawled to the edge of the pool and saw a man lying on the creekbed below. His eyes were open and he was breathing, even though he was fully underwater.
He spoke again. “You need the coals and they aren’t far away. Why don’t you go?”
His hair was bronze but graying at the temples, and his red beard had its first streaks of silver. He had her father’s square jaw, but not his blue eyes, and her father’s beard had been nearly white. Still, she had to ask.
“Are you my father?”
“No, Lilja, you know that I am not. My name is Sigurvin.” He spoke without moving his lips. Around his neck was a finely wrought silver chain, and on it hung a slender ring of unadorned hammered gold.
“Why are you in the water?” she asked.
“A troll put me here. He piled stones on my arms and legs, then he built a dam to keep the water from washing me away. I can’t get myself free.”
It was true. The dam was nothing but a pile of rocks too big for Lilja to carry, but it would hold an ordinary man until he drowned. Who knew how long it would hold this man? Perhaps he could lie underwater forever without drowning. Perhaps he could never leave.
As if he heard her thoughts, he said, “I have five days.”
Lilja couldn’t move those stones in five days. No one could. Her tears dripped into the water and gave it a tiny dose of salt.
He closed his eyes and let her cry over him for hours. She spoke often, but he never stirred.
When Sigurvin opened his eyes again. she spoke quickly before he could close them.
“I know how to free you,” she said, “but I need to go to the heart of the mountain. I will be back before your five days are up.”
He thanked her, then listened to her tell him about everything she was leaving. The farm. The sheep. The garden. Her memories of her parents. Even the brook where he was trapped.
She asked him why he wore the ring around his neck, and he said, “It was my mother’s. She gave it to me on her deathbed.”
Then she listened as he told her how he had gone to a troll for help when his mother died. “I just want to see her again,” he had said. The troll had left him here, helpless.
“Now I am still without my mother’s voice in my home,” he had said, “but my father, my wife, and my children are without me.” Then he had closed his eyes and left her alone with her thoughts.
Lilia went straight up to the house and fetched the map from beneath her parents’ mattress. It seemed straightforward, laying out a clear path to the heart of the mountain. On its back were instructions that seemed to make going wrong impossible, giving instructions like these:
“If you reach a rock that looks like a man, you have walked three paces too far.”
“The downhill slope is treacherous, but it can be managed by hanging tight to the rock wall beside you.”
“You must swim to reach the coals of the mountain’s soul. Take care that you are able to find your way back. There is a rope tied to a hook at the edge of the water. Hold tight to it and you will return safely.”
The final instruction was so interesting that Lilja read it aloud to herself:
“The mountain is filled with fire for sharing, but it also holds a gift for you. You must take it. It would be wrong to deny the hospitality of a thing so large as a mountain.”
Shaking her head at the notion of a hospitable mountain, Lilja emptied the stone bowl of her mother’s yarn and filled it with boiled potatoes and fish her father had dried a year before. In a pack on her back, she carried a pickax to help her hang tight to any rock wall that presented itself. Last, she packed the tongs her father had used to handle the magic coal and fitted the stone lid over the full basket.
When all was ready for her trip, she took a mat to the creek and used coals from the not-magic fire in her home to build a fire. Its light reached all the way to Sigurvin’s face. She watched over him all night. In the morning, she told the sleeping man good-bye, put the mat in her pack, and walked away.
Lilja’s map was clearly drawn. The weather was good. By noon, she was at the mouth of a cave leading into the mountain. She could even see the rock shaped like a man, telling her that she was in the right place. She was surefooted as she passed through the cave, using her father’s pick to grab into its rock walls and steady herself. When the passage ended in water, she grabbed the rope tied to an ancient iron hook and plunged in. She was as comfortable in the water as her mother had been, so its shivery embrace felt maternal. Others would have been troubled by swimming with a stone basket, but Lilja hardly noticed it in her hand.
It was easy to swim in the right direction, because her destination was lit by hell itself. She pulled herself onto a narrow stretch of sand on the water’s other side. Still clinging to the rope, she found herself at the entrance of a world of flame.
The heat beat her back. She couldn’t take a single step closer, but she had come to do a job. Lilja reached in her pack, pulled out her father’s tongs, and managed to grab three coals without moving any nearer to the inferno. One coal had served all her family’s needs for as long as she could remember, but Lilja needed another one to save Sigurvin and she was prudent enough to get one extra. Then, she replaced the stone basket’s lid and let it drag her back into the water.
With the flames behind her, her path through the water was no longer clear. Without the rope, she would never have found her way. Hand over hand, she let it serve its purpose. At the end, it broke in her hands, leaving her wet hands scrabbling on the cave’s stone floor as she pulled herself from the water.
On her way back out of the mountain, the coals lit room after room. Some were full of gold nuggets. Others, silver coins. One was full of hay. At the cave’s mouth, she finally remembered the map’s instruction to leave with a gift for herself, but she didn’t want to turn back. The last chamber was full of nuts and seeds, which seemed like a good enough gift to a hungry woman. Lilja took a pocketful of nuts and headed home.
As she paused to make camp near the base of the mountain that evening, the warm lights of campfires stretching across the plains below her held her gaze. Her mother hadn’t just said, “Go fetch magic coal.” She’d said that no one should be alone. She let herself be drawn to the lights.
In moments, she was surrounded by people she had known all her life. This was the family of her father’s friend Jon, and she had played with Jon’s children whenever they came to mill his grain. She remembered twelve daughters and one son, and Lilja’s best friends had been the eldest girls, Bjarma and Eyja.
She didn’t see either of them in the crowd huddling around the fire, but she recognized their hand-me-down dresses on the little girls and she knew their brother Rolf. He was a few years younger than Lilja, and she remembered only that his face had always had a smudge of dirt. Now he was a man, but a young one, still slender and with a patchy brown beard that looked a little like dirt.
She rushed to him. “I’m so happy to see you. I’m happy to see all of you! Where are Bjarma and Eyja? We were girls the last time we were together.”
“They married,” said Rolf.
“They’re living with their husbands’ families? Do they have children?”
“They had children, yes. Two boys each,” he said. “Their older sons survived the flood. The babies…” He shook his head, and Lilja wanted to crawl away without asking the only question she had left.
“Eyja and Bjarma?”
“They were sitting beside the creek with the babies when the flood came. Their husbands ran to save them. My parents ran to them, too. Gone, all of them. Evja. Bjarma. Husbands. Parents. Children. Gone.”
She’d made him say it out loud. How he must hate her.
Lilja’s eyes swept over the faces around the fire. So young. All of them so young.
She handed her dried fish and potatoes around, then she emptied her pockets of nuts. They still looked hungry.
Ten little sisters. Two tiny nephews. And all of them looking at the patchy-bearded Rolf for hope.
He looked at Lilja and said, “I’m all they have.”
Lilja and Rolf sat up all night, planning how he could feed all those children. His farmer father had taught him how to tend the crops and they were growing well, but he had no idea how to preserve food for the winter. The knowledge had died with Evja, Bjarma, and their mother. Lilja said that this was a problem she could fix.
She spent the next morning showing Rolf and the children how to layer root vegetables with hay so that they wouldn’t rot in the cellars. She spent the afternoon helping them hang fish and fruit to dry over the magic coal she’d given Rolf. A hungry family came for help and she gave them a coal of their own.
By nightfall, word had spread that there was a young woman offering help, and another family came. Rolf tried to stop her from giving her last coal away, but she shook her head. Then he tried to make her take back the one she’d given him.
“Please. Keep it. I have to go back to the mountain anyway. I can’t go home with just one coal. I need one to save Sigurvin and one for my hearth.”
She studied her father’s pick. It worried her. Its bent tip might not take her through another journey.
Rolf said, “I can mend the shaft while you use the coal to shape the tip.” Lilja thought this was a good suggestion, so that’s what they did.
The next morning, when she tried to say good-bye, he brandished his own pick and said, “I’m going with you. You need me. And you also need these.”
Grinning, he waved his own father’s tongs in her face. They were a full hands’-breadth longer than Lilja’s.
“You already took all the coals you could reach,” he said. “You need me. And my very long tongs.”
The way into the mountain was as arduous as the trip out had been. It wasn’t at all clear that their picks would last the full trip, but they did eventually reach the water. Lilja had given a great deal of thought about what she’d done when she last swam here. She had traveled long distances underwater without breathing, while dragging a basket of stone. And she was the daughter of a woman who could lie underwater for the better part of the day without drowning, a woman whose skin always glistened just a little with wetness, a woman who moved from water into air as if there were no barrier between them.
Lilja had come to understand what she was. Her mother had been a Water-person, maybe full-blooded, and Lilja was her mother’s daughter. She wouldn’t drown during the journey, no more than her mother had drowned in the flood, but she could be lost forever. And, like her mother, she could find another way to die. Nevertheless, this was her quest and she needed to take it.
Lilja backed into the water, waving good-bye to Rolf and wondering how long he would wait before deciding that she wasn’t coming back.
The swim wasn’t difficult for a Water-person, even a half-blood, and Rolf’s long tongs fetched the two coals she needed. The journey back, however…it scared her.
She paused, afraid, at the sandy shore of the underground sea. And then she heard it.
A faint splashing noise echoed through the water and she knew she could follow it. When she rose from the water, Rolf was kneeling on the cave floor, patiently splashing his hands in the water to give her the direction she needed. The sound of his splashing hands had been her lifeline.
Their picks were strong enough to get them out of the mountain, though they would both need time in the forge and on the anvil before they could be used again. Lilja stood with Rolf at the mouth of the cave with two coals in her basket. He said, “You must go,” and tears came to her eyes.
“Not forever,” he said, “but you must go now if you hope to free Sigurvin.”
She nodded, turning back toward to the cave to fetch some more nuts. As a Water-person, even a half-blood, she knew that it was important to respect magic. Magic required that she take a gift for herself.
He held up a hand to stop her. “I already took a gift for you.”
He opened his pack to show her a handful of silver coins and a single nugget of gold. “I have a magic coal. How hard can it be to make a woman a necklace? Or a ring?”
Sigurvin was awake when Lilja returned.
“Tell me again,” she said, “how you came to be in this pool.”
“I told my friend the troll that I wanted to see my mother again. He knew that I came from Water-people, so he put me here where I would be safe while I waited.”
“When did he do this?”
Sigurvin smiled. “The proper question is ‘When will he do this?”
“Why this pool? Why my pool?”
“Because for the rest of your days, you will tell your son about your mother’s special pool. When the troll asks him where he wants to go, the choice will be easy.”
“Did the troll tell you how to get back to your own time?”
“He said my mother would know how to free me.”
She opened the stone basket and used the tongs to grab a single coal from the heart of the mountain. She laid it gently on the rocks trapping her son. One by one, they glowed red and burst with a loud crack, each one lightening the load of stones holding Sigurvin down.
“I see it now,” she said. “The gold is not my gift.”
“Your gift is the love of a good man.” Another stone cracked open and Sigurvin’s right arm floated free. “And the love of your son, and the love of everyone who will ever meet you.”
The stones were so hot that the air above them shimmered with heat. She knew that she’d received more gifts than the ones Sigurvin had numbered. She knew now that she would live a long life, yet never bury her husband or son. She knew what her son would look like, even after she was gone.
The stones were moving downstream, taking Sigurvin with them. “I have to go,” he said. “Trolls’ spells only last so long.”
“Should I go to him? Should I go back to Rolf now?”
“You could do that.” Drops of water sizzled on hot stones. “Or you could wait the winter and tend your own fire. Let him get his family in hand. Let him hammer this golden ring at my throat and every link in this chain. Let him come into himself. When he does, he will come to you.”
Mary Anna Evans is an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, where she teaches fiction and nonfiction writing, and she holds an MFA from Rutgers-Camden. Her short fiction has appeared in publications including Monkeybicycle, Spartan, decomP, and Vine Leaves.