A Woe in World-Winter

Simon Whitechapel

    From snow to steam, from fire to ice,
       Two hearts were thrown to meld i’ a trice;
    Thus each for other laid down self,
       And he loved siren, she loved elf,
    He sturdy frozen, she rose-with-gold;
       She fire’s maiden, he son of cold:
    But gulf between they’d never span
    Till thread of life its spool outran.

At the foot of snow-cloaked, ice-sheathed Mount Vgomga, marked leagues off by the steams and smokes they sent forth even in their quiescence, were thermæ and geysers wherein and whereamong dwelt a tribe of inland mermaids, last and loveliest of a formerly globe-girdling race. Adapted to the scalding heat of their pools lento passu, as the deepening chill of world-winter drave them ever inward, they would have found the sun-warmed seas, the ray-kissed rivers of their nativity fatally cool now, thickening their silvery ichor to syncope and strokes, engulfing or bearing away their death-laxed beauty. And as for ice, for snow: they shivered merely to shape the words on their petaloid lips, and turned slender rosy backs on the chill-sloped mountain that o’erstooped them, nor cast slanted emerald eyes out through their familiar steams for the ice-conquered plain and its snow-smothered cities. One alone among them, the youngest and fairest, Yithany’ yclept, ever ventured far from the innermost and hottest pools, and she paid in rheums and sneezes for her love of the irises, white, gold, and scarlet, that flourished in a temperate band between thermæ and snow, last of their kind as she and her sisters were last of theirs.

But if flowers and trees, with men, beasts, and birds, had been swept from the planet’s face by all-nigh frost, not alone did the mermaids dwell thereon: ice-elves formerly confined to the poles and peaks had a world now to play in. Their shouts oft crept in among the songs and gossip of the mermaids, for the elves delighted to sled and ski the slopes of Vgomga, to wage mock war thereon with ice-hurling ballistæ, to trigger and ride avalanches whose voices out-thundered their own, bringing pursed smiles to the mermaids’ faces, who fell silent while avalanche-roar lasted, then resumed song or conversation without reference to that which had interrupted it, for they disdained to note or name the elves and their antics. Yet Yithany’ came to know and love one thereof, as eccentric as she, Uukruduk yclept, who loved the irises equally and came oft to his side of the warm-marsh to gaze upon them. Hereby the two first set eye to one another, mermaid and ice-elf, in a parting of the mists that swirled at wind-whim now snow-ward, now pool-ward; and they loved at coup de foudre, for never had he seen such delicacy and tint, save in the irises of the marsh, or she such strength and whiteness, save in the mountain her sisters disdained. He outstretched hands to her and she to him, but gazes and blown kisses were all they could exchange till they parted a fleeting hour later, he dizzy with first-love and wafted pool-heat, she with the same and wafted snow-chill.

Next day they returned each to the marsh-spot a hour in advance, joy-whelmed to find the other had done the same; and he flung over a necklace of quartz-and-rhodolite strung on silver, which he had worked nightlong to shape, heedless of sleep, needless thereof, on the drug of love that poured his chilly veins. She took it up, cautious while its cold lasted, and wore it while they stretched arms and blew kisses; and was it bad omen when, weeping at hour’s parting, she swam back to her sisters’ pools and two gift-stones, a quartz and rhodolite, cracked in the greater heat thereof? Mayhap, mayhap: but their love was doomed natheless from the start, she being sempiternally adapted to fire and he to ice, nor could ever the twain meet save in shared agony.

On the third day, each came to the spot an hour earlier again, and though she sneezed and he ached from the adverse exposure to the other’s vital element, ’twas a love-pain they gladly embraced. Then they parted, thinking not to see the other till the following day, but were mistaken therein, on this wise: for Uukruduk, grown reckless with love, drunken on the beauty of Yithany’, thereafter climbed Vgomga with his rune-wrought sled higher than any elf before him, and took a route theredown more precipitous and wind-fleet, fearing naught and daring all; and, wishing Yithany’ to see his courage and skill, to guess ’twas his or be signaled thereanent on the morrow, he steered his sled down virgin snows oversloping the pools of the thermogorgonæ, hymning his joy and worship in inspired periods. But thereby he triggered an avalanche greater than any elf had ridden hitherto, whose roar made the very roots of Vgomga tremble, whereby his joy and laughter were wiped from his eyes and lips.

Yet not in fear for himself, rather for Yithany’ and her sisters, who he guessed might be smothered and starven in the frost-flood as it whelmed their pools. Wherefor he rode to the very head of the avalanche, bawling in warning at the rosy dots he saw below amidst the milkily swirling mists, where mermaids clustered and up-gaped, till they caught his meaning and fled for safety in further pools. And thus it was, sledding too fast and steep to ride clear, he hurtled off the final slope and fell among the thermæ with great bulk of snow and ice. And this frost-stuff enisled him safe a time amid scalding heat, while the mermaids, calmed from their panick, swam back to see this uncouth intruder whose shouts natheless had preserved their lives at evident cost of his own — for his ice-isle shrank and settled by the minute amid fierce steam and greedy bubbling, nor could any leap therefrom carry him even a tenth to lukewarmth of iris-marsh. Last of all came Yithany’ to see, who had been swimming in distant and cooler pools, lest another quartz or rhodolite of her necklace crack.

Ice-isle was half-melted when she set eye thereto, chilled and tickled by the currents its dissolution set up in the waters around her; and almost she might have laughed or giggled thereat, had not horror seized and racked her, when she saw her ice-elf through steam-rent atop the doomed haven. With heart-struck wail, with yearning arms, she drave forward at the isle, wanting to touch him ere he died; and he, throwing last minutes of life away with equal aim, ran down from isle-summit to crumbling strand. Hereon they met, he stooping for her, she working golden tail as never before she had worked it, driving forward through ice and chill that seared and stang her rosy flesh. And their fingers brushed; hooked; were fast together and agonized, whereby he could haul her out-water and clasp her to him in farewell, as steam hissed and sizzled at juncture of their antagonistic flesh.

Ice-strand gave way beneath the vaporous pair as they pressed together, breast to breast, belly to belly, for all her dangling tail barely reached his knees; and down they plunged in common doom, for she refused to unclasp him and wriggle free of his ice-white arms, and ere it faded the frost of his flesh penetrated her heart, chilling and clogging the chambers thereof and stilling its throb for ever. Wherefor, when thermogorgonæ returned to re-warmed pool, with ice-isle melted, last ice-current faded, they found the two dead on its calcine floor, light mermaid clasped down by sturdy ice-elf, her lips sealed to his in what each had thought an impossible, an unattainable kiss.

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