On this day, she abandons her bones in search of wood.
In their den, they watch her go; the deer with his birch-like antlers, the fox with the frost-cracked orbital, the owl with her bones light like paper. Soon, soon they will cross. Even now, the fire is dimming to embers, the old wood frosted with ash, last amber light caught in its branches. Eyeless sockets are turned towards the entrance, watching the light creep closer across the soft, pine-needled darkness. Watching, waiting, with the eternal patience of the dead.
Cailleach, Winter Hag, Bone Mother. Goddess of winter and death. Her own bones creak, knock together like trees in a gale. Old bones. Bones that press gently against the blanket of her skin, pulling it into taut angles. She raises her eyes to the sun making its lazy arc in the sky, stretching and darkening shadows. No longer quite tangling itself in the bare branches of the forest. No longer quite so cold.
Today, her bone bag is empty, and it flaps against her back like a sail. She finds she misses the clacking as she walks, so used is she to this lone metronome when the hush of winter and moss and powder snow silence her footsteps. Even still the sun creeps higher, emptying meltwater into the burn. It is bright, so bright. And yet—this fallen branch, giving way between her fingers, spongelike, bleeding still. Too damp, despite the sun. It will not burn. And what of winter then?
Still, she walks, a cartographer of forgotten paths. Left at the lightning-struck oak that grew from an acorn dropped by a Jacobite; straight ahead at the erratic at which lovers used to meet; over the river where the Roman general finally turned around; skirt round the glade where, on this day, her people used to feast.
Imbolc. It’s been a long time since she heard that word from human lips.
In the glade, two spots of white. One, a snowdrop that has pushed its way through the soil. The other, the tiny bones of a rabbit. Although today she must collect firewood, she stoops and reaches into their hollow, sorting them into small stacks; rib upon rib, femur upon tibia upon fibula upon radius upon ulna, matching scapulae resting behind the skull like wings. Not one vertebra left behind. She sings softly as she places the stacks in her bone bag, feeling the nervous twitching in the air relax like a sigh.
On the back of her neck, a whisper of heat.
At least sorting branches is less delicate than sorting bones. Her fingers work quickly, seeking her yearly-diminishing supply of dry wood. Recently, something has shifted, something she can’t name. It’s as if the very veins of the earth run with a fever. And with it comes a creeping uncertainty she cannot look in the eye.
But for now, twig by twig her bag fills.
For this year at least, the fire will burn cold.