New Year's Eve
New Year’s Eve
By Eithne Bradley
Uncle Petya smoothed his beard. Nobody knew how old he was. He only seemed to come to the dacha at New Year, when the snow lay deep and frost laced the twigs on the trees. During the summer, his dacha lay unused, its garden plot a riot of raspberries and weeds. But in winter he would knock, and Mama would let him in, and we would watch his white beard waggle as he ate herring salad washed down with cognac.
He was there, of course, for the stories. There was no television out at the dacha, so now glittering New Year’s Eve show for us. Just the tick of the old clock on the wall and Uncle Petya’s deep voice. That evening, he told us a story we had never heard before.
“Long ago, there lived a girl as beautiful as the day was long. Her hair was the gold of summer wheat, and her eyes were the blue of the summer sky. She was so lovely that any man who laid eyes on her would have fallen on his knees at once and proposed marriage at any price. But she lived far out in the forest with her elderly father, and saw nothing and nobody. For her father was a fearful man, and above all he feared losing her.
She might have been beautiful, but the lovely Annushka was vain. She would study her face in a pail of water for many hours, or wear her mother’s good amber beads to feed the pigs. She loved the tales her father told of the great boyars and their decadent feasts, where everyone ate as much as they pleased and danced all night in the neverending candlelight.
One frosty afternoon, her father came back from the distant village with news. The tsar and his court were proceeding through the far-off town, a day’s walk away. The local boyar was afraid he would be eaten out of house and home before the guests left.
Well, pretty Annushka knew exactly what to do. She was a perfect bride for any boyar, and she had heard even the Tsar might be looking for a wife. So she dressed in her mother’s richest sarafan and crept out after her father fell asleep on top of the stove.
Outside, all was still. The moonlight fell on the ice-crusted snow, bright enough to travel by. Her breath puffed out in front of her in a glowing ball which, when it froze, dropped to the ground. Her eyelashes stuck together at every blink. Oh Lord, it was a cold night indeed when Annushka set out to find a husband.
The moon cast black shadows on the snow and as she passed by, those shadows began to twitch.
Look at her, they whispered, look at that bold girl.
Annushka followed the path her father had beaten through the icy woods. It was beaten down, like the paths outside on this very night, and half a winter deep. A good path. But the shadows were clever, and laid a false path for her. It led her into the deep woods, from where she would not find her way back. Her broad shoes began to sink into the soft snow and yet she went on, the shadows forming a path for her.
When she realised she was lost, Annushka was deep in the forest and a long way from home.
But on a frosty New Year’s Eve, strange things can happen. She heard a crunch behind her, and then another, as someone in the shadows moved towards her. And then he was there, full moonlight turning the man into a woodcut print of black on white.
“You are lost, fair lady,” he said.
Annushka was at first afraid, but then she saw the richness of his sable cloak and the fine embroidery on his silver kaftan. She forgot about the cold and the fear, and smiled up at him. Here was a fine rich man! What luck!
“I am a little lost. Are you one of the Tsar’s boyars?” she asked.
He laughed, and the sound was like frost falling from a tree in a rising winter gale.
“I am not,” he said. “But I am lord of all I survey.”
She looked around, and saw snow and forest and frost.
“Do you have many souls?” she asked. Surely a rich man such as he would have many, all working his land and cooking his meals.
“Oh, I have. I have collected more than any could count.”
Oh, what magical things could happen on this night, when one year ends and the next begins! How fortunate Annushka thought herself then, in a clearing at night with such an immeasurably rich man!
“And why have you wandered so far into my domain?” he asked. His voice sent icicle needles up and down her spine.
“I was going to the Tsar’s feast, my lord.”
“All alone, and uninvited?”
She looked him right in the eye, and said, “They will let me in when they see my face.”
“Perhaps. But you are going with another aim in mind, are you not?”
“I intend to find a husband, my lord, unless anyone asks me on the way.” She gave him a coy look, and he smiled. His eyes were like the dark pools in the snowy woods which never freeze, and where desperate animals drink their last.
“I have been looking for a wife,” he said.
Annushka considered him. “Show me the lands you own, and if they are the widest, I will be your wife,” she replied.
In a sweep of his arm, a wind blew around them. It lifted them up, up into the air, and carried them into the stars. From far up, Annushka could look down on all of Russia, white-cloaked and asleep. And she realised who it was she had promised herself to. For this lord’s kingdom stretched farther than the richest boyar’s, farther than the Tsar’s, farther than even the distant seas. After all, the dominion of winter stretches over all lands, and it never comes to an end.
And so our vain Annushka was wedded to the winter. Her dowry was diamonds that glittered in the winter nights but melted in the spring sun. Her wedding cape was thick as February snow, and that golden hair turned silver.
Now she walks the land on New Year’s Eve, looking for those who, like her, have money on their minds, rather than the love and friendship that they should feel.
So listen, children – do not long for the latest knick-knack or biggest toy. For the snow maiden might cross your path, and the frost might take you.”
We all sat still. I thought of the Lunokhod moon exploration toy I so badly wanted. I looked over at Sasha, who I knew was thinking of the LP that he had noted down even in the summer. Old Petya cracked his knuckles.
He left before the hands met on the clock. As the others were shouting and milling around with champagne and mandarins, I climbed onto a seat to look out of the window.
Uncle Petya was standing by the gate. As I watched, slowly, oh so slowly, a white shape bled out of the darkness until there was a woman walking out of the trees, over the snow, to him.
They joined hands, and walked away into the night.
Sunday Writers' Club Member
Although I grew up in Somerset in England, I come from a big Northern Irish family, which influences my writing. I studied Spanish and Russian at Oxford, and travelled a lot during my studies, living in Russia, Mexico and then Serbia for a while. After graduating into the Great Recession, I needed to find a way to use my languages as a career. Conference interpreting turned out to be the answer. I trained at Bath and moved on to working at the UN agencies in Geneva the following year. The job is demanding but fun; you have to think on your feet and are often in the middle of some quite tense situations. Having to pay attention to someone’s idiolect – that is, the way they speak and the vocabulary they personally use – is good training for making characters sound different on paper. And, of course, I got to see a lot more of the world, with conferences in far-flung locations I would never have dreamed of visiting. After eight years in Geneva, I decided to exercise the ‘free’ part of being a freelancer, and moved to Vienna. Sadly, I haven’t been able to really make use of all of Vienna’s opportunities due to the pandemic, but I did find Sunday Writers, which has become a big part of my week. Writing fills my spare time, the upshot of which being that I have written two novels destined ‘for the desk drawer’, as the Russians say. Hopefully my current project will enjoy a little more success!