Her Hands Like Ice
The hands of the vampire-hunter move like spiders, and I hate them. They creep over our kitchen table, avoiding the plates of sausage and country bread my mother has laid out. They scuttle along the sides of a polished walnut case. Quick fingers, sly fingers—they lift belts and let brass buckles fall with a clink, clink, clink. They ease the lid up. Inside, his tools rest on velvet the colour of old blood. My mother chokes on a gasp; my father will not look.
I hate how the hands of the vampire-hunter dart this way and that as he lays out his instruments, caressing each like a lover.
And smoothly, without a moment’s pause: the stake.
At the sight of this last, my mother clutches my father’s arm, her round face terrified in the candlelight.
“It won’t hurt,” the vampire-hunter says quietly.
My mother whimpers.
“Remember, it is not your daughter.” He glances to me. “Not your sister, Marit.”
I can only stare at his hands. They do not look like butcher’s hands.
“She has not bitten?” he asks.
My parents do not answer, so I say, “No.”
“Then I will watch for her tonight.” The vampire-hunter’s hands replace his tools into the polished walnut case. At the door, he pauses.
“Tomorrow, I will end it.”
“Elisabeth,” I say.
“Her name is Elisabeth.”
He meets my hard stare, his grey eyes cool and calm. “Tomorrow.” One final pause, his neat fingernails rapping the doorframe. “Mind, your hearth is dying.”
Elisabeth returned three days after she died, her winding sheet flapping behind her like a bridal train. Falling snow half-covered her; she appeared and re-appeared, shining like ice and then disappearing into darkness.
“Elisabeth,” I called in a cracked whisper.
She did not move, did not speak. My older sister shone brilliant in the moonlight, brighter than the unbroken snow, and then she passed into shadow. Beyond my reach, once again.
As I lie in bed, that first sighting washes over me. There is too much space without my sister. If I close my eyes, I see her again. I feel the snow biting my skin.
But most of all, I see her: gone before me in all things, even this last. I see her hands like ice, her arms thin and brittle as the trees’ bare branches.
At such thoughts, I cannot sleep. In the moon’s pale light, I dress myself. My hands dance over buttons and hooks as shrewdly as those of the vampire-hunter. Downstairs, the hearth sits grey and dead.
I do not re-stoke it. I take my cloak and leave the house without a sound.
The vampire-hunter waits at the end of the lane. He waits like a wolf, his head raised and eyes unblinking. The stake pokes up from his belt; his clever hands hold his pistol.
“Marit.” He does not look at me. “What are you doing here?”
“I want to help.”
A flicker of attention, nothing more. “You have seen her before, haven’t you?’
“Who else?” His voice is soft as the snow pluming around my boots. “Who else has seen her?”
“Our neighbours.” I have spotted his walnut case resting at his feet, and now I cannot look away. “Customers at my father’s brewery. I don’t know how many.”
“Who saw her first?”
“My father.” My breath hangs in the air between us, alongside the lie.
The hands of the vampire-hunter fall to his stake. “If you saw her first, what would you do?”
“Your father hoped he was dreaming. He said nothing. He waited until others had seen. Only then did he tell your mother. Only then did they send for me.”
The winter presses close.
“What would you have done?” the vampire-hunter asks.
Before I can answer, he turns. Through snow and moonlight, Elisabeth appears. Her pointed face lifts as though scenting the air.
I am very cold.
Unlike me, Elisabeth does not trudge through the snow. She passes over it, leaving no trace. As she draws near, I strain forward. The vampire-hunter’s arm shoots out, catching me in the chest.
“Be silent,” he murmurs. “Be still.”
It is a foolish thing to say. All my words freeze and catch between my teeth. And so I am silent, I am still, and my older sister glides past us. We are far from the village proper, and before Elisabeth is halfway there, she slips into the moonlight like so much scattered snow.
As the vampire-hunter lowers his arm, I exhale.
His long fingers play with the stake once again. “How many has she bitten?”
The vampire-hunter’s gaze flicks to my throat, to where my fingers run in nervous circles over my own cold skin. “Go home, Marit,” he says softly. “There is nothing you can do tonight.”
His words stop me. “But tomorrow?”
“I will open her coffin at noon.”
Elisabeth died after the soil had frozen. Tearful and desperate, my parents built fires over the planned gravesite, but the earth did not thaw. They laid her in the charnel house instead: a squat stone building in the corner of the churchyard. In summer, it stands empty. In winter, it holds the dead the ground will not receive.
That day, I sat at the kitchen table, alone. In clenched hands, I held her neckerchief. Though the warmth had left it, it smelled like her still. Cinnamon and wood-smoke. Smells I did not want to forget, even as the hearth-fire stuttered and smouldered and died to nothingness.
As I near the churchyard, my chest aches. It has ached for so long, it has simply become part of me, as the cold is part of winter.
The vampire-hunter waits outside the door to the charnel house. In his hands, he holds his walnut case. I do not look at it. Instead, I tug the door’s iron ring. Wood scrapes over snow as the door opens, and a rush of cold hits me.
I step onto the stone floor. The vampire-hunter follows me silently. There is space enough that he need not stand too close. Recesses in the walls hold plain wooden coffins. I do not like the air in here—though it is scented only with snow’s sharpness—so I take small breaths.
There are no windows, no openings. It is a cell, a vault, a meat cellar. I stare at my sister’s coffin, my fingers curling at my sides. The hands of the vampire-hunter flash at the corner of my eye. He strikes a match along the stones.
It will not catch. He tries another, and another, but this dead place admits no light, no warmth. He tosses his last match aside with a frown.
“My breakfast was cold this morning,” he says.
I prop the door open. Weak sunlight slants into the charnel house. Not enough to banish the shadows. Enough that the buckles of the walnut case gleam.
The vampire-hunter shakes himself. “Which is your sister’s coffin?”
The hands of the vampire-hunter stroke her coffin. They rub the hinges. I want to scream.
I hate the hands of the vampire-hunter. I hate them as they lift the coffin lid. I hate them more when they fall limp and useless. I hate them most when they beckon me closer.
“Be silent,” the vampire-hunter whispers hoarsely. “Be still.”
For so my sister lies: unspeaking, unmoving. Her dark hair flows over her shoulders like oil on snow. But it is not my sister’s hair. It does not have the sheen, the warmth. It is the hair of someone I do not know.
I lean over the open coffin. It is Elisabeth’s face, but it is not Elisabeth’s face, and I have never been so cold. The vampire-hunter’s long fingers hook under her lips, pull them upwards, pull them back.
Small teeth, crooked teeth. The left incisor chipped from the time she tripped into my father’s brew kettle. Harmless teeth. Human teeth.
“Not a vampire,” the vampire-hunter breathes.
I yearn to put her lips back into place. “What, then?”
One by one, he inspects her fingernails. He brushes her hair aside, examines her neck. Then he wipes his hands on his trousers, frowning.
“What is she?” I ask again.
“I am not sure.” Kneeling, he opens his case. “But we will be cautious, you and I.”
There is no blood, because my sister is long dead. I do not look away. I do not cover my ears against the crack of the pistol and crunch of bone. When it is over, holy water stains my sister’s winding sheet. A hole tears through her heart to match my own. Garlic spills from her slack mouth. The vampire-hunter passes a hand between her head and her neck, making sure.
“It is over,” the vampire-hunter tells me, but his hands move ceaselessly, and I do not believe him.
“It is over,” my mother told me, that last afternoon. I did not believe her, even as the fevered flush faded to grey. I did not believe her, for Elisabeth was still in my arms.
“Come back,” I whispered. As though my breath would stir her to life again. As though she were only in need of stoking. “Please, come back.”
Already, my sister’s skin was so very, very cold.
Because I cannot think what else to do, I return home. My father leans over his brew kettle. “He took care of her, then?” he asks, not meeting my gaze.
I start to nod, but then I stop. I cannot smell the cloying sick-sweetness of boiling wort. No steam curls from the kettle’s mouth. Edging beside my father, I lay one hand on its copper side.
Cold metal bites my skin.
“Why didn’t you light the fire?” I ask.
My father blinks. When he speaks, his breath hangs before me. “What do you mean, Marit?”
“The wort, it’s—” I push past him to the mash tun. Inside its wooden skirt, the copper tub sits lifeless. Wet grain slides through my fingers, slimy and chill.
My father leans over the brew kettle, inhaling. “It’ll be a good batch,” he says. Ice glints from the depths of his beard.
I run. Down the lane, towards the village proper. Chimneys stab the bright sky like fingers. No curls of smoke lie against the blue. At the blacksmith’s, I stop. Clanging metal shatters the muffled quiet. If he is working, the forge must be lit. It must be.
I creep inside his shop. Sunlight shines off whitewashed walls. The blacksmith stands over his anvil, striking again and again. As the floorboards creak beneath my feet, he glances up. Frost coats his cheeks so that they gleam.
“Marit!” he says. “Is your sister…at rest?”
The metal rod on his anvil is dark, stiff. He beats it uselessly. The forge sits empty and shadowed. Setting his hammer to one side, the blacksmith pumps the great bellows behind the forge. A blast of cold air blows my hair back. Sticking the rod into the dead forge, he smiles.
“Go home, Marit, where it’s warm.”
I do not remember the days between Elisabeth’s funeral and her return. I do not think I slept. I know I did not eat. I stayed in our bedroom, sitting on the cold floorboards. The chill leached through my stockings and petticoats.
“Come back. Please. Please come back.”
“What is she?” I burst into the vampire-hunter’s room at the inn. A leather trunk sits open on his bed. The hands of the vampire-hunter move things into it. Cravats and woollen socks, books and paper. His walnut case waits by the door.
“What do you mean?” His eyes are tired, and they do not meet mine.
“My sister is not a vampire. But—” I gesture to his empty hearth, the coals heaped useless as blocks of ice. “What is she doing?”
“It isn’t her.”
“Marit.” The hands of the vampire-hunter reach for me, and I recoil. “She is dead.”
“They are terribly cold, those first few days.” The vampire-hunter looks at me askance. “Aren’t they? Those first few days after.”
I stare at him. And then it rushes over me, as merciless as the winter snows. The cold, empty nights: the fading scents of cinnamon and wood-smoke. I am sitting on the hard floorboards, and I am standing in the charnel house. I am letting her cold fingers fall from mine.
The hands of the vampire-hunter trip over themselves. They pick up his walnut case. They fumble with his coat. And then they falter on the doorknob.
“When you get home,” he croaks, “build a fire. The biggest fire you can. Good luck.”
“I cannot help.” The hands of the vampire-hunter ward me off, and I hate them more than ever. “She is no vampire. She is dead…or would be, if you only let her go.”
For a long time, I stand motionless. Then, slowly, I walk home. Clouds have rolled in. It is that suspended time between afternoon and twilight—that peculiar greyness that happens only in winter. Snow drifts down, shrouding the earth in a winding sheet of its own.
Our house is no warmer. A pot hangs over the empty hearth. My mother sits in the parlour, her chair pulled close to the frozen woodstove. Ice seals her closed eyes.
I find matches in the kitchen. I strike them on the hearth stones, over and over, but they do not light. They snap between my fingers, rigid and brittle as dried bones. My eyes remain dry, terribly so, as I gather myself and try again.
I try to remember my sister’s warmth. I remember the kicks to my ankle, my name on her lips. Above all, I remember cinnamon and wood-smoke.
The matches do not light. When I am down to the last one, the door creaks open.
Elisabeth glides in, her face too white in the fading light. Her winding sheet trails ice along the floor, and despite myself, I inch backwards. At my retreat, her pale lips lift. Her teeth are still the ones I knew so well. Small, crooked.
“Elisabeth,” I begin, but nothing else comes.
My sister’s hands move like spiders, and I have missed them. They creep along our pitted kitchen table, avoiding the plates of stone-cold sausage, the country bread like an ice-block. They wrap around mine, like ice. But I smell cinnamon and wood-smoke, and I sigh. A warm breath, as though she were only in need of stoking.
Come back, Elisabeth’s eyes say. Please, come back.
My sister’s hands stroke my cheeks. Quick fingers, gentle fingers—they place the match between my own. We drag it across the hearthstones.
Flame flares in the darkness. I hold the match close to me. A tiny pinprick of light, nothing more than that. Then I toss it in the hearth. The flame catches on grasses, catches on bark and kindling, and then the bigger logs are alight.
The warmth takes hold, and as my sister fades, her hands grasp mine.
My sister’s hands, melting into mine like snow under the sun.
KT Bryski is a Canadian author and playwright. Her short fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and Apex (among others). Her audio dramas Six Stories, Told at Night and Coxwood History Fun Park are available wherever fine podcasts are found. She is currently at work on her next novel. KT is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing; she also has a mild caffeine addiction.