Autumn stands before a large pumpkin. Her bare soles, planted on either side, draw up minerals from the rich loam. The pumpkin’s skin, still warm in late afternoon, glows under her touch, deepening from apricot to bittersweet orange. Stepping to the next pumpkin, she works the row, ripening each in turn. She swipes her brow with her forearm, her hands grimy, and pulls the weight of her ginger hair off her hot neck. A murmuring rumples the treetops, whispers forming words she can’t quite make out. A chill lifts the fine hairs on her nape and she shivers.
Probably those air-headed dryads gossiping again.
As she walks to the brook to wash, honey-bright leaves drift down, cling to her hair like sprites. Humming, she pirouettes, her leaf skirts a swirl of marigold, russet, and spice. A garland of purplish-green globes dangling from the branch of a hickory tree catches her eye. She breaks off the vine and holds it up to the fading light.
Crow flutters down to the lowest limb, his bent wing stiff.
“Muscadines,” she calls to him. “Sol’s favorite.” She breathes on the globes and they take on a ruddier, sweeter hue. “Perfect.”
She drapes the fruited vine across a low shrub on the brook’s bank and kneels, scrubbing her hands in the icy water. The stream babbles up at her, unintelligible at first. Dryads flit across the brook, tittering, cover malicious smiles with hazy hands. She looks about, wondering where Sylvannah is and why she hasn’t already herded them into their trees. She swishes the muscadine vine through the water, shaking her head. It’s a mystery to her how she ever endured the flighty things before Sylvannah came.
Crow lights on her shoulder, nudging her head. She shrugs him onto the bank. So little time left to prepare the table for Sol’s visit tomorrow, and the muscadines will be the finishing touch. The stream murmurs insistently and Crow tilts his head toward it, turns and looks up at Autumn. She leans down, listens carefully. The murmurs sharpen into words that glint and wound, and take her breath.
Rising, the soggy fruit slides from her slack fingers.
Autumn’s leaf skirts rush and crackle as she stumbles through the darkening woods, throws herself beneath the arms of the Great Oak. She hooks her fingers in deep, harrows leaf-rot and worm castings, breaks her nails on the bones of birds and vermin. From low in her inner turnings a cry germinates, a cry that, breaking free, rattles branches and drives the dryads into their tree-skins.
She does not cry prettily. Not like Spring, who mastered the art of the one perfect dewdrop tear while they were still girls in Earth’s nursery.
Moaning, Autumn rolls her head on the forest floor and grits her teeth, the moss clinging to her lips. She hears a crack inside her chest like the snap of a twig.
Pushing onto her hands and knees, she crawls closer to the Oak. She huddles between the roots, her back pressed against the furrowed trunk. She curls into her cloak, fastens its silver acorn brooch, and tucks in her bare feet, tight as Tortoise in his shell. Crow lights on her shoulder and roosts in her tangles. Autumn presses her wet cheek against moonshadowed bark, relieved Sol can’t see her now.
All night she burns, shamed.
Like a fool, all day she hummed and danced while she worked, awaiting Sol’s visit. In a large reed basket, she heaped the harvest’s bounty—rosy apples, pomegranates, walnuts and pecans, lush persimmons. She set it on a table strewn with smilax vines by the brook. She savored the thought of Sol by her side for a whole day, wandering the meadow amongst violet and ochre wildflowers, drifting in a rowboat until moonset.
She presses cold fingers against her blazing cheeks.
When morning comes, newly resurrected and only half alive, it sheds its mists and feeds on shafts of light. Light that colors everything the soft gold of Sol’s hair. It fingers her face with tender warmth. She knows this touch—his touch—intimately.
Sol is mocking her.
She shudders to her feet, sends Crow flapping. She slaps twigs from her cloak, squares her shoulders and pulls up her hood, shielding herself from Sol’s gloating.
This is not to be borne.
She marches to the brook, and heaves the table over. The loaded basket crashes to the ground, the fruit bruised and bleeding. She strikes her hands together and sparks shoot from her fingertips. The basket erupts in flame.
Shaking, rage unspent, she sets her face to the North and trudges out of her wood. Crow clings to her gray woolen shoulder, weight-shifting nervously. Mice dart for cover at her approach.
Whisking into vapor, Sylvannah slipped out through a knothole in the Great Oak when the wailing and gnashing of teeth began. All the other dryads shivered inside their trees. But she bit her lip and witnessed Autumn unravel.
Now, with Sol high in the eastern sky, and Autumn and Crow gone, the dryads’ gossip chitters tree to tree.
“Sol jilted Autumn, even though she’s never loved another.”
“I heard he cheated on her with a star.”
“No, two stars.”
“They say he actually expects her to be happy for him.”
Sylvannah listens, amused. Sol doesn’t know Autumn the way she does, if that’s what he expects. She snorts. As if.
It was Autumn’s silly sister, Spring, who else? A bigger flirt she never saw. Sylvannah began life in Spring’s woodland where Spring was forever tempting this star and that to come down to her. And when they burned out on the way, her eyes, the yellow-green of a cat’s, glittered. She clapped as they blazed and fell to cinders at her feet.
And now she’s caught the biggest star of all.
Sylvannah shushes the dryads, and glides into the orchard. She simply can’t see the attraction. Sol is larger than life, always seeking attention. Yes, yes his job is very important—but, nutshells, what a Golden Boy.
Autumn gave him her heart long ago. Sylvannah couldn’t imagine a better match for Autumn. Fiery; everyone around her gets singed at some point. But Sol could handle it, even seemed to revel in her volatile nature.
True, Autumn is unpredictable, but she has a warm and generous spirit few in the wood ever see.
Sylvannah remembers the day many harvests ago when she discovered Autumn’s forest. She watched from the cover of a pine thicket as Autumn tended to an injured bird.
“Stop skulking around the edges of the wood and introduce yourself,” Autumn called to her that day, tying the bird’s wing firmly with strips of linen.
Sylvannah glided out, one hand clinging to chunky bark.
Autumn glanced up and sighed, “Not another dryad.” She ran her hand over the crow’s ragged feathers. “So, what do you want?”
“I’m Sylvannah. I come from Spring’s woodland. She—she banished me.”
Autumn looked up sharply. “Why?”
“I suppose your sister didn’t much like me telling her she was cruel, the way she taunted the stars to their destruction.” She shrugged.
Autumn smiled tightly, tossed her head toward the Oak in the center of the wood. “You’re welcome to live there. You’re the first dryad I’ve met with some sense and grit. If you can keep those nosy airheads out of my hair, you have a home for life.”
So Sylvannah did.
Autumn kept to herself, except for Crow, her constant companion since she saved him from a hunter’s snare. On occasion she visited her favorite sister, Winter. But she sought out Sol more than any other, the way a wing seeks wind.
Sylvannah accepts this. All she needs is the shelter of the Great Oak, his rings of wisdom surrounding her, his constancy—home.
And bossing the other dryads is just gravy.
She weaves through the orchard, inhales the brewery scent of apples that ache for Autumn’s harvesting. Among shriveled, snaking vines, pumpkins bulge to bursting. The trees breathe the colors of fire.
As Sylvannah glides back toward the Oak, her lower lip sucked between her teeth, apprehension curls inside her like a little fog.
Autumn’s sister, Winter, folds her into fur-robed arms and Autumn soaks up her warmth. Sol is weaker here. He and Winter have always maintained a distant relationship.
“I know why you’ve come, Little Acorn,” Winter murmurs into her hair. “But Summer will never agree to it.” She frowns, her eyes black and liquid as a snowhare’s.
Summer. The good sister who tries to bind them together. But she has a soft spot for Sol, friends since the Beginning. She will plead for them all to reconcile, be a family. Family! Accept Sol as a brother?
“Sister,” Autumn snaps, flaring, “I didn’t come to ask a favor. Or permission.” She sees in Winter’s eye the glint of indulgent pride her sister reserves for Autumn alone. It was Winter who comforted her when Mother left them like fledglings in an abandoned nest. Winter who endured her tantrums, taught her to dance like a dervish to burn off the fumes of resentment. “I came to give,” she adds softly.
Winter takes her hands in hers and studies the black-rimmed broken nails. “Autumn, you’re overwrought. With good reason. What Sol did—”
“What they did,” Autumn grinds out.
“Yes. They. But with time—”
“Time? Time will only multiply the pain. The humiliation. There is no one else for me. Ever.”
Winter drops her hands. “Still. I can’t agree to this.” Her pallid brow creases. “What of duty? Those who depend on you?” Her eyes harden like jet. “I will not take your silver acorn.”
“When the time comes, you must.” Autumn juts her chin. “I have no one else.”
Sparks and ice splinters fly between them. Winter reasons, then pleads. Autumn will not be moved.
Winter, her lips trembling, swallows hard, and agrees.
With Winter’s white realm far behind her, Autumn stalks through her own forest to the Great Oak, jaw hard. Snails—too slow to escape—crunch beneath her feet. Her skirts now blaze full-blown maize-gold, cayenne, bittersweet—mushrooms ride her hem like mum death-bells.
“Sylvannah,” Autumn calls, gently stroking Crow’s crooked wing.
Sylvannah floats down hesitantly from a branch high in the Oak, wavering before her.
“I’m giving my silver acorn to my sister. Winter will know what to do.”
“What,” Sylvannah rasps, suddenly still as lichen on bark, “have you done?”
Autumn kneads Crow’s silky head, smears tears off her face. She takes a shuddering breath and shakes him off. He reels twice, then perches in the Oak, head cocked.
“You might want to glide to the highest branches,” Autumn says softly to Sylvannah.
Eyes closed, Autumn imagines Spring, beribboned and blushing in Sol’s light, melting into him—as she herself longs to do, still.
She begins to twirl, her feet an axis, her skirts whirring like a swarm of locusts. She spins, faster. Visceral heat surges up from her core, charges her fingertips, sparks fly. She hurls fingerling flames scattershot. One by one the trees ignite, sacrificed on the pyre of her rage. The gold and wine of a hundred sunsets combust. Oak, maple, and pine pop and hiss their indignation—the screeching dryads flee.
Her skirts explode in a pentecost of wildfire. And she twirls.
At last, the pain exceeds the one in her cracked heart.
Sylvannah drifts through the charred ruins, smoke permeating her gossamer heart. At least the other dryads are safe with their cousins in the river where she drove them. Crow crouches atop an armless black pine, head hidden under his bent wing.
She managed to save the Great Oak, whisking the flames away from his vulnerable upper branches. She caresses his gnarled, ancient bark. Below, something glints in the ash. Swooping down, she retrieves the silver acorn clasp, icon of Autumn’s power, for safekeeping.
And beneath it lies a smoldering, cracked acorn. Autumn’s heart. This, she plants.
Winter comes to bury Autumn’s ashes in mounds of pure white, as she promised.
Sylvannah fastens the silver acorn on Winter’s furs, then glides up into the Oak’s sturdiest branches and waits.
With Autumn’s power, Winter is twice as strong. In time, Sol grows weak. Spring languishes, a pale shadow.
And Winter reigns. Some call it The Little Ice Age. Others call this particularly bitter time The Year Without a Summer.
Sylvannah calls it a reckoning.