Long Winter’s Nap
By Catherine H. Shaffer
“Eat,” said MooninMama, “You have a long winter ahead.” LittlestOne turned her head away as MooninMama lifted the spoon of raspberry pie dripping with honey and caribou fat. LittlestOne was sleepy, too sleepy, for what she planned.
“I am already full,” said LittlestOne. Her stomach rumbled, giving away her lie.
MooninMama shrugged and set the plate away. It was beginning to get cold in the cave as the crackling fire burned down to embers. Soon it would be time to sleep, time to dream of spring, when they would awaken, shivering, and find that Santy Clawr had visited them.
MooninMama lay next to YediDaddy and pulled LittlestOne down between them, like a baby. All of the others had their own beds.
The hardest part was lying still between MooninMama and YediDaddy without falling asleep. It wasn’t like going to sleep at night. There were no blankets to keep them warm, though they had soft beds. More than once, LittlestOne shook herself awake after accidentally nodding off. She wasn’t sure she could fight off the long sleep by simple force of will, not with the cold coming down into her bones.
She peeked out from beneath her heavy lids and the cave was dark except for the thin, crackly lines of orange from the dying embers in the fire pit. The taste of sugar rose to her tongue and her hands and feet began to tingle.
MooninMama was still, her breath coming softer and fainter each time. Her bright blue eyes were closed and her cheek as soft as a baby’s. Chestnut hair fanned around her shoulders. Her breasts rose and fell softly with her breath. YediDaddy wasn’t breathing at all. There was a faint beard of frost on his face, decorating the stubble on his chin. All around lay LittlestOne’s brothers and sisters, their children, her aunts and uncles and cousins, her grandparents, and all the other people of the tribe.
In the summer, when the tribe slept, there were all sorts of sounds in the night. People coughing, snoring, and sometimes laughing, but here there was nothing but a deep silence.
LittlestOne stood up and shook the tingling out. She felt a pang of longing looking at her parents hibernating, but it wasn’t enough to keep her with them. She turned to sneak out. She felt dizzy and stumbled several times as she tiptoed across the sleeping bodies of her tribe. Nothing would wake them now but Spring.
LittlestOne crawled out of the cave and went to the summer house that YediDaddy had built. She lit a fire and crouched beside it. When she felt completely awake, she went out into the night. It was snowing softly, and there weren’t any stars. She had never been so alone.
But she resisted the temptation to go back to the cave with her family. She imagined what they would say when she told them she had met Santy Clawr. They wouldn’t think she was such a baby, then!
The days were lonely for LittlestOne. It grew colder and all she wanted to do was go to sleep. Many times she woke herself just on the verge of hibernation , and had to get warm again so she wouldn’t miss Santy.
She knew where to find food, even under the snow. MooninMama and YediDaddy kept caches of meat and potatoes underground, where they wouldn’t go bad. There were some nuts and berries left on the bushes, and she didn’t need to eat much, since she was so small.
Digging through the buried boxes, LittlestOne wondered why there was so much food, with the feast that Santy Clawr would be bringing.
To fight off the loneliness, she sat up on top of the highest hill and looked out over the water. The Hots had called it Saginaw Bay. The wind blew, raising ridges of white up out of the gray water.
She cracked a walnut with a rock and wondered how long it would be before Santy Clawr came. The snow was as deep as her ankles. She liked to bury her feet in it, and wiggle her toes until they popped out like mice. She lay down and stared at the cloudy sky. It was like being rocked in MooninMama’s arms. She could still hear the bay nearby, crashing against the shore. It was never this angry in the summer. The wind blew, bearing the bitter scent of snow.
The birds flew away and snow fell. More snow than LittlestOne had ever seen before. Cold wind howled down out of the north, slapping her in the face with the scent of pine needles and deep, gray water. The nights became quieter, broken only by the occasional cry of a wolf. LittlestOne thought she heard the creaking of the glacier, making its slow journey toward their village.
One night, a sound made LittlestOne sit straight up in her bed. It was a wood frog, croaking all by itself in the swamp. LittlestOne hunted for it all the next day, calling softly, “Papa Rana? Papa Rana?”
She found him and took him home inside her cupped hands. “You’re waiting for Santy Clawr, too, no?”
In a clay jar by the fire the frog crouched, moving its gullet up and down. LittlestOne appreciated the company, but even more, the frog represented a blessing from the ancestors for her quest. He was the wise and ancient ancestor Rana sylvatica, who had taught her people to hibernate, so that they could stay in their homeland when the ice came. Papa Rana had married a human woman, and their children had become LittlestOne’s tribe.
If Papa Rana waited for Santy Clawr, staying awake against the approach of winter, so could she.
YediDaddy’s summer house got too cold. It was built of sticks and couldn’t keep the wind out. LittlestOne could not sleep there anymore.
To keep warm and not fall too deeply asleep at night, she had to listen to the wisdom of the squirrels. In the fall, squirrels built a nest inside a hollow tree and lined it with leaves. The more leaves they put in, the warmer it was. This was the learning passed down through the tribe from the first ones.
It took a long time to find a hollow tree big enough for LittlestOne. When she crawled inside, she had just enough room to lie down curled up in a ball. She collected lots of leaves and dry grass from beneath the snow and stuffed them inside.
She carried the jar with the wood frog to the hollow tree, but when she got there, he wasn’t inside. Now I am truly alone, she thought. The frog had no doubt gone beneath the ground and fallen into hibernation, his insides bathed in blood thick and sweet as honey.
LittlestOne forgot to count the days, and MooninMama was not there to remind her. That was why she didn’t know how long she’d been on her own when the Hots arrived.
Snow was pouring down like rain. They flew out of the storm in a shiny metal airplane shaped like a fish, and landed right in the middle of the tribal meeting grounds. The bare dirt of the dance ring was covered with snow, so it looked like any clearing in the woods.
At first LittlestOne thought that it was Santy Clawr. But there were no reindeer, and when the door opened on the giant, silver fish, a family came out, not a fat man in a red suit.
There was a Mama and a Daddy in that family, and two children near LittlestOne’s age. She thought that if they had children, they must be friendly people, so she went out to greet them.
Because they were Hots, they wore a lot of clothes. Great jackets that went up over their heads with fur ruffs, and giant shoes that went almost to their knees. They hid their hands inside a pair of soft shoes and wrapped cloth around their necks.
The snow fell so heavily that at first the family didn’t notice her when she stepped out of the trees. The mama screamed and the children just stared.
When the screaming stopped, the Daddy coaxed her out of the woods and they took her into the flying fish. Its stomach was a narrow room. Soft benches covered with short, bright red fur lined one wall. There were cupboards on both long walls, and windows on the sides that looked out into the snow. A small table sat to one side.
The Mama, mopping tears from her eyes and making little gasping sounds the whole time, dressed her in some lumpy clothes. Perhaps they were planning a religious ceremony. LittlestOne could think of no other reason to wear so much clothing.
The Mama and Daddy went inside a compartment separated from the stomach of the fish by a curtain. The Daddy was communicating with some other Hots by pressing buttons on the inside wall. “About eight years old,” she heard him say. “Wandering naked in the woods.”
The voices inside the wall sounded like they were talking in a windstorm. “Stay inside the vehicle…rescue team will arrive as soon as possible…poor visibility.”
The Mama whispered to the Daddy, quietly, scolding him for getting them lost in a storm.
There was another Daddy fussing at the stove with a pot of hot water. The children called him Nanny. He had very pale skin and no hair and wore metal bands around his wrists and neck.
The children were excited to meet LittlestOne. “Where are your parents?” the girl asked. She had long, blond hair hanging in two braids down the side of her head. Her name was Shelly.
“They are sleeping,” said LittlestOne. “Under the ground.”
Shelly opened her eyes very wide. “You’re all by yourself?”
LittlestOne nodded. “I’m waiting for Santy Clawr.”
The boy, who was several years younger than his sister, jumped up and down. “Santa Claus! Santa Claus!” he said. His name was Eric.
The blond girl smiled and leaned close to LittlestOne. “I’ve seen him,” she whispered. “We’re going to spend Christmas with my grandma in the mountains, and I sent him a letter saying he should bring my presents there on Christmas Eve.”
“What’s Christmas Eve?” asked LittlestOne.
“She doesn’t know what Christmas Eve is?” said the boy.
“It’s when Santa flies all over, bringing presents to every boy and girl.”
“He couldn’t visit all of them in one night!” said LittlestOne. She was disappointed.
“He visits all the children on all the planets in all the galaxies all in one night!” said Sybiq. “On Christmas Eve!”
The blond girl nodded. “Tonight is Christmas Eve.”
“But what if we don’t get to Grandma’s in time?” said the boy. “Santa won’t be able to find us out here by the glaciers.”
“I sent a message to Santa, giving him our coordinates. He has good lights on his sleigh,” said the Daddy, ducking through the low doorway between the front of the fish and the body. Turning to Nanny, he said, “As soon as the blizzard stops, they’ll send a rescue team out to pick up the girl and any other survivors. They gave me instructions to treat her for hypothermia, but when I told them she was uninjured, they became very interested.”
LittlestOne sat on her knees with Shelly and Eric on the cushioned bench beneath the window in the side of the fish. Together they peered through the glass out into the night. It was black dark and they could see nothing but thick snow swirling madly inches from the glass, like a wall of milk. LittlestOne could have watched it all night.
“We’ll have Christmas Eve right here!” said the Mama. “Come Nanny, let’s get everything ready.”
Nanny and the Daddy and the Mama reached behind hidden doors inside the flying fish and got out plates piled with food and bright ribbons and colorful gold balls and strings of tiny lights. They laid a splendid meal on the tiny table. There was a platter of steaming meat and vegetables, golden-crusted pies with sweet juices leaking out and hundreds of candies colored red and white and green. Music began to play, coming from somewhere above LittlestOne’s head.
Nanny handed each of the children a curly red and white candy. “Thank you,” said LittlestOne.
The Mama laughed suddenly, as if LittlestOne had thanked the cookstove or the music box.
Nanny raised one eyebrow. “You are welcome,” he answered.
Nanny set a nativity scene out and the children gathered around admiring the animals and the wise men. “Where’s the baby Jesus?” said LittlestOne. A silent pause followed, and everyone stared at her blankly.
The best part of the feast was the walnuts. The Daddy set out a bowl of walnuts and some nutcrackers made out of metal and began to crack them. She hardly ate any of the meat and pies because she had so many walnuts. And with the clever nutcrackers, it was easy to get them open.
But even though everyone was having a wonderful time, LittlestOne felt confused. “It’s as if Santy Clawr has already been here,” she said.
Shelly and Eric laughed. “No, he brings the presents!” said Eric.
LittlestOne looked at him. “Presents?” she asked.
“Yes, you’ll see tomorrow.”
Every spring when LittlestOne woke up, there was a feast laid out of venison haunches and tiny sweet cakes and candies made of maple syrup and all the walnuts she could eat. There were bright decorations hung from the trees and dried fruits and dancing and singing. And at the end of the day, WoodchuckMama always gave her a special gift. Last spring, it had been a doll, made of cloth and stuffed with sweet-smelling dried summer grasses, with glass beads for eyes and straw hair. LittlestOne already knew that WoodchuckMama had been working on a beaded dress for her to wear dancing and that would be her gift for Christmas this year. Could that be what Shelly and Eric expected Santy Clawr to bring them? Perhaps Santy Clawr didn’t really visit the Hots after all, and it was just the parents that made a Christmas celebration.
LittlestOne smiled and tried to learn the songs the children were teaching her. But inside she felt as if she might cry, because she was certain that Santy Clawr wasn’t coming to the flying fish that night after all.
Suddenly, the door to the rear compartment of the fish burst open, and Nanny came in, dressed in a red suit and a white beard.
Shelly and Eric jumped up and down, cheering. “I told you he would come!” said Eric.
LittlestOne glanced between Nanny and the Mama and Daddy. Daddy was saying, “Come on in, Santa, you’re just in time for the celebration!”
Nanny sat down with Shelly on one knee and Eric on the other. The children’s eyes glowed and LittlestOne could tell they really believed that Nanny was Santy Clawr. She wondered if the parents believed it, too. They couldn’t possibly, but by now she would believe anything about the crazy Hots.
“What are your Christmas requirements, Shelly?” said Nanny-Santa.
Shelly told him. She listed dozens of items that LittlestOne had never heard of. Then Eric took his turn and did the same. When they were done, LittlestOne was offered a turn in Santa’s lap. She declined, and Santa stepped out into the snow. “I will deliver your gifts between midnight and oh-one-hundred hours,” said Santa.
After a while, all the food disappeared and the children began yawning and rubbing their eyes. Nanny reappeared in his regular clothes. Shelly begged to stay up a little later, claiming she wasn’t tired. Eric cried and demanded that Nanny leave him alone.
Nanny wrestled LittlestOne into a garment the Hots called pajamas. It covered her body from the neck to the feet. It felt like a steam bath on the inside. “How may I assist you to fall asleep?” he asked her. “I am programmed with one point seven million lullabies in thirteen thousand human languages.”
“Nothing, please,” said LittlestOne.
The Mama and Daddy slept up above the flying compartment and the children slept on a bed that unfolded from a bench. LittlestOne was squeezed beside Shelly, with the big kids! Not stuck between a Mama and Daddy like a tiny baby.
Nanny slept on the floor with no blankets like a dog.
LittlestOne could feel the heat building in her body, especially her feet each in its own sack of blanket fabric. She kicked aside the quilt that Nanny had put on top of her and the other children, but it didn’t help. At least she wouldn’t fall into hibernation inside the Hots’ flying fish, but she couldn’t get any rest, either, with the warmth flooding her body.
Soon it was silent, except for heavy sighs of the sleeping Hot family. LittlestOne pulled down the metal tab that held her clothing on and slipped out of it. Then she lay on top of the blanket. She was so warm that she couldn’t stop fidgeting. She wanted to get up and run and jump, but she didn’t want to bother the Hots. Finally, she fell into a fitful sleep.
She woke to hear voices. The three adults were moving silently around the room. They pulled colorful boxes from a compartment high above their heads and whispered to each other.
“Look at her,” said the Daddy. “Naked as a jaybird.”
“Should I cover her?” asked Nanny.
“No,” said the Daddy. “The Washington people think she’s some kind of a transgenic. Most likely she’s comfortable that way. They’ve already got a team ready at the National Hospital to study her.”
“Transgenic? Isn’t that illegal?” said the mama.
“It wasn’t always,” said the Daddy.
“There were dozens of isolationist political factions at the time of the diaspora that may have used transgenic technology to survive the Ice Age,” said Nanny.
“Poor thing! I’m putting her name on some of Shelly and Eric’s gifts,” said the Mama. “They’ll never know.” After a long pause, the Mama spoke again. “Seems cruel to take her away from her home. Do we really have any right?”
“A child wandering alone in the wilderness? It would be cruel to leave her here,” the Daddy answered. “It would be different if her parents were still alive to care for her.”
LittlestOne watched them through eyes open barely a slit while she pretended to sleep. When they were done piling the presents, they each ate from a plate of cookies and the Daddy drank a glass of milk. Then they went back to their beds.
LittlestOne lay still, but silent tears rolled down her cheeks, because she knew she would not see Santy Clawr that night, because the presents Eric had talked about were already here, stacked up to the ceiling. More presents than LittlestOne had got from WoodchuckMama her entire life.
When she was done crying, because no one could cry forever, LittlestOne began to think about her own tribe’s Christmas celebration. When she woke up in the spring, MooninMama and YediDaddy and the other adults were already awake. They must have prepared all the food from the underground caches and laid out the feast while the children still slept, then woke them when it was ready. That would explain why the candies that Santy Clawr brought tasted so much like the ones that SwampunderMama made for the harvest festival. And why MooninMama spent so much time collecting pine cones in the fall. It was a great game, making a surprise for the children, and LittlestOne had never known it.
She smiled in the dark, because she couldn’t wait to tell MooninMama and YediDaddy what she had learned. More than anything, this would prove to them that she wasn’t a baby anymore. She knew a secret that not even the big kids knew!
Moving slowly and softly, so as not to wake anyone, LittlestOne crept out of the bed where she lay with Shelly and Eric. None of them stirred, except for Nanny, flat on his back on the cold, hard floor. She put one foot over him and froze while he rolled his head back and forth. Then quick as a snake his hand was around her ankle and his yellow eyes were open. “The lavatory is there,” he said. “Otherwise, children are required to remain in bed until oh six hundred hours.”
LittlestOne met his gaze. His eyes looked human, except for their color. They were moist and ringed with lashes. His skin was faintly scaled. She wondered if there was a Papa Rana for people like him. “Please,” she said. “It’s too warm in here.”
Nanny’s grip on her ankle loosened, then let go. He looked at her for a long time, then he put his arm by his side and closed his eyes. Would he be punished? LittlestOne wondered, then she had a sudden image of the Mama scolding the stove or the refrigerator for malfunctioning. She shuddered.
Comforting coolness penetrated the door through its metal parts, soothing LittlestOne’s hands when she touched the handle. Whispering one final farewell to the Hot family, she opened it and ran into the night. The blizzard raged on, but LittlestOne found her way to the cave even through the snow, her footsteps disappearing almost as soon as she made them. She lay down between MooninMama and YediDaddy, and let hibernation take her, finally.
Long Winter’s Nap by Catherine H. Shaffer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at escapepod.org.
About the Author
Catherine H. Shaffer is a writer and biotech journalist living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She has published short fiction in a number of magazines and anthologies, particularly Analog Science Fiction and Fact. A biochemist by training, she reports daily news in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry for BioWorld Today, and enjoys yoga and communing with her four cats and two English mastiffs in her spare time. She attended the Clarion workshop in 1997, and has been writing and publishing science fiction and fantasy ever since. Catherine maintains an infrequent blog at soshiny.netwhere you can keep up with adventures such as a cross country road trip in a 40-year-old Airstream trailer and surviving a major home renovation with sanity (mostly) intact.
About the Narrator
Mur Lafferty is the co-editor and sometime-host of Escape Pod.
She is an American podcaster and writer based in Durham, North Carolina. She is the host and creator of the podcasts I Should Be Writing and Ditch Diggers. Her books have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, and Scribe Awards. In the past decade she has been: co-founder/co-editor of Pseudopod, founder of Mothership Zeta, editor or co-editor of Escape Pod (where she is currently).
She is fond of Escape Artists, in other words.
Mur is the 2013 winner of the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. (formerly the John W. Campbell Award)