Winter of the Crystal Dances

By Angela Dorsey

Young adult, Children's, Environment & nature, Action & adventure

Paperback, eBook

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11 mins

Chapter One

Luckily, I stayed up late that night, reading by lantern light until my eyes burned. Yeah, you guessed right – we don’t have electricity. When I finally accepted that the book was too long to finish before morning, I closed it grudgingly.
Loonie, our ancient German Shepherd – she’s almost thirteen, like me – raised her head and whined, sensing I was about to desert her. I scratched behind her ears, then picked up the lantern and carried it into the second room of our tiny cabin, the bedroom I share with my mom.
The cold floor bit at my feet and the air wasn’t much warmer, even though the door was wide open to the front room where our wood stove belched out heat. I jumped beneath my big fluffy quilt and snuggled in, then peeked out to blow out the lantern. Mom slept on undisturbed. Moonlight splashed through the small window above her bed and coated her blankets with liquid silver. Her face was peaceful in the glow. She’d never know how late I stayed up.
I closed my eyes and began my own trip to dreamland.
Hunger and pain rumble into my body like an avalanche. My legs are raw and bloody, my stomach an empty cavern. I long to drop into the soft snow, I am so weak and tired, and so very, very cold – but death lies there. And worse. I can face my own death. But the death of my foal – and he will die without me – I cannot bear.
The mustangs were near. And they were starving.
Okay, time out. Let me explain before you think I’m totally whacked. I have a “gift.” I hear horses. Actually, maybe hear is the wrong word. It’s more like I can feel them, and with some horses, the ones who think more abstractly, I can translate my impressions into words. Basically, when a horse steps into the river, I sense what it senses – wet, cold, the current pushing – and though I’m not in the river, or near a river, the feeling of stepping into a river is completely real to me. Usually it’s not quite as strong as things I feel myself as a human – unless the feeling is panicky or desperate. Then it takes over. Completely. That’s only happened a few times, but believe me, it’s not remotely cool. It’s terrifying.
Only Rusty, my gray gelding, knows about my weird talent, if it can even be called a talent. Rusty and I can even talk. He’s picked up a bit of language and grammar. I know that sounds crazy but it’s true. And in turn, I’ve learned how to better interpret horse thoughts by speaking with him. I’ve never talked to any other horse but Rusty – well, except once, and it ended very badly for the horse. She was one of the mustangs. Her name was Willow, and – I’m sorry. I can’t go there. I thought I could, but I can’t. Let’s leave it at that.
No humans know of my ability. I learned to keep quiet about it because of my mom. I tried to tell her once, a long time ago when she said she believed in magic. I don’t know what kind of magic she was talking about because when I told her about hearing the horses, she completely freaked. Apparently, she always thought I was spouting poetry when I’d say strange things as a little kid. Ha! I’m about as poetic as a doorknob.
When I told her about “feeling” the horses, she got all weird and started ranting about how she was ruining my life and stunting my emotional and social growth by keeping us out here in the wilderness. She went on and on about how I was “bushed and eccentric.” Thanks, Mom.
It took all my powers of persuasion to convince her I was just pretending to understand horses, that I was joking. She became furious – which was much better than her being upset and worried. Too much worry might make her think she has to leave the Chilcotin, our remote region of British Columbia, to save me from being a social misfit. But I love being a social misfit. I love it here in the wild.
Okay, so now that you know about my psycho psychic ability, back to the mustangs. I knew these horses. Willow belonged to their herd. I searched for her thoughts among the pained voices. Was she there? Had she survived, despite what I’d done to her?
I heard Night Hawk, the herd stallion, telling Twilight, the yearling buckskin filly, to not lag behind. Then I focused on the mares and their children: Wind Dancer, a pretty palomino and Twilight’s dam, Black Wing, dam of two-year-old Dark Moon; and Snow Crystal, a gray mare so old that she’d long ago turned white. Her latest – and probably last – foal, a blue roan colt named Ice, ran at her side. My mind went back through the horses, but I hadn’t missed anyone. Willow wasn’t there.
I blinked back tears. So she had died after all. The accident must have left her too weak to survive this brutal winter.
I got out of bed, pulling my quilt with me and wrapping it around my shoulders for warmth as I hurried to the window on my side of the room. Outside the window was a fairytale land, everything frosted with untouched snow and the moonlight so bright that you knew that if light could sing it would sound like a distant flute’s high melody. No moon dogs though, those weird bright patches that appear on each side of the moon whenever ice crystals linger in the air. I was glad not to see them, because they usually mean the coming of worse weather.
But moon dogs or no, I could see it was harsh cold out there. The sky was empty of clouds and the snow seemed strewn with diamonds. The tree branches sparkled. Perfect stillness reigned. It looked exactly as it had for the last two weeks. My forehead touched the window and I jerked back when the glass burned frigid against my skin.
The mustangs were right – it was horribly cold out there, the type of weather that cracked trees and killed wild animals. And they were obviously past the point of being able to fend for themselves. They needed food and shelter.
I couldn’t just stay inside where it was warm and let them pass by without doing something. I had to help them.

Chapter Two

I put on my warmest clothes and then pulled my second warmest out of my drawers. Mom moved in her bed, disturbed by my noise, even though I hadn’t relit the lamp.
Toenails clicked as Loonie walked across the front room and into the bedroom. I knelt down to pet her. She knows she’s not allowed away from the door on the super-cold nights that Mom lets her inside, but then again, it’s not every night one of your people gets up and puts on masses of clothing.
“Evy?” The toenail clicks must have awakened Mom.
“What are you doing?”
I couldn’t tell her I sensed the mustangs. “There’s something moving out there. I think it’s the wild horses.”
Mom sat upright, then jerked her blankets up to cover her shoulders. “You’re not going out there.”
“They need help, Mom. I’m going to put some hay in the meadow. It’s been so cold and if they’ve come this close to the house, they’re probably starving.” I pulled my second warmest shirt on over my warmest.
Mom swung her legs from under her covers. “I’ll come too,” she said, then gasped when her feet touched the freezing floor.
“You don’t have to. I’ll be alright.”
I could feel the look she gave me in the dark. “It’s too dangerous for you to be outside alone in this weather.”
She was right, of course. When exposed skin can freeze in less than a minute, it’s dangerous being anywhere outside.
Mom lit the lantern and quickly we bundled up in clothes, hats, coats, scarves, mittens, and boots. I whispered to Loonie through my scarf to stay inside, then opened the door. A frigid wall of air shoved its way into the cabin, making me shiver beneath my layers.
“Hurry,” Mom said behind me.
I stood to the side to let her past. I wore way too many clothes to actually hurry. Mom waddled past me and through the door, and I couldn’t help but laugh. She turned to look at me following her, then started to giggle. I must be waddling too.
What’s wrong? Rusty’s question popped into my head. He must have heard us shut the door.
The mustangs are near. They are hungry.
Give food to them?
Yes, will feed them.
Rusty’s approval warmed my mind.
“Evy… Evy?”
“Sorry, I… what’d you say?”
I could see Mom shaking her swathed head even in the shadow of the porch. “What goes on in that head of yours when you zone out?”
“Nothing.” Then I realized what I’d said. “I mean lots of things. Too many things to talk about.”
“I think that’s a little closer to the truth.” Mom motioned to me to go first.
I stepped off the porch and stomped through the snow to the barn with Mom close behind.
There was a sudden brush of disquiet in the air. Had the mustangs somehow sensed us, even though they weren’t close enough to hear our quiet voices?
“We shouldn’t talk out loud any more,” I whispered. “If the mustangs hear us, they’ll take off.”
“So you really saw them?” Mom whispered back. The snow crunched underfoot as we walked.
I hate direct questions like that. “I saw shadows in the trees,” I said evasively.
“And you could tell they were horses?”
“Yeah. By the way they moved.” Of course, I hadn’t seen a thing and I hated lying, especially to my mom, but I really didn’t have any choice.
“Could you tell how many?”
“Seven, I think.” I cringed saying the number aloud. If not for me, there would have been eight.
“Let’s put out four bales.”
I pulled the barn door open with a heavily gloved hand. The interior was pitch black. Mom and I slipped inside, then Mom shut the door and clicked on the flashlight she’d had the forethought to bring. Rusty, my gray gelding, and Cocoa, Mom’s chocolate brown mare, put their heads over their stall doors to watch us. Cocoa whinnied a greeting.
“I’ll throw the hay down,” I said, a little louder now that the barn door was closed.
Mom handed the flashlight to me. “Be careful climbing the ladder. Your mittens might slip on the wooden rungs.”
I nodded and put the end of the flashlight in my teeth to light my way up the ladder. Down below, Mom went to the woodstove at the far end of the barn. A moment later, I heard her open the stove door and throw in some more wood. The barn was drafty, but the stove helped to keep Rusty, Cocoa, and the two barn cats just a little warmer on these screaming cold nights.
In the loft, Socrates and Plato, the two cats, bundled together for warmth. The flashlight’s beam caught them on a hay bale near the top of the ladder, looking like a furry round cushion with two heads. Each black cat had one blue eye and one green eye, but on opposite sides of their little faces, so they looked like mirror images of each other. I knelt down to give them a little snuggle and to warm the exposed skin around my eyes at the same time. Socrates mewed when I pulled away and stretched one paw out from the pillow they made together.
“Go back to sleep, guys.”
Socrates must have felt the cold because he whipped his leg back inside, then both brothers put their heads down and closed their jewel eyes.
Cocoa nickered again when I threw the third bale down and I heard Mom shushing her, then I chucked the fourth bale over the edge and started down the ladder.
A sound resonates in the dark. The wind? Loose snow falling from a branch? Or soft fur rubbing a tree trunk? I strain my every sense. Is it nothing? Or a predator?
My hand slipped on the ladder rung and back in the barn, I gasped.
“Evy, you’re doing it again. The zoning thing.” Mom’s voice wasn’t amused this time.
“I… It’s… It’s nothing – just a little dizzy. That’s all.” I felt Mom’s hand on my ankle.
I high-step toward the noise. Tree trunks whip past me in the darkness.
“Just take it slow and easy. One step down at a time, okay?” Mom’s voice pulled me back.
“Okay.” I stepped down and she guided my foot to the next rung.
Air rushes in and out of my lungs as I inhale the sharp air. My muscles thrum with energy, and I ache to pummel any creature that threatens my herd.
I moved one hand to a lower rung.
“Hold on tight,” Mom said. “Tighter than that.”
I concentrated on strengthening my grip.
I snort into the darkness. Whatever is there – if anything – isn’t coming out. I look back and catch Snow Crystal’s eye. She will lead the others to safety if there is danger. But this time we may not need to run.
My next step down was firmer, and by the time I reached the bottom, I felt almost normal again. Adrenalin from my reaction to Night Hawk’s strong emotions still jittered in my veins, making me shaky, but at least I was breathing normally.
“Are you okay, honey?” Mom drew me into her arms. “What happened?”
I shifted in her embrace, uncomfortable. “I’m not a little kid anymore, Mom. I just felt dizzy, that’s all.”
She pulled back. “It’s these late nights. From now on, no reading after ten.”
“Mo-om.” Okay, so I sounded just a bit whiney.
“No buts.” Her voice was firm. “How late were you up tonight?”
I couldn’t tell her I still hadn’t gone to sleep. Then she’d think she was right. “After midnight,” I said, and it wasn’t a lie. Not really.
“From now on, ten o’clock,” she repeated. “Now let’s get this hay out there so you can get some rest.”
I scowled, but she didn’t see. She was already hauling a bale toward the door. I grabbed the strings of a second one and dragged it after her.
“We can take them on the toboggan,” she said, once the hay was outside the barn. We loaded the four bales on the toboggan, two piled on top of two, and then I walked beside them to hold them steady as she pulled them along. It was tough going as we floundered through the snow, but at least the crust held the toboggan and hay – and compared to the emotions that had been raging through my mind and body just minutes ago, pulling four bales of hay on a thin toboggan through two feet of snow was a piece of cake.
My horse-radar could feel the mustangs settling, relaxing, spreading out, and finally, totally unaware of what they’d eventually find in the meadow by our cabin, they continued to meander in our direction. Their impressions floated toward me: the delight of finding a full mouthful; a tree snapping in the cold and Night Hawk investigating; the two youngest horses forlornly following their dams, hungry and tired, tired, tired. Starvation gnawed at all their bellies like trapped rats clawing their way to freedom.
Finally, we reached the middle of the meadow. I let the bales tip over and then, after Mom cut the strings, I gathered baling twine, shoved it in my pocket, and we both scattered the loose hay around on the sparkling snow.
We started back to the barn, the toboggan skimming over the snow behind us, as light as air. “I hope they find it. It’s such a waste if they don’t,” whispered Mom.
“Me too.” I glanced in the direction I felt the horses to see nothing but dark forest. “But even if they don’t, something will eat it,” I said, deciding to have a bit of fun. “Like moose. Maybe a whole bunch of them will come. That would be cool.”
Mom stopped and looked fearfully back at the hay, probably wondering how hard it would be to gather up and carry back to the barn.
“I’m just teasing,” I admitted. “The mustangs will have it all gone before the moose know it’s there.”
“I hope so,” said Mom. She was scared of moose, and for good reason. One day last winter, she’d gone out to spend some time with Cocoa. She was walking along, daydreaming about her current painting, when she almost bumped into a massive bull moose hanging out by the barn, looking for food. He chased her back to the house, even fitting under the low roof on our tiny porch, and stomped and snorted for about half an hour. Finally, he became so irritated by Loonie’s barking that he left. Loonie might be old, missing some teeth and almost blind, but she can still bark from under the porch. Anyway, since then, Mom has had a very healthy respect for moose.
Back at the barn, we leaned the toboggan against the wall, double-checked that Rusty and Cocoa were still doing fine, shoved one more piece of wood into their stove, and hurried back to the house. The cold had been sifting through my clothes for a while, despite all my layers, and I was so glad to get back inside the house. It was like entering an oven. And I’d been cold earlier, just going into the bedroom. Like so many things, cold is relative, I guess.
“It’s going to be a while until they find it, isn’t it?” asked Mom, as she stared out the big front window at the chaotic lumps of hay darkening the meadow.
Mom yawned. “I’m off to bed then. I want to get Icicles finished tomorrow.” Mom names her paintings. “You too,” she added. “You need to be awake to do your schoolwork.”
“But what if I miss them?”
“The important thing is that they get their food, not that you see them.”
“But Mom.”
“You can get up early,” she said in a tone that told me all discussion was over. I’m only allowed a tiny bit of whining before she shuts me down. She’s so completely unreasonable sometimes.
Mom wasted no time getting back to bed and I had no choice but to follow her into the bedroom. But getting up early was no solution. Even if the mustangs didn’t arrive for an hour or two, they’d be long gone before dawn.
I crawled beneath my covers on my side of the room, acting both stiff with protest and mournfully silent at the same time, but Mom didn’t even notice. She just burrowed into her covers and shut her eyes, leaving me to stare at the dark ceiling.
There was no way I’d be able to sleep tonight, especially since I could feel the mustangs in their wanderings. Their hurting legs, empty bellies, and biting chills shivered through my body, making me feel sick and alone and painfully aware. As soon as Mom’s breath became slow and steady, I threw my top quilt around my shoulders and slipped from the room.
The wood stove in the living room glowed a soft orange around the metal door. It was a homemade stove and not airtight, and yet the vague light it made was almost lost to the moonlight streaming in the front window. Quickly and quietly, I stoked up the fire and closed the stove door again, then went to the window and curled up in my favorite reading chair to wait in comfort. Loonie settled on the floor near me.
Snow Crystal was the first to notice the smell of the hay. Astonishment coursed through her body and mind. Then came bubbly hope. Maybe there would be food for her suffering foal. Maybe they would survive.
Black Wing smelled it next. She stopped and held her head high, inhaling deeply, again and again. The aromas taunted her, teased her senses. I felt her realize it wasn’t a dream and move forward.
One by one, the others became aware of the feast that awaited them. Dark Moon, the two-year-old colt, forgot his raw legs. Delight sparked through Twilight and Ice like electricity, energizing every movement.
The only one who didn’t seem thrilled was Night Hawk. Suspicion crowded out any pleasure he might have felt as he trotted to the front of the herd. He breathed deep, then stalked forward, every sense on alert. The other mustangs followed him eagerly, hungrily, the youngsters barely able to control their impulse to race to the food.
I held perfectly still as Night Hawk stepped out of the forest. The moonlight played over his thin, furry form as he glared at the hay darkening the open space. He looked back at his herd, at the hay again, and finally at the cabin. I held my breath. Chances were low that he could see me from this distance and on the other side of the glass, but I didn’t want to risk anything.
Loonie saw movement and whined. I shushed her, then added, “Good girl. Now, stay.” Now was not the time for the dog to bark at the intruder. Even if she barked from inside the cabin, he’d hear her for sure.
Night Hawk’s trepidation coursed through me as he stared at the cabin, and after what seemed hours, he looked away. He was satisfied that the dark building was no threat, at least for now. His mind turned back to the hay itself. Was this offering a trap? Why did this food lie here, unclaimed?
Safe. The thought popped out of my head before I could stop it and Night Hawk’s head shot even higher. Had he heard me? He must have! Did he recognize my voice as belonging to Willow’s killer?
“Please don’t panic. Please don’t go,” I whispered, keeping a tight lid on my thoughts. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
But Night Hawk spun around and headed back to the trees at a high trot. Within seconds, he was out of sight. The herd’s fear jittered through me when he burst upon them and herded them away. Snow Crystal took the lead and galloped through the trees like a silver arrow. The others raced behind her, their alarm becoming quieter and quieter and quieter… until they moved beyond my range of hearing.
Scared? Rusty asked from the barn. He’d heard them gallop away.
Yes. I didn’t say anything more because I couldn’t. And besides, what was there to say? I felt beyond terrible. First, I’d taken Willow from them and now my carelessness was keeping them away from the food they desperately needed. I was nothing but disaster for this herd. Starving, in pain, and freezing cold, they’d run from the one gift I could give them, the one thing that could save them: nourishment.
It was a long time before I went to bed and even longer before I fell asleep. All I could do was stare through the window at that empty meadow as the moon arched slowly across the sky, and wish them back. But they didn’t come. And no matter how long I waited, I knew they wouldn’t.



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