The last person who watched her feet crunch and ratchet their way through the compacted snow and hardened leaf mould behind the fjords was a young man, no more than sixteen years old. He was sitting as he did every day, cross legged and turning the pages of his old book as his goats ignored the ice floes crumbling into the boot-black water as she stumbled past him, not three days ago. He told her family, as he told everyone else, that they had shared a glance and pocketful of pleasantries, that he had offered her a cigarette, a end of dry bread, a chance to rest her legs. Her family, as everyone else did, eyed him with a suspectful gaze, willing him to trip on his words, to betray a mundane truth, to confess. They hauled him before the oldest members of the community, a triad of weary eyes set deep and uncomfortably in weary faces, casked in social formalydehyde and horsehair – supposed wisdom in the collection of repetitive days – and these aged matriarchs of the town asked him again. What had he revealed? Why did the girl walk beyond the edges of what she knew and into the plains, to be taken by the cold?
A search party was sent out, with their greasy lamps and what remained of the dogs of the previous year. They stood at the borders and called her name into the horizons. Up there, you could barely see the treeline, if there was one at all. Up there, men had lost their sight, and much more. The gathering of the strongest couldn’t bring themselves the cross the lines in the snow, not even now, after all this time.
He told them again, and again. He had tried to pass on something of his own, and knew little about what lay beyond the harsh uplights of the whitened flatlands, only the stories of the times before, those they all knew. He was a simple boy, a keeper of emaciated livestock and a broken sled. His book was something passed down from forefathers, a relic of a forgotten time. He couldn’t read the myriad symbols, the writing, any more than anyone else could. The book was irrelevant, he said. He mentioned this over and over again, certain they would take the heirloom from him. It had happened before, and in his father’s time, he was told, but he held it to his rackety chest and passed his thumbs between the leaves bound in leather. He took some comfort in their uniformity, the thinness of the pages flowing like meltwater over his fingertips. Nothing else here was constant – each autumn the land and all in it was carved into a form of icy stasis, and each spring it was moulded through watery attrition into new shapes, for a few short months of glaring, unending daylight. Glacially, the landscape never stopped creeping south. Suet sat heavy in tight stomachs as the sun refused to move for another few months. Decisions were made, gestures were performed.
They say he pleaded his innocence throughout the length of the ordeals, and they say he looked into the cracking faces of the mothers without flinching. They say he would have passed all the trials an innocent man, were it not for the fact he confessed to being the last to see her. They say he stopped speaking, just before the end, and sat cross legged in the snow as they fell on him. They say they couldn’t prize the book from his frozen fingers, even long after most of the congregation had forgotten why they were there. They say he was probably younger than he looked. It isn’t easy to tell, at this time of year.