When the ghost who inhabits her cabin freezes, Waverley lights a ring of candles around their feet. Usually, they thaw within hours. “Dramatic,” she spits. “Nuisance.”
Winter drums onward. The ghost stays stubbornly listless underneath thick ice that fractures the candlelight, ripples the opaque ghost-flesh, blurs the eyes. Human-like eyes that Waverley had always thought of as kind. Every evening, Waverley adds a new ring of candles and these rays of fire sculpt the ghost into an icy sun, a north star in winter’s endless night. Waverley keeps the fireplace nourished with a dwindling supply of dried wood that was meant to last all winter. The feral taiga forest that swarms her cabin hoards snow in its wiry arms, compresses it into ice. The forest’s outline shadows the moon in waxing and waning crescent, hooked teeth clamped around the frozen lake, cracking it. Wingspans of hundreds of owls silhouette upon the sunken hush of snow. In winter, remnants of folklore thicken the darkness. Stories of ice shards suspended in the air, sharp enough to slash throats. Stray clots of ghost-flesh snag on barren branches and freeze over. The ice holds wicked ghosts tightest, one tale warns, but Waverley’s ghost is not wicked.
In winter, Waverley makes candles, and in summer, she trades them to survive the next winter. With the frozen ghost draining her stockpile, she works harder, longer, lights her candles as soon as they set, begins a new batch, and forgets to eat. Elbow-deep in a barrel of molten wax, her fingers conducting in a frenzy, Waverley’s tongue flickers with the cadence of a person with company, allowing space for agreement or judgment. Waverley tries to flare the ghost’s temper: “You’re all shriveled. Ratty. Disgusting.” The ghost, who once found an abandoned Waverley on the frozen lake and raised her to create both candles and insults, is silent. The ice holds wicked ghosts tightest, but this ghost is not wicked and maybe these things cannot both be true, but Waverley ignores this, and lights candle after candle after candle and begs the ice to relinquish its grip.
In quiet breaths whenever the lights come, Waverley lies in swallowing snow to watch ribbons of jade eeling the sky. The Borealis string knots pines to firs in tight rows. There are stories of wild ghosts who unpick the knots, seeking to unravel the texture of the earth. Stories to explain the ever-colder winters, so ice can thwart ghosts. Waverley’s thumbnail scrapes constellations in the navy sky, tracing a family of geese, waxy wings melting in the moonlight. If the wax pools on the snow, she could chisel it for candles, pick out the feathers. She cannot face the people across the lake without candles. And because she knows this could be her final winter, Waverley lets the ice numb her spine and leak into her skull and freeze around her fear for the ghost.
The last smoke of her firewood stash hemorrhages into the black sky. Waverley butchers her mattress with a meat cleaver, clubs her rocking chair to splinters, throws all her clothes on the fireplace. The ghost remains frozen, Waverley’s fingers sticking to the ice like a kiss that lasts too long. She’s never asked the ghost how the ice feels, if it hurts or if it’s hazy like a dream, and maybe this lack of compassion makes Waverley wicked. Waverley holds each lit match to her cheekbone before offering it to the candles, to corroborate the heat. Smoke and wax scorch her thoughts, branding them: melt the ghost, melt the ghost. Her pleas echo around the house and singe on hundreds of tiny flames. The ice holds wicked ghosts tightest, and if this ghost is wicked, Waverley must be too.
The vigil of candles sprawl over her floor and in trying not to knock them, her movements become so slow and rigid that she feels like she too is encased in ice despite her sweat-crawling skin. In feverish dreams she is oiled for cooking, turning on a spit like the great ocean beasts they feast on across the lake in summers. She sleeps in snatches, pinches a glut of forearm into a flame whenever her eyelids won’t stay open, punishment for her wickedness. She grows afraid to leave her fire-bursting house for more than moments, so she tries to catch and conserve coldness in the divots of her wisdom teeth, the spaces between her toes, and the outermost curls of her ears. Candlelight nests her vision, needlepointing patterns into her tawny irises. Whenever the mischievous aurora lights depart, they pilfer pieces of night, leaving empty, glowing caves in the abandoned cliff of navy sky. The reflection of hundreds of flames dance around the ghost’s ankles in ritualistic circles, tiny worshippers to a giant, wicked god. Waverley wants to know their song so she can sing it too, even if it’s true that the ice holds wicked ghosts tightest.
Waverley runs out of wax, shakes when she forces flame onto the final wick. The aurora cleaves the sky open, draining the empty husks of stars. The unsteady candle falls against another, and another, and the spitting flames of all the falling candles riot into a feral, hungry fire. And although she should run before her roof crushes her or smoke tugs the oxygen from her lungs, Waverley uses her breaths to beg the ghost to return and save her. She blinks through the smoke and flames and ice, watching for a sign of life from the ghost who’d saved her. The twitch of a thumb, the moon hook of a wicked smile.