Seasons of Glass and Iron

Seasons of Glass and Iron

BY Amal El — Mohtar

For Lara West

Tabitha walks, and thinks of shoes.

She has been thinking about shoes for a very long time: the length of three and a half pairs, to be precise, though it’s hard to reckon in iron. Easier to reckon how many pairs are left: of the seven she set out with, three remain, strapped securely against the outside of the pack she carries, weighing it down. The seasons won’t keep still, slip past her with the landscape, so she can’t say for certain whether a year of walking wears out a sole, but it seems about right. She always means to count the steps, starting with the next pair, but it’s easy to get distracted.

She thinks about shoes because she cannot move forward otherwise: each iron strap cuts, rubs, bruises, blisters, and her pain fuels their ability to cross rivers, mountains, airy breaches between cliffs. She must move forward, or the shoes will never be worn down. The shoes must be worn down.

It’s always hard to strap on a new pair.

Three pairs of shoes ago, she was in a pine forest, and the sharp green smell of it woke something in her, something that was more than numbness, numbers. (Number? I hardly know ’er! She’d laughed for a week, off and on, at her little joke.) She shivered in the needled light, bundled her arms into her fur cloak but stretched her toes into the autumn earth, and wept to feel, for a moment, something like free — before the numbers crept in with the cold, and one down, six to go found its way into her relief that it was, in fact, possible to get through a single pair in a lifetime.

Two pairs of shoes ago, she was in the middle of a lake, striding across the deep blue of it, when the last scrap of sole gave way. She collapsed and floundered as she undid the straps, scrambled to pull the next pair off her pack, sank until she broke a toe in jamming them on, then found herself on the surface again, limping toward the far shore.

One pair of shoes ago, she was by the sea. She soaked her feet in salt and stared up at the stars and wondered whether drowning would hurt.

She recalls shoes her brothers have worn: a pair of seven — league boots, tooled in soft leather; winged sandals; satin slippers that turned one invisible. How strange, she thinks, that her brothers had shoes that lightened their steps and tightened the world, made it small and easy to explore, discover.

Perhaps, she thinks, it isn’t strange at all: why shouldn’t shoes help their wearers travel? Perhaps, she thinks, what’s strange is the shoes women are made to wear: shoes of glass; shoes of paper; shoes of iron heated red — hot; shoes to dance to death in.

How strange, she thinks, and walks.

* * *

Amira makes an art of stillness.

She sits atop a high glass hill, its summit shaped into a throne of sorts, thick and smooth, perfectly suited to her so long as she does not move. Magic girdles her, roots her stillness through the throne. She has weathered storms here, the sleek — fingered rain glistening between glass and gown, hair and skin, seeking to shift her this way or that — but she has held herself straight, upright, a golden apple in her lap.

She is sometimes hungry, but the magic looks after that; she is often tired, and the magic encourages sleep. The magic keeps her brown skin from burning during the day, and keeps her silkshod feet from freezing at night — so long as she is still, so long as she keeps her glass seat atop her glass hill.

From her vantage point she can see a great deal: farmers working their land; travelers walking from village to village; the occasional robbery or murder. There is much she would like to come down from her hill and tell people, but for the suitors.

Clustered and clamoring around the bottom of her glass hill are the knights, princes, shepherds’ lads who have fallen violently in love with her. They shout encouragement to one another as they ride their warhorses up the glass hill, breaking against it in wave after wave, reaching for her.

As they slide down the hill, their horses foaming, legs twisted or shattered, they scream curses at her: the cunt, the witch, can’t she see what she’s doing to them, glass whore on a glass hill, they’ll get her tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.

Amira grips her golden apple. By day she distracts herself with birds: all the wild geese who fly overhead, the gulls and swifts and swallows, the larks. She remembers a story about nettle shirts thrown up to swans, and wonders if she could reach up and pluck a feather from them to give herself wings.

By night, she strings shapes around the stars, imagines familiar constellations into difference: suppose the great ladle was a sickle instead, or a bear? When she runs out of birds and stars, she remembers that she chose this.

* * *

Tabitha first sees the glass hill as a knife’s edge of light, scything a green swathe across her vision before she can look away. She is stepping out of a forest; the morning sun is vicious, bright with no heat in it; the frosted grass crunches under the press of her iron heels, but some of it melts cold relief against the skin exposed through the straps.

She sits at the forest’s edge and watches the light change.

There are men at the base of the hill; their noise is a dull ringing that reminds her of the ocean. She watches them spur their horses into bleeding. Strong magic in that hill, she thinks, to make men behave so foolishly; strong magic in that hill to withstand so many iron hooves.

She looks down at her own feet, then up at the hill. She reckons the quality of her pain in numbers, but not by degree: if her pain is a six it is because it is cold, blue with an edge to it; if her pain is a seven it is red, inflamed, bleeding; if her pain is a three it has a rounded yellow feel, dull and perhaps draining infection.

Her pain at present is a five, green and brown, sturdy and stable, and ought to be enough to manage the ascent.

She waits until sunset, and sets out across the clearing.

* * *

Amira watches a mist rise as the sun sets, and her heart sings to see everything made so soft: a great cool hush over all, a smell of water with no stink in it, no blood or sweat. She loves to see the world so vanished, so quiet, so calm.

Her heart skips a beat when she hears the scraping, somewhere beneath her, somewhere within the mist: a grinding, scouring sort of noise, steady as her nerves aren’t, because something is climbing the glass hill and this isn’t how it was supposed to work, no one is supposed to be able to reach her, but magic is magic is magic and there is always stronger magic— She thinks it is a bear, at first, then sees it is a furred hood, glimpses a pale delicate chin beneath it, a wide mouth twisted into a teeth — gritting snarl from the effort of the climb.

Amira stares, uncertain, as the hooded, horseless stranger reaches the top, and stops, and stoops, and pants, and sheds the warm weight of the fur. Amira sees a woman, and the woman sees her, and the woman looks like a feather and a sword and very, very hungry.

Amira offers up her golden apple without a word.

* * *

Tabitha had thought the woman in front of her a statue, a copper ornament, an idol, until her arm moved. Some part of her feels she should pause before accepting food from a magical woman on a glass hill, but it’s dwarfed by a ravenousness she’s not felt in weeks; in the shoes, she mostly forgets about her stomach until weakness threatens to prevent her from putting one foot in front of the other.

The apple doesn’t look like food, but she bites into it, and the skin breaks like burnt sugar, the flesh drips clear, sweet juice. She eats it, core and all, before looking at the woman on the throne again and saying — with a gruffness she does not feel or intend—“Thank you.”

“My name is Amira,” says the woman, and Tabitha marvels at how she speaks without moving any other part of her body, how measured are the mechanics of her mouth. “Have you come to marry me?”

Tabitha stares. She wipes the juice from her chin, as if that could erase the golden apple from her belly. “Do I have to?”

Amira blinks. “No. Only — that’s why people try to climb the hill, you know.”

“Oh. No, I just—” Tabitha coughs, slightly, embarrassed. “I’m just passing through.”

Silence.

“The mist was thick, I got turned around—”

“You climbed”—Amira’s voice is very quiet—“a glass hill”—and even—“by accident?”

Tabitha fidgets with the hem of her shirt.

“Well,” says Amira, “it’s nice to meet you, ah—”

“Tabitha.”

“Yes. Very nice to meet you, Tabitha.”

Further silence. Tabitha chews her bottom lip while looking down into the darkness at the base of the hill. Then, quietly: “Why are you even up here?”

Amira looks at her coolly. “By accident.”

Tabitha snorts. “I see. Very well. Look.” Tabitha points to her iron — strapped feet. “I have to wear the shoes down. They’re magic. I have a notion that the stranger the surface — the harder it would be to walk on something usually — the faster the sole diminishes. So your magical hill here. .”

Amira nods, or at least it seems to Tabitha that she nods — it may have been more of a lengthened blink that conveyed the impression of her head’s movement.

“. . it seemed like just the thi ...