As our longtime listeners know, Cast of Wonders takes the month of January off each year, so we can recharge our batteries, and get out in front of the next year’s production schedule. And this year is no exception. However this January instead of leaving you with an empty playlist, Cast of Wonders is proud to present our Staff Picks!
Graeme, Barry and I (Marguerite) have selected our personal favorite story from 2013, and even further back in one case. Each of us will introduce the story, and talk a bit about we found so memorable about that particular tale.
But “Ahhh!”, I hear you say, “January has four weeks, and there’s only three of you! What are you going to do the last week of the month?” Well I’m glad you asked, because we’ll re-play our Small Cast, Short Form Parsec award winner, “Now Cydonia” by Rick Kennet, to transition you into a new year of what we hope to be even more award winnings stories, week after week.
And since I’m here, I guess that means I get to go first!
Barry and Graeme invited me to become the Editor of Cast of Wonders right before Christmas in 2012. I had just moved to the UK a few months prior, and the shorter days and significantly colder weather was starting to affect my mood. In January, while juggling a crushing course load in law school and frantically reading slush to be ready for the February episodes, I read the first submission that made me cry.
Jess Hyslop’s wonderful first-person narrative of a frost giant yearning for the touch of summer cut straight through my winter blues and reminded me of how good, how life affirming that first truly hot day of summer feels. Not just spring and rolling forward the clocks, but summer and that prickly, sizzling sensation on the tops of your shoulders when you wear a tanktop outside for the first time each year. Maybe, if you’re lucky, on the way to spend a day on the beach.
“The Giant Who Dreamed of Summer” is also the first story where the choice of narrator wasn’t really a choice so much as a lightning bolt of inspiration. I’ve been a fan of MK Hobson as a guest host and reader on Podcastle for years. I backed “The Warlock’s Curse”, the sequel to her smash hit debut novel “The Native Star”, on Kickstarter. The giant’s sense of humor, the gentle way it scolds as well as instructs the child, and the sensation of wisdom immediately brought MK’s warm and rich-yet-worn-around the edges voice to mind. I was thrilled when she accepted my request. Thanks MK!
Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
The Giant Who Dreamed of Summer
by Jess Hyslop
What’s this–another visitor? How tiresome. I thought I had seen the last of you when the guards departed. I thought I had finally been left to meet my end in peace.
Wishful thinking. I thought I was beyond that, too.
Well, you must excuse me if I do not get up. These chains, you see…
What is such a tiny thing as you doing here all alone, anyway? Do your parents know that you are up here? I doubt that they’d approve. The hillside is steep and treacherous, and there are all sorts of dangers for a little flake like you. How your mother will scold if you tear your skirts! How your father will tut if you scrape your dainty ankle! How they will weep if you tumble from a bluff! And, my, how they will curse and stamp and rage if you end up in the belly of a starving frost giant.
I jest, child. Despite what you have been told, we giants do not eat people. It is only in your stories that such loathsome things occur.
Nevertheless, you should run along. Your parents are doubtless sick with worry, and I do not want to be blamed for your disappearance. Your King has made me miserable enough already. The last thing I need is to suffer more of his so-called justice.
What have I done? By the blizzards, girl! You must be the only person in the nation who does not know–or think they know–my transgression. It was trumpeted from the rooftops, shouted through the streets, declaimed across the land! The nation wept, child, if the criers are to be believed!
You really do not know?
I could tell you, if you wish. It would be gratifying, after all, to tell someone what really happened. You want to hear the tale? Very well then. But first, you must promise me this: if you are found here, you’ll make it absolutely clear that I did not keep you against your will.
Now listen closely–for this is the truth of it.
My crime is only this: I dreamed of summer.
Now, I know what you are thinking–that surely that is not my sole offence. I am a frost giant, after all–I must be guilty of hundreds of misdemeanours. Do not protest; I know what you humans think of us. To you, were are merely the beings who come with the winter, who arrive when the harvests are over and the mornings have begun to sparkle, who revel in the whiplash snap of cold and the bitter depths of long, dark nights. You dread the day you spy us looming over the horizon, loping across your lands with slivers of ice showering from our skin. We are the heralds of your hardship: the heavy crunch of our footsteps fills your hearts with fear. You call us lumbering, bestial, grotesque. You think us destructive and cruel. You blame us for your barren, icebound fields, for your clenching stomachs, for the blue tinge at the tips of your fingers. You look upon us, with our hailstone eyeballs and torsos dressed with rime, at the hoarfrost prickling our chins, and you shiver.
But the winter is not our doing. We are its slaves as much as you are–more so, in fact. For we frost giants cannot escape that frigid season: we must remain always in its clutches, or else we perish. Our lives are an endless migration, following the winter as it sweeps across the land. Where the snows fall, we must follow; where the ice melts, we must flee. We are forever running for our lives.
Have you ever felt your own lashes start to thaw and trickle down into your eyes?
I thought not.
My eyelashes were the first of me to go. Now my toenails, too, have vanished–these wet smears are all that are left. I have only managed to preserve my fingernails this long by keeping my hands tucked into my armpits.
I hope you realise how lucky you are. For although you must endure the winter once a year, you also see it pass. You can stay here when the ice-clouds disperse, when the wind’s bite becomes a caress, when the animals emerge from their nests and the icicles drip, drip, drip themselves away. You are here, too, before the winter comes, when the grain is cut from the fields and the leaves drift golden from the trees. But your greatest fortune of all is that you are here during that marvellous, mystical time, that season no frost giant has ever experienced, nor ever will… You are here for the summer.
I envy you so very much.
Oh, I am not saying that a frost giant’s life is always terrible. Winter possesses a harsh beauty of its own, and it is not as monotonous as you might think. Let me tell you, girl, the winter in your country is a mere chill compared to others I have seen. I have frolicked in the wastes of Terrmaril, far to the north of here, where the winters are long and black and starless, and the people burrow beneath the ground for warmth. I have witnessed the chaotic majesty of Elh-San, the great snowstorm that crashes across the Annilh continent every seventh winter, powerful enough to devastate a city in a day. And I have heard the howling of the wolves during the beast-winters of Rakkash, where the cold is so intense that it drives the animals mad. They stream out of the forests, heaving hordes of fur and claws that streak across the plains, chasing down sleds and devouring anyone in their path.
All these winters I have known, all these joys and perils I have faced… and yet I have never seen a summer. Of the autumn I have often caught a whiff, scenting the musty aroma of hay and apples when my tribe moves on a little too quickly. Springtime, too, I know something of; it is not unusual for us to glimpse the occasional snowdrop if we linger too long in one place. But summer… summer remains but a dream to me.
Do not climb into my lap, you pesky thing! Can’t you read the sign? I am a notorious criminal, unpredictable, possibly violent, and on no account am I to be fed nor touched.
I will also make a very cold seat.
Oh, have it your way then. Only watch where you put your feet. My left thigh has started to melt, and it wouldn’t do for you to slip.
Right, now, settle down.
Do you know how frost giants came into this world? But no–I don’t suppose you are taught such things. Let me explain; it will help you understand.
It was Winter who made us. Many aeons ago–when the peaks of the mountains were young and sheer, and the land lay unfurrowed for leagues on end–we were but ordinary giants, fleshly creatures like yourself (only rather larger), with speckled skins and coarse black hair and eyes of coloured jelly. We ate antelope and ox and boar as all giants did. We slept at the feet of hills and coupled beneath the boughs of towering cedars, our backs dappled with leaf-shade. We forded frothing rivers in the spring, ran through the summer fields, gorged on pears in the autumn, and huddled together through the winter. We were free to do as we pleased, and to wander where we willed.
What luxury my ancestors enjoyed! But such things cannot last.
Winter came to us. He swept in amongst the giants with his shrill laughing voice and his white-blasted hair, and he changed our race forever. Why, I do not know. Winter is a fickle being. Who can tell why he acts as he does–why one winter may be mild and moist and grey, and the next sharp and deadly as a headsman’s axe? Whatever his motivation, it is beyond a mortal’s power to resist. My ancestors certainly could not. They were helpless as Winter transformed them, freezing the blood in their veins and sucking the ruddiness from their skin, leaving them hard and brittle and blue. When the giants were altered to his satisfaction, Winter let out a giggle of glee. Then he whirled and ran, prancing away on the winds. My ancestors had no choice but to pursue him, stumbling and awkward in their strange new bodies. From that moment on, we frost giants were doomed to follow Winter, trailing him wherever he goes. His disciples. His slaves.
But although my chill anatomy shackles me to Winter, my heart has always yearned for Summer. In my imaginings, she is the most beautiful thing one could ever lay eyes upon, warm and kind where Winter is feckless and cold. I picture her dressed in dahlia petals, trailing a skirt of bluebells and daisies. Her skin is dark–like yours, child–and she smiles as around her she weaves long, balmy dusks and lush, green marvels.
Perhaps I am foolish. My family certainly thought so. They chided me for my peculiar desire. A frost giant, longing for Summer? It was bizarre, unseemly; it was needlessly reckless. My mother was especially vehement on the subject. Did I want to thaw, was that it? Did I want to end my days as a sad little puddle?
Here’s a lesson for you, child: sometimes parents really do know best.
I should have listened to my mother… but I did not. I persevered with my ambition. I knew, of course, that I would never have the opportunity to see Summer herself (how I grieved for that sad fact!), but at least I could try to catch a glimpse of her realm.
First, I sought out paintings depicting that fabulous season, and I gazed at them for hours. Those hot colours! Those golden tints! And, by the blizzards, those greens! My eyes drank it all in–and yet I was not sated.
I turned to music next. I visited the greatest musicians of each land and begged them to play me their summertime harmonies. Some curtly refused; some would not even open their doors to my knocking (though I was ever so gentle); some screeched and fled. But some indulged me, though they looked at me askance as they did so. I do not blame them. I must have seemed mad, squatting awkwardly outside their windows, held rapt by the melodies that floated out of the casements.
I heard some beautiful music. A flautist played me a sweet, rising tune embellished with trills, composed to imitate the playful nature of a summer’s breeze. A trumpeter surprised me with a series of sudden blaring bursts, which he claimed represented the waves of summer heat that rolled across the western deserts. A harpist enchanted me with a gentle cascade of chiming notes, notes that echoed the glinting of sunlight off rippling leaves. They were masterworks, all. But still they were not enough to appease me.
Then I heard about the garden.
There was a woman, it was said, in the country of Hafan, who was the most talented gardener of the age. Her name was Yalina, and people flocked from far and wide to look upon her handiwork. She cultivated hanging gardens and pleasure gardens and terrace gardens, gardens formal and gardens wild, gardens of flowers, of rocks, of tea, and of herbs. But her chief achievement, and the most famous of all her creations, was her summer garden. Encased in a house of glass, its plants bloomed all year round, preserved in an oasis of heat. The garden was the pride of Hafan, unrivalled anywhere else in the world. And, most importantly for me, it was said to capture the very essence of summer.
I had to see it. Do you understand, child? I had to see it. It was not a choice. When I heard about Yalina’s summer garden, I was drawn there as surely as hail to the ground.
My tribe agreed to winter in Hafan. They thought that visiting the garden would rid me of my restlessness and soothe my strange longings. When we arrived in the country, I could not wait. I left my tribe and ran to Yalina’s gardens (though I took care not to trample any hedgerows; see, we frost giants are anything but inconsiderate!).
People scattered in all directions as I approached my goal–some even screamed–but I was too excited by what I saw to be insulted by their rudeness. It was just as beautiful as I had imagined. The glass building stood as tall as I, illuminated inside by hundreds of blazing lanterns. It shone like a beacon–oh, the promise of that place! Just looking at it made you anticipate the warmth that dwelt within.
I can hardly express how badly I wanted to see inside it–how I ached to see the plants it housed, to smell the rich loam, to feel its heat–if only for a moment (for I was not so senseless as to forget my meltable body).
I ventured closer and peered through the panels. But, alas, the glass was entirely steamed over, and all I could see was a white fog as impenetrable as any winter mist.
You must understand: all I wanted was a glimpse, a breath upon my face.
I went to the front of the glasshouse and knelt before the entrance, careful not to knock the fragile structure. The door of the place was very small (you humans really are absurdly tiny) but I found that if I leaned over and placed my cheek against the ground I might see through it, when it was open.
I was careful, I swear I was careful. But why should you believe me? Nobody believed me then, and no one believes me now. I am a frost giant–a blundering, destructive beast–and I must have done it on purpose.
I held my breath as I edged my finger towards the door, hooking the tiny brass handle with a sliver of my fingernail. Then, slowly–ever so slowly–I pushed it down.
Oh, to turn back time!
As I drew the door open–as I felt, for one magical instant, a whisper of heat tickle my eyeball–the glasshouse shivered. It trembled all over like a newborn foal abandoned in the snows. It shivered, it trembled… and then it shattered.
Such a delicate thing.
I will never forget the sound it made. A great, sharp crack like all of your dreams splintering at once, then a monstrous crash like a wave beating itself to oblivion upon a rocky shore. I leapt away from the building, but it was too late. The beautiful glass structure collapsed before my eyes, and the shards fell around me like splinters of ice. In that moment, a rush of sensation flitted past me, a surge of heat and nectar and marigold–the whoosh of the summer escaping. And then it was gone, and in its wake there was only me: a wretched, heartbroken frost giant, kneeling in the remains of Yalina’s summer garden, howling my misery to the cold winter skies.
That was when the guards arrived.
Ah, tears. It is a new sensation for me, weeping. I never cried before my capture; my tears froze before they could fall. What a gift your King has given me, eh? The ability to weep before I die.
The rest of the tale is self-evident. I was surrounded, trussed up, prodded with spears. The guards hurled obscenities at me as I was led away. I was too stunned to resist. Somewhere, I could hear a woman weeping. Perhaps it was Yalina. I wish I could apologise to her, but she has never come to visit me.
I was dragged to the court and put on trial before your King. It was a horrible ordeal. He and all the spectators looked at me with utter hatred, as though I were some kind of murderer. I suppose I am, in their eyes–for everyone loved Yalina’s summer garden, and I destroyed it. I tried to explain, though I knew before I began that it would make no difference.
“I did not mean to ruin the garden,” I said. “I only wanted to see the summer.”
To which the King, who must have thought himself very clever, replied: “And so you shall.”
And you think us cruel.
So here I am, shackled in iron, held fast to the rocks of this hillside. At first, it was not so bad. My tribe stayed with me while the winter lasted. They comforted me in my plight, smuggling me handfuls of food and chasing away any humans who ventured near. My mother even petitioned the King for mercy on my behalf, but his heart must be colder than any frost giant’s, for he refused to grant me reprieve.
Now the winter has passed, and spring has taken its place. My tribe could not stay, and bade me tearless but solemn farewells before pursuing their course southwards with the snows. Your people started arriving, then, puffing their way up the hillside to gawk at the captive giant. Some worked up the courage to taunt me, calling me hideous names and even throwing stones. Stones are hurtful at the best of times, but in my softened state they are downright dangerous. Look closely–see, I am pitted with holes! My poor nose has suffered most; I lost a large chunk of it to a particularly well-aimed missile.
Don’t be silly, child–of course the guards didn’t stop them. I am condemned to death. What do a few stones matter?
Even the guards have gone now. The people grew bored with their mockery, and after a few weeks no one bothered to climb up here anymore. The guards were recalled soon after. They trust the chains to hold me here, until the end.
We frost giants take a long time to melt. It will be well into spring before I have thawed completely, though I expect my toes will not last the month. I shall try to protect my fingers for as long as possible, but inevitably they too will soon dissolve. My sense of smell is already wavering as my nose drips away from my face. In another fortnight, it will be gone. A week after that, and my hearing will start to fade. My eyes will probably last longer, but I will be blind before the finish.
By the time summer arrives, I shall be dead. I shall have dribbled away down the cracks in the rock and soaked into the earth. My dream will kill me, just as my mother feared it would.
Sadly, child, it is true. There is no use denying it. I will never know the summer, as I yearn to. I will never even know another winter.
What do you mean, you meddlesome mite? I tell you, it cannot be otherwise. These chains are forged thick and strong, bolted fast into the rock. Even the strength of my entire tribe combined could not prise them from their moorings. I cannot escape my doom.
What do you think you are doing? Take your hands off my face! Didn’t I tell you that I am delicate? You will only hasten my demise.
Are you listening to me? I said no–don’t pinch, girl! Ouch! Ouch!
But what is this? Child, you… you have remade me! Here I have a marvellous new nose, all over wood, and with no holes in it at all! And here, a handsome new chest of vines! My limbs are supple branches, my knees curling tree-knots–how agile I feel! I even have toenails again, little chips of bark, much sturdier than ice-flakes. And my hair–a veritable cascade of leaves! How they will shimmer and rustle in the sunlight!
And the chains too! Melted away, like snows at the passing of winter.
How did you do this, girl? What power lies in those tiny hands? How, by the four immortal Seasons, could you–
My Lady Summer, it is you. At last. At last.
Please forgive me, Lady. If I had known it was you, I would never rambled on in such a vein, never called you by such names! Please do not be offended, but I thought that you would be, well, older. That is no excuse, I know; I should have recognised you despite your child’s guise. Who else would boast that springing hair, those heat-bronzed cheeks, and such twinkling gold-green eyes? My mother was right: to have spent so long revering you, going to every length to behold a hint of your splendour, and yet not to recognise you when you arrived before my eyes… I truly am a foolish giant.
But surely you did not journey all this way, ahead of your season, just for me? Forgive me, but from what I have heard of your brother Winter, I was under the impression that we mortals were beneath your notice. I, certainly, am unworthy of your compassion. I am your humble devotee, but I never imagined you would pay me any mind. Who would have thought that after a lifetime following Winter, Summer would be so good as to follow me? I am overwhelmed by your kindness, my Lady. That you would do such a thing for a silly, heedless giant–and a frost giant at that!
But you are right: I am a frost giant no longer, thanks to you.
How can I possibly repay you for such a gift? Not only have you have saved my life, but you have granted my dearest wish. Oh, it has been a long time since I have smiled so.
Won’t the King be surprised! I shall have to pay him a visit, if only to see the look on his face when I arrive at the palace gates, all shine and sap and laughter.
But not yet, not yet. I believe I will stay here awhile, basking in the warmth as I was never able to do before. For what was to be my site of execution has become the site of my reincarnation–the site of my fulfilment. It seems only right that it should be here that I experience the fullness of the season I have waited so long to see.
Would you do me the honour, my Lady, of keeping me company? Please, sit here upon my shoulder, where the moss will make a most comfortable seat. Stay with me, Lady, and together we will await the dawning of your season. Together, we will welcome the summer–and let the winter fade behind us, like a dream.