The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Cold Witch

The day the cold witch came began with a gray, gaspingly cold dawn.

That morning, the entire world seemed made of frosted iron–black buildings and black roads, black trees and people bundled up in black coats and scarves and hats, and through it all, fat white flakes that managed to find their way into even the most cleverly fastened boots. There was not a warm, dry foot in the city that day, and everyone Timothy encountered seemed lost in a storm of their own grumpiness.

Timothy, however, was not. In fact, Timothy spent the day quietly, jubilantly happy. Winter had always been his favorite season.

It was not a popular choice, as far as favorite seasons go. There is the matter of slushy streets and shoveling snow, and having your breath slammed out of you when you first step out of the house on bitter cold mornings. Most people find winter unpleasant, and even emotionally exhausting.

But Timothy was not one of those people. There was something about this time of year that resounded within him like bells. Everything about the season seemed wrapped in secrets: pedestrians encased in bulky coats, doors and windows closed tightly against the elements, the earth itself hidden away by a blanket of frozen white.

There was also the idea that everything died, or went to sleep, or changed somehow, during a certain time of year, only to come back again. There was that whole idea of things coming back to themselves, of life being created out of brown grass and naked branches and gray skies. The concept of this appealed to Timothy in a kind of primal fashion he was not yet able, at eleven years old, to describe. Maybe it was that all the dead things surrounding him made him think about death, which made him feel small and tremendous at the same time. Maybe he was just an especially imaginative boy.

But whatever the reason, when Timothy felt his boots grind fresh snow against the pavement and heard the accompanying muffled crunch, he felt that anything was possible. He felt that the door between the real and the unreal, the familiar and the hidden, was cracked open a bit at this time of year. He felt closer to the secret parts of the world when his breath puffed in the air before him and he woke to a neighborhood quiet with snow.

Quiet, as if waiting for something to happen.

And, one evening, it did.

One evening, Timothy was sitting around the table for dinner, with his mother and father and sisters. Bored by their conversation, he glanced out the window at the snow sweeping furiously along their lamplit street. He felt the wild urge to go out into the thick of it, and explore snowdrifts, and venture into dark forests where naked branches clacked against one another in the wind.

He did not understand these urges he so often felt when the nights were long and the sunlight was scarce.

But he would soon. He would that very night.

For there she stood, out on the street, huddled beneath a lamp and gazing longingly at his house. His house. Timothy’s house, out of all the houses she could have chosen.

She wore hardly anything–a dark dress, torn and thin. She wore no shoes.

Timothy stared out at her, and she stared back. She was only a girl, not much older than he. Her eyes were dark, and reflected no light. They held something of danger within them.

She was, as he would soon find out, the cold witch.


Timothy went outside to her. He had no choice! Something about her slight, strange figure in the snow compelled him. He put on his coat and boots and hat, and snuck out while his father washed dishes, while his mother and sisters chatted in the living room.

They wouldn’t miss him; they never did.

He didn’t blame them; they weren’t mean-hearted people. It’s just that his sisters were far more interesting, far more talkative, far more normal than he was. He wasn’t bitter about it.

And, now, he was glad for it.

Now, he stood outside in the snow with his breath coming high and thin because it was too cold to breathe too deeply. Snow stuck to his lashes and his lips, and snow stuck to the girl before him, too–to her lashes and lips, to the ends of her long dark hair. It outlined her in white. She did not seem cold; she shivered not at all.

“Who are you?” Timothy asked. “Aren’t you cold?”

She didn’t say anything for so long a time that Timothy worried he had offended her somehow. Then she said, “I am always cold,” and her voice was as thin and fragile as a sheet of ice over warming water.

But there was a strength to her eyes–those dark, tar-thick eyes. They did not reflect the lamplight. They did not reflect Timothy, or the snow, or the light of the windows of his house.

They dared him to do . . . something. They watched him, waiting, testing.

He took off his coat, and winter flew into him–arrow-sharp, arrow-deep–but he gritted his teeth and swallowed his gasps and handed it to her.

And as he stood there, teeth beginning to chatter–after only a moment, when this barefooted girl stood calm and completely without frostbite, for who knows how long!–her expression changed.

It changed to one of great sadness.

“No,” she said, and gently pushed the coat back at him. “I cannot.”

Bewildered, Timothy stood there gaping, stubbornly holding out the coat even so. “But you’ll freeze to death!”

The girl smiled, again with that sadness that looked strange on the face of one so young. Or was she young? Timothy couldn’t tell. She seemed, somehow, to have many years etched into her smile.

“I won’t. I never will die from the cold, but I will always feel it.”

“Who are you?” asked Timothy, putting his coat back on with clumsy, half-frozen fingers.

“I am the cold witch,” said the girl after a moment, and when she said the words, she held herself a bit taller, and lifted her chin into the air. Her dark hair whipped about her like brambles.

The way she said the words made it sound to Timothy as if “cold witch” was not a way to describe herself, but was rather a kind of title.

“What’s that?” Timothy asked, feeling stupid.

“It’s all right,” the cold witch said, sighing and turning her strange black eyes back to Timothy’s house. “You’re not supposed to know what the cold witch is. I’m not even supposed to be talking to you right now, but I’ve found that I would like to stop caring about such things.”

And Timothy found that the cold witch’s voice held within it a tone rather like the howl of a lonely winter wind. “About what things?”

“About the rules.”

“The rules of what?” Timothy was beginning to feel frustrated. This girl was answering his questions, but not really, not enough to understand the answers.

The cold witch turned to look at him. Her expression was careful. “If I tell you a story, will you get bored? Will you laugh at me? Will you sit with me on your porch while I tell it? It’s not as cold up there, out of the wind, but it’s cold enough that things won’t . . . happen.”

“I will do neither of the first two things,” said Timothy indignantly. “I love stories, and I’m not so rude as to laugh at someone out of nowhere. And of course we can sit on the porch, but . . .” Cold enough that things won’t . . . happen. “Couldn’t we go inside instead?”

“We could. We could, but it wouldn’t be a very good idea.” And yet the cold witch licked her lips as she turned once again to gaze at the house, at the glowing windows and their frost-framed panes. A sharp look crossed her face–one of hunger, Timothy thought, one that made her young face look older, and not quite so girlish anymore.

He thought, for an instant, he had seen a flash of sharp teeth. He thought he had felt a surge of energy come from this girl, not unlike how he imagined it would feel to receive a mild electrical shock.

“But we could go inside,” the cold witch mused, and then her black eyes locked with Timothy’s beneath his hat, and before Timothy knew it, he had taken the cold witch by her small, pale hand. He was leading her up the stairs and into his house, and into the living room, where his mother and sisters lounged before the fire.

“Who is this? Timothy?” His mother sat up, her cheeks pink from warmth. His sisters, piled up against each other like rag dolls, also sat up, rubbing their eyes, stretching their socked legs.

“Well,” Timothy began, but then stopped. For he couldn’t just introduce her as “the cold witch,” could he? His reputation for being the strange one of the family was solid enough already. His father stood now in the doorway of the living room, and Timothy could feel his disappointment from here.

But there was no need for Timothy to speak; the cold witch spoke for him.

“I am the cold witch,” she said, and there was nothing funny about it. Her voice deepened, and there again was that flash of something ravenous across her face, and when she raised her arms, all the lights went out.

The fire extinguished. The light bulbs burst in their lamps.

And the cold . . . the cold from outside.

It was outside no longer.

The cold rushed in as though the cold witch had, with the movement of her arms, opened a great door to admit a beast made of sharp wind and stabbing ice. It had an immense presence to it, like that of drowning. This was not Timothy’s winter of quiet white woods and frosted glass.

This was a winter of anger.

Timothy collapsed, his legs knocked out from under him by the sheer force of the wind slicing at him. There was so much snow in the air that he felt suffocated. He tried to grab for his coat and draw it more tightly around him, but his fingers were stiff and cracking with ice. He could not breathe; he could not move, or open his eyes more than a sliver. His eyelashes were weaving together with cold.

Was he about to die?

He searched for his parents, his sisters, but he could see nothing but storming white and black. He had failed them. He had led this girl into the house–why?–and now there was a feeling of death in the house, as this storm of wind and snow raged, and it was his fault. He let his limbs collapse and pressed his face into the carpet; ice coated the fibers like glass. The cold was wrapping him into darkness.

But then . . .

A warm glow, as from amber light.

He turned toward it, forcing his eyelids open. He was sobbing, somewhere inside himself, but he did not have the energy for tears. Was there light still, in this house of winter?

There was.

It surrounded the cold witch. It was the cold witch. And even in his misery, Timothy felt his heart stir at the sight of her. She had fallen to her knees, and her arms were outstretched. Tears streamed down her face, and she was smiling, and shaking, and her cheeks were no longer pale but pink, and when she opened her eyes to look at Timothy, they were blue. Not black, but blue.

She glowed with an inner light. She glowed with the light of fire, and with lamplight, and with the light of the afternoon sun.

“What are you?” Timothy tried to say.

The cold witch turned toward him, her face full of sorrow. She hurried toward him, her limbs like willow branches, her face like summer. “I am the cold witch,” she said, and gathered him into her arms. And then Timothy did cry, for with the cold witch’s warm skin pressed to his, some of the feeling returned to his frozen arms, legs, toes, fingers. The pain of thawing out was almost as awful as the pain of freezing straight through.

“I am the cold witch,” she said again and again, her cheek pressed against the top of Timothy’s head, her hands rubbing warmth back into his arms, “and I have a story to tell you.”


Once there were two worlds.

One was full of people so fragile they should not have existed, but for some reason they did. They called themselves humans.

The other world was full of sorcerers so powerful they were a danger to themselves and to everyone around them.

The sorcerers experimented with their power often, performing greater and wilder tricks to impress each other. For it is easy to become bored, when you are that mighty and existing is such an easy thing to do.

But they forgot themselves, once. They forgot that theirs is not the only world there is, and that not everyone is as powerful as they. That day, their magic erupted into the human world.

Mountains toppled, and seas flooded the shores. Storms raged, and the sky was made of fire, and winter–true winter–spread across the human lands like a plague.

The humans–dear, delicate things–stood no chance of surviving this. They died in swarms, begging for mercy from the heavens, begging for help from . . . where?

From us, though they did not know it.

Twelve of us were chosen for the task. We could not undo the damage caused by our careless actions, but we could keep it from worsening. We could control it.

Twelve of us: the fire lord and the sea queen; the mountain king and the lady of the skies; the keeper of beasts, and six others, knights, who guard the gates between worlds.

And the cold witch, who holds true winter at bay.

True winter is the greatest villain of all, cunning and hungry. In the world of sorcerers, it is mild, tame as a mischievous cub. But in the human world, it is vicious, a titan with no regard for life. It is impossible to control entirely; tendrils of it snake out now and again, leaving destruction behind.

The cold witch cannot stop true winter from existing, but she can keep the humans from feeling it. She can prevent their suffering.

She can take their cold from them and endure it herself.

So she does, and she will.


“Even when it hurts her,” the cold witch murmured into Timothy’s hair. Her voice was full of tears, and it was a child’s voice, somehow, even though she spoke of centuries-long ages, of sorcerers and titans. “Even when it hurts her, even when it hurts her, she endures it herself.”

“Except,” Timothy began, his warming breath coming up in coughs, “for tonight.”

“She accepts the pain, because it is her fault. It is our fault. We did this to you. We did this to you, my dear.” The cold witch cupped Timothy’s face and raised it gently so that they could look into each other’s eyes.

“I am sorry,” whispered the cold witch, and when she blinked, fresh tears spilled down her cheeks. “I didn’t mean to do it, to unleash the cold upon you tonight. That is, I did mean to, but now, now that I see you before me, with your tears and your pain . . . And you were so kind to me, boy. You were so kind to me tonight, and this is how I repay you?”

She is beautiful, Timothy thought, and she was–but that did not excuse her.

“It hurts you sometimes,” Timothy said, “doesn’t it? It hurt you tonight. It was hurting you, so you let yourself give in.”

“It always hurts,” said the cold witch. “But isn’t that what I deserve, for what we did?” She put the back of her hand against his forehead. Her smile was wistful. “Such fragile creatures, and yet so strong. I don’t understand how you endure each day.”

Something about her words triggered awareness in Timothy. He shook the fog from his mind–the fog of the cold witch’s beauty, of her lonesome voice telling the story of two worlds.

“My family,” he croaked, looking wildly about as best he could, weak in the cold witch’s arms. The house was a confusion of white; the furniture had been transformed into jagged towers of ice. He could not breathe without immense pain. True winter. “You have to save them! They’ll freeze!”

“Don’t worry,” said the cold witch, and she pressed a kiss to Timothy’s forehead–a kiss he would never forget. Nor would he forget the sorrow in the cold witch’s eyes as they darkened from blue to black. Her cheeks fading from pink to white, her face sharpening with the look of someone in constant pain–he would forget none of these things.

“But there has to be a way,” he said, even now, after what she had done, after what she had almost done. Even now, he would have given her his coat. “As powerful as you are, there has to be a way you can help us and not have to hurt yourself. I mean, you’re a sorcerer, right? I bet you can think of something.”

A thought occurred to him then–a wild, desperate thought. A longing thrummed through him that he had never felt before.

“Maybe,” he suggested, as winter faded from the house, and his parents and his sisters, huddled together on the floor, began to stir awake, “maybe if you had someone to help you? Someone who could take some of the pain so you wouldn’t have to feel all of it.”

Timothy reached for the cold witch’s hand.

She shied away, a strange smile on her face.

Winter had always been his favorite season.

He felt that the door between the real and the unreal, the familiar and the hidden, was cracked open a bit at this time of year.

His house, out of all the houses she could have chosen.

Timothy’s hand, so near the cold witch’s hand, tingled with a strange energy.


Or maybe simply warmth coming back to cold fingers?

Timothy’s father mumbled his name in a perplexed question, and the fire sprang back to life in the hearth, but Timothy ignored these things.

“What’s your name?” he asked the cold witch, but before the words could leave his lips, she had gone, the front door cracked open in her wake. Footprints of frost marked her path on the tiled floor.

“What’s your name?” Timothy called out, running down the street after her. The crunch-crunch of his boots against the snow, the clouds of his breath in the air.

The last look the cold witch had thrown him–her black eyes, her sad gaze, the flash of teeth too sharp for a girl.

He stood there, in the light of the street lamp, searching the snow for her. He would always search the snow for her.

And maybe, he told himself every year, when the first frost iced the ground and the world turned from gold to gray, this would be the year he would find her again. Maybe this would be the year she took his hand instead of moving away from it. Maybe she would give him the gift of her name.


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5 Responses to “The Cold Witch”

  1. Samantha says:

    I loved your story (and one of my favourites from the Cabinet so far)! The Cold Witch was filled with a magnificent atmosphere of sadness, a brilliant prose, and a character who was willing to carry the burden for the rest of their life-however despairing-never to yield it, which are some strategies stories use to make me love them. Winter is also my favourite season 🙂

    But, what is her name?

    • Claire Legrand Claire Legrand says:

      Samantha, thank you so much for reading! Your comment made my day. 🙂

      As far as what the cold witch’s name is, that I cannot say . . . yet. I’m tempted to return to her story later, though!

  2. Lucia says:

    Wooow, that was fantastic! The cold witch was a very interesting character, for sure. Loved it!

  3. mindy says:

    An icy tale, for sure! I enjoyed it very much. And I’m glad you didn’t tell her name…

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