The first time Bridget saw the flames flicker to life on the far dark shore of the lake that bordered her home, Hagan had already been away for more than two weeks. It wasn’t unusual for her husband’s trading trips to last that long — once, he even stayed away for the entire cycle of the moon, Bridget’s eyes following its arc across the velvet sky as it swelled from a sliver to a sphere and then back again — but he tended to take his longest sojourns in the warmer months, when his cart was more amenable to the journey, and when the solitude was easier for her to bear. In April or June, even September, Bridget could count on the chatter of birds and small animals, flowers unfurling from the soil around the cabin, travelers who might stop by for a chat or a bite to eat. But in the deep dark of December, the land lay still and cold like a corpse. There were no animals, no flowers, and certainly no visitors, just the shrill shriek of the wind and the soft, insistent whisper of the snow.
They had no children, though Bridget often longed for them when Hagan was away, and no living family. The cabin was so isolated that it was nearly half a day’s trek to the village, and there were no neighbors who lived any nearer than that. So that night when she peered through the warped glass of the little window and saw the flames dancing on the other side of the lake, Bridget’s heart seized in her chest like a hand-made fist. Surely her eyes had deceived her, she reasoned, as she pulled on her beaver fur coat. She detested the feel of the pelts but she knew better than to set foot outside of the cabin after dark without the proper protection. A body could freeze out there in a matter of hours, or less. Once, she had found what looked like a man’s hand protruding from the snow, not far from the cabin. The flesh was pale and milky, almost blue, but the fingertips were black as though they’d been singed by fire. She knelt down and stared at it for a long time, too afraid to reach out and touch it, too fascinated to turn and walk away. Hagan’s calls ultimately startled her from her reverie. She never told him what she’d seen, and by the time the thaw came there was nothing left — nothing she ever found, at least. Scavengers must have carried it away, scattered the bones. Or maybe it hadn’t been human at all — maybe it was nothing more than a gnarled tree branch.
Still, Bridget liked the memory. She liked having something of her own. At night, lying in bed next to Hagan’s heavy form, she would replay the scene in her mind until her eyelids drooped and she slipped into sleep. Sometimes she dreamt of reaching out for the hand, weaving those black fingertips between her own, feeling the cold emanating from the dead white flesh into her palm, up her arm, into her chest, her very core. Sometimes she dreamt that the hand would squeeze back. She always woke up smiling.
Slipping her feet into fur-lined boots, Bridget unlocked the cabin door and peered out into the dense, starless gloom. The moon rippled silver in the still surface of the lake; the snow had stopped falling hours ago, and all was quiet. Nothing was out of place. Except there, on that distant shore, the strange fire flickered like a tiny orange jewel glittering in an expanse of white linen. She couldn’t see any figures, no movement other than the flames themselves, and she couldn’t imagine who would be out in this cold, this far from the village. Her arms crossed over her chest, she strained to see any further clues, but there were none. Perhaps it was just a wayward traveler. Back inside, she bolted the door, then thought of those black fingertips in the white snow and undid the lock. She gazed out of the window for a long time, watching the flames leap and contort, before finally heading to bed.
The next day passed uneventfully. Still no sign of Hagan. She was beginning to wonder if he would return at all. Any other wife would have called it “worry,” but for Bridget it was just a thought, and one that occupied less space in her heart and mind than the mystery of the fire from the night before. She wondered if she would see the mysterious flames again, or the traveler who’d made them, but she didn’t dare to hope.
Yet as twilight spread across the sky and the sun began to redden and melt into the tree line, Bridget found herself moving to the window to glance outside. Would it happen? Or was it just another small moment in a lifetime of small moments, just another strange memory she could call on for comfort in the dark hours, as fleeting as the winter’s frost? She wiped her hands on her apron, preparing to turn away, when she saw it: The flames blazed to life on that far shore, and again her heart blazed with them. She stepped out into the cold night then, forgetting her beaver fur coat, her boots. She walked in her house shoes to the very edge of the black lake and gazed out, narrowing her eyes, willing them to see.
And there he was. A figure appeared in silhouette, stepping out in front of the fire as though it had given birth to him. She could tell it was a man. He was tall and lean, and very still. She could tell he was gazing back at her.
She remembered the hand. She remembered her regret, how she’d wanted to reach out for it but hadn’t. She wouldn’t make that mistake again.
And so she raised her arm overhead, her palm outstretched, and waved, her arm slicing through the dark night like a blade. For a long moment, it seemed that he hadn’t seen her, or that he wouldn’t respond. Her arm dropped heavily to her side, her fingertips tingling with the cold.
And then — he waved.
She dropped to her knees then in the snow and covered her mouth with both hands.
There was no one else around, that much she knew. Still, it was a reflex. She didn’t want anyone to hear her laughing.
By the third night, Bridget had made a decision. She was going to take their tiny boat, untie it from the end of its dock, and row across the lake to those flames. She had to know who this mysterious man was, she had to see him face to face. She had never been a bold woman before, but she felt herself growing bolder every time she imagined those flames licking her face, her arms, lighting up her eyes. Her little kitchen fireplace and its paltry warmth paled in comparison. As the day turned to dusk she didn’t even bother to stoke the fire. Instead, she prepared for her journey, and when the night enveloped the cabin, she set off, swaddled in beaver fur, her cheeks ablaze and her heart humming.
As she crouched in the boat, gently rocking from side to side, her numb fingers fumbling with the rope, she glanced across the lake and saw the flames spring to life once more. Tonight they looked bigger than they ever had before, bigger even than seemed possible. She had been imagining a small campfire, but could it be a bonfire? She had been imagining one man, but could there be more? She didn’t care what she would find — she only wanted to know.
The short voyage went off without a hitch, the little vessel slicing through the dark water like a wooden knife through whipped butter. There was no dock on this shore, so she ran the boat aground and climbed out, the cold water slapping against the sides of her boots as she crunched into the dirty snow that met the lake’s edge. The flames were close now, so close she should have been able to feel the warmth on her flesh, but the fire burned bright and cold as she drew ever nearer.
At last, she saw him — the one she had come to meet. He stepped out from the center of the flames and stood before her, terrible and resplendent. Staring at him was like staring into the midday sun; her eyes ached and wept at the brightness, the beauty. She closed her eyes but she could still see him there, seared onto the backs of her eyelids, brighter than any star. She swayed on her feet, and just as she was about to fall he reached for her. His cloak parted and a hand emerged, and she knew it at once, that hand — the skin pale as the snow in moonlight, the fingertips blackened and dead. This time she did as she dreamed and reached out in return, her fingers finding his. His hand was so cold she gasped as if coming up from underwater. He took her breath away.
“At last, my love,” he sighed. “Come to me.” As the pale flames licked the snow he wrapped his arms around her and drew her into the fire.
The next morning dawned dull and gray, weak yellow sunlight pooling in Bridget’s tender eyes as she squinted them open. She half expected to see some fantastical new landscape, some alternate dimension, but instead she opened her eyes to find herself splayed on top of her beaver fur coat in the snow, and only the humble cabin she shared with Hagan in front of her. She sat up, too quickly, and turned toward the far shore, but there was no sign of her strange consort. The boat was no longer tied to the dock, the rope she had undone the night before trailing limply in the water like a listless serpent. She had no memory of how she’d returned to this side of the lake, nor of the specific events that had occurred after he’d taken her in his arms. The memories came to her later, in flashes, in dreams. They sustained her through the lonely days of late December.
And then, one day, after more than a month and a half, Hagan returned.
He had fallen ill while on the road, had to pause for several long weeks to recuperate, and then had to wait out a patch of evil weather before he could make his way back to her. After his return Hagan seemed changed, softened. He spoke to her tenderly, he touched her with love. So he was genuinely moved when, later, she told him she was with child. At first she too believed it was his, but the quickening came too soon, the flutters became ripples became undulations, and then she knew. She knew that whatever was in her was a gift, a relic of that night so many months before. Something conceived in the flames of that cold fire on the shores of that black lake. She thought of the black-fingered hand, and she knew: Whatever grew in her was cold, and always would be.
The next morning, gazing out at the lake with her secret taking shape inside her, she raised her hand to Hagan, who smiled and waved before turning back to the dock. Her hand stayed up just a moment too long, as if greeting someone in the distance, but Hagan didn’t notice as he set off in the new little boat. Alone on the shore, she brought her hand down slowly, resting it on her stomach; cold. Something stirred in her. Cold.
She tried to smile, thinking of the black-fingered hand, but instead a sob caught in her throat. The wind bit her face and neck. Her own hands — empty.