Where the Coldest Stories Come From

January 15

From an upper-deck window seat on a double-decker train, I watch Winter pillage for spoils. As the train spears north, Winter’s conquest is inescapable. In a snow-seeded field, a white heron picks at frost-bleached weeds. Thwarted and hungry, the heron fans his wings and launches into flight, shambling through the air like a paper bird unfurled from snow.

On this Sunday morning, Marburg, city of the Grimms, is a Sleeping Beauty, dewed in an enchanted slumber, dreaming since the brothers’ ink dried. The gingerbread rooftops are caked in snowy icing. Candy-wafer roof tiles kilter off as the frosting melts under the acidic sun.

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The stairs that ought to climb to the castle have turned mutinous, or perhaps they have lost their way. They straggle back and forth across the hillside, maundering between half-timbered gingerbread houses and licorice-spired churches. The fairytale stairs crisscross dimensions, threading together long-ago’s and yet-to-be’s. As I climb into one of the patchwork universes, the sun vanishes. A timid snow wafts down, strewing dandelion flakes over the city that once was Marburg. The snow pirouettes in from the North, whence the coldest stories come. As the flakes lilt down, they glove my hands in white lace that melts like Cinderella’s gown at midnight. Snow jewels my hair, my eyelashes—the only diamonds I will ever wear, raw and fleeting gems.

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The castle stones are the color of organs left too long in specimen jars. Black, asphyxiated ivy strangles the walls, starved for air. From the cardinal points, towers grow like gothic tumors. In a hall whose windows are blind with filmy glass, the ribs of the vaulted ceiling protrude from the plaster as if famished.

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Every column in the hall bristles with lindenwood shields, a militarized menagerie of calico lions, thunder-blue mules, and parrots garroted with golden rings. Marburg buried her last earl four centuries ago and now her halls are inhabited only by articulate remnants: beaked steel helms, clench-fisted gauntlets, fifteenth century swords with blades of rust-lace, straight-spined lances, poison-green glassware, a barbed morning star restive as a panther on its warped chain, wedding-cake ball-gowns, and crusaders’ shields so battle-worn that until only the lion’s stare remains.

On the north-west hem of the castle grounds crouches the Hexenturm, the witches’ tower. North-by-northwest has always been the orientation of the dangerous mind. Neither hawk nor handsaw could burrow through the four meters of this sandstone life sentence. Not even the witches’ ghosts have escaped.

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I emerge from the castle just as the sun burns away the northern enchantment. Smoke teases from the castle chimneys, kindling in the sunlight like tendrils of snow-blond hair.

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