Once upon a time, the Earth and the Sky fell in love. They gave birth to four daughters, whose names were Winter, Autumn, Summer, and Spring. They were dutiful daughters; they kept house for their mother, and were the inspiration of all her days. Their father the Sky was a wayward, fickle lover to the Earth, sometimes tender and sometimes distant, sometimes nurturing and sometimes cold, but he loved his daughters dearly. He dressed his eldest, Winter, in the most luxurious snows. He gave Autumn the weather to play with. He lavished Summer with his most splendid, golden heat, and pampered his youngest, Spring, with his sweetest tears, which yielded her every shade of luminous green.
Spring, the baby of the family, always idolized Summer’s confidence and dazzling color. And every now and then in a wistful afternoon, lazing about in crickets and bees, Summer secretly admired Autumn for her courage and freedom. Autumn in turn respected Winter’s stoic strength, and Winter, in her silent heart, absolutely adored Spring—though nobody knew it.
When they were children, they used to dream up the world together. Spring came up with all the ideas—leaves and birds’ nests, flowers and frogs, dewy mornings and first kisses and melting rivers. Whatever she wanted, she wanted with ferocity, and sometimes she startled the others with her outlandish creations, but everyone loved her for her endless optimism and sweet disposition. She was the inspiration of all their lives, their great hope for the future. Summer embraced everyone’s ideas with unconditional love. She felt they could do anything. Her love felt like the sun, and all were drawn to her warmth, her sensual dance, her love of life, her exuberant heart. She gave and gave, and never ran out of love to give. Autumn, wild and adventurous, was more unpredictable. If she didn’t like an idea, she could be quite cutting in her critique. But everyone went to her if they wanted honesty, for she saw truly.
Winter never said much. No one knew what she was thinking, she didn’t contribute any ideas to their dreams for the world, and some called her cold. But no one noticed that late at night, after the others had gone to sleep, she cleaned up all their toys, threw away their rejected creations, and laid the world quiet again so they could wake up in the morning and start fresh.
The four sisters grew up, and Summer became Queen of the South, while Winter became Queen of the North, for these were the lands their mother bequeathed to them. Spring and Autumn served as messengers between them. Spring brought warmth up to the in-between lands from the South, to enliven the bodies of all beings. Autumn brought the cold down from Winter’s land, to enliven their spirits. It was understood in their family, without ever needing to be said, that this balance was necessary in order for life to exist.
Summer married first: she married Thunder, for his heavy, fruitful rains. It was a practically motivated, yet fond marriage, extremely busy, extremely fecund. Summer lived for her children. Her little sister Spring used to adore them and make them presents, and when they grew older, Autumn helped them choose their careers, guided their purpose, gave them advice which Summer sometimes appreciated and sometimes did not.
Spring’s romance began in her childhood, and never lost its innocence. Her marriage to Rain was a glorious event celebrated in every fairy tale, a soulmate love of eternal youth, and it never faded. Their children were more fragile, and many didn’t make it. But nothing could quell Spring’s eternal buoyancy, and always she had her sisters to comfort her with the wisdom of time—for she was their darling, and no one could ever be angry with her for even a moment, or cease believing in her.
Autumn married late in life. She was independent and fierce, she smelled of spice and rot, and men feared her. After breaking a thousand hearts, she eventually married Wind, and they grew old together, always traveling. They never had children. They were both artists, and they liked their freedom.
Winter never married at all. She seemed to grow only more silent, more cold, as she grew older, and her thoughts turned ever inward. Sometimes, said Summer once to Autumn, I wonder if she is even capable of love! They never invited her, anymore, to their children’s births or achievements, for they feared she would hurt them. It seemed she brought a chill to every event, and her mood of sorrow and emptiness ruined it. They never noticed how, with steadfast and unwavering gentleness, she took care of their mother all the years of her life. She was the only one of them who comforted their mother, lay a blanket over her when she was sleeping, gave her rest. She dreamed with their father, and learned all about their ancestry, where they came from. Unlike the other sisters, she seemed to care more about the past than about the future. If you won’t marry, what will you do with your life? they asked her, for she didn’t even create art, like her sister Autumn. Nothing, she said, and did not explain.
They began to mistrust Winter, and then, without really intending it, they began to leave her out of their conversations and plans. There seemed something wrong about her, something dangerous. Their mother noticed, and asked them please to be at peace, to love each other always, for her sake. But they didn’t feel angry with Winter. They just didn’t want her around. And Winter, in her humble way, never protested. When they forgot about her entirely, she did nothing to remind them.
The more disconnected they became from their cold sister, the more a restlessness grew in them, a feverish dissatisfaction they could not define. Summer, always productive and energetic, pushed her children to work harder, achieve bigger, build higher. Her children made cities, fortresses, wars, technology, and future after future after future. She taught them always to want more. Spring, whose cheerful inspiration began to seem a bit manic, taught them to always want something shiny and new. And Autumn, who’d turned cynical in her old age, taught them always to want something different.
So the beings of Earth worked on and on, creating and creating, changing everything, destroying and remaking, so that in the end, there was no more room for Winter. Their father the Sky, hot and irritable, grew more fickle than ever, and started playing games with the weather. When they begged him to stop, he wouldn’t listen.
“He used to be so tender with me,” wept Spring. Summer and Autumn had found her crying by a little, lily-covered pool in the forest, and they put their arms around her, but they were afraid. They had never seen Spring cry before, not in all their lives.
“You don’t know it,” cried Spring, “but I have cried many times. In my childhood, I used to cry at the beginning of every year. I used to feel lost, and not know the meaning of things. What is the point? I used to ask myself. Why create the world all over again? But you know something? It was Winter who comforted me. I could never tell either of you, because I knew you counted on me to be sunny and cheerful. But Winter always knew. And she always understood. Though she never used any words, after she held me for a little while, I felt strong again, and everything made sense, and I was ready to begin.”
Summer and Autumn were silent at first. No one had mentioned Winter for a long time. But now their memories were also returning to them.
“You know,” said Autumn. “I haven’t wanted to say anything. But the truth is, my art is empty these days. The songs of Wind sound hollow to me, and without purpose. My stories feel ungrounded. And I think it has something to do with losing touch—with our sister Winter.”
“I haven’t wanted to say anything either,” said Summer. She lay down her giant arms full of fruits and flowers, and bowed her head. “But sometimes, I’m just so tired. My children fight with each other. I work so hard. And somehow, it always gave me peace, just knowing Winter was there on the other side of the world.”
They all sat silent, as silent as Winter herself. They thought of Winter’s bare, naked trees. Without saying it aloud, they realized that this was the gift Winter had always given them, or tried to—the ability to be honest with themselves. To look within, on those coldest, loneliest nights.
Spring stood up with her characteristic passion. “We must find her! We must bring our sister back to us!” she cried out, with the petulance of a child.
“But I cannot leave my lands and my children,” said Summer. “I have too much to take care of here.”
“And I must stay and nurture the most fragile new shoots and buds,” acknowledged Spring, upon reflection.
“It is I who will go, then,” offered Autumn, “and search for her. There is nothing to tie me down, and anyway, the responsibility falls most of all with me. My stories were always about her. Winter has been the inspiration for all of my art. I just didn’t realize until now.”
So Autumn journeyed back to the North, where she hadn’t been for a long time. She couldn’t find Winter anywhere, nor any trace of her—no ice, no snow, no freezing nights of wonder. She asked the stones, she asked the animals who’d once hibernated, she asked the birds who used to migrate, she asked the skeletons of things that used to be. She called deep into still water. No one had seen her. Though Winter had never married, nor ever had any lover, she had birthed many spirit children, over the ages—creatures of shaggy white fur, snowy feathers, or sleek undersea grace. But these were all gone now. They had simply disappeared.
When Autumn realized that Winter was truly missing—and that the North lay in ruin, leaving the whole world teetering off balance, oceans dying, kingdoms once beautiful now in danger of burning up—she sat down and wept.
Then she returned to her other two sisters.
She returned to Spring shaking with fear, and Summer crushed with guilt. The more they had missed her, the more Winter’s loss had begun to really weigh on them. They rushed impatiently to Autumn—“Where is she? Didn’t you find her?”
“No,” said Autumn. “I did not find her. I found nothing.”
And they were angry with Autumn, for disappointing them. But Autumn was never one to be fazed by others’ judgments.
“Listen,” she told them. “Winter IS nothing. She is the loss. She is the grief. That’s the time of year she is. That’s what we never made room for before. And that’s what we have to feel now, in order to reclaim her.”
Spring and Summer went quiet, listening.
“This is Winter,” said Autumn. “Our sister. She understands everything, you see. I think she always knew this would happen. She knew we would deny her and forget her, because she understands history. She understands forgetting, because she is memory. She knows what has happened, and what will happen again. She is the wisdom we know when we see the whole. That’s why she comforts us. She’s just being what she is.”
“I am so sorry,” said Spring.
“Me too,” said Summer. “I was afraid of her. I let myself forget.”
“It’s alright,” said Autumn, “because Winter is forgiveness.”
“What must we do now?” said Spring.
“Nothing,” said Autumn. “Let’s just listen. Let’s listen to each other.”
They sat for a long time in circle, like the quiet council in winters of old. They listened to the echoes of Spring’s first chirps, the bursting of dams, the strain of new seeds sprouting, the peepers. They listened to the memories of Summer’s symphony: the bees and cicadas, laughter and waves, hammering and howling, crowing and singing. They listened to Autumn’s eerie, haunting songs about letting go.
“I would like to honor my sister Winter,” said Spring. “What gifts can we give her, to tell her we appreciate her at last?”
“I will give her,” said Summer, “a cozy fire for story-telling in the heart of her age-old silence. It will bring people together, so that they think of her with fondness, and remember her even in the middle of my pleasure and my dancing.”
“I will give her the stars on a great, clear night,” said Spring, “and Northern Lights, and unexplained dreams, and wishes.”
“I will give her a swirling wind,” said Autumn, “to make beauty of her snowflakes and play with the shapes of her curving white dunes.”
Then they were quiet again. They still missed her. The sun was setting, and their father the Sky was listening closely. It was the first time in a long time that he had felt so present.
“I think she will like those gifts,” said Summer at last. “But I wonder how we will ever bring her back, for real, so that we may give them to her? You know we cannot live without her.”
“Then I think we must die,” said Spring.
They all looked at her. They didn’t know what she could possibly mean—and yet they did know. Winter is sacrifice. Winter is giving back. Summer was weeping, but it was beautiful, and they did not tell her to stop, they did not tell her everything was okay.
“Don’t be afraid,” said Spring, as they lay themselves down. For the first time in her life, it was she who comforted Summer, reaching out her small maiden hand. “For Winter loves us. And we are going to be reborn.”
“Yes,” said Autumn, as she covered them all with the most heart-breaking, intricate, glorious collage of flame, mauve, crimson, and scarlet leaves of every pattern. “Just trust. Winter is trust.”