Reminiscent of Margaret Atwood, Mary Doria Russell and Ursula K. LeGuin, “The Winter Boy” explores important political and social issues within a dynamic, character-driven otherworld, wrapped up in masterful storytelling.
A cloistered society of widows, the Alleshi, has forged peace by mentoring young men who will one day become leaders of the land, using time-honored methods that include dialog, reason, and sexual intimacy. However, unknown to all but a hidden few, the peace is fracturing from pressures within and beyond, hacking at the very essence of their civilization.
Amidst this gathering political maelstrom, Rishana, a young new idealistic Allesha, takes her First Boy, Ryl, for a winter season of training. But Ryl fights Rishana every step of the way. At the same time, Rishana uncovers a web of conspiracies that could not only destroy Ryl, but threaten to tear their entire society apart. And a winter that should have been a gentle, quiet season becomes one of conflict, anger and danger.
Targeted Age Group:: Adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
All speculative fiction – well, I guess all fiction – begins with the question “What if?” I often add “Why?” and “How?” I have difficulties understanding our world. For instance: Why is there hate and war? What if I could wipe the earth of all our past, and start over, creating a new culture and economy designed to foment peace rather than war? Would it make a difference if such a civilization were founded, defined and developed by women rather than men? What would that world look like? How would it function? What would be its weakness and strengths?
However, while those are some of the underlying concerns and questions that compelled me to write “The Winter Boy,” like all my stories, it started with the people who populate this world. (Please see the answer to the next question for the continuation of this discussion.)
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I’ve been living with Rishana/Tayar and Ryl/Dov for so very long that I don’t really remember the first time they entered my consciousness. But I know that, like all my fictional characters, they were born in my mind as full-blown flesh-and-blood individuals. At the moment that they were born in my mind, I knew who they are and what the central problems were that drove them to tell me their stories.
So “The Winter Boy” started with Rishana. A comparatively young widow who has led a safe, privileged life until the day that her husband’s frozen brutalized body was carried home to her on a slab of wood.
That was the beginning: An idealistic woman who believes with all her soul in the righteousness and surety of the Alleshine civilization – a centuries-old society that works to bring the benefits of a war-free existence (with all the prosperity it offers) to an ever-increasing circle of peace. She makes a commitment to her vision of everything that is right in her world. But can any society, any person ever live up to the perfectionism that we can build in our minds about them? People – and cultures – are human. As such, we’re frail, make mistakes, have our good points and bad, with lots of grey in between. What happens when such a woman has to confront the reality, the clay feet of the people she has blindly, whole-heartedly believed in?
Then there’s Ryl. In many ways, he’s the complete opposite of Rishana. A troubled youth, Ryl has a knack for getting into trouble, for being unruly and undisciplined. He’s never felt at home anywhere, and had learned at an early age that he was more comfortable “being alone to feeling so alone in the middle of everything.”
Naturally, I had to get the two of them together, and see what sparks would fly – and how each would be changed by their season together.
The Valley of the Alleshi stretches wide and green, surrounded by gentle mountains that cut the coldest of winds from the north and the wildest of hurricanes from the south. In the spring, summer and fall, the eight passes to The Valley flow constantly with pilgrims, traders, petitioners and emissaries — and, of course, Allemen, the leaders of the land, trained by the Alleshi. But in winter, heavy snow fills the high mountain passes. Only during those deep white months is The Valley isolated and inaccessible. It is a precious quiet season for the Alleshi.
As one such season approached, Rishana had just returned home from a strengthening class at the Communal Hall when she saw Dara through her mudroom window.
Dara was tall and lean, with flesh deeply etched by life. Her black hair was streaked with wide swathes of white. With precise, practiced grace, she walked up to the back door, raised her hand to knock, then noticed Rishana standing inside. So she opened the door and walked in.
“Dara, you’re early!” Why was her mentor here, now, before she could bathe and prepare herself for their daily meeting?
“I’m not staying long.” Dara followed Rishana into the spa-cious sun-filled kitchen and sat at the square oak table.
Obviously, Dara had something on her mind that she felt couldn’t wait.
“Yes?” Rishana asked, as she sat down across from Dara. Her exercise suit was sweat-stained and itched. She raked the wet strands of her auburn hair that were escaping the tie-back ribbon, pushing them behind her ears. Then, realizing what she was doing, she draped her hands onto her lap, forcing her body to be still and receptive.
“It’s time for you to choose your First Boy,” Dara said with deliberate calm, her dark, age-yellowed eyes fixed on Rishana’s. “I saw a worthy candidate this morning, the son of one of my Allemen. The boy could prove… interesting for you.”
“My First Season isn’t supposed to be until the spring,” Rishana protested. “I’m not ready.”
“Of course you are, or I wouldn’t suggest it.”
“What if I’m not, Dara? A boy’s entire future depends on what I do, how well I’m prepared.”
“You know you won’t be alone. I’ll guide you through your First Season.”
“I don’t understand.” Rishana paused, trying to sort her thoughts. “Everyone has drilled into me how tightly structured my training schedule must be to fit everything I need to know into three years. Why would you now want to cut it short by four months… and so suddenly?” She studied her mentor, trying to read Dara’s face and body the way she’d been taught. “Is there something special about this boy?”
“No, not at all, Rishana,” Dara reassured her. “We’re simply very pleased with how quickly you’ve learned. Waiting until the spring won’t prepare you any better, but it would delay teaching you the finer points of being an Allesha, which you’ll learn only by working with a boy in Season. Trust me; the timing is right.”
The younger woman nodded, not so much in agreement as acceptance. Of course, she trusted Dara. Faith in the wisdom and power of the Alleshi was the foundation of her life, of their entire society.
“I don’t have your experience or knowledge, Dara; I wouldn’t know how to select a boy. Can’t I simply accept this candidate, if you think he’s the right one for me?”
Dara arched her back against the offensive suggestion. “Absolutely not! This is a decision only you can make. However, I can help you analyze what type of boy to choose for your First, which will define the kind of Allesha you wish to become.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let me explain by telling you about this candidate.” Dara focused on something only she could see in the empty air between them. “Unlike most Allemen sons, he’s a rough one — arrogant, and a bit of a troublemaker. Still, he is bright and alert.” Dara’s voice was as disciplined as ever, enunciating each word clearly, forcefully. However, she paused between phrases more than usual, carefully considering each word before she said it. “He’ll constantly try to provoke and test you, attempting to control rather than learn from you. But if you can reach him, as I believe you can, his strength of will, intelligence and good heart could be of great value for our people.”
“Sounds like a strong candidate.” Rishana wondered why her mentor seemed to be holding herself in tight check. Perhaps Dara was being careful not to unduly influence her in this important decision.
“Yes, but only a few Alleshi are willing or capable of taking on such a difficult boy. I was appointed your mentor because we believe you have within you that ability, and because problem boys have been my specialty. But you’re under no obligation to follow in my ways. Should you select another kind of boy for your First, I will still work through the Season with you. It is your choice.”
“How do I decide, Dara?”
“By meeting him, then evaluating your reaction. Does his coarse manner irritate you, or can you find humor and challenge in it? What do you see beyond the face he presents? Is it something intriguing that you’d enjoy unearthing, though the process would be difficult?
“Look into your heart,” Dara continued. “Do you want to give a piece of it to this troublesome boy? Remember, once you are an Allesha to a boy, he becomes part of you, and that will change you. You must be honest about yourself — who you are, and what you want, both for the moment and for the course of your life. To choose a boy such as this one means that your first Alleshine Season — and Seasons to come — will be filled with conflict and stress. You will have to learn to be fierce, while instilling gentleness. It will wear you out before your time. There’s no harder work, but also none more important.”
“What if I choose another kind of boy for my First?” Rishana asked.
“Most boys aren’t like this one. They’re confused, mischievous, but willing to bend and eager to learn. Seasons with them start joyously and proceed toward harmony.”
“Not much of a choice, is it?” Even as she said it, Rishana wondered why the words somehow didn’t ring true. “Who wouldn’t choose a life of joy and harmony over one of conflict and stress?”
“I for one, and possibly you.” Dara sighed, a wistful smile softening her face. “Once you’ve moved past the conflict, once you’ve harnessed a problem boy’s energy with discipline, the Alleman you create can become one of our most powerful and effective. Easy-to-train boys are fine for those times when you want to relax, but I couldn’t have given all my Seasons and years to languid pleasure. I devoted my life to fire and stone, and with each of my problem boys, I became stronger, more alive.” Dara’s smile broadened, deepening the wrinkles around her mouth, and yet, for that brief moment, making her seem young once more. “And I couldn’t be prouder of the Allemen they have become.”
“I see. You’ve given me a lot to consider, Dara.”
“I’ll leave now, so you can meditate on your decision. After your bath, prepare a simple lunch, one that won’t distract you from your thoughts. Then sit under one of your apple trees, among the fallen leaves. I’ll be back in the late afternoon. Soon after, the Southwest Battai will come with the boy. Meeting him places no obligation on you, but will help you think things through.”
Rishana was already deep in thought, weighing what Dara had said, and trying to decipher what hadn’t been said, when Dara left as quietly as she could. On her way out, the older woman made sure that the outer front door of the house was closed, as a sign that Rishana wasn’t accepting visitors.
“Evanya!” Karinne greeted her friend warmly at her kitchen door. The two women always used the names of their youth when they were alone together, names from so long ago that no one else in The Valley remembered them.
One look at Evanya’s shadowed face, and Karinne knew something momentous had happened. Silently, they secured the house and sequestered themselves inside the locked inner room, safe from any eavesdroppers. They spoke in hushed staccato tones, compressing every sound deep in their throats, though they knew no one could hear them.
“The boy has arrived,” Evanya said.
Karinne’s breath caught in her lungs. “So soon? We weren’t expecting him until the spring.”
“Mistral and Shria had no choice if we didn’t want to chance losing him.” Evanya shivered, though the room was warm.
“He’s determined to marry his girl; he had actually gone to their village council to announce their betrothal. If Mistral hadn’t managed to get the girl’s mother to block him…”
“But no woman speaks at the Birani council.”
“She’s a widow with no man to speak for her. So the council had to listen and honor her decision.”
“An Alleman for my daughter or no man.”
“I’m impressed. We should keep an eye on the mother, and see if she has the makings of an Allesha.” Karinne struggled to rearrange her small, round body, trying to find a comfortable position. The inner room wasn’t meant for women whose bones were no longer flexible, regardless of how well-padded they had become. “Perhaps it could be a good thing that he’s arrived, that the waiting is over.”
“Still, I’m concerned about the timing. I thought we’d have longer to train her. Four months could have made such a difference.” Evanya paused. “There’s so much she doesn’t know, doesn’t yet understand. And she’s so young.” She sighed deeply.
In the nearly three years that she had been training in The Valley, Rishana had learned much about what it was to be an Allesha. She had studied how to control with the turn of a hand, to seduce with a glance, to disarm with a smile. Lessons with various Alleshine teachers had focused her eye to read the subtle signs in another’s behavior, gestures and voice.
Other Alleshi taught her self-defense and ways to avoid the need to defend.
She’d spent untold hours absorbed in The Valley’s extensive library. Guided by Savah, Jared’s Allesha, she had researched history, trade, treaties, and the cultures of the diverse peoples within and beyond the Peace borders, seeking hints about the long-ago hidden time before the Great Chaos.
Combining her new skills, observations and growing knowledge, she had practiced a range of responses to many different scenarios, altering her approach, posture and tone to achieve the most beneficial outcome.
All this time, Rishana’s every waking moment had been consumed by the study and practice of the many disciplines required to become a successful Allesha. But now that Dara had set Rishana’s mind in a new direction, she realized that her tight focus had distracted her from consid¬ering wider, more personal ramifications.
They had been training her to face this moment since she had come to The Valley with her Petition. Her teachers had been chosen carefully to set the path of her life. Their aim was now as clear as that of an arrow nocked into a bow by a master archer. Why hadn’t anyone said anything to her, not even Savah?
Problem boys, problem life. Certainly, the challenges of such a future could be fascinating. But how dare they twist her training without asking her what it was she wanted — until now, at this late hour, when they felt confident of her answer. Confident, because they had already formed her into the Allesha they wanted her to be.
How like the Alleshi!
And now she was one of them.
“No!” she yelled into the empty house, startling herself with the sound, but feeling a certain satisfaction in the solid autonomy of her own voice. “Arrogant, manipulative, overbearing… I won’t be like her!”
She shook her head to clear it.
“Jinet, pull yourself together,” she demanded of herself, using her name from her life before The Valley. “Remember who you are and why you came here.”
It had been five years ago this spring, but often it felt like yesterday. Jared’s mutilated body carried home to her after that long winter wait. Bathing her husband for the last time and finding under the dried blood and encrusted dirt the gruesome geometric patterns carved into his flesh.
Mwertik Zalog runes.
Pushing the memory deep inside where she kept it locked away, Rishana straightened her back and closed her eyes. Then she took five deep, long breaths, releasing herself into each exhale. When she opened her eyes, she probed inward and found the knot of her anger. No, it would not be easily dislodged, but she didn’t have to lose herself to it.
Rishana stomped into her bedroom, tore off her sweaty exercise clothes, and began the daily ritual of studying herself in the mirror.
The body she saw in her reflection was not the one of her youth. That had been the first difficulty for her when Savah had explained the importance of the wall-size mirror in every Allesha’s bedroom. But her teachers had insisted she persevere; eventually, she had learned to evaluate her own body, wielding that knowledge in the way she carried herself.
All Alleshine skills began with this understanding of the physical self, a tool to be utilized, a power to be harnessed. But she had naïvely believed that the Alleshi would never use their skills on one another, on her. Now she felt like a fool. Yet, still she obeyed, by standing in front of the mirror, honoring the teachings of those who had not honored her.
All in all, it was an attractive womanly figure that Rishana saw in the mirror, one that had given life to two children and had reached the ripeness of maturity. Rishana’s forty-three years had taken their toll, and her body had lost the taut, unstretched silkiness of her youth. The long, shapely legs might widen toward the curvy hips a bit more than she would like, but they were elegant and could be used to good effect. Her arms, too, had that same graceful length that made the motions and gestures she practiced in the mirror appealing. Though her breasts had become weighty rather than round, and her waist would never again be the hourglass indent it had once been, her body was tightening nicely, thanks to Michale’s exercises. She was pleased that her shoulder-length auburn hair now shone with the highlights of her youth, thanks to the new henna rinse Hester had given her. And her skin was responding well to the lemon juice and olive oil treatments, helping to repair the years of sunburn and hard work. Not that anything would ever erase those freckles.
Rishana continued to stare into the mirror. If you can see a person’s heart and destiny in her eyes, what did hers reveal about the Allesha she wanted to be? Had the Alleshi changed her so fully that she no longer had any choices that truly came from within her? Or was the woman who stared back at her still the freeborn, independent individual she had always considered herself to be?
Retreating into her steaming bath, Rishana gave herself fully to the sensual pleasure of it, and used it to clear her mind. As she dressed and prepared a lunch of fruit, cheese and bread, she turned her mind back to the question of her First Boy, and to the Alleshi. Later, she sat among the fallen leaves under the largest of her house-tall apple trees, nibbled at the meal, and considered her choices….
About the Author:
Sally Wiener Grotta is a consummate storyteller, reflecting her deep humanism and appreciation for the poignancy of life. As an award-winning journalist, she has authored hundreds of articles, columns, essays and reviews for scores of glossy magazines, newspapers, journals and online publications. She has also authored numerous non-fiction books. Her fiction includes Jo Joe, a Black Bear, Pennsylvania novel.
A member of the American Society of Journalists & Authors, Sally Wiener Grotta is a frequent speaker at conferences. schools and other organizations storytelling, creativity, and the business of writing.. She welcomes invitations to participate in discussions with book clubs (occasionally in person, more often via Skype, Google Hangout, or phone), and to do occasional readings.
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