By Tara Avery

In the dark of winter, when summer’s light and warmth seemed an eternity away, when they huddled around the fire as much for companionship and commiseration as heat, they told stories. Like the sun above and the howling wind outdoors, words had power. They knew that. They’d always known. Power to help. Power to protect. Power to heal, to teach, to entertain. 

To the little children they told stories with hidden lessons. Perhaps monsters did not live beneath the bridge, perhaps trolls did not lurk to eat the unwary, but it was dangerous to wander from the path, that much was true. The world could be a terrifying place if one wasn’t prepared for its treacheries. So they told fairy tales and fables, and the children repeated the tales in their soft, lisping voices, settling the words as closely to their hearts as their parents had once done, and their parents before. The children listened and the children learned, and later, when they walked through the dark woods, they kept to the path and were safe. Later still, when they had children of their own, they repeated the stories word by precious word, just as they’d been told to them, once upon a time.

Other times the stories were of great heroes, of battles won and battles lost, of gods and demons and angels, of epic struggles between good and evil. They told tales of dreams and magic, of tricksters and long journeys, of beginnings and endings. Everyone listened with wide eyes, gasping in all the right places, hands clasped to their hearts. The young envisioned adventures of their own, and hoped. The old remembered the dreams of their youth, and smiled. These stories made the long nights pass quickly, everyone enthralled by lives so much more fantastic than their own. When the heroes overcame all obstacles, victorious against all odds, they clapped and cheered, and even when the tales ended in tragedy—as sometimes stories do—there were always pleas for more.

Not all stories were cautionary, not all stories were heroic, and not all stories were sad. Sometimes the hearth was a place of laughter, ringing with tales of mistakes and misunderstandings and foolishness. Neighbors slapped each other on the back, sharing amusement, connected by the knowledge that at least they were not so silly as the poor fools in the tales. While they laughed, the world seemed a brighter place, a warmer place. The winter was far away, then, drowned out by mirth, and summer seemed just around the next bend.

All through the long dark, through joy and grief and all the worlds in between, they were connected by their words, their history, their stories. Tales for new love and old love, for loss and sorrow and pain, for hope. Lessons to learn and ties to bind. Stories were blood and bread, necessary as breathing.

Words had power.

They knew that.

They’d always known.

And so they sat by the fire and told their tales and sung their songs as their parents had once done, and their grandparents before that, on and on, back to the first winter and the first fire.