Winter came resolute to the fields of Jannus, the two-faced god of new years and New Year’s resolutions. His workers filed into two lines: those who had accomplished their New Year’s resolutions, and those who hadn’t.
In one line was a girl with curls like descending clouds around her ebony face, who looked to the other line with a shy smile. Her calloused hands gripped her worn out apron as her heart beat with emotion she would not divulge. When her friend caught her look, her friend grinned and waved. They had said their farewells in their shared room and had nothing else to say. Soon, a stone troll took her friend and the others away to the golden Archway of Completed Promises. The Archway of Freedom.
As the last wisp of her friend’s red scarf disappeared in the arch’s shadow, Akini’s smile faded and her face turned blank. At the end of her line awaited Jannus to hear her new New Year’s resolution. He would give her two smiles, one facing the past year and the other the year ahead.
She would have nothing for him.
Overhead, as if replicating the god’s twin facade, a film of clouds veiled half the sky. On one half the sun was faded orange cloaked in a spray of white, on the other the moon was a faint yellow on a sheet of cerulean.
She wondered if her family gazed up and saw what she saw in the realm of gods; if their winter was as forgiving as hers. She rubbed her exposed arms, skin itchy from the parched air. For a third year, her parents and two brothers would settle around the dining table without her. They would pray for her, then later write a letter encouraging her to work hard and pay off her debt to the gods. Three days later, she would receive the letter.
Wind stirred carrying dust from the dormant fields, and Akini sneezed.
The line shrank faster than she cared for, and soon she found herself climbing the marble steps of Jannus’ gazebo. Potted miniature trees of lemons, limes, and tangerines adorned the sides of the steps, and an acid tang tickled her nose.
He waited for her at the top stretched across a bronze daybed, his head resting on his arm. The wan winter sun stroked his loose, brown curls and cast a sepia glow on his golden form. His toga draped around his form caught a breeze and billowed like the sail of a boat. In front of him, she was the size of an infant.
He gazed at her with half-lidded eyes, as if he were bored; though, his four midnight eyes sparkled with speckled stars.
“Another year, Akini. What do you have for me?” His voice, timber deep, echoed in her heart and teased a renewed sense of shame.
She bent her head and stared at her bare feet. “Nothing, your highness.”
“I told you to call me Jannus last year,” he chastised her with a laugh. “And the year before that.”
“Nothing, Master Jannus. I have no resolutions for this coming year.”
He clicked his tongue and grumbled something about not being a Master before sitting upright and beckoning her to come closer. He lowered his two faces and examined her from the corners of his eyes. His face compared to hers was the size of a plum to a pea. “Now, Akini, why do you have no resolutions? At spring, you were full of hope. What changed?”
She pursed her lips and turned her face.
“If you don’t make a resolution, you have no hope of repaying your debt.”
“And if I make one and fail to meet it, I would have more debt.”
“That is true.” He sighed, picked her up and placed her beside him on the daybed. “But staying in my field throughout your mortal days is not what I nor any of the gods wish for you.”
She wrinkled her oval nose. “Why would the gods care if I stayed my whole life here?”
“Because it is a waste of a life.”
She raised her head and met his face—the one that gazed at the previous year.
“You were quite fruitful this spring and summer.”
She saw herself in his eyes tilling the fields, planting the crops, watering the gardens, and sweeping the cobbled pathway that led to Jannus’s temple. In spring, the pale green buds had sprouted hope, and a shadow of that bygone promise to herself flashed across her face. She furrowed her brows and chewed the inside of her cheek.
“Hope is a delusion disguised as a promise,” she muttered.
He patted her head with his index finger, urging her to keep looking into his eyes.
The vision changed to summer, where the green was vivid, where the landscape glimmered, and shades clustered in nooks the sun had left for them. She wore a blue bandana, her hair piled high on her head. Sweat dripped from her temples. Perspiration dotted her dark face and streamed down her neck.
Autumn came, and she lay shaking in bed. A fever raged, stealing her strength, her time, and her ability to complete her resolution. By the time she had healed, the landscape had turned bronze and two-thirds of the harvest had been collected. She’d watched from her bedroom window as baskets of red and green apples, of purple plums and yellow lemons were carted off to the celestial markets by her fellow workers.
When she could work again, she found no desire to. Winter was already lurking around, breathing dry and cold down her neck. There was no work to be done, no work that would earn points fast enough for her to pay back her debt. A scene played of her stowing away the picture of her family adorned with smudged fingerprints and tear stains where she would not have to see it every day.
She spent her winter listening to her friend, Nakasa, who had met her resolution, chatter about her family, her village, and her lover she would finally see again. Nakasa, like Akini, had exchanged her labor for money when a member of her family had fallen sick. Their age brought them closer, and the sameness of their circumstances had solidified their friendship. Akini had smiled, nodded, and laughed with her. By then, she had felt no emotion of her own, and she collected Nakasa’s as if it were hers. At a time, her falsehood felt so real she had shed happy tears for Nakasa’s joy. As a farewell token, Jannus had gifted Nakasa with a red scarf, spun from spider silk and dyed with the flowers of Amora.
Jannus blinked and the vignette of her year ended. “What do you think?”
Akini averted her gaze. She fixated on lunar butterflies that circled the citrus plants.
“I, I did my best.” She spied Jannus scrunching his nose. “I did. I gave my all!”
“In spring and summer, perhaps, but what of autumn and winter? A year has two halves, four seasons.”
“I was sick.”
Jannus chuckled and his eyes, which gazed at the past year, twinkled. “I know.”
A vision flashed of him visiting her sickbed, his shoulders hunched and knees bent as he entered her room. She didn’t remember.
He laughed. “You think it false?”
She shrugged. “What reason would a god have for seeing me, let alone Jannus, the keeper of resolutions, the one who benefits from my labor.”
He scowled and picked her up. He held her in his palms and raised her so they could see each other at the same height.
“Akini, I am the keeper of resolutions. My highest desire is to see someone complete them, not to keep someone indebted, toiling in my fields.”
“And yet here your workers are.”
“Yes, they are here. Yes, you are here. But am I the one keeping you here?”
Her stomach tightened, and she began grinding her teeth as her brows furrowed. Outside the gazebo, the other workers began to grumble; the buzz of their voices made her ears twitch. She was taking up time.
“If I make a resolution, will you let me go?”
Jannus tilted his head closer, his voice but a whisper. “No.”
“I only take resolutions from the heart. Nothing else.”
“Then, what do you want?”
“I want nothing. But what do you want? Why did you work so hard in spring and summer? Who did you do it for? Just because time slipped away, did the reason for your resolution pass?”
Jannus threw one question after another, and she felt a tremor in her core, small shakes cracking the foundation of the walls around her heart. She inhaled, biting down on her lip.
She had given up on resolutions. Why make another one?
Jannus’ shrub gremlin coughed. “Sir, it’s past her time. The next one awaits.”
She met the corners of his eyes. The one facing the future winked. He cleared his throat and set her down. “Another year, Akini. What do you have for me?”
She thought of the picture stowed away in a crack in her room’s wall, of her family, of her freedom, of life outside the gods’ realm. She inhaled, then exhaled, gripping her stained apron with shaking hands. “I have a resolution.”