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There are things that winter brings, and things that winter makes.
There are things in winter that want, and things in winter that take.
On a cold winter’s eve, Ann awoke in the darkness. Every candle in the house had been snuffed out. Something scratched at a wood floor, like a small creature running, and Ann leaned over to her bedside drawer for a match. Her hand pawed blindly until she found one in her rummaging, but she might’ve run instead had she known she was watched by the cold thing.
Ann heard the scratching again as she clutched the long match in her fist, and didn’t know if the sound came from out in the hall or from within the room until something heavy struck her from behind, clouding her head in blackness. Her breath struggled in and out, like her face was covered by a damp cloth. She struggled to fully awaken too, drifting in and out of consciousness.
At last, she shuddered awake from the stinging at her fingers and toes, a spiteful chill creeping over her arms, her legs, and under her clothes. She’d been dropped flat on her belly on a tree-spotted, snowy slope in the dark of night, and two other girls lay nearby. Then she heard a scraping from something in the snow, and spied a rail-thin figure vanishing swiftly into the night, and dragging a sack behind it. Its burlap surface had dampened on the bottom half, darkening most heavily against the ground, and it left a dark streak in the snow to the point where it vanished too.
Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
Ann clambered to her hands and knees and shook the other girls’ shoulders. Like her, they were clothed only in nightgowns, and one sported a dark splotch in her fair hair. She urged them to wakefulness, to awareness of their place in the snow, on a slope of sparse trees, and of their abductor lingering near.
Again came the scratching and scraping, something slipping over the snow, and Ann struck her match over one calloused finger, to give she and the girls a light for their way. Something stood in front of her as the match dragged over her skin, and was gone again when the tiny flame bloomed beneath her face.
She wondered for a moment what this thing was that stole people from houses and shied away from fire, and then it showed its liking for the girls when the fair-haired one shrieked that something had grasped at her leg. Ann carried her tiny flame to a weathered old stump, barely a black splotch on the white snow, and shredded some of her gown from behind her neck to help set the wood alight. The fire sputtered and threatened to die more than once, but quickly the fabric’s flames caught the wood and the three girls clustered close. They grabbed at small sticks and twigs within range of the firelight, to drop on the stump and keep the fire burning.
All the while, the cold thing watched the girls.
They huddled close for warmth, all three being cold, and they huddled in fear, though they didn’t know each other. They waited while watching the fire, and they waited while warily watching the night, and after long enough of watching the fire, it again began to sputter and die.
Ann decided that one girl must fetch sticks and twigs that hadn’t been taken yet, ones beyond the fire’s light. They pulled hairs from her head and drew for the short one, and the dark-haired girl lost the draw. Ann and the fair-haired girl urged her to take a charred stick from the stump, a bit of embers to protect her and light her way.
She took her time stepping barefoot through the snow, away from the safe, warm glow, and the fire weakened a little more before the girl faded from view. The soft embers of the charred stick shown through the darkness a bit longer than the girl, but grew more and more distant at each step. At last, the darkness swallowed the light, and silence swallowed the girl’s steps.
Ann and the fair-haired girl waited a while more, watching for the girl to reappear. Their fire shrank lower and fainter by the moment. They called out for the girl, begged her to return, even if she hadn’t found firewood, but her face didn’t emerge from the darkness, and not a sound answered but the chilly wind.
All the while, the cold thing watched the girls.
Ann decided one of the two must try again for something to burn, or else both would die with the fire, but the other girl only shook her head. Even when Ann pulled out another few of her own hairs, the girl wouldn’t play at drawing them. Ann wouldn’t herself go unfairly, but her game of chance gave her another idea. She pulled out one clutch of her hair, and then a few more, and fed the strands to the weary flames. Then she held the other girl’s head in her arms and began to pluck out each strand, letting the fire eat the hair so fair.
The stump seemed desperate, barely helped by the offering, and so Ann grew desperate too. Despite the chill nipping at her skin, she tore off her nightgown, and the other girl’s too, and gave them up to be burned. Now their skin ran with bumps and their teeth chattered, and the small fire ate their clothes faster than they liked. Bald and naked, it once again came time for one to fetch wood, and neither girl would go.
Ann shoved the once fair one, and they tussled in the bitter snow. A fist hit a wound on the back of Ann’s head and she jabbed her own into the dark stain on the other girl’s skull. They tossed and rolled, scratching and shoving, until Ann pressed the girl down, her knee in the gut, one hand at the throat, and the other hand clamped over the girl’s mouth and nose.
She wriggled and kicked at Ann and the snow, and ran sharp nails through Ann’s skin. Her wide, wild eyes begged for air and freedom, but found Ann’s cold eyes unrelenting. After a minute, the squirming weakened like the fire, and after two, the kicking ceased. After three, Ann lifted her bloodied hands away and moaned over what had become of her.
All the while, the cold thing watched the girl.
Curling her arms under the other’s breathless chest, Ann dragged the girl toward the stump and laid the lifeless body into the flames, which they eagerly lapped up. She cringed by the livening fire, alone and nipped by cold, and she watched the once fair-haired girl melt away, layer by layer, from skin to bones.
The fire lived through the night and dawn found Ann sitting in a pit of dampened embers. Scant sunlight rewarded her patience and waiting. The cold thing was gone. Now she waited for nothing, cross-legged, naked and bald, and her breath barely made a mist. Her skin ran red from the freezing night and she’d never again move certain fingers or toes. A blackened skull sat in her lap, and to Ann’s fortune, didn’t struggle, scream, moan or kick.
There are things that winter asks for, and things that winter takes.
And there are things that take for winter, and things left in winter’s wake.