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  • Writer's pictureAnne Woods

Midwinter Cold


It was the cold that dragged Abigail down first. People thought you wore cold like a blanket, wrapped around your shoulders and chilling the outermost layers of your skin. But cold was something you carried deep within, in the hollow spaces of your bones where the marrow is made. It hides there and chills you from the inside out, until you can’t think because the fluid in your brain is filled with sharp little chunks of ice. Until you can’t speak, because your tongue has swollen up in your mouth, flopping thick and useless in between your teeth.

Cold wants to eat in a way that heat does not. Heat leaves you as a pile of ash, but cold wants to hold on to your quiet form, surrounding itself with you till the very end.

Abigail had seen what the cold could do when the fire went out and the matches were gone and there was nothing to gnaw on but the bits of leather from your brother’s shoes. Abigail knew the cold as well as the moles on her small hands. In the autumn she could sense it, hiding just over the horizon, slinking its way through the shadows to get closer to her.

Abigail took a step forward, her feet leaving post holes in the snow. A crow called out, perched on a nearby branch and watching her with one beaded eye. It tilted its head and shrieked and flew off, even though she wanted to beg it to stay.

Please, she thought. She couldn’t say it out loud, her voice was as thin as an insect’s husk, an opaque shell that was a mere suggestion of what was once there. But the crow was out of sight already, and she was alone in the woods again.

But not truly alone, she knew. The cold was all around her, purring into her ear and pulling at the edges of her thin coat. Abigail took another step, and then another. She was hungry, yes, and tired, oh yes, but it was the cold that pulled her so heavily to the earth. It was the cold that would be her downfall. It had eaten her brother last winter and then taken their mother last week, and now it had a taste for sweet pink flesh, so warm from hot blood running just below the surface.

Come, Abigail, come, called her brother’s voice from somewhere behind her. He laughed, the sound of icicles bumping into one another on a dancing branch. An owl called out and the sound reverberated off the frozen crust. Who-comes-for-you who-comes-for-YOU? it asked. Abigail knew the answer, but the owl didn’t care and turned its head away.

Abigail hurried forward as best she could through the drifts. Her brother was only full of mischief, but if he was near, so was their mother. Abigail didn’t want to meet her under this canopy of trees, the branches like bony fingers stretched out in death. Didn’t want to see Mother’s pale form, more life inside her after death than she’d had in the weeks before, dashing towards Abigail on all fours with her mouth agape and her eyes rolling about in her head.


Her brother giggled again and the sound bounced off the trees around her. He was hiding, but she could picture him without any trouble. The cold had mostly preserved her brother’s form just as he was when Abigail loved him best, although it was tinged with blue frost all over now and he had a darker look to his eye that Abigail didn’t remember being there before. But, his smile was the same and his delicate eyelashes too, and he still had that laugh that he carried in his mouth each day when he was warm and young. 

But her mother, oh god her mother, the cold had ruined her. Abigail couldn’t sense anything of the gentle woman inside her now. Her brother had passed in bed, his frail body still a little warmed by the dying embers of the fire, but her mother had been caught outside, in the midst of a blizzard. The wind had pulled the heat from her body and drank it, and she had stuck to the ground when she died, forcing Abigail to leave the body where it lay until the warming days of Spring could come. It had only been a day or so before Abigail had seen her again, peeking in the windows and scratching at the door. The few times Abigail had seen her in the woods since she’d moved in a slack way. The cold had wormed its way inside and wore Mother like a hand-me-down dress, loose at the waist and too long about the ankle, bits of it dragging through the mud and snow behind.

Come, come, Abigail, rang out her brother’s voice. She could hear him approaching behind her, light footsteps in the snow muffled by the falling world around them. Mother waits, but she won’t wait forever. Abigail staggered forward. Somewhere up ahead was the road, potholed and iced but still sometimes traveled by a carriage.

In her path, a figure appeared from around the wide trunk of a sweeping old oak. The figure stepped out and fell over and then stood up again, then stumbled on toward Abigail, crawling twice as much as it walked.

Come, come, Abigail, it called, slurring the words together. The cold was inside Mother’s mouth and she was having trouble with the quickest bits. Abigail fell to her knees and put her hands over her ears. The voice was all wrong. There was no melody to it. It was low and grated like the ice floes on the lake, the blocks rubbing against one another, the harsh sound echoing through the valley and up to their little house after the first freeze.

Its jaw mashed up and down and it cocked its head at her. A little string of drool fell out one side and froze before it hit the ground, the ice disappearing into the bank. It dropped to all fours and scrambled forward with its head down. One eye was on Abigail, an eye all black with just a hint of white around the edge.

Abigail turned and ran as fast as she could through the deep snow and through her own exhaustion. Her brother leaned against a tree and he tsk-tsked as she passed. Her mother called out to her with a crow’s shriek. As Abigail pushed on, she could hear the two of them moving behind her, the crunch-crunch of uneven footsteps loud even when accompanied by the roaring wind.

The house was too far, and in time, she would freeze or starve in there anyway. She turned down the hill instead. The trees parted and showed her the edge of the lake, dark black water just visible between two chunks of gray ice, a little hole she kept clear where Abigail could fetch cooled pails of water. She ran for it, then hesitated.

Come, come, Abigail…it’s not so bad, hollered her brother, and his voice cracked and rang out like a gunshot off the trees.

Come, come, Abigail, her mother tried to say. Isnosobah, she slurred.


Abigail paused at the edge of the lake and turned. Her mother was reaching for her, black stubby fingers spread and ready to entwine themselves in her hair and wrap around her throat. She saw her brother behind, arms folded and nodding his head, and now she could see the dark look in his eye had slipped down to his smile, the cheeks pulled too wide and his yellowed teeth exposed. 

Abigail turned back to the lake and slid down the bank into the darkness. She shuddered, her whole body so tight it was painful, the air in her lungs compressed and frozen there. The lake slipped up over her head and chilled her ears as it rushed in. Her brother cried and her mother screamed, but their voices sounded too far away to be important now. Abigail breathed out with a whoof, the bubbles stroking her cheeks as they rose. The frigid water raced up her nostrils and filled her mouth, tasting like mud and the algae that grew in the shallows, her teeth aching with the sudden chill. Abigail sank down and hoped she’d never rise up to the surface again.

The cold crept inside, and Abigail welcomed it.


 


Anne Woods is a new author with upcoming pieces in Max Blood’s Mausoleum as well as narrated through Creepy Podcast. When not writing, she can be found tending to her plants and drinking strong coffee.

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