|Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
On the forsaken Antarctic island where I was unfortunate enough to grow up, the snow littered the volcanic sand like a thousand dead terns on asphalt. At night, the brittle winds whipped across the plain and carried with them the forlorn cries of elephant seals burdened by their tire-rolls of flesh, starving Orca whales, and lonely penguins in search of mates. These animals had such pitiful wails to express their miseries, wails that haunted the landscape like spirits in a burned-out building.
Glasgow was my only friend in that forgotten place, and if it weren't for his bright red coat he could have been mistaken for an indigene. His hair was a tuft of white like feathers; his skin was sallow like the dirty bellies of penguins; his eyes were the black of the volcanic sand beneath our feet. But Glasgow was afraid of nothing, and when we found the baby Orca on the beach he boldly touched its rubber skin.
"It's a ghost!" he exclaimed. "See how pale it is!"
The beast grunted, then moaned like a ship's horn.
"It's dying," I said. "We should try to save it. Maybe it could be a pet."
Glasgow eyed me and his crooked smile revealed one gray tooth. "Ya think your pop would let us?"
But Pop came with a shotgun and four large men. He looked at me with sad eyes. "It's better off out of its misery, Carrie," he said. And I watched as the men dragged the battered body across the black sand, up over the rocks and toward the station. I asked Pop where he would bury it, maybe up in the cemetery next to the little white church that had half-collapsed in a volcanic mudslide two years ago, but he didn't. That night and for many nights thereafter, I heard the whale's desperate moaning, drifting across the barren land, forcing its way under the thick pane of my window, pummeling my fitful long-johnned sleep. I saw Pop, his gun aimed at the creature's head, and I saw the whale, begging me right before it was shot, eyeing me with something like pleading.
But each morning I woke, and I knew Pop had done the right thing. I should have known Pop would never have let us keep a whale as a pet, and the animal would not have stayed around very long anyway; animals and sometimes even people had a way of suddenly disappearing. For a long time, I thought they would stow away on the supply ships that—when they could get through—came every once in awhile. But men and pets would disappear before that. And no one said anything. I asked Pop once, and he just told me, "Don't go poking around."
Glasgow and I were the only children on that dangerous whaling station. Ninety-nine of us lived in Wildman House, where we slept in separate, tiny rooms with desks and cots. Outside, the frigid air smelled of iron, damp, mud, creosote, and always the pungent odor of garbage and guano. Glasgow's pop had come there on the beckoning promise of monumental cash after their house burned to the ground and there was no insurance to re-build. My momma came with my pop before I was born; Momma taught me and Glasgow in a small school room behind the infirmary until she died a few winters ago of flu, which Pop said she could have survived if the supplies had arrived in time. I hugged Pop a lot, then, but he did not stop saying they were going to leave us all here to starve.
Once Momma was gone, Glasgow and I were left to look after our own education. And many days we didn't study. We stole the rusty shovel from behind the blacksmith's workshop. We went behind Wildman House and dug a hole in the sand. The island was geothermal, so the sand was warm, and if we dug a hole, it filled with hot water, like a hot tub. We stripped our clothes and sat in it with only our cheeks and noses burning from cold, our red parkas lying on the white snow like patches of blood. Always Glasgow had his eye out for his pop or mine, because they would haul us out like boiled rabbits. "The water's dangerous," Pop told us. "If the volcano gets to erupting, your little bath there'll fill with acid and cook ya crispy as a couple o' fried chickens."
But no threat of paternal or geologic fury could stop Glasgow. Not even the unholy baleful cries that echoed across the zebra-striped mountains. He said they came from Light House, where both our pops, and the rest of the men at the station, worked. And what they did in there, I didn't know. All I knew was their cadaverous morning routine: like zombies in the cold dark the men rose from their cots, went to Commissary House to eat power breakfasts of bacon and slabs of ham—they were the greasiest and thickest meats I had ever seen—and then waddled with their meager lunch pails and hooked tools to Light House. They vanished inside, and the last man in was always Pop.
Our tub was not anywhere near Light House, but a dolorous screech, the sound of twisting metal, pierced the air.
Glasgow grinned. "Those are the ghosts," he said, moving forward in the tub through the fog of steam. "The ghosts in Light House."
Despite the fact that sweat was pooling underneath my eyes, chills spread from my feet up to my budding breasts. "What kind of ghosts?"
"Whale ghosts. Like the one we saw on the beach."
"Get out of here!" I splashed water at him.
He squinted and held his hand up. "Stop it! What do you think they do all day in there? They kill whales. That's how they get the oil for the barrels."
My eyes slid across the long plain to the mountain of oil barrels at the water's edge, near the docks. I knew better. I saw the supply ships and how they took the barrels of oil and gave us new ones. "No way! Pop only killed that one because it was sick!"
He splashed me back. "No, he kills them all day. All the pops do. That's why they won't let us over there and if we get caught we get whipped. They don't want us to see them beating those poor whales to death, because the ghosts will leave the building and come after us. Our pops are trying to protect us." He slid his frail body next to mine and dropped his voice, glancing suspiciously up at the windows of Wildman House. Three of the windows that were boarded up during the last gale still hadn't been uncovered. "What do you think happened to poor Mr. Tomien?"
Mr. Tomien had been the last person to disappear a couple of weeks ago. The adults never spoke of it; there was no lumbering processional to the pathetic half-buried cemetery with the body.
"That was the whale ghosts. The ghosts are mad, and if they get too mad, they pick one of the men and kill them off. Why do you think there's so many guys that disappear? Maybe the next one will be your pop."
"You're wrong." But I thought of Momma's funeral. I thought of the men carrying her body on a stretcher, the procession like a rook of Emperor penguins marching to the sea. I thought of the hole in my stomach when they came back without her. I could not lose Pop. Then I would truly be in the world alone.
I decided I was too hot and raised myself up out of the hole, feeling less the shock of cold and more the grit of the volcanic sand in my cotton panties. And I heard the wailing once more, this time like the sound the men made when they blew across the tops of their beer bottles, and the tinkle of the wind chimes outside Wildman House.
The heartbreaking shrieks, moans, and cries carried into the night. In Commissary House, the men ate and grumbled at long, rickety tables. "I am out of here on the next transport boat that comes through," harrumphed Jix as he pushed away his bowl of pork stew. "I can't take this no more."
"One more day in that stinkin' Light House is going to kill my back," moaned Mr. Grommet. He was a bean pole. He wasn't hired by my father. My father chose only fat men.
Me and Pop ate in the back room, because he was the boss, and since I was the only girl-child here, they didn't want me near the men. The stew was as nasty as Jix said. The potatoes were like stones in the bottom of the brown broth. It reminded me of the guano I had seen over near the chinstrap penguin colonies, where Glasgow and I liked to explore. "Where is Mr. Tomien?" I asked.
Pop pegged me with that glass, milky eye of his that had no iris. After an accident in Light House, he had no eye for a long time, until a supply ship brought something he could use. "Why d'you want to know?"
"Glasgow says that the pops kill whales. And the whale ghosts are in Light House and that's what got Mr. Tomien."
Pop wrapped his stubby fingers around his amber bottle and swallowed his food. He was wearing his red gloves, the ones with the holes in the fingers, and he gobbled his dinner greedily. "That Glasgow kid is trouble. You should be studying, not running around with him."
Outside in the other room, Jix said something about price per barrel.
I picked up my spoon, then put it down again. "Is it true?"
That time he squinted at me with his good eye. "Now you listen, Carrie. Sometimes, better off is better off. And you're better off understanding that we're doing what's best. That's all you need to know." He swung his leg out from under the table and stood up. He had the red stains down the side of his leg again. At least once a week, I saw those red stains, because, he said, the buildings there were painted red and the stains rubbed off on his pants. I always tried to wash them out, but I decided then and there I shouldn't do that again. It would be like trying to erase the As Momma used to put on my best papers.
He turned to look at me.
"What if the ghosts don't understand?"
He gestured at my bowl. "Eat your food."
I gave him a small smile, and he took his woolen cap from the hook by the door and fit it on his head.
That night, as I chased sleep, I heard the woebegone cries and imagined them coming from the bloody mouths of the ghosts of the whales. Normally, I slept with the lantern on full next to my bed, watching happy tongues of light lick my wool blanket; that night, I shut it off, wondering if perhaps I was burning their very body fat. That if just one of them were to escape Light House and see the sliver of my lamplight under the wooden shutter that covered my window, they would know that I, too, was guilty, and they would take me as they'd taken the others.
I opened the shutter that was on the inside of my window. At first I saw nothing. Then I looked at Light House, and against the indigo snow, a hunched shadow figure skulked about. Oh my God it was coming for me. I had not put out the light soon enough. I slammed the wooden panel and it rattled the window in the frame. I held my breath to see if anyone came, but no one did. Music poured from the Great Room, where I was never allowed because Pop and his friends gathered there to play cards and talk. The heavy smell of deep-frying bacon leaked down the halls and under my door.
I took a deep breath and climbed back into my cot.
The window rattled. Knock knock knock… I screamed, clamored for the oil lamp, and made ready to light it. I would set the ghost ablaze on a pyre of its own lard.
"Open up!" It was Glasgow. "Come on! It's just me!"
I flailed for the latch on the shutter and pulled it aside and pushed open the glass.
"What the hell was that screaming about?"
"You scared me," I whispered.
"How come you don't have the light on in here?"
I didn't answer because I felt foolish.
"What's with the blood on your shirt?" He pointed.
I looked down. Speckles of blood dotted my light green flannel, and that's when I felt the sting in my lip; I must have bitten it. I wiped it on my shirt sleeve.
"I'm going to Light House," he said. "I read in this book that if you apologize to a ghost you can send it back to where it came from. I want to put them out of their misery."
A pair of doleful shrieks, like women at a funeral, reached our ears.
"I'm not going down there. They sound mad. And didn't you see the shadow before?"
"That was me, you idiot." he whispered. "I found a way in that's not locked."
"I don't think we should."
"What are you, chicken?" he sneered. "This is the one way we can protect our pops."
I thought of putting my pop in the volcanic ground, and again I felt encroaching isolation. I looked behind me at the dingy room. There were footfalls in the hall, the tromp-tromp-tromp that used to scare me when I was little until I learned it was just one of the men. Glasgow reached out his spindly hands sheathed in thin gloves, and I took them.
We booked across the midnight wasteland, and the snow crunched beneath our feet except for where the volcanic sand was warm and had melted it. We raced toward Light House, and the wailing, like whimpering dogs, pursued and pierced my arm bones like metal rods. I reached out and stopped Glasgow. "We shouldn't."
"We have to know!" He was out of breath. His exhales made clouds in the shapes of one-legged animals. "Come on." He pulled me, but I struggled to keep up with him, and then my boot whacked something hard and… thwack! I was down in the sand, my chin a scraped burn.
I had tripped on some large white bones.
The building was not as angry-looking close-up as it was from far away, but to be that close gave me a strange tingle. I touched the board nearest me, and the peeling paint caught on the knit of my gloves. Bang! "What's that?" I chirped.
"It's just a metal panel, see?"
Above our heads, a corrugated metal door blew and shimmied against the wall, the sound of a hundred barrels plummeting down a mountainside.
And then there was the wailing.
"I've changed my mind," I said.
But Glasgow had already lifted up a panel from the windowless wall, and the opening belched a stench of rust and hot oil and… something else. Bacon grease. "Come on!" He bent down and eked through the opening.
Another wail, like that of a starving cat.
I was considering staying outside, waiting for Glasgow and his foolishness to be done with. But in the cruel night canvas, there were only the zebra mountains, the sentries of our warm station buildings, a lone penguin or something hobbling about in the distance, and barrels of oil in a pile that loomed like the humps of sea monsters. The wind stirred a wallop of snow and stung my face like pine needles.
"Don't you want to save your pop or what?"
I swallowed and scuttled through the opening.
Inside was nothing like I imagined a place Pop would work. It was not like the bright infirmary, full of syringes, comfortable beds, and bandages for the ill and dying. This place was windowless and black as the sand, the air rife with sickness and dead animals. I stretched my hand out and it hit something sharp and cold, and I screamed.
"Shut up!" Glasgow hissed. "You want them to hear?"
But the noise that came after was far more offensive than what had come from my own mouth. A sorrowful bellow that trembled the metal walls, and upon its silence there was a rattling of what sounded like heavy tools crashing into one another.
Something snorted and sighed and I wanted to vomit in fear. In the distance was the echo of a drip, like the dripping of the sink, and it rose and fell like a heartbeat. "I don't want to go!" I rasped, closing my eyes as he guided me. My foot kicked over a bench with several jars and horrible instruments; one was a long rod with serrated edges that barely missed grazing my snow suit. I couldn't imagine what Pop would do with such a thing, what Pop would do with any of these horrible things.
That was when we saw the creature lying in the corner chained to the wall in the dying light of a small lamp. It barely moved, but it had been the thing making the sounds; it curled and writhed and I could see as I got closer it had a leg missing and rough gouges cut from its flesh. I had seen this ghost before. I knew its identity.
"Mr. Tomien!" Glasgow gasped.
"H-h-h-hellll…p," he wailed.
When he shifted his limbs, the smell of rotting flesh clouded the air.
I couldn't say anything except "Wh-what?"
"They eat us," he cried. "When they don't give… enough… supplies… they… they… take a chunk."
Glasgow seized my arm and wretched beside me. I thought about the pork stew. The smell of bacon wafting down the halls at night. The missing men. This is how Pop was feeds us all when supplies ran low, I thought. My mouth filled with saliva and the back of my throat burned.
"Please," Mr. Tomien pleaded through mashed lips. "Please save me… they'll come back… cut more." He was wheezing. "And they… keep me alive… fresh meat…"
"What are we going to do now?" trembled Glasgow, and I sensed that for the first time, in his life, probably, he was afraid.
I thought about Pop, his missing eye, his fingerless gloves, his crying in the night after Momma had died, his cursing the supply ship captains. Now you listen, Carrie. Sometimes, better off is better off. "Put him out of his misery," I said, and I glanced up at the row of hooks and sharp metal rods dangling from an overhead rack.
Kristi Petersen's fiction has been featured in New Witch Magazine, Afternoon, The Circle, Citizen Culture, Mud Rock: Stories & Tales, Sinfully Twisted, The Wheel, I Like Monkeys, The Adirondack Review, Split Shot Magazine, Waxing & Waning: A Journal of Creative Pagan Fiction, and a dozen others. She lives in Danbury, Connecticut with her cat, Poe, and is pursuing her B.A. in Creative Writing and Literature from Burlington College in Vermont. E-mail: petersenschoonover[at]gmail.com