Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Maren sat by the fireplace, knitting grey lines into a zigzag pattern against a black border. It was a random pattern, brought into the world for a single purpose: to forget the others.
Her chair rocked in rhythm to the cadence that consumed her small cottage, squeaking under the weight of her ancient frame. It started in the fireplace quietly with a pop-hiss, but gained momentum until her feet, the chair and her needles were moving in unison to its pulse. When the iron knocker hit the wooden door across the room, she almost didn’t notice the click-clack of its call.
She stopped and stared at the door. Too late for all that, she thought. Especially tonight. She went back to her knitting, and savored the warmth of the roaring fire.
The door rapped twice more, refusing to be ignored.
She walked over to the window next to the door, peeling back the curtain to peek outside. Five children were assembled in a staggered formation, right through the heart of her slumbering garden, up the cobblestone walk to the front gate. They had made themselves quite at home, leaning against the stone wall like they were settling in for a revival. Their costumes were typical for Saint Stephen’s Day shenanigans, but their eyes were odd, kicking about on that cold line between mischief and mayhem.
She opened the front door just far enough to see onto the front porch. A young girl stepped forward through the thin blanket of snow, her feet crunching on what was left of autumn’s languishing color. She stopped just short of the porch and started to sing. Her voice was sweet and the tune slow, the words lilting together like a prayer at a funeral.
Wran, wran, the king of all birds,
Saint Stephen’s Day, was caught in the furze,
Although he was little, his honor was great,
Jump up me lady, and give us a treat.
Maren had never heard the tune sung like this before, and she couldn’t remember the last time a group of children had the courage to knock on her door to sing it. She listened as the words mixed with the light melody, spinning together on the porch in front of her. Maren was so mesmerized, she didn’t even notice as the tune brushed past her cheek and breezed into the cottage.
Miss O’Brady’s a very good woman,
A very good woman, a very good woman,
Miss O’Brady’s a very good woman,
She’ll give us a penny to bury the wran.
“A penny to bury the wran, Miss O’Brady?” The girl held out a small, dirty hand.
Maren opened the door further and looked closer at the children in her front garden. Filthy imps. “Hmmph,” she chortled, “I don’t see a wran anywhere. The parade’s already been through, you know. Shouldn’t you lot be at the ceili with the other neighborhood children?” she asked with narrow eyes.
One of the boys by the gate walked up the path and threw a lump of feathers onto the porch with a thud. Three motionless birds were tied together at the neck. The girl turned, and the children gathered outside her gate, singing the next verse in unison. Maren shuffled onto the porch, grabbed the bundle of feathers and lofted it at the children, scurrying back into the cottage as fast as she could. She slammed the door, shoved home the deadbolt, then peeled back the curtain to watch the children as they glided up the lane. They were heading to the grove of trees across the pasture where the four of them had taken him all those years ago. Is this how it started for the others? As they disappeared into the chill darkness, she heard a voice behind her. It was a man’s voice, his voice.
“Hello? Who’s there?” she spun around to confront the danger surging up and down the back of her neck. She waited and listened, but nobody replied. Ambling over to the fire, she adjusted the orange embers with a fire poker before settling into her rocking chair. As she eased back into her rhythm, her mind wandered, recalling that special day when he proclaimed his love for her.
“I know a way we can be together forever,” he had said, placing a sparkling sapphire locket around her neck. None of the others received such shiny measures of his devotion. To this day, the locket made her feel special, wanted. Maren sighed, remembering how he kissed her hand and smiled from one corner of his mouth. She wanted to give him more, to give herself over to him completely, but he never asked.
She took a deep breath and focused again on the random pattern of yarn resting on her lap. The fire crackled and the clock on the mantle clicked tirelessly forward. She had used that clock countless times over the past fifty-two years, trying to figure out how long he had suffered. When she was still a young woman, she would count the ticks of the clock while holding her breath. Two minutes, three, one time almost four. He didn’t deserve it, she would tell herself, filling her screaming lungs back up for another go.
Just then, the fire went out, and the hearth went cold, the only trace of its existence a small wisp of smoke that curled up the chimney. The entire house seemed to shudder in protest as the temperature plummeted, and a chunk of plaster fell on Maren’s head. Whispers materialized in the room around her, a confused chattering that grew steadily louder, until they roared with a mixture of agony and ecstasy. A thud came from the coat closet in the corner, and the door began to shake, rattling its hinges. With a rumble and a shriek, everything stopped, and Maren was left alone with the sound of her breathing.
Muffled groans and rattling chains came from the closet. Fire poker securely in her left hand, she walked over to the closet, and poked tentatively at the door. She reached out slowly, unsure if she should look inside, but the door burst open without waiting for her courage. It was them, all three of them, chained together at the neck. Their half-rotted bodies were twisted and broken, but she could make them out plain as day. Mangy whores. There was Hannah with her blonde curls, Bridget with her heaving bosoms, and Claire, as always, with her thin little legs spread wide for the world.
“It’s all your fault,” Maren exploded, “you ruined everything!” She hit each of them viciously with the fire poker, then planted her heel into what was left of Claire’s face before slamming the door shut. She held back a tear. No, not for them, she thought, not a single drop for their petty vengeance. They had scattered like dust after he came back the first time, when they saw what he had done to Hannah. No matter. One by one, they all got their due—even on the other side of the world—and always on this day.
“Maren,” he called again, this time from the bedroom. It had been so long since she had heard his voice, but it sounded like yesterday. The light clicked on in the bedroom, and a sharp pain rippled through Maren’s chest.
“Hello?” she whispered.
She walked towards the bedroom, right past the now-motionless clock on the mantle. The old cigar box sat on the bed. It must be him. As she opened the lid, a tear slid down her cheek. She took out the photo first. As headmaster, he was in the center of the mass of children, within reach of his four favorites, smiling confidently. The piece of his shirt was there, too, stained with dirt and blood from the blow to the head that had subdued him. The others thought they could get rid of him, like a cold or a bad dream, bury him away to be forgotten. But he didn’t stay away. It’s time. It’s finally our time.
She pulled out the locket and held it in her hand. Even in the dim light of the bedroom, the sapphire shone brilliantly. She put the locket around her neck and secured the clasp, walking from the bedroom and out the front door into the damp chill of the December night. She ambled up the lane and through the pasture, just as the children had earlier, her bare feet squeaking in rhythm against the snow. She walked steadily ahead until the trees surrounded her, right into the center of the thicket, to the big oak tree where they sent him thrashing and gasping into the ground.
As she neared the sacred spot, the locket shone brighter, and she felt the heat of the stone warming her chest. A form materialized out of the mist, and she stopped. It was him. His face was twisted, pale, and his eyes hazy, but it was him. Her heart fluttered. He pointed down towards a fresh hole in the ground and a smile curled up from one corner of his black lips. He looked at her just the way he had that sweet afternoon when she was fifteen years old. Sobbing tears of joy, she slid into the cold, damp earth, and lay down on her back.
Maren giggled, held a deep breath, and awaited the darkness of his embrace.
Robert James is an emerging author of dark fantasy, horror, and supernatural thrillers. His short story, “The Keeper’s Secret,” won first prize in Tell-Tale Publishing Group’s 2015 Halloween Horror Party Scary Story Starter Contest. Everyone has demons. Escape yours at RJFiction.com. Email: RobertJames[at]RJFiction.com