Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Photo Credit: Simone Tagliaferri
In sixth grade my best friend was Jerry Harrison. He wouldn’t let anybody call him Jerry, though. His mom, his dad, his sister, and I had to call him “Flea” to get a response out of him. He’d simply ignore you if you called him Jerry, even if you were standing next to him yelling it in his ear.
“Jerry.” I tried it once. “Jerry. Jerry!” He seemed as deaf as Helen Keller, about whom we often cracked jokes. I started to wonder if he’d actually gone deaf overnight.
“Flea?” I whispered finally.
“Oh, hey, Sam,” he’d said, turning. I’d suddenly materialized into his world. “I didn’t see you there.”
He’d explained the first time we met that he’d fallen asleep on his dog’s bed when he was eight, and that one of Wilbur’s fleas had crawled inside his ear and nested in his brain. The flea’s name was simply “Flea,” and Jerry started blaming all the idiotic things he did on the flea riding inside his head.
“It whispers to me when I first wake up,” he said. “It tells me to do things.”
“So you have like a list for the day?” I asked.
“I never remember until I’m actually doing them,” he said. “He tells me when I first wake up so they’ll stay in my subconscious and I’ll do them without thinking. He told me to take five bucks out of my dad’s wallet yesterday. I’d never do that, so I know it must have been Flea.”
“There were only a couple of ones in there but he started jumping around until I took them. I tried to tell him I wouldn’t but he moves so much it’s hard to think straight.”
“You know you’re probably schizophrenic, right?” I said. I didn’t see any point in dancing around the subject.
“That’s what my mom thought, too,” he said. “They took me to see this guy and he did some tests on me after Flea told me to bite the neighbors’ cat so he could drink its blood. It scratched my face up. The tests said I wasn’t schizophrenic, though.”
“What did they say you really were?”
“It was something about hyperactivity. Flea was quiet the whole time I was in there so they wouldn’t see any proof he was hiding in my brain. He’s no dummy. He knows when to lay low.”
It was like that all the time with Jerry. He’d do some stupid, impulsive thing and blame it on the flea living in his head. I personally thought it was bad parenting since his dad was gone all the time for work and his mom just tried to be understanding with her poor little boy.
My mom was a social worker, so I heard lots of things about schizophrenics. Jerry definitely fit the bill. He was entertaining to be around, though, so I hung out with him. Mom said he’d probably end up being a criminal someday.
Snow days are something no child forgets. A kid who hates getting up in the morning, hates sitting in boring classes, and hates dealing with the sociological nightmare of the early adolescent jungle will dream until he is old and gray of the sort of one-day vacation he remembered having as a boy. There is no guilt in a snow day—none of the latent regret associated with pretending one is sick while one’s comrades are suffering at the schoolhouse. One has simply been given a reprieve by Mother Nature, for a single day, to enjoy debt- and guilt-free. I felt sorry for any kid who lived too far south to experience such miracles, but always did my best to fall back asleep after I’d seen the school-cancellation notice on the television.
I’d nestled back under a warm, just-washed-the-day-before comforter that still smelled of fabric softener on one such morning. I’d nearly drifted back into dreams of breathing underwater or suddenly discovering I could fly if I held my arms the right way when I jumped, a dull thunk having snapped me back into the waking world. I tried to ignore it.
A second thunk brought me into awareness.
I peeked over the comforter and pulled back the curtains of my bedroom window. Jerry stood in the front yard, knee-deep in wet, sticky snow that threatened to pour into his galoshes. His parka-clad arm came up with another piece of gravel, poised to throw again. I opened my window to the biting winter air.
“What’s up, Flea?” I asked. I rubbed a bit of crust from my eye.
“You’ve got to see this,” he said.
“Just put on a coat and come down. It’s just down the street.”
I realized I wouldn’t be getting to sleep in on this particular snow day. Adventures ranked only slightly below eating breakfast at eleven o’clock on the snow-day list of fun things to do, and were the precursor to taking a hot bath after such wintry adventures had taken place. In anticipation of said hot bath, I put on my coat and boots and opened the front door.
“This better be worth it,” I said.
“Oh, it will be,” he said.
I crunched along behind Jerry for several minutes in silence until we came to a fence at the back of a house.
“This is it,” Jerry said, and began counting fence posts. “One, two, three…”
I listened for some sound of exciting things occurring but heard nothing apart from his counting.
He tugged at the thirteenth fence post and the bottom nail came loose.
“Look through there,” he said, holding the gap open with both hands.
Crouching down, I expected to see naked girls having a snowball fight, a dancing bear, or some other thing worthy of such an expedition. Instead, I saw fruit trees.
“Peaches? You brought me here on a snow day to see peaches? Is this your flea’s latest idea of a stupid joke?”
“It’s the middle of winter, Sam,” he said. “Peaches grow in the summer. They shouldn’t be on those trees at all.”
“Maybe it’s a special hybrid that grows in the winter.”
“No such thing,” he said. “Maybe what you’re missing is that Old Lady Greenleaf is a witch.”
My first reaction was, of course, to chuckle at the ridiculousness of what Jerry had said.
He only stood patiently, arms crossed, as my mockery subsided.
There were ripe peaches in her backyard in the middle of winter. I couldn’t deny what I had seen.
“It’s a full moon tonight, too,” Jerry said.
“So the first full moon of January is Mithrastide,” he said. “It’s a pagan holiday, sort of like Halloween.”
“I’ve never heard of Mithrastide,” I said.
“It’s old. I don’t think anybody really practices it here, except witches,” Jerry said. “I… um… read about it in a book. Anyway, you’re supposed to give children sweet things on Mithrastide, and I really want one of those magic peaches.”
“All right,” I said. “So we’re going to knock on her door and ask for some of her magic fruit?”
“Actually, you’re going to knock on her door and ask for some magic fruit.”
“I… I’m shy. You just have to knock and ask her if we can come in is all. I’ll ask about the peaches.”
With mild trepidation, I took the acorn knocker in hand and rapped it twice.
Old Lady Greenleaf, it turned out, wasn’t so old after all. I caught myself staring up into a firm, ample bosom before pulling my eyes away to meet hers.
“Hello,” she said. Creamy skin sculpted over high cheekbones framed full lips that commanded my full adolescent attention. “Are you selling something?” She batted her eyelashes down at me.
“We’re… um…” I stammered.
“Happy Mithrastide, Miss Greenleaf,” Jerry said, nudging me aside.
The full lips curled into a smile. The creamy skin around her eyes did not, however, crinkle with them.
“What do two handsome young men know about Mithrastide?” she asked, sweetly.
“It’s a midwinter fertility holiday,” Jerry said. “You’re supposed to give out treats to children our age.”
“So right you are,” she said, studying him. Then she turned briefly and walked back into the house. “It’s been such a long time since children came searching out treats on Mithrastide. I can’t imagine you’d want any of my peaches. Let’s see what we have.”
Jerry’s eyes had grown strangely beady, devoid of life, and black like a shark’s eyes. His lower jaw sat open and I watched Lady Greenleaf out of the corner of my eye, praying she wouldn’t turn to see him rubbing his tongue in little circles across his top row of teeth. He’d been transfixed from the moment she mentioned the peaches he sought.
“Flea!” I hissed.
Jerry snapped back to reality the moment it escaped my lips, and he shook his head. He placed a finger to his lips. “I’m Jerry,” he whispered. “Just Jerry.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Lady Greenleaf stop and turn. She squinted down at him. “Whose boys are you, exactly?” she asked.
We told her. Jerry introduced himself as Jerry for the first time since I’d met him. He made no mention of the flea in his brain. He did, however, assure her we liked peaches as much as anyone.
“Since you haven’t brought any baskets, I guess we’ll have to get you some out of the closet,” she said. “It’s this way.”
I would have followed her anywhere. I watched the rhythmic swing of maternal hips that said everything I needed to know about fertility holidays and nothing about old ladies. In gym class we’d discussed whether we were tit-men or ass-men and I’d said I was a tit-man then. Now, I grew surer with every rhythmic gyration of her womanly buttocks that I was an ass-man. I prayed now that she wouldn’t turn and see the throbbing erection she’d caused. My palms started to sweat, so I crossed my arms to hide them in my armpits.
Jerry seemed strangely unaffected by her, but kept stealing glances out the window toward the garden.
Lady Greenleaf bent over to pick up two wicker baskets from the closet and I coughed in response to the growing ache in the region of my groin.
“Here we go,” she said, handing us the baskets. I quickly positioned a basket at crotch-level, feeling my palm-sweat soaking into the wicker handle. She looked me up and down, a grin never leaving her face.
“Before you gentlemen pick my fruit-tree clean, though, I wonder if you’d give me an opinion on something.”
“Er… okay,” I managed.
Jerry stood on his tiptoes, looking over my head at the peach trees in the back yard.
“Jerry,” I whispered, nudging him with an elbow while carefully maintaining the crotch-concealing basket’s position.
Again, he returned to the façade of sane, reasonably polite Jerry.
“Of course,” Jerry said. “What is it?”
“It’s a painting I bought,” she said.
She led the way into her living room, where a cozy fire burned in the fireplace beyond two overstuffed leather armchairs. On the wall directly across from us hung a painting that seemed strangely familiar. Reds and browns writhed together against a black backdrop to portray the muscled, hideous, humanoid form of something that was not quite a man. Its vertebrae bulged from the skin of its back, ready to burst through. Its eyes—beady, like a shark’s—stared into a bowl. Its tongue stood rigid at the edge of its top row of teeth.
“That’s William Blake, isn’t it?” I asked, looking at Jerry for confirmation. We’d learned about Blake in school. The erection had thankfully subsided now, but hairs on the back of my neck had begun to stand on end.
“You actually pay attention in school,” Lady Greenleaf said. “I’m impressed.”
I would have burned my own house down to impress her further, or sailed a ship into a cliff just to prove I liked her singing.
“So what do you think of it?” she asked.
I thought it was monstrous, but I voiced this as “interesting.”
Jerry cracked his neck, then his knuckles. Something was irritating him. “He’s… beautiful,” Jerry said.
“Would you like to know what was in that bowl he’s holding?” she asked.
I raised an eyebrow.
Jerry just stared at the painting. He fidgeted.
“Peaches,” she said. “My peaches.”
I stepped closer to the painting, trying to ignore the irritated rasping that had replaced Jerry’s breathing. I found, at the bottom of the frame, a small brass placard. It read: William Blake, “The Ghost of a Flea,” Tempera with Gold on Mahogany, 1819. I remembered this painting, now.
“I thought this was smaller,” I said. “I thought it was a miniature painting.”
“This one’s the original,” she said. “I lied. I didn’t really buy it. This is the one young Will painted for me.”
I almost asked aloud how he could have painted something for her in 1819, but the hair on my neck and the peaches in her garden held my tongue.
Jerry’s face had twisted into a tormented grimace. “I brought a virgin,” Jerry hissed. “He came freely. I brought a sacrifice to your altar. I claim the right of blood atonement.”
Lady Greenleaf looked me over again. “All right,” she said, and opened a drawer. From it she drew a sliver of what looked like glass. She held it to the light. “Do you know what it takes to carve a solid piece of diamond, the hardest naturally-occurring substance on Earth, into a razor-edged knife?” she asked. She pulled her eyes from it and looked at me. She wasn’t smiling anymore.
“No,” I said. My feet wanted to back away from her, but my legs felt as though they had been filled with concrete.
“I don’t either,” she said. “One of the Oppenheimers gave this to me.”
“Why did he do that?” I asked.
“Wouldn’t you, if it were yours to give?” she asked.
“Probably,” I said. I don’t know if I could have lied, even if I thought it would help me.
She rose then, and walked toward me, diamond knife in hand.
“Men never can resist my fruit,” she said, and paused to stroke Jerry’s hair with her delicate fingers. “Neither can fleas.”
His grimace had subsided slightly, but his left eyelid twitched and his lips curled into a greedy sneer.
“You give your virginal friend as a sacrifice, do you?” she asked. “I want to be sure.”
“Yes,” he said, but it came out, “Yesssssss.”
Lady Greenleaf’s lips curled into a sneer, then. The diamond blade refracted the light from the fire for a split second as she whipped it through the skin of Jerry’s pudgy adolescent neck.
“That wasn’t the deal,” she said, as Jerry’s hands shot to the crimson geyser that had erupted from his throat. “I said if you ever tasted another of my peaches, it would restore your form. I said nothing of sacrificing the blood of a virgin. I do not work by those rules.”
Jerry crumpled into a heap, the stream of his arterial exsanguination having formed a pool that continued to spread. His blood painted an arc up the wall and across the ceiling. Some had splattered on my jeans and over the basket that hung loosely in my left hand. Eyes wide, I watched Jerry rattle and twitch. Somehow, not a drop of his blood touched Lady Greenleaf.
“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” she said. “Not that you could, Flea.”
Then, as the blood stopped flowing, I watched in horror as Jerry’s neck wriggled and twitched with a life of its own. A tiny black speck crawled out of the wound and sprang onto the floor. Even faster than her previous slash, Lady Greenleaf’s hand darted out at the black speck. She held her index and thumbnail to her face to inspect the creature trapped between them.
“Look what you made me do,” she said. “Now your little friend will never look at Mithrastide the same way. You’ve scarred him forever.”
“Jerry,” I said. “You killed him.”
“He would’ve been a tax collector,” she said, “even if I pulled this little vampire out some other way. Once a worm gets into your fruit, there’s not much else you can do for it.”
A tiny voice squealed between her fingertips.
“You knew what you were doing, coming here,” she said. “You should have been content with the mercy I’d shown you.”
With that, she closed her fingernails to a point and a tiny red spray shot up between them. The black speck disappeared entirely. She looked again to me. “Bury your friend,” she said.
She stepped closer. The fingernails of the hand that had just annihilated Jerry’s brain-flea now traced the curve of my jaw. “Do it for me,” she said. “Mothers know best.”
Nothing about the fecundity she exuded with every breath seemed seductive any longer. She was Nature—living, growing, and entirely indifferent to human suffering. Yet some part of my brain still worked logically and realized that she had spared me. The Flea had offered my blood and she had destroyed him instead. Perhaps she simply had no good reason to use me as fertilizer, but I was alive.
Numbly, I grabbed my best friend’s ankles and dragged his bloody, half-decapitated corpse out the door leaving a red stream in its wake. Jerry’s tongue still pressed rigidly against his top teeth as his head flopped along the floorboards.
My back ached from swinging the mattock and shovel as I scooped the last load of dirt from Jerry’s grave. Lady Greenleaf tread softly on her moss carpet, appearing above me as I climbed out of the pit. She drew a small object from a pocket, stooped, and placed the object in Jerry’s mouth.
“I’ll help you,” she said, and grabbed Jerry’s wrists as I grabbed his ankles.
Jerry’s parents never called the police. No missing child posters ever showed up on telephone poles. No one at school asked me if I had seen Jerry. He simply vanished, and I seemed to be the only one that knew it had even happened.
I walked by Old Lady Greenleaf’s house a year later and noticed that she had mended the thirteenth fencepost. Above the fence line, though, I noticed a new tree amidst the peach trees.
Lady Greenleaf said I could talk to Jerry as long as I wanted.
He seemed more at peace than he ever had in his tormented flea-ridden flesh. The wind that swept through his leaves and shook his limbs seemed to soothe the spirit that Flea had twisted into a knot.
His trunk groaned, softly, as the wood shifted, and I had to laugh at what he said.
I looked through the window to make sure her back was turned. For him, for both of us, I picked a peach from one of her trees.
I took a bite.
Stephen Lawson is a UH-60 Blackhawk pilot for the Kentucky Army National Guard and aspiring professional writer. slawson80[at]gmail.com