The Twenty Year Frost

The Twenty Year Frost

a short story by Chuck Morgue

The pie is almost ready. The tender meat and herbs, a handful of root vegetables, it’s a recipe nearly as old as the family tree. Dozens of generations had passed this secret down, mothers teaching their daughters how to prepare this unique offering. Years were spent getting it just right. Sometimes lamb was procured for the pie. Sometimes veal. Sometimes duck or goose. The meat is of little consequence. These pies are merely practice for the main event. For this is a meal the entire village anticipates, every twenty years. The winter pie is not merely a village tradition, it is a vital part of the villagers’ way of life. It is a meal that requires true heart and soul, which are so important around the Christmas holiday.

     As Agnes takes the pie from the oven, and sets it upon the counter to cool, her husband Willem and daughter 8 year old Klara are putting on their thick wool coats. The weather outside is much colder than in recent years, as is always the case. The Twenty Year Frost, the locals have always called it. The last time was 1957, and it was a particularly brutal winter storm. Half the village perished. They are all hoping for a more managable winter this year.

     This little Irish village of only a hundred or so has been relatively sheltered from the influence of the modern world. Children just a few dozen kilometers away are eagerly awaiting the morning, to squeal with joy over the new Atari Video Computer System they have been anticipating, or perhaps that new Queen album with that song about Champions that all the kids are loving, whatever it is they are hoping for, their Christmas morning will surely feel magical. But they know nothing of real magic. They know nothing of what this time of year truly means. It is about family, and togetherness. It is about keeping the darkness at bay, and letting the light out to warm the world in the spring. It is about tradition, and careful timing.

     It is almost midnight, the full moon shining bright overhead. The snowfall has calmed down for the past few days, but could surely return with frightening vengeance come tomorrow. The O’Brunte family joins the rest of the villagers at the edge of the woods, everyone holding candles and lanterns, and like a small parade they make their way along the rocky trail that leads through the small cemetery and towards the Elders’ Tree, the snow and ice crunching beneath their feet every step of the way.

     The Elders’ Tree is a mighty pine, well over a century old, and a very important part of the history of this nameless village. It stands over 100 meters tall, a giant of these woods. The smaller surrounding trees have been adorned with traditional Christmas decorations, most handmade by the children of the village. In stark contrast, the Elders’ Tree stands bare, untouched.

     Agnes O’Brunte approaches the Elders’ Tree, and kneels before it. She places the pie on the ground, and speaks a soft prayer for forgiveness and mercy. Young Klara grips her father’s hand, trembling. Willem looks down at her, smiling. He pulls his hand away and whispers to her “Show no fear, love.

     The whistle of the cold wind through the trees fades away. All is calm. All is bright, under the glowing moon. The quiet is almost tangible, as the villagers stand patiently in the chilly night. The quiet is splintered by the sound of creaking branches, from high on the Elders’ Tree. The sharp cracks growing louder, as a shadow, like a patch of black mist, descends from the higher reaches of the tree.

     The shadow settles upon the ground, and no one dares make a sound. No one moves, not a single muscle. They refuse to even shiver in the cold. The shadow moves towards Agnes O’Brunte, still kneeling on the ground. She does not look up. There is no need. She has seen her before, twenty years earlier.

     The shadow solidifies over Agnes. It has taken form, a woman in a dark, tattered cloak. She lingers there for a moment. Agnes breaks the silence. “Forgive us,” she says. The woman looks down upon Agnes, and then at the pie sitting on the ground. She lets out a low crackling groan, and reaches up to pull her hood back, revealing her pale, ghostly face.

     Klara releases a terrified whine and runs away from her father’s side. He tries to stop her, but she is too small. Too quick. The villagers gasp as Klara slips out of sight, into the woods.

     Klara runs clumsily through the snow, which is soon up to her knees. She trips over a log buried in the white and tumbles down a slope, landing facedown at the bottom. She lies there crying in the moonlit dark. Then she hears that low crackling groan, and she rolls over slowly.

     The spectral woman in the cloak is hovering over her, her skin glowing in the moonlight, from between dark veins like cracks or spiderwebs. Klara, crying harder now, begs the woman not to hurt her.

     The woman leans down, closer to Klara’s face. “Are you scared, child?” she whispers, her voice crackling, a sound caught between a woman who is ill and something akin to those little wooden ratchet noisemakers popular at birthday parties. Klara just sobs, unable to reply.

     “I was scared,” the woman says. “When they pulled me from my home and beat me. When they tied me to that wretched tree. In the dark. In the cold. When they left me to die, because I was different from the rest of them, because I was accused a witch. When my blood froze, and my eyes went black, I was so very scared. But when Death finally embraced me, and I cursed the whole village, I was no longer afraid.”

     Klara has stopped crying. Instead she now looks up at the woman, somewhat intrigued. “Why do you want the pies?” Klara asks. “Why do you want the… meat?”

     The woman smiles wide, her teeth like broken and jagged tombstones in a long-forgotten cemetery. “I demand the meal, so that the village will forever understand the true pain I felt on that day. I was not alone on that tree. I was not alone as I froze to death that night.”

     Klara is quiet for a moment, the woman’s words slowly finding clarity in her adolescent brain.

     “You were with child,” Klara says. Not a question, for she knows it is true. This is the reason why every twenty years, the witch comes out of the Elders’ Tree. Why a woman in the village has recently given birth, knowing the fate of that infant. Knowing what horror that old pie recipe demands. That little heart and soul that sets the pie apart from all the others. Klara and the woman stare at each other in silence.

     They are soon distracted by the sound of footsteps in the snow nearby. “Klara!” Agnes shouts, the villagers gathered behind her. Klara looks to her mother, holding that dreadful pie, trembling in the cold.

     Klara looks back up to the woman. “I am sorry about your child.”

     The woman groans, closing her eyes tight. Then she nods, and turns to the villagers. Agnes steps forward, holding the pie out before her. “Please,” Agnes says. “My daughter meant no harm. Please accept our offering this night.”

     The woman moves towards Agnes, taking the pie from her. She then drops it to the ground. “My appetite has spoilt,” she says. “When I come again, I shall expect two pies. From the little one.”

     The woman points to Klara, still sitting in the snow. Agnes begins to cry. She starts to apologize again, but the woman moves past her. Through the crowd she floats, losing form, becoming that dark shadow, and ascends back into the high branches of the Elders’ Tree. Agnes rushes over to Klara and picks her up into her arms, squeezing her tight.

     “I’m sorry, mother,” Klara says.

Agnes tells her to shush. It’s not her fault. It’s the fault of the village. The fault of their ancestors. The past does not know how its actions will haunt the future. But it is the present that pays the price. And tomorrow, should they all be lucky enough to not have that violent winter storm return, Agnes will have to begin training Klara on how to make the winter pie. For in twenty years, when Klara is a grown woman, and the frost has taken hold of the village, and the witch once again climbs down from the Elders’ Tree, the future of the village will be in her hands. And if she fails, she will learn the price, and it will be the village children’s future that pays for it.

© 2016 Chuck Morgue. All Rights Reserved.

Illustration by Justin Talarski

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Take One Down, Pass It Around..

Friends, Romulans, Countrymen.. Lend me your ears. I come to bare my soul, not to praise it. I have a few things to get off my chest. Things that have been weighing upon me with varying degrees of pressure. This will not be easy for me, even though I proclaim to be a writer. There will be a lot said here, so please bear with me. Take a seat, grab yourself a bottle. Don’t open it though. I’ll get around to that in a few minutes. I will start this off by going back a bit. Not quite to the beginning. But close enough.

When I was a kid, I was bullied a lot. Tormented. Daily. As if I weren’t already a pretty insecure and introverted kid, this cemented that personality. For the rest of my life, I was a rather passive individual. I didn’t like confrontation. I liked for things to be easy, predictable, and convenient. This informed everything from my eating habits to my musical tastes to my relationships to everything in between. It’s not the healthiest way to live one’s life, but it worked. Or at least, it felt like it did. In hindsight, I have often found that I was misdirecting myself more often than I ever realized. Which lead me to spending over a decade in a marriage that I had lost a real interest in years earlier. While I fancied myself a writer, musician, and artist, I jumped from creative project to creative project, out of fear of commitment to the artistic struggle and perceived inevitable failure. I worked a revolving door of entry level day jobs. In my personal life, I let important things slide. Money problems, personal grievances, most adult responsibility. I became complacent, wallowing in procrastination, in nearly every facet of my existence. And while I have attempted to correct some of my mistakes, I now find myself just a few months shy of 38 years old, realizing (not for the first time) that I wasted so much time overthinking things, instead of just doing them. Even now, as my current project (a children’s book titled The Emerald Cat) is dragging on, I feel torn between pushing it harder to completion, and the fear of pushing too hard, and scaring off my creative partner on the book, so I find myself hesitating, as so many times before, until the project fizzles out, to spend the rest of it’s life ALMOST finished, on a shelf, with it’s creative siblings, never to see the light of day. That is not just a dreadful truth of my self-damning creativity, but an analogy for almost everything I have done (or didn’t do) in my life.

Most people struggle with depression. I certainly have. Ever since I was a teenager, even if I wouldn’t admit it at the time. The bullying I put up with in adolescence continued into high school. While no longer physical, being picked on regularly still had a damaging effect on me. And it was for many of the same reasons as when I was a kid. People thought I was Mexican. I had dark hair and darker skin that tanned easily. Native American genes, I’ve always assumed. Or people thought I was gay, because I was quiet and drew a lot. I read a lot. Short story collections, comic books. I had an action figure in my pocket almost everyday. I was a little nerd. I was soft spoken with a mid-range voice. Combined with that passiveness, I could have been seen as slightly effeminate. People thought I was a “devil worshipper,” which I embraced for a time, finding refuge in studying occult and New Age religious practices, philosophy, science. I had lost any sort of real connection to spirituality as a kid. I recall getting pummeled by a bully while at church, around the age of 8. This kid, a year or so older than me, had put me on the ground. Punching me in the face and chest. Calling me “faggot” and “pussy.” I remember the church elders just standing there. Just watching. After a few minutes, which to me felt like hours, someone finally pulled him off of me. I prayed for days, asking God why he let these things happen to me, and at church of all places. There was no reply. Ever. When you included the bigotry I heard coming from the mouths of most religious people I knew, people who read their bible daily, swore their very hearts to their lord and savior Jesus Christ, yet still spit out words like “nigger” or “queer” as if they were sour milk on their tongues, all I began to see was the hypocrisy of it all. Which pushed me to embrace what I saw was the opposite, and dabbled in the dark arts, as superstitious adults would say, but I found those concepts just as irrational, regardless of how interesting it all seemed.  In my late teens I eventually traded the supernatural for logic, and discovered I was actually an atheist. All I am getting at here is that I was often perceived as different from most people around me, so I was singled out. And I made it easy for them. They thought I was an outsider, so I became one. This did little to counter the stress from bullying and self-doubt. I bottled up so much that for several years as a teenager I broke out in hives, which made me even more self-conscious and socially awkward. That problem eventually subsided, but there are stress-related compulsions that started then and still effect me to this day, such as chronic cheek biting and biting the skin around the ends of my fingers. Behaviors that as a teenager I didn’t even realize were actually harmful. I don’t know if I would have even stopped if I had known otherwise. I just ignored things like that. I would have denied they actually pertained to me. So I remained passive. Bottled up even more, and just tried not to let the weight of the world crush me.

I have rarely stood up for myself, or even truly pushed myself, in anything. So I bottled up my thoughts. My feelings. My curiosities. My desires. And that did not help with my emotional and psychological issues. In my early twenties, I got married without considering the long term consequences. It was just something that people did, and I didn’t put much more thought into it. I also didn’t care much for speaking into the drive-thru speakers at restaurants, so having someone there to do that was a positive. But over time, I became disenchanted with the arrangement. I grew depressed and angry more frequently, but I hid it. I didn’t want to bother people with my personal problems. I had several affairs over the years. I’m not exactly proud of these flings, and not exactly ashamed either. I knew I wanted more than what I had, but I didn’t consider divorce for a long time. I didn’t want my family and friends to look upon me as a failure, nor did I want my children to fall into stereotypical broken family problems. In my early thirties, I attempted to make the best of the situation, but my depression just became worse. I bottled it all up. Along with all the bottles from years before. Eventually, you become overloaded with those bottles, and you reach a breaking point. I separated from my spouse in 2014, and I was able to throw some of those bottles out. I got over my worries of the stigma of divorce, and for the most part my kids have turned out okay. Not great, of course. But okay. I failed them a lot as a father over the years, retreating to seclusion in my room to write or draw, because I did not want to be around their mother, or her family, people I had grown to despise on even good days. I have personally owned up to my mistakes with my children, and set out to do right by them. Through the divorce, I obtained domiciliary custody of my four kids, and they have improved greatly in school and at home. Having a son who has been diagnosed ADHD and high-functioning autism (Asperger’s to be precise) sort of helps to keep me on my toes. It’s still a very tough job, and I get complacent and passive still, and let things slide, and bottle up, and then I lose control of situations and discussions and thoughts and feelings. I often feel lost and do not know what to do the majority of the time, but my kids seem to be surviving despite my flaws and I try to use that as determination to keep trying harder. Everyday I have little successes. And everyday I have little failures. Just like everybody else, but it affects me in ways that make me uncomfortable to admit.

I like to think of myself as a good person. But at times, I have been anything but. Everyone has their bad moments, they’ve done things they are not proud of. But these things eat at me. Because they were bottled up so long ago, and never dealt with. I never personally owned up to the vast majority of my mistakes. Little things like smoking pot at school, or breaking into abandoned cabins at the lake as a teenager. Bigger things like adultery and voyeurism and shoplifting. Things I knew were wrong, but I did them anyway, because I was seeking release from the stress of my personal problems. Of course, when people act out, they tend to involve themselves in things more dangerous than what they are trying to distract themselves from. I was never much of a drinker. I didn’t do drugs (aside from pot, and a few experiences with hallucinogens). I instead chose to do things that I felt I would have to be sneaky about. Secretive. Things that, in their way, still fit my preference for being passive. They were things I could do alone, out of the social spotlight. I was never much for teamwork, so to speak. I regret a lot of that. It was immature, and at times, immoral.

You see, the point of this is, I have had so much bottled up for so long, and I have begun bottling up new problems, and it’s beginning to weigh me down again. Much harder than ever before. Because the stakes feel higher. I don’t know how my kids are going to turn out in the long run. I don’t want to fail them. I don’t know how my creative endeavors will turn out. I have written three novels, published myself, but never really promoted because of that fear of failure. Even though that creative outlet has always been my saving grace. It’s always been my escape from the world, my happy place. But even that I have tended to poorly. Getting closer to age 40 scares the absolute shit out of me. Because it reminds me to look back and see what little I have actually accomplished with myself. I see old friends who have managed to get their lives on the right path, and some who still struggle, more than myself to be honest, and I still feel jealous of where they are at times.

Please, allow me to continue unbottling for just a bit longer. I feel that if I maintain control of the flow of all of this, right now, I will not ultimately collapse into myself like a black hole.

I find myself very argumentative online. I get into discussions, which turn into debates, which turn into arguments, which turn into vitriolic mudslinging shitstorms all too easily. This, I feel, is completely due to my passive nature in real life. I still avoid confrontation in the regular world, but when I get online I can unleash upon people, sometimes strangers or acquaintances, sometimes unfortunately friends. The problem is I am unleashing my pain and anger over delicate topics, without addressing why they bother me so much. I argue in race discussions because I was taunted as a kid, perceived to be Latino. I can empathize with them. I was raised in the south, and casual racism was always just part of the cultural landscape. I thought nothing of it as a kid. Jokes about people of color were commonplace. I laughed at them. I told them. It wasn’t until I was a teenager than I began to see things very differently. And I felt ashamed of myself for what I had been a part of. White guilt is something that people laugh about, but for some people it really is a thing. I still feel guilty for things I said as an ignorant kid. And I go out of my way to try and make up for it to this day. I have even been told that my insistence in researching my family tree, attempting to connect the complicated Native American dots, is my way of trying to shed my whiteness. To adopt that “other” that I was taunted for being seen as. It’s a point I find myself unable to really argue with, and that might make me a bad person, but I know there’s more to it than that, and we are all screwed up anyway, right? I also argue in favor of the LGBTQ community, because I was taunted as a kid, perceived to be gay. What I don’t normally share, is that for years now I have felt that I am very possibly bisexual. The term bi-curious has always felt noncommittal to me, but I have never been in a situation to test this possibility (aside from making out with a guy once, for maybe 20 seconds, but there was alcohol and pot involved), and I suppose I might be a 1 on the Kinsey scale, with a possibility of being a 2. I often joke that while I am mostly heterosexual, prefering women of all shapes and sizes, my pinky toe is gay, which causes me to enjoy Keanu Reeves and Ryan Gosling films more than most guys, and I laugh about it because that’s easier than really asking myself about the truth of the matter. Even today, due to the social stigma of growing up in the south, saturated with religious conservatism, and the fear of disrupting the lives of loved ones, even if only temporarily, I have been unable to get a grip on that part of myself. I have never felt comfortable discussing any of that with people outside of a few very close friends. But there it is. Unbottled. And I still don’t really know what to make of it. I haven’t wanted to deal with it, because of my passiveness.

For last couple of years I have been blessed to have a partner who finally pointed out my passive nature. She unmasked it for me to finally face in all it’s ugly glory. And while I have acknowledged it, I have done very little to rectify it. This has caused more stress for her, which causes more stress for me. Stress in dealing with my children. Or in dealing with an ex-wife who is remarkably uncooperative in nearly everything since the divorce. I have an impressive history of a lack of money management skills. I’m an obsessive compulsive collector of geeky knickknacks and books and music and movies and comic books and whatever else gets my attention. More escapism from reality. I have not been the best partner, far from it, even though the intentions of my heart are pure. All of this puts a strain on our relationship, and I do not know what the future holds in that regard. I do know that I have only myself to blame for my failures, and that I must make changes moving forward, regardless of how things turn out. It has even been suggested that my passive nature may lead me back to reconciling with my ex, simply out of convenience, and that notion infuriates me. And that anger is more bullshit that gets bottled up. So I would like to unbottle that right now, as well. I will never go backwards. I will only move forwards. There is nothing but misery and procrastination and negativity in backtracking into a relationship that I spent years regretting before finally freeing myself. If I find myself an actual single father in 2017, then I will concentrate on continuing my self-improvement. I will keep looking ahead, to unknown adventure and possibilities. I do not want to limit myself to what I have known before. Putting the passive side of myself out to pasture will be no easy task. So I am hoping my friends and loved ones will help me to stay on track. I do not want to fear failure. I do not want to fear judgment. I do not want to fear confrontation. Please, call me out on my bullshit. Tell me when I am an asshole. Tell me when I get something right. Tell me when you are concerned I may be making a mistake. I will do everything I can to be better than I have been. Even though I feel crippled somedays with anxiety. I don’t even want to talk to coworkers or people in public. Even though I still fight depression constantly. But now, I don’t feel so alone. I don’t feel so bottled up. I want people to know who I am. I am a damaged asshole, an internet SJW, bi-curious atheist father of four. I am an artist. A writer. A proud geek. I feel more empathy than many I know for people who are struggling in ways I can only imagine. I miss my friends. I love them dearly. I am proud of their accomplishments, even when I am disappointed that they abandoned their dreams long ago (I understand why, of course, but I still miss the dream). I have done bad things. I have done wonderful things. I want to do great things. I want my kids to do great things.

I want everyone to do great things. I want to enjoy seeing all of these great things. I have more bottles, I’m sure. But right now, they are so unimportant I can’t even read their labels. I think this was enough, for the moment. Thank you for sitting with me. Thank you for letting me unload some of this. Thank you for your patience. To anyone who has an issue with anything I’ve said, either here, or in another conversation at some point over the years, I hope we can discuss it and come to some sort of common ground. I’m not quite the same person I was before I started typing, but I’m not very different either. I am still me. I just want you to know what it’s been like in my head over the years, and how I hope to get to a better place in the years to come.