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