My face freezes as I peer out from my mountain cave overlooking the village. The cold seizes me with shivers as my breaths quiver from sadness and anger.
The village glows through the falling snow that ever thickens. I can’t tell if I am numb from cold or grief as I peek down below at the cozy cottages resembling the embers of my fire.
Where my home sits at the edge of the forest, there are no lights. I can picture my mother laying in her bed.
If only I had said I loved her.
My small fire pops and crackles with white flames. I sit back and poke the wood that glows orange through charred patches.
My cave is only big enough for me, but there is only me. The sides are rough and the opening is narrow. I stare out through its mouth and into a starless black. Around it, the windswept shards of accumulating ice point horizontal like teeth. Bit by bit, they grow and threaten to close as hunger and loneliness gnaw at me.
They must be searching for me.
They won’t look far. Only a fool would leave the safety of a home in this weather, but I did.
You can’t take it back.
He deserved it. I had to do it. Everyone owed him. They should thank me, but they’ll hang me.
With my last stick, I push the glowing parts together and then throw it in. I pull my feet close, my knees to my chest, and hide my face beneath my collar. My fingers clench, hidden in my coat sleeves. I shiver and weep for my mother, who I will never see again.
Oh, mama, I miss you.
“It’s not fair!” I cry out, but nobody can hear me as I sit against the back of my hideaway and look into my small fire that shimmers. It wavers from the gusts of frigid air that carries ice crystals from the storm.
Blackened lines and spots are etched into the burning sticks. They resemble archaic writing on ancient scrolls. Their stories unfold as the heat scorches and shrinks the branches, releasing their memories.
I stare into the fluttering flames that dance upon the shrinking pieces of wood and drift into my memory of what happened.
My father made a life for us, herding goats. My mother made cheese. Now, at fourteen, I tended the goats and milked them while my father only sat and watched us.
As we prospered, he disappeared at night. My mother said nothing, but became distant and sulked. A coldness grew between them. I often awoke to angry shouts that ended with a slammed door, and my father’s steps disappearing outside. My heart ached with a pain I could not understand.
My mother loved me, I knew this above anything else and I was her little boy. Though I was becoming a man, I cherished her touch on my cheek and the love she cooked into every meal like I was still a child.
I escaped on mountain strolls, tending the goats. With only a walking stick and a knife, I would visit my secret place and daydream. Here I could vanish from the pain.
Upon my last return home, a large man stood at the door. Gundersen, the fat financier, stood with a smile of sadistic pleasure in a large fur coat and boots. My mother crumbled to her knees as she wept. I stood speechless as he held out a note of promise in front of our faces. My father borrowed against the farm and lost it.
A stabbing pain struck my gut as my mother released a horrid unnatural cry. Distraught, her eyes stared wildly and she stumbled to her bedroom, holding her arms over her chest in pain. Gundersen left and promised to return the next day.
I stood alone in our cottage, petrified. The fear of Gundersen’s return was a nightmare.
Where will we go? What will we do?
I fell asleep, waiting for my father, who never returned.
The next morning I awoke to the bitter cold. Snow set on the window sills as a frosty powder misted in under the front door. A fire had not been started and everything seemed frozen from the horrific news of the previous day.
I entered my mother’s room where she lay in bed.
“Mother,” I whispered and stepped near. She didn’t move but lay pristine and angelic. I hesitated to wake her, but we had to go on.
I put my hand to her shoulder. It felt rigid and I pulled my hand back. I reached out again. Her body was stiff. A strange sensation quivered through me, a paralyzing fear, followed by nausea. I sank with weakness but wanted to run. The sole anchor to life, my mother, was dead.
My mind swirled and I stepped back out from the room. In a panic, I ran from the home and staggered into the nearby woods. The world spun around me. I grasped the trunk of a tree, the only thing that stood strong. My feet stung with a fringed bite as I hugged this unmovable thing. The world stopped spinning and it filled me with an impulse to return.
I crept into the icy cottage. It now appeared as a replica of the place I once lived. Everything was frozen in time. Above a dormant fire pit, a cold iron pot with the last meal my mother cooked hung from a blackened bar. An emptiness tugged at my stomach, but the thought of food sickened me.
I could not eat and I could not enter my mother’s room but tinkered with the thought she would emerge. Again and again, my mind rehearsed the moment only to swirl downward in despair knowing that she died feeling unloved. This overwhelmed me until my agony gave way to pure and corporeal hatred. My heart froze, my life ceased. Then, as if reborn, I saw beyond this crippling sadness. Though my father was to blame, Gundersen was at the heart of my hatred. His repugnant smile begged for revenge.
The snow continued. The cottage became colder. My breath fogged with the wickedness of death. I paced the front room holding my knife as I filled with rage. Then, I wandered out into the blank slate of wintery white.
Snow crunched under my steps as I ventured through the village. The homes glowed with fireplaces while the windows flashed with signs of life, laughing, singing, and some silent shadows.
I was but a shadow now. A figment that lived through the one motivation that filled my body, revenge. All sense of fear left me. Revenge burned within me. It was a wicked warmth, burning with anger. There was nothing else.
I stopped at the home of Gundersen and stood upon the landing before his front door. With my knife in hand, I waited and stared forward. As I knocked, a baritone voice surprised me from behind.
“I am here, boy.”
I turned around to the sight of the rotund man who stirred from drunkenness. Like an involuntary reflex, my arm thrust forward. The knife slid into his belly. I had the sensation of watching it happen from outside my body. My hand retracted and he fell to his knees, facing me with a howling expression of surprise. Again, the knife lunged forward and slid upward through his throat. He gagged and swirled his arms as if catching his balance.
At that moment, the door squeaked opened behind me and I heard a voice gasp in shock. Gundersen’s body tipped backward as my hand remained where it held the knife. The hair stood on my neck as a women’s scream shrilled from behind me. Gundersen clomped onto his back. I ran from the landing and out into the cold twilight.
My snow-filled steps lead me back to my home. I stood and looked at it for the last time. Then, I turned and fled to my only place of safety, my secret cave.
Here, I sit inside this rocky crag. The wind howls as curious snowflakes enter and twinkle before dying in the faint orange glow that surrounds me.
My head droops as I cry between shivering breaths. The storm moans through the narrowing mouth of the cave. My hunger aches, as the fire dies, and my eyes struggle to stay open.
My mother’s image fades as the flames flicker. The last stick puffs and joins the other blackened figures. They crackle and finish burning their stories as the darkening cave closes its icy jaws, as I drift into a freezing slumber and follow my frozen heart.