Monday, July 28, 2008
REPRINT: Father Winter
[This story previously appeared in the ezine JACK]
For all his romantic airs, Paully Slacksails knew the difference between myth and fact. But when he first saw a flicker of black into black, deep in the heart of the Wodenwoods, he could not help but think about Father Winter’s hunting wolves, black as a depth of winter—or the depths of hell. He shivered and cursed, peering down the gentle slope that led to his cabin.
His lead pony, Greyshanks, shook her head and huffed. The bridle bells sang harsh and loud in the hush of the deep woods. Her sleigh partner shuffled and whickered nervously. Behind them, the logs were stacked--enough to feed the fire through the long nights ahead. Lonely nights now that Shawn had deserted him.
A shadow slipped again across the periphery of his sight. He scanned the supple silver lengths of the birches as they reached up into the opalescent sky. It was almost night, but the clouds and snow made for a confusion of dim reflection. He wondered where the cameras were and then tried to forget them. In a few more days the contract would elapse, and he would truly be alone.
It took a strange man to love this last harsh wilderness, and a stranger one again to seek to live there. Paully should have known Shawn wouldn’t stick it out. Shawn needed to live in the real, modern world as much as he needed his fey-hearted lover—or as it turned out, a little more. Paully shrugged. He supposed this is what he wanted: the solitude of the deep wood and a frozen heart. The first months of his struggle would be shown on reality TV, a concession the parks board made to help cover the costs of maintaining the biozone.
Paully had fought almost ten years for this exile in one of the last great parks of a world; a sealed biosystem in which a select few were to be allowed to occupy the small natural role humans had in the innocent and savage world of the antediluvian forest. They’d competed with thousands of applicants to be the first to leave the rest of the world behind. They’d fought the bigots who wanted to send a safely straight Adam and an Eve back to Eden. They’d fought human rights NGO’s who said a person could not be deprived of medical care even if they volunteered to make the sacrifice and die by that choice if needs be.
“Come on girls,” he urged as he hazarded a path down the hill now that the track was smothered and gone.
He supposed a few more people would trickle in later, although a second generation of ‘wild’ humans was a dilemma the lawyers had yet to resolve. Centuries since the last of the third world had been subsumed by a sprawling welfare state the idea of living a natural life was almost incomprehensible.
The ponies followed him, ears twitching nervously, budging the heavy sleigh and then straining back against it as it gained momentum. Something darted across their path, some kind of animal, surely? Paully let the ponies lumber past him. He stepped onto the narrow runner of the sleigh.
“Get on with you,” he urged as he took up the reins.
An impossible howl cut the air. Wolves were long gone from this land—as extinct as lumberjacks or frontiersmen. The geneticists hoped to reinvent them from the American wolf dog and perhaps they’d done it a little early to add tension to the show. Paully pulled his sheepskin cap down hard on his head and slapped the reins. The ponies were eager to answer as if they also knew the tales. Father Winter gone a-hunting with the old year dying and the new year seeking sacrifice. Father Winter and his wolves, hunting for a young man’s life.
Dark shapes amidst the trees kept pace easily. The sleigh hit the leveling ground of the old meadow and sped over virgin snow. The runners skidded sideways as the ponies bolted. Paully almost reined them back as his nerves steadied, then a hard thump shook the rickety sleigh. He looked back expecting to find the stacked wood askew instead he stared into the golden eyes of myth.
Paully screamed and twisted to fend off the beast. The sleigh rebounded off some hidden stone or log. The beast leapt, its pale pink jaws open wide, and Paully fell, hitting the frigid ground.
Paully heard his harsh panting as if it belonged to another and felt the air like a rod of ice thrusting into him with each breath. He lay stunned, watching the pewter colored sky fade to starless black. Slowly, he craned his neck, clutching at the snow with this numbed gloved hands. The snow fell heavily, curtaining his sight. No wolf, no sleigh, just a single figure advanced upon him through the gloom.
Beyond Paully’s frightened ken, a billion TV sets showed static. The microphones persisted a little longer, transmitting the crunch of shod feet breaking packed snow. Then all was silent until the somnambulant masses swapped incuriously to another channel or waddled to the fridge for snacks.
A figure approached, gaunt and tall with a pine garland as a crown, with a red fur cloak about his shoulders and a tall oak staff in his hand. The figure’s face was pale and rapt, his hair long and white and his eyes as deep and gray as a rough-cut diamond. He came swiftly to stand between Paully’s feet, looking down imperiously as the wolves in his wake straggled to form a circle about them both.
Father Winter raised his voluminous cloak in his hand and stooped down to cover them both with an impenetrable darkness where total cold became gentle warmth. Harsh cloth became naked skin embraced and pierced in absolute surrender.
“I’ve waited so long,” his ageless voice declared. “So long, and I am hungry.”