It was the old, old story, he felt: handsome stranger comes to town, walks in on a feast complete with pretty (and pretty interested) girls, has a great time—and wakes up a night later about to be brutally sacrificed in order to save the village from a terrible drought.
“Seen it a thousand times,” he said aloud, trying to get more comfortable in his bonds.
“No you haven’t,” he answered himself. “Before this, you’d never walked more than three days from home.”
The priest came, carrying a horn. He sat down next to the stone.
“Sunrise soon,” he said, turning to look at the stranger.
“I’m aware of it,” agreed the stranger.
The priest lifted the horn. “We give the sacrifice a forgetting drink, if he wishes.”
“No, thank you,” said the stranger after a while.
The priest shrugged.
“I’ve had all night to wonder,” said the stranger. “What is the point? What is the point of killing a perfectly healthy young man who would be much more useful begetting strong children and fighting off wolves and catamounts?”
“Hopefully you’ve already done the first thing. Feast, remember?” Said the priest, raising the horn.
“Not much of it,” replied the stranger, smiling though he had begun to shake.
“Things are bad,” said the priest. “You saw.”
“I did,” said the stranger, remembering how thin the women had been, how easily tired.
“It’s how we’ve always done it,” began the priest. There was a sound like a gourd dropping. The priest sighed.
The sigh went on for too long; the priest folded over. A bony young woman stood over him, the butt of her hunting knife in her hand.
“Not anymore, not anymore,” she chanted while she cut the stranger’s bonds.
Two more women stepped from the edge of the grove. They looked at the priest, nodded at her.
“The sacrifice went well,” said one.
“No! Not a sacrifice!” snapped the young woman.
“Joke,” said the other, waving her hands.
“Time to go,” the young woman said, holding out his belt and kit.
He looked once over his shoulder, to see the two women gently lifting the priest; the woman tugged his hand over the hill. On the other side, the sun was rising.
“That is the most fine and beautiful sight I have ever seen,” he said to her.
She smiled at him. “Like every one we get,” she agreed.
Here’s this year’s installment in the series that includes A Winter’s Fantasy and A Winter’s Fantasy II, once again a tip of the hat to the esteemed Mr. Ogdred Weary.
Uncle Cuthbert summoned us to his rooms in the North Wing. Edmund and I found him there, propped up on a heap of pillows with a lily-pad-pattern comforter pulled up to his chin and fires blazing on either side of the bedroom.
He was always sick, but we’d never seen him this bad.
“The countess assures me of your discretion,” he said, and we tried to act humble while he caught his breath. “I have… a task.”
He coughed several minutes before continuing. “The pond. Where I studied. Many years. Dangerous. In this cold. Creatures. Keep in. Walls up. Don’t…”
That was all he had strength for. His doctor wouldn’t let us wait for him to wake.
The woods were frigid — tree trunks coated with ice, path glazed slick. It was hard to walk, but not hard to find the pond. A little path led from the shack that had been Uncle Cuthbert’s research station.
We didn’t see any wall, although we tromped through the woods until our feet felt like stones. Pieces of glass lay everywhere on the ground, like windowpanes without windows. A few leaned up against trees.
“That could be a wall,” said Edmund.
We made quick work of it, setting up a wall of glass all around the pond, then hurrying home to thaw by the fire.
The glass was still there the next day; it must have worked.
Dark came quickly under the trees. We’d worn warmer coats and triple socks, and thought we’d wait to see what we were holding back.
They lifted themselves from the pond around moonrise. Long fingers, long noses like icicles — they were icicles. When they rickety-walked closer, I could see air bubbles, trapped insects, and bits of water plants inside their transparent bodies.
I backed up. They could just slip through between the panes. But the glass distracted their sharp fingertips. They drew patterns, lacy, intricate, mesmerizing to them and us. We wouldn’t survive sitting there like statues until morning — our coats weren’t that warm, and our socks were full of snow.
I couldn’t move my eyes, but could — barely — move my hand. I found a rock. I don’t remember throwing it, just the crash, the shrieking, their icy-sharp fingers on the backs of our necks as we ran all the way back to the house, and the shivers we couldn’t shake until summer.
“How was your first day?” says the woman standing in front of him. She’s 50 or so. Middle management. Uncomfortable and avoiding his gaze. He can’t remember her name. Peggy? Pinky? Something with a P.
“Just like every other day,” he says. He shrugs.
She smiles a bit too widely, as if trying to mask her disdain for him – the lowly mailroom clerk – but doing a shitty job. That’s fine, he thinks. She’ll be here herself one day. You can only stay comfortably in the middle for so long. Falling is easiest.
Patty? he thinks. Maybe Polly?
He can’t really remember anyone’s name anymore, even the ones he’s worked with for decades. The long descent from chief executive to mailroom clerk is all he’s got left. The blurry remnants of an enthusiastic start, a somewhat satisfying career, an occasional breakdown. Something in the back of his mind nags at him, tells him things aren’t supposed to be this way. Something’s backward.
But what’s the point of questioning when you’re on your way out.
“Just leaving,” he says. “Getting ready to go.”
“Well,” she says. “This is goodbye, then.”
She waits, as if for a cue that she’s allowed to go. As if she has to ask his permission.
“So long, Pankaja,” he says. Her smile drops away. For a moment it seems as if she may start crying, but then she spins and rushes out the door. Maybe, he thinks, he wasn’t supposed to remember anything after all.
“First day,” he mutters, the words lonely and barely audible. “Or is it the last?” He can’t remember.
The former president cleans off his desk, empties the trash, turns off the mail room lights, and exits. Everything fades quickly from memory.