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The Cold of the Year

the cold

About three-quarters through the first month, we really felt the cold.

Most forecasts called for a ruthless, unrelenting winter. A reaper of wind and darkness suppressing life and activity. It was best to stay indoors, stay together, the forecasts said. Have blankets, food, and clean water. The worst will be when the nights are long and ridden with guilt, anger, and unspoken needs. Stay inside, stay safe.

We stayed inside. But we didn’t feel safe. The safeness was frightful.

The cold slipped through thin glass windows and around curtains. It seeped through the wood boards, boards too warped from freeze and thaw to make a tight seal. As the cold prowled around the house, it finally reached us, and there it stopped. There it hovered. It tickled our skin, slapped our cheeks, and turned our breath gray.

Around us it stayed, like a putrid spirit.

We drank whiskey, wrapped blankets numerous times, and curled up. We fortified. Night was the worst—cold and darkness melted together and became palpable.

“We need more blankets. This bed is too cold,” I cried.

He agreed. “I’ll get more.” He found woolen ones, old and thin.

“That’s not enough!” I cried. “These won’t work!”

“It’s all we have, go to sleep,” he said and threw them on the bed.

I shivered, cupped my hands, and captured my breath. Under the blankets, I found his back and pulled him closer, closing the space between us, creating a pocket of warmth. It didn’t last. I couldn’t get close enough to feel connected. I couldn’t contain the heat. I had to move him, he was all wrong. He had passed out. I had to bend him to fit me, to fit the space.

Cold bit my ears as I pulled back on his neck and pushed against his ribs.

On the second-longest night of the year, we smelled the stench.

The sun was gone. Onto the other side of the earth. Everything living sensed warmth was down, not up. Bulbs retreated to their rootlets, twigs and branches broke and fell. Creatures burrowed down to find loose earth. We pushed down under blankets.

I emptied my glass, refilled it, and licked the rim.

Our house was small. It was closed up and tied down. Where there were no curtains, we used sheets and towels. Until last week, we had shoveled the step, even pushed open the front door. But the snow kept coming and diminished the door. Diminished me in this permanent stasis. thwarted and denied.

Best to wait it out, push it down, stay indoors, stay together.

The pipes shook and rattled. They braced, fought, but alas and they failed and died. We had bottles, though, for a while. And snow.

There was so much snow. It fell every day, sparkling and fresh.

I felt the small space acutely. I felt it against my head when I slept and pushing against me when I woke.

The stench was soft at first, tickling and dry. It floated in the air like our gray breath. I smelled it here and there, a bit more throughout the day. It couldn’t get out of the house. By nighttime, it was trapped. And enraged. It unraveled and expanded. It flew into my face and flapped against my skin.

“What is that smell?” My face hurt, it all hurt.

He narrowed his eyes. “I don’t smell anything.”

“Right here! There it is. Don’t you smell it?”

“No! I really don’t.”

“Something stale. Something dead. Something painful. Something brutal!

“You’re crazy. It’s the kitchen.”

The kitchen was downstairs, behind high walls and around doorways. We used it to store wet clothes, now dry. It wasn’t the kitchen.

“I was just down there. It’s something else. You don’t smell it? It is vile, I can’t stand it.”

“No. It’s just you.”

“Not just me,” I said, quietly closing the door. I was in a realm further, a profound awareness, he couldn’t see. Holding my nose, I shivered out of my layers and lowered myself into the steaming bath. Snow warmed on the stove and carried carefully. The water was shallow, touching my hips and ankles. But the part that touched me made me warm and soft. I buried my face in my skin and gently squeezed the flesh with my fingertips, willing it to life.

I felt fresh and clean. The space around me relaxed and stopped pushing against my head. The smell retreated. I gently poked and pinched all over my body, lovingly. Then I wanted to pinch harder, and harder still. So I did.

There was a fresh welt on my thigh. It pulsed. It was beautiful. I pinched the murky skin, it changed and morphed in response.

I couldn’t stay here forever. The water would get cold. That smell, that awful smell, would return.

I pinched my skin. Again. And again. I would turn my whole body red.

In the middle of the night, hours were impossible to measure, I heard the noise.

It was distant and faint. At first I thought, it’s the wind, the old house. But it wasn’t. It was a noise, it wasn’t natural, something was making it.

The days were so dark they ran into each other. Waking and sleeping, I couldn’t keep track. Time was spent in silence. Or yelling. Or crying. Very little happened, but everything that happened—everything that was thought or felt or said—stayed in the house. These elements mixed with the dark and cold, floated up and down the stairs, bounced around walls, and pushed on my body when I slept. Nothing left the house. There was no exit. And yet, the cold got in.

I sat up quickly. Cold sweat ran down my back. My ears felt like they were stuffed with cotton, with a pulse between them.

“I heard a noise. What is that noise?”

It was soft and gentle, like a child’s, to be let in. It was patient, deliberate. It came from outside—or inside.

He didn’t answer. He didn’t hear it. I feel further away and we further apart.

“Don’t you hear that!? What is that?”

It was tap, tap, tapping. Softly and patiently. My arms felt cold and bare, though I wore several layers. The noise didn’t stop. Its insistence, its insistence. It repeated every few seconds.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

“I can’t sleep. I can’t stop hearing it!” I couldn’t lay in wait, I couldn’t just sit there. I yelled into the darkness “In all heaven and earth, what is that noise? Am I going insane?! Is this the noise of hell?!” I tore out of the bed. Fucking covers, blankets, get off me! Make it stop.

He didn’t move, but I knew he was awake. I could hear breathing, rapid and furious.

My robe was on the rocking chair, slippers on the floor. I flew before he could move.

The lights wouldn’t turn on. Power lines down, iced and broken. Candles made little pockets of light here and there. Nothing felt whole anymore. I lit another candle downstairs.

It is movement. It’s just movement, something is moving. I have to stop something from moving.

The noise was loudest in the living room. I checked the window, opened the curtains. There was the yew bush, covered in snow. No noise. Nothing. But I heard it, I kept hearing it. Grating into my flesh and conscious and pushing out from within.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Walls. I’d start with walls. I’d pull down anything that swayed on its nail, anything that might fall or bounce or tap. Pictures, mirrors—if it moved it came down and was piled on the floor. Before long, the walls were bare, nails exposed.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

The books! Books on shelves. Books moved and caught drafts. I pulled the books down. Piled them on the floor. Went back for more. Armloads and armloads of books, all piled on the floor until they couldn’t move, couldn’t tip or tap. Pictures, books, and mirrors, strewn all over the floor, safe from movement, safe from noise.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Lamps, lights, useless fucking lamps and lights. They could blow or move or catch a wind with their shade and topple. They could make noise!! I pulled the lamps off desks and tables. I unplugged them, ripped the cords from the wall. I threw everything on the floor. Everything on the floor. Everything to the floor.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Pens in a mug. An empty vase! Candlesticks! Coasters and trays. Pillows and cushions! Chairs tipped over. Everything to the floor! Everything in one amorphous heap. Piles and piles of stuff that was no good to anyone and certainly wasn’t helping me get rid of the noise, the fucking noise that wouldn’t stop and wouldn’t stop. . .

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Was it getting louder? GOD IN HELL, WHAT IS THIS NOISE?! Am I losing my mind!? These things on the floor, all these things could tip or tilt or fall and make noise, and maybe they were making noise, maybe I made it worse because I moved things, and maybe I was MAKING THIS NOISE!

Tap. Tap. Tap.

The carpet! The carpet was thick and soft, and it would smother anything that moved or tapped. I’d have to pull up the carpet. I’d have to smother the room with the carpet, drown out the noise. If I couldn’t stop it, I could kill it, take away its force and power and kill it, kill it dead!

Tap. Tap. TAP!

Kick and pull and throw. Everything off! Clear a corner. Grab underneath and rip it up. Its sides were old and had come undone. I hooked my fingers under and pulled up and towards me. Slowly at first, it resisted, then it tore, broke free, and came easily, all at once, pulling out of its tacks and knocking over books and lamps as it moved and rose towards. . .

“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?”

I stopped. Then swung to face him. His face did not register, he dare question this sanity. How dare he! I was saving us.

TAP! TAP! TAP!

“I’m killing it! I’M SMOTHERING IT!” I shrieked, furious. “The noise. I will smother it with the carpet. Push it back to hell! That tapping! IT WON’T STOP!”

TAP! TAP! TAP!

I screamed. He yelled. The carpet was heavy, and I dropped it, threw it down between us. Years of dead skin and fibers flooded the air, and we coughed. He held the frame, bent double, gasping. I held my sides and waved my hands to clear out the dust.

Then silence.

“Don’t make any more noise,” he said. He grabbed a bottle and fled.

“You are useless! I’m saving this house!” I screeched into the cold.

I didn’t move. I waited. I didn’t hear the noise, not anymore.

The floor was covered with broken tufts of carpet and scattered tacks. I sat and leaned against the wall. Everything was silent and still as death except for my breath and the movement of the candle. The light in the room settled down over piles of things, indiscernible in the darkness. Shadows rose and fell around me and towards me. And still I waited, my ears straining.

The noise would come back.

Something ran down my back.

Then I saw it. In the emptiness of night, in the shadows of the room.

I saw it.

I hadn’t slept. I had counted minutes, counted thoughts, brought my mind back to the room and its distraught contents. After a while, I grew cold, so I softly, faintly, started rocking myself against the wall. I made tiny, almost imperceptible movements back and forth. It gave me a sense of calm, peace.

I waited for the noise. So I could kill it. I was ready.

The candle wore down and went out, but there was light, faint, and my eyes were fine. I could see shadows and shapes. I could even see the shadow of the yew bush outside, lit against some atmospheric light, stars filtered through clouds reflected from snow.

It was a sentinel keeping watch, protecting us, me. That yew.

I closed my eyes and rocked back against the cold wall, just for a second, a quick second.

I looked up. It was gone. I couldn’t see it. The yew was gone. Where it had been, there was nothing, just black shadow. No texture, no depth. Just a window, and blackness.

There is nothing there.

I stopped rocking and sat still. I looked directly at it. I looked away to catch it in my peripheral. Nothing. Nothing was there.

There is nothing there.

Because there is something there.

A figure. Outside. In front of the yew. It didn’t move, it didn’t have to. It was dark and full. It wasn’t outlined or defined. Amorphous. But it was everything. Because there was nothing else.

I exhaled. Who are you? What do you want?

Nothing moved and nothing happened. But the darkness didn’t leave.

I inhaled. Who are you!? What do you want?

I stared at the black. The black stared at me. I still couldn’t see a shape. But I saw nothing else.

My eyes were exhausted, that’s all it was.

Using my hands for balance, I rolled forward, very, very slowly. One leg pulled up, leaning my weight on my other, slowly standing up.

I was so careful, so quiet, thoughtful almost, empathetic.

It was there. Outside. A figure.

The wind began to move, I couldn’t feel it or see it, but I heard it. It pushed against the house, against the glass, which shook violently to break free from its pane.

I could get out of there. The things on the floor, all the books and pictures and mirrors I had pulled down, they would slow it down. It wouldn’t reach me, whatever it was.

I had time.

I could get out of there first.

I had to get out of there. The smell was coming back. Soon, the noise.

I pressed against the wall, cold and terrified. My heart pounded and ached. The pressure against my head was tremendous.

I inched to my right, towards the door. Slowly, slowly.

Something was touching the window, touching the glass. Outside. The glass stopped shaking, it was still. Then, with a loud noise, it cracked and broke. Wind poured into the room, angry it had been kept out. Books toppled. Lamps knocked over. Muffled thuds as everything fell from the pile to the floor.

Snow swirled sideways and into my face, my hair whipped my eyes. It was so cold, my blood was cold. I couldn’t feel the wall. I couldn’t move.

It was inside.

I screamed my terror into the wind.

The blood tasted like metal and rust.

It poured into my mouth, steaming out of the wound and into my eyes and nose and mouth. I was flooding.

But the pressure was gone, there was no pressure against my head, not anymore.

The bottle was empty when he hit me with it. It was empty.

But I still thought, perhaps, some whiskey was left, and maybe it would fall in my mouth. Down my throat. A nice thought. He grabbed the bottle, what was left of it, tipped it up over my face, aligned with my neck. A few drops fell into my mouth and mixed with blood, down my throat.

I curled up into myself. Closed my eyes. Everything poured out of me, and I couldn’t stop it.

I burrowed down to the ground, deeper and deeper through the earth. I dug with nails and arms, smoothly and confidently. There was no light, but the earth became soft, loose. It wasn’t warm, but it wasn’t frozen.

I laid down, burrowed. Silent. Still.

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