Horla Fiction (May/June 2020)

 

WINTER IS COMING

by MARK HOWARD JONES

THE glass snagged on the skin, pushed its way under and tugged, tearing her slightly before she realised it was there. Carefully she trapped it between two fingernails and withdrew it, a small bead of blood registering a protest from her flesh.

She winced slightly, then stuck the reddening digit in her mouth to suck away the warm fluid. The taste rolled across her tongue, harsh and ferrous.

The remains of the windscreen lay all around her. Tiny glass stars scattered across the worn leather of the passenger seat.

She remembered her mother telling her that she’d been born in a lost street, high on a hill, underneath the pitiless starlight. As if that was worse than being born anywhere else.

For a moment she imagined those same stars had settled on earth, now wearied of their place in the heavens.

She let her head fall forward softly on to the steering wheel, then sucked in a few deep breaths.

It was the only obstacle around for miles yet she’d managed to hit it. The remnant of the old tree she and her brother used to climb when they were young.

The car door had been forced open in the collision. She welcomed the cool air that it had let in as she fought back a brief wave of nausea.

Unbuckling the seat belt, she slid out of the car onto the ground. The mud seemed to meet her halfway. After a minute or two, she pulled herself up onto her feet and steadied herself against the car.

The front of it was dented inwards, rust flakes lying loosely on the malformed metal. If her father was still alive, he’d have skinned her alive for wrecking his car.

She felt unsteady on her feet.  Afraid of what she might see, she glanced nervously at the back seat.

 

***

It was autumn already. Winter was coming.

 

***

 

“Help!” She had intended it to be a yell but it was only a weak, small sound by the time it left her lips.

But someone must have heard her because they were coming towards her now. The figure was at an odd angle, she saw. No doubt struggling forwards through the soft soil.

After several seconds, the figure seemed to be no nearer to her. And they hadn’t said anything either.

As her eyes focused properly she saw that it was simply the old scarecrow, a leftover from when the land had been productive. She was surprised this ragged sentinel of that past was still standing.

Once it would have been almost hidden among the crops but now it stood out starkly, guarding the bare earth. Her father had been no farmer, ruining the rich land his own father had left him.

The scarecrow’s hastily-made face appeared to be smiling at her. Or maybe it was a sneer.

The stick man reminded her of her mother towards the end, just before the poison had finished its work – she, too, was hardly there at all.

 

***

 

She’d planned to bury the old man at the very edge of their property, in among the trees and as far away from her mother’s grave as possible. That was all she could do for her now.

But she hadn’t made it even half that distance when she heard a groan from the back seat. Startled, she’d turned to look, to make sure. The car had slid off the road and into the stump of the old tree, chopped down years ago.

The impact wasn’t hard. She’d obviously taken her foot off the pedal, slowing the car somewhat. But it was enough to wind her and the wreck of a car had become even more battered.

She wished she was further away from the house. There was always an uncomfortable thought at the back of her mind that it watched whatever she did.

Painful things had happened there, in that cold, old house that was just visible in the distance. It couldn’t be much more than half a mile away but she preferred it when it looked this small. It was now tiny enough to pick up and put in her pocket where it was safe and dark. As small as she’d always felt while she was there.

She shivered and hugged herself for warmth. It was almost as if Autumn was in a hurry to be gone, eager to be away somewhere warmer, leaving the land to its colder brother.

Summer was always a fugitive season in this place; never arriving or gone too soon, before she’d noticed the sun on her skin. She knew it was no good running – it was always too far out of reach.

It was part of the reason she’d left in the first place. That, too, had been a mistake.

 

***

 

She was the sort of girl that no-one cared about, that people merely used and discarded. So when she had lost the baby she had returned to ‘the bosom of her family’.

At least her brother Evan had been pleased to see her. He was three years younger than her and was always happy when she was around. He hadn’t smiled much just before he disappeared, though.

The police officer that came out to the house didn’t seem that interested in finding Evan. He just wanted to get things over with quickly and leave, she felt. He talked about filing a Missing Persons report. They never heard anything more about it.

Her father just kept repeating the lie that Evan had “just gone away” and that he’d be back when it suited him. Whenever she asked him any questions about when he’d last seen Evan, he got angry and threatened her with his fist.

Just gone, he had replied. He kept saying it.

Their father had always taught them about the world and its poisons. But he didn’t teach them that he was the worst poison of all.

 

***

 

A figure stood by the stark, leafless trees at the far side of the field. It looked like a man in a long overcoat, looking in her direction. As far as she could make out, he was just the other side of the brackish stream that skirted the woodland.

At first she thought it was the scarecrow, popping up to trick her again. But it was in the wrong place to be that ragged, lop-sided trickster. And it was clearly a person, not a rotting facsimile.

She had no idea how long he had been watching her but he couldn’t have seen anything – he was too far away. Still, she wished he wasn’t there.

 

***

 

She tugged the back door open fiercely, ready for trouble. Her father’s feet still stuck out, looking ridiculous.

Leaning over, she unwound part of the rug from across his face. His mouth gaped as wide as a fish’s pout, eyes gazing at nothing. He was definitely dead.

Oddly, his expression brought to mind the painting hanging over the main fireplace – always cold. Painted when he was younger, he looked handsome in a wary kind of way. The air around him was filled with odd symbols and things that looked like coiled snakes, half-painted as if her mother had lost interest in finishing the painting. Or as if the subject matter was itself incomplete, still waiting to be born.

The symbols were something her mother knew about but never explained to her.

She pulled at the rug hard and her father’s body moved a few inches. It took her several more minutes to drag him nearly free of the back seat.

One last heave and his body slumped heavily onto the tarmac, the rug unwinding under his weight.

One of her father’s yellowish teeth rolled across the road’s dark surface. it seemed bright by contrast.

As if set in sympathetic motion, a few dried leaves skittered and scraped past, like stragglers from another time.

Using the rug as a makeshift bier, she dragged his body down onto the dark, rich earth.

Her tread lay heavy on the sparse grass that had crept over the ground. It reminded her of one of her mother’s better paintings – one that showed a summer scene from her childhood, before Evan was born. Her mother had painted herself into the scene, too. Even in that happy image, her father seemed like a dark presence, painted only in sombre ochres and umbers.

Growing up, she had gazed up at the painting, thinking he resembled a creature made of tree bark and dirt.

 

***

 

She began digging in the resisting earth, pushing her aching fingers down as hard as she could, grabbing the world and pulling, releasing the charnel darkness from beneath the ground.

As she sweated away at her work, she wondered what other secrets the ground might hide. What other shapes in the earth might be waiting to emerge? Maybe Evan was waiting here to be found. Or maybe he’d make the effort and come to find her. She shook the idea of out of her head and began to dig faster.

It would only be a shallow grave but it would do. She just wanted to get him under the earth and out of sight. He would lie undisturbed. No-one tilled this land any longer. And no-one ever visited.

The birds had all left the sky. The clouds were heavy with silence.

When she’d begun, the sky was clothed in light grey but now its robes had turned a darker hue. Yet night was still hours away. Was it trying to force its way in where it wasn’t welcome?

 

***

 

Not very long after their mother’s death, their father had been away for six months. Their aunt had travelled hundreds of miles to be with them. For a time, normality seemed to have been restored.

When their father returned, he was different. It wasn’t just his manner, the way he’d treated her and her brother, but it was the things he did as well.

He neglected his work altogether. Any pretence of running the farm was finally abandoned.

Now he spent most of his time alone. His gestures had become odd and angular. When she and Evan tried to spy on him, he always knew they were there and came at them, raising his voice and issuing threats.

When people began visiting the house, she had been puzzled. Then her father had insisted she and her brother be there when they came. All he asked was that they stand there, surrounded by his visitors while they stared at them. None of them ever spoke. She always felt too uncomfortable to meet their gaze.

She and Evan were now well used to the harsh stare of their father’s shotgun eyes but this was different. The visitors all simply stood staring, like they were trying to devour the two of them with their eyes alone. As if their collective gaze could absorb all she and Evan were; as if they could use and discard them that easily.

She always felt as if her face was as thin as a mask, ready to fall to the floor at any moment. She stood stock still, praying that it would stay in place. Her greatest fear was that these strangers would be able to see her true face, that they would be able to peer into her and know her true thoughts.

Once or twice she heard the strangers muttering among themselves as they left. This was an ancient land but the things they whispered about seemed to her to be even older.

The more she thought about their words, the more frightened she became. She thought to ask her friends for help. But there were no friends left. Her father had made sure of it.

 

***

 

One half-moon night she had seen her father leave the house with a box tucked under his arm. Later, she had seen a fire burning in the farthest corner of their land, sparks flying up into a sky that seemed stretched as thin as silk.

She thought she saw lights high above the blaze but it was too far away for her to be certain. She imagined the moon’s tears falling all those many miles onto the earth below.

Next day, she saw the crows circling the same spot, But she dare not go and look; her father was watching her.

When he drove into town for supplies the following day, she walked out to the place where she’d seen the fire burning. But it was too late to see anything, if there had been anything to see. It had rained heavily in the night and the charred ground had been churned up.

She didn’t know what she was looking for – strange growths sprouting from the earth, or some appalling evidence of her father’s evil intentions – but, if anything had been there, it was lost now.

She thought she saw the faint remains of strange marks scratched into the ground nearby. But she couldn’t be sure. There was nothing to tell her what her father had really been doing there.

On her way back to the house, a terrible weight settled on her as certainty dawned on her. She felt as if it would force her to her knees, never to rise again. She was forced to admit to herself that she would never see her brother again.

 

***

 

She’d seen her chance once the people, mostly half-recognised strangers who had stood in a circle around her, had left. Her father had seemed almost drunk, uncertain in his movements and less guarded than usual.

She’d used the big, heavy candlestick (just like the one in the board game she and Evan had played as children). He staggered sideways, bouncing off the tuneless piano that had stood silent all her life. Now there was a protesting jangle of strings from the long neglected music box as her father’s head struck it hard before he carried on his way. His bloodied cranium was the last part of him to hit the floor. By the way it landed and barely bounced, she could tell he was dead.

She was surprised at how little blood there was. Her First Aid training at school had told her that head wounds always bled profusely. Perhaps the dried-up old bastard had no blood left in him, she thought.

She rolled his body over and over until it lay more or less in the middle of the large, tattered rug that covered the floor just in front of the door.

Tugging at the edge of the dingy old thing, she managed to roll him up in it inch by inch. His feet stuck out comically, just like they always had. She took it as a mild rebuke as to how his daughter was treating him.

She parked his rusty car as close to the front door as she could. It meant there was the least distance from door to open door. Her father was slightly built but taller than her, so it would be hard to move him.

Minutes of sweating and pulling followed as she inched him out of the door and towards the car. She wished that Evan was there. She was sure he would have helped.

Once the task of wedging him across the back seat was done, she slipped behind the steering wheel. She set off along the only road that ran through their property. It was more or less straight and flat and led to the only rational destination that anyone could be interested in around here … somewhere else.

She’d had no idea that the tree stump would foil her plans.

 

***

 

She looked up and saw that the scarecrow was standing slightly straighter now. Then she saw that the man she’d seen by the trees was standing behind it. Or next to it. Or …

He was perfectly still.

Panting, she stopped for a few moments to calm herself and clear her vision. But she still couldn’t make out the one figure from the other. It was as if they had somehow merged.

Worried that, whoever he was, he was making his way towards her, she hurried to finish her task. She’d think of something to say to put him off the scent by the time he reached her, she was sure.

The ground began to freeze as she was finishing her grisly task. It was now so hard that she had to leave her father’s fingers uncovered, the dirty and broken nails clawing at the sky.

She could see her breath emerging from her mouth in white clouds, small gusts veiling the figure.

The sun this late in the day seemed weakened by his presence, drained of warmth and brilliance, leaving only a wan light to illuminate the aching landscape. It appeared to constellate around him, giving the illusion of ice wings spreading out from his back, turning him into a peculiarly ragged sort of angel.

The shadowy suggestion of half-born things gathered in the air around him. This halo of abominations moved with him, turning and coiling around itself.

He continued to advance towards her. The cold had crept so deeply into her that she could no longer feel her hands. The only warmth left in her was the stone encasing her heart.

She did her best to stretch out her frozen hand to him. “Wh-who are you?”

He opened his mouth to speak. It was a wordless voice like the sigh of solstice winds, carrying her mother’s voice to her, faint and lost. His gaze was as cold as a hundred starless nights. Yet still she welcomed him.

In his face she saw Evan. In his face she saw the gaze of her unborn baby. In his face she saw the cold truth.

Winter had arrived.

 

 

***

Mark Howard Jones was born in a town in South Wales where it once rained fish. He is the editor of the anthologies Cthulhu Cymraeg: Lovecraftian Tales From Wales (SD Publishing) and Cthulhu Cymraeg 2 (Fugitive Fiction). He is a regular contributor to PS Publishing’s Black Wings series, edited by S. T. Joshi. His latest collection is Flowers Of War (Black Shuck). He lives in Cardiff, the capital of Wales.

Title photo credit. Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

Horla standard disclaimer: photo has no direct connection with the fiction.