From The Cold
I answered the door to a blank-faced man in an immaculate uniform. He said my name, his voice toneless. When I nodded, he handed me an envelope, then turned on his heel and walked away. His appearance and manner told me where the letter was from even before I saw the familiar logo stamped on its upper corner. The paper felt unfamiliar in my hands; the archaic personal delivery system was designed to prevent citizens from being able to claim they had not received their letter.
I turned back to the kitchen, where my girlfriend was eating breakfast. She looked up as I entered, her spoon pausing partway to her mouth when she saw my expression. I held the envelope out to her, my hands trembling slightly.
“It’s from the CoLD,” I said, the words emerging in barely a whisper.
Instantly, I saw the horror I felt reflected in her eyes. Her spoon clattered down into her breakfast bowl, forgotten.
X X X X X
It all started ten years ago.
My nation’s economy is based on deposits of a mineral found beneath the ground in an area near our northern border. It provides the main source of fuel for our machinery, heating and light, and makes up the vast majority of our exports to other nations.
One day, the miners broke through into a network of caverns previously undiscovered. They showed signs of manmade construction and contained relics of a bygone era, the like of which had never before been seen. The relics were raised to the surface, and the world marvelled at such a momentous find. An exhibition was mounted in our capital city and people flocked from many nations to see them. Our historians studied the relics and published their findings within their community.
That was when everything started to go wrong. Historians from our northern neighbour claimed the relics showed links to their culture, and deduced that the site beneath our mines was significant to their religious history. There was much discussion and debate, but the ultimate conclusion on all sides was that they were correct. Long ago, the border between our two nations must have shifted, so that their historical site now fell within the land we controlled.
As a gesture of goodwill, our government offered to return all the recovered relics to them and to provide limited access to the site itself, but that was not enough. They demanded a redrawing of the border so that they could reclaim the land, and therein lay a substantial problem. Without the mines, our economy would be severely affected, and our government was not prepared to give up our main source of income to satisfy a cultural desire.
Things quickly escalated, with neither side prepared to accept any offered compromise, until, inevitably, war broke out between our two nations.
At first, the requirement for military personnel was covered by our existing forces but, as the years went by with no sign of an end to the conflict, were needed than volunteered. The draft was established two years ago, a random selection process that could result in any citizen being selected to join the fight at any time.
X X X X X
I opened the envelope and carefully removed the heavy paper sheet enclosed within. I unfolded it slowly and read the contents alloud.
“You are requested to present yourself at the nearest Council of Loyalist Defence barracks at second bell two days from acceptance of this letter.”
I raised my eyes to meet my girlfriend’s gaze once more.
I was going to war.
Past my dying garden your image follows.
This hard frost stands in the way
of green being green. Such a dolor,
pink forgetting itself when, not long ago,
it carried a summer melody better than Sinatra.
(And when I say too cool I only mean the weather.)
I leave lavender to dry on the bush, that dumb
kiss of summer crushed between thumb and finger
now nothing but cold lips, a buss blown
from my gloved hand just missing your cheek.
This winter we will neglect words like touch, stroke,
contemplate, both of us fortressed in such a lonely place.
But when you think of me, just once in the snow,
my body will be the red of summer, the petal of a garden rose
that smells like warmth when you get close, my hair
no longer hair but the rope in stories men long to climb.
Go ahead, take cuts to the front of the line.
I will be waiting at the top of a tower built
more from sadness than from stone. Look
at all the colors hidden there. See the slow movement
of cream spilled along the floor. The drop of honey.
The oranges waiting to bloom in the spring. The way
I care nothing for the cliche of milk and oranges and honey
but place this remembrance of past banquets before you.
The cold will not always ruin us. Someday your tongue
will again long to taste. Then we will speak in words
like shoulder, glisten, appetite and pretend what we lost
in this hard frost can be found. Of course we will
both be wrong, that lightning in a bottle nothing
but a static shock, a faint blue buzz, but wasn't
it all, while it lasted, even more than glorious?
Etches in frost is the art form of a temporary thinker. She claims the window seat, a hard varnished wooden chair next to the basement. The door to there is safety latched, the hook and hasp the only obstacle between her and the basement creature, Schnagalda. Ha! Not that the artist believes in her anymore. Still, the memory of her----the fear of her remains. Logic is not an eraser.
She sits sideways, leaning her head against the clear surface in the centre of the glass as she scratches at the the frost, the thin layer of ice that's formed along the sides and bottom of the window. The stars, clear tonight against the black, unknowable sky, have instructed her to carve an ice rink. A lone skater will occupy it. She will appear pushing into a moment of grace, one leg raised high behind her, the blade thrust toward something or someone only imaginable beyond the edges of the window where the ice is thickest. Her arms propel her forward, their power evidenced by the fine definition of form. No fingers emerge from her hands. There are no facial features.
Even as the artist works swiftly to bring forth the skater's shape, movement, temporary grace, the warmth from her working fingers mixed with her soft breath urge the skater's metamorphosis and she is becoming something else. Fine lines etched into the ice begin to blur and the graceful shape gliding on one leg with arms upstretched like a grateful sun worshiper slips the length of the window glass, a thin river of water droplets drawn to join the meltwater already gathered along the ledge.
Only she has seen the creation. She and the constellations of stars who inform her on such dark, still winter nights. Outside, the light from the shed casts its weak yellow illumination upon the snow, piled high now after so many weeks. The trees whose leaves in summer dance and wave to her playfully with the rhythm of early evening breezes stand erect now in their naked slumber hushed by the cold, cloaked in protective hoar frost.
In the background, from her room down the hall, she hears Dylan. Like the basement creature, Schnagalda, she understands more clearly now that the song wasn't written for her after all. How could it have been? She is but one, not as once her naïveté believed, THE one.
In the darkness, there with the comfort of the cool against her forehead, while the stars stare their omniscient stares of a million miles away, the smile emerges anyway. With her tongue, she licks away the last of the the skater's shape. With her hand, she traces her own face with condensation from her forehead. She paints her features, anointing them in frost water.
She looks up toward the stars once more, then turns to go. Her fingers break off a thin sliver of ice from the thickest accumulation near the bottom of the window. She passes the ice into her mouth, breaking it down into a thousand tiny icicles. She will swallow every one of them before they turn again to water.