The Wars of Ice and Plenty
Death marks you—Death remembers.
I can’t feel my feet. My toes throb against the frozen earth, like thick clubs wrapped in paper. They move, I remind myself, that much I’m sure of. But every twitch is like wading through molasses, as if a thousand atom-sized fingers were pulling at my skin.
Yet, I move quickly, strands of penny hair slipping across my cheek and tangling beneath my chin. The sharp scent of pine is sickening, sticking with sap at the back of my throat. Twigs and dead leaves snap and crumble beneath my feet, sinking into the snow below before splintering into the white void.
Move. Don’t stop. Don’t look back.
The thrum of a heartbeat pulses wildly against my ear drums, filling my head with the sound of blood. The skin around my fingertips tears, a scream of pain escaping me as I rage through the wooded world, clawing at branches, pushing off the cliff that towers overhead.
How did it find me? I was so careful this time.
Running out. Running—pushing through the sloping forest tunnel. Fighting for whatever chance I have. My chest burns, and though I try to suck in a mouthful of frozen air, it only exacerbates the sting.
Right, left, another right.
Roots and rubble catch my feet and jam through the soles of my sneakers, sending me stumbling as I try to bank around a curve between the trees and the jagged wall of crumbling rock. White powder kicks up past my shins. Pain radiates through my palm where stone tears through skin. Blood leaks from my hand, but I only wipe it helplessly against my leg, red stains purpling as they seep into my jeans.
The air stopped and shuddered with one long breath. One smell.
North. Must go North.
I look over my shoulders, first one way, then the other. I know this place; I’ve been here before. The path is always the same—it always ends the same.
Not this time, the voices whisper. But panic crowds them out—they’ll have to wait.
A cold wet spreads across my stomach where I press my bleeding palm. I swallow the snow that drifts off the mountaintop—the ice is bitter against my tongue.
Think. What comes next? A remarkable calm laces the breeze. The smell of pine—and smoke and sugar. Left and another right. Then safe.
The ground trembles, snow and twigs and rocks cascading around my head. At my back, the snap of branches echoes around fallen trunks. It—for I have never learned what other name to call it but It—wails a guttural cry.
It is not frustration in its moaning, or rage or pain. The game is easy: find, catch, kill. It is the roar of something that has played the game and won too many times to be amused. Now it tastes blood. Mine. And nothing else will do.
My foot catches on a root. Down, down, down I go, rolling over the hill, still slick with morning frost. The skin on my face scrapes the earth, salty red dripping into my mouth and sliding into my eyes until the whole world is tinged a rusty hue.
Something crunches in my side where a rock digs into the space between my ribs. I bite back the screams that build in my chest just as the world halts its spinning, my back slamming against solid ground.
I lie on rock and compact ice, unable to move as the weight of the sky presses down, suffocating me. Trapping me.
The woods are silent, the air still. The only sound is that of my breath. There’s nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. I wait for the tears to come, but they don’t. There is no fear, no anxious anticipation of pain. There is nothing at all.
Death walking. The same voice, every time. I can’t escape it, and I can’t say that I want to.
I bat my lashes, pushing the thickening blood from my eyes. My hands won’t move. The sound hisses in my ear and swirls listlessly in my head. Listen.
So I do. It growls, deep in the bottom of its chest, reverberating in its stomach, soft as a whisper, harsh as thunder.
One. The trees and bushes rustle in the inky darkness.
Two. My heart pounds so violently in my chest, I wait for it to burst from within. My palms sweat. My blood and bones feel no chill, no wet, no pain shooting through my body.
Three. Time rests, if it continues to exist at all. The sudden silence is deafening, only the ringing in my ears tells me I’m alive. Or at least not entirely dead.
I blink away the last of the blood, running my face across my shoulder. But that was all the time it needed. The black, inky shape stoops above me. It is nothing, it is empty, it is never-ending. A black hole that leads nowhere. But it lives, its frame expanding and contracting with each shallow breath. And it sees. Those empty eyes—those orbs of glistening, liquid amber—watching, invading, reading my every fear.
The voice laughs, the black mass quivering. Count.
So I do. Three, Hard crystals of blue. Piercing, cat-like yellow.
Two. Stones of cutting, steely grey. Silver and shining. Unfeeling black, dry and as if made of ash.
One. Consumed. Floating. Falling.
Death marks you—Death remembers.
Thalassophobia—an intense, persistent fear of the sea. Though it took many forms, the currents, the creatures, the incalculable distance from solid ground, I was afraid of drowning. Foolishly, perhaps, I assumed that required the sea.
The blanket covering the last inch of my thigh collapsed to the floor. Dust and sour residue rose from my pillow as I sucked in a breath from deep within the fibers. Cold sweat clung to every inch of me, wetting the sheets, and from the open window, the room filled with the glacial air of the city.
A dream, nothing more. The same dream I’d had for the past year.
I pressed my eyes into their sockets, a meager attempt to force away the images that lingered behind tired lids. Christ, I was tired.
The early morning sun crept in through the wrinkled space between the two drapes that swung in front of the yellowed window, illuminating the dust that swirled about the small room. From behind clouded plastic, the clock that sat on the low, secondhand table read six-thirty with a hazy red glow. Still, I laid there, paralyzed, clinging to warm comfort, pushing away whatever stalked me from outside of those blankets.
I groaned against the mattress, its springs croaking with age. Ten months in New York City, running from suburban monotony, and shit to show for it. At the time, it had seemed like a stroke of genius, an idea so revolutionary that is simply couldn’t fail. But great ideas rarely turn out as expected, and quiet, peaceful sleep still eluded me.
Instead, I had become accustomed to the relentless blare of traffic, bitter pedestrians, and taxi drivers who just didn’t give a damn. The smell of dirt and pollution had replaced grass and fresh rainwater, permeating the eggshell walls of my rundown flat as much as it seeped through the floor below.
Maybe I should have left—I was a stranger here as much as anywhere. Just another stop in search of something more. I was a runner—to something, from something, it didn’t matter. I was never satisfied or settled, and I doubted I ever would be.
It was Monday—and, like most, another day of stepping through goose shit to find the one damn cliché that would make a decent headline. Aliens were old news. Corrupt politicians? Well, they were hardly news at all. So, the few rag-tag paper hawkers who were left in the tabloid cesspool had resorted to the lowest means of researching—a tip line.
A single 1-800 number for the crackhead or the batshit crazy to spill the latest phenomenon that plagued the fruit section at the Food Emporium. But anything beat coffee runs and photocopies.
I sat up, legs knocking against the floor like dead things, aching toes rolling against the vomit-green rug, the fibers that pressing into the underside of my nails.
Outside the window, the sun shined boldly through sparse clouds. Rising was always slow, reaching to the sky, stretching my back until something popped—a state of blurry, half-sleeping shuffling to the bathroom, a glance at the too small writing desk that brooded in the corner, overflowing with the stories I was either too busy or too lazy to finish.
Fair skin, freckles, and a gawking expression stared from the mirror smudged with hairspray and toothpaste. Twenty-one years reflected in blue eyes that caught the light with a mossy green glow. Purple half-moon shadows deepening rosy cheeks smeared gray with day-old mascara. And there was a head, dwarfed by a mane of thick, copper hair.
I looked like my Grandmother—my Alma. She was called Roanne—red-berry tree, but I always called her Alma, which meant nurturing soul. And I was Enya, which meant flame. But Alma never paid the name much mind, and called me Anya with pride and promise. For Anya meant resurrection, and Alma liked to say that death was just a door to the next life worth living.
If she could have seen me, I knew exactly what she would say. “You’re too pale, Anya. I told you, you never should have left the open air. You’re too thin, you should eat something.”
Alma, a year ago passed. My lip even curled the same, my nose wrinkling identically.
After nearly thirty minutes of combing, wiping, rinsing, and all-around preening, I had managed to turn walk-of-shame into simply exhausted. When I finally pulled myself away from the looking glass, begging it to swallow me whole, the clock read quarter past seven.
Not early, but not exactly late, either.
So, I pulled some scrap proposals and quickly etched edits from underneath the wilted hibiscus sucking up the dirty morning sunlight, and passed through the bedroom door.
Walking into the kitchen was like stumbling through a war zone. Last night’s take-out boxes littered the table and countertop, paper covered the floor, leaflets hanging from swinging cabinets. Sketches and outlines, some smooth and fresh, other crumpled and discarded, were strewn across the small, circular dining table—pictures of eyes and tales of vicious, stirring smoke sat on top. Haunted nights turned to haunted days. Like something from the fairy stories Alma would tell when I was a girl—tales of magic and dragons, knights and princesses, ancient talking trees and good versus evil. I would cling to them as though they were life itself, willing them to be true when they lingered in my dreams.
I breathed a small laugh, clutching my hand around the rough-cut blue stone that I cradled in my palm, the head of a silver serpent resting at its peak. Through translucent shade turquoise, ribbons of indigo floated, seeming to move like ink through water.
Somehow, it was still in place despite a restless sleep. Alma had left it to me when she’d died with a note that promised there would be magic in my life, if only I had the courage to seek it. It smelled of sweet death, and despite its hue reminded me of ebony and violet—the colors that had lined our lives for months. Alma’s casket had been closed, her final request. She was not a woman to be viewed in death, she had said, only in the land of life. Now the edges of her face blurred in memory and turned to bone.
I pressed the stone to my lips, feeling the coolness against my teeth. Shapes formed from dim spots fading in and out of the darkness, silhouettes of faces and sunsets long departed.
Tucking the necklace back beneath my sweater, a shiver spider-crawled up my back at the touch of the chain sliding along my neck. The stone melted into my skin, as if it were a piece of my heart locked back into place.
I shoved my arms into the narrow sleeves of a deep blue pea coat dotted with tiny balls of fuzz, and twisted on a cream-colored scarf in a way that hid the spattered coffee stains. With one hand, I sifted blindly through my bag, groping for the apartment key, while reaching for a banana with the other, the only thing passable as breakfast.
The trill of a phone called out from across the room, stabbing through the silence more like a jackhammer than a bell. I’d become used to its tone, though I’d changed it more than once, but I still flinched and groaned each time it started.
I bumbled across the kitchen, one arm still pushing through the tube-tight sleeve. The fourth ring blared just as I scooped it into my palm, and answered, almost pleasantly. Almost. “Hello, Henry.”
“Are you there yet?” I pulled the phone away from my ear, squeezing my eyes as tight as they would go.
I could already picture Henry pacing in the office hall, the din of the city muffled to a buzz by the concrete walls. Eyes wide, bushy brows occupying most of his forehead. He would be wearing his usual baby blue button down and khakis that didn’t quite fit, faded caramel shoes, worn from the years of running across town like a hound on the hunt. Evident from the lines traced and etched into his wind-beaten skin, he was more tired than I was.
I reached for his sleeves, trying to calm him down.
But I was still in my apartment, and the shape of him, so clear before, faded into the kitchen walls. A tremor ran down my hand, my fingers loosening around the phone.
I shook my head to clear the fog. “What on earth are you talking about?” I snapped irritably. I didn’t have time for stupid games. I barely had time to sleep. “I’m leaving my apartment now. Be there in twenty minutes.”
A loud hiss echoed through the line. “Twenty minutes? You were supposed to be there an hour ago!”
Henry’s voice cracked at the same time he did. I snorted out a laugh, trying to quell the panic already twisting in my chest. “An hour ago?” I swiveled my head straining to the see the time on the cracked face of the microwave. “That’s not possible, it’s only—”
Nine o’clock. I blinked twice at the clock, clearing the water clouding my vision. This time the phone actually did slip through my fingers, banging harshly against the floor. Nine o’clock. Muffled words rose from the ground by my feet, but Henry was too far away to care about. My heart hitched wildly in my chest, the fog in my brain spreading lower.
“Enya? Moore!” a muffled voice shouted from the floor. He’d never said my name like that. “Are you hungover? You promised that—you know—don’t care.”
“Yeah,” I cut him off, lifting the phone to my ear with a shaking hand, a pulse beginning to throb in my temple. I spared a glance to the clock, wincing as the time came back into focus. “I’ll get there—twenty minutes.”
I hung up the before Henry could get a word in edgewise, and tried to ignore the sudden silence that seemed to envelope the kitchen. A dream—sleeping or waking, it didn’t matter. Believe it or not, tabloid paps weren’t stupid—we knew full well we were writing shit. I just hadn’t figured out what to do when I was living in it.
I stared at the crumpled piece of paper left carelessly on the countertop. Today’s query.
Veritas Books—Ground Floor, 244 Broome St. Books that move on their own, candlesticks that light themselves. Shapes of beasts lurking in the shadows and disappearing in the light.
I read it over twice, scrawled down during a pale-dawn tip call, bleary-eyed, half drunk.
Shapes of beasts lurking in the shadows. It was Henry who had told me to go investigate, as far as investigation mattered, but he didn’t have to tell me twice.
It came from nowhere. A distant echo of voices, indistinct, flitting through the shadows, and bouncing against sunlit stone. Too many—shouting, whispering—often seeming no more than a waking dream, yet sometimes as real as the breath slipping down my throat.
I never spoke about them—and certainly never to them. Some were louder than others, some spoke only when the sun was bright, others muttered only in the dark. But it was never just one.
Not real, I told myself. A nervous breakdown was hardly ideal—schizophrenia was at least something to write about.
My keys were tucked at the bottom of my bag, and by the time I fished them out I was another minute down. I rushed through the front door, flicking the deadbolt carefully with trembling fingers.
The winter wind ripped between the channels of the city, stinging my bare cheeks. Water welled in my eyes. I shoved my hands deeper into my pockets, picking at the lint in the corners as I moved quickly down the sidewalk, collar up, sinking my head against my shoulders.
Still, an invisible clock metronomed in my brain, as though time were living, beating in tandem with my heart.
I reached up and jerked my collar higher over my ears. Keep walking. Head down.
Heavy clouds blotted out the sun as they filled almost remarkably quickly the whole of the sky. The street was littered with garbage and pigeon droppings, wet newsprint wadded into the cracks like grout. Potted plants and Christmas lights peeked from murky windows. Withering trees stood at even intervals, arthritic branches stripped by the wind. Bodies shifted around panhandlers and vendors acting as medians in the sidewalk, dividing the street into two. It all smelled of gasoline and rot.
The temperature plummeted, cold seeping into the marrow of my bones. But weather here was fickle. It was hardly worth questioning. I pulled my scarf in closer, sucked in as much air as I could take, and trudged further down the street.
Nobody ever made eye contact, though it was probably for the better. I’d never been fond of crowds. My roommate in college used to call me the only agoraphobe who spent more time in bars than the neighborhood drunks. Of course, she was a psychology major, always talking about how much she wanted to help people. I was in journalism—we never really got along.
Even in the deep freeze of January you could feel the heat seeping from doorways or from a steaming manhole. Shoulder to shoulder, we pushed on and pushed through. Businessmen and tourists. You could always tell the difference. One wore crisp suits and mute-colored trenches. The other wore jeans and puffer coats and backpacks. The former always looked through the crowd, eyes fixed on whatever distant point was their destination. The latter stared upward and sideways, jaw hanging slack or mouthing unheard directions to an equally awed companion, the one who had read the blogs and the travel guides, and was doing their best to blend in. But neither seemed compressed by the buildings that hung above them, but rather amazed at the way they touched the clouds.
Clouds that hung low and somber on this morning.
A crack like a horseman’s whip thundered through the sky, cleaving the storm in two. The city itself leapt apart and rattled. Millions of eyes drew upward, a few mouths muttering, the sounds of the city stunned for a breath to silence. As if everyone felt heat on their necks and wondered if it were not the middle of July instead of January.
As if in answer, a single drop of rain landed on the space between my eyes. Then another. Then another.
I pulled my scarf up over my chin, my legs coming to life beneath me as I hurried forward, navigating through the maze of bodies, slipping through the cracks. With squinted eyes and parted lips, I sent a prayer for a sliver of sun to part the haze. Instead, the sudden sleet ran down and caught in my eyelashes.
The heavenly door thrust open, ice poured from the sky at an almost alarming rate. Pedestrians scattered like ants to their hills, disappearing beneath awnings and shop doors. Hands, once tucked tightly to sides or deep in pockets, grappled in front of hunched shoulders and bowed heads.
I dove through the thinning masses. A few fallen napkins and paper coffee cups squished between the undersides of my shoes and the damp cement. My hair stuck to my cheeks and neck, slithering against my collarbone. A crack of thunder roared, sending me stumbling sideways. The sound was deafening as it bounced from building to building. I needed to find cover, but every step seemed unmoving, every door further away.
The muffled yell of a passerby was the only warning I had before a body like a brick wall plowed into my side, knocking me into the concrete. Though my hands flailed to help my footing, I toppled backwards, colliding with the sodden stone.
The drip-drip-drip of the drainpipe pulled me from my stupor. Balance returned slowly, one hand pressed into the ground, the other clasped over the back of my head. I pulled it away, assessing it through the spots that blotted my vision. No blood. And that was good, but it didn’t ease the sharp pains that pierced from temple to temple.
The street came together in pieces, each attaching itself to the edges until the walls didn’t shake, and the asphalt at my feet was once again solid. I breathed, but it settled like water in my stomach and came up again in a thick cloud of fog.
The rain had stopped. The clouds ripped at their seams for rays of sun to peek through and grace the abandoned alley—where I now sat alone and dripping, my socks feeling too tight on my feet.
The street remained shrouded in shadow, the smell of musk and rotting garbage curdling in my nose. Dirt and soot caked the cracks in the walls, painting what might have once been red brick a filthy shade of tar.
White, red, and yellow spray paint covered the walls in smooth strokes and jagged letters, identifying their creators in ways completely their own. And those walls stretched up to the sky, the twin structures connected by a rusty green maze of levels and stairs.
Windows and doors offered no refuge or comfort, each and every one of them boarded up and painted over, though I could imagine it as it might have once been.
Laundry would have hung from lines, women shouting from their windows. Children would have run from laughing from door to door, balls or skates in their hands. The smell of bread and sugar wafts into the street, casting away the smell of sweat and metal. In the winter, there would be candles in every window.
Or maybe this place was something else entirely. After all, life was rarely as pretty as we wanted it to be, but threads intricate and overlapping, and entirely uncontrollable.
At the other end of the alley, taxis drove by, pedestrians strolled about their day, some shaking off umbrellas or jiggling quarters to buy fresh newspapers or coffee. I pressed my hands into the alleyway, dragging myself to my feet.
My bag sat limply by a storm drain, soaking up the putrid water that ran through the ruts in the road. I grabbed the handle, lifting it gingerly from the grimy damp, trying desperately to ignore the sludge that dripped from the sagging tassels. My fingers trembled as I wrung water from my clothes and dragged the red tresses from my face back behind my ears. My muscles moved slower than I was used to, as though they had aged since I awoke. Inside my shoes, my toes were numb, sensation equally absent in my ankles.
Walking towards the light at the end of the road, shadows shifted along the walls and from behind windows—figures of men, women, and children dancing by firelight. And a spark of light, no more than a meager gleam, flickering in the corner of my vision.
I paused, for just a moment to pass, my eyes adjusting to the dimness at my back, the only space not now caught in sunlight. But it was there, and I had walked right past it.
Tucked into a nook at the top of a low flight of stairs sat a door. It was narrower than the others, faded and brown and peeling, and hosting a shining brass knob. Adjacent to the door was a small plaque. Lustrous, as though it had been polished just that morning, it read: Veritas Books.
Struck, perhaps, by this strange happenstance, I twisted the knob without a thought and pushed open the door and stepped into the darkness within.