They drove me for miles until the ground was a table of white. We passed a fox licking itself with such ferocity if we were ever to turn back I swear, its hide’d been bloody.
I pressed my hand against the glass of the window, my body rocking as we went. Felt like if I was none too careful I would fall asleep, right there. That my face’d turn black with frostbite, forgotten.
The man driving in front finished his cigarette and tossed it toward me. It fell at my feet, against my wet sock, spitting before it died out. He started another one. Filled the vehicle with smoke, a giant exhalation that doused us all, feeling like a covering, like the beginnings of frost.
“You ready,” he said.
My mouth was dry. My lips nearly stuck together as I moved my tongue around for words. I croaked and his eyes flashed up to me in the mirror above his head. A crack in it divided his face.
“Not you,” he said. His partner laughed, and even from where I was I could smell the yellow on his breath right there, like the underside of a bathroom sink.
The car went on.
I was wearing his jacket. I could remember his shape. It still held his smell. A body leaching with whiskey and hardened in sweat, eager and gasping and shuddering. I wanted none else but to take it off me, but the cold prevented me. A body heaving and making excuses for someone else.
When the vehicle stopped, our bodies had turned the interior into a fog. The driver only knew where we were going, his peephole a messy circle against the front window. He jolted the vehicle to a stop and they didn’t take no time to grab me, their fingers round my arms and finding parts of me to hold, didn’t matter what, just enough so I couldn’t leave.
I hit the ground, my skull knocking against ice and snow. The sting of the cold against my flesh. I pressed my hand down and looked up. Above me, stretch of grey. No clouds but no sky either.
I knew where we were.
We were in the Barren Lands.
I shivered and the men came upon me. A kick to my groin and I was coughing up something. What, it didn’t matter. They kicked me to keep going. “Keep moving. Going on.”
The ice beneath me had no end.
I looked past me and the snow was whipping itself up. Taking its time, making some kinda funny play at peace. Felt something hit the back of my head. My face on the ground, warmth going down my forehead, curving round my eyes. I covered my face, rolling onto my side. Hands touching blood. I couldn’t feel my feet. I couldn’t feel.
“Don’t shoot,” I heard myself say, but my voice sounded none like mine. Sounded like it’d been thrashed around by a man with a making for leathers.
“You hear that,” I heard one of them say, “you hear that? ‘Don’t shoot.’”
I feel them grab me and throw me. One of them brings his foot down and the ground cracks. My hand against the snow, my blood smearin’ I try to catch my breath.
His partner laughs. His breath billows out and it’s the only thing moving.
“We don’t need to shoot you.”
I used to eat oranges.
Strange beauties. You’d hardly see them anymore.
I used to sit in front of fires and peel back their skins, stacking their parts on my lap, and eating the sections.
I used to leave the pulp of oranges on surfaces, wiping my fingers off and coming back days later, finding them like sticky afterthoughts clinging to everything. I never cleaned enough to make it go away. And that was that.
My daughters. They used to sit with me. They used to read to me. Knew more than I did. Smart young things. I’d braid their long dark hair and place my hands against their round cheeks. Nothing does compare to their rosiness. I remember when I saw them first, didn’t think they could be mine. That was living.
And the house. The house became my own. I’d get up with the sun, dig the land, bring my hands to the crop, and work. I’d be like him. I’d lean my head against the trees, rock back in his chair, and I’d smoke just for the hell of it. Waiting for the first waking girl, the first pair of bleary eyes to place her small hands on me. Was always stunned at their forgetting.
I’d smoke and dig the earth out from under my nails. I’d eat oranges. Little cups of skins carrying cigarette ashes. My fingers stained yellow. Stained by oranges, picking out the dirt. Never clean.
I watch as they turn their figures into backs as they move into their leaving, their wandering. I push myself up; I feel something in me, full of rage, my hate. The burning that’s alive in my body. I start to run, my hands out.
They turn around and see me.
They kick me aside and laugh as I fall so easily.
They wait for me to get up, and they do it again.
It becomes their game.
Even when I’m not moving, their hands are on me.
I’m on the ground. My breath is stuck in my chest, swallowed against the cold. I watch them leave. Black covering onto me as my eyes close.
We used to wade in the water, holding hands. In the mornings when the girls were asleep. He’d grip my wrist and pull me deeper toward him, deeper where the bottom of the river slipped under my bare feet and I felt like I was being swallowed. The water up to my thighs, spreading up dress, weighing me down.
“Follow me,” he’d say, but he never did beckon. He pulled. His laughter made it play. Tightening his wet hands around my wrist.
Sometimes in bed, at night, when I thought we was both asleep, I’d feel the water creep around me. The air suddenly thick. The bed liquid, my body heavy.
Sometimes I’d wake up with a start to his hands around my waist and feel the pressure of his body on me already. Like the undertow of an ocean wave. His hand finding my mouth. This was what it was like to dive. Like an ocean licking itself clean and I was dissolving.
I wake in the cold with joints hardened. My thumb in my mouth and I pull it out and shove my hand under my shirt, across my breasts. I ache with the cold.
The wind is screaming. Like children who’ve gone and done something and gotten away with it. I want to get up. I roll onto my back and stare up. A sky white and blank. I start cryin’ something strange.
I drag my head back against the snow and get up. Wipe the side of my head with my sleeve, dried blood on wool. I look ahead of me. The land is itself repeating. Replicas of what’s behind me, staring back.
In the mornings, I used to chop wood until my palms were red and blistering. I’d wake up and pull on his old coat, the one with a lining that had torn open. I’d pull on his gloves, slip into him, and walk out holding his axe.
I’d pile the wood beside me. Each blow was like seeing his blood again. The way how when I had done it, I could almost feel his bones breaking under my own hands, even with all that space between us. Under the grip of that handle, the vibrations of impact had gone and made it me, even when it wasn’t.
I worked. I chopped wood. In the mornings I raised the axe above my head and watched the wood cleave. The memory made me work harder. At the end of it, I stared at the stack and then went and gathered what I needed. Walked through the grass, back toward the house. The wind tangling my hair. I walked past the river, the water slowing down against the rocks. The smallest pieces of wood were always sticking to my dress, against the wool of his coat, like grain on my skin.
I’d get inside and rip up last week’s newspaper for a fire, the ink smearing into the crevices on my fingertips. The tiniest cracks, suddenly visible. I’d place his things back onto their hooks, then I’d take a wet rag and wipe off all that sawdust, feeling it pill up into the cloth, leaving my skin pink and raw.
While the kettle was boiling I’d sit in his chair, wipe at the wounds on my palms with my thumb, like I could erase them.
I’m frozen. Listening to my breathing. Every breath is a needle.
I clutch at myself, like I’ve gone and forgotten I’m here. I’m not here. I’m slipping under something else. Like rain being pulled into the ground. I jolt. Ahead of me, in the sky, something dark and grey is going in a spiral, pulled by wind like slipping thread. I stare at it, unbelieving. It’s beautiful and round—dark wood-smoke spreading into the air.
I need to get up.
I reach out beside me to find something to pull myself up. My hands shake, pushing through the snow, but I can’t even feel it. I can’t feel the cold no more.
I find the root of a tree and slide slowly toward it, then my hands clamber up its trunk, this dead thing that’s split itself in two. Its insides are splinters rattling in the wind. I get up. I search the sky, my body leaning against the tree as I shake. Everything is aching in the cold, my skin feeling like it’s gonna fall off me in sheets.
I look up again.
I did the digging in the morning. The girls were asleep, tucked in bed. I kissed their foreheads, closed the door behind me, and started toward the woods.
I built a fire. I was already wearing his coat, the one he had left on his hook.
The ground was still frozen then, wanting of heat. My hands were chapped and dry, cracking in the cold. That cold had taken away my gentleness. The rest of my life would be just like this.
I thought hot water would help. I thought the ground would soften. I tried to steam a basin, some pig’s old trough, the water floating pine-needles and dead leaves from the river. I laid him beside me and his body watched, like there was something important to see.
It became muddy, stupid. My dress streaked with it.
This land, it didn’t want him. But I put him in it anyway.
I remember her small voice.
Her face still draped with sleep. She was standing near my lap, wanting to climb on. I didn’t want her to. I drank tea and tasted something metallic. Closed my eyes.
“Where’s Daddy?” she said.
I listened. Could hear her breath, coming out between my own.
I opened my eyes. Offered my hand out, just one. My head still against the back of his chair. She wouldn’t take my hand, so I took hers.
“I’m sorry, my girl,” I said. “He wasn’t feeling well. He had to go.”
Her body angled away from me, so I let go.
I make myself walk in the direction of where I’d thought I’d seen the smoke.
When I look up, I can still see whispers of it, dragged out like thin clouds against white.
I move forward because I don’t know what else to do. Can barely breathe. The wind is against me and I reach up to cover my face. My fingers move over my skin. Already, it’s become tough, chapped.
I look up. Suddenly, I can’t find it.
In a panic, I stare, my eyes searching. I see nothing. Just sky. My mind doesn’t want to believe it. It’s gathering myself and pushing and telling me to go, so I go. I follow its direction, my belief of where it’s gone. I’m nearly ready to collapse, I’ve not gone far.
I walk through broken trees, dead and stripped of their bark. I move. Moving reminding me of my own pulsing blood.
In the distance, I can see something. Something curled in the snow. It’s unlike the logs. It’s something different. I go toward it, frantic. The closer I get, the more I can see the curve of a figure.
The snow is gusting up in sheets, and I cross my hands around myself. I am close. I see hair, someone’s dark hair, curling out in the wind. My heart’s feeling like it is full of dry air, ready to give out. Then I see a coat, half crushed into the snow, a hand, unfurled. I’m certain of what I see.
I want to speak but I can’t, my jaw locked from the cold. I stumble toward the figure, falling onto my knees. I reach over toward the shoulder. My hand is shaking. I tug at the fabric.
In a jerk, it rolls over.
Cold, frozen, dead.
I’m crying out and pulling back. I can hear my own ugly voice. This face, it’s already started to rot. It stares at me with hollow eyes and I can’t tell if it was a woman or a man. I begin to cry.
See her nature. My smallest girl. She was laughing under a bough as a crow picked at a squirrel, crossed against a branch.
I pulled her away but she was still looking up, pointing. Her mouth wet and pink. She was in her good dress. She had white socks on. Her shoes unbuckled.
I dragged her away. I closed my eyes but I could still hear her voice.
Stuffed her in the back of the car with the rest of them and I drove straight home. I left her outside to play. Mud splattering on the back of her dress as she ran. Her sisters staring back at me, their lace and ribbons blowing in the wind.
At home, I buried myself in the dark and smoked.
His death hanging onto me.
They were going to come and take me for it.
He found me under the pine tree in my parents’ yard. That’s how it all began. With the back of my arms laden with the imprints of pine needles, the palms of my hands biting into the ground.
We had all just heard it on the news, the spread of the Barren Lands, a forecast for the next ten years. The outermost poles of our world were beginning to envelop us and we were going to lose it all.
He stood there, watching me, smoking. Only cigarettes back then. He clasped his lighter in his hand and tossed a cigarette toward me. It landed in my lap and I remember pulling back on its impact, like it was already lit. Like touching it would set the air around me on fire, the pines, the house, the dry grass. And the heat would be enough. The heat would give what was being taken away.
I remember the seasons. The way the sun permeated the air and it felt like a rush of something wild. At the beginning, he would take me to the backwoods. Only taking the dog. He’d pull his pants down his waist and yank me toward him. I remember loving the feeling of it—being wanted, the electric heart of it. I only wore dresses then. He’d kiss me, trailing his hands over my skirt, through my hair. That was the part I liked. Then his hands would be tugging at my underwear, sliding into me to get me ready. Then he’d push himself inside.
It always felt like he was trying to pull something out of me. I’d be clinging to him, making noises to make him think it was good. When he was finished, he’d wipe his palm against the grass. The dog would come upon it. I’d watch as it took interest in the smell, then his hand would be on its collar.
“Stop,” he’d say. “No.”
The scarcity turned us ugly. At the end of the months, the trucks would come to take away our harvest. Sometimes they’d come, and we’d have nothing, and that was a warning for them.
They closed the prisons and institutions. Then they began taking families away from their homes, to make room for the more deserving. They tossed the outliers into the farthest stretches of the Barren Lands. Whoever they thought wasn’t good enough. The poor, the criminals. No trials. I used to dream of them wandering back, half alive. A collecting guilt cracking my back open as I worked the land.
He and I, we lived at the northern edge of the Meridian, the only stretch of land left. It wound around the earth and was untouched by that growing cold, the growing perimeters of the Barren Land. We were survivors, but I knew that we were to die too.
I’d sit with him and our children in front of the fire and watch our breath clouding up between us. I imagined them taking him, even though I knew they never would. He was protected, for the duties of his past.
“How many times have you killed?”
He was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling.
“Many,” he said. “All deserving.”
“How can you tell?”
“On the last moment. You look in their eyes and you can see what they know. You can see the guilt. They all look at you the same way.”
I’d see his face and think about the blood. Clots of it, dark red, staining his hands. He’d hold me and tell me I was beautiful but it hurt anyway. Felt like I was being ground into the earth. Like being stuffed into a cage of my own bones.
He’d let me go, panting and sweating and I’d turn on my side. Sometimes I’d take my coat and slip it over my body and walk into the field. Stand in the moonlight and tell myself it was the sun.
The cold is electric, impossible. As night falls, I droop into the snow and try to sleep. My skin feels like it’s buzzing. Alive. Sparks shooting off underneath my skin, my body dropping off into flame.
I have a dream that the body next to me is magnetic. I go and it’s still close. It’ll never leave.
At first, it is him. I try to get away, and it becomes the other one, frozen and still. I try to turn it over, but its face is on return. I can’t find the back of its head. No hair, nothing to touch.
It’s always staring at me.
Right on me. Staring.
Its eyes like white, little stones.
They were beautiful as babies. The three of them. In an instant, they made me forget about everything else. My mind was a fish darting for a silver hook. They had soft faces, smelled like milk. Their hands, small and precious. I’d kiss them and think I had more reasons to thank him. Thought my guilt was smaller, that I could hide it behind my girls. I held that against me for years and months and believed it to be true.
At the beginning, he made me feel safe, like being watched by a hawk. He held me close to him with one arm, his hand eclipsing mine. He took me away and I let him.
I opened up my cells for him, as though protection was lying in an inner fold. I watched my families die in the ice and cold and thought, I am safe, I am free.
I’d sit there in the evenings and watch him. During dinner, the way he wiped at his beard. The way he brought his knee against the neck of a calf, his hand against it on the ground. Its breath puffing into the air. His face, solemn, as he looked at our girls, took their hands and led them to our car to drive us into town.
I cast a shadow on myself every day.
Somewhere, I walk the plains.
My feet move, but I can’t feel the ground.
The moon is full, the light heavy above me. I let myself sink against the snow. I walk. I go.
In the distance, I see it. Lying out in front of me, bigger than anything I’ve seen. An ocean opening up and taking me in.
I don’t feel it. There is nothing.
One final look, a winking star, and I’ve disappeared.
Nicole Chin is the author of the House of Anansi Press Digital Short, “Shooting the Bitch,” which received the McIllquham Foundation Prize for best original short story. Her work has appeared in Joyland, The Puritan, Found Press, and others. She currently resides in the Greater Toronto Area.