By Matt Neil Hill
I tell the dead beneath the eternal snow: my family are never to leave the cabin.
In this new Ice Age, whenever I make my pilgrimage to the fishing hole, Elizabeth, Candice and Chloë stay behind. I feel the phantoms of their complaints in my chattering, ground-down teeth, but surely after all this time they must know I confine them for their own good? That as husband, father, and family physician I have only their best interests at heart? Through twitched curtains and peek-a-boo fingers they have seen the creatures that roam the snowfields at night, the strange and obscene omens of the day. No: the burden—the sacrifice—of traversing this bitter, devoured world is mine alone.
I see no living natural thing in the mile I walk to the frozen lake beneath the electromagnetic peristalsis of the sky. Ouroboros loops of emerald and violet light guide my way, where once it was the sun. Time was there would have been deer here, rabbits, no end of birds. People. The beasts of the earth and air have been culled, almost to the last. The rifle slung across my shoulder and the heathen talisman around my neck are of equal comfort to me now. The bullets protect against the rare living; the twists of wire, glass and ageless stone against the unholy. I did not make this fetish. I don’t know how the chimeric cephalopod it depicts sedates the creatures of the woods, only that it does. The crazed scholar who carried it with him is dead, and gave me little opportunity to enquire about its history. His body lies buried somewhere along this wretched track, the grave unmarked.
Elizabeth still wears a small gold crucifix against the hollow of her throat. I wear its twin, though only one of us still has faith in its power. Back home she will be trying to coax the girls through their lessons, her voice made brittle by the strain of what she confesses—to me alone, of course—she regards increasingly as a futile exercise. But the girls must learn their times tables and needlework, absorb the parables, poetry and geometry of history. Six sixes are thirty-six. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. For the sake of my sanity, I have to believe there may one day, somehow, be a need for those things again. If there is not, then we may as well surrender ourselves back to the dirt, still down there somewhere beneath the frost.
Out here, the steady crunch of my boots sinking through fresh snow drowns out the endless, nagging whine of the air. A combination of hunger and exertion slicks the furs and oilskins I wear with perspiration. Ice crystals form in my greying beard no matter how many times I brush them away with my remaining hand. The rhythm of my lungs and heart and feet drives me on.
I can see the hut out on the ice long before I get there, its red paint faded by the elements to a mournful pink. On those rare and foolhardy occasions when I’ve lingered till the birth of sunset matched the bloody bioluminescence of the frozen lake waters, the shack’s blackened windows appeared to float in air. I requisitioned it from one of the abandoned holiday cabins along the shore, dragged it out to the lake’s centre over the course of days. Candice and Chloë have often asked me why we can’t move to a home closer to the lake, so that they might skate as they used to. I tell them it’s because of the monsters that live here. Monsters far worse than those that disgorge their twisted bodies from the woods near our home when the night falls.
I walk out across ice that hasn’t thawed in two years. In the old world you could take a boat out on this stretch easily seven or eight months out of twelve. The hut is small, the interior cramped with rods, reels, tackle and tarps. There’s a dismantled, heavy duty auger with an empty fuel tank, and a sturdy net attached to a makeshift pulley system screwed into the roof. The hole in the ice is three feet in diameter. The cold that leaks up from its black maw brittles my teeth and tugs at the contents of my bladder. The savage chill outside is almost a balm by comparison.
I light a paraffin lamp and turn it down low. In our cabin by the woods my wife will burn just enough logs from the carefully harvested supply from the forest’s edge to keep our daughters warm while they wait for me to bring them food. Her arms are thick and sinewy from chopping logs in the woodshed—I would do it, but Elizabeth insists. She says she needs to do it. I understand the urge to feel useful, and to dissipate rage and despair, watching one’s body alter as a result of one’s labours.
The children are safe in our home, for the most part.
We keep a revolver in the bureau in the study. Elizabeth detests even the sight of it and its uncaring alien texture, yet events have convinced her of its necessity. Not six months ago I returned from the lake scarcely in time to save my family’s lives—though not my wife’s once-pristine beauty—from a roaming trio of desperate survivors seeking to invade our sanctuary. Elizabeth is shy of mirrors these days and wary of my touch, although the girls treat her just the same as they always did. The new world has taken a lot from us, and she will not allow it to take more. Those three bodies mark the farthest reaches of our property as a warning, their frozen corpses more or less intact.
We are not cannibals.
The lake’s exhalations carry the stench of ancient rot and bittersweet toxins. Of the excreted waste of creatures smaller than the head of a pin burrowed between the scales of leviathans that could swallow me whole and never know. Tectonic plates of flesh and bone and twinkling black skin feasted on by translucent invertebrate specks the colour of the tortured heavens. They sleep anew, these behemoths. At least for now. The ice beneath me trembles rhythmically in time with their dreaming snores, the glacial thudding of their hearts. Every size and shape of monstrosity in between glides there with them; maintaining, protecting. It is on these that I and my family feed.
I thread a bright hi-tensile line with lures that will glow in the stygian dark. A brace of male ribs and tibia, along with a woman’s jawbone, each sprayed with phosphorescent paint to attract the eternally ravenous things that dwell beneath. I concentrate on the thought of my wife and daughters and how hungry they always are as they shiver beneath frayed blankets, rather than on where those bones came from. Their previous owners no longer had a use for them, and the glittering ruby sites of their removal were part of the warning meant for any others who might have been planning to attack us. I no longer believe that anyone is coming to judge me for those justifiable murders however, and in truth I leave the frozen cadavers hanging from our fences as a reminder to myself.
I pull a fist-sized chunk of offal from a bucket crusted black with gore that sits in the corner and force its half-thawed mass onto the hook. My family will not waste away through a lack of effort or pain on my part.
The hole swallows the line as I reel it out. I sit on my stool and wait, trying not to focus on the feeling ebbing away from my mouth and nose, my gloved fingers, the self-sutured stump of my left wrist. I dare not stamp my feet to get the blood to flow, for fear that it might flow too much. I know the cost of calling the larger beasts to wakefulness and it is better to preserve my right hand than the odd toe. There was a time before the world went away when my father and I sat on the winter lake and pistoned our feet like jackhammers, beating out a tattoo to keep us warm, perfectly assured of our right to exist. He told me once that there was no cold greater than a heart devoid of love, and that we, as humans, could endure anything but that.
But that was so very long ago. The wind changes direction outside and whistles a different tune through the gaps in the planks, its song a lament piped from the open tracheotomy wound of a dying man.
I lean over the hole and shine a flashlight into the depths, just for a second. Little but depthless black water and the receding constellations of the lures shining back at me. Microbes and monsters drifting out of sight through nothingness, flourishing in this new phase of evolution, humanity’s extinction event seemingly almost played out. I don’t pretend to know where these creatures came from to fill the waters, nor their twisted brethren in the woods—the scholar from whom I removed the talisman raved about alternate dimensions, of hells beyond the Christian one, even as he died—but they brought at their vanguard this new and terrible winter that they might thrive.
I can still remember the interminable jokes at work about global warming and hell freezing over, before everybody stopped laughing.
And then just stopped.
I think of my daughters growing up in a world turned hollow, of endless white, of the forest one day inevitably no longer there for them to warm themselves because we have burned it down to the last stump in the name of survival. They have asked to leave the cabin many times, to try heading south in search of the civilisation they believe may still exist. I tell them that they are too small, too young, and too weak; that they would never survive the journey. This is true, but not really the reason. We have survived because we have stayed where we are—beyond the lake or the forest there is every chance we may not. In a few years, I say, when you are bigger. Older. Stronger.
I chew my lips to ascertain whether or not the cold has numbed me beyond feeling. It has not. Not yet.
At night I dream that the girls are becoming what they eat. The tendrils of their soft black hair grown sticky to the touch like fronds of weed, the soft pout of their lips ridged with scales and the pink murmuration of their tongues edged with suckers. When the dreams wake me—as they always do, my breath like the tar of prehistory congealed in my chest—I must clap a hand across my gaping mouth as it prepares to wail, so as not to awaken my wife. Her back seems to grow leaner each night, the ridges of her vertebrae increasingly to my eyes, in those hypnagogic hours before dawn, like a row of tightly closed squid beaks beneath the skin. I dare not touch her to confirm my impressions, lest she expel the screams that I myself have stifled.
I have begun to check my own extremities for mutation more often than I know to be healthy. Even if the hospital where I used to work had not been burned almost to the ground, it is fifty miles away on roads lost beneath chest-high drifts of snow. In any case, the equipment left inside its dripping, soot-smeared skeleton would almost certainly be too damaged to be of use. Whatever cellular changes may have been wrought upon us by our new diet will reveal themselves at their own pace. There is nothing else left to eat but bark or snow, so what choice do we have?
Something tugs at the line and I touch the talisman at my throat, even though its effect is much reduced on the water dwellers, and begin to haul in the catch. One handed, the work is slow. The wind surges and the lamp’s flame flickers almost to extinction before coming back stronger, painting everything an oily and jaundiced gold. There is resistance and I brace myself. My muscles dream of tiring but it’s a luxury I cannot grant them. I bite the scarred ridges inside my cheek to stop myself from yelling out as I birth this struggling creature from its amniotic pool. Its flesh tears against the jagged rim of the hole. Compressed body unfolding, it resembles nothing so much as an octopus disgorging a bloated human baby, if that infant’s head had been flattened in a vice and its tongue extruded with pliers.
I have seen worse.
My hook pierces this abomination’s jaw. Its skin cycles through all the colours of murder, baby eyes like black stones behind nictitating membranes. It spasms on the ice after I sling it away from me into the net, still tethered to the bright orange umbilicus of the line. I winch it into the air as quickly as I’m able, not wanting the frenzied thrash of its tentacles beating against the ice. Before I can secure the ropes I fumble against its gyrations and one of its limbs snaps out across the air between us, knocking me off my feet. The net falls and the monstrous thing starts trying to drag itself back towards the hole, a high-pitched and sulphurous mewling spilling from its impaled mouth. I try to pull on the ropes again but the suckers on its forelimbs have already gained purchase on the ice.
I let go and jump across the hole to where the auger blades stand. I snatch one up and turn back to the beast. Even though I know its appearance is but a cruel mockery of my species I cannot bear to impale that deformed child’s face, and so I plunge the spiral blade into the spot where I imagine its heart to be. Its squeals cut through me as it tries to grip the spear. I kick at its flailing appendages and stab it twice more before it stills, finally finding its most vital organ, its many arms settling like wilting leaves as it surrenders to the inevitability of death.
I fall back on the ice, barely feeling the impact, too concerned about what else might be raised by the cacophony of our battle. I wait for the thundering of my own blood in my ears to be replaced with the screech of rending ice as impossible teeth come to grind me to paste. I rub at the fetish, an alien kind of prayer. Minutes pass. On the sagging bulb of the creature’s body, fluid the colour of a winter moon wells up around the gashes. Its malignant expression doesn’t change. We stare at each other, our bodies inflating and deflating in sync, although each towards a different end.
I cannot place this atrocity whole upon my family’s table, and will need to sever the anthropoid head. The girls have no idea the creatures they eat are even more damned and deformed than those that roam the woods, though I fear that Elizabeth may have begun to suspect. I have butchered scores of these creatures—hundreds—excising their almost human faces, their vestigial limbs and genitals, leaving only what resembles the fish, crustaceans or arthropods my wife and children would recognise. Though to eat of the bodies of these creatures may be akin to sacrilege, we have not yet been struck down.
My darling girls must eat, but they need not be confronted with such uncomfortable truths as the real nature of their sustenance. Although these days, to be honest, almost all truths are uncomfortable. One of these is that although I love them with all the fierce bitterness of the last of a species, the days when I wake from dreams where all of us are dead are the happiest I have known.
Unable to resist the temptation, I shine my flashlight back into the hole. An eye stares back at me immediately, pale and baleful. Twenty feet down or two hundred: I have no sense of scale, and yet I feel an overwhelming sense of its enormity. It stares through me as if I do not exist, but I reintroduce it hurriedly to darkness nonetheless. Not an eye to be fooled by the trinkets of stripped and glowing bones. I pray that we are never so desperate for food that I am forced to widen the hole in the ice in an attempt to lure larger prey. I would do all I could, but in reality my family would be foraging for themselves from that day on. To my shame, I have been too cowardly and superstitious to prepare them for my death.
The sack is heavy on my back, the final struggles of its contents mere echoes down my frigid spine.
The walk back home is long, my muscles leeched of all their vigour. These days I feel it’s only the glowing love in the bilges of my heart that keeps me going, far more so than this tainted, otherworldly meat. Such love is complicated. Once upon a time I might have—perhaps should have—softly injected my wife and children with an overdose of morphine in their sleep, but these days I am too mortally afraid of being starved of human company to show them such mercy. I cannot know how long we will endure, but the life at the bottom of the lake—the teeming, archaic bestiary of an adjacent universe—was and is both our greatest threat and lasting salvation. Feeding our bodies and devouring our timorous minds all at once.
I am almost upon the cabin before I realise there is no smoke coming from the chimney.
As I draw closer I can see sigils like those on the talisman where I have carved them into the wood and stone, though I cannot decipher them. I needed to know only that they work, not how. I stand before the iced-up door listening to the cracking of branches in those uncomfortably close woods for some unearthly span of time before I step across the threshold.
The grate offers little but embers, and the coiled, subtly misshapen forms of Candice and Chloë covered by a blanket on the couch are motionless, and so terribly small. A new colour has leaked through the weave, a dark halo above where their heads might be, each tilted softly toward the other as if to provide comfort. One tiny, puckered palm pokes out from the cover’s frayed hem—I cannot tell whose. I take a shallow breath from the echoing air and hold it, the taste of gunpowder on my tongue as sharp as crematorium ash.
I step forward and the perspective of the room shifts. I see my wife on the floor behind the armchair, her legs at casually diverging angles and the pistol still gripped in her clawed fingers. Elizabeth’s feet are bare despite the cold, the greenish, scale-like protrusions of her toenails the only suicide note I can find.
The desperation, the anger—the callous rage—of this communication eviscerates me.
I think of my father’s words, of the good intentions behind his prophesy. It strikes me that I had been gazing into entirely the wrong heart. My chest is pricked with pins and needles, the crippling numbness of absolute zero. I try to exhale but cannot. I grasp at the talisman, but it’s a futile gesture: it protects only against the foe without. My knees buckle and I am prostrate on the floor, the dead weight of the lake beast across my back, dragging me down with the pointlessness of its slaughter. From this new angle I can see the bloody remains of my wife’s face, all of the scars she did not choose overwritten by the final one she made herself.
One that is so far beyond my ability to stitch or heal.
When I finally close my eyes—unable, at last, to bear witness to her ruination any longer—it is the glistening fauna of the lake I see, the endless drifting of fluorescent motes in darkness, tiny luminous human bones sinking with twinkling abandon through the silt of another universe’s leavings. The risible glow of my flashlight extinguished, along with every other light in the world. The plunging of my spear, three times in search of a means of death: I too sentimental to attack the illusion of a human child’s face.
And beyond everything that monstrous, impassive eye, too far away in every sense for me to be of any consequence.
Eyes open, the end of the indifferent and carnivorous world slouches towards me faster than before. The bodies scattered around me are cold, and in this house I am alone. In the darkness beyond the open door the denizens of the forest screech and giggle, calling for me to join them in the last language I will ever hear. I wrestle the lake creature from my back and stand. I tear the talisman from my neck and cast it aside. I pick up my rifle.
My final pilgrimage across the fields of snow is lit by the last bloody shimmer of misplaced stars, salt crystallising my eyes and lips, the joyful and demonic choir almost inaudible beneath the bleak hammering din of a heart still filled to bursting with the most unquenchable and futile kinds of love.
Matt Neil Hill lives in the UK, where he was a psych nurse for many years. What he is now is largely open to interpretation, although he is definitely a husband and a dad. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in various venues including Vastarien, Weirdpunk Books, Mysterium Tremendum, Weirdbook, and the Dark Peninsula Press anthologies Violent Vixens and Dark Highways. His non-fiction has featured in 3:AM Magazine and the 11:11 Press David Cronenberg anthology Children of the New Flesh. He is working, glacially, on at least one novel. You can find him on Twitter @mattneilhill