TONY RICHARDS

 

 
 

"Richards is a master at combining, horror, fantasy and humor in a way that
   will mesmerize readers from cover to cover" – RT Book Reviews.

 

 
  Home Contact News Links  

Child of Ice

by Tony Richards

Ontario in winter. The green of the pine forests darkens till the trees seem almost blue. Ice tests the margins of the lakes like a wary bather before spreading out. A reverent silence falls across the land and the sun, high in the bleached blue sky, is bright and round and small as a new nickel. Below, the dormant earth waits to be sealed and refrigerated, stored away for the next spring.

It comes about October, the snow. Always has since the Earth cooled and the climates settled down. In August so blazing hot that grass shimmers and the sky sweats, but a mere two months later ... the first flakes, large as falling oak leaves, tumbling and spiraling on the vagrant wind to find rest. And be joined, and joined, until the entire landscape has been smothered white. It stays that way until the end of April and right up to the week before the thaw it seems that it will never go.

Night.

Outside the newly-built log cabin, cold that is almost palpable. Inside, sudden heat.

'My God, Jack! It’s coming!’

Jack Mangold looked up from his warm place by the fire to the sofa, where his wife Celese was sitting, clutching her swollen abdomen. She had gone pale. From fright, he realized, not pain. He jumped from his seat. The Toronto Star, a pencil, ashtray, several dead cigarette butts, flew in all directions,

‘Are you sure? This early?’

He looked at the expression on her face and knew that the answer was yes. No cramp, no false alarm. His first child was on the way. He crossed to the hooks by the door and snatched down his fur-lined coat, donned it, scrabbled in the pockets for his car keys.

‘The hospital!’ shouted Celese. ‘You’ve got to phone them first, let them know we’re coming.’

‘Okay. Now keep calm, or you’ll rush the birth.’

He wasn’t sure if that was true, but it seemed to do the trick. Celese controlled herself by breathing deeply, just as the lessons had taught her. She glanced at her wristwatch, timing the next contraction, then put on her own coat while Jack was phoning into town. Half of the buttons wouldn’t do up; no one had though to buy a larger coat. She smiled at the stupidity of it, completely calm now.

‘They’re ready any time we get there,’ Jack said, putting the phone back in its cradle. ‘I’ll go start up the car.’

He went to the door, opened it, and stopped dead.

A wind had sprung up, skimming the top layers of snow off the ground, whirling it into an animated frenzy. The sky, the distant lights of the town, were obscured. New drifts were forming all the time.

Jack thought, Oh God, why couldn’t this have waited till the thaw. Just one week longer, that’s all.

And Celese, No, I didn’t choose this moment. This is not my fault. Guiltily.

‘They say nothing good comes easy,’ she managed to blurt.

Jack just glared.

‘Get packed,’ he said. ‘I’ve got blankets and a spare heater in the back of the car. We’ll need them. If,’ he added, ‘we ever get that far.’

Celese considered staying put. Jack could deliver the child himself, following the manual. But one look at his clumsy, crop-farmer’s hands, at the way they shook with panic, dismissed the idea. She hurried to the bedroom.

Jack had the car out by the door when she came back. He was gunning the engine furiously. Thick white smoke billowed from the exhaust; a million white locusts swirled in and out of the headlamp beams. The car was becoming covered with snow even as it stood.

Jack leaned across and shoved the passenger door open., ‘Come on! You’ll freeze!’

Behind the anger and the fright, there was deep concern his voice. It was as if, in the urgency of the moment, he had only just remembered that he loved her.

Celese scrambled in, waited while Jack tucked a blanket over her shoulders. The car’s heater was still blowing cold air through. She shivered.

‘I can’t even put on my seat-belt,’ she said mournfully.

‘I’ll drive carefully,’ said Jack, and gazing out at the exploding night he knew there was no way to drive carefully enough. He put the car into first and, bearing down hard on the gas, moved off. The tyres made deep, narrow ruts in the snow. Within seconds, they were covered up again.

On the road, there was ice beneath the snow. Celese and Jack rode in silence, concentrating on the way ahead as the windscreen wipers scythed back and forth and still did not completely clear the glass. Condensation formed on the inside, and every time Jack went to wipe it the car swerved a little. Eight miles an hour, so slow and yet too fast. Around them, the snow snatched and tried to hold and, failing, tried again.
Celese winced and said, ‘The contractions are coming every ten minutes now, Jack. We don’t have that much time.’

Jack edged the speed up to twelve. Immediately, a flurry of snow blew flat into the windscreen, stayed there. The wipers cleared it to reveal that he had nearly gone off the road.

‘It almost trapped us,’ Jack said.

Outside, the snowstorm howled. Like an animal. The veil of white parted for an instant to reveal distant lights. The town, dangled like a bait. For the first time since they had set off, Jack and Celese felt hope. It blinded them, made them unwary. Jack’s foot inched the gas pedal further down.

The car took the next bend at fifteen, and Jack practically did not see the drift until he hit it. Huge and solid, blocking the whole width of the road, it loomed out of the night like a tidal wave. Jack braked as hard as he dared, spun the wheel, and the car skidded round. It hit the drift rear on. Celese screamed as she was flung back against her seat. She clutched at her neck in agony. ‘Are you okay?’ asked Jack, hoarsely.

Celese managed to nod, though she was hardly sure. The impact had set the life inside her kicking madly, sending sharp slivers of pain up through her stomach. What if the child had been turned upside down? A breech birth, after all of this. Perhaps even a still birth. She curled up inside, focusing every thought, every muscle, nerve and ganglion on her womb, trying to protect it. Her breathing was ragged. She fought to steady it, won.

‘It’s not coming yet?’ asked Jack.

‘No.’ Celese gazed out of the window. ‘Wonderful, isn’t it? I can oversee my body almost like a machine, but that doesn’t matter a damn now. The snow has never heard of breathing exercises or contractions, and even if it had heard it wouldn’t care.'

She screwed her eyes tight shut.

‘I wonder what the manual has to say about this?’

Jack looked at her as he had never looked before, and said, ‘I’m going to get help.'

‘That’s crazy, Jack. They’re bound to find us soon.'

‘It could be hours. We can’t take that chance.'

He leant across the back of his seat, rummaged, surfaced with the last blanket and a cylinder of brass.

‘I won’t be long,’ he said. ‘The blanket will help keep you warm. And keep your left foot on the gas pedal. Here. If the engine stops, the heater stops too. It shouldn’t; there’s a full tank of gas and a new battery. But if it does ...’

He held up the cylinder. It looked like an old-fashioned miner’s lamp.

‘This is what I usually use to warm the crop shed. It runs off kerosene. You just have to light the wick. Here -- here’s my lighter. Don’t lose it. And open the window a fraction first, or the fumes will get to you. All right?’

‘I suppose so. Jack, be careful.’

‘I will,’ said Jack. ‘For the sake of all three of us. I love you, Celese.’

And then, without waiting for her reply, he was out into the storm. Turning as far round as she could manage, Celese watched him clamber up the side of the drift, terrified that he would sink through it and be lost. Jack reached the top at last, vanished from sight.

She was alone.

#

The snow. It understood. Seven days left. Seven suns. And then, gone. The warmth of spring. Thawing. Melting. Death.

But in the iron thing, something fresh, something new. Waiting to be born. To live. To see the spring. To exist always. Never melts. Never dies.

It understood, and it wanted.

#

Celese’s left foot was getting cramp by the time she heard the scream. She had been pressing on the gas pedal, just as Jack had told her. It was difficult. She had to stretch her leg to reach it, and the contractions were coming faster now. It was like a carefully devised torture.

The scream broke through her dazed discomfort, bringing her to her senses. She sat bolt upright, peering out. It came again. It could have been the wind. So often, on the winter nights when she lay in her bed, the gales had seemed to shriek with human voices. But this was not her bed, and her husband was out there somewhere.

‘Jack?’ she said. Then loudly, ‘Jack?’

Something replied and, not caring what it was, Celese unlocked the passenger door. The wind blew it open, wide, beckoning. She stumbled out and immediately lost her footing. Face down she fell, yelping in fear for the child inside her, knowing that the shock would injure it. The snow did not let that happen.

Live. Must live.

Soft as down, it cushioned her. She sank into it and the space behind her clenched eyelids was filled with dazzling white. The pure, crisp coldness seeped into her body like a drug, soothing her, draining her last reserves of energy. The area around her womb began to tingle. It felt so, so pleasant, so good. She could stop fighting now, and sleep.

No! Celese burst out and clawed the snow from her face, from her front. Especially from her front. As soon as she stood up, the cold became a hostile thing, tearing at her like a beast. She folded her arms protectively over her abdomen, glared at her surroundings. Hating them, she hated herself. She had almost given in.

Another contraction, the closest yet. She could not stand up straight.

‘Please wait, baby,’ she whispered. ‘Don’t come now. Not yet. We’ve got to find your Daddy.’

Behind her, the car door was slammed shut by the wind.

‘Jack!’ she yelled. ‘Where are you?’

The air was filled with cries for help, from at least a dozen separate directions. Celese could not get her bearings in the storm. She staggered forward, her arms outstretched, her frozen hands grasping. They captured only snow. It swarmed at her, a horde of moths and she the light, filling her mouth, clogging her nostrils, coating her with ice. She was crying; the tears hardened on her cheeks.

The car was very far behind. Ahead, the flying snow made shadows which looked like men. Like Jack. Jack trapped in a drift, flailing. Jack fallen, his leg broken. Jack numbed with cold and dying, needing her, needing her. She hurried to him, only to find he was not there. At last, exhausted, she stopped to rest against the ivory pillar of a tree.

She leant there, gasping, her breath gossamer on the wind. Something Jack had said came back to her.

It almost trapped us.

Almost.

There were rows of footprints nearby, her own. She had already passed this tree twice, walking in circles. She groaned. Inside of her, the child struggled in sympathy. Celese realised that, in her panic, she had ignored its existence. She was torn between duties, loyalties. Jack, or the baby? At the final count, with the live warm thing moving inside her and the contractions coming fast, there was no contest. Jack was strong enough make it by himself. The child, on the other hand, relied on her alone.

She glanced back in the direction she thought the car lay, could not see it. Only more trees that way. They were all around her. She had wandered into the forest, quite how deep she could not tell. Lost. The thought welled up inside her like a sickness, like a sea of bile, filling her mouth with foulness and her mind with terror. She could not let go of the tree trunk; ice formed on her hands and held her. She jerked her head from side to side, trying to see the car. Snow and more snow met her gaze. And trees. And ... there! A glimmer of light, lost at once. The headlamps.

Tearing herself free as if her hands and feet had become roots, Celese headed for the source of the brief light. All the way, the wind battered her head on. She leant into it and pushed. Does the wind change direction like this, to suit itself? It lashed pine branches into her face, grasping.

Must have. Must have.

The snow was knee deep, sucking at each footstep, making progress practically impossible. She would have given up had it not been for the child. So tiny, so helpless, its presence gave her the strength to challenge the elements. There were two storms raging, and the one inside her was very powerful and very warm. She forged on.

The car was still running when she got back. That was a miracle in itself. She tugged at the door, but it would not give. Frozen. A thin, clear sheet of ice sealed tight the jamb. Past caring now, Celese struck at it with her elbow, once, twice, very hard, too cold to feel the pain. The ice shattered, and she was in.

It was quiet inside the car, unearthly quiet after the shrieking of the wind. Warm air from the heater caressed Celese as she flopped into her seat. She lay back, shivering, enervated, her body prickling with flushes of hot and cold. The snow on her melted, drenching her clothes, her hair, her skin. Water streamed across her lips and bubbled.

The child. It must be dead by now, she thought.

It stirred inside her, and the next contraction came. She smiled.

‘Tough kid. Your Daddy would be proud of you.’

She wondered how Jack was doing. There was one way to find out. Reaching for the dashboard, she switched on the car radio.

‘... a world record ...'

The voice was drowned in static, surfaced again like a cork. It was crackly, but Celese could make it out.

'... slalom. Which makes him the overall winner of the championships for the third year running. Southern Ontario still shivers in the grip of the worst recorded blizzard for sixteen years. The snow ploughs are making progress, but police warn that all roads are now impassable and no one should attempt to drive tonight.'

Thanks for the advice, thought Celese.

‘On a human note, rescuers are still searching for a man and woman believed to be trapped in the snow. Jack Mangold and his wife were thought to be hurrying from their farm five miles out of town to Toronto General, to deliver their first child, when the blizzard hit. They were an hour late arriving before the police were called. Dozens have joined the hunt. Rescuers fear the worst, but no one is giving up hope just yet. We’ll keep you posted.’

So Jack had not got through yet. Celese snapped the voice off.

At least help was on its way. Hear that, kid? And in the car, she was completely safe.

#

The snow flurried across the sides of the metal box, probing, testing, finding its weaknesses. It came at last to the engine, the warm heart, and entered.

It piled up, throwing itself against the hot steel, melting, dying, dying. However much turned to water, there was plenty more, a continent more. It had always ruled this land in wintertime, and it would not be beaten. Suicide, steam, and still it came. The engine began to cool.

Celese was gliding through a waking dream, of hospitals, of beds, of cribs and baby clothes. Jack beside her, the proud father. She the mother, cradling the baby in her arms. The grandparents. The presents. And, next Christmas, the three of them sitting around a tinsel tree. In Florida. Where it was warm. Not here. Never again.

The ignition light flashed on, bright red. The engine began to stutter.

Celese stamped her foot down on the gas pedal. It did no good. The engine continued to lose power and, with a final half-hearted shudder, stilled. The heater sighed its last breath. Alarmed, Celese switched on the light inside the car. It was fading too; the cold was destroying the battery.

There was a rustling noise from near Celese’s feet. She stared down to see snow pouring in through the heating vents. How in God’s name could it do that? Her right foot was already covered, the snow creeping towards her ankle. There was a knob which closed the vent ... somewhere. Celese scrabbled till she found it.

Safe?

Above her head, the light went glow-worm dim, flickered off. The headlamps and the lights on the dashboard followed. Darkness. The car became a bubble of pure black surrounded by pure white.

Celese was far too tired to panic now. She found Jack’s lighter in her pocket, sparked the flint. The glow of the butane flame reflected off the windows, came back white. The car was covered with snow, there was no way of telling how deep. Celese sat rigid, fighting back a surge of claustrophobia. It was like being locked in a padded cell. She felt the urge to hurl herself against the walls. The breath from her mouth was turning to mist. The temperature was plummeting. Celese picked up the kerosene lamp.

You just have to light the wick. Open the window a fraction first.

She gazed at the window, at the thick snow outside. Surely if she opened it a mere half inch the snow could not get in? Surely? The alternative was to freeze to death, her and the child. She busied herself with the wick, goading it into flame. An orange, mellow light oozed out, and with it a strong oily smell. Celese coughed.

The fumes will get to you.

She grasped the window handle with one trembling hand, turned it. Just one quarter of an inch. For the snow, it was enough. Alive, with the blind fury of an avalanche, it rushed in. Celese struggled to close the window again but the handle was stuck. The snow found footholds in the gap, applied a fraction of the pressure which had shaped mountains. The glass shattered, and then there was no stopping it. Like crystal water, it flowed.

Celese dragged herself across to the driver’s seat, flattened herself against the door. There was no further to go. The snow filled the car around her until she was isolated in a pocket of air with her precious burden. Within, the birth pains slammed her like a hammer.

Fort of hot blood, wall of ice. The snow hung there, waiting, wanting, and Celese knew that she would die before she let it have her child. She flung the kerosene lamp at the snow. It hit, gouged a deep wound, was finally extinguished. The snow crashed down on Celese, burying her, tightening about her. She screamed until her mouth was filled, and then went on screaming inside her head. The noise echoed through her skull, growing distant, vanishing down a deep well ...

Silence, save for the howling of the wind.

The snow poured into her.

#

‘It’s tragic,’ said the nurse. ‘Pregnant, and trapped like that.’

She walked quickly along the corridor, beneath the rows of bright, sterile lights. Beside her, the doctor ran a hand through his matted hair. His eyes were still puffy with sleep. He had not shaved.

‘Christ,’ he said, ‘what a night to have a baby.’

‘They found the father half a mile from the city limits,’ the nurse continued. ‘Dead. Half-buried in a drift. The mother was in the car, much further back. She was dead too, but the child was still alive, inside her. They removed it by caesarean section.’

The doctor nodded bleakly. ‘It’s been heard of before. The mother stays warm for a while and that keeps the child going.’

‘No, that’s the amazing thing. The mother was stone cold, the child too. Like ice, and white as snow. A little girl. It’s a miracle she lived.’

They turned a corridor together, headed for a wide swing door.

‘We’ve got her in the incubator now,’ the nurse said. ‘It’s on as warm as we dared.’

Entering the room, they stopped and stared, aghast. The incubator was empty. From below it came an unfamiliar sound.

Drip, drip.

This story first appeared in 1981 in The 22nd Pan Book of Horror Stories.
Copyright © 1981 Tony Richards

 

Home | Contact | Links | News