A Son in Winter
by Manfred Gabriel
Women may never be left alone during the first few weeks following childbirth, for madness has more power over them.
Jessie slept in fits and starts between feedings. She would nod off for minutes at a time, perhaps as much as a half hour, Alex still at her breast. Sometimes she even dared to dream.
…It is spring, the sun warm, flowers finally in bloom. Alex, no longer a newborn, too soon a toddler, runs towards her through the tall grass, each precarious step a controlled fall. His gold curls, impossibly long, flow down below his shoulders. His outstretched hand holds a bouquet of dandelions. He laughs. He trips over his own feet. Jessie reaches out, fails to catch him as he drowns in a sea of green …
Jessie woke with a start. She had fallen asleep sitting up in her grandmother’s old wingback. Alex dozed in her arms, swaddled tight, face warm against her naked bosom, rosebud lips moving as if still nursing. A tuft of black hair peaked out from under his cap. Jessie had been born with that same black hair. Before she turned one, it had all fallen out, replaced by blond tresses.
On the other side of the living room, Alex’s empty cradle swayed. Jessie rose and went to the cradle, bracing herself against the faded arm of the chair as she clung to Alex with the other, cringing as her episiotomy stitches stretched.
The cradle had been hers, and before that, her mother’s, built by her grandfather in the workshop adjoining the barn. She had found it stored in the loft, covered with a moth-eaten afghan, dark stain faded. Cleaning it up the best she could, she placed it in the living room beneath the iron floor grate, where it could be warmed by oil fueled heat pumped straight up from the cellar. She had yet to place Alex in it, though, would not dare let him go.
Melted snow pooled beneath the cradle. A thick hand print smudged one of its top rails. The front window drapes, laced with flowers and twenty years out of fashion, were partly open. Jessie strained to recall whether or not she had closed them earlier that evening.
The moon shone full and bright through icy panes. Snow blew across the hard, flat landscape forming deep drifts against the barn not twenty yards away. Across the road, a pickup was parked on the shoulder, late model, silent and dark. It had not been there earlier that day. Jessie went to the phone, dialed 9-1-1. David had always been fond of old trucks.
Jessie moved about the house making sure all the windows and doors were locked. The operator said she would send a police car out, but she didn’t know when it would be there. With the sub-zero temperatures there were a lot of people stranded in their cars or at home without heat, she said. The volunteer fire fighters were stretched to the limit. The police were picking up the slack. The operator’s voice was calm, controlled. Jessie imagined her to be heavy set, middle-aged, settled in her life. In her tone, Jessie could hear the underlying question she was too polite to ask, but not to think, “Why was a young woman living in the middle of nowhere, in the dead of winter, all alone, with a new child? She should be with family, with friends. Where was the child’s father?”
How to explain what Jessie herself barely understood. That she had walked out on David when she was eight months pregnant because no matter how much he said he wanted to be a father, no matter that he painted his office a bright yellow and turned it into a nursery, that he had given up hunting trips to go to the ultrasound appointments, she knew, in the end, he would leave them. He never finished college, hadn’t held a job for more than nine months. He spent money as fast as he earned it, which wasn’t often. Jessie’s own father had left before she turned two years old. She had no memory of him, except the legacy of the effect his leaving had on her mother. She did not want to end up like that. No, better to leave than to be left.
And when Jessie had decided to run away, what better place to go than the home where she was raised by her grandparents? Left to her when her grandmother finally passed away, she had not sold it, but paid a local company that mainly maintained summer homes in winter to care for it. As if, even then, before David, before Alex, she knew she would one day need sanctuary.
The day she brought Alex home from the hospital, David called her. He threatened to get a lawyer, sue for custody. Jessie laughed. As if he had the money for an attorney. She was the one who had been supporting the both of them designing firewalls. Her laughter was met with silent slam of the phone on the other end.
Alex stirred. He blinked open his blue eyes, grunted softly. Jessie lifted him up and carried him to her grandmother’s wingback. She kissed him on his forehead, elongated from being pushed out of the womb, unbuttoned her blouse and brought him to her breast. He sucked hard. Jessie’s eyes welled up as she realized that Alex was her life now. She had left David, left her job, and although she could freelance, she couldn’t do it here, without even a dial up connection to the Web. Besides, she couldn’t concentrate long enough to remember what day it was, let alone string together a line of code to keep hackers at bay.
Jessie recalled long days lost in her work carrying over into night, pizza at 1 am, waking up late to make love while the mid-morning sun seeped through the blinds. That was when there still was love between them. She didn’t know which made her feel worse – a life lost, or the guilt that came from missing it. Wasn’t she supposed to love her child more than anything in the world, find a new joy to surpass all others? She held Alex tight, stopped short of gripping him too hard.
Women who have recently delivered may not go to sleep until someone is watching over the child. Mothers who are overcome by sleep often have changelings laid in their cradles.
The truck still sat between the road and the culvert. Snow blew against it, settled around its tires. It had been over an hour since Jessie had called 9-1-1. There was no way of knowing when, or if, the police would come.
Jessie bowed her head against the biting wind, Alex warm beneath her coat, snuggled in a sling across her chest. Snow reflected the moonlight, crunched beneath her feet.
It was safer in the house, Jessie knew. But she had to be sure it wasn’t just David she needed to worry about. Besides, there was nothing to do inside but to wait and try to ward off sleep.
Jessie scanned the truck with a flashlight. Its bed was filled with bags of sand and rock salt, no doubt to keep the old rear wheel drive from fishtailing on the icy roads. The cab was empty except for a travel mug nestled between the seats. Jessie put her palm over the hood. The engine was cold.
Noises like tiny branches breaking came from the woods. Footprints in the snow made a wide arc, heading towards the house before disappearing beyond the trees. The footprints had been eroded by the wind. They appeared small, like a child’s.
She followed them to the woods and stopped. She stretched out her foot as if testing the water of a pond in early spring. For the first time since she was a child, she stepped among the trees of the woods.
Jessie was only ten year’s old when her mother dropped her off with her grandmother and said good-bye. It was less than a year since her grandfather had died and the house looked in good repair, as if he was still around to care for it – porch floor boards that didn’t sag near the door, fresh paint, new shingles, a vegetable garden ripe with summer squash, tomatoes, leaf lettuce and snow peas.
Jessie’s mother told Jessie she was sick, that she was going to the hospital to get better and would come back soon. Jessie could tell when her mother was lying, knew she was never coming back. Standing with her grandmother on the gravel drive she watched Jessie’s mother drive away in her rusted out Olds. Jessie’s grandmother smiled down at Jessie, her eyes bright behind thick bifocals. She took the young girl’s hand in hers, an age spotted hand with boney fingers gripping a young one smooth and small.
Jessie pulled away. Her grandmother reached for her. Jessie turned and ran. She sped through the vegetable garden, past the barn, through the pens where pigs lay in the cool, black-brown mud. Her grandmother called to her in a high, melodic voice, and still Jessie ran. She did not know this woman. She had met her only a few times before, the last time was at her grandfather’s funeral, a day which ended with her and her mother racing off before they even had a chance to grab a sandwich at the church basement reception. Her mother would not have left her here if things were not really bad, worse than when they were kicked out of their apartment, worse than when “Uncle Steve” beat her mother up while Jessie hid beneath the covers in her bed in the next room. She had to get away.
Jessie ducked into the woods. Sunlight shined bright through boughs thick with green. Underbrush wrapped around her ankles, spiny weeds pricked her bare legs. She did not stop. She hopped over fallen trees, tripped her way over boulders half sunk in the earth. The thick air stifled her breath. Overhead, unseen birds twittered and trilled. A rabbit dashed across her path.
At the creek, Jessie stopped, her clothes soaked with sweat, her throat dry. The creek flowed clean and clear. She wondered if she could drink from it, if it was safe enough to splash onto her face. It was then that she saw the kobold, perched on a thick branch that hung low over the water. Its bloodshot eyes bugged out from a mushroom-shaped head. Its claws dug into the bark. Hairs like thin wire poked from its oversized ears, its flaring nostrils. It grinned at Jessie with blackened teeth.
Jessie forgot her fatigue. She tripped her way back through the woods, retracing her steps until she was back at her grandmother’s house. All the while, she thought she heard the kobold’s footsteps, imagined its hot breath against her nape.
Her grandmother waited on the gravel drive. Jessie fell into her arms. Her grandmother lifted her up, and with strength Jessie didn’t know an old woman could have, carried her into the house and laid her on the soft, white down of her own bed. The windows were open. Sheer curtains blew like angel wings. Lavender scented the air. Her grandmother sat next to Jessie on the edge of the bed, stroked Jessie’s hair until she drifted off to sleep.
It wasn’t until several days later that her grandmother told her about the kobolds. What they wanted most, she said, were beautiful children. Their spawn were as ugly as themselves, and so they would exchange them when they were babies, raise the stolen children for their own. She told Jessie the ways to protect a child from being exchanged, what to do if it ever happened. She relayed this to Jessie, not to scare her, but to make her understand that the kobold had no interest in a girl her age – they wanted children they could mold from infancy. She reassured Jessie that there were ways to combat them, and promised that they couldn’t come into her house for at least as long as she lived, perhaps longer. The magic that protected her home tended to linger.
Still, even as Jessie grew to be a young woman in her grandmother’s house, she would not enter the woods after that day. And, although she was not raised with any religion, would cross herself whenever she had to go near it.
Now, she was among those trees for the first time since girlhood. They loomed over her, their bare branches grown together like spider webs. The dark trunks blocked the wind, provided some relief from the blowing snow. Jessie straightened. She followed the footprints with her flashlight. They went into the woods a couple dozen feet or so, and then turned back to the rear of the house. Jessie breathed deep as she stepped back out into the open, even though the cold wind hurt her lungs.
The footprints ended at a cellar window. One of the panes had been busted in. The snow had been cleared away so that the window could be opened. Scanning the cellar with her flashlight, she glimpsed several cardboard boxes, some of her grandmother’s old belongings that she would have to go through one day, a half dozen clay pots filled with potting soil, and the rumbling oil furnace.
Jessie swore aloud. Her worst fear realized. How stupid she was to believe that the power of her grandmother’s incantations, powders and talismans had not faded, that they could protect her, not only from the kobold, but David as well? Who knows if the magic ever existed at all? More than once, at more reasonable times, Jessie laughed them off as nothing more than the magi notions of an old woman trying to ease her granddaughter’s fears. Jessie had seen the magic only in glimpses, late at night when she was supposed to be asleep, watching from her window while her grandmother stood in the yard below, spreading what looked like talc in a wide arc across the lawn, chanting in a language that Jessie could not understand.
Jessie swayed. She closed her eyes. Her toes, her fingertips, her face were all but frozen.
Jessie’s eyes popped open, unaware of how long she had been standing ankle deep in the snow. After a moment, she realized that she had fallen asleep standing up. She had never done that before, even when working 18 hours straight to meet deadline. She hurried inside. If she was to be any use to Alex, she had to rest.
Whenever the mother sleeps, she should lay an article of a man’s clothing on the child, so that it cannot be exchanged.
Unlocking the door that led upstairs with a skeleton key, Jessie climbed the creaky, narrow staircase, holding Alex with one hand while bracing against the wobbling handrail with the other.
The second floor was so cold Jessie wouldn’t have been surprised to find it coated with ice. She had closed it up when she first arrived to save on heat. The rooms were dark save the shafts of moonlight that broke through half opened curtains. There were two bedrooms, one with two twin beds, another, the one which had belonged to Jessie when she was young, had a full-sized brass bed with a trundle underneath. Both rooms still had dressers, nightstands, trunks and lamps, faded color photos on the walls. Her grandmother had never been fond of change.
Jessie went through the closets, the trunks, the dressers. They were almost empty. A few musty women’s blouses, nothing more. With her free hand, she tossed them all aside. Then, in the back of the closet with the twin beds, she found what she was looking for. A pair of her grandfather’s trousers, splattered with paint. The cuffs were frayed, and a weathered belt was still strung through the belt loops. The smells of paint thinner and the Lucky Strikes he had smoked since the war lingered. She never knew her grandfather, but her grandmother used to tell stories. A big man, and loud, you could always hear his voice in a crowd, she would say, her face all alight. Knew the land, and worked hard to make it work from him. A good man.
Alex began to wail. Jessie touched his face. It felt like ice. She slung the pants over her shoulder and hurried downstairs. She checked all the windows and doors again, turning the handle of the cellar door twice for good measure. She even checked the chimney flu. It never did shut tight. If Jessie listened closely, she could hear the wind whistle through it, soft and low.
Jessie dragged the wingback so that the back of it braced the cellar door. Pulling the cradle next to it, she placed Alex inside, her fingers lingering a moment before letting him go. She laid the old pair of pants across the cradle and settled into the wingback. She folded her hands in her lap, hummed a lullaby that her grandmother used to hum every night before Jessie went to bed, even after Jessie was too old for it. She wished she could remember the words, something about a meadow, and a maiden, and a sheep that knew how to fly. The words had been oddly comforting, had made her feel safe and warm on the coldest nights.
Eventually, her hum faded, her eyes closed, her head sank.
It wasn’t until a child who was not Alex began to cry that Jessie awoke. She looked in the cradle. The infant flailed its pudgy arms and legs, kicking its burlap blanket away to reveal a crooked body, a flattened face. It looked at Jessie with bulging eyes and screamed, opening its mouth wide to reveal blackened gums.
The drapes billowed. One of the windows was open. Outside, the truck was gone.
If your child is exchanged, take the changeling to the river, and make to drowned it. The kobold will respond to its cries by bringing back the exchanged child and taking the beast-child away.
The changeling was wrapped in Jessie’s coat, searching for her nipple through her sweater. Jessie held its bulbous head fast to keep it still. In the hour or so she had the child, it had done nothing but eat and cry. She tried to console it, but no amount of rocking, no lullaby, would settle it. She gave it a bottle of milk from what she had pumped earlier that day. It drank it down in a matter of a few swallows, and screamed even louder. She tried to nurse it, but its mouth was like a vacuum against her already sore nipples, and soon she was dry.
The trees closed around Jessie as she trudged through the woods towards the creek. Throwing the changeling into the water was the only way. But when she reached the creek, she swore. The water was frozen, of course. How could she have not realized it would be? She looked around, as if someone, anyone, the ghost of her grandmother perhaps, would appear and tell her what to do next. No one came, but as the infant cried beneath her coat, she slowly came to realize what she had to do.
Jessie placed the changeling beneath a tall fir and knelt in the snow, digging a hole just wide enough to fit an infant, just deep enough so that, once covered over, no one would hear its dreadful wails. As she dug, she kept looking over her shoulder, expecting the mother to come. When she put the child in, she did so slowly, to give the mother more of a chance to arrive. She began to cover the changeling with snow, starting with its feet, working up to its legs, its stomach, its chest, with each handful, but no one came.
Perhaps the kobold thought she was bluffing. Or perhaps it had been David who had taken Alex, and not the kobold. The truck was gone, after all, and it had to be his.
But no, there had to be another explanation for the truck’s arrival, and its disappearance. How else to explain this changeling? She would have to take this farther. Snow cupped in her hands, she held it over the changeling’s face, that hideous, flattened, crying, unloveable face. Rising, Jessie kicked the snow on top of the changeling until the crying was muffled, until it stopped all together.
Perhaps it was for the best, Jessie thought as she made her way back to the house. She was not fit to be a mother. Now her life could return to the way it used to be. Alex was an accident, after all. Perhaps he never should have been. An accident, yes, that was it. A sweet and happy accident. The kobold knew this, was correcting the mistake.
Jessie stepped out of the woods and was hit with a blinding light. Squinting, she could just make out a state trooper, all shadow, wide brimmed hat, breeches. The trooper asked Jessie if she was okay. She opened her mouth to answer, but found her mouth too dry to speak.
In silence, she led the trooper to the spot where she had buried the changeling, and, seeing the snow disturbed at their feet, he guessed what she had done. He stuck his flashlight in the snow and began to dig with his gloved hands while Jessie leaned against a tree, shivering. The trooper dug until he hit the bare, frozen ground. He straightened. He wore wire rim glasses and had the barrel chest of an ex-marine. His face was lined with age. He looked at Jessie as if she were his teenage daughter home late from curfew and half drunk.
The radio clipped to the trooper’s down coat crackled. A man spoke, the trooper replied. Jessie did not hear the conversation. She was finding it as difficult to listen as it was to speak. She looked down into the empty hole. She looked up into the trees.
During the ride to the site of the rollover, Jessie slept, truly slept, and, when she awoke, she felt shame. What mother would sleep while her newborn was missing?
The pickup was on its side, several yards before the intersection of County Road T and Route 51. Shattered glass sparkled in the snow like so many stars.
Two EMTs were wheeling a body on a gurney into an ambulance. The body was wrapped in a body bag. The trooper brought Jessie to it, and one of the EMTs unzipped the bag. She saw David’s face in the flashing blue and red lights of the ambulance, cut a thousand times with shards of broken windshield. She nodded. The EMT zipped the bag back up.
A second trooper approached from the pickup. He cradled another bag, this one much smaller than the first.
“Alex?” Jessie said in a scratchy whisper.
“We’ll have to wait for the autopsy.” The second trooper was talking to the one who had brought Jessie as if Jessie wasn’t there. He was taller, and lanky, his voice deep.
“I have to see,” Jessie said. Her voice cracked.
The trooper holding the child shook his head. “No car seat. Baby was thrown from the vehicle. Hit the ground hard, face first. Better to remember him the way he was.” He nodded to the gurney with David’s body as it was loaded into the ambulance. “Patch of black ice. Guy didn’t know how to drive in this weather.” The easy answer, Jessie knew, but not the right one. David was a skilled winter driver, knew enough to weigh down the back of his truck.
Jessie slipped away from the troopers, wandered to where the tread marks left the road and the snow bank gave way. She took small, careful steps as so not to slip on the ice the officer had mentioned. But there was no ice, only snow pack providing solid traction. Light footprints, short and wide, led into the darkness. In the distance, she heard a familiar cry.
Children exchanged who are not returned are raised by the kobolds deep underground. They surface at times, can be seen at village markets stealing fruit. They are often thin and pale, but other than that, well cared for.
Hands tucked deep in the pockets of her grandmother’s overcoat, collar up to guard against the autumn chill, Jessie trudged through the woods. The ground was thick with leaves, the sun bright and cold. The Weather Channel (she had a satellite dish installed in the spring so she could have high speed internet. This allowed her to freelance far from the pitying and the curious) talked about snow as early as next week.
The soles of Jessie’s boots slipped as she walked along the wet embankment of the creek, and twice she almost fell into the water, which ran colder and colder as the days grew short.
Since winter, she had done little but work and walk. Work to keep her mind off Alex. Walk through these woods to find some trace of the kobold and her now lost child.
The medical examiner did not conduct a DNA test on the baby they believed to be Alex. Why waste the resources? Who else could it have been? Jessie tried to show the troopers the footprints she had seen, but the wind had blown them to nothing by the time they arrived, and the distant cries had stopped. They searched the woods for some sign of the changeling Jessie claimed to have buried, but found nothing.
Still, no one could explain the results of the autopsy. The child was already dead before the crash. The official cause of death was suffocation.
Sometimes there are no good explanations, the medical examiner told Jessie.
Afterward, Jessie spent two weeks in the hospital, dehydrated, exhausted, her nerves shattered. She still drove an hour one-way to see a therapist once a week, popped anti-depressants to treat what the doctors said was lingering postpartum. Only now was she starting to believe what her doctor had been telling her. That David had taken Alex, and that the changeling was how her subconscious chose to deal with the trauma and the guilt.
Only now was she beginning to stop wishing she were dead.
Still, Jessie walked, hope mixed with doubt combined with what had become a habit. She was about to turn back toward the house, to return to work and a looming deadline, when something darted between the trees up ahead, too big to be a rabbit, too small to be a deer. A squat, solid figure took quick steps without disturbing a single leaf, crossed the creek without a plash. A small child was strapped to its back, head of curly blond hair challenging the sun.
Jessie’s feet hit the icy water as she began to run.