The most reliable by-product of old age is that you can barely trust your senses at all, your body even less, and everybody else not a jot. I am an old man but I have some of my wits about me yet. The mind is a wily thing; it cannot be killed all at once. Despite the blow mine has been dealt, I am left with enough of it to see the truth.
No one in this place knows quite what to make of me. They have been tending to my death since I was carried in, frost-torn and unconscious. But my death does not come. My fevers and their delusions are strange, beyond both the expected and acceptable. I make the nurses uneasy. The skin of their compassion is sorely tested in my presence. Fear does not prey only on the aged; those of feeble spirit and little imagination are just as likely to succumb.
The more distanced I become from the living, the more I strive for some kind of healing. Not of the physical kind, I know I am beyond that. My battle now is to find some deeper appeasement; some way to make sense of what has happened. Now, at the very end of my days I am searching for peace, in the most divine sense of the word. Something must come of this other than confusion and pain.
One of the night nurses, tiring of my constant entreaties, has given in and furnished me with the tools to chronicle my undoing. The others, quite willingly, leave me to scribble away. They humour me, I know. I find humour little solace. My bones are brittle, my lungs are failing, and I am only waiting for the winter that settles upon all men of a certain age and calls them forever into the night. I have not the strength to make sense for you of what I write. It takes everything I have left just to put pen to paper and give as true and honest account of what happened to me as I can. You will have to struggle through it in ignorance as I did. Perhaps something other than my fate will await you when you reach the end. Perhaps you are a person more given to understanding such things than I have proven to be. Of course, you will have the luxury of time to ponder these events. The living of them took all the time I had left.
It began, as many things do, with a change of seasons; a darkening of the air.
I have never felt an affinity for autumn or spring; their unpredictable ways do not appeal to me. And, as I grow older, I find I have developed a particular antipathy to autumn. In my youth it was often the cause of dark moods and deadening depressions. As the years passed, I came to feel something close to abhorrence for the harvest season. This year I fancied I felt the exact moment autumn arrived. It blew in like a fierce rage and dragged the sun from the sky. Its irritable winds scattered wishful picnic blankets and emptied the park of any merriment. It seemed to me to be a bully; a young hooligan, ruining the fun for everyone. I wanted it gone and craved the crisp serenity of winter. The months stretched through their days but autumn stayed on. Its pithy winds and mouldering leaves making the streets a misery to walk. The holiday season was fast approaching and yet still it lingered. Every day I awoke praying for a frost to break the shifty monotony of the skies and every day there was nothing.
I became fixated with looking for signs of winter but none came. Men carried on as usual; banding the streets with coloured lights and fir trees but still, no winter. A yearning built in me such as I cannot explain, and in my bones I began to feel a chill. Each evening I was drawn to my bay window that overlooked the city park, to watch as the trees bled their leaves in torrents. The park echoed with cries of protest; with no true winter the trees would not get the cold they needed to bring sleep. I felt I was watching them die a waking death. One particularly endlessly windy evening I stood by my window, my brow against the glass. The gusts of wind down my chimney were full of taunting, sleep was far away. The whole night long I stood there, cursing autumn, calling for winter to come.
I have no memory of finding my bed but when I awoke, it was where I lay. My apartment was freezing. I lay in bed glad that winter had finally materialized. But it was not so; outside my window the weather was the same as ever. I mused upon the irony that I had only brought winter on myself. My long vigil by the window had obviously, I thought, given me a nasty chill. I could not shake it. I shivered for days. I felt no warmth. The central heating chugged and groaned as though chunks of ice gurned in its pipes. An ill-tempered plumber came to look at it, found nothing wrong and, I’m sure, charged me double for being an old fool.
It was as though the cold began to emanate from me. When I entered the small office in which I worked, on the other side of the park, the others would pull their scarves from the backs of their chairs and wrap up against me. Perhaps it was just the sight of my swaddled and shivering frame that affected my colleagues. I was never warm and kept my greatcoat on at all times.
I tried burying myself in work to find distraction from my building fears, my deadening chills, but it was to no avail. The columns of numbers swam against my eyes and I took to gazing out the window at the clawed tips of the trees, watching for the day’s end. Finally, late in November, my boss, a boy less than half my age, came to my desk and took a seat beside me. I noticed that as he neared me his breath bloomed a white cloud over the desk and he tried to draw his jacket across his spreading belly. He suggested I take some time off. I didn’t look myself. It was quiet, they could manage. I should go now and come back in a few days, if I was feeling better. With a meaningful look he suggested a holiday; someplace warm. I flinched at his words, at the very idea of warmth, even though I longed for it. I told him yes, I was tired, I found this time of year hard and I would take a few days to recoup my energies. Relieved, he left me, rubbing heat into his arms as he walked away. I gathered my belongings together and set off towards home.
The sudden absence of routine unsettled me in the extreme and I set about creating one as swiftly as possible. The cold in my apartment had become unbearable unless I was bundled up in bed, so I decided I should stay out as much as possible in the day. It took me no time at all to build a daily structure that satisfied my needs. I would awake late beneath piles of blankets, run to the bathroom and turn the shower on to hot. While it heated I would speedily gather my clothes, hopping from foot to foot to avoid the frostbitten feeling of the wooden floor. Then it was back to the bathroom and into the shower. Though the room was roiling with steam I never felt warmed by the water that hissed from the showerhead. In the past, I had preferred to wash with tepid water but lately it seemed little below boiling could relieve me of my chill. I chose not to dwell on this as I speedily concluded my ablutions, dressed and stepped out into the blustery street.
Outside my apartment, winter had yet to put in an appearance and the air felt feverish. I tied my scarf against the wind and stepped across the road to the park that I had never, in all my years of being its neighbour, taken full advantage of. I am a firm believer in exercise as a cure for most ailments, especially those lodged in the mind. Despite the manifestations of some physical change in myself I chose to believe it was all in my head. I spent the better part of the day walking the trails and paths through the park. My aim was to clear my mind and find something in my past that had triggered my present state of anxiety. I turned my focus completely inward, sifting through memories, looking for something with which to both punish and free myself.
Often, out of the corner of my eye, I would register some disturbance in the underbrush, or think I’d seen someone rushing through the trees towards me. As much as I tried to ignore these instances I could not ignore the leaves. They were impossible to miss. There were far too many and too few trees to account for them. In some parts of the park the drifts towered over my head, children played in the shadow of them. I worried that if a pile should topple, a child could be disappeared, gobbled up for good. This, of course, was precisely the kind of thought I was trying to avoid. My obsession with the seasons had spiraled out of control. I chastised myself as I trooped through the sodden leaves that covered every path.
After taking my constitution I would stop at a small kiosk for the paper and head towards a café on the other side of the park. It was a small, dark place, filled with relics like myself. I was accepted as a regular by my third visit and didn’t need to order the coffee and brandy I preferred; they simply appeared at my elbow as I perused the daily papers. Once I had whiled away some hours, I would leave for the supermarket and choose something for my evening meal, head home, cook it, eat and retire to bed with a book. I began to feel some sense of normalcy, but the satisfaction I felt at tackling whatever it was that was affecting me was short lived.
On the fifth day of my enforced sabbatical, while walking through the park, I became aware of a prickling sensation on the back of my neck. The kind you feel when someone is about to tap you on the shoulder; some leftover survival instinct from prehistoric times. I stopped many times to look about me and found no one in my vicinity. I began to feel quite nervous. Thinking that I had overdone myself, I decided to cut short my walk and head straight to the warmth of the café. I turned toward the path that would lead me to the kiosk by the exit and found my path blocked by a young man. He was staring at me with an intensity I found alarming. He was quite shabbily dressed in dark jeans and the bulky, hooded jacket favoured by dissolute youths. The wind appeared to tug at him, blurring his edges. He walked toward me. I felt unable to move. He drew closer and I felt the pounding of my heart slow and a terrible cold fill the pit of my stomach.
As he drew level he cut his eyes to me, opened his mouth and spoke. “It should be winter, grandpa, but it’s not. Where is it? Such games are not to be played”.
I could barely hear his voice over the menacing rustle of the leaves. And then he was gone. I stood there still, unable to move, frozen by his presence. When I finally turned to see where he had disappeared to I saw no trace of him, only massive drifts of leaves lining the path he had taken. I was so unnerved by the whole experience that I chose to forgo my usual stop at the café and headed home to my own supply of brandy.
When I reached my apartment it took me some moments to open the door, the key refused to turn in the lock, or the lock refused to steady my shaking hands. Once inside, I found little solace. It was bitterly cold. I turned the reluctant heating on full and resolved to leave it on at all times. I kept my greatcoat on and poured a generous brandy to calm myself.
The young man’s manner had greatly disturbed me. He seemed familiar and alien at the same time. And what was that he had said? Where was winter? It made no sense. I paced my apartment trembling or shivering, I can’t be sure which. I finished my first brandy without noticing and poured myself another. Slowly my wits returned. I had had a shock, I had been sure I was going to be mugged, it was only natural to feel as I did. It didn’t matter what the hooligan had said, he was most likely high on drugs. By the end of my third brandy I was completely restored to myself and not feeling the slightest bit cold. I went to the window and looked out to the park. For a moment I fancied I saw a hooded figure in the shadows by the gates, but in the blink of an eye it was gone. I dismissed it as a trick of light and went to bed.
I awoke with a hangover well suited to the unappealing weather. My apartment, as always now, was freezing. At some point in the night the central heating had groaned its last and given up. As I dressed quickly, deciding against a shower, I reviewed the events of the previous day and once again cursed myself for an old fool. I was not going to let this, whatever it was, get the best of me and decided to head straight into the park to prove my complete lack of fear. No young hooligan or shoddy heating system was going to upset my hard won peace of mind. I left my chilly apartment without a backwards glance and no goodbye.
As I stepped outside I refused to notice the weather. I refused to ascribe any omens to the day. I refused to acknowledge the truth of anything but that which I wished to see.
I bought a coffee on my way into the park to chase away the cobwebs. When I took my first sip, it was already stone cold. I cursed the vendor for being lax in his duties even though I had seen, with my own eyes, the steam rise from the cup when the coffee was poured. No longer, I thought, would I be the victim of what I was sure was my own rampant imagination.
And so, I marched towards my own downfall with certain steps. But I could not have known what was to come and even if I did know, I could not have delayed the consequences any longer.
I strode boldly through the gates of the park and headed down its paths. I looked neither left nor right. I did not take note of the silence, the lack of people. I did not feel as though my footsteps were being traced and tracked. I did not see how the leaves had been swept into mounds so high that they resembled tenuous beach dunes. I saw and did nothing extraordinary. I was only an old man taking his daily constitutional through the park. I persevered with my walk until I had completed what I had come to think of as my usual amount of exercise. By the time I headed for my ‘local’ café, where no one spoke to me or knew my name, my undershirt was drenched with sweat and my hands cramped with stress.
I took my seat, unfolded the paper I had bought on exiting the park and there on the front page, with the modern sensationalism that passed for journalism these days, was the headline: Where’s Winter: Has The Grinch Stolen Xmas?
No, I have.
The thought blew through my mind like a curse on the wind. Of course I shrugged it off with the armour of my rationale. A season can’t be stolen any more than the sky can. I am a learned man with a trained mind and, contrary to popular belief, the trained mind is often the most difficult to leash. I recalled that many ancient tribes throughout the world believed that the seasons are brought to us by spirits. The Abenaki tribe in America referred to winter as Pebon, while in Scotland winter was a woman called Beira. However, such notions are untenable for modern, educated men. So lost in my pitiful musings was I that I failed to notice that the seat across from me had been occupied. I put my hand out to take up my brandy and found myself staring at the youth who had accosted me the previous day. The atmosphere in the café was hushed. I saw that it was empty and the barkeeper was not at his post.
The young man and I considered each other. Neither of us spoke. I felt simultaneously suffocated and excited. Anxiety fluttered my heart. I struggled with the notion that the great, inevitable machinery of fate had begun to turn upon me, and fought to maintain some sense of equilibrium. Realizing I had been silent for too long I jerked my mind back to reality. I looked again at the young man and found his gaze fixed upon the glass in my hand. I cast my attention to it, and saw to my horror that where my fingers met the glass a fine web of frost was building. Quickly I put it down and thrust my hand into my pocket.
“Yes,” the young man was saying in his winded voice. “Yes, it is getting colder. Finally. Now that it is found, winter must come.” His tongue washed quickly over his dry, flaking lips. He raised his eyes to mine.
“What have you done, old man?”
The menus on the table lifted in a breeze that wasn’t there. I felt myself trapped in the racing amber of his stare. It tore through my consciousness; my very memories were blown aside as easily as the menus on the table. While his eyes held mine I relived my earlier feelings of antipathy toward autumn. The wish that winter would come early. The long, lonely vigil by my window calling for winter’s arrival. The cold I felt when I awoke afterwards; how I thought winter had finally come to the world. How wrong I was. Winter hadn’t come to the world at all. It had come to me. It was as though all the sorry events of the last months played out before us on the table.
The young man, who was no man at all, refused to drop his gaze and I saw both fury and laughter chasing across his face. “Stupid man. You have meddled with things you do not understand.” His laugh was a breeze and a gale, and I saw that everything about him was constantly in motion. His clothes tugged at him, his hair lifted and feathered about his dusty face. During the short time I had been in his presence I felt that cold, that terrible cold that I had felt at our first meeting building in the pit of my stomach. The pain was awful; the blood in my veins was slowing.
“Winter has no choice but to follow me, and I cannot leave till he is come. Do you understand, old man? You must follow me. I will wait no longer. Come.” So overwhelmed by the barely restrained power of his presence was I, that I could neither question nor refuse his command and with great difficulty I moved my stiffening joints to go after him.
We left the shelter of the establishment and returned to the street and the elements. I thought we’d only been inside a short time but when we reached the pavement the sky was dark and clouded. A hoary wind struggled with my greatcoat and I belted it close as quickly as my numbed hands would allow. The café was no distance to the park and within minutes we were at one of the many gated entrances.
For a moment I paused at the threshold, transfixed by the sharpened iron fence spikes that threatened the sky. They seemed to me to be the last solid things in the world. Beyond them the park writhed in the dark. There were none of the comforting lights that normally lined the paths, but what force had extinguished them I couldn’t fathom.
“Come,” said the figure ahead of me. I thought I saw him raise his arm, whether to beckon or command me I don’t know. At that moment, as if by design, the wind gusted, pushing like a great hand against my back, and I stumbled through the gates after him. Always he remained ahead of me, but his shape was not true; it constantly formed and reformed before my eyes.
I guessed it was no easy thing to take such a likeness. For by now I had thrown away all of my foolish doubts and knew in my bones that I was in the presence of something that I could not begin to understand. I gave up all pretense of resistance and struggled only to keep up as he moved deeper into the park. I was in the grip of some strange compunction and could not bear to lose sight of him.
My tired body was wracked with such spasms of cold, it felt as though my bones would soon wrench themselves from their sockets. My hands had balled into fists so tight that surely, no blood could be flowing through them. The incessant staccato chattering of my teeth was deafening. The huge drifts of leaves had now completely disassembled and flew about me in a fury.
After what felt like an age, I could go no further and collapsed to the ground. The cold had engulfed me completely, totally incapacitating me with huge convulsions that tore through my muscles. I lay there on the ground with the leaves and the wind roaring around me and willed, with everything left in me, for an end. Time crept on and no end came.
I perceived a presence above me. It was the youth. His eyes shone down at me and were strangely warming. A whisper breezed its way to my ears and the wind stilled. “So it must be. Goodbye, old man.”
In that moment I felt compassion from him. But could that be so? Do such beings feel? Could gods be anything but bored with the petty lives of men? I cannot say, but for whatever reason I believe he spared me. He laid his hand upon my brow and drew out that which I had called. I should have been torn asunder by the horror of ice that spewed out of my wrecked body. I should have disintegrated into a storm of snow. I should have ceased, but I did not.
I do not know how long I lay there; only that I was found and brought to this hospital. In writing these events, which are sure to be dismissed as the ramblings of a feeble old man who had not the sense to escape a blizzard, I have achieved more than I set out to.
I can go now with some understanding of the Truth: Life is change. It is, by nature, without end. Even for me.
[Prue Duggan lives and writes in the Netherlands. Her work has been previously published in Versal, Louis Liard, and Atlas.]