No comments on my entries to the latest edition of The Midnight Collection, OK. Now I’m posting what I consider to be the best story from the book. Written by Joseph Kelly, it well embodies the theme of Bitter Cold, and is just unusually well-written fiction. How am I dating this guy? Check it out. My post here is going to have the start of the story with a link to where you can finish reading it on The Midnight Collection’s website. If you love or hate the story, or love expressing your opinion even when that is “meh,” leave a comment either here or there…
THE ICE BOX
Content Warnings: Ableist language, Child death/endangerment, Death of loved one, Depression, Disease, Horror Content in General.
In this country, the seasons were so wonderfully distinct. You’d never mistake the autumn woods for those in late summer or early winter, with the leaves a vibrant patchwork and the grasses a uniform gold. The blooming swamp irises would not let you imagine it was still March, and the dense blanket of snow would stay until the first crackling, melting days of spring. Because of this, Granddad could never forget his daughter died in early autumn.
No walks together through the crunching leaves that season, only bitter mourning indoors, the curtains closed. She had died so quickly, along with her husband. Their bedroom remained untouched since then, their bed still unmade from where they were lifted by nurses. Granddad installed a lock on that door so his granddaughter wouldn’t go wandering in. There was nothing in there but a few humble possessions, and blood-stiffened handkerchiefs. But their memory remained. The scent of their illness dissipated, replaced by the scent of the little imported soaps she used, shaped like flowers and seashells. Granddad threw them in the bin with glassy eyes, then took the bin away from the house.
They had fallen ill so quickly, then died far from home, never to return. In Granddad’s youth, his mother had died in her own bed, surrounded by family. Now people were just cut from your life. One final glimpse in the coffin, then gone. It left a terrible anticipation, like they might walk through the door any moment. That he would wake from this troubled dream, back to how things were before.
And the little one, of course, had to feel it even more. She had never known life without her parents. Those first few days, she would sit by the door, staring at the solid wood. She would mumble ‘I know’ to his reminders that they were not returning. But she kept up her ritual, even after the second trip to leave flowers on the graves. He allowed her; what else could he do? She gave up once the snow began to fall, closing the season and that part of their lives, killing the timid hope that curled up in their hearts.
Granddad returned to his workshop and all the usual chores when the neighbors’ kindness dried up. No more sweet lebkuchen and warm spätzle delivered by rheumy-eyed matrons. No offers to watch the little girl to give him a break. She was darling, an angel, but she was still too small to be left alone while he worked all day. Nor would he want to leave her alone. He stayed up an entire night to move her playroom into his workshop. She could be beside him as he worked, her squeaks and shouts no longer an annoyance, but a comfort.
Long ago, he had climbed on roofs and repaired broken pipes, but now his work had to be seated. And once, he had considered himself retired, doing his tinkering as a mere hobby to keep himself occupied. Now it was a livelihood with his children gone. He built and repaired tools for the neighbors. Maybe they just paid him out of pity, though his work truly was well-crafted. Too well-crafted, perhaps. Once he built a hammer, it would last a lifetime—why buy a second one? The men would mumble about giving it to a relative, goaded on by their soft-hearted wives.
He asked around the village whether someone might like a dollhouse for a little girl. A rocking horse? Some sturdy wooden blocks? But children preferred toys from the fancy shop in town, not the outdated creations of an old man. So he took his tools and his granddaughter out to neighbor’s houses to repair their attic steps, and nail down new baseboards to keep the mice out.
One afternoon, the two of them arrived to the Bürgermeister’s daughter’s house. Her expensive ice box had broken, and it seemed a waste to purchase a new one, though they could surely afford it. These days, a man came around to sell blocks of ice, a convenience compared to venturing out into the ice caverns to chip some off yourself. All the middle-class families wanted their own ice box now.
A putrid smell hung in the air, and the windows of the fine estate gaped open. The lady of the house rushed out to meet them.
“Forgive the smell. The goose rotted. That’s how we knew…”
Inside, the icebox lay on its side in a pile of wet rags. The delicately carved trim looked so extravagant, but he could see the cracks in the joints, the sloppily joined seams. The lady fetched him a stool, and he sat with a quiet grunt of pain. Looking closer, he found the drainage hole—so roughly cut it was half clogged with splinters. He puzzled over it, tapping with the hammer, seeing what had gone so wrong. There was no point fixing it, the wood inside being so cheap and splintered.
“It’s such a shame,” the lady said, bouncing his granddaughter on her knee. “So much money.”
“It’s a simple design,” Granddad said. “One could make something like this out of an old cabinet. They put too much effort on the exterior.”
The woman’s eyes brightened. “You can make anything, can’t you? I bet you could make one for half the cost?”
He thought to scoff, but there really couldn’t be much to it.
That evening, he rocked in his chair, a notebook on his lap. He twirled his pen, pondering the design. He didn’t have a factory or specialty tools, but if he could build a cupboard, why couldn’t he build this? His granddaughter sneezed as she stacked her blocks, and he rushed over to fuss with her. Her little hands were pink and cold. It had grown a bit chilly, hadn’t it?
He spent long hours, and had to purchase ice from that smarmy city-man to test it, but he developed a prototype. He could store soup for days, keep the leftover bits of dinner he usually fed to the garden. But an old man and a tiny girl didn’t eat much, and leftovers wouldn’t keep their stove burning all winter.
As much as he hated to, he invited the grannies and aunties to the house, let them chatter away and poke and squeeze his granddaughter. They marveled at his design as he showed them how clean it was, how easy to change out the old water, how much longer their ice would last. There were two orders by the end of the night.
It was hard work, and he wished he’d come up with the idea years earlier, before arthritis stiffened his hands, back when he had the energy to saw and hammer and move bulky furniture. He had no means to cart the things around, so he would have to assemble them in the neighbors’ houses.
His granddaughter had been whining for him to play with her, wanting him to sit his creaky body on the floor and watch her move her dollies around. He would have loved to, but he only had so many wakeful hours in the day, and they needed to eat, to stay warm. One evening he found her twirling a dolly with a strangely patterned dress—white, splotched with dark brown flowers: a bloody kerchief.
He took it from her as she cried. The forbidden bedroom door gaped open, his step stool dragged close for little hands to reach the knob. She had learned to open the lock.
There was no putting it off now. He gathered up the old possessions, took the dirty linens to the trash, sold the costume jewelry for a pittance. The room was empty, save for the bare bed, and the chair he’d sat on as he cared for them. All traces of them were gone, besides a few trinkets he kept in a drawer with a sturdier lock. It was like another death.
Snow filled in the yard, and now he had to bundle up the little girl if she wanted to follow him as he worked. She kept losing her mittens, and he’d hunt around to find them abandoned on a snow drift. He scolded her, said her fingers would turn black and fall off if she wasn’t careful. His own fingers were a bit precarious too, with clumsy mistakes of his hammer and weary work with the saw.
The neighbors sent their young sons to help deliver the bulky wood and heavy tools. The young men would scoff and snort at his attempts at conversation, rushing ahead with their long legs to leave him shuffling behind. His granddaughter had become just as sullen as those young men, too fussy to come with him to his work. No matter how he explained, she could not accept his long hours away as important for their survival. But she was big enough now to stay alone, wasn’t she? She was a big girl who could play with her toys while he was gone for just a couple hours.
One evening he returned late, the moon gleaming on the thick snow. He was longing for nothing more than a soak in the bathtub. The gate was parted. He approached, dumbly fussing with the latch, mystified. Had he left it open in his rush? The terrible realization dawned on him, and he didn’t even stop to look inside the house.
He dashed around as quickly as he could with his stiff knees, crying out her name. The snow was falling fast, but he could still catch traces of footprints leading out of the yard. The way he’d come, his heavy boots stomping over them without even noticing.
He prayed it was just her coat lying in that snow bank, but he knew. Her shoe had gotten stuck on a tree root, and it hadn’t occurred to the poor thing to just pull it off. He shook at her, pawed at her frozen white face. Her eyes were closed, frost matting the lashes. No pink in her lips, her cheeks. She’d kept her mittens on for once.
He rushed back home with her in his arms, mind spinning. How? How? He had locked the gate, he was sure of it. And how had she gotten outside at all?
The front door was unlatched too, a little chair pushed against it to reach the knob. He laid her in front of the fire, shuddering. He fell to his old knees, grimacing with the pain as he lay his ear against her chest. Listen, listen… listen for anything over the creak of the old wood, of the crackling of the ice outside, of the drip-drip of the coming spring thaw. Anything, a mouse’s peep, the tiniest flutter… No breath came from her blue lips. He lifted one of her eyelids and revealed the pale, lifeless eye.
They would come take her. Not even to the hospital—straight to the little box they’d bury her in. He might not survive to see that moment; his old heart threatened to pound itself to death. The fire burned beside them, melting the flakes in her lashes. He gazed at her, imagining the chill blue fading from her face. What would be left then? A goose, left to spoil?
He bundled her in his arms. He couldn’t let them take her from him. She was all he had, and all he could ever hope to have again. He stumbled out into the snow and laid her in a soft drift. Spring was coming, and everything would melt.
There was still wood in the shop, enough for another cabinet, at least a small one. He hauled the boards out into the yard and got to work. His body screamed for rest but he couldn’t leave her out in the open that way, out with pecking birds and scuttling insects.
It was enough. He could refine the seams later, make sure not even the tiniest insect could crawl inside. His heart kept hoping that she would waken, that she would cover her ears and wail about Opa making such a racket with his hammer. But she was still as a doll, even as he laid her in the little box, and tucked her in with handfuls of snow. A puffy white comforter for her rest.
He kept the box close to the house and stayed in his freezing workshop, scribbling out plans. A stupid old man could figure out an icebox, but what was he hoping to invent now? An icebox where the ice never melted? And what then, if he could even manage it? Keep her sad little body forever, locked away like a trinket in a drawer? He wept into his hands between his fits of labor.
The next morning, a knock to his door woke him in a startled fit. That damned ice-man was back, bragging about his wares. You could preserve a goose for a month with this… Selling ice in the dead of winter! Granddad rebuffed him and stalked back to his workshop. But a thought began to turn in his mind. The ice cavern was cold the whole year, especially the deeper you went…