In the 1800s, life in the wide open west was as unforgiving as the nightmares that one young woman has each night.
Her axe cleaved a hunk of a tree branch with a crack. As both pieces of firewood clattered to the ground on either side of the chopping block, her breath swelled in a sparse cloud around her scarves. She sniffed.
She gathered the wood along with the rest of the bundle she’d made into her arms and turned. The first flakes of winter snow whirled by on a sharp breeze and landed on the thick surface of a still and murky pond at the base of the hill on which her house sits.
A gust of air pulled her door closed behind her as she went inside with a resounding slam in the small space. Embers smoldered in her fireplace in a bed of ash, the only light coming from inside.
She lit an oil lamp and shut the curtains.
Using the embers, she re-kindled the fireplace and warmed herself and her skirts while drinking switzel. A chill bit at the door, and she swept persistent flakes out from the gap underneath.
That night she stood atop the hill and stared down to the robust reflection of the moon on the surface of the lake, stuck in the icy tendrils snaking from the edges and creeping inward.
The sun rose with its frozen halo of pale sky to wake her, its light pierced curtains she thought she closed before she slept. The lingering essence of a nightmare worked her heart into a race.
She shook her head as she shook out the clothes on her laundry line. Snowflakes danced in the billowing skirts and sheets that the wind caught, spiraling above the ones settled on the ground. And over the pond, now sheathed in a layer of ice. The sun didn’t touch it.
Her hands made work of the rabbit she caught in her trap and she fed its meat into a stew for herself. The scent filled the parts of the home she didn’t use. It lingered on the outside of her covers as she slept.
She stood at the edge of the pond with her bare feet pale and trembling against the ice. It crackled under her heel and she gasped before turning and running inside.
She didn’t return to sleep.
The cold seeped into her bones without her strength to keep the fire up. She sat in her house and shivered, the only warmth brought by the tears on her cheeks.
Snow gathered on her windowsills. She could only keep the curtains between the ice and herself. It blew in under her door and she brushed it back. The icy gusts of a blizzard howled down her chimney. She covered her ears with her blankets. Night descended and snuffed out her fire and its light, leaving her alone in the unfeeling dark.
The ice of the pond groaned and snapped like great wire cords beneath her feet. She took long strides across the surface with only a lantern to guide her. Shapes flitted and darted beneath the ice, shadows of slithering monsters.
When she reached the center her lantern and her knees fell against the ice with sounds muffled by the winter that roared around her. Her collapse rumbled through the ice and created ripples beneath. She made fists and brought them down again and again, slamming into the ice that responded in bellows.
Then the frozen layer of water beneath her broke apart and dropped her through.
Immediately the water surrounded and sank her. If it had been frigid, the temperature shock would have beaten her struggles if she had tried. The temperature did surprise her but did not send her into shock.
Monstrous things with nebulous shapes writhed and darted around her. They made no sound aside from the gurgling of displaced water as they twitched.
Tendrils lashed around her body. Blackness surrounded her, unable to scream as she thrashed. Figures within the darkness surfaced in her vision, familiar ones that pressed the cold of the water on her, forced the water into her lungs and choked her.
As she withered in the cold dark, she leaned her head back and searched for the broken surface.
She curled around herself and hung, weightless, in the simple form like that of a fetus. Her heart beat steady and pulsed through her and the water surrounding and against the peripheral shadows. Suspension in perfect stillness succored her. The thick liquid wrapped her, untethered by gravity, like a membrane.
When next she tried to breathe, air punched through her and she let out a deep gasp. The ground caught her. Breezes carried the music of birds and insects. Tears soaked her face, but otherwise, her clothes were dry.
Dazed and wheezing, she found support on her arms while she blinked away blurry vision. She lay at the base of the hill where her house sat, on the stretch of land that had always been there, with grass in her hair and dirt under her fingernails. The warm light of a rising sun stretched in the sky overhead and filtered through her house’s windows.
In front of her sat a grave marker that she now remembered carving her mother’s name into.
About the author
Elizabeth Kaye Daugherty, or EKD for short, enjoys a good story, cats, and dragons.
Though she has always written fiction, she found a love of creative nonfiction while studying at Full Sail University.