‘The Winter Child’ by Jo Mazelis

The boy never goes outside so his skin is as pale as the moon. Beside him on the sofa, two cats are curled, one purring and rubbing its rasping tongue against his hand, its fur warm and soft, while the other is stiff and dead. The boy strokes each cat in turn. He makes no distinction between the living and the dead cat – one moves and the other doesn’t – to him that isn’t a sign of anything but stillness.

Some days, the boy’s mother also sits very still. He has learned to creep around her on such days as though she were as dead as the cat. When he was younger he would cry and shout at her, but it made no difference, she sat as quietly as before, staring straight ahead, gazing at some place suspended in the air between the chair and the window. The boy had noticed that the cats sometimes did that too. When he asked her about this curious behavior of the cats his mother told him they were watching spirits from another time; the ghosts of rats and squirrels and birds and other long extinct animals who had passed through this part of the world before their house was even built. She said that maybe there had been a tree there, or a rock, or a sea, and that one day the tree or rock or sea might be there again. She said that that was why the cats stared at things that weren’t there and why it didn’t matter. Nothing, she said, mattered in the end because it had all happened before and would happen again.

The boy and his mother lived in a secret world. It was the only one he knew, had ever known. She had given birth to him alone one snowy day long ago. She thought he was dead and put him in a cardboard box. She was undecided on what to do with him – bury him in the garden, put him out with the rubbish or keep him as a memento.

Later she heard what she thought at first was a fox. She stopped to listen – the sound was inside her house. Not a fox, but a kitten. Not a kitten, but a baby. Her winter baby. Her secret.

The boy turned the page of the book, A Child’s Treasury of Stories. It was his favourite book, as fat as a doorstop and older than his mother. The cover was greasy and faded, chewed and torn.  He had never been to school and was grateful for that. From behind the lace curtains, he watched the other children as they made way to school and he pitied them. The world is full of deceptions, his mother said when the children looked happy, don’t be fooled.

He was reading Rapunzel again, the story always frightened him a little, but the gooseflesh that rose on his arms was an old friend, a welcome delight. He both longed for and dreaded the unknown end of the story. The last page had been torn out. His mother had told him that the end was too terrible to contemplate. She said that what happened to Rapunzel and the Prince would give the boy nightmares and change him beyond measure. So the story ended in mid sentence; the Prince was blinded by thorns and…

From upstairs, he heard his mother singing. That was a good sign; today she would be happily and joyously alive. She would kiss and cuddle him and talk to him and her face would be radiant and glowing. He would not go to her; he would wait until she came to him, her singing growing louder as she descended the stairs. She would be pleased to find him like this, reading quietly and caring for the cats.

He listened to the words of her song; it wasn’t one he could remember her singing before.

 

Where have you been, my long lost love,

these seven long years or more?

Seeking gold for thee my love

and riches of great store.

 

Her voice trailed off into silence.

Seconds passed and the boy waited, his head tilted to one side, all his concentration aimed at the ceiling. Then again, she sang. They were the same words, but the tune had changed. Now instead of floating like silken thread it was jagged and harsh. As he listened, he could imagine the change in her expression that matched the difference in the tune. She would be grinning now, wearing a tight theatrical smile that unnerved him.

The sweet singing, he thought, must be like Rapunzel’s. The sweet singing is happiness. If Rapunzel hadn’t been happy in her tower she wouldn’t have sung so sweetly, so like a bird.

There was silence again and the boy shut his eyes and let his head loll back against the worn brocade of the sofa. He listened to his mother’s footsteps, muffled and soft on the bedroom rug. Then he heard the opening of a drawer, the creak of a bed, a door slam and finally the sharp ringing noise of shoed feet on wooden boards.

‘Shut your eyes!’ she called from behind the door, her voice a sing-song.

He closed his eyes and waited. He heard a smooth hushing noise as the door brushed over the carpet. Then he was aware of his mother close by and he knew he must wait obediently.

‘Open them!’

He blinked and there she was, triumphant and glorious, beaming down at him, the trace of a smile playing over her crimson lipsticked mouth. Her hair was loose and she fingered the tips of it, rolling two fine strands between the thumb and forefinger of each hand.

‘Beautiful boy,’ she whispered and he smiled at her in answer.

Her eye traveled from his face to the two cats, it stopped at the unmoving one and she bent forward and gently scooped its stiff form into her arms. Then, cradling the dead creature, she stepped towards the window and stood motionless with her back to him.

‘I have to go out today.’

The boy felt the familiar fear, the tightening in his chest.

‘But it isn’t dark yet!’

‘It’s almost dusk. I have to go. We need more food. I’ll be careful, I promise.’

The boy nodded and was pacified by her calm, lilting voice. She turned, blowing him a kiss as she went. He pretended to catch the kiss in his hand but she didn’t see, she was already gone.

He stood up and gazed out of the window as she had done. The pane was dirty and smeared and the windowsill was scattered with the glistening, upturned bodies of a dozen or so bluebottles. In the garden he could see the broken rocking horse. One day, she had told him, it would be safe for him to go outside. One day he would climb on the rocking horse’s back and ride far far away. One day…

 

Night was falling. He drew the curtains in the room and lit the candles, knowing, even as he did it, that his actions were false somehow, that the darkness was not truly conquered.

He went to his chair by the fireplace and sat there for a few moments pondering. Then without thinking, he took two steps forward, turned, then lowered himself into his mother’s chair.

He sank into its softness and turned his head so that he could smell his mother’s hair against the backrest. He breathed in deeply. It was an acrid, animal smell. It was the smell by which he knew her, had always known her.

He thought, “I’ll just close my eyes for a little while.” And fell asleep.

When he awoke, he felt at once that something was wrong. He washed his hands over his face and searched the darkness that filled the room.

He walked on tip-toe to the door and held his breath as he turned the handle and pulled it towards him. He stepped into the hall and headed for the stairs.

He went into her room and surveyed her empty, desolate bed. He climbed onto it and lay on his back and watched the headlamps of cars travel across the ceiling in mutating rectangles of light.

He imagined that the night was a heavy animal, its fur dense and impenetrable. He imagined this animal devouring his mother, taking her into its mouth and her terrible cries as she was swallowed up. After that – silence.

He turned on his side and rolled up into a tight ball. He fought back his terror, willed himself not to cry.

A car pulled up outside. His mother had no car. They had no telephone, no TV, no radio or computer. These were the devil’s instruments that could see and hear everything, that could control you.  He held his breath. There were footsteps on the gravel path below, men’s voices, a knock at the door. He crept to the window; below him he could see a police car. His mother had often spoken of this, had warned him of the wicked world that they must avoid at all costs.

He raced to his own bedroom, pulled on an oversized black sweater that had once belonged to his mother and slipped his feet into a pair of black boots. Once downstairs he put his book into an old canvas bag. His heart was banging, quick as a cat’s.

The hammering on the door became louder; more insistent. He grabbed half a loaf of bread from the cupboard and a jar of strawberry jam, a long sharp knife and a spoon. He opened the back door and three cats rushed past his legs into the empty house.

He made his way to the bottom of the garden and was over the wall and running before the police forced the door. Before his mother wailed and fell to her knees. Before anyone knew anything about him.

There was no moon that night and the boy stumbled as he ran. The dark shapes of trees rushed past him, the bulk of their leaf-laden branches a blur against the black, star-filled sky. His chest grew tight and his breath was ragged and noisy. Just beneath one of his ribs something was pinching him with a sharp claw. After he could run no longer, he stopped and looked behind him; the sulphur yellow of the town glowed falsely on the horizon.

 

He lived in the woods and fields for months, moving from place to place by night, sleeping in hidden places by day. Sometimes he stole food by climbing into houses through small windows and dog flaps. He took fresh clothes from washing lines.

Then one day, half-starved, sick and shivering, he was found wandering in a school playground. A nameless boy who could not say where he’d come from, nor where he was going. When they asked him questions he told of faraway places of enchantment and glass mountains and sharp thorns. Of a prince who lived among cats whose mother was stolen away.

 

If no one knows he exists then no one can hurt him. The page is ripped from the book – there is no happy ever after. Every story ends this way, she’d said. You are the child in the manger. A boy of ice and snow; stitched together with fear and fairytales.

this-self-ritual-coverJo Mazelis is a prize winning novelist, short story writer, poet, photographer and essayist. Her first collection of stories Diving Girls was short-listed for Commonwealth Best First Book and Welsh Book of the Year. Previously she worked as a freelance photographer in London. Her photographs have appeared on the jackets of many books and in a variety of publications. Her debut novel Significance (Seren, 2014) won The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize in 2015. Her latest book, a collection of short stories entitled, Ritual, 1969 (Seren, 2016), was named one of Wales Arts Review’s Ten Best Books of 2016.

Words and images copyright © Jo Mazelis, 2016.