September

by Steppen Sawicki

My take on the Wendigo story.

Short Story: Horror

“Nene!” Mabel cried, running to her grandmother. No one had ever instructed her to call her grandmother Nene. It had just come about in the way spring follows winter, in the way she had grown to walk and talk. When she had first called her grandmother Nene it had stuck. So she ran to her Nene now and was gathered up in strong arms and hugged tight.

“Oh it’s been an age,” Nene exclaimed.

“We were only gone four weeks,” Mabel laughed.

Nene kissed Brad on the cheek and hugged him as best she could with child in her arms. Mabel was pressed between them for a moment and giggled at the warmth.

“How was Alaska?” Nene asked.

“Beautiful,” Brad replied. “How could I say anything but beautiful?”

“But I’m sure you’re glad to be back in Maryland where it’s sunny and warm.”

“If you say so.” Brad smiled, a touch sadly and with nostalgia, as if to say his heart wasn’t quite back yet.

“I learned a new song,” Mabel said.

“Oh?” Nene said. “Then let’s hear it.”

“Colors wane and blossoms fall,” Mabel began.

Brad felt a sudden chill, shivered, and turned away.

***

Mabel had played on the porch of the cabin, the cold lake waters lapping at the frozen ground, the snowy mountains off in the distance. She was bundled up until she could tip over and roll away like a snowball, but her mittened hand could still dance her doll around as she sang. Brad had tried to convince her to stay inside by the stove where it was warm, to enjoy the view out the picture window. But Mabel insisted on being outside, on staying outside until her nose was bright red because she wouldn’t keep her scarf on, until Brad finally ushered her back inside for hot chocolate and a story, which seemed to be the only way to distract her from the outdoors.

Not that he didn’t join her. They fished in the lake and hiked around the cabin and drove into town to buy groceries – Brad didn’t hunt, though that had been one of the selling pointed of the cabin. But eventually he would retreat indoors to warm himself, and Mabel would shuffle around the rooms momentarily before donning her hat and coat and boots and wandering back out into the cold and ice. She sat cross-legged on the deck or stomped in the frosted grass or meandered along the edge of the water looking for fish. She would sing as her father watched anxiously from the picture window, and occasionally a gust of wind would wrap around her and send her scarf flying.

***

They had been home a week when Mabel asked when was winter coming.

Brad tucked the thick blankets around her. The bedside lamp glowed brightly against the dark outside. “You didn’t get enough of the cold in Alaska?”

Mabel shrugged and held her doll close, a yarn-haired and button-eyed thing her mother had made for her long ago.

“It’ll come soon enough,” Brad said. “It’ll be here before we know it.”

The wind outside blew briefly through the trees. Mabel looked to the window, but the curtains were shut against the night.

“That’s a fall wind,” she said, a wistful note in her voice that seemed too old for her. “It’s like the winter wind, but not. That’s important.” She nodded as if she had said something sagely, and snuggled deeper into the blankets. “I hope it comes soon.”

“I guess you’ll be my snow girl,” Brad sighed.

“I’m gonna sing the song. It’ll bring the snow.”

Brad tried to smile. “If you must.” It sounded more resigned than he had meant it to.

“Colors wane and blossoms fall,” she sang. “Then flare again to heed the call…”

The next morning there was a chill in the air. Frost clung tightly to the grass and the daisies Brad had so fiercely tended to all summer. He swore under his breath at the sight. It was too early for him to call it quits on the daisies, but here it was. Then he remembered Mabel’s words and song from the night before. He managed to suppress the shiver that crept up on him, but frowned into his coffee. Mabel bounced into the kitchen at that moment and clung to his leg, and he forgot all about the frost, which melted away with the rise of the sun.

***

Three times he had lost Mabel in the wilderness around the cabin, though it was only for such a short span of time that he couldn’t really say she had been lost but for the anxiety it had caused. The first was when he was still unpacking. He had expected her to unpack as well, but when he noticed the quiet and went to check her room he saw only a scattering of pants and socks and sweaters. When she wasn’t found in the rest of the house he opened the door to the outside and looked over the browning grass and the lake. He stepped into the frigid air in his slippers and circled the house and called more and more frantically until Mabel came racing out of the woods to the west, laughing as if it had all been a joke.

“Don’t run off on your own,” Brad admonished her. “There’s grizzlies out here. You could fall in the lake. Anything could happen.”

“But I heard something,” Mabel argued.

“Oh?” Brad smiled at her, half concerned, half bemused. Mabel often heard things that weren’t there. “What did you hear?”

“Singing,” Mabel said.

***

The weather report had called for a clear and humid Maryland evening, but as night fell the two of them had to put on their thick winter pajamas, still smelling of the leather from the suitcases. Mabel kept her socks on when she crawled into bed, and Brad thought for a moment before fetching the quilt from the hall closet and spreading it over her covers. The wind was picking up outside, whistling through the cracks around the windows.

Brad asked if she wanted a story.

“The Snow Queen!” she announced.

Brad’s smile faltered ever so slightly. “Still waiting for winter, huh?”

She grinned and nodded, her bangs bouncing.

He read her two chapters, because she pleaded that one wasn’t enough, even that two weren’t enough. But once he got to where Kay was spirited away by the Snow Queen, he told her he was tired himself and that this would just leave more for tomorrow night. This satisfied her, and she curled into her blankets, turning to face the curtained windows.

As he walked down the hall, he could hear her singing.

“Standing tall you’ll look around,” he voice called softly. “Red and yellow falling down.”

The wind pressed against the shingles outside.

***

The second time he had lost Mabel in the wilderness, the sky was particularly overcast, as it would continue to be for the duration of their trip. They were taking a walk through the woods, up and over and down the rolling hills, listening to the birds chatter and the breeze rattle in the birches. When he looked up he could see the branches shiver against the gray clouds, the sun lost somewhere up in the sky. Mabel had been singing a rendition of Ruby Tuesday, her voice alternating between boisterous and faint, so that when it grew fainter Brad thought nothing of it but shouted to stay close. She said okay, and perhaps the wind picked up her words to make her sound closer than she really was, because it sounded like she was right behind him. She sang and he could hear her feet crunch in the frozen grass. When he turned to glance a look at her the wind shuffled past him and raced through the trees to rattle the leaves together and she sounded closer than ever. A robin was frightened from its perch to distract him and he said to Mabel “See the robin?”

A hum answered him in the affirmative, and he walked on. Only when the wind died down did Mabel’s song fade away altogether into silence.

He retraced his steps, calling her name, heart hammering in his chest, his pace quickening. Until he heard her singing. He was almost on top of her before she answered and ran to meet him.

“What were you doing?” He knelt before her and grasped her hands. “Don’t run off like that.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, plainly seeing the concern etched on his face. “I’m trying to learn the song.”

“What song?”

She took in a breath and sang “Colors wane and blossoms fall…”

It was then that the snow started.

***

Again the report called for a calm warm night with a possible drizzle of rain, but the wind came in howling with biting cold. Brad tried to hold off on touching the thermostat, huddling under a blanket in his office and rubbing his hands together. More than once he asked Mabel whether she was cold, part of him hoping she would say yes and give him a reason to turn on the heat. It was only September after all, and the thermostat was still set firmly on A/C. But she always said no, she was fine. So it was dark out before he finally switched the tab over to Heat. Then he went upstairs to tuck in Mabel.

She wasn’t in her room, and she wasn’t brushing her teeth in the bathroom. He called her name and checked the other bedrooms, the study, and then the kitchen, where a gust of frigid air went past him. He made his way to the den, where the back door was wide open.

Mabel was on the back deck. Brad could hear her as he got closer.

“Snow will fly and wind will moan, breathe and bluster and intone…”

“Mabel,” Brad said, picking her up. “What are you doing out here? It’s freezing. And,” he kissed her on the nose as he turned back to the door, “it’s time for bed.”

Mabel’s hand shot out from around his neck, pointing at something in the dark. “Look! It’s coming!”

He looked. Snowflakes were beginning to swirl in the wind.

***

A storm was raging the third time Mabel was lost, a winter storm full of cold and snow and wind upon wind. It was much too early in the year for such a storm, only September. Even for Alaska, too early. But it was there all the same. It came as late Alaska evening finally fell, and set on the little cabin fiercely, driving snow against the big picture window. Brad had set the stove to blazing and was huddled up before it, wrapped in blankets with Mabel, both of them shielded against the cold and dozing.

The bang of the door woke him – the bang and a flash of frozen wind blowing flurries into the room. Mabel was gone from his lap and from the house, though even as he called her name in the rooms he knew she was outside somewhere, chasing something in the drifts and on the wind. The door banged open again as he left the house, shrugging on his coat and wrestling on his boots, calling Mabel. It was pitch-black outside – one in the morning – and walls of snow obscured what little there was to see. He stumbled into the maelstrom, the wind biting through his coat as if it wasn’t there. Cold, too cold for September. He called for Mabel over and over.

And somewhere in it all he heard her singing.

“Breathe and bluster and intone, bring the ice and snow. We must…bring the child back to us.”

He scooped her up in his arms and the wind howled as if enraged and battered against him. Blindly he made the way back to the cabin, and it took all his strength to fix the door shut.

They went home the next day.

***

The weathermen couldn’t make sense of the early snow, said that nothing had indicated such a shift in the forecast, but little flakes continued to fall from a clouded sky all the next day. Mabel wanted to go out and play in the thin sheet of white that had blanketed the grass and the daisies, but Brad insisted she stay indoors. She cried and complained but he kept her in his sight as the wind picked up here and there before receding as if searching for something and moving on, only to return again. No matter how high Brad cranked the heat, the wind still blew in around the doors and windows and gathered the cold in every room. And all the time Mabel cried softly on the rug in the living room, only leaving it to occasionally sing at a window before Brad would catch her and close tight the curtain.

As the night came, slowly and ponderously, the wind became a shriek and pelted the snow against the house and rattled the windows. Brad bundled Mabel into bed with a strange fear the origin of which he couldn’t place, and a resignation to the cold he had battled all evening. The flakes had crowded the corners of the windows, their bright white throwing back the light shone on them. They seemed to say that they saw. Brad clutched the curtains shut and turned to see that Mabel had been watching, had been sitting up in bed and peering out the window, past him.

“Time for bed, Mabel,” he said, feeling so very tired.

“Can we read more of The Snow Queen?” she asked eagerly.

“Not tonight. Go to sleep.”

“But…” Her eyes filled with tears for the tenth time that day.

“No,” he said, harsher than he had meant to. “Go to sleep.”

He shut off her lamp and left her, making his way down the hall as the wind cried and shook the house.

“Snow will fly and wind will moan,” he heard wafting down the hall. The words latched into his ears like they had pincers, and the windows of the spare bedroom shivered.

“We’ll bring the child back to us.”

Glass shattered. Brad spun around and ran back to Mabel’s room, the words of her song echoing in his ears as he cried her name.

The wind whistled through her window as glass glittered on the floor. Only a yarn-haired and button-eyed doll lay on the bed.