Express Magazine brings to you its first series of wintry delights, ” Remnants of a withered winter “. A double collection of winter stories and poems from the house and from the readers. We will be accepting entries till the end of this season. So, why don’t you scribble down those stories, and the unfettered emotions and send it to us fast?
The little boy trudged along the frozen walkway, his hands stuffed inside his large overcoat pockets. It was Christmas Eve, and the town was a picture in white. Snow lay thick on the cars parked at the road side. A cold breeze blew over the place, making him shiver. His eyes watered from the cold, and his nose was a frightening shade of blue. It was barely six in the morning; the darkness of the night had not yet passed to make way for the welcoming rays of the sun. The boy was one of the very few people up and about at that hour, and certainly the only one his age.
As he passed the houses down the road, the boy sometimes looked around quickly and went up to the foggy windowpanes of the nearest house and tried to peep through the glass. But the houses were still dark – the inhabitants were surely fast asleep in bed under their warm duvets. Nobody wanted to wake up so early on a cold holiday; nobody except the little boy shivering at the windowpanes. He had left the house as soon as he had woken up from his fitful dreams, hurriedly throwing on his sweater, coat and muffler. He had his boots on, and his gloves, but the cold seemed to have seeped into his bones, refusing to let them warm up in spite of his brisk pace.
The boy was barely twelve years old and small for his age. His family had moved to this town only a month back into a picturesque little cottage at the edge of the forest. His father was a musician and his mother was an artist, and they never stayed in one place for very long. They said that the constant travel gave them inspiration and kept their work fresh. His sister, who was six years older than him and very pretty, claimed that their parents were just a little odd from all the time they spent locked inside their own studios. But she was fond of them and never complained about being constantly on the move. She had inherited her father’s musical talents and spent a lot of time playing her violin.
But the little boy was different. He found the haunting notes of his sister’s violin jarring to his ears. He disliked the riot of colours in his mother’s painting. The lyrical symphony of his father’s piano made him wince. His family thought he was an abomination; he was convinced of it. Of course, they never showed it in their actions. His parents were always loving and kind, and his sister never sneered at his lack of artistic intentions. But he was sure that it was always at the back of their minds. He was sure that when they looked at him, they saw an unwanted addition to the family. It drove him wild with rage, this inability to please his family. He could never rid himself of a feeling of worthlessness. His deep sense of shame sometimes fuelled a savage desire for revenge on his family – some day he would run away, and only then would his family realize what they had lost.
Ever since he was eight years old, the boy had woken up at sunrise and left the house for a long walk around the town. The first time he had done it, his parents had been out of their minds with worry, having woken up to find his bed empty. When he had come back hours later, his mother and sister had been crying hysterically and his father had gone to the police station to report him missing. Seeing him enter the living room had made his mother shriek and rush at him and smother him with kisses. His father had been less amicable; he had been caned, and that had made sitting down quite uncomfortable for him for the rest of the day. But he had walked out again the next morning, and again the morning after, and every day till his family had resigned themselves to this strange habit as one more of his quirks. The boy did not know what had made him walk out the first day, and he still did not know why he did it now, but the habit had become a strange ritual for him. Every time they moved to a different place, he carried this habit with him – the one semblance of stability in his life.
The boy had been completely lost in thought when he heard a sad whine. As he looked up in surprise, he found himself in a children’s park. This was the other end of the town. He had walked for nearly an hour without realizing it. The whine had emanated from a tiny ball of fur at the foot of a snow covered bench a short way ahead. He walked up to the bench and crouching down, poked at the trembling little shape. Tiny ears pricked up, and a little face smaller than his fist looked up enquiringly at him. It was a puppy with the whitest fur and the biggest eyes he had ever seen. It was barely bigger than his feet and looked even smaller in his curled up position. It could not be a stray; its fur was well groomed and it had a cute little red bow tied around its neck. It had probably escaped its owner and run away, and was now too cold and too scared to try and find its way back home.
The boy did not know what got into him. As he looked into the tiny creature’s melting brown eyes, he knew he had to take it home and look after it. His remembered that his mother was scared of dogs, but the thought was a fleeting one. He quickly picked the pup up and held it close to his face. The pup gazed back at him, completely trusting of this new human it had just met. The boy opened his coat and stuffed the puppy into an inside pocket where it fit in nice and snug. The puppy’s fur was wet from snow and the cold sent a new wave of shiver through the boy’s body, matching the little creature’s. He stood up and started walking back quickly, his arms wrapped around his body, partly to support the puppy inside his coat as it peeped out at his lapels. This Christmas may not be as nasty as every other year, he thought.
Check out our first tale on the ” Remnants of a withered winter ” collection here :- Winter Evenings
He reached home nearly two hours later. The sun was now well and truly up, and the town had woken up to life. People crowded the roads, cheeks red from the cold but broad grins adorning all faces. There was the buzz of yuletide happiness all around. The marketplace thronged with last minute Christmas shoppers who called out to each other in greeting. The aroma of delicious cakes and pies wafted from the houses, making the boy’s mouth water. Some of his friends from his new school called out to him as he passed them going towards the market. He nodded at them but did not stop. He could feel tiny rasped breaths tickling his neck and he could not wait to get home to warm his new acquisition up at the fireplace.
As he entered the house, his sister came up to hug him. He shrugged her off and rushed to the living room where his mother was busy adding new logs of wood into the dying embers at the fireplace. Wordlessly, he opened his coat and carefully plucked out the puppy. It trembled a little less now, warm from the comforting embrace of the boy’s coat. He put it down as close to the grate as he dared without getting its fur singed. His mother looked at the puppy and jumped back in fright, but surprisingly enough, the long tirade of admonitions he had been steeling himself for did not arrive. He looked up at her and saw her looking strangely at him. She was studying his face with an incredulous expression. She knew her son for the bitter, rancorous child that he was. He returned from his morning walks with his habitually sullen face every morning. But what she saw in his face now was something she had not seen there in years. She saw joy and adoration for the tiny creature in his eyes. She watched him as he set the dog near the fire and covered it with his own thick muffler, making a snug comforter for him. As he scratched its tiny head it stuck out its tongue and gave him a quick lick on his hand before closing its eyes and settling down for a nap. He then turned to his mother enquiringly, surprised and apprehensive at her lack of a reaction.
“I found him shivering in the park. He must have run away from his owners and lost his way in the park. If I had left him there, he would have frozen to death.”
His mother sighed. “Well you certainly could not have allowed that to happen. We’ll let it rest and get better, and I will ask your father to find its family so that we can send it back. Go to the kitchen and get it some biscuits to eat when it wakes up.”
She watched her son trot to the kitchen. She hated having a dog in the house, even if only temporarily, but the joy on her son’s face made it worth it. She knew her son was a strange little boy, forever angry, always resentful of the family. It did not matter to them that he did not sing or paint or play any instrument. He was their son and they loved him for it, but she knew how left out he felt, separated from them by an unbridgeable lack of creative pursuits. But this morning, as he had stroked the little bundle now snoozing happily in the warmth of the fire, she had seen his look of contentment. Christmas did have a strange way of bringing magic into the lives of people after all.
As the day went on, the boy grew steadily happier. The puppy had woken up after a couple of hours, thoroughly warm and fresh as a daisy. After wolfing down many biscuits and a little piece of chicken from the family’s dinner the previous night, it had barked happily and pranced around the living room, the boy keeping it company. His sister had instantly fallen in love with the puppy and insisted on naming it Fluffy, much to his chagrin. Their father had laughed at them and joined in their frolic. He had been as surprised as his wife at the drastic change in their son’s demeanour. The little boy that was cuddling the puppy and running behind it was full of laughter, a different person altogether from the silent, grumpy boy he had turned into growing up.
That evening, as the family finished decorating the Christmas tree, the little boy joined in the efforts. All these years he had spent Christmas sulking in his room as his parents tried in vain to make him join in the celebrations. But this year was different. He felt happy. Fluffy ran around the room, sniffing at the gifts under the tree and occasionally climbing into his lap. He even sat through the singing of carols as his father played the piano, cuddling Fluffy into his chest. His parents smiled at each other secretly, but said nothing. They fervently hoped that nobody came looking for Fluffy. The little creature had infused their son with new life, a better Christmas present than any they had ever managed to give him.
That night, the little boy allowed his mother to tuck him in bed and kiss him good night, something he had not let her do for years. Fluffy was settled in a crate lined with woollen rugs at the foot of his bed, sound asleep. As his mother left the room, he sighed merrily. His heart was surprisingly light. The little white dog had wriggled into his heart and pushed out all the anger and pain he had accumulated over the years.
A soft scratching noise jerked him out of his dreams. He sat up straight on his bed, instantly wide awake. Fluffy was pawing at the door. He paused and looked back at the boy. The puppy’s eyes had an eerie glow to them. The boy felt himself getting out of his bed, hypnotized by the puppy’s gaze. He walked to the door and opened it for the dog, letting it rush out. He followed it noiselessly down the stairs, across the living room, out of the house into the garden. It was snowing, and he felt the snowflakes drop on his head. The little dog walked down the garden to the fenced gate. Once again, the boy opened the gate for it. He was in a trance now. The puppy walked calmly on, oblivious of the biting cold, right towards the forest looming behind the house. Sometimes the dog looked back at the boy. Its eyes were two burning pieces of charcoal; the chocolate pots that had poured out love during the day now had a maniacal pull in them. The boy could feel his mind screaming at him, warning him of an ageless evil, trying pathetically hard to make him stop and turn back. But he had lost control of all his senses.
He was a helpless prisoner to the creature in front of him, invisible chains pulling him behind it. He tried to scream, but his voice was gone. Once, the dog stopped and pricked up its ears. It turned to the boy, and a horrible sound came out of its mouth, a grotesque caricature of human laughter that turned the boy’s blood into water. It then turned back and continued to walk towards the forest, its helpless victim behind it. Dog and boy were swallowed by the gaping blackness of the forest.
The family found the boy’s body the next morning. He was lying at the edge of the forest, clad in nothing but his pyjamas. The doctor told the grieving parents that the boy had died of hypothermia, an inevitable end given the state of his clothing. What nobody could explain was the look of sheer terror on his face, held for eternity by the laws of rigor mortis. It was as if the boy had witnessed all the evil since the beginning of time moments before his death, and the experience had sapped the life out of him. What the family did not know was that there was another family in the area who were in mourning, remembering their little boy who had been found dead with a broken neck on Christmas day the previous year.
That family had failed to notice the absence of a little white puppy their son had brought home the previous day. This family could not found Fluffy either, but they were too heartbroken to care.
In a different town many miles away, a little girl picked up a shivering ball of white fur with a little red bow around its neck. The scared little puppy was obviously lost, and as the girl looked into the warm chocolate brown eyes, her heart melted. She had to take it home and look after it till they found its owner.
It was Christmas after all; she could not let the little darling freeze to death in the lonely playground all by itself.
Our readers are invited to send us their entries for the ” Remnants of a withered winter ” column. Mail us your stories, or poems at this address by the end of this season – firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author, Urbi Chatterjee :-