A Gothic cathedral in the distance gives shadowy depth to the dusky winterscape. Snow falls as mist, gentle as descending fog. The traveler moves through the rolling valley on crutches. He never finds a spot of level ground. He knows he can’t outrace the gathering darkness, the encompassing snow cloud. He plods toward the cathedral. He wears no hat.
The traveler carries three crutches: two wooden ones that even through his coat have worn raw the skin under his arms, and one hidden in the inner pocket of that coat. The wooden ones compensate for his newly lame right leg. What the hidden one compensates for, the traveler has not yet named. It is black, sharp, lethal. He feels the weight of it tugging on the right side of his meagre coat, adding to the burden of his lameness on that side.
The cathedral has been visible for miles but seems no closer. It still stands encased in forbidding grey. Distant snow is never white.
Three times he thought he could see the cathedral gates, but each time he lost the vision. The snow blew away the image, or a dip in the valley took him too low. Now on a steep descent toward the cathedral he catches sight of the gate and keeps it. He sees, too, a dark shape pacing back and forth near the gate, which means they’ve circled around him. He knows he’ll never make it as far as the cathedral. The sharp wind coming from the south drives his shoulders down, grinds his armpits into his crutches. The delicate snowflakes become stinging pebbles. He believes he’s as likely to reach the cathedral gate as he would be the glimmering stars on a clearer night. He comes to a stop and covers the side of his head with his left arm.
In a moment the wind subsides, clearing the air of sideways snow. The traveler sees ahead and down to the right an oasis in this winter desert: a small stand of pine trees and two rocks. Without thought he trudges forward. He moves down the hill with increasing speed, driven by the wind’s return and his instinct for shelter. The farther rock is taller, but the nearer nestles into the trees and offers more protection. Partway down the hill the traveler drops his two wooden crutches: first the left so he can cover again the left side of his head, and then the right, as the promise of relief numbs his damaged leg. The third crutch in his coat pocket bangs against his side as he scrambles down into the lee of the larger rock. He rests his back against the stone surface, absorbs the last remnant of shielded sun-warmth.
To the traveler’s right, the higher elevations he’s traversed are lost in the snow. But he feels no fear from that quarter. He knows he’s invisible from the pursuit behind him for now, and that before long the pursuers won’t matter. He moves deeper into the cradle of the rock and breathes in the smell of pine that fills this open shelter.
He sees then what had not registered before: that planted in the midst of the branches of the tallest pine there stands a darkwood crucifix. It is adorned by a bronze-painted image. How this came to be here in this stand of trees on the otherwise featureless plain remains for the traveler a mystery, one he does not ponder. He looks to his left once more at the distant cathedral, the guarded gate, the unreachable sanctuary in which he’d hoped to unburden himself and disappear. He looks up at the wooden icon above him and surrenders the journey to the cathedral. This place will suffice.
His hands are stiff and numb, curled into their more accustomed shape of grasping, but he stretches them out and places them together in supplication. “Accept me,” he says in his native tongue. “I seek sanctuary. I come wounded, uncovered. I have left my crutches behind.”
But as he says these words he feels again the weight on the right side of his coat. With his still-stiff left hand he removes from the inner pocket a long black knife, carved by the traveler’s great-grandfather years ago out of a single piece of ebony, honed and polished enough both to shine and to pierce. Even in this wintry dusk the blade bears the faintest tint of well-seasoned red. The traveler gently lays the knife beside him in the snow with the blade pointing to the rock behind him. “Now,” he whispers, “now I have surrendered my crutches.”
For a moment the wind around him ceases, the snow once more falling in a gentle hush onto the pine needles and the traveler’s hair. This moment of peace lasts only until the traveler attends to the sizzling sound on the ground beside him. The light covering of snow on the ground under the knife melts, tinged a delicate pink, and boils away. The traveler takes the handle and moves the knife to another patch of snow, and then another, and then another. In each place the knife melts the snow. In each place the boiling snow is a little less pink. He finally leans to his left as far as he can and lays the knife down once more. The snow remains. The black of the blade is now absolute. He places the knife once more beside him.
He can’t remember all the faces of those whose blood just leeched into the snow. The ebony of the knife handle has moulded itself over time to fit his hand, an extension of himself. His commission was sacred, they told him. His judgment was pure. Better that they bleed in this life, they told him, than that they suffer in eternity. They called him chosen, those men older than he was, the next in the line his great-grandfather had begun. They called him Father.
They seek him now, through these snowy wastes. In the comparative warmth of his shelter between the rock and the trees, his wounded leg regains feeling. He thinks of his own blood encased in the blade wielded by one who followed him now, or perhaps in the blade of the figure waiting near the cathedral gate. It had been a hasty swipe that caught his leg as he evaded three other knives aimed toward his chest. Even wounded he outran his pursuers, those much older than he. His underarm crutches came from a neighbouring village, lent to him by one whose house he knew because he had been instructed to bleed her for her treacherous ways, for daring to raise her three children alone. He had refused and incurred the wrath of the knives. She offered him shelter. He refused, but he took her crutches and hobbled through the snow toward the sanctuary of the cathedral.
The wind whips over the top of the rock behind him and shakes the pine branches into a frenzy, clearing them of snow. He will never reach the cathedral. He knows that. He will not take up his crutches again, any of them. He puts his hands together once more in supplication and raises his eyes.
“Receive me,” he says.
With his words come the sharpest pulse of wind yet, driving him to duck his head and wrap his arms around himself. He lies down in the shelter of the rock and in doing so sees under the trees a small den surrounding the base of the wooden column. He reaches for his knife, though disinclined now to handle it, and eases himself under the lowest branches and into the quiet shelter of the tree.
The pine needles deaden all sound here: tapestried branch walls, a thick brown carpet. The still air smells of pine sap, a cool smell, almost mint. The naked trunks of the trees, under the skirts of the branches, leave him plenty of room to lie down. He curls his knees to his chest for warmth, tucked as tightly as his wounds will allow, the knife cradled before him but untouched. He touches his forehead to the base of the darkwood pillar in the centre of the den. The cross shudders with energy as the wind buffets its upper reaches and the figure affixed to it. In this shelter, nothing else moves.
Once more, a sizzling sound interrupts the traveler’s moment of peace. The tip of the knife smoulders in the thick carpet of fallen needles, threatening to ignite. The traveler raises his head and grabs the knife, lifting it clear of the eager tinder. He sees nowhere in this shelter that would be safe to lay the weapon. His frustration explodes.
“Give me peace!” he says, and without meaning to, he thrusts the knife into the darkwood pillar.
The wood of the cross recognizes its own and welcomes the ebony blade. The knife slices into the cross with no resistance. The traveler pushes more, drives the blade until the wood of the pillar meets his fist on the blade’s handle. The handle grows hot, then, too hot, and the traveler releases it. The knife continues inward and in a moment is fully subsumed in the dark wood. Only a black spot remains, the very base of the handle marking the surface, black on almost-black, a smooth scar.
The den is still once more. The traveler lies back down with his forehead to the pillar. He sleeps now in the dark shelter of the pine trees, warm under the branches, nestled into the fallen needles. He sleeps as all will, once.
During the night the winter wind blows away the traveler’s tracks, buries his two crutches in snow, blots out the pink snow stains near the rocks. In the morning a new figure replaces the guard at the cathedral’s gates. The pursuers stumble through the sideways-falling snow and find shelter in the lee of a pair of rocks tucked into an unremarkable stand of pine trees. There is no cross there, no figure above them to look toward, no reason to look under the branches. When the wind breaks momentarily, they move forward, soon to meet up with the cathedral guard, mystified.
Aaron J. Housholder
Dr. Aaron J. Housholder teaches writing and literature at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. His stories and essays have appeared in more than two dozen journals, including Barren Magazine, Unnerving Magazine, The Molotov Cocktail, phoebe journal, The Windhover, and others. He currently serves as the Fiction Editor for Relief Journal. You can find him on Twitter @ProfAJH.
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