Fiction: Where the Wood Swallows the Cold

The following is my flash fiction entry for one of The Molotov Cocktail literary magazine’s regular contests. A sort of off-beat, horror mag, their flash fiction contests are based around different themes. This go-around’s theme was “folk flash.” So you know, gothic, fables, fairytales, magical realism, that vibe. It’s an incredibly competitive contest, with people entering all over the world, and winners receiving cash money. I’ve never cracked the top 10, but in a prior contest, I received a “close-but-no-cigar” shout-out. That occurred again with this piece; I received a CBNC. Here are the winning entries.

By the way, if you’re not familiar, flash fiction is what it sounds like. Molotov tends to say its sweet spot is about 750 words, so that’s what I tend to shoot for with my submissions.

I’m not one for playing the submission game and subbing my stories out to other magazines, so I inevitability turn to posting them on the blog; ergo. As you will see, this story was inspired at the time by my reading of Gulag by Anne Applebaum.

I always appreciate any feedback on my fiction writing!

Creative Commons photo.

Her nose was frostbitten.

When it gets that cold, it stops being cold, the way she also stopped being hungry. Or stopped thinking about the criminal prisoners who took their turns under apathetic Soviet guard eyes.

Instead, her nose was waxy to the touch, and her prickly cold fingers couldn’t stop examining it, as if it was the nose of someone else. But the others’ noses were corpse noses, submerged under Arctic Circle waters.

Margarete kept warm with the embers of spite. With 550 grams of precisely rationed stale, black bread, no water and long wait lines for the makeshift toilet hole leading to thrashing waters, that was all she had left to hold onto.

The other ladies, some swaddling frozen infants, whose heartbeats showed less life than the moon, whispered under earshot about the old country house. Their whispers of its legend, born of the 1920s, carried away on the waves of more human cargo ships that followed in Margarete’s wake.

For weeks, they made the trek further north, as adrift ice cubes trying to avoid scurvy and certain death. Margarete spent her time thinking of her friend, Galina, and the way she’d evoke Vlentina Servoa’s, “The Dawn of Freedom,” a rousing operatic call for peasants to rise up, turned down by the censors of her time. It would make Margarete smile, the corners of which were occupied by coal dust from the mines she toiled in.

When they landed, with the Soviet guards barking at them to disembark, Margarete only thought of whether she’d keep her nose, not what awaited at the country house.

The country house was a winter mirage sitting on wooden stilts in the snow, hollowed trees its only nearby companion. It was lined with fences of barbed wire, which Margarete found superfluous, given that all of them were too famished, cold and weak to attempt an escape, and how far north they were from Moscow.

She noticed how deafening the silence was on her cracked-skin ears, for nobody dared speak and out here, they were the only animals. The squawks of birds, which she occasionally heard out on the White Sea, ceased, and Margarete found herself longing for the sound of the waves crashing against the wooden ship.

On stained plywood, she slept with newly fashioned electric lights constantly beaming onto the bridge of her frostbitten nose. Sleep was worse than the waking, working hours where the women were expected to fall the nearby trees. She was shoulder-to-shoulder with other near-death women, some still swaddling their dead infants.

But sleeptime also meant overhearing the machinations of the sharshka, the scientists the Politburo tasked with engineering … something. If there was any sound at the country house, it was the sound of the sharshka’s sweat penetrating the wood as termites might.

A member of the sharshka, Eduard, whispered to a colleague about it being more powerful than the Tsar bomb, still in production.

Camp captives mining for gold and coal happened upon a pristine ice capsule of the bacterium containing the plague, or Black Death, from centuries prior. It was even worse than the influenza that ravaged the globe decades earlier.

Those captives are dead now, riding the corpse waves of the Arctic.

Instead of trying to denotate a nuclear bomb over an American city, the Politburo came to realize a suitcase of weaponized plauge unleashed in downtown Philedelphia was more damaging to the capitalist pigs.

That’s when Margarete realized she was there to help the sharshka as a test subject. To see how the resurrected Plague of Justinian affected the human body of today.

She thought her body had nothing left to give to the Motherland, only its embers of spite.

When even the Soviet guards seemed bereft of their usual anal attentiveness, brought upon by her frostbitten nose and fear, Margarete stumbled off of the plywood.

She wasn’t sure what she was doing, thinking only of Galina, muttering about how she wasn’t a muzhik, a peasant.

On her two feet, her delirium propelled her toward the laboratory entrance and past one of the guards, who was now working to pull his pistol from his waistband.

Seen through a Judas hole, or peephole, the beds were filled with women she remembered from the ship. Instead of swaddled infants, she saw women writhing with fevers and vomit providing waves of a different kind.

Then she heard a sound she hadn’t heard since the ports of Moscow.

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