by Nick Dunkenstein
Cain could feel his insides twitch the deeper he got into the winter abyss encompassing around him, the squelching under each foot seemed to echo against the naked trees that almost mocked him with their ability to stay still through the bitter chill, “I wish I stayed home.”
Looking behind him, he could see his little red car through the panorama of birch trees, mostly because it was the only colourful thing within miles. He sighed, his millionth sigh, and kept moving forward, “Damn, tires,” he mumbled. His roommate told him that he needed to look at replacing the doughnut he was riding on for weeks, “should’a listened…” he kicked what looked like a pile of snow, which turned out to be a branch rimed with hoarfrost.
The branch took flight, spraying a halo of glistening frost then crash landing against a tree, eventually tumbling down a slope. Cain yelped, since his sneakers - wet, slushy, and did little with protecting his feet - were torn through from the kick, and thus stubbing several of his toes.
Cain huffed and walked over to the slope where the branch was slowly rolling downward. He could see his home town from where he was standing, “I’m almost home,” he gasped to himself.
He decided to make a trip to see his family in a small little community in the mountains; this wasn’t some holiday thing, like he told his mother over the phone. It had been a while since he visited his parents, he figured a change of scenery would be good for him – and help him get over a break up.
Gazing at the little village, the sun blinding along the white roofs, he shaded his eyes ignoring his runny nose, “The place looks deserted.”
He pulled himself from the ledge, continuing his cold journey, finally taking notice of his hands replicating pink icicles. He cupped them around his mouth blowing warmth onto them, breath visibly escaping from between his fingers, and running through to the twiggy appendages of the tree tops.
Eventually he stopped blowing, seeing smoke waving a few miles before him, “Does someone live in these woods?” he thought while shoving his hands in his jacket, he rose his legs high, and took off in a speedy effort to find the source of the smog . Perhaps he could get some help getting his car towed - at the least.
Between all the thin trees, the fog began to dissipate and appeared before Cain was a small cabin. On the porch resided an elderly woman stirring a pot that was letting loose pillows of steam, “Oh!” her head bounced up, her mouth widening into a gummy smile, “Hello there young man, whatever are you doing in these old woods? It’s chilly today.”
“I’m trying to get to the village, my car got a flat and well, my cell phone isn’t getting any reception. I don’t mean to intrude on you, but would you have a phone I could call a tow, or my parents? They live in the village,” Cain nervously said - a speech he had been reciting in his head since he pushed his car to the side of the road.
His motion towards the old lady began to slow, the last thing he wanted to do was scare her, “My names Cain, wha-what’s yours?” he waited, until she stopped stirring and hobbled away inside the house. He looked around, embarrassed, not knowing what to do in this situation. He could feel his eyes getting puffy, so he started swaying himself left to right, crunching deeper in the snow, ‘maybe I can get so deep, I’ll disappear.’
The old woman came back out, carrying a decrepit stool. She placed it down on the opposite end of her, and patted the moth eaten seat, “C’mon young man, you can have a seat. I’m making a stew. Have something warm to eat and then we can get you where you need to be.”
Cain, not understanding what just happened, took a few moments to get his receptors to fire into his brain, “Eat? Yeah, thanks!” He scurried himself up to the old woman’s porch and straddled the rickety stool, “I really appreciate this, it’s been a crappy day, this helps a ton. What’s your name?”
“It’s very cold isn’t it?” she said pouring the steaming soup into a modest bowl then handing it to Cain, “Yeah, it is. I guess from living in the city, you kind of forget that the cold in the country is different from the cold in the city,” he chuckled.
The old woman handed him a spoon, and sat down in a rocking chair beside the large pot. The silence reverberated through the birch bodies. Cain couldn’t help but feel a little strange, at least the stew was warming up his hands as he watched the old woman shuffle the grey shawl hugging over her shoulders. Her hair colour blended in with the dead of winter, Cain couldn’t help but imagine her when she was younger - he wondered if she was by herself.
He could feel his breath hovering over him, along with whatever words that could be said to break the awkward silence, the only thing he could think to do was eat. If he could fill his mouth with food, he wouldn’t feel the need to talk.
Stirring his spoon in the stew, gathering up a healthy amount of broth and vegetable chunks to put in his mouth, he found it steaming but necessary to endure to escape the awkwardness of the situation. He could feel his eyes beginning to water from the heat on his tongue, yet he chewed through it like he would win a prize - the prize being Home.
As he chewed he noticed an odd texture in the pile within his mouth, like a fiber or string. He started to ration out the mashed food in his mouth to isolate the fiber. Swallowing only small pieces, so not to seem rude when he stuck his frigid fingers in his mouth, and my God, did it feel nice against the heat of his scalding tongue. He found the strange item pressed against the tip, and pulled the longest piece of white hair from his mouth.
Almost admiring the ability to have missed spotting this strand of hair in the spoonful he made, there was no mistaking that this piece of hair belonged to the old lady. Cain knew his face was paling at the thought of how much hair might be in this stew, old people and hair-in-food go hand in hand, even if her hair was up in a bun, it was still a mess. There were probably hairballs in the giant pot.
The old woman, now rocking silently in her chair, “Eat up dearly, I’ll get you what you need, and the food will keep you from shivering…” she trailed off staring into the frozen forest.
Cain smiled at her, his eyebrows giving away his concern as he chewed another spoonful of the soup, though he desperately wanted to stop. He wasn’t really hungry anyway.
His eyes grew two sizes bigger, his chewing ceased. The sound came from his mouth, and he could feel an object in there he couldn’t understand and yet, it was so familiar. Excluding everything in his mouth, except for the hard item, by swallowing, he could hear his heart beating. Cain swished the entity around, letting it clink against his teeth. It felt twisted and jagged, it felt like glazed porcelain, and then –
“What the hell!”
He spat a tooth into his hand. An adult molar, almost intact, if it wasn’t for it getting a little twisted from his bite.
Cain could feel himself starting to panic as he stuck his finger back in his mouth to work with his tongue to feel his teeth, he didn’t taste anything metallic.
All his teeth where there.
He started to feel drowsy from anxiety, steam bellowing out from his nostrils, as his eyes inebriated like, rolled to the old woman who stopped rocking in her chair.
Peering into the stew he found another tooth floating beside a piece of dark brown meat.
The old woman stood up from the chair, releasing a snow fall of white hair from its bun, a gust of wind howled through the forest, causing the trees to finally shiver. The old woman’s voice trailed back into ear shot.
“…but you have to do something for me in return.”
Nick Dunkenstein is an artist by nature and an enigma by design. A person of vast capabilities that others might call talent, she can be spotted in an assortment of places, such as in the background of your favourite youtube clip or even wandering the After-Times with the eclectic band “Last Electric Rodeo” through album and band art work - as well as the physical embodiment of beloved characters. Also she actively speaks about Death Positivity and acknowledging bereavement with the help of her illustrations for the book “Knock Knock Grandma’s Dead”, released in 2019. More of her writing can be found in the books “Fatal Faeires” and “Deathly Sorrow: A Collection of Dark Poetry”.