Snow and Smiles
By Melanie Noell Bernard
Trigger warning: The ending of this winter horror story includes violence which might be disturbing for some readers.
Snow. That was what they called it, the people down in the village. I wasn’t supposed to know that or know them, but I just… couldn’t help myself. They were so fascinating. They lived in such large groups and never moved their dens, and while that was peculiar, it was not what brought me back time and time again. Rather, it was the village peoples’ relationship with snow.
You must understand, I am not one of the village people. My family does not even interact with the village people and we do not stay in one place for long. We do not have a permanent den and snow has never been beautiful or serene or a sign of good tidings. For my family, snow is a bad omen. It is a warning that food will be scarce, days will be short, and nights will be brutally cold. It is the beginning of the harsh season and no one smiles or laughs or celebrates the harsh season, but the village people do.
They come together. They share their food and blankets and warmth. They decorate their dens with bright colored objects that dangle and shine. And they smile. I had never seen so much smiling in the harsh season before that first time I witnessed the village people. And I’m sure that is what drew me to return. And it was not long before I knew why the village people smiled so much.
My family and I had just finished our late meal. We did so before the sun fell from the sky so our bellies would be full as we slipped into sleep. My younger siblings laid in a bunch, bodies splayed over one other to keep warm while Ma and Pop huddled near the den entrance. They did this so we would not sneak out, but also so nothing else could sneak in. Now in adulthood, my older siblings joined them, creating a barrier of bodies, but on this night, it did not look so daunting as it had in the past. My curiosity had become stronger than my fear. And as their breaths turned heavy and slow, I eased up off the ground, selected my steps with caution, and slipped from the warmth of the den.
Outside was bitter. Cold is not a strong enough word to describe what I felt that night as the wind clawed my hides and tried to snatch them from my body. I wrapped my arms around me and clung to myself tightly as I tromped through the thickening snow. It was ankle deep already and falling in thick waves. It would be knee deep by morning at the least, but I would be back long before that happened. I just wanted to see the village. I wanted to know if the village people also feared the night or if their smiles were strong enough to break through the cold.
Unfortunately, having never been in the woods by night, I did not know how different everything would be. The trees loomed overhead, their gnarled branches like bony fingers trying to seize me. The wind howled like a pack of hungry wolves in pursuit of their next meal. The moonlight blinked between the sharp tree needles and cast horrifying, gaunt shadows that chased me through the snow.
My breath swirled before me, clouding my vision as I tried to determine where I was. By daylight, I knew every tree. By night, I was cast adrift in a world not unlike that of the horrortales my mother told. Never before had I believed them to be true. But now…
High-pitched cackling pierced the air.
I whipped around to find whatever beast might have made such a noise. There was nothing. There was no one. It was just me and the darkness and the cold. Even my curiosity had chosen to desert me as I feared I might never find the village, much less find my way back to the den, but I had to be close and with how fast the snow fell, it would be impossible to re-trace my steps. Though, I had been warned against the villagers, it would be safer to bed with them than risk a night in the woods.
Fighting the deepening snow, I trudged on. My head ducked low, shielding my face from the flakes biting at my bare skin, and my hands clenched and unclenched so the blood would not freeze in my veins. But my energy waned. With each step, I felt weaker. With each breath, I felt heavier. With each blink, I felt ready to tip headfirst into the snow and never get up.
And then the high-pitched cackling returned, but it no longer sounded like cackling. It sounded like giggling. Children giggling.
Their voices were eager and giddy and, as I lifted my head, I saw their tiny shapes bouncing through the snow. They made little balls and threw them at each other. Even when hit with the freezing cold, they laughed. I had never seen anything like it, but their joy was infectious, and I found myself stumbling forwards, wanting to play.
“Jeriah! Kyla! Come inside before you catch your death!” From one of the immovable dens, a woman called out, much like a mother would. She stood in the doorway, backlit by a fire within. Her arms wrapped around her, holding a strange piece of hide against her body as the wind tried to wedge inside.
The children dropped their balls of snow and let their shoulders sag. Their little smiles drooped. Their heads hung, and they started back towards the den with steps as slow as they possibly could.
The fire peeking out from within the den called to me. My freezing bones chattered, urging me to get closer, to warm up, and I obeyed.
As I drew nearer, gaining ground on the children, the mother lifted her head to me. Her eyes widened, and she took a great inhale before releasing a shrill scream.
The sound berated my ears, faltering my steps as I clasped my hands against my head. My eyes watered in response to the pain building in my skull.
The woman ceased her cries to race out into the snow. She grasped her children with a grip that could break bone and yanked them back towards their den where a man now stood in the doorway, a long stick in his hand.
“What? What is it?!” the man demanded, casting his gaze about with a ferocity that made me re-think my plan to join the fire.
“No!” the woman returned, shoving the children past him.
With them out of the way, the man found me and raised the stick so one end propped against his shoulder. The other end pointed at me.
The woman stepped back in front of him, placed her hands on his chest and tried to push him back inside. “Don’t shoot it. You’ll bring its wrath down upon us.”
Using one arm, he shoved her out of the way. “Enough of your tales, woman. It’s just a beast! Any beast can die.” He adjusted the stick and took aim once more.
I stumbled back a step, unsure what the stick was or why he pointed it at me. I had done nothing to harm them. I was not going to hurt them. I just wanted to be warm. I just wanted to understand them. I just-
Pain shot through my shoulder, throwing off my balance. I tripped over my feet as I recoiled and dropped into the snow, gasping from fear and agony.
Why had he shot me? What had I done?
From the doorway, a strange series of clicks sounded. More doorways opened, spilling firelight across the white snow and casting it a sickening yellow, like a disease. But above all, fast approaching steps shook the ground. The heavy layers of snow vibrated around my body until I believed the earth might crack open and swallow the village whole.
When those thundering steps drew near, the screams started.
Women. Men. Children. Screams of all varieties filled the air, followed by the slamming of their strange den doors. Some re-opened and those clicking sounds repeated.
The gurgling of someone drowning.
The thick crunch of bones.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Someone slipped into the snow beside me, cradling my head in their lap.
I glanced up into my older sister’s glowing yellow eyes. They were wide with fear, but a snarl curled her top lip as she scented my spilled blood. Her attention flickered to the village before her. Her eyes tracked something, watching it move back and forth, and her claws curled like she was preparing to attack, but she stopped herself and forced her focus back to me. Tucking her arms underneath me, she lifted my body out of the snow and cradled me against her chest.
As she turned from the village, I saw what lay in wake of the noise. Blood splattered the snow. Bodies lay facedown with limbs thrown many feet away. Doors hung off hinges. And my parents snatched up the last of those still outside, piercing them with their horns, biting through their shoulders, and painting their dens with their insides until only silence remained.
It was in that moment, with my parents towering over the tiny villager dens and dripping in villager blood, that I understood. For my family, the snow meant harsh times, but for the villagers, it meant safety. Safety from my family. And that was why they smiled.
Melanie Noell Bernard hails from the cloudiest state in the Midwest. Surrounded by endless fog and bitter winter nights, it was only a matter of time before she fell in love with the dark. Combine that with a knack for the gritty, the disturbing, and the creepy, you have the beginnings of a young horror writer. Good thing her heart enjoys answering the call of the dark side.
Melanie has participated in the past, you can find her posts here: Oh Christmas Tree, The Dark Side of Christmas, Christmas as an Agnostic