Three different tales centered on the Winter solstice
Approximately 800 words
A crisp, northern wind needled Ike’s cheeks and sent shivers jittering down his spine. He plodded westward on the graveled road, toward the residue of the setting sun, toward home. An impenetrable bramble of frosty blackthorn and bedraggled briars lined the roadway, a tangled barrier lying beneath the blackjacks and post oaks of the Cross Timbers. Two centuries ago, Washington Irving had called them "the forests of iron," and the description still fit. Except that they felt more like the forests of death on this winter’s night, the longest of the year.
The weary road, the chill wind, the snarled thicket. So familiar. It was as if he'd been walking this path forever. He ran a knuckle across his skull. If he'd been here forever, he should remember being here five minutes ago. Two minutes ago. Thitry seconds ago. But memory eluded him. He turned and gazed behind him. The same road, the same chill wind, the same forest. He must have walked that path. After all, he was here. All that mattered was getting home. He trudged on.
The darkness swallowed the last of the sun and began its reign over the long night. The crescent moon glimmered over the tree tops and cast ghostly shadows on the roadway. A premonition made Ike turn to again look behind him, but no monsters lurked there. No people either, not that there was any difference. As far as he knew, there was no one who might pursue him. He turned and increased his pace. Home meant safety. Ike ached for peace. For redemption.
Each step jarred Ike’s frigid joints and sent knives of pain through his limbs. The crick in his neck was the worst. That damned kink had been there from the time he’d first walked this path, many winters ago. It never got worse, but it never eased either. The relentless persistence was what made it unbearable. He stopped, gripped his skull with spidery fingers, and twisted to the left, then the right. The bones of his neck grated at one another, then popped.
The crick was still with him.
The wind whispered through the forest and sent Ike’s tattered cloak aflutter. An owl called from deep in the woods. Who? Who?
Kate, that’s who. Her name rattled in his head, bringing with it remembrance of things past. Longing, love, and loss echoed in the empty reaches of his mind. He remembered proposing to her. Was it today? Or was it another time? He'd walked this road before. Maybe it was one of those earlier days. Memories spiraled in the windmills of his mind, never ending or beginning.
He was sure he'd asked her to marry him. Why couldn’t he recall her answer?
Details littered his memory. Maddening details. They'd celebrated the Fesitval of Saint Thomas the Apostle at their Episcopal Chapel. Afterwards, he’d knelt on one knee and professed his love, there in the sanctuary, before God and the Savior. Tears had shimmered in her eyes, and she had smiled upon him.
Surely she had said yes. But then, wouldn't she be here, with him?
He turned his gaze skyward and prayed for guidance. Cygnus the Swan glittered above the western horizon, near where the sun had died. A swan, a crooked cross, a broken Hallelujah.
He clutched his cloak, and thick liquid oozed between his fingers. Dark liquid in the moonlight, but brilliant red in his sudden memory. An epiphany turned his heart cold, his love to stone. Murder, not of Kate, but of Abraham, her true love, fouled what remained of his soul. His love was not a victory march. It was a broken Hallelujah.
The clop, clop of hooves made him turn. In the distant shadows a figure sat astride a horse.
The animal pawed the gravel. It snorted an iridescent fog from flaring nostrils. The rider snapped the bridle and the horse advanced, gravel crunching under its weight.
Foreboding clouded Ike’s thoughts. He’d seen this rider before, on previous treks on this path. On previous long nights. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, the sun would return, unconquered, and vanquish the darkness. But that was tomorrow, and this was now.
The rider advanced, relentless. In one hand he bore a sword, long and menacing. His other hand gripped something else, something round. A pumpkin, perhaps, left over from all Hallow’s eve?
The rider emerged from moon shadow. His neck ended in a ragged stump. His eyes glistened from the orb in his hand.
That was no Jack-o-lantern. That was the rider’s severed head. Abraham's head.
Still the horse advanced. Sound whistled from the rider’s neck and whispered a name. His name. “Ichabod.”
Memory snapped into place, like a key in a lock. On this, the longest night of the year, darkness ever reigned. Tonight, and every night into eternity, Ike would meet his fate. Retribution, not redemption., forever and ever.
The sword rose and fell, and along with it, darkness. Triumphant. Unconquered.
Ike longed for peace. The darkness gave it to him, until next year.