By Sean Patrick Hazlett
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Rose made a hash of the rented one-room cabin, desperate to find her son asleep and hidden under a heap of toys and clothing. Shuddering, she tried to convince herself that her worst fears wouldn't be realized, but reason told her otherwise. Autistic children had a tendency to wander, and Kirby loved to explore.
Her heart beat with an accelerating crescendo as she imagined her helpless son freezing to death alone, buried amidst the silent snowdrifts of the high Sierras.
As she pulled her leggings over cheap white flannel undergarments, she glanced out a snow-fringed window. A pale yellow sliver of light slowly slipped beneath the horizon.
They had come here to get a break from the craziness and sorrow. Life as a single mother was hard, but raising an autistic child alone was harder still. Since oh-eight, Rose's world had gone topsy-turvy. Her husband's construction business had been riding high. Then the financial crisis hit, and they'd lost it all.
Rose burst out of the redwood cabin and into the misty twilight. She knew Kirby would've headed for the frozen lake. Since they'd checked into the cabin yesterday, the lake's diamond-like shimmer had enraptured the boy.
Trudging and stumbling through knee-deep snow, Rose raced past towering redwoods that bore silent witness to her terror. With her husband already dead, losing her son would destroy what was left of her sanity.In debt, unemployed, and desperate for cash, Jed had done the unthinkable: he'd blown his brains out with his father's Smith and Wesson, leaving her and her infant son to make do in the middle of an economic apocalypse. Three years later, Kirby had been diagnosed with autism.
After cresting a small rise, Rose saw a solitary child leaning against a redwood sapling on the lake's shore.
He waved excitedly at something in the mist.
Rose sprinted toward her son. But before she could reach him, he bolted out onto the lake. Rose's heart sank. She ran faster, terrified her son might fall through the ice.
Upon reaching the shore, she spotted a group of urchins in the distance. Draped in rags, they swirled in a nearly perfect circle around a shadowy form. Faintly, Rose heard them singing a melody that seemed familiar but that she couldn't quite place.
The dance mesmerized Rose. She watched in awe as the children slowly and inexorably carved a ring in the ice with their steady, rhythmic footfalls.
The urchins swallowed Kirby into their orbit. In the center of the rotating ring, the dark silhouette embraced Kirby.
Enraptured by the strange, hypnotic dance, Rose forgot her fear. The urchins whirled and spun, repeating the song over and over again. The cold of the biting wind vanished from Rose's consciousness. The circle became everything.
The wind abruptly changed direction, swirling the mist in its wake. And in that brief moment, Rose caught a glimpse of Kirby's murky companion.
It was a crone.
The old woman wore a ragged dress ill suited for the bitter cold. But somehow her attire seemed appropriate to Rose. And there was something familiar about the woman's eyes.
In the twilight, the mist hung in the air as if the lake were somehow stuck in time. A quieting stillness settled over Rose. Suddenly, her eyes caught a crack in the ice. Then another.
The dancing children had etched a circle into the frozen surface where water began to rise. As if choreographed, they raised their hands above their heads and then thrust them toward the surface. Then, in unison, they all dropped to their knees. A deafening boom resounded as a massive ringed fissure snaked its way through the ice, and the children fell into the lake's cold embrace. Rose gawked, enthralled by the spectacle. By the time she realized what had happened, her son was gone, and the crone and her ragged children had vanished into the lake.
Rose raced onto the ice, frantic with loss. She collapsed onto the surface and wept.
Overwhelmed by her loss, Rose could barely articulate what had happened. When she tried to describe the mysterious crone and her urchins to the authorities, her words came out as an incomprehensible muddle. The police dismissed her story as the ravings of a distraught mother devastated by the loss of her only son.
The official report chalked the tragedy up to simple wandering. Nearly half of autistic children exhibit wandering behavior, so the story stuck, and the investigation was closed. But in the following years, the local police never found a body.
Each year to the day, Rose made a pilgrimage to the lake. And each year, she'd lay a scarlet rose on the snowy ice.The memories of her son's ecstasy just before his death haunted her. She couldn't reconcile the cold-blooded brutality of it all. She could never come to terms with his loss. He was her everything, her reason for being. So she meandered through her melancholy life where she had neither hope nor solace.
For twenty-nine years, Rose repeated her grim winter ritual, marking the passage of the four seasons with a single blossom. She placed twenty-nine roses to mourn her loss; twenty-nine roses to bury the pain; twenty-nine roses to blunt time's erosion of spirit and memory. For nothing is more cursed than outliving one's only child.
On the thirtieth anniversary of Kirby's disappearance, Rose returned to the old cabin in the high Sierras to leave yet another flower on the ice.
As she slogged through the stubborn snow on the brink of twilight, her bones creaked with the weariness of age. She struggled up the modest slope and then carefully made her way toward the towering, gnarled redwood that had grown from a sapling thirty years prior.
She placed her hand on the tree's auburn bark as if she were greeting an old friend. The redwood had been one of the only other living things to bear witness to her annual pilgrimages since the beginning, and it would be here long after they ended.
She took a deep breath before reaching into her coat and pulling out the rose. Stepping onto the ice, she made her way to the spot where Kirby had vanished.
But today, she and the redwood weren't alone. Ahead, in the mist, she could hear the laughter of children. As she pressed forward, she saw ten shadows cavorting on the ice. Her heart fluttered. Could one of them be her Kirby? She quickly suppressed the thought given its absurdity. After all, if Kirby were still alive, he wouldn't be a child, but a man fully grown.
Her vision wasn't what it used to be. She squinted to get a better look, but even a young woman's eyes would have failed to penetrate the shrouding mist.
And yet, despite all logic, and full of hope, she called out, "Kirby! Is that you?"
Giggles met her query. So she pushed onward.
When she had nearly reached the children, she came to the realization that none of them were Kirby. How could they be? Kirby had long since disappeared into the lake. And now Rose feared this scene spelled the onset of dementia or some other cruel affliction of the mind.
Rose's sorrow must have been palpable, for one of the boys smiled, placed his hand in hers, and said, "My name's Bobby. What's yours?"
"You look sad. Stay with us a while. We promise we'll cheer you up."
Tears welled in Rose's careworn eyes, and a smile creased her lips. "Okay."
The children locked hands, formed a ring around Rose, and sang, "Ring Around Rosey."
Rose clapped and laughed as the pure joy of childhood innocence washed over her. Since before losing Kirby, she'd never felt this happy. She'd almost forgotten the feeling of bliss.
The children frolicked around her until declaring, "Ashes, ashes, we all fall down."
And fall they did, into a circle of shattered ice.
Rose struggled against the frigid water until it claimed her forever.
Rose emerged from the ice into a realm of eternal winter. Surrounded by her wayward children, she wandered the void in search of her little Kirby.
Forever young, the children amused themselves by dancing around their foster mother, singing "Ring Around Rosey."
In the endless winter through which Rose and her children roamed, she began to love them as if they were her own. Yet there was still a hole in her heart that longed to see her son once more.
On rare occasions, Rose and her adopted brood would pass into the mortal realm, always in the depth of winter and always on that lake of shattered hope. Her yearning for Kirby intensified to the point of desperation. But he never appeared.
No one ever did.
Through many winters, Rose and her children ambled along the frozen lake searching for Kirby. And each winter, the great redwood sentinel on the shore seemed to diminish in its majesty.
Just when Rose had all but yielded to despair's black abyss, she noticed a boy waiting at the lake's edge. She smiled, and her adopted children began to traipse around her. The lone child leaned against the adolescent redwood, waving and clapping at the display. Rose motioned for the distant boy to join in the revelry.
After some coaxing, the boy dashed onto the ice, and Rose's children quickly engulfed him into their fellowship. Blinded by hope, Rose laughed and danced with her brood until the boy collapsed from the cold.
It was only then Rose realized the child was not hers. Tonight some other mother would discover her son missing and suspect the worst. But now that the child had passed into Rose's care, she'd be his surrogate mother for all time.
When winter shadows rise over dark horizons and sunder the night sky, time's branches sometimes twist and fold, warping the veil between life and death in a temporal carousel, where endings are beginnings and beginnings are endings.
As Rose's children circled her in dance, she spotted another boy waving from the shore who reminded her of Kirby.A small part of her resisted calling the boy out onto the lake, but another part - hardened and tempered by the ice - overwhelmed her with an insatiable need to pull the child into her eternal orbit.
Her immortal children spun and sang their eerie tune. The boy clapped and jumped to the spellbinding rhythm.
As the dance reached a fever pitch, the boy lunged out onto the ice and bolted toward the circle. Rose smiled in satisfaction.
In the distance, another figure darted toward the shore. As it came closer, Rose instinctively knew it was the boy's mother. But the dazzle of the dance was too much for the poor woman, who stood dumbfounded by the redwood sapling on the lake's edge.
The children's heels cut deeper into the ice, carving a ring that began to pool with water. The boy's dancing and clapping began to slow. He shivered. His lips were turning blue. As the death grip of hypothermia took hold of the boy, Rose looked back toward the young woman enthralled by the dance. Then, gazing into the eyes of the dying boy, Rose now knew beyond any doubt it was her Kirby.
With a start, she glanced back toward the shore and recognized her younger self. And in that instant, the ice broke, and she and her immortal children shifted back into the void between realms, that netherworld of dark dreams where the snowflakes of time and memory drift backward forever.