The Silver Thaw

Written by Sarah Sasson.  Illustrated by Eric Benedict.

 I

It was the cat I saw leaving first. My ears pointed in the dusk near the gates of the Northern Kingdom as I waited for a safe run to the burrow. The black in her tortoiseshell coat merged with the darkening light. She’d had a litter the month before, the kittens stuck close to her and mewed, apart from the littlest. The runt. She held that in her jaws, its body limp and eyes closed. She saw me as she left, but our scent had already given us both away. She looked at me with cold jade eyes and spoke in that way animals did, through her stare and body, without opening her mouth. The message was not one of mammalian camaraderie: I would eat you, but my mouth is already full. She left with the kittens, the tension in her haunches contrasted with the body of the runt that had submitted, was dreaming, or was already dead.

The next day I hid in the castle pantry.

“It’ll be the worst in fifty years,” the cook said, stirring a pot over flames.

“What’s that?” the younger kitchen-maid asked.

“The ice storm, it’ll hit any day now.”

“Aye, my brother’s a woodchopper, he’s been stockpiling for a week. How long ‘til it thaws?”

The cook shook her head and added flour to the pot. “Who knows with such a cold winter, could be months.”

“Will we have enough food?”

It was then I heard it: the high-pitched crack of fear in her voice.

The cook looked around the kitchen, then into the soup.

“We’ll be fine,” the cook said, but her pause belied her.

In the pantry, I saw the truth: baskets for onions and carrots less than a third full. The meat-hooks that normally hung with upside-down pheasants and hogs, thick-skinned with salt, were sparse.

“Why don’t we leave, isn’t there royal land Southward?”

“Because,” the cook brought a ladle to her lips and blew, “we all know the King is a fool.”

I was fascinated by humans speaking.  I listened to the sounds that tumbled from their mouths, those words they relied on. How often they confused one another, when they couldn’t read each other’s eyes or bodies.

“Fetch some garlic,” the cook said.

I saw heaviness in the kitchen-maid’s step, thick ankles as her work-boots approached me.

“A rabbit!” she shrieked. Before she had the sense to catch me, I bolted out the door.

*

Outside I saw the woodpile, a tower against the sky. Round pale ends with growth rings that signified hundreds of years.

At the gate, I saw a fox sneak out, and a threadbare donkey waited nearby.

You should leave too. He said with his eyes as he pulled back his lips and showed me his teeth. This whole place is going to freeze. The rope he had gnawed through trailed behind him when he left.

Inside the tunnel that led home, the earth felt colder and harder against my body.

It’s true, I told my family as we huddled together. The ice storm is coming.

My brothers and sisters snickered. You should spend more time in the meadows and less time listening to the humans., They mess with your head.

We have survived far worse, my mother said.

I couldn’t sleep. My mind returned to the sky-high woodpile, spaces in the larder, the kitchen -maid’s voice and the steely eyes of the cat. On one side of me my brother wriggled in his sleep, on the other my sister’s body pushed into mine with every breath. I didn’t want to leave them but was more afraid to stay.

*

Before sunrise I was digging in the kitchen garden.  The soil held tiny ice crystals. Winter crops were sparse. I dug out a small leek and ate hurriedly. It tasted of nothing. I thought of the journey ahead: over plains and into forest, through a mountain range. Other animals were heading to the Southern Kingdom where it was told there was a castle by the sea, and I intended to join them.

A howling wind blew outside the gate and snowflakes started to fall, just a few at a time. Catching on the wind and dancing in flurries. I looked back and tried not to think of my family as they slept in what might become their tomb.

It would take days to reach the forest, a trek that began on a dirt road. I felt exposed. That drove me forward, bound by bound.

On the second day, the ground vibrated. I heard them first, a low rumble on the ground like rain. The horses from the Northern Kingdom were galloping, some in overnight coats, some saddled with riders and others bareback, their flanks glinting in the sun. I recognised the Huntsman, the Blacksmith and a young boy, the stable -hand. I watched from the side of the road where I hid from the blur of hooves.

I imagined the horses arriving South and I longed not to be a rabbit, but a greater being. The horses would be brushed and given new stables and be used to hunt, joust and parade. A rabbit was of no use, apart from to be hunted, or skinned, or stewed.

*

I saw him for the first time on the eve of the third day, a young man against the tree -line, shimmering in crimson and gold: the King’s only son. He was sharpening his sword on a whet-stone.

“Hey there,” he said, smiling when he saw me. He looked across the plains towards the castle. “You made it.”

That night the humans sat around the fire in a ring. Further back were horses, donkeys and dogs. I didn’t see that cat with her kittens, but I sensed that she might be there and was grateful that the Prince had me hidden in his robes.

“Yer not worried then, about leaving yer family,” the Blacksmith asked. “Losing your claim to the throne?”

“Ahh,” said the Prince “it’s no good being heir if I’m made of ice.” Laughter erupted.

“Once I took the King on a chase,” said the Huntsman “the horse went forward and yer Da fell backwards!” They traded stories about the King. The Prince listened and sometimes laughed, just under his breath in a way that was soft.

As he talked the Prince ran his fingers over my ears and when he listened his hand rested in the fur on my back. When he found a burr, he picked it out from near my skin.

Later inside a hollow tree, the Prince took off his armour and used his outer robes to make a bed. I slept on his torso, my body below his ribcage, belly to belly. I moved up and down with his breath. The Prince reminded me of a newborn kit: all pink skinned and furless.  In the needing of sleep, we seemed not so different.

*

When I woke, the Prince was gone and my paws were on dirt. Outside the stable-hand was calling out, looking to the top of a large conifer.

“Come down sire!” he yelled. I saw the Prince’s head near the top of the tree as he tried to gage the distance.

A flock of black geese flew in, their colour striking against the morning sky. When they were closer, screeching overhead, we saw they weren’t birds at all, but bats.

“That’s odd,” said the stable-hand.

“The trees must’ve frozen,” said the Blacksmith. “They’ve nowhere to land.” The sky was full of leathery wings when their tiny monster faces should have been asleep.

There was a crack from the tree and a series of sounds that followed: wood splitting, flesh being pummelled, groaning. The Prince fell down the tree and landed amidst bracken. He rose afterwards and seemed to laugh it off, but later I saw him shaking his right hand, staring at the wrist. and I knew he was hurt.

By midday the humans were on horseback dressed in coats with their belongings in swags. The fire had burnt out, and new white snow fell into the charred patch where embers had been.

“Should make it by week’s end,” said the Huntsman. The Prince was beside him, his injured right hand laying in his lap.

“Southward!” The Prince brought his heels into the sides of the horse, it lurched into action. I thought he looked down to where I was and winked, but it may have been a trick of the light.

*

I moved through the forest with other middling animals. The squirrel said the gate to the Southern Kingdom was kept by an Oracle, who determined if you would enter. If you did, she would grant a single wish.

We quickened when we saw the pond, only to find it had frozen over. Driven by thirst we tried to stick our noses in but they hit dark glass. We sat there, pawing at the cold surface, breaking our claws.

I lost the other rodents as we exited the forest.  One moment they were there, and the next I was neck-deep in snow, scrambling to stay on top. I tried to focus on the distant mountain range, and use it to mark my way.

I lost track of the days. When night came, I dug into the snow, as low as I could, until I felt the ground. A burrow of ice. I huddled into my fur. I could feel it sitting on my bones with no fat between. I went numb around my edges. I could no longer feel my tail, ears or nose. I curled everything around my heart and hoped that it would keep beating.

*

At the foot of the mountains was a white mound. As I got closer I saw it was a grave of sorts. The body lay on its back, the snow piled up and around it.

I had to climb onto the body, to crawl up and look into its face before I recognised the Prince. I crept over him, inspecting with my nose and whiskers. He lay as if sleeping but his skin was blue-white and hardened. His face was unmarked and he was still in his tunic and robe. His right hand was swollen and disfigured, frozen the colour of blood-plum. Someone had taken his shoes and his sword. At first, I thought he’d died of exposure, until I saw what was in his left palm: three and a half mushrooms with long stalks and white caps. I recognised them instantly as toxic. Destroying angels. My father had shown them to me when I was old enough to venture out alone. Had he been intentionally poisoned? Or eaten them accidentally? Was the pain in his hand too much to carry? There was no way of knowing.

Desolation passed over me. The mountains seemed to rise up, becoming insurmountable. If the Prince hadn’t made it to safety, with his stature and knowledge and entourage, what chance did I have? I curled up on his stomach, only this time instead of transmitting warmth, he drained it. I laid my ears down on my back, my heart rate lowered. Everything slowed. I listened to the wind and the snow. All the things that seemed to matter, no longer did.

SilverThaw_A_03

*

Time passed. I opened my eyes a crack and saw pigs, their trotters pushing into the snow, their pink and black bodies thinner than they should be, but still pig-like. After were ducks in a long line. Then swans, those strange majestic beasts navigating the snowfield with webbed feet, half unfolding their wings to balance. The slowest animals were now overtaking me. I huddled on the body of the Prince, not wanting them to see. I closed my eyes and felt fear, loneliness and the coldness of my shame.

*

I didn’t hear it coming for me. I felt only the leathery wire of talons closing in and lifting.

The owl beat her wings, climbing into the air. and I watched the ground become further away. The shape of the Prince against whiteness became smaller.  I saw the way I had travelled, the dirt road frozen, the surface of it catching the sun. The Northern castle and its surrounds had been blasted with water and frozen into ice. Trees bent into peculiar shapes, branches hung with icicles, and fruit was encased in crystal baubles. The Kingdom transformed into a giant ice sculpture.

My mother never called them ice storms. It was the owl., I couldn’t see her face, just the grey down of her under-feathers. The thoughts were transmitted; I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me, or herself. She called it The Silver Thaw.

As the owl headed South, I saw capped mountains and felt claw-tips on my underside. Perhaps drawing blood. I hung there, terrified above a world I only knew from the ground. Even though I knew I would die, there was a part of me that was glad to have seen such horrific beauty.

*

The owl’s head took the impact of the Southern Wall. I heard the thump and sickening crunch. Its feathered body cushioned my fall.

When I looked up, I saw a deer stag inspecting us. The stag looked at the body of the owl, then to the sky, then back to me as I extracted myself from loosened claws.

Owls shouldn’t be flying during the day, it’s too bright. They can’t see properly. He shook his head and walked away.

It was warm outside the Southern Kingdom. I waited in line to meet the Oracle. The horses, humans and greyhounds were at the front, and around me were the dormouse, the voles and the badgers.

The Oracle was on a stool and had hair that touched the ground. She was surrounded by easels holding mirrors of different shapes and sizes, framed ornately in brass and pewter.

When it was my turn, I stood in front of the mirrors and saw my body reflected from many angles: my coat had turned grey, the fur on my tail patchy. My ears had large pieces missing. The shape of my hips and ribs stuck out through my fur.

“Come in,” said the oracle, raising her hand to the gate. I hobbled forward wanting a full belly, a long drink of water and to lie in the sun. I heard villagers laughing, could smell grain and something else. I stood on my hind legs; there was a new scent that was both bitter and sweet. Sea salt.

Do I get my wish? I asked.

“What would you wish for?”

I thought about my earlier desire, to be transformed.

I wish to have a brave heart, I said.

“Oh rabbit,” the oracle said as she tilted her head back and laughed. “Have you forgotten your family? How you succumbed in the snow?” Her gaze was on the creatures that waited.

In that final moment before I was dismissed she looked at me and said,

“Don’t you realise? It was your fear that saved you.” 

II

I was in my twenties as an intern, that year we were pushed from university into the linoleum floored, blue walled, frenetic world of the hospital. A building open all hours to the hurt, sick and dying. A place that never sleeps. Stav was an intern with me. I knew him from lectures, which is to say I knew him from afar. He was about the same height as me with classic brown-haired, brown-eyed good looks. He approached everything in medical school, from exams to fundraisers and parties, with a ferocious intensity. Stav finished our degree with a bunch of prizes and everyone knew he could be whatever he wanted, which was to be a Cardiologist.

We hadn’t spoken much before that first day in the Emergency Department, when we were shown the stack of patient files and told go.

“…and watch out for Dr Parsi, Head of Orthopaedics,” one of the residents warned. “He can reduce even the best junior doctors to tears.”

We were the first to see the patients, take their histories, examine their bodies, push needles into their arms to collect blood. To give them fluids, or morphine. Then we would find a senior doctor to confer with. To admit a patient, we would phone the Registrar from the appropriate team. It was up to them to call the Specialist. The information got passed up the hierarchy, like in the army.

Being an intern was learning to function under layers of fear: the fear of not knowing enough, of harming someone, of death, of being in over your head, of realising you will never be good enough. Becoming a doctor was learning to function though those layers wound over you like cling-wrap: how to walk and speak and write despite the binding.

*

“I think my patient has meningitis,” I told Stav during our second month.

“He needs a lumbar puncture then,” Stav replied.

This meant lying the patient on their side and exposing their back, and cleaning their skin with a pink antiseptic that smelled of sweet chlorine, before injecting an aesthetic. That was the easy part. Then I would count their vertebrae. When I found the right place, I would attempt to pass a hollow needle into their back, through their skin, between their bones until it reached their spinal cord.  I would continue slowly until the needle passed into the spinal canal, letting cerebral spinal fluid flow into the collecting tubes. It was a procedure I had read about and seen a few times, but I had never successfully done myself.

I looked at Stav, the cling-wrap over my chest felt tight.

“I can’t do them,” I said. “I always miss.”

“It’s all about the positioning.” Stav helped me curl the patient into a foetal position. He felt down their spine before drawing an X in marker where I should aim.

I pushed the needle in and felt the membranous barrier give way, the fluid dripped into the chamber of my needle. Stav watched as my eyes lit up. The cling-wrap around my chest loosened, making it easier to breathe.

*

Two months later, Stav and I were on an evening shift. He arrived wearing aviator sunglasses, jeans and a t-shirt, and then changed into scrubs. When he took his sunglasses off I saw fine lines of tiredness around his eyes and a soft blue haze underneath, like a bruise.

“I had the biggest day yesterday,” Stav told me later, after we had picked up our first files. He had been at a dance -music festival. I had seen pictures of it online: oversized guys that walked around with no shirts on, and all the girls were beautiful.

After lunch, I saw Stav shaking his right hand when he was trying to write.

“What happened to your hand?” I asked.

“I fell. Yesterday. When I was dancing, in the crowd.”

“Maybe you need to see someone about it, if it’s hurting.”

“Yeah, I think I’ll get it x-rayed.”

The following week, he logged into the computer system and assigned himself a medical record number. He went to radiology to get hand and wrist x-rays.

Later, I saw him in the corridor.  I was arriving to work as he was leaving. His wrist was in a crepe bandage.

“The report says it’s not broken, but it still hurts,” he told me. “And feel this.”

He took my thumb and pressed it into the small divot at the base of his right thumb. I knew the bone underneath was the scaphoid, the depression was called the snuff box.

After he was gone, that’s what I remembered most clearly: the two of us standing in the dim corridor surrounded by chipped paint, the hum of overhead fluorescent lights and the sounds of other people’s sadness. I remember pushing down on Stav’s wrist and feeling it move underneath the skin: a crackle and pop of gas, the crunchiness of sand, a softness not normally associated with bone.

*

“What’s up?” I asked Stav. It was a Saturday and I was arriving for the afternoon shift. We were at the station in the centre of the room. All around us people were delivering files, typing notes, speaking loudly on the phone. Stav’s gaze was fixed on the bed directly opposite him in the resus bay, the section reserved for the sickest patients.

“It’s just so sad,”he said.

“What is?” A family was gathered around a person lying on the resus bed. I couldn’t see the face of the patient, just their feet pointing from underneath the sheet, and further up the shape of their body.

“The guy is only twenty-six. I looked after him last time.” Stav tucked the file he was holding under his left arm and rubbed his eyebrows with his right hand.  His eyes were closed.

“He’s got melanoma. There are tumours all over his body, through his brain. He can’t even walk anymore.”

The bedside scene changed after that. The stillness of the body under the sheet augmented. He wasn’t just resting, he was paralysed. His parents and younger brothers were the only people in the department who did not seem rushed.

I had five moles I knew about. One on my left earlobe, one on my neck, one on my right shoulder and one on my back. They sat on the surface of my skin like small sultanas. Out of all the twenty-six-year-olds who spent their summers at the beach, why was it was one of his moles that got damaged, went rogue and spread through his body: a black cellular fire that no one could put out?

The youngest brother held up his phone for the patient to see. The mother stood closest to the bed with her right hand stroking her eldest son’s forehead. When she stopped doing this she let her hand rest in the nest of his hair. Part of her was always in contact with him, as if after all those years, he was again attached to her body. She reclaimed him.

*

Sunday shifts somehow stretched out and felt longer than twelve hours. The mornings were slow.  Most suburbanites slept in and rose for lazy breakfasts, drinking their coffee and reading the paper, dropping globules of marmalade across the newspaper. After lunch, it busied with sporting injuries, falls from a ladder, car accidents, infections that declared themselves. One Sunday morning as I walked around the back of the department, a door clicked open and Stav emerged.

“Where’ve you been?” I asked.

Stav looked sheepish. He ran his fingers through his hair to make sure the middle section stood up a bit.

“Ah, you’ve caught me out. I’ll show you, but you can’t tell.”

It was probably a storage room, but someone had put an old hospital bed in there that was made up with fresh linen. There were no windows, so I figured it would be pretty dark when the light was out.

“And the best bit,” Stav leaned past me to close the door. “It locks from the inside.”

“So, you just come and hang out in here during your shift?” I asked.

Stav was lying on his back on the bed, using his hands to cradle his head in a way that made the muscles in his arms jut out.

“Nah, I don’t hang out. I only ever come in here to sleep. Sometimes I’m just so tired. These shifts are so long. If the waiting room is empty, I just sneak in here, set my alarm and just have forty minutes. I feel so good after.”

It was genius.

“Medicine is hard. You have to take care of yourself.” He said this as he got up and stood so close to me I could smell his aftershave. He reached behind me. “You know, you can use it too.” He raised his eyebrows slightly, his hazel irises caught the light as he unlocked the door.

*

After three months, Stav and I were more competent and we no longer felt fraudulent introducing ourselves as doctors. Occasionally, after hours, the ED doctors asked us to call admitting specialists directly. That went badly one afternoon for Stav, when he was asked to admit a patient with a broken hip and inadvertently wound up on the phone to Dr Parsi.

Stav relayed the story to me, how he introduced himself on the phone before launching into a description of the patient and management so far. There was a pause before heard Dr Parsi’s voice.

“Stav, I may have missed it, but what level of doctor are you?”

“I’m an intern, in the ED.”

Dr Parsi was furious. “How dare you call me directly, I don’t take admitting calls from interns!”

Afterwards, Stav could see the humour, as he profusely apologised for the offence. After Stav had apologised profusely for the offence, he could see the humor. As he retold the story to me, his eyes went glassy, relief welling up in them.

“The worst part was,” he continued, trying to stifle a chuckle, “after he finished talking he didn’t hang up, so we were both still on the phone, silent, not knowing what to say.”

We both keeled with laughter at, the image of Dr Parsi at home, affronted by Stav’s naïve pluck. Stav, entrapped on the phone, not knowing how to end the interaction.

“What did you do?” I managed to ask.

Stav mimed both hands, holding the receiver to his face as he moved closer to an invisible telephone cradle.

“Ok, ok,” he whispered into the mouthpiece and then, just as he inverted the handset, “I’m going to hang up now.” He turned the handle upside down and placed it on the imaginary phone. We shook silently: that feeling of time halting as our abdomens were in spasm and tears fell from our eyes. I had to sit down in case I lost control of my bladder. It was a joy so fierce and fleeting, so unexpected that it made me nauseous.

SilverThaw_B_03

*

It was a colleague who told me four years later, when I was working on the wards in a different hospital.

“Have you heard?” they asked. “Stav’s dead.”

The floor tilted.  I put my hand on the desk in front of me to steady myself.

“What happened?” It was the first thing I asked and the question that I would keepkept asking over and over, even now years after his death. The answers hid, and when they eventually came out, they were dressed in costumes.

Stav was due at work. When he didn’t turn up, someone called his family, who called the police, who broke into his apartment and found his body in bed.

That’s all I know about Stav’s death. The long and the short of it. The truth and the lie of it. There were rumours that he suicided, a narrative that never sat well with me and seemed to rub against Stav’s optimism and ambition. His togetherness. But was everything I knew about him a false front?

Then I heard a story of misadventure, that he had been at a dance party, drinking and on drugs and fell asleep, accidentally overdosing on alcohol, amphetamines and sedatives. Maybe he was over-sedated, and lost his airway during the night. . It was a version that made more sense to me. I imagined Stav on his last night, his lithe body on a podium, veiled in confetti made of light that bounced off his aviators, as he danced. I hoped underneath his chemical buzz there was something that resembled happiness; that if his death was accidental, the shift from sleep into the unliving was without pain.

The last speculation I heard years later, a dark horse that rode past me and knocked me down. When I looked up, all I could see was the black glint of its flank. Someone had said that Stav had become addicted to cocaine. That he was trying to get clean by using other things, to replace one drug with another, and on the night he died, Stav had injected into his arm.

I would spend the rest of my life wrestling with the possibility, trying to hold the shape of that person in my hands: someone who spent one part of their life using illicit drugs, and the other part covering it up. I tried to force their silhouette into the outline of the Stav that I knew. I failed every time. Stav stood still while the shadow danced mockingly behind him like a jester; a slapstick joke in an old cartoon.

*

At the funeral the church overflowed with family, friends and medical colleagues. People who perhaps once thought they knew Stav. Now it felt like I only knew one side of him, that if I walked around him like a fountain from each angle there would be a different person, with a different face, a different intent.

“What can we learn from Stav’s life?” the priest asked, in a segue between the eulogy and the part that came after. I don’t know. I know that he was generous with his knowledge and empathetic. He showed me there were hidden rooms in Medicine where it was possible to take care of yourself, even amidst chaos, and even if he never ultimately found that for himself.

*

As the years roll on, I find my need to know the truth of what happened to you surprisingly grow, rather than subside. I imagine phoning your grieving parents and clumsily trying to explain who I am, what walk-on part I played in your life. I imagine asking to know how and why you died. The detail. Because it has become apparent that my claim on you is small, but not insignificant.

I role-play this by myself, pretend conversations into an invisible telephone, and I am reminded of that time we shared. The sickening curl of my stomach the moment our laughter became sublime: the twist when I glimpsed for an instant that the core of everything is at once frightening and absurd.

[1] Names and other details have been changed

Sarah Sasson is an Australian physician-writer with degrees in English Literature and Medicine. She has previously had poetry, short stories and creative non-fiction published. Sarah is currently living in Oxford, United Kingdom and is writing her first novel. (Twitter @sarah_sasson)

Eric Benedict is a graphic artist living in Los Angeles.  

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