Cover for Drabblecast episode Snow by Bo Kaier

The Drabblecast wraps up 2023 with a Drabbleganza, followed by a story about tough decisions and leaving things behind– a Drabblecast original by Em Liu, called “Snow.”  Happy New Year!

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Cover art by Bo Kaier


by Em Liu

I step out into the deep snow. In my right hand is a flashlight, in my left, a bag of salt. It’s a clear night, and there is no moon. I move towards the pine woods behind our house, the dark places beckoning with the fears of childhood, bleeding their inky depths towards the starlight overhead. Once I’m in, the treetops blot out the stars, and the darkness wraps its finger around my shoulders like an old friend.

Here again?

I ignore the voices in my head as I continue on. The ground snow is lighter beyond the tree line, thwarted by the forest canopy. The silence, that’s what always surprises me about winter. There is life, yes, but it’s buried or sleeping or frozen beneath the iced-over lake, the one I used to throw rocks at with my dad to hear the noise they made over the ice, like a power line failing, electric and shocking.

My heart pounds so hard it threatens to burst from my chest. Go-slow, go-slow, it says.

Here again, the voice answers.

Here again, after three years of glum desperation.

We always get snow early here. By Thanksgiving, there’s a reliable carpet, and my dad would take me out for evergreen boughs while my mom worked on the turkey in the house and watched the parade with my younger brother. We’d load up a kids sleigh with enough evergreen to decorate the mantel and make a wreath, and holly for every doorway. The holly was my dad’s favorite tradition, and he would set himself up like a toll operator and demand kisses for passage from each of us, until my mom, pretend-annoyed, would swat at him with whatever she was holding, and he would laugh, loud enough to be heard through the whole house.

I hear something and turn, shining my flashlight behind me. I’m deep enough now that the house is no longer in view. I am completely immersed in the forest. It’s like being submerged underwater, like how some people use the term “forest bathing,” as if you couldn’t drown in the forest.

Here again, here again.

Just a deer, I tell myself. A brave one, to be out and about in the deep darkness tonight. I move on, cautious, alert, my boots like hooves in the snow.

There had been no bough gathering this year, or last, or any of the years since my dad had been diagnosed and. My mother hadn’t wanted to celebrate Christmas that first year, and my little brother was still so little, too little for me to take out on my own. I ought to have continued the tradition the next year—it was my responsibility, as the older sister, as the one who ought to have been able to cope with the grief. I should have bundled Ryan up in his puffy red snowsuit, and taken him out into the woods.

But I was too afraid.

I’m getting close now, I can sense it, the way the trees thin, leading me to the clearing. There is that sense of entering someone else’s house: I am trespassing here, and I am only barely tolerated. The pine boughs twitch overhead, sending snow down on my shoulders, a warning that something strange has entered here.

I step behind a large tree and find what I am looking for.

The creature is a mottled black-green, the color of decaying things, and it’s sitting in the clearing, warming the snow to a pile of mush like a car left idling in the street. It’s squat and toad-like, albeit with none of the warts or charm.

Here again.

I toss a handful of salt between us, make a line.

“Hello,” I say.

The frog-slug-thing blinks and looks up at me without moving its—head. Its eyes are wide apart and watery, and its skin ends in spiny bits that look sharp to the touch. “You’re three years late.” It regards me carefully. “You have grown, Juel.”

It’s true. I feel it, feel myself hovering on the edge, waiting for childhood to fade into the place where make-believe goes.

The thing grins, showing too many black teeth and three red tongues. “Are you here for holly, Juel?”

I want to run. I want to throw my flashlight at its stupid face, tell it that cannot scare me anymore, that I am not a child any longer. It grins, and knows these things. It has always known without me having to say them.

“Your father is not here, Jules.” 

The thought of my dad steadies me. “Where is he then?”

“Not here,” the creature says again.

The last time my dad had been seen, he had been walking into these woods. I saw him from my window. He took a flashlight and a bag of salt. “He came here to bargain. He wouldn’t have left here without getting what he wanted.”

“Then you are a child still, placing faith in the adults around you.”

“Where is he?” I demand.

The creature looks away, and its silence is as vast as the forest. “He came here,” it says at last. “But he is not here anymore.”

“I don’t believe you.”

It looks at me, and this time I can see the sadness in its eyes. “You were such a determined child, Juel. But you have become a fearful adult. Like your father was.”

“My father wasn’t afraid of anything.”

“Oh, he was. His diagnosis…to know that one must lose oneself…and so young…it was a very scary thing, wasn’t it? Far scarier than I am. So he brought it to me, laid at my feet—if you’ll excuse the metaphor.”

“Where is he now?”

The creature looks reluctant. Then it says, “I told him I only bargained for holly. When I wouldn’t help him, he moved on.”

I frown. “You mean he went home?”

“I don’t know. That’s not the direction he moved.”
It looks beyond the clearing, to the place where the ink-black wood thickens again.

“This distresses you,” the creature says. “To learn something you already knew.”

“I didn’t,” I swipe furiously at my eyes with my freezing mittens. “I didn’t know he had died.”

“And you still do not,” it says, reasonably. The creature’s body is warm enough to radiate up the nearest trees, and the snow melts off the branches in a steady drip-drip.

“I can go after him.”

For three heartbeats, the only sound is the gentle crackling of the melting snow. “You have the confidence of a much younger person.”

“I stopped growing up three years ago.”

It’s then that I know that I’ve won. Its eyes meet mine, and I knew this is the bargain, this annihilation of the self, that the forest craves.

The creature stretches its mouth wide, and from its throat comes the electric sound of rocks on a frozen lake, the sounds of ice breaking, cracking, transubstantiating. And behind the ruckus comes the sound of music—songs of winter, of children building snowmen, of holly and bells and auld lang syne.

I fall to the ground, on my knees in the deep snow. The chords from the holly creature’s mouth continue to reverberate around the me, filling the forest, sinking into my bones just as the snow seeps into my jeans. I squeeze my eyes shut and my head fills with visions—my father kissing my mother under the mistletoe, tchotchke ornaments hanging above my head on a tree lit with multicolor bulbs, my brother playing with a truck on the carpet on Christmas morning.

And there, across the clearing, a path opens through the trees. The winds whips across my face and dries my eyes. He is there, I know it.

“And if you are lost, Jules?” The creature’s voice just barely cuts through the wind and noise, the lone tether to this side of the forest. “Who will rescue you?”

There isn’t any light in the path, only more darkness.

I think of my father, waiting for rescue among the black trees, a prisoner of his own fear. The price he paid to hold on to himself.

I think of my little brother, asleep in his bed, knowing that his sister will be there come morning, sure as sunrise.

And if I am not? Will he follow me into the dark? Will my mother come next, when her children are gone, until we are a family of skeleton trees?

I look at the black hole in the forest, and the holly creature looks at me. I shake my head, feeling my cowardice melted snow. The path across the clearing disappears.

“Go home to your family, young one.” The creature waves a hand, and I look over my shoulder and see a holly tree. “Bring them holly and good cheer.