A Telltale Tug by Chrissie Rohrman (Winner of the Easter Contest, April 2020)
“Won’t catch no more’n his death out there,” Asa tuts as Old Man Degory lumbers past with his homemade fishing pole tipped over one shoulder.
Emeline watches silently until Degory’s folded form vanishes into the trees at the edge of town.
“The old fool,” Asa continues. Desperate for gossip, she leans in closer to hiss, “No one’s snagged a fish from Worrock since the ice took hold. It’s all dead under. But out he goes, ev’ry morn.”
Emeline nods along, hardly listening. A biting wind has shot forth from the trees and the sleek surface of Worrock Lake beyond, wrapping around her like it has singled her out among those in the square. She tugs her cloak tighter, but the chill is more than the wind, and burrows deeper than skin.
It’s the voice, the haunting, soothing sound carried by the wind directly to Emeline’s ears.
“Do you hear that?” she whispers, respectful – or perhaps fearful – of the song.
The plump woman clucks her tongue and waves a dismissive hand. “I don’t hear nuttin’.”
Bored of her company and empty of gossip, Asa waddles away.
Quietly contemplating the break in the tree where Degory disappeared, Emeline remains until the square empties and her toes freeze in her boots. She hasn’t trekked out to the perpetually frozen lake since she was a girl, when her father would bundle her in woolen layers for an afternoon of skating. She remembers feeling this odd tug even then, as she giddily carved circles in the thick sheet of ice. She’d heard this same voice whenever the wind picked up, this song that seems like it’s hers.
After Father died, she ignored the lake, keeping those easy, happy memories at a distance.
Of late, though, the tug from the lake has grown stronger, more so each morning. Emeline, without anything in this world to hold her back or keep her grounded, can no longer resist. She takes a step forward, then another, until she too is swallowed by the woods separating the town and the lake.
On the other side of the trees, she pauses short of the rocky shore. The northern mountains cast a broad shadow over most of the lake, dropping the already wintery temperature another ten degrees. Between brethren peaks stands a tall dam, constructed generations ago. This was a busy port town once, before the freeze. But too many ships failed to maneuver the narrow passage and too many sailors perished in these waters. The port had been closed and the dam erected, cutting off the lake from the sprawling sea beyond, and this town from the rest of the world.
Emeline turns her attention to the white expanse of the lake. Degory has set up with his pole near the center. All around him, the thick ice is peppered with holes from his many trips. Black water churns angrily below the surface, frothing up from the sawn holes. From a distance, it looks like it’s beckoning her to come closer.
On the opposite shore, two boys play-fish with branches, inspired by, or possibly mocking, the old man’s antics. As another frigid blast blows across the frozen surface, the song once more strikes Emeline’s ears and steals her attention. Her breath clouds as she steps closer still, until the toes of her boots flirt with the edge of the lake, the ice.
There are other stories surrounding the Port of Worrock. Tall tales of a siren who once called this lake home, who used her alluring, magical song to confuse ship’s navigators and foil otherwise smooth entries into port and then claimed their souls once they perished in the water. According to these stories, the siren managed to lure five children from town before being trapped beneath the ice in the same sudden, inexplicable freeze that left these parts in eternal winter.
The north wind whistles all around Emeline, stinging her cheeks and whipping her hair. She feels an urge to flee, but also, in an odd way, like she’s exactly where she’s meant to be. She stays at the edge of the ice, as frozen as the lake itself, and her heart flutters as the song reaches a crescendo.
When the wind, and the song, dies down, Emeline’s ears are left ringing. She feels strange – hollowed out and no longer bothered by the cold. She exhales experimentally, doesn’t see her breath.
Across the ice, the boys stand statue-still on the snowy bank. After a moment, they wave their arms and shout unintelligibly, their voices swallowed by the distance between them.
Confused, Emeline turns to see what has spooked them, but there is nothing behind her but the skeletal tree line, the path she’d taken to the lake. When she turns back the boys have scampered away, their branches lying abandoned in the snow. Old Man Degory is slipping as he hurries across the ice, but away from town. Away from Emeline.
She opens her mouth to call out to him and guide him in the right direction, but what comes out is song, as though pulled from deep within her. The same tune that has been haunting her for years.
It is the last thing she hears.
Degory stumbles to a stop, skidding on the slick ice, and rotates his hunched body toward the shore. He takes a step forward, then another. Entranced.
She grins as she tests out her new body, the one she chose years ago. She stretches her arms and rotates her neck as she waits for the old man to make his way across the lake. She’ll be stronger once she has him.
Satisfaction blooms in her cold chest as she kneels in the rocks and lays a hand against the lake’s frozen surface. It’s a pity that do-gooder witch of Worrock is long-dead; she won’t be around to see how she failed. This land has stood frozen for hundreds of years, for nothing.
She’s free, and now she’ll have them all.