The Mountain Under Vickwood by Ness Cernac


When Evans first perceived the Baby, she was left stunned for three hours afterwards as if she’d been whacked upside the head with a frying pan. Visions of it clouded her eyes over and it hovered before her, filling her mind to the brim until it blotted out the sky and the snow, the street lanterns and the dullness of her slowly numbing fingertips.

It did not leave her until the sun had begun setting and a passerby jostled her arm on the way home, apologizing profusely afterwards. The Baby receded from her mind—self-conscious at being interrupted—and Evans had gone home, cursing herself for reasons she didn’t wholly understand.

The Baby might have been startled from her mind, but there was no shortage of its presence as she returned home, ice-spikes on her boots gripping the frosted brick below. The visage of the Baby graced the tops of the lanterns, for the thought of the Baby lit the residents of Vickwood and spurred them forward. The Baby peeked back at her from store windows, chubby faced with gently inclined antennae on its perfect snow flea head. The Baby, carved in ice, graced the town square in aww-inspiring, chilly glory after a sculpting contest one week prior. The snowfall had left a thick dusting on its ice-carved head and back, like a little coat and hat. It was tender. It was gentle. It was helpless and serene: a sweet thing that asked for nothing and received everything. Evans wanted to die thinking about it.

Cora was home when Evans pushed her key into the door, head filled with the rotundness of the Baby’s outstanding bug-infant form.

Cora was home, and she was displeased again, for Cora had spent most of the last six months feeling displeased.

“You haven’t paid the water bill,” Cora said, in absence of a hello or how-are-you-honey. “It’s been a week. I could have done it if you’d told me you didn’t send the check in, but they’re going to shut it off now. Our pipes will freeze, Evans, and—”

Evans wasn’t listening. She hadn’t been listening for the last six months. She unwound the leather straps of her ice-spikes and set them to the side by the door before unlacing her boots. She had removed a boot and a half before Cora made a sound that took her by surprise.

“Evans,” Cora said, and she was now covering her face while making an awful shivery noise. “Evans, you can’t keep doing this. What happened to you?”

Nothing had happened to her—or at least nothing that could explain away the last six months.

She straightened up, hung her coat on the peg, and stared back at Cora, red-faced from the cold and jittery from her vision of the precious thing that graced the mantle of her very own fireplace in oak-carved form.

“I saw it,” she said, and the words filled her with a jittery excitement she hadn’t felt in years. It was less reverence than it was pure wonder, a cocktail of heart-rending thumps that left tears welling in her eyes, throat tight at the thought of it. “The Baby.”

Cora had seen the Baby long before Evans had met her, for Cora had grown up in Vickwood and learned nothing but the art of winding cinnamon rolls in her family’s bakery and opening her mind to envision the delicately chubby infant bug. Cora had seen the Baby, and it had filled her with purpose.

Evans had no such purpose and no such attachment to Vickwood and the mountain that lay beneath. She’d passed through on a logging expedition after breaking a leg. The leg had mended, but her desire to return to the warm country below had broken along with her bones. She’d stayed in Vickwood, still passive, but with a part of her mind enraptured by the large, gentle eyes on that lovingly rendered snow flea dotting every inch of the town.

“You saw—” Now Cora really was crying, having shifted far away from displeasure. “Oh, finally, finally…”

The others in Vickwood had envisioned the Baby long ago, and envisioned the Baby once or twice a month, if they were lucky. It was a mark of the bug’s reality that an entire town shared in its presence and shared their visions. The Baby was always gentle in shape, rounded and sweet, with large eyes and six chunky legs, and it beheld the residents of Vickwood through oil paintings and carvings, graffiti and inky textbook illustrations.

There was nothing else so precious and nothing else that had filled Evans’s chest with such warmth, warmth that flitted inside her even on the desolate mountain nights. It was a sweet, sad thing with no warmth of its own, and she felt it with every twitch in the mountain, every whisper of the wind. She had only seen it once, and she wanted to cry at how soon it seemed to have been frightened from her mind when she’d been bumped on the street.

Cora had made a roast for dinner, shiny and crispy out of the oven with gorgeous white blobs of mashed potato on the side.

Evans didn’t touch it and went to bed giddy, laughing and weeping in turn as she struggled to fall asleep.

Some three months later, Evans was once again late coming home.

The Baby had presented itself to her, round and benevolent, twice since her first encounter with it. The second time, she had rushed home and asked Cora to marry her, hair sticking up and icy with cold sweat. The third time, she had learnt woodcarving from the old retired lumberjack up the street just to be able to render the Baby’s face with her own hands. She’d come home with her work and Cora had kissed her senseless, setting the sweetly carved Baby on the coffee table as a centerpiece where it now presided over breakfast.

With each vision, Evans felt herself grow more inspired, more driven, as though the Baby was something she had to care and provide for. She pictured it nudging her like a gentle puppy, reminding her that others depended on her. It made doing things for Cora seem so much easier, so simple and necessary.

She mailed in the checks for the water bill, and the pipes did not freeze. She swept the living room and brought in the firewood. She washed the dishes and kissed Cora’s cheek every morning before she left for work.

She found herself willing to get out of bed. She found herself willing to move, even on days that would have made the old Evans slow and cold and sad.

On the day she was late coming home, she stopped in the town square and beheld the newest ice sculpture of the Baby. This one was softer and rounder than the one before, carved up and smoothed with love and devotion, and it pictured the Baby slumbering. The snow flea was curled up so round, so tender, that Evans beheld it and wept without shame, tears running down her cheeks and under her flannel collar. She shook before it, reverential, and felt that if only she could give it as much peace as the sculpture had, she would have lived a consequential life.

She was interrupted from her reverie by the wails of a man behind her.

He was sitting on the frosty red-brick curb, bathed in warm lamplight as he shivered shamelessly despite his thick overcoat and woolen hat. He noticed Evans’s eyes on him and jittered, beckoning her over and clicking his tongue.

“It’s too cold, don’t you see?” he asked, desperate. “It’s terribly cold.”

Vickwood’s temperatures were near-constant and, in the absence of snow, the town square was as passively icebox-y as always.

“Do you want my scarf?” Evans asked, and she unwound it from her neck, proffering it to him. She recognized him a bit. She couldn’t place his name, but he lived in a nicer house farther down the main road—a beautiful place, paid for by a trust fund and zero manual labor.

He batted her scarf away, horrified.

No! And don’t touch me. You’ll frighten it away!”

Ah. He was one of the lucky ones. Evans sat next to him on the curb, two careful feet away.

“Tell me about it,” she said, missing the Baby with everything in her heart.

“It’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever known,” the man said, closing his eyes in reverence. “But it’s too cold in there…”

So it was. Evans knew this, and it flitted through the consciousness of everyone else in Vickwood—everyone who had perceived the Baby knew it was something to be protected, something to be sheltered from the elements, and everyone in Vickwood would have bundled it in their arms if given the chance.

They couldn’t get close enough for that, and so settled for the next best thing.

Evans sat there on the curb, staring back at the ice-carved Baby in the town square while the jitters of the man beside her subsided.

When she stood an hour later, pained that the Baby hadn’t come to visit her again, she gazed back at him.

Frostbite had purpled his skin, little crystals of ice glimmering over him. The ice thickened as it traced down his body, freezing the soles of his boots to the ground. If he had been able to breathe, a frozen puff of air might have hovered midair before his darkened lips. He had become an empty shell of cold, an empty shell with a gently curved smile and eyes closed in reverence, eyelashes dotted with the shimmers of frost.

Through him, the Baby had been warmed. Through him, the Baby would persist. Through him, the Baby could live and slumber, protected.

Evans trekked home, head swirling with imaginings of the day when she too could freeze, and the Baby—her Baby—would be warmed.


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