Tuesday
Dec132011

Warmth

Matt Runkle




We have to bobsled into this story, the land so wide and icy, the light the last flash of blue before warmth before freezing to death, the Christmas dirges, their sounds of washtub tin, their creaking chimes, the time so long ago that people still bemoaned the birth of Christ.

The queen was the mother of Christ, according to the cozy myths that arose, the hay-smelling crèche, the reindeer at dumb attention, the humble scene upon which she built her empire. There was a need at the time for a despot who was easy to ridicule, and the queen, her hood askance, her pitchfork slick in the belly of a seal, the queen served this need like a waitress.

Remember now the tender pocket that forms around the moment when, on a winter's day in a diner, someone comes and drops a ramekin of butter on your table. Remember now Christmas, the Christmas of carols not dirges, the Christmas you know, the Christmas of modern-day Christ. Now peer beyond the sheet-thin walls of ice and meet our heroes, Grinn and Bear. They sleep without blankets, makeshift warm in each other's embrace, their sleep, though flurried, made safe by love.

The currency of the time was warmth, believed by most to be found near hearths and heating ducts or clothed in luxuriant hides. Those without it submitted to justice and were soon found frostbitten. Only those few who were lucky in love could survive such a dire lack.

A cold subject is a dead subject, the queen told her general. And hooray for the rest of us. Sensing the onset of a bad case of palace fever, she'd decreed the construction of a pipeline, portioning out a fraction of her great store of warmth to run the length of it. The pipeline would be heated and flooded with water, and would accommodate her gondola as she oozed from coast to coast, like slow maple syrup on its way out the tap, ferried in viscid comfort. Your labor will keep you in furs, the queen wrote her subjects in her folksiest tone.

Our sweat will keep us in frost, Grinn responded as he squinted through his billowing breath at the queen's decree, which he'd found tacked to the hatch of their ice hut this morning. He saw that Bear, still sleeping, fuzzy as he was, was beginning to shiver, and edict still in hand, Grinn crawled back onto the mat and slept again, wearing his man like a cloak.

He dreamed of the snow lizard, a beast few believed in anymore. It clacked and rattled and sighed as it slipped between the crisp black trees.

So this is our last lazy day, Bear said hours later, when they woke for the second time. Grinn kissed his fur, breathed in his toasty smell. We'll have to have a good attitude about this, Bear said. At least we'll be warm. Grinn refrained from a welling litany of complaints. Rolling back off the mat, he touched the tiny mouth-like mark on his thigh, the place Bear carefully avoided, the icicle scar he'd earned while building the queen's hunting retreat.

 

And so, once again, cue the Christmas dirges, the eel-skin percussion, the sound of cracking jaws, the groans at moments of impact, the cranes and drills at either coast, the dull gray tubes creeping slowly inland in hopes of converging, one year later, in the palace at the pipeline's completion.

Bear had been right, Grinn saw now, while the work wasn't quite pleasant, at least their long days of labor were clothed in warmth. He entered the unfinished end of the pipeline with another length of heating duct, paused, trembling with effort, and aligned it with the seventy miles of duct they'd already installed. He let the warmth envelope him, the unsubtle blast from the furnaces they dug at half-mile intervals. He tried to catch the downturned eye of Bear, who bore the other end of the duct, his bristly chest, his glistening flank, the look on his face oddly knotted. For the first time in their lives, they had the luxury of being shirtless, of seeing each other labor with minimal clothes.

To Grinn, they seemed to have struck some sort of heatmine, eighteen hours a day of warmth, all-you-can-drink cider after work, and when people died on the job, they died from heatstroke. It was nothing like the building of the hunting retreat or the sleighing lodge, the constant dodging of dangers and quests for small warmth. The nights here were almost tropical, and while they weren't allowed to sleep inside the pipeline, the royal guard like fangs in the hot and yawning maw, they could sleep near enough it to be out of the snow.

Nothing, said Bear, when asked what was wrong. We're the warmest we've ever been in our lives. If anything, I'm worried we'll never be this warm again.

It was unlike Bear to worry, but then Grinn attributed this to his inexperience. Bear was six years younger than he, and had never been drafted for work by the queen before, had never stood waist deep in the sapphire pools of Glaciatica, had missed the swinging icicle hammers that chiseled the cornices of the infamous hunting retreat. True, Grinn said. This gig is keeping us in furs. Let's enjoy it while it lasts.

Bear sighed, a high, slackening sigh without any trace of phlegm. Now that we've had a taste, though, can we ever go back? Can we ever be happy and slightly cold like we were before?

Grinn pulled him closer, worried now himself. Something unforeseen was emerging in Bear.

Remember now that dry, decadent feeling that wakes you in the night, the clicking of the baseboard heater, that long, drawn out coffin against the wall. A rush for the thermostat, an urge to ease too much of a good thing. After seventy more miles of pipeline, and seventy more after that, as Grinn and Bear and hundreds of other workers neared the capitol, this was the prickly state they were in.

Except they were exhausted. Just outside the city limits, by the light of a 3 a.m. moon, as Grinn yellowed a snowdrift with his cidery piss, he thought he caught a glimpse of the snow lizard, a quickly slithering shoot past the leafbare trees.

 

The queen surveyed plans for the pipeline's dedication, framed by a newly knocked hole in the palace wall. Beside her, the royal reflecting pool, her regalia of gondolas awaiting release. Her arms held akimbo, she stood dwarfed amid a gown that spread across the floor like a rug, its trim an awkward jumble of twelve entire deerskins. In the distance, the small clinks and clanks of the work party, the tiny glow of the pipeline's approaching mouth. Behind her, her court: her torchbearers, her general, her nurse rolling an elaborate crystalline carriage.

Peer now inside the carriage, around and through its shimmering prismic walls, to the bundle inside, swaddled in ermine, unmoving and long undisturbed. Is it the Christ child, you ask, but you can tell already it's not, as you move aside the furs for a look. The nurse, who seems a bit worn from keeping this burdensome secret, is pushing a carriage containing a snow lizard's skull.

That Christ did not exist was a rumor heard by every wind-chafed ear in the land. Those who refused to believe it, in fact, were few, the ones prone to fear, who worried their slightest misstep would set the child wailing with fury, and with a flick of his chubby fingers, fling them into an even icier realm. The rest of the subjects took it for granted there was never any baby in the carriage, and because of this, pitied the queen, as few things were as pathetic as a woman with an empty pram. This pity and fear combined to create ideal ruling conditions, as both emotions were anathema to revolution, and the queen had rarely seen challenges to her power.

They're not approaching very quickly, the queen said to her general. Are they?

Yes, my queen. But we can hear them. And see them now, can't we?

The queen's smile belied the store of warmth she had at hand.

Meanwhile, just beneath the mile-thick crust of rock supporting the palace, the queen's great store of warmth harrumphed and hissed, stirred from its dormancy by recently tapped arteries at east and west. The truth was, and we can see this now from our perspective, the queen held deed to far more warmth than even she knew, for just below the reachable limits of earth lay a frothing and sizzling swarm, a redness that rotated ever so slowly, a growingly restless mass giving birth again and again, birthing then swallowing both tooth and claw in its constant refusal to freeze.

Now look at this hell for a moment, this hell so familiar to you, and without ignoring your mistrust, untighten your gaze. You might detect a healthful glow.

 

The time finally came, though it took much longer than a year, the workers having slumped into a heat-induced haze, when the last segments of pipe were soldered to the palace archways, first on the eastern, and hours later, the sun a pewter disc in the distance, the western wing. These sealings came with a kind of moan, as the last slip of warmth was crushed by the chill of night, and the workers, locked outside now with nothing to do and miles to go, awakened from their soporific stint of work, and grew frantic and skittish.

Where's the cider? said Grinn, who felt a welling meanness, and chalked it up to withdrawals.

I knew it, said Bear. I knew they'd roll the kegs away the minute they didn't need us anymore.

Grinn bunched his chin against his sternum. And how did you know this? Could it be because I told you so?

A fistful of snowflakes was starting to fall. There were noises of unrest, a look of madness coming off the crowd, an officer of the royal guard's announcement: if they wanted more cider, they'd best attend the dedication tomorrow. Bear looked unfazed, and Grinn, shocked by how bitter he felt, backed away with eyes aglare.

Whether you're sick of me or not, said Bear, we don't have any warmth. We're going to have to make it through the night.

You don't know how it feels to truly be cold.

Yes, Grinn, you're right. Don't, for Christ's sake, give me credit. Let's just wander away from each other and freeze to death.

Have you ever wondered, said Grinn, why I have this scar on my leg? He yanked down his drawers to mid-thigh, his dick budding out, retracted and cold.

Bear came toward him, his eyes now sick with spite. Levelly, he said, You mean your snow-lizard bite?

Grinn sucked the cold down into his lungs and on exhaling, found himself running, distance now the most important thing. Finally, he thought, the snow so thick now, a reassuring blur around his heart. Bear's shouts less and less a thing of love, and less and less. Grinn knew the cold, he thought, he'd lived it a thousand times, and every time it got a little better. He'd finally find a love that allowed for rest, the truest love, of freedom, of sleeping all alone.

The palace, meanwhile, its residents drowning in leagues of unshakable warmth, the palace sweat and quavered a bit.

 

The next morning, Grinn's body now a hard, gray slice of snow, just past the long stretch of white beyond him, the palace festivities began to stir. One by one, the entertainments appeared: the ice sculptor, the puppet booths draped in raggedy velvet, the polar bear trainer who barely had reign on his beast. Widows presented themselves for auction, mimes tried to hush through the noise and were ignored. A bearded man hollered for turns on his lap, and told each sitter's fortune for warmth in the coming year.

Again, remember Christmas, that sad, stale death settling down amid the wrappings of the very last gift. You look at them lined up before you, every single one a tragic miss. That old familiar sorrow reconfirmed, a gaseous reminder of solitude, as once again you pick apart the meat that striates the virtue of generosity. This is how it feels to watch the queen, who strains beneath the weight of a many-antlered crown, winding up to smash a bottle, crack, against the gray convex.

Foam leapt and dribbled down the side of the pipe, and the workers gathered thirstily around, the few that remained, the rest having either began their long trek home, or like Grinn, gone mad and ran blindly into last night's blizzard. The promised kegs of cider had yet to appear, and the queen almost tangled her ankles and fell as the throng descended on the wine-soaked snow. Tumult now, and grunts and blood as the royal guard went to work with their bayonets.

The queen backed away, steadying herself against the pipe. She could feel the warmth glowing from within, the sharpening heat. With a surge, it started to singe and she pulled back her hand. Was that a rumble she heard?

The riot was spreading, the ice sculptor swinging his saw, the widows commandeering the puppet booths, the polar bear wreaking havoc on the scattering crowd. At the very limits of the feast, just past the running revelers, through the ice clouds and drifting snow, there came a man. The fog seemed to weep in two white wisps down the length of his beard, for his night had been spent in tears, this man, of course, being Bear.

There was a look in his eye, calamitous, like some sort of orbit had come unstuck.

The queen tended to her blistered palm, sending for her doctor to bring her salves. She studied the strip of reddened flesh that spanned her hand, itself a sort of pipeline, the pus rising and plumping it up already. She turned again to the shredded festivities, the shouts now fading, her subjects either dead or cowering, for as always, her guard had kept the upper hand.

The baby carriage, the many-spired glacier in miniature, was rolling now abandoned down a path, just past a badly wounded, belly-crawling mime. The nurse, her nerves finally crumbling, had fled.

Past the carriage came the odd, unfrenzied approach of Bear. Stop him, the queen ordered, but her general, right now, had other concerns.

Bear hovered above the carriage and squinted, his vision realigning through the crisp, labyrinthine light. What he saw was—no, it couldn't be—but what he saw, in a burst of ghostly color, was a reptilian skull. Dear Christ, he said, and through those words crept a thaw, a collapse of reason, and lastly, fiercely, the coal-hot sting of regret.

Once again, he wept. He plunged his hands through the fur, fumbled until he reached the dull chill of bone, then seized it, caressing its length, seized it and pulled it close. In this moment the skull took on a sheen of magic. A birth was occurring, a birth that had never happened for Christ, and as Bear cradled the skull, there was a loosening, a magmatic wail that bloomed all around him, that crackled and fizzed as it bloomed.

The queen, with no one at hand to order around, started for her baby, awkwardly, for her every move was awkward, especially her maternal postures, and falling, she sprawled in the slush and snow.

Veins of lava surfaced. Bear held that skull right up next to his gut.

And so began the time of fire, the sudden, rosy glow of Christmas, the willful cheer that followed, and the origins of our modern conception of hell. For the queen's great store of warmth had slumbered long enough, and at last had a means to stretch out and spread its wings. The pipeline pustuled and buckled, rising to a shocking throb of red, sighing each time the warmth burst through another join.

From then on, the land became a land of warmth, spreading ever outward, lapping at our heels as we bobsled away, as those we leave behind succumb to liquid fire. You see, the warmth was wasted on them, anyway, the moral being that love is more cogent in the cold. This moral we've piled on our sled with the others: the reactionary thud of mockery, the need for moderation, the stealth, selfish motives behind mandatory gifts.

And you've taken another one with you, though furtively, you've clamped it in your fist. Remember, then, tomorrow morning, when you're back in your own kind of Christmas, when it's time, once again, to place that child in its porcelain crèche, remember the heat that went into hardening its glaze, as cool as it may now feel against your palm, remember, please remember, the fast flammability of straw.